A mad scientist murders his partner using the giant robot they have created in their laboratory, passing it off as an accident. The scientist plans world domination, but a mine engineer and the murdered man’s widow determine to thwart his nefarious schemes.
Ponderous and stilted early science fiction from Germany, which is only interesting when placed in the context of the era when it was made. Of course, everything that came out of Germany in the early 1930s is viewed in relation to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party, whether parallels were intended or not. But here we have an evil madman bent on taking over the world so it’s rather hard not to make the connection.
It does seem curious subject matter. Many creative people had already departed for friendlier shores and the regime banned science fiction films entirely shortly afterward, making this the last produced in Germany until well after the war. Whether this film was the cause of that ban, or contributed to it, remains unrecorded.
Sadly, there is little entertainment value here if simply viewed as a dramatic film. Aside from one early scene in the darkened lab, it’s relentlessly talky, with little action or story development. The heroic engineer and the widow meet due to a mishap with a ball game, and this provides some momentum to the plot, but Siegfried Schürenberg and Sybillle Schmitz have very little on-screen chemistry, so there’s little audience engagement. The production design tips the hat to Ken Strickfaden and the electrical gadgets he created for ‘Frankenstein’ (1931) and the robot is quite impressive, if not tremendously mobile. Things work up to a dramatic climax with lightning bolts galore but it’s hardly engrossing. Technically, there’s little to get excited about either, although a shot that cuts together a chessboard and a speeding train is undeniably quite effective.
What is far more fascinating is to speculate on the intention of the filmmakers. Director Harry Piel was also an actor, and had risen to fame in his native land due to action movies with explosive climaxes. These were furnished by his acquaintance with a demolition expert, who allowed Piel to film him at work, inserting the resulting footage into his films. More interesting is the fact that Piel was an enthusiastic member of the SS, something that seems at total odds with the subtext of this film. Perhaps he wasn’t that bright, or had little sense of subtlety, who knows? I would like to think screenwriter Georg Mühlen-Schulte put one over on him, but maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part.
Piel eventually fell out of favour with the ruling regime during the war, as they weren’t pleased with his film ‘Panic’ (1940-43), which showed German cities as vulnerable to airborne bombardment. They banned the film and Piel’s career was effectively over, but, in the long run perhaps this was no bad thing as he escaped serious punishment in the years after Germany’s surrender.
Female lead Schmitz was not so lucky. As she carried on working throughout the war, she was ostracised by the film community afterward, and her life descended into a battle with alcoholism. Eventually, she committed suicide in 1955, although there were strong suggestions that she was helped on her way by her lesbian lover and her doctor.
The film reaches the conclusion that technology and man can work together in harmony, although the rural countryside is seen as the ideal, rather than the mine and its machinery. Perhaps this was the intended message of the film, rather than the need to face down the intended tyranny of a mad dictator. If so, it’s a far more understandable production, but it’s difficult not to make the other interpretation.
Mildly interesting as a historical artefact.