Letting the Cat out of the Bag: Ulmer’s The Black Cat and World War I

Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) possesses undeniable cult cred in the form of pickled dead wives, sexy Bauhaus sets, and, of course, Lugosi flaying Karloff alive. I cherish it for all these reasons. However, more important, I believe that it’s the first mainstream horror movie to show the link between the “nightmare picture” genre cycle of the 1930s and its aesthetic and emotional origins in World War I.

Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, adaptations of gothic novels, The Black Cat completely abandoned the Poe short story which it misleadingly claims as its source. Instead, the plot of the film revolves around Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) and his quest for revenge against his former comrade-in-arms in the Imperial and Royal Army of Austria-Hungary, Hjalmar Poelzig (played by Boris Karloff, who else?). The film even takes place in an old WWI-rampart-turned-evil-lair, Fort Marmorus, complete with old battle charts and gun turrets!

As Lugosi’s character travels back to the site of such historical carnage, he also undergoes a psychological transformation from civilized doctor to a man ruined by war and hate. At the risk of sounding grandiloquent (too late, but this is Universal Horror!), Werdegast’s pilgrimage is really a voyage to the heart of repressed WWI memories.

Take, for instance, the scene in which Werdegast and the newlyweds (who’ve chosen inexplicably to vacation in rural Austria) are driven from the train station. A shot, taken from the inside of the car, reveals the hood of the old-fashioned vehicle as it proceeds down a long muddy road, sparkling with streams of rain. This image conveys a documentary quality and anticipates the filth and sogginess of the following descriptions of World War I battlefields and trenches.

The driver lugubriously informs his passengers: “This road was built by the Austrian army.” In the low-key lighting and indistinctness of the rainy night, the chauffer, wearing the gaudy, gold-accented livery of the Hotel Hungaria in Gömbös, appears to wear a soldier’s uniform.

Delivering a grim monologue, the driver paints lurid word-portraits of Marmorus during the War, including such disturbing morsels as “the ravine down there was piled twelve-deep with dead and wounded” and, “the little river below was swollen, a red, raging torrent of blood.” 

Rather than cutting to the landscape or a flashback, Ulmer’s camera focuses on the reactions of the passengers. Like a couple at the cinema, slowly finding themselves drawn into the tale, the newlyweds at first hold back laughter then take on increasingly grave expressions. Werdegast, shown in a moodily lit close-up, closes his eyes as if in a trance.

Like a couple in the cinema: a parallel audience, the innocent newlyweds, the Alisons, listen to tales of WWI horrors.

The directorial decision to recount the story of Marmorus in this manner comments powerfully on the significance of such war narratives to modern life. Here, the tales and memories of no-man’s-land acquire the same kind of atmospheric cache as the prerequisite vampire lore or supernatural legends of more conventional horror films. For the Allisons, as for the moviegoers, the brutality of WWI already represents a myth, a treasury of shock-value yarns trotted out by tour guides, but still a collective inheritance of unconscious fears difficult to ignore.

The return to violence: the driver who recounts battle stories goes off the road with our characters in his cab. Note the practically vertical axis: the world of the newlyweds is about to be similarly turned upside-down by their involvement with two traumatized WWI veterans.

Towards the end of the film, the stylized, geometrical designs of the “Dark of the Moon” ceremony scene in The Black Cat echo the landscapes of a WWI no-man’s-land. Poelzig performs his black mass amidst a temple of jagged, irregular shapes, framed by two obelisks and a fan-like backdrop. His pulpit comprises a giant X-shaped complex made up of obliquely angled bars.

This altar closely resembles a “knife rest” or a cruciform barrier used by Great War soldiers in order to deter onslaughts of enemy men from attacking gaps in the trench lines. Many photographs of the WWI show such impromptu ramparts, constructed from a few planks and covered with barbed wire.

Look familiar? WWI barbed wire defenses, X-shaped “knife rests.”

The jutting, irregular trappings of Poelzig’s secret cult room also recall images of the various fences, boards, and charred trees that contributed to the blasted and disorienting appearance of no-man’s-land.

