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.