Paracelsus (1943) is one of those films that it’s hard to know what to do with. On the plus side, it was directed by G.W. Pabst (The Joyless Street, Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, one of the early masters of German cinema, and stars an able cast including Werner Krauss (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Waxworks) and the dancer/choreographer Harald Kreutzberg. The production values are all excellent, and the subject is certainly worthy—the life of one of the pioneers of medicine, the 16th-century Swiss physician and alchemist Theophrastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus. On the other side, this film was made during under the auspices of the Nazi propaganda machine, and is strangely inert and often perplexing, as if the director could not make up his mind what he wanted to say with it.
The release of Paracelsus was timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the death of its subject, and the film seems intended to be a conventional biopic with a side of romance thrown in. Paracelsus (Krauss) the physician is seen advocating for medical practice based on observation and experience, rather than rote adherence to ancient textbooks, and who writes and delivers university lectures in German rather than Latin. Paracelsus the alchemist is busy with his bubbling retorts as he seeks to create a universal serum to cure all ills. Early in the film, we see him save the printer Froben (Rudolf Brümner) from having a leg amputated unnecessarily. This success, as well as his unconventional ways, set the established academic physicians against Paracelsus, and they’re just waiting for an excuse to force him out of town.
The success of Paracelsus, and his knowledge-based approach to medicine, attracts an assistant or famulus (Peter Martin Urtel). This handsome young man catches the eye of Renata (Annelies Reinhold), daughter of the rich merchant Pfefferkorn (Harry Langewisch), pleasing her father not at all. Meanwhile, the bubonic plague is sweeping Europe, and when it nears Basel, Paracelsus asks the city fathers to close the town gates, so no one can come or go. It’s a smart move, since quarantine was one of the few effective methods to prevent the spread of disease in those days (of course, it would have been better if they could have prevented the infected rats from entering the city, but no one knew that at the time). But guess what—Mr. Rich Guy Pfefferkorn is expecting a shipment, and just as some people are doing during the pandemic today, he puts his economic interests over the good of the community and has the gates opened.
One good thing does come from that betrayal—it allowed the gaukler (itinerant performer) Fliegenbein (Kreutzberg) to enter the city and liven things up quite a bit. Fliegenbein acts as something of a jester, speaking in riddles, climbing all over the scenery, and generally refusing to conform to the expectations of his betters. Unfortunately, he’s also infected with the plague, which is expressed by his casting a spell over the townspeople and leading them in a truly weird, spasmodic, and positively creepy dance. It’s the single most interesting thing in what is overall a rather stodgy film, and is open to all kinds of interpretations—are they enacting the Totentanz (dance of death), a popular medieval conceit expressing the idea that death spares no one, regardless of their station in life? Is it a representation of the 20th century German people becoming entranced by their grotesque leader and his ideology? Is it alluding to the St. Vitus Dance, a sort of contagious mania known in Europe at the time, in which people would dance themselves to exhaustion?
Perhaps the contradictions in this film are not so difficult to understand, after all, considering that the director did not wish to be in Nazi Germany at all. In fact, he was visiting his mother in France, and on his way to the United States, when he was forced to return to his native country (loosely speaking: Pabst was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Under the Nazi regime, cinema was considered to be a type of propaganda, and the film industry was regulated by Joseph Goebbels. To make things worse, Pabst had to deal with a lead actor, Werner Krauss, who was openly anti-Semitic and a supporter of the Nazi party (and starred in the infamous propaganda film Jud Süss in 1940). Lacking artistic freedom, Pabst may have decided that the best thing he could do would be to smuggle some subversive material into his films, right under the censor’s nose, as some American directors managed to do in the 1950s. Taken in that spirit, Paracelsus is an interesting historical document, even if it’s not the first film I would recommend to someone who wants to get to know German cinema. | Sarah Boslaugh
Paracelsus is distributed on DVD and Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber, in a restored version that looks and sounds great. The only extra on the disc is an informative audio commentary by film historian Samm Deighan.