Anton Kaes: "Scherben (Shattered, or “Shards” in literal translation) has long been canonized as the earliest example of the so-called Kammerspielfilm (chamber-play film), a series of German melodramas that were inspired by August Strindberg’s Kammerspiel plays and Max Reinhardt’s stage productions in his intimate Kammerspiele theatre. The film’s subtitle Ein deutsches Filmkammerspiel: Drama in fünf Tagen (“A German Cinematic Chamber Play: Drama in Five Days”) implies nothing less than the inauguration of a specifically German film genre. Its proximity to theatre, for Hegel the highest German art form, was to lift the film above the flood of mass-produced genre films (350 new German titles alone in 1921!) and the rising popularity of Hollywood movies."
"The Kammerspielfilm was the creation of Carl Mayer, the brilliant Austrian screenwriter and co-author of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), who composed the scripts for all the Kammerspielfilme, from Scherben and Hintertreppe (Backstairs, 1921) to Sylvester (New Year’s Eve, 1923) and Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924). These films share with the theatrical Kammerspiel the focus on a small number of characters, their traumatic interaction in a closed space, and the violent resolution of the conflict. (Der letzte Mann is the sole exception; this film also features, by contrast, a freely moving, “unchained” camera.) Different from the plays, the Kammerspielfilme feature lower-class characters who are unable to express themselves verbally and, according to the films’ logic, live more by instinct than words. There is no dialogue between the characters and hence no need for intertitles. This almost complete omission of intertitles was a sensation in 1921, triggering discussions of whether spectators would be able to follow the plot. Some reviewers at the time were skeptical and dismissed the lack of titles as a gimmick. What today appears as a media-historical milestone in the development of narrative film – the flow of images without interruption by written text – was abandoned after 1924, and was soon thereafter rendered obsolete by the sound film. (Resonances of Kammerspielfilme can still be found in Ingmar Bergman’s psychological dramas in the 1960s.)"
"Marking a transition between expressionist set design and the stylized realism of New Objectivity, Scherben includes location shots, but does not strive for a “reality effect”. It still is mostly a studio product, relying on static tableaux, long stares, slow gestures, and constricted views reinforced by heavy shadows and unexpected camera perspectives that produce claustrophobia and apprehension. The lighting effects lend Scherben a proto-noir look in which completely dark scenes are punctured by panicky splashes of light. The emphasis is on mood and composition, not on fast-paced action. In its mise-en-scène the Kammerspielfilm tends toward abstraction: everything is stripped down to its bare essentials. The acting, too, still owes a great deal to Expressionism, not least because the lack of speech forces the players to use overwrought bodily gestures."
"The Kammerspielfilm imbued the photographic medium of film with theatrical gravity. The characters in Scherben are nameless, only identified according to their roles as father, mother, daughter, and inspector. The camera participates in this process of depersonalization by elevating material objects to the level of human characters. Where nobody speaks, everything speaks. Even the film’s title is an object and a none-too subtle allegorical emblem for the “shattered” human lives that the film depicts. (After a storm shatters the kitchen window, the daughter collects the shards and lets them slowly fall into a pail.) Still images of gleaming pieces of broken glass frame the film."
"Scherben opened on 27 May 1921, in two Berlin theaters, the Mozartsaal and the U.T. Kurfürstendamm, both known for their film- as-art programming. The renowned film composer Giuseppe Becce wrote one of the two original scores. The film was produced by Rex- Film, a small Ufa subsidiary owned by the director of the film, the Romanian-born Lupu Pick, who worked in the German film industry from 1911 until his untimely death in 1931. During this period, he directed and produced more than 30 films and acted in more than 50, most notably as the traveller in Scherben and as Dr. Masimoto inFritz Lang’s Spione (Spies). After Scherben, he collaborated again with Mayer on Sylvester, another astounding Kammerspielfilm."
