The Ghost Train

Directed by Géza von Bolváry, Germany/UK, 1927
Cast Ilse Bois, Hilde Jennings, John Manners, Sinaida Korolenko, Ernst Verebes, Guy Newall, Louis Ralph, and Hertha von Walther
Production Gainsborough Pictures, F.P.S., and Phoebus-Film Print Source British Film Institute

Presented at SFSFF 2015
Live Musical Accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius with Live Narration by Paul McGann

Essay by Michael Atkinson

It’s one of those old-school, hypnotizing, daydreamy places very old movies can bring you—an occasion to think of movies “as places,” meta-locales, landscapes and rooms you enter into and loiter around inside: the haunted (or faux-haunted) house in a rain storm. It speaks to some primal pretend-play grade-schooler in us, so it’s hard to beat for extreme dramatic atmosphere and creepy-but-unthreatening plot machinations. It was for years a favorite meta-place in theater as well, where it developed a comic sense of its own absurdity early in the century; John Willard’s 1922 play The Cat and the Canary remains a prototype. Géza von Bolváry’s The Ghost Train is a classic, and virtually forgotten, subgenre tissue sample, an odd British-German coproduction of the Weimar era (resources split between Gainsborough Pictures and Ufa) and restlessly inventive co-opter of visual gimmickry made recently famous and fashionable by Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Based on a 1923 play, his first, by actor Arnold Ridley (reportedly inspired by a night he was stranded at the train depot in Mangotsfield, Gloucestershire), the film is an unpretentious crowd-pleaser, as quaint as a watch pocket and as self-amused as a vaudeville clown. That it’s this old, this neglected, this churning with antique affectation just makes it precious, not necessarily as art, but as a cultural find that could stick in your skull, like faintly hearing an old 78 of “Have You Ever Seen a Dream Walking?” seeping from a dark window in a rundown part of town.

The story, at first, is a muddling and mysterious collision of mood, portents, black market secrets, corpses, ominous boardings, missed connections, and, best of all, glimpses of toy trains chugging through a tabletop night landscape, under a fake and silvery moon. The credits and title cards are animated to swoop in on you and float around like ghosts; at the drop of a tall-tale told about the titular “ghost train,” small spectral engines are superimposed over the actors, smoking and hurtling this way and that. Few opportunities to wink at us are not exploited. In the meantime, a hoary old chestnut is pushed forward: first, a preamble in which nefarious doings lead to a worker’s body, found run over, on tracks where “no train has been for seven years!”

At another station, a motley cast of types assemble, all heading to Hellbridge for a connection to London: a fussy temperance spinster carrying a caged parrot (who, in animated speech bubbles, periodically cracks “degoutant!” at passersby), a lovey-dovey couple on their honeymoon, a second couple brewing with bitterness and on the edge of a divorce (immediately they are punctuated with a cutaway to a pair of caged lions), and an undercover detective, whose job it seems entails being only the amused observer, until the climax. The first leg of their rain-soaked night journey is sidelined by a mysterious pull on the emergency cord; thereafter, the six travelers plus a yarn-spinning conductor are waylaid overnight in an abandoned Mangotsfield-like station, where their follies and fears beset them. The snippy Prohibition maid and the backbiting couple are exposed and tested; the detective is merely a buffoon; while Ridley and von Bolváry obviously have little interest in the happy honeymooners. The pressure is ramped up by the conductor’s tales of the station’s ghosts, conjured from a track wreck on the nearby drawbridge years before.
This rather spectacular ghost-filled flashback sequence is the kind of musty, inventive, shadowy early cinema riff that always gave Canadian filmmaker/excavator Guy Maddin crazed inspiration for his retro-meta-movie movies (Ghost Train evokes a slew of Maddins but particularly 1990’s Archangel, and the celebrated shorts Odilon Redon, from 1995, and The Heart of the World, from 2000). Maddin is always understood as being ironic-euphoric with his chintzy use of shadows, scratched film, missing frames, and undisguised miniatures, but an artifact like Ghost Train isn’t terribly different—there’s a palpable delight in the obvious fakery, hyperbolic double exposures, and melodramatic hokum that’s very contemporary. We shouldn’t always assume that pulp filmmakers of yesteryear were being dead serious and therefore deserving of campy chuckles. (Von Bolváry went on, under the Nazis and beyond, to thrive as a director of operettas and romantic comedies.) Sure, the visual style of Ghost Train may have been state of the art for its time—for a low-budget late silent—but that still doesn’t mean the filmmakers weren’t reveling, not nostalgically but of the mad-scientist moment, in the evocative craft at hand for its own hyperbolic sake.

Not that it matters terribly to us now almost ninety years later. You could say movies, Ghost Train included, only exist right now for the uses and interpretations and delights they offer in the present. As the seven characters twist and whine in their spooky seclusion, offscreen the smuggling operation that sparked the whole story trundles forward (the conductor’s horror stories were meant to cover up the illegal train usage) eventually to meet its Waterloo with the waiting detective. In the meantime, Miss Temperance gets soused on a neglected flask of hootch and hallucinates inanimate objects dancing around the place on tiny hand-drawn legs, ending up out in the storm with her umbrella, flung about by the wind like Mary Poppins. The performers, mostly Germans with a few English stalwarts, are only required to embody a pulp-fiction homogeneity, with only the stuffy teetotaling comic relief standing out, played to the hilt by Ilse Bois. (A latecomer, as a vampy member of the criminal gang, in a skintight off-shoulder dress, Hertha von Walther went on in Germany’s early sound years to be a favorite of Fritz Lang’s and featured in films by Alfred Hitchcock and G.W. Pabst.)

Aficionados know that searching out high-minded artistic purpose and eloquence in silent movies is only one path to take. The alternative, about which we should feel no shyness, involves exploring the cultural past, as an invented country lost to time, gorgeous and fascinating exactly because of its foreignness, its unattainability, its evidentiary existence. Novelist Michael Chabon put it nicely, in an essay extolling the virtues of nostalgia: “We are simply like those savants in the Borges story who stumble upon certain objects and totems that turn out to be the random emanations and proofs of existence of Tlön. The past is another planet; anyone ought to wonder, as we do, at any traces of it that turn up on this one.” Auteur masterpieces do not supply this proof—only made-for-fun products like The Ghost Train open the door.

—Michael Atkinson

Narrator Paul McGann is best known to American audiences for creating a beloved incarnation of Dr. Who for BBC television. He has participated in both the Pordenone and Bristol Silents film festivals, and narrated the British documentary South at the 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival.