History’s perhaps most prolific female movie monster Alraune makes her fifth appearance in this German 1952 all-star adaptation. Trying to compromise with its outmoded source material, it loses its edge, but makes up for it with wonderful cinematography and design. 5/10
Alraune. 1952, Germany. Directed by Arthur Maria Rabenalt. Written by Kurt Heuser. Based on novel by H. H. Ewers. Starring: Hildegard Knef, Erich von Stroheim, Karlheinz Böhm. Produced by Günther Stapenhorst. IMDb: 6.0/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
One stormy night the young medical student Frank Braun (Karlheinz Böhm) arrives at the gothic mansion of his uncle, the sinister Professor Jacob ten Brinken (Erich von Stroheim) and sees an apparition — beautiful young woman climbing out of a window. However, the butler tells Frank that his uncle is away and that there is no young girl in the house. Struck by the woman’s beauty, Frank refuses to take no for an answer, and the next day returns, secretly, with his best friends Count Geroldingen (Harry Meyen) and Wolfie, an artist (Rolf Henningen). All three have private encounters with the woman, Alraune (Hildegard Knef), and all fall in love with this mysterious vixen. However, Alraune forms a special relationship with Frank, and after two encounters, Frank is determined to merry her, despite the fact that he is already promised the young Olga (Julia Koschka), the daughter of his rich benefactor, Princess Wolkonska (Trude Hesterberg).
Confronting his uncle, Frank is told to stay away from Alraune, as ten Brinken lets him in on his dark secret: Alraune is no ordinary woman, but one of his experiments. She is the result of his research into artificial insemination, the offspring of a double murderer and a prostitute. In the words of the revolted Frank: “A crime against Nature!” He wows never to set eyes on Alraune again, and with the funding of Princess Wolkonska (who is aware of Alraune’s history, as she financed ten Brinken’s research), he leaves for Paris to enroll in medical school. Alraune, oblivious of her origins, believes she is the daughter of Prof. ten Brinken, continues her promiscuous lifestyle, keeping up affairs with both Count Geroldingen and Wolfie, at the same time charming ten Brinkens coachman Mathieu (Hans Cossy) and his assistant Doctor Mohn (Harry Halm). In an effort to keep her under control (after she has been kicked out of a nunnery), ten Brinken decided to put her under the tutelage of a French governess (Denise Vernac), with little effect.
Princess Wolkonska leaves for France, leaving her daughter Olga in the care of ten Brinken. But Alraune, seeing in Olga a romantic rival, drives her to suicide, only averted at the last minute. Without any ill intent, she accidentally drives Mathieu to his death, and when rivalry breaks out over her between Mohn and Count Geroldingen, the Count is killed in a duel. Lastly, Wolfie dies after having worked himself to exhaustion over a portrait of her. At this point, Frank has returned from France, taking up a job offer as the chief medical doctor at a new health spa jointly founded by ten Brinken and Princess Wolkonska, after Alraune has magically discovered sulphuric water in an arid field (just roll with it …). Realising that something is wrong with her, she seeks out Frank, seeking solace and advice. When she bursts into tears, Frank realises that Alraune has changed and is no longer the soulless being she thought her to be. Alraune, as well, confesses that she now feels love for the first time. They decide to marry. But when Alraune confronts her “father”, he reveals to her that she is an unnatural abomination, and will ultimately bring death to Frank as well. Broken, she agress never to see Frank again and to go away with en Brinken (who’s health spa has now failed and who is being ruined because the jealous Mohn has revealed the truth about his experiments to the press. Just roll with it …). But can Frank still convince her that her “father’s” crimes are not hers to bear, and that it is a life without love that has made her ill, rather than evil — and that true love will set her free? Or will this tale have a dark ending?
Made in 1952, Alraune was fifth and final movie featuring one of Germany’s most successful movie monsters, the soulless seductress Alraune. At least three silent versions were made, of which two are considered lost or otherwise unavailable (see my article on them here). The third one was a meetup of legends, as the 1928 version (review) was written and directed by Henrik Galeen (who wrote and directed the original Golem films), and starred horror and SF icons Brigitte Helm as Alraune and Paul Wegener as ten Brinken. Just two years later, the film was remade in sound (read my review here), with Brigitte Helm reprising her role.
Alraune has a long and colourful backstory, and if you want the long version, please dig into the reviews above, I won’t go into the whole shebang a fourth time. But here’s the shorter version. Alraune was released as a dubbed and truncated version in the US as The Unnatural. The literal translation would have been “Mandrake”, i.e. the myth-enshrowded plant root with both medical and poisonous properties, which, due to its occasional resemblance to a humanoid figure, has historically been a popular ingredient in old wives’ tales, witchcraft and alchemy.
