Germanic Pantomime: Max Reinhardt: Pantomimic Grandeur

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

Max Reinhardt: Pantomimic Grandeur

The Austrian director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) was responsible for staging the pantomimes that have enjoyed the largest theater audiences since the beginning of the twentieth century. His immense skill as a director brought him great success in every genre he attempted: classical drama (Goethe, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Moliere, Schiller, Lessing), contemporary drama (Ibsen, Hauptmann, Hofmannsthal), tragedy, comedy, opera, and operetta. Within the scope of his many acclaimed productions, pantomime at best constituted only an occasional foray into the more recessed regions of theatrical imagination. Pantomime was never central to his success or his aesthetic; he would have become a great director if he had never turned his attention to pantomime. He wrote no pantomimes, and, unlike the literary fashioners of pantomimes, his pantomimic imagination was not innovative at the narrative level. His great strength as a director lay in the construction of spectacle, a powerful integration or Gesamtkunstwerk of scenery, lighting, costume, music, choric movement, scenic effects (like revolving stages, ramps, and bridges), vocal rhythms, geometrically designed movement and positioning of actors, and contrasting pacing of action. For Reinhardt, pantomime offered an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that direction created a superior theatrical experience, not the speech in a text, not the text, not even the narrative, although subject matter was not irrelevant to achieving this goal. 

His first venture into pantomime was Sumurun (1910), with a scenario by Friedrich Freksa (1882-1955), eventually a busy Berlin writer in several genres: plays, journalism, popular novels, biography, poetry, crime novels, film scenarios, and science fiction. But in 1909, when he wrote Sumurun, Freksa was still pretty much of a dilettante, probing various paths to literary success. Sumurun was the only stage pantomime he ever wrote. In nine scenes, the scenario is set in an exotic Arabian land, but it is not so much a fairytale (as asserted by the author: “according to oriental fairytale motifs”) as an ethnographic fantasy in which Freksa embeds a complex drama of sexual passions and jealousy. With a torrent of action, the story tells of a “mistress” (“Herrin”) Sumurun, who awakens and confounds the desires of four men: a hunchback puppeteer, attracted to “a beautiful slave dancing girl”; a cloth dealer in love with Sumurun, who reciprocates his love; a ruling sheik obsessed with possessing both the dancing girl and Sumurun; and the son of the sheik, also desirous of the dancing girl. In addition, an old woman offers to assist a slave dealer in acquiring a dancing girl for sale to the sheik, which motivates the hunchback against her and the slave dealer, while the clothes dealer, Nur al Din, has a servant woman enamored of him, as does the sheik’s son, and the sheik, of course, commands the respect of many subordinates, who frustrate everyone’s intentions. To resolve some of these difficulties, Sumurun agrees to become a member of the sheik’s harem; the sheik, however, is in bed with the dancing girl, much to Sumurun’s dismay, even though she remains drawn to Nur al Din. When the son enters the bedroom and embraces Sumurun, the sheik awakes, stabs his son to death, and prowls his mansion looking for other men. Sumurun tries to dance to prevent the deranged sheik from killing the hunchback or the clothes merchant, but the dance does not calm the sheik, who orders his eunuchs to seize the dancer and prepare her for execution. He draws a dagger against the clothes dealer, but the hunchback draws his own knife and stabs the sheik. Nur al Din embraces Sumurun, and she realizes she has been released from “a wild dream”: “death has moved passed her.” The Inspector of the Bazaar appears and sees the dead bodies, while the hunchback, Nur al Din, and the harem women “proceed down the path of flowers, the path of freedom” (Vollmer 2011: 182-195). The scenario requires large resources to produce: the huge cast includes harem women, guards, eunuchs, “a giant negro,” and entourages of Sumurun, the sheik, and the Bazaar Inspector, and scenes take place in the bazaar, with a fountain, the entrance to the sheik’s palace, the harem, the sheik’s boudoir, and the terrace of his palace. Some characters hide in baskets or behind curtains to avoid discoveries that might harm or embarrass them. The crowd scenes are important because the author wants to show how the crowd itself is made up of people who’s desires for others within the crowd otherwise remain invisible. Characters signify their desires or lack of them or their conspiratorial motives to each other through gestures, such as waves or nods, readable to each other but not to the rest of the crowd; the implication is that if the desires became transparent, then the hierarchical social order, controlled by the despotic sheik, would be undermined. Freksa presents the crowd as a great web of thwarted or suppressed sexual desires that exists for the very purpose of covering up the failure of love to find, protect, or “capture” its object, a point magnified by the presence of so many unsupportive or unreliable slaves, harem women, eunuchs, and servants. Society here appears as a theatrical illusion, masking desires, feelings of love, that, when revealed or “discovered” publically, lead to a tragic result. Indeed, for the 1912 production of Sumurun in New York, Reinhardt had actors emerge or disappear into the audience, a novel effect at the time, to encourage the perception that the fantasy society on stage was not so remote from the “real” audience in the theater (Hartley 1924: 89). Reinhardt saw in the scenario the opportunity to create a grand, internationally appealing spectacle free of the linguistic translation subtleties and historical-geographical specificities imposed by stage realism. When Freksa brought his scenario manuscript or concept to Reinhardt, the director agreed “in five minutes” to accept it and told the author not to bother finishing it; “The piece was never written,” according Leopoldine Konstantin (1886-1965), who played the beautiful slave dancer in the New York production, and Reinhardt worked with Freksa to build up the role of the dancer (Dodge 1912: 82; cf. Vollmer 2011: 285-286, which quotes Wiesenthal saying that she wanted to work with Reinhardt on a pantomime about a pair of lovers, and Freksa, with whom Reinhardt was “enchanted,” wanted to work with them). She describes how Reinhardt encouraged the actors to develop their characters, no matter how small in the story, as if the story actually centered on them; the scenic artist worked with the actors, and the composer played music while the actors rehearsed their parts in rather chaotic fashion. But she seems to describe a rehearsal process that occurred after the premiere production in Berlin, in which she had already appeared. Photographs of the 1910 production do not show an especially elaborate scenic environment with most images depicting actors performing on a carpet floor before a curtain. Images of the 1911 London production, which traveled to New York in 1912, show a much more elaborate scenic milieu (Illustrated London News 25 February 1911: 263). Apparently, then, the scenario evolved in relation to particular circumstances of production, to the involvement of particular actors and designers, and to Reinhardt’s determination to show that the text was subordinate to the production process rather than the thing to which the production process was subordinate. The scenario consequently piles one effect after another, creating an overly busy stage and a rather chaotic, incoherent narrative. The Berlin Kammerspiel cast included many actors who were or became major figures in German theater and film culture: Grete Wiesenthal (Sumurun), Paul Wegener (the sheik), Rudolf Schildkraut (the hunchback), Alexander Moissi (Nur al Din), Leopoldine Konstantin (the slave dancer), Eduard von Winterstein (the sheik’s son), Elsa Wiesenthal (Sumurun’s servant). Cabaret composer Victor Hollaender (1866-1940) wrote the music, and expressionist designer Ernst Stern (1876-1934) designed the settings. Such an abundance of talented artists, especially actors who had no experience as pantomimes, could easily attract much attention from the public. While reviewers could find the show entertaining and engrossing, none seems to have thought it represented a turning point in pantomime history, despite the claims of Reinhardt disciples like Heinz Herald (1890-1964), who contended that pantomime was the antithesis of Naturalism (“Drama”) and thus occupied a realm of performance imagination inaccessible to language (“Sprache”): “Pantomime and drama may not be exchanged with each other. Pantomime would be nothing if it could be made into drama. With pantomimic action, one should not ask, as so often happens: what does that mean? And then expect an answer in a language that is outside of pantomime. […] The human gesture can be of an expressive force that under certain circumstances is infinitely greater than that of the word” (Herald 1918: 110). Herald explained that the “dream world” of pantomime is the creation of a directorial rather than literary imagination, because it is an art made out of a director’s relation to actors, scenic devices, and music rather than a writer’s relation to characters and narrative structures. Maybe so, but critics, the Germanic theater world in general, and perhaps even audiences did not see in Sumurun an impending expansion of pantomime in the theater of the future. 

