Happy 100th birthday, Homunculus!



Homunculus, a six-part horror series released from June 1916–January 1917, is a film many silent cinephiles have heard about (particularly with such a memorable title), but which few have actually gotten a chance to see. For many years, it remained exclusively the domain of film history books and pictures, apart from a shoddy-quality print of Part Four.

The print I saw recently is the print most silent cinephiles have seen, a cut-down Italian version which became available several years ago.

Everything changed on 17 August 2014, when a meticulously-restored (albeit work-in-progress), near-complete print of all six parts premièred by the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn.


Stefan Droßler, director of Filmmuseum München, undertook the most gargantuan task of restoring and reassembling the entire series. Russia’s Gosfilmofond gave him the footage after a lot of negotiating.

There were 27 reels, in quite good condition, from all six parts, but they weren’t exactly in their proper order. In process of copying the footage onto safety stock, everything had been cut and mixed up, and the filmstrips were only sorted by their original tints.

All the intertitles had also been removed, replaced by single frames with the first three words of each missing intertitle scratched on.


Since no censorship records with the original intertitles had survived, Hr. Droßler had to make entirely new titles. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn those censorship records were destroyed in a bombing raid during WWII, since that’s how a lot of old German and Prussian military records were destroyed.

Hr. Droßler reassembled six hours’ worth of footage and created intertitles with the help of every last speck of material he could find from other archives, photographs, and programs. After the Bonn première and a second showing in München on 4 September 2014, the restoration continued.

In November 2015, MoMA showed the latest version of the restoration.


The film which premièred by the Bonn film festival ran 196 minutes, at a speed of 25 frames per second. Back in 1916, the average projection speed was about 16–20 FPS, though it varied from 12–22 until it was standardized to 24 FPS in 1926.

The reassembled film is based upon the 1920 reissue, which had summarized all six parts into but three. Thus, there’s probably still material missing from the 1916 original footage. According to those who’ve seen the restoration, it doesn’t feel fragmentary.


A lot of important horror film motifs come from this granddaddy of horror cinema, like the hunchbacked assistant, the mad scientist’s exuberance upon bringing his creature to life, and the brooding, dark, caped figure. However, since it came out in 1916 Germany, it was only seen in occupied or neutral European countries.

The 1920 reissue didn’t have a much wider reach, since all things German were very unpopular. Many U.S. theatres, for example, refused to play Dr. Caligari that same year, and there were protests and angry letters to newspapers when some theatres did carry it.

At any rate, it did have an undeniable influence upon horror cinema. Not many Americans had the chance to see it, but they were influenced by horror films made by people who had seen it, particularly all the great German Expressionist horror films. It’s a chain reaction, cultural osmosis.

On to the actual film itself!


The installments are as follows:

The Birth of the Homunculus
The Mysterious Book
The Tragic Love Story of the Homunculus
The Revenge of Homunculus
The Annihilation of Humankind
The End of the Homunculus

Popular Danish actor Olaf Fønss played the title role, and got the highest salary in German film history up till that point. Shooting began in May 1916, and Part One premièred 22 June by Berlin’s Marble House theatre. Parts Two through Five ran over the rest of 1916, and Part Six released January 1917. Each installment was divided into four acts.


Profs. Ortmann and Hansen are in competition to artificially create human life. The first to succeed is Hansen, with help from his hunchbacked assistant Rodin. Their creation is a baby boy, though historically, a Homunculus referred to a miniature, fully-formed human.

Tragically, Ortmann and his wife lose their newborn baby boy at only a few days old, and Ortmann immediately bring over the Homunculus. After the switch is made, Hansen believes his experiment failed.

Ortmann raises Homunculus as his own son, Richard. The boy grows up normally, but for one major issue: he doesn’t have the ability to love.


At age 25, Homunculus discovers the truth about his creation, and swears revenge on Hansen, his heart burning with hatred. In spite of his inability to love, he courts and marries Hansen’s daughter Margarete. After their marriage, he lets Hansen in on the secret.

Hansen is horrified, and orders Margarete to leave Homunculus. Margarete, however, loves Homunculus, and saves him when Hansen tries to poison him.

In Part Two, Homunculus befriends a stray dog in North Africa, turns his wrath on Rodin, and miraculously heals a king. The queen and advisors are very suspicious of Homunculus, and once they present evidence of his artificial origins, the king orders him seized. Homunculus escapes the angry mob and vows to kill the next person he meets.

In a scene very reminiscent of The Golem, Homunculus encounters two small children, and he changes his track (at least temporarily).


Since I’ve only seen a condensed version, I can’t recap the entire thing accurately, but I can say there’s a lot of chaos, destruction, and drama. I can’t wait to see it onscreen or on DVD!