Ulmer carefully supervised the set design, so I think it’s safe to assume the resemblance isn’t gratuitous, especially in light of explicit allusions to the war throughout the film. In the context of the wicked ceremony, Ulmer uses the set to stress the evil of war itself. Blending bizarre intimations of Satanism with WWI iconography, the director underscores the destructive urges of mankind to sacrifice others in the pursuit of illusory and often ridiculous belief systems.

In war as in horror films, the bad guys tend to demand human sacrifices.

However, one scene in particular drives home the relationship between horror and war in a stunningly stylized way, so stunningly that I can hardly believe that more film historians haven’t noticed the formal innovation.

After panicking at the sight of a black cat, Werdegast fails to kill Poelzig. The wife-killing traitor, however, doesn’t retaliate, but rather begins to calmly examine their situation, from off-screen. His tone turns eerily sentimental. Meanwhile, the somber strains of Beethoven’s No. 7 Symphony on the soundtrack reinforce the import of his words.

During this disembodied, voice-over monologue, the camera first tilts upward to take in Werdegast, tense and emotionally broken, before panning and tracking to a door handle which Poelzig opens. The shot roves, continuously save for a few ethereal dissolves, through the military, through the oppressive corridors of the former fort, capturing striking diagonal light-dark contrasts and disquietingly angled beams, and then up a spiral staircase. The series of dissolves really feels like a long take and it probably wanted to be, had the time, budget, and technology made it possible.

…and we return to the two “living dead” men as though we’d been walking with them.

Interestingly, the series of shots follow the path that the audience would expect Werdegast and Poelzig to walk as they return to the less disturbing upstairs of Poelzig’s house. But they’re not in the tracking shots. It’s almost as though they dissolved or disappeared into thin air.

The camera movement in fact substitutes for the movements of the main characters, who, at the end of the sequence, are revealed entering Poelzig’s study. The floating, slow camera movements strike the viewer as following shots, but with the initiators of motion surreally removed, in a strange instance of visual metonymy.

This unorthodox stylistic choice highlights a turning point in the self-awareness of the horror genre, as Poelzig assimilates the survivors and the corpses of World War I. The traitor asks Werdegast,

“Did we not both die here in Marmorus 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?” 

Here, he equates the real physical horrors of war and the trauma of veterans with the symbolism of the nightmare picture. In the context of the film, the speech makes the connection between the real broken and battered men who returned from the conflict and their screen alter-egos, the monsters and mutilated characters of the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, the pointed absence of Poelzig and Werdegast from the simultaneous tracking shots affirms the truth of these words. The characters disappear from the shots because their trauma has hollowed them out, reduced them to ghouls. Poelzig and Werdegast’s participation in the Battle of Marmorus has turned both into spiteful, inhuman phantoms, “the living dead.”

Battlefield wreckage? No, Fort Marmorus. It explodes at the end of The Black Cat, with the two veterans inside, like an exorcism of WWI demons.

Film historian David Skal asserts that a French work, Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, released in 1919 and then remade by the director in 1938, was the first film to “face up” to the horror influence of the First World War. He has a point. However, Gance’s two versions were highly lauded anti-war dramas with noted horrific sequences, what would later be called “art films.”

But The Black Cat was a popular horror film, part of a genre not given enough credit then or maybe even now for its meaning-creating potential, that boldly unmasked World War I as the unconscious aesthetic and mythological focus of movie horror. Ulmer’s film alludes to the lineage of the genre, not just the evils of the war itself. Given the surprise popularity of The Black Cat, and of the horror genre during the Depression, perhaps such films allowed audiences to cope with the Great War in retrospect and to grieve subconsciously for those sacrificed to no-man’s-land, the victims of modernity, as well as for the walking wounded.

(This is adapted from a college paper which I wrote about Universal’s horror cycle. Although the thesis contained herein is my own, I did, of course, research the context and the making of the film and benefit from the analyses of others, including David J. Skal and to the documentary Universal Horror, which began to suggest the link between horror and WWI. I will provide my bibliography on request, so please leave a comment if you would like to know more about my resources. Likewise, please do not use my ideas or images without first asking me!)