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From Morn to Midnight
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by Jay Seaver

"Many films are more obscure than they deserve, but this is crazy."
4 stars

To say that "From Morn to Midnight" ("Von morgens bis Mitternacht", in the original German) was not appreciated in its time is to understate the case rather severely: After a 1922 press screening, it never actually opened in Germany, though it was championed by critics in Japan, where a sole nitrate print survived long enough to be copied into a more stable format. It would likely have become obscure eventually, being a silent Expressionist film that it isn't quite in the top rank, but its unusual style and oddly compelling story makes it an interesting discovery.

A woman (Erna Morena) goes to the bank in a small German town looking for 10,000 marks in credit, the sum that her son (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) needs to purchase a painting from a second-hand shop. The bank's director (Eberhard Wrede) refuses; he has received no communication about her bona fides. The cashier (Ernst Deutsch), struck by her beauty, opts to take the money and go to her himself, with the idea of leaving his dreary home life behind - though no matter where he goes, there is always a girl (Roma Bahn) in one form or another haunting him.

The film is divided into five acts, as was often the case for feature-length silent dramas, especially those based on stage plays. which is noteworthy on the one hand because it corresponds with Roma Bahn appearing in five different roles and on the other because Georg Kaiser's original work is described as "a play in seven scenes". I wonder if the story of the Dame, her son, and the scandalous painting is finished on the stage, and whether the poor old shopkeeper with the massive beard ever got paid for his troubles. Here, they seem to vanish once they've provided a reason for the cashier to steal and go on the run, setting up a somewhat familiar arc of dissatisfaction, greed, discovering riches aren't all they're cracked up to be, and eventually pining for one's "Sweet Home" and repentance.

It's a familiar story, especially for those who have seen a fair amount of movies from this era - German silents especially seem to run toward lectures on the hollow seductiveness of easy riches - but it's the way director Karl Heinz Martin and company tell it that makes it so noteworthy. The film's stage origins are clear, with the camera often staying firmly in one place no matter how many times it returns to a given scene. It's the set decoration that's most striking, though - while many Expressionist films will rely on the familiar or maybe go for minimalism when displaying everyday life and then get wild when the setting gets out of the ordinary, every scene in From Morn to Midnight is visually constructed of simple visuals that may be expressive but unrealistic: The cashier's house, for instance, has a doorframe that is impossible askew to communicate just how run-down it is, and nothing ever seems to have come out of a printing press - telegrams, signs, and even currency all look hand-written. A bicycle race is all vague reflections of raw speed, and characters often speak (via intertitles) the time, though perhaps bells or chimes might have been used on stage to communicate the story's progression between the times indicated in the title.

In some ways, this style is probably both necessitated and representative of then-contemporary Germany - bled dry by World War I and further impoverished by the terms of the peace, there was not a lot of money to be had. Look at the costumes; even the presumably well-to-do like the Dame's son have blemishes on their worn-looking suits; only the bank's director and the free-spending cashier look really well-dressed (the nifty haircut and beard trim the cashier purchases with his ill-gotten gains also makes a sharp contrast to his former life). The scenes inside the velodrome seem particularly abstracted, both to more clearly show the various social classes and because creating a realistic set would appear to be out of the film's budget. Images of death haunt the cashier constantly.

For as abstract and stylized as the film's visuals often are, the performance of Ernst Deutsch as the cashier is surprisingly grounded. Certainly, like many silent actors, he's frequently broad and theatrical, but he and Martin are occasionally able to do something that works well in close-up that serves as a bit of a counterpoint to the more heated aspects of the performance. Erna Morena does something similar, giving her character the feeling of someone used to being in the upper reaches of wealth and class who is now rather closer to Earth than she would wish. Roma Bahn does an impressive chameleon act, making her multiple roles distinct while also letting them feel tied together by more than the death's-head mask each briefly sports.

"From Morn to Midnight" is very much a product of its time and place, even if it was all but unseen there and then. And yet, for all that it looks strange compared to modern films and doesn't hit every emotional beat, it's far more engaging than many of its peers. An entertaining score by the Alloy Orchestra (performed live) helps, but there's a life to it that many other films of its ilk lack.

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originally posted: 05/27/13 02:41:02
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User Comments

7/17/14 Anthony I.P Owen Incredable, gripping, better and even more 'way out' than 'Calgari'. 5 stars
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