silent horror

Uncovering The Mysteries Of The Origins of Film Noir – A personal journey.

A still from German director GW Pabst’s 1929 film, “Pandora’s Box”, illustrating already very “Noirish” cinematography.

Recently I became slightly obsessed with the origins of Film Noir, of which I knew very little about, so decided to do some digging. Boy, did I ever underestimate the incredible journey that I was about to embark upon. It was a journey of discovery that took me through the mysteriously dark, yet compelling archives of silent horror movies, to early divas that shaped the mould for our beloved femme fatales(one of two for whom I developed a slightly unsettling school-boy crush), to the meaning of Pre-Code, and the realisation of just how much freedom these early film pioneers were permitted in expressing themselves in the most imaginative, and sometimes twisted, ways. The results were often horrific, shocking, slightly perverse and sometimes even upsetting to watch, yet compelling to the end. Nevertheless, they had in common the fact that they were stylish, sexy, incredibly intellectual, and possessed of a charm that would make a grown man weep at their sheer, simple beauty.

In the1920’s “flapper” actress Louise Brooks epitomised the typical femme-fatale in such roles as the incorrigible Lulu in GW Pabst’s “Pandora’s Box” (1929).

But I felt that it’d be unfair to keep this treasure all to myself, and so would like to share it with those yet to discover the mysteries of Film Noir’s origins. I use the term ‘treasure’ deliberately because the journey of discovery into this world is exactly that: a treasure hunt; identifying clues along the way that will lead you further and further back into cinematic history. My own personal treasure-hunt led me as far back as the mid 1910’s. But even here I had the distinct impression that the blueprint for what would later become known as Film Noir, had already been well established.

So you can call this little write-up a map of sorts… if you decide to take on this case yourself! On the way you may encounter the very first femme fatales, to which you may exuberate: “Oh, wait a minute. Ah, now I see where that came from”. I saw my first fatale in a 1913 German silent entitled Der Student Von Prag (The Student of Prague) directed by Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener. Ok, she was quite tame, and not as ‘daring’’ as her counter-part in the 1926 remake of the same name. But still she was distinctly present and up to no good. If you do decide to do some digging yourselves, I would suggest going down the ‘availability’ route, as so much early material has been lost. If you can get hold of anything pre 1930 from any of the following directors, you’ve found yourself a gem and another piece of the puzzle: Fritz Lang; F.W. Marnau; Robert Wiene; and Josef von Sternberg. A good starting point is Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M (1931) and then work your way back through the 1920’s and before.

Alternatively, you may consider yourself a bit of a maverick, as I do, and think, “To hell with that. I’m going to start with material from as far back as I can possibly find and end with M. That makes more sense to me”, then bravo and good luck. That’s a tougher route because you may spend all your time looking for the door to the treasure chamber when you could be inside looking at the treasure itself. But it does indeed make more sense to do it that way starting with The Student of Prague (aka A Bargain with Satan) from 1913. Last I looked, it was available on YouTube. If you can’t find the original version, the 1926 remake, (aka The Man Who Cheated Life) directed by Henrik Galeem,  is just as important as its predecessor. Many critics claim it’s even better, but that’s for you to decide. These silent classic will be your ‘Stranger on a Train’ tempting you to go either forward or backward in time.

Cecill B. DeMilles 1915 film, “The Cheat”, is one of the earliest examples of how some director were already experimenting with what we know toady as typical, Noir, mise-en-scene, as early as the 1910’s. The Cheat is not only a good example of lighting manipulation to create suspense, but also the chosen themes of blackmail, inter-racial relations (which was a major shock for the bulk of the audience in 1915) and cuckoldry, became almost templates for the vast amount of Noirs being churned out in the 1950’s.

Obviously none of these films are listed as Film Noir, but rather as horror films, thrillers, crimes or dramas. They are almost all silent films and mostly German (or directed by Germans in Hollywood).

Lastly, your assistants on this journey will be YouTube, Amazon, Wikipedia, IMDB and a multitude of online streaming sites. Finally, here are a few clues to get you started. Beware there is a red-herring among them!

  • German Expressionism (this is a massive clue!)
  • Caligari
  • Eliza La Porta
  • Nosferatu
  • Metropolis
  • Hitchcock
  • Hermann Warm
  • Weimar era
  • Walt Disney
  • George Wilhelm Pabst
  • Louise Brooks
  • Leopold Jessner
  • “An azure-colored celestial being”
  • Paul Wegener

Good luck. I envy you – especially if you have not yet made the acquaintance of Louise Brooks!

Epilogue:

Admittedly when I first wrote the above article, my passion for classic silent movies, and particularly the German Expressionist ones, were high. They still are! As is, and always will be, my passion for Film Noir. But now that the honeymoon phase with German Expressionism has passed, I can look at my article more objectively. The main mistake I make is to try to suggest that Film Noirs roots lie solely in Weimar, or early German, cinema. Irrevocably, I maintain that this is true to a certain degree. However after further researching into this subject, it has to be said that my attempts to pinpoint exactly where Film Noirs origins lie remain inconclusive.

The fact is Film Noir is a hybrid art-form. Sure, the themes, particularly of the earlier Noirs, reflect much of the post WW1 public mood that was present in a traumatized and broken Germany. Cinematically, this translated into films about the ‘intellectual’ topics that I mention in my article, i.e. madness, betrayal, humiliation, despair etc. Also from an aesthetics viewpoint, some important German cinematographers were responsible for helping to create film noirs distinct visual style (e.g. Karl Freund). But other key components, such as the dark, shadowy street scenes, criminals on the fringe of urban society, and femme fatales, can also find their roots in other genres. The Strassenfilm, or ‘Street Film’ genre, which grew out of the New Objectivity art movement in latter 1920’s Germany [‘New Objectivity’ or ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ reflected more the mood of a Germany prepared to pick themselves up and welcome new ideas and more social awareness, and was a direct counter-reaction to negativity of German Expressionism]; the film movement known as French Poetic Realism where the pessimism and despair of the urban lower classes is expressed with romance and melancholy; French, hard-bolied crime fiction of the 1930’s; and the closer to home, American ‘hard boiled’ urban crime-fiction, from authors such as the great Cornell Woolrich, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, as well as stories found in the crime pulp magazine ‘Black Mask’, all had an important role in Film Noirs early development, and therefore deserve a big mention.

At this point I’d like to say a special  thanks to Tony D’Ambra of Fimsnoir.net for first publishing this essay back in my ‘green’ days, and for drawing my attention to the powerfully atmospheric La Nuit du Carrefour (1932) by Jean Renoir, which, according to Tony, lays the strongest claim to being the very first ‘real’ Film Noir.

La Nuit du Carrefour (1932) by Jean Renoir [aka Night at the Crossroads] movie link,working as of 02/01/15: In French

http://www.ina.fr/video/CPF86632361