Thursday, October 06, 2016

Behind the Door (2016 restoration by San Francisco Silent Film Festival / Gosfilmofond)

Behind the Door. Magazine ad. The shadow behind Hobart Bosworth is a hint at the atrocities involved in the taxidermist's vengeance. Please do click on the images to enlarge them.

Behind the Door. War has been declared. Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth) has German family roots. He is manhandled and almost lynched. Photo: Collezione Jay Weissberg.

Behind the Door. Captain Oscar Krug, about to start his war service, says farewell to his beloved wife Alice (Jane Novak). Photo: Collezione Jay Weissberg.

Behind the Door. Oscar Krug, the sole survivor of the ship hit by the torpedo of a German U-Boot. Photo: Collezione Jay Weissberg.

Behind the Door. The unsuspecting German U-Boot commander Lt. Brandt (Wallace Beery) enjoying the hospitality of Oscar Krug. Photo: Collezione Jay Weissberg.

Behind the Door. US 1919. PC: Thomas H. Ince Prods. Dist: Famous Players-Lasky Corp. / Paramount-Artcraft. Supervisor: Thomas H. Ince. D: Irvin V. Willat. Orig. 5969 ft.
    2016 restoration: San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Tinted & toned, Desmet method. 5221 ft / 20 fps / 70 min
    Print source: San Francisco Silent Film Festival / Gosfilmofond of Russia.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto: Riscoperte.
    Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti, grand piano: Philip C. Carli, 6 Oct 2016.
AA: Released one year after the Armistice of the First World War, Behind the Door still belongs to the current of wartime propaganda films. Late examples of that current included The Heart of Humanity which had had its premiere in February 1919. Special features of these films included sadistic German officers (Erich von Stroheim in The Heart of Humanity, Wallace Beery in Behind the Door) and Red Cross nurses facing fates worse than death. In The Heart of Humanity Stroheim throws a crying baby out of the window before having his way with the nurse. In Behind the Door there is open season among the German submarine's crew with the American captain's wife, whose remains are finally blasted off through the torpedo tube.

Watching Behind the Door I had the feeling that sadism was the raison d'être for this film, and war propaganda was the excuse. Cinema has a special ability to appeal to our basest instincts, and in Behind the Door this ability is liberally put to use.

One of the most terrible effects of war is brutalization. Behind the Door is an account of brutalization and also itself an instance of brutalization.

There is a strong and bold account of xenophobia in the beginning of the film. War has been declared against the Central Powers, including Germany. Captain Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth), who has German family roots, is immediately manhandled, and his newly wed wife Alice (Jane Novak) is banished from her father's house although Krug has been enlisted. Because there is no other place for Alice to go she enlists, as well, as a Red Cross nurse on her husband's very ship.

Oscar Krug is a taxidermist, and when they finally sink the submarine of Ltn. Brandt Krug personally rescues Brandt and has him brought to his cabin where he shows him perfect German hospitality. During a long and delicious meal liberal quantities of alcohol are consumed, and Krug learns the unabridged story of Alice's fate ("she fought like a tiger"). After which Krug proceeds to skin Brandt alive. Unfortunately "he died before I was finished".

Krug has become deranged. In his extreme cruelty he has turned out to be a beastly Hun after all. "The German streak crops out sooner or later", say the fellow officers. The xenophobia and the prejudices displayed by the mob in the beginning are proved right.

Like in The Heart of Humanity the strongest performance is that of the villain: Erich von Stroheim in the earlier film, Wallace Beery in this one. With Maurice Tourneur's Victory (also 1919), Behind the Door belonged to the most prominent early roles by Beery who had already acted in dozens of films since 1913.

I have been aware of Behind the Door since reading Kevin Brownlow's books, and I have not been looking forward to see it. Behind the Door is a very well made film, interesting mostly from the viewpoint of the psychopathology of the audiences. Impressive features include the haunting scenes at the graveyard by the sea (in the beginning and in the end of the movie), Krug charmingly "healing" a little girl's doll, the account of the mob violence, the wild fistfight, scenes of sailing and being cast adrift, and the sadistic act being conveyed by the reactions to ghastly sounds by fellow officers in an adjacent cabin in a silent film.

A top quality reconstruction and restoration from obviously challenging sources with damaged footage and scenes missing.

1 comment:

Philip Carli said...

"Krug has become deranged. In his extreme cruelty he has turned out to be a beastly Hun after all. "The German streak crops out sooner or later", say the fellow officers. The xenophobia and the prejudices displayed by the mob in the beginning are proved right."

Antti, I should point out that the title "The German streak crops out sooner or later" is said by the US officers as Krug seemingly inexplicably takes personal charge of the German commander when the U-boat's crew is taken aboard the US Navy destroyer - the officers believe Krug is betraying his command, so the apparent confirmation of their xenophobia and prejudices is ultimately erroneous. Krug lures the commander into a sense of security so as to a) learn his wife's fate, and then b) upon learning it, exact revenge upon the commander. Deranged he may be, but Krug himself is not a "beastly Hun"; rather, he is a gentle man, a "proven American", deranged into taking revenge by another's deliberate cruelty to himself - remember, the U-boat commander left him to die - and, more importantly and sickeningly, to his loved one. Small distinctions, but important in clarifying plot motivation.