Saturday, August 09, 2014

Noah Isenberg's Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins (2014) review

Professor Strowski:  Now I am here, to bring you home.

Dr. Erich Vornoff:  Home? I have no home. Hunted, despised, living like an animal! The jungle is my home. ...

-Bela Lugosi, from Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster, 1955

The American films (and even a few that weren't) of Edgar G. Ulmer are deeply rooted in the immigrant experience, that irresolvable tug between assimilation and preserving one's identity and traditions. Author Noah Isenberg has illuminated this and many other key elements that combined to create a unique voice in cinema in his biography Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins (University of California Press, 2014) and drawn the best roadmap (with a few detours, pun intended) so far into the many mysteries of that voice. As anyone familiar with biographies knows, things have a way of keeping their secrets. But the author's extraordinary and unprecedented interrogation of Ulmer's vast body of work provides incredible insight and corroboration into his life, and he marshals his information from every conceivable direction in a way that would probably make his subject very proud if not a little bemused.

The essentially itinerant director's professional life began not too many years after becoming a refugee with the internal collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1916, beginning as it has for many talented emigres fleeing social and political chaos, a process that continues into today. Like so many, Ulmer came to America with great aspirations and a hopefulness that with retrospect now probably seems naive; his first stop was typical for so many immigrants, and where one might think: New York City, during the early 1920s, working on the design of a Max Reinhardt stage production, a first for almost everyone involved. It wasn't long before the young and bright-eyed Austrian had headed to Hollywood, where, like most of America and its many claims to exceptionalism, success is a coldly loaded word. What better, tragic frission could an artist steeped in German Expressionism with its play of light and shadow want? Not a lot of it was going to end on a happy note, and neither do most of films of this underappreciated king of Poverty Row filmmaking who created such classics as the Laemmle era Universal horror The Black Cat (1934), the Poverty row classics such as Blubeard (1944, starring John Carradine), the legendary noir Detour (1945), and the captivating & shimmering noirish moral parable of Ruthless (1948, co-starring the suave and inimitable Ulmer co-conspirator Louis Hayward).

This is all fine and well--but, who was Edgar G. Ulmer, really? It's like asking who Charles Foster Kane, Dr. Mabuse or Jesus of Nazareth was. Luckily, we have more clues on hand, albeit often, as in the rest of life, flawed ones...

 Ulmer's a name which crops up constantly in writing on cinema, especially in cult and noir circles, but how many would know of his design and preparatory work for F.W. Murnau on the classic Sunrise (1927) and Tabu (1931)? I had only an inkling, if that, and had only read musings that the filmmaker had worked on a few Expressionist movies, but they were only vague allusions to the fact that he was one of the few keeping Murnau's memory and technique alive in the Hollywood system. He had popped back and forth between Hollywood and Europe as early as 1929 when he co-directed the proto-verite classic People on Sunday (or the German title: Menschen am Sonntag, 1930), along with Robert Siodmak, from a treatment that had been co-written by the great Austrian director Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann, all of whom would go on to direct noir classics in America...or at least that's how some of the stories go. Untangling the legends and myths from the facts took Isenberg over a decade; his subject was often the worst source of information, as it were. There are reasons for this that have a lot to do with filmmaking and the kind of people who become motion picture directors: they're storytellers as well as notorious bullshitters, which is often how they get their vision onto the screen in the first place, they lie to achieve it, they're tricksters. 

Anyone familiar with Fritz Lang's stories about his own life and career will be recognize Ulmer's propensity to lie about himself and to exaggerate his experiences and accomplishments (including participation in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari & Metropolis). Lang himself simply made things up to tell a better story; so too did Ulmer, and so many other directors over the years. Not all of this was intentional and shows that for many of them the creative process is never over. This bleed of one's life and work shows so clearly in Ulmer's filmmaking. Additionally, directors are usually intuitive psychologists and master manipulators, again, for aforementioned reasons. It takes a lot of effort to put your signature to a movie effectively and for it to retain your vision and style. Therefore, to do it in less than a week of shooting time, which was typical for Ulmer due to economic restrictions--low budgets--and end up with something somewhat coherent and even memorable is something short of a miracle. Ulmer was able to repeat this miracle many times over. This also means that he produced a lot a bad work out of sheer necessity. Even in those circumstances, he was able to imprint most of his movies with memorable themes and moments that contained not only some of his greatest dreams and aspirations, but those of audiences of his era, and ours.

Long relegated to the margins, Ulmer's body of work has been championed by everyone from the Cahiers du Cinema crowd, the leading theorist-directors of the French New Wave, to contemporary hipster movie buffs, and of course, academia. Isenberg shows us the availability of many of these movies and draws us another path to them, again, with no discernible detours. Thanks in part to the Internet, and like such luminaries in other mediums like H. P. Lovecraft, Ulmer is probably more known and popular today than he was when he was alive. My own Ulmer collection has grown in leaps and bounds as of late and announcements of new restorations of his work have been growing periodically over the last few decades, often to great acclaim.

I first came upon Ulmer's work as the Hollywood cult director of Black Cat (because of its stars Bela Lugois & Boris Karloff and the fact that it was--loosely--"based on Poe"), which is maybe the most unique horror film in the horror canon, never mind Universal's. Isenberg notes ably that the movie went on to inspire The Rocky Horror Picture Show for its own high camp value, which is impossible to debate as the movie revels in its perversity, it's simply true--artistic truth. What first strikes the virginal viewer of Black Cat is the familiar use of Expressionist technique; this of course is obvious, but we shouldn't think this was done by someone who had fled a Hitlerean Europe. Ulmer, as stated earlier, was already installed in the American movie system. A fateful decision of running off with the married wife of a cousin of the Laemmles appears to be the deciding factor that relegated him to Poverty Row, he was blacklisted, even after the regime at Universal changed in 1936 to a man named Rogers after its bankruptcy. Not even hits like Black Cat & The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) could save the Laemmle-run studio from cost overruns during the Great Depression.

 Well before the rise of NSDAP & Hitler, talent like Ulmer, Murnau, Joe May (née Mandle, another Austrian), the Hungarian Paul Fejos, Josef von Sternberg (a child of immigrants), even Bela Lugosi, were already working in Hollywood and were "refugees" after Nazi Germany became a reality. They were a different kind of emigre talent, some of whom never quite felt at home in America, or anywhere, and many of them had emerged from the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the aftermath of WWI. Movies aren't made in a vacuum.

Again: who was Edgar G. Ulmer? We're never going to know entirely, but thanks to studies like this, we can get an idea. Without excessive sentimentality, Noah Isenberg has advanced our knowledge of this great, dark prince of the cinema through a study of his films that delivers to us many answers and many more questions about an often tortured life at the margins. Ulmer has finally come home.