Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Roots manoeuvre… Alraune (1928)

After some years of silent exploration you’ve probably seen a fair chunk of the “cannon” and the key cult films and it gets a little harder to gain the same “hit” as when you first watched a Caligari or a Warning Shadows. That’s not to say that I’m getting jaded, just more travelled… but, whatever I watch, there’s always something remarkable.

Here we have a slightly plodding tale of mystery but one that has another extraordinary performance from Brigitte Helm whose expressive control and sheer “slinkiness” create what C. Hooper Trask in his New York Times review described as “a most engaging evening's display of erotics." They say the lights are always bright on Broadway… they say there’s always magic in the air...

The root grows below the gallows...
Now then, the nature of this particular magic is quite specific and pretty unusual dating as it does to a story from the German Middle Ages about a root – the Mandrake (the Alraune of the title) – which if left to absorb a hanged man’s “essence” in the ground under his execution, was capable of giving life either by enabling pregnancies or helping witches produce children without the aid of a living sperm donor. Such progeny were said to have no soul and sound far more trouble than they’re worth but, you know, there’s always someone ready to give it a go: to mess with Nature.

As mythology goes Alraune, starts with a disadvantage being not quite as splendidly sinister as Der Golem or as creepy as Nosferatu – it’s a root! The version available also seems to have been the victim of cuts at the crucial section dealing with conception and birth so the viewer has to draw their own conclusions about the part played by the vital vegetable… The film is based on Hanns Heinz Ewers’ novel of 1910 from which more specifics can be gleaned.

Paul Wegener
Our mad scientist for today is former Golem of this parish, Paul Wegener who plays Professor Jakob ten Brinken who has become interested in the nature versus nurture debate and this has somehow led him onto the legend of the root. By using the mandrake he hopes to engineer a human being in order to establish “whether the parents’ genetic make-up, has a purely random effect on the offspring.” Can he create something pure and free from hereditary conditioning…? I think you know where this is heading…

The professor grows the Mandrake as required and gets his nephew Franz Braun (Iván Petrovich) to help him find a lady of the lowest order - Ein Mädchen von der Gasse (Valeska Gert) - to act as the incubation chamber for the new being. Just as the woman arrives at the Professor’s apartments, turning in shock to see him emerge in white coat, the film jumps forward almost two decades…

Not your typical girl...
Alraune ten Brinken (Brigitte Helm) is at boarding school and is first scene toying with fly as it attempts to escape from a glass of water, she reaches out, not to rescue but to push it back; not the behaviour of a well-educated young woman. There is more to come as she leads her classmates into acts of rebellion, she dances, wears cologne and plants a stage beetle on the mother superiors robes.

Clearly Alraune has out-grown school and to facilitate her escape has lured a young man, Wölfchen (Wolfgang Zilzer) into loving her: he is to steal money from his family and they are to run away. Once on their train to freedom she orders champagne and starts flirting with a likely lad who spies her from the corridor.

Wölfchen tries to fight him off but there’s to be no respite as a troop of circus performers join the train. Alraune is immediately impressed by the magician’s sleight of hand especially when in one sexually obvious moment he lets a mouse run up her skirt; she leans back and looks him straight in the eye when even Bad Maria might think twice…

Have you got a light, boy?
At the circus things move on and Alraune is seen sharing a cigarette with the lion tamer (Louis Ralph) standing so close that she can light his fire with her own as it were. Chided for her wanton troublesome-ness Alraune walks into the lions’ cage challenging the beasts to come and have a go if they think they’re cat enough. The animals don’t move until the Tamer rushes in with his whip.

Alraune in the roar
So a heart-breaker with nerves of steel and a twisted sado-masochistic streak… is this what the Professor wanted to find out? How would a woman born from the human stew of a prostitute, a murderer and the mysterious root vegetable work out?

The root of all evil (sorry, just had to)
He’ll soon be able to find out as he finally catches up on his “daughter” after years of searching. He whisks her off to polite society where she plays tennis with Der Vicomte (handsome John Loder who I last saw in The First Born) who soon proposes… But, he’s not the only man to have fallen for Alraune and the Professor blackmails her into staying under his “care”.

From this point one it’s a battle between the scientist and his creation and we all know how those usually turn out or do we? The film has more than a few tricks and turns up its sleeve …

She's behind you...
Directed with competence and the odd dash of style by Henrik Galeen, Alraune doesn’t rank with the best of Weimar cinema in my opinion although I’m sure I’d enjoy it more in cinema with live accompaniment. It is, however, worth seeking out purely for Brigitte Helm’s performance alone. I love her physicality and dancer’s contortions: she seems almost too frail to be an evil thing and yet there’s considerable strength behind her movement as the Professor will find out.

Brigitte abides...
Paul Wegener is pretty good too, 15 years after his student days in Prague – one of the finest actors in German silent film and one who has been unjustly accused of collaboration in later years whereas he apparently donated money to the resistance and helped to hide the vulnerable.

I watched a copy of the 2000 reconstruction on your actual video which you can view in poorer quality on YouTube. It deserves better and I’m sure the Editionfilmmuseum folk will one day get around to it... although we are still waiting for the release of The Student of Prague guys!

The Full Maria


  1. I feel so bad for not writing comments on your extraordinary blog. I love silent films! But currently I neither have time watching them or even reading your splendid articles in their entirety. Once found your blog looking up information about Stella Maris 1918.

    I read about Alraune movie back in 1998 in a book about German silent cinema and early sound films. Wow, Brigitte Helm as Alraune looks more menacing than some legandary movie monsters!

    I saw, currently you wrote about Mystery of the Leaping Fish too!

    Hope to get more time ... at some time ...

    Don't give up on blogging!

    1. Hi AC - thank you so much for your very kind comments! Brigitte Helm certainly does "menace" very well!

      Hope you get more time and please, don't give up reading!

      Best wishes