(5/10) A misogynist but still fairly entertaining sci-fi/fantasy film from Germany about a soulless woman artificially produced from the semen of a hanged murderer and the womb of a prostitute. Worth watching for the ever alluring Brigitte Helm in the lead.
Alraune. 1928, Germany (aka A Daughter of Destiny). Written and directed by Henrik Galeen. Based on the novel Alraune by Hanns Heinrich Ewers. Starring: Brigitte Helm, Paul Wegener, Iván Petrovich. Cinematography: Franz Planer. Produced by Helmut Schreiber for UFA. IMDb score: 6.2 Tomatometer: N/A Metascore: N/A.
This silent 1928 film is the best known, and by many critics described as the best, film version of Alraune, or “Mandrake” – a 1911 novel by Hanns Heinrich Ewers. It stars one of the most noted actors and directors of German silent cinema, Paul Wegener, immortalised as The Golem (1915, 1920), and Brigitte Helm, best known as Maria/Maschinenmensch in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis (review). It was directed by Henrik Galeen,who was better known as the screenwriter for classics like the original 1915 The Golem, Nosferatu (1922) and the 1926 remake of The Student of Prague. Alraune tells the story of Alraune (Mandrake), a woman born from the seed of a hanged criminal, from the womb of a prostitute (although in the edited English language version we get the impression that the prostitute is inseminated by the mandrake root found beneath hanged men).
The novel combines the old legend of the mandrake root with the modern concept of artificial insemination. Throughout history the mandrake root (a mildly poisonous hallucinogenic with a wide variety of supposed medical effects) has been linked to all sorts of superstitions and magical as well as medical practices. Partly this is due to the looks of the root – it often resembles a small person, or homunculus. One legend states the the mandrake produces a literally deadly scream when pulled out of the ground. It has been used as a supposed cure for infertility in women, or to reduce birth pains. One legend states that when men are hanged, they get an erection, and the ejaculated seed that drips into the ground gives birth to the mandrake root. The legend further states that women who copulate with these mandrake roots give birth to women without souls – empty and evil vessels. This is the legend that Ewers utilises in his book. But instead of using the alraune itself, he has his scientist collect the semen of a hanged man, and artificially inseminates a prostitute with it. The result is a woman who does not understand the concept of love and has a life filled with perverse relationships. She is adopted by the scientist, but hen she learns about her unnatural origins, she takes her revenge on her maker – this is basically a variation of the Frankenstein story.
The novel was published in 1911, 12 years after a Russian scientist had successfully artificially inseminated small animals. The concept caused moral outrage in conservative and religious circles in Europe (and America), and as a result the novel became a bestseller. Film critic Richard Scheib at Moria writes that “Alraune is essentially a position paper about the idea of artificial insemination. […] As such, Alraune enters into the debate on the subject with the wild alarmism of a tabloid headline. It is also hard not to see in some of this the embryo of the Nazi take on blood and genetics – with the idea that some people are just rotten, evil and socially inferior according to genetic predestination. At one point, we see Paul Wegener’s scientist ordering his nephew to go and obtain a woman who is ‘the scum of society’ as the vessel for his killer’s seed.”
The film more or less follows the book’s premise. Paul Wegener plays the scientist Professor Jakob ten Brinken and Brigitte Helm Alraune. ten Brinken wants to study the Alraune myth scientifically, as well as the hereditary effects versus social environment when it comes to the upbringing of a child, the nature vs nurture dilemma. He is convinced he can make a model citizen out of the child of the scum of society – a hanged murderer and a prostitute. Despite the protests of his nephew Franz (Iván Petrovich), he goes through with his plan. Little does he know that the poor girl will be born without a soul, cold, heartless and for some reason constantly horny.
