‘Baker Street Chronicle’ – The Paul Roland Interview

photo of Sir Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes (1939-46)

Sir Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes (1939-46)

Q. Your latest record is called ‘Professor Moriarty’s Jukebox’: Can you describe it a little bit? And why that title?

“It’s an album of radio sessions, rarities and unreleased tracks, but it bears no relation to those compilations which gather up out-takes that have been discarded on the cutting room floor. The core tracks are recordings I made with a new band which I assembled to play at a charity event organised by the actor and TV presenter Stephen Fry. Unfortunately, the event didn’t happen but I didn’t want that band to be ‘lost’ to posterity without getting them in the studio and recording our live set for several radio stations in Europe and America. So the first 10 tracks on the CD are some of my strongest songs re-recorded with new musicians, including an excellent violinist and a psych guitarist, plus some female backing vocals from the American steampunk band The Clockwork Dolls. There are also several acoustic songs with a strong Edwardian and supernatural theme such as ‘Fairies’, which was inspired by The Cottingholm Fairies case and an alternate version of ‘Eight Little Whores’, one of two songs I wrote about Jack The Ripper.

album cover: Professor Moriarty's Jukebox (2014)

Professor Moriarty’s Jukebox (cover by Chaz Kemp)

“I chose that title to reflect the Steampunk theme, although when I originally wrote those songs there was no such genre. I was simply fascinated by all things Victorian and Edwardian—especially Doyle and H.G. Wells and the more colourful criminals such as Dr Cream, who inspired ‘The Crimes of Dr Cream’, which is also on the new CD. Other historical characters in my rogues’ gallery include Captain Nemo, the daughter of Fu Manchu, Nosferatu, Judge Jeffries (The Hanging Judge) and Herbert West—Re-Animator. So, something for everyone!”

Q. Are you a kind of Sherlockian? What’s Sherlock Holmes for you?

“I grew up with Basil Rathbone’s movies and, of course, I read all of Doyle’s novels and short stories which one could never hope to solve, even though the clues were all presented to us (unlike those of Agatha Christie!), but also for the quality of the language which is of course a large part of their appeal. It took me a long time to appreciate Jeremy Brett’s characterisation and I am also rather partial to Peter Cushing’s portrayal, the perfect gentleman who I had the great privilege to interview when I was writing for film magazines back in the early 80s – but I cannot watch the new ‘Sherlock’ TV series with its modernised ‘re-imagining’ of the character. That’s blasphemy as far as I’m concerned! I know it has a huge following but I think it’s a crime foisted on the public by Colonel Sebastien Moran, damn the blighter!

Holmes, for me, is a rare intellect and individualist operating in the midst of a very repressive society and that aspect is lost when it is updated. Doyle, who was raised in the squalid tenements of Edinburgh, was clearly rallying against a class conscious society and in almost every tale he prizes intellect and imagination over status and privilege.

Q. One of your favourites in literature seems to be H.P. Lovecraft. A song cycle as well as a new book written by you are showing that. What’s the fascination with him? And can you tell us a little bit about your book, especially your very special ‘Roland’ way to write a biography?

I had to write a whole book to explain [H.P. Lovecraft’s] appeal, so you’ll have to forgive me if I can’t answer that in a sentence or two! If I had to, though I’d say it is his ability to convey the primal fears lurking just beneath the surface of our conscious mind and in the world he created. He wouldn’t have had such a profound and lasting impact on popular culture if he hadn’t struck a chord with something deep within our collective psyche and if he had not articulated fears that we find difficult to confront.

As for the ‘Roland approach’, I can only say that I try to look for themes that have not been explored before but without getting too academic and seeing things that were never intended by the author or individual I am writing about. When I write on historical subjects—true crime or the Nazis—, I am looking to examine the mindset of the perpetrators, not simply re-telling the story and when I’m writing about occult or supernatural subjects I try to take the sensationalism and fear out of the unknown. I’d like to think that even the Jack The Ripper book found the humanity in the subject by having an empathy for the victim and the conditions in which they lived. With the Nazi books, too, it was the courage and the dignity of the victims that drew me, not the criminal nonentities who manifested the base instincts that we all struggle to control.

Q. You did a kind of steampunk songs before the word “steampunk” was used: How did you develop a song like “The Great Edwardian Air-Raid”? Or “Wyndham Hill” (I confess it’s my all-time favourite island song)? For me personally these songs are less steampunk—they cast a more dreamlike atmosphere filled with Victorian style artefacts; like a beautiful crafted house where I’d like to dwell … ;-) Steampunk to me is more action driven…

I almost always write the music first and then think about what theme best suits the instrumental setting and the mood. I had a gentle wistful acoustic song and was looking for a suitable subject when I looked up at the sky and ‘saw’ airships emerging from the clouds. I had read somewhere of an isolated incident during the First World War where a single Zeppelin had dropped a bomb on London and I thought ‘what if there had been an armada?’ and how that would wipe out the serenity and innocence of an era in one stroke. It was only later that I discovered the ‘Invasion’ literature of the period through Michael Moorcock’s anthology ‘Before Armageddon’.

