Art direction and pulp fiction merge in this story of a head grafted onto another's body. David Del Valle traces the history of brain transplants and living detatched heads.[*]
James Whale's head
The first tie that binds the aberrant behavior of our infamous Dr Ood would begin during the French Revolution, when a certain Dr Guillotine devised a scientifically expeditious way of separating man's head from his body. Much time would pass until the Théâtre du Grand Guignol would present "The Man Who Killed Death" in 1928. The brainchild of Rene Berton, the drama tells of a prisoner unjustly guillotined whose head is kept alive on a table. The irony of this production is that the actor who portrayed the hapless head on stage, none other than James Whale, would go on to direct the most celebrated Faustian tale on man daring to emulate god, Frankenstein (1931).
Dr Frankenstein has always been the preeminent archetypal mad scientist. All other scientists, good, bad, or Ood would take their experiments in transplantation from his gothic laboratory. Films depicting disembodied heads elicit the frisson tingling along the suture of the mind/body split.
Old heads, new bodies
Dr Ood (Horst Frank) is the mad doctor in writer/director Victor Trivas's uniquely trashy Der Nackte und der Satan (literally from the German, "The Nude and the Devil," aka The Head, West Germany, 1959). It is Horst Frank's persona, with his entertaining, Conrad Veidt-like demeanor and demented sense of focus, that gives this film its centre. My introduction to The Head comes via American director Curtis Harrington, whose enthusiasm for the film was contagious. He was especially taken with the set design and atmosphere. Harrington discovered that Hermann Warm, the set decorator for Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Germany, 1919), had come out of retirement this one and only instance to give Trivas's film the nightmarish décor and ambiance that somewhat balances the trappings of the Edgar Wallace krimis inherent in the film itself.
Der Nackte und der Satan exudes a spidery fascination as it opens on a full moon accompanied by the unsettling score of Jacques Lasry and Willy Mattes. The credits are suitably offsetting in a manner Tim Burton is fond of emulating. We are introduced to our mad doctor straightaway. He is seen in shadow approaching the laboratory/residence of Professor Doktor Abel (played by the distinguished Michel Simon). The residence is depicted in the manner of Georges Franju's Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, France, 1959). The latter film's ambient tone is very much apparent in Der Nackte und der Satan, almost to the point of homage.
Dr Ood approaches the house and our first glimpse of Horst Frank is as he picks up a tortoise and slips away into a nest of dead branches which silhouette his bleached-white features. He observes and eavesdrops on the arrival of Dr Abel's hunchbacked nurse (Karin Kernke), whose appearance harkens back to the Universal Monster rallies of the 1940s. This whole sequence sets the tone for what is to follow. As we are led into Dr Abel's home, it is apparent that we are in an abode filled with futuristic trappings whose centrepiece is a Bauhaus staircase straight out of Edgar Ulmer.
The aging Professor Abel is totally obsessed with perfecting the "Serum Z" that served to keep the severed heads of canines alive. Weakened by a heart condition, the doctor has even devised an operating table that can be maintained without assistants. Dr Ood moves in and it is a devil's bargain that Abel makes in accepting his dubious services. Assisting Dr Burke (Kurt Müller-Graf), the two doctors attempt a heart transplant procedure on Professor Abel. As the operation begins, the donor succumbs and Dr Burke tries to abort the procedure. The two struggle and Ood slays Dr Burke.
At this point Dr Ood takes centre stage, decapitating the good Dr Abel and improvising on the formula of Serum Z. He soon has Dr Abel sans body delicately connected with tubes and wires attached to the back of Abel's skull. The result is a Medusa-like visage with a walrus moustache. It is at this point in the film that Dr Abel, reduced to pleading for death, is moved to a corner of the laboratory, where he remains out of the action until the denouement. Now in control, Dr Ood turns his attentions to Irene, Abel's attractive but deformed nurse. His character, which was always questionable, now tries the miracle of Serum Z on her, deciding that while he loves her brains it wouldn't hurt to give her the delectable body of the local stripper, Lilly (Christiane Maybach) of the Tam-Tam Club, a seedy nightery in the Von Sternberg tradition.
