Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

Horrifying history in wax comes to life

Premièring 6 October 1924 in Vienna and 13 November 1924 in Berlin, anthology film Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) was director Paul Leni’s final feature film in his native Germany (though he continued working as an art director there till 1926). His directing career began anew in Hollywood with The Cat and the Canary.

A nameless poet (William Dieterle) responds to an ad seeking an imaginative publicity writer for a waxworks exhibit. The proprietor (John Gottowt), who works with his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), asks the poet if he can write startling stories about three figures—Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid, Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan Grozniy, whose Russian epithet does NOT mean “Terrible”), and Spring-Heeled Jack (a terrifying figure in Victorian folklore).

The poet writes himself into al-Rashid’s story as pie-baker Assad, and Eva becomes his wife Maimune. Trouble starts when a blanket of smoke from the pie oven causes al-Rashid (Emil Jannings) to lose a game of chess.

The Grand Vizier is dispatched to find the guilty party and kill him, but loses sight of his mission when he sees the beautiful Maimune. Upon his return to the palace, the Grand Vizier suggests al-Rashid take her for himself.

That night, al-Rashid mingles among his subjects incognito, in search of this great beauty. Outside the house, al-Rashid overhears an argument between the couple, culminating in Assad’s promise to prove his manhood by stealing al-Rashid’s wishing ring before dawn.

While Assad is away on this foolish, dangerous mission, al-Rashid enters the house and makes sure the door locks behind him. Maimune is terrified to see this intruder, even after he tells her he’s the Caliph.

Al-Rashid returns to the palace after putting the moves on Maimune, and is in a deep sleep when Assad slips into his bedroom and cuts off his arm. As we learnt in the opening segment, al-Rashid’s wax figure is missing an arm, and the poet wants to write a story explaining how that came to be.

But, as so often happens in horror and fantasy, not everything is always as it seems to be.

The poet then begins writing a story about Tsar Ivan IV (Conrad Veidt) stealing into the Kreml with his astrologer to gloat over his poisoned victims’ deaths. He particularly enjoys watching the last sand in the hourglass run out for each new victim.

Ivan’s astrologer warns him the poison-maker might write his name on the next hourglass. Given how increasingly paranoid Ivan was during the latter portion of his reign, one can predict his reaction!

The poison-maker has pity on one of the victims, and instead does exactly as the astrologer predicted.

Next day, a nobleman visits to remind Ivan he promised to attend his (the nobleman’s) daughter’s wedding. Ever-paranoid, Ivan changes places with the nobleman and arrives at the wedding as the driver.

Far from being a happy, joyful occasion, this wedding turns into a nonstop parade of horrors, esp. for the couple (Dieterle and Belajeff). One of the accurate translations of Ivan’s epithet, Grozniy, is Dreadsome, and he indeed lives up to it here.

The poet falls asleep while writing the final story (by far the shortest) about Spring-Heeled Jack (Werner Krauss), and dreams his wax figure comes to life to stalk him and Eva through the fairgrounds. Just as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, our sense of reality is put to the test.

A fourth story was in the original script, about Rinaldo Rinaldini (to be played by Dieterle). Though this story was cut for budgetary reasons, Rinaldi still appears with the other wax figures. Rinaldini is an elegant robber captain in Christian August Vulpius’s 1797 novel of the same name.

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

No one can escape the hands of Orlac!

Released 6 May 1924 in Austria, The Hands of Orlac (Orlac’s Hände) was based on French writer Maurice Renard’s 1920 fantasy-horror novel Les Mains d’Orlac, part of a subgenre now termed body horror. As its name suggests, body horror involves violations of the body through mutilation, disease, extreme violence, mutation, unnatural movements, etc.

Germany approved the film for release on 24 September 1924, for adults only. In January 1925, Saxony’s Ministry of the Interior filed a censorship petition which was rightly rejected as ridiculous.

The Hands of Orlac didn’t reach the U.S. till 1928.

The film was directly remade in 1935 and 1960, in addition to inspiring many other films and TV shows.

