Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Extraordinary Illusions (1901)

Alternate Title: Dislocation Mystérieuse

This short trick film from Georges Méliès deals with magical dismemberment, animated body parts, and the danger of one’s own body parts going into revolt. Of course, it’s all handled in a light-hearted fun way that keeps with Méliès’s child-friendly spirit, but I’m still including it with my history of horror as a movie that may have inspired darker visions at a later date.

extraordinary-illusionsA man dressed as Pierrot walks onto a proscenium-style set painted to represent a cave, with a few stools set at a distance from one another. He sits on the middle stool, then looks over to see a bottle of wine to stage left. He reaches for it, but, as it is too far, he detaches his arm, which now floats over to the bottle and picks it up, floating back across the stage to re-join his shoulder. He then sends his other arm to retrieve the glass sitting on the other stool, and pours himself a glass of wine. Next, he takes out a pipe and puts it in his mouth, but the candle is on the second stool, so this time he detaches his head and it floats over to light the pipe from the candle. Now, he tries to cross his legs, but they are uncomfortable, so one detaches itself and floats to the right stool, the other to the left. His legless torso now drops painfully to the ground. He gets his rebellious legs to reattach themselves, and then does a dance which culminates in his complete dismemberment as all of his limbs and his head detach themselves from the torso, with all six pieces dancing on their own. Finally, the body is rejoined, and he takes off his own head and sits on it before bowing, tucking the head under his arm, and exiting the stage.

The original Star Films catalog refers to this as “one of the best and most mysterious films ever produced,” which seems to justify the sense that it might count as a horror film. It claims that “there [is] not the slightest doubt that they are genuine living limbs,” although for the final dance, most of the limbs do look like props on strings, except for the head. Nevertheless, a lot of work went into making these effects in-camera and getting the timing and positions right must have been quite difficult. Imdb claims that this movie stars Méliès himself, but I’m not certain – the Pierrot figure doesn’t have his signature beard, and I feel like he moves a bit differently from Méliès. At any rate, whether or not it is “absolutely unique” as the catalog claims, it is a fun example of what Méliès learned to do in a few short years as a filmmaker.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown, possibly Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Brahmin and the Butterfly (1901)

Alternate Title: La Chrysalide et le Papillion d’or

This short from Georges Méliès involves giant insects and magical transformations, two frequently-recurring themes in his work. I include it in my “history of horror,” in part because of an ending that seems to suggest that a man has lost his humanity.

brahmin1A bearded man in a turban walks onto a set decorated to appear as a tropical forest or jungle. He brings out a large barrel-shaped object and attaches it to wires, then produces a flute and begins to play. An enormous worm-like creature (no doubt a caterpillar, but without any visible legs) craws onto the stage in answer to his summons. He kisses it affectionately, then puts it into the hanging object, which we now perceive is a giant cocoon. After a moment, the lid comes off and a woman with antennae and butterfly wings is pulled out on wires, appearing to fly. She stands on his hand for a moment, then flutters to the ground. The man pursues her as she dances about, and throws a blanket over her head, causing her to stop moving. Two other women now approach and remove the blanket, revealing that the butterfly has now transformed fully into a woman. The man falls on his knees before her, but she spurns him, finally putting her foot on his neck. This causes him to turn into a caterpillar, and he crawls after her when she departs with the women.

The appearance of the gigantic worm already had me thinking about including this movie in the run for October, but it was when the “Brahmin” was turned into a worm himself that I was really sold. The worm is cute, really, not frightening, but the idea of a human becoming one is creepy nonetheless. In this case, it seems as though the Brahmin has lost himself due to his powerful attraction to the butterfly-woman, and goes from being a powerful magician to a crawling worm for love. This movie was apparently based on a stage act by a fellow magician, Buatier de Kolta, which may have appeared on the stage at the Robert-Houdin Theater before Méliès filmed it and screened it there. A “Brahmin” is a Hindu priest, but I would imagine that Méliès was using the term for added exoticism, not out of a genuine interest in reincarnation. Still, one could argue that this Brahmin falls back into the wheel of Karma and misses out on enlightenment because of his attachment to the butterfly and inability to rise above human passions.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Doctor and the Monkey (1900)

