"I have always been drawn to deep shadows and stark contrasts, both visually and thematically. I remember being mesmerized by the chiaroscuro found in early silent expressionist film and film noir, even before I had the vocabulary to describe exactly what it was that enthralled me.
When I took a course on Gothic Literature and was introduced to the book "The Monk", images of the story being played out on a silent screen sprang to mind. The dramatic physicality of the character’s actions, the dynamic between the forces of good and evil, the spells and sorcery all seemed like it would be at home in a silent film. I wondered if the book had indeed been adapted as a film in the 1920’s — perhaps as a German Expressionist film along the lines of Nosferatu, Faust, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. When I researched it, I saw that no such film existed. Although The Monk had been adapted for film before, these films were made far after the era of silent film, and none were adapted in a way that truly embodied that dramatic, excessive “gothicism” of the novel.
What if I could make that missing film? My mind swarmed with (grandiose) visions of making a film that would appear to fit seamlessly into the canon of Gothic Expressionist films from the days of early cinema. It would be an exciting challenge — to adapt a novel, set in the 1500s but written in the 1790s, into a film that looked like it was made in the 1920s. I filled out an application for an independent study with the Dartmouth Film Studies department and started talking to professors. My idea was, as I was told multiple times, “very ambitious”— especially since I was doing it the last three months of my senior year of college. But I eventually found the support I needed and got to work.
In order to achieve the level of authenticity I wanted, I decided I would limit myself as much as possible to using technology available to filmmakers in the 1920s. I was vehemently against using a digital camera and slapping an “old film” effect on the project in post production, so after a few tests, I chose to use 16mm Tri-X Black & White reversal film (to get the deep contrast I desired) in a vintage Arriflex 16 camera from western Germany. I built my own simple sets and shot in locations nearby when it was feasible. I used basic, dramatic lighting setups, and tried as much as possible to use other filmmaking techniques from the 1920s.
As I dove deeper into the project, I realized that I was not only making a film adaptation of a Gothic novel, but I was creating a project that was itself Gothic in many ways.
The Gothic first emerged during the Enlightenment as a sort of turning away from rationality and embracing the imagination, the supernatural, superstition, dreams and nightmares. It embodied nostalgia for a time when less was explained and the realm of the unknown was bigger.
I saw an echo of this in the sheer irrationality of my project. I wanted to use real film in an old camera despite its many obvious drawbacks: real film is more expensive, difficult, and time-consuming than digital. Yet I sought something visceral and emotional, something that modern technology fails to capture as well. The decisions I made were irrational, riding on an undercurrent of nostalgia for another time, a time when film was a real tactile craft, when it was the closest thing to magic as audiences had ever seen.
Similarly, one of the things that marks the Gothic is a resurgence of the past into the present — this often manifests as ghosts returning to haunt those that have wronged or forgotten them. This film, I discovered, was like a strange ghost from the past. It has a somewhat disruptive presence in 2015, an era when multiple generations have grown up with sound, color, and digital film, and many have gone their whole lives without watching a silent movie. It is a challenge for modern viewers to watch, yet I hope it is a reminder of another kind of film that has been relegated to the past — a reminder to dig those films up once and a while and to relearn the language of early cinema."
- Zoë Furlong