Wyndham Hill’ was simply an idea that came after reading H.G. Wells’ ‘Argonauts of the Air’. I think I had read it many years before I wrote the song but those vivid images remain with one forever. But it’s not simply the quaintness of the period that attracts me, it is the idea that one visionary is willing to risk his life to glimpse the beyond or to try something no one else dares to do while his fellow citizens simply gawp in wonder and fail to see anything but a sensational drama unfolding before their eyes.

I had never considered those Victorian/Edwardian songs to be steampunk, but then steampunk covers such as diverse range of music and is more to do with a shared theme common to the lyrics than the music, but I am happy to be categorised as a steampunk artist if it helps people to find my music.

Q. You are called the ‘Godfather of Steampunk’ because of your songs, you have written a book on that topic. What do you find fascinating about steampunk now (in 2014)?

When I was writing and recording those early songs in the 80s I hadn’t realised that there was a burgeoning movement or community whose members shared my fascination with fantasy fiction and the 19th century, but since I’ve become aware of all these amazing artists, novelists, musicians and contraptors (model makers), I realise that many people feel the need to escape, if only temporarily, from our characterless consumer society and find self-expression through creating artefacts that are not only functional but aesthetically pleasing. I was particularly impressed by the intricate reliefs created by sculptor Kris Kukski and the art nouveau of Chaz Kemp (who painted the cover for the ‘Professor Moriarty’ CD), the clockwork laptops created by datamancer, the airship pirate armoury invented by Brute Force and the steampunk jewellery by Catherinetterings. But the diversity in steampunk fiction is overwhelming. It’s not a narrow subgenre of science fiction as some might imagine, or a fetishistic fashion statement, but a whole new alternative world of invention and imagination. It’s going to take me a year to get through all those wonderful novels! And the great thing is they are all having such fun dreaming up these incredible things.

Q. Do you like those crossovers in literature/graphic novels like “Sherlock Holmes vs. Arsene Lupin” or that anthology “Shadows over Baker Street”, where Holmes is set in  the Lovecraftian universe? Or, let’s say, the “League of Extraordinary Gentleman”?

I love those mashups when they work, but there is nothing more frustrating when they don’t. I recently had to review a new anthology of Holmes Adventures edited by George Mann (whose ‘Martian Ambassador’ is a wonderful Wellsian pastiche) and I just couldn’t get into the story which had Holmes voyaging to Mars! One of my favourite movies is ‘Murder By Decree’ and I think pitting Holmes and Watson against adversaries from their own period is perfectly valid, even if Doyle wouldn’t have done so himself, or supernatural entities which is in keeping with the Victorian obsession with spiritualism and Theosophy, but anything outside that era is an anachronism, as far as I’m concerned.

Q. You are not only writing books on steampunk, Lovecraft, true crime or esoteric topics—you are writing a lot of fiction, too. You have been so friendly to send three playlets to me (which I really love)—and there I was able to meet the Beatles, the Whitechapel Ripper and good old Dracula. What will come next? May we expect a feature theatre play by you? Will there soon be a book with Roland fiction out?

It took me a year to write my first novella ‘The Magician of Grimm’ (a fantasy in the style of Mervyn Peake) in the early 90s. I couldn’t devote that much time to fiction again, especially as there is no guarantee it would be published, but I have a full length play which needs finishing and I never leave anything unfinished, so I’ll get round to that now that the Lovecraft biog is out of the way, but my priority this winter is a new album. I like to have a new album out once a year (I guess that’s a habit I got from my favourite artists in the 70s.) And I have about four albums worth of songs and half-finished songs, including an album based on the ghost stories of M.R. James, so getting those into shape and recorded in the number one priority.

Q. Ever thought of writing a Sherlock Holmes story (please say yes! ;-) )

To be perfectly honest I would be too intimidated by what has already been written to do that subject justice. The standard is so high. Besides, I think it is always better to create your own characters and environment. Having said that, I was very pleased with the song ‘Moriarty’ on my ‘Demos’ and ‘In Memoriam’ CDs, but that was because it was just a snapshot. I didn’t try to tell a story, which is very difficult to do well in rock or pop without it sounding like a Sondheim musical! That particular song came very naturally but trying to fit a whole album around a story risks being contrived and forced. Besides, I like the three-minute restriction that a song imposes on me. It keeps me to impressions and suggestion rather than spelling the whole thing out or squeezing in a narrative which is not something rock musicians tend to do terribly well, if I may say so.

Q. Last time you told me about your fascination of a kind of (fictional?) flamboyance you like in film/literature/music that seems to derive from the Victorian/Edwardian age. Does this fascination continue? Some people would call that retrospective/revisionistic (I don’t).

I think that is why I set songs in various historic periods. I wouldn’t be comfortable writing exclusively about one theme or one era. So, I suppose the answer is that I don’t confine myself to one topic or era and I am constantly searching for new influences and ideas. I wrote a whole album based on original voodoo chants for a new soundtrack to the Bela Lugosi film ‘White Zombie’, which is being recorded now for release in the New Year. The chants just came through me over the course of a few days and I didn’t stop to analyse them or think about them but simply gave in to whatever needed to come out at that time. Later I thought about how I could present them and if they might be used as a soundtrack to that film and if I needed to write real words or just sing the wordless sounds like those zealots who speak in tongues when the spirit moves them. This is what songwriters do when they first come up with a tune, only they usually play an instrument to help them bring the melodies and rhythms forth. Paul McCartney is known to have sung ‘scrambled eggs’ when writing ‘Yesterday’ until he worked on the lyrics! I simply played through all the drum/percussion patterns at my disposal at the time and opened up to whatever needed to come through me.