Alternate Title: Le Savant et le chimpanzé

Admittedly, this short from Georges Méliès is clearly intended as a comedy romp, but I’m including it with my “history of horror” because of its obvious relationship to later “ape on the loose” movies like “King Kong.” This monkey is less imposing, but the special effects are no less impressive for the period.

doctor-and-the-monkeyThe proscenium-style set displays a split-level home, with both the lower and upper floors visible, and the floor cutting mid-way through the screen. On the lower floor is a laboratory, and a doctor, played by Méliès, has a large monkey in a cage (actually an actor in a very obvious monkey suit). When the doctor turns his back, the monkey breaks out of the cage and begins to smash up the lab. The doctor pursues him and tries to bring him back under control, but to no avail. He grabs the monkey by its tail, and the tail detaches itself and begins flailing around under its own power. The doctor grabs a broom and tries to swat the tail, but it leaps up and attaches itself to his nose. The doctor’s housekeeper runs in and helps him pull off the tail, whereupon it disappears for good. Meanwhile, the monkey has climbed up to the second level, where it is smashing stored bags of flour and other things it finds. As the doctor becomes free again, it smashes through the floor and returns to the lower level terrorizing the doctor and the housekeeper. It now tears off the housekeeper’s skirt, leaving her in her pantalettes. As the film ends, the whole house is in shambles, with the monkey in evident dominance.

Apparently this movie has been compared to later video games like “Donkey Kong” because of the split-level effect, and perhaps the destructive monkey as well. Méliès intended it to be funny, but all movies about monkeys and destruction bring out questions of evolution and the beast within humanity, and the thin veneer of civilization that holds order together. In this film, the doctor proves quite incapable of controlling his creature’s instincts, and the monkey clearly gets the better of him. There’s even a sexual aspect, both in terms of the phallus-like tail attacking the man’s nose, and in the monkey tearing clothes off of the female housekeeper. Horror film makers would be exploring these themes again in the subsequent century and beyond.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 30secs

You can watch it for free: here (with music).

The Eyes That Mesmerize (1916)

Alternate Titles: Hypnotic Eyes, Les yeux qui fascinent

This installment in the crime serialLes Vampires” involves hypnotism, cross-dressing, and murder, as well as a hard-to-follow plot that strains credulity while being hard to predict. In other words, it’s a lot like other episodes of the series.

Focus! Focus!

Focus! Focus!

The movie begins by telling us that more than two weeks have passed since the events of “The Corpse’s Escape,” and that a notary has been killed at Fontainebleau. We also learn that Juan-Jose Moréno (Fernand Hermann) is a master of mesmerism, and he now brings his maid into the parlor and hypnotizes her, causing her to go into a deep trance. Then, Mazamette (Marcel Levésque) and Guérande (Édouard Mathé) decide to attend the movies. They see a story about the recent murder, and recognize Irma Vep (Musidora) and the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) in the footage. Immediately, they rush out of the theater and make plans to go to Fontainebleau. Along the way, they happen to see a visiting American named Warner galloping at high speed on his horse to a remote spot. They follow him and see him hide a box among some boulders, which they recover after he has left. At their hotel, they discover that it is $200,000, which was stolen from an American millionaire named Baldwin, who has posted a considerable reward for its recovery and the capture of Raphael Norton, the man who stole it. They realize that Warner is Norton in disguise.

This has nothing  to do with the plot.

This has nothing to do with the plot.

Meanwhile, the Grand Vampire is now disguised as a Count named “Kerlor” and Irma Vep accompanies him as a young (male) Viscount called “Guy.” They also figure out who Warner is (he’s not at all good at keeping secrets) and plan to rob him of the money. Moréno manages to get the room between “Kerlor” and “Warner,” although he has no idea what is going on, and he has brought a very large trunk along with him. The Count tells a rather silly story about a supposed ancestor of his who had to fight two bulls during the Napoleonic Wars (we see the whole thing played out). This somehow distracts the Warners while Irma Vep gets into her Vampire costume and searches Warner’s room until she finds the map. Of course, she is accosted by Moréno, who knocks her out with chloroform and drops her out the window to his gang waiting below. They bundle her into a car and drive off. Meanwhile, Moréno takes his hypnotized maid out of the trunk (!) and disguises her as Irma Vep, then has her give the map to the Grand Vampire in that disguise.

