Fantasy was one of the first genres captured on film. In the early 1890s, inventors like the famed Lumière Brothers and the technicians working for Thomas Edison produced brief, 1-3 second “actualities.” These consisted of quick scenes from real life, and had little artistic content, if any.
This changed in 1895.
Alice Guy saw a Lumière projection that year and walked away inspired. Her vision for film went beyond what the French duo were doing.
Guy worked for a photography company, and she convinced her boss to fund her experiments in cinema. She didn’t want to make “actuality” films. She wanted to make art.
In 1896, she created what is often regarded as the world’s first narrative movie, The Cabbage Fairy. In it, a fairy walks through a garden. She gently takes newborns from the cabbages in which they have grown and sets them in front of the lens. A simple film, but the first to bring viewers out of the world they lived in and into a world created by the fantasy of the imagination.
Guy wasn’t the only artist whose life was changed by the Lumière Brothers that year.
Georges Méliès was a theater showman and magician who became transfixed when he saw the Lumières’ projections in December 1895. He tried to buy one of their cameras, but they refused. So, Méliès traveled to Britain and purchased a camera from Robert W. Paul, another pioneer. He made money showing other people’s films until he could buy his own and have it suitably perforated.
Méliès proved to be quite the enthusiast. That first year he made a whopping 78 films, of which six survive.
Le manoir du diable (released as The Haunted Castle) is the most memorable of these. Considered the first horror film, it begins with a bat transforming into the devil. He then uses a magic cauldron to conjure an assistant and creates several horrors – including a beautiful woman who turns into an old hag as soon as she is touched by a cavalier. This mishmash of folk and gothic tropes kicked off a long tradition of horror films, from Nosferatu to The Shining.
In America, Edison’s employees were also itching to express some creativity in their work. William K.L. Dickson brought famed actor Joseph Jefferson into his studio to create a project then unparalleled in ambition.
Jefferson was best known for portraying Rip Van Winkle on stage. He reprised his role for Dickson’s camera. The two created eight very short films telling the classic Washington Irving story.
As silent cinema developed, many directors used fantasy themes in their work and created indelible works of art.
In 1911, Francesco Bertollini & Adolfo Padovan created L’Inferno, an adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy that was Italy’s first full-length feature film. Victor Sjöström created the first classics of Swedish cinema, including The Phantom Carriage.
Fritz Lang of Germany is perhaps the best genre director of the early 20th Century. He created masterpieces of sci-fi and film noir, but his first blockbusters were fantasy stories.
His 1921 movie Destiny is based on an Indian folktale of a woman trying to reunite with her deceased love. It inspired budding directors as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock and Raoul Walsh. Luis Buñuel said it was the reason he became a filmmaker.
Lang next created a high fantasy epic in two parts, Die Nibelungen. It was based on the same medieval German poem that inspired Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The scripts were written by his wife, Thea von Harbou. The two would later collaborate on the 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis.
The greatest achievement of early German fantasy film, however, is undoubtedly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Created in 1920, the film tells of sleepwalkers, hypnotists, and mysterious murders. The dark, distorted, angular sets and shots defined German Expressionism and influenced everything from Freddy Kreuger to Dr. Seuss.
Dr. Caligari continued down the path started in 1896. Alice Guy was the first to portray an imaginary world on screen. Caligari’s world was one that could only exist in unspoken dreams – and could only be expressed in the medium of film.