(2/10) Czechoslovakia’s first science fiction film, and one of its earliest domestically produced feature-length films, this 1920 production brings together a mad scientist, a spiritualist and a Japanese businessman in order to resurrect a dead alchemist in order to create gold. A cheap production with awkwardly bad cinematography, but the earnest feel and the devoted acting makes it enjoyable for bad movie fans.
Melchiad Koloman. 1920, Czechoslovakia. Directed & written by Rudolf Liebscher. Starring: Rudolf Liebscher, Vojtech Záhorík, Frantisek Cekanský, Josef Javorcák, Josef Horánek, Tána Horská. IMDb score: 4.1. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Very little information exists about this film or its makers, but it is available online and I have watched it, so I’ll try and piece together what I can. Melchiad Koloman is the Czech Republic’s (or Czechoslovakia’s, if you will) first science fiction movie, and probably one of its first genre films altogether. At this point in time, science fiction movies had pretty much been the indulgence of a handful of film industries, generally the biggest ones, that is the film industries of France, USA, Denmark, Italy, Germany and the UK.
While film screenings were made by the Lumière brothers as early as 1896 in Prague, and the first Czech cinema was built in 1907, it lasted until after WWI before domestic Czech films were being made in earnest. The first narrative films of note, that have been preserved and even screened in later years started emerging around 1920. This means that Melchiad Koloman was among the very first “major” films of Czechoslovakia, which unfortunately doesn’t mean all too much.
The film opens with the scientist and modern-day alchemist Professor Dobner (Frantisek Cekanský) in his lab, resolved to find the old manuscript of the long since dead alchemist Melchiad Koloman, who allegedly found “the philosophers’ stone”, or the secret of how to create gold. At a ball he meets the Japanese adventurer and investor Nakahito (Vojtech Záhorík), who agrees to help him in his endeavour. The duo teams up with the Indian fakir Salim Arkaja (Josef Horánek), who claims to be able to bring back the dead to life. But for this he will need a young, strong man to lend the ghost his spirit of life, a potentially deadly operation.
Enter the young playboy Marcel Zampach (Rudolf Liebscher), heir to a fortune, who has squandered all his money on women, wine and games. Now with debt collectors on his tail, he despairs and contemplates taking his own life. So when Nakahito and Dobner offer a large sum of money for a dangerous task, he is game. Dobner and Arkaja start planning the procedure, combining the fakir’s spirit power with the magic of the scientist’s electrical gadgets.
But there’s a twist on the road to fortune: Marcel falls in love with Dobner’s daughter Vlasta (Tána Horská), and suddenly the prospect of possible death doesn’t seem as appealing to him as before. So Nakahito and Dobner kidnap Marcel and ties him to a chair while they go through the ritual of resurrecting Melchiad Koloman (Josef Javorcák). The procedure drains Marcel to his limits, and the two greedy thugs throw him out on the street for dead.
I’m not divulging the rest of the story, except that it ends with an electrocution and an lab fire, thus making Melchiad Koloman the first sci-fi film to employ the classic Frankenstein movie ending.
The film was written, directed and presumably produced by lead actor Rudolf Liebscher, who doesn’t seem to have any other film credits to his name. In fact, there’s not really any other information about him readily available on the internet. However, since the film is closely connected to the Urania Theatre, one can assume that Liebscher either worked there, possibly as an actor, or had other connections to it.
The lack of experience shows, as does the fact that it was apparently produced with pocket change. The sets are wooden frames covered with lining paper, and in classic Ed Wood fashion, the walls wobble when doors are closed. It also seems that the film crew reused the same sets for several scenes, only redecorating/repainting them to represent another location. The outdoor scenes are slightly better. However, Liebscher shoots half the film in really odd wide shots, placing the camera too far away from the action in many scenes. Often this seems to be done in order to show some part of the set, such as a bust on a pedestal or an electric cabinet on a wall. Instead of placing these props behind the actors, Liebscher puts them way away to the side, then sets up the camera to get both the props and the actors in the shot, creating uncomfortably off-kilter framings. When he doesn’t shoot such shots, he uses rather boring medium shots. But them suddenly, for three minutes, he creates an exciting montage-style series of close-ups, without ever following up on it again. There are a couple of double exposure fades for bringing Koloman and a few other characters back from the spirit world, which are rather professionally handled. The fire at the end is achieved with double exposures as well, and it just looks cheap.
The movie was filmed in and around the Urania Theatre in Prague, and chances are that the indoor scenes were either filmed in the main auditorium, which had a glass skylight, a bit like the early film studios, or simply outside on the yard of the theatre. One scene in which the curtains in a room flap wildly suggests that they were filmed outside. And because of the way the wide shots were filmed, the film team had to extend the sets to a height of four or five metres, so the walls of each room continue forever upwards, making it look like everyone live and work in giant halls.