In May 1910, Reinhardt directed, for Deutsche Bioskop, the filming of the pantomime in the Deutsches Theater; this film has vanished. He apparently simply filmed the stage version as if the film only documented what a theater spectator saw on the stage, but the casting changed: Bertha Wiesenthal played Sumurun, Victor Arnold was the hunchback, Harry Walden was Nur al Din, Eduard von Winterstein played the sheik instead of the sheik’s son, a part performed by Josef Wörz. The film received poor reviews, but not because Reinhardt had changed the cast: the costume colors that made the stage production so vivid were completely lost, the photography was not good, and the imagery featured no close ups or uniquely cinematic views of the action (Jahrbuch für Photographie und Reproduktionstechnik 1911: 334; cf. Vollmer 2011: 304-305). But Reinhardt, focused on preparing the international touring production of Sumurun, probably had little enthusiasm for making a film that competed against his stage version and may have regarded the film as an advertisement for the tour. The touring production of Sumurun opened in London in January 1911, then moved to Budapest. It opened in New York in January 1912, before going to Paris in May. Vienna hosted the production in 1913. During this time, the show played in several German cities, Manchester, and in Boston. In the United States, the payroll for the show was $4,000 per week, an unprecedented amount, which required each performance to bring in at least $1,500 per performance to break even, a goal the production easily exceeded (Variety January 16, 1911: 7). The cast changed from city to city: for example, in London, Clotilde von Derp (1892-1974) was Sumurun; in New York Sumurun was Camilla Eibenschütz (1884–1959), but in Paris Maria Carmi (1880-1957) took over the role, all members of Reinhardt’s company. A reviewer for Variety of the New York production observed that, “The main fault to be found with the impressive spectacular pantomime is that there are no really great artists in the cast” (January 20, 1911: 18). Spectacle elements dominated viewer impressions of the show; for the New York production, Reinhardt introduced a Kabuki-style hanamichi. Theatre Magazine devoted numerous pages to the New York production, and in one lengthy article, Gertrude Lynch explained that, “It is sensuous, barbaric and primitive, yet at the same time it is vitally human and, like all other Oriental plays, it is an unconsciously forceful suffrage document for women” (XV, 132, February 1912: 54). The show inspired a popular comic song, “My Sumurun Girl” (1912), by Al Jolson and Louis Hirsch, and a plumbing journal, Modern Sanitation, featured an article by the engineer-theater producer Wendell Phillips Dodge about the special bathtub Leopoldine Konstantin used to immerse her body in the “burnt sienna and yellow ochre” cosmetics that achieved the “beautifully mystic copper colored skin of the Oriental” (IX, 1, January 1912: 189-191). In April, Theatre Magazine published an article that considered whether the “extraordinary” Sumurun “indicated an impending revival of the art of pantomime,” but concluded that silent films most likely would satisfy a large public appetite for pantomime more than a revival of a stage art that had faded long ago because of its childishness (XV, 134 1912: 126). 

