Monday, October 13, 2008

The Haunted Screen

If I took the many film books I have, from the general movie history books to biographies to those dealing with specific genres, and ranked them according to what I learned from them, The Haunted Screen, by Lotte Eisner would easily be in the top three. I've had almost as long as I've had movie books and read it in bits and pieces on a regular basis. What you'll find here is not a review, exploration or analysis, simply a recommendation. If you want to learn more about German film from the early 20th Century there is no other book to have. And if you love German film from this period and do not have this book, your studies are incomplete.

The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt was written by Lotte Eisner and published in France in 1952 (L'Ecran Demoniaque). The copy I have was printed in 1977 and by then it had long become a revered classic. It covers practically every film made in Germany from 1919 through the early thirties and offers rich, detailed analysis as well as multiple offerings of scene by scene breakdowns. Eisner even analyzes and explains her own title in the forward for the English language edition explaining, "The word demoniac (German damonisch) is used in its Greek sense - as it was understood by Goethe ... 'pertaining to the nature of supernatural power'; it is not used in the usual English sense of 'diabolical.'" She wanted to make sure nothing was lost in the translation.

And nothing was. I own few film books that could match The Haunted Screen for its thorough and more than capable analysis. And I still use it as a guide for the films I want to see from that period, even though many are still unavailable outside of the biggest works from Lang, Pabst and Murnau. But aside from this it offers a dizzying array of stills from the period, many from behind the scenes such as the construction of the set for Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon - Lang, 1929) below.

Like I said, this isn't a review, more of a gushing recommendation. Werner Herzog was also a huge fan of both the book and the writer. He walked 425 miles from Munich to Paris in 1974 when he heard news that she might die soon due to illness. The idea he had was that somehow she would recover in the time it took him to walk it, that she would not die before he could complete his journey, and in fact she did not. She died in 1983 at the age of 87.

You can read her all too short biography on Wikipedia here, which mentions her fleeing Germany in 1933 to avoid Jewish persecution but then being sent to concentration camp in France before the war ended. I don't know a lot about this period of her life but would love to learn more. Wikipedia offers little more than the details I just gave.

The Haunted Screen will always occupy a favored place on my bookshelves and in my heart. It opened up the world of German Expressionist Cinema to me long before VCRs, Cable and later DVDs and Netflix came on the scene to lend a hand. It's a great work and a must have for any serious student of film. As the Times Literary Supplement wrote, "... arguably the best book on the cinema yet written." That was in the fifties and for me, it's a case that can still be argued.


Pat said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I love film books, and this one sounds like a good one to seek out.

I'm interested in learning more about German expressionism since (Finally!) seeing "M" for the first time this summer.

Fox said...

I second Pat's thanks on the recommendation, and just went to Amazon to see if they still have it... they do.

These older books are invaluable. Not only b/c they give us a nearer point-of-view of a time that is slowly getting further and further away, but there is still that sense of "cinema as art" in the writing. I don't mean that to imply that current writers don't feel that way, but reading these older books makes me feel a less jaded appreciation - and respect - for movies.

Dr. Jonathan Lapigari said...

Pat, it's a great book and one need look no further for a tome on German Expressionism than this one.

And M is one of the all time greats. What a performance by Peter Lorre at the show trial in the end. Just mesmerizing to watch.

Dr. Jonathan Lapigari said...

Fox - That's a good point. When this was written film books did tend to take a more scholarly approach as in works like Film Form and Film Sense by Sergei Eisenstein, two others I'm proud to have in my collection.

Pat said...

I'm going over to Amazon now to get this.

I just browsed my local library's online catlog to see if they had it. They didn't -but did have another book by Lotte Eisner on Fritz Lang, which I'm thinking I may need to check out as well.

Fox said...

To be fair, I haven't been to the new film book section of the store in awhile, but it seems these types of books don't get published anymore. The bigger sellers are the guides, best ofs, top 100s etc. They are attractive in their attempt to try and condense a hundred years of film down to 500 pages and 100 films.

Don't get me wrong, I like these books, but I wish there were more like The Haunted Screen that bite off smaller portions and digest those instead of giving us THE BEST FILMS OF (INSERT DECADE) over and over again.

bill r. said...

I'd heard that story about Herzog, walking to her death-bed. Part of me doubts it, because it's such a crazy thing to do, and I sometimes wonder if Herzog embellishes his stories (due to his belief in the whole "ecstatic truth" being superior to the "accountant's truth"). But I want to believe it's true, and, besides he is Werner Herzog, so he probably did it.

I shall add this book to my Amazon Wishlist. Thanks, Lapigari. Also, have you seen Woman in the Moon? Is it good? It's in my queue, and has been for a long time.

Dr. Jonathan Lapigari said...