eyes-that-mesmerizeThe Grand Vampire now swings into action, sending his confederate (Miss Édith) to go find the loot indicated on the map. She gets there and finds instead a note from Guérande, inviting the legitimate owner of the box to meet with him. Then she gets captured by Moréno, who tells her to tell the Grand Vampire that he is holding Irma Vep and will release her for a ransom. She reports all of this to the Grand Vampire, who decides to get out because Guérande might have called the police, but plans to try to recover Irma Vep anyway. In the early morning, the police raid the hotel and find that Warner is actually Norton, so Guérande and Mazamette win the reward. Moréno falls in love with Irma and decides not to return her to the Grand Vampire. Instead, he hypnotizes her and causes her to write a confession of her various crimes, then orders her to kill the Grand Vampire, which she does with dispatch, as soon as he walks in the door.

Don't mess with Irma Vep

Don’t mess with Irma Vep

The episode ends with the now-rich Mazamette giving a press interview to his friend Guérande and other reporters, assuring them that, “though vice is sometimes slow to be punished, virtue is always rewarded.”

Since there are no actual vampires in the series, I am usually forced to stretch things a bit to justify my inclusion of it in my annual October “history of horror.” In this case, the connection is hypnotism, which has been a theme of horror writing and cinema since Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemaar.” When Mesmer first began convincing the educated world that hypnotism was a real psychological phenomenon, and not just a parlor trick, Europeans became frightened at the possibility of a strong will dominating a weak one. What if crimes could be committed while under hypnosis, even murder? Feuillade plays on that theme in this film by causing the weak-minded maid to become a virtual robot, and Irma Vep to switch allegiances from the Grand Vampire to Moréno. In that case, however, I’m not certain mental dominance was necessary: she appears to me to have chosen to abandon the less successful master criminal for the one who has really become the focus of the story for the last two episodes. If the Grand Vampire is really dead, though, I’m not sure how they can justify calling the rest of the serial “Les Vampires.”

How far would you trust this woman?

How far would you trust this woman?

And now for my usual nit-picky logical questioning of the plot. OK, so Moréno hires a girl who looks sort of vaguely like Irma Vep to be his maid, hypnotises her and carries her into the country in a trunk…so she can wear a mask for a few seconds and give the Grand Vampire something Irma Vep was going to give him anyway? How did he know in advance to have her wear a Vampire costume? How did he manage to get the right room when everyone was using assumed names? How did he know to station his gangsters outside the window with a net just at the moment he was going to push her out the window? And why did we have to watch that silly bullfighting sequence? Anyway, I’m glad Mazamette finally has enough money to send all his children through school. Hopefully the adventures of Musidora and Moréno will continue to thrill us next week.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Levésque, Musidora, Fernand Hermann, Jean Aymé, Miss Édith, Maxa

Run Time: 58 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Triple Conjurer and the Living Head (1900)

Alternate Title: L’Illusionniste double et le tete vivant

This short from Georges Méliès demonstrates the sophistication his special effects had already taken on in the last year of the nineteenth century, and the care and hard work he put into them. I’m including it in my “history of horror” for October, because of the theme of animated heads, which we saw in “The Mysterious Knight” as well.

triple-conjurerWe see Méliès himself appear on a proscenium-style set that has some familiar “magic show” elements in the background, including a cauldron and a demon face. He suddenly steps to the side, and a second Méliès steps out to the other side. The two Méliès sit on stools facing each other and interact. One Méliès gets a table and puts it between them, then places a woman’s (mannequin) head on top of it. The head comes to life and speaks. The conjurer crawls underneath the table to show that there is no body below the table. Then the second Méliès gets up and causes the woman to materialize completely – now she has a body. Both of them appear to be attracted, and make motions to kiss her, but she refuses. Then a new figure, which is Méliès in his devil costume from “The Devil in a Convent” appears and causes the woman to disappear. The Méliès facing the Devil sees him and runs off stage. The other one seems puzzled, and the devil gestures from behind his back. Finally, he turns around and sees the Devil, also running off screen. The Devil removes his costume and reveals himself as a third Méliès, taking a bow for his magic.

