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Monday, February 20, 2012


A shadowy old ancestor, of sorts, to the Frankenstein film saga, is a six part series produced in German in 1916. The six hour-long films were semi-complete stories unto themselves, but together told the larger story of the life of "Homunculus": an artificial human. The films don't claim to be inspired by Shelley's novel, but bear many similarities. The lonely, tormented and ruthless "monster" shares an ethos with both the Frankenstein monster, as Universal spun him, and the later mad scientist Frankensteins. As such, it seemed worthy to include Homunculus in this study. This is a review of the 74 minute compilation of fragments from the six films.

Quick Plot Synopsis Professor Ortman declares that artificial life is impossible. A colleague, Dr. Hansen, disagrees and says he will succeed. In Hansen's lab, he brews up chemicals and uses a special chamber. Eventually, he succeeds! His assistant, Roden, pulls a baby boy from the chamber. Named Homuculus (latin for "little human"), Hansen is thrilled, but called away to a conference. He entrusts the care of Homuculus with Rodin. At the Ortman house, however, all is sadness, as Ortman's baby boy dies of some illness. Ortman conceives to switch the babies. Rodin and the returning Hansen are distraught that the artificial life experiment failed. The Ortman house is happy that their baby recovered. (Fast Forward) Young Homunculus is troubled in college. His friends talk of love, but cannot feel love. (This, since he was the product of cold science, and not the result of a loving union, btw). He learns of his true identity. He hates Hansen for making him. Hansen's daughter loves Homunculus, but he is unable to feel much beyond hate. He leaves. During his travels, he adopts a stray dog, feeling pity (if not love). They meet pretty Elonore, princess who takes a liking to Homunculus. Elonore's father, a vaguely arabic prince) is dying of some illness. Homunculus enters and heals him by his superior will power alone. The crowd is happy, then terrified of this new sorcerer. They become the stereotypic mob with torches. Homunculus, Elonore, Roden (who searched for Homunculus) and the dog are hiding in a ruined castle. The mob smokes them out, but kill the dog (thrown stone). Homunculus grieves and buries his dog, and vows revenge on humanity. Homunculus and Roden develop a chemical fire weapon to extract his revenge. But first, he still wants to feel love. He seduces a young woman (Anna) in hopes of finding love. She is devoted to him, to the point of abandoning her aged parents. He reveals his true (artificial) nature to her. She cannot accept this, and leaves. Homunculus renews his vow of revenge. Homunculus rises to the CEO-ship of a vague mega-corporation. As CEO, he makes his company neglect the poor workers. Homunculus disguises himself as a poor worker, and incites the disgruntled workers to storm the company. Through all this, a poor (but pretty) working girl named Xenia falls in love with him. Again as CEO, Homunculus returns and uses his fire weapon on the crowd. Despite all this, Xenia still loves him. He leaves, but she follows devotedly, even though she knows he is the much feared Homunculus. He sends her away. She hears the workers plotting. They mob to get Homunculus. Xenia warns him. He escapes. Years pass. A gray-haired Homunculus somberly burns his beloved journal -- all his thoughts. He rages at heaven. Death comes for him. (man in skull mask). Homunculus rages on a mountain top about being without love. Lighting strikes. Homunculus is killed. The end.

Sci-fi Connections
The artificial human is created, not by surgery as in Shelley (and Whale's) version, but by chemistry -- alchemy. In this, Robert Reinert's Homunculus is similar to the monster in Edison's silent film of 1910. Homunculus is a ruthless product of "cold" science. In this sense, he is a metaphor for science in the same way that Godzilla was a metaphor for atomic war. Science has no love. Science can create super-weapons. This part seems especially fitting, as the movie was made and shown at the mid-way point in World War One, where gas, machine guns, airplanes and tanks were all new technology which made killing a wholesale exercise.

Saga Connection
Homunculus predates James Whale's 1931 story that began the saga. It was not seen much outside of Europe, so probably had little direct influence. Nonetheless, the similarities are interesting. Dr. Hansen and Dr. Frankenstein are both idealistic scientists who mean well for mankind. Their creations are both shunned and despised by the world. Both films feature angry mobs of villagers with torches out to get the creation. Both creations just want some human warmth and acceptance. Both rage in response to mankind's rejection.

Real Roots of Frankenstein? -- Mary and Percy Shelley traveled along the Rhine in 1814 en route back to England. It was there that she passed the actual Castle Frankenstein. She wrote the story two years later. Her journal does not mention any details, but she must have chatted with the locals a bit. Consider the man Johann Konrad Dippel. He was born IN Castle Frankenstein in 1673. He studied philosophy, theology and alchemy. He was a charismatic man, and a bit of an argumentative hothead. He became a medical doctor. He was said to have been accused of grave robbing and working on cadavers. He IS on record for inventing "Dippel's Oil", a compound made from animal bones (which would necessitate cutting up animals). Dippel fancied his oil to be an "Elixir of Life". Granted, Mary Shelley does not cite any of this in her journals, so the connection is conjectural, but still, the parallels are too close to be completely unconnected. Castle Frankenstein, an outcast doctor who is rumored to rob graves and work on cadavers, who thinks he has the secret of life? Coincidence? On a film note, Dippel's alchemy interest -- that human life could be prolonged via alchemy -- meshes neatly with Edison's Frankenstein and Reinert's Homunculus.

Before Star Wars -- Before Spielberg gave the movie world the multi-movie saga format, there was Homunculus. It ran as six one-hour installments. It was not like the shorter style serials with cliff-hanger endings, but each hour a complete story. The next film built upon the first, but had it's own plot. The six chapters were:
Part I: The Birth of the Homunculus (the poster shown above)
Part II: The Mysterious Book of the Homunculus
Part III: The Love Tragedy of the Homunculus
Part IV: The Revenge of the Homunculus
Part V: The Destruction of Mankind
Part VI: The End of the Homunculus

Lost Episode -- Fragments of the six films survived, with more of the first two chapters and less of the others. These were assembled into a single film which tried to follow the overall story line of the six originals. The result is imperfect, but better than nothing. Apparently very little, if any, from Part 5 survived. Neither has the first half of Part 6. There is no inclusion of the second created homunculus and their climactic battle from Part 6.

Watch For Yourself! -- The composite film is available to watch online at Eastmanhouse.org. . There are many films available from their collection. Not all of them are old silent ones, but down in the pack you will find Homunculus. This is an Italian copy, so the intertitles are in italian, unfortunately. But, with a pause button, an online translator, and a bit of linguistic skill, you can make out what's going on.

Bottom line? Homunculus is an obscure film relic, but an interesting fragment of the Frankenstein trope. Here, the "monster" is curiously attractive to women, but feared by mankind generally. As a long-lost relation to the saga, it's worth checking out. If you do, keep in mind that silent film acting in the early days was mostly pantomime an exaggeration so the folks in the balcony can tell what's happening. It's not modern acting with subtle raises of eyebrows or hints of smiles about the corner of the mouth.

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