Thursday, November 19, 2015

Opium (1919)

Opium poster painted by Theo Matejko. Please click to enlarge.
DE 1919. PC: Monumental Filmwerke GmbH (München). P+D+SC: Robert Reinert. DP: Helmar Lerski. M for a cinema orchestra: I. Poltschuk. C: Eduard von Winterstein (Prof. Gesellius), Hanna Ralph (Maria Gesellius), Werner Krauss (Nung Tshang / Nung-Tschang / Nung Chiang), Conrad Veidt (Dr. Richard Armstrong), Sybil Morel (Sin / Magdalena), Friedrich Kühne (Dr. Armstrong, Sr., the father), Alexander Delbosq (Ali), Sigrid Höhenfels (the opium girl), Loni Nest (girl). Pressevorführung: 29.1.1919 Düsseldorf, Uraufführung 2.1919 Berlin. Not released in Finland. 1982 m /16 fps/ 108 min (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto). 2486 m /16 fps/ 135 min (Filmportal)
    Print: Svenska Filminstitutet / Filmarkivet (bought from ARRI, Munich, 1965) – black and white – 1876 m /16 fps/ 102 min
    Viewed at Cinema Orion (Helsinki) (History of the Cinema), Ilari Hannula at the piano, e-subtitles in Finnish by Lena Talvio, 19 Nov 2015.

Revisited a film I had not seen since the Babelsberg 80th anniversary retrospective at Berlin Film Festival in 1992 (the exteriors of Opium were shot in and around Berlin). There is a set of 12 photographs of Opium at the Filmportal site and two more photographs in Chris Horak's essay in Griffithiana.

I missed the very late night screening in Pordenone of Opium in 1997. The GCM program note: "A Chinese opium dealer seeks revenge on Westerners who have corrupted his wife. Opium is both an exploitation film (released in that brief period when there was no censorship in Germany) and a meditation on the modern condition. The film is seemingly archaic, but its metaphorical content is in keeping with its style. Struck from the original nitrate negative. Of particular interest the hand-painted intertitles, which visually paraphrase Chinese and Indian characters." (Jan-Christopher Horak, GCM 1997).

Chris Horak wrote in 1997 a solid introduction to the director for Griffithiana 60/61, "Robert Reinert: Film as Metaphor", outlining a remarkable and ambitious career. Reinert had a penchant for big themes and metaphorical content. In the beginning he was highly productive, often working with Conrad Veidt and Helmar Lerski. In July 1918 he slowed down and started to produce select "monumental films" for his own company. The first of these was Opium. Horak pays attention to the mastery of Reinert and Lerski in deep focus composition. Horak states that Reinert was a conservative avantgardist and cultural philosopher comparable to Spengler. "Reinert's style of cinema was archaic before its time. A traditional moralist and symbolist Reinert (and Lerski) adhered to 19th century pictorial conventions of spectacle which went out of fashion with the rise of American style classical narrative. While German cinema in the 1920s embraced modernism, Reinert held on to traditional concepts of morality and a symbolic language that deconstructed any attempts at fast paced action" (Horak).

David Bordwell has kept championing the Robert Reinert films Opium and Nerven, most prominently in his book Poetics of Cinema (New York / Oxon: Routledge, 2008 - Chap. 9: "Taking Things to Extremes. Hallucinations Courtesy of Robert Reinert"). According to Bordwell, following Horak, during WWI European filmmakers persisted with a more archaic practice of film aesthetics than Americans, including long takes and staging in depth, often with great sophistication. Yet Reinert "found a weirder way to tell his stories visually". He was capable of staging extended scenes at a middle distance. He pushed the norms to violent limits in order to intensify his manic plots and performances. He subjected his figures to harsh contrasts of scale and position. "Like Hofer and af Klercker, he favors sets that create a dense array of masses through which characters pass". In Opium and Nerven "Reinert sets his characters closer to the viewer more consistently than any other 1910s depth-oriented director I know". He is even "willing to sacrifice sharp focus, in one plane or another, for the sake of aggressive foregrounds". "How, then can you place two or three characters in semi-close-ups and still preserve depth? Reinert finds one answer in limiting the rear playing space to small slots". "His typical depth shot is neither a tableau composition (...) nor a part of an American-style editing pattern (...). "A Reinert 'full shot' may present a relatively small patch of the scene's space, and we may never be properly introduced to the overall arena of action". In this Bordwell sees Reinert coming up with a fragmentary scenography that looks ahead to the strategically incomplete establishing shots of Bresson, Straub & Huillet, and Hartley.

