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TitleFilm Architecture and the Transnational Imagination: Set Design in 1930s European Cinema (Amsterdam University Press - Film Culture in Transition)
PublisherAmsterdam University Press
ISBN 139789048501793
CategoryArts - Film
File Size4.1 MB
Total Pages320
Document Text Contents
Page 2

Film Architecture and the Transnational Imagination

Page 160

director, cinematographer, and set designer, which had been the hallmark of the
German studio system since the early ���� s. Die Herrin von Atlantis pro-
vided in this respect one of the last ‘perfect’ opportunities for this mode of pro-
duction, before its personnel were dispersed across Europe, a process that
brought Metzner to France and Britain and ultimately to the United States. The
latter context does not seem to have suited Metzner’s artistic temperament. Cor-
respondence between Metzner and the Hollywood agent Paul Kohner that
spans the years ���� to ���
documents the former’s complaints of not getting
enough or only inferior assignments, while the latter’s letters imply that Metz-
ner was unable to integrate into the studio system.���

Die Herrin von Atlantis constituted one of Nero’s annual prestige produc-
tions, and represented both financially and logistically a considerable endea-
vour, as it required location shooting in France as well as the Algerian desert,
more specifically in the Hoggar mountain range in the southern centre of the
Sahara, in the proximity of today’s borders to Libya and Niger. In the early
���� s, getting to the Southern Sahara involved an arduous expedition, and
while Pabst and part of the production crew were compiling footage in North
Africa, Metzner coordinated the construction of the interior sets at the EFA stu-
dio at Berlin Halensee. Writing in Close Up, Metzner noted with perceptible dis-
appointment that despite Pabst’s promises, he ‘never got to Africa’.��� Instead
he documents a planning process that involved research into the prevalent
building styles of the Hoggar region, which combined elements of what Metz-
ner described as the ‘Moresque’ and ‘charming Sudanese architecture’. As he
recalls, ‘the pictures of the mud palaces of the negro princes filled us with sheer
enthusiasm’.��� However, Metzner was acutely aware of generic clichés asso-
ciated with certain styles, which he took great efforts to avoid:

About one thing, however, there was not the slighted doubt: the sets should emphati-
cally not be built in the Moresque style, for this style, though wonderful in itself, has
been compromised during the last decade by saccharine American and other films, to
such a degree that it had become the very idea of bad sets and cheap fantasy.���

The division of labour across two continents meant that Metzner had to antici-
pate a visual correlation between his sets and the outdoor scenery without hav-
ing seen the latter. To complicate the logistics of the production further, Die
Herrin von Atlantis was an MLV production, shot simultaneously in Ger-
man, French (L’Atlantide), and British (The Mistress of Atlantis) language
versions. The female lead was played by Brigitte Helm, on loan from Ufa, in all
three films, while the male lead changed with every version (respectively Heinz
Klingenberg, Pierre Blanchar, and John Stuart), as did some of the supporting
cast – Sokoloff, for example, was replaced in the British version by Gibb
McLaughlin, a prolific British character actor described by Brian McFarlane as

Imagining Space in Late Weimar Cinema 159

Page 161

‘an icon of lugubrious emaciation’. Otherwise the production crew was iden-

The film was based on the popular adventure novel ‘L’Atlantide’ () by
French author Pierre Benoît, which had already been filmed once before in
France by Jacques Feyder in . The story itself shares similarities with Henry
Rider Haggard’s ‘She’ (); indeed Benoît had lost a libel case in which he had
sued a journalist who charged him with plagiarising Haggard’s bestseller. In
any case the novel synthesised a number of themes and motifs that were in
wide circulation throughout Europe and encompassed a variety of representa-
tions of the exotic, the Orient, and European colonialism. In Benoît’s version,
foreign legion officer Saint-Avit and the former trappist monk Morhange inves-
tigate the disappearance of a number of foreigners in the desert. They are cap-
tured and brought to a subterranean palace, governed by the evil queen Anti-
néa, a descendant of the last kings of Atlantis, who turns out to be behind the
recent abductions, and it transpires that any men who falls in love with her dies
in mysterious circumstances. When Morhange rejects the queen’s advances, she
persuades the already obsessed Saint-Avit to kill his friend, which he does.
Saint-Avit eventually flees the palace with the help of one of Antinéa’s slaves,
and is rescued.

Ladislaus Vajda and Hermann Oberländer’s screenplay for Pabst’s film
(adapted for the international versions by respectively Alexandre Arnoux and
Miles Mander) generally follows the basics of the novel, but changes the story in
some crucial aspects. Benoît’s novel was told in a linear way, and its narrative
was meant to be taken literally. In Pabst’s film, on the other hand, the story
unravels as Saint-Avit’s flashback, triggered off by a lecture broadcast on the
radio, which speculates on the possibility that Atlantis might have been located
in the Sahara. As the broadcast ends, Saint-Avit, overlooking the desert from an
outpost, confirms to a fellow soldier that the broadcaster is correct in his as-
sumptions, and begins his tale. Throughout his flashback, we are never certain
whether Saint-Avit, who is clearly traumatised from the start, can be relied
upon as a narrator, whether it represents a fantasy, caused by the guilt of losing
his colleague Morhange (the other officer alludes to an incident two years ear-
lier), or whether it is merely a hallucination, caused by the heat of the desert or
by the kif (hashish) Saint-Avit smokes to forget his obsessions. In this respect,
the narration of the film has much in common with Das Cabinet des Dr Cali-
gari, except that in Pabst’s film the audience questions the story’s validity from
the very beginning, or alternatively is left increasingly puzzled what is going

Pabst’s Saint-Avit does not have the inner purpose or determination of his
literary model, nor does he investigate any previous incidents. Instead he and
Morhange are on a secret mission to sound out the Tuaregs’ political sympa-

160 Film Architecture and the Transnational Imagination

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