This film was screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016 in the programme ‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’. I had seen the film once before, long ago, at the 1994 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Then it was shown in a 35mm print from the Münchner Filmmuseum. That was a black and white print of 2050 metre. The screening at Le Giornate was on a DCP transferred at ’18 fps’. The latter print had used several Archive copies in a restoration that provided the original length of 2144 metres with the original tinting. The gap between screenings was too long to make much of a comparison, though the added tinting – notably some scenes in green and red – added to the film’s impact. However, Il Ritrovato screening ran 110 minutes whilst the longer Giornate digital version only ran 99 minutes. So I do wonder if the transfer actually did achieve `18 fps’, though the 35mm projection was probably closer to 16 fps.
Either way both presentations impressed me. Il Ritrovato Catalogue introduced the film thus:
“…Algol is one of the films of which almost every traces were lost in film histories (though not in the film libraries). It was one of the protagonists of the German screen of the early twenties and of the expressionist “season” …” (Leonardo Quaresima in ‘Cinegrafie’ n. 7).
The expressionist sets and style in a number of sequences certainly impressed me then. But I was also fascinated by the larger than life fantasy, which at the same time appeared to address issues of power, technology and the economic and social order of the time. Whilst the film was partly fantasy it also was clearly science fiction, looking forward in a number of ways to the 1926 Metropolis.
Le Giornate Catalogue also presented the film as ‘largely forgotten’. But Stefan Drössler in the Festival Catalogue also wrote about the myth that provided the film’s title:
“The Bright star Algol in the constellation Perseus is actually a three-star system. The mysterious variability of the brightness (due to mutual eclipses) led to its colloquial name, the Demon Star, and gave rise to legends and mystical stories, including the fantasy that informs the film Algol.“
This story concerns a magical source of power that leads to the film’s protagonist Robert Herne becoming the most powerful man in the world through the control of energy supplies. Drössler comments on how the storey reflected conditions in Germany in 1920.
“The film was obviously conceived under the shadow of the shortages of energy and resources in World war I, when harsh winters claimed many lives among the civilian population. Further contemporary references abound. The place of the magnate [Herne] is clearly meant to be Sanssouci near Potsdam, residence of the King of Prussia and the German Kaiser until his abdication at the end of the Great war. The crippling tribute payable by the film’s “free state” are reminiscent of the reparations levied on Germany by the Triple Entente after the end of the War. The underground sequences evidently refer to the coalmines of the Ruhr, and the scenes of workers in revolt to the post-war uprising.”
The film opened with an explanation of the myth around ‘Algol’. We then met Robert Herne (Emil Jannings) who worked as a coal miner. The mine has been inherited by young heiress Leonore Nissen (Gertrud Welcker). Robert was visited by the character Algol; a cross between a demon and Mephistopheles. He offered Robert a secret, embodied in a science fiction style contraption, that would capture the rays from the star Algol and transform them into an endless supply of energy. As the story developed Robert built a factory where the rays were harnessed and proceeded to displace all other energy sources. He became the most powerful businessman in the world with governments captive to his monopoly.
In his personal life Robert forsook his existing relationship with Maria (Hanna Ralph) and wedded the heiress Leonore. This desertion was accentuated when Robert’s old friend Peter (Hans Adalbert von Schlettow) partnered Maria. These relationships set up a conflict between rural settings – virtuous; and urban industrial settings – exploitative. Their son, also Peter (also von Schlettow), continued the opposition to Robert’s dominance, becoming involved in resistance by ordinary workers to Herne’s monopoly and exploitation.
In Act II there was a 20 year ellipsis. Robert now had a son and daughter. The former, Reginald (Ernst Hofmann) was father’s heir. He went on a world trip and became embroiled with a ‘vamp, Yella Ward. She manipulated Reginald in an attempt to take control of Herne’s empire. Meanwhile Herne’s monopoly caused poverty and destitution among the ex-miners and in rural areas.
