The Magician (1926)

The Magician (1926)‘If you wish to see strange things, I have the power to show them to you.’

A beautiful sculptress living in Paris is saved from paralysis by a handsome American doctor. The two fall in love, but she has become the obsession of a charismatic mystic with plans to create life using sorcery.

Writer-director and actor Rex Ingram was one of the first auteurs in the history of cinema. His films were released through MGM, but he had full creative control and usually filmed at his own studios in France, despite legendary arguments with the studio head Louis B. Mayer. Why was he allowed such unprecedented artistic freedom? Because he had delivered the most successful silent movie of all time (adjusted for inflation!) It was called ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ (1921) and gave the world Rudolph Valentino. Another film with the legendary screen idol followed before Ingram pulled the trick again (admittedly to a slightly lesser extent) by making a star out of Ramon Novarro. In 1922, Ingram married his perennial leading lady, and big star, Alice Terry. They were as much Hollywood royalty as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Unfortunately, everything started to unravel for Ingram with the big budget ‘Mare Nostrum’ (1926), and the deterioration continued with this project, loosely based on the novel W Somerset Maugham.

Having said that, the film’s opening is undeniably impressive. We join Terry in her Left Bank studio working on a giant bust of a faun’s head. It’s a striking creation, and actually the work of famous artist Paul Dardé commissioned especially for the film. Unfortunately, the statue falls apart as soon as it’s finished and one of the larger fragments crushes her spine. Enter stage right Ivàn Petrovich as super young, super handsome super surgeon Arthur Burdon who fixes her up with an operation under the watchful eyes of a roomful of medical students. One of these is a rather mature Paul Wegener: hypnotist, mystic and all round crazy man. He takes quite a fancy to Terry, as does Petrovich, but while the medicos intentions are romantic, his are far more sinister.

Terry recovers from the op without a scratch and starts making the old goo-goo eyes with Petrovich, but Wegener soon has her under his dastardly spell. This involves showing her a vision of hell, which is rather near the knuckle, given the vintage of the production. Actually, it’s the film’s most impressive sequence, and an obvious influence on the later Spencer Tracy vehicle ‘Dante’s Inferno’ (1935), mainly because both were shot by producer Harry Lachman after Ingram became bored with the sequence and left the set (as he often did apparently!) From there, it’s rather a roundabout trip to the watchtower filled with strange equipment and a dwarf assistant (UniversaI’s ‘Frankenstein’ series, anyone?) via an entirely pointless diversion to the gaming houses of Monte Carlo.

Ingram was obviously minded to make a surrealistic horror in the mould of German expressionist classics such as ‘The Cabinet of Dr CaIigari’ (1919), and F W Murnau’s monumental ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) and ‘Faust’ (1926). He also may have intended some subtext regarding the theme of ‘alchemy versus science’ (the villain in the original novel was allegedly based on notorious occultist Aleister Crowley) but, the hell sequence apart, his film is far too conventional to achieve such levels of meaning or intensity.

Even having Wegener in the title role is a mistake, although it must have seemed like a tremendous coup at first. The German writer-director-star had delivered what was arguably the world’s first feature length horror film with ‘The Student of Prague’ (1913), and had followed that with a trilogy about ‘The Golem’, a giant clay statue brought to life by means of magic. Wegener’s acting style suited those projects perfectly, but it’s simply too theatrical here, and at odds with the more naturalistic approach of the remainder of the cast. This leads one character to remark that the hypnotist is like ‘something out of an old melodrama’, a title card possibly introduced at a later date to explain Wegener’s histrionic performance.

Also appearing here in a bit part is a young Michael Powell. Serving initially as Lachman’s gopher, the world famous film director got his start in the business as a member of Ingram’s company. Recalling his experiences on this film in his essential memoir ‘A Life In Movies’, Powell reveals he worked in many minor capacities behind the scenes, learning the business from the bottom up. He also paints an unflattering portrait of Wegener as inflexible, arrogant and condescending, constantly disappearing in a cloud of foul cigar smoke.

