Savage Revenge Film 'Behind the Door' Resonates in 21st Century America

by Chadwick Jenkins

8 May 2017

This strange and troubling film suits America's current ruminations over social and political identity all too well.
Hobart Bosworth and James Gordon  
cover art

Irvin Willat’s Behind the Door

Director: Irvin Willat
Cast: Hobart Bosworth, Jane Novak, James Gordon

US theatrical: 4 Apr 2017
1919

To anyone living in today’s political climate, the fact that the United States is a country built upon immigration and forced migration serves as a focal point for one’s understanding of social equity, political responsibility, and modes of interpersonal behavior. It can hardly be said that the current situation in the United States is anything new. A nation defined by immigration will ineluctably face questions of plurality versus unity, individualism versus communal identity, identity politics versus national cohesion.

The question of who belongs and who doesn’t is, of course, a vexed one and offers no facile solution. The fact that the United States was founded upon the displacement of Native Americans, sustained through the labor of African slaves, and built upon the backs of underpaid immigrant workers contributes to a long-standing cultural anxiety that pervades political and social life in this country. Regardless of where one stands on the current policies pertaining to immigration, no matter how nuanced or stringent one’s views may be, the role of nativism in this country occupies a complex and contested space. This is, perhaps, why that space has long been an obscure object of desire.

Groups ranging in ethical and political merit from the Daughters of the Revolution to the Ku Klux Klan to certain amateurs interested in genealogy (those seeking to discern the number of generations in which their families have occupied the US) attempt to assert some claim, however outlandish and however unsustainable, to a kind of nativism, a stamp of belonging, a token of authenticity. But, of course, claims of belonging to a social group or national entity implicitly require the notion that others do not belong.

And so, policies such as the three-fifths doctrine for assigning representation in slave states, a confusing and arcane range of immigration regulations and procedures (creating confusion and thus giving rise to frustration and anger on both sides of the issue), and innumerable unspoken social rules of behavior that articulate an “us” and a “them”, seek to establish an ever-disappearing line of demarcation between those who “belong” to the group those who don’t.

One way might entertain the notion that ideally there is a distinction between a political understanding of belonging to a nation and a social one. There’s nothing logically contradictory in recognizing the fact that America a country built on immigration and yet installing political policies that restrict, control, and regulate new immigration. The social side of things is considerably more complex. As thinkers ranging from Hobbes to Freud have suggested, social cohesion is often founded upon a felt sense of similarity.

To identify with another person means that I see something of myself in that person, that I recognize myself in her face, her way of thinking, our modes of behavior; that is, to identify is to see the other as in some way identical to the self. Freud suggests, in works ranging from Civilization and its Discontents to Totem and Taboo, that the roots of such identification are grounded in the family structure. Societies formed out of the extended kinship groups. This means that for Freud, the baseline assumption of most social attachment is racial and linguistic identity.

This becomes considerably more difficult in a society founded on immigration. It is, of course, not impossible to constitute and maintain such a society, but it requires a thoroughgoing reconsideration of what criterion allows for inclusion within the group. For many people, over the course of history, this has proved a difficult task.

Certain moments in US history have forced the difficult nature of social identification surging menacingly to the surface. For example, the influx of Irish during the potato famine gave rise to questions concerning desirable versus undesirable immigrants (boiling down, really, to a distinction between the moneyed and the impoverished). On the other hand, Marcus Garvey and the Back-to-Africa movement put forth the deeply-held belief that no equity could be had for African Americans in the United States, that a true nation required a primordial (read: racial) unity before it could hope for political unity.

The fomentation of social unrest between citizens who believe they have some tie to “nativism” and citizens who are identified by these nativists as immigrants (and therefore not truly part of the social group) arise most vehemently during wartime. In the US, of course, the WWII Japanese internment camps are widely discussed, but during WWI a considerable backlash against German immigrants inspired questions of belonging and patriotism.

This is the foundation of the revenge tale presented in the silent film Behind the Door, a film that was celebrated and widely discussed upon its release in 1919 but had been believed to be lost (at least as a viewable film and not just stills and scattered sequences) for decades. Flicker Alley has now issued a restoration of this strange and troubling film and it suits the current ruminations over social and political identity all too well. Although the film includes an extended sequence of melodrama and then becomes the revenge story that made it famous, in this essay we will concern ourselves with a relatively early scene and its interpretation (so no spoiler alerts are necessary here; very little of the plot will be revealed).

Hobart Bosworth and Jane Novak

Hobart Bosworth and Jane Novak

Behind the Door tells the story of Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth), a taxidermist of German heritage. He was born in the United States but has a German last name, is fluent in the language, and his mother was born in Germany. He is an older man, seems to be accepted (at first) by the wider community of the town, and is in love with Alice Morse (Jane Novak), the daughter of the banker, Matthew Morse (J.P. Lockney). The banker doesn’t want his daughter marring Krug and confronts him, but Krug, a paragon of virtue and forthrightness, breezily dismisses him.

