October 28, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
An Auteurist History of Film: "Two Danish Innovators"

Charles Silver, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Film, presents a series of writings to supplement the film exhibition An Auteurist History of Film. The following post accompanies the “Two Danish Innovators” program, which screens on October 28, 29, and 30 in Theater 3.

Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague) has been called “the first real auteur film.” Actually, it appears now to have been a collaborative effort between director Stellan Rye (1880–1914), cameraman Guido Seeber (1879–1940), and star Paul Wegener (1874–1948), whom the same critic (Klaus Kreimeier) dubbed “the first modern German film actor.” Although the Danish Rye died fighting for Germany early in the First World War I, Seeber went on to photograph the 1914 version of The Golem and G. W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street and Secrets of a Soul. Wegener, a Max Reinhardt protégé, acted in or directed (or both) The Golem and its more famous 1920 remake, along with several Ernst Lubitsch films, Rex Ingram’s The Magician, and numerous films for the Nazis. In 1926, Henrik Galeen took Hanns Heinz Ewers’s story for The Student of Prague and remade it with the great Conrad Veidt as Der Student. Ewers was later the chronicler of Nazi icon Horst Wessel, who was made famous by Wegener’s 1933 film performance.

Rye’s film was a clear forerunner of the German Expressionist style and psyche, making it all the more a pity that he died so young, a tragedy that perhaps rivals Jean Vigo’s death at twenty-nine. Although shot in naturalistic locations in Prague, Rye’s imaginative facility with the camera evoked the Faust legend, E. T. A. Hoffman, and Edgar Allan Poe. If Rye had lived a normal lifespan, he might have been confronted with the choice between his native Denmark and his proto-Nazi compatriots and collaborators.
Det Hemmelighedsfulde X (The Mysterious X) was the first film of Benjamin Christensen. Although it wasn’t Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike or Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, it had a huge impact on 1913 audiences. Upon its release in America under the title Sealed Orders, one critic hailed it as “a revelation in dramatic motion pictures. It sets a new and hitherto but hoped for standard of quality. It emphasizes…the absolute superiority of the screen over the stage and opens up a vista of coming triumphs for the motion picture.” None other than fellow Dane Carl Theodor Dreyer called Christensen “a man who knew exactly what he wanted and pursued his goal with unyielding stubbornness…. People shrugged him off as a madman. The way things have turned out (as of 1922), it is clear that he was the one in touch with the future.”

This “madman” originally studied medicine but became an opera singer and actor. He stars in many of his own films, including The Mysterious X, and Dreyer’s Mikael (1924). It is fair to see Christensen as the Danish counterpart of D. W. Griffith and Victor Sjöström in the decade of the 1910s. He was a master innovator of lighting techniques that would be highly influential on German Expressionism. Film historian Ron Mottram admires Christensen’s superb editing and cites the scene in the old mill as “one of the earliest, genuinely sophisticated examples of a scene built from the juxtaposition of its constituent elements.”

(Christensen’s more well known masterpiece Häxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages), which he made in Sweden in 1922, is a must-see in our To Save and Project series. The restored and tinted print will be shown November 8 and 13.) Filmmaking opportunities in Europe were disappointingly scarce even in Germany (six films in thirteen years) for a director as independent-minded as Christensen, and he, like Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, was lured to MGM. This was hardly a director’s paradise, but Christensen managed to make six films there in three years. Mockery, a 1927 Lon Chaney vehicle, displays many of the lighting effects already evident in The Mysterious X. He returned to Denmark for four talkies and spent his last decades managing a suburban Copenhagen cinema. One wonders if he read Les cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s, the pages of which were propounding the auteur theory that he had espoused decades earlier. The year of his death, 1959, was also the year that the theory’s two most famous proponents, Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless), released their first features.

The Museum’s print of The Mysterious X does not have intertitles. We hope the following synopsis will prove helpful:

When war breaks out, a naval lieutenant (played by Christensen) receives his sailing orders. As he is preparing to leave, his wife receives a note from a Count Spinelli, who has been unsuccessfully trying to start an affair with her. At a weak moment, however, the wife had given Spinelli a photograph of herself, which she fears her husband will find out about and misconstrue. Matters are complicated by the fact that Spinelli is a spy for the enemy. On the day that news of the mobilization comes, Spinelli visits the lieutenant’s home while he is out and manages to unseal and read the sailing orders. The lieutenant returns home, finds Spinelli there, and accuses his wife of infidelity. He then leaves for his ship. Spinelli, meanwhile, sends news of the sailing to the enemy via carrier pigeon. The message is intercepted by friendly forces, and the lieutenant is accused of treason. He is arrested under orders from his father, who is admiral of the fleet. The wife eventually discovers the truth, and word reaches the prison where the lieutenant is being held, just as they are about to execute him. The lieutenant realizes that he has misjudged his wife, and they are reunited.

An addendum to my comments on Georges Méliès a few weeks ago: My colleague, Wendy Woon, and her son, Ethan, have brought to my attention a tres charmant graphic novel in English for us kids of all ages. Bryan Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret provides a lovely depiction of what Méliès’s late stint as a Montparnasse train-station toy-stand entrepreneur might have been like.

In addition to Häxan (see above) and Sjöström’s The Phantom Chariot (November 7) in the To Save and Project series, try to catch the following in MoMA’s Nuts and Bolts series: Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine (November 2), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (November 4), and Paul Wegener’s 1920 The Golem (November 8). All of these would have been in our series, were the Museum not already showing them. The L’Herbier film is particularly recommended because it is rarely seen.