The Sunday Intertitle: A Not-So-Modern Prometheus

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The once-lost German serial HOMUNCULUS (1916) is slowly becoming less lost — an authentic full restoration may never be possible, but we’re promised we’re going to be able to see the whole story in approximately the right order, one day.

I’ve been looking at the surviving fragments. Otto Rippert directed — I never saw anything else from his prolific silent career. But the writer is Robert Reinert, later director of the hysterical, psychotronic OPIUM and NERVEN, so that cued me to expect drama at a fairly high pitch, and I was not disappointed.

Hanns Heinz Ewers had already published his perverse novel of artificial life, Alraune (later filmed thrice) at this point, and of course there was Frankenstein as a role model. I was immediately struck, though, by an odd, and most certainly coincidental connection with THE OMEN.

The truncated episode one begins with two births, one natural and one unnatural. Scientists place a glass sphere inside a special curvy cabinet, and after an undetermined period of gestation, pull out a wriggling baby. That’s the unnatural birth. I presume I don’t have to explain the processes involved in kickstarting the natural one.

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Death! Dead the baby of love, while the science one lives. My Italian is excellent. Self-taught.

There’s a fuddy-duddy scientist who gesticulates a lot — since this section of the film is available only with Italian intertitles, this seems kind of appropriate. This guy strongly disapproves of artificial babies. But then the child born to his household dies in its cot, and he abandons his scruples, switching the corpslet with the thriving-but-unnatural kid from down the block. The stage is set for tragedy — and for Gregory Peck to do something similar in Rome, sixty years later. Obviously, this isn’t going to end well. Or soon. (the full serial is six hours.)

The creation of life is notably undramatic compared to similar operations in METROPOLIS and FRANKENSTEIN (even the Edison version of 1910), but the weird equipment is impressive, and since it has no moving parts and no recognized scientific principle seems to be involved, it hasn’t dated at all. I believe it.

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Carl Hoffmann’s cinematography is astounding. We’re still in tableaux mode, largely, but the lighting! Hoffmann’s later career includes major collaborations with Murnau and Lang, but he’s clearly a great artist already.

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4 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: A Not-So-Modern Prometheus”

  1. The Prometheus myth figure prominently in Rivette’s Out 1 and Markopoulos’ The Illiac Passion

  2. The bootlegs of Out 1 keep getting better and better — maybe time I actually watched it…

  3. It’s coming out in a beautifully restored version on DVD/ Blu-Ray this month.

  4. Woot! Suddenly I’m glad I waited.

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