Pat, I can't believe your library doesn't have this but I guess they can't have everything. I hope you like it. I've never read her book on Lang but I'll have to get that. Thanks.

Dr. Jonathan Lapigari said...

Fox, the film book section at the second hand store I go to at the library is great. The one at Borders sucks. It's what you describe: Lazy celebrity biographies, compilations of reviews from Roger Ebert (no offense intended to Ebert, I like him), books on the Oscars and all those damn books that give you the top 100 this or that and the 1001 movies you must see before you die. Ugh. The general history of books were very helpful to me when I started studying film but once you're past that you have to go to the library.

Dr. Jonathan Lapigari said...

Bill, Herzog wrote a whole book about it so if he made it up it's a pretty elaborate lie. I understand where you're coming from though - he's nuts, but in a good way.

I still haven't seen Woman in the Moon and frankly I hadn't even checked, foolishly assuming it was unavailable until now. Thanks, I'm going to put that in my queue - posthaste!

Arboast the Somnombulist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arboast the Somnombulist said...

I have The Haunted Screen - the same edition as Dr. Lapigari (although I think I had an older, hardbound copy at one time). Eisner also wrote a bio of F. W. Murnau and I have that, too. It also has Graf Orlock on the cover, albeit facing the reader head-on, as if declaring "You can't handle the truth!"

I've seen good condition copies of The Haunted Screen in many a used bookstore's film section and I always have to resist the temptation to buy it again.

Sorry to be so late today - had to take my daughter to the emergency room. Talk about 31 screams.

Dr. Jonathan Lapigari said...

And I apologize for my lateness as well to reply. Life got in the way but I didn't have to take anyone to the emergency room. I hope and trust that she's okay.

I'd love to have a better edition but I'd never get rid of my old tattered paperback. Page 326 provides a catchphrase of mine taken from the book. It's useful in many situations. No matter what's going on you can always say, "Alright let's get this done: Ufa style!"

Cowberry Filmflam said...

While I am a huge fan of Eisner, and agree that hers is one of the first truly great texts on pre-World War Two German Cinema, to suggest that nobody is writing books of such quality anymore is utterly absurd (not to mention lazy). Anyone with even a cursory interest in this subject NEEDS to read Thomas Elsaesser's Weimar Cinema and After: Germany's Historical Imaginary, first published in 2000. It, my friends, is easily the best book I have read on the subject. Elsaesser goes well beyond (while paying his critical due to) both Lotte and Sigfried Kracauer (and their mutual tendency to reduce the gothic to the fantastic).

Brian Doan said...

Dr. J,
Thanks for the recommendation-- I've put this in my amazon cart. In the last month or so, I've finally started catching up with Pabst, watching JOYLESS STREET and PANDORA'S BOX (both spectacular), and they've renewed my interest in this period of German cinema, so your post is very timely! I'd always heard of Eisner, but have shamefully not read her (I do like Kracauer, though, and I'd second the earlier rec of Thomas Elsaesser, who's essential).

Dr. Jonathan Lapigari said...

Cowberry, while Fox and I may have started off that way we quickly corrected ourselves as seen in follow-up comments such as this

the film book section at the second hand store I go to at the library is great. The one at Borders sucks... The general history of books were very helpful to me when I started studying film but once you're past that you have to go to the library.

Borders down the street or the Books a Million around the corner don't carry Eisner, Eisenstein, Elsaesser or Kracauer but have plenty of literature on the career of Leonardo DiCiprio if that's what one wants. And so the library, for me, becomes the sanctuary where I can find these books for cheap, and of course, sites online offer a wide variety for sale. But it's popular publishing in the movie genre that is quite disheartening. When I was a pre-teen just becoming interested in movies I went to the college library in town to read all the old books no longer available. Now I'm sure I could just buy them online but at that time the option didn't exist. In part, this has probably caused me to lean more heavily towards the older tomes than the newer ones but I am glad to know that there are plenty of well thought out theses on the art of film still being written.

Dr. Jonathan Lapigari said...

Brian, I haven't seen Joyless Street (there's so much to see in cinema we could spend our whole lives watching three essential films a day and still not see them all) but I love Pandora's Box and would like to see it again soon.

I like Kracauer too and keep From Caligari to Hitler on the bookshelf right next to The Haunted Screen.

I'd like to get Elsaesser's Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative but it appears to be out of print with the cheapest used copies on Amazon going for around eighty bucks. Four kids + limited budget = no can do.

However, New German Cinema was enlightening as I began exploring the works of Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders in the early nineties. And I'm still, and forever, exploring different periods.

carnival of arbogast said...

I've finally started catching up with Pabst

Yeah, I could go for one of those right about now.

Ardath Bey Lapper said...

Pandora's Box was definitely one of his Blue Ribbon efforts.