Genuine (Die Tragodie eines Seltsamen Hauses) 1920

Director: Robert Wiene
"See her, that's Genuine ... She was a priestess of the conquered tribe ... She is beautiful, but they have perverted her ... She has become savage and barbaric."
So you've created a cultural sensation and potentially changed the path of cinema history. What do you do next? Robert Wiene and the creative team behind 'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari' delved deeper into the irrational with this hallucinatory nightmare of a feral femme fatale held captive by an eccentric recluse. Please join me for a light supper of amanita muscaria and incense fumes, and let's see if they don't bring on the bad dreams...

Since completing a portrait of a legendary high priestess named Genuine, the artist Percy has become irritable and withdrawn. He has lost interest in painting, shunning the company of his friends and preferring to spend his time alone with the portrait in his study. After turning down a wealthy patron's offer to buy the picture, Percy falls asleep while reading stories of Genuine's life. Genuine climbs down from her picture frame and creeps stealthily towards him...

Genuine is purchased at a slave market by an old eccentric named Lord Melo. He learns that she had been sold into slavery when her people were conquered by a rival tribe. Melo locks her in an opulent chamber beneath his house, though she begs to be set free. "Up there is life and all its ugliness", he tells her, "Here alone shall you smile. Here alone shall you be completely happy."

Melo (Ernst Gronau) instructs Florian (Hans Heinrich
von Twardovski)  on the finer points of male grooming
Guyard the barber attends Lord Melo each day at noon. One day, he sends his newly-apprenticed young nephew Florian in his place; meanwhile, Genuine has broken out of her underground prison, climbing the immense staircase to find Florian shaving the sleeping Lord Melo. She bewitches him into slitting Melo's throat with a straight razor. Florian falls under Genuine's spell, but when she later demands that he prove his love for her by taking his own life, he cannot go through with it and is forced to make his escape.

In the meantime, Melo's grandson Percy has arrived at the house. He too becomes infatuated with Genuine, quickly forgetting any questions he has about his grandfather's sudden death. Although Genuine loves Percy in return, their romance is destined to be short-lived. Guyard, stirred up by Florian's tales of murder and witchcraft, is arming a mob with scythes and bludgeons to storm Melo's house. Florian, still infatuated with Genuine, secretly makes his own way inside, determined that he shall have her, or else no-one will...

The critics hated Genuine when it was first released and they don't like it much better now. Two of the most acclaimed studies of post-Caligari German cinema, Seigfried Kracauer's From Caligari To Hitler and Lotte Eisner's The Haunted Screen, are dismissive of Genuine's merits, and one word that crops up repeatedly in discussions of the film is "failure". So what went wrong, and is the criticism justified?

Part of the problem seems to be the high expectations everyone had for the crew at Decla-Film in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari's wake. When critics began using the word Caligarisme to describe the new style of film-making they anticipated, director Wiene and producer Erich Pommer had little choice but to offer them more of the same. The inevitable comparisons would be fine, except that Caligari was inescapably unique, the product of a happy serendipity that made it more than the sum of its parts. With hindsight, it looks as though Genuine's creators were trying to replicate a formula that they didn't fully understand, hoping in vain that lightning would strike twice.

Genuine (Fern Andra), imprisoned
Caligari's use of a framing story is repeated here, presumably with the similar intention of rationalising the bizarre content of the main narrative. The characters who visit Percy's apartment play corresponding roles, Wizard of Oz-like, in his nightmare. The patron who covets his painting becomes Genuine's captor Lord Melo; his friend Florian (who, with his ornate Flock Of Seagulls haircut, is precisely 62 years ahead of his time), a helpless slave of Genuine's fatal charm. Percy casts his dream-self as the high priestess's lover, a figure more peripheral to the main plot than you might expect.

