Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Alraune (1952)

... aka: Alraune - naispaholainen
... aka: Mandragore
... aka: Mandrake
... aka: Unnatural
... aka: Unnatural ... The Fruit of Evil
... aka: Vengeance

Directed by:
Arthur Maria Rabenalt

Hanns Heinz Ewers' 1911 novel Alraune was the basis for this interesting, tragic drama, which incorporates new ideas not found in the novel as well as touches of horror and science fiction. The same novel had already been the basis for four other film versions. In 1918, it was filmed twice; once in Hungary (that version is missing) and then again (by Eugen Illés) in Germany. In 1928, Henrik Galeen made a third silent version, this time starring Brigitte Helm (of METROPOLIS fame) and released some places under the title UNHOLY LOVE. In 1930, a fourth version - this time with sound and aka THE DAUGHTER OF EVIL - was also filmed in Germany. It again starred Helm, but was directed by Richard Oswald. Though the storyline would go on to influence many later films, this 1952 adaptation is the last semi-faithful version of the tale. It featued several well-known European stars, had two original songs (sung by the leading lady) and is a fairly lavish production, though the English-dubbed DVD version I saw was in very poor shape.

The opening scroll informs us that "Since ancient times, the legend of the alraune, or mandrake root, has held a mystical fascination for mankind. The root, which flourishes under the gallows of a hanged man, is believed to endow its master with the power of producing good or evil... to enable him to possess the powers of the gods. UNNATURAL is the story of one man's attempt to control destinies with the powers of the alraune root." They left out the part saying the root was fertilized with the semen or blood of the dead men and that witch's supposedly used the root for sexual purposes and to impregnate themselves with unfeeling, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED-style children, but hey, I wasn't really expecting the gory details from something made in the early '50s.

The film opens with a young man - Frank Braun ("Carlheinz Boehm" aka Karlheinz Böhm of PEEPING TOM fame) - heading out to visit his wealthy uncle. He's there to borrow tuition money for medical school, but when he arrives he briefly spots a young woman on the balcony. Since his uncle is away, the butler won't allow Frank to enter, but he's strangely, instantly smitten by the mysterious beauty. Meanwhile, we find the uncle, Professor Jacob ten Brinker (Erich von Stroheim), has taken a trip to a convent / boarding school. There he discovers his daughter Alraune (Hildegarde "Neff" / Knef) has run away. A nun tells him she was placed in a "cell" for causing unrest, excitement and disturbing behavior from other students, as well as hiding "obscene" literature under her mattress. The professor heads home and discovers Alraune is there waiting on him. Then Frank shows up looking for answers. If Alraune is really his uncle's daughter - and his cousin - how come he's never seen or heard about her until now?

Regardless of the awkward situation (and an incorrect assumption Alraune might be his uncle's much younger mistress), Frank ends up quickly falling for her. When the two make plans to run off to Paris together, the professor has a sit down with his nephew to explain the awful truth. Alraune is the bi-product of artificial insemination. He took the sperm of a double-murderer and implanted it into a prostitute and - wholla! - Alraune was born. Why? Because, as the professor puts it "Good people are so uninteresting." He also seems to believe in heredity of evil; that his daughter has received the worst qualities of both of her parents and she has no conscience, no ability to emphathize. In essence, he believes she has no soul. Also taking into consideration he's also been warned by family friend Princess Wolkonski (Trude Hesterberg) to steer clear of Alraune, it's enough to scare Frank off. He takes off for Paris by himself and ignores Alraune's letters.

While he's away, Alraune is pursued by nearly every man she comes into contact with, including Frank's two best friends - painter Ralph (Rolf Henniger) and handsome count Gerald (Harry Meyen). She also strikes the fancy of her father's friend and confidant, Dr. Mohn (Harry Halm). The Professor hires a governess, tutor and all-around mother figure (played by Denise Vernac) to live in the home with them and provide some guidance, but it's for naught. Intelligent, manipulative and clever, Alraune ends up, whether intentionally or inadvertently, causing a wave of depression, death or destruction.

With help from a bewitched Dr. Mohn, she sets up the governess as a thief and gets her fired. When he starts being a little too nosy for his own good, handyman Mathieu (Hans Cossy) dies when his carriage crashes. Olga (Julia Koschka) - who is set to possibly marry Frank when he finishes his studies - unsuccessfully tries to poison herself. Alraune also manages to turn friends Ralph and Gerald against one another, leading to one commiting suicide and the other dying of pneumonia because he went outside on a freezing night to talk to Alraune. By the time Frank returns, everything is in dissarray, and possibly because of Alraune... but he still loves her.

Though not for all tastes and somewhat artless compared to several of the earlier versions, the actors are all solid and well cast and I found the storyline intriguing and thought-provoking enough to keep me interested. Does Alraune possess powers that somehow enable her to subconsciously cause death? Are all the freak accidents and misfortunes sheer coincidence, or is it because Alraune was raised in a sterile environment without love and affection? Is she really emotionless... or just plain evil? The film - regardless of the conclusion you draw from it - doesn't exactly explain away some of the supernatural events that occur, and settles for a simple nature vs. nurture stance at the end.


1 comment:

CavedogRob said...

I've read a lot about this one one but have yet to see it. Someday...

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