Film history tends to give the impression that German cinema was non-existent before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Anything made previous is practically impossible to see and of the directors working at the time only those who went on to produce major works, and find international acclaim, remain known: Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, Paul Wegener, Joe May, and so on. As a result many film fans are likely to draw a blank when it comes to Robert Reinert, the mind behind Nerven. Yet this was a hugely prolific figure, making thirty features and serials between 1915 and 1925, oftentimes to great homeland success, and setting up his own production company, Monumental Film, with which to create, exclusively, his own brand of symbolic, anti-realist and unashamedly melodramatic epic. Indeed, he was the true auteur – writer, producer, director – though time has been unkind in other ways too. Many of his films now remain lost or in fragmentary form only, and even this new 2008 restoration of Nerven is missing roughly a third of its original footage, having been created from disparate materials held in Munich, Moscow and the US Library of Congress. Some rearrangement has been necessary in the name of coherence whilst Reinert’s distinctive “living” intertitles are now barely in evidence.
Yet in whatever form Nerven remains a truly startling piece of work, beginning with one of the most highly strung opening sequences you’ll ever see: pre-Caligari expressionism without recourse to painted sets; intertitles that seem to offer up the voices inside the heads of those on-screen; a dazzling array of smoke, naked bodies and stunning recreations of World War I trenches swelling with the dead. There is a point to this, namely that Reinert, over the course of the picture and with utmost seriousness, is investigation the post-war climate in Germany, one driven by paranoia, misery and the nerves of the titles. The prologue merely serves to set the scene, though the general outlandishness continues throughout – for Reinert taking your own material seriously didn’t necessarily equate to a sober style.
Despite Nerven’s incomplete nature its multi-character narrative proves easy to grasp. Roloff and Teacher John are political enemies, one a proto-fascist factory owner, the other an “apostle of the people” provoking near-religious fervour in his followers. Both have sisters, Teacher John’s being blind for seemingly melodramatic reasons and little else, and it is Roloff’s who proves most integral to plot. Her unsaid and unconsummated ‘romance’ with Teacher John leads to political subterfuge and his eventual imprisonment plus more besides. Courtroom drama, romantic entanglements, class war, radical politics and Roloff’s mental breakdown, replete with visions of the dead, all occupy screentime before a conclusion that’s utterly bizarre yet somehow gels entirely with Reinert’s mindset.
It’s this blend of high seriousness and the downright strange that makes Nerven so compelling: like being lectured by a madman. Reinert holds the answers and weaves his narrative accordingly, from initial complications to utopian resolution with casualties along the way to emphasise just how important his message is. Yet it’s worth mentioning how the lecture, as it were, never overshadows the cinematic considerations. Reinert could never be considered a pre-cursor to, say, Stanley Kramer or his ilk simply because Nerven is so adventurous in filmic terms and ultimately so coherent. He has no qualms about being overwrought and drawing performances likewise from his cast; as said, his films weren’t conceived in realist terms even as they tackled the issues of the day. Visually too he goes for a mad scramble, utilizing deep focus photography so that the frame is continually busy whether it be capturing a crowd scene or more intimate moments. David Bordwell discusses this in typically incisive detail in the accompanying booklet so there would be little point in reiterating his words here, though the phrase “anxious, unsettling visual style” sums things up very nicely.
Indeed, Nerven has little in common with the classical Hollywood methods that were coming to fruition at the time courtesy of D.W. Griffith, Raoul Walsh, et al and as such stands out as far more distinctive from a retrospective viewpoint. The melodrama may date the film and as such it could never be considered “fresh”, so to speak, even as it does jump from the scene, but this is nonetheless a marvelously rich visual experience. And whilst the missing footage may initially lead us to ponder exactly what else Reinert had conjured up – is it the bigger picture that has been diminished or the more domestic moments which miss out? – such considerations ultimately diminish under what is there: in short, a remarkable piece of cinema.
Number 42 in the Edition Filmmuseum series of DVD releases, surely one of the most eclectic around, Nerven is housed on a single Region 0 disc and accompanied by a handful of well chosen extras. Image quality is, of course, the major consideration in a silent movie release and the results here are more than acceptable given the nature of its restoration. Understandably the various fragmentary sources differ in their quality and as such things are unavoidably haphazard with some sequences faring less well than others. Yet for the most part we have the requisite levels of contrast and clarity plus the original aspect ratio without recourse to unnecessary window-boxing and tinting of the image in line with the common practices of the day. It’s also worth noting that the intertitles have had to be newly produced for this version and come in the original German with optional English subtitling. There’s also a new piano score by Joachim Bärenz – as is the case with many of Edition Filmmusem’s silent releases – available in stereo and without any discernible flaws.
Of the various extras it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which is the standout. The 16-page booklet notes by Hans Wollenberg, Stefan Drössler, Jan-Christopher Horak and David Bordwell (the first two in German, the latter two in English) offer valuable context and analysis. The side-by-side comparison footage allows us to note the differing editing styles between the European and American cuts of the film (a similar piece accompanied Edition Filmmuseum’s Blind Husbands disc). The two newsreels of Munich in 1919 provide the historical context within which Reinert set out his drama. And the gallery of posters and lobby cards demonstrates just how distinctive German poster design was at the time. None of the above may be described as a major addition – in the manner of, say, an academic commentary or expansive documentary on Reinert or early German cinema would – but each offers its own delights and is more than deserving of inclusion.
This disc is available direct via the Edition Filmmuseum website.