Robert Wiene followed up his iconic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with a vamp story. Generally written off as an unsuccessful copycat, it nevertheless features some lovely set design and, perhaps, more depth than we realized at first.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Hypnotize Me Through
Disclaimer: This may very well be the first time I have ever had to state that I watched a film sober. I firmly believe that Genuine was neither made, nor expected to be viewed, without some kind of, ahem, enhancement. I am remarkably boring in that regard, so I feel it’s important to inform readers that I may not have seen the film as its makers intended.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is rightly revered as a masterpiece of stylization and an iconic building block of German cinema. Fresh from his success, director Robert Wiene released his follow-up just months later. Wiene reunited with cinematographer Willy Hameister, screenwriter Carl Mayer, actor Hans Heinrich von Twardowski and other Caligari alums. With Expressionist master César Klein contributing to the design, it seemed like this would be a surefire success.
It was not to be. Genuine met with mixed reviews and even critics who braised its design found the plot to be unworthy. Were the critics of 1920 right? Before we start on that topic, let’s clear up a few things.
The first important thing to know about Genuine is that most modern reviews are based on a 40+ minute condensation. This version has been included with releases of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and as a standalone feature of budget discs. However, the original cut of the film ran for about eight reels. This means that a great deal of coverage is based on a version half the length of the original.
Naturally, reviewing incomplete films is a sad necessity with much silent era output, however, a complete version of Genuine does exist. It is my fervent hope that it is being restored for an eventual official release but in the meantime, Google is your friend.
The second important thing to know is that while Caligari is sometimes described as a cinematic dead end with no real descendants, Weimar cinema is full of wonderfully weird, stylized corners that can be seen as at least partial spiritual successors. Waxworks, The Wildcat and Warning Shadows all come to mind. The term “Expressionist” is outrageously overused when discussing Weimar films but that doesn’t mean Caligari was an anomaly and that Genuine was its only follow-up.
The film opens with an artist named Percy (Harald Paulsen) reading his favorite book and admiring the portrait he has completed portraying the heroine. His friends (one of them played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) worry that he has acted oddly since finishing the painting and wish he would get rid of it. When a wealthy buyer arrives and offers a large sum for the portrait but is rebuffed by Percy. His friends privately tell the buyer that they will convince him to sell.
Percy falls asleep beside the portrait and the heroine comes to life and steps off the canvas. And thus the dream begins…
Genuine (American acrobat-turned-actress Fern Andra) is a peaceful priestess who is kidnapped and sold at a slave market. Due to the trauma of her ordeal, she becomes cruel and violent. She is purchased by a rich aristocrat (who looks suspiciously like the art buyer from the prologue), who takes her to his mansion, sets her up in a greenhouse cage and dresses her in outré lingerie. Because he is rescuing her and keeping her safe. Mm-hmm, yeah, riiiight.
The locals become suspicious and wonder what is going on inside the mansion, so the courts subpoena the barber, the only person allowed inside. Since he cannot shave the master of the house as he usually does, the barber sends his nephew, Florian (von Twardowski).
Genuine escapes, sees Florian with his razor and silently signals him to cut his client’s throat. Florian obeys and Genuine takes him as her lover. When he declines to kill himself to prove his love, Genuine orders the only other resident of the house, a bodyguard known as the Malay (Louis Brody), to murder him. The Malay cannot go through with the act and the hysterical Florian flees for his life.
The late master’s grandson, Percy (Paulsen), arrives and also falls under Genuine’s spell but this time, she seems to actually return his love. However, the barber has found his traumatized nephew and is forming a mob to attack the mansion and discover the horrors that are concealed inside…
Let’s start with the obvious: this film is absolutely stunning. From the splashy painted set design to Genuine’s impressively mad costumes, there is always something to see. For that alone, it’s a picture worth watching.
Fern Andra’s performances is often cited as the weak link in the picture and she definitely carries on but films with extreme design tended to include more, shall we say, enforced representation? The mad eyes, heaving bosom and stylized creeping about were all par for the course in pictures of this genre. Andra lays it on a bit thick but she seems to be channeling both her art film peers and the campy performances of her American vamp counterparts. She doesn’t quite have the chops to pull it off but the plan itself was not flawed.
Also, can we give Andra points for climbing ladders and trees in high heels? Hiring an experienced tightrope walker paid dividends here, we must admit.
As with most Robert Wiene films, we must ask what all this means. Is there a deeper message in Genuine or is it just an exercise in style over substance. While the plot is essentially a vamp picture, since it has Expressionist trappings, there is a good chance that there is more there there.
