(5/10) In a nutshell: Sci-fi inspired melodrama with political undertones, this 1920 film is an early, but slightly clumsy, example of German expressionism. Occasionally stunning visuals and camera work are hampered by a reeling script and good performances are lost in the insecure directional style.
Algol (Algol – Tragedie der Macht). 1920, Germany. Directed by Hans Werckmeister. Written by Hans Brennert & Friedrich Köhne. Starring: Emil Jannings, John Gottowt, Hanna Ralph, Kääthe Haack, Ernst Hofman. Produced for Deutsche Lichtbild-Gesellschaft. IMDb score: 6.5
Algol can hardly be counted among the many masterpieces of German cinema in the 1920’s, but it is worth noting that it is the first serious film to deal with an alien invader. Made in 1920, it was an early work of the highly influential German expressionism, a style that had made a huge splash just a few months earlier through director Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
German expressionism was born out of the strange predicament that the German film industry was in, as well as the social restlessness between the two world wars, and the rise of artistic movements such as surrealism and modernism. Having been taxed with heavy war retributions to pay, Germany was economically in a bad situation, which also hit the film industry hard. Not being able to produce lavish sets, art directors like Walter Reimann started instead to make overtly unrealistic sets, most notably in …Caligari, a film that is almost entirely played against obvious plywood or chipboard façades with exaggerated geometrical shapes, and furniture, objects and shadows painted on. Other features of expressionism were an abundance of darkness and shadow, skewed and innovative camera angles, exaggerated make-up and deliberate over-acting. The style proved hugely influential for both European and American film, having inspired directors from Orson Welles, James Whale and Alfred Hitchcock, through Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut and John Huston to Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. The great Hollowood explosion of expressionism was partly due to the large influx of German film makers to the States following the rise of Hitler (perhaps mots importantly director Fritz Lang and cinematographer Karl Freund, the latter pioneered the American gothic horror together with director Tod Browning with Dracula in 1931).
But, alas, director Hans Werckmeister was no Fritz Lang. Therefore Algol is a muddled mishmash of surrealism and realism, creating a strange juxtaposition where the expressionist elements stand out as gaudy against the realism and the weight of the seriousness is reduced by the exaggerated acting and symbolism of the clumsily executed expressionist elements. Confusion is further added by the fact that the film promises sci-fi, but only partly delivers, then promises a social and political allegory, but fails to go the distance and settles for being something of a personal melodrama in the end.
The story in itself is fairly simple: Mine worker Robert Herne (Oscar-winner Emil Jannings) befriends a new worker (John Gottowt, who later played the van Helsing-esque professor in Nosferatu), who turns out to be Algol, an inhabitant of a planet revolving around the star Algol. The alien gives him the plans of a machine that harnesses the light of Algol, converting it into electricity. This Herne uses to build power plants all over the world, creating free energy, making him the most rich and powerful man in the world. The revolutionary machine creates a catastrophic economic upheaval that in effect creates a ruling class and an underclass. Herne becomes evil and ruthless, corrupted by the power he wields, and effectivly alienates his old friends and loved ones, including his girlfriend Maria Obal (Hanna Ralph, Janning’s wife at the time), who becomes a leader of he rural ”Third World”. The evil industrial conglomerate is shown in stark contrast to the family-oriented and just life of the poor agricultural workers of Obal’s country. But trouble looms when the coal runs out, Obal and her son cannot afford to pay for Herne’s ”Bio Werks” – and they plea for him to turn over the technology to the people, for the good of mankind. Herne refuses, thus finally also alienating his beloved daughter. There is also a few subplots here with Herne’s daughter (Erna Morena) and Maria Obal’s son (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), as well as Herne’s hedonistic and evil playboy son (Ernst Hofman) trying to take power for himself, but these are basically just distractions. Although Hofman is extremely sexy as the androgynous and hedonistic evil playboy. And we get a half naked dance routine by the young underground cult dancer Sebastian Droste, who would later create scandals with his bizarre, dark and sexual performances with fellow dancer Anita Berber.
We get a popular uprising from the lower class which sort of just teeters out and the film comes to an end with the old Herne realises his own power madness, and destroys the Bio Werks rather than pass it to his corrupted son. As is appropriate in these films, he also dies in the process. Algol the alien is seen here and there creating restlessness, but his role is really played out once he gives his machine to Herne.
Jannings is impressive as Herne, and Ernst Hofman is magnetic when he is on screen. Most actors do a decent job, but the direction is messy and as mentioned before the juxtaposition between the realistic and expressionist elements makes especially John Gottowt’s scenery-chewing overtly dramatic performance downright silly. Praise should be given to Walter Reimanns impressive design of Herne’s palace – the Reimann who also made the designs for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
The film is too long (112 minutes) and there are too many subplots of marginal value to the film. In effect, as the decades pass, we simply get one character dying and being replaced by another one, who basically fills the same purpose. The visuals and the camera work of Danish Axel Graatkjær is stunning in places, especially when portraying the decadence of life in Herne’s castle. The visuals are not the problem of the film, rather it is the fact that we get what is seemingly a parable of class struggle, but not really, and then the film doesn’t really know what to become. Perhaps because of the fear of being labelled a communist, writers Hans Brennert and Friedel Köhne (or director Werckmeister) sort of forgets about the whole working class upheaval thing when it becomes time for the finale. Instead they cop out and makes the personal tragedy of Robert Herne and his power madness the tipping point of the film. Ultimately it is a misogynistic ending – nothing good can come into this world, because man ultimately will strive for his own interests and power hunger, it seems to say (man here represented by both himself and his son).
