On the 23 October 1919, just over 100 years ago, “The Plague of Florence”(Die Pest in Florenz) directed by Otto Rippert was released. It premiered at Berlin’s Marmorhaus cinema. The screen play was written by Fritz Lang and was based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death”.
It’s surprisingly how little is known about this film. Internet searches have stirred up very little information. A scan through Kracauer’s and Eisner’s seminal texts on expressionist films of the Wiemar era for tit bits of information has also proven fruitless. That’s not to say that there isn’t ongoing research to do, which of course I must do in order to contextualize it in the corpus of Wiemar expressionist film.
The information I have to inform this blog post is from Wikipedia. The film is set in Florence in 1348 and follows tragic outcome of a father and son debauched rivalry over a beautiful courtesan. It is also love story between Medardus, the hermit (Theodor Becker), and Julia, the courtesan (Margaret von Kierska) just before the outbreak of the Black Death in Italy. The magnificent exterior sets of Medieval Florence, including the Medici Palace were designed by Franz Jaffe, an architect who was before the war a royal buildings adviser to the King of Prussia.
It is astonishing to perceive the scale of such historical dramas in the days without digital special effects. The exterior of the buildings in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence for example were reproduced almost to their exact proportions. The interior of palazzi were replete with the kind of ersatz ornamentation that riled Walter Benjamin(1892-1940) to decry the role cinema as product of industrialization, and as an instrument of false consciousness.
Benjamin, a founding member of the Frankfurt School, and an astute social commentator of the time, studied the role the culture industries were playing. He viewed such palatial ornamentation as replacing authentic experiences. This is what he meant by the word "kitsch", that is, products that are dressed with ornamentation, so that the product or the experience is presented with the veneer of historical authenticity thus camouflaging their status as mere products for mass consumption.
Incidentally the Frankfurt School associated with the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University in Frankfurt was founded in the Weimar Republic period (1918-1933), as such its formative years, and body of critical discourse generated by the likes of its early scholars such as Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969), Erich Fromm (1900-1980) and Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) correlate chronologically with the early days of cinema, and whose body of work is invaluable in understanding cinema as a cultural product and as a discernible phenomenon of the culture of the time.
I am exploring the expressionist films of the Wiemar era as part of my Masters research studies at the University of Melbourne. I am delving deep into an alien world, yet one that seems so recognizable. The silent film tyrants and demons, those imaginary, haunting specters that lurked the traumatized imagination after WW1, these are the ghouls that follow my intellectual sphere daily. Defending ice addicts, many with deep seated mental health problems, being processed and churned out by a criminal justice system in which the idea of the rule of law is to keep incarcerating on an industrial scale, is my bread and butter.
My intellectual world mirrors my working day. In many ways I am an example of the white collared working class consumer on a perpetual quest for self improvement, pursuing experiences so ornamented as intellectual endeavors, disguising the placebo effect they provide, momentarily arresting the despair I am ill equipped to overcome in my everyday hum drum life.
I realise the false consciousness I am consuming, yet, like my ice addict clients, I am besieged by a fascination which while I do not understand, sustains my curiosity for long enough to return to libraries, finding and devouring books, an activity which I was on the verge of losing, partly because of the negative effect social media was wreaking on my concentration span.
I realise the kitsch, and the ersatz methods, of a self education immersed in YouTube videos, documentaries, and explanatory reviews such as this blog as an exercise in creative non-fiction, yet, I am compelled enough by a force inside me that implores that I write about "The Plague of Florence" even if it is just a useless act commemorating something historically inconsequential.
To record for the sake of posterity the effect the scene in the second half of the movie depicting Medardus in his cave, writhing in anguish as demonic forces goad him to succumb to his sexual attraction for Julia, as "chilling". To account my favorite scene wherein Julia enters the hermit’s cave, causing him to admonish her as he struggles with his faith, as "arresting my breath." To note that another favorite scene is that of Death, depicted as a woman on a mission, wandering the streets, pointing and barking at every one that crosses her path, and who in the midst of their jolly meandering begin to one by one just drop dead, thus making the point of the inevitability of "death so poignantly bleak".
I find myself so transfixed, that on a weeknight, alone in bed I watch my favorite scenes on repeat, recording these on my mobile phone device to make a short video as a testament to my own solitary adventure biding away my own time when I should be sleeping, when I should be resting, when I should be getting myself ready for another day as an instrument inside the machinery of mass incarceration.