“Some day, she may shock you”, Dr. Solti (R.H. Thomson) warns the hero in Guy Maddin’s under-rated Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), “as she did me, with the tale of her parents. Her father never met her mother; he was hanged before he had the opportunity”. Ominous music begins to rise. “A twisted man of science called Heisler collected the sperm that Julianna’s proud papa had ejaculated on the gallows when his windpipe snapped, and soon after Heisler artificially inseminated a hardened prostitute named Wilma who was apparently willing to try anything once. No child coming into this world has ever had more to overcome.” He pauses, staring hard at Peter Glahn (Nigel Whitmey). “Do you find this story plausible, Peter?” Another pause. “Boo!”

This exchange, written by Maddin’s regular scenarist and former teacher George Toles, represents much that is typical of the director’s cinema. It enacts a power struggle between two men over an inaccessible woman; it is couched in arch language that delights in images and situations of sexual absurdity; it affirms family relations as fraught and perverse. Most importantly, it presents the past in terms of dubious story-telling (Solti has pinched the story from Hanns Heinz Ewers’ Expressionist novel Alraune (1), a 1952 film version of which featured Erich von Stroheim) and the story it tells is a myth of origin.

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs

Twilight is a film shot through with the dreamy pastels of Gustav Moreau, leading painter of Symbolism – a movement to which Maddin returns throughout his work, most directly in shorts like Odilon Redon or The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Towards Infinity (1995) and Maldoror: Tygers (1998), but more generally in his rejection of naturalism and his recreation of disturbed psychic states. In the documentary Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight (1997, Noam Gonick), Maddin links Symbolism chronologically to the birth of cinema, explaining his dovetailing of the two cultural movements. In fact, Maddin’s meld of parody and pastiche takes in two births of cinema. From the pioneering period at the start of the twentieth century, he borrows devices such as irises, inserts, and dissolves. He also recreates the peep-hole voyeurism of films like Par le trou de serrure (1901); refers to cinema precursors such as the magic lantern and the puppet show (in Archangel [1990]) and Tales from the Gimli Hospital [1988] respectively); and directly invokes Georges Méliès (note the initials) in Careful (1992) and Redon. The second “birth” is the development of sound cinema. As Jonathan Rosenbaum and others have suggested (2), Maddin’s films imitate that transitional period in the late 1920s when movies begun silent were adapted for sound, resulting in strange hybrids where the exquisite visual fluidity characteristic of the late silent period – now accompanied by dynamic stretches of music and impressionistic sound effects – jarred with static scenes of scratchy dialogue.

Other myths of origin invoked by Maddin’s films include Oedipus Rex, the Odyssey, various parts of the Bible, Hamlet, and the Arabian Nights. In the latter, as Scheherazade narrates to postpone her execution, storytelling is literally a life-force. But if in another sense storytelling is the primal act of bringing fictions to life, for Maddin this life is typically threatened or unstable. In Gimli, the storyteller (Margaret Anne MacLeod) cannot prevent the death of her daughter or her own exile from her family, negating the socially cohesive purpose of narrative. Gimli also gives us a rare example in Maddin of successful storytelling, when the cod-sagas narrated by Gunnar (Michael Gottli) make him sexually desirable to his audience of nurses; unfortunately, his words are gibberish to us and to the hero (Kyle McCulloch), whose own attempts at narration (and potency) fail. Narrative is diverted from its true course – which is to define, explain, place and cohere; perhaps Gimli‘s grandmother fails because her storytelling, as reflected in Maddin’s narration, is broken, like so many of the amputees that hobble through the filmmakers’ canon. Indeed Gimli may be the blueprint for Maddin’s cinema, a palimpsest of disparate narrative and film modes, tales in a hospital about tales in a hospital sutured by visual puns. The film begins with a heated exchange between the grandmother and her son-in-law the audience can’t hear, and meaning throughout is partial at best. The sick protagonists spend most of it in bed, quarantined from “normal” society, giving rise to a feverish narrative gripped by sickness and decay.