“One word destroys thy pact!”



Released 14 October 1926 in Germany, and 5 December in the U.S., F.W. Murnau’s Faust is an absolute classic of German Expressionist cinema, German silent cinema, silent film, German film, and film overall.


Faust (legendary Swedish actor Gösta Ekman) is a venerable scholar who believes the most wonderful thing in creation is our ability to choose between good and evil. As the film opens, he’s the subject of a bet between Mephisto (i.e., the Devil, played by Emil Jannings) and an archangel.

Mephisto claims Faust is as rotten as anyone else, by preaching good while doing evil (alchemy). He offers a wager to wrest Faust’s soul away from God. The archangel says if Mephisto can destroy the Divine spark in Faust, the Earth will be his. Mephisto gloats that no one can resist evil.


Mephisto descends, bringing the Plague. Within a few days, half the town is dying. Faust, desperate to find a cure, spends all his time praying.

A young lady takes him to her dying mother, but Faust’s potion fails to save her. In despair, he throws his vial onto the floor, and it shatters.

Faust is so overcome by helplessness, he throws all his books into a fire. As they’re burning, a book about the dark arts flutters open. Intrigued, Faust takes note of the instructions for calling up the Lord of Darkness to come to one’s aid and give one all the world’s might and glory.

He grabs it from the fire and continues reading.



Faust freaks out when Mephisto actually appears, and he runs home. Mephisto, one step ahead of him, is already waiting there, and offers Faust a contract:

“I renounce God and the heavenly legion, and so shall be mine the power and glory of the world.”


Faust orders him to get away, but the Plague compels him to wish for the power to help for one day only. Mephisto immediately jumps on this, and offers Faust a one-day trial.

Faust waffles a bit, but is convinced when Mephisto says he’ll be able to help the hungry and sick. Whatever Faust wishes, Mephisto will perform. Faust will be the master, and Mephisto the servant.

Mephisto makes Faust sign with his own blood, saying a blood signature is more binding. After Faust makes sure it’s only one day, he finally signs.


The locals come to Faust, begging for his help. He successfully heals the first patient, but the second patient is holding a crucifix, which he’s unable to look upon or get his hands past. The people realize he’s in league with the Devil, and begin stoning him.

Faust flees home, and tries to end it by drinking poison. Mephisto stops him, reminding him the trial day isn’t over yet. Faust fires back that Death makes everyone free, but before he can drink, Mephisto gives him a tempting image of his youth.

Another battle of the wills ensues, before Faust finally begs for youth.


Not only is Faust transformed back to youth, but Mephisto also assumes a more youthful appearance.


Mephisto shows him an apparition of a pretty woman, and Faust demands to be taken to her. They set off an a spectacular journey over the world, on Mephisto’s flying cloak. They arrive at the wedding of the Duchess of Parma, Italy’s most beautiful woman, and make a lot of trouble by the reception.


Faust is getting it on with the bride when Mephisto alerts him to the fact that the sand in the hourglass has run out, and with it the trial day. The image of his returning old age terrifies Faust, and he demands to keep his youth. Mephisto agrees, and says their pact stands for eternity.

Some time later, Mephisto comments that nothing seems to satisfy Faust, no matter how many hedonistic pleasures he partakes of. Whatever Faust wishes, he must grant.

Faust most wants to go home.


They arrive on Easter, and Faust almost immediately falls in instalove with Gretchen (Camilla Horn). Mephisto doesn’t think this kind of innocent maiden is his type, and offers to introduce him to some more obliging wenches.

Faust is adamant Gretchen is the only one for him, and keeps pursuing her until finally she gives in and goes from resisting his advances to being in love herself. This part of the storyline really unsettles me, particularly since too many people still believe “No really means yes!”


While Faust pursues Gretchen with Mephisto’s reluctant help, Mephisto flirts with Gretchen’s aunt Marthe. Some critics feel these scenes are unnecessary, and that it’s out of character for Mephisto to ham it up.

Also out of character is one of the intertitles which was originally altered for the U.S. release. When Marthe offers Mephisto alcohol, he claims he doesn’t drink. Can anyone really imagine the Devil as a teetotaler? In the German original, he says his stomach is too weak for such a fiery drink.

The plot thickens when Gretchen’s brother Valentin comes home.


Though Mephisto is Faust’s servant, he causes a lot of trouble with devastating consequences. It all starts when Faust is discovered in Gretchen’s bed. From that point on, things only get worse and worse, particularly for poor Gretchen.

Though there’s still a sexual double standard, and while I feel the pendulum has swung way too far in the other direction, seeing old films like this makes me so, so, so glad women who have sex and children outside of marriage are no longer treated like pariahs and condemned as whores, while men suffer no consequences.


