An Invisible Man Walks the City

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Rushed into German theatres two months before James Whale’s The Invisible Man in 1933, this film is directed by and stars Germany’s biggest action star Harry Piel. Aided by functioning but crude special effects, a cash-strapped taxi driver stumbles upon an invisibility helmet. Forced comedy and a predictable script are remedied by great action sequences and a breezy pace. 5/10

An Invisible Man Walks the City (Ein Unsichtbarer geht durch die Stadt). 1933, Germany. Directed by Harry Piel. Written by Hans Rameau. Starring: Harry Piel, Fritz Odemar, Annemarie Sörensen, Lissy Arna. Produced by Alfred Greven. IMDb score: 5.5/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A. 


Invisibility on film was nothing new in 1933. The tantalising idea of mischief and anonymity given by invisibility cloaks and spells have long roots in myth and literature, and the stop trick editing and stop-motion techniques that film made possible brought ghosts and invisible hands to the screen in very early silent cinema. In 1906 French director Gaston Velle made The Invisible Men, in which two burglars inadvertently become invisible after drinking a potion in an alchemist’s lab. And in 1909 Catalan director and animator Segundo de Chomon made The Invisible Thief (review), the first screen adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man. The humorous short was outstanding for its time, creating the illusion of an invisible man undressing with the help of a black screen and an actor wearing a black body stocking — the same technique used by John P. Fulton to such stunning effect 24 years later in Universal’s The Invisible Man (review).

Harry Piel and his invisibility device.

That said, it surely can’t be an accident that Harry Piel’s action comedy An Invisible Man Walks the City (Ein Unsichtbarer geht durch die Stadt) came out just two months prior to Universal’s highly advertised H.G. Wells adaptation. The film is not an adaptation of the novel, but borrows enough for it to feel like it’s riding on the coat tails of Universal’s horror movie success. Not that Harry Piel needed to ride the coat tails of anyone — barring Hans Albers — “Dynamite Harry” was Germany’s biggest movie star in 1933. Writer, director, producer and lead actor, he was the Sly Stallone or Tom Cruise of his day and age in Germany. An Invisible Man Walks the City was the first in a trilogy of stand-alone science fiction films made back-to-back by Piel in 1933 and 1934, all dealing with the dangers of new technology and man’s greed and power for hunger in utilising them. The first two, this one and Die Welt ohne Maske (“The World Without a Mask”, 1934, review) were rather humorous treatments on the subject, while the last one, Master of the World (Der Herr der Welt, 1934, review) had a more serious tone.

Annemarie Sörensen and Harry Piel.

In An Invisible Man Walks the City Harry Piel plays a taxi driver called Harry, the fastest in the business, but still struggling to make ends meet. One night he picks up a passenger (Herbert Gernot) who is chased through the city. Harry helps him escape, but when the pursuers catch up with Harry, he realises it’s the police. The passenger is long gone, but in his escape he has forgotten a large suitcase in the car, which Harry keeps as collateral for the passenger’s unpaid taxi fare. The next morning, or in Harry’s case, afternoon, as he wakes up, Harry decides to see what’s in the suitcase, and there finds a strange helmet attached to a mechanical harness with buttons on it. After fiddling around with it for a while, he realises that by the flick of a switch the thing turns him invisible. At this very stage Harry’s flatmate Fritz (Fritz Kellner) returns home from work and sits down to have dinner, just to have Harry play on him the old trick of “stuff flying around in the air as if carried off by an invisible man”. Having had his bout of fun, Harry reveals the machine to Fritz, and both men realise the wonderful opportunities of quick cash invested in the peculiar machine. Fritz suggests robbing a bank, but Harry will have nothing to do with such an immoral business. Instead he decides to head down to the race track, bets on an old good-for-nothing loser, and then turns himself invisible in order to wreak havoc on all the other horses in the race, making himself a bundle of money when his surprise winner is the first to reach the goal. Exactly how cheating away other people’s money on the track is less immoral than robbing a bank, where their cash is at least ensured, is never explained.

Ernst Behmer and the rest of the taxi drivers.

