It's late night, antiquarian bookshop is closing, delayed visitors are living being gazed after by impatient eyes of three ugly portraits. Hardly the door was closed after the last of them, when three monsters synonymic with purest evil left narrow portrait frames and went down for joint leisure time... in reading (as well as television still hasn't been invented). This is the beginning of German horror movie of 1919 "Unheimliche Geschichten"
Austrian director Richard Oswald has chosen 4 stories by famous craftsmen for his movie, and fifth one - joky - was written by himself. So, "Unheimliche Geschichten" - is a package of five novels, having just one thing in common: each of them is read in a company of the most disgusting characters, that could be imagined in Germany torn by war: the Devil, the Death and the Hustler (?!). These roles (as well as leading roles in all novels) played by three popular German actors of that time. The Devil was received by Reinhold Schunzel, more successful as confident supporting actor - due to his anti-hero appearance. He scarily easily personated shifty and ugly scoundrels with insane eyes, and, I suppose, the movie owes lion's share of grim charm to Schunzel. The Death (in some strange unconventional portrayal - I have no idea, what has inspired Oswald) was played by famed Conrad Veidt. The star of German cinema Expressionism had a specific appearance (especially being young): expansive forehead with high temples, thin lips, big straight nose, deep-set eyes, accompanied by deep shadows traditional for silent cinema - which made his face entirely grim. So, he was born for horrors more clearly than Vincent Price. And the Hustler was played by none other than scandal-ridden Anita Berber - personification of vice and depravity, and I should mention, that roles of hustlers tacked on her. Being 20 years old, she played in cinema just for second year, but already had considerable filmography. Just in this 1919 she played in 5 pictures, and for of them were with stellar Conrad Veidt. There are many interesting articles about Anita Berber in Internet, so I'd just mention to give you an idea: she was mostly famous as a dancer, her dance programms were notable for provoking, outrageous content, starting with nudity on the edge of pornography. Personally, she was bisexual, and two of her husbands were open homosexual (though she married them as her dance partners). During Europe and Middle East concert tour she hit cocaine heavily, wrote pornographic stories and poems, and against all the odds Anita missed "27 Club" (I am sure, all those guys in club would be a comfortable company for her), but not too far - she died in age of 29. The real rock'n'rolla. By the way, she had an interesting appearance and pretty good acting ability, so Anita became a jewel of the movie and one of the most convincing arguments to watch it almost 100 years after.
The first of the novels is "The Phantom" based on the story by Anselma Heine, her name was a household word at that time. This novel is the most successful as thriller. The whole plot is imbued with paranoia, and a plot twist is given quite skilfully. The novel's main character played by Veidt tries to save casual fellow traveller from her maniac husband, but, it seems, fails. But raising doubt completely cut the ground from under his feet: was he go nuts, and did the husband exist, as well as his lady? The protagonist is loosing mind beneath our eyes, the tension is mounting, and the ending is worthily tricking. Though, the plot is the strongest advantage, and actors will do their best further.
The second novel - "The Arm" by another movie's contemporary Robert Liebmann - German writter, tragically perished in Oswiecim. That's the short story of ominous murder and payback for it. "The Arm" is a benefit of Schunzel, playing leading part, but Veidt as the Deadman is also very convincing. Though, this not very remarkable novel is interesting in other way: here we are give an opportunity to watch beautiful Anita, execute a solo dance on stage. No nudity, comrades, don't crowd round here!
And further we have immortal classics, that has survived both Anselma Heine and Liebmann, and will survive many other authors in future. The third novel is Edgar Allan Poe and his classical story "The Black Cat". One morestory of murder, and again villian is Reinhold Schunzel, but Veidt and Berber swaped their usual lines of victim and witness. This story has a nice acted set-up, mostlu due to remarkable acting of Schunzel and Berber (turns out, that Anita could also play innocent woman, if needed), but Oswald could leverage the plot about murderer exposure much more inventively. However, that's just nit picking.
This is just a Suicide Club, welcome, pay membership fee over there, please. Robert Louis Stevenson and the strangest hobby ever - until Babluani's "Tzameti". Aristocratic Conrad Veidt (again masterful transformation) invites chance comer to join company of strange fellows at card-table, the game is simple, but high bets thrills. Despite tightly-plotted set-up, Oswald didn't manage to use a plot in a proper way. Schunzel is rolling wall eyes like mad, clasp hands and gnaw fingers, showing distraction too stereotipically, the director overdoes in stirring up fright, therefore it doesn't fright at all, and a gluing chair, impossible to stand from, is absolutely stupid in our time. Even final tricking left me indifferent.
Seemingly being aware of leaving spectator with gloomy impression, Oswald decides to lighten things up in the end by irony. The novel is based on his own original screenplay and is called "The Ghost". The scene shifts somewhere to XVIII century, the actors plastered pancake make-up on faces, pulled powder perwicks and gorgeous dresses on. Well, in general, not Chaplin of course, but final part plays the role of easing of tension quite worthy. We have to remember, that any mysticism and deviltry can be often explained much easier.
Oswald will remake his anthology in remarkable for Germany 1932. But whom could he surprise with old actors among new horrors? Just a couple of years later Oswald (having Jewish origin) will understand everything and leave fatherland just in time. However, it's a different weird tales...