The earliest preserved “adaptation” of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau from 1921 disappoints Wells fans. While sporting impressive actors, the German comedy is marred by a haphazard script and lazy direction. 3/10
Insel der Verschollenen. 1921, Germany. Directed by Urban Gad. Written by Hans Behrendt & Bobby Lüthge. Based on novel by H.G. Wells. Starring: Tronier Funder, Alf Blütecher, Hanni Weisse, Erich Kaiser-Titz, Nien Tso Ling, Louis Brody, Desdemona Schlichting, Ludmila Hell, Umberto Guarracino. IMDb: 4.7/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Some days are just like Christmas for an SF critic. One such day was the other day, when an anonymous comment popped up in the comment section of my blog, with a link to an old German film, the 1921 Die Insel der Verschollenen, the earliest preserved adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Long thought to have been lost, a copy seems to have turned up in the Berlin film archive some ten years ago, but for some time was only available there for screening. US audiences got their only screening at Monster Bash 2014. Lately, it seems to have been released as a bonus feature to the 3-disc special edition of the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014). Since the beginning of 2022, it is also available on YouTube, unfortunately only in a crappy 360 p version with Spanish subtitles.
The film follows the adventures of Londoners Robert Marston (Alf Blütecher) and Dr. Ted Fowlen (Tronier Funder). The film’s bizarre tone is set from the get-go, as a message in a bottle is received from Robert’s ex-girlfriend Jane (Hanni Weisse), missing for years. She writes she is in grave danger on a desert island, and gives the coordinates. However, Robert has a new flame, Evelyn (Ludmila Hell), and his worst fear is that Jane might find out about Evelyn. He is happy enough to let her be eaten by cannibals, but fears that someone else might save her. Ted, on the other hand, is a quack who has gotten into a bit of a pickle because of a fraudulent ad he has placed in an ad about having created “an artificial man”, and now “needs to get away from London, for two months, at least”. He convinces Robert that the best way to handle the Jane/Evelyn situation is for him to go and find Jane and tell her about Evelyn himself. So off they go — in Robert’s own private submarine(!).
Arriving at their location, a tropical island very reminiscent of the northern coast of Germany, they find the mysterious Dr. McClelland (Erich Kaiser-Titz) and his opium addicted Asian assistant Fung-Lu (Nien Tso Ling), who are holding Jane captive. They not so much save Jane, but politely ask Dr. McClelland to let her out, which he does. But before they have a chance to escape, Fung-Lu blows up their submarine on the orders of McClelland. The trio escape into the wilderness of the island, and the film then changes tone and pace, and settles into a rather misplaced Robinsonade. The trio move into a couple of huts abandoned by the natives of the island, who, according to McClelland, were “wiped out by a plague”. Now begins an odd jealousy triangle. Upon hearing about Evelyn, Jane loses interest in Robert, and instead falls in love with Ted. Unfortunately, Robert now wants Jane back, and stomps away in jealousy, determined to find his own way off the island, while Ted and Jane go out fishing and strolling, as if on their honeymoon.
McClelland, it is revealed to the audience, has been doing unethical experiments with animals (and, it is hinted, with the “disappeared” natives of the island), stitching together bits and pieces of different creatures, creating hybrids and beast men. His ultimate goal is to create an artificial human being, but for this he apparently needs the heart from a human being (apparently the natives aren’t human enough?). It is for this purpose that he has kidnapped Jane. Biding his time, knowing the trio of “heroes” won’t get off the island, he prepares his final experiment, and then sends one of his “beast men” (Umberto Guarracino) to get her. Then follows a somewhat confusing cat-and-mouse game, resulting Robert and Jane getting locked up at McClelland’s lab and Ted getting jungle fever. Things look bleak, but unbeknownst to our “heroes”, Evelyn has been able to put two and two together, and followed Robert and Ted to the Island. She now comes to the rescue, and along with Ted’s black valet (Louis Brody), spring Jane and Ted from their captivity and battle the ferocious beast man. Lung Fu, fed up with his colleague-cum-master, pulls an “abby normal” on McClellan, and instead of cutting out Jane’s heart, he puts the heart of a tiger into the “artificial man” – causing its animal instincts to attack McClellan. Finally, the secret lab with McClellan, Fung-Lu and all their creation perishes in flames.
