Captain Oscar Krug is a German-American taxidermist who has a secret behind his door and the whole gruesome story unspools in this post-WWI film. Nobody involved in the production seemed to understand that the war was over but the shocking content has made this picture a festival staple and a tidy way to prove that the silent era was not all innocence, light and naïve melodrama.
Death and Taxidermy
You know you’re a silent movie fan when you can exchange knowing glances about Behind the Door. This long unavailable picture is a classic of trash cinema and famous for its exceptionally ferocious finale and certain macabre details in the final confrontation between villain and anti-villain… A new restoration, numerous screenings and a quality home video release have only added to the picture’s reputation.
This film is something of a challenge to review because all the reasons it is remembered and discussed are found in the latter third. Given that it is one hundred years old and pretty well-known, I will be spoiling the living daylights out of the thing. Consider yourself spoiler bewarned and bewaried.
The film opens with German-American sailor Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth) returning home after a long absence. He opens up his dilapidated taxidermy shop and immediately begins a flashback. Before the United States entered the First World War, he was a retired captain and a happy skinner and stuffer of animals and was courting Alice (Jane Novak), the daughter of the banker who owns half the town.
(Now, taxidermists are not generally reckoned to be figures of romance in motion pictures and I can’t help but remember that Charles Dickens addressed just this issue in Our Mutual Friend, in which a taxidermist finds himself unlucky in love because the object of his affections does not wish to be regarded in a “bony light.” But keep in mind, subtle this movie ain’t. Those taxidermy skills will be put to use, I assure you.)
Alice’s father is ready to do anything to break up the couple. Not only does he consider Krug beneath him, he is also angered by the fact that the weathered ex-seaman is the only man in town who regularly stands up to him. To that end, he uses the recent declaration of war against Germany to whip up anti-German sentiment against Krug. Krug was born in America but his mother was born in Germany and he speaks German. Just how thick is his German blood?
After a fistfight with fellow sailor Bill Tavish (James Gordon), Krug is deemed suitably loyal and he proves it further by joining the Merchant Marine. He’s assigned to command the Perth on an Atlantic supply run and before he leaves town, he secretly marries Alice.
Okay, so Bosworth (b. 1867) is old enough to be Novak’s (b. 1896) dear old dad himself and I usually get slightly irritated at May-December stuff but… Well, Hobart Bosworth has been one of my favorite foxy grandpas for quite some time and so I am letting this one pass.
Alice is found out by her father and kicked out of the house. With nowhere to go and an apparent inability to read classified ads for boarding houses, Alice boards the Perth and hides away among the nurses bound for the front. When Krug finds out his wife is on board, he is initially delighted but sinister things are afoot under the Atlantic waters.
Nearly four reels pass by without the main villain of the story being introduced but submarine U-98 commander Lieutenant Brandt (Wallace Beery) makes quite an entrance, gleefully torpedoing the Perth. Alice and Krug are saved but drifting in a lifeboat without oars or a sail and with dwindling supplies.
And this is the point where the film goes from standard wartime stuff to something far more twisted. The U-98 surfaces and offers a rescue but once they have Alice, the crew dumps Krug overboard. The implications are obvious and Krug vows to the laughing Brandt that if he ever catches him, he will skin him alive.
Months pass, Krug is given command of another ship and Bill Tavish is his first mate. The captain is eaten up with hatred and a desire for revenge but one night, the Americans destroy a German U-Boat, the U-98 to be exact. Krug dives into the water to save its commander.
Why would he do such a thing? The crew is confused, especially when they see their captain treating the commander like a lost brother. Of course, we know that the commander is Lieutenant Brandt and that Krug has been waiting a very long time to practice his skills once again…
He does. Oh my goodness, does he ever. And it leads to the film’s most famous title card:
The violence is not seen past Krug trussing Brandt up and preparing for surgery but it is actually all the more horrifying when suggested with title cards and shadows. Our minds will always create something more awful than what we see on the screen and that is certainly the case with Behind the Door. You see, for being essentially trash cinema, the film was a mainstream production from the Thomas Ince brand and its high price tag and quality production team show.
