(4/10) In a nutshell: A mad scientist, an army of killer robots, a grieving widow and a dashing hero. There are the ingredients for this German 1934 film by the self-styled action hero Harry Piel. Perhaps his darkest movie, and one of the few where he doesn’t appear on screen. A predictable script and flat filming, but the acting is good and the special effects not bad either.
Master of the World (Der Herr der Welt). Germany, 1934. Directed by Harry Piel. Written by Georg Mühlen-Schulte, Harry Piel. Starring: Siegfried Schürenberg, Sybille Schmitz, Walter Franck. Cinematography: Ewald Daub. Editing: Erich Palme. Art direction: Willi Hermann. Music: Fritz Wennels. Makeup: Arnold Jenssen. Produced by Harry Piel for Ariel Films. IMDb score: 5.8
Officially the last German science fiction film released before the Nazis killed off the genre for years to come, Master of the World (1934) is not the most glorious of its kind. Directed by the prolific action film writer, producer, director and actor Harry Piel, it shows many similarities with the successful Gold (review), released just months earlier, but lacks its predecessor’s flair and wit.
The story concerns the mining engineer Werner Baumann (Siegfried Schürenberg), who discusses with the machine manufacturer Dr. Erich Heller (Walter Janssen) on a flight home from a business meeting. Heller convinces Baumann with his beautiful vision of the future – a future where machines have liberated mankind from the yoke of hard labour. The machines of the future will not merely work for mankind, but mankind and the machines will function together in a happy symbiosis. Baumann’s conviction that machines, not men, should be put to work in the mines is further strengthened, as he returns to his mines just as a terrible accident has occurred, taking the lives of eight men.
Dr. Heller, on the other hand, arrives at his factory only to be called down to the lab by his colleague, Professor Wolf (Walter Franck). In the huge, dark laboratory stands the black silhouette of Wolf, slowly revealing that while Heller has been gone, he has completed their work on a giant robot, much like a central computer of later years. It is a wonderfully ominous creation, and to Heller’s horror Wolf has outfitted it with death rays. Heller angrily condemns the project and orders it to be shut down – but Wolf in his wrath starts up the robot and has it kill Heller – of course telling everyone else that it was an accident.
In a rather amusing scene the playboy Baumann is out playing ball with some young women, when he accidentally smashes a window of a nearby mansion, and rather schoolboyishly goes in to apologize to the beautiful woman who lives there. He then realises it is Vilma, the widow of Dr. Heller (Sybille Schmitz). After a playful scolding, the two strike up a friendship that develops into romance. But after some weeks playtime is over, as there is trouble at the mine. The owners have taken to replacing the workers with Wolf’s robots, thus leaving the men without work and money to put food on the table. Furthermore, the robots are beginning to attack the workers who try to resume their labour. When Vilma hears of this, she as the rightful owner of her late husband’s company wants to put an end to it, but is tricked by Wolf, who is then confronted by Baumann in the lab. Wolf sets his giant robot on Baumann, who is saved by Vilma. Wolf goes on a crazy rant about becoming the Master of the World with the help of his robots, but when he tries to use them to kill Baumann and Vilma, he gets caught in the crossfire and dies, blowing the lab and the robot into smithereens. In the end we see that the robots have been turned into peaceful mining machines, freeing up humanity for leisurely labour on small idyllic farms, and for pushing the buttons of the mining machines, thereby saving the miners’ jobs. Bright future. Happy ending.
Der Herr der Welt (Master of the World) was Harry Piel’s fourth science fiction film, and it is by far his best known. The other three I haven’t been able to find online, save for a 10 minute breakdown of his 1933 film Ein Unsichtbarer geht durch die Stadt (literally: An invisible [person] goes through the city). Like in so many of his films, he played the lead himself, as a man who accidentally discovers a bag with a helmet that makes him and anything he touches invisible. After a bout of mischief, he realises that ”with great power comes great responsibility”, and uses his invisibility to stop crime (in a daring on-plane fight scene). A similar double-edged view of technology was, according to a brief synopsis I found, apparent in the 1934 film Die Welt ohne Maske (The World without a Mask). In this film Piel and his colleague try to invent a cheap wireless TV, but have to battle a big company that tries to sabotage their work so they can keep the monopoly on their expensive, experimental TV’s. In the end good triumphs and the Germans get free TV (and beer, hopefully). The fourth film was made much earlier, as a silent, in 1916, and was called Die große Wette (The Big Bet), and I haven’t found out more about it, than that apparently Piel fights robots in it.