The myth of the mandrake was re-popularised by the eccentric German author Hanns Heinrich Ewers in his hugely popular novel Alraune in 1911. Written at a time when the idea of artificial insemination was widely discussed in scientific circles (the first successful tests with artificial insemination were reported in the early 20th century), the story is, as Richard Scheib at Moria puts it, “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.” Ewers uses as his starting point the legend that the mandrake root grows under gallows — there was a superstition that men, when hanged, had an orgasm, and that the root grew were the seed had dripped. And if women copulated with these roots, they would give birth to soulless girls. However, in his novel, the mandrake root is used only as a metaphor, and instead Ewers has ten Brinken collect semen from a hanged murderer and with it inseminate a prostitute, thus giving birth to the soulless Alraune, who lures men to their deaths with her sexuality and lack of morals.
Of course, originally Alraune wasn’t just about artificial insemination, but also about women’s liberation and sexuality, as well as sex and morals. To a much larger extent than before, women were getting educated and given (limited) means to stand on their own in society, without the patronage of a father or husband. New, strange ideas of women’s right to vote and be elected to public office were brought forth by suffragettes, and the notion that sex was something that women could enjoy rather than endure — or indeed abstain from until marriage and childbirth — weakened the male power over the female. Plus, Alraune dipped into the still contested discussion of heredity vs. environment, i.e, nature vs. nurture. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, the majority of the film versions have favoured a conservative take on this debate; try as she may, Alraune cannot escape her dark genetic materials and unnatural conception.
The idea of the soulless seductress goes back millennia in myth and folklore, and was a popular subject in early SF in the 19th century. E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote one of the first robot stories with his 1816 novella The Sandman, in which the protagonist falls madly in love with an automaton, ultimately driving him to insanity and death. In 1878 Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam published his highly misogynist novel The Future Eve, in which Thomas Edison creates a “perfect woman” out of cogs, wheels and some sort of black magic for the protagonist, again ending in ruin. And while all flesh and blood, similar evil seductresses of the more supernatural type can be found in H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) and George Griffith’s future war novel Olga Romanoff (1893). Perhaps it was symptomatic that it was a female author that took the side of the soulless creature itself in Frankenstein (1818). While hardly remembered today, and largely unknown outside Central Europe, Alraune was during a few decades as big a literary and cinematic “monster” as Dracula, Frankenstein or the Golem. She also has the distinction of being one of the most prolific female movie monsters in history, indeed one of the few female monsters ever to get multiple movies of their own. There have been numerous Countesses Dracula and ditto daughters, and quite and number of Ms. Hydes, but they are merely gender-bended versions of male originals. And while there are many iconic female monsters in film history, few have been honoured with more than one or two films, Haggard’s She/Ayesha being a notable exception, alongside Alraune, although one could debate whether a witch should count as a monster. One of the very few contenders is the Species franchise, which includes four movies between 1995 and 2007 — although to be fair, Natasha Henstridge’s iconic Sil only appears as the main villain in the first two films, and the two latter were TV movies.
So, how does the 1952 adaptation of Alraune compare to the 1928 and 1930 versions? Well, the basic story is pretty much intact, and quite recognisable from the previous versions. Having not read the novel, it’s difficult for me to say what are the film’s own inventions and what is taken from the book. But at least the previous films do not feature the male lead’s two best friends, nor the subplot with the health spa. And as far as I can remember, Dr. Mohn is also absent in the two earlier versions. As far as style goes, the black and white photography by renowned veteran cinematographer Friedl Behn-Grund preserves the gothic expressionism of the previous versions of the film, and there are nods here and there to scenes in the predecessors. One that stands out is the feverish coach ride that leads to Mathieu’s death, that seems directly modelled on the corresponding car ride in the 1930 version. Speaking of cars vs. coaches, the film seems to be set sometime in the same unspecified 19th century as many of the Universal horror films. On the other hand, as the film is set in a rural community, the absence of modern technology like telephones and motor cars doesn’t mean it couldn’t be set at the same period as the novel was written in — the early 20th century. This contrasts the 1930 version, which is clearly modernised with period-appropriate technology and fashion.
Director Arthur Maria Rabenalt is probably wise not to try and update the story to 1952. First and foremost, in 1952 artificial insemination was hardly science fiction. While the issue was deemed as intensely private and rarely discussed in public, the fact is that by the fifties, several clinics existed which performed the procedure, and thousands of babies had been born through artificial insemination. Perhaps this is also why the script focuses more on the background of Alraune’s parents than on the method by which she was conceived.
Alraune’s moral debate, on the other hand, would have found an audience in the fifties. This was an era of male hysteria over women’s liberation. With so many men fighting in the war, women both in the US and Europe were keeping society’s wheels turning. Not only were many tasked with caring for home and family without a “male provider”, but they also stepped up to do jobs which were left unmanned as the men went to war. Not to mention that thousands of women entered the war service in one capacity or the other. When the war ended, women had not only attained a new confidence in standing up for their competence and rights, many were unwilling to give up the freedom and self-determination that a paid job gave them, and return home to iron their husbands’ shirts. Here Alraune takes a decidedly conservative stance, painting the female lead character as “unnatural” for having a strong libido, an active sexual drive and a yearning for independence. It is not until she finds “true love”, that is: submits to monogamous relationship, presumably under a stern but caring male dominance. It is telling that it is only when Frank sees that Alraune is capable of crying that he accepts her as his wife.
