Nerves (1919)

Director and writer: Robert Reinert

Country: Germany

Language: Silent, German


One of the most unfortunate consequences for those who survey history is the inevitable amnesia. For any given subject, a historian will undoubtedly forget or overlook something or someone. In film history, this happens quite often. There are many, many great directors that are now nearly lost to history. German director and writer Robert Reinert is a prime example of this critical phenomenon.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Reinert lived in Munich and primarily focused on writing novels (many of which are obscure and practically unknown outside of German scholarship). In 1916, he wrote the script for the film Homunculus. This marked Reinert’s transition from novelist to screenwriter and, eventually, director. Between 1916 and 1919, he directed a total of eight films. In the following decade, he would direct three more films and co-write Looping the Loop with Robert Liebmann and director Arthur Robinson in 1928.

His obscurity, though, is not too surprising since nearly all of his films were lost, none of his films ever really achieved commercial success, and he died in 1928, near the end of the Expressionist movement in German cinema. Despite all of this, Reinert (and his 1919 masterpiece Nerves) was far ahead of the time. An experimental director at heart, Reinert’s works may not have been influential, but that was not because the films were not any good. As film critic and historian David Bordwell writes, “Nerven (Nerves) is a disorienting, highly experimental work. Released in 1919, before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (early 1920), it might have become a prototype of German Expressionist cinema if it had been widely seen and preserved by archives.

The film, a masterpiece in its own right, exhibited many characteristics that would later come to define the early German Expressionist films of the 1920s, including those found in Robert Wiene’s Caligari (1920), Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1920), Hans Werckmeister’s Algol (1920), Karlheinz Martin’s From Morn to Midnight (1920), Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921), and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).

Nerves-526813257-largeThe main goal of the German Expressionists was to use setting and all of the elements within the frame to convey the mental struggles, thoughts, and perceptions of the film’s characters (or at least the protagonist). Even though Wiene, Werckmeister, Lang, and Murnau would go to perfect this style and execute it both brilliantly and masterfully, Reinert did it before them, which makes his obscurity so criminal and so tragic. Nerves really was in a league of its own, in that it attempted to convey the mental breakdowns of its characters through images and dialogue (in fact, Nerves was arguably the first and, as some contend, the only film of its time to use intertitles the same way modern films use voice-over narrations; the intertitles literally told the audience what the characters were thinking instead of what they were saying).

Nerves is a series of fictional case studies. Reinert’s idea was to show various characters slowly slipping into madness in the aftermath of the First World War. In the film, a “nervous epidemic,” as Reinert once described it, emerges and infects numerous citizens of various classes and causes them to go insane.

The film opens with an intertitle that seems like an unknown character’s thoughts: “Nerves, you mysterious avenues of the soul, you messengers of highest desire and deepest suffering. If you fail, man is but animal. Nerves, are you not the soul itself?” Thus, we know from the very beginning that the following narrative is an introspective journey into a character’s (or characters’) mental state, which will subject us to paranoia, anxiety, and general apprehension. After this, we then see the film’s title, around which various nude bodies and smoke float and/or settle (another major achievement, for nudity was not common in mainstream, cinematic films).

The first scene of the film is still considered a landmark achievement in film history, as it is the epitome of perfect Expressionism. We see a mother who seems to hear her son, off fighting in the war, saying to her that he is dying. We then seen numerous dead bodies piled atop one another and strewn about, all around a sturdy tree, in an area near the mother’s current location. Smoke is everywhere. This transitions into an image of the woman’s son, wrapped in bandages, as other soldiers carry his limp body. We see his mother again, followed with an intertitle: “Mom! Mom! You feel it is a thousand miles away at the same time. What does this mean?” Reinert then goes back and forth, from the mother to the son to the mother again, then to the title sequence (this continues throughout the film, as Reinert inserts it after each episode).

Since the intertitle appears after the image of the mother but is supposedly her son’s words, we can safely assume that this is all mental. That is in itself startling and perplexing. Even in the first scene of the film, Reinert employs what would become a trademark of the German Expressionist films (the use of film techniques to portray a character’s mental state) and montage, which would not become widely used until the Soviets in the mid-1920s (even though D.W. Griffith used it before both Reinert and the Soviets; for more on montage theory, please see the previous article on Griffith’s 1914 masterpiece The Avenging Conscience). We don’t know much about the characters’ predicaments, but we can already surmise that there is a connection between the slaughters of war and the developing “nervous epidemic” back home. In the following scene, Reinert uses yet another experimental technique that would later become a convention of Expressionist cinema: shadows as signs of looming danger, as a man creeps into a woman’s bedroom and strangles her with his bare hands (see Murnau’s Nosferatu or Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary for examples).

Reinert, though, uses the film’s main sequence—the story of a factory owner named Roloff, who slowly loses his mind as the film progresses—to expose us to the truly horrific. Roloff, who is essentially a pro-fascist (he explicitly expresses his desire to use industrialization as a means to achieve world domination), finds himself infected with whatever it is that causes the “nervous epidemic” after a car explodes near the factory, where he is currently giving a rousing pro-nationalist speech. Meanwhile, Roloff’s sister falls far Master John, a political rival of Roloff’s. John gains a large following as an “apostle of the people” (his followers react to him as if he is literally an apostle delivering a sermon straight from God). We then see John stepping over the same dead bodies shown in the opening scene of the film. Considering montage theory, we can deduce that society crumbles as a result of people with different ideologies refusing to cooperate and come to agreements for the betterment of society as a whole. It will lead to madness, war, and death. Casualties will begin to add up, to the horror and at the risk of all parties involved.

The movie continues in a bizarre fashion, with scene after scene of hallucinations, panics, utter paranoia, and the madness that slowly eats away at society. Reinert’s sequence of events and filming techniques were so effective that, according to reports from the day, several moviegoers found themselves going mad themselves, jumping from the seats and shouting about how something has taken over their bodies—how they were now sufferers of the “nervous epidemic.” And truth be told, if that doesn’t prove Reinert’s thesis or at least justify his belief that suggestion and war could lead to the destruction of society and the deaths—even if metaphorical—of all those who consider themselves parts of said society (and considering that this film debuted two years after the end of WWI), then nothing ever will.

Personal Rating: 4/5

Next time: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Published by Chris Lyons

You know that Elton John song "Madman Across the Water"? Well, that was about me.

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