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Algol – Tragedy of Power

Entry updated 20 November 2023. Tagged: Film.

German silent film (1920); original title Algol. Tragödie der Macht; vt Power. Deutsche Lichtbild-Gesellschaft. Directed by Hans Werckmeister. Written by Hans Brennert and Fridel Köhne. Cast includes John Gottowt, Käthe Haack, Ernst Hofmann, Emil Jannings, Erna Morena, Hanna Ralph, Hans Adalbert Schlettow and Gertrude Welcker. 112 minutes. Black and white.

A prologue informs us that "circling high and infinitely far shines the Star of Algol, mystery of the heavens. Since time immemorial" it has been eclipsed every "third night at the tenth hour ... until the fourth night", "The Grecian astrologers called it Demon ... Arab astrologers called it Algol, the Eye of the Devil".

An oddly dressed man leaves the walled-up section of a coal mine known as "the Devil's Gallery": his clothing shifts into something more conventional and he introduces himself to mine foreman Robert Herne (Jannings) as Algol (Gottowt), his new assistant. He has nowhere to stay, so Robert lodges him in the attic of his girlfriend Maria Obal (Ralph). Maria's affections are split between Robert and his best friend Peter Hell (Schlettow), but the latter now decides to travel and see more of the world. The coal mine is owned by Leonore Nissen (Welcker) and, having just come of age and being of kindly disposition, she holds a garden party for the miners and their families: there is clearly a spark between her and Robert, though he is too proud to join her except as a social equal.

Algol responds to Robert's curiosity about his studies by showing him a star chart and a device that he says, when synchronized with the star Algol, will enable Robert to "give orders to the world". He produces a book whose dedication reads "For my assistant, on my death bed, Dr Cram –" (the ink tailing off after the "m" to suggest he died before finishing); the contents claim the doctor, a Scientist, discovered waves travelling from the star Algol to Earth and that "here in my machine I harnessed them for the first time" (see Inventions). Algol gifts these to Robert then, once again in strange attire, disappears in a puff of smoke.

A year later Robert has built a factory, controlled from his "hall of eternal power" that houses a larger version of the doctor's Invention. With this he is able to power the world (see Power Sources). He sends for Maria, but she is scared off by Algol appearing and demanding she "give me life"; her reply has him declaring "Devil!? Yes, that's what I want to be from now on". Already alarmed by Robert's plans, Maria takes up Peter Hall's offer to join him at his farm in a neighbouring country. Government, business and miners are also worried by Robert's actions, until he assures them they will be free and rich: the world's wealth will belong to their (unnamed) country, and 50% of his profits will be shared with the people.

20 years on, with the "power cables of the Bio-plant ["Bios-werke"] wrapped around the globe", the world's electricity all comes from Robert's factory – save for Maria's adopted country, where she is now Peter's widow; her son is the spitting image of his father and is also called Peter (Schlettow). Proud that they live by their own hard work, Maria is unhappy when the government signs up for Robert's electricity, their coal mines now exhausted. Robert is pleased that the last hold-out has fallen, declaiming: "I and my house – lords of the Earth!" He has married Leonore and has a son, Reginald (Hofmann), who impatiently waits to take his father's place: the seductress Yella Ward (Morena) "a rich foreigner" – who might be influenced by Algol – tells Reginald she will be his, if he brings the world to her.

In Maria's country workers now toil 15 hours a day in the factories powered by Robert, to pay his fees; health and safety is not a priority, and Peter is injured. He travels to Robert's estate – where security is not so much lax as non-existent – to ask that the electricity be provided free; Peter meets Robert's daughter, Magda (Haack), who is sympathetic – but her father, though hospitable, is not. Following his refusal, Magda leaves to live with Peter and Maria in Pastoral happiness.

For many years Leonore has wanted to see Robert's machine; finally he accedes and takes her to the hall, the first person he has allowed in ... whereupon she dies from shock (we are told this is "Algol's work"). Robert goes into a decline, but rebuffs Reginald's attempts to take over. Maria now arrives to plead with him; he is delighted to see her and, after she observes that power has not made him happy, asks that he share the benefits of his machine with everyone: he agrees. Yella overhears and tells Reginald, who attacks his father and steals the key to the hall – but, as Reginald and his supporters cavort, Richard breaks into the hall and destroys the device: there is an explosion. As he dies Maria arrives and cradles him. The film ends.

Algol is largely absent after the first half hour, mainly reappearing as a superimposed, gloating face at significant moments. He seems to be an Alien from the star Algol, "Dr Cam" presumably being a fabrication to provide a mundane cover-story and a means to convey the device's blueprints to Robert. His motive seem to be a delight in suffering and chaos; the plot is vague on this and many other points; it might be argued that he is the Devil or a demon (see Gods and Demons), though his remark to Maria suggests he is merely flattered to be so named.

Algol – Tragedy of Power is significant as an early example of German Expressionism, and is one of the earlier feature-length sf films (there were several prior to this). Some of the set designs, such as the "hall of eternal power", impress; others are rudimentary, a consequence of the limited budgets available in post-World War One Germany. Thematically the film voices concerns over the Economics and Politics of energy production and the power that monopolies give to the few. As entertainment it is overlong and frequently dull; the acting is melodramatic – Gottowt is particularly guilty of this (the charitable may suggest, as an alien trying to pass for human, such exaggeration might be justified) – though Reginald's celebrations are suitably decadent. Towards the end Jannings manages to convey some pathos and Morena is an effective vamp. Maria has a fairly strong role (see Women in SF), being the first to realize that Robert's device is problematic and later rousing the workers to protest.

Algol (Beta Persei) is a three-star system, and it gives its name to that class of stars known as eclipsing variables, ie. "Algol variables". The variability of light caused by the main two stars' eclipsing seems to have been noted by the Egyptians 3,200 years ago, whilst Algol was associated with demons in the Arabic (ghouls) and Greek (gorgons) traditions. [SP]


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