What we think we know about German Expressionism and how it began is ordinarily defined by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)—and that’s that. Cultural movements are slow-turning ships, though, and naturally Expressionism itself, as an aesthetic ideal, hearkens back to before cinema, as such, was even invented. Certainly, once World War I was through draining resources and reinspiring the Zeitgeist, 1919 saw a raft of heavily stylized German films (including Ernst Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess, Robert Reinert’s Nerven, and Richard Oswald’s Eerie Tales), though none of them went quite as far as Caligari—which is to say, all the way to the wall of warped representation and subjective self-creation. In other words, the singularity of Caligari, in 1920 and after, may have been the scale and cohesiveness of its vision, not merely its extremity, a case you could make offering Karlheinz Martin’s From Morn to Midnight (Von Morgens bis Mitternachts, 1920) as Exhibit A.
Martin’s film may well have been influenced by Caligari, which was shot the year before and widely screened in February 1920. But its roots lay in experimental theater going back at least several years; Georg Kaiser’s famous play, written in 1912, was first staged in 1917, and long before the war ended, Martin had already made a name for himself in Frankfurt and Hamburg as the most radical theater director working in Germany. His film, his first in a busy career that particularly thrived in the 1930s and then ended abruptly once World War II began (a title that begs reviewing is 1935’s Punks Arrive from America), is nothing if not its own kind of stylistic seizure, far less Caligari-esque and ur-Gothic than imbued with a reckless, rebel-theater-nerd, rock-’n’-roll punkishness, meant to invoke a crudely modern Now, and not, as was so common with the Expressionists, a creepy, tarnished 19th-century Then.
The story is simple and, also typical of the movement, more than a little moralistic: a haggard bank teller, maddened by the drab routine of his days, absconds with the bank’s money in an effort to woo a foreign woman who, it turns out, laughs him out of her hotel room. He then runs, from fear of the law, and then decides to use the money to transform himself into a high-roller living it up in the big city—all the while trying to buy himself happiness, and coming up empty. (At every turn, he confronts a manifestation of the sullen-eyed actress Roma Bahn, as his daughter, a beggar, a whore, a Salvation Army worker, etc., and each time her face transforms—subtle!—into a death’s skull.) It all transpires, as the title states, in a single day, which though impossible is the least unrealistic thing about the film.
Its form is its real distinction, of course: the rooms and streets the characters inhabit are meta-sets, little more than roughed-out school-play cardboard and curtains, conscientiously slopped with paint and cut at odd angles. As in the history of experimental theater (leading, on film, to the abstractions of Lars von Trier’s Dogville in 2003), a room can be suggested by a single drawn window on black curtain; chicken wire and scrap lumber were Martin’s primary budgetary expenditures, poverty on display as a countercultural principle. No line on a table or wall is drawn straight when it can smear in a hectic wiggle. Caligari’s world looked *designed*, whereas the airy, stark, black-robed world of From Morn to Midnight looks like it was quickly totted together in an old garage by rowdy tweens on a lark.
This kind of anti-diegetic mise-en-scène has a long history in amateur theater during the 20th century, and can look clichéd to us today. But if you tune in, you can still smell the carbon of radical art as it burned in 1920, reacting (as most German Expressionism is famed to do) to a postwar world in which the established principles behind everything, from the tenets of civilization to the traditional aesthetics of art, were in free-fall. Clearly the film’s anti-materialism message, however sensible, holds little interest, especially once you try to parse the nutty ending, when the bank teller shoots himself and falls into a crucifix position, with Pontius Pilate’s, and Nietzsche’s, “ECCE HOMO” blazing above his head in neon—a martyr to what, it’s hard to say. Simple moralism, even of an antiestablishment sort, doesn’t quite mesh with the film’s visual vocabulary, which can scan like five dozen ways to say fuck off. The refusal to even try to limn a convincing “reality” of one kind or another—not even to acknowledge the depth of three-dimensional space, as Caligari does—is an endearingly pure kind of aesthetic resistance, a true avant-garde nose-thumbing. Maybe it’s clear only in retrospect, but Martin’s movie appears to have far less in common with other German Expressionisms of the day than with Dada, and then with the uber-kitsch alt-culture styles that emerged more than a half-century later, from John Waters, the Kuchar brothers, Devo, ’80s New Wave music videos, and “no wave” films to all the grungy vinyl-clothespin-&-hairspray fashion and art ideas inhabiting low-rent downtown chunks of every large city during the Carter and Reagan administrations.
The first takeaway here is likely the intended one—that of Martin and Co. defying the new medium’s nascent norms, skewering the still-fresh mandate for realistic mise-en-scène, and even mocking the tics of normative silent-film acting that were still evolving since Griffith. The play’s sermonizing is undercut in every shot by the dash of punk irreverence, which at the same time echoes the money-is-the-root messaging by stripping the world of the film down to junk-drawer effluvia. But Martin’s film keys into something even more fundamental about movies, a beguiling aspect of the medium it normally tries to obscure: that is, how close movies are to childhood and the experience of just playing pretend. Sometimes—unintentionally in low-budget genre films and intentionally with avant-gardists and modernists leading all the way to Godard—moviemaking is little more than a kind of play itself, an act of captured make-believe, happily sans deceptive polish and professionalism, and embracing its own conjured alt-world, just as kids do when left to themselves. (It’s no mistake that The Case, the expertly faked kids’ film at the heart of J.J. Abrams’s Super 8, in 2011, is by far more entertaining than Super 8 itself.) A lot of early silents, coming before the illusion of movie narrative fully cohered, have this vibe built in; From Morn to Midnight simply wallows in it, reminding you more than anything of a gang of self-dramatic, anti-authoritarian brats deciding let’s put on a show.
How many indie film projects (of which Martin’s qualified in its day) began this way and carried with them the buzz of unsupervised, resource-free creativity? In any case, Martin’s act of no-budget hubris did not find screens in Germany upon its completion; perhaps it was the rad aesthetics, or the anti-capitalist message, but no distributor would touch it. The first recorded release was three years later, in Japan, where audiences were already well acquainted with stylized avant-gardisms of all sorts. Only after a print was found there in 1963 did the thought-to-be-lost film finally premiere in East Berlin, but it remains a neglected footnote in silent-era history, one that feels both endemic of its distinctive place and time and universally redolent with contrarian youth-art explosions stretching from one end of the 20th century to the other.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2018 with live music by Alloy Orchestra