In the essay Expressionist Film and Gender, Genuine, a Tale of a Vampire, published in the anthology Expressionism in the Cinema, Marjam Kappes examines how the picture played into the rise of the New Woman of the 1920s. The ascendency of a woman over men (many of whom have used and abused her) is treated as unnatural and terrifying. However, like Jane in Caligari and the two female leads of the Carl Mayer-penned Sunrise, Genuine is framed through her dealings with men.
Further, at no point is Genuine’s vindictiveness treated as an understandable reaction to her trauma. The idea of a woman avenging herself or being violently avenged has been a theme in mythology and was used as a trope during the silent era. Alfred Hitchcock, who was heavily influenced by German film, allows his heroine to get away with stabbing her would-be rapist to death in Blackmail, released just nine years later. Genuine is similarly triggered by the sight of blades, both her major instances of violence are preceded by viewing a straight razor and a dagger.
However, Genuine is not allowed to escape into marriage as Anny Ondra was in Blackmail and is treated as a monster after her virgin-to-victim-to-vampire transition. (Spoiler) Further, both she and the Malay are forced to pay with their lives at the dream’s finale. His mercy to Florian and her love for Percy prove to be their undoing, which was a rather cruel way of killing them off.
The idea that Genuine represents the threat of the New Woman to some degree is enforced by her costuming. She wears a dress at the beginning of the dream sequence, when she is shown to be peaceful and serene. From that point on, she is dressed entirely in lingerie and vampish attire that feature some form of trousers instead of skirts. It’s a little on the nose but she is quite literally wearing the pants. I should also note that a woman dressed in this manner would absolutely read as sexy bedroom attire for audiences of 1920, which helps establish Genuine’s weaponized sensuality. The costuming would not be out of place in a Cecil B. DeMille boudoir comedy of the period or a Theda Bara vamp picture of a few years before.
I don’t like to commit too deeply to the meaning of film symbolism because I think viewers tend to find their own meaning, even if it doesn’t match what the filmmaker intended. If nothing else, Wiene films tend to provide a lot of red meat to chew on and trying to pick apart the symbolism provides a great deal of pleasure for movie nerds.
Despite the beautiful design of the film, it never quite pulls the viewer in the way one would expect. I want to avoid too many direct comparisons to Caligari but I will discuss one element that I think is key to Genuine’s slightly less effective illusion of the subconscious.
Caligari opens with its hero, Francis, sharing his experiences as Jane, his eerie love, wanders by in a long gown. The film then switches to flashback (or is it?) mode with the wonderfully weird set design we all know and love. However, the “real” world at the beginning is somewhat concealed by the wooded background and the strange appearance of Jane. In other words, the divide between dream and reality is not made obvious.
Genuine, on the other hand, features bright, well-lit rooms with the various characters later featured in the dream sequence showing up in normal clothing and makeup. When we see them later in their more bizarre outfits, it’s obvious that this is kind of a Wizard of Oz situation with real-world characters correlating to fantasy counterparts. “And you, and you, and you were there!”
This isn’t a flaw but it does help the audience keep their grip on reality and process the film as a dream without any trouble. This means that it lacks the wonderful puzzle box feel and the danger that make Caligari so brilliant. No matter how strange Genuine gets, we have the assurance that Percy is merely napping, no real peril. It’s as if Caligari opened in a nice medical waiting room with everyone wearing suitable business attire.
To make matters worse, the real world stakes in Genuine are not madness and recovery and the twisted nature of memory but a question of whether or not a young painter will accept a wealthy buyer’s offer to purchase a painting. (Spoiler) The film even makes light of the decision at the end with a “How much? THAT much?” double take at the buyer’s check.
Caligari is not the only example we can use for comparison. Warning Shadows, which dealt with similar themes of sex and murder, cleverly incorporated its dream imagery through a puppet show so that the audience is never exactly sure when the characters fell asleep. In Waxworks, the frame story concerns a writer and while he may be safe (or is he?), his characters are still imperiled and the danger seems to be seeping into the real world.
The simple fact is that the plot of Genuine is indistinguishable from the American vamp films of the 1910s. I am not opposed to crowdpleasing and escapism but a few more drafts and a bit more attention paid to the feelings and motivations of the title character would have been most welcome. Genuine is not a total failure but the ambitious design writes checks that the screenplay can’t cash. (Ironically, Robert Wiene’s The Hands of Orlac would have the opposite problem: a mad body horror story but big, empty, dull sets.)
You shouldn’t go into this picture expecting the masterpiece to end all masterpieces but there’s definitely a lot to see. The film is, if nothing else, a visual feast and can be appreciated as such.
Where can I see it?
The condensed version of Genuine was released on the 2004 Kino DVD edition of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. There’s no official release for the complete print yet but it’s floating around. (Wink, wink.)
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