BEWARE THE BEAT OF THE CLOTH-WRAPPED FEET
In Maurice Pialat's last film, Le Garcu, a strange film can be seen playing on TV in the background. Die Herrin von Atlantis, directed by G.W. Pabst, was one of those multi-national co-productions of the thirties shot in more than one version, each version in a different language. Gerard Depardieu watches the French-language version, L'Atlantide. I've just seen the English version, Mistress of Atlantis, with a script adapted by Miles Mander, perhaps Britain's thinnest actor, who enjoyed separate careers as writer, producer and director. I'd have to say the dialogue of Mistress of Atlantis is not its finest point. But as the film progresses, the talk seems to subtly glide out of the way, as the image track advance slowly upon us like a shuffling mummy, enveloping us in its musky embrace.
SANDS OF TIME
L'Atlantide, Pierre Benoit's steamy piece of Egyptian-set literary exoticism has enjoyed a long and peculiar popularity with filmmakers. The first film adaptation, by Jacques Feyder (released on Kino's Rediscovering Jacques Feyder box set), is a three-hour epic filmed on sweltering Saharan locations. It's a masterpiece, capturing the languid eroticism and obsession of the story, with lush production design (sets were built in a huge tent-studio in Algeria) providing a drugged feast for the eye. The crazy contrasting patterns of costumes, wall-hangings, ornaments and furnishings send the viewer's pupils skidding across the screen in electric zig-zags. Stacia Napier Napierkowska is oddly lumpen as Antinea, the soul-destroying queen of a lost civilisation: the hypno-hyperbole of the role may be beyond the scope of any actress, but a genuinely beautiful woman might convincingly serve as a signpost to overpowering sexual attraction. Napierkowska has to lean heavily on her sumptious surroundings to project anything resembling allure.
After Pabst's German-French-English version/s, there came Siren of Atlantis, the inevitable Maria Montez remake, which steered the concept towards camp, but somehow never arrived at that tawdry yet charming destination. "It's a name like music. Music from hell or from heaven, I don't know, I don't care," should sound preposterous, but somehow Jean-Pierre Aumont (the real-life Mr. Montez) makes it sound genuinely poetic and sincere. Directed by whoever was around, the film only shows traces of cinematic personality in a few shots bearing the compositional eccentricity of John Brahm, whose "collaborators" Arthur Ripley and Gregg Tallas appear to have acted as mere bulking agents. Douglas Sirk, questioned about his contribution, said he was "fairly sure" he didn't shoot any of it. I'll take that as a confession. Add in Pabst, since the film cheerfully pilfers location shots from his version, reducing a masterpiece to the status of stock footage. Montez herself is a perfectly suitable siren (the only film where she really hits the delirious notes of sublime incompetence praised by Jack Smith is Robert Siodmak's Cobra Woman, where she startles by being unable even to point convincingly).
Edgar Ulmer's penultimate picture, Antinea, an Italian-headed Europudding, updated the story to 1961, replacing the foreign legionnaires with the crew of a crashed helicopter. Ben Hur's leading lady. Haya Harareet is the first queen of this Saharan Shangri-La to be of genuine middle-eastern origin.
Three more versions: a 1973 television production with dancer Ludmilla Tcherina as the ageless queen, a Bob Swaim (La Balance) movie from 1992, and a sword-and-sandal crossover, Hercules Conquers Atlantis, in which muscleman Reg Park rubs bulging shoulders with Fay Spain as Antinea.
MASTER OF ATLANTIS
Flashback to 1932, when Georg Wilhelm Pabst's version appeared. The director's star was still ascendant, after his very different tale of obsessive desire and the femme fatale, 1929's Pandora's Box, and early talking pictures The Three-Penny Opera and Kameradschaft. In the years that followed, he would mar his reputation by returning to Germany at the outbreak of WWII (he had been filming Drame de Shanghai in China and France), making a few non-political films in Nazi Germany. His post-war work includes the decidedly non-Nazi It Happened on July 20th, the first film version of the historical event that inspired Bryan Singer's Valkyrie. Somehow his fall from grace spread backwards as far as his early works, erasing them from the canon of classics, but retreating just far enough to allow Pandora's Box and a few others to retain their status.