In the English language edit, which seems to be the only one available for public consumption, the film completely foregoes the insemination scene (which apparently remains in the German version) and cuts straight to the teenage Alraune in a convent school, driving the mother superior nuts with her antics, drowning flies (oh the horror!) and cavorting with boys. With her charms she convinces a boy to steal money from his father’s bank and run away with her. On a train she seduces a circus owner, and already men get into fist fights over her. She then runs away with the circus until she is found by Franz, who feels obliged to her, since it was he who was forced to dig up her prostitute mother, and Professor ten Brinken. After a fatherly scalding (the professor has taken her in as his daughter) she agrees to come home with him, leaving the circus owner devastated in grief.
The good professor soon falls in love with his adopted daughter and grows ever more jealous as she flirts with one man after the other. One man in particular asks her father for her hand, but he refuses, and Alraune again contemplates running away. But by an accident she discovers her ”father’s” notes and learns of her unnatural origins. First she considers strangling him in his sleep, but then decides to stay on, and have her revenge through other means. She wilfully flirts with other men in her father’s presence, until finally revealing to him that she knows his secret. He is overjoyed, since he can now openly pursue his passion for her, and she wilfully plays along until once again Franz enters the picture and is as smitten with her as she is with him. The professor wows to have her for himself or kill her.
Now ruined of all his possessions because of Alraune’s expensive lifestyle, which he has supported, he decides to strike the roulette table with her by his side, since he believes she will bring him luck. He starts off on a mighty winning streak, until Alraune secretly draws away just as he lays his entire fortune on the line – and loses. He finds Alraune at home packing to leave, and begs her to stay. They can sell her jewellery and settle down somewhere and lead a happy life. She replies that she certainly will – but not with him. This enrages the good professor who starts chasing her with a knife. At the last minute Franz arrives to save the dame. Alraune explains that she will now settle down with Franz, who can give her the soul she never had. Professor ten Brinken is left heartbroken and devastated. Alraune has her revenge, and curiously everybody lives in the end.
This was not the first film adaptation of Alraune. There were at least two, if not three adaptations of Alraune made in 1918. One version of the movie, which was called Alraune, die Henkerstochter, genannt die rote Hanne (“Alraune, the hanged man’s daughter, who is called Red Hanne”), distributed in the US as Sacrifice, was not really based on Ewers’ novel. It took the book’s basic premise, relocated it in the Medieval period and built a very different story around it. The film was directed by Hungarian director Eugene Illes, who spent most of his career in the German film industry. Alraune remains his best remembered work. While not available for public consumption, an intact print of this movie does exist.
The second version of Alraune has been the focus of much debate, to the point that even the masterminds at the Classic Horror Film Board are confused. Conventional wisdom has it that this was one of the last Hungarian films directed by Mihaly Kertész, who along with Alexander Korda and Mor Ungerleider was one of the creators of Hungarian cinema. The movie was produced for a small company called Phoenix Films, where Kertész was head of production. Kertész left for Germany in 1919, when the Hungarian film industry was nationalised under the short-lived Hungarian communist rule, which was overthrown by the far-right in 1920. Under the name Michael Kertész he rose to some prominence in Germany with quasi-biblical epic blockbusters, like Sodom und Gomorrha (1922) and The Moon of Israel (Die Slavenkönigin, 1924). These German blockbusters attracted the interest of Arthur Warner at Warner Brothers, who brought Kertesz to Hollywood, where he again changed his name, this time to the one he is internationally known for: Michael Curtiz. Curtiz, of course, directed films like Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Captain Blood (1935), Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and of course Casablanca (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945). He directed in every conceivable genre, including sci-fi, and made two classy low-budget sci-fi/horror thrillers in Hollywood: Doctor X (1932, review) and The Walking Dead (1936, review).
Now, confusion has arisen in some circles over the fact that some advertising material has the film credited with another director, named Edmund Fritz. There’s also mentions in trade literature from the time of an Alraune film being directed by someone called Fritz Ödön. This has led to speculations that yet a third Alraune film was either filmed or at least planned in 1918. The fact of the matter is that Edmund Fritz was nothing more than the Germanised version of the name Fritz Ödön, so these are one and the same. Edmund Fritz is something of a mystery to film buffs — Alraune is his only directorial credit, and his only other credits are as an actor in German films from the early thirties, where he appeared with his singing group Fritz Edmund’s Singing Babies. Turns out that Edmund was a cabaret performer and director in Budapest, in the same circles, it turns out, that lead actress and singer Rózsi Szöllösi moved about in.