Anyone who has read H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) will be hard pressed to call Die Insel der Verschollenen an “adaptation”, rather one could claim that the film was “inspired by” the book. The movie came at at time when German cinema was filled with literary adaptations. Shakespeare, Goethe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe and others were dead enough to have no copyright claims, but numerous films were also based on the works of contemporary literature. And when the studios couldn’t (or wouldn’t) acquire the rights to foreign classics, they simply changed the title and the names of the characters. Friends of German silent horror will be aware of F.W. Murnau’s Der Januskopf (1920, based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Nosferatu (1922, based on Dracula) as such examples. The Isle of the Lost, or Die Insel der Verschollenen, is crammed in between these two. All three are unauthorised adaptations of books whose copyrights were still protected in Germany. Apparently, the R.L. Stevenson estate didn’t much care how many films or plays were made on his works, as Jekyll & Hyde adaptations kept popping up seemingly everywhere. H.G. Wells, who lived to 1946, was a lot more picky, but over in the UK, his management simply wasn’t aware of the German film. However, this popular pastime of making unauthorised literary adaptations abruptly ended in 1922, when Bram Stoker’s vigilant widow took the producers to court over Nosferatu, bankrupted the producer and the production company, and had all copies of the film destroyed (a single copy that lost its way into the US survived, fortunately).
The Island of the Lost was directed by Danish movie pioneer Urban Gad, best known for “discovering” (and marrying) superstar Asta Nielsen, with whom he made over 30 films in Germany. The screenplay was written by two of Gad’s go-to scenarists, Hans Behrendt and Bobby Lüthge, two young-ish but experienced screenwriters who would go on to have respected careers in German cinema. The movie doesn’t have a credited producer, but was produced by the short-lived indie company Corona Films, which seems to have been set up by Gad himself, and distributed by Terra Film, which also distributed a number of other films by Gad and directors like Otto Rippert, Rudi Oehler, Carl Wilhelm and Ewald André Dupont.
The tone of the film is much less Nosferatu than it is Spooks on the Loose. Despite being wedged in between Der Januskopf and Nosferatu, there is no hint of Expressionism in Gad’s film. The story is all over the place, but the overall feeling is one of a romantic comedy adventure film. However, the segments including Moreau/McClelland are played relatively straight, and the disturbing “experimental creatures” are in no way played for laughs. There is promise to the movie, but it is offset partly by the domestic drama that bogs down the middle of the proceedings, as well as by the ill-conceived “comedy interlude” involving the black valet and a native woman, as pointless as it is offensive. The entire film is shot in daylight, and there is little visual flair to the proceedings. However, the mis-en-scene and sets are somewhat impressive. Most impressive is probably the fact that the film team has managed to get a hold of an actual submarine, which use both for interiors and exteriors, and in action. The team also seems to have put some effort into the rather sturdy swamp huts (if they were not hand-me-downs from another movie). However, Gad doesn’t even make an effort to try and make the German coastline look like a tropical island. Unfortunately the pixelated Youtube upload doesn’t give a clear picture of how well the makeup for the beastly creatures is realised, but I suppose they would look rather eerie. The only creature we get any longer sequences with is the beast man who tries to kidnap Jane. Wrestler Umberto Guarracino (hot off playing Frankenstein’s monster in Il mostro di Frankenstein, 1920, review) carries the part well, and the makeup is surprisingly good by the standards of the day. A major disappointment is that we never get to see the “artificial man” that McClelland and Fung-Lu have been creating. When, at first, the lifeless body is filmed obscured through a window, it feels like good tension-building. But when, in the very finale of the film, the final struggle between the artificial man and McClelland is just shown as silhouettes through stained glass, you feel robbed of your satisfaction as an audience. This is a clear violation of “Chekhov’s Gun”, which would be acceptable if there was a point to the violation. But there’s no reason for not showing the artificial man, and we can only guess at Gad’s motivation for his decision.