AA: Opium the film is itself like a fever dream. There is an inspired, charged, foolhardy, devil-may-care attitude in the film, yet at the core it is deadly serious. It is about the lure of an escape to a world of drug addiction when the reality of the world is overwhelmingly hard to face.

Nobody is safe from madness. All the three doctors with a mission to save the world succumb themselves to opium addiction, and all their lives are ruined.

Robert Reinert relishes in dramatic excess. During the period of no censorship he indulges in reckless abandon. Opium may be at the surface a sensation film but Reinert, Helmar Lerski, and their team are at home in the realm of dreams and nightmares. There is a genuine oneiric quality in the delirium that is Opium. Especially dream-like are the appearances of Nung Chiang.

The plot is outlandish, and the Chinese and Indian episodes belong to the realm of exoticism if not xenophobia or even racism. There is an aspect of Fu Manchu in Nung Chiang.

As Horak and Bordwell have observed Reinert is a distinguished special case in the development of film aesthetics. In no way does he hide his background in the histrionic legacy of the overdone pantomime of the early cinema, including Film d'Art. He flaunts it and seems to take infinite pleasure in it. Especially Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt make a virtue out of the old-fashioned burden of over-acting. It is a pleasure to watch them together here in a film made before Caligari.

And as Horak and Bordwell state, the early cinema's plan-séquence, deep focus, long shot, long take aesthetics is exceptional in Opium. Reinert and Lerski are masters of the mise-en-scène. One can learn even today from the way they stage and light a scene. They create a dynamic, exciting space from their archaic-looking starting-point.

Opium is not just a case of art for art's sake (or sensation for sensation's sake). There is a sense of striking a nerve in the scenes of drug addiction. It was an acute problem during and after the war when heavy drugs were needed to palliate indescribable pain. And the tragic story of the illicit love between the young Dr. Armstrong (Conrad Veidt) and his mentor's wife, Maria (Hanna Ralph): "six years I was alone" must have been an often-heard remark at the time. "6 Jahre lang allein". "Dem Glück der Welt galt Deine Arbeit": "Your work was about the happiness of the world. What about our happiness?" There is a spirit of understanding that is similar to G. W. Pabst's Westfront 1918. Even one year alone is a long time in a young woman's life.

Not far beyond the chinoiserie and incredible plotting there is a genuine feeling of agony. Especially Krauss and Veidt are magical and charismatic in tapping into that feeling. They may grimace and gesticulate as much as they will but there is always an inner center of gravity in their performances.

The film has art intertitles in styles of Chinoiserie, Indianesque and English sobriety. The wording is impressive both in lengthy descriptions and blunt statements such as "KEIN AUSGANG" (no exit) and "SCHICKSAL" (destiny).

Helmar Lerski's cinematography is first-rate, the sense of lighting, composition and movement impeccable.

In this print one can appreciate the quality of the image which is often good enough. There is often a slight flicker on the left side of the image. In 1994 the original nitrate negative was discovered and a new print was made at Münchner Filmmuseum. Next time we need to screen that print.