The film opens with Paul Orlac’s wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina, née Aleksandra Tsvikevich) reading a letter where he promises he’ll be home soon. In an obvious bit of foreshadowing, Orlac proclaims how he can’t wait to run his hands through her hair and over her body again.

We then meet Orlac (Conrad Veidt), a successful concert pianist who’s concluding a tour. Disaster strikes when his train home gets into a very serious accident. Though Orlac is among the survivors pulled from the wreckage, he suffers a fractured skull and the loss of his precious hands.

Yvonne begs the surgeon, Dr. Serral (Hans Homma), to save her husband’s hands, which are more valuable to him than his life. Towards this end, Dr. Serral transplants the hands of a recently executed criminal.

Orlac suspects something funny is up even before the bulky bandages come off, and the funny feeling continues after he sees “his” hands again. When Orlac awakes from a horrific nightmare, he finds a note in his lap admitting the terrible truth.

He goes to confront Dr. Serral, who confirms this disturbing information.

Orlac vows to never let these criminal hands touch another person, a resolve which is put to the test when he returns home to his loving wife. He can barely even bring himself to touch his beloved piano.

Orlac is even more horrified when he learns more about Vasseur, the criminal whose hands he now bears, since Vasseur’s guilt was conclusively established by fingerprints all over everything.

It gets worse when Orlac finds a knife in his house identical to the one Vasseur used. He’s now convinced these hands have given him a propensity to violence, though that’s never been in his nature.

A phantom force compels Orlac towards the knife he hid in the piano, and Yvonne catches him stabbing at the air in the middle of the night. Orlac orders her to stay away from him, and she retreats in fear.

Orlac’s next move is to try cutting his hands off, but he regains his senses. He then gets into trouble with the maid, Regine (Carmen Cartellieri), who just feuded with her lover. Orlac puts his hands on her head, and she says they feel like the hands of a killer.

Orlac goes to confront Dr. Serral, begging him to remove the cursed hands, but Dr. Serral tries to tell him the body is ruled by one’s head and heart, not the hands.

Meanwhile, creditors are hassling Yvonne. Since Orlac refuses to play the piano with criminal hands, there’s no money coming in. Yvonne begs for a month, but they only give her till tomorrow. She wants to go to her rich father-in-law for help, but Regine says he’s an awful person who hates their family.

Just as Regine predicted, Orlac, Sr. refuses to help.

Regine says Orlac must go to his dad to beg. Though this greatly upsets Yvonne, she knows there’s no choice.

When Orlac arrives at his dad’s house, the greatest horrors of all begin unfolding.

Real-life horror: Fritz Strassny, né Straßni (Orlac’s dad), who was Jewish, was dismissed from Austria’s venerable Burgtheater in 1938. He was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 and murdered two and a half weeks later.

Conrad Veidt, who was strongly anti-Nazi, escaped to England with his Jewish wife just ahead of a Gestapo death squad’s arrival at their house in 1933.

Posted in 1910s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A collection of eerie tales

Released 5 November 1919, Unheimliche Geschichten (Eerie Tales) is an anthology film consisting of five creepy stories—The Apparition, The Hand, The Black Cat, The Suicide Club, and Der Spuk (The Spectre).

The Black Cat is based on an 1843 Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name, with parallels to “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Both are about murderers who cover up their crimes and eventually are driven mad by guilt.

The Suicide Club is based on an 1878 three-story collection by Robert Louis Stevenson, also of the same name. They’re about a macabre club which is investigated by Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his buddy Colonel Geraldine. The club’s president is criminally-inclined.

The horror starts in a rare bookshop when three people (Conrad Veidt, Reinhold Schünzel, and Anita Berber) step out of paintings to read horror stories. They periodically appear in wraparound segments and play the leads in all five stories.

Their first story, The Apparition, begins with a woman who confides to a friend (Veidt) that her husband (Schünzel) has lost his mind. She rightly divorced him after he tried to strangle her, but now he follows her everywhere. She begs for protection against this madman.

They begin an affair and check into separate rooms of a hotel, where her ex comes looking for her but is turned away due to no vacancies.  That night, her lover totally freaks out when he finds her room empty.