In Act III resistance increased. Peter Junior was a leading figure and he also influenced Herne’s daughter Magda (Käte Haack). She pleaded with Herne to
“free your machines.”
Leonore also joined the chorus, However, she was killed in an accident in the factory,
In Act 1V these different strands came to a climax. Herne was now old and sickening. however, his empire was still active, now with a massive drainage project at a river which would disrupt rural life further. Reginald, prompted by Yella, attempted unavailingly to prise away his father’s secret. Angry workers rioted and stormed the offices of the government. At the climax Herne, accompanied now by Maria, went to the factory where sabotage was planned. There was a vast explosion and the factory fell: the empire was ended.
There are clearly aspects of that plot that would seem to comment on the contemporary problems in Germany. Siegfried Kracauer in ‘From Caligari to Hitler’ does not to comment on the film at all. This is surprising because the writer does comment on the protagonist of another contemporary film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari also 1920).
“he [Caligari] stands for unlimited authority that idolizes power as such, and, to satisfy the lust for domination, ruthlessly violates all human rights and values.”
This applies equally to Herne in Algol. He does not display the psychotic characteristics seen in Caligari, but once in command of the magical secret he become increasingly obsessed with power and pursues this with a ruthlessness akin to that of the mad Doctor.
Both these characters a paralleled the Master of the future city, Joh Fredersen, in Metropolis (1926). And Algol shares many features with this later science fiction masterwork. Fredersen has a son Freder who is led astray by a vamp [though not a human one]. He is saved by a heroine Maria. And just as Herne has his diabolical aid so Fredersen has his diabolical scientist Rotwang. And both narratives end in apocalyptic disaster as the empires of these tyrants collapse.
Metropolis offers an upbeat ending: perhaps because five years on society and economy looked rosier; certainly the German film industry was in far better shape. But the two films also differ in their treatment of the worlds they portray. Algol seems less strict science fiction than fantasy. In words reminiscent of Tolkien Herne gloats at one point:
‘the last ring in the chain I have forged.’
Metropolis is much more carefully designed in terms of technology and cityscape. And it deals centrally with major themes of the genre – technology, social order, the future.
Most notable is the sense of political economy in the films. Algol treats of economic matters in terms of the issues set out Stefan Drössler; so there is the economic impact on workers and on rural areas; and at one point a Government Cabinet Meeting, despite workers demonstrating outside, believes that
“we have to honour the contracts’.
Metropolis addresses not just the contradictions of the German economy but that of the global capitalist crisis; seen briefly at the end of the war and returning with full force three years later. So the destruction of the ‘heart machine’ mirrors the destruction of capital in a crisis. This setting the stage for the new round of investment signalled by the upbeat ending.
I would comment that Algol does not have the masterful script and stylish techniques of Metropolis; and it is not as expensive a production. I found the film uneven among other weaknesses. But there are frequent and impressive sequences. The cinematography by Axel Graatkjær [with Hermann Kircheldorff ] is well done when the opportunity arises. There are some fine superimpositions paralleling characters and plot events, especially recurring images of the character Algol and much chiaroscuro. And the production design by Walter Reimann is outstanding: he was also responsible for much of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. He was only credited with set design on this film but as Drössler writes|:
“whose responsibilities extended from “the entire artistic and decorative aspects of the film” through “the supervision and finalising of the décor”, all the way to “the setting up of the studio sets” and “the creation of the titles”.”
There were some heavily expressionist sequences and the large scale buildings, machines, and later destruction, were impressive.
The film is constructed round the character of Robert Herne, played by Emil Jannings. This is a part that plays to Jannings particular skills in characterisation. As the film progresses the display of obsession increases. And the dark side of the protagonist is forcibly dramatised as he manipulates people and then seeks to dominate them thoroughly.
The tinting of the digital version worked well and the definition of the image was good. The film was accompanied by Stephen Horne at the piano, adding in an accordion at one point: and Frank Bockius added percussion. All in all it was memorable screening.