Piano, flute, accordion, synthesiser, bell, book, bowl... Theremin! The question has to be asked: just how many hands does Stephen Horne actually have? He played all – save the book (a weighty biography of David Lean) – during a suitably kitchen-sink improvisation to accompany this remarkable, sprawling, science-fiction epic. What’s more, he appeared to be playing at least three at a time during certain passages…
In his introduction, Stephen revealed that he’d recorded a score for an Edition Filmmuseum DVD which is still in the works. Tonight’s music – a “gilding of the improv lily” as he put it – was based on the original but expanded to fit this stellar reconstruction. His performance was a blur of sensitive tonality as he switched between themes as easily as instruments: modern silent cinema's most elegantly-innovative one-man band!
As my learned mother-in-law explained, the film touches on so many classical themes in its tale of power corrupting absolutely… indeed, whilst it is nominally science fiction it could easily be a gothic fantasy with wizards and double-dealing devils. As Arthur C Clarke once noted, any sufficiently advanced scientific culture would be indistinguishable – to us - from magic and here the “science” isn’t ever explained it is just is, working to offer fantastical change and opportunity.
Watching any German film of this time you’re also always aware of the context… a man over-reaches by, literally, becoming power to the World; his good intentions succumbing to a disingenuous offer of help from another planet. Any contract with a devil must always come at a price… and there was more to come.
|The wheels of industry turn|
The story is in four parts with a prologue establishing the existence of a shadowy planet, Algol, which watches down on Earth with unknowable intent embodied in the figure of Algol (John Gottowt) a being who rules and perhaps is that world. Trivia... in reality the Algol System is in the Perseus Constellation and is known as the Winking Demon Star because of its unusual light variations.
They are visited by the daughter of the mine owner, Leonore Nissen (Gertrude Welcker) who, having come of age, is to inherit the business. She views the workers with a mixture of compassion and tredidation with a little more than passing concern for Robert as she is almost squeezed against the rock face by his masculine bulk.
It is now that Algol intervenes, travelling from his world to emerge in the mines in the guise of a worker. Robert takes him under his wing and offers him board at Maria’s house. Algol takes a shine to her to the extent that he wishes he could be human at one point but Maria’s heart is torn between Robert and Peter who soon announces that he is leaving to travel.
He spots Robert’s heightened sense of social responsibility and ego, then offers him a year-long deal during which he will have access to power from Algol with which to make his mark. The bargain echoes those made in The Student from Prague, in which Gottowt played another demonic figure with a sinister trade to make, and Faust in which it was Janning’s turn to bargain.
|The World enslaved by power|
Time moves on and new generations arrive; Robert is feted as the most important man on the planet and plans to pass the secret of the perpetual power onto his effete son Reginald (Ernst Hofmann). But Reggie is easily distracted and is targeted by Yella Ward (Erna Morena) a vamp of the highest order who entraps the young man with her huge dark eyes, imploring him to take his father’s secret before she will give of hers…
|Yella has Reggie just where she wants him...|
Peter makes his way to the Herne estate and climbs over the wall to encounter Robert’s daughter Magda (Käthe Haack) and there’s an instant connection of course... She leads him to her father who welcomes the son of his old friends. He won’t like what he has to say though…
|Peter leads a revolt...|
Werckmeister pulls the elements together well even though there are those narrative jumps that may be down to lost material… for a film with such an obviously-large budget you’d expect he’d have enough spare to make the few additional shots that would better explain Algol’s motivations or show Robert revealing his secret to Magda? Minor quibbles aside, Algol is most definitely an experience and a bare-knuckle ride through many moods from the alien mystery of Algol, the grinding mining, grand houses, poor houses, garden parties, orgies, industrial espionage, political intrigue, pastoral idyll to weird dirty dancing – after almost two hours and hundreds of shots you certainly know that you’ve been in a cinema!
|Sebastian Droste: "Two ladies, And I'm the only man, ja!"|
Along with The Student of Prague, this film has been on the Edition Filmmuseum forthcoming releases list for some time with its projected DVD having it twinned with Karl Grune’s Schlagende Wetter (1923). There is a tantalizing two minute sample on the site from which I have appropriated some of the images above… As you can see, it’s their copyright so, please go ahead gentlemen and release the darned thing soon: you have the power.