Since I’ve set aside my dissertation this blog is now also on (permanent?) hiatus. At any rate, I don’t expect to be making any updates to it in the foreseeable future. The Sources site associated with the blog will also remain available.
Here are two interesting little visual asides I came across while reviewing footage of Nerven.
In an earlier post I showed how references to the flag of the Roloff industrial empire (found in the Berlin censor card) were deleted at some point from the Munich copy of Nerven. But now look at this screenshot from the Munich Filmmuseum DVD.
Shortly after’s Roloff’s proud boast, “Mit unseren Maschinen und Werkzeugen, ersonnen jeden Widerstand zu brechen, erobern wir die Erde! Hört Ihr’s? Die Erde!” the flag is carried in from the right (at circa 9 min 11 seconds playing time on the DVD). It passes in front of Roloff, drawing the attention of several in the audience, then there is a cut and it’s gone. It’s impossible to make out clearly what was on the flag from these few, brief, digitized frames. But I will wager that given the jagged, crenelated outline of the emblem on white ground in the flag’s center that this was a royal crest of some kind. Here’s a picture of the Wittelsbacher coat of arms by way of comparison.
Second tidbit. At circa 22 min 27 seconds on the DVD the gardener’s parents come across the body of their son. The scene was filmed in the late afternoon in front of a blank wall. As they inch forward you can clearly see the dark, elongated shadows the parents throw on the wall to the right (as well as several “Schaulustige” in the background). But now what is this? Look carefully at the shadow just above and to the right of the dead boy’s left hand. It is the crook of a man’s elbow and now and again the brim of his hat. You can actually watch him gesticulating repeatedly with his left hand. Is he giving instructions to the actors right before him? “Come forward! Now again!” Reinert shadow? Maybe. I’d like to think so. Next comes an intertitle, “Wir haben auch unßer zweites Kind verloren!” Then after the title, at 22 min 50 sec., take a careful look at the far bottom right corner of the frame. A patch of light whose outlines are pulsing rhythmically and deliberately. The shadow of the operator’s hand cranking the camera.
There are really just three viable starting points for a narrative-centric reconstruction of Robert Reinert’s Nerven (1919). These are the intertitles in the 1920 Berlin censor card (representing 2054m), the footage in the Munich fragment (1637m), and the footage in the (English language) Library of Congress fragment (777m). The Marmorhaus-Lichtspiele program notes for Nerven (possibly from its 1919 Berlin premiere?) can serve as a useful check or corrective but aren’t detailed enough to determine the exact order of events. All of these sources share significant common elements and significant differences to one another, each to varying degrees. So which source, if any, should have precedence over the other? And if one source can’t serve as a template how should the available evidence be reconciled and consolidated into a coherent whole?
According to a register of films listed in the Deutsche Lichtspiel Zeitung (Nr. 3, 1920), Nerven was submitted for review to the Bavarian censor board between Dec. 9th and 31st, 1919 in 4 acts plus prologue with total length of 2637m. A few months later Paiman’s Filmlisten (#215, 14-20th May, 1920) describes it as a 6 act film with prologue with a length of 2200m. Finally, a censor card held at the Bundesfilmarchiv in Berlin, records that Nerven was submitted for review in 1920 (approved on Nov. 15th) in 6 acts plus prologue with a total length of 2054m. The Berlin censor card is of especial interest since it lists all intertitles (i.e. as approved) and the meter lengths of individual acts. The footage removed just between Dec. 1919 and Nov. 1920 was substantial – 583m represents almost a quarter of the original release.
Turning now to the actual archival footage the situation becomes more complicated. Only three copies (better, three ‘fragments’) of Nerven have survived. The most complete copy was held at Gosfilmofond and subsequently acquired by the Munich Filmmuseum. It consists of 6 acts and a prologue but with total length of only 1637m. The sequence of intertitles in the Munich version corresponds by and large with that approved by the Berlin censor in 1920 but is missing significant footage from the prologue and segments from the film’s most political sections (over 40 intertitles). A second, more fragmentary version of Nerven consisting chiefly of parts of Acts I, V and VI with a length of 777m is held by the Library of Congress. Interestingly, this copy is in English, with new (i.e. not merely translated) intertitles, re-arranged in many cases into a wholly different storyline. In fact, one can make a good case for calling the Library of Congress version a “re-make” for the US market and not just an English version of the Munich copy. Significantly, the Library of Congress fragment also contains unique footage of the prologue (and short sections elsewhere) described in a contemporary review of Nerven that isn’t present in the Munich copy or listed on the Berlin censor card. Finally, a third, 67m fragment of Nerven was recently identified at the Bundesfilmarchiv. It includes the only surviving example in German of the so-called “living titles / lebende Titel” in which the intertitle text was framed by moving figures or a placed before an animated backdrop.
Nerven was widely covered in the press following its premiere in mid-December, 1919 (initially in Munich and soon after in Berlin) and had already received a good deal of attention in the trade press during production. However, despite some tantalizing hints about the film’s content in trade and newspaper reviews, numerous advertisements, a paraphrased summary of the plot in the program notes, and a rare, private diary entry describing the experience of seeing the film, such documentary sources and witnesses are not detailed or reliable enough to serve as reliable guides for a modern reconstruction.
As a result, the Munich Filmmuseum’s 2008 beautiful reconstruction (available on DVD) was by necessity always going to be a high-risk effort. Given the confused and fragmentary state of the surviving footage and sparse documentary record the curators had to make some difficult decisions under competing sets of priorities. In the next few posts I’m going to try to re-evaluate the sources I listed above and lay the foundation for an alternative, “virtual” reconstruction of Nerven, which will then serve as the basis for my own critical reading of the film.
Time to finally take this site live!
I’m going start off with a few posts on Nerven (Reinert, 1919) since this film is the subject of the chapter I am writing now. If you’re working on Weimar cinema but have never encountered Nerven before then go right away to the Edition Filmmuseum website and order a copy. If you don’t trust me, perhaps David Bordwell can help whet your appetite:
Released shortly before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nerven ought to have entered the Expressionist canon. Its themes echo the movement’s post-Romantic attack on capitalism and the modern conception of the anguished soul. Its narrative plays out the implications of such icons of Expressionist art as convulsive crowds and men’s homicidal urges toward women. Just as important, the film’s pictorial design finds an original way to convey the tale’s emotional tenor, the sense of nervous anxiety strung ever tighter. Significantly, Reinert achieves a unique look without recourse to the painted sets of Caligari, but through a unique use of other cinematic resources.
Next, take a look at the Munich Filmmuseum’s teaser trailer. I guarantee you won’t be able to make any sense of it whatsoever. No need to worry, that was the predominant reaction in 1919/20 as well. However the trailer does a wonderful job of introducing the pervasive nervousness, overwrought emotions and evocative visual metaphors that so characterize this unusual film.
In my next post, I’ll introduce the primary sources on which the Munich Filmmuseum’s version of Nerven is based and begin to offer an analysis and critique of some of the (very difficult) choices that had to be made on the restoration.
Update: If you’re reading this on an iPad or any other mobile device or computer without Flash support you won’t be able to see the large trailer on the Edition Filmmuseum website. In that case, please use the smaller version I’ve embedded below. This should work on the iPad/iPhone and with most other browsers and mobile devices.