A shaman friend of mine told me later that this was a well-known phenomenon and that these were what they call ‘power songs’. It’s a long way from what you asked me, but I think it interesting to discover that there are other ways to be creative. Imagine what an incredibly imaginative novel you could write if you could attain and prolong that trance-like state for the entire time it would take to write it down.

It’s a stream of consciousness exercise, but if you could focus it on a specific plot and characters. I think all writers do this to some degree. Lovecraft certainly did but then his intellect would intervene because he feared to trust his unconscious for more than a few minutes at a time and that’s why even his best stories are a mixture of inspired brilliance and the uptight self-taught 19th century scholar who needed to disparage anything that smacked of the esoteric.

Q. And, finally, back to basics: Your plans for the next year?

Finish those four half-written albums and the play before the next book comes along!

Interview: Winter 2014/15

‘The Baker Street Chronicle’ is published by the German Sherlock Holmes Society

The New Era of Silent Movies, Part I

still of the film Dr Mabuse (1932) by Fritz Lang
‘The Testament of Dr Mabuse’ (1932), dir: Fritz Lang

“There’s so many great films that you feel like you’ve seen everything, but then you crack open a vault of amazing stuff.”  Rob Zombie

The recent release of several fully restored classic films from the 1920s on Blu-ray suggests that silent movies are no longer a niche market for the cineast and art house audience, but are a core element of the DVD retail market with an increasing share of disc sales. And with sell-out screenings for the recent theatrical reissue of the influential German expressionist classic ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1920), F. W. Murnau’s iconic ‘Nosferatu’ (1922), Buster Keaton’s comic masterpiece ‘The General’ (1926), Raoul Walsh’ opulent ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ (1924), and Fritz Lang’s dystopian SF epic ‘Metropolis’ (1927), silent cinema appears to be enjoying a real revival.

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Wilfred Owen – A Strange Meeting

Wilfred Owen (close-up)

One of the finest poets of the Great War, Wilfred Owen—who is best remembered for his atmospheric verse ‘Strange Meeting’ in which a German and a British soldier encounter each other in the Underworld—was killed just one week before the Armistice was declared. On the day the guns finally fell silent his brother Harold, a naval officer, was overwhelmed by a feeling of apprehension and was later ‘visited’ in his cabin by Wilfred’s spirit. Harold’s reaction to the presence of his brother contrasts with the fears of fictional characters who are confronted by unquiet spirits, and for that reason his experience is strangely comforting. Harold was unaware of his brother’s death at the time of their own strange meeting.

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The Haunting of Charles Dickens

The Victorians were very fond of ghost stories and the most popular authors of the period relished competing with one another to see who could make their reader’s flesh creep the most. One of the era’s best loved storytellers was Charles Dickens, though surprisingly the author of ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and other classics was not a believer in the supernatural. In fact, Dickens was a hardened skeptic until he had a disquieting paranormal experience of his own…

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The Man Who ‘Saw’ The Ripper

It is not an exaggeration to say that today psychics are consulted on an almost routine basis when the authorities have exhausted all conventional avenues of investigation. But in Victorian England ‘spiritualists’, as they were then known, were regarded at best as being either a novelty Music Hall act or at worst, fraudsters preying on the weak-minded and bereaved. The fact that clairvoyant Robert James Lees had been consulted on several occasions by Queen Victoria did not, however, make him a credible witness as far as Scotland Yard were concerned. When Lees offered his services as a psychic sleuth it is said that they laughed him out of the building. However, if the account published by ex-Scotland Yard officer Edwin T. Woodhall (author of ‘Secrets of Scotland Yard’) is to be believed, they were soon to regret their rash decision.

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Airship Pirates and Clockwork Quartets

Steampunk - guitar player with top hatIt may be of little concern to the bureaucrats who drew up the Trade Descriptions Act, but it’s an undeniable fact that there isn’t much punk in steampunk. At least not of the three-chord thrash variety spat out by the snotty, glue sniffing, safety pin and spiky hair, pogo-till-you-puke brigade who stormed the barricades back in ’76, or ‘Rock’s Year Zero’ as the NME would have it. Back then it was ‘Anarchy In The UK’ and the wholesale slaughter of the dinosaurs of corporate rock. Now it’s more like anachronistic fashion accessories in the UK and US as the likes of Abney Park, Sunday Driver and Vernian Process describe a dystopian fantasy world through rose-tinted goggles with a sentimentality that would make the late Bill Grundy doubt he could goad them in to saying something risqué about Queen Victoria.

