This feature was published in conjunction with the screening of A Page of Madness at SFSFF 2017
SECRETS OF A SOUL
(G.W. Pabst, 1926)
Like Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness, Secrets of a Soul probes the anguish of a man fearful for his family’s future. Fortunately, Martin Fellman can afford the talking cure. Tempting though it is to classify Secrets of a Soul as a testimonial for Freudian psychoanalysis (it was written in consultation with two noted psychologists specializing in dream interpretation), the film’s surreal subjectivity transcends the plot’s jigsaw approach to consciousness. A stop-gap animation village sprouts from the ground. A mysterious ray of light caresses the blade of an oriental sword. Memories replay as pageant-like vignettes. By immersing us in the patient’s psyche, the imagery builds empathy for Fellman’s anxiety. Indeed, the film’s second shot holds up Fellman’s reflection like a mirror to the audience, as if to say, “You could be him.” Werner Krauss’s performance, spiraling from rumpled charm to shuddering panic, then struggling toward self-discovery, elicits the spectator’s compassion. Fellman’s happy ending can be bought, and it is, in the epilogue granting him the paternal joy he craves. But the pastoral, sun-dappled look of this coda contrasts with the rest of the film, smacking of wish fulfillment. Is it fantasy? Is it reality? In the cinema, as in the mind, the answer is always both.
(Victor Sjöström, 1913)
In Ingeborg Holm, the eponymous heroine is separated from her family by force, exposing the link between the criminalization of poverty and mental illness. The viewer never sees inside the heroine’s mind as in Secrets of the Soul. Instead, Sjöström shows the traumatic external pressures that cause her breakdown. When Holm first visits the workhouse, this small, dignified widow waits on a long bench of paupers whose grotesque agitation foreshadows her own fate in the dehumanizing system. As a board of administrators hog the frame and decide Holm’s future, she haunts the edge like a ghost. The elaborate shifting focus when Holm gives up her children makes the viewer feel the wrench of a mother’s grief. When Holm’s mind gives way, she frets in the midst of a busy visitation room, just one case among many. Ingeborg Holm reminds us that the definition of sanity hinges on power. Callous authority figures—like the superintendent who laughs over Holm’s pleas—are normal because they say so. If privilege and cruelty are the norm, then poverty and love are deviant. That’s the twisted logic of Ingeborg Holm’s world, not so far from our own.
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI
(Robert Wiene, 1920)
Is Caligari a malevolent, unhinged authority figure or merely the object of his patient’s delusions? The framing story of this proto-horror movie plunges the audience into uncertainty, paralleling the narrator’s paranoia. Regardless, the film portrays an unsettling dynamic: the psychiatrist wants to keep the patient in his place and the patient wants to institutionalize his psychiatrist. Mental illness is a spectacle that Caligari capitalizes on. The doctor exhibits Cesare as a curiosity and the main room of the asylum resembles a circus arena. The film’s jagged Expressionist decor thrilled audiences of the day as if it were a rollercoaster of the mind, a funhouse simulation of a cracked psyche. As Photoplay enthused in 1921, “The scenery … reels and totters like the tumbling minds whose mad processes built its ugly but fascinating plot.” Like a mountebank posing as the cure, Caligari shocks and entertains with its technical bravura but lacks the empathy found in Ingeborg Holm, A Page of Madness, or Secrets of a Soul.
(Carmine Gallone, 1917)
Just as Caligari takes on a violent alternate identity after discovering a grim manuscript, so does Malombra’s Marina. As she reads a letter by her ancestor Cecilia, the past dissolves into the present; Marina’s image flickers over Cecilia’s. By embodying another woman’s sorrow and rage, Marina becomes an agent of revenge against patriarchal oppression, a diva furiosa. Lyda Borelli as Marina veers from convulsive upside-down close-ups to quiet scenes of glamorous gothic rumination, imparting a kind of triumphant hauteur throughout. Gloating over her uncle’s deathbed, Marina’s thrashing movements, wild eyes, and shark-like rictus convey extremes of pleasure and pain at once. Her illness does not diminish her; it expands her. Malombra explores connections among female creativity, passion, and madness in a society that punishes women’s rebellion as sickness. In A Page of Madness, the dancer’s fantasies liberate her from the asylum, resulting in the film’s most beautiful images. In Marina’s case, her dissociation endows her with the dark power to wrest Cecilia’s narrative away from the men who controlled it and write her own ending.
(Victor Sjöström, 1928)
Motifs of confinement and vengeance intertwine in both Malombra and The Wind. However, the gothic stillness of Malombra’s interiors contrasts sharply with what the star of The Wind, Lillian Gish, called the latter film’s “pure motion.” The Texas desert’s unrelenting wind torments Letty and drives her to madness. As he did in Ingeborg Holm, director Sjöström composes the shots to emphasize the pressures bearing down on the heroine. In one chilling example, Letty’s fragile figure looks through her shack’s grimy window while Roddy looms behind her. Nature, marriage, and a human predator combine to trap Letty mentally and physically. Sjöström also gives us the view from inside Letty’s mind: a phantom horse rides in the sky and a sandblasted corpse suddenly opens its eyes. Like Secrets of a Soul’s happy ending, the conclusion of The Wind may feel too tidy. Yet, surviving mental illness often depends on finding freedom within—not freedom from—painful circumstances and memories. As sunshine transfigures Letty’s features and the once-frightening wind streams through her hair, the audience can see that freedom is finally hers.