The casual racism of the movie makes it a somewhat cringy watch today. The filmmakers are to be commended for using ethnic actors in the roles of ethnic characters, but these characters do little to dissolve the racial stereotypes prevalent in the West at the time. Cameroonian-German actor Louis Brody plays the valet — dressed in minstrel show getup with tuxedo and top hat, reinforcing the image of the cowardly negro, that is until he finds another black native on the island, and returns to his “natural state”. The native woman is played by Afro-German actress Desdemona Schlichting, wearing a straw skirt and other “native” paraphernalia. There is a small comedic subplot following the valet’s return to his “native” life, shedding his western garments and doing “African dances” with a bone in his nose along with his new jungle wife — but leaves her when there is a chance of escaping the island. The segment is as pointless as it is racist, and serves only to give the audience a good laugh at the black man’s expense. The valet does get a big hero moment in the end when he fights and kills Guarracino’s beast man, but by that time it is a little too late.
The Chinese assistant to McClelland doesn’t fare quite as badly. Fung-Lu, played by Chinese-German actor Nien Tso Ling, is actually portrayed as the genius of the scientist team. When McClelland shouts down the beast man, he asks “Who is your master?!”. Instead of pointing at McClelland, the beast man points at Fung-Lu, indicating that it is the Chinese who has done the heavy lifting in the companionship. In the end, he also gets his revenge on McClelland, who blackmails him into giving all the credit for their common work him, by switching Jane’s heart for a tiger’s in the artificial man. But then they ruin the goodwill by turning Fung-Lu into the stereotypical opium-addicted Chinaman. In fact, the way McClellan blackmails him is by withholding his opium. One could argue that there is a precedent in Wells’ book, where the assistant is a drunk, but that’s hardly an excuse.
There is little information available on how Die Insel der Verschollenen fared upon its release — I have found no reviews from the time, German, Danish or otherwise. However, one can deduce that it was at least not a thundering success from a number of factors. The first is the film’s obscurity itself — as many “lost” films, it has generated a lot of interest among horror and SF fans, as well as friends of German silent cinema. But, often the fact that no copy exists of a film is a sign that it didn’t have a very large distribution or was deemed important enough to archive and save for posterity. Furthermore, there a very few mentions of the film in press from the period, and almost no production notes, artwork or photographs seem to have survived either.
However, Henry Nicolella in his book Down from the Attic writes that contemporary German writers did not make the connection between Wells and the film, probably since Wells was not yet particularly popular in Germany. Some did, however, draw parallels to French SF pioneer Maurice Renard’s novel Doctor Lerne — a book that was itself a comment on The Island of Dr. Moreau (it has previously been translated as New Bodies for Old). However, there is little resemblance between Renard’s book and the movie, other than the central premise of crossing animals and humans through transplants. As Nicolella notes, The Island of Dr. Moreau was a surprising choice for screenwriters Hans Behrendt and Bobby Lüthge, as well as for director Urban Gad, as there is nothing else in their resumes that would suggest an interest in either horror or science fiction. And it feels as if they don’t quite know what to do with the material. Had they wanted to take the road down dark expressionism, they would have had the know-how on hand. Cinematographer Willy Hameister had just come off work with Robert Wiene on the epoch-defining The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and its follow-up, Genuine (1920), and art director Robert Dietrich had worked on the horror/SF epic Homunculus (1916, review).
Die Insel der Verschollenen is an obscure film, but not among the most obscure I have reviewed — there are a handful of reviews out there. The film has only a little over 40 votes on IMDb, with an average audience score of 4.7/10. Out of my go-to critics, I can only find reviews by afore-mentioned Nicolella, as well as Dario Lavia at Cinefania. Nicolella writes in his book: “the titular isle is more Gilligan than Dr. Moreau, and is full of clumsy humor and tepid romance. Sadly, the film is more akin to something like King of the Zombies than to any of the movie versions of Moreau.” Lavia continues: “It is a fairly minor film, and its obscurity is justified when one compares it with the 1933 Hollywood version.”