This is the setup and the following story hits all the allotted signposts. Harry tries to impress on his girlfriend Annie (Annemarie Sörensen) by paying the eviction-due rent on her mother’s flower shop, but she rejects him, as she is certain that the constantly penniless Harry has come about his newfound fortune through less than honourable means. Hurt, Harry seeks solace in the arms of the movie starlet Lissy (Lissy Verhagen) and buys a castle for them both to live in. But all is not well in paradise, as the creme-de-la-creme of society have a hard time accepting this crude taxi driver trying to fit into their social scene. All the while Lissy spends up all his money by bribing producers to put her in their movies, and he finally alienates his best friend Fritz, who steals the invisibility helmet and starts committing violent robbery all over Berlin. Harry takes up the chase: first by hanging onto the back of a car, as the invisible Fritz speeds away, and later in an exciting scene as he dangles high in the air from a rope under a zeppelin. The final twist is the usual one in films where fantastical elements aren’t supposed to be taken too seriously, and means that the protagonist can learn his lesson and marry his girl, having become a better person. Yes, of course, it was all just a dream.

Fritz Odemar and Harry Piel.

Intended as an action comedy with a moral conclusion, as most of Piel’s movies, the film is more fun than funny. Piel tries to strike a balance between Douglas Fairbanks and Harold Lloyd, but succeeds much better in emulating the former than the latter. In fact, the closest Hollywood counterpart I can think of is Harry Houdini. With his jet-black, curly hair, his stocky, athletic physique and his intense features, Piel bears more than a passing resemblance to the great escape artist-cum-action hero, and like Houdini he does his own stunts and likes putting himself in dangerous — but not too dangerous — situations on screen. When the going gets too tough even for Dynamite Harry, he switches to rear projection or black screen matte photography.

What works in the film is the action. Piel, who had been churning out action movies since 1912 knew his stuff, and he had gathered around him a small team of trusted collaborators who had all honed their craft to Piel’s style and panache. Cinematographer Ewald Daub had made at least a dozen films with Piel by 1933, and the collaboration between the two seems seamless. There’s some beautiful urban footage in the vein of American serials shot from a moving car, both during Harry’s taxi rides and the exciting car chases. The switches between live-action footage and rear projection as Harry hangs on to the back of the car are skilfully done and never too obvious. If there’s a criticism to be made, then it’s that there’s an over-abundance of sped-up footage when Piel wants the car chases to look extraordinarily fast.

Movie posters from Spain, the USSR and Germany.

The best episode of the film is the action climax, where Piel hangs from a (conveniently placed) rope under a zeppelin, first being dragged through the water, almost water-skiing, and then dangling a good four or five metres off the surface of the water as the zeppelin rises. No stuntman is used, and it’s clearly Piel himself hanging on for dear life. This is followed by a great sequence where Harry wrestles his invisible friend inside the dirigible. Count Karnstein at the German website Dark Movie Dreams notes the similarities to the airship scene from the James Bond film A View to a Kill (1985), where Roger Moore dangles from a rope under a similar blimp. To be honest, that’s where the similarities end, and claiming that the one would be inspired by the other is a bit of a stretch. However, it is undeniable that there is a certain jamesbondesque feeling to the films of Harry Piel, and he certainly was one of the European pioneers of the action hero genre, along with other acrobatic performers like Spanish Marcel Perez and Italians André Deed and Luciano Albertini, all three of whom helped usher in the swashbuckling antics of Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks and his successors.

Harry Piel in front of the zeppelin used in the film.

When it comes to the gimmick of the film — the invisibility effects — it is clear that Piel wanted to get the movie into cinemas quickly, before James Whale’s movie premiered. There is little finesse to the tricks, as the invisibility scenes are mostly done by simple stop-trick effects, like the ones favoured by film pioneer Georges Méliès. To make things easier for himself, Piel decides that the machine not only makes a person invisible, but the clothes he wears as well, so there are none of the “empty clothes” scenes as seen in the Whale film, and indeed as early as in Chomon’s 1909 movie. With Piel it’s simply an on-off thing. One moment he’s there, the next the room is empty. There’s a few blackscreen tricks with floating cats and whatnot, but rather clumsily executed, and while the wire tricks work better, they’re not spectacular. Still, the effects are good enough for the illusion to be immersive. What threatens to break the illusion, though, is that there doesn’t really seem to be any logic to how the machine works. For example, the wearer’s shoes become invisible, but not the chair he is sitting on. Sometimes things he is holding become invisible, sometimes they don’t.