Stories in Maddin are often displaced onto film-within-film effects, like the magic mirror that reveals Zephyr (Alice Krige)’s past in Ice Nymphs; or fatally refracted, Chinese-whispers style, by technology and poor listening, such as Boles eavesdropping on Veronkha’s “confession” through the oversized tannoy in Archangel. Sometimes nations tell stories too, for persuasive or conformist purposes, and Maddin has fun in Archangel with the paternalistic pretensions of various “documentary” modes, from war propaganda to public information broadcasts to evangelical appeals. (Incidentally, it was John Grierson, pioneer of the “Voice of God” documentary, who established Canada’s National Film Board during World War Two – for propaganda purposes!) This has led some critics to suspect Maddin of allegory in films like Archangel, Careful and The Saddest Music in the World (2003), although surely the last film mocks such earnestness.

An alternate way of reading the films, and an even more persistent myth of origin, relates directly to Guy Maddin himself. In his films, from his debut The Dead Father (1986) on, and in innumerable interviews, articles and commentaries, Maddin has insisted on his own life as source for characters, settings and incidents, a strategy underscored by his decision to film in hometown Winnipeg, often employing family and friends. A documentary like Waiting for Twilight becomes a kind of gloss, encouraging us to read the “life” to explain the art (with critics often obliging). The most obvious life-art transposition is the art installation Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), where Maddin’s mother’s beauty salon and father’s profession of baseball manager become sites for a melodrama noir horror sex-serial. Primal scenes recur. Such obviousness, however, in an art as mercurial as Maddin’s, prompts wariness.


In fact, throughout Maddin’s work individual identity is called into question. One telling example is Archangel: a tale of amnesiacs divorced from history whose traumas are inflicted by history. The setting, appropriately, is a generally forgotten piece of history when, at the end of World War One, and the beginning of a Civil War sparked by the Bolshevik revolution, a coalition of international armies, including Canada’s, grouped in Archangel, at the Arctic north of Russia, to fight the “White” (anti-Communist) cause. The “hero” of the film, Lieutenant John Boles (Kyle McCulloch), shell-shocked and amputated, clutching the ashes of his dead Iris, arrives February 1919 to an Archangel still fighting the Great War. There he encounters Iris’ lookalike Veronkha (Kathy Marykuca), pestered by the promiscuous amnesiac (Ari Cohen) who claims to be her husband, and who herself is shocked into forgetfulness; and the mother with whom Boles billets (Sarah Neville), trying to forget her cowardly husband (Michael Gottli).

Archangel is a reverie on identity (Veronkha tells Boles to call her anything he likes) authenticity, and the ontological essence of the individual, who constructs that identity by shaping narratives that are shown in this film to be wrong-headed. The theme is echoed in its troubled family units, its doubles and reproductions, and the cinematic ghosts that haunt the film. To list the most obvious: the luminous American melodramas of Griffith, de Mille, Borzage and Vidor; the outré gestures of French Impressionists Gance and Epstein; the post-war melancholy of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and La Grande Illusion (1937); the subjective war horrors of Klimov’s Idi i smotri (Come and See) (1985); the avant-garde fragments of Deren, Brakhage and Anger; the post-modern experiments of early Von Trier; the shadowplay of Murnau and technology-fetish of Lang; the homosexual mythologies of Cocteau, Genet and Fassbinder; and the Surrealist-filtered Sadism of Picabia, Buñuel and David Lynch (3).

