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 just 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 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 a new, “virtual” reconstruction of Nerven, which will then serve as the basis for my own critical reading of the film.