Now, I have this outlandish idea: We know that Michael Curtiz had a knack for spotting talent: he did discover Erroll Flynn, John Garfield and Doris Day. In fact, Doris Day was a singer when Curtiz discovered her, and in her saw something special. What if Rózsi Szöllösi was in fact his first Doris Day? He discovers her at some cabaret and asks her to star in his new film. But, perhaps there is a director at the Apollo Cabaret where Szöllösi worked at the time, and perhaps his name is Fritz Ödön. And perhaps this director is reluctant to let Szöllösi go off and star in some movie — perhaps she is under contract. And perhaps he convinces Kertész to let him “direct” the film with Kertész as supervisor in order to bypass her contract? Of course this is only speculation, but it would explain the two directing credits, and why one was given to a cabaret manager with no film experience. Anyway, in the light of all this information, we can probably rule out the supposed third Alraune film of 1918.
A third version of Alraune was, however, at least planned for release in 1919, called Alraune und der Golem. We know there was a script written by Richard Kühle, that combined Hanns Heinrich Ewers‘ novel with the short story Isabella of Egypt by Achim von Arnim — Kühle novelised his script in 1920. It was also naturally inspired by Paul Wegener’s hugely successful Golem films, the second of which had been released in 1917. Swedish actor and director Nils Chrisander was set to direct, and posters had been drawn up. There are several mentions of the upcoming film in trade journals. However, it seems that for one reason or the other, the project fell apart. There has been much speculation over the past century about this version of Alraune, and for many decades it was considered a lost films. But today most film scholars agree that all indications point to the conclusion that the film was never made. It’s too bad, as it would in essence have been the first ever monster bash movie, as it combined two of Germany’s most popular movie monsters at the time, the Alraune and the Golem.
This 1928 silent version is the best known and supposedly the best one, although it was remade as a talkie two years later (review), again with Brigitte Helm in the title role. A third German film was made in 1952. Since the issue of artificial insemination was later accepted without overmuch fuss, the premise of the film lost its charm, although the broader theme has been used in many films later.
The 1976 turkey Embryo starring Rock Hudson revolves around a woman artificially grown from an unborn foetus – and after just two weeks in an incubator she emerges as a full-grown, beautiful woman, complete with a rather inexplicable Nicaraguan accent. She does seem to have a soul, but must feed on infants in order to avoid rapid aging, to her own dismay. In the 1995 film Species scientists splice human and alien DNA, resulting in a very often nude Natasha Henstridge (or at least that is what the teenage part of my brain remembers of the film) who also matures rapidly, has an obsession with sex and seems to have no qualms about killing men by piercing their skulls with her tongue. So much an impact did Miss Henstridge have on my generation of adolescent boys, that the film spawned two very inferior sequels. The original story was also made into an updated Russian series in 2010. In later years with all discussion on artificial intelligence, stem cells and cloning, artificially made babes with questionable morals have of course become a staple of sci-fi – the many incarnations of Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil and the Alien-Ripley in Alien IV being among the more famous ones.
The 1928 film is sometimes lumped together with the many German expressionist films of the era. But despite the dark settings and the fantastical premise, this film is more traditionally filmed, even though one might call the psychological horror of it expressionist. Director Galeen displays a sure directing skill and there is some quite imaginative editing on display – but ultimately it falls short compared to many of its peers from the era.
Despite some twists and turns the story sort of treads water after Alraune is brought home from the circus, and the the audience is simply left to wait for the reveal that is known to them from the beginning of the film. The only real question is who will live and who will die. It surely is no film for feminists, as it is downright misogynistic. In 1928 it was supposedly shocking to see a woman live out her sexuality – but let’s not forget that we were now in the end of the decade that brought us the liberal, sexualised flapper. Women wanting to have sex was not really a novelty in film, not since icons like Clara Bow flashed her fluffy eyelashes with a cigarette hanging from her lips (see my review of Black Oxen). Despite this the film’s premise is based on female sexuality being evil and unnatural. And the end is such a cop-out. Would Alraune have slung her coat over her shoulder and walked away alone into the sunset for new adventures, it might have been a redeeming quality. But now Galeen settles on the conservative and patriarchal solution that all she really needed all along was a good man to ”give her a soul” – in essence tame her and get rid of her unnatural sexual behaviour. Come on, really?
