(4/10) In a nutshell: A misogynist but still fairly entertaining sci-fi/fantasy film from Germany about a soulless woman artificially produced from the semen of a hanged murderer and the womb of a prostitute. Worth watching for the ever alluring Brigitte Helm in the lead.
Alraune. 1928, Germany (also known as A Daughter of Destiny, Unholy Love or Mandrake). Written and directed by Henrik Galeen. Based on the novel Alraune by Hanns Heinrich Ewers. Starring: Brigitte Helm, Paul Wegener, Iván Petrovich. Cinematography: Franz Planer. Produced by Helmut Schreiber for UFA. IMDb score: 6.2
This silent 1928 film is the best known, and by many critics described as the best, version of Alraune, or Mandrake – a 1911 novel by Hanns Heinrich Ewers. It stars one of the most noted actors and directors of German silent cinema, Paul Wegener, immortalized as The Golem (1914, 1920), and Brigitte Helm, best known as Maria/Maschinenmensch in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis (review). It was directed by Henrik Galeen, best known as the screenwriter for classics like the original 1914 The Golem, Nosferatu (1922) and the 1926 remake of The Student of Prague. It tells the story of Alraune (Mandrake), a woman born from the seed of a hanged criminal from the womb of a prostitute (although in the edited English language version we get the impression that the prostitute is inseminated by the mandrake root found beneath hanged men).
The novel combines the old legend of the mandrake root with the modern concept of artificial insemination. Throughout history the mandrake root (a mildly poisonous hallucinogenic with a wide variety of supposed medical effects) has been linked to all sorts of superstitions and magical as well as medical practices. Partly this is due to the looks of the root – it often resembles a small person, or homunculus. One legend states the the mandrake screams when pulled out of the ground, and that the scream kills people. It has been used as a supposed cure for infertility in women, or to reduce birth pains. One legend states that when men are hanged, they get an erection, and the ejaculated seed that drips into the ground gives birth to the mandrake root. The legend continues that women who copulate with these mandrake roots give birth to women without souls – empty and evil vessels. This is the legend that Ewers utilises in his book. But instead if using the alraune itself, he has his scientist collect the semen of a hanged man, and artificially inseminates a prostitute with it. The result is a woman who does not understand the concept of love and has a life filled with perverse relationships. She is adopted by the scientist. When she finds out her unnatural origins, she takes her revenge on her maker – basically a variation of the Frankenstein story. The novel came out in 1911, 12 years after a Russian scientist had successfully artificially inseminated small animals. The concept caused moral outrage in conservative and religious circles in Europe (and America), and as a result the novel became a bestseller.
The film more or less follows the book’s premise. Paul Wegener plays the scientist Professor Jakob ten Brinken and Brigitte Helm Alraune. ten Brinken wants to study the Alraune myth scientifically, as well as the hereditary effects versus social environment when it comes to the upbringing of a child. He is convinced he can make a model citizen out of the child of the scum of society – a hanged murderer and a prostitute. Despite the protests of his nephew Franz (Iván Petrovich), he goes through with his plan. Little does he know that the poor girl will be born without a sould, cold, heartless and for some reason constantly horny.
In the English language edit, which I have seen, we completely forego the insemination scene (which apparently remains in the German version) and cut straight to the teenage Alraune in a convent school, driving the mother superior nuts with her antics, drowning flies and cavorting with boys. With her charms she convinces a boy to steal money from his father’s bank and run away with her. On a train she seduces a circus owner and already men get into fist fights over her. She then runs away with the circus until she is found by Franz, who feels obliged to her, since it was he who was forced to dig up her prostitute mother, and Professor ten Brinken. After a fatherly scalding (the professor has taken her in as his daughter) she agrees to come home with him, leaving the circus owner devastated in grief. The good professor soon falls in love with his adopted daughter and grows ever more jealous as she flirts with one man after the other. One man in particular asks her father for her hand, but he refuses, and Alraune again contemplates running away. But by an accident she discovers her ”father’s” notes and learns of her unnatural origins. First she considers strangling him in his sleep, but then decides to stay on, and have her revenge through other means. She wilfully flirts with other men in her father’s presence, until finally revealing to him that he knows his secret. He is overjoyed, since he can now openly pursue his passion for her, and she wilfully plays along until once again Franz enters the picture and is smitten with her as she is with him. The professor wows to have her for himself or kill her.
Now ruined of all his possessions because of Alraune’s expensive lifestyle, which he has supported, he decides to strike the roulette table with her by his side, since he believes she will bring him luck. He starts off on a mighty winning streak, until Alraune secretly draws away just as he lays his entire fortune on the line – and loses. He finds Alraune at home packing to leave, and begs her to stay. They can sell her jewellery and settle down somewhere and lead a happy life. She replies that she certainly will – but not with him. This enrages the good professor who starts chasing her with a knife. At the last minute Franz arrives to save the dame. Alraune explains that she will now settle down with Franz, who can give her the soul she never had. Professor ten Brinken is left heartbroken and devastated. Alraune has her revenge, and curiously everybody lives in the end.