Fun fact: In a re-release of the film in the 1980’s, with new title cards, the opening title is misspelt as ”Algol – Tragödie der Nacht” (tragedy of the night), as opposed to ”Tragödie de Macht” (tragedy of power).
Director Hans Werckmeister continued to make films until the end of the silent era, but none were highly successful. Swiss/German actor Emil Jannings had a successful and diverse career. He started out as a character actor in legendary director Max Reinhardt’s theatre company in Germany, and started acting in films in 1914. He starred in multiple films made by F.W. Murnau (of Nosferatu fame), perhaps best known for his portrayal of Mephistopheles in 1926’s Faust. In 1927-1929 he made a string of successful films in Hollywood, for Canadian Victor Fleming (The Way of All Flesh, 1927) German Ernst Lubitsch (The Patriot, 1928), Finnish Mauritz Stiller (Street of Sin, 1928) and legendary Russian Lewis Milestone/Lev Milstein (Betrayal, 1929), among others. He was the first actor to win an Oscar, for his work in The Way of All Flesh and Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command. He is also the only actor to win a single Oscar for multiple performances. Later research has shown that he was actually the second choice of the Academy jury. The actual winner of the vote was the dog Rin Tin Tin. Fearing that the Academy would not be taken seriously – it was their first Oscar gala – they decided not to have a canine winner. But Janning’s Hollywood career was over almost as soon as it had begun – his thick German accent made him completely intelligible in talkies, and he moved back to Germany, where he then became an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis, appearing in many propaganda films. This fact meant his career was completely over after the fall of the Third Reich, and he retired to Austria. His home town of Rorschach, Switzerland, honoured him with their own version of Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 2004. But apparently someone hadn’t done their research, as they were not aware of his work with the Nazis. They were informed of this just hours before the ceremony, and the star was removed just a few days later.
Austria-Hungarian John Gottowt (Algol) was a highly regarded actor and director, and appeared in the 1913 version of The Student of Prague, a story freely adapted from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story William Wilson and the German legend Faust. The Student … has been considered by some as the first feature length horror movie. Prior to Algol he starred in Robert Wiene’s Genuine (1920), and later as Professor Bulwer (Abraham van Helsing renamed for copyrights reasons) in the genre-defining, but unauthorized Dracula-adaptation Nosferatu in 1922. He also appeared alongside greats as Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss and William Dieterle in the 1924 film Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, 1924). Hans Adalbert Schlettow had a long and successful career, spanning nearly 40 years, and is perhaps best known for appearing in Dr. Mabuse (1922). Dancer Sebastian Droste only appears in a short segment in the film, but it is notable as it may well be the only existing footage of him – at least publicly available. Droste (born Hugo Knobloch) appears as an enigmatic, sexual cult leader in an orgy-like dance scene in Herne’s palace, half naked. He was at the time an up an coming dancer with a very bizarre routine flavoured by sex, death and drugs. He quickly became an underground cult figure and a gay icon. He rose to prominence after he (allegedly) married fellow dancer and cocaine addict Anita Berber in 1923 and they together created a touring routine called Die Tänze des Lasters, des Grauens und der Ekstase (Dances of sin, horror and ecstasy). The show was a scandal throughout Europe, and both dancers rose to temporary, but at least for Droste, fleeting, fame. In 1925 he stole some furs and jewellery from Berber and moved to New York, where he met photographer Francis Bruguiere, who took a series of stunning photographed of him, which she titled The Way. They were to be promotional shots for an upcoming German expressionist film starring Droste – but unfortunately the film studio UFA ultimately scrapped the idea. He also wrote expressionist prose, regarded as derivative and clumsy. In New York he soon became ill with tuberculosis, and moved home to his parents in Hamburg, where he died in 1927. Some commentators have drawn parallels between Droste and film director Ed Wood, both men with huge ambitions, burning passion and unique visions, but ultimately hampered by a lack of talent. Although this comparison may not really be fair towards Droste, he was and remains in the shadow of the much more successful Berber.
Algol (Algol – Tragedie der Macht). 1920, Germany. Directed by Hans Werckmeister. Written by Hans Brennert & Friedrich Köhne. Starring: Emil Jannings, John Gottowt, Hanna Ralph, Kääthe Haack, Hans Adalbert Schletto, Erna Morena, Gertrude Welcker, Ernst Hofman, Sebastian Droste. Cinematography: Axel Graatkjær, Hermann Kircheldorff. Art direction: Walter Reimann, Paul Scheerbart. Produced for Deutsche Lichtbild-Gesellschaft.
Also known as: Algol – A Tragedie of Power, Power.