Annemarie Sörensen.

The acting is passable all around: The characters are all cardboard cut-outs, present only to advance the story around Harry Piel. None of the actors, apart from Piel, stand out in particular, although all do a decent enough job. Annemarie Sörensen is “pleasant”, as contemporary reviewers would have put it, as the ingenue, even if her role doesn’t necessarily give her much to work with. There were many Scandinavians in the German film business, but despite her Swedish-sounding name, Sörensen was German. A popular B-movie lead, her career was cut short by the rise if the Nazis. Although a protestant, she was deemed undesirable because of some “uncertain racial background”, and fled to the UK, where she made an brief and unsuccessful attempt at entering the British movie business, and soon withdrew from the public eye, after the war as the wife of a banker.

Lissy Arna (Elisabeth Arndt), playing the movie star, was a moderately famous actress, who was often typecast as femmes fatale. In the early thirties she did a brief stint in Hollywood, where William Dieterle cast her in the lead of a number of German-language versions of his films, however she failed to carve out a Hollywood career for herself and returned to Germany, where she led a successful career until she married a physician in 1939. With the outbreak of WWII, the couple moved to Venezuela, where Arna’s husband was offered a post as a leading physician at a hospital. After his death, she returned to Germany in the late fifties and made a couple of brief cameos in film and TV.

Left: Fritz Odemar. Middle: Annemarir Sörensen. Right: Lissy Arna.

Fritz Odemar, as the villain of the film, was what one might call a “working film actor”, often showing up in substantial supporting roles, perhaps most prodigiously in Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking sound film M (1931). His sole claim to fame is perhaps playing Dr. Watson in the 1937 Karel Lamac adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Naturally, the star of the film is the star of the film. As mentioned, Harry Piel (marketed in English-speaking countries as “Harry Peel”) was one of Germany’s biggest movie stars in the twenties and thirties. Born Heinrich Piel, he wrote, produced, directed and starred in most of his films. He earned the nickname ”the explosive director” because of his penchant for filling his films with exploding buildings and bridges. These were mostly real explosions, since one of his friends was a demolition expert, who would call in advance to let Piel know when a demolition was going to take place, so that the director could film it. So popular was Piel that his name even found its way into popular children’s rhymes in the thirties. One that has survived is the nonsensical “Harry Piel / sitzt am Nil / wäscht die Beene mit Persil”, which is funny in German because it rhymes. In English, the translation would be “Harry Piel sits on the Nile, washes his legs with Persil”. Persil, of course, was a popular laundry detergent at the time.

Piel at his trademark antics: wrestling a leopard.

Explosive is also a good word to describe his films, that were more often than not filled with juvenile action, excitement and mystery. The dark, handsome Piel promoted himself as an adventurer, a spy, a detective, an inventor, a pilot or a soldier, often getting whisked away on dangerous missions, and chased by women ”from whose arms he would squirm away just as ferociously as he would wrestle with an alligator”, as one line in an obituary read. Piel was renowned for doing most of his own stunts, whether it called for clinging on to a speeding locomotive, driving motorbikes down several flights of stairs, or, most famously, wrestling wild animals – he often got bitten and scratched by the (of course partly domesticated) lions, tigers, snakes and elephants he wrestled with in his films. But on screen there was no blood. Piel’s heroes were that rare old-school breed who were simply indestructible. He would get shot at, knocked down, thrown from an airplane, buried under a house, submerged in water – but he always survived to fight another day.

