Friday, 11 March 2011

AFED #69: Unheimliche Geschichten [Eerie Tales] (Germany, 1919); Dir. Richard Oswald

For those who believed that the horror portmanteau format originated with Ealing's Dead of Night in 1945 might be intrigued to discover this entertaining progenitor from Weimar Germany a quarter of a century earlier. Indeed Unheimliche Geschichten, which shouldn't be confused with a 1932 film of the same name also directed by Richard Oswald, utilises many of what became standard devices in this sub-genre.


For starters there's a framing device; set in an antiquarian bookshop, where paintings of three archetypal figures - a Harlot (Anita Berber), the Devil (Reinhold Schünzel), and Death (the great Conrad Veidt) - come to life, much to the terror of the shopkeeper. They proceed flicking through the books, whereupon we embark on a series of five short dramatisations starring the same three actors.

In the first of these Veidt plays a man who rescues a young woman (Berber) from her lunatic husband (Schünzel). The pair check into a hotel and Veidt begins contemplating having his wicked way, but when the woman disappears and the hotel staff deny she was ever there it seems he may have encountered a ghost. Next up comes a story in which Veidt and Schünzel are competing for Berber's affection. Schünzel kills his rivals and thinks he's in the clear until Veidt's vengeful ghost returns years later.

There then follow two adaptations of classic short stories which probably represent the film's high points. For the second time in three days I found myself watching an adaptation of Poe's The Black Cat, although this was a somewhat more faithful interpretation than Fulci's (see AFED #67). Hot on the heels came a version of Stevenson's The Suicide Club that cranks up the tension very effectively.

The final story is the lightest in tone and something of an anticlimax as Veidt plays a marquis who gives a scare to an amorous guest (Schünzel) who has designs on his wife.

Given the recurring use of the three leads there's something of a repertory feel to the film which both works for and against it. On the one hand the similarities between remind us that the majority of stories utilise the universal themes, but conversely it becomes more difficult to be gripped with the drama when you know a few minutes later the players will be doing something else.

That's not to take anything away from the performances, which are appropriately knowing and melodramatic. As you might expect Conrad Veidt in particular stands out and, as I'm a fan, I'll be looking at some more of his work over the next few weeks.

But for a film that was released only a short while before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari it's surprising how reserved and conventional the style is by comparison. Expresionism would take German horror and fantasy cinema to a whole new level which is probably why Unheimliche Geschichten doesn't receive a whole lot of attention today.

No comments:

Post a Comment