Bright Lights Film Journal

Hope and History: Beyond Violence

By means of horror?

In the immediate aftermath of watching Edgar G Ulmer’s The Black Cat I found myself pacing the kitchen muttering “Wow!” over and over. I also felt a suitably eldritch urge to copy Bela Lugosi’s character, psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who, when the cat appears, tends to fall back in a heap. Despite vague references to “ancient evil,” his aversion to felines is never fully explained — a key to the success of any horror story.

The cat itself belongs to Werdegast’s arch rival Hjalmar Poelzig, the eccentrically dressed and coiffed Bauhaus architect played by Boris Karloff. Meanwhile, Werdegast’s first reaction is, as far as we can tell, to a shadow, though he does throw a knife at it. There’s an animal scream, so maybe the creature is dead. A fragment of dialogue from a drug-fazed young woman seems to confirm this. Yet on two subsequent occasions Poelzig’s cat appears alive and well again in a way that might have intrigued Erwin Schroedinger. (Oddly enough, his famous thought experiment appeared within a year of the film’s release.)

Leaving aside nuclear physics, we can read Lugosi’s strange loss of balance as a symptom of the suppressed hatred the two men feel for each other. But, even while we invoke Freud, we also see Werdegast’s wobbliness is a jab at Mad Psychiatrists — another example of cold-blooded Modernism, albeit relating more to “the human mind” than building design.

I thought I knew Ulmer’s range and was ready for a gripping but essentially lightweight movie. I should have known better, having come to the film as a result of a fine write-up in The Philosophy of Horror (University Press of Kentucky, 2010, Ed. Thomas Fahy). The essay in question is Paul A. Cantor’s “The Fall of the House of Ulmer: Europe vs America in the Gothic Vision of The Black Cat.”

My excuse for not expecting too much of the film was having already seen Lugosi and Karloff in a not very scary1935 production of The Raven from Lew Landers. This was the second of seven outings together; and, cashing in on The Black Cat from the year before, it has little in common with its more frightening forerunner: apart from an “irresistible” pairing of the leads, both films play for around an hour; and — tenuously even by early Hollywood standards — both are “suggested” by the works of the “immortal” Edgar Allan Poe.

Taking Cantor’s last point first: “Ulmer’s project [created] a very European movie to argue for the cultural independence of America. Fortunately for him and us, this self-defeating quest resulted in a horror movie masterpiece, an unusually thoughtful product of pop culture that philosophically reflects on the relation of pop culture to high culture.”

The film’s deceptive simplicity makes it easy to guess that Werdegast and Poelzig are “Europe” — or at least its embittered remnants after 1914-1918. Karloff, for example, jeeringly asks Lugosi: Are we not the living dead? And, except for a deep stare, Lugosi has no answer. Here and elsewhere, Ulmer’s use of the silent response is one of the film’s more unexpectedly impressive tricks, most directors still fulfilling a post-silent era “need” for constant dialogue. By comparison, an almost unbroken classical music soundtrack could irritate modern ears; but even here there’s method in the madness.

“America,” meanwhile, is represented by honeymooning newlyweds Peter and Joan, who — though mired in ever more threatening circumstances — somehow fight off all attacks on their innate optimism. At first, they’re willed on by us, though, in accordance with the gender ascriptions of the age, more active signs of heartiness are shown by mild-mannered writer of mysteries Peter. But before long, mere pointed dialogue about the dead of World War I gives way to visible hints of necrophilia and Satanism. Then we start feeling rather uneasy about the bland (blind?) easygoingness of Peter and Joan. Cantor and others have noticed this; and I thought of Gore Vidal’s aside about the “United States of Amnesia.” On the other hand — encouraged by Karloff’s deeply convincing albeit sinister air of refinement — something here also evoked John Donne: “Oh My America, my Newfoundland/My kingdom, safest when with one man mann’d.”