Sumurun came to Warsaw in 1916 with an all-Polish cast under the direction of Reinhardt protégé Ryszard Ordynski (1878-1953), who cast the ingénue Pola Negri (1897-1987) in the role of the dancing girl. When Reinhardt saw the Warsaw production, he cast Negri in the same role for the 1917 revival of his production in Berlin, which also featured the future film star Conrad Veidt (1893-1943) as Nur al Din and Ernst Lubitsch as the hunchback. The recently formed Ufa film company invested heavily in another film version of the scenario, released in 1920, in an effort to establish itself as the leading supplier of films in Germany. The director, Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947), had worked closely with Reinhardt since 1911, and he had already acted in and directed numerous films for a company that Ufa absorbed towards the end of the war. With his longtime screenwriting partner Hanns Kräly (1884-1950), Lubitsch revised Freksa’s scenario to emphasize elements not in the text or in Reinhardt’s production. Already a film star, Negri played the dancing girl, while the Swedish ballet dancer Jenny Hasselqvist (1894-1978) was Sumurun. Paul Wegener (1874-1948), also now a film star, played the sheik, and Lubitsch himself took on the role of the hunchback, as he had in later versions of the stage production, although this was his last performance as an actor. This cast may have enhanced the box office appeal of the film, but it probably brought nothing to the performance of the roles that was not already in the performances on the stage regardless of whichever cast performed them. Before the camera, the acting appears excessively theatrical and further weakened by exaggerated make up. The film uses very few intertitles, and even some of these are unnecessary, though they do not diminish the incoherence of the story, which some American reviewers of the stage production felt was confusing without the synopsis of the action printed in the program. Kräly and Lubitsch expanded the scenario without bestowing greater logic on the action: they added numerous comic bits involving the eunuchs, the servants of Nur al Din, the hunchback and the grotesque procuress who desires him, and between the harem mistress and the harem girls; they put more black people in the bazaar scenes; they created separate interior spaces for the clothes merchant’s store, the hunchback’s theater company, and the slave dealer’s not well-defined place of business. But the film also emphasizes much more than the scenario that the dancing girl has no moral qualms about enjoying sexual relations with both the sheik and his son, and it also presents the harem mistress and the harem girls collaborating to help Sumurun engage in adultery with Nur al Din, details that caused distributors in England and America to make cuts in the film, which there bore the title One Arabian Night. The film presents Sumurun, the dancing girl, the harem mistress, and the procuress as brazen, vigorous women, while the harem girls appear as exuberant, choral acolytes of the proto-feminist harem mistress. The film does not end with the hunchback, Nur al Din, and the women marching down “the flower path of freedom”; instead, Nur al Din and Sumurun walk as a pair along an empty city street toward the camera, and the last shot is of the hunchback, alone, strumming his Arab guitar. The film contains shots of large crowd scenes, but these mostly operate as context or background activities. Lubitsch uses close ups and mid-shots to isolate the main characters from the crowd; unlike the stage productions, the film does not show characters communicating clandestinely within the crowd or through the crowd. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the film is the scenic architecture, by Kurt Richter and Ernő Metzner (1892-1953), the huge sets incorporating arabesque designs, archways, trellises, terraces, walls, gates, towers, balconies, ornamental curtains, the monumental stairway to the sheik’s palace, giant doors, and columns, the vast atrium of the harem, and even an enormous floral pattern floor on which Sumurun performs a dance for Nur al Din and the harem girls. Lubitsch’s direction is most exciting when placing many people in a long shot to make them seem like kinetic decorative elements within grandiose, looming structures that seem to swallow up humanity. The director shoots these scenes from distinctive angles, and thus shows a kind of monumental, geometrically organized mass movement pantomime that could not possibly occur on stage, although the effect remains far from the power that Griffith had already achieved with mass pantomime and monumental architecture in Birth of a Nation (1915) or Intolerance (1916). When Lubitsch’s camera views the action from a distance and in relation to the monumental architecture, the bodies tend to move less theatrically and more “naturally”; whereas when he places the camera in mid-shot, the actors revert to a theatrical style that indicates the lack of confidence in a mind still dominated by theatrical habits in the pantomime of “natural” movement. Yet occasionally the film introduces an expressionistic pantomimic action that appears innovative to both theater and cinema. For example, when Sumurun visits the shop of the clothes merchant, they sit on a carpet and Nur al Din examines a bracelet around Sumurun’s ankle. The beauty of her foot mesmerizes him; then suddenly he plunges toward it and kisses it passionately, while simultaneously a voluptuous shudder, almost orgasmic, overwhelms Sumurun’s body.

The huge international success of Sumurun encouraged Reinhardt to venture further and bigger with pantomime. He envisioned pantomime functioning as a kind of Wagnerian Festspiel that created a mystical, communal encounter with a hidden, atavistic level of reality concealed rather than revealed by modernity. Lacking a gift for writing, he found an excellent partner for this project in his friend and collaborator Karl Vollmoeller (1878-1948), a German poet-dramatist who for a while (1895-1904) belonged to the circle of super-aesthetes gathered around the mystical, aristocratic poet Stefan George. Vollmoeller had translated and adapted ancient Greek dramas that Reinhardt staged, and Reinhardt had produced (1907) Vollmoeller’s gloomy historical semi-verse tragedy, Catherina – Gräfin von Armagnac (1903), an orgy of burnished word fetishism in a Symbolist vein, which George had sponsored in his cultish but influential arts journal Blätter für die Kunst. Moreover, Vollmoeller was at that time the husband of Maria Carmi, a member of Reinhardt’s company since 1909; she performed the role of Sumurun in the Paris production of the show. Not being Austrian or Jewish, Vollmoeller presumably had access to spiritual affinities in alignment with the Wagnerian audience that Reinhardt hoped to attract. Vollmer composed the scenario for the largest and most popular pantomime ever produced in Germany: Das Mirakel (1911), although he claimed he had worked on the piece since the late 1890s when he began making a second residence in Venice. He sets the story in Münster, Germany at the end of the fourteenth century. He labels it a “grand pantomime in two acts and an interlude,” but the bulk of the action occurs during the interlude. 

