This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series

Movie Review – Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire (1920)

In February of 1920 German director Robert Wiene released the groundbreaking horror classic and German Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a transformative milestone in cinema. Later that year he released another work of Expressionist horror, Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire, to much less success. In fact, contemporary critics considered the film a failure (fortunately, his 1924 The Hands of Orlac would reestablish his reputation as a horror master).

Genuine is the titular “vampire” – which at the time was a reference to her status as a femme-fatale. Vampires in film were not generally associated with blood-suckers until F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), but were instead seen as beautiful, manipulative women (“vamps”). Genuine, the former priestess of a conquered tribe who is sold into slavery, seduces men and drives them to madness, pushing them to commit heinous acts.

What is available to the public today is a 44-minute condensed version, only half of the film’s original length. The longer version can only be viewed at the time of this writing at the Munich City Film Museum archives. This trimming could of course account for the many confusing aspects of the narrative, which is brimming with plot holes. However, other aspects of the film, having nothing to do with editing, weigh it down like a wet blanket, and inevitable comparisons to Caligari only serve to accentuate its overall inferiority.

Whereas the sets of Caligari evoked a dream-like world with skewed perspectives and sharp angles, the sets designed by Expressionist painter César Klein, while interesting in many respects, are too busy and cluttered. The fact that the costumes often appear designed to blend in with the background, which was in part keeping with Expressionist cinema by matching the wardrobe to the sets, creates a combination which is ultimately an eyesore.

Genuine the Vampire still

The writing and acting are equally broad and melodramatic. Genuine’s presence, with costumes as busy as the sets, is more irritating than compelling. She is played by the American actress Fern Andra, who was popular during the German silent era. Interestingly, in 1922 Andra would be in a plane crash with German WWI ace pilot Lothar von Richthofen, the younger brother of the Red Baron. Richthofen would perish but Andra would survive, spending a year recovering from her injuries.

The role of Florian, one of Genuine’s conquests and her ultimate nemesis, is played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski. He was a homosexual who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and went on to star in prominent anti-Nazi films in America throughout WWII, including the creature-feature-sounding Hitler – Beast of Berlin (1939).

Greater appreciation of Genuine has not been forthcoming in the near century since its release, and the condensed version does nothing to whet one’s appetite for the original installment. Unlike Wiene’s two other horror classics, there’s nothing to recommend this film to modern audiences.

Grade: D