Tortuous erotic allusions famously occupy much of early Donne and, not much less tortuously, early Ulmer. In easily the most erotic moment of the film, Ulmer shows a low back view of Poelzig clutching possessively at the arm of a nude female art deco statuette. He’s facing and partially obscuring an innocent embrace between Peter and Joan, and, though we don’t see his facial expression, lustful envy couldn’t be more powerfully conveyed.

Paradoxically, the success of scenes like this can be explained by the new mood of censorship in the American film industry: The Black Cat was released in May, just before new-broom enforcer of the Hays Code Joseph Breen took over in June. One can’t say exactly how this affected the final cut; but it’s clear that Ulmer — like other astute filmmakers at the time — used as much daring suggestion as he could to preserve what was, in more graphic scenes, “lost.”

Whatever the moral mood music of his adopted country, Ulmer — more as anti-Nazi exile than admirer of American Gothic — leads us ever deeper into an extraordinary deconstruction of both 1930s geopolitics and the dark side of sexual relationships. Brutal repetitions of history aren’t confined to the sickening Iliad-like nature of war but, in this film, take us into the “dark of the moon”: a place where rebellious erotic feelings result in equally unstoppable, ritual bloodshed. From Donne, we plunge briefly back to Socrates, whose Phaedrus suggests this ex-soldier knew not just about actual warfare, but also about the soul’s struggle between controlled and uncontrolled desire.

The “dark of the moon” in Ulmer’s scenario is staggeringly freighted with “historically justified” vengeful passions: those aimed not just at defeat of the enemy but at exerting absolute control over the Other. And this involves not just sleeping with your enemy’s womenfolk, not just killing the women and moving on to new victims, but preserving their dead bodies for all time in a state of changeless, youthful beauty. The embalmed female bodies hanging on the walls are more than “trophies’: they suggest a complete atrophy of moral sensibility made, if possible, more ghastly when accompanied, as here, by suggestions of cultural delicacy.

Ulmer’s imagination, however, doesn’t fail to spot the problems we — i.e., Americans — face when acting to intervene in complicated “ancient” struggles. Smuggled not too subtly into the rapid events of the climax is Ulmer’s heartfelt sympathy for the rescuer, the hero, the moral policeman — the good American who can find, in the heat of the struggle, that he has not only saved Beauty from the ravages of the Beast: he ends up killing someone — someone capable of flaying his own enemies alive, but at the same time capable of risking his life for Peter and Joan — for America, for us. This is Werdegast, skinning the living hide off Poelzig, pausing only to help Joan escape Poelzig’s weird Bauhaus/fortress-home before, as the good doctor always intended, blowing himself and the whole place sky high. Peter, meanwhile, has manfully worked his way past some highly-engineered dungeon doors only to shoot his wife’s rescuer. It’s a mortal wound, but there’s no time for remorse as, just in time, he whisks Joan out of harm’s way.

Tempting though it is, I’m not going to elaborate here on the film’s “relevance” to the ongoing intervention in Syria, or conclude that, at last, the lessons of the Iraq War are finally being learnt. As a final thought, I’ll merely emphasize the giddy mix of archetypes and moral forces that Edgar Georg Ulmer has somehow shaped into an open-ended, paradoxically optimistic, highly accessible artistic whole, creating something between an I Ching reading and Macbeth.

“Accessible and optimistic”? Doesn’t all light and shade here flicker from Lucifer’s hell? Or, more prosaically, from the eye of an ex-assistant to Murnau and Lang? Perhaps; but what I found in Ulmer’s Black Cat was “hope and history” at least starting to “rhyme.” The quote is from Seamus Heaney; and — with famous Seamus himself reading — a video clip was much played by the media here at the time of his death. Classicists might know that the words are taken from The Cure at Troy, an adaptation of Sophocles who, mistakenly or otherwise — and unlike the modern Irish poet — is not well known for accessibility or underlying optimism. The complete stanza runs thus:

History says, Don’t hope/On this side of the grave,/
But then, once in a lifetime/The longed-for tidal wave/
Of justice can rise up/And hope and history rhyme.