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Silent Fantastique: a Top 10 Early Fantasy Films
by Rhys Hughes
LE VOYAGE DANS LA LUNE 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA
HIMMELSKIBET THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI
DER GOLEM NOSFERTU
AELITA THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
METROPOLIS ALRAUNE

Le Voyage Dans La Lune (1902) director: Georges Méliès
Not only one of the first fantasy films, but also one of the most peculiar. Ostensibly based on works by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Méliès transformed a serious subject into an absurdist comedy with highly elaborate sets. Méliès himself plays the role of Professor Barbenfouillis, who organises the first trip to the Moon. Subsequent adventures include being captured in a grotto of giant fungi by moon-dwellers who vanish in a puff of smoke when struck! Having the explorers land in the ocean on their return provided an excuse for Méliès to show the equally bizarre wonders of the deep sea. Because of its wealth of rococo detail and its theatrical approach, the film now seems almost surreal. The scene in which the Professor's capsule crashes into the eye of the Man in the Moon is still grotesque and, ultimately, very funny. Similar sets were used to even greater effect in Méliès' 1912 film A La Conquete du Pole with its hilarious 'Giant of the North' sequence.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea (1916)  director: Stuart Paton
Although not the earliest screen adaptation of the classic tale, the one directed by Paton is easily the best silent version. Containing some of the first examples of underwater photography, the special effects were truly dynamic at the time, and certainly risky. In this version, Captain Nemo takes time out from ramming warships with his infamous submarine to rescue the survivors of an American wreck. En route to a 'mysterious' island (Paton, who wrote the screenplay mixed up his Verne books!), Nemo lectures his guests on life beneath the waves. Despite some rather 'dry' performances both inside and outside the Nautilus, Nemo retains an impressive bearing, even when forced to rescue his daughter from insatiable Arabs! Special effects man J. Ernest Williamson went on to showcase his talents further in The Mysterious Island (1929), the incoherent but visually striking sequel.

Himmelskibet (1917)  director: Holger Madsen
A true oddity this and a film that initially seems ahead of its time in many ways. Himmelskibet (trans: The Airship), concerns Professor Planetarios and his trip to Mars, where he finds a race of white-robed, mystic vegetarians. Enlisting the services of the daughter of the local High Priest, the Professor converts to pacifism and returns to Earth to spread the message. Before long, peace breaks out all over the planet and a well-placed bolt of lightning quickly wipes out the only resistance to this creed! Despite the flower power trappings, the beads and robes and consumption of lentils, Himmelskibet is really a reaction to the outbreak of WWI rather than an accurate prediction of the 1960s' alternative culture. Less surprisingly, perhaps, it stands alone as an example of early Danish fantasy cinema.

The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1919)  director: Robert Wiene
When Dr Caligari, who runs a sideshow in a travelling fair, arrives in a German town, there are a series of brutal murders. Dr Caligari's show involves a somnambulist called Cesare who can predict the future and who warns Alan, a spectator, of his imminent death. That night, Alan dies and his friend, Francis, seeks out the murderer, eventually discovering it to be Cesare himself, who is really an escaped inmate from a local asylum where Dr Caligari was the unscrupulous director. At this point, however, Francis is revealed to be an inmate of the asylum himself, and the whole story merely a delusion. This ending was not the original, but was added to defuse the subversive elements of the plot, so that the abusive effects of authoritarian power; as symbolised by the evil doctor, have been transformed into the ravings of a lunatic and the doctor himself (and his unbearably patronising attitude) emerges as beneficial. But this altered ending does not quite fit and the film now seems much more ambivalent, partly the source of its Expressionist label, although the visuals themselves do more than justice to the ideals of that movement.

Der Golem (1920)  director: Paul Wegner
Shut away in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue in Prague, the remains of the Golem are said to still reside. When Paul Wegner decided to resurrect them, the result was a true landmark in the history of the cinema. It is difficult to overestimate the influence that Wegner's expressionist Golem has had on the fantasy genre. Wegner himself played the role of the man of clay who runs amok after being forced to kidnap the beautiful Miriam by his new owner. Betrayed by a little girl who first offers him an apple and snatches the life-giving amulet away from his chest, he becomes a useless clay hulk again. In between his resurrection and second demise, Wegner manages to cram an amazing number of wonders into the film, including an invocation of the demon Astaroth and an evocation of old Prague derived entirely from the jagged sets of architect Hans Poelzig. Der Golem is possibly the greatest testament to the notion that silent films can have certain advantages in style and atmosphere over more colourful, modern products.