In a convent on the Rhine, a 100-year old sacristan decides it is time to turn over responsibility for the care of a beloved Madonna statue to the young, beautiful, and intensely pious Megildis. The new sacristan opens the huge doors to the church to allow the entry of a great procession of pilgrims. When the procession passes through the doors, Megildis remains alone to close the doors and extinguish the candles. She hears a strange music; the player appears accompanied by a throng of children. The music urges her to dance. A knight soon appears, and the player makes a signal that indicates his collaborative relation with the knight, who discloses a desire for the nun. The abbess, however, appears and Megildis recovers herself and closes the doors. The abbess orders Megildis to spend the night praying before the statue. Alone, the young nun kneels and prays ardently to the Virgin, but a knocking at the door distracts her; yet somehow she is not strong enough to turn the key. But once it is clear that the nun wishes to escape the convent, the doors open on their own. The knight and musician are waiting for her, gesturing to her of a much more exciting life ahead. She lays her veil, convent habit, and keys at the foot of the Virgin. The knight embraces her, and they depart for a new life together. The statue of the Virgin comes to life and puts on the garments left by the nun. The abbess and the sisters appear and discover that the statue is missing. The sisters surround the Virgin, whom they mistake for Megildis, and assume an accusatory attitude toward her. But the young nun suddenly elevates and hovers above the sisters—the miracle. The young nun descends and joins her sisters in joyful singing and dancing. The interlude then occurs, a sequence of tragic and even sordid scenes. The knight and Megildis, accompanied by the wooden flute player, wander through a forest, where they encounter a band of hunters, led by the “count of the forest.” This gang kills the knight and abducts Megildis, while the musician, left alone with the corpse of the knight, “shows instead of the smiling, faun-like mask of life the mask of death.” At the castle banquet of the forest count, Megildis captures the attention of the king’s son. The drunken count gambles away his wealth, the nun, and his life to the Prince. Death plays his flute again beside the abandoned corpse. In the bedroom of the Prince, the Musician of Death warns the King of the Prince’s disreputable behavior toward the nun. The Prince and his companions engage in a mock wedding ceremony with Megildis, and the King intervenes to protect the nun while angering the Prince, who soon returns with a gang of masked marauders. Death hands the King a dagger to protect himself, and the King plunges the dagger into his attacker. When he removes the mask of the attacker, he discovers he has killed his own son. A crowd breaks in, seizes the stunned Megildis and paralyzed King, and leaves Death alone to play the over the corpse of the Prince. In the marketplace, the mob organizes a trial involving twelve judges with the Musician presiding as the Inquisitor: Megildis faces accusations of witchcraft, and the Inquisitor summons the now insane King as a witness. He falls to his knees before the nun, as if she is a saint. The crowd releases her from the judges and puts her on a white horse. The musician then plays his flute: “The enchantment of the crowd transforms into wild orgasm.” Everyone attempts to touch the beautiful woman, which sparks a fight of “all against all.” A group of serfs overpowers Megildis and takes her away. In a snow-covered landscape, a caravan of serfs plods past Megildis, who carries a newborn enfant in her arms. The serfs regard her with reproachful gestures. The sound of the convent bells and a distant children’s choir stirs the nun and causes the Musician to appear wearing the Mask of Death, followed by the dead woman’s lovers: the knight, the count, the Prince, and the King—“then all the others, the nameless ones, who possessed her.” Megildis hesitates between the sound of Death and the bells of the convent. But when the portal doors open, the nun resists Death’s effort to restrain her, and she enters the convent. The second act then begins. The altar of the Virgin remains empty, with the garments left by the nun on the floor. The nuns enter and kneel before the altar, praying for the return of the Virgin, although the Virgin remains among them. When the nuns disperse to their duties, the Virgin assumes her position on the altar: “her smile becomes unearthly and without movement.” One hears a knock on the door, and the doors open on their own. Megildis enters carrying her child. She sees the garments on the floor. She lays down the child and puts on the garments. She cradles the child, but discovers that it has died. The abbess and nuns, agitated by the sound of bells, return and gaze with astonishment at the reappearance of the Virgin in the altar. Soon, however, the Musician of Death knocks on the door, his “creepy, mocking laughter” reverberating from every direction in which the nuns attempt to flee it. But when Megildis kneels before the altar, the laughter weakens, choral voices strengthen, “thousands” of red roses ascend from the dark clouds. In the final scene, Megildis kneels alone before the Madonna. The morning sun begins to filter through the stained glass rose window. The young nun seems to awaken, as if from a dream. She goes about her duties, then opens the great doors to let in the morning sun (Vollmer 2011: 205-216).

The scenario contains many spectacular visual effects, some of which I have not included in the summary of the story: the opening and closing of the great doors, the astonishing transfigurations of the Virgin on the altar, the movement of choirs and throngs, the knight silhouetted against the dark blue evening sky, the count’s grandiose castle, the bleak winter landscape and the snow blowing into the convent, the rain of roses, the rose stained glass window bringing in the morning light. The violence of the market place scene seems reminiscent of Cuvelier’s military pantomimes, although it is doubtful that either Vollmoeller or Reinhardt even knew of Cuvelier. Even more imaginative is the use of sound: the tolling of various bells, the knocking on the great doors, the refrains of distant choirs, the singing of a nightingale, thunder, “a tone like a deep sigh echoes through the dark church,” the melancholy tunes of the Musician, the howling of wind, and the demonic laughter of Death. In addition, Reinhardt commissioned the eminent Wagnerian Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) to compose incidental music for a large orchestra. Probably most, if not all, the visual and aural effects in the scenario came from Vollmoeller. From Vollmoeller’s nine-page scenario, Reinhardt constructed a seventy-page director’s book that included an enormous number of scenic, lighting, and costume details not found in the scenario (Sayler 1924: 249-322); indeed, Reinhardt numbered each detail he added to the scenario for a total of 1,196 specific remarks on the performance of actions not always or even mostly indicated in the scenario. The director’s book reads almost like the editing structure for a movie. For example, in the third sentence of the fourth scene of the interlude, the marketplace trial, Vollmoeller writes: “The Musician (Piper), in the guise of a Dominican monk, leads the twelve judges to the tribunal bench. Behind them, between guards and executioners, the accused nun Megildis. The Musician as the Inquisitor, displays the accusation document, but one judge after the other, refuses to break the staff over the accused” (Vollmer 2011: 22-213). Reinhardt adds 250 details before the Musician even appears in this vast scene involving interactions between numerous individuals within the great crowd. Here is how the Musician (Piper) appears:

245. At a sign from the chief judge, the rebellious judge is seized and killed at the feet of the Nun.   

246. Silence.

247. The head judge gives the document to the judge who is standing on his left.

248. The latter rises slowly, with the shadow still behind him. He takes the paper, stares at the Nun, tears it into bits, rushes like the others to the Nun, lifts his arms eagerly toward her; turns toward the front of the people in order to speak for her. At a signal he is likewise seized by the soldiers. They hold his mouth closed.

