Mistress of Atlantis/L’Atlantide/Queen of Atlantis (1932)

Mistress_of_Atlantis_(1932)‘Yes, but are not all women in some ways divine?’

Travelling deep into the North Africa desert, two French explorers discover the lost continent of Atlantis, which is ruled by a beautiful queen. Romantic complications arise when one of them falls in love with her, but his feelings are not reciprocated. lnstead, the Queens falls in love with his friend, who couldn’t be less interested if he tried.

Pierre Benoit’s 1919 novel ’L’Atlantide’ was an instant hit with the public, notwithstanding the book’s obvious faults. lt had an implausible premise, a paper-thin plot, an absence of drama and a turgid wealth of encyclopaedic background detail. The serious and melodramatic tone was perfect for silent cinema though and the epic adaptation ‘L’Atlantide’ (1921) followed, clocking in at almost three hours.

For some reason, famous German director G W Pabst thought the story would work over a decade later as a ‘talkie’ and recruited big star Brigitte Helm for the title role. In order to sidestep the non-existence of subtitles and the resulting difficulties with sales in foreign markets, the film was shot simultaneously in three different languages; English (released as ‘Mistress of Atlantis’), French (L’Atlantide’) and German ‘Queen of Atlantis’). The same crew was used and the same cast, where their linguistic abilities allowed. This was a short lived practice, probably because of the costs involved.

Although the German cut is not readily available, watching the English and French versions confirm that the same footage was used where possible, and most of the camera set ups are identical, meaning that scenes were probably simply shot one after another; just shuffle in the new cast where necessary and switch languages. Unfortunately, the results are unsuccessful on many levels. The story manages to be muddled, and it’s hard to see what Pabst was trying to achieve.

In the greatest departure from the novel, Queen Antinea is not the hereditary leader of Atlantis at all, but the offspring of a Can-Can dancer and a Taureg chieftain, whose meeting is shown in a particularly misjudged flashback. She also doesn’t have a temple full of mummified ex-lovers, and the lost kingdom is merely a series of caves, with the notable exception of a huge stone head of Helm, which is the most impressive thing about the film. It’s almost as if Pabst was trying to play down the Atlantis angle as much as he could.

Early scenes feature a female reporter, who travels with our heroes for a short time. Although the scene was excised in the English release, the French film sees her typing in her tent whilst chatting with one of the explorers. This seems to have fuelled the belief of some commentators that everything which follows is the explorer’s mad ravings, influenced by the story she is writing. It is possible, as there seems to be no reason for her presence in the film at all, although it would render the rest of the story completely pointless. Curiously, it’s hard to establish just who is playing the role of this newshound, the likeliest candidate being a woman named Rosita Severus Liedernit, but she is listed as playing ‘Herself’, and has no other film credits. Perhaps the whole thing is an in-joke of some kind, the meaning of which has been lost in subsequent decades.

Mistress of Atlantis (1932)

Allegations that being Queen had given her a big head were completely unfounded…

But what really derails the project is the snail’s pace. Once John Stuart and Gustav Diessl (Pierre Blanchar and Georges Tourreil in the French film) arrive at their destination, the film grinds almost to a halt, not assisted by the lack of a musical soundtrack. The only real selling point is the presence of the luminous Helm. lt’s not hard to understand why some of our heroes are besotted with her. Her dialogue is fairly minimal, and occasionally delivered when she’s out of the frame so it may have been that she was not entirely comfortable with the languages, but she certainly speaks clearly enough, and her English accent is fine. It would be interesting to view the German film to see if she was given more dialogue in her native language. She’s mesmerising anyway, and the scene where her and Stuart play chess hints at what the film could have been.

Apart from Helm, though, there’s little to recommend the picture. Other performers are stilted and unconvincing, and the English cast display the kind of reserve that is somewhat at odds with the Gallic temperament of the French soldiers they are supposed to be. It’s also strange how unimpressive the production design is, given that this obviously a high budgeted affair. It was the one aspect that ’L’Atlantide’ (1921) got exactly right.