The Pabst who took charge of Brigitte Helm, playing Antinea in all three versions of the '30s L'Atlantide, was vigorously experimenting with the new sound technology, and deeply invested in the idea of cinema as a kind of psychological black magic, drawing the audience into a strange dreamstate in order to whisper stories in their unconscious ears...
Pabst's journey into the unknown begins unpromisingly: his desert longshots appear to be filmed at silent movie frame-rates, clashing awkwardly with the stuffly acted close-ups, apparently filmed elsewhere. Miles Mander's dialogue trips from the tongue and crashes to the ground. An action sequence livens things up, with peculiar gunshots that sound like tangerines falling into a bucket. Then our heroes are captured and brought, by camel and austere desert tracking shot, to a ghostly town where an abrupt can-can, blaring tinnily from a gramophone, adds a surreal note of mystery.
And then we go underground.
Pabst's film is the first to posit Atlantis as a subterranean realm (in the Feyder, it's merely a remote city, but still connected enough to civilisation to receive regular deliveries of Vogue and crates of supplies from Guerlain). At least in the English version, which looks choppy in places and may be incomplete, the red marble chamber where Antinea's slain lovers are entombed, has been omitted, but the sense of Atlantis itself as a chamber of death, its occupants slumbering in drug-fuelled delirium, or drifting into madness, cut off from the living, is greatly increased.
It's the world of the men who wait, wait for the day when they may be called to serve Antinea as her lover. Most of the later versions take place among these supporting characters, who are basically absent in the silent version. Perversely for an exotic adventure story, this is a film which simmers in the heat of a stagnant, unchanging atmosphere, all forward narrative movement stopped dead by an arresting hand.
As with the Feyder, of whose empress is is said, "As soon as you have seen her - family, homeland, honor - you will renounce everything for her!", this story builds towards one shocking act of violence, in which one friend will kill another just to be close to Antinea. Pabst, liberated from the difficulties of location filming, structures the build-up to the murder as a kind of dance, using sound and camera movement, neither of which exist in Feyder's film, choreographing a seductive drift towards homicide. A chess game with Antinea, enlivened by a troupe of distracting belly-dancers, becomes an abstract, weird meditation upon movement: chess moves, dance moves, psychological moves.
Such is the stifling atmosphere built up in these scenes that the film's fragmented, awkward book-ends in the real world don't seem to matter. Indeed, their very clumsiness enhances the film's thesis, that only at the centre of the dream-woman's private domain is real life possible: everything else is a flickering, stuttering illusion.
Despite censorship laws and moral conventions, all the versions of the story are suffused in drug use. The protagonists of the silent version are gassed with hemp in a cave to facilitate their capture, and Antinea renders the hero suggestible with a potent marijuana cigarette to seduce him into murdering his best friend with a silver hammer. The heady narcotic atmosphere interacts with the flashback-within-flashback hall of mirrors structure to create an enhanced dreaminess and unreliability to everything. Both the Pabst and Brahm-Ripley-Tallas-(Sirk) versions feature "kif" as a smokeable anaesthetic to numb the unendurable pain of absence from Antinea's loving attention.
On the one hand, Antinea, the all-consuming passion, seems like a metaphor for drug addiction. Those in her sway will betray every principle to satisfy their craving. But such a metaphorical conceit seems odd in films already so suffused with dope fumes. Perhaps that's as well: a simple allegorical explanation for these weird tales would be unsatisfying.
If L'Atlantide, in its various versions, is not a drug metaphor, the experience watching it is. Wandering from film to film is intoxicating: the butchering of the UK cut of Mistress of Atlantis and the extant versions of Siren of Atlantis, and the departures of the Feyder version's narrative, means that sequences missing in one version may be found in another: the Parisian Aumont walks down a corridor and Edinburgh-born John Stuart takes his place in arriving at his destination, seventeen years earlier. Stacia Napierkoska wears a Maria Montez mask, but when she takes it off, she's Brigitte Helm. The halls of Atlantis stretch across time to form an ensnaring labyrinth of dream.
"He found oblivion in my arms, until my time for loving him was over." - Maria Montez.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.