From Morning to Midnight, released a few months after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, features even more radically distorted sets
Germany was in chaos after its World War One defeat: a state some saw as revolutionary, and others as intolerably disordered. In politics, the army and the Freikorps swiftly crushed the Spartacist rising of November 1918, and Wilhelm II’s autocratic conservatism was replaced not by communism but the volatile and ultimately short-lived Weimar democracy.
The Republic’s avant-gardewas denied the state support of their Soviet counterparts. For all their admiration, even its most radical artists could not adopt Russian futurism wholesale: with the values that upheld Wilhelm’s regime permeating the “new” society, Germany’s surviving esthetic revolutionaries revisited the main prewar movement—Expressionism—prominent in poetry, painting, and theater.
Characterized by its emphasis on the artist’s subjective world view, Expressionism demanded the liberation of the human spirit from the constraints of industrial capitalism. As Germany’s bourgeois society destroyed and then violently reasserted itself, the Expressionists sought new directions appropriate to the postwar environment. Although they struggled to see how Germany would change socially, they soon understood that film could take recent innovations in architecture, art, photography, and theater and combine them into a genuinely original form—a potential best realized in Robert Wiene’s phenomenal The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, released in February 1920.
Designed by artists from avant-garde journal Sturm, Caligari’s sets, all distorted perspectives and twisted shapes, visually reinforced its complex psychological plot, about a man haunted by a carnival’s murderous somnambulist. Caligari’s critical and popular success reinvigorated Expressionism, its famous twist which undermined the protagonist’s subjectivity constituting an important stylistic development, leading filmmakers to believe that an esthetic (if not political) revolution was possible.
Completed four months after Caligari’s release,Karlheinz Martin’s adaptation of Georg Kaiser’s From Morning to Midnight—the most widely performed Expressionist play after its first production in 1917—inspired a response which soon imposed limits on filmic experimentation. Believing Martin’s work too abstract for public taste, German cinemas refused to screen it; the film had a limited release in Japan in 1923, where it was well received. Edition Filmmuseum’s DVD uses German intertitles, made in 1987 and inserted into a print produced from a surviving negative found in Tokyo’s National Film Center in 1959.
In adapting a play, Martin (who made his name by staging Bavarian Soviet Republic leader and Expressionist writer Ernst Toller’s postwar drama Transfiguration) departed from many of his European counterparts, who rejected the previous decade’s attempts to lend credibility to film by borrowing from theater, aiming instead to create specifically cinematic conventions. One distinctive feature of Expressionist drama was its effort to develop new linguistic conventions to impart its revolutionary ideals—at worst, this telegram-style, developed in August Stramm’s poetry and plays, descended into empty rhetoric or even incomprehensibility.
Kaiser’s works, particularly From Morning to Midnight and The Burghers of Calais (written and performed around the same time) were noted for their long monologues, exclamatory to the point where coherent statements all but disappeared. The poetry, passion, and insight of Kaiser’s speeches, often Nietzschean cries for self-realization, meant that his language intrigued (rather than alienated) audiences often enough for his plays to succeed on their own terms—unlike several of his contemporaries.
Kaiser’s Expressionist works, however, remained an acquired taste long after their first performances: critic Martin Esslin might have appreciated Karlheinz Martin’s effort to render Kaiser’s “splendidly conceived” plot into “more acceptable language,” condensing the tale of a Cashier who embezzles 60,000 Marks and absconds to the city, seeking a transcendent experience in sport, romance, and religion, into its essentials. Without Kaiser’s idiosyncratic language, Martin tried to capture his radical spirit in the film’s sets and costumes, striving for a cinematic Gesamtkuntswerk (“Total Work of Art”).
The intertitles that replace Kaiser’s dialog take their typography from Robert Neppach’s sets, even more avant-gardethan Caligari’s, with places denoted by words such as “Bank” pasted on two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. Mirroring Kaiser’s theatrical attempts to avoid as much circumstantial detail as possible, Martin’s film dispenses with backgrounds entirely, with buildings reduced to mere façades, which further simplifies and radicalizes those designed by Kaiser for Martin’s staging of his play.
Martin dispenses background detail all together
The opening shot sets the tone: the Cashier’s workplace slowly draws into focus, just a door with “Bank” and “Change” written above (in English), a clock between them, light painted on the steps and around the frame, standing in a vacuum. The doors open, and the Cashier appears in a depthless world, in a cell-like cubicle surrounded by wire mesh, the existence of the scribe next to him reduced to maniacal stabs of a pen.
As well as placing a clock on all key locations, Martin punctuates the action with an hour-by-hour countdown, capturing the rising urgency of Kaiser’s script, covering (as its title suggests) a single day. While retaining the text’s temporality, Martin deviates from its structure, turning Kaiser’s seven-scene Stationendrama (taken from medieval morality tales) into five acts, as in Shakespeare’s “well-made plays.”
Upping Kaiser’s rapid pace, Martin’s first act cuts between his two opening scenes, the second between his third and fourth. This montage allows Martin to comment on the plot: during the first act, the Cashier imagines his stifling family, shown on the right of the frame while he caricatures each member in turn on the left. Although deftly cinematic, this abstraction highlights a core question about Martin’s film, adapted from the work of a writer taken either as intellectually vital or virtually inaccessible: how comprehensible was it to viewers unfamiliar with Kaiser’s play?
One reason why Kaiser became known as “difficult” was the extent to which he pushed the Expressionist refusal of conventional characterization. From Morning to Midnight typifies his approach, its protagonist identified only as “Cashier” and all other cast members defined by their relationship to him (such as “Bank Manager” or “Mother”). This sparse personalization suited silent film, which often met the challenges presented to character development by using archetypes in narratives that prioritized social statement—an approach taken even in naturalistic films such as Griffith’s theatrical Birth of a Nation (1915).