Kenneth Starcher at KRSJR Productions gives The Isle of the Lost 2.5/5 stars, writing: “It’s only worth watching if you’re a huge fan of Wells’s story, like I am, and even then, only if you’re really curious”. Steve Kopian at Unseen Films doesn’t even give it the benefit of a curiosity: “A seemingly unending 66 minutes long the film is largely an outdated comedy. That’s a polite way of saying it’s not funny. Even allowing for the racist jokes, the humor here is just not funny. […] Then once the characters get to the so called desert island the film just fails to function as the actors wander around the wilderness, a Chinese doctor bemoans wanting opium and the beat [sic] men show up in the final 20 minutes. None of it makes any sense.” Michael Elliott in an IMDb user review also cites the odd decision of using The Island of Dr. Moreau as the basis of a Keystone Cops-type of comedy, noting the film doesn’t seem quite sure of what to make of itself. He writes: “The performances are fairly good and there’s no doubt that the monsters look very good. I was expecting something silly like a man in an ape costume but most of the actors are done up in hairy make-up effects, which look quite good […] The Island of the Lost is a film horror fans might want to see but there’s no doubt that it’s rather disappointing. It’s not a bad movie but just one you’d have higher hopes for.”
The only proper German review I have been able to find comes from Robin Mensch at Monstermensch, and he is not impressed either: “Unfortunately, the film makes little use of the fantastic elements of the template. Instead, an odd relationship story becomes the center of the plot, so that ultimately neither the drama nor the horror are able to convince. The ridiculous North Sea backdrop, which serves as the exotic island paradise, doesn’t add to the mood either.” I did find one positive review as well, by Yann Esvan at the blog E Muto Fu. Sidenote: from the web adress I thought the name of the blog was “Emu Tofu”, which I found hilarious, but “unfortunately”, e muto fu is the translation of “and there was silence” in Italian, if I’m translating it correctly. Anyway, Esvan writes that from the bad reviews online, he went into the viewing with very low expectations, and was positively surprised at finding what he thought was something in the vein of Bela Lugosi’s Monogram movies: “I didn’t mind at all. Certainly the plot was creaky at times and the motivation of the characters not always thought very well through (in particular Robert), and add to that the racist subplot […] But these elements were part and parcel of the kind of horror/science fiction B-movie, that was very successful in the sound era, and was aimed [at an audience who that didn’t care too much] about plot or dialogue, but came for [entertainment] and the horror exploitation of monsters and mad scientists.”
I agree with the general consensus of the above assessments of The Island of the Lost. There’s a feeling of a lost opportunity, and certainly H.G. Wells would not have approved of this mangling of his story. The film is not terrible, and as an hour’s worth of entertainment it was probably perfectly passable at the time. Urban Gad was a capable director and scenarist, and there is nothing wrong as such with the images on screen, if one takes the film as a light-hearted jungle adventure comedy. It’s just that this was not Gad’s forte. He rose to fame with often dark (in tone, not visually) urban tragedies, often framing Asta Nielsen as a tragic vamp or a girl gone astray. Even his few comedies were often built on some salacious premise, such as Engelein (1913), where a 33-year-old Nielsen plays a 17-year-old playgirl pretending to be 12 in order to come into an inheritance, but seduces her “father” who is in fact nothing of the sort, but her mother’s later husband. A trademark of his was the “fallen” woman, who often eloped with rascals, leaving a “good” man behind, and several of his films dealt with jealousy and triangle dramas. This explains the contrived domestic drama bogging down the middle of The Island of the Lost, even though it does not excuse it. And as for the rest of the material, he simply does not quite know what to do with it. If anything, I would compare the film with Marcel Perez’ 1913 epic The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola (review), at least in regards to tone and plot, although Perez’ movie had a much more extravagant budget, design and story. And while that film was cutting edge when it arrived (at the same time Urban Gad was on the top of his career), by 1921 the world of cinema had already moved on to other styles and visuals — and Urban Gad had not been able to keep up.
There are things in the movie I like. The tension between McClelland and his assistant is interesting and could have been further developed. Certain individual shots are nice — as the one where Fung-Lu laughs in the forefront of the shot as we see the submarine blow up in the background, or the revelation of the experiments in the basement. And I’m especially fond of the fact that it is the women and the black man who are the ones who take care of business in the end, when one of the “heroes” is down and out with jungle fever and the other has managed to get himself locked up. The acting is competent across the board. Gad has chosen two Nordic compatriots as his “heroes”, Danish Tronier Funder and Norwegian Alf Blütecher. Blüthecher was one of the stars of Danish cinema, who transitioned to Germany when the Danish film industry imploded under its own weight in the early 20’s. Erich Kaiser-Titz is good as McClelland, refraining from overt hamming. Hanni Weisse as Jane is perhaps most impressive, giving a playful and naturalistic performance, almost in the vein of Clara Bow’s flappers.
