Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Mechtildis Thein

Fear (1917)

This movie represents the only contribution to the “history of horror” from 1917 that I’ve been able to identify and locate. The now-iconic team of Robert Wiene and Conrad Veidt would return in two years to produce the classic “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but this movie gave them a chance to cut their teeth on madness and mystical curses.

Count Greven (Bruno de Carli) returns to his old castle after spending several years touring the world. We see his carriage pull up to the gate from a high angle, and then he comes into the castle to be greeted by his staff. An Intertitle tells us he was a “cheerful and happy man” when he left, but we see that he is now restless and furtive. He orders the castle locked and the gate barred, claiming he wishes to see “no strange faces.” He goes into a room and shutters the light. Once alone, he opens one of his traveling cases and takes out an Indian statue (the script calls it a “Buddha,” but it’s kind of skinny and looks more Hindu to me). For a moment, his face shows pleasure before returning to fear. He carries it through the halls and puts it in a display case hidden behind an arras – thus concealing it and displaying it at the same time.

After a few days of watching his odd behavior, his chief servant goes to the local minister and tells him that his master needs help. The minister visits and Greven confesses his sins. His “unhappy passion for art collecting” has led him to steal the statue from a temple in India, where the “Buddha priests” have sworn revenge on him. He claims that they will kill him to retrieve the statue, using magical powers no one can understand. The minister concludes that he has gone mad.

Greven is at his wits’ end. He now longs for death as a release from his terrible dread of not knowing when the blow will come. One night, he has a vision of one of the priests (Conrad Veidt in a turban) appearing on his lawn. He tries to shoot at the image without effect, then he begs it to kill him. The priest tells him that he will not kill him until he has “learned to love life” and that then he will die by the hand of “the one dearest to him” in exactly seven years.

With this temporary reprieve, Greven launches into a life of dancing, drinking, gambling, and parties to try to “drink the dregs of life” while he has time. When this lifestyle becomes dull, he begins a feverish program of research to discover a means to “transform nitrogen into protein” thus curing world hunger forever. When he succeeds, a crowd of people hails him and lifts him to their shoulders, just before he lifts up a hammer and smashes the flask. He has now experienced the fame of glory and the impulse to destroy all at once. Next, he pursues a love affair with a lovely young woman (Mechthildis Thein), who agrees to become his wife. After they are wed, he plans to leave her and go on a world tour, but he finds he cannot part from her and stays.

 

Finally, the appointed day arrives. Once again his fearful persona comes to the forefront. He tries to get rid of the curse by hurling the statue into the water, but it reappears in his display case. He demands that his butler taste his tea before drinking. When he sees his wife holding a dagger (presumably from his art collection), he takes a shot at her. He flees from everyone, unable even to trust the coachman not to crash and kill him. Finally, the pressure becomes too much. He turns his pistol on himself, shooting himself and becoming his own executioner. Once again, we see the image of the “Buddha priest.” He rises from the lawn, becoming transparent through multiple exposure and walks to the barred gates, which open at a gesture form him. He walks through the halls and stairs, finally retrieving the statue and carrying it back out of the castle.

 

If you’re hoping for Expressionist photography or wild sets, as in “Caligari,” you’ll be disappointed here. There aren’t really any creative shadows or silhouettes as we’d expect from Maurice Tourneur. No scene is more than slightly underlit. The scene of the confrontation on the lawn is shot in full daylight, we have to accept that it’s night based on the Count wearing his nightgown. I think the movie would have benefited from more close-ups, to give us a better sense of the characters’ emotions, but with a better quality print than is currently available on home video, this might not be as much of an issue.

In terms of the story, however, this is a classic horror tale. I was reminded right from the start of the structure of an H.P. Lovecraft story, with the character returning changed from an experience abroad, then revealing what happened to another character who concludes that he’s insane. That level of disconnect forces the audience to question how much of the story is true, even as we know that for narrative purposes the story will proceed as if the character’s perceptions are real. Wiene would return to this theme of the unreliable narrator in “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but it is used effectively here as well. The structure of the middle part, where Greven goes from wild partying to scientific research to pursuing love, reminded me of the story of “Faust,” which seems to be a part of all early German horror.

 

The movie also reminds me of “The Mummy” in showing how a white man’s blind passion for collection results in his being cursed by the unknown powers of an “exotic” culture. There are definite themes of colonialism and “othering,” and Wiene is somewhat ambiguous as to who is the monster and who the victim here. It never seems to occur to Greven to just give back the statue he stole, or to show remorse for taking it. Even when he begs for death it is to relieve his own suffering, not to make amends. It’s all the more fitting then, when “the hand of the one dearest” to him turns out to be his own.

Director: Robert Wiene

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Bruno DeCarli, Conrad Veidt, Mechthildis Thein, Bernhard Goetzke, Hermann Picha

Run Time: 1 hr

I have been unable to find this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

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.