A crooked councillor has been experimenting with the artificial insemination of rats. He extends his experiments, impregnating a drunken prostitute with semen from a hanged man. He adopts the resulting offspring as his niece, but when she grows up, she proves to be a real wild child…
Silent film ‘Alraune’ (1928) was such a success in Germany that this talkie version followed barely two years later and again starred the luminous Brigitte Helm in the title role. But rather than a straight remake, significant alterations were made to both characters and storyline so that it more closely resembled the original novel by Hans Heinz Ewers. It makes for quite a different viewing experience.
The first change is right upfront from the very beginning. Instead of glossing over the origins of Alraune in the first couple of minutes, here they constitute the entire first act of the film. Part-time genetic engineer Albert Bassermann, his nephew (Harald Paulsen) and unscrupulous doctor (Bernhard Goetzke) drop in at a sleazy bar where they meet inebriated call girl Alma (Helm again). They buy her champagne (not that she really needs it), get her to sign consent forms, and virtually kidnap her. In the earlier film, Alraune’s mother was simply paid for her services and barely featured. Whether these changes were made to accommodate Helm’s loftier star status isn’t clear, but she performs well enough in the first half of her dual role, even talk-singing through a musical number.
What is crucial about this change of emphasis, however, is that it helps turn the Professor into a far more obvious villain. He still has the cold arrogance of Paul Wegener from the earlier film, but his questionable methods are more overt and reference to an earlier dirty piece of business is also included. Alraune herself is also a less ambiguous figure, literally driving the family chauffeur to his death early on as well as toying with the affections of every man she meets. Her first broken heart belongs to a young Martin Kosleck, who went on to become a familiar creepy bad guy in many a Hollywood picture in the following decades. Helm is so sexy here that just dancing with a guy at a party is enough for his intended to break off their engagement in a huff.
All these changes are rather unfortunate as it robs the film of the nuances of the earlier version, making for a much more conventional picture. Helm makes the transition to talkies easily enough, and is still a striking presence, but somehow her performance lacks the vitality and spark she showed in her first run at the role.
And that last comment goes for the whole film really. It’s an acceptable enough experience but suffers greatly in comparison with what went before.