Nevertheless, it is a quite enjoyable film, partly because of the strong acting of Wegener – looming large and stiff as ever, a formidable presence whenever he is on screen, and Helm – oozing sexuality and wickedness throughout the movie, with her trademark half-lowered eye-lids and suggestive, wry smile. It was not Helm’s best role, though, as it is hopelessly one-dimensional. After her overnight success in her first film Metropolis (1927) she was typecast as a femme fatale – this was her fourth film and by the time she got to reprise the role two years later she had already tried to take the film company UFA to court to get out of the man-eater typecasting (she had a 10 year contract with UFA), but lost. For more information on the life and art of Brigitte Helm, please see my review of Metropolis.
As mentioned above, Henrik Galeen was a central figure in the development of the early German – and in essence international – horror film, writing classics like The Golem and Nosferatu, and showed some impressive directional skills with the remake of The Student of Prague (1926) in particular. But he was no great visualist, and both the filming and the sets of Alraune are quite conventional, although the roulette sequence shows a nice flair of innovation. It all moves smoothly and seamlessly along, but nothing really stands out, and the story simply isn’t good enough to forgive the unimaginative direction. Not bad, but not really good either. Worth watching for Brigitte Helm, though. Helm would ultimately star in yet another sci-fi in 1934, the forgotten classic Gold (review).
Paul Wegener was a giant in German cinema both as a director and actor before WWII, and chose to remain in Germany during the Nazi regime, even appearing in propaganda films. In reality, though, he was part of the underground resistance movement, donated money to the cause and hid important anti-Nazi persons in his apartment. Despite some sources claiming he fell from grace after the war, he actually was a central figure in rebuilding the culture scene in Berlin after the terror of the Nazis, and acted as president for an organisation aimed at helping to improve living standards for the city’s inhabitants. His sparse cinematic output after the war had more to do with old age and bad health.
Sometimes people tend to forget that Wegener was 39 when he made his first film, The Student of Prague, in 1913, and over 40 when he became a superstar with The Golem two yeas later. Wegener wrote, directed, produced and acted in many of the defining films of German cinema, and horror films, even if he was never really a part of the expressionist movement. His three Golem films had a profound influence on Frankenstein (1931) and films of the same kind – the rigid, lumbering movements of Boris Karloff in the 1931 film is more derived from The Golem than Mary Shelley’s book. The original 1913 version of The Student of Prague, a version of the Faust legend, is sometimes named as the first feature length horror film.
Alraune seems to have been very well received in 1928. C. Hooper Trask of the New York Times writes that “If you like this sort of thing you’ll find it a superior product”, and that the film is a “most engaging evening’s display of erotics”. Later reviewers have not been as kind, with many picking up on the film’s inherent misogyny. And while all praise Brigitte Helm’s performance, Richard Scheib sums up the complaint on his site Moria (which — lo and behold — seems to have gotten a visual upgrade! It now looks like something from 2001 instead of 1991!): “The complaint you could make is that Alraune is a dull film. Compared to the astonishing cinematic things that were being done in the era by other directors such as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Robert Wiene and Paul Leni, Alraune is flat and unimaginative.”
Alraune. 1928, Germany (also known as A Daughter of Destiny, Unholy Love or Mandrake). Written and directed by Henrik Galeen. Based on the novel Alraune by Hanns Heinrich Ewers. Starring: Brigitte Helm, Paul Wegener, Iván Petrovich, Wolfgang Zilzer, Louis Ralph, Hans Trautner, John Loder. Cinematography: Franz Planer. Art direction: Max Heilbronner, Walter Reimann. Produced by Helmut Schreiber for UFA.