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Paul interviews The Velvet Underground (1985)

The Velvet UndergroundIn 1985, just prior to the release of the ‘VU’ album (a collection of previously unreleased tracks recorded in 1969 and intended for their fourth album), I had the privilege of interviewing Nico, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker for a national Sunday newspaper. At the end of each interview I mentioned that I was preparing a new album (to follow ‘Burnt Orchids’) and asked if they would consider playing on it, if I could get the multi-track tapes shipped to the States. They agreed and Sterling seemed particularly keen as he was eager to get back into music after taking time out to study for a university degree. I remember that he was very complimentary about my songwriting after he heard the tapes (backing tracks with guide vocals, not demos) and in a couple of telephone conversations he mentioned that he found the structure of the songs unusual and that interested him. But the tape formats were not compatible with the equipment in the studio he was using at the time and I let the project lapse, assuming that we would sort it out at a later date. I even had a letter from his attorney asking me to give him extra time, but I had an offer from UK psych label Bam Caruso and needed to deliver an album by a certain date, so I shelved the songs I had written for the VU and moved on. Then, sometime later, Sterling died and so did Nico.

It was not until last year, 27 years(!) after writing those songs that I thought of digging them out, dusting them off and recording them as I had been itching to get back to playing with a rock band after a year spent creating a solo acoustic project (‘Grimm’). The resulting album, ‘Bates Motel’ (which also includes songs written for a John’s Children reunion album at the invitation of frontman Andy Ellison), is released next month on the German label Sireena Records.

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Let the Blood Run Red (1983, Part 1)

Paul Roland braves the curse of the critics to trace the history of HAMMER – the house of horror

Prologue

During the early 1980s I was writing for a number of film and music magazines and, being a huge horror movie buff, I naturally took the opportunity to suggest a Hammer feature at one of Kerrang’s weekly editorial meetings. It is basically an introductory overview of the studio’s horror output and for reasons of space omits reference to a couple of my favourite Hammer filmsm ‘The Witches’ and ‘Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter’, but for those who are not hardcore Hammer fans it may be of interest for the brief quotes from Christopher Lee and the various Hammer ‘House’ directors. (My interview with Peter Cushing can be found elsewhere on this site).

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The New Era of Silent Movies, Part III

'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari' (1920), dir: Robert Wiene

‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1920), dir: Robert Wiene

The enviable state of Lloyd’s legacy is the exception rather than the rule as silent movies used nitrate film stock which was highly inflammable and prone to deterioration if not stored in ideal conditions. Prints struck from nitrate negatives imbued the image with a lustrous sheen (from which the term ‘the silver screen’ was derived) but they proved to be unstable.

Sadly, only 14% of the 11,000 films produced in the US between 1912–1929 have survived in their original 35mm format (source: Library of Congress) and of these 5% are incomplete. In all, 11% of the remainder exist in inferior formats such as 16mm or in foreign language prints (which invariably used different shots as the export version would be filmed by a second camera simultaneously or subsequently if a different cast were used).

Unfortunately, a curator of one of the largest libraries of silent movies in America is said to have told her staff that if only one can of nitrate film showed signs of deterioration they were to destroy every reel of that particular film, rather than splice out and dispose of the affected section. For this reason numerous films by major studios that were entrusted to this archivist have been lost forever.

Ernst Sezebedits, Chairman of the F.W. Murnau Foundation, concludes that there is no choice but to put all their resources into saving these films before it is too late:

“If these films are not adapted to digitization now, they will simply no longer be visible. That is, this film heritage will disappear from the world.”

Essential Silent Movies

‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ 2014 restoration (Kino), Robert Wiene

‘The Man Who Laughs’ (Kino), Conrad Veidt

‘Metropolis -Reconstructed and Restored’ (Eureka), ‘Spione’ (Eureka), and ‘Dr Mabuse – The Gambler’ (Eureka), Fritz Lang

‘Pandora’s Box’ (Second Sight) and ‘Diary of a Lost Girl’ (Eureka Masters of Cinema) Louise Brooks/G.W. Pabst

‘Faust’ (Eureka 2 disc edition), ‘Nosferatu’ 2013 restoration (Eureka), ‘The Last Laugh’ (Eureka) and ‘Sunrise’ (Eureka), F.W. Murnau

‘L’ Argent’ (Eureka) Marcel L’ Herbier

‘Iron Mask’ (Kino) and ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ (Cohen Film Collection), Douglas Fairbanks

‘Vampyr’ (Eureka) and ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (Eureka), Carl Theodor Dryer

‘The General’ 2 Disc (Cinema Club), ‘Sherlock Jnr’ (Kino) and ‘Steamboat Bill Jr’ (Kino), Buster Keaton

‘The Gold Rush’ (Criterion Collection) Charlie Chaplin 1925 original is preferred to the 1945 edited version with voice-over made by Chaplin in order to renew his copyright.

