“Take him away and put him in his cage. Perhaps he’ll get a little livelier once he’s had a chance to think his situation over… To reflect upon life, and all its random injustice.” —The Joker, in The Killing Joke by Alan Moore
1928’s The Man Who Laughs is a film a lot of people have heard of but seemingly not that many have actually seen. It’s a shame, but totally understandable—like so many incredible works of the silent era, it was ill cared for and only in 2003 received a DVD release. With the film turning 90 years old in a world where we’re still seeing German Expressionist overtones showing up in everything from the Batman mythos to Star Wars (watch Metropolis), it’s worth looking back at the film that explicitly gave us the archetypal look of one of modern fiction’s most complex villains. It’s commonly known that the creators of Batman took the look of the tragic, grotesque protagonist as the template for the Joker. What’s less known are some of the parallels between these two outcasts.
The Lost Aesthetic
“All it seeks to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines, and curves. It is not extreme reality that the camera perceives, but the reality of the inner event…” —Paul Leni, speaking on the Expressionist style of his film, Waxworks
To understand the weird and ghoulish look of the film, you sort of need to dive into Expressionism, the stark and abstract art form that painters like Henri Matisse raised to prominence during the turn of the 20th century. Writing Notes of a Painter in 1908, Matisse said that, “We formulate the rule that the sensibilities or conditions of the soul, which are called forth by a certain process, impart signs or graphic equivalents to the artist, by which he is able to reproduce the sensibilities or conditions of the soul, without the necessity of providing a copy of the actual spectacle.”
I’ve always taken this to mean that it isn’t about an object itself, but how the object seems to the artist and how he remakes it in that seeming … I guess. It’s the reason that doorways became jagged things with no right angles, misshapen gateways of great portent, or why sinister figures seem to completely fill them.
German filmmakers in particular latched onto the Expressionist aesthetic and produced some of the most harrowing works of early cinema. Writing in Expressionism and Film, Rudolph Kurtz said the form was appropriate for expressing the mood of the time, when new concepts were arising and people were rejecting convention. Considering the revolutionary changes stirring in Germany between the two World Wars that shaped the country’s destiny in the early 20th Century, it almost makes perfect sense that the sets and characters of films like Metropolis or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari look like skewed dreamscapes, whether the former depicts futuristic industrial dystopia or the latter depicts the day-to-day life in a quiet German town.
In particular, the lighting of these films is something to behold, especially considering they were shot in a time when cinema was shifting away from using natural light and going heavily into using the complicated rigging that’s always lurking right off the frame in all our modern cinematic distractions.
Yet, this style sort of diminished. As Germany descended into dictatorship and terror and artists like The Man Who Laughs’s director Paul Leni (a Jewish man) and star Conrad Veidt (married to a Jewish woman) fled for their lives, the great Expressionists mostly died young. Veidt would die at age 50, just a year after his sneering turn as a Nazi commander in Casablanca in 1942, and Leni was dead at 44, just a year after making this film. F.W. Murnau, the mind behind the ghoulish Nosferatu, was dead at age 42 by 1931. And while Fritz Lang—the guy who brought the world spectacularly creepy films like M and Metropolis—remained alive and active through the 1950s in Hollywood, not a lot of his post-war filmography has been deemed anywhere near as important as the stuff he made before.
You can still see it, though. It might have seemed strange to give a film like 1989’s Batman to a filmmaker like Tim Burton, but look at the skewed matte-background Gotham City he gave the world.
“You had a bad day once, am I right? I know I am. I can tell you had a bad day and everything changed.” —The Joker
“A King made me a clown. A Queen made me a lord. But first, God made me a man.” —Gwynplaine
The film itself is actually not a horror film, but a tale of tragic romance and at times swashbuckling adventure. It’s another adaptation of a Victor Hugo novel, and those who are familiar with the non-Disney version of that same author’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame will probably recognize much of the same tortured nobility in the story of the young actor Gwynplaine (played as an adult by Veidt). The film opens in 17th Century England, where a rebellious lord is dragged before the King of England and told that he is to be executed via iron maiden and his young son Gwynplaine has been sold to the horrible outlaws known as “Comprachicos” (“Child-buyers” in Spanish).
The Comprachicos are known for one terrible practice: Mutilating their child slaves so that they engender more sympathy as they beg for coin on the streets to fill the pockets of the pirates. But, the cruel doctor responsible for Gwynplaine’s mutilation is driven from the country without the boy, whom we follow as he wanders a twisted winter wasteland and recovers a wailing infant from the arms of her mother’s corpse. Taken in by a kind old man and a dog who somehow is still alive when we jump ahead some 15 years, Gwynplaine’s terrible disfigurement has proven to have an upside. He is known throughout the country as The Man Who Laughs, a performer who brings joy to audiences and a tidy living to his adoptive father and the girl he saved. That young woman, Dea (Mary Philbin), is blind and utterly smitten with Gwynplaine—but he lives in fear of intimacy with her, thinking that she will reject him if she should ever reach up to touch his grotesque mouth.
I was astonished to discover that Conrad Veidt’s terrible grin was actually a prosthetic, and reportedly a bitch and a half to perform in for the actor. He still sells it—his every tortured emotion needing no title cards to get the story across. It’s no detriment to Veidt’s performance as he is drawn into the intrigue of the royal court. The Queen’s snake of an advisor wants to humiliate a duchess who is enjoying the fortune and title that by rights should belong to Gwynplaine as his father’s heir. In a cruel twist, that same duchess seduces Gwynplaine, finding his unnatural grin the source of fetishistic fascination. When his parentage is revealed, Gwynplaine is dragged before the royal court, made into a Lord, and ordered by the Queen to marry the duchess so the status quo can remain undisturbed.
But it will mean a life cut off from the ones he loves, and abandoning Dea. It’s in this scene where Gwynplaine’s protest should immediately resonate with anybody familiar with the Joker’s long history as an outsider—a villain who isn’t in the game for anything as mundane as ill-gotten wealth or self-aggrandizement, but for sheer spite against the very concept of order itself. Through his unnatural grin, he rails against the injustices that men have heaped upon him and asserts that he’s his own man. He rejects the crown, his birthright, and the upside-down order that will, again, force him to be a freak on display.
What follows is a rousing bit of swashbuckling, as Gwynplaine evades his captors and, at the last, reunites with his lover and surrogate family as they flee England. If you want to know how this differs from the novel, remember that Victor Hugo wrote it.
It was about 12 years after this film premiered that Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson would collaborate on essentially cribbing Conrad Veidt’s horrible grimace to become the visage of the Joker, though they would disagree on the matter of which among them did exactly what in the years to come. Made in the brief period when Veidt lived in the United States making Hollywood movies before returning to Germany in the ’30s, you can’t help but wonder how he felt at seeing his own country’s government fall to the Nazis and watch his wife become a targeted minority and himself be named an enemy of the Reich.
That, ultimately, is one reason why the Joker and Gwynplaine still fascinate, decades after the characters came onto the scene, and it’s one reason everybody’s got that one married couple who unironically cosplay Joker and Harley at every con. The core of the character isn’t the grotesque grin or the vicious murder. It’s the fact that he’s taken what’s been done to him and rejected the order that allowed it to happen. Gwynplaine chose love and devotion. Unfortunately for the citizens of Gotham, that character’s shadowy reflection chose murder and mayhem.
Kenneth Lowe just wants to watch the world burn. He works in media relations for state government in Illinois and his writing has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues Magazine and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Read more of his writing at his blog or follow him on Twitter.