249. He gesticulates vehemently but is also killed at the feet of the Nun. 

250. The Nun lifts her eyes upwards in unspeakable despair. 

251. Louder but still muffled grumblings are heard from all sides and from all ranks.

252. The head judge jumps up, takes the Emperor’s crown, which lies on the table in front of him, and sets it with bold and grand gestures on his head.

253. He throws back his hood and reveals the face of the Piper.

254. Deadly silence.

255. He signals energetically to the executioner who stands to the left, then points to the Nun, lifts his staff on high and breaks it violently.

256. Trombones.

257. He lets his hood sink again and seats himself.

258. The bell for the condemned rings.

259. Drums.

260. The hangman’s assistants unfetter the Nun.

261. The priest steps forward, reads in a whisper some words from his book, gives her absolution and makes the sign of the cross over.

262. She bends her head low, and is led by the executioner’s assistants to the block.

263. The executioner stands at the block and bares the Nun’s neck.

264. A muffled but increasing murmuring is heard from all sides.

265. The Nun lays her head on the block.

266. Stillness (Sayler 1924: 308-309).

None of these actions appear in the scenario, which describes the whole trial scene in about half a page, whereas the director’s book devotes fifteen pages to it. Not only does the director’s book describe numerous visual and sound effects, it characterizes, even if briefly, numerous individuals within the crowd and assigns emotional gestures to them. The performance also includes much more violence than the scenario, which has the effect of greatly magnifying Death’s power over the depicted society. The director’s book thus treats the scenario as an inspiration for a huge proliferation of pantomimic action that lives outside of the language that created the story. The language of the director’s book is the codification of the decisions the director made as a result of using a different, never transcribed language in his interactions with the actors and designers while working out in rehearsal how to bring the story to life on the stage. It is astonishing how much pantomimic action Reinhardt could envision from the sparse language of Vollmoeller’s scenario before he used language to advise the actors of what he envisioned. Yet this envisioning does not mean that pantomime arises from a “pre-linguistic” mode of consciousness, as Hofmannsthal, among others, tended to believe. Rather, pantomime allows one to see actions that construct a narrative and that one does not really see when the narrative relies on speech for its construction or, as with dance, on movements derived from a choreographic vocabulary. In this way, pantomime is about how language itself frees us from language. Das Mirakel is about how this freedom from language leads to salvation, redemption, a transcending of the lure and fear of Death. A miracle is something that doesn’t need language to “explain” it, even though it is actually language that creates it.

            The production premiered as The Miracle at the Olympia Theater in London, December 23, 1911, and the financier of the production, the English showman Charles B. Cochran (1872-1951), promoted it as a grand upgrade of the traditional, vaudeville English Christmas pantomime. The theater, seating 8,000 spectators, normally staged equestrian spectacles, but the scene designer, Ernst Stern, built, at great cost, a large stage with monumental sets and a long ramp that allowed for the performance of some scenes in the arena (cf. Shewring 1987). Maria Carmi played the Madonna, Max Pallenberg (1877-1934) was the Musician, the ballerina Natacha Trouhanowa (1885-1956) played Megildis, and Douglas Payne (1875-1965), soon to be a silent film actor, was the knight. The English journalist Huntly Carter (1862-1942) published a detailed description and critique of the production, including a breakdown of the £40,000 (almost $200,000 in 1914 or about $4,890,400 in 2017) it cost to run the show over eight weeks. The chorus numbered 500, while the orchestra consisted of 200 musicians; a total of 2,000 performers received payment. Scenic effects entailed enormous engineering operations. For example: “The vast Gothic doors at one end were opened, and a huge mound crested with trees was wheeled in. By means of this and another contrivance the characters were enabled to step from actuality to actuality. The second contrivance was a huge sinking stage placed in the centre of the arena. This platform was made to sink, so that each time it rose it could bring a complete change of environment. By this means the action was carried uninterruptedly from banqueting hall to bed-chamber, to inquisition chamber, and so forth” (Carter 1914: 223-240). Audiences filled the giant theater for all performances, and Cochran claimed to have made a fortune from the show. English reviewers generally professed a highly favorable attitude toward the production, apparently because it evoked so vividly the world of the English medieval mystery and morality plays, even though no one in the Middle Ages ever saw a show of this magnitude or splendor (Carter 1914: 150-153). The production next opened in Vienna in September 1912, with some changes in the casting that invariably occurred with subsequent productions along with various refinements to the director’s book, which never achieved any definitive version. 