‘The Definitive Collection’ (Studio Canal), Harold Lloyd

 Books

Kevin Brownlow ‘The Parade’s Gone By’ (University of California Press) and ‘Hollywood-The Pioneers’ (Harper Collins)

James van Dyck Card ‘Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film’ (University of Minnesota Press)

Grieveson and Kramer ‘The Silent Cinema Reader’ (Routledge)

Paul Merton ‘Silent Comedy’ (Arrow)

Joe Franklin/William K. Everson ‘Classics of the Silent Screen’ (Citadel Press)

 

Documentaries

‘Hollywood’ (You Tube)

Paul Merton’s ‘Silent Clowns’ (You Tube)**

‘Unknown Chaplin’ (Network)

‘Harold Lloyd ‘The Third Genius’ (RTM)

‘Buster Keaton-A Hard Act To Follow’ (Network)

Read: The New Era of Silent Films Part I and Part II

**A special mention, too, for pianist Neil Brand who has been introducing UK audiences to the delights of silent cinema with his one man show ‘The Silent Pianist Speaks’ and accompanying comedian Paul Merton’s ‘Silent Clowns’ tour.

Conrad Veidt in 'The Man who Laughs' (1928), dir: Paul Leni

Conrad Veidt in ‘The Man who Laughs’ (1928), dir: Paul Leni

The New Era of Silent Movies, Part II

“It’s almost like you have to think differently than you do with regular movies… It’s such a different rhythm. It’s such a different experience.” Rob Zombie

One of the most impressive and extensive restorations to date was that lavished upon ‘Nosferatu’ (1922), which is considered to be the first genuine horror film and one of the most unsettling examples of the genre thanks to the skin-crawling appearance of Max Schreck as the cadaverous vampire, Count Orlock.

still from 'Nosferatu' (1922)

‘Nosferatu’ (1922), dir: F.W. Murnau

Murnau’s gothic fairy tale was thought to have survived only in well-worn duplicate prints after Bram Stoker’s widow won a legal battle to suppress this unauthorized adaptation of her husband’s 1897 novel ‘Dracula’. All existing prints were believed to have been destroyed along with the original negative. It is nothing short of a miracle that the film has been restored to the extent that it has by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung (F.W. Murnau Foundation), giving the impression that the latest release had been sourced from a first generation print. In fact, it was pieced together from multiple sources which had suffered varying degrees of ill-treatment over the years. Such improvements and enhancements do not simply offer a more pleasurable viewing experience; they effectively dissolve the barrier between the viewer and the images on screen to allow greater engagement with the characters and give the film an immediacy that belies its age. It is no longer an artefact but has been brought back to life.

Director Robert Wiene’s ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1920) is another historically significant film that has been saved from the ignominy of the bargain bin by an extensive restoration. Although only nominally a horror film, it establishes several key elements of the genre, most notably the inclusion of an archetypal ‘mad doctor’ (Werner Krauss, who is revealed to be the director of a madhouse in the film’s final scene) and his homicidal ‘creature’ (Cesare, the somnambulist played by Conrad Veidt) who abducts the heroine and carries her off across the rooftops.

With its bizarre sets of painted shadows and forced perspective suggestive of a madman’s vision, ‘Caligari’ is one of the most striking examples of German expressionism. Those who have seen it in its numerous pre-restoration editions will find it hard to believe that the stunning new edition by the Murnau Foundation is the same film.

Influence of the Early German Horror Films

Both ‘Nosferatu’ and ‘Caligari’ continue to exercise a fascination for modern audiences who are now more likely to explore related releases such as the supernatural fantasy ‘Warning Shadows’ (1923), Paul Leni’s atmospheric haunted house comedy ‘The Cat and the Canary’ (1927), ‘The Penalty’ (1920) with Lon Chaney Snr as a crippled crime lord and Wiene’s ‘The Hands of Orlac’ (1924). The latter stars Veidt in the tale of a pianist who fears he has inherited homicidal tendencies after having the hands of a murderer grafted onto his amputated stumps. Such morbid subjects were evidently acceptable to audiences before the Hays code of 1930 prohibited graphic violence, drug addiction and explicit allusions to sexual intercourse to be depicted on screen.

But if any film is likely to convert the skeptical to the neglected art of silent film, it is the macabre period costume drama ‘The Man Who Laughs’ (1928) again with Conrad Veidt, this time cast as a clown bent on revenge after being gruesomely disfigured as a child by a sadistic monarch. The story was based on a novel by Victor Hugo and, although set in 18th century France, the German director Paul Leni blended Grand Guignol with German expressionism to produce a truly remarkable and richly atmospheric film that deserves to be better known and more frequently viewed.

The perennial popularity of these classic early horror films is proof that the language of silent cinema remains truly international, but they only represent a small portion of the treasures on offer. New converts to silent cinema will discover that they are able to enjoy films made in a number of countries where the new medium was finding its most eloquent expression.

still from the French film 'L'argent' (1928, dir: Marcel L'Herbier

‘L’argent’ (1928, dir: Marcel L’Herbier

In Russia Sergej Eisenstein was perfecting the art of film as propaganda and developing the technique of montage for ‘Battleship Potemkin’ (1925), ‘Strike’ (1925) and ‘October 1917’ (1927); in Japan Yasujiro Ozu was assimilating American influences in his earliest forays into the medium that he would come to master, in France Marcel L’Herbier was using film to portray psychological conflict in his anti-capitalist drama ‘L’argent’ (Money, 1928) and in Denmark Carl Theodor Dreyer was pioneering the close-up, low camera angles and harsh natural lighting to convey the emotional turmoil of his leading actress in ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (1928). Also in France, Abel Gance devised and utilized many innovative techniques in his historical epic ‘Napoleon’ (1927) that gave lie to the impression that silent films were static and unsophisticated, while in Germany Murnau, Pabst and Lang were being celebrated for films noted for their innovative optical effects, technical brilliance, fluid camera movements and naturalistic acting. It was these achievements which subsequently brought their directors to the attention of the Hollywood studios where other European émigrés such as Billy Wilder, William Dieterle, Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, and Erich von Stroheim had found employment after fleeing Nazi oppression.