The events in Archangel are roughly contemporary with those of the great Russian films mythologising the Revolution, such as October (1927, Sergei Eisenstein) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927, Vsevolod Pudovkin) though because of the polyphony of this film’s bricolage, Maddin is more sparing in his use of the Soviet masters then he would be in the celebrated short The Heart of the World (2000). There are quotes from films like Aelita (1924, Yakov Protazanov), Battleship Potemkin (1925, Eisenstein) and Arsenal (1928, Aleksandr Dovzhenko), and some expert Eisensteinian montages of faces, but it is the Soviets’ symbolic relation to Maddin’s work that is important. Where these propaganda classics extolled the masses and teleological model of society and history, Maddin focuses on anti-social deviants and perverts, caught in the circles of their own primitive obsessions. The Soviet films generally focused on political centres like Moscow, St. Petersburg or Kiev; Maddin, like Pudovkin in Storm over Asia (1928), hangs on the margins. His montage, rather than synthesising opposites for a greater whole in the Eisenstein manner, isolates individuals from society and history, alone in their demented desiring. This is not to characterise the Russians as dull apparatchiks – when given the freedom, as in ¡Que Viva Mexico! (1932) and Ivan the Terrible (1945, 1958), Eisenstein was just as capable of the lurid and baroque. Ironically, Maddin’s films, like those of most “independent” film-makers, are often state-subsidised.

It is tempting to classify Maddin’s cinema as post-modernist. The way we watch his films is (obviously) not the same as that of audiences watching movies in the 1910s and ’20s, who saw narratives that were complete and comprehensible. But this is to patronise “silent film” as a single genre rather than an entire art form with heterogeneous practitioners. It posits silent film as “primitive” or “naïve”, a Golden Age from which we, more knowing or ironic, have fallen; our attempts to reconstruct the ruins result in misshapen edifices. Hence Maddin’s apparent strangeness, not just in our age, but in relation to the one he seems to pay homage to. Like every original spirit, though, Maddin has his precursors, and what follows are annotations on three: Yevgeni Bauer, Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg. I have chosen these directors, partly because Maddin has acknowledged the influence, partly because of their links to the Russian theme of Archangel, and partly because of their extra-filmic status as authors of fragmented stories (the Vons), or stories that were suppressed because they didn’t fit into a national narrative (Bauer). Mostly, however, I have chosen them because their narrative address, or rather, their juxtaposition of disparate narrative registers, makes them kindred spirits of Maddin’s.

* * *

Yevgeni Bauer flourished in the last four years of the Romanov Empire before his death in 1917 from pneumonia. His work, popular in its day, was suppressed by the Soviets as “bourgeois escapism”, and only made available again in the mid-1980s in the flurry of perestroika. It drinks from the same Symbolist well as Maddin’s (one film even bears the strikingly Maddinesque title Twilight of a Woman’s Soul [1913]): men (often limp, swooning, weak, somnambulant, hypnotised, fated, will-less) searching hopelessly for unattainable (often dead) women, leading to paralysis or extinction; dramas of interrupted and unconsummated love; emotionally ruined lives often figured in illness or disability; instances of the family perverse, including a mute ballerina scissor-kicking for a father staring up her tutu; tall, sinister, anti-social artists or scientists obsessing and fetishising in their studios or laboratories; a figuring of the mechanics of representation and storytelling within the work, especially in the form of image-making and theatrical spectacles; a use of artificial verdure and cluttered décor to frame characters; a pictorial preference for silhouette, black figures dream-walking in snowy expanses; in-camera tricks inspired by Méliès used to represent extreme subjective states.

Posle Smerti

These states cause characters to blur the boundaries between “reality” and dream: much of the action in these films takes place in bedrooms, with passive characters, unable to act in life, giving themselves up to fantasy and hallucination. The most extreme example of this is Posle Smerti (After Death) (1915) in which a young singer commits suicide when her love isn’t returned; the object of her desire, who had shut himself away from society to worship a dead mother, begins an extraordinary posthumous courtship, in which his bedroom becomes a kind of limbo between life and death through which he must pass before he meets his loved one. Narrative momentum breaks down into a tantalising ritual of dreams and awakening, grasping and forfeiting, signalled by Bauer’s blurring of the proper “rules” of tinting and framing. Maddin uses a similar procedure in Archangel at the point Boles goes to sleep with the boy Geza (David Falkenburg). The film, already teetering on the brink of plausibility, goes into a “dream” sequence it never comes out of, circling back and recycling sequences of the story, with Boles mixing up his own delusions with others’ half-comprehended confessions and images evoked by propaganda, until he is ultimately trapped in a camera iris, unable to grasp his Iris.

