As you may recall from the giveaway I announced earlier this month, Flicker Alley is just about to release a remarkable 2016 restoration of the 1919 war drama Behind the Door. For years this film has only existed in pieces, but now with combined prints from the Library of Congress and Gosfilmofond of Russia, and support from San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the film is available for the first time on DVD/Blu-ray. It is a nearly-complete print, filled in with stills where there are gaps in the action.
It isn't likely that filmmakers of the 1970s and 1980s had Behind the Door in mind when violent revenge flicks literally became all the rage, but it feels like that's the case. Though this film hasn't been fully intact, let alone available to audiences for decades, it is spiritually aligned with the single-minded fury of those films. While not as explicit as later entries in the genre, it is just as brutal and intense. Though not always easy to watch, it is a remarkable example of the narrative efficiency and dramatic potency of early cinema.
Hobart Bosworth is Oscar Krug, an American-born taxidermist who is nevertheless hassled by the people in his town for his German heritage as World War I roars to life overseas. He is in love with Alice (Jane Novak), daughter of a banker who disapproves of her union with the son of a kraut. Angered by the injustice of these attacks on his character, Krug enlists in patriotic fury.
The determined taxidermist becomes a sea captain, but before he ships out, he marries Alice. When her father finds out, he throws her out of the house. She sneaks onto her husband's freighter because she has nowhere else to go. The ship is attacked, leaving the pair stranded in a lifeboat.
When a U-boat appears, they think they are rescued, but the heartless captain (played by a sneering Wallace Beery) snatches Alice and leaves Oscar to die. He doesn't die though, and once restored to another freighter, he captures the captain, learns his wife's fate and takes his revenge.
Though it begins with a melancholy feeling, Behind the Door takes time to reveal the extent of its brutality. Mostly seen as a flashback, it is at first warm with the innocence of Alice and Oscar's romance. They are lost in each other's orbit, getting a profound charge out of something as simple as a good morning wave through the window. The audience is meant to be as stunned as they are when life turns violent for the pair.
That violence unfolds in various ways, both explicit and implied. In an early scene, an extended mob fistfight is alarmingly vicious. Men stumble away from the chaos with bloody faces and ripped clothes. Even more horrific is the fate of Alice and the way Oscar takes his revenge. To understand the depth of their love, you need only witness the way her husband reacts to those who harm her.
Hobart Bosworth was a big star at the time, one of the first to carve out a career in Hollywood, but at 52 he was too old for his 23-year-old co-star. As a result, he seems more like an angry father than an avenging lover. While that doesn't lessen, and even intensifies the dramatic impact, it does make the romance the weakest part of the film. That said, there is an effective emotional connection between these actors.
The print quality is sharp enough that it is hard to believe this film is nearly a century old. What flaws there are remind you of the frailty of film. For the most part the picture is so good that in some respects the actors have a timeless feel.
An interesting score, composed and performed by Stephen Horne, combines familiar piano accompaniment with more novel touches of xylophone, flute and accordion. It is a nicely complementary soundtrack, winding through the drama with subtlety and punching up the tension without becoming intrusive.
Perhaps the most stunning aspect of Behind the Door is that the trials the characters face still trouble many today. The way it handles fear of foreigners, violence against women and insensitivity to the pain of others is sadly familiar and makes it clear that while society can progress, it also runs in a cycle when it comes to the problems at its core. That is the power of this film, which stands on its own as a drama and is enhanced by the view it provides to the past, while reminding us of our continuing struggles.
If you would like to enter to win a copy of this film from Flicker Alley, the giveaway is on until April 12!
Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing access to the film.