Eerie tales

EERIE TALES [ORIGINAL TITLE: UNHEIMLICHE GESCHICHTEN , aka GRAUSIGE NÄCHTE] (1919) BY DIRECTOR RICHARD OSWALD

Reinhold Schünzel (The Devil), Anita Berman (The Strumpet) and Conrad Veidt (Death)

After watching this recently uploaded, fairly decent, restoration of Eerie Tales on Youtube, I was totally baffled and even quite saddened to discover that this film is merely glanced over in most of the German Expressionism literature that I’ve read.  And the websites or books that have taken the time to feature it, haven’t done so very flatteringly.  Could this be because the film has only recently been rediscovered, and therefore any previous accounts of it were based on hearsay and guess-work?  Or is it because the multitude of names it was released under has caused so much confusion among film historians (e.g. Weird Tales / Eerie Tales / Tales of Horror / Tales of the Uncanny / Five Sinister Stories / Unheimliche Geschichten / Grausige Nächte etc etc) that they simply gave up on it?  The fact that the film was remade in 1932, under the same name (Unheimliche Geschichten) and by the same director, I’m sure didn’t help much to mitigate the confusion.  But regardless what the reason may have been that this ‘kleine Juwel’ of a film was over-looked for all these years, it’s now high-time it was dusted down and given the limelight it deserves.

Reinhold Schünzel, Richard Oswald and Conrad Veidt embrace triumphantly right at the start of the film

Eerie Tales is an early (possibly the very first) example of the Anthology (or Omnibus) Horror [i.e. several stories told within a framing story], that many years later would be copied by almost all the major horror production companies, and eventually become the trade mark of Amicus Films (Tales of the Crypt; The House That Dripped Blood, Vault of Horror etc). It was certainly the first ever feature-length anthology, of this I’m pretty confident.  The ‘framing’ sequence is set within an antiquarian book shop, after hours. Once all the customers have left, and the shop is empty, the portraits of Death (Conrad Veidt), the Devil (Reinhold Schünzel), and the Strumpet (Anita Berber) come to life!  They then have fun telling each other five eerie tales of mystery and macabre from the withered pages of the dust-covered books; each tale based on a well known literary work by, among others, Edgar Allen Poe.  The five tales, are also acted out by Veidt, Schünzel and Berber, each time playing alternate roles.

Conrad Veidt and Reinhold Schünzel in a cozy, off-screen publicity shot.

Eerie Tales is meant as a tongue-in-cheek horror film with moments of both pure terror and utter silliness, and in this it succeeds, assisted by the infinity talented Veidt and his accomplished co-stars.  It’s been suggested by one critic that, had the film been made two years later, it would have been considered a part of the ‘new’ German Expressionism art-movement. I contend, however, that Eerie Tales was not only part of the German Expressionist art-movement, but was a bold cinematic statement that set the standards for future Expressionist directors, as well as the horror genre in general. I can only imagine that that particular critic hadn’t yet seen the film. Furthermore, director Richard Oswald, who was regarded as one of Weimar cinemas great forward-thinkers [one of the first directors to make openly candid “enlightenment films”, aimed at educating the public about STD’s, prostitution and homo-sexuality] was canny in his timing for the release of Eerie Tales, by giving the audience a fore-taste of the new Expressionist style of film-making, six months before the release of Dr Caligari.

It was also no coincidence that Oswald’s cinematographer, the renowned and visionary, Carl Hoffmann (who would later work on Siegfried, Dr. Mabuse and Faust, among others) was handpicked to create the stage to which Veidt could bring his magic.  The keen eye will be able spot reoccurring similarities between Hoffmann’s ingenious imagery in these later films, and the ‘still-a-little-green’ and experimental camera work he applies to Eerie Tales.  This collaboration between performance, direction and image-documentation, results in a naturalistic, calculated and carefully constructed vehicle through which Oswald and co. could represent the new Expressionist art-movement.  This mutual passion they shared for their art-form is evident at the very beginning of the film when, right between the opening credits and the first scene, we see Oswald embracing his two leading men, in a sign of camaraderie and unity; something you would normally expect to see at the end of a film or play, as a sign of accomplishment and jubilation, like a final curtain-call.  With this most simplest of gestures, Oswald was clearly making a significant statement: that the young Expressionists had arrived and it was now their turn to shine.

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