            But before Reinhardt opened the show in Vienna, he negotiated the licensing of a film version of the spectacle, and the shooting of this film occurred following the end of the Viennese theatrical run in October. Much of the filming, involving 800 performers and a staggering £20,000 budget, took place in two suburbs of Vienna, the church in the village of Perchtoldsdorf and the castle in Kreuzenstein. The producer was Joseph Menchen (1878-1940), an American entrepreneur who had become wealthy through the design and sale of electrical theater lighting equipment, including film projectors. Menchen obtained from Reinhardt exclusive rights to film and distribute The Miracle as Reinhardt had directed it (Slough Observer 26 July 1913: 8). However, in March 1912, the newly formed Continental Kunstfilm company, based in Berlin, financed production of a film, Das Mirakel, and promoted it as similar in content to Reinhardt’s stage production. The director of this film was a Romanian dancer, Mime Misu (1888-1953), who had begun his film career in Paris. For Das Mirakel, he also wrote the screenplay and designed the scenic décor (Wedel 1999: 26-27). Chorin Abbey, outside of Berlin, was the setting for many scenes, but some scenes were apparently shot in the Black Forest. Having interrupted shooting to turn out the first film about the Titanic disaster, In Nacht und Eis (1912), Misu finally finished shooting Das Mirakel in July 1912, which is when Continental Kunstfilm registered the film for exhibition in Germany. In September, Menchen applied for a license to exhibit his production in Germany, but German authorities rejected the application on the grounds that Continental Kunstfilm had “prior right.” Menchen then appealed to a court in London to prohibit exhibition of the German film. But the case ran into legal complexities. The lawyer for Continental Kunstfilm argued that Vollmoeller had based his scenario on the drama Soeur Beatrice (1901) by the Belgian Symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), which Reinhardt had staged in Berlin in 1904. But Maeterlinck could not file a claim against Continental Kunstfilm because he himself had acknowledged that he had based his story on several versions of the tale dating back to the thirteenth century and the Dutch poem Beatrijs (c. 1375), derived from an even earlier Latin text in a German compilation of miracle tales from around 1225. Vollmoeller declared that Misu’s film copied bodily movements and scenic effects that were unique to the London production of The Miracle. The judge overseeing the case ruled that an English court had no jurisdiction over the exhibition of the film outside of the British Isles, but he would allow the showing of Misu’s film in Britain if Continental Kunstfilm changed the title to Sister Beatrice. Both parties agreed to this solution. Menchen sold the exhibition rights to different distributors in different countries, which meant that these distributors had to assume the costs of legal action against Continental Kunstfilm should that film company attempt to exhibit its film in their countries. In New York, Continental Kunstfilm opened its film, The Miracle, in October 1912, as shooting in Austria on Menchen’s film came to an end. The theatrical producer Albert Woods (1870-1951) purchased, for $10,000, the right to exhibit Menchen’s film in the United States, and he went to court to prevent the showing of Misu’s film, but this action failed because he failed to post $20,000 bond; Woods apparently decided he was not going to fight similar battles in every state in America, although in film trade journals he did launch a protracted advertising war against the “false” German film. Yet the New York Film Company, which handled the U.S. distribution of Misu’s film, ran into legal difficulties of a different kind when censors in Chicago and Boston objected to the orgy-banquet scene. German censors raised similar concerns and approved the film, known as Das Marienwunder: eine alte Legend, for adult audiences only in 1914. Nevertheless, the film found large audiences in numerous American cities, and some performances, as in Cleveland, entailed full orchestral accompaniments. Meanwhile, Menchen’s production opened at the Covent Garden Theatre in London on 21 December 1912, three days after the premiere of Sister Beatrix at the Shaftesbury Pavilion. The Covent Garden presentation of the film, accompanied by a large orchestra and choir performing Professor Humperdinck’s music, signified the elevation of cinema to a cultural status equivalent to opera, a phenomenon not altogether welcomed by a sector of the Royal Opera’s patrons (Moving Picture Age, VI, 1, 6 July 1912: 886). But the Covent Garden exhibition made a deep impact on the public: Menchen’s film completely overwhelmed competition from Misu’s film in England and became enormously successful wherever in the world it was shown. 

The legal issues raised by the competing film versions of The Miracle revealed a great power of theatrical pantomime to bestow commercial and cultural prestige on cinema. The scale of investment by Menchen in a single film was unprecedented, and it’s possible that profits from his film achieved an unsurpassed threshold. With revenue from the film, Menchen was able to purchase a vast estate outside of Paris and build there a large film studio (The Cinema 27 August 1913: 70). In the United States, Woods managed to persuade theater owners to charge as much as $1.50 for a ticket when most theaters were reluctant to charge more than twenty cents to enter. The religious subject matter imposed a grandeur on the action, the image, and the medium. An international public clearly appreciated that no expense had been spared to entertain it. The Miracle inaugurated the concept of the high risk, large-scale prestige film, saturated with historical imagery, that offered huge profits from an international rather than domestic market; Italian producers would almost immediately eclipse The Miracle in scale of risk and artistry with the production of monumental ancient Roman spectacles like Quo Vadis (1913) and Cabiria (1914), which precipitated D.W. Griffith’s even more artistically advanced Assyrian spectacle Judith of Bethulia (1914). The Miracle was also an early example of international film co-production: American financing, a German scenario, Austrian locations and technical support, a principal cast of actors from several countries, a French director and lab processing, and an English premiere. But just as important was the legal precedent established by the competition between the two Miracle films. Misu’s film has disappeared and it is therefore difficult to compare the two films in relation to the claims made in court by the conflicting parties. In his testimony, Vollmoeller claimed that Misu’s film was “a base and degraded version of the famous ancient legend upon which my work was founded. The procession of the Holy Image, the healing of the sick people, the introduction of the eloped Nun and the Evil Spirit, which are all my creation and not contained in any of the same famous legends, are imitated by the film of the defendants” (The Stage Yearbook December 1913: 293-294). But Vollmoeller condemned Misu’s film as “a base and degraded version of the famous ancient legend” rather than of his own scenario, even if Misu adapted Vollmoeller’s scenario, which means that Vollmoeller believed that Misu should have directed his film of the story in a more competent fashion, a claim that was irrelevant from a legal perspective. The implication was that the Menchen production displayed superior direction that should not have to compete for public attention from a “fraudulent,” inferior film. Menchen could not contend that Misu had copied scenes from his production, which no one connected with Misu’s film could have seen, nor could he contend that Misu had copied scenes from the London stage production, for Misu had filmed the scenario in quite different settings, and in any case, Menchen’s film was no closer to the London production in using Austrian locations shot almost entirely outdoors and without any of the numerous, distinctive theatrical effects Reinhardt had introduced in London. Indeed, reviews of Misu’s film are very favorable, and the few extant stills of the production suggest that it might even have been better directed than Menchen’s film: “Sister Beatrix is certainly worthy of designation as one of the best films of the past year,” and detailed description of the film in The Cinema indicates that it was a lavish and spectacular production, full of technical sophistication (Moving Picture Age, Vol. 6, No. 1, 6 July 1912: 886; The Cinema 1 January 1913: 43-45). Lore Giessen played Beatrix and Misu himself took the role of the Evil Spirit (Musician). If the stills accurately document the film imagery, Misu brought the camera closer to the actors than was the case in Menchen’s production, and the unknown costume designer was quite imaginative. Reinhardt had almost nothing to do with the authorized film version of The Miracle, most likely because the film would contain almost none of the elaborate theatrical effects that made the London production so impressive. Menchen hired as the director of his production Michel Carré, who had already directed numerous, mostly comic films in France, including L’enfant prodigue (1907), perhaps the first feature film. Carré filmed the scenario as if the spectator saw the action on a stage; the camera views all the action in long shot, and each scene unfolds within a single shot with no editing within the scene. Many scenes take advantage of Gothic architectural structures. The most successful scenes depict crowds, processions, mass jubilation; these display an almost documentary feel. Misu’s handling of the banquet scene was evidently much more lurid. Carré films the scene in long shot with Megildis compelled by the Count’s gang to dance on the table at a distance while the Count and the Prince dominate the foreground. His direction was old-fashioned even for 1912. Innovative, however, was the highly refined coloring (rather than tinting) of the images, done in France using a process called Lyricscope that allowed for subtle differentiation of colors and thus an unprecedented degree of painterly realism in the image. Maria Carmi again played the Madonna and Ernst Matray played the Musician, but the completely obscure Florence Winston was Megildis in the only role she is known to have played on the screen and perhaps in any medium. The cast was interchangeable with that of the different stage productions, because the pantomimic action was so generic, embodying stage directions rather than a distinctive style of physical action such as would later become manifest in expressionist performances on stage and in film. Both the stage production and the film of The Miracle were triumphs of technological and marketing ingenuity, not of pantomimic imagination. Menchen probably understood that when he went to court against Continental Kunstfilm: the story of the medieval miracle did not depend for its telling on a unique pantomimic style that could be copyrighted. Misu did not even need to see the London production to tell the ancient story pantomimically with different, possibly more talented actors. Pantomimic action could achieve copyright protection only if it was codified and published and therefore capable of being copied as opposed to being merely imitated. Codification was alien to the most powerful manifestations of pantomime since ancient Roman times, and in any case it was not something that would issue from the literary creators of pantomime scenarios or even from the directors of pantomimes. Pantomimic action showed how a body could not be “owned”—by an author, by a publisher, by a language, by a director, by a choreographer, or even by the performer herself. 