He tries to set his mind at ease with the thought that it was the wrong room, and in the morning asks to be announced in Room 117. Once again he fills with horror when no one is there. Even worse, her name isn’t in the hotel register, and the receptionist claims he arrived alone.

The horror only increases from there.

In The Hand, things start innocently enough at a party, but soon it’s revealed there are two suitors (Veidt and Schünzel) competing for the same lady.

As so often happens with suitors who can’t gracefully accept no for an answer, the rejected one kills his rival. Before long, he’s tortured by ghostly visions of his victim’s hand.

Things go from bad to worse during a séance.

In The Black Cat, a drunk (Schünzel) becomes more and more out of control, culminating in the murder of his wife. Not realising the screams were heard outside, he drags her body into the cellar and walls her up.

Next day, the man who overheard the murder (Veidt) visits, and the drunk claims his wife is out of town. Soon everyone in town is saying the drunk murdered her.

The witness takes his suspicions to the authorities, who come to search the house. Nothing seems outwardly suspicious till cracks start appearing in the cellar wall.

The witness axes an opening, and out jumps the wife’s loyal black cat. The writing’s on the wall regarding his guilt!

In The Suicide Club, a detective (Schünzel) investigates a seemingly empty house and discovers people inside. When he confronts them, he’s told it’s “just” a suicide club.

The members don’t take very well to the stranger in their midst, esp. not after he refuses to join their club. They want to kill him, but the lone woman pleads for clemency.

Her brother (Veidt) tells him he’s part of a club where one can never leave, and takes him to a card game behind a wall inscribed with the famous words “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Whoever draws the spade dies that night.

Der Spuk is set in the 17th or 18th century, in the home of a well-to-do baron (Veidt). All the lines in this story are delivered via poems.

Trouble begins when an injured knight (Schünzel) is brought in to spend the night. The baroness, feeling neglected by her husband, immediately begins flirting with him.

Far from being angry to discover this cuckoldry in the making, the baron encourages her to have an affair. But since this is a horror story, their romance is disrupted by mysteriously moving objects and deathly figures.

When this final story concludes, the bookshop’s owner comes in with police and finds his store empty. The three readers have returned to their paintings.

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, Movies, Silent film

Conrad Veidt

My Masquerade Ball Blog Hop post is here.

This is significantly expanded from the concluding section of a post I wrote in October 2015. The source material focused on Conrad Veidt’s strong anti-Nazi stance, not his overall life and career.

Hans Walter Conrad Veidt (22 January 1893–3 April 1943) was born in Berlin, to Lutheran parents Amalie Marie Gohtz and Phillip Heinrich Veidt. He attended the Sophien-Gymnasium until 1912, when he graduated last in his class, sans diploma.

In 1913, Conrad took up volunteer acting at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater, gradually moving up from bit parts to medium roles. His budding acting career was interrupted by WWI.

Conrad was sent to the brutal Eastern Front, where he caught jaundice and pneumonia. His poor health earned him a discharge in January 1917.

After recovering, Conrad resumed acting. Some of his films had a socially-conscious message and were quite ahead of their time, like Victims of Society, The Diary of a Lost, Dida Ibsen’s Story, Prostitution, and Different from the Others.

The lattermost is the world’s first known film to openly, positively depict homosexuality. Though it came out (no pun intended) after the abolition of film censorship, it was quickly banned after censorship returned in 1920.

In 1919, Conrad formed his own company, so he could choose his own roles. He acted, produced, and directed during this era.

His big break came in 1920, when he starred as creepy somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This first German Expressionist film made a huge international impact, though owing to lingering anti-German sentiment, many theatres didn’t immediately screen it.

Conrad went on to star in several other major German Expressionist films, such as Waxworks, Orlac’s Hands, and The Student of Prague (a remake of the 1913 original). He made dozens of films during this heyday of German Expressionist cinema, often typecast in eccentric, mischievous, or menacing roles.

In 1927, he was invited to Hollywood. Probably his best-known films from this period are The Beloved Rogue (with John Barrymore) and The Man Who Laughs (whose title character became the Joker’s genesis).