We’re so used to seeing people “mirrored” in the screen that we don’t think too much of it anymore, but it was quite a wow to have three images of the same person on the screen at once in 1900. Moreover, it took a lot of precision work. Méliès had to shoot the scene three times, making sure that he hit his cues at the same moment for each take, and not accidentally step in the same place at the same time as his “other self” would appear there. The interactions between the two images are perfect, including eye-lines and reactions, and there is no visible “split” between the two images, something which filmmakers as late as the 70s and 80s were still messing up. The head is less perfect – the table top seems to be detached from the legs, and it moves around when she talks or turns her head. This is another movie that won’t scare anyone, but I would say that the entertainment value is undiminished, in part because Méliès’s charm and enthusiasm comes through so strongly.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Georges Méliès, and Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here (with music).

Up-to-Date Spiritualism (1900)

Alternate Title: Spiritisme Abracadabrant

Another short from Georges Méliès depicting the plight of a fellow plagued by a Poltergeist, this movie has a lot in common with “The Bewitched Inn” and other ghost-comedies Méliès produced. I’m including it as part of my “history of horror” because it fits the theme of supernatural pests, even if it wouldn’t scare even a small child.

up-to-date-spiritualismWe see a man (Méliès) in costume on a typical proscenium-style set. He appears to be in a room or salon and to have just arrived – he is still in hat and coat, and he carries a large umbrella. He puts the umbrella on a stool and while his back is turned it suddenly flies offscreen to the right. He notices that it has vanished, but goes ahead and takes off his hat and places it on the same stool. The hat now levitates in front of him. When he tries to grab it, it eludes him, but when he lets it go, it suddenly appears on his head again. He now removes both hat and coat, only to have them reappear on his body again. He now begins a war to try to get the hat and coat off, but each time he lets go of them, they are suddenly on him again. He becomes increasingly agitated, trying to hurl the objects away, but to no avail. Finally, he tries overturning a large table and putting the offending clothes underneath it. He rubs his hands together, believing that he has outwitted the ghost, but once again the hat and coat appear on him! He now flees the room in terror or perhaps annoyance.

The Star Films catalog refers to this movie as a “comique eccentric,” and describes it much as I have, with perhaps a bit more action than I saw (“the chairs, his umbrella, his hat, etc fly away in different directions and by various methods”). The only method at work on the flying objects was suspension by a string, and the effect of having things reappear on the character is entirely handled with jump cuts. It still works, though, and I got a few chuckles watching the way Méliès’s character shows his growing irritation at the phenomenon through body language. A nice example of the work Méliès was producing in huge numbers at this point in time.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here (with music).

October 1916

As usual, I lead off this installment of the Century News with updates from the Western Front, although there’s a good range of other news in the headlines this month.

World War I:

The Battle of Le Transloy begins on October 1. This is the last offensive attempted by the Fourth Army of the British Expeditionary Force in the Battle of the Somme.

Also on October first, the British Reserve Army initiates the Battle of the Ancre Heights to press successes in another region of the Somme.

The French initiate the First Offensive Battle of Verdun on October 20. This attack is the beginning of a German defeat in Verdun.

Ethiopian artist's rendering of the Battle of Segale

Ethiopian artist’s rendering of the Battle of Segale

Civil War:

The Battle of Segale is fought on October 27 in Ethiopia, providing a victory for the new Empress Zewditu against forces loyal to Iyasu V, her uncrowned rival.


In the United States, the “most lopsided game in the history of college football” occurs on October 7, when Georgia Tech beats Cumberland with a score of 222 to nothing.


Nonviolent activist Hipólito Yrigoyen is elected President of Argentina on October 12. His regime is hampered by a highly oppositional political class, which controls parliament, and he resorts to extra-constitutional means through declaring a “state of emergency” to enact measures in many provinces.


Perm State University, today one of the oldest universities in the Ural region is founded in Russia on October 14.


