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The Forgotten: Homunculus, mon amour

Everything’s either forgotten, or in danger of being forgotten. Apart from a tired array of Christmas classics, cinema of the past seems enveloped in amnesiac shadow, with only you and I, dear reader, waving our lighters to illuminate the peeling labels on rusty cans.

There are entire national cinemas, like West Germany’s post-war output, consigned to the recycle bin of history. It’s here we find the last films of Siodmak, Dieterle, Pabst; and Edgar Wallace adaptations, so lurid they glow in the dark; and remakes, remakes, remakes!

Alraune, released stateside as Unnatural…The Fruit of Evil, is a warmed-over 1952 version of a creepy novel by Hanns Heinz Ewers, already filmed four times, twice in 1918, and again in 1928 and 1930. Both latter versions starred Brigitte Helm, Fritz Lang’s “virgin star” brought to buzzing life by the electrical apparatus of Metropolis.

This title role is ideal for the artificial goddess, since Alraune is the product of mad science gone mad, the daughter, by artificial insemination, of a notorious prostitute and a hanged murderer (Alraune is an alternative word for the mandrake root, a plant supposed to grow beneath the gallows, acquiring homuncular life when fertilised by the sperm of a hanged man).

A strange nymph like Helm was perfect for this twisted yarn, but the 1952 version suicidally casts a big, rangy, emphatic woman who radiates sturdiness and good health. And she would have to be called Hildegard Kneff, a name with the allure of a hockey puck. It’s impossible to imagine this galumphing gal driving men to their deaths, except perhaps by physically overpowering them. This leaves an echoing chasm in the film’s centre, which all the bad dubbing in the world can’t fill. But there are compensations.

Alraune’s creator, Professor Ten Brinken, is embodied by the august personage of Erich Von Stroheim (he should always be credited like that: “And featuring the august personage of…”). Ten Brinken used moral degenerates in his experiment to prove the hereditary nature of evil – and besides, “Good people are so uninteresting.” Sleepwalking through the role, “Von” still commands attention as a magnificent ruin, and displays glimmers of that unlikely friskiness that shone in Foolish Wives: when he utters the word “introduction,” he makes some slight attempt at a curtsy.

Hero Frank Braun, sexual buccaneer of several Ewers novels, is played by Karlheinz Boehm, later star of Peeping Tom. Even revoiced into Amurrican, he brings a welcome sensitivity, though it seems cruel for someone to loop such a performance with English dialogue like “I was watching you dance. Don’t you feel well?”

Tainted fruit

Ewers scripted the first version of The Student of Prague, an early classic of German occult cinema, creaky as hell but influential: Paul Wegener’s leading role was subsequently taken by Conrad Veidt and Anton Walbrook, both far greater actors. (Wegener plays every role like his big hit, The Golem: vacant gaze, lumbering stride, stony pout. He is The Man-o-lith.)

Ewers was an odd character, a devoted nationalist with a fancy for homosexuality and sado-masochism that insinuates tendrils of perversity into all his work. Despite believing Jews made the best Germans, he also got into bed with the Nazis, writing a screenplay about unsavoury martyr Horst Wessel, but by 1945 he had been branded an “un-person”; expunged from the records; forgotten to death.

The director of Alraune had questionable connections too – among Arthur Maria Rabinalt’s wartime efforts is Achtung! Feind hört mit! (Beware! The Enemy is Listening!) a piece of propatainment (or do I mean enterganda?) which was somehow never held against him. I picture post-war denazification as a pretty free-and-easy affair, unless you were Leni Riefenstahl, and Rabinalt evidently was able to correctly answer the question, “How do you feel about Adolf Hitler, right now?”

UNFORGOTTEN

Hard to assess Alraune’s aesthetics from a dubbed and probably truncated print. The framing is distorted by a feckless telecine, and a blob of bubbling acetate (stray matter from the exploded planet Decasia) turns up at random to deface the image. But what remains is livelier than the Hammer films to come, straining against technical limitations, the camera gliding right past the actors, or tilting upwards to look vainly at balconies and staircases it can’t afford to crane in on.

German cinema of this era, especially the Edgar Wallace adaptations (the krimi) anticipate later developments in the Italian horror cinema (the gialli) to a considerable degree, making it ripe for rediscovery by cultists, curators and the kinky.

Ewers’ story is a gloating piece of befouled romanticism, dripping with misogyny: the evil woman, born bad, lures men to their doom like Lorelei or Lulu (Wedekind’s character, not the singer of Boom Bang-a-Bang). She’s evil but innocent: she doesn’t know she’s bad. Expelled from nun school for concealing porn swiped from Stroheim (what might that porn BE? In reality, “Von” had an undies fetish) she comes to stay with foster-daddy and there’s a rather haunting scene where three young men separately discover her wafting around the grounds in classical garb, singing her siren song. It’s echoed at the end, when she tries to flee her own sinister nature and encounters phantasmal versions of her slain beaus striking poses in her path.

But this modern version leavens the sexual panic with something sweeter: to Boehm, Alraune isn’t evil from birth, she’s warped by her cold upbringing, and can be cured with love.

We never find out if he’s right: “I didn’t want anyone else to have her,” intones bad dad Erich, his revolver smoking. Hildegard blurs and comes back into focus as a mandrake root, looking like an idiot’s drawing of a melted swastika. Now Stroheim is mounting the scaffold towards a waiting noose, and maybe he’s about to fertilise a mandrake of his own?

***

The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Wow, she’s quite scary here!

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