The ending of the 1952 adaptation of Alraune brings yet another version of events. In the 1928 film, Alraune was liberated by her love for Frank Braun, and the film ends with Frank saving Alraune from Prof. ten Brinken, who attacks her with a knife in a fit of jealous rage. Here, ten Brinken and Alraune both survive. The 1930 version has a far more depressing ending, with Alraune unwittingly driving ten Brinken to suicide. The film’s ending is ambiguous, but suggests that Alraune realises she will never be able to lead a normal life, and drowns herself. The 1952 adaptation is even more depressing, making ten Brinken prevail at the end.
To be fair, neither the 1928 nor the 1930 adaptations of Alraune were masterpieces. Both were marred by thin and clumsy scripts, wooden acting, slow pacing and somewhat unimaginative direction. The 1928 silent version had the benefit of director Henrik Galeen’s occasional flashes of expressionistic genius, while director Richard Oswald, who made the glorious silent nightmare The Hands of Orlac (review) in 1924 struggled with the sound technology in 1930, leading to a lot of scenes were actors “speak into potted plants” or are barely audible because they stand too far from the microphones. From a visual perspective director Arthur Maria Rabenalt scores well in the 1952 version, combining dreamlike, foggy sequences with looming expressionist wide shots and Behn-Grunds beautiful lighting, creating both depth and sharpness. The 1952 adaptation also has the benefit of Josef von Sternberg as Prof. ten Brinken, one of the most sinister villains ever to grace the screen, even if he is merely phoning in his performance here. Paul Wegener is an icon of German cinema, but more due to his imposing presence than any versatility. Albert Bassermann, who plays ten Brinken in the 1930 version, is widely regarded as one of the greatest German-speaking actors of all time, but he is miscast in Alraune and undercut by the film’s technical difficulties.
On the other hand, the 1928 and 1930 Alraune versions have an ace up their sleeves, and that is, of course, Brigitte Helm. That legendary nymph of the German screen, catapulted to fame in her teens in 1927, when she played the dual role of the saintlike Maria and the soulless sexual seductress Maschinenmensch in Metropolis (review). It was her performance that brought life to that pompous, magnificent movie, and the government-funded film company UFA then typecast her as seductress and femme fatale, to the point that she tried to break her contract in court, without success. Helm instantly became Germany’s number one sex symbol, and her casting as Alraune was inevitable.
So, who then, to replace Helm in the 1952 remake? Well, fortunately, 1951 gave the German film industry another scandalous sex symbol in the form of Hildegard Knef. A film actress already before the war, she was still an unknown, as most of her movies weren’t released until after WWII had ended. She made a splash in 1946 in the lead in the first East German film produced after the war, Murderers Among Us, and in 1948 received the best actress award at the Locarno Film Festival for her performance in Film Without a Title. What made her reputation, though, was when she briefly appeared nude in the “scandalous” 1951 movie The Sinner, which not only dealt with nudity, but also suicide and euthanasia, enflaming the powerful Catholic church. As the nation’s new sex symbol, Knef must have seemed the obvious choice for the role of Alraune.
But. Knef ends up being perhaps the weakest link of the movie. Not because there is anything wrong with her acting as such — she is a great actress, and was nominated five times as best actress in leading or supporting role (won once) at the German Film Awards, received a special lifetime award, a special Bambi award and a Golden Camera honorary award. But there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that Hildegard Knef can convince anyone that she is an evil and soulless seductress. The seductress part she has no problem with, but there is a duality in the character of Alraune which makes her interesting and which the 1952 movie fails to capture. Alraune, as portrayed by Helm, was just as much a victim of an over-protective and incestuous relationship with her surrogate father, who in secret lusted after her just as much as the men she seduced. Brigitte Helm had a darkness and a frailty which lent itself to the dual role of abused and abuser at the same time. She also emanated a sense of danger, a Siren calling men to drown in her own sorrow and darkness.
Hildergard Knef, on the other hand, has exactly the aura you imagine someone possessing who is named Hildegard. Tall, rangy, with big, bright eyes, a strong chin, broad mouth and lush lips, and sporting a dark, powerful voice, Hildegard Knef is a picture of red-blooded health, joie de vivre — and most definitely soul. She looks like she could pick von Sternberg up and tie him into a knot. She is a Viking amazon, not a a soulless creature of the shadows. When Brigitte Helm tells von Brinken she is leaving him, it feels as if she committing patricide. When Hildegard Knef informs ten Brinken she is leaving for Paris with Frank Braun you just think: “Well, of course she is! She’s gonna have a ball!”.
