Hildegard Knef and Erich von Stroheim in Alraune

This week, Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal looks at a movie he recommends you check out on DVD.

Think of Erich von Stroheim, and you’ll probably visualize two memorable characters: stiff-collared Captain von Rauffenstein, the aristocratic Prussian officer of Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), and Max von Mayerling, Gloria Swanson’s taciturn personal assistant in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). You might also recall his days behind the camera directing such films as 1924’s magnificent boondoggle Greed and 1929’s Queen Kelly, the production which effectively ended von Stroheim’s career as an ‘A’ list filmmaker thanks to his on-set tantrums and unwillingness to compromise. Chances are, though, that you’re not as familiar with what he got up to in the years immediately following Sunset Boulevard and preceding his death in 1957.

Von Stroheim, who despite his name was not of noble birth but actually an Austrian Jew, lived in the United States from 1909 to 1936. He got his start in film working for D. W. Griffith, became a character actor during World War I, and took up directing and producing during the Golden Age of silent cinema. After the Queen Kelly fiasco, Hollywood judged him more trouble than he was worth, and he relocated to France until the advent of World War II forced him back to America. His heart was always in Europe, however, and shortly after peace broke out he was again living and working on the continent. He appeared in a number of French films, but in 1952 starred for the first and only time in a German-language feature, Alraune, a fascinating hybrid of medieval mythology and post-war angst.

Based on a novel by Hanns Heins Ewers that had been filmed on at least four previous occasions, Alraune (retitled Unnatural—The Fruit of Evil for its American release) relates the story of disgraced geneticist Jacob ten Brinken (von Stroheim), who (in addition to keeping a rather haggard-looking ape in his basement) has spliced the sperm of a double murderer to the egg of a Hamburg ‘waitress’ and created life in the form of a beautiful but troublesome woman (Hildegarde Knef).

Ten Brinken believes his ‘child’ has inherited her parent’s evil characteristics and has put Alraune in the care of the local nunnery, but try as they might the brides of Christ are unable to tame her. Expelled from the convent for hiding ‘obscene literature’ beneath her mattress, Alraune (named after the mandrake root, a plant that reputedly grows beneath the hangman’s gallows and provides one with the power of the Gods) believes that she is ten Brinken’s daughter, and when good for nothing nephew Frank (Peeping Tom’s Carl Boehm) comes calling and promptly falls in love with her, Herr Doktor is determined to keep them apart at all costs. Though initially reluctant to pay Frank’s medical school tuition, ten Brinken reverses course and provides him with funding for a lengthy Parisian sabbatical, seizing the opportunity to put the blossoming affair on ice.

Now separated from Frank, Alraune’s apparently malign influence soon brings tragedy to whichever eligible bachelor crosses her path. Count Geroldingen (Harry Meyen) is one; he dies in a carriage mishap shortly after falling under her spell. Likewise, artist Ralph Goutram (Rolf Henninger) succumbs to illness after his obsession with Alraune is reflected in a series of fever-dream paintings. Despite these tragedies, Alraune remains unaware of her apparent culpability, and the film seems unwilling to commit either way: does she merely reflect the libidinous desires of her suitors, or has her innate evil sent them to their graves? The final reel sees her reunited with Frank, but the film’s pre-feminist ethos cannot allow her to escape punishment, and things end on a predictably tragic note.

Whilst the film is set somewhere around the turn of the 20th century and ten Brinken’s name implies Dutch roots, his genetic experiments clearly reflect the ‘racial hygiene’ obsessions of Nazi pseudo-scientists such as Joseph Mengele and Carl Clauberg. When Alraune declares that “good people are SO uninteresting”, one suspects that screenwriter Kurt Heuser (who worked in the German film industry throughout the war years) might sympathize with those views, but in the end he seems to opt for nurture over nature. Perhaps it is Professor ten Brinken’s hands-off parenting and late night lab sessions that have caused Alraune’s problems, and not her progenitors after all.

Considering how deeply rooted the film is in German folklore, it’s somewhat surprising that it ever received a US release. However, von Stroheim was only a year removed from his Academy Award-nominated performance in Sunset Boulevard, so it’s likely that American distributor DCA, who specialized in foreign films, saw an opportunity to cash in. (Apparently, von Stroheim also recorded his own English-language track, though Knef and Boehm are clearly dubbed.) Artistically, the film has the gauzy, dream-like atmosphere of a Cocteau film, with fog-enshrouded sets and clammy antechambers echoing Beauty and the Beast’s fairytale aesthetic. Coupled with cinematographer Friedl Behn-Grund’s use of light and shadow, Alraune is a missing link between pre-war German expressionism and the European gothic horror revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Unfortunately, the only available print of this public domain title is in very poor shape and is marred with scratches, splotches, burn marks, and rough splicing, indicating the film was heavily re-cut for the American market. Though not a classic (the ape in the basement pretty much precludes that appellation), the film clearly deserves better treatment than it has heretofore received. If not quite suitable for the Criterion Collection, it’s a fascinating feature that would fit nicely into either the Kino on Video or First Run Features catalogue.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...