Monday, May 11, 2020


Rudolph Schündler, Richard Oswald, and Conrad Veidt.

I had never seen either version before, so I was delighted to find the 1919 silent and 1932 sound versions of Richard Oswald’s seminal horror anthology UNHEIMLICHEN GESCHICHTEN (EERIE TALES) on YouTube. The silent version contains five stories, the sound version three (or four, it's hard to tell), both incorporating Poe’s “The Black Cat” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Suicide Club.” The 1919 version is quite impressive; I think 1919 feels longer ago in the past because it links us to period films more often than not, but EERIE TALES (while covering different time periods) is surprisingly contemporary in its filmmaking techniques, production design, and the close attention it pays to facial acting. Three archetypal figures - The Flirt, The Devil, and Death (respectively Anita Berber, Rudolph Schündler, and Conrad Veidt) - step out of their portraits, which adorn the walls of a used book store, frightening the owner and taking over the shop, availing themselves of stories in the books on display. 

Schündler, Berber, and Veidt as Literature's arcana of Evil. 

This unholy three appear in each of the stories, as different characters but sometimes within the same archetype, providing the actors with chances to flaunt their dramatic range. Veidt is predictably remarkable, but Schündler is a revelation. His Devil is a clear antecedent of the Lugosi vampire image, with his black cape, pasty face, and widow’s peak; his crazy husband character in the first story is the actual prototype of the aptly-named Cousin Eerie (!); and Peter Lorre clearly had his performance in mind when he essayed the same role on Roger Corman’s TALES OF TERROR almost 50 years later. The closing story, an original by Oswald told in verse, shows the chameleonic Veidt in a performance that serves as a dry run for his celebrated Gwynplaine/Lord Clancharlie in 1928's THE MAN WHO LAUGHS. In a surprising early gesture of auteurism, Oswald shares the screen briefly at the outset of the film in celebration of his partnership with the two principal actors. 

Domestic discord as mise en scène in the 1932 version.

The silent version is among the best of its kind, but the 1932 sound version (sometimes called THE LIVING DEAD) may be even better; I think there’s a good case to be made that it’s also the first feature-length surrealist work. Its stroke of genius is that the stories are presented as a single fluid entity; there is no framing device as in the previous version, so the stories flow one into the next like twists in an already delirious tale. It opens with Paul Wegener (THE GOLEM), truly a great and versatile horror star, starring in an adaptation of the subsequently oft-filmed “The Black Cat,” a touchy inventor who murders his wife, whose final scream is overheard by crusading on-the-spot reporter Frank Briggs (Harald Paulsen). Rather than submit to inescapable arrest as in the Poe story, Wegener (whose character is given no name other than Mörder, or Murderer) escapes the police and hides amid the figures in a waxworks. The film is said to consist of only three stories, but this waxworks segment has the feel of an uncredited fourth. Briggs trails Mörder to this shrine to dead criminals and their fistfight culminates in a switch being thrown that activates the figures' mechanical movements. Lots of creaky thrills before our villain wriggles his way out of yet another arrest and inevitable execution by arranging for his commitment to an insane asylum where, as it happens, the inmates have taken over in an adaptation of Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather,” which may be the film’s highlight - it's the sort of thing we would now call Buñuelian. Wegener foils Briggs once again and disappears for six months, when he reappears as the mysterious ringleader of an ultra-sophisticated Suicide Club, in an adaptation of Stevenson’s classic story. The ultra-stylish design of this episode is almost alarming to discover in a 1932 film; its look  anticipates Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 feature version of THE BLACK CAT. The segment also includes a very Lugosi-like performance by Wegener, scenes in which he interacts with fellow GOLEM actor Ferdinand Hart (who would later essay the title role in Julien Duvivier's sound version of 1936), and an actual shot that would be repeated in Lew Landers' THE RAVEN from 1935. 
Paul Wegener - a great horror star. 

Director and co-scripter Oswald - whom I believe was the father of OUTER LIMITS director Gerd Oswald - is an under-appreciated craftsman and early horror specialist. These two films, though dealing to a fair extent with the same material, not only stand uniquely well on their own but they bear favorable comparison to most of the many horror anthologies that followed through the subsequent decades. They are both captivating entertainment, cleverly and stylishly served up, and feel more effectively organic than most of their imitators. We’re very much in need of definitive presentations of both films; they would make a marvelous double feature set.

UPDATE 05/14/2020:
Since posting the above, I have learned that YouTube also has a subtitled presentation of Richard Oswald's 1930 remake of ALRAUNE available for viewing here. Additionally, for those who haven't seen Henrik Galeen's 1927 silent original, that is also uploaded over there at this link. Both versions star Brigitte Helm, the Robotrix from METROPOLIS. The subtitles on the silent version (which also features Paul Wegener) are Russian, but if you go into Settings over there, you can reset them for Auto Translate into any language you wish.
Furthermore, from reader Volker Stieber:
"Hi, Tim - , I read your review of UNHEIMLICHE GESCHICHTEN and wanted to let you (and your readership) know that a restoration of the 1919 version was released on German DVD in 2013. It looks very nice and it is estimated to be missing only about 4 minutes. Cheers!" 

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.