Otherwise, the acting of the film is uneven. Josef von Sternberg, as mentioned, is great as always, even if he is hardly trying. Smooth-cheeked leading man Karlheinz Böhm, later star of Peeping Tom (1960), holds up his end well, despite being stuck with a pretty badly written part. He gets little help from his to sidekicks, young Harry Meyen and Rolf Henningen, both later acclaimed character actors. Meyen as Count Geroldingen is merely stiff and Henningen, despite winning the viewer over with his boyish charm as Wolfie, looks like he could use a few more acting lessons. The same thing can surely be said about French actress Denise Vernac, playing Alraune’s governess. She gets no favours from acting in a foreign language. Vernac’s presence in the film is probably explained by the fact that she was von Stroheim’s “companion”. Hans Cossy and Gardy Brombacher as coachman Matheiu and his wife Lisbeth are both rock-solid professionals. Veteran Trude Hesterberg as Princess Wolkonska is absolutely wonderful, with no problem holding her own against von Sternberg, and Julia Koschka as Olga is quite alright in her nondescript role.
In an interview by Werner Sudendorf from 1989, director Rabenalt says that the new film came about through producer Günther Stapenhorst at Carlton-Film, with whom Rabenalt was working at the time. Stapenhorst, an Austrian former export salesman with a long history in both German, Swiss and British films, specialised in literary adaptations and entertainment films. After the scandal with The Sinner, Stapenhorst was determined to remake Alraune, this time with Hildegard Knef in the title role and Josef von Sternberg as ten Brinken. However, according to Rabenalt, remaking a horror sex film in 1952, with a church that opposed sex and an audience which didn’t want horror after the war, was extremely difficult: “Just the announcement ‘Erich von Stroheim and Hildegard Knef in Alrauneä’ led to a scandal. […] Stapenhorst was happy about the advertisement, but he also feared the power of the church. Now our task was to dramatize the magically demonic element in the sex and horror material in a way that would be approved by the Catholic church.”
According to Rabenalt, screenwriter Kurt Heuser, Rabenalt and Stapenhorst went through at least 16 different script versions, and the text kept changing throughout the shooting, partly because of new input by Stroheim. Rabenalt says that Stapenhorst, an old professional who should have known better “must have had a temporary fit of insanity” as he had given Stroheim the right to write his own dialogue: “And Stroheim, who used to be a great director, now saw himself as a writer, and came out every morning with four pages of new text, which turned the delicately balanced material that we had struggled to put together into yet another horror film. But the audience didn’t want horror, the war was still deep in everyone’s bones. And the church didn’t want sex.”
Whether or not this has to do with Stroheim’s meddling or not, the script is the weakest link of Alraune. First and foremost, as Glenn Erickson writes for Trailers from Hell, even in 1952, reheating “this pot of superstitious rot was culturally retrograde”. As a salacious, campy sex horror film, the concept might have worked, but Rabenalt’s and Stapenhorst’s attempts to make it a civilised melodrama is doomed almost from the start, as it must have seemed an impossible task to, on the one hand, steer away from the deep misogyny of the source novel, keep the sexual allure, but at the same time make the film religiously correct, and also avoid turning it into a horror movie. The main problem with all Alraune adaptations is that it makes Alraune herself the protagonist, when she is originally written as the villain. In the book, it is Frank Braun who is the protagonist — this was the second in a trilogy of books which featured Braun as the hero. The problem for the film is that Braun is not written at all as a romantic movie hero in the novels, meaning that for the films he has been stripped of all personality and acts merely as an audience stand-in, functioning as the moral compass with whom the audience is to identify.
Furthermore, the film fails to portray the evil and malice of Alraune, but on the other hand also her innocence. It is difficult to imagine the strong, independent, 27-year-old Knef as an innocent waif controlled by her subconscious, neither is there any hint of evil or malice in her portrayal of Alraune. The script also fails in driving home the importance of the seminal moment in Alraune’s personal growth, namely the first time in her life that she cries. Without having seen the previous instalments of the movie, the scene in which Alraune expresses regret and bursts into tears, at the same time as she experiences real love for the first time, is inexplicable. The person I watched the movie with misread the scene, complaining: “oh no, now Frank falls under her spell as well”, when, in reality, it was Frank who broke her spell. The problem here is that the filmmakers have forgotten to plant the seeds for this moment. In the previous instalments, Alraune is portrayed as troubled and miserable because of her incapability of feeling — neither love nor hate, remorse or pity. That fact that she has never cried is verbalised in the 1928 and 1930 versions. Not so in the 1952 version, which means that when Frank gasps: “But, Alraune, you are crying!”, the moment fails to have the intended impact. The original idea, of course, is that “true love” releases Alraune from her “perverse” and “empty” sexual desires, and submitting herself to the “right man” makes her whole, whereas her life as an independent woman has been empty and meaningless. Perhaps the filmmakers have wanted to avoid this misogynist notion, but if that is the case, then one wonders why they wanted to adapt Alraune in the first place. Anyway, the decision not to build up to the turning point of the film means that when it comes, the audience is left confused as to why Alraune now suddenly feels remorse for the deaths she have caused, which she seems to have had no qualms about earlier.