Final assessment: Well, I would agree with above critics that this is one for the completists. Friends of silent cinema will find it a fair if forgettable adventure comedy, H.G. Wells fans will disappointed, and if you’re neither, I would consider giving this one a pass.
As has been hinted above, Paramount made a considerably better version of The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1932, under the title Island of Lost Souls (review), with Charles Laughton as a magnificently evil and charming Moreau. To this day, it remains perhaps the best H.G. Wells adaptation ever made, and one of the finest horror movies in history, which is partly why this early adaptation stands out in such stark contrast as a much lesser effort. The story has since been adapted officially in 1977 as The Island of Dr. Moreau, and infamously in 1996 with the same title — the version with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. Insel der Verschollenen isn’t the only unauthorised adaptation. The first was probably the now lost French movie The Island of Terror (1913), and it was later used as the basis for Eddie Romero’s Filipinososploitation movies Terror is a Man (1959) and The Twilight People (1972). Several other movies have made homages or just simply borrowed the premise of the novel.
When talking of the pioneers of Danish cinema, the three names most often mentioned are Carl Theodor Dreyer, Benjamin Christensen and August Blom. These three directors helped Denmark become the most prolific movie producing country during the years 1909-1914, flooding the international screens with hundreds of pictures each year. However, the name Urban Gad is often left out, even though he was instrumental in exporting Denmark’s, and Europe’s first bona fide female movie star, Asta Nielsen. The general notion seems to be that Gad was a mediocre director who had the luck of being married to Nielsen — an idea that Nielsen herself energetically spread after their divorce in 1917. However, there are those who challenge this view of Gad. One of them is Lisbeth Richter Larsen at the Danish Film Institute, who has written a long article about Gad in the institute’s magazine. The text is far too detailed and well-researched to do any sort of justice, but do check it out here.
Urban Gad was born in 1879 to an affluent family on Copenhagen. His father was a rear admiral and his mother was Emma Gad, a writer, proto-feminist and a highly respected socialite in the city. Her home became an important meeting place for Copenhagen’s political, artist and business elite. Emma was both a dramatist and an author, even if most of her works have since been forgotten, save her best-selling book Takt og tone, a classic handbook in etiquette, which was reprinted several times and translated to several languages. With an absent father and a brother who also joined the military, Urban Gad’s mother became an important influence, and perhaps his most important relationship throughout his life, writes Larsen. Gad received a good education and travelled Europe, in particular France, where he received training as a painter. During the first decade of the 20th century he tried to establish himself as an artist with mixed success, but scathing reviews may have thwarted his career. Instead, he spent time in Germany, where he the art direction of the German theatres, and upon his return to Copenhagen started working as a stage director. I n1909 he also co-wrote and produced a play with his mother. The play flopped, but was important for his career. as this is where eh first set eyes on the lanky, charismatic brunette Asta Nielsen.
Gad saw something special in Nielsen, and gave her the starring role in his debut film, The Abyss, in 1910. Just previously, he had gotten a crash course in filmmaking in the historical war epic En Rekrut fra 64, where he co-wrote the script and probably was on hand as part of the art direction team. The Abyss, or Afgrunden, was an erotic tragedy in which Asta Nielsen plays a woman who leaves her boyfriend, the son of a priest, to elope with a rodeo artist, whom she murders in the film’s final scene. The centrepiece of the movie is a sensual dance sequence between Nielsen and her lover, which was thought scandalous at the time. The Abyss was a thundering hit all over Europe, and did well in the US as well. German production companies fought for the right of producing the upcoming films with Gad and Nielsen, and Nielsen became an overnight sensation. Together, they made 30 successful films in Germany and Denmark between 1910 and 1916, and married in 1912. The marriage ended in divorce in 1918, and they went their separate ways. Nielsen stayed in Germany and went on to work for many of Germany’s biggest directors. She is perhaps best remembered today for playing Hamlet in the classic 1921 movie adaptation.