Our mad doctor gets Lilly intoxicated, returns to the lab and removes her head and replaces it with Irene's. Awakening with a strange but beautiful body, she is eternally grateful and Ood becomes obsessive in his devotion. When Irene goes home, she cannot shake the fact that something is wrong and, for reasons left out of the script, she is drawn back to the Tam-Tam Club where she meets and falls in love with Paul Lerner (Dieter Eppler).
Paul becomes very suspicious of Irene's displacement and when he recognizes the purse she is carrying as having belonged to Lilly, Ood becomes the prime suspect of this homicidal deception. Thus Irene and Paul return to the laboratory to confront the lovesick Ood. The inevitable fight and fiery finale are all that remain to the film. Realising the futility of his knowledge to save himself or to embrace that which he can never understand, Dr Ood recognises his own damnation, his intellect's eternal isolation from the flesh, and plunges to his death. The good news is that Dr Abel gets his wish and Irene ends up with a designer body!
Art and pulp
Der Nackte und der Satan remains a unique entry in the sublevel of the horror genre because it is inflected by the central myth of German culture: the Faustian pact. Dr Abel's head is a peculiar fusion of the frail and mortal Faust. The Mephistopheles of the film is of course Dr Ood, whose name alone would give any ordinary citizen cause for sniffing brimstone; as he explains it, being an orphan his name was taken from the ship on which his parents were wrecked and drowned. But it is most of all the set design and atmosphere that elevates this film from its colleagues like The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962), The Man Without a Body (1957), and La Cabeza Viviente (The Living Head, Mexico, 1961).
The obsessions of both doctor and patient are based on passion rather than love, making it Teutonic in execution with a Faustian conceit: the integrated mind/body of the stripper/hunchback becomes Marguerite, whose purity places her beyond Faust's corrupting influence. Dr Ood is the knowledge-bringing Mephistopheles, perhaps reflecting the Cold War recognition that mere mortals wield the godlike powers of atomic science.
The director and writer of this effort, Victor Trivas, once nominated for an Academy Award with his screenplay of Orson Welles's The Stranger (1946), had a rather tragic career. Once an art director for G W Pabst, he worked in Germany in the late 1920s, only to have his work destroyed by the Nazis. Trivas adapted Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) and The Secret of Convict Lake (1951) and wrote an original script for A Modern Bluebeard (1947), starring Buster Keaton. After The Head, Trivas would never direct another film.
Although there has never been (at this point in time) a successful brain transplant, as addicts of popular culture will tell you, Peter Cushing performed such operations throughout the 1960s for stylish Hammer outings. Abbott and Costello had their encounters with brain transplants. Images of decapitation and the loneliness of the completely isolated brain are common in fiction and films throughout the past century. One of this writer's favourite guilty pleasures is The Brain from Planet Arous (1957), in which a levitating renegade brain of war terrorises mankind until it is leveled by an axe. And let us not forget the wildly popular Fiend Without a Face (UK, 1958), where humanity is under siege by serpentine spinal columns. Perhaps the film whose title says it all is The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958).
There are a thousand ties from Frankenstein to Dr Ood and Der Nackte und der Satan, beginning with Georges Méliès's prophesies of disembodied heads inflated to the point of explosion. The myriad versions of Donovan's Brain (1953) and the satires of Mel Brooks and Steve Martin attest to this conviction. The image of Michel Simon's disembodied head combined with the landscape of expressionistic surroundings courtesy of Hermann Warm invest Trivas's film with a genuinely bizarre encounter of the German era past and present Eurohorror. All of the Germanic influences from Faust to Frankenstein create the shadow play that gives this film a unique delirium whereby art direction and pulp fiction merge to create a singular nightmare.
David Del Valle
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