"I argue that Scherben dramatizes the assault of technological modernity on the old order. Like Gerhart Hauptmann’s famous Naturalist novella Bahnwärter Thiel (Lineman Thiel), the film uses the railway as the embodiment of progress and instrumental rationality. The film opens with a travelling shot of railway tracks that cut through a snow- covered landscape. With the camera mounted on the locomotive, we are forced into the limited low horizon of an irreversibly advancing machine – a motion that is echoed later when the film’s protagonist, a railway lineman, repeatedly checks the same endless track on foot. The stifling stupor of his work is replicated in the cramped setting of his domestic sphere. Werner Krauss, who had played Caligari only a year before, lends the character of the lineman a repressed authoritarian quality."
"As is typical of Naturalist drama, the stagnation of the old order is ruptured (and revealed as untenable) by the arrival of an outsider, a railway inspector who rooms in the house. His coming is announced by a technical apparatus – a telegraph that transmits its data in Morse code. The camera lingers on this machine in close-up, thus placing the film’s narrative at the beginning of the modern era, when mass transportation (train) and communication media (telegraph) started to encroach upon rural areas – a process accelerated by the moving pictures themselves, and still ongoing in the early 1920s. Close-ups of the inspector’s shining boots and longing glances of the daughter insinuate attraction and willing seduction."
"When the pious mother discovers her daughter’s transgression, she runs from the house and dies praying in the snow. Rejected by the arrogant inspector, the daughter incites her father to take revenge. In a trance, the father strangles the seducer from the city. The intruder is gone, and for a moment the threat of modern life (its mobility, lure, and cynicism) is stopped, but the return to the fossilized, frozen past is no longer possible. Gone insane, the father waves his signal lamp to force a train to come to a sudden halt, only to declare his confession: “Ich bin ein Mörder” (“I am a murderer”). This hand-written sentence is the film’s only full-sentence title card. Contemporary reviews report that this insert was tinted red. The sudden intrusion of color in a black-and-white film was a special effect to reproduce on the formal level the abrupt outburst of violence – the color red signifying not only blood, but also the highest stage of danger."
"The film could end here, but Mayer adds a coda, not unlike the sardonic ending in Der letzte Mann where the reversal of fortune is explained by the film’s only title. Here the camera cuts from the wretched murderer outside to the train’s comfortable dining car, where some blasé upper-class passengers are upset about the train’s unscheduled halt in the middle of nowhere. Drinking and eating, they have no clue about the tragedy outside, nor do they care. The old man’s frantic attempt to stop progress produces only a brief delay of no consequence. The last images show the daughter in wild-eyed despair looking down on the train that rushes by." – Anton Kaes (The GCM Catalogue)
AA: Seen after a long while the Ur-Kammerspielfilm.
There is an assured touch in the intimate tragedy. The sorrow is infinite, overwhelming.
This Kammerspiel, however, is also an outdoors film. Central events take place outdoors. It is winter.
Scherben, the broken shards of glass, are the central visual motif, starting already in the design of the opening titles. During a storm the wind smashes a window, and shards of broken glass fly everywhere. The callous inspector seduces the lineman's daughter, breaking her heart, and thereby insulting her mother so infinitely that she walks to a Waldkreuz, a forest prayer stop, to freeze to death. The inspector leaves the entire family in splinters. The final image is of broken glass in a bucket.
Following Anton Kaes's interpretation, Scherben is a tragedy of modernity meeting tradition. Machines of communication are important. The lineman is also a telegraph operator, and there is something Langian in the way the telegraph is incorporated into the text of the movie. And of course, Scherben is essentially a railway film, carrying many significations of the railway theme.
The mise-en-scène is powerful. The visual motifs are expressive: - the snowy railway, - the steaming soup, - the Morse code, - the winter wind, - the broken window, - the smoke from the train, - the forest cross, - the alarm clock. The inspector keeps washing his hands like Lady Macbeth, but they will never be clean again.
Associations during the movie: - Anton Chekhov: Toska (1886, "Misery", perhaps not a proper translation of the story's title, with the motto "To whom shall I tell my grief?") - Béla Tarr: A Torinói ló / The Turin Horse - Jiří Menzel: Ostře sledované vlaky / Closely Observed Trains.
The black-and-white print has high contrast and is a bit soft at times. The best available print seems to be at Filmmuseum München, reproducing the original colour concept.