Like Maddin, Bauer had an interest in transposing external art forms to the cinema, in particular the stylised movements of ballet (compare his Poe-like parable Umirayushchii Lebed [The Dying Swan] (1917) to Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary [2002]). He was one of the few directors of the silent era to ask what that silence might mean, relating it metaphorically to the fate of women in a Czarist patriarchy, literally without a voice, spoken for and interpreted by males: “you have your face which speaks more then words” (The Dying Swan). Even restored, Bauer’s haunting films quiver with scratches, blanches, perforations and flickers, which fortuitously seem to coincide with moments of extreme emotion, just as Geza’s death in Archangel shocks the film into a blotchy rash.

* * *

Directed by Erich von Stroheim, Foolish Wives (1922) is set, like Archangel, in 1919. On the edge of its psychodrama are mutilated human relics of the late war, perhaps compadres of John Boles, but also unwitting reminders of the condition of most Stroheim films. (Richard Koszarski has pointed to the motif of amputation throughout Stroheim’s work (4)). Before he became a director, Stroheim served in the war by playing increasingly vicious Huns in propaganda films (the first was Griffith’s Hearts of the World [1918]; in The Heart of Humanity [Alan Holubar,1918] he chucks a baby out the window before raping its nurse). The tone of these films is reprised in the anti-German rhapsodies and Bolshevik raid in Archangel.

Foolish Wives

The anti-hero of Foolish Wives, played by Stroheim himself, is a scheming, exiled Russian Count who plots with two women posing as his cousins to fleece the wife of Monte Carlo’s American ambassador. For decades, Stroheim was unbelievably considered a realist, because of the vast sums he would spend on “accurate” set and costume reconstructions. But psychological rather than social truth drives his films, and it is his relentless perversities and fated characters that find an echo in Maddin. Indeed, when Stroheim talks of the birth of cinema as “a bastard offspring, with the senile melodrama for its sire, and the peepshow and the penny arcade for its mother” (5), he might almost be predicting the Canadian’s art.

Stroheim’s florid intertitles establish an absurd disjunction between high-minded tone and shabby actions, but two scenes in particular have that Maddinesque tang. When the Count enters the bedroom of a counterfeiter’s mentally retarded daughter (Malvine Polo), his desire, as he cases the scene of his intended rape like a military campaigner (6), clashes with his author’s omniscient narration in a subjective/objective stew of silhouettes, glitter, burlap veils, religious imagery and stripes of low-key lighting; the photo of the child’s dead mother is, in fact, a snap of Frau von Stroheim. At the end of the film, the Count will be murdered by the molested girl’s father, and thrown down a sewer hole.

A second sequence sees the Count take his fainting victim (Miss DuPont) to the hovel of a toothless witch (Louise Emmons) during a storm; he spies her undressing by positioning a fragment of mirror (like Franz in Careful), but is interrupted by a goat; he will later try to take the woman as she sleeps, foiled only by a monk seeking shelter. The ironic fetishising of costume, especially military uniform, the Freudiana of fires, heights and suicides (7), and the complexities of character identification (repulsion at the Count’s actions, but exhilarating identification with his point-of-view) can be traced in Maddin’s films.

* * *

But if there is one guiding spirit for our subject, it is cinema’s supreme anti-realist, Josef Von Sternberg, who began his career repairing old film stock, and who also seemed to predict Guy Maddin when he claimed “the ideal film, if ever made, will be entirely synthetic” (8). His influence is everywhere in Maddin. The use of heightened plots. The theme of erotic obsession. The imposition of autobiography as fantasy. The cramped and expressive décor. The profoundly ironic narrative mode. The use of dialogue, not to carry primary meaning, but, along with music and sound effects (often asynchronous (9)), as part of a film’s overall design. An interest in roles and masks. What Andrew Sarris called the “inspired injection of the cosmetic into the cosmic” (10). He even made a film called Sergeant Madden (1939)!

