Friday, 19 December 2014

Stumm kraftwerk… Algol: Tragedy of Power (1920), The Barbican with Stephen Horne

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!

Magical machine
Algol: Tragedy of Power (Algol. Tragödie der Macht) proved to be far grander in scope than I’d expected, featuring a huge range of locations, a cast of hundreds and stunning sets from Walter Reimann, production designer of Caligari – the expressionist spring to Algol’s autumn in 1920.

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
Directed by Hans Werckmeister, Algol was a lost film for many years and was only recently recovered, leading to the Edition Filmmuseum restoration. What is now on evidence still feels like it may be missing the odd fragment as the story sometimes makes an unexplained leap or two. There is also no English translation on the print and so tonight’s projectionist had to project one onto the title cards: live music, live visual mix… silent cinema really comes to life at the Barbican!

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.

John Gottowt
On Earth men hack at coal in the saturnine darkness of mines – hell is underground as well as out in space and, indeed, one of the characters is even called Peter Hell (although Hell is German for bright, intelligent or fair). Robert Herne (Emil Jannings) is one of the strongest of the miners toiling away with the aid of his love Maria Obal (Hanna Ralph) a woman who’s thoughts run as deep as the mines and who holds a candle not just for Robert to work by but, in her heart, for Peter Hell (A Cottage on Dartmoor’s Hans Adalbert Schlettow).

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.

Hanna Ralph
It’s always a pleasure to watch Herr Jannings at work and, as ever, he is a master of physical expression, looming large over his pickaxe, a surly mountainous man… unimpressed by this new owner and her efforts to reach out.

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.

Algol enraged
At some point Algol decides to challenge this new world and as his thoughts turn dark he vows to become a devil: to torture these humans who he wanted to emulate.

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.

Emile Jannings
Robert seizes his chance with both hands and establishes a mighty power plant capable of supplying the whole World indefinitely. Endless energy means there’s no need for coal and fearing for their livelihood the miners round on Leonore. Robert arrives to save her and his former colleagues: half of the plant’s profits will go to them and the country shall be a paradise for the partially employed as the rest of the World pays all it can to secure the endless energy…

The World enslaved by power
Robert marries Leonore whilst Maria is frightened away by this new enterprise and heads off with returning Peter to the pastoral peace of the neighbouring state: a place where the simplicity of life on the land seems to make the people happier.

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...
Meanwhile, old Peter has passed and his son has grown up to be the spitting image… complete with his father’s nobility and leadership qualities. They have to trade their produce for power from the Herne plant and as the demands become ever more ruinous he vows to take the fight to Robert: share the power with the World and do not use it for selfish profit...or else.

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...
No spoilers…  All the pieces are in play for the final act - will Reggie be able to ward off Yella's manipulations, can Magda and Peter overcome their parent’s differences, has Algol only set out to destroy and when will there be a harvest for the World? It’s a huge story and one that has enduring relevance...

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!"
Janning’s performance matches this intensity throughout as does John Gottowt's - Algol’s fury seems to know no bounds… Counter-balancing this is the show of elegant restraint from Hanna Ralph as Maria who always knows… The expansive cinematography of Axel Graatkjaer and Hermann Kircheldorff adds to the feeling of Algol as a major event and this must have been one of the biggest releases of the post-war period. We are lucky to still have it.

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.


  1. Edition Filmmuseum forthcoming releases list has it announced since 2012 !!!!

    1. They obviously take great care in preparing their releases but... three years!?