Director Irvin Willat started his career as a darkroom boy for his brother, Doc Willat, and joined the film industry as a cameraman and editor. When cinematographers turn director, the results are often stunning and Irvin Willat’s films were no exception. Behind the Door has all the glorious light, shadows and silhouettes one can expect from a 1910s film but Willat’s dark imagination adds to the macabre atmosphere and the grand climax is suggested entirely with shadows. (For another example of Willat’s visual style, do check out Below the Surface. There is a shot in the picture that I am fairly convinced Charles Laughton had to have seen before he made Night of the Hunter.)
However, unlike Maurice Tourneur and Josef von Sternberg, Willat resisted the urge to linger on his lovely compositions and tended to get right down to business. At a time when fight scenes were often one uncut long shot, Willat brought his camera into the action, showing the faces of the combatants. U-boats were a popular bad guy conveyance, naturally, but Willat’s camera captures the sleekness and efficiency of the craft as it bursts out of the water. (J. O. Taylor and Frank M. Blount are the credited photography department.) I’d like to praise the editing but I am not absolutely certain if the bold cuts are the result of intent or lost footage.
Willat was also fortunate in his cast and all three leads give excellent performances.
Hobart Bosworth was one of the earliest film stars to make the jump to the west coast and from the start, he specialized in rugged, outdoorsy roles and particularly ones with a nautical flavor. He played the title role in the 1913 seven-reel, Jack London-approved adaptation of The Sea Wolf (alas, now lost) and his filmography includes the aforementioned Below the Surface, as well as The Sea Lion and The Blood Ship.
I like Bosworth a lot as a performer. He exceled in fatherly roles (for example, as Buddy Rogers’ dad in My Best Girl) and could be subtle (not so much in the love scenes here) but what every fan loved and waited for was his patented bursts of fury, either righteous or unrighteous. And in the case, Behind the Door, a bit of both. Smoldering rage and then an explosion of violence, that is an ideal Bosworth performance and oh boy does he smolder and oh boy does he explode.
I really cannot emphasize enough how well cast Bosworth is in his role. While he was over two decades too old for the character he was playing, he more than made up for it with raw power. The love scenes are a little less successful with Bosworth’s old stage mannerisms breaking through.
Reviewing the film for Motion Picture Classic, Frederick James Smith wrote that, “Hobart Bosworth is decidedly strong in this role, over-playing but occasionally a role that would be maudlin in most any other hands.” That pretty much sums it up. Milton Sills is the only actor in the American film industry of the time who I think could have pulled it off and even he didn’t quite have Bosworth’s flair for fury.
A hero (or more of an anti-villain, really) is only has good as his opponent and Wallace Beery is on hand as the personification of every trait of the cliched movie Hun. He is the thing that Krug has been accused of being since the start of the picture, a kind of warped reflection, a Mirror Universe version.
Beery was just a few years removed from playing spoofs of broad Gilded Age melodrama villains in Keystone comedies and his turn as Lieutenant Brandt is not much more subtle but, really, is there any other way to play the character than as a mustache-twirling fiend? Nevertheless, Beery has some interesting moments.
When Krug is trying to lull Brandt into a false sense of security, Beery does a nice job of conveying his character’s mixture of relief and suspicion and, finally, smirking pride at his skill in picking up “mermaids.” After all, Krug is not asking for any military secrets or troop movements. He simply wants to know how Brandt passes the time on that boring old submarine. It’s a seduction, more than anything, with Brandt’s lack of ethics tripping him up when he cannot resist the temptation of bragging before an appreciative audience.
In the end, though, Brandt is a small potatoes villain who finds himself wilting in the face of the white hot anger of an anti-villain with a grudge. Beery twists his blustering comedy relief persona just enough to transform into a loathsome brute, the type to pull the wings off flies. He’s small, mean and petty and heaven help anyone under his power but he withers when faced with an unchained Bosworth.
Behind the Door was based on a short story by Gouverneur Morris and if the name sounds familiar (other than a signature on the U.S. constitution), he wrote the novel that Lon Chaney’s The Penalty was based on. That film, you will recall, featured Chaney as a criminal whose legs had been amputated by an incompetent physician. He spends much of the picture planning to steal some new stems with which to launch an anarchist takeover of San Francisco. So you have some idea with whom we have the pleasure.