There’s also the undeveloped subplot about Alraune’s seemingly magical powers in connection with the mandrake root. The script states that the mandrake had played no part in her conception, and is used merely as a metaphor for her unnatural origins. Nevertheless, she seems to instinctively know how to use it in order to magically discover sulphuric spring water in an arid field, thus bringing fortune to Prof. ten Brinken — a fortune which later turns sour, as the health spa is revealed to be “a fraud” — and again, the script fails to explain how and why it is “a fraud”. But after the discovery of the sulphuric water, the mandrake root and Alraune’s magical powers aren’t mentioned again, apart from once, when Mathieu explains that the power she hold over men lies in “her voice”, another point that is never elaborated on, nor brought up either earlier or later. Oh, and there’s also a couple of scenes in the beginning of the film featuring a man in an ape suit locked up in ten Brinken’s laboratory, probably intended to highlight the “mad scientist” aspect of the character. However, Alraune commits one of the greatest horror movie no-no’s in the book, by doing nothing with the ape in the cage.
The conflicting desires of the script make for an ultimately garbled and watered-down story which fails to convey exactly what its moral conclusion is. And considering that Alraune is explicitly a moral tale, this absence of a moral conclusion gives the film an air of cheap exploitation, simply taking advantage of Hildegard Knef’s scandalous reputation at the time. The movie’s ending seems to boil it all down to a rather boring nature vs. nurture argument.
The Catholic church rejected Alraune, just as it had The Sinner, despite the production team’s efforts to make it acceptable. However, these efforts did make it acceptable enough for the church not to outright call for banning the film. According to Rabenalt, the producers had calibrated the tone of the movie just right, so that the publicity worked in their favour, drawing curious audiences to the theatres: “There was a row, but not a scandal”. I have not been able to find any contemporary reviews of the movie, however, Variety did pick up on it when a dubbed and truncated version was released to grindhouse theatres in the US in 1957, as The Unnatural. Variety notes that although Alraune’s themes may have been scandalous in the early 20th century, “times and sensations change”. Giving an overall negative review, Variety especially criticised Knef’s and Stroheim’s acting, which may partly be due to bad dubbing.
Today, Alraune has a mixed legacy, almost always comparing negatively against its earlier incarnations, the 1928 version in particular. German Lexikon des internationalen Films writes that Alraune doesn’t hold the same “fascination” as the previous adaptations, but is “nevertheless quite impressive in terms of the dark visual effect”. AllMovie gives Alraune a generous 3/5 rating, Hal Erickson calling it “a kinky science fiction film, elevated by the bravura performance of Erich Von Stroheim“. TV Guide goes one lower, giving the movie 2/5 stars: “Though this film takes itself seriously, the comic aspects are inescapable and one laughs where one should gasp”. On IMDb Alraune has a 6.0/10 rating based on 300 votes, and has too few reviews on Rotten Tomatoes for a consensus.
Modern online critics seem to be quite undecided on the 1952 adaptation of Alraune, which reviews ranging from “very good” to “intriguing but flawed”. David Cairns, in his brilliant column The Forgotten for Mubi, does give praise to Alraune’s visuals, but bemoans the miscast Hildegard Knef: “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 (sic), 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.” Dennis Schwartz gives the film a B- rating, correlating with 6/10, writing: “It’s a hokum sci-fi film that only resonates because Von Stroheim is at his Prussian best as a man possessed by his incestuous love for his foster daughter and arrogant about his superior intellect. Von Stroheim’s a treat to watch, but it’s still a dull visual film that never made good use of its unusual premise and was never emotionally satisfying as a drama.”
In a long article for Trailers From Hell, Glenn Erickson writes: “Director Arthur Maria Rabenault (sic) directs the letter of the script but doesn’t seem to have been told that it’s basically a horror story. The best material establishes Alraune as a mystery woman, found sitting by a reflecting pond like a fairy nymph, posing for a painting, besting an opponent with a fencing foil, riding a horse. When Hildegarde (sic) Knef tried for an American career, she was unfairly labeled an inexpressive ice queen. Yet here she fails to convey the malice of Alraune’s acts, and it must be the fault of the direction.” Erickson gives the movie a floating 2-3/4 star review, equalling something like 4-6/10 stars. Justin McKinney at The Bloody Pit of Horror gives Alraune 2.5/5 stars: “Though not for all tastes and somewhat artless compared to several of the earlier versions, the actors are all solid and well cast and I found the storyline intriguing and thought-provoking enough to keep me interested”. The most enthusiastic review of the film I have read comes from Matthew Foster at Foster on Film, who gives it 3.5/5 stars, calling it “the best genre film of 1952”. Foster writes: “Where the picture shines is in its art design and cinematography. The combination of German expressionism and gothic gives us sharp detail soaked in fog. It looks beautiful. Our introduction to Alraune, as a near ghostly figure, is high art. The story can’t live up to the look, but then it is a really good look.” Foster isn’t all too happy with the acting of the leading trio, but praises the rest of the cast. He concludes: “between the quality cast and the design I expect the film to be better. […] It is confused on what it wants to be. The story […] wants to go one way, but so soon after the Nazi eugenics program, messages on the evils of heredity are a touch uncomfortable. So it is a bit too careful and pure for its own good.”
