What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.
Since last Friday, I’ve watched exactly 80 films. Don’t worry—most of them were from that early part of the silent era when movies tended to be extremely short. They’re research material for an ongoing project. Most of them I’d seen before, so I’ll just stick to a couple of new-to-me highlights and keep this week’s entry very brief.
The foremost of these would be a seven-minute Portuguese film from 1909 called The Crimes Of Diogo Alves, based on the exploits of a notorious 19th-century criminal, whose preserved head can still be seen at the University Of Lisbon. As far as I know, it’s the first serial killer movie ever made, predating Fritz Lang’s M by about 22 years. I’ve seen the substantially longer 1911 remake, which is a lot easier to follow as a narrative, but this version is more unsettling (partly because the plot is unclear) and also very inventive in how it constructs suspense in static long takes. It’s one of those movies from the early part of the silent era that looked outdated in the montage-theory-heavy 1920s, but today seems modern in many respects.
There was also Burglars At Work (perhaps readers can see a theme emerging), a 1904 short made for Pathé Films by the French magician-turned-filmmaker Gaston Velle, a contemporary of the better-known Georges Méliès. The film itself wouldn’t be exceptional if it weren’t for the way Velle chose to portray the nighttime exteriors: as shadow-puppet-like silhouettes against a greenish-blue-tinted backdrop. It’s one of the more novel solutions to the depiction of darkness I’ve seen from the era when filming under anything except daylight or mercury-vapor arc lights was still a technical impossibility. You can watch it here.
I also finally saw the 44 minutes or so that have survived of Robert Wiene’s 1920 feature Genuine: A Tale Of A Vampire, an expressionist horror film released directly after Wiene’s seminal The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari. (Apparently, a substantially longer version has also survived, but is restricted to the Munich City Film Museum.) The sets and costumes—the only notable work done for film by the painter and theatrical set designer César Klein—are somehow even more outrageous than those in Caligari, so exaggerated that I found myself sometimes wracking my brain over what they’re supposed to be. Is that a bedroom? A door?
There is an argument to be made for the silent era as a cycle of attitudes and reactions to realism—from the way painted flats and real locations would be used interchangeably in the early films of R.W. Paul to the strictly detailed realism of the 1910s and then into the stylized sets that mark so many great films of the 1920s.