Original Title: Die Herrin von Atlantis. Desert drama 1932; 89 min.; Director: G. W. (Georg Wilhelm) Pabst; Cast: Brigitte Helm, Tela Tchaï, Gustav Diessl, Florelle, Heinz Klingenberg, Mathias Wieman, Vladimir Sokoloff; Nero-Tobis-Klangfilm.
Deep in North Africa, an officer tells his comrade how he was captured by Tuaregs and taken to a rock city, where he fell under the spell of the tribal queen, murdered his friend out of jealousy, and eventually escaped with the help of a slave… He finds no belief and leaves, while the other writes a report about the officer’s troubling state and returns to the desert.
The scorching African heat bears down on a small French town nestled deep in the desert. Captain St. Avit, known as a dreamer and oddball, sits with a comrade, a young lieutenant, on the rooftop of the fortress and begins to recount a tale: “It happened two years ago. My buddy, Captain Morhange, and I – I was just a lieutenant at the time – were assigned a patrol ride to assess the political situation among the Tuareg tribes. As we neared the Hoggar Mountains, Tuaregs ambushed us and hauled us off to an underground city, the fabled Atlantis, concealed beneath the salt city of Fachi. I fell under the enchantment of Antinea, the queen of Atlantis, but she completely disregarded me; she truly loved – for the first time – my friend Morhange. However, Morhange didn’t return Antinea’s affection. So Antinea ordered me to kill Morhange. Under the captivating spell of the beautiful woman, I struck down Morhange. Consumed by remorse, I then lunged at Antinea in a bid to avenge Morhange. Her servants restrained me and held me captive. Tanit Serga, Antinea’s servant who had fallen in love with me, set me free. I was discovered in the desert, on the brink of dehydration, by an aerial patrol.” The following morning, Captain St. Avit is nowhere to be found. Tracks in the sand reveal that he rode off into the desert on a camel. Soon, a sandstorm obliterates his tracks. He was never seen again.
E. J.’s review in Film Kurier No. 211 (September 7, 1932)
Here, a rationalist, a skeptical man of our time, seeks to make a material lying in the twilight of wonder and mirage of the desert visible and believable. The German mentality has its own artistic representation of wonder – the opera; it has gone through a long tradition influenced by Wagner. The Romance countries, for which Nero and their chief director Pabst want to produce, are more easily credulous and skeptical. Our audience always resonates with motifs of the Holy Grail, “faith lives, the dove hovers” – they genuinely want to be led to belief, and the seductive mysticism of easily accessible pulp novels holds little appeal in cinema for us.
But that is precisely Pabst’s aim: to create an easily accessible film that, in contrast to Kameradschaft, immediately and effectively captures the audience. The principle of “art for art’s sake” was not considered. The combination of opium and hashish, Bedouin romance, demonic eroticism, and – who would have thought – an Offenbachian monstrous cancan was meant to be assembled into a super-sized film for mass audiences. Along the journey through the desert and the Phentesilea tavern in the Sahara, the individual brewing mixtures become visible, and they are worth seeing. The film’s costs are always secondary for Pabst, which allows the moviegoer to get their money’s worth. While they may wonder about the absence of the wonders of Atlantis, they remain captivated, whether positively or critically. By making more determined cuts, the unnecessary comedic moments will be eliminated, leaving behind a thought-provoking film with artistically noteworthy and visually stunning direction. The night tale of an officer on the edge of the Sahara, a desert we have been skillfully sent to so many times before.
Just as Beau Geste and Morocco – to name two examples of effective American suspense films – could have served as a model for authors Vajda and Oberländer, showing how to guide the dominant director from his still-confused desire for a straightforward, consciously composed story that spans 2,300 film meters. The seemingly self-denying and almost tragic task of creating an impactful film is fully accomplished by Pabst in the first part of the work. Two friendly officers venture into the distant, unattainable land, where horror awakens as their camels carry them deeper into the eerie territory of the desert. Skeletons in the sand. A half-dead man on the road, the camel guide shot dead… Two knights of romance approach you, Lady Venus Antinea. The night battle is heart-wrenching, until they find themselves inside the daylight of the barracks and catacombs of the desert star Brigitte Helm. The “up to this point” part is excellently portrayed in the acting and editing. A brilliantly executed exposition. (It needs to be reiterated: the old Lessing and the young Rudolf Arnheim, along with a few more modest authors interested in film dramaturgy, have not lived – and continue to live – in vain.) (The failed framing narrative, of course, should be exempted from the “exposition”; that would require two columns to write about.)
The more difficult task of combining realism and Sahara wonders in the catacombs of Atlantis is achieved by Pabst and his collaborators only on the visual side. Master of visual imagery and lighting effects, Eugen Schüfftan (with Ernst Koerner), surpasses even the most beautiful American photography when he transforms Ernö Metzner’s columned halls into the transformative decorations of Atlantis. Extraordinary skill is displayed in the editing and framing, particularly when the natives dance. However, Pabst aimlessly wanders through the walls in a boring and convoluted manner, forgetting about consolidation, forgetting that the entire film is a half-dream narration, allowing the overrated realism of actors like Sokoloff, in a typical Wedekind-adventurer figure (without substance), to drone on. Die Herrin von Atlantis is portrayed by Brigitte Helm in silent, seductive images. Beautiful as she once was as the silent Alraune, but when speaking as the queen of the desert, she sounds like a boarding school girl. (Take a lesson, there has long been an art of speech.) Garbo doesn’t need to go to the desert for us to believe that a man would kill his friend for her sake. Indeed, this murder is dimly motivated; after all, the friend who commits the murder had smoked poison.
It is precisely in the unfulfilled interplay between excellent silent imagery and mostly ineffective dialogue scenes that the director’s unbalanced nonchalance is evident. Above all, he is concerned with bringing unforgettable close-ups of faces to the screen. Even Clementine, the blonde French dancer, is a visual delight, and each of Antinea’s servant women has a face – but Pabst cares little about what becomes of them. One would have hoped that the many excellent impressions would result in a convincing overall impact. Some actors achieve it, especially the convincingly portrayed Heinz A. Klingenberg, who shows personality in the dream narration of a love-struck student in uniform. He owes it to Pabst’s care that he has made it. We know that Dießl and Wiemann deliver rounded characterizations.
Despite everything: the most ambitious film of the season in terms of its overall scale. Suitable as a sensational attraction for theater owners. For foreign markets – in a shortened version – a romantic evening filler (with Wolfgang Zeller’s rather lackluster music this time). For film history: a new chapter of G.W. Pabst among the blind, where even the one-eyed man is considered… Pabst.