Urban Gad continued directing successful films in Germany, although none matched the success he had with Nielsen, and he more or less left directing behind in 1922, save a comedy and a short film in Denmark in 1926. However, he was offered the position as director of one of the largest movie theatres in Copenhagen, a position he held until his retirement, and transformed the “folksy” theatre into one of the most prestigious movie houses in Denmark. Larsen argues that one of the reasons Gad is often left out of Danish movie history is that he did most of his work in Germany, and the German association was frowned upon after WWII. This doesn’t quite hold up, though, as for example Dreyer is also best known for his work in Germany. Another reason is the notion that it was Asta Nielsen that was the true talent in the relationship, and Gad was sucked up in her success. This, writes Larsen, is a narrative largely constructed by Nielsen, and one that she herself contradicted on several occasions. In fact, the truth is probably that the sort of salacious melodramas that Gad made haven’t aged all that well, even though The Abyss still packs a punch. Scenes in The Abyss (and The Island of the Damned) show that Gad could be an inventive and visually interesting director. And the films he did were very successful at the time they were made, but many were, in fact, the kind of movies that would later be dubbed “exploitation”. After parting with Gad, Nielsen went on to play Mary Magdalene, Mata Hari, Miss Julie, Hedda Gabler and Hamlet, all roles Gad could have put her in, which he didn’t.
Norwegian actor Alf Blütecher is something of an early science fiction pioneer, having played a leading role in no less than three early SF movies. Apart from appearing as Robert in Die Insel der Verschollenen, he also played the heroic lead in two Danish films, End of the World (1916, review), which has been called the first feature-length SF movie, as well Dr. Kraft in A Trip to Mars (1918, review), the first feature-length film about a trip to Mars. Blütecher was born in a small municipality in southern Norway in 1880, and entered the acting profession in the early 20th century, quickly becoming a star of the Bergen and Stavanger stages. Between 1913 and 1919 he was under contract with Nordisk Film in Copenhagen, appearing in over 60 movies, working closely with directors Holger-Madsen, Robert Dinesen and August Blom. He played a variety of characters, but quickly became one of Nordisk’s primary leading men — today his SF roles are probably the best remembered ones. After his contract with Nordisk ran out, he divided his time between occasional theatre productions in Norway, including a lauded performance in the titular role of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt in 1921, and film roles in Germany, although often with Danish directors. He had a good run in Germany between 1919 and 1926, although more often in supporting parts. However, an accident which resulted in a permanent loss of hearing made it difficult for him to continue acting. He did one last leading role in 1930, but then relocated to Oslo, where he took up work at a local post office. Blütecher passed away in 1959.
Playing Dr. Ted, Danish Tronier Funder’s career was remarkably similar to Alf Blütecher’s. Funder also started on stage, and was contracted to Nordisk Film in 1911. His first film role came in Urban Gad’s The Black Dream, with Asta Nielsen and Valdemar Psilander in the leads. In his close to 40 films made in Denmark Funder often played large supporting roles or second leads. Like Blütecher, he tried his luck in Germany when the Danish film industry lost ground in the early 20’s, and appeared in around half a dozen films between 1920 and 1924. In 1925 he relocated to Denmark and the stage, but eventually he dropped out of acting altogether, and became a wholesaler.
Ingenue Hanni Weisse was one of the great movie stars of early German cinema, making her debut in 1912, after touring Germany on stage. She made a splash in her feature debut The Other (1913), recognised by critics as one of the first German film with “artistic merits”, and in 1914 appeared as the female lead in the Richard Oswald-penned Der Hund von Baskerville, a freely adapted version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel. So popular was the movie, that it spawned five Sherlock Holmes sequels. Weisse’s most successful film, however, was the “educational” melodrama Alcohol (1919), Ewald André Dupont’s breakthrough movie. She was able to maintain a decent popularity during the 20’s, despite new stars entering the scene, and also made a successful transfer to talkies in the 30’s, but by then her popularity had started to wane. She made her last film appearance in 1942, leaving behind an impressive career of over 100 feature films and 40 shorts. After quitting the movie business, she became a restaurant owner. She was at one point married to one of the screenwriters of Die Insel der Verschollenen, Bobby Lüthge.