Sodan päätyttyä Saksassa vuonna 1919 Rat der Volksbeauftragten kumosi sotilassensuurin, ja jokainen elokuvayhtiö käytti tilaisuutta hyväkseen. Opium kuului uuden vapauden mahdollistamiin elokuviin. Sitä esitettiin kalliissa berliiniläisessä elokuvateatterissa, ja näytökset olivat kolmen viikon ajan jatkuvasti loppuunmyytyjä. Toukokuussa 1920 Weimarin kansalliskokous palautti kansallisen sensuurin, ja vapauden aika oli ohi. Vuonna 1919 näyttelijä Conrad Veidt (1893–1943) esiintyi 19 elokuvassa, joista moni kuului uuden vapauden mahdollistamiin, ja lisäksi hän näytteli kahdessa teatterikappaleessa.
    Opium on mykkä melodraama, jonka näyttelemistyyli on aikakautensa mukaista. Seksin ja huumeiden hillittömyyden esittäminen on sen erityispiirre. Elokuva varoittaa huumeiden seurauksilla näyttämällä väärinkäyttäjän transsimaisia houreita, joissa esiintyy paljasrintaisia, kutsuvasti viittilöiviä naisia.
    Tarina alkaa Kiinasta, missä professori Gesellius saattaa päätökseen tutkimuksensa oopiumista. Kotiinlähtöpäivänään hän saa kuulla Nung Tshangin valmistamasta erikoisoopiumista, jonka vaikutukset ovat sensaatiomaisia. Se voi tuhota sielun ja ruumiin. Geselliuksen vieraillessa Nung Tshangin oopiumiluolassa häntä puhuttelee nuori riksalla kulkeva nainen, joka pyytää häntä pelastamaan hänet kauhealta kohtalolta.
    Professori on huomattu, ja kun hän alkaa seurata riksaa, häntä varjostaa puolestaan Nung Tshang. Riksa vie toiseen oopiumiluolaan, jossa professori lupaa auttaa naista pakoon. Professorin ottaa panttivangiksi Nung Tshang, joka kertoo olleensa onnellisesti naimisissa 17 vuotta sitten, jolloin eurooppalaismies oli tehnyt hänen vaimonsa raskaaksi. Nung Tshang piti lapsen itsellään, tappoi vaimon ja otti eurooppalaisen vangikseen. Hän sulki tämän lukittuun huoneeseen ja tarjosi tälle oopiumia kunnes tämä oli fyysisesti ja henkisesti tuhoutunut.
    Nuori nainen, jota professori on luvannut auttaa, on Sin, salasuhteen lapsi. Nainen lahjoo vartijan ja pakenee professorin kanssa. Nung Tshang ehtii kuitenkin myös mukaan laivalle. Professorin vaimo Marie kieltäytyy noteeraamasta Siniä, joka pestautuu sairaanhoitajaksi sanatorioon. Professorin assistentti on tri Richard Armstrong (Conrad Veidt), lempioppilas, jolla on ollut suhde Marien kanssa professorin Kiinan matkan aikana. Professorin valmistellessa luentoa onnesta Marie livahtaa puutarhaan tapaamaan Richardia.
    Luentonsa jälkeen professori kohtaa kampuksella raunioituneen miehen: kauan kateissa olleen Richard Armstrong vanhemman, joka oli kadonnut Kiinassa 17 vuotta sitten. Hän ei ole kukaan muu kuin nuoremman Richardin isä. Sanatoriossa hän tunnistaa Sinissä tyttärensä.
    Conrad Veidtin tavoin Werner Krauss (1884–1959) sai pääosan loppuvuonna 1919 kuvatussa Tohtori Caligarin kabinetissa. Robert Reinertilla (1872 Wien – 1928 Berliini) oli kiihkeän tuottelias ja mielenkiintoinen ura Weimarin tasavallassa ja hieman sitä ennenkin ohjaajana ja käsikirjoittajana; hän oli mm. legendaarisen Homunculus-sarjan käsikirjoittaja.

– John DeBartolo 2001 ( AA 19.11.2015

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