Personally I’ll go out on a limb and say that despite the film’s somewhat poor reputation, it is actually better than the 1930 version. This is mainly thanks to its visuals and to Rabenalt’s fluid and occasionally very dynamic direction. And while I loved Helm in Metropolis, I do find her a tad too mannered but also a bit too subdued in the 1930 film — perhaps at her own request, tired as she was of always playing the vamp. And while she is completely wrong for the role, I grow to adore Hildegard Knef and her “galumphing” joie de vivre. While the 1952 Alraune fails dramatically, it is still quite an entertaining little affair, and visually it is a treat.
There’s a lot of interesting names in the cast and crew, as this was considered an “all-star cast” in Germany in 1952. Of immediate interest to this blog would seem to be Erich von Stroheim, one of the most notorious demon directors of Hollywood, with a strong connection to the horror genre. However, despite his faiblesse for German expressionism and dark themes exploring the cruelty of mankind, Stroheim neither wrote, directed nor acted in many horror movies. Those he did appear in, however, tended to also have some SF element. In 1936 he co-wrote the script for Tod Browning’s The Devil-Doll (review), loosely adapted from Abraham Merritt’s novel Burn Witch, Burn! During his sejour to France, he had a supporting role in the film Le monde tremblera (1939). His only SF entry as an actor in Hollywood was as a mad scientist in The Lady and the Monster (1944, review), based on Curt Siodmak’s novel Donovan’s Brain. Alraune was his fourth and final SF/horror outing. His only other horror film was the B-movie The Crime of Dr. Crespi, in which he played a mad scientist who paralysed his victims before burying them alive.
Despite his aristocratic claims, Erich von Stroheim hailed from a middle-class Jewish hat maker family in Vienna, Austria, and emigrated to the US in search of a better life in 1909. After a number of odd jobs, he found himself in Hollywood, where he started working as a stuntman and as an consultant on German culture, fashion and military matters. He had served briefly in the Austro-Hungarian army, but never as an officer, as he claimed. During WWI he also found himself in demand for roles as “sneering German officers”. After cutting his teeth as assistant director of military sequences, Stroheim emerged as one of the most ambitious and visionary writers and directors in Hollywood, making his debut with Blind Husbands in 1919, and made his real splash with the follow-up Foolish Wives, which he claimed was the first movie to cost 1 million dollars to make. His masterpiece is considered to be Greed (1924), a detailed adaptation of Frank Norris’ 1898 novel McTeague, about a San Francisco couple’s courtship and marriage, and their subsequent descent into poverty and violence as the result of jealousy and greed. An avant-garde production mixing silent film makeup and 19th century period clothing with modern locations in San Francisco (including cars driving by and extras in modern outfits), today the film is credited as one of the most daring and innovative in the silent era. However, Greed also marked the beginning of the end for Stroheim as a director. Exacting to a degree about small details, and refusing to stick to budget and time-constraints, Stroheim created a rough cut that was over ten hours long. Realising it had to be cut, he was able to get it down to six hours, which could be shown as two different movies, both three hours long. Still deemed too long by the studio, Goldwyn Pictures, Stroheim enlisted the help of director Rex Ingram to get it down to four hours, again intended to be shown as two different films. But after a merger resulting in MGM, the new studio brass demanded Greed be cut down to a single movie of no more than three hours in length. Stroheim was taken off the film, and the final version was edited down to 2,5 hours by one of the screenwriters. The resulting film was a flop upon release and Stroheim disowned it. However, it has later become re-evaluated as one of the greatest films ever made.
Stroheim directed — or at least started directing — a half dozen other films, but almost all of them ran into trouble because of his micromanagement of details, insistence on artistic freedom and his refusal to compromise for budgetary or commercial reasons. This resulted in extremely bloated budgets, missed deadlines and overlong, unreleasable films, which often had to be cut down by over half of their length, meaning hundreds of thousands of production dollars went down the drain, which could have been avoided with better planning. Combined with his notoriously harsh attitude towards actors, this ultimately lead to Stroheim being fired from Queen Kelly, and subsequently from Walking Down Broadway in 1933, after which he was effectively blacklisted as director in Hollywood. Nevertheless, Stroheim’s films are revered today for the way in which he introduced more complex themes and sophisticated plots, as well as sexuality and psychology into commercial films.