High profile ‘quality’ projects made in the early days of sound cinema often lurched into overwrought melodrama; striving for a more naturalistic approach but with one foot still stuck too firmly in the overdone theatrics of the past. This is a prime example, and, given the shortcomings of the source material as well, it all proves too much for these talented filmmakers to overcome.

Alraune (1930)

Alraune_(1930)‘Quick, over onto the egg box and let your vocal chord flutter, girl.’

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.

Alraune_(1930)

Coming out of a test tube had given her rather strange taste in ear-rings…

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.

Alraune (1928)

Alraune_(1928)‘I, as his own handiwork, shall have my revenge on him.’

A brilliant scientist uses primitive genetic engineering methods to create a new born baby, using a woman of low character as the mother, and a murderer’s seed. He adopts the child and raises her as his own so he can monitor the results of his experiment. His assistant fears that the girl has been born without a soul, and, when she grows into a beautiful young woman, she does prove to be a bit of a handful…

Adaptation of a curious folk tale that was filmed several times, particularly in the silent era, but also as late as 1952 in a German production with Erich Von Stroheim. It’s unusual mythology; the story being that a mandrake root will grow in the soil beneath a gallows from the semen of a hanged killer. The root is then supposed to have magical, life giving properties. You’d be forgiven for not quite understanding all that from just watching this film, and being a little puzzled as to how the good professor brings his creation to life. Perhaps the tale was more popular back then so no further explanation was necessary, or, more likely, it was simply not the done thing to allude to such unpleasantries at the time.

The lead role of the Professor is played by Paul Wegener and it’s good to see him for a change without the ’Golem’ makeup that made him famous. His scientist is a cold, clinical figure at the start of the picture, creating ‘Alraune’ (’Mandrake’ in German) just because he can, rather than for any useful purpose. Unfortunately for him, his arrogance has dire consequences when Alraune grows up to be the lovely Brigitte Helm, who had made such an impression in her debut role as Maria in ‘Metropolis’ (1927). She is wilful, rebellious and, unashamedly liberated. She cheeks the nuns at her convent school and runs off with a local boy, who has fallen for her undeniable charms. Together they join the circus where pretty soon every man is under her spell.

Alraune_(1928)

You want some? Yeah?

This is an interesting picture on several levels. Superficially, we see a man brought low by his desire to usurp the role of God. Wegener’s creation is never under his control, Helm causing chaos wherever she goes. Understandably, men can’t resist her considerable charms, and she manipulates them mercilessly, leaving wrecked lives in her wake. In one memorable scene she even stares down a cage filled with lions!

By the time she links up with the old Professor again toward the end of the film, she’s honed her flirting techniques to perfection and he is helpless to resist. Obviously, his physical desire for her opens a whole new can of sub-text and his obsession with her leads to the tragic climax.

On the other hand, if looked at from the point of view of Helm’s character, it’s a whole different movie. What is she really doing except asking for her rights as an individual and as a woman? Yes, she’s a naughty girl, but ultimately it’s the menfolk who attempt to cast her in fixed, conventional roles; the dutiful daughter, the whore, the virtuous wife. It’s the men who lack strength of character, rather than her. All this seems to inform the resolution of the story, which is pleasingly modern, rather than the corny melodrama that might have been expected.

Although a little stately. for modern tastes, the film was so popular that Helm did it all again two years later in a sound version, although the rest of the cast was different and Henrik Galeen was replaced in the director’s chair by Richard Oswald.

Helm was a luminous presence in everything she did, but did not enjoy acting, or the trappings of fame. She reportedly turned down a request from James Whale in Hollywood to appear as ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935). With the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the mid-1930s, she quit her homeland and moved to Switzerland where she died at the age of 90 in 1996. She always refused interview requests and never talked about her film career.