Listening to The Haunted Screen

Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

At the top of the first episode of his new podcast, The Haunted Screen, Travis Mushett credits Karina Longworth with the inspiration. Like Longworth, Mushett, who teaches film and media history at Fordham University and Marymount Manhattan College, shapes swaths of cinema’s past into engaging, character-driven stories. But while Longworth’s You Must Remember This explores “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” Mushett aims to devote each season of The Haunted Screen to a movement that sprang up overseas and impacted cinema around the world.

Opening the first season, From Caligari to Hitler, Mushett traces the roots of Weimar-era German cinema to the horrors of the First World War and maps the aesthetic influences of German Expressionism and the chiaroscuro lighting of theater director Max Reinhardt. Mushett’s tone is winningly casual, and he peppers his episodes with clips not only from the films under discussion and relevant documentary material but also from contemporary movies and even comedy sketches.

Mushett also contextualizes the quotes he pulls from the books that have given him his titles, Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt and Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. He notes, for example, that Kracauer tends to see more portents of the Third Reich lurking in these dark classics than are actually there. Mushett makes a stab at rescuing the reputation of Robert Wiene, the underappreciated director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and warns us not to take too much of what Fritz Lang had to say about his years in Berlin at face value.

The Haunted Screen naturally spends quite a bit of time with Lang and his wife and screenwriter, Thea von Harbou. Their collaborations—Destiny (1921), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), Metropolis (1927), Spies (1928), Woman in the Moon (1929), and M (1931)—run like linked vertebrae through the era, but Mushett also delves into the lives and works of F. W. Murnau, whose Nosferatu is currently being revived in celebration of its hundredth anniversary and will soon be remade again, this time by Robert Eggers; G. W. Pabst, who, as Mushett puts it, fired “broadsides against nationalism (Kameradschaft), capitalism (The Threepenny Opera), and the patriarchy (Pandora’s Box)”; and Josef von Sternberg, whose The Blue Angel (1930) launched the career of Marlene Dietrich.

Shortly thereafter, as brownshirts terrorized the streets, Dietrich and her director were off to Hollywood, where Murnau was already thriving. Lang arrived in 1933—without von Harbou, who remained loyal to Germany’s new regime through to its bitter end.

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