In 1920, Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss costarred in German Expressionism’s film clef, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Its stylized, distorted sets and sinister plot twists summed up for many the postwar dread after the German defeat in World War I. The Weimar Republic that administered a tenuous democracy between 1919 and 1933 had to contend with serious shortages: seven hundred thousand Germans died of hunger in the postwar period, with hyperinflation between 1921 and 1923 rendering their currency nearly worthless. A misery both psychological and actual permeated this hectic period that has been characterized as “dancing on the lip of a volcano.”
However, many Weimar-era films were not Expressionist in style at all. Just a few months before Caligari, Veidt and Krauss played supporting roles in the big-budget melodrama Opium. Its acting was more florid than stylized. Its sets, rather than modernistic, hark back to the German romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries, with its veneration of nature and fascination with exotic lands. Its remarkable deep-focus cinematography floods the frame with character, action, and atmosphere. Made after the censorship board had been abolished at the end of the war, it features not only scenes of drug-induced debauchery and (implied) adultery, but also bucolic interludes with bare-breasted nymphs.
Opium’s Professor Gesellius (Eduard von Winterstein) has been studying the narcotic’s effects in China and makes the quixotic decision to sample the drug himself on the eve of returning home to England. The evil Nung-Tschang (Werner Krauss) lures him with the pipe: “Smoke! You will experience no pain, no hunger, no boredom, no despair!”—a particularly appealing temptation to its postwar audience. In short order, Gesellius rescues a young girl, piquantly named Sin (Sybill Morel) from Nung-Tschang’s clutches. He takes her home where he is in charge of a sanitarium for recovering opium addicts. His wife (Hanna Ralph, as expressive as any Italian diva) is suspicious of the young girl, whom Gesellius employs as a nurse. But her own actions during Gesellius’s absence—an affair of the heart with his tall, handsome young assistant Dr. Richard Armstrong Jr. (Conrad Veidt)—were not entirely pure.
Shot in Berlin and Munich, Opium presents a romanticized, Germanic version of China, India, and even of England. The story begins in an imaginative, exotic China, a crowded marketplace populated with dozens of vendors and buyers haggling over silks and trinkets. The China sets include a rock-walled rose garden hung about with paper lanterns, a pagoda-topped palanquin, and the sinister opium den of Nung-Tschang. It’s opulently decorated with embroidered hangings, furnished with carved teak furniture, and populated by beautiful women twirling parasols in incense-scented air billowing from huge bronze censers. Even Professor Gesellius’s laboratory is decorated with Chinese wood carvings, and he’s attended by his mysterious turbaned Indian servant (Alexander Delbosq). Unexpectedly, the first opium stupor that Gesellius experiences here is not tinted and toned in garish or exotic colors, but is rather sweetly bucolic, taking place in a pastel-hued lakeside where nymphs with flowered wreaths entwined in their hair frolic with handsome satyrs. The den itself is more feverish than the dream.
Even more exotic and lavish is India, where Gesellius escapes complications at home by accepting a convenient government grant to study opium usage there. The first shot of India features five elephants parading through a huge ceremonial archway, followed by dozens of horses racing through elaborate sets of city streets, it seems, just for the hell of it.
The Indian opium den is brighter and more open than the Chinese one, with dancing girls in harem outfits. Gesellius is still sampling the drug he condemns, and his drugged dreams are still pastoral and rather pre-Raphaelite, though with a greater role for the devilish Pan figures, now riding goats. The English settings, by contrast, are expansive, and while much less cluttered than the Eastern scenes, no less impressive. Nature is continually glimpsed through the house’s large windows. Clean white furniture decorates the sanitarium, set against a huge lake surrounded by trees, without another building in sight. In nature (as well as drugs) one can find oblivion, a title tells us.
The photography in Opium is the work of Reinert’s frequent collaborator Helmar Lerski, who creates masterpieces of deep focus that were highly unusual for the time. Over and over, shots reveal foreground, middle ground, and background long before Orson Welles and Greg Toland, who are often credited with pioneering deep focus. A justly famed shot shows Gesellius speaking to an enormous university class from a lectern where he places a glass of water: the water stays in focus, as does Gesellius and his audience. The idyllic beauty of the English lake setting is a backdrop to the writhing patients and their ministering nurses at the sanitarium. The densely-populated Indian orgies are remarkable for their clarity, juxtaposed with gauzy narcotized hallucinations superimposed with Gesellius’s Freudian fears. But for Lerski, finally, depth and crispness was all.
Krauss and Veidt acted in fifteen movies together in the silent era. Several are considered lost, including Richard Oswald’s The Diary of a Lost Woman, made the year before. After all those years working together, their lives took entirely different paths. Conrad Veidt tried his luck in Hollywood in the late 1920s, where he created the memorable title character in Tod Browning’s The Man Who Laughs. When talkies came in his German accent sent him back home where he starred in more than a dozen films until the Nazis took control of the country, and increasingly the film industry. Veidt, in the company of his new Jewish wife, then left again for good. He appeared in three films in England for Michael Powell then spent the rest of his career in Los Angeles, making his most lasting mark as Major Strasser in 1942’s Casablanca. A principled anti-Nazi, Veidt knew his accent and features would typecast him as German in Hollywood, so he inserted a clause in his contract that all such roles be villains. As for Werner Krauss, he remained in Germany and became a dedicated supporter of the Nazi regime, earning the title Staatsschauspieler, or State Actor, in 1934. When the war ended, he was only allowed to resume his stage and film career after passing through a de-Nazification process.
Opium’s director, the prolific Robert Reinert, is hardly known today. He directed more than thirty films between 1915 and 1925, yet he was, in the words of film archivist and historian Jon-Christopher Horak, “forgotten before his time.” Horak points out that most of Reinert’s movies were directed before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and he was therefore left out of two seminal texts on Weimar-era cinema, written by Lotte Eisner and Siegfried Kracauer, respectively. After early success as a novelist, Reinert worked with Pandora’s Box playwright Frank Wedekind in cabaret. In 1915, he began writing scripts, making his name the following year with the enormously successful six-part film series Homunculus, which Horak says reveals Reinert’s penchant for “‘big themes’ and metaphorical content.” He was subsequently named artistic director of Deutsche-Bioscop, where he supervised the production of twenty films in 1917 and 1918 alone, none of which survive. His own Nerven, also from 1919, comes down to us in only an incomplete version. A big-budget project made at Reinert’s own production company (Monumental), Nerven took him eighteen months to shoot and then failed at the box office. After Opium, he directed only three other titles, an ambitious and badly-received two-part recounting of the rise and fall of Western civilization, Sterbende Volker (1922), which no longer exists, and The Last Four Seconds of Quidam Uhl (1924), also lost. Reinert became a writer and producer at UFA in 1925, but Horak says his reputation as “an extravagant film budget buster” prevented him from directing again. He died in 1928, only fifty-six years old.
But he should be warmly remembered for the delirious Opium alone, something of an object lesson for us now, in a chaotic and dispiriting time when too many are again seeking refuge in opiate-induced oblivion.
Presented at SFSFF 2019 with live music by Guenter Buchwald