This presented considerable challenges to the film’s actors, particularly its central character, obliged to convey the Cashier’s searing hatred for bourgeois society not only without words but also without any meaningful identity or relationships. Martin cast Ernst Deutsch (a film actor, but best known for his stage work) as the Cashier, primarily for his ability to “age suddenly and terribly.” To emphasize this, Martin pushed Caligari’s set painting even further, daubing Deutsch’s clothes (as well as those of other characters) with white marks, with the rings around his eyes growing with his mounting inability to buy a life-changing experience.
Both silent film and Expressionist theater prized exaggerated gestures as a means of conveying inner emotions, and Deutsch’s are huge, laden with desperation. In the first scene, a beautiful Italian Lady asks to borrow 3,000 Marks, awakening the Cashier to the power of the money around him. As she exits, her request denied by the suspicious Bank Manager, Deutsch lunges after her from his confines, his frustration assuming a tragicomic quality from both the inevitability of the Cashier’s defeat and the sheer earnestness with which Deutsch pursues it.
Although Deutsch’s emphatic style occasionally becomes unintentionally amusing (not uncommon in silent film), Kaiser’s humor is crucial in setting From Morning to Midnight apart from less successful Expressionist plays, derided for their egomania and lack of irony. During the war, Expressionism evolved into Dada, which originated in Zürich in 1916, reaching Berlin two years later. The Dadaists retained the Expressionists’ antiauthoritarianism, but realized that by targeting the bourgeoisie, they attacked themselves. They vigorously savaged militaristic conservatism (notably in George Grosz’s grotesque paintings) but never privileged the artist as Expressionist dramatists did, through protagonists clearly serving as a cipher.
The start of the cycle race
Importantly, From Morning to Midnight’s Cashier is not a visionary, failing to foresee that any individual who attempts to escape an unchanged capitalist society will ultimately be crushed. In play and film, the Cashier’s first move is to the Lady’s hotel, where he offers funds for the painting that she wants to buy and gives her a luxurious life, retracting this on learning that she has a son. In Kaiser’s script, the painting is Cranach’s representation of The Fall; Martin makes this a blur—as if reimagined by Dada’s antiartists—rendering the Cashier’s mission absurd from the start.
Outside, the Cashier oversteps a beggar, seeing Death in her: this image recurs in every act, developing a motif used just once by Kaiser, in a three-page soliloquy delivered as the Cashier walks home. Martin cuts this around the scene where the Cashier rejects his family, showing his bourgeois house from outside: poorly drawn, with jagged edges, certain to topple if even touched. This contrasts with Neppach’s only three-dimensional set—the winding path facilitating his flight to the city, framed by street lamps. Deutsch’s escape soon becomes a nonfigurative interlude: the words “Kassierer flüchtig” branch from a light and then dissipate.
In the metropolis, the Cashier visits a six-day cycle race—both play and film’s strongest scene. Kaiser’s Cashier ups the prize money to unprecedented levels, lauding the “marvelous” result with Nietzschean poetics. Rather than have his Cashier overawed by a massive arena, Martin represents it as a monolith with the figure “6” and cyclists painted on it.
Resisting the cinematic possibilities of a packed stadium, Martin shows the track as a strip of white light, the race filmed through a mirror: again, the film’s charactersmerge into the esthetics rather than, as in Caligari, standing out. The basics of the Cashier’s speeches remain (“I want passion for my money!”), but Martin transfers some of the scene’s energy to the crowd, cutting between spectators organized by class, the most fervent in the stalls. In the play, a cyclist is crushed, something the Cashier dismisses; here, a working-class fan falls to his death, ignored by both the Cashier and the aristocratic referees. The ease with which the monarch’s appearance quashes the climax, followed by the Cashier’s flippant prize withdrawal, provides the film’s funniest moment.
The Cashier drifts into the criminal underworld (a scene inserted by Martin) before the Salvation Army girl persuades him to confess, only to betray him on discovering the reward for his arrest. From Morning to Midnight ends with the words “Ecce homo,” referencing Nietzsche’s self-aggrandizing autobiography, completed just before his philosophical career collapsed into insanity. In the play, the Cashier utters them as he dies on a cross; Martin has them light above him, remaining after all else fades, the action displaced by technical trickery for the last time.
Censored by cinemas for its form rather than politicians for its content, From Morning to Midnight was simultaneously a stunning success and an abject failure—precisely because it was not allowed to be judged on its own terms, as an avant-gardework aiming for mass influence. After its suppression, no silent film (excepting Alla Nazimova’s bizarre version of Wilde’s Salomé) tried to combine art and plot in the same way: the esthetic revolution was crushed as dismally as the communist rising led by—amongst others—Ernst Toller.
After this polarization, Bauhaus architect László Moholy-Nagy failed to find funds for his ambitious Dynamic of the Metropolis, declined by UFA and other companies who “saw no action in it.” Germany’s experimental filmmakers split into two camps: one, incorporating the Dadaists, made nonnarrative works, shown in private film societies. The other rendered experimental design subservient to strong character-led storylines, popular at home and abroad until the arrival of sound, and Nazism, spelled the end of Expressionism—Kaiser, Toller, and other dramatists had abandoned the style after film co-opted and changed it.
Edition Filmmuseum’s extensive notes, and the recent reissue of the English translation of Kaiser’s greatest Expressionist plays, circumvent the problem of audience difficulties in understanding the film’s plot, too often obfuscated by its cinematography. Ninety years on, From Morning to Midnight remains a fascinating historical document, and a unique visual experience—especially when watched with careful preparation.
Juliet Jacques is a free-lance journalist who writes TheGuardian.co.uk’s “Transgender Journey” column and she also writes on film, literature and soccer.