December 24, 1924 [Orlacs Hände, Der Letzte Mann, Ballet mécanique]

This trip has exhausted me—Berlin in particular. It seems to know it's on the verge of great things—one variety of superlative or another—but it’s unsure if the change will be angelic or diabolic—or something else, as new as the money they keep printing, reparations like a constant chiding—and it's not only an economic weight. The whole country is vibrating with suppressed (and not-suppressed) hysteria—or is it breathless anticipation?

I remember my sister once (oh, surely more than once) sneaking up behind me and pressing a small piece of ice against the nape of my neck, a childhood prank. For a moment I thought it was a burning match-head, until the sharpness of it became a wet trickle. That’s Berlin right now: startling itself—but with what? Fire, or ice? I'm afraid it will find out before it's quite ready.

In the meantime, the glory of the shocks comes from all quarters, musical, political, philosophical—and, of course, cinematic. When Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari creaked open, it spilled yellow light like a queasy beacon, shining four years down the path to Orlacs Händeonce more with Wiene and Veidt. The French novel becomes an expressionistic fit, intruding on the real world: Caligari invented a landscape to contain its psychological suppositions, but Orlac trembles in a discernible city—as oddly angular its architecture may be, as deep its shadows—and, while American films yearn to make the everyday epic (and vice versa), in Berlin the epic implodes, and a heavy stain spreads from the wreckage.

Literally: When Orlac’s train leaves the rails, the rescue becomes a flare-lit coven, figures darting, Orlac’s distraught wife wandering like Faith searching for the ghost of Goodman Brown. The dream is punctuated by blank uncaring light sliding like pointing fingers, lying like an unconscious form, amid looming rooms shrouded and muffled.

And those hands, grafted on the pianist’s wrists, the murderer’s hands an object separate from the wearer—Veidt is uncannily good at holding them like foreign things at the ends of his arms, a menace connected not only to his body but to everything he wants to be: an artist, a loving husband—all of it ruined. And the tidy wrap-up, bringing the nightmare into daylight, can not lessen the impact of the weird tale—and Veidt’s almost amusing (if it weren’t so unnerving) evocation of his somnambulist Cesare from Caligari thrusts at us the unclean horror of those hands, caressing the knife (but not his wife), making a mess of the music it attempts, all but murdering the poor obsessive to which they are so terribly attached.

That was the Berlin-dream in the fall. And just a few days ago another played itself out: Der Letzte Mann, F.W. Murnau’s brilliant but cruel cinema-prank. I haven't seen Nosferatu, but he manages to instill his little tale of the descent of a hotel doorman with its own dread.

The doorman, huge and morose, like an over-heated walrus has no identity beyond his uniform's heavy square shoulders, epaulets, and shining buttons. Preening, flirting, manfully hoisting luggage, he gains all his status via the irony of his job: He is the fanciest laborer in his neighborhood. But he's getting on in years, and is demoted—to washroom attendant, spending his days underground, brushing dinner jackets, supplying towels. He even takes his meals there. Ashamed, he attempts to keep secret his demotion, donning his uniform as he approaches home, where he passes the other tenants, who as usual cease beating rugs and emptying garbage pails in deference to the spotless emblem of his station. His pride, his very identity, has been sullied and soiled, but the uniform is spared. But when the truth emerges, the neighbors turn on him, jeering, and the ex-porter reels, casting himself all the way down. Alone, completely extinguished, he slumps in the dimness of the lavatory.

Murnau tells the story without titles. All the exposition and character is physical, down to emil Jannings' remarkably expressive face, a pantomime of epic proportions, set amid looming skyscrapers—the hotel eventually an object of dread, literally bending toward him like a great, leaning monolith, threatening to crush him—and increasingly darkened streets and rooms.

Something occurs in its last ten minutes that struck me deeply, a turn of events that at first (and maybe second, even third) glance may seem more than a little contrived; nonetheless:

The ex-doorman is alone in the bathroom, so motionless he might as well be dead, and the scene fades. Suddenly, the film's only title appears, and states, "Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue." And so it is: He inherits a fortune and becomes the hotel’s most unrestrained guest, drowning himself and his cronies in champagne and caviar, bursting with unearned joy. And all right: It is a painfully obvious tacked-on happy ending to soothe the sensibilities of the viewer. But even on its own, it's a remarkable sequence, filled with glorious excess, an orgy of gleeful consumption.

I was stunned. But I did not feel cheated by the ending; instead, it taught me a simple but fundamental lesson about the movies that I will never forget. In that moment when Murnau steps in and yanks the story out from under us (and no matter that the film studio undoubtedly pressured him to do so), he completely undermines my trust in film narrative—a trust that is at once immediate but fleeting because, as the images roll on, we are of necessity forced to watch closely, lest we miss something. And we expect that attention to be rewarded with a recognizable narrative line, rising and falling as it always does, soothing in its predictability.

But the film punishes us for paying such close attention, for trusting it so much, and reminds us that cinema can do what it pleases, even despite—here, maybe because ofthe economic restrictions of the movie business. It's unfair but, in a stinging Socratic way, instructive: Der Letzte Mann sets us up to thwart us. All of our intellectual and emotional commitments derive from the choice we’ve made to be manipulated by the film—and so we have no right to complain when the manipulation continues counter to our expectations.

Murnau has taught me that I can trust myself as I watch movies, but need to be on guard. Dangers lurk in a great movie because it's freer than my needs.

And before I set the presents under our little Teutonic Christmas tree, the snow settling in cozy comfort outside our hotel, I’ll make note of a small sparkling ornament I saw last week, a gift from France: Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s Ballet mécanique. André Breton’s Surrealists are working hard to re-invent film—and while I’m sure their influence will be felt for a long time (as will the Expressionists'), what struck me most was how primitive—no, primal—this was. Yes, the juxtaposition of images was appropriately a-logical; but each on its own seemed to reach backward to Edison’s actualities, the Lumiéres’ snippets of Life’s Parade, Méliès’ magic tricks—and even further, to Muybridge's Zoopraxiscope, all the way back to the Magic Lantern. The film Surrealists, booted out of the marble foyer of cinema, have found themselves in its back storage room, and have come upon lost treasures in the dusty corners and glued them together like delighted children.

I suppose I'll be relieved to return to America and the mundane Indian massacres and Biblical retributions of our domestic cinema, untarnished by impudent surrealist scrawling and Berlin decadence. Still, the Atlantic seems to shrink every year—and, although I saw more American films over here than native offerings, I suspect there will always be some ambitious stowaways.

NOTE: This is one of a number of diary entries that appear here out of order. In reviving this site, I've decided to include some entries that I had earlier left out. —The Editor


  1. Paul--very interested in this post. Can you send me an email address so I can ask more about the source of it?
    Paul Lehrman
    The Ballet Mecanique Project


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