The Magician (1926)

‘Hell’s Kitchen’ had a new contestant…

Ultimately, Powell did not rate the finished product and audiences were also less than enthusiastic. lngram made only two more silent pictures and one talkie (‘Baroud’ (1932)), but never came close to emulating his earlier success. Difficult relationships with producers and studios, combined with these latter poor box office returns meant that his career was effectively over only a decade after he was one of the most successful filmmakers in the world.

Of undoubted historical interest, this is unfortunately a fairly dull experience, particularly in the middle third. However, it is worth watching for the stand out sequences, which proved highly influential on the development of the supernatural film in the 1930s and beyond.

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.

Der Student Von Prag/The Student of Prague (1913)

Der_Student_von_Prag_(1913)‘I give to Mr Scarpanelli the right to take whatever he wants from this room.’

When a mysterious old man offers a penniless student a bag of gold, he sees the opportunity to move into society and woo a rich countess who he has saved from drowning. All the old man wants in exchange is any item from the student’s flat. But then he takes the student’s reflection out of the mirror.

Often cited as the first narrative horror film, this German early silent is rooted in the myth of the doppelgänger; a theme that had already inspired Dostoevsky’s ‘The Double’ (1846) and Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘William Wilson’ (1839), the latter being credited as the source material here. There are other obvious touchstones too; the legend of ‘Faust’ selling his soul to the devil and the good/bad human dichotomy encapsulated by Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1886), which had already been filmed several times in America by then, although only as very short subjects.

The star here is Paul Wegener; a respected young stage actor making his first steps into film, along with the similarly inexperienced director Stellan Rye. More significantly, however, a film of this length and narrative complexity was ground-breaking, which probably explains the uneven results. Far too much time is spent on the dreary romantic subplot between Wegener and the colourless Grete Berger and the film drags as a result. However, there are compensations in the supporting cast with Lyda Salmonova bringing a cheeky personality to her role as a flower girl and John Gottowt understated as old man Scapinelli.

Although it’s often mentioned as a forerunner of the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, the only real connection is thematic, rather than stylistic. It is possible to interpret the story as a symptom of the student’s disintegrating psyche, a repeated theme in German cinema of the time, rather than as a series of actual events. Perhaps we are witnessing the birth of multiple personality being rationalised in the student’s mind as the work of outside forces, or simply a struggle between the opposite sides of his personality? The remake, also called ‘The Student of Prague’ (1926) apparently leaves much less room for interpretation with early sequences clearly showing Scapinelli as a sorcerer. It also re-teamed Conrad Veldt and Werner Krauss from ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1919). The story was also remade by Louis Malle, much more effectively, as his segment of the otherwise disappointing portmanteau film ‘Spirits of the Dead’ (1968).

Der_Student_von_Prag_(1913)

‘What do you mean you want it in blood? Won’t biro do?’

Wegener went on to bigger things. Just a year later he wrote-directed and starred as ‘The Golem’ (1915), a huge international success but sadly now lost but for fragments. The clay figure brought to life by Rabbi Loew in the Jewish ghetto was good for two more films: comedy ‘Der Golem Und Die Tanzerin’ (The Golem and the Dancing Girl) (1917) (also lost) and prequel ‘The Golem: How We Came Into The World’ (1920), which has thankfully survived the ravages of time.

Salmonova went along with Wegener for the ride; appearing in all 3 ‘Golem’ films, probably because they were married at the time. It didn’t last, however, and perhaps she should have known as it turned out she was number 4 out of 5!

What remains most notable about ‘The Student of Prague’ (1913) today is the trick photography. Wegener is able appear twice in the same frame as his apparent reflection walks out of the full- length mirror. It’s quite a staggering sequence, considering the vintage of the film. It was a signpost of what was to come in the 1920s, when German cinema eclipsed Hollywood and the rest of the world in both technical expertise and artistry.