The last half-hour is full of drama and emotion. It all leads up to three final, unforgettable intertitles:

The Word that rings joyfully throughout the Universe,
The Word that appeases every pain and grief,
The Word that expiates all human guilt,
The Eternal Word…dost thou not know it?

Tell me the word!


The Weary Death


If you celebrate Sukkot, may you have a wonderful holiday!


This week, it’s all about classic German horror films of the silent era. I’ll be covering Der Müde TodFaust, and Homunculus. Next week, I’ll showcase two short antique films (from 1901 and 1906), The Haunted Castle, and Dracula (which I found rather overrated). This year’s horror series will close with Frankenstein.

The common English name of Der Müde Tod is Destiny, though it was originally released as Behind the Wall. The German title, however, truly translates as The Weary Death.

Released 6 October 1921, this film originally bombed in its native Germany. Many critics felt it wasn’t German enough. Internationally, it was much more successful. Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., purchased the U.S. rights so he could delay the American release while copying some of the special effects for his 1924 film The Thief of Bagdad.


We’re introduced to an unnamed young couple travelling in a carriage, and then the scene shifts to the Golden Unicorn Inn, where several important townspeople are heatedly discussing a strange newcomer. This oddball has waged a campaign to be allowed to purchase an annex by the graveyard, and finally succeeded with enough gold. He claims he wants to build a garden there, though his plot of land is soon surrounded by a wall with no windows or doors.


The young couple runs into the stranger by the inn, where he shares their table. One of the barmaids insists they drink from the bridal cup, which turns into a terrifying vision of an hourglass. The young lady is so shaken-up, she runs away.


When she returns, her fiancé has disappeared. She’s told he left with the mysterious stranger, and tries to track them down. By the foreboding wall near the graveyard, she sees a parade of phantoms passing through the wall, her fiancé among them. This sight so unrattles her, she faints.

The pharmacist finds her and takes her in until she comes back to herself. In the pharmacist’s home, she sees a book (which doesn’t necessarily seem to be the Bible) open to the Song of Solomon. She’s very inspired by the line “For love is as strong as Death,” and drinks a potion that opens up a door to a staircase leading to the stranger’s lair.

The room is full of candles, each one representing a life’s progress from birth to death.


She begs him to restore her lover’s life to her, and he says it was just her fiancé’s time to go. He had no control over it, and had to do his job. Harvesting all these souls is so wearying, not at all a job he enjoys or does with gusto. Each soul is like a candle, and once it burns out, there’s no reprieve.

After enough begging and pleading, Death agrees to give her three chances, represented by three candles. Each candle is a life she can save. If she saves even one of the three young lovers, Death will give her back her fiancé. But once each candle burns out, there can be no do-over.


The Story of the First Light is set in Persia; the Story of the Second Light is set in Renaissance Venice; and the Story of the Third Light is set in Ancient China. Though these are all historical settings, they’re more the realm of historical fantasy than straight historical. Of the three stories, I most enjoyed the Chinese one. It has so much charm, innocence, and sweetness, together with my longtime interest in Chinese history.

In each of the three stories, the young lovers are played by the same couple as in the establishing German frame story, Lil Dagover (who played Jane in Dr. Caligari) and Walter Janssen. In each story, however, it’s the young lady who plays the starring role.





Though she fails to save any of the three lives, Death takes pity on her, and gives her one final chance to prove herself. If, within one hour, she can bring him the soul of anyone who only has a short time left in the world, he’ll take that life in exchange for her lover’s and restore life to the young man.

I won’t spoil what happens after this, but I will say it’s a very powerful final reel, with an unforgettable, very emotional ending.


WeWriWa—Violetta’s Halloween costume


If you celebrate Sukkot, may you have a wonderful holiday!



Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a few pages after last week’s, when Igor picked up his cousin Luiza for an NYU Halloween party in the Bronx (which was then the location of the main campus). Luiza is dressed as an Ancient Egyptian, Igor is a Renaissance artist with a genuine prop sword, and Igor’s younger brother Ilya and his girlfriend Milada are pirates.

Igor is so annoyed and distracted by the conversation they’ve been having on the way up, he forgets his sword and has to run back to the car. Luiza and Ilya have told him he needs to date around and not feel bound to his first crush, though Ilya himself already feels very strongly for Milada after only about a month and a half.


“There’s your chance, Casanova,” Luiza whispers as they enter the large room reserved for the party. “If you don’t ask her out soon, someone else will, and I guarantee you won’t like that very much.”

