The Plague of Florence (aka, Die Pest in Florenz) (Otto Rippert, 1919)
The rich courtesan and illuminating beauty Julia (Marga von Kierska) arrives in Florence, immediately catching the eyes of a cavalcade of powerful men who quickly and nefariously compete for possession of her; there’s the scheming elderly cardinal (Franz Knaak, whose hollowed in face makes him continuously look like he’s forgotten to put in his dentures), who immediately distrusts and fears her (in case you need to be reminded, women and the church historically don’t mix), the city’s despotic ruler Cesare (Otto Mannstädt) and his rival, the privileged brat Lorenzo (Karl Bernhard), a self-proclaimed hedonist who Cesare allows to live merely because, well, he happens to be his son. As the men’s scheming and brutish cross-purpose plans turn the city upside down — with Florence upended into dens of sexual debauchery, excess and rape — the chaste monk Medardus (Erner Hübsch) living as a hermit in the mountains, suddenly finds himself struggling – in epically punishing ‘Ingmar Bergman on hallucinogens’ style — with an onslaught of unexpected earthly desire (having seen the fair maiden Julia out on a hunting trip) clashing violently with his previous sole life mission of piety and purity. The Black Death, meanwhile, in the creepy form of an impoverished, torn-clothed, ghoulish young woman, bides her time to soon introduce herself to one and all, peasant and nobleman alike…
From the jarringly sudden leering closeups of each of three self-serving men (cardinal, ruler and ruler’s son) as they initially spot Julia at the city’s religious procession (revealing the underlying grotesque carnival at play beneath the surface pageantry), to the impressive city procession itself, on into the entire rich populace falling into uncontrolled and violent debauchery, the first half of The Plague of Florence is chock full of images so cinematically great, it’s a wonder – and an egregious omission — that The Plague of Florence isn’t placed on the same pedestal as so many of its fellow silent German brethren (perhaps this stunningly gorgeous 2K transfer will help rectify that).
Acting first as a condemnation of the scheming (male) figures standing behind religion, endlessly using it to serve their own ends while duping the masses to continue to believe in them (if anyone believes the sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and the ensuing coverups, is something new, they are sadly fooling themselves) and then right into calling out the comfortable masses who yearn merely for pleasures without responsibility, The Plague of Florence condemns humanity itself, seeing no other outcome than the very end of the world. Talk about a story for our time.
The Plague of Florence tears apart the sweet candy pablum provided by the like of The Walking Dead, a modern end-of-times show I happen to be currently slogging through, which is distastefully (and irresponsibly) designed to comfort the masses with the idea that, when the apocalypse comes, the noble act for those few survivors is to return everything back to its ‘proper’ (patriarchal, primarily white dominant) ideology. Nah, Plague argues, it’s man’s very self-absorbed and scheming nature that not only will bring on the apocalypse, but makes it inevitable. Amazing stuff for such an obviously big budgeted studio picture… then again, in those exceedingly bleak times, in a country, Germany, that was just trying to emerge from a losing world war in which over seven million of their people were casualties, and was already fomenting the seeds for a devastating Hitler-led second one, perhaps not surprising (it reminds me of when friends of mine say ‘gee, life’s so hard as it is, why do I wanna see movies that aren’t happy?’ when what they really mean is ‘Hey, I like my bubble, I don’t wanna be reminded of things such as that the third of the world is starving to death as I eat and drink comfortably… and I resent anything that doesn’t allow the comfort machine I help enable to hum along obliviously’).
If the brilliant imagery of the first half of the film wasn’t enough, it’s the more expressionistic-minded second half, following the monk Medardus, ultimately so overwhelmed with desire and jealous that he willfully murders Julia’s lover to have her (with the self-observed girl of pleasure gladly sinking into his arms after), where things kick into overdrive. The reason I even searched out Plague was because it came with an early screenplay by Fritz Lang (with his deep-seated misanthropy and sense of relationships as pits of deceit and murder already on full display) and, having now caught up with most of director Lang’s own silent German films of the time, one of the things missing from the otherwise amazing first half of Plague was the powerful presence of an actor of the stature of Lang’s impressive ensemble. While all worked fine in their roles, there was no massive cinematic giant like Lang’s frequently used shape-shifting thespian Rudolf Klein-Rogge around, for instance.
Well, Hübsch, as the monk ripped apart by conflicting emotions who takes center stage in the second half certainly takes care of that. With his severe face and popping wide eyes able to almost look torn apart by emotion, as he first, Christ-like, drags a full cross across a meadow, only to violently chop it down in futility as his carnal desires overwhelm, to his rejecting of his once-worshipped puritanism by surrounding himself with the city’s vice and depravity, only to repent, escape from the city (now closed off to prevent the spreading of the Black Death within its walls) through the corpse and coffin-ridden catacombs (in another example of the film’s endless pool of powerful settings and imagery) and then return again with the new-found desire to ‘save’ the city and return to his love (only instead, ironically, he carries the Black Death back with him — the female figure he doesn’t quite notice always just behind him), the actor is as astonishing as anyone Lang used (in fact, I’m surprised Lang didn’t make him a main player himself). Watching the monk writhing in anguish as demonic presences goad him (captured in primitive, yet still entirely effective double exposures) brought to mind that leading light of Protestantism himself, Martin Luther, who claimed constantly in his writings of literal devilish presences invading his home, reminding us of what a nutter he obviously was (it takes a certain type, after all, to create a religion!).
Following Hübsch’s journey, with his wild theatrical gesticulations, surrounded by a cinema of film expressionism, displayed (as do the silent Lang-directed epics) how astonishingly evocative silent German cinema was in expressing sheer madness (they certainly had it in their country’s blood, that’s for sure). It was a staggeringly brilliant time and place for the beginnings of cinema. And The Plague of Florence is an epic cinematic evocation of it, in seven chapters. The plague only really hits in the last twenty minutes of the film’s running time (a fairly short hour and fifty minutes for the time) but the harrowing imagery of soon-to-be-dead characters stumbling around the violently disease-twisted bodies, like haunted survivors of war, forever scarred by death, is breathtaking.
The Plague of Florence is credited as an adaption of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, however, other than using the introduction of a human personification of the plague (now Black, obviously, in a nod by the filmmakers to historical precedence), represented (with a profound irony that works within the context of the film specifically) as female in the movie (when she takes the violin from the dying musicians hand and begins to play –sublime), while a cloaked male figure in the short story, as well as the indulgent rich cordoning off the city to keep out the sickness (uncaring of the vulnerable peasants flanking the perimeter outside the gates) as narrative tent posts, Plague is an entirely different animal. Poe’s visual-minded evocation of a dream is a short story; it’s the setting of a time before playing out a single scene (the arrival of the Red Death), so of course, Plague needed a lot more to fill in its tale.
Saying that, in re-reading Poe’s story (in that deliciously feverish writing style that made him so great), I did realize, if memory serves, how much more faithfully (both with its visual conceptualization, mood and literal creation of the macabre ‘seven different colored rooms’ where the tale reaches its fateful conclusion) director Roger Corman managed to hue to the original source material as he built upon it with his influential 1964 The Masque of the Red Death adaptation (including by adding in the perfectly cruel subplot of the humiliated dwarf getting his cruel and murderous revenge right out of another Poe tale, Hopfrog). Why, might be just the perfect time for a revisit…