Hans Werckmeister, “Algol, Tragedy of Power / Algol, Tragödie der Macht” (1920)
A wonderful science fiction movie from the era of German Expressionist classics like “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari”, as its title implies, “Algol …” is a parable of how power can corrupt human beings and human society. The film can be seen as a variation on the German classic legend of Faust and his bargain with Mephistopheles. Spanning several decades, the film’s story begins with Robert Herne (Emil Jannings) slaving away as a miner in a coal mine owned by the wealthy Nissen family whose last heir is a young woman, Leonore. Herne is in love with Maria Obal (Hanna Ralph, who was married to Jannings at the time) who shares a garret with him: the film suggests they might be a de facto couple. One day while hacking at a coal seam, Herne meets a new coal miner (John Gottowt) who introduces himself as Algol. Algol moves in with Herne and Maria. One night Algol reveals himself as a native of a star system centred on the star Algol, which for centuries has been the stuff of legend, Greek and Arabian astronomers having regarded it as a demon star. Algol gives Herne a mechanical contraption which can harness the light of Algol the star and provide unlimited energy for the whole of planet Earth.
Over the next twelve months Herne builds a factory based around the Algol machine. In the meantime Maria has left Herne, foreseeing the ruin the energy discovery will bring him, and eloped with another man, Peter Hell, to a foreign country. The factory built, Herne opens it to much fanfare and his Bio Werks company goes straight to work producing electricity. Meanwhile the workers at the coal mine where Herne used to work revolt against their employer, Leonore (Gertrude Welcker), and Herne intercedes on Leonore’s behalf. He and she end up marrying. Cut 25 years into the future and Herne has become Dictator of the World who has used the income and profits his factory has generated into enslaving entire nations to provide food, water and other materials to his country and to enrich himself and his family beyond their wildest dreams.
Maria, by now a widow, has made a comfortable living on her farm in her adopted home. Unfortunately the coal mines in their country have been exhausted and the government there realises it has no choice but to buy electricity from Herne. The workers complain and Maria’s son Peter (Hans Adalbert Schettow) visits Herne at his mansion to plead for the electricity to be made free. Herne refuses and his daughter Magda (Kathe Haack), realising the extent to which wealth and power have corrupted Dad, follows Peter back to his farm where she is welcomed by Maria.
This sets in train Herne’s downfall and ultimate tragedy, and by extension the tragedy of humankind made wholly dependent on Herne’s energy-generating machine. Herne’s refusal to share his secret and allow nations to build their own Algol-style energy generators and become self-sufficient turns into a burden on him. Because of his refusal, the entire world teeters on political instability and economic apocalypse when he ages and death beckons. Herne’s wealth and unhappiness with his family, especially with his lazy and decadent son Reginald (Ernst Hofmann), is contrasted with Maria’s simple agrarian lifestyle and her close and happy relationship with her son: the film makes a morality tale of the contrast between industrial, modern society and its corrupting influences on people’s morality and character on the one hand, and on the other the traditional agricultural life, the nobility of honest work and self-sufficiency and how this moulds a wholesome, nurturing character.
The acting is nothing special and there is considerable over-acting by most characters though in a silent film that is to be expected. Characters tend to represent stereotypes and what character development occurs is quite limited. Female characters tend to be stronger than male characters in some ways, showing some backbone in the way they stand up to Herne and his maniacal quest for more power. The most enigmatic character is Algol the Mephistophelean alien who likens himself to a devil in case audience members don’t quite get the point of his being in the movie: his sneering or leering image is often superimposed over various critical scenes in the film.
The film’s best asset is its use of set designs influenced by the German Expressionist art movement of the period: Herne lives in a lavish palace with walls, floors and panels of avant-garde geometric design that contrast with scenes of the country and farm life in Maria’s country. Scenes in which Reginald appears with his lover Yella Ward (Erna Morena) are suitably debauched with exotic dancers and much revelry of an Orientalist stereotype familiar to audiences of the 1920s. Camera work is often inventive and emphasises the coldness and emotional distance that exists between Herne and his wife and children as they walk about in their huge palatial home.
Reginald plots with several others including Yella to take over dear old Dad’s empire and the film’s climax determines whether he will be successful or Herne can thwart his son’s ambition to be Nero after Dad’s Augustus Caesar. The fate of the world hangs on whichever of the two will succeed. Accordingly the film’s ending is pessimistic and in this I couldn’t help but think that an alternative which was suggested earlier – that the factory’s energy be made free to all peoples and nations – and for which Herne loses two close family members was not only better but also lost to that world’s eternal detriment. Given the historical context in which “Algol …” was made (just three years after the Bolshevik takeover of Russia), such an alternative might have damned the film as pro-socialist and would have limited its popularity within and without Germany. For an inventive science fiction film that makes pertinent commentary on how ownership of energy can corrupt owners and dependants alike through the way its use and abuse shape global political, social and economic institutions, and on the nature of work itself, how it can belittle or dignify human nature and morality, “Algol …” turns out to have a surprisingly conservative and despairing attitude towards working class people and their capacity to think for themselves, govern themselves and own and use resources wisely.