The arrival of sound compelled Conrad back to his native Germany. His thick German accent and poor English spelled the end of his Hollywood career, but he did wonderfully in sound films in his mother tongue.

Conrad wasn’t to stay in his homeland for long, since he strongly opposed Naziism and anti-Semitism. His new love, Ilona Prager (Lily), who soon became his third and final wife, was also Jewish.

When Conrad filled out a mandatory racial questionnaire, he falsely listed his “race” as Jewish. He stood in solidarity with his homeland’s beleaguered Jewish community, and couldn’t fling Lily to the wolves.

Goebbels, who wanted to keep this very successful actor in Germany, told Conrad to divorce Lily and declare support for the new régime. If he did this, Goebbels would give Lily false Aryan papers.

Not only did Conrad refuse to do either, he also took the lead in British film Jud Süß (NOT to be confused with the anti-Semitic German film of the same name). He knew this would end his German film career and possibly result in a death warrant.

Conrad was put under house arrest, and there were rumours of a Gestapo plot to murder him. He and Lily fled to England one week after their marriage, just ahead of the death squad’s arrival.

When Conrad finally became fluent in English, he began starring in anti-Nazi films. He also starred in several films in his third language, French.

Though he became a British subject in 1938, he returned to the U.S. in 1940. Before he left, he gave most of his fortune to the British government to help the war effort. 

Conrad hoped his anti-Nazi films would inspire Americans to end their neutrality.

Since he knew he’d be typecast as a Nazi, due to his German accent, he put a clause in his contract specifying he only play villains. He didn’t want anyone to think Nazis were harmless or that he supported such a foul ideology.

Conrad died of a massive heart attack while playing golf at an L.A. country club. He was only fifty.

Conrad Veidt was more than just a great actor, but an incredible lion of a human being, representing the best of what we’re capable of.

Posted in 1920s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A night of hallucinations

Schatten – Eine Nächtliche Halluzination (Shadows—A Nocturnal Hallucination), known in the U.S. as Warning Shadows, released 16 October 1923 in Germany; 5 September 1924 in France; 27 April 1925 in Finland; 9 August 1927 in the U.S.; and 16 January 1928 in Portugal. Like just about all German films from the Twenties, it too is part of the most venerable German Expressionism canon.

The Expressionism kicks off with hands and the actors appearing across a silhouette screen as they’re introduced. I love how many silent and early sound films have credits with the actors in motion, not just as a list of names.

A 19th century count (prolific actor Fritz Kortner) and his wife (Ruth Weyher) hold a dinner party which four of her suitors attend. Not only are they fighting for her attention, they’re also fighting with one another. When the count spies on them behind a curtain, the shadows fool him into believing she’s being felt up by the suitors, though they haven’t touched her. Clearly, this marriage is in deep trouble.

A shadow-player (Alexander Granach) arrives and begins showing off his skills to those in attendance. He then hypnotizes everyone and gives them a vision of what might happen if the suitors don’t quit their amorous schemes, and if the count remains jealous.

This hypnotic vision speaks to their very real fears, obsessions, jealousies, and erotic desires, and heads in a more and more horrific trajectory. Or is it just a vision?

The shadow-play was designed, produced, and presented by silhouettist, painter, and graphic artist Ernest Moritz Engert (who was born in Japan).

Besides the obvious artistic, atmospheric use of light and shadows, this film is very artsy for its complete lack of intertitles. All we get are the credits introducing each character and her or his role. Even F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), which is famous for telling an entire story without intertitles, gives us the courtesy of one at the beginning of the Epilogue.

While I would’ve appreciated at least a few intertitles, for a basic grounding in exactly what’s going on, the story nevertheless flows very well without them. The total lack of intertitles also helps to create a very atmospheric, foreboding mood. So much of silent and early sound horror is more about the overall mood, not in-your-face screams. The mood is what creates the feeling of horror.

I wouldn’t recommend this as an ideal first or early silent, but for those who are long-established connoisseurs of the artform, it’s well-worth checking out. It was my 1,181st silent.