Violetta is seated near the back of the room, dressed in a long black dress with a spider web patterned over the skirt.  She’s showing a bit more collarbone than usual, showcasing a necklace with a large spiderweb and spider centerpiece and other, much smaller spiders and their webs attached to the sides of the chain.  Violetta’s earrings are also spiders.  Her shoes are flats as always, red with spiders in place of her usual flowers or bows.  Black silk rosebuds are clipped all over her hair to complete the spider queen look.

“It’s nice to see you again,” Igor says, smiling. “I didn’t realize you were such an arachnophile.”

“There are a lot of things you don’t know about me, since you only properly met me eight days ago.”


The great Mae West in I’m No Angel

Old dark house done right (mostly)



The Bat, released 14 March 1926, is a classic of the old dark house genre. It was based on a 1920 Broadway play, written by Mary Roberts Rinehart (known as the American Agatha Christie) and Avery Hopwood (the most successful playwright of the Jazz Age). The play in turn was based on Mrs. Rinehart’s 1908 mystery novel The Circular Staircase.

Mrs. Rinehart was a born lefty, but like too many lefties of that era, she was forcibly switched and shamed out of her natural inclination.

The clichéd phrase “The butler did it” comes from her 1930 novel The Door.


The Bat stars Jack Pickford (Mary’s little brother) as good boy Brooks Bailey; comedian Louise Fazenda as maid Lizzie Allen; Emily Fitzroy as feisty spinster Cornelia van Gorder; Jewel Carmen (wife of director Roland West) as Cornelia’s niece Dale Ogden and Brooks’s fiancée; Robert McKim as Dr. Wells; George Beranger as Gideon Bell; Charles Herzinger as Courtleigh Fleming; Arthur Houseman as Richard Fleming; Tullio Carminati as Detective Moletti; Eddie Gribbon as Detective Anderson; Sojin Kamiyama as butler Billy; and Lee Shumway as The Unknown.

As much as I enjoyed this film, the bloated cast is a definite shortcoming. I love ensemble casts, but you can’t just throw characters at us fast and furious and expect us to remember exactly who everyone is and what purpose they serve. Either introduce a large cast gradually, bit by bit, or introduce everyone around the same time without immediately giving each person an important role.


After millionaire Gideon Bell receives this threatening letter, he sets out to try to defend himself and his property. Alas, his attempts are most unsuccessful, and The Bat makes off with the emeralds, even with a bunch of cops nearby.

The Bat leaves a note for the chief of police (on a piece of paper shaped like a bat), announcing he’s going to the country for a short vacation. The chief sends for Detective Moletti, swearing he’ll send The Bat to the chair if it’s the last thing he does.

During his getaway, The Bat lands on the roof of Oakdale Bank and witnesses a robbery.


We then shift to the dark old house where the rest of the film transpires. Courtleigh Fleming, Oakdale Bank’s president, designed and built this lonely mansion. It’s currently being leased by Miss Cornelia van Gorder of New York, who wants peace and quiet. She and her maid, Lizzie Allen, are hands-down the best characters.

Cornelia gets a lot of the best lines, like:




Lizzie is terrified of The Bat, so much so she sets up a bear trap outside. She sees The Bat lurking outside a window, and is convinced he’s in the house (which, of course, he is). Through the course of the night, Lizzie becomes more and more terrified, and suspects everyone is The Bat, including the Japanese butler whom the Flemings included with the lease.

We then see a front page of the local newspaper, announcing the police are searching for Brooks Bailey, a clerk at Oakdale Bank. They think he stole the $200,000.

The person reading the paper is Richard Fleming, the spendthrift nephew of the bank president and designer of the old dark house. Dr. Wells takes him to task for leasing his uncle’s house almost as soon as he kicked the bucket, and accused of grabbing money any way possible to square his gambling debts.

Dr. Wells tells him the house can’t be occupied now, and says they’ll have to scare away Cornelia and Lizzie.


We then meet Cornelia’s niece, Dale, and her fiancé Brooks Bailey. Brooks has come to the house to try to find the stolen money and clear his name. Since he can’t be recognized, Dale makes him take off his glasses, though he protests he can’t see without them.

Dale brings him in under the pretense of being a gardener from the Employment Agency, though her aunt knows they’re both lying.


A note is thrown through the window, warning them to leave the house at once. Presently, Dr. Wells and Detective Moletti arrive. While they search for The Bat, Brooks tries to find the money and keep away from the detectives. I won’t give away any of the twists and turns from this point on!

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It’s got a great script, great intertitles, some great characters, beautiful cinematography, great settings, and a great mystery. I wish the print were sharper and the soundtrack better, but neither was unbearable.


In 1930, the film was remade as The Bat Whispers, also directed by Roland West. In 1959, the film was remade again, once more titled The Bat. Altogether, the costumed villain of these films served as inspiration for the character of Batman.