Nosferatu (1922)  director: F.W. Murnau
Undoubtedly the greatest of all silent films, Murnau's Nosferatu was the first cinematic treatment of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Played by Max Schreck in hideous makeup, with pointed ears and a bestial nature, the bloodsucking Count gets up to all the usual vampire escapades with remarkable panache. Although Murnau intended to adapt the novel as faithfully as possible, he could hardly resist making some radical changes. Thus Van Helsing is reduced to a crusty, ineffectual academic, while Jonathan, the estate agent, is merely the vampire's alter ego, mirroring (or being mirrored by) the grisly Count in some highly charged encounters. With its melange of Freudian psychology, Expressionist aesthetics and an editing technique almost as dramatic as Eisenstein's, Nosferatu strikes a dozen discords at once. There are some unintentionally hilarious moments, such as the speeded up scenes (which were meant to show the vampire's incredible vitality) but nevertheless Murnau found a fitting subject for his psychological insights and, in Schreck, a worthy actor for his midnight-blue filter. Unfortunately, after this masterpiece, Schreck disappeared into obscurity. Never give a sucker an even break?

Aelita (1924)  director: Jakov Protazanov
Yet another Martian odyssey, but an extremely original one, Aelita also impresses mainly through its spectacular sets, in this case Futurist ones. An unlikely fast-paced comedy, this alternative to the decadent, bourgeois cinema of the West, managed to please both audiences and censors by parading such decadent values quite openly, but under the guise of satire. The cold, symmetrical beauty of the Martian women is enhanced by Aleksandra Ekster's costumes. Briefly, the plot involves an eccentric inventor who flees to Mars after shooting his wife, accompanied by a young soldier and the police detective who have been assigned to his case. While the soldier attempts a Bolshevik revolution on the red planet, the inventor cavorts with the Queen of Mars before waking up find that it was all a dream! Despite this anticlimactic ending, there are many consolations. The Martian women are truly alluring with their remote expressions and revealing clothing, although Martian males tend to be a bit on the grotesque side, some of them the proud possessors of quite remarkable chins!

The Phantom Of The Opera (1925)  director: Rupert Julian
One of the most faithful screen adaptations of Gaston Leroux's novel, director Julian worked on only half the film due to a disagreement with leading actor Lon Chaney. He was replaced with Edward Sedgwick, a very minor comedy director. Because both directors were equally weak, the seam barely shows, although the closing scene in which Chaney laughs at his own death has a sort of wild zest to it. The real stars of the show, however, are the sets and makeup. Re-released in 1930 with sound, The Phantom... seemed stiff, but the more fluid original preserves some high moments. The Bal Masque sequence was actually filmed in Technicolor and remains particularly memorable. Chaney's sense of absurd dramatics is seriously hampered here, and some of his supporting players, especially Mary Philbin as Christine, are unbelievably bad; but the brooding atmosphere of the whole more than atones for the deficit.

Metropolis (1926)  director: Fritz Lang
No list of silent films would be complete without Lang's Metropolis which, together with Nosferatu, must rank as the most famous early fantasy films. It is a gargantuan epic with one of the silliest plots of all time, yet a film which still manages to astound - with its giant inhuman sets and oppressive futuristic visions. Set in an enormous city ruled by evil despot with the singularly menacing name of John, Metropolis concerns the saintly, though reactionary, Maria, who urges the downtrodden workers not to revolt but to await the arrival of a 'mediator'. Suspicious of her not entirely platonic appeal to his own son, John the evil capitalist kidnaps her and persuades a mad professor to mould a robot copy of her. This copy, however, soon turns insane and incites a disastrous revolution which virtually destroys the city. In the end, the leader of the workers shakes hands with John, and the oppressed masses are reconciled with the murderous autocrat in a thoroughly disheartening, albeit traditional, way. With the immense skills of special effects master Eugene Schuefftan and the obvious talents of actors like Rudolf Klein-Rogge (as mad professor, Rotwang), at his disposal, it is a pity that Lang allowed his wife, Thea Von Harbou, to script this film. Nepotism has rarely failed as dramatically as this.

Alraune (1928)  director: Henrik Galeen
Made at the tail end of the silent era, Galeen's Alruane was the third version of Hanns H. Ewers' weird novel, the earliest surviving one. Erotic overtones abound in this tale of a scientist (played by Paul Wegner) who collects the semen of a hanged man and impregnates a prostitute, to produce an unearthly child who later seeks revenge on her father. An obsessive, almost neurotic, piece of cinema, Alruane conjures up references to the fable of the homunculus and has the same sort of sombre, mythical qualities found in the films of Cocteau. Galeen's earlier masterpiece was Der Student Von Prague (1926), in which a poor student seels his mirror image. But in the demonic character of Alruane - played by Brigitte Helm (who took the part of Maria of Metropolis) - Galeen found an even better vehicle for the icy passion that proves so effective in the stark, cold world of silent film.

previously published in Strange Adventures #53 - March 1994
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