Alraune

Tagged: Film

Film (1928; vt Unholy Love; vt Daughter of Destiny). Ama Film. Directed by Henrik Galeen. Written by Galeen, based on Alraune (1911; trans 1929) by Hanns Heinz Ewers. Cast includes Brigitte Helm, Ivan Petrovich and Paul Wegener. 125 minutes. Black and white.

A professor of genetics (Wegener) conducts a cold-blooded experiment into the Nature-versus-nurture controversy. Using the semen of a hanged man to fertilize a whore, he creates life – a girl baby called Alraune – by artificial insemination in the laboratory. After this science-fictional beginning, Alraune becomes, like Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, a fantastic Gothic melodrama of retribution for a crime against Nature; nevertheless, in its distrust of the scientist, Alraune is wholly central to the development of sf. Alraune (Helm), who is named after and compared throughout with the mythic mandrake root that grows where a hanged man's seed falls, appears to have no soul, and when, as a young woman, she learns of her dark origins, she revenges herself against her "father", the professor – although at the end there is hope she will be heartless no longer. Usually spoken of as a great classic of the German silent cinema, Alraune is actually more of an early exploitation movie, stylish but prurient, with more than a whiff of incest in the theme. Helm's eroticism, which we are to deplore, was in fact the reason for the film's commercial success. However, Galeen considerably softened the portrait of Alraune rendered in Ewers' sensationalist novel: whereas in the book she is a monster of depravity, causing illness and suicide wherever she goes, in the film she merely causes mayhem and a little pain. This is generally agreed to be the best of the five film versions of the 1911 book, the others being from 1918 (twice – Germany and Hungary – the latter being directed by Mihaly Kértesz, who became Michael Curtiz, the director of Casablanca, 1942), 1930 (Germany, again starring Helm) and 1952 (Germany, starring Hildegard Knef and Erich von Stroheim). [PN]

see also: Cinema; Sex.

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