Alraune: A Mandrake Grows in Gallows Soil

02/20/2013 4:00 AM |

Alraune (1928)
Directed by Henrik Galeen
February 21 at Spectacle, part of its Anti-Valentine’s series

A rare and odd exposed nerve from the German Expressionist explosion, this movie has an almost pathological root in German legend—the one about the mandrake root (“alraune” in German) growing in gallows soil and fed by the ejaculate of hanged men. Director Galeen was adapting Hanns Heinz Ewers’s novel, in which a scientist (Paul Wegener) investigates genetic destiny by impregnating a hooker with just such spunk, then acts as the offspring’s father until she grows up to be a hellzapoppin Brigitte Helm. Here, in a sense, is the Nazi preoccupation with racial engineering and inheritance, but twisted into a father-daughter Frankenstein story whose monster is a selfish (read: self-determining) teenage tramp who escapes from her convent and just wants to have fun, even if that means driving her patriarch crazy with jealousy and lust.

Wegener makes for a formidably mountain-faced demagogue, but the movie’s main engine is Helm, instantly famous as the robotrix in Metropolis a year earlier. No other actress ever moved exactly like Helm; ferrety, lurid and as slouched as a Harryhausen homunculus, she manifests her character’s dramatic peaks like she’s leading an experimental dance version of Salome, radiating sexual power with every twist and saunter. It’s a slow film—and one that was remade two years later with sound, to no substantial advantage—but it builds to a stunning landslide of sexual compulsion and incest mania, and was unsurprisingly censored in many countries, including Great Britain.

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