Man, I couldn’t help cringing while writing the title of this post–because from that alone, this film sounds so cool. This is a vampire tale? From the year 1920? And it’s a German Expressionist film, you say? By Robert Wiene, the director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, you say?! This must be a forgotten gem!! An obscure work of genius, just begging to be rediscovered by eager new audiences and then extolled as one of the unsung masterpieces of early experimental cinema!!
Well, I’m here to confirm that it’s………..not. It’s just not. It’s not any of those things. Well, okay, it is a German Expressionist film from 1920 directed by Robert Wiene, but a cinematic masterpiece? Oh good heavens, no.
I’ll be generous and admit that the version we have available is somewhat truncated, being only 45 minutes long and obviously missing some key chunks. If those chunks were kicked back into place, and the entire film shined up and given a topnotch soundtrack (although the one we have is pretty good), would Genuine be a much better, tighter, and, dare I say, daring film?
Allow me to explain.
It’s important to know up front that the vampire of Genuine is not a bloodsucking creature, but a silent era vamp (the terms “vamp” and “vampire” were used interchangeably). The vamp, as you might know, was a femme fatale who exerted a quasi-supernatural power over men. Theda Bara was the most famous example. So Genuine isn’t a Universal-style monster movie but a dark tale of a seductress luring men to their doom, a popular plot in that time period.
“Genuine,” the femme fatale in question, is played by Fern Andra. Andra was an American actress who studied acting under Max Reinhardt, and ended up taking roles in German films. She spends much of Genuine in one of the most bizarrely complicated costumes of the entire silent era–a fluttering, web-like mishmash of straps and fabric panels with random bling and a few large, cumbersome feathers.
She wears other irreducibly complex outfits too, and it’s perfectly impossible to recall what any of them look like. Anyways,
Spidergirl Genuine, the film explains, was once the priestess of a vaguely defined tribal cult. As priestess, her chief job seemed to be doing whatever this is:
Genuine was taken prisoner during a very quick war with a rival tribe, ending up in a slave market (where fellow female slaves are partially nude, because back then exotic settings were a convenient excuse for that sort of thing). She catches the attention of the eccentric Lord Melo, and the slave dealer explains: “She is beautiful but [the tribe] corrupted her. She is now fierce and savage.” Andra obligingly snarls for the camera, so we understand that Genuine is fierce and savage. Melo thinks her an interesting mental case and decides to take her home to Europe. Just why Melo was checking out female slaves is rather unclear, although the film does go to great lengths to show he’s a doddering, somewhat comical old man. Nothing to worry about here, folks!
Back at home the wild, savage Genuine is secretly imprisoned in a lavish underground chamber in Melo’s home (still nothing to worry about here, folks). Although the exotic temptress is very pampered, the fierce–yet innocent!–seductress longs for her freedom. But Melo tells the dangerous–yet winsome–tigress: “No, my angel…up there is life with its ugliness. Here, everything smiles at you. Only here can you be completely happy.”
When the neighbors notice a steady stream of provisions being sent to Melo’s home, they grow suspicious and try to find out what’s going on. The only person who might know about the snarling femme fatale Melo’s keeping locked up in his basement is Melo’s barber, who comes over every day to give him a shave.
One day the barber can’t make it to the shave and sends his nephew Florian in his place (played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, and verily does his name trip off the tongue). Florian sports a melting Flock of Seagulls haircut and is unlucky enough to be at Melo’s house the same day Genuine escapes from her chamber. Genuine does this by climbing up a giant Dr. Seuss tree in a suspiciously long series of shots, because she’s an actress in a fairly skimpy outfi–I mean, because they’re emphasizing the former priestess’s striving for freedom, while tying in symbolism as the dangerous vamp rises from the depths. Maybe.
She of course ends up seducing Florian, bewitching him to the point where she successfully urges him to commit a murder. Not quite satisfied with this rather extreme act of devotion, she then demands that he take his own life, because that would be really hot I guess. Wisely unable to go through with it, Florian escapes Genuine and she turns her slithery attentions to Melo’s nephew Percy.
Ah, but Florian cannot forget Genuine so easily. The barber notices how his nephew’s been “bewitched,” and he angrily rushes to Melo’s home with an angry scythe-wielding mob in tow, determined to end the vamp’s seductions for once and for all. But has Florian gotten to Genuine first?
Unlike Caligari, where every camera angle and iris shot felt inspired and right, Genuine’s direction seems surprisingly dull and lackluster. Many scenes are simply recorded in long shots, as if we were watching a play (this when cinema already had a sophisticated language of its own). The characters may as well have been in ordinary surroundings rather than those cluttered, stylized sets. In Caligari, the strange sets work because they echo the mood. In Genuine, the sets are there for the sake of looking Expressionist. The best set design is probably Genuine’s bedroom, where at least they’re attempting to convey “unbridled sensuality” or “the danger of being with a vamp” or something.
But what’s being conveyed by Melo’s cluttered, paint-streaked house, where the actors practically disappear against the busy backgrounds? And what’s the “mood” behind the blocky, sort-of-Constructivist exterior of the house, and the buildings nearby? Again, it appeared to be stylization for its own sake.
Unfortunately, Fern Andra doesn’t have the acting chops of Pola Negri or charisma of Theda Bara to successfully pull off the role of a vamp who can drive men mad–especially in an Expressionist film. She comes across more as a generic pretty face rather than an alluring siren–and an overacting one, at that. Von Twardowski does his best, although he often seems like he’s trying to forget how silly his hair looks.
Back when I wrote my Cabinet of Dr. Caligari post, I talked quite a bit about the film’s backstory and theme of the abusive authority, and how the tragic experiences of both its writers were the driving factors behind it. Caligari, I argued, was a film that could not have been made at any other time. Its look is timeless, but its story is forever indebted to the era of World War I. Genuine, on the other hand, doesn’t deal with a grand theme but the Edwardian era’s version of the femme fatale stock character–a less timeless subject. Perhaps this is one reason why Weine struggled to fit it into his Caligari formula.
Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire is worth checking out mostly to see an obscure German Expressionist work, as well as to reach that moment of enlightenment where you realize that not every art film back then was successful. (Mindboggling, I know.) Feel free to take a look at its weird, nonsensical sets and even more nonsensical costumes…just maybe don’t go into it expecting another Caligari.
- Genuine was an attempt to replicate the success of Caligari. It was not nearly as well received.
- Carl Meyer, one of the two scenario writers for Caligari, also worked on the scenario for Genuine.
- Fern Andra had a background in the circus as a tightrope walker.
- She almost died in a mail plane accident in 1922, and newspapers even reported she had been killed. However, the rumors of her death were an exaggeration.
- Von Twardowski fled Nazi Germany around 1930. Later in his career he would end up playing Nazis, and would have a small role in Casablanca.
- The 43-minute cut of Genuine is the only one available to the public–the longer original is at the Munich City Film Museum archive.