Erich Kaiser-Titz was one of the busiest actors of the German silent period. Born to a German architect, he trained as a locksmith and worked as a bricklayer and construction site manager before entering the theatre in Berlin, where he became a respected actor. He made his film debut in 1913 and kept on working in the movie business (with lauded performances on the stage on the side) until his untimely death in 1928, at only 53. His perhaps most outstanding film role was one we have reviewed here on Scifist, that of E.T.A. Hoffmann in Richard Oswald’s 1916 adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann (review). However, even before that he was hugely popular, first as Detective Engelbert Fox in a run of Sherlock Holmes-like mystery series during WWI, and around the same time as The Tales of Hoffmann (1916-1917) he originated the role of the master villain Phantomas in a 16-part film serial, based on the French literary character. In 1918 he did a lauded turn as Ferdinand Lasalle, the originator of German Social Democracy in a film with the same name. Given his pedigree, it was only natural that he should also play Sherlock Holmes in a 1920 adaptation of The Hound of Baskerville. All in all, Kaiser-Titz is claimed to have appeared in over 300 movies in his career.
Still, perhaps the most interesting actor in the film is Louis Brody, born M’bebe Mpessa in 1892 in Cameroon, at the time a German colony. According to an article by Robert Fikes on the website Black Past, it is believed Brody migrated to Germany between 1907 and 1914, when he received his first film credit. He reportedly worked menial jobs before entering the movie business. During the expansion of the German movie industry after WWI, he became a prevalent fixture as a butler, sailor, barkeeper, driver, athlete and of course “wild native”. According to an article on the German site filmportal.de, based on the research done by Tobias Nagl, Brody “occupied a special position [among black actors in Germany]: his acting achievements were discussed in the Weimar and later also in the Nazi film press, his name was occasionally even mentioned in the opening credits and in press kits. Very few other non-white actors have achieved similar prominence – such as Henry Sze , Nien Sön Ling or Madge Jackson.”Like the top black American actors, his roles didn’t confine themselves to Africans, he also played Arab, Malay, Indian and even Chinese characters. He is perhaps best remembered for his roles as the Chinese servant in Joe May’s eight-part epic Herrin die Welt (“Queen of the World”) in 1919-1920, the Malay in Robert Wiene’s Genuine, the Moor in Fritz Lang’s The Weary Death (1921), the plantation manager in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden (1925), again as a Moor in the nationalistic Once I had a Comrade (1926) — and in a small role as a servant in the blockbuster Münchhausen (1943). Although uncredited in the film (and on IMDb), Brody was one of around a hundred black extras in Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis (1927, review), and appeared as one of the black “savages” supporting the giant “clam shell” in Brigitte Helm’s legendary dance sequence.
While blacks were seen and even credited in films as early as the 1910’s, it didn’t mean they were much better treated in Germany than in the US. While segregation was not as rigid as in America, mainly due to the relatively small size of black people in the country, navigating life and work as a non-white was still difficult, not least as one as an actor had to partake in enforcing the same stereotypes one tried to dismantle in real life. And of course, one could not make a living as a black actor in Germany, and Brody also worked as a wrestler, singer, drummer, circus artist and probably a host of other things. With the rise of Nazism, his work possibilities were curtailed, but amazingly he was still able to live and work in Berlin during the entirety of the Nazi regime — of course, the Nazi propaganda films also needed blacks to portray “Untermenschen”. The Nazis did “denationalise” Brody in 1935, but he cleverly dodged persecution by getting a French citizenship. In 1918 he co-founded the African Relief Organisation, which worked to improve the situation for black Africans in Germany, and fought discrimination and prejudice. Throughout his life, Brody worked and campaigned against racism and discrimination, which makes his survival of the Nazi regime even more remarkable. After WWII, he appeared in a handful of films and organised a revue of black entertainers in Germany. He died in 1952.
