Tuesday 29 December 2020

A Centenary of Fantastic Films - 1920 #3 - Genuine aka Genuine, die Tragödie eines seltsamen Hauses aka Genuine: The Tragedy of a Vampire aka Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire (Germany: Dir Robert Wiene)

Now pretty much everybody has heard of Robert Wiene's movie The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but Genuine is far less well known, which is a great shame. Wiene, a former student of law, had moved into acting and then film production and direction. Genuine was one of five films he directed in 1920; TCoDC's success gave him the opportunity to become more independent and bolder in his choice subject matter.

The German title of the movie translates literally as Genuine, The Tragedy of a Strange House

Like TCoDC before it, the film opens with a framing story: we're in the living room of the painter Percy (Harald Paulsen). Two friends arrive; they are concerned that after painting his most recent portrait, which hangs on his wall, covered up - that of the heroine of legend, high priestess Genuine - he has become irritable and half crazy. A visiting dealer offers to buy the painting, but Percy flatly refuses to sell. Left alone, he uncovers the portrait, opens a book and reads the legend of Genuine. She is described as "beautiful and perverse. As priestess of a religion, she fell into esoteric mysteries so that, from her childhood, she had witnessed the most cruel spectacles, to which she would later become an accomplice," although above all else she "loathed acts of cruelty." As Percy sleeps, the figure of Genuine comes to life and steps out of the portrait. The story begins.

We see Genuine, who has been taken captive "in the midst of a war between rival tribes, and wound up in a slave market" where she is purchased by an old eccentric man named Lord Melo (Ernst Gronau). The other slaves on offer are naked and docile, but Melo prefers the wild and savage Genuine, who, he learns, has become barbaric due to her treatment following her capture and her priestess training. Melo takes her home to his house in Ireland and locks her up against her will in a geo-chamber full of fauna from Genuine's homeland; this is the first time we are exposed to the strange, oddly proportioned sets painted by expressionist artist César Klein, a form which made Wiene's previous movie so notable. Melo justifies Genuine's incarceration, telling her that "up there is life and its ugliness." Pleased with his 'purchase', Melo hobbles around his chambers, full of strange, fractured mirrors, odd masks on the walls and a life sized skeleton with a clock face for a head.

Lord Melo lives in seclusion; he's visited at noon every day by his barber Guyard (John Gottowt); his manservant (Louis Brody, a Cameroon born statuesque black actor who had a long career in German films) organises a monthly delivery of provisions to Melo's house. The locals see Melo's isolation as suspicious, and request that the local magistrate question Guyard about what goes on behind closed doors.

The request to interrogate Guyard is authorised and the barber is summoned to attend the magistrate at noon the following day, meaning that he can't make his daily appointment with Melo. Guyard has recently taken on his young nephew Florian (the impressively named Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) as an apprentice, and asks him to step in to attend the next daily visit to Melo.

Melo's grandson Percy requests to visit his grandfather after a long period of absence, which makes Melo unhappy; he clearly is not a man to have his routines interrupted.

Genuine manages to break out of her underground prison via stepladder, and enters Melo's chamber, only to find Florian shaving the now sleeping Lord Melo. She bewitches Florian into slitting Melo's throat with his razor as revenge for her captivity. She implores him to take the ring off the dead Melo's hand, as ownership of it will control the manservant, enraged and seeking to avenge the death of his master. A besotted Florian is asked by Genuine to take his own life, but refuses; Genuine takes the ring from Florian and commands the manservant to "kill him and bring me...the proof!" The manservant fails to kill the now deranged Florian as requested, but covers up his actions by cutting his own arm to provide a cupful of blood that is the proof she requires (while it's not explicitly shown, one account of the plot suggests that Genuine's savagery extends to blood drinking, hence the request for the 'proof').

Melo's grandson Percy arrives at the house and immediately enquires about the circumstances of his grandfather's death. Percy meets Genuine and her strange charms win him over, but Genuine, who appears to be in the process of throwing off her primal urges, returns his love (although a scene of her lasciviously fondling a knife suggests that the savagery hasn't totally deserted her). Percy's friend, level headed Henry, arrives and Percy claims "that woman wants me dead!". Henry plays a trick on Genuine, telling her that Percy has died, which provokes a genuine outpouring of emotion. Genuine fails to work her mystical mojo on Henry; has she finally become human? Henry suggests to Genuine and Percy that he will help them leave the house.

Florian returns to Guyard and, tortured in bed by terrible visions, confesses his murder of Melo. Guyard in turn, who presumably previously remained tight lipped when first asked about Lord Melo's home set up, informs the magistrate of the horrors imparted to him by his son. Guyard summons a mob armed with scythes and stakes (possibly the first example of the angry mob trope that would be deployed in the horror film going forward) storms Melo's house. The still infatuated Florian steals back into Melo's home and confronts Genuine, who tells him she's in love, but not with Florian! And as the mob enter the house, Florian kills Genuine.

The painter Percy awakes; the framing device has returned, and Genuine is back in her frame. Percy moves to stab the painting but his friends restrain him. The art buyer returns with a higher offer for the painting (it is now clear that this character is Lord Melo as the cheque is signed in his name); Percy accepts the revised offer and the painting is sold.

The role of Genuine was played by Fern Andra, originally an acrobat who learned acting under Max Reinhardt; her strange performance in this film, by turns writhing, spider like or coquettish, is a joy to watch. The 'Vampire' of the alternative title refers to a mysterious and exotic woman who seduces and destroys men for the sheer joy of doing so. The extent of Genuine's savagery, which includes blood drinking, is only ever hinted at in the film, but when we first see her she's wearing a strange outfit that looks more like the markings of an animal; these were actually painted directly on to Andra's body, but as her humanising process develops, she starts wearing (relatively) conventional clothes. 

On release Genuine was not universally well received, it appears; the popular view expressed was that, while TCoDC had used expressionism to tell its story, this movie was an exercise in expressionism for its own sake. While performances were praised, Carl Mayer's script was criticised for narrative and psychological incoherence. One reviewer summarised that the substance of the film was to be found in "the magic work of the fantastic" and it's the sense of magic realism in Genuine that makes it genuinely interesting.

Sources for this post include IMDb, Uli Jung and Walter Schatzberg's essay 'The Invisible Man behind "Caligari": The Life of Robert Wiene' (Indiana University Press 1993) and 'Beyond Caligari: The Films of Robert Weine' by Uli Jung and Walter Schatzberg (Berghahn Books 1999)

Until recently, Genuine was only available in a shrunk down 43 minute condensation, but you can see a fuller 88 minute tinted version here

No comments:

Post a Comment