VON MORGENS BIS MITTERNACHT (Karl Heinz Martin, 1920, Germany, 65m, BW)
From Morn to Midnight
Directed by Karlheinz Martin
Produced by Herbert Juttke
Written by Karlheinz Martin
Starring Ernst Deutsch
Cinematography Carl Hoffmann
Country Germany (Weimar Republic)
Language Silent film
A Cashier in a bank in a small German town is alerted to the power of money by the visit of a rich Italian lady. He embezzles 60, 000 Marks and leaves for the capital city, where he attempts to find satisfaction in politics, sport, love and religion.
There aren't very many movies that you can place next to THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and come away with the conclusion that CALIGARI is the one that is stylistically more realistic. This is one. The sets are so twisted, the acting style so stylized, and the general tone of the movie so bizarre that I'm almost tempted to agree with Walt Lee when he attributes the fantastic content of this movie as being the result of the style. However, when you get down to it, there's only one element of the plot that lapses into the fantastic, and that's that our protagonist keeps seeing the face of Death in various women. It's based on a radical stage play from 1912, and I find it almost perverse that a silent version of a stage play would abjure title cards, but it tries to tell the story in purely visual terms. It doesn't quite work; I had to find a plot description to figure out what was going on in the story.
The film is divided into five acts, as was often the case for feature-length silent dramas, especially those based on stage plays. which is noteworthy on the one hand because it corresponds with Roma Bahn appearing in five different roles and on the other because Georg Kaiser's original work is described as "a play in seven scenes". I wonder if the story of the Dame, her son, and the scandalous painting is finished on the stage, and whether the poor old shopkeeper with the massive beard ever got paid for his troubles. Here, they seem to vanish once they've provided a reason for the cashier to steal and go on the run, setting up a somewhat familiar arc of dissatisfaction, greed, discovering riches aren't all they're cracked up to be, and eventually pining for one's "Sweet Home" and repentance.
It's a familiar story, especially for those who have seen a fair amount of movies from this era - German silents especially seem to run toward lectures on the hollow seductiveness of easy riches - but it's the way director Karl Heinz Martin and company tell it that makes it so noteworthy. The film's stage origins are clear, with the camera often staying firmly in one place no matter how many times it returns to a given scene. It's the set decoration that's most striking, though - while many Expressionist films will rely on the familiar.
Sometimes going for minimalism when displaying everyday life and then get wild when the setting gets out of the ordinary, every scene in From Morn to Midnight is visually constructed of simple visuals that may be expressive but unrealistic: The cashier's house, for instance, has a doorframe that is impossible askew to communicate just how run-down it is, and nothing ever seems to have come out of a printing press - telegrams, signs, and even currency all look hand-written. A bicycle race is all vague reflections of raw speed, and characters often speak (via intertitles) the time, though perhaps bells or chimes might have been used on stage to communicate the story's progression between the times indicated in the title.
In some ways, this style is probably both necessitated and representative of then-contemporary Germany - bled dry by World War I and further impoverished by the terms of the peace, there was not a lot of money to be had. Look at the costumes; even the presumably well-to-do like the Dame's son have blemishes on their worn-looking suits; only the bank's director and the free-spending cashier look really well-dressed (the nifty haircut and beard trim the cashier purchases with his ill-gotten gains also makes a sharp contrast to his former life). The scenes inside the velodrome seem particularly abstracted, both to more clearly show the various social classes and because creating a realistic set would appear to be out of the film's budget. Images of death haunt the cashier constantly.
For as abstract and stylized as the film's visuals often are, the performance of Ernst Deutsch as the cashier is surprisingly grounded. Certainly, like many silent actors, he's frequently broad and theatrical, but he and Martin are occasionally able to do something that works well in close-up that serves as a bit of a counterpoint to the more heated aspects of the performance. Erna Morena does something similar, giving her character the feeling of someone used to being in the upper reaches of wealth and class who is now rather closer to Earth than she would wish. Roma Bahn does an impressive chameleon act, making her multiple roles distinct while also letting them feel tied together by more than the death's-head mask each briefly sports.
To say that "From Morn to Midnight" ("Von morgens bis Mitternacht", in the original German) was not appreciated in its time is to understate the case rather severely: After a 1922 press screening, it never actually opened in Germany, though it was championed by critics in Japan, where a sole nitrate print survived long enough to be copied into a more stable format. It would likely have become obscure eventually, being a silent Expressionist film that it isn't quite in the top rank, but its unusual style and oddly compelling story makes it an interesting discovery. Karlheinz Martin's film adaptation remains largely faithful to Kaiser's play (minus the rich dialog of course), and indeed adds some insightful touches, especially in the opening scene in the bank vaults. The set decoration is ultra-Expressionistic, a masterpiece.
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