The Sunday Intertitle: Tales of Witless Madness

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Richard Oswald made UNHEIMLICHE GESCHICHTEN twice. The 1932 one is covered here, but for some reason it’s taken me ages to get around to the 1919 one, which stars Conrad Veidt (pre-CALIGARI), Reinhold Schunzel (better known, by me anyway, as a director of thirties comedies), and famed dancer Anita Berber. I knew it used a different sampling of spooky fiction to make up its “uncanny tales” — Poe’s Black Cat appears in both, as does a loose adaptation of Stevenson’s The Suicide Club, but the rest of the bits are different. But I didn’t know that the three actors from the framing structure –who play Death, the Devil and the Whore, coming to life from their portraits and running amok in a bookstore, before leafing through the various volumes in search of diverting yarns — also appear in all the separate storylines, in a variety of guises. It’s a nice idea to bind an anthology together.

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It does cause a slight sense of the repetitive, since nearly all the stories become romantic triangles, and for some reason Schunzel is insane, or goes insane, in most of them. But this minor problem is nullified by the film’s extraordinary tone, which is a kind of Weimar cabaret of grotesque humour. In fact, the movie plays like a spoof of its own remake. The actors are obviously having great fun at the expense of the material. Schunzel proves to be a great creepy toad, prefiguring the qualities Peter Lorre would bring to his early roles in German film, and Veidt gets to do some fine clutching hand stuff. Berber alternates between sexy and horrible at will, and in her final installment, an out-and-out parody of the form, she has a manic schoolgirl naughtiness reminiscent of Miranda Richardson’s Elizabeth I in Blackadder II.

To my surprise, the first story turns out to be a variant on the story — an urban myth — that inspired both SO LONG AT THE FAIR and, less directly, THE LADY VANISHES. Schunzel plays a madman in it who turns out to be a complete red herring.

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In the second episode Schunzel kills romantic rival Veidt and is haunted by his vengeful revenant. Some nice imagery here: Veidt rehearses his HANDS OF ORLAC schtick to campy but chilling effect, becomes a huge translucent Floating Head of Death, and manifests as a series of disembodied footprints, appearing one by one in a series of jump cuts, perhaps the first time that trick was tried. Carl Hoffman’s cinematography frequently surprises and delights with its spooky low-level lighting. All the more sad that Murnau’s film of Jekyll and Hyde, DER JANUSKOPF, with Conrad Veidt, is a lost film: Hoffman shot it.

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I expect that cat’s quite old now.

Then, in The Black Cat, he kills Berber. It was her turn, I suppose. Unlike in the later version, there’s no spooky visuals of the entombed bride, but the cat is endearing, and Schunzel goes off his chump again.

In The Suicide Club, Schunzel finally gets to be hero, and in the last story he’s a cowardly knight humiliated by a fake Scooby Doo ghost show put on by Veidt to scare the interloper away from his flighty wife.

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R. Schunzel, R. Schunzel, let down your hair!

Fun stuff for your next Halloween, I would suggest. The light-hearted approach is novel, and it’s slightly surprising to see a genre being gently ribbed before it’s finished being invented.

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