What influences a person to become what they become? Does one's genetic makeup or environment dictate the path they follow? The 1928 German film "Alraune" takes up this question and examines it under a perverse and twisted looking glass. To discover the answer to this question Prof. Jakob ten Brinken (Paul Wegener) creates a woman by artificially inseminating a prostitute with a condemned man's semen scooped from the ground beneath the gallows on which he hands. The offspring of this experiment is Alraune (Brigitte Helm). The girl is shipped of to be raised by nuns at an expensive school. The Professor has created a being with the worst possible genetic make-up and has her raised in best possible environment. "Alraune" is a kinky twist on Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein."
"Alraune" was directed by Henrik Galeen. Those of you who saw "Shadow of the Vampire" will recognize him as the expendable writer. Obviously he was not expendable, as Mr. Galeen directed and co-wrote this version of "Alraune" five years after "Nosferatu." "Alraune" is a film in need of restoration. Galeen's use of lighting and shadows adds greatly to the evolution of Alraune's twisted psyche.
Alraune is portrayed by Brigitte Helm. Ms. Helm is best know as the Robot woman in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." Here she first appears as a teenager in the convent school. As the Mother Superior is caught up in the rapture of prayer, Alraune places a fierce looking insect down the nun's habit (much to the delight of the other girls). Alraune seduces a local boy, drives him to robbery, and the two leave under the dark of the moon. One the train, Alraune meets an older man who is a magician with the circus. The older man lingers outside the room in which Alraune and her young man make love. After they are finished, Alraune turns her attention to the older man. A fight ensues between the two men, and Alraune gets a "wet" look on her face as she manipulates the two men. Needless to say, Alraune ends up joining the circus. She has soon traded in the magician for the lion tamer. Alraune is not portrayed as just a slut. She is a strong woman filled with excitement and a large appetite for what this world has to offer. Such a character was shocking in 1927, but today she would just be a normal modern woman. In the source novel, the Alraune was more of a monster; she was a soulless creature who caused death and destruction wherever she went. In the movie, she destroys men with her sexuality alone. She seems unaware that she has no soul. Alraune is a free spirit. She has that special something, kind of like a cool breeze on a hot summer's day. Men try to capture her and make her their own. However, to capture her would be to destroy what is exciting about her. Men are destroyed in the pursuit of this intangible trait that Alraune has. The man most obsessed with Alraune is her "father" Jakob ten Brinken.
Paul Wegener, one of the great German directors, eventually fell from grace with many film fans because he voluntarily became a pawn (sold his soul) of the Nazi party in order to retain his position. He was the inspiration for the powerful movie "Mephisto." As Professor ten Brinken, Wegener is a brilliant man who is mad as a hatter. Only his nephew Franz (Ivan Petrovich) is aware of the professor's little experiment. Franz was enlisted to procure the prostitute inseminated by the dead criminal's seed. To the rest of society, ten Brinken is a man of science and worthy of respect.
Once Alraune escapes the convent school, Professor ten Brinken hires detectives to track her down. He finds her at the circus and returns her to his estate. At this point the movie gives up its examination of the nature vs. nurture debate and moves into the area of sexual obsession. Professor ten Brinken finds himself drawn to this creature he has created. There are many parallels between this portion of the film and Stanley Kubrick's version of "Lolita." Alraune eventually discovers the secret of her birth, and plots her revenge on dear old "daddy."
The sexual content is suggested in Alraune's earlier scenes. The filmmakers gave their audience credit for knowing what was going on, and did not have to show it in explicit detail. When Alraune begins to take her revenge, the sexuality is more explicit. She drives the old professor wild and closer to the edge of complete madness and ruin. It takes a while for the film to build to its climax, but it is well worth the wait.
To a film generation raised on "Die Hard" and its progeny, viewing "Alraune" may be slow going. The acting may seen stilted and the pace is very deliberate. The patient viewer will be rewarded by a great story, wonderful use of lights and shadows, and a peek at the origins of this art form we all know and love. I've been a student and lover of movies since I saw Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" at the Loew's Palace Theater in downtown Memphis back in 1964. That first exposure to the magic light of cinema hooked me for life. I'm happy to have added "Alraune" to my film library. I recommend it to you.