Uncanny Tales (Unheimliche Geschichten) 1919

Director: Richard Oswald
“If it is totally silent we can summon the spirits... Are you afraid?”
Conrad Veidt stars in a rarely-seen, tongue-in-cheek anthology of five macabre tales. Death, the Devil and the Harlot come to life in an empty bookshop, to read of mysterious disappearances, fiendish traps and murder most foul...

An antiquarian bookseller closes his shop for the night. On the walls hang portraits of Death, the Devil and a Harlot, which come to life and roam around the empty shop, amusing themselves by reading macabre tales from the bookseller’s dusty shelves…
The Apparition
A stranger rescues a young woman when her former husband attacks her. She explains that he is insane and refuses to leave her alone even though they are divorced. The stranger escorts her to a hotel, where they stay in separate rooms. After a night out with his friends, he pays the woman a visit, only to find her room, number 117, empty and in disarray. He later questions the desk staff, who deny the room was ever occupied…
The Hand
Two men are rivals for one woman’s affections, and they decide who shall win her by a throw of dice. The enraged loser strangles his rival to death, but the dead man’s hand tightens its grip on him... Years pass before the Murderer next meets the woman; she invites him to see her debut performance as a dancer.  As the Murderer watches, a ghostly hand clutches at the stage curtain…but worse is to come when the woman invites him to join a séance…
The Black Cat
A traveller makes the acquaintance of a drunkard and his pretty but long-suffering wife. He is invited to their home, but is caught flirting with the drunkard’s wife and made to leave. When the jealous drunkard then threatens to harm his wife’s beloved cat, a struggle ensues and the wife is accidentally killed. He attempts to hide his crime by walling up her corpse in the cellar, but the suspicious traveller soon returns…
The Suicide Club
A curious stranger searching a supposedly deserted property discovers the inner sanctum of the ‘Suicide Club’, where any member unfortunate enough to draw the ace of spades from a deck of cards is bound by the club’s rules to take his own life. Despite pleas from the sister of the sinister club President, the newcomer joins the club, drinking a toast to a recently departed member…and drawing the ace of spades on his very first night…
The Spook
In the 18th century, the bored wife of a caring but inattentive Baron takes in a travelling nobleman who has been injured nearby in a coach accident. Noting the developing attraction between his wife and the stranger, the Baron finds an excuse to leave his castle. Alone with the Baron's wife, the nobleman finds his mettle tested by a series of disturbances apparently supernatural in origin...

Even in the early days, Germany took its horror films seriously. The Germans were always secure enough to serve their chills straight without the need for a get-out clause (“…it was all just a dream!”) to explain away their supernatural happenings. Which is why we need to put a film like Tales of the Uncanny in its proper context. Viewed among sophisticated chillers about doppelgängers and Golems, audiences would have a different appreciation of a film whose sole purpose is to sneak up behind us and say “Boo!”

Death, the Harlot and the Devil
Before the framing sequence in the bookshop begins, we are shown our director Richard Oswald and his two male stars (Anita Berber is conspicuously absent) in a chummy embrace, a kind of acknowledgement of the unreality of what follows. When we next see Conrad Veidt and Reinhold Schünzel, they are in character as a grimly boggle-eyed Death and a rotund, Lugosi-like Devil with a widow’s peak, cavorting with Berber the Harlot among the piles of musty books. But as the audience already knows that none of this is to be taken seriously, we can all sit back and enjoy the fun.

Horror, as represented by Uncanny Tales, was only one of many genres that director Richard Oswald dabbled in. He made his name during a brief period after the First World War when the new Weimar Republic forbade censorship of all kinds. This loophole offered him the freedom to produce a series of films dealing with previously taboo subjects like prostitution, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases.

His perhaps most notorious film was Anders Als die Andern (Different From the Others, 1919) a sympathetic study of homosexuality starring Veidt as a gay violinist threatened by a blackmailer. The film, possibly the first to deal with the subject, was a criticism of the ‘Paragraph 175’ law, which made homosexuality a criminal offence. The scandal provoked by Anders Als die Anderen contributed to the re-introduction of film censorship in the May 1920 ‘Cinema Act’. The film was banned and most copies destroyed.

'The Apparition': Conrad Veidt in room 117
In Uncanny Tales, the first story is by far the creepiest. There’s the scene where a nervy Veidt calls on his companion in the middle of the night, only to find her room unoccupied and in tatters; the giggling, manic Schünzel as the psychotic ex-husband; and the final, rational explanation that offers no comfort at all. Disparate elements that strike a queasily discordant note, one that the next three stories sadly can’t quite match up to.

Even so, the mood is maintained as well as you would expect. Squeezing five stories into less than a hundred minutes means that the pace never flags, and though the characters are sketchy at best, the three leads apply the sort of broad strokes that a film like this needs. The toweringly talented Conrad Veidt applies subtlety and overstatement as appropriate, coming over best as the dryly malevolent president of the Suicide Club. Round-faced Reinhold Schünzel makes a meal of his contributions, most often as a comically exaggerated foil to the more sober Veidt.

As the third-billed player, Anita Berber is somewhat under-used, her roles often amounting to little more than plot devices. Off-screen, Berber was a cabaret dancer and bisexual cocaine fiend who thrived on notoriety. She delighted in attending society functions with pet monkey and lesbian lover in tow, naked except for a fur coat. Her prim and proper on-screen Harlot pales beside the real-life exploits of a woman who produced a show in 1922 titled “Dances of Depravity, Horror and Ecstasy”, and who would die of tuberculosis aged only 29.

Berber is given the most screen time as the bored wife in Uncanny Tales final story, Richard Oswald's ‘The Spook’. This reassuringly non-supernatural finale restates the film's position as provider of a few harmless shudders, before returning to the three figures in the bookshop (who, of course, have found all of the preceding tales hilarious). The comedic element of the film was played up by Oswald in his 1932 remake, starring Paul Wegener. In this version, the stories are combined into a single narrative which serves not only as a black comedy, but as a parody of the Expressionist horrors of the preceding decade. Critics testify to the film's quality, even if Oswald might insist he was only kidding.

End Credits:
Conrad Veidt (Death / The Stranger / The Assassin / The Traveller / Club President / The Baron), Anita Berber (The Harlot / Woman / Girlfriend / The Drunkard’s Wife / The President’s Sister / Baron’s Wife), Reinhold Schünzel (The Devil / Former Husband / Murderer / Drunk / Artur Silas / Travelling Baron), Hugo Döblin, Paul Morgan, Georg John.
Screenplay: Richard Oswald, based on the stories ‘The Apparition’ (Anselma Heine), ‘The Hand’ (Robert Leibmann), ‘The Black Cat’ (Edgar Allen Poe), ‘The Suicide Club’ (Robert Louis Stevenson), and ‘The Spook’ (Richard Oswald), Cinematography: Karl Hoffmann, Set Design: Julius Hahle, Producer: Richard Oswald.
(Alternate titles; 'Eerie Tales'‘Tales of Horror’, ‘Five Sinister Stories’, ‘Weird Tales’)
Richard Oswald Produktion 1919
Running time 97 mins.

No commercial release. Contact the spirits through Ebay, or you might find a copy here.


  1. I´m a big fan of Conrad Veidt!

    This is a weird and beautiful masterpiece!

  2. Thanks Ludin, you are a man of excellent taste. Conrad Veidt is a legend in his own time!