still from 'Sunrise' (1927), dir: F.W. Murnau

‘Sunrise’ (1927), dir: F.W. Murnau

At Fox Murnau was to make what is generally acknowledged as one of the crowning achievements of the silent era, ‘Sunrise’ (1927) for which he and his technicians devised innovative in-camera effects and other techniques such as using children and models in the middle distance to create the illusion of a large city on a comparatively small set.  A 2012 Sight and Sound magazine poll for the BFI named it as the fifth best film in the history of motion pictures and time has not dimmed or devalued its visual and emotional impact.

It is worth mentioning that Murnau also made the only silent movie that did not include the customary intertitles (save one to justify the upbeat epilogue). ‘The Last Laugh’ (1924) stared Emil Jannings as a hotel doorman who cannot face the humiliation of being sacked from his job and resorts to stealing his own uniform so he can continue the pretence. It remains an extremely moving film and testament to the potency of the silent image.

 

“When you see a silent movie, you understand everything that’s going on from the images because the images are so strong.” Monica Bellucci (Italian actor)

Not all silent movies have aged as well, however. ‘The Big Parade’ (1925), directed by King Vidor and starring John Gilbert, was the biggest grossing film of the silent era netting some $20 million (equivalent to $250 mio. today), but it is hampered by a sickly sweet romantic subplot and its battle scenes were bettered by both ‘Wings’ (1927) and ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ (1929). ‘Wings’ was helmed by director William Wellman who drew on his own combat experience for the aerial dogfights and was justly rewarded with the first Academy Award for Best Picture. Lewis Milestone’s anti-war film was originally released in a silent version with synchronized sound, but converted to a talkie before re-release in 1939.

Anyone who imagines that films of the period were static tableaus or elaborate pantomimes animated in fits and starts by actors favouring exaggerated gestures from the Sarah Bernhardt school of barnstorming melodrama will be impressed by the naturalistic performances, fluid camera work, optical effects and opulent sets that feature in the aforementioned films as well as the prestige pictures produced by the major Hollywood studios toward the end of the 20s.

photo of Douglas Fairbanks in 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924), dir. Raoul Walsh

Douglas Fairbanks in ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ (1924), dir. Raoul Walsh

If you doubt it, watch any one of the extravagant spectacles staring the athletic Douglas Fairbanks whose ‘Robin Hood’ (1922) qualified as the second most expensive movie of the silent era. (It was beaten only by the 1925 version of ‘Ben-Hur’ staring Ramon Navarro, which is justly celebrated for its exhilarating chariot race, even though we all know who wins before it even begins).

Fairbanks, whose ‘Mark of Zorro’ (1920) saw the big screen debut of the original Dark Knight and whose skill with a whip presaged Indiana Jones, never ran when he could leap and never leapt when he could fly—as he did most convincingly in the silent screen’s spectacular Arabian nights fantasy ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ (1924). The latter’s sets (designed by William Cameron Menzies) and special effects are still impressive in the age of CGI where armies of computer-generated warriors are commonplace, but silent film buffs swear they are no substitute for the massed crowds of costumed extras that were regularly mustered for silent epics, or the massive sets which only the Hollywood studio system could put at its directors’ and stars’ disposal.

photo of director D.W. Griffith on location

D.W. Griffith on location

Directors such as D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. deMille and Erich von Stroheim made outrageous demands in the name of entertainment and authenticity, which drove their studios to the point of financial ruin. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance’ (1916), for example, claimed the lives of several extras who were drowned when gallons of water flooded the set during the destruction of Belshazzar’s palace, while von Stroheim insisted on filming the climactic scene of ‘Greed’ in the searing heat of Death Valley which led to severe cases of heatstroke among his cast and crew. Stroheim was a notorious martinet and a profligate, who once demanded that the costume department furnish the male cast members of a period drama with silk underwear embroidered with the correct coat of arms on the pretext that they would play their roles more efficiently if they knew their uniforms were authentic down to the last detail. Thanks to DVD his lost masterpiece ‘Greed’ survives in a recently reconstructed four hour director’s cut which the panic stricken studio had reduced to two in the vain hope of reclaiming some of its crippling costs.

The name of Cecil B. deMille is synonymous with excess, but he trumped himself by bringing real lions on the set for a scene in ‘Male and Female’ (1919) during which Gloria Swanson was required to feign unconsciousness while a fully grown lion held her down with one paw on her bare back. DeMille himself kept a loaded revolver at his side during that particular scene while the beast’s keepers cracked their whips off camera to goad it into roaring on cue.