Over the years, Stroheim did continue acting, and after getting snubbed in Hollywood started doing more work in France, where he became especially vaunted by auteur directors. As an actor, he is perhaps best remembered for his roles in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) and in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), for he earned his only Academy Award nomination. Alraune was his first film after Sunset Boulevard and the only film he made in Germany. Audiences reacted to Stroheim speaking in a very peculiar accent, almost as if speaking with an American accent. He claimed that he spoke very little German, as he had forgotten it during his long absence. However, his distinctly non-German pronunciation was probably a result of the fact that he hailed from a lower class background, and unlike most Austrian actors had never taken acting lessons or appeared on stage in Europe, which meant he had had no chance of learning how to file away his “plebeian” speech. This is backed up by Billy Wilder and Stroheim’s own agent, who were both Austrians. For Stroheim, clinging to his aristocratic claims, it was probably easier to tell people he had an American accent than admitting he spoke German like a “pleb”.
Hildegard Knef had no less interesting a life story. Born in 1925, she was raised by a single mother who worked in a factory. She left school in 1940 to work as a part-time animator at Ufa, and started taking acting lessons. During WWII Knef had a love affair with Nazi propaganda film producer and SS officer Ewald von Demandowsky. In the final battle for Berlin in 1945 she dressed as a male soldier (to avoid rape) and together with her lover tried to flee Berlin. When the city fell, she was captured by Polish troops and sent to a Soviet POW camp consisting of 40,000 male prisoners. Demandowsky was also captured and in 1946 executed by a Soviet war tribunal. He had, however, managed to arrange with his contacts for Knef to get a job as an MC at a newly opened theatre — after she escaped from the prison camp, which she did, with the help of her fellow inmates.
After her success in Murderers Among Us in 1946, she was invited to Hollywood, but was told she had to change her name to Gilda Christian and pretend to be Austrian rather than German, both of which she refused. After her scandal with The Sinner in 1951, her German-American husband Kurt Hirsch encouraged her to take a second stab at Hollywood, under the name Hildegarde Neff (since Americans couldn’t pronounce “Knef”), but she found it hard to get any good movie roles. She returned to Europe in 1952, and subsequently made films in France, Italy, Britain and Germany. In 1963 she engaged in a second career as a singer-songwriter, surprising fans with her deep, smoky voice and with writing lyrics for her own German chansons. During the sixties and seventies she did find some cult fame in the US as she appeared in a number of English-language co-productions distributed overseas, most notably Hammer’s Lost Continent (1968), Billy Wilder’s Fedora (1978) and Witchery (1988), all in which she played co-lead (in the last one opposite David Hasselhoff and Linda Blair, no less). In Germany she also had many successes and was nominated for the German Film Awards for her work in A Love Story (1954), Der Mann, der sich verkaufte (1959, she won for best supporting actress), Lulu (1962), The Fortress (1964) and especially in Everyone Dies Alone, where she played Elise Hampel, a German woman who along with her husband was sentenced to death by the Nazis for committing acts of civil disobedience during the Third Reich.
Outside of the movie business, Knef also had better luck in the US. She became a bona fide star of Broadway thanks to her lauded role as Ninotchka in Cole Porter’s musical comedy Silk Stockings, which ran for nearly 700 nights between 1954 and 1965. This also led to her being cast as the iconic Spelunken-Jenny in a screen adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, which in turn cemented her decision to launch her music career. All in all she recorded 23 records, and Ella Fitzgerald called her “the world’s greatest singer without a voice”.
Knef’s past as an actor during the Nazi regime in Berlin, and her short but passionate love affair with a high-ranking SS officer, caused Knef some trouble after the war. While she wasn’t blacklisted for five years by the German film industry, as some Nazi collaborators were, she did have to rely on the stage to support herself during the second half of the forties. And in her biographies, she described her relative lack of opportunities in Hollywood in the fifties as a result of the studios’ suspicion towards her as a result of her personal background. This, she felt, was understandable but ironic, as she had opposed Nazism ever since she was a schoolgirl in the thirties, which got her into trouble and eventually led to her dropping out of school to pursue an acting career. About her former lover, the 20 years older Nazi officer, she said that she loved the man, not his ideology, and frequently quarreled with him over his involvement in the party. In her later years, she became close friends with Marlene Dietrich, who wrote that she admired Knef intensely, not just because of her talent, but because of her strength, intelligence and lack of fear: “She had an inner strength, and she was smart, which cannot be said of all actresses”, according to an article in Die Welt. In her later life she led a public struggle against cancer, undergoing several operations. Knef also published a number of autobiographical books. Hildegard Knef passed away in 2002 of complications arising from her lifelong smoking habit, at 76 years old.
Karheinz Böhm (sometimes as Carl Boehm, or similar) was a German-born Austrian “citizen of the world”, the son of a conductor, whose family was able to slip out of Germany to Switzerland in 1939 just before the beginning of WWII. After university studies in Switzerland and Rome, he defied his father’s wishes, returned to Vienna and took up acting. This was in the late forties, and he quickly found himself in German movies, first as a supporting player, but around the time Alraune was being made he graduated to romantic leading roles. In 1955 Böhm rose to international fame as Emperor Franz Josef I in the hugely popular romantic comedy drama Sissi, about the young titular empress of Austria, starring opposite the 16-year-old Romy Schneider. The film got two sequels, and Böhm’s typecasting in romantic comedies only strengthened. That is, until Michael Powell cast him in the lead as the voyeuristic murderer in his psychological horror drama Peeping Tom in 1962.