The short story is just nine pages long and takes place entirely on Captain Krug’s ship after his old nemesis has been picked up. Tavish and the unnamed first-person narrator are invited to the captain’s cabin late at night and he tells his story as the readers are steadily fed hints that all is not well behind the door. Much of the dialogue in the film’s climax seems to have been lifted directly from the original story. (It’s in the public domain and you can read it here.)
Morris is rather hit and miss for me, pulpy and bizarre but his stories don’t always hold together. This time, though, I think the adaptation would have done well to follow its source because keeping the story in the immediate aftermath of the gruesome event builds a macabre atmosphere while also keeping enough emotional distance to avoid the exploitative angle. (More on that in a bit.) If television still did Twilight Zone-style half-hour dramatic anthologies, I should have liked to have seen this one adapted for the purpose. (The half-hour drama is underrated and needs to return, it’s the perfect short story length.) Also, Krug’s taxidermy is merely a hobby and so it doesn’t feel quite so obvious a shoehorn.
The last words of the story, however, are considerably more graphic than what we see on the screen:
“It looked like an anatomical model for a medical museum — a model to show the muscular system of the human body — executed in a clear and glistening pink enamel.
I clutched Tavish for support. We leaned against each other — and like something far off in a dream we heard Captain Krug’s voice.
“I told him,” he said, “that if I ever caught him I’d skin him alive; but he died before I’d finished. . . . Damn him!””
However, likely as a plan to keep the censors at bay, we get a flashback structure based on Krug returning home as a broken man and passing away, rejoining his Alice. (At this point in film history, movies were not protected by the First Amendment in the United States and local censor boards could be ruthless.) Revenge plots were among the many story elements that could get a picture banned, especially if the person carrying out the revenge enjoyed themselves too much. Having Krug’s revenge break him and lead to his death may have satisfied some of the more conservative boards.
Interestingly enough, Behind the Door does not seem to have ruffled that many feathers and in some cases, seems to be more shocking to modern viewers than to audiences of 1919. I suppose when you’ve just watched Erich von Stroheim tear off a nurse’s uniform with his teeth and throw a baby out of an upper story window, it’s pretty difficult to get riled up about much.
Plus, because silent films engage the viewers imagination on a deeper level than talkies, it’s possible that the disturbing content of Behind the Door is a bit of an overdose to modern viewers. We’re used to seeing absolutely everything and you name the act of violence, it has been shown on the screen within the last few decades. But what’s inside your brain… yeah, that’s the scariest thing of all.
Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that aside from a few “not for women and children” remarks, Behind the Door was welcomed by several critics as an antidote to more saccharine fare. (Surely there was a middle ground? Like, between Pollyanna and Saw?)
American wartime propaganda films were used as Trojan horses to slip extreme violence and particularly violence against women under the noses of censors. The “protect our women” narrative has been a classic propagandistic element for untold centuries but the First World War gave filmmakers an excuse to throw exploitative images across the screen whenever possible. Every narrative excuse under the sun was used to endanger the lives and virtue of Hollywood’s loveliest. Whether as nurses, tourists or French maidens, the screen was awash in images of women imperiled by the Hun. (In fact, the repulsive nature of wartime propaganda was used as cover by fascists and their sympathizers in order to pressure Hollywood into going easy on the poor wittle Nazis. But that’s another story for another time and I am sharpening my knives as I type.)
And this is where Irvin Willat goes too far because he includes two flashbacks of Alice’s ordeal on the submarine and there is absolutely no ambiguity about her fate or the filmmaker’s intention. This is pure, unadulterated exploitation and it crosses a few red lines in my book. And keep in mind, I have a pretty high trash tolerance.
To make matters worse, our heroine was very clearly born entirely for fetishized abuse and death. As you can probably tell from the synopsis, the screenplay by Luther Reed takes enormous pains to frog march Alice onto that ship. We are expected to believe that she can track down her husband’s vessel and get aboard but that she is incapable of renting a room at a boarding house. This is especially irritating as the original short story simply wrote her in as a passenger aboard Captain Krug’s ship, a reasonable enough explanation for her presence.