Margaret Sanger opens the first birth control clinic in the US on October 16, a forerunner “Planned Parenthood.” Sanger will be arrested nine days later for distributing contraceptives.


Assassination of Count Karl von Stürgkh, Minister-President of Austria by Friedrich Adler. Adler was a socialist who defended his act as one of revolutionary necessity at his trial. His party, which endorses Austria’s involvement in the war, repudiates his actions.


The Pawnshop” starring Charlie Chaplin, released October 2.

Return of Drew Egan” starring William S. Hart, released October 15.

A Daughter of the Gods,” reputed to be the first movie with a one million dollar budget, released and allegedly the first movie with a nude scene by a major actress (Annette Kellerman), released October 17.


Henry Woodruff, who had starred in the movies “A Beckoning Flame” and “A Man and His Mate,” October 6, from Bright’s Disease.

The Corpse’s Escape (1916)

Alternate Titles: Les vampires: L’évasion du mort, The Dead Man’s Escape

This chapter of “Les Vampires” continues the cycle of capture-and-escape without doing much to advance the storyline, although it includes some references to earlier work of Feuillade and his mentor, Alice Guy-Blaché. The title as well as the plot seem to flirt with horror tropes, without actually becoming a horror film as we would understand the concept now.

corpses-escapeAt the end of the last movie, the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) and Irma Vep (Musidora) had managed to elude capture and rob the spoils of their “colleague” Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), while he was arrested. At the outset of this episode, Moréno is being interrogated by the magistrate when he produces a pill and announces that he’d rather die than go to prison. He takes the pill, and a doctor pronounces him dead without an examination after hearing the magistrate describe what happened. The “body” is moved to a holding cell until the morgue attendants can come pick it up, and of course Moréno gets up and cold-cocks a guard in order to escape.

The heroic Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) is up late at night watering his plants when he sees Moréno and his lackeys go into a nearby warehouse. He has the presence of mind to take a piece of clay to make a mold of the lock of that warehouse, just in case he ever wants to sneak around in there. Meanwhile, the intrepid, tepid Philippe Guérande (played by, yawn, Édouard Mathé) pauses in his writeup of the escape to look out the window, and is suddenly hooked around the neck and pulled down to the street below, where a gang of Vampires put him into a wicker basket with a Gaumont symbol on the side. He waits until they place the basket near some stairs, then tips it over and tumbles down to another street, where some good Samaritan passers-by open it and free him. He discovers the name of the costume company that rented the basket on another side, away from the Gaumont symbol.

corpses-escape1In investigating that company, he finds that the basket was rented by a Baron de Mortesalgues, yet another alias of the Grand Vampire. Unfortunately, Moréno was also present at the costume company, since he needed some phony police uniforms for another heist, and he takes advantage of the opportunity to nab Guérande and drags him back to the warehouse. He tells Guérande that he’ll let him go if he gives him a way to get revenge on the Grand Vampire for stealing his stolen loot, and Guérande tells him the Baron’s identity. Once Moréno leaves, Guérande is quickly rescued by Mazamette.

The Baron is having a big society do for his “niece,” who is actually Irma Vep. They dose the guests with sleeping gas and emerge with other members of the Vampires in full costume to loot their wallets and jewels. However, Moréno is able to jump on top of the getaway car and throws the luggage containing the loot off the roof, then jumps off himself, and goes back to collect it all. Mazamette visits Guérande and accuses him of being “too honest,” (after flirting shamelessly with the maid – careful Mazamette, we know you have a wife and children!) but Guérande shows him a quote about focusing on the end result and Mazamette agrees to continue the fight.

Good thing we wore masks so none of these sleeping people can identify us!

Good thing we wore masks so none of these sleeping people can identify us!

The beginning of this episode was like a less-interesting version of “The Murderous Corpse” with Moréno substituting for Fantômas. Even the prison set is identical. I’m not sure why it was necessary to bring in a second master criminal for this series – perhaps because the hero was too bland? It seems to distract from focusing on the Vampires, and this episode has far too little of Musidora as a result. We do get a good amount of Mazamette, however, which is a consolation, and I love the little pantomime Lévesque performs to make certain we understand that he’s copied the key. The sequence with Guérande in the basket reminded me of “The Drunken Mattress” and other surreal comedies by Alice Guy where a person is trapped in an inanimate object which seems to develop a life and personality of its own.

