A German epic dealing with the historical arrival of the Black Death in Florence. However, the events can also be seen as a response to the 1918 influenza epidemic and the aftermath of the First World War. But one absolute fact is that this movie is bonkers.
Home Media Availability: Released on Bluray.
Who invited the plague?
This is my 500th silent film review and I wanted something a bit special. Those plans stayed in place until sometime in March but then world events interfered and I decided to rethink this milestone.
I generally do not write what can be described as topical material. I am devoted to the antiquated, the obsolete. But as I write this review, over 50,000 people in my home state of California have been infected with COVID-19 and over 2,000 have died from it. And those are just the confirmed cases. We are encouraged to stay home, most entertainment venues are closed and many of us only venture out to work or to purchase food with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer at the ready.
In the midst of all this, a new research project has emerged among film buffs: which films dealt with the 1918 influenza epidemic and how did they cover the material?
The surprising answer is: they didn’t. Not directly, anyway.
The Plague of Florence deals with disease of a more historical kind and was released in Germany in October of 1919, smack dab in the center of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, popularly called the Spanish Influenza at the time. (The actual birthplace of the virus is still being studied but experts agree that it was not actually Spain.)
This film tells a tale of the Black Death and ties it to the popular notion that it was divine punishment against a decadent and hedonistic society. However, the film does not preach and goes out of its way to establish that there are no heroes, no true representatives of piety and seems to embrace nihilism by the end. Lest you think this is going to be too depressing, let me assure you that the film is also completely insane. Screenwriter Fritz Lang dug into history and the wounded psyche of a world reeling from war and he produced a story that feels like a frenzied fever dream. But then again, I’m not sure it would be possible to portray the Black Death any other way.
This orgy sponsored by Decla
The story opens with Florence under the rule of religious conservatives who have banned most forms of merrymaking. The current ruler, Cesare (Otto Mannstädt), is at odds with his son, Lorenzo (Anders Wikmann), who wants to be allowed to enjoy the fleshly pleasures.
The status quo is shaken by the arrival of Julia (Marga Kierska), a courtesan who immediately catches the eye of nearly every man in Florence, particularly Lorenzo. The religious leaders fear that her beauty will allow her to gain a following and are disturbed when she openly states that the only god she worships is love. Cesare creeps into her chambers and attempts to rape her but is stopped by Lorenzo. When Cesare and his friends in the clergy attempt to arrest Julia, they are driven out by a mob and the city descends into a perpetual bacchanal with Julia and Lorenzo presiding over the festivities.
A new voice against Julia arrives in the form of Medardus (Theodor Becker), a holy hermit who arrives to condemn the city for its licentiousness. However, he soon finds himself enraptured by Julia and, after killing Lorenzo, takes his place as co-ruler.
And everything would have worked out fine except for that meddling plague. It rises up in the form of a woman and begins to strike down the citizens of Florence. Medardus orders the city gates closed so that the disease cannot reach his new friends of the one percent and prepares to wait out the pestilence in luxury. But what will happen when his buried conscience awakens?
This is heavy stuff, to be sure, and the film moves along at what I like to call the European pace. That is to say, it leaves everything on a slow burn and takes its sweet time to get anywhere. While this certainly takes some getting used to, especially if you are a fan of the zippy silent comedies being made around this time, I can’t say that it’s a flaw. It is a dark, dreary tale and allowing events to unfold at a more stately tempo gives weight and emotional heft to the story.
I should also point out that while the story is tragic, the film does not feel depressing or oppressive. Director Otto Rippert (who had directed Homunculus three years before) begins the film firmly grounded in the reality of the massive sets designed by Hermann Warm and Franz Jaffe. However, once Medardus is introduced, the picture takes a turn for the surreal with religious visions and hellish scenes interacting with reality. One could even go so far as to interpret the last part of the film as a fever dream on the part of Medardus.
However, this would lessen the impact of the ending, which is pretty twisted. (And keep in mind, I have seen Behind the Door and I know a thing or two about twisted silent film endings.) So, spoilers from here on out.
Medardus is stricken with guilt and flees Florence through the catacombs. Once outside, he ministers to victims of the plague and reconnects with his faith. Infected with the disease himself, he has an epiphany and decides the greatest manifestation of his faith would be to return to Julia in Florence and infect her and the others with the disease. He does just as he planned and enters the city, the plague (Julietta Brandt) following close behind…
The idea of weaponizing disease is another ancient concept that has never really disappeared from our culture. Just months before The Plague of Florence was made, the Germans were accused of spreading the influenza. At least one high ranking American military officer claimed that the Germans were sneaking into New York via submarine and intentionally infecting theaters with the disease. This is, of course, ridiculous in hindsight but such breathless tales are inevitably reworked for the next generation of pandemics. (Italians and, of course, Spaniards, immigrants in general, were also blamed for the spread of the illness.)