Menchen’s film production of The Miracle attracted enormous audiences in numerous countries throughout 1913 and into 1914, but after that the film fell into great obscurity, hugely superseded by cinematic spectacles of far greater scale and artistry. Reinhardt’s stage production had a much longer life. After the Viennese premiere, the production moved, in 1913 and 1914, to Prague, Leipzig, Dresden, Breslau, Cologne, Frankfurt, Karlsruhe, and finally, in April 1914, to the Zirkus Busch in Berlin. Reinhardt revived the production in 1915-1916 at Zirkus Busch in Berlin, then in 1917 took it to Stockholm. He had hoped to bring the show to New York in 1914, but the war intervened. A New York production did not happen until 1924, at the posh Century Theater on Central Park West; the visionary designer Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) designed the costumes and the scenery and transformed the theater into a cathedral. The immense success of the show there enabled Reinhardt to launch a touring production that visited numerous American cities for the rest of the 1920s, finishing in Dallas in 1930. But the show was not done in Europe. Touring productions visited the Salzburg Festival (1925), Dortmund (1927), Amsterdam (1927), Budapest (1927), Prague (1927), Vienna (1927), and finally London (1932) (Vollmer 2011: 399). American reviewers greeted the production with fervent enthusiasm (Bauland 1968: 59-60). In Berlin, some reviewers of the 1914 production disclosed a more skeptical attitude: while they acknowledged the brilliance and technical ingenuity of Reinhardt’s theatrical effects, they found it difficult to see the show as a serious work of art, hobbled as it was by religious naïveté, sentimentality, and pandering to the stereotypes of popular consciousness (Vollmer 2011: 403-405). No pantomime has achieved greater success at least in reaching the large, international audience that Reinhardt intended for it. Yet after the 1932 London revival, the show disappeared entirely from theaters and suddenly seemed like a thing that belonged exclusively to an extravagant but utterly irretrievable era. The only revival of the scenario occurred in 2002, when the Pianopianissimo Theater of Munich staged it with three actors and two musicians under the direction of musicologist Peter Pachl (b. 1953). The performance took place on a long table before white sheets onto which were cast colored lights and projections (Pianopianissimo 2002). Presumably the controlling idea here was that the scenario contained a power whose persuasiveness or revelation did not depend on grandiosity of scale and production values. But it is hard not to see here a vastly diminished sense of the miraculous in theater. Das Mirakel may have achieved astonishing success—and it was certainly the greatest success of Reinhardt’s amazing career—but that success was really not beneficial to pantomime. The show had the effect of imposing on public consciousness and especially on the theater world the idea that pantomime was a large-scale communal project entailing a monumental approach to conceal a fundamental lack of confidence in pantomimic action to sustain audience attention. This effect was similar to Pierrot’s success in stifling pantomimic imagination in France. The Austro-German theatrical pantomime was not yet dead in the minds of a few authors, but after Das Mirakel came to Berlin in 1914, the pantomimes of these authors remained only on the page and never on the stage. Reinhardt himself was not done with pantomime, for the popular Die grüne Flöte (1916), written in 1911, was yet to come. But Reinhardt’s subordination of pantomimic action to technology, to grandiose theatrical effects, shut down the pantomimic imagination of those who saw in pantomime a mode of theater in which language did not “own” the body. 