Obligatory-but-admittedly-silly-logic-department: In this movie, we are led to believe that the Grand Vampire can convince half of the wealthy people in Paris to attend a party for his alias’s “niece.” Either he has somehow found time to build an identity and attend social functions for years in order to lure them to his home and rob them of whatever they brought with them (really a pretty petty theft) OR he was able to con them just by putting the word “Baron” before a name. Also, in this movie, we see Guérande pulled down from his apartment one story to the ground below, but in “The Red Cryptogram” we saw Musidora and the Grand Vampire escape out that same window to the rooftops of Paris, quite a bit higher up than a single story. Which is it?

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Musidora, Jean Aymé, Fernand Herrmann

Run Time: 38 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Mysterious Knight (1899)

Alternate Title: Le Chevalier Mystère

I’m including this short film from Georges Méliès in my “history of horror” this year, although it is mostly a typical “trick film” with a light-hearted, non-frightening tone, because it does include a somewhat unusual treatment of a head. Whether intended as horror or not, I’m tempted to see it as a kind of predecessor to “Re-Animator” and other movies with animated heads.

mysterious-knightWe see a typical Méliès proscenium-style set, this time dressed to suggest a medieval castle. There is a sword on the wall, as well as an owl. In front of the wall is an easel with a chalkboard on it, and Méliès himself appears in a wig and a costume suggesting an off-duty knight. He draws a woman’s head on the board, then reaches out and pulls it off the board. When he places it on a bottle on the table, it comes to life and begins speaking or perhaps singing. Méliès crawls under the table, to demonstrate to the audience that there is nothing underneath the head. He impales it on the sword(!) and it continues speaking with no apparent discomfort. He then puts it on a tripod and wraps a blanket around the legs of the tripod. When he removes the blanket, the whole woman has appeared. She takes his hand and bows to the audience. He then waves a fan at her and she slowly fades out. He makes her appear once again on the table, then removes her head and throws it back onto the chalkboard, where it becomes a drawing again.

Again, this movie isn’t intended to be all that frightening, but the bit about impaling a talking head on a sword struck me as rather creepy nonetheless. The movies of Méliès often draw upon popular conceptions of magic, which have certain occult overtones, however innocent and playful they may be. I was impressed by the effects in this film, which we have to remember are all done in-camera, and particularly the fade out of a single person while the rest of the image remained steady struck me as impressive for the time. Méliès had done many trick films with people and objects appearing and disappearing at this point, of course, but the interactions between himself and the head are more effective here than many of the effects he did up to this point. There are no noticeable jump cuts, although when Méliès holds the head it quite obviously turns into a mannequin’s head, and he holds it so that the face does not look at the camera to make this less obvious.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

Homunculus (1916)

I want to apologize to my readers for the unexpected delay in posting. I had planned to review this film shortly after my discussion of Part 4 of “Les Vampires,” based on my memory of a partial viewing I had at New York’s Museum of Modern Art around the year 2000. I don’t usually do that, but my understanding was that prints were so rare that I wasn’t likely to get another viewing. But, when I started researching to write the article, I found that there is an incomplete (but longer than what I saw before) version on the Internet! Obviously, I had to take the time to look at it and update my notes.

homunculus_-_teil_6_1917_filmplakat“Homunculus” was a serial released in Germany at the height of the First World War, and it’s a pretty remarkable movie. Its lead actor, the Dane Olaf Fønss, was reputedly paid more for this film than any actor in Germany had received so far. It fully realizes the technical and artistic potential of cinema’s achievements at this time, despite the fact that it was produced during a period of extreme budget limitations on European film making. It also happens to be a ripping good story.