It was Swanson who summed up the allure of the silent era when she played faded screen diva Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s elegy to Hollywood’s golden era, ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950). During a screening of one of her own movies (‘Queen Kelly’ directed by Erich von Stroheim), Norma leaps to her feet and caught in the beam of the projector delivers the classic line, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces then.”

Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton

She was doubtless referring to the enigmatic Greta Garbo and heart throb Rudolph Valentino, but while they are now regarded as icons of another more innocent age, comedian and director Buster Keaton remains perennially popular and his films among the most watchable and enjoyable of any period. Keaton incidentally made a fleeting appearance in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ playing one of Norma’s aging friends, referred to rather disparagingly in the film as her ‘waxworks’. His dead pan expression earned him the sobriquet ‘The Great Stone Face’ and made him a worldwide star on a par with Chaplin, but while Chaplin’s art now seems compromised by cloying sentimentality, Keaton’s sardonic sensibility and restless ingenuity have ensured that the best of his surviving films retain their ability to entertain and amaze. Keaton, a former child acrobat, risked his life on more than one occasion for the sake of a gag, the most famous being when he narrowly escaped being flattened by the front of a two-storey timber house during the hurricane sequence in ‘Steamboat Bill, Jr.’. The house collapses leaving Keaton framed in the narrow window, a gap of mere inches on either side.

Buster Keaton in 'Sherlock, Jr.' (1924)

Buster Keaton in ‘Sherlock, Jr.’ (1924)

He also created a dazzling sequence for ‘Sherlock, Jr.’ (1924) in which he played a cinema projectionist who dreams himself onto the screen and through a series of precarious situations as the scenery changes in quick succession. Fortunately, most of Keaton’s full-length features survive intact and have been lovingly restored including ‘The General’ (which has been ranked as one of the finest films ever made by both the AFI and the BFI), although a number of his equally inventive shorts are in poorer shape and several are missing key sequences.

The only serious rival to Keaton and Chaplin in the comedy stakes was bespectacled comedian Harold Lloyd who was known as ‘The Third Genius’. Lloyd shrewdly retained the rights to all of his films and preserved them for posterity along with home movie footage and thousands of photographs so that when his estate authorised their release on DVD they were in pristine condition and could offer copious bonus features. But while he was happy to give his fans a recorded tour of his magnificent Hollywood estate, he was more guarded when it came to the secrets that had astonished audiences in his most popular film, ‘Safety Last’ (1923). For the climactic scene Harold’s character scales the outside of a department store after a human fly that he had engaged for a publicity stunt fails to show up. His gravity defying stunt – which involved dangling from a clock face (a scene that was replicated in Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’) – became one of the iconic images of the silent era and also one of the best kept secrets in movie history.

It was not until 1981, a decade after his death, that the makers of the Thames Television documentary ‘Hollywood’ revealed that it was essentially an optical illusion created by constructing a false section of the exterior of the department store on the roof of a seven-storey building at 908 South Broadway.  By clever placement of the camera Lloyd was able to scale the new structure overlooking downtown Los Angeles while in fact being only a few feet from the ground. Nevertheless, it was still a physically demanding role as Lloyd had lost his thumb, index finger and half of the palm of his right hand in an earlier accident when a prop bomb that had been packed with real explosive had detonated prematurely.

Read: The New Era of Silent Films Part I, Part III (with essential filmography, bibliography, and documentaries)

'Das Testament des Dr Mabuse' (1933), dir: Fritz Lang

‘Das Testament des Dr Mabuse’ (1933), dir: Fritz Lang

 

The Nuremberg Rituals – An invocation of Mars

In 1834 Heine published Religion and Philosophy in Germany, in which appeared this prophetic warning:

“But most of all to be feared would be the philosophers of nature were they actively to mingle in a German revolution, and to identify themselves with the work of destruction. […] the Philosopher of Nature will be terrible in this, that he has allied himself with the primitive powers of nature, that he can conjure up the demoniac forces of old German pantheism; and having done so, there is aroused in him that ancient German eagerness for battle which combats not for the sake of destroying, not even for the sake of victory, but merely for the sake of the combat itself.”

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The Houseguest (a playlet)

Cast:

AN ELDERLY ARISTOCRAT

HIS YOUNGER MALE HOUSEGUEST AND BIOGRAPHER

ACT I

SCENE ONE

(THE MALE HOUSE GUEST SITS IN AN ANTIQUE CHAIR AND DOES NOT SPEAK THROUGHOUT, WHILE THE ARISTOCRAT PACES ACROSS THE STAGE DELIVERING A MONOLOGUE. WHEN THE HOUSEGUEST IS NOT ACTIVELY LISTENING OR ACKNOWLEDGING WHAT IS BEING SAID, HE WILL BE WRITING DOWN WHAT HE HAS HEARD)

ARISTOCRAT

Tell me, my friend, have you ever loved someone so completely, so passionately that when they departed this life, you wished you had the courage to follow them, though you dreaded what might await you? I am not ashamed to confess that I have loved this intensely, with every fibre of my being. And though the loss of such a love has brought me acute anguish, the like of which you cannot imagine, I have not regretted having loved and lost, as the poets would have it.