Reinhardt and Vollmoeller collaborated on another pantomime at the same time The Miracle opened in London, and the piece, A Venetian Night (Eine venezianische Nacht), opened in London at the Palace Theater in November 1912. But the show almost had no premiere at all. On the day of the scheduled premiere, the Lord Chamberlain, William Mansfield (1855-1921), the censor for the English stage, refused to allow the performance after seeing a rehearsal of the piece. Having no text other than the director’s book and no words, the piece had no form in which Mansfield could preview the show other than a rehearsal. He found the piece morally objectionable, and Reinhardt had to postpone the preview for several days to make the piece suitable for Mansfield’s approval. A Venetian Night was a costly venture. Reinhardt had spent $25,000 on the project and imported 60 actors from Germany (Christian 1912: 659; Carter 1914: 240-241). The piece did not fare well in London, nor did it receive a happy reception when it opened in Berlin in August 1913 (Vollmer 2011: 411-413). Vollmoeller never published the scenario. Vollmer managed to track down the director’s book for the Berlin production, and he describes the scenario in detail (Vollmer 2011: 407-411). As part of a movie deal with Projektions AG Union, Reinhardt made a film of the scenario in 1913 and actually shot it in Venice, for which he was paid 50,000 RM, but according to his son, Gottfried, Reinhardt did not take the project seriously: “He was taking his holidays in Italy at this time and the films were done on the side” (Eyman 2000: 38). The film closely follows the scenario described by Vollmer, except that it contains images of Venetian canals that would not have appeared in the stage production. A scholar, Anselmus (Alfred Abel), arrives in Venice for his vacation. A hustler, Pipistrello (Ernst Matray), offers to guide him around the city in a gondola. He encounters a wedding party: the elegant Marchesina dei Bisgnosi (Maria Carmi) is with her new groom, the corpulent oil dealer Mestre Mangiabene, in tuxedo and top hat. The Marchesina nevertheless directs her seductive gaze to a young military officer (Theodor Rocholl) and tosses him a flower. But the flower lands in Anselmus’s hands, and he imagines that the Marchesina has disclosed her desire for him. Pipistrello takes Anselmus to a hotel, where the wedding couple are also staying. An exuberant wedding party is underway, but Anselmus decides to go to bed, while the Marchesina prefers to rendezvous with the officer in her room. Asleep in his bed, Anselmus dreams of the people he has encountered during the day, and in his dream he rises up and follows them out the window. He finds himself entering the Marchesina’s room while she flirts with the officer. Mestre knocks on the door, so the Marchesina hides the officer behind the curtain in which Anselmus also hides. A struggle behind the curtain ensues, and somehow Anselmus kills the officer. The bride manages to send Mestre away without him noticing the body, then she insists that Anselmus get rid of the body. Laborius comic scenes follow in which Anselmus and Pipistrello finally dump the body into the sea on a Böcklinesque Isle of the Dead. Yet once they dump the body, multiple officers spring up and stand dead before them. Anselmus and Pipistrello run away. Back in the hotel, the drunken Mestre continues to party with the staff. He decides it is time to go to bed, but when he comes to his room, he discovers that the Marchesina has locked the door and does not respond to his knocking. The staff persuade him to sleep in Anselmus’s room. Mestre collapses on top of the sleeping Anselmus. In the morning, Anselmus awakes in bewilderment to discover Mestre sleeping with him. He packs up and leaves Mestre in the bed. The Marchesina wonders where her husband is; the staff inform her. The final scene shows the Marchesina and Mestre stepping into a gondola with the young officer. The gondola floats down the canal, while Anselmus gazes longingly at the Marchesina, pulls the rose from the book he carried when he arrived in Venice, and drops the flower into the canal. Reinhardt seems uncertain whether he is making a comedy or a more serious contemplation of frustrated desires. The comic scenes involving the hotel staff lack good timing by both the performers and the editing. The camera remains too remote from the characters and without a distinctively cinematic view of the action. Aside from a few melancholy shots of the gondola in the Venice canals, the most interesting feature of the film is the extravagantly histrionic performance by Maria Carmi. A great many of her gestures of alarm, pleading, and seduction appear absurdly exaggerated, but she performs them with such voluptuous elasticity, taking advantage of her sleek, elongated body, that the viewer may think she has wandered into this triviality from a wilder and much more experimental film aesthetic. The boldest thing in the scenario is the amoral attitude toward adultery that so disturbed the Lord Chamberlain, “a certain facile sensuousness about most things that come from Berlin which cannot be described as riskiness, but indicates a perfectly different standard from that of either Paris or London” (Christian 1912: 659). Reviewers in the German film press adopted a more favorable attitude toward the film than theater critics toward the Berlin stage production (Filmportal.de Venezianische Nacht Materialien/Kritik 2017). But the film did not resonate with the public, and since then it has been regarded as evidence of Reinhardt’s almost inexplicable lack of seriousness toward the film medium. His other film for Projektions AG Union, the beach comedy Die Insel der Seligen (1913), was even worse, an amateurish romp with friends from his company, but the screenplay, by Reinhardt’s friend, the dramaturge, novelist, and journalist Arthur Kahane (1872-1932), was never the scenario for a stage pantomime and was the only thing that Kahane wrote for the screen (cf. Hanisch 1993: 22-23). The famous film historian Lotte Eisner (1896-1983) claimed that Reinhardt exerted a major influence on the great German expressionist films of the 1920s, but this influence stemmed largely from Reinhardt’s use of chiaroscuro lighting: “He had always been fond of clothing shapes in warm light spilling from innumerable invisible sources, of rounding, melting and hollowing his surface with velvety shadows” (Eisner 1969: 47-48). It’s not clear why his directorial talent never went anywhere in film, although he was typical of many theater directors (his American counterpart, David Belasco [1853-1931], was another) who never succeed in transitioning to film: he lived too much of his life in the theater to see much of life outside of it or to see life as anything other than what a director can make happen on a stage. Film was alien to Reinhardt because it was a technology of the image, not a technology of spatial design. A technology of the image magnified and separated pantomimic action from its spatial environment, whereas the technology of spatial design allowed the director to enfold mediocre or interchangeable pantomimic action within a grander control over life on the stage rather than over the illusion of “another life” on the screen.  

Previous Section

Next Section

References

Table of Contents

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s