Ein Unsichtbarer geht durch die Stadt, Die Welt ohne Maske and Der Herr der Welt were all made back-to-back and served as a sort of sci-fi trilogy. The last one also seems to be the darkest of the entries, even though the film does have a fair dose of humour and fun, a trademark of Piel’s. The script for the film was written by the author and screenwriter Georg Mühlen-Schulte, who was also a humorist and editor of the Berlin magazine Lustige Blätter (funny pages, infamous today for its antisemitic material during the Nazi rule). Mühlen-Schulte was one of 83 editors to sign the ”declaration of most faithful allegiance” to Adolf Hitler in 1933, and Piel was also a member of the Nazi party, although his films were not particularly well liked by the Nazis, and most of them were destroyed. One would be hard pressed to see the film as Nazi propaganda. Rather it mirrors the sort of ambiguity regarding technology that was a common theme in many films at the time. Piel and Mühlen-Schulte seem to say that technology in and of itself is neither good nor bad, but it can be a tool for both good and evil, depending on the heart of the user. It also seems to bear a critique against the American business model and modernisation of labour – although the end sees the machines working happily like in any Ford factory, giving humans freedom, so it is a bit ambivalent on the subject.
Harry Piel is not a great visualist or visionary storyteller. Apart from the dramatic scenes with Walter Franck and the megarobot in the lab, there is little visual style in the film, and many of the shots are static and two-dimensional. Neither is there much to be had in the form of suspense or surprise. The moment we see Professor Wolf we know exactly where the film is going, and it goes there in the exact way we thought it would. The character of Wolf is never really fleshed out, and his reasons for becoming a world dominator remain cloudy – although it is possible that something got lost in translation, since the copy I watched didn’t have English subtitles (I am once again very glad to have studied German in school). But from what I could gather from his crazy rant in the end, he was tired of playing second fiddle to Dr. Heller, and would now show the world who was really the genius of the two.
The robot itself is not a bad design, but looks nothing like the thing on the poster. In fact, it looks a bit like one of those self-steering vacuum cleaner robots with a couple of Tesla coils and Christmas lights attached to it. The scenes of the robot wreaking havoc at the end is very well filmed, and Piel’s penchant for exciting action sequences shows well. This short sequence in the end is not enough to make elevate the film into A-list category, though.
The thing that really holds the film together is (for once!) the romantic story between Schaumann and Mrs Heller. Sybille Schmitz once again proves her talents in a script that is not of the highest quality, and brings a good dose of humour and humanism to her role as the grieving widow whose life is injected by a newfound happiness as she meets the young engineer. Both actors play their roles with conviction and a sense of lightness often absent in these kind of films. The romance seems real and natural, and not clichéd and glued-on, as is often the case. Meaning that they don’t immediately fall into each others arms with passionate kisses – and Vilma actually plays a pivotal role in the story, rather than just being eye candy.
The story of Sybille Schmitz’ life (or the latter part, at least) was fictionalised by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the 1982 film Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss, which gave the myth-enshrouded actress something of a late cult following, and there is even a web page dedicated to her memory, even though she was never one of the brightest stars of German cinema. She dropped out of theatre school in the late twenties to work on stage and her dark, exotic beauty landed her an early role in the film Diary of a Lost Girl by G.W. Pabst, and she is perhaps best known today for her role in the Danish visual innovator Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr. The German sci-fi film F.P.1. Does Not Answer (1932, review) saw her getting her first of a string of lead roles in the mid-thirties. However her semitic appearance and her connections in the Jewish community made it hard for her to get good roles in the late thirties, and she was typecast as the exotic femme fatale, her most notable roles perhaps being in Tanz auf dem Vulkan (1938, with Gustav from the sci-fi film The Tunnel (1933, review) and Titanic (1943) – an interesting film inasmuch as it was banned both by the Nazis and later the occupation government. Schmitz’ dwindling work and abusive husband led to heavy drinking, which did nothing to help her career – neither did the fact that she became shunned by the art community after WWII, a common fate for artists who tried to make a living in Germany under the Nazis, rather than flee the country. Her lesbian relationship with theatre director Beate von Moto also closed some doors. There were also rumours that she had either given in to, or brushed off, advances by the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels during WWII. She did, however do the occasional film after 1949, and took the odd stage role. In 1953 she became seriously ill, and came under the care of the shady doctor Ursula Moritz and her housekeeper, who mistreated Schmitz and kept her isolated from the outside world, deciding who she could see and when. Instead of getting better, Schmitz became even more dependent on alcohol and drugs, that Moritz readily provided in vast amounts – to a highly inflated cost. In 1955 Schmitz committed suicide by taking a lethal overdose of sleeping pills. Her death became a highly medialised affair in Germany, and Dr. Moritz was interrogated over her alleged part in the death, but was acquitted. Schmitz’ family claimed that after the actress had been bled dry of all her money, Moritz had facilitated the suicide.
Der Herr der Welt was theatre actor Siegfried Schürenberg’s third film, and his first lead. In 1937 he established his reputating when playing the villain in the hugely popular musical comedy The Man Who was Sherlock Holmes, starring megastar Hans Albers (F.P.1. Does Not Answer, Gold). In Germany he is best remembered as the bumbling police chief Sir John of the Scotland Yard – a role he played in 16 films based on the dime store novels by British author Edward Wallace. Wallace was the man who provided the first script draft of King Kong (1933, review), and was hugely popular in Germany for many decades. Schürenberg also did much work within the dubbing industry. Up until 1980 he provided dubbing for over 400 films at MGM:s dubbing studio in Berlin. His bravado was Clark Gable – he dubbed all of Gable’s roles in German, as well as providing the voice for actors like Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier and Vincent Price.