Unfortunately, Peeping Tom didn’t quite launch Böhm’s international career as much as it threatened to kill it altogether. The movie caused a scandal in Britain, which made Hildergard Knef’s run-in with the church in 1951 pale in comparison. Böhm remembered that after the premier, no-one would shake his hand. British critics raced to see who could give Peeping Tom its most scathing review. One reviewer noted that the best thing to do with the film was to “flush it down the sewer”. Another noted that it was “more nauseating and depressing than the leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay, and the gutters of Calcutta”. Over the years, Peeping Tom has been re-evaluated, and is now generally seen as one of the greatest horror movies ever made, and a progenitor of the slasher genre. Böhm did get noticed in Hollywood for his work, though, although perhaps rather his work on Sissi than in Peeping Tom. He was cast as a German officer in Vincente Minnelli’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962), as Jakob Grimm in George Pal’s The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), as one of the leading rich men in Come Fly With Me (1963) and as part of the main cast in the action thriller The Venetian Affair (1966). He also worked as a voice actor for Disney and in TV both in the US and Germany. In 1983 he retired from acting to work exclusively on his Ethiopian charity organisation Menschen für Menschen (People for People), which has since raised close for rural development projects and deslumification in Ethiopia, focusing on clean water, infrastructure, education, agroecology and healthcare. Böhm received numerous accolades for his humanitarian work, far more so than for his acting, and was made an honorary citizen of Ethiopia. He passed away in 2014.
Composer Werner Heymann had behind him a very successful career scoring films for Hollywood. He was nominated for Oscars four times, the first time, believe it or not, for his score for the slurpasaur epic One Million B.C. (1940). His music has been widely used as stock in movies, and can be heard, for example, in the Ray Harryhausen SF movies It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955, review) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). Before his Hollywood career he worked in Berlin as a classical composer and writing songs for cabarets, and was at one point musical director for the legendary Max Reinhardt. In the twenties and early thirties he served as the head of he musical department at Ufa, scoring films for the likes of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, and for popular operettas. Many of his songs can still be heard in modern films, for example in Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat (2000), Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (2013) and in Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria (2018).
The film also features the wonderful Trude Hesterberg as Princess Wolkowska. Hesterberg was a stage and cabaret legend, dancer, actress and opera singer, who’d been performing on the Berlin stage since 1911. In the early twenties she founded her own company, Wilde Bühne, a poltical-literary cabaret in which a young Bertolt Brecht also performed. It was considered one of the most important stages for the development of the famous Berlin cabaret art. The music for Wilde Bühne was, incidentally, composed by Werner Heymann. She founded another group in 1933, but it was soon banned by the Nazis, despite the fact that she immediately hung a picture of Adolf Hitler on the wall. While she was a pacifist and probably had socialist leanings, she — allegedly — became a member of the Nazi party and the infamous Militant League for German Culture. However, at the post-war trials she was acquitted, as she explained that as a half-Jewish artist with well-known links to the German left, joinin the NSDAP was not only a means of securing her possibility to work in Germany, but a survival strategy. Hesterberg made her fgilm debut as early as 1912. And while she was never a bona fide leading lady, she appeared in over 100 films over the years. In the twenties and thirties she had an affair with socialist author Heinrich Mann, writer of the novel Professor Unrat, on which Josef von Sternberg based his famous 1930 film Blue Angel. Hesterberg was one of the actresses considered for the female lead opposite Emil Jannings, but Sternberg, of course, ultimately chose the then relatively unknown actress Marlene Dietrich.
The 1952 adaptation of Alraune is not available for online streaming, as far as I can tell, neither legally or illegally. There have been official DVD releases of the truncated and dubbed US version under the title The Unnatural, as well as the original German version, unfortunately without subtitles. However, a quick Google search will find you “less official” of the German version with English subtitles.
Alraune. 1952, Germany. Directed by Arthur Maria Rabenalt. Written by Kurt Heuser. Based on the novel Alraune by Hanns Heinrich Ewers. Starring: Hildegard Knef, Erich von Stroheim, Karlheinz Böhm, Harry Meyen, Rolf Henninger, Harry Halm, Hans Cossy, Gardy Brombacher, Trude Hesterberg, Julia Koschka, Denise Vernac. Music: Werner Heymann. Cinematography: Friedl Behn-Grund. Editing: Doris Finlay. Set decoration: Robert Herlth. Costume design: Herbert Ploberger. Sound: Heinz Therworth. Produced by Günther Stapenhorst for Carlton-Film & Deutsche Styria Film.