Genuine, to be sure, is not a love story. Although most of the prints in circulation now carry the qualifier "A Tale of a Vampire", this is a misnomer except in the Theda Bara sense of the word. A 'vamp' Genuine may be, but a nocturnal bloodsucker she isn't. The original sub-title, "The Tragedy of a Strange House", is a clearer description of what Carl Mayer's scenario is all about. The house, a riot of disorienting angles and weirdly hypnotic patterns, is a nightmare world in microcosm, in which characters act out odd rituals of domination and submission that all weave together but never quite resolve themselves. Mayer, a writer who, it has been pointed out, never wrote a thing that didn't end up on a cinema screen, had a knack for thinking visually. His scenario, loaded with potent symbols (sacrificial bloodletting, vast staircases ascending from a subterranean prison), is the glue that holds everything in place.

But only just. The critics' beef with Genuine was that it lacked coherency, a problem that's especially apparent in the 44-minute cut available today. And Robert Wiene's part in all this seems difficult to pin down when so many elements in the film seem to be working against each other. The sets, by Cesar Klein, are profoundly strange, but often threaten to swamp the actors; Lotte Eisner calls them "muddled and overloaded". The cast hovers between the exaggerated gestures that are appropriate to expressionist films of this type and a more naturalistic style, with the result that sometimes they come across as caricatures (Twardovski in particular, with his constant expression of wounded surprise), and sometimes they just disappear into the scenery.

Fern Andra in repose
Leading lady Fern Andra bore the brunt of the criticism in 1920, for an acting style seen as 'archaic'. Andra, born Vernal Andrews in Watseka, Illinois, was one of those movie stars whose life was far more interesting than her film career. Accused of being an American spy in Germany during WW1, she married a German nobleman, and though he died near the end of WW1, she referred to herself as a Baroness for the rest of her life. Two marriages later, around the beginning of WW2, the Americans accused her of being a German spy when rumours began to circulate that she'd once been Josef Goebbels' mistress. Andra admittedly is not the most gifted of actresses, but she has the conviction that is needed for playing a larger-than-life archetype like Genuine, and wears a succession of Cesar Klein's outrageous skin-tight costumes like a born natural.

The full, 88-minute version of the film fleshes out scenes that seem confusing in the edited version. Its pace is a little slow, but what is usually seen as a weakness becomes an asset with the benefit of hindsight: Genuine's strength is its oddness. Its incoherency gives the story the murky, bad-dream quality that it aims for. Events often progress slowly, more often they seem to defy logic. But then, that's what bad dreams do.

If a dapper top-hatted old man buying a Caucasian priestess from an Arab slave market seems incongruous, it's because the story belongs to no definable time or place. Even the form and function of the house itself is difficult to pin down; it changes its aspect in different shots, exterior and interior, sometimes large as a mansion, sometimes small and cramped. The underground chamber in which Genuine is imprisoned seems impossibly big, and looks like a madman's idea of a jungle. Melo's servant (referred to as 'the Malay' by most sources) is apparently kept servile by means of a ring Melo wears, whose origins are never explained. And on and on.

Ninety years after Genuine, we've seen the likes of Jean Cocteau, Terry Gilliam or David Lynch invent self-contained worlds that don't follow the rules of our own; Genuine, whether by accident or by design, does the same. Robert Wiene and Carl Mayer failed to establish Caligarisme, but in trying they made a film that's not quite like any other, and for that it's worth your attention.

End Credits:
Fern Andra (Genuine), Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (Florian), Harald Paulsen (Percy), Ernst Gronau (Lord Melo), John Gottowt (Guyard), Albert Bennefeld (Curzon), Lewis Brody (The Malay).
Screenplay: Carl Mayer, Photography: Willy Hameister, Production Design: Cesar Klein (costumes), Bernhard Klein, Kurt Hermann Rosenberg, Producer: Erich Pommer.
Decla-Bioscop, Germany
Running Time 88 mins.

The 44-minute version is included on The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Kino Video)


  1. I agree that GENUINE has a strange, mesmerizing quality to it that fascinates me. After seeing the 88-minute version, I like the film all the more. If the Germans ever get around to releasing CALIGARI, they should definitely include GENUINE as well.

    1. Thanks for calling by, Roger. It's kind of a shame that the longer (and even stranger) version is so hard to come by. I love it! I even love the poster. Who do we write to, to get it restored and released on an official DVD?