Monday, 26 September 2011

The Black Cat (1934)

Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat illustrates very clearly the concerns of the horror film in the mid-1930s. Frankenstein and Freaks had reflected the raised class consciousness brought about by the Depression which had led to Roosevelt’s New Deal. However, with the clouds of war gathering in Europe following Hitler’s rise to power, film-makers, by 1934, had become increasingly concerned with the spectre of catastrophe arising, once again, from Germany.

Essentially an allegory of the dark forces at play in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire following World War 1, The Black Cat concerns the unfinished business between Austrian psychiatrist, Dr. Werdergast (Bela Lugosi), and his architect friend, Poelzig, whose Bauhaus house (an ex- fortress) is built on the corpses of a battleground and undermined by dynamite. During the war Poelzig commanded the fortress which he is accused by Werdegast of having betrayed to the Russians, causing the death of thousands of Hungarians. A naïve American couple are drawn into this vendetta scenario with the two adversaries competing for their ‘souls’. Ulmer alludes to the ‘occultism’ underlying the Third Reich in the character of Poelzig, a Satanist. The film culminates in the sadistic flaying of Karloff by Lugosi in the former’s underground torture chamber and the subsequent detonation of the dynamite that brings about a new conflagration.

Ulmer’s film clearly conveyed the message that World War 1 had not been resolved:  the forces of chaos which had started that war could easily spark another. “The slightest mistake by one of us could cause the destruction of all” Werdegast warns at one point, voicing popular opinion at the time that World War 1 had been started by ‘mistake’.

It is easy to see why Universal baulked at the film in 1934, what with Hitler drawing on the Eugenics movement to preach Aryan superiority (using the United States 1932 Eugenics conference to justify his views) and international tensions rising following Germany’s massive rearmament programme. America had invested heavily in European war debts to keep the European economy afloat as a large consumer market for American goods. In effect, American commercial interests had financed Germany’s rebuilding and close relationships between American and German businesses now became an embarrassment following the Nazi rise to power. 

In Hollywood many were alarmed by Hitler’s anti-semitism (including Curtiz whose extended family were to perish in Auschwitz). Even conservative studio heads such as Louis B. Mayer joined the Anti-Nazi League. However, Joseph Breen was sensitive to the industry’s commercial interests in Germany and Anti-Nazi films were almost impossible to make under the Production Code.

But, as Richard Maltby has remarked of the Production Code, it ‘forced Hollywood to become ambiguous’. It can be seen that the horror films of the time addressed the issue of the increasing Nazi threat allegorically. Images of sadism and the ‘torture chamber’ as featured in The Black Cat became increasingly prevalent in films of the era, featuring strongly in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and The Raven (1935), to name just two examples. The latter caused international protest at the potent image of its swinging pendulum: a literal sword of Damocles hanging over Europe...

No comments: