Silent Cinema

Mystery Film

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Mystery film and thrillers, often influenced by disconcerting, fanciful elements, come from the tradition of gothic fiction, a literary genre that originated in England with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1765), and was continued in the nineteenth century by writers of the stature of Bram Stoker (the author of Dracula, 1897), Mary Shelley (the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818), Matthew Lewis, Ann Radcliffe and Nikolai Gogol. These films are filled with inexplicable crimes, ghosts, characters risen from the dead, apparitions and monsters, and set in gloomy and disturbing ambiences, which sociologists have sometimes interpreted as a contrast to the Enlightened rationalism of the Industrial Revolution, but also as an expression of psychological and social anxieties in the face of what were traumatic changes for a large part of the population.

Cinema, a twentieth-century art form, inherited the wealth of imagery put forth by this literary genre, and was able to add the perturbing iconographical dimension afforded by its rich language of lights and shadows to its fantasies thanks to electric lighting, its suggestive chiaroscuros and the elaborate make-up worn by its actors. Expressionism, an anti-Naturalist and tormented plastic-arts trend that emerged in German painting on the eve of World War I, brought its disturbing settings to film studios and its style, rich in sombre contrasts, was soon copied by the great Hollywood factories. With this aesthetic formula the genre approached the language of nightmares, since if dreaming is, as the German poet Jean-Paul Friedrich Richter defined it, “an involuntary art of poetry”, psychoanalysis would later classify nightmares with relentless pursuits or anxious persecutions as forms of “oneiric paranoia”.

Some talented directors produced early masterpieces in this genre, such as the Viennese filmmaker Fritz Lang (responsible for the sinister Doctor Mabuse series, released in 1922, an indirect reflection of collective anxieties in Germany in the wake of its recent defeat in World War I), or the Frenchman Louis Feuillade (who directed the long and very popular serial films Fantômas (1913-1914) and Les vampires (1915), much admired by the Surrealists). And they were joined by the emergence of a breed of actors who stood out for their disturbing and at times extravagant characterisations, such as the North-American actor Lon Chaney, who inherited his extraordinary pantomimic skills from his deaf and dumb parents, or the delirious performances of the German actor Conrad Veidt.

Román Gubern (series coordinator)

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