With all this in mind, the behavior of Medardus in the finale of the film is among the most horrifying scenes in motion pictures. In a fit of religious frenzy, he commits an act of mass murder and dies deeply satisfied as the Black Death rages through the city. If this was meant to be a redemption scene, it is truly a bizarre way to go about it, especially considering that it rather abruptly cuts the rest of the cast off from their own redemptions.
In many ways, The Plague of Florence is a typical German costume picture of the period: stylized performances from the cast, massive sets, a slower pace. And other costume pictures certainly dealt with the darker side of human nature: revenge, obsession, death.
Theodor Becker is striking (if a bit hammy) as the frenzied Medardus, whose pendulum swings between frantic religious zealotry and unbridled lust reflect the mixed messages of the film itself. The religious conservatives are condemned, the revelers are condemned but their sins are shown in loving detail.
As Julia, Marga Kierska looks like a Botticelli painting and is basically treated like one too. She is a cypher who does not pass the Sexy Lamp Test. (If a female character was to be replaced by a sexy lamp, does anything about the film would change?) We don’t know what motivates her or why she came to Florence and she is given no real agency. The last guy to rescue her from a fate worse than death (sometimes at the hands of the last last guy who rescued her from a fate worse than death) is the happy new owner of the sexy lamp.
The film also follows the popular line of reasoning that men cannot possibly be expected to control themselves in the presence of a beautiful woman and anything that happens is probably her own fault, if you really think about it. As seductresses go, Julia is about as staid as you can get without inducing narcolepsy. A glance here, a visit to a hermit’s cell there but for the most part, the men are the extreme aggressors.
The real stars of the show are the cinematography and the production design. Willy Hameister and Emil Schünemann capture every last cobblestone of the fictional Florence and the armies of extras cavorting about in suitably foppish tights and cotehardies. And the final scene of the picture is a memorable shot of the embodiment of the plague and death fiddling over the city she has conquered.
The film has other pleasures, like Medardus’ journey through the catacombs while being stalked by the plague and the extraordinarily bright torch he wields. He also offers Julia a vision of hell complete with dragon. (We all know about Fritz Lang and dragons.)
But most of all, this is about death. The pessimism is palpable and despite the pious veneer at the end, the condemnation of sin rings hollow. After all, the first victims of the plague are the poorer citizens living in the outskirts of Florence. Are they mere collateral damage in the filmmaker’s quest to portray divine retribution? If so, it seems that the message of the film is actually “Eat, drink and be merry because you’re dying no matter what.” (Admittedly, your reading of the film is likely to be shaped by your personal belief in the afterlife or lack thereof.)
Germany was reeling from a loss in a war they were supposed to win. Everything that had seemed sure and secure was topsy-turvy with more unrest to come. In such an environment, films like The Plague of Florence and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are inevitable.
Seeing the film in a time of global sickness and unrest is, I think, an enlightening experience and while the description of the film does sound pretty dreary, the bizarre plotting and refusal to compromise are surprisingly invigorating. Perhaps we’re numb and just ready to feel something.
Plagues, Flues and Popular Entertainment
The mortality rate of COVID-19 is still being determined, complicated by the high number of untested mild and asymptomatic cases, but there are over 200,000 dead worldwide as of this writing with that number likely to rise much higher.
In this context, the percentage of fatalities from the Black Death in what is now Italy (and the world in general) is truly staggering. Over half the populations of some cities dead in months, 20 million victims in Europe alone over the course of five years. Our culture is going to change forever after COVID-19 and we still don’t know when stay-at-home orders will be lifted. I don’t mean to hold a death derby or to diminish recent fatalities (even one is too many) but I am not sure we modern people can comprehend the sheer ghastliness of the Black Death. The victims of the 1918 influenza outbreak (which killed up to 50 million out of a much higher population) certainly had trouble grappling with the tragedy.
The influenza ravaged Germany as it did the rest of the world. Historians have estimated that as much as 50% of the soldiers in the German army, already suffering from food scarcity and malnutrition by that point, were infected with the disease. (And not, one might add, by sneaking into New York theaters.) 50 million people worldwide lost their lives.
The American film industry experienced its share of disruption and death. Harold Lockwood, voted the handsomest man in the movies just a year before, died from the influenza. Brilliant young director John H. Collins succumbed as well, leaving Viola Dana a widow at twenty-one. Tessie Harron, Bobby Harron’s younger sister, was just twenty-two when she died. Lillian Gish contracted a case but was blackmailed into returning to work ill when D.W. Griffith began rehearsing with another actress. The case and crew of The Heart of Wetona were reportedly spared from the worst of the epidemic because they were shooting in a remote forest location.
Where are the films about the influenza epidemic? Could it be that silent filmmakers shied away from such an unpleasant topic? That audiences demanded tales of romance and adventure with none of the real world spilling into their movie palaces?
Anyone who has seen films of the 1910s knows this cannot be the case. In addition to tackling topics like the abuse of immigrants, abortion and birth control, and the cycle of poverty and its role in juvenile crime, the movies did feature real diseases.