The Scarlet Empress (1934) contains a storybook montage of state torture that is reprised in Archangel‘s anti-German propaganda film, while the wedding scenes of Veronkha and Philbin echo its grotesque ceremony (11). Anatahan (1954), made in Japan, tells of soldiers who think the war is still on – Sternberg’s use of alternating narrators, and his subsequent revisions and additions, create an unstable and palimpsestic text (12) comparable to Maddin’s work.

Der Blaue Engel

Most pertinent, however, as an inadvertent model for the Maddin method, is the English version of Der Blaue Engel (1930), which Sternberg did not edit himself (13). In common with most early sound films, Engel was shot in different languages in a doomed attempt to retain silent cinema’s global market. However, few of the cast could speak German, and those that did (with the exception of Marlene Dietrich) were incomprehensible. What had been a sombre film of perfect dramatic unity was travestied by long stretches of untranslated German, poor lip-synching, clunky cuts, stiff performances, churns, hisses and gaps on the soundtrack, and abrupt switches in the film’s stock, as English dialogue scenes were inserted into the German “original”. Further, some character and plot information was eliminated (the English version is 12 minutes shorter), creating unnecessary confusion in a story that can’t explain why Germans insist on speaking to each other in bad English.

It is this hybrid quality, the result of various external factors, undermining any original “authorial” intentions, that Maddin mimics perfectly and employs thematically in many of his films. It also seems to have struck something in Sternberg, whose later work would revel in disjunctive effects, not just in those films taken from him and reworked by others. His credo, provocative, but a profound view of the world, might be Maddin’s: “I don’t value authenticity, I don’t try to do anything that’s real…as a matter of fact, reality, if it were broken down…you would perceive that it was made up of particles of illusion that have no reality. Every man sees what he sees in his own way.” (14)


  1. Kim Newman, review of “Twilight of the Ice Nymphs”, Sight and Sound, vol. 8 no. 5, May 1998, p. 58.
  2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Please Watch Carefully”, Chicago Reader, February 1, 2001. Accessed June 8, 2004.
  3. In their commentary to the Zeitgeist Video DVD of the film, released in 2002, Maddin and Toles also list Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon, 1933), The Road to Glory (Howard Hawks, 1936), La Règle du jeu (Jean Renoir,1939), City for Conquest (Anatole Litvak,1940), Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy,1942), Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948), and Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), as well as literary works by Matthew Arnold, Henry Green, Knut Hamsun, Donald Jack, Bruno Schulz, Robert Louis Stevenson, plus fairy tales and war propaganda magazines.
  4. Richard Koszarski, commentary to the Kino DVD of Foolish Wives, released in 2000.
  5. Koszarski, 2000.
  6. Koszarski, 2000.
  7. Koszarski, 2000.
  8. Quoted in the documentary The World of Josef Von Sternberg (Barrie Gavin, 1967).
  9. Andrew Sarris, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film – History & Memory, 1927-1949, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 218.
  10. Sarris, p. 225.
  11. Maddin and Toles, 2002.
  12. See Tag Gallagher, “Josef Von Sternberg”, Senses of Cinema, no. 19, March–April 2002, accessed June 2004. Maddin himself has recast Archangel by adding tinted sequences.
  13. S.S. Prawer, The Blue Angel, BFI, London, 2002, p. 7. The ‘English’ version I refer to appears on Eureka’s 2002 DVD release; Prawer indicates other versions cut by distributors, pp. 73–75.
  14. Quoted in The World of Josef Von Sternberg.

About The Author

Darragh O'Donoghue is an archivist at Tate and a contributing writer for Cineaste. He recently completed a PhD on the Stephen Dwoskin Archive at the University of Reading, and contributed to the 'Beyond Bollywood' event at Tate Modern in April 2022.

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