Wednesday, December 10, 2008


This odd little gothic melodrama, with science-fiction overtones out of Frankenstein, is based on a German novel from 1911 about a woman conceived through artificial insemination, a method which was apparently considered scandalous back then, and perhaps still had the taint of "unholiness" about it in the 50's when this film, the fifth version on record, was made. It helps to know a little fascinating background first: "Alraune" is the German word for "mandrake," a root, shaped like a human being, which was believed to grow beneath a gallows, seeded from the semen of hanged men. In this story, disgraced professor Erich von Stroheim has "created" a daughter through artificial insemination, from an executed criminal and a prostitute, an act thought of by his former colleagues as a "crime against nature." As a young woman, Alraune (Hildegarde Knef) is lovely but amoral, and has been kicked out of a convent school for possessing pornography and being a bad influence on the other girls. Stroheim's nephew (Karl Boehm, of PEEPING TOM), a decadent, gambling student, first sees her looking like a nymph lolling by a pond and falls for her, as do his buddies. One by one, she drives most of them to bad ends (one wastes away, one dies in a duel, etc.). Stroheim decides he wants her all to himself (never mind that she was raised to believe he was her father), but when she thinks she can find true happiness running off with Boehm, her "creator" shoots her dead.

The plot is sheer pulp thriller, though the way the film is shot, there aren't all that many thrills. This is a talky movie, and the bad English dubbing doesn't help (no German language option was available on the DVD), nor does the somewhat damaged print. The film's strengths are in its visuals; the whole thing has a dreamy Gothic aura, the sets are evocative, and the camerawork has an occasional off-kilter look that makes it seem more modern than the 50's. At least two important plot points are disappointingly conveyed in writing rather than action. Knef is fine, though too old for the part; she is supposed to still need a governess but looks at least 30. In the very last shot, Knef's dead body appears to morph into a mandrake root, though I assume that is creative poetic license rather than true narrative closure. The whole idea that she was "created" wouldn't really carry much water today, so this doesn't work as science fiction, but as a kind of Gothic Hawthorne or Le Fanu tale, it's worth seeing. [DVD]

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