“God, she was beautiful!”
That was Fritz Lang to an interviewer, decades after casting teenage Brigitte Helm in a double role in Metropolis: both the virginal worker Maria and Maria’s evil robot duplicate. Helm’s dual performance is one of the most famous in all silent drama. Just eighteen when cameras began turning on Metropolis, Helm went on to international stardom, and in the German cinema she was, according to Austrian film writer Kay Weniger, “for a decade the epitome of an enigmatic screen diva and demonic temptress.”
Helm never worked for Fritz Lang again—his autocratic ways nearly drove her to a breakdown, so once was plenty—but she did play another monster created by science run amok. That was the title role in 1928’s Alraune, directed by Henrik Galeen and released in English as A Daughter of Destiny. Galeen had collaborated with Paul Wegener, both men writing, directing, and appearing in the silent horror film The Golem (1915), the first version of that Jewish folktale for the screen (now lost), and he wrote the screenplay for 1922’s Nosferatu. While Daughter of Destiny has an eerie setup and plenty of atmosphere, it doesn’t play as a horror film. Instead, Helm’s lab-created Alraune, both enchanting and sinister, gradually takes over the movie and our sympathies. When it comes to the scientist and the monster, there’s no question who most people want to emerge victorious.
“Alraune” literally means “mandrake.” The movie explains, in a poetically non-explicit way, that the vaguely human-shaped mandrake root grows from semen that is expelled, along with other body fluids, by a hanged man in his death throes. Professor Jacob ten Brinken (Paul Wegener) has fixed his unbalanced mind on the idea of using mandrake from a freshly executed prisoner to inseminate a prostitute. Why? Well, because he can, and because the professor takes an unholy interest in the darkest side of eugenics. Ten Brinken’s nephew, Frank Braun (Iván Petrovich) cries, “Your attempts are a crime against nature!” and this gets about as far as you’d expect with a mad scientist.
Elegant though the movie is for its first third, matters pick up considerably once Helm appears as seventeen-year-old Alraune who is being raised in a convent school. There sits the delicate creature as she hides from her own birthday celebration, her perfectly tapered fingers extending toward a bowl of water. We see the girl’s objective: a hapless fly buzzing on the bowl’s edge. Alraune gently pushes the creature to its liquid death, and it’s now plain, if ever there was doubt, that in the nature-versus-nurture debate, this film is one hundred percent endorsing the former. Then again, is it?
Ah, Alraune, what a delinquent she becomes. A hapless youth with a crush steals from his own father to help her run away from the convent, and she abandons the kid as soon as she finds a more promising sponsor in the form of a magician from a traveling circus. (A brief shot of Alraune, who has taken up the cigarette habit, blowing smoke in the face of a caged lion is one of the most delicious things in the film.) Professor ten Brinken, whom she believes to be her father, tracks her down and drags her back to his magnificent home.
For a short while, it seems as though Alraune can be tamed, into a “society lady,” and she even falls for a vicomte. But one day she discovers the truth of her conception in ten Brinken’s diary and resolves to seduce and therefore destroy her creator. It won’t be hard, since the professor’s interest in the young woman seems grotesquely sexual from the start. Wegener’s perpetually narrowed eyes are constantly trained in his not-daughter’s direction.
Daughter of Destiny gets a considerable amount of seductive power from the air of Weimar decadence that goes into overdrive when Helm hits the scene. The great Franz Planer, who left Europe in 1937 and went on to a distinguished Hollywood career, was cinematographer. Here he is equally adept with the sinister depths of ten Brinken’s mansion and the rhythms of nightclubs and roulette tables. The Berlin-on-the-brink feeling reaches its apex when Alraune begins to destroy the professor with jazz and champagne, with feather fans and heavy-lidded maquillage. The movie is based on a wildly popular 1911 novel by Hanns Heinz Ewers; Alraune was the middle entry in Ewers’s so-called Frank Braun trilogy, after The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and before Vampire. Among the liberties taken by the Galeen movie is the way it relegates Frank, Ewers’s Nietzschean hero, to little more than a plot device.
The trilogy, which is not widely available in English translation, is said to be prescient in more ways than one. It is rather spooky to look at reviews for the 1930 talkie version of Alraune (also starring Brigitte Helm), which played New York City cinemas in 1934, and see one calling it a film about a “Test-Tube Baby.” (In those days, “test-tube baby” was being used to describe infants born from artificial insemination, a technique that was in the news at the time.) More than once there is an uncomfortable foreshadowing of Nazi-era genetic myths in Daughter of Destiny. In fact, novelist Ewers was a party member for a time. But he abandoned National Socialism and the Nazis banned his works (temporarily anyway), perhaps because of the sympathetic Jewish characters in his books, perhaps because of his likely being gay. Ewers died of tuberculosis in 1943.
Director Galeen was Jewish, and at the time of Daughter of Destiny’s release he was already recognized as an important talent. Citing Galeen’s direction of The Student of Prague in 1926, the U.K. Observer said in its review of Daughter of Destiny that Galeen’s “sense of narrative is violent and uncanny—he sees legend in every stick and stone, and draws from nature and the supernatural to strengthen his theme,” adding that it bears “at every point the personal stamp of the director.” Galeen is even judged by the critic to be more of an individual talent than Howard Hawks or Allan Dwan. But by 1933, Galeen directed his last film. As the Nazis purged the film industry of Jews, he left first for Sweden, then the U.S. He died in Vermont in 1949 at sixty-eight years old.
According to film noir specialist James Ursini, Brigitte Helm made two decisions that altered the shape of her career. She turned down Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel, the role that made Marlene Dietrich a superstar. No one can regret Dietrich in that part, but Daughter of Destiny suggests that Helm’s Lola would have been well worth seeing. Helm also refused an offer to appear in the title role of The Bride of Frankenstein, which amounted to refusing a Hollywood career as well. Had she taken up that job, she might have continued acting for years. Helm herself was not Jewish, but by all accounts she loathed the Nazis in general and Adolf Hitler in particular; the Führer had a crush on La Helm that was decidedly unreciprocated.
But Helm always said that she really wanted to be a wife and mother, to keep house and cook for her children. Improbably, it seems she meant it. She married the Jewish doctor Hugo Kunheim and moved with him to Switzerland in 1935, just in time for Kunheim to avoid the worst of what awaited in Germany. They had four children. Helm died in 1996 at eighty-eight years old, having spent virtually all of her post-cinema years refusing to discuss cinema. Possessed of a beauty and charisma that made her Alraune more than memorable, Helm had other qualities in abundance that were ideal for the role—a smart and stubborn temperament, a disinclination to explain herself, and a determination to follow her own path in life.
Presented at SFSFF 2023 with live musical accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius
The 2023 SFSFF Award for commitment to the preservation and presentation of silent cinema was presented to Stefan Drössler at this screening.