The character of Alice is thinly written and essentially created entirely to be fridged. (And the main issue with fridging is that violence is inflicted on women entirely to motivate the male character; her suffering is never about her.) It’s a credit to Jane Novak’s performance that the character has any life in her at all.
By the way, Novak’s Wikipedia biography bears all the fingerprints of fluffing from either a fan or family member. (Dead giveaway: When a comparatively minor star is put on the same level as Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, etc.) It also contains this howler: “Novak endured as a performer, in part, by sacrificing sensational roles for roles as leading women in more wholesome films.” If Behind the Door is what they call wholesome, I am a little scared.
This film chugs along as if the war is still raging and the question that it poses at the beginning—how thick is the German blood of Oscar Krug?—turns out to have the answer of “very.” Or at least “very” by the definition put forth in the story and in other wartime propaganda. The image of Germans being lustful beasts, unable to control their emotions, desires or rages unless they are scheming something… well, that’s exactly what the plot does with the character of Krug.
The skinning alive plot device was reused in the Mountie picture Where the North Holds Sway but the hero of the picture is portrayed as a wholesome all-Canadian type and there is no question of loyalty, citizenship or sanity being questioned before or after his revenge plot.
Behind the Door features powerful performances from Bosworth and Beery while Novak deserves props for doing what she can with her thin, fridged character. The film deserves its infamous reputation but Willat pushes things too far with the flashbacks in the finale and the picture tips over the edge of exploitation. It’s pretty grim stuff and definitely worth seeing but some of the choices rub me the wrong way—and not the skinning alive.
The Russian Cut
Behind the Door was released in Russia and, as was sometimes the case with foreign releases, the Russian distributor took considerable liberties with both the plot and overall theme of the picture. The third reel is missing, which is a pity because… I think the Russian cut is superior in every imaginable way.
The introductory prologue is cut and moved to the end. (Alas, the “heavenly meeting” ending is retained.) What we get instead is an honest-to-goodness labor dispute at the beginning. Krug is the “Steel Captain,” a kindly toymaker who is blamed by the evil capitalists for neglecting his duties and allowing a merchant vessel to sink. In fact, the villains sent the ship out knowing it would likely sink because they had purchased a healthy insurance policy. Alice, who respects that Krug has the callused hands of a worker, spurns her father, his chosen suitor and his wicked ways. There is no mention of Krug’s ancestry and the whole conflict revolves solely around labor rising up against their masters.
Alice is given a more assertive role, directly telling her father that Krug is the man for her (those callused hands will win ‘em over every time) and making her stand before the wedding instead of being found out afterward. I mean, she’s still fridged but at least she gets a chance to show a bit of life before she’s killed off.
The scenes of the sinking of the Perth, Krug and Alice out at sea and the initial introduction of Brandt are lost but the story picks up with Krug trying desperately to find out if Alice is alive. The scenes between the U-boat commander and Krug play out pretty much the same but, thank goodness, with most of the rape scenes trimmed away.
The question of German ancestry had already played out during the First World War with Tsar Nicholas II unwisely taking advice from one Prinzessin Alix Viktoria Helene Luise Beatrix von Hessen und bei Rhein aka Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia. Without getting too deeply involved… there were issues. The Russian distributors wisely opted to keep too much conversation about the ancestry of Krug out of the story.
And while all the signs still say “taxidermist” I did appreciate not getting hit over the head with Krug’s skills quite so much. I do tend to prefer Russian films to all others, so this russification of a Hollywood production definitely plays to my tastes. I encourage you to give this cut a try as well and see if you agree with me or if you like the Hollywood original better.
Where can I see it?
Flicker Alley has released a beautiful restoration with the original tinting and toning restored and a lovely score by Stephen Horne. Some title cards and pieces of the film itself are still missing but any narrative gaps are papered over by appropriate stills and titles. The disc also includes the cut released for the Russian market, though it is in black and white, alas. (Those tints make the day-for-night shots sparkle.)