The main plot of The Italian (1915) is driven by the protagonist being unable to obtain pasteurized milk for his son, who succumbs to tuberculosis. Falling Leaves (1912) likewise centers on a terminal case of tuberculosis. The 1914 Lubin picture His Brother’s Blood features typhoid fever and Balto’s Race to Nome (1925) portrayed the title pup’s mission to deliver diphtheria medicine. And the recent war was seen as fair game with war pictures ebbing and flowing in popularity during the late 1910s and early 1920s but never being absent from the screen.
Certainly, the trade publications were full of influenza news, reporting which regions of movie houses were closed and studios assuring the public that their business was stable. The influenza was even used to advertise pictures with ads for The Turn in the Road bragging that audiences braved infection to see it.
But actual fiction movies about the influenza? Made during the height of the pandemic? I have yet to find one.
In Of Bodies, Families, and Communities: Refiguring the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Caroline Hovanec brings out that the epidemic was similarly ignored in literature with much of the fictional material dealing with it being written in the 1930s or later. The reason for this silence is well beyond the scope of this review but the fact that it existed makes the production of The Plague of Florence all the more significant.
(I believe a certain part, though not all, of the global amnesia was due to the influenza being the straw that broke the camel’s back. Humanity simply could not deal with one more thing.)
In contrast to the 1918 influenza, the Black Death influenced the arts enormously with The Decameron probably being the most recognizable item in the collection. The frame story of a band of nobles hiding out from the plague and swapping tales was echoed in Edgar Allan Poe’s famous story The Masque of the Red Death.
The disease in The Masque of the Red Death is fictional but the planet had been reeling from cholera at the time. In the tale, a prince escapes with his court and parties the night away in gaudy, multi-colored rooms. Then an uninvited guest arrives, oozing the telltale blood of the Red Death. The prince and his guests are enraged but when the they attack the interloper, they fall dead from the disease. It’s quite striking, if a bit short on plot. (Not a complaint because the tale is justly famous, just an observation pointing out the difficulty of adapting it to the screen.)
The Masque of the Red Death is sometimes credited as the source material of The Plague of Florence but is this really the case? Most of the picture is taken up with Florence’s descent into hedonism, the flight of the religiously conservative rulers, Julia’s seduction of Medardus, his obsession with her and, finally, his wavering between faith and flesh.
Unlike Poe’s story, the characters in The Plague of Florence do not flee to a remote abbey but rather close off the one-percenter section of the city, leaving the peasants to die. And while some synopses of the story inexplicably claim that the plague is personified by a seductress, I am not sure that’s what the filmmakers intended with Julietta Brandt.
Most significantly, the Red Death in Poe’s story was visible to all and the terror of the story is that he walked among the revelers and upon being unmasked, proved to be noncorporeal, a virus as a ghost. In The Plague of Florence, the personification of disease could be read as being visible to Medardus but she walks among the citizens of Florence undetected until it is too late. (Except for one brief sequence where the revelers recognize her immediately and flee. This is not the most consistent film.) So, the connection to Poe is remarkably weak and I am giving it the side eye. The personification of death and disease was not unique to Poe, after all. (This is hardly a Revelation, is it?)
It seems likely that Fritz Lang delved into history as much as fiction for the plot of the film. In fact, I would say that the hook of the film would be “Savonarola seduced!” but you have to keep in mind that I used to hang out with Italian history buffs and weird things tickle my fancy. Then again, I am fairly certain that even Savonarola might have found the intentional infection of Florence to be a bit much but Lang characters are not noted for doing things by halves.
(Reviews of the time state that Medardus was meant to portray a “Saul to Paul” style conversion. That is to say, a persecutor of the faithful turned believer after experiencing a religious calling. However, I would like to point out that at no point in any sacred text does Paul engage in mass murder via germ warfare after his conversion.)
The Plague of Florence is the closest thing to a 1918 influenza picture that I have yet found. Certainly, the diseases do not match but humans are remarkably consistent when faced with mass illness: panic, blame, recover and, in many cases, forget.
I suppose this is as good a place as any to mention that there was also a British-German co-production released in 1924 called Decameron Nights (Dekameron-Nächte) starring Lionel Barrymore and Werner Krauss. It claimed to be based directly on Boccaccio but I am not sure how much of the plague narrative was retained as I have not yet seen it myself. There was also a Russian production (contradictorily described as both a product of the 1920s and as a pre-Revolution picture) directed by Vyacheslav Viskovsky that allegedly features the plague-infused frame story of the original book.
The Plague of Florence is an epic, twisted and strange picture that has been oddly obscure until now and likely would not have been released on home media at all if Lang’s name hadn’t appeared in the credits. That’s a pity because it’s a film that really could have only been made in 1919. It’s a nihilistic visual revel in a decidedly Germanic Florence and the insanity of the plot only matched the madness of the real world. Highly recommended but only if you think you are in an emotional place to handle it.
I found it bizarrely therapeutic. The expression of these dark sentiments helped me rewire my own brain, at least for a short time.
Where can I see it?
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