The films of Piel were never complex moral or philosophical tales. When Piel had the floor, good prevailed and the heart was forever stronger than the head. Or as Der Spiegel’s obituary put it in 1963: “Harry Piel was a rarity in German cinema: a stocky, black-haired, completely uncomplicated hero. His films were called “Adventures in the Night Express”, “Jump into the Abyss,” “People, Animals, Sensations”, “Panic”, “The Defiers of Death” or “The Jungle Calls”, and they burst forth from sheer, innocent action: crooks and gorillas, pistols and daggers, fire and water could not harm ”Iron Harry”. When Harry frowned with his thick brow, robbers and predators trembled.”

Harry Peil with his trademark motorcycle.

This German Douglas Fairbanks or Harold Lloyd, this Tarzan of the river Rhine, is all but forgotten today. Although a member of the Nazi party, he ran into trouble with the Nazi censorship in the forties, even though he was himself a card-carrying member of the NSDAP and even a patron of the SS. Between 1939 and 1945 he made only three propaganda films, not much for a man who would usually film two or three films a year. However, his 1943 film Panic was banned by the Nazis, because it depicted realistic air raids against Germany. Ironically, most of his old film negatives and prints were destroyed in an actual air raid, which means that almost all of his silent movies are lost today. And like many of the artists who remained in Germany during the war, Piel was banned from the film industry for five years after the end of WWII, and when he returned there was little room for the innocent action hero of yesteryear. German cinema of the fifties was no longer innocent. Piel relocated to South Africa in 1951, where he filmed a few jungle adventure films, but retired in 1955.

Ernst Behmer, who plays a fellow taxi driver in the film was a Harry Piel staple, and had bit-parts in Die Welt ohne Maske and Master of the World, as well. He also in Karl Hartl’s dark sci-fi film Gold (1934). A well-employed character actor, Behmer appeared in close to 200 films in his career, often giving comical impressions of everyday types. He was also a qualified pharmacist.

Left: Annemarie Sörensen and Harry Piel. Right: taxi drivers.

Another pharmacist, Erich Dunskus, has a small role as a man at the horse track. Dunskus was another prolific bit-part and character actor in films, but mainly worked on the Berlin stage, and seems to have led an interesting life. As a youngster he trained as a pharmacist in New York, but returned to Germany to serve as an army medic in WWI — but not before he had been interned in France for a year, where he happened to meet legendary director G.W. Pabst, who encouraged him to become a stage actor. Which he did. How he happened to appear in an episode of the American Flash Gordon (1954) TV series and the Columbia movie A Prize of Gold (1955) is a story I’d be interested to hear.

Extremely prolific comedy star Theo Lingen and stern character actor Hubert von Meyerinck, who both have small roles as part of Lissy’s entourage, both later turned up in another invisibility film, Hilfe, Ich bin unsichtbar (“Help, I am invisible”, 1951, review), in which Lingen actually played the lead.

Gerhard Dammann.

An Invisible Man Walks the City is interesting from the perspective of film history inasmuch as it is the first feature film to deal with the matter of invisibility from an SF point of view. The film received fairly positive reviews in German papers at the time of its release. In his book about the history of German film, published in 1935, film scholar Oskar Kalbus praised its invisibility effects, but as mentioned they were rather rudimentary even at the time the film was made, and pale considerably in comparison with the magic brought forth by Universal two months later. The spectacular action sequences in the last 20 minutes partly redeem its flat characters, its forced comedy and its predictable script. When Piel gets going he is electric.

Another look at the invisibility device.

The film was also distributed as Mein ist die Welt (“The World is Mine”).

Janne Wass

An Invisible Man Walks the City (Ein Unsichtbarer geht durch die Stadt). 1933, Germany. Directed by Harry Piel. Written by Hans Rameau. Starring: Harry Piel, Fritz Odemar, Annemarie Sörensen, Lissy Arna, Olga Limburg, Gerhard Dammann, Eugen Rex, Ernst Behmer, Hans Ritter, Gina Falckenberg, Ellen Frank, Hubert von Meyerinck, Theo Lingen, Erich Dunskus, Walter Steinbeck, Philipp Manning, Herbert Gernot. Music: Fritz Wennels. Cinematography: Ewald Daub. Editing: Alwin Elling. Set decoration: Willi Herrmann. Sound: Adolf Jansen. Produced by Alfred Greven for Slavia Film. 

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