homunculusThe story is that a group of scientists, led by a Professor Ortmann, produce a living human child using scientific processes – a “homunculus.” This creature is human in every way, except that he cannot experience love. He does experience all other emotions, however, apparently including considerable frustration that he cannot experience love. The professor raises him as his son, not telling him who and what he is, until he reaches the age of 25, when he discovers the truth for himself. He now learns that women have a propensity for loving him, although he cannot return this feeling. This results in various tragic situations, wherein he drives young women to suicide. His frustration with the situation causes him to declare a war against humanity, vowing to spread fear and terror. He goes to a Middle Eastern society and is able to use “superhuman abilities” to cure the local Prince, but soon the locals decide that he must be in league with the devil and pursue him. There is a woman in love with him here, as well, but there is also a dog that gets killed by the crowd, which upsets him rather a lot for a man who doesn’t feel love.

homunculus3When he returns to Germany, he becomes involved with a large company on its board of directors, due once again to his remarkable skill. He uses his influence to create increasingly oppressive working conditions for the laborers. Then, at night, he dresses as a worker and rouses the workers to revolt with stirring speeches against the bosses. Thus, he creates the conditions for increasing chaos and strife. Along the way, a young worker girl finds out who he is and what he is doing, and even though she opposes him, she falls in love with him as well. According to the German Wikipedia entry, he plans to use her to breed a new race of humans, although this didn’t happen in either version I saw.

I also only know the ending from reading about it: apparently Dr. Ortmann creates another Homunculus to destroy him. After this one grows up (another 22 years), there is a climactic clash in the mountains, in which Homunculus is destroyed and an avalanche crushes his leagues of human followers.

homunculus4I’m going to go slightly out on a limb and declare that “Homunculus” can be seen as an early example of Expressionism in German film. It’s not as visually creative as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but it operates in a world where feelings and emotions determine outcomes and actions, and it uses light and shadow to display the characters’ inner worlds. It didn’t invent Expressionism, which was already a movement in painting and drama before it came to the screen. There’s also a lost 1915 version of “Der Golem,” which, for all I know, may have been even more Expressionist than Homunculus. However, this movie definitely plays with themes that we will see associated with Expressionism repeatedly when we get a few years further into this project: The “created man” or Homunculus, which comes up in “Der Golem,” in variations on “Frankenstein,” and in “Metropolis,” and the “dopplegänger” or double, which we’ve already seen in “Der Student von Prague” and will see again in Caligari’s dual identity and again in “Metropolis.”

homunculus5The creation sequence for “Homunculus” may have been more influential, in fact, on later versions of “Frankenstein” than was the 1910 Edison version. This one shows classic white-coated scientists in a laboratory with bubbling beakers and electrical equipment. The actual device they take the baby out of looks sort of like a glass art deco statue – but it also is slightly reminiscent of the coiled devices you see scattered around the 1931 lab. Interestingly, both versions of the movie I have seen frequently flashback to the creation sequence – but I don’t know for certain whether these versions have been re-edited from the original serial. Homunculus’s look is also somewhat prescient of F.W. Murnau’s Mephistopheles, although he also reminds me of Sarek, from “Star Trek.” He wears a cape a lot of the time, like later vampires would, at least after Bela Lugosi. I think Fønss does an excellent job with the role; though perhaps his performance will be too overwrought for some tastes, I find the intensity and violence he displays to be fairly compelling, and appropriate for a villain in an Expressionist horror film.

homunculus2The thing that really stood out to me when I watched this years ago is the way it seems to predict Adolf Hitler: a man who simultaneously whips up class resentment and encourages the repression that causes it, who seems to be incapable of love and declares war against the world, yet who has the ability to charm followers (and women) and gain access to the wheels of power. Certain aspects of Homunculus’s slogans seem to prefigure fascist hardline positions: “The globe will tremble under the wrath of the people.” Today, I think what this really reflects is the horror of the First World War and the degree to which two years of trench warfare was traumatizing the German people and its culture and politics, even at this time. If you really come right down to it, there are as many differences between Homunculus and Hitler as there are similarities – it’s just that a brutal and charismatic leader seemed more possible in Germany by this time than ever before, and the filmmakers have tapped into that current.

Director: Otto Rippert

Camera: Carl Hoffmann

Starring: Olaf Fønss, Friedrich Kühne, Mechthildis Thein, Lore Rückert

Run Time: 6 hrs (total, 6 episodes), just over an hour available.

You can watch as much of it as I’ve seen for free: here.