History will tell you that German Expressionism died with the rise of Fascism, but that’s not entirely true. It just went Hollywood. The two masters of the form, Fritz Lang and W. F. Murnau, would do some of their best work there. And the immortal iconography of Universal horror was the work of a Teutonic brain trust led by the great cinematographer Karl Freund, who shot everything from Metropolis to Dracula. One of those great expatriate artists was Edgar G. Ulmer, who helped design the jawdropping cityscapes of Metropolis and M (or so he says). The Black Cat was a lavish and troubled production that both kickstarted and killed Ulmer’s career – but sleeping with the boss’s wife probably didn’t help.
It tells the story of Peter and Julie, two American newlyweds, on a Hungarian honeymoon. On the train, they meet the mysterious and wonderfully named Vitus Werdegast, as played by Bela Lugosi in the first of many teamups with his fellow horror legend, Boris Karloff (“Sidekick? Fuck you!”). He has his own, more sinister reasons for the journey. He’s come hunting Karloff, playing Hjalmar Poelzig. Poelzig had been Werdegast’s commanding officer in World War I, where he sold his troops out to the invading Russians and ran off with Werdegast’s wife and daughter. Werdegast and the honeymooners’ tour bus runs off the road by the imposing estate Poelzig had built on the bones of Marmorus, the fortress where the Russians massacred his men. The title has very little to do with the plot, which has even less to do with the Poe story it claims to be “suggested by.” But it does suit the tense game of cat and mouse between these two masters of horror.
It was originally going to be something much different. In the finished film, Lugosi plays against type as a heroic figure battling to protect the innocence of his traveling companions from Karloff’s (literally, as we soon learn) demonic evil. Ulmer conceived of him as more of an antihero, or even a villain who only looked heroic next to Poelzig: before the studio stepped in, Werdegast was less concerned with protecting Julie from Poelzig and more with taking her for himself. But 1934 was the dawn of the Code era, and Werdegast’s antiheroic characterization went on the chopping block, along with several scenes that would be considered shockingly graphic and perverse even now: a more explicit scene of Karloff’s flayed corpse, and another where Julie physically transforms into a black cat and Werdegast rapes it.
The consensus seems to be we’re the poorer for the change, but I don’t know if I agree. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to get invested in the triumph of good over evil than evil over eviler. For another, there’s something about Lugosi’s performance as a do-gooder that’s even more perverse and subversive than Ulmer’s conception of him as a lech. If anything, presenting Lugosi as an unambiguous hero make his character more ambivalent. He exists in two extremes: cold aloofness and manic rage, and each is just as frightening as Karloff’s villain. Just watch the scene where he finally takes the knife to his enemy, and know that Lugosi’s only barely acting there. He’d had it in for Karloff ever since the Englishman’s career had overtaken his own thanks to his starmaking role in Frankenstein, a part Lugosi had almost played himself. Lugosi threw himself so gleefully into attacking Karloff that he forgot his diction, ruining several takes with his unintelligible natural accent. He’s just barely reined in for the take Ulmer used, pronouncing “slow” so it rhymes with “cow” as he promises to “flail the skin from your bones! Slowly. Bit – by – bit!”
But in the revised film, we know he’s the best hope Peter and Julie have, even if we can’t fault Peter for failing to realize that and shooting him in the climax. Lugosi jumped at the part as a chance to reclaim his old reputation on the Hungarian stage as a romantic leading man, but he plays Werdegast with the same creepy mannerisms as Dracula and his other monsters. There’s something moving in seeing him as a hero motivated not by selfish lust, but a selfless desire to protect a young couple from being corrupted by Poelzig the way he and his wife had been. Their relationship hits some of the same resonance as the one between young Jof and Mia and Max Von Sydow’s doomed knight in The Seventh Seal. I’d be surprised if Ingmar Bergman didn’t have The Black Cat in mind when he made his masterpiece – at one point, Poelzig and Werdegast even play chess for the newlyweds’ lives.
Like Bergman’s newlyweds, Peter and Julie seem to exist in an entirely different world from the rest of the film, a place of safety and innocence that Werdegast fights to protect. At times, they even seem to exist in their own little romantic comedy, trying and failing to piece together the plot even though they’re missing reels, blissfully ignorant of the horror surrounding them. They’re almost hilariously square, to the irritation of many viewers. But I found their innocence and their deep affection, however stagily performed, so charming that I was sincerely worried for their safety. Either way, it’s no wonder the Rocky Horror Picture Show would turn the formula on its head with its own honeymooners Brad and Janet and present Gothic weirdness as something to embrace and normalcy as something to escape. (And while we’re drawing parallels, this is a film about a vacationing couple who get lost and stay with a satanic priest with a creepy servant who keeps white-gowned brides in suspended animation and wants the wife to join them – can we add plagiarism to the list of Manos: The Hands of Fate’s sins?)
But if this is an example of horror as, in Stephen King’s words “as conservative as an Illinois Republican in a suit,” Lugosi’s presence once again complicates things. He’s our hero, but he doesn’t belong any more to the normal world than Karloff does. Lugosi’s performance has all the heavy accent and weird affectations that, in his villainous roles, reinforced American xenophobia, intentionally or not. For once, the nonconformist foreigner is our hero; could the studio have accidentally made The Black Cat more subversive?
That’s not the only way Ulmer breaks from formula. This is an old dark house story in a house that’s neither old nor dark. Ulmer jokes that this was his “Bauhaus period” and Poelzig’s fortress could not be more modern, all gleaming white and simple, angular shapes. Gothic horror is a genre obsessed with legacy. Even when there’s no literal ghosts, their environments are haunted by the horrors of the past. But Ulmer finds that horror in far more recent history, in the trenches of a World War only fifteen years behind him. Poelzig is the ultimate war profiteer, literally building his house on the bodies of the men he killed. Instead of the Old World aristocratic style of most Gothic villains, Poelzig dresses in a trendy silk dressing gown, and his push-button house is equipped with space-age conveniences like automatic doors and fluorescent lights. Metaphors are literal here: the dark secrets of Poelzig’s luxury are literally buried, as characters descend into the basement where the original fort is preserved and he, like Sweeney Todd, makes unthinkable sacrifices to “a dark and a hungry god.”
Casa Poelzig is the most famous visual in the film, but it’s far from the only striking Expressionist image Ulmer brings to his work. Karloff gets one of the best introductions in his career, sitting bolt upright like a vampire rising from the grave, in a silhouette that accentuates the cubist geometry of his Easter Island profile. Ulmer directs him in pure Expressionist style, in heavy makeup with his hair meticulously styled into a perfect triangle around his widow’s peak. With his twisting smile and bristling eyebrows, Karloff sometimes seems ready to transform into his classic animated role as the Grinch. He keeps his brides in glass coffins turned upright, apparently floating in defiance of gravity. They may be merely sleeping like the Master’s brides, or they may be dead. Either way, his longing glances imply a necrophiliac perversity that seems to have evaded the Hays Office. His current bride, Werdegast’s daughter, appears in another image of ethereal beauty, her Rapunzel-long, pale hair spread around her on her pillow like a halo. Ulmer would go on to make the cult-classic noir cheapie Detour, but no studio would ever trust him with the resources to realize these kinds of images again.
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