I can’t imagine anyone having been as ill-used as myself, but I want you to know that there was a time when I knew true happiness and the memory of that blissful union is what has sustained me. Though I had lived a full twenty years before my beloved and I met, it was only from that day that I felt truly alive. Before then I merely existed.

Love is the very reason for living. Is it not? Without companionship, affection and the unspoken understanding that binds two souls who are in complete accord, we are merely sleepwalking through life. And I should know, for I have been in that wretched state now for what seems like an eternity.  And yet, I could not follow the one who was so dear to me into the unknown. The one who gave meaning to my life. Oh, believe me, I tried. More than once during those empty days that followed my bereavement when I thought that sorrow weighed upon me so heavy that it would stop my heart from beating and the blood from coursing through my veins. No living thing should have to endure being left alone in the dark after the very breath of life has been extinguished; when all that one has believed in ceases to have significance, leaving only memories. And what are those but vapour, a vague impression, a vivid dream that is glimpsed and is gone?

With their parting the loved one ceases to be real. Like those words you are writing so furiously lest you miss every element of my confession. And yet, despite my grief I could not summon the courage to end it. At the critical moment I could not make that leap of faith into the abyss.

It was not a question of fear or of belief. For if there is a heaven—and we have only the word of the clergy that there is (and this from those who do not seem over eager to forgo their terrestrial wealth and power for the promise of celestial reward)—, if there is a heaven, I know there is no welcome for me there. For I have been unfaithful to my love, having sated my hunger and desire with others. At first I was ashamed and cursed myself for my weakness, but then I realized that I could not help myself. I was at the mercy of a compulsion. Once you have known such desire, you must satisfy the craving. There is no denying it. Once you have drunk from the wellspring, from the fountain of youth, you must quench your thirst again and again, or you age more rapidly than if you had not known love in the first instance. If you are a passionate being as I am, you cannot live without it. It is an addiction.

I trust I am not shocking you. I have been alone for so long I have become somewhat indifferent to the sensibilities of others. And besides I have not entertained a guest – not since…

…but it has not always been so. In my youth I had a most enviable reputation as a socialite and a gracious host renowned for my lavish soirees on which I spent a considerable part of my not inconsiderable fortune. The remainder I squandered in empty and extravagant revelries after my bereavement in a vain effort to assuage my grief.

And over the ensuing years as my house fell into disrepair my fortune depleted to the point where I now condescend to accept employment to keep body and soul together. Yes, as demeaning as it is to one of my station, I have acceded to necessity and now ply a trade of sorts.

(SELF-DEPRECATING LAUGH)

And inevitably, the years have also taken their toll upon my body as they did upon my house. I have aged and decayed none too well, I confess. But I bear up. A little rouge to bring a blush to these pallid cheeks, a touch of greasepaint to mask the lines etched in my face and I have taken twenty years off my life. Ah, if only–

(PAUSES)

You remain unmoved? Greedily recording my confession in that immaculate copperplate hand that betrays a clinical detachment to the specimen you have chosen to study. But then this admission is precisely what you have travelled so far to hear, is it not? And, after all, I have much to confess.

How I envy you, your life among the gay whirl of society. And would gladly exchange it for my seclusion were it not for the bitter sweet memory of that love I speak of. The love that haunts me. I know that I am doomed to live alone and estranged from bustling humanity. I have paid a most dreadful price for my dissolute ways and excesses, but now I must endure the solitude that only the insane and the inconsolable must suffer. To experience the bitter-sweet longing of love and lose it once is torture, but to suffer the loss over and over again, as I have in my vain attempts to relive the one great love of my life, is a pain that gnaws at the very fabric of my being, at the burning ember that is all that remains of my soul.

(BITTER LAUGHTER)

But here I am again, playing to the gallery, wringing every wretched line of this pathetic melodrama that has been my life. And for whom? An audience of one.  I think it best that we part here, my friend. I am due to take the stage in a few minutes. You have seen my act once and I must confess, I stick pretty much to the same ‘business’ every performance. The locals are easily amused. They leer at the lithesome dancers in the neighbouring tent and they stare like frightened children at the exhibits, our carnival of horrors, our circus of freaks of which I—it appears—am the principal attraction. But once a man of the legitimate theatre, such as yourself, has seen our tawdry little entertainment, there is no profit in sitting through it again.

So I bid you farewell and a safe journey back to England. I trust you enjoyed your stay in our country. Oh, and good luck with your book, should you finish it. Though I’m still not convinced that your choice of title is a wise one. You would be better using my real name. Though I must say, I cannot imagine those genteel ladies of London pouring over such horrors no matter what title you give it. You’ll be hounded from your lodgings before the ink on the first reviews are dry.

Mark my words, Mr Stoker, you will regret the day you met me.

© Paul Roland 2013

Nosferatu, film poster (2010) by PanDisegnos

A Most Singular Specimen

It was a loathsome thing indeed that lay prostrate on Dietrichson’s dissecting table, a huge grub almost two feet long and eleven inches around the girth which contracted and expanded with each dying breath. Folds of glistening white skin rose and fell in regular rhythm, until at last it expired with a burbling hiss. The gas had taken its effect. Dietrichson put aside the moisture-clouded glass dome which had acted as a killing jar and examined the grub with his magnifying glass.

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