The acting is, for the most part, professional, if very broad and theatrical, as the actors are compensating for the lack of sound. Especially Javorcák as Koloman, Záhorík as Nakahito and Horánek as Arkaja are doing their best to eat up the flimsy scenery. I suppose that most of them worked as actors at the Urania Theatre. The actors go all out, playing it as earnestly as they can, and there’s never any sign that they aren’t taking the thing seriously. Of course theatre actors would be used to working around flimsy sets that were often more symbolic than realistic, and would have no problem immersing themselves in the make-belief.
About half of the actors in the movie never appeared in another movie, but some of them had something of a career in films, although mostly as bit-part players. Eduard Cimacék, who has a small role in the movie, had some success in the late twenties and thirties as a writer of comedy films, and is perhaps best known for collaborating on the script for prolific and regarded director Martin Fric’s romantic comedy Kristian, starring Czech megastar Oldrich Nový. In the thirties and forties he also carved out a small career as an assistant director. Záhorík was also a revered stage actor and director, and for some time was the chairman of the Czech actors’ union.
Now, that’s about all the information I was able to hoover from the dark corners of the interwebs. If any of you guys reading this blog have any more information on the movie, I would be extremely grateful if you would leave a comment beneath the article or on our Facebook page. Despite all its flaws, the movie is rather enjoyable to watch if you’re the kind of person who enjoys bad movies. It’s all done with an amateurish charm and a spirit of fun, and especially Záhorík is great to watch in all his hamming. The faux-Japanese makeup is a bit jarring today, but in all fairness the film resists the urge to play up racial stereotypes in the way many American films did. There are no false teeth, forces smiles or “oriental” robes, no bowing and clasping hands. Nakahito is identified as Japanese, there’s a bit of eye makeup and a rather silly moustache, but that’s basically it.
This was one of the first mad scientist movies ever produced as a feature film, even though the trope was familiar from earlier shorts. In a sense it follows the basic Frankenstein premise, with its warning against tampering with God’s creation. However it does it in a more light-hearted tone than many later movies, and feels more like a crime yarn in the vein of the American serials. A problem with story is that while alchemy might be exciting on paper, it’s difficult to turn the subject into a riveting film, unless there’s another more visually appealing plot at the centre of the movie. And Liebscher does try to do so by creating the premise that a young man must be sacrificed for the love of gold, but even with that, he doesn’t quite manage to raise the pulse of the viewer due to the hamfisted way in which he shoots the movie.
Another prominent theme, of course, is that of spiritualism, of contacting the dead in the beyond, and even bringing them back to life. Spiritualism, readings and seances were popular pastimes in the late 19th and the early 20th century, but increasingly came under attack, partly from the church, but especially from scientifically orientated sceptics. One of British filmmaker William R. Booth’s most films was called Is Spiritualism a Fraud?, and was released in 1906, giving a rather accurate description of how self-styled mediums were ripping people off with cheap parlour tricks. In 1916 two young girls fooled famed author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with paper cutouts of fairies that they found in a children’s book, and photographed in their back yard. They sent the photos to a local magazine as a jest, but Doyle saw them and later used them in a very earnest article as proof that fairies existed.
Illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini led a fierce crusade against fraudsters and spiritualism in the US, which caused him his friendship with Doyle. In 1926 he took the matter to congress, where he debated for four days in trying to get lawmakers to impose a fine for selling spiritualist services. Eventually his accusations went all the way up the political ladder, as he attacked president Calvin Coolidge, who was known within the White House to have employed the services of mediums, or at least been present at seances held in the White House. After the story blew up in the press, Houdini issued an apology and left Coolidge alone, and eventually his crusade to ban spiritualism failed, as spiritualism had some passionate defenders among the mighty, and most lawmakers saw the practice as harmless, even if not entirely honest.
Of course, on the budget the Melchiad Koloman was made with, one can’t expect masterpieces, especially from a first-time director in a fledgling film industry. But in all fairness, this really looks more like a school project than a professional movie, from the sets to the direction.
The only print of the movie available online just has Czech intertitles, and I don’t speak Czech. However, with some basic understanding of Russian, I was able to extrapolate a few words here and there, and thanks to a short synopsis online, I really had no problem following the plot. Sure, some of the subtleties naturally went over my head, by thanks to the simplicity of the story and the broad acting, even the titlecards seemed superfluouos at times. It got slightly confusing toward the end, and I wonder if there’s a reel missing at the second-to-last quarter of the film.
Melchiad Koloman. 1920, Czechoslovakia. Directed & written by Rudolf Liebscher. Starring: Rudolf Liebscher, Vojtech Záhorík, Frantisek Cekanský, Josef Javorcák, Josef Horánek, Tána Horská, Nina Lasková, Eduard Simácek, Stanislav Langer, Arnostka Záhoríková, Josef Rajský. Cinematography: Tommy Falley-Novotný. Produced for Tatra Film Corporation.