Walter Franck could very well be as famous as Max Schreck (Nosferatu), had he landed the right film role, but his film appearances were limited to small character roles. Nevertheless, he is a legend of German theatre, best known for his evil, crazed portrayals. In an obituary in Teater heute in 1961, Friedrich Luft wrote: ”Walter Franck seemed to be created to play all villains, all well-poisoners, all evil-doers and devils in the whole world literature. And he played nearly all of them – and the played them wonderfully.”
Some of the supporting cast were familiar from other German sci-fi outings. Willi Schur appeared as an extra in Gold, Gustav Püttjer had a small role in F.P.1. Does Not Answer, and Otto Wernicke could be seen in Kurt Bernhardt’s 1933 film The Tunnel. Wernicke was also a staple in Fritz Lang’s films, recognizable from M and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. In a small part in Master of the World we see the criminally underrated Klaus Pohl, who played the wonderful Dr. Manfeldt in Fritz Lang’s brilliant Woman in the Moon (1929, review).
Harry Piel, born Heinrich Piel, later known as Harry Peel, was a powerhouse in German silent and early sound cinema. He wrote, produced, directed and starred in most of his films. He earned the nickname ”the explosive director” because of his penchant for filling his films with exploding buildings and bridges. These were mostly real explosions, since one of his friends was a demolition expert, who would call in advance to let Piel know when a demolition was going to take place, so that the director could film it.
Explosive is also a good word to describe his films, that were more often than not filled with juvenile action, excitement and mystery. The dark, handsome Piel promoted himself as an adventurer, a spy, a detective, an inventor, a pilot or a soldier, often getting whisked away on dangerous missions, and chased by women ”from whose arms he would squirm away just as ferociously as he would wrestle with an alligator”, as one line in an obituary read. Piel was renowned for doing most of his own stunts, whether it called for clinging on to a speeding locomotive, driving motorbikes down several flights of stairs, or, most famously, wrestling wild animals – he often got bitten and scratched by the (of course partly domesticated) lions, tigers, snakes and elephants he wrestled with in his films. But on screen there was no blood. Piel’s heroes were that rare old-school breed who were simply indestructible. He would get shot at, knocked down, thrown from an airplane, buried under a house, submerged in water – but he always survived to fight another day.
The films of Piel were never complex moral or philosophical tales. When Piel had the floor, good prevailed and the heart was forever stronger than the head. Or as Der Spiegel’s obituary put it in 1963:
Harry Piel was a rarity in German cinema: a stocky, black-haired, completely uncomplicated hero. His films were called “Adventures in the Night Express”, “Jump into the Abyss,” “People, Animals, Sensations”, “Panic”, “The Defiers of Death” or “The Jungle Calls”, and they burst forth from sheer, innocent action: crooks and gorillas, pistols and daggers, fire and water could not harm ”Iron Harry”. When Harry frowned with his thick brow, robbers and predators trembled.
This German Douglas Fairbanks or Buster Keaton, this Tarzan of the river Rhine, is all but forgotten today. Although a member of the Nazi party, he ran into trouble with the Nazi censorship in the forties, even though he was himself a card-carrying member of the Nazi party and even a patron of the SS. Between 1939 and 1945 he made only three propaganda films, not much for a man who would usually film two or three films a year. However, his 1943 film Panic was banned by the Nazis, because it depicted realistic air raids against Germany. Most of his old film negatives and prints were destroyed and melted down in the war effort. And again, like many of the artists who remained in Germany during the war, Piel was banned from the film industry for five years after the end of WWII, and when he returned there was little room for the innocent action hero of yesteryear. German cinema of the fifties was no longer innocent. Piel relocated to South Africa in 1951, where he filmed a few jungle adventure films, but retired in 1955.
EDIT, 7.12.2016: As Mark Cole of Rivets on the Poster points out in the comments below, there was another sci-fi movie made in Germany in the thirties, called Weltraumschiff 1 startet … (Spaceship 1 Starts …). Planned as a feature-length film, production was halted with the outbreak of the war, and we were left with a 23-minute stump, available on Youtube. However, from the twenties onward I don’t review short films on this blog, so I have given this one a pass.
Master of the World (Der Herr der Welt). Germany, 1934. Directed by Harry Piel. Written by Georg Mühlen-Schulte, Harry Piel. Starring: Siegfried Schürenberg, Sybille Schmitz, Walter Franck, Walter Janssen, Aribert Wäscher, Willi Schur, Gustav Püttjer, Klaus Pohl, Oskar Höcker, Max Gülstorff, Otto Wernicke, Hans Hermann Schaufuß. Cinematography: Ewald Daub. Editing: Erich Palme. Art direction: Willi Hermann. Music: Fritz Wennels. Makeup: Arnold Jenssen. Produced by Harry Piel for Ariel Films.