This was not the first filmatisation of Alraune. In 1918 two versions were made, one Hungarian and one German. This 1928 silent version is the best known and supposedly the best one, although it was remade as a talkie two years later, again with Brigitte Helm in the title role. A third German film was made in 1952. Since the issue of artificial insemination later was accepted without overmuch fuss, the premise of the film lost its charm, although the broader theme has been used in many films later. The 1976 turkey Embryo starring Rock Hudson revolves around a woman artificially grown from an unborn foetus – and after just two weeks in an incubator she emerges as a full-grown, beautiful woman, complete with a Nicaraguan accent for some reason that is never explained. She does seem to have a soul, but must feed on infants not to age rapidly, to her own dismay. In the 1995 film Species scientists splice human and alien DNA, resulting in a very often nude Natasha Henstridge (or at least that is what the teenage part of my brain remembers of the film) who also matures rapidly, has an obsession with sex and seems to have no qualms about killing men by piercing their skulls with her tongue. So much an impact did Miss Henstridge have on my generation of adolescent boys, that the film spawned two very inferior sequels. The original story was also made into an updated Russian series in 2010. In later years with all discussion on artificial intelligence, stem cells and cloning, artificially made babes with questionable morals have of course become a staple of sci-fi – the many incarnations of Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil and the Alien-Ripley in Alien IV being among the more famous ones.
The 1928 film is sometimes lumped together with the many German expressionist films of the era. But despite the dark settings and the fantastical premise, this is very traditionally filmed. Director Galeen displays a sure directing skill and there is some quite imaginative editing on display – but ultimately it falls short compared to many of its peers from the era. Despite some twists and turns the story sort of treads water after Alraune is brought home from the circus, and the the audience is simply left to wait for the reveal that is known to them from the beginning of the film. The only real question is who will live and who will die. It surely is no film for feminists, as it is downright misogynistic. In 1928 it was supposedly shocking to see a woman live out her sexuality – but let’s not forget that we were now in the end of the decade that brought us the liberal, sexualised flapper. Women wanting to have sex was not really a novelty in film, not since icons like Clara Bow flashed her fluffy eyelashes with a cigarette hanging from her lips (see my review of Black Oxen). Despite this the film’s premise is based on female sexuality being evil and unnatural. And the end is such a cop-out. Would Alraune have slung her coat over her shoulder and walked away alone into the sunset for new adventures, it might have been a redeeming quality. But now Galeen settles on the conservative and patriarcal solution that all she really needed all along was a good man to ”give her a soul” – in essence tame her and get rid of her unnatural sexual behaviour. Come on, really?
Nevertheless, it is a quite enjoyable film, partly because of the strong acting of Wegener – looming large and stiff as ever, a formidable presence whenever he is on screen, and Helm – oozing sexuality and wickedness throughout the movie, with her trademark half-lowered eye-lids and suggestive, wry smile. It was not Helm’s best role, though, as it is hopelessly one-dimensional. After her overnight success in her first film Metropolis (1927) she was typecast as a femme fatale – this was her fourth film and by the time she got to reprise the role two years later she had already tried to take the film company UFA to court to get out of the man-eater typecasting (she had a 10 year contract with UFA), but lost. For more information on the life and art of Brigitte Helm, please see my review of Metropolis. As mentioned before, Henrik Galeen was a central figure in the development of the early German – and in essence international – horror film, writing classics like The Golem and Nosferatu, and showed some impressive directional skills with the remake of The Student of Prague (1926) in particular. But he was no great visualist, and both the filming and the sets of Alraune are quite conventional, although the roulette sequence shows a nice flair of innovation. It all moves smoothly and seamlessly along, but nothing really stands out, and the story simply isn’t good enough to forgive the unimaginative direction. Not bad, but not really good either. Worth watching for Brigitte Helm, though. Helm would ultimately star in yet another sci-fi in 1934, the forgotten classic Gold (review). Paul Wegener was a giant in German cinema both as a director and actor before WWII, and chose to remain in Germany during the Nazi regime, even appearing in propaganda films. In reality, though, he was part of the underground resistance movement, donated money to the cause and hid important anti-Nazi persons in his apartment. Despite some sources claiming he fell from grace after the war, he actually was a central figure in rebuilding the culture scene in Berlin after the terror of the Nazis, and acted as president for an organisation aimed at helping to improve living standards for the city’s inhabitants. His sparse cinematic output after the war had more to do with old age and bad health. Sometimes people forget that he was 39 when he made his first film, The Student of Prague, in 1913, and over 40 when he became a superstar with The Golem two yeas later. Wegener wrote, directed, produced and acted in many of the defining films of German cinema, and horror films, even if he was never really a part of the expressionist movement. His three Golem films had a profound influence on Frankenstein (1931, review) and films of the same kind – the rigid, lumbering movements of Boris Karloff in the 1931 film is more derived from The Golem than Mary Shelley’s book. The original 1913 version of The Student of Prague, a version of the Faust legend, is sometimes named as the first feature length horror film.
Alraune. 1928, Germany (also known as A Daughter of Destiny, Unholy Love or Mandrake). Written and directed by Henrik Galeen. Based on the novel Alraune by Hanns Heinrich Ewers. Starring: Brigitte Helm, Paul Wegener, Iván Petrovich, Wolfgang Zilzer, Louis Ralph, Hans Trautner, John Loder. Cinematography: Franz Planer. Art direction: Max Heilbronner, Walter Reimann. Produced by Helmut Schreiber for UFA.