While the career of Louis Brody is fairly well documented, less is known about the life of the second black actor in the movie, Afro-German Desdemona Schlichting. At the website of the project Verwowene Geschichten at the Alice Salomon College in Berlin, her date of birth is given as 1874, and her place of birth Berlin, meaning she was 45 when The Island of the Lost was made. According to the website, Schlichting worked in “various film projects”, but the only two credits I can find for her online is Die Insel der Verschollenen and a much larger and more important role, as the maid of the Marquise Hortense in the Swedish film Husband by Proxy (En perfekt gentleman, 1927), starring Swedish acting legend Gösta Ekman, exotic seductress La Jana and German superstar Hans Albers. Although uncredited, Schlichting’s role is the largest of any black actress in a Swedish film in the 20’s, and she is of some importance to the story, as it is the maid that first realises that there are two Gösta Ekmans prowling around the mansion in the Doppelgänger comedy. But Schlichting’s role goes beyond that of cinema, writes film scholar Tommy Gustafsson in an article in Cinema Journal: in a memorable scene, a half-dressed La Jana sits on a stool in her bathroom, while Schlichting, on her knees in the typical servant uniform — black dress, white apron and a white hood — wipes La Jana’s feet with a towel. Schlichting turns her head and smiles towards the guest, who reacts by slamming the door with a high-pitch scream, clearly horrified at the sight of a black person. According to Gustafsson, this image was so powerful, that the manufacturers of a Swedish brand of soap quickly rushed a newspaper ad into print after the film’s release, copying the scene. Desdemona Schlichting thus — unwittingly and most definitely unpaid — became not only the face of a brand of soap, but also another addition to the gallery of stereotypes of the black person in Western culture. Gustafsson writes that a Swedish journalist did a short interview with Schlichting, in which Schlichting claims to be from Abyssinia (Ethiopia), contradicting the information that she was born in Germany. She also tells the interviewer that she has two children, a daughter who studies music and a son who is a doctor. According to Verwowene Geschichten, the only other public record of Schlichting is from the Nazi Race Police, who have her on record as performing in the “German Africa Show” in 1938, and her address is listed as Berlin.
Then we have the Chinese actor Nien Tso Ling, another actor we have very little information about. Ling’s first movie credit is from The Yellow Diplomat (1920), in which he appears alongside a slightly better known actor called Nien Sön Ling, and we can perhaps draw the conclusion that the two were brothers. Where Nien Tso Ling has only nine film credits on IMDb, Nien Sön Ling has 43. Nien Sön Ling was born in 1892 in the Chiekang Province in China, and died in Berlin in 1946. There is evidence of him working as a merchant and importer of small Chinese goods before entering the movie business. His first roles were in the above-mentioned film series Die Herrin der Welt, and he is also remembered for appearing in Douglas Sirk’s To New Shores. Brother Nien Tso Ling, on the other hand, has some superhero pedigree as he took part in the proto-superhero movie Maciste und die chinesische Truhe (1923), alongside our beast man from The Island of the Lost, Umberto Guarracino.
Italian Guarracino worked as a stevedore alongside future movie star Bartolomeo Pagano in Genoa until both strongmen were drafted to appear in Giovanni Pastrone’s ambitious and hugely influential historical epic Cabiria in 1914. Pagano was cast in the lead as the hero Maciste, and Guarracino as an uncredited extra (thanks to his powerful frame). Maciste turned out to be such a popular character, that Pagano went on to play him in over 20 films, arguably setting a prototype for both the superhero and the strongman action hero movies. Umberto Guarracino went back to the docks, but was drafted back into cinematic service in 1920 or 1921, depending on the source, when he was offered his most famous role; that of the titular character in the film Il mostro di Frankenstein, unfortunately a lost film. After this he settled in Berlin, but found little luck there as a movie star, and went back to Italy. There he hooked up with his old pal Bartolomeo Pagano from the docks. Pagano was now a bona fide movie star thanks to his fame as Maciste. Guarracino joined him in three Maciste films, always playing the villain to Maciste’s hero. The one that is best remembered is Maciste in Hell (1925), in which Guarracino played the devil. All in all, Guarracino appeared in a little over a dozen movies.
Insel der Verschollenen. 1921, Germany. Directed by Urban Gad. Written by Hans Behrendt & Bobby Lüthge. Based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. Starring: Tronier Funder, Alf Blütecher, Hanni Weisse, Erich Kaiser-Titz, Nien Tso Ling, Louis Brody, Desdemona Schlichting, Ludmila Hell, Umberto Guarracino, Fritz Beckmann, Hans Behrendt, Loo Bell, Hermann Picha. Cinematography: Willy Hameister. Art direction: Robert Dietrich. Produced for Corona Filmproduktion & Terra-Film.