But then war is declared on Germany as the US officially enters WWI and the banker incites suspicion and ultimately violence among the townspeople against Krug owing to his German background. This man, who mere moments ago was a recognized part of the community, suddenly becomes a threat, an interloper, a menacing representative of the inhuman status accorded the barbarous Hun.

As the angry mob descends upon him, Krug clarifies that he served with Dewey at Manila and that his father also served in the US military. He feels he is as fully-fledged an American as anyone in that town and points out that his family has been on American soil longer than the families of many of his attackers. He commits to returning to military service to fight the Germans in this war, claiming to have absolutely no identification with the German nation. None of this dispels their fury. His family is of German descent, so he is consigned to the suddenly hated enemy; he instantly becomes a foreigner, no matter how American he considers himself to be.

The mob returns with rocks and a rope to lynch Krug. He again declares that he will “offer” himself “to his country”, that he is going to fight. A member of the mob shouts back “You bet you are.” A melee ensues, which the film depicts with graphic and startling brutality. Krug dispatches his assailants until the fight focuses in on Krug and another man, Jim MacTavish (James Gordon). Notice that name—it wears the Scottish extraction of the man on its sleeve just as much as the name Krug reveals the main character’s German heritage. Were the war with Scotland, presumably, the roles would be reversed. Is that why MacTavish is so willing to violently engage with Krug, as proof that he belongs (and is, therefore, able to stand in for the brutish crowd) where Krug doesn’t?

Their bitter struggle is gruesome and bloody, amounting to one of the most savage film fights of the era (although there are other equally shocking scenes in silent film, especially of the late 1910s). The camera approaches the combatants in discomfiting proximity. The scene’s choreography (if it was choreographed) alternates between the chaotic and the static. Blood smeared across their faces and streaming from their mouths, eyes swelling shut, the men occasionally pause in their battling, looking dazed and shocked by the force of their confrontation, only to lurch back into action.

When Krug emerges victorious he declares “Tonight I’m going to enlist. Who’s man enough to follow me?” The recently defeated MacTavish now vouches for Krug, proclaiming him a true American. Apparently, brute force succeeds where rational argument failed. MacTavish and Krug reconcile and decide to join the Navy—Krug as a captain of a vessel, MacTavish as his first mate. 

Produced in the immediate aftermath of WWI in a society flush with the exuberance of military victory, Behind the Door’s answer to the riddle of inclusion within a society and nation founded on immigration and thus founded on the reconciliation (not the erasure) of difference is disappointing, perhaps, but not surprising. Krug is now declared to be an American because he embodies the manly ideals that others like MacTavish want to believe are an essential feature of Americanness. Krug made a solid, rational case as to why he should be considered an insider in this social group, and it was roundly rejected.

The film frames his pugilistic argument as the authentic one. He proves his point with his fists instead of his words. This is particularly significant insofar as the main distinction between Krug and his assailants boils down to linguistic difference alongside the questionable issue of heritage—the latter being rather dubious in a society founded on immigration from various places of origin.

Such a criterion for inclusion is obviously unsustainable. Indeed, later in the film, Krug again falls under suspicion when he is heard using the German language to communicate with a German prisoner (Wallace Beery at his most sinister). So perhaps, in the end, the film returns us to Hobbes and Freud. Man is caught up in what Kant refers to as a deeply “unsocial sociability”. Inherently mistrustful, man builds society based on some ideological preference for those who we perceive as most like us. Eager to ensure our survival, we band together with others, creating a sense of an “us” set against the threatening “them”, and yet those others that are part of the “we” are not guaranteed to have our interests at heart and those other that we decree are “them” are not guaranteed to desire our harm.

As a bit of post-war propaganda, Behind the Door offers a relatively simple solution. The Germans are shown as cowardly and evil, the Americans brave and good. Krug is, therefore, an American because he is manly and good. But near the film’s end, Krug commits an act so heinous that it brings his purported virtue into question. I can’t help but wonder if the other “American” characters will not attribute this act to a reflection of his “Germanness”.

Even if societies first sprang from kinship groups and racial identification, clearly they need not have their only or their best foundation on such grounds. Behind the Door cannot provide an acceptable, rational answer to the question of the criterion for inclusion. But we had better work toward one.

* * *

Flicker Alley presents the restoration of Behind the Door executed by The San Francisco Silent Film Festival on Blu-ray, DVD, or in a combination package. The package includes the restoration of the film, a re-edited version that was distributed in Russian and is remarkably different from the original, a discussion of the restoration, outtakes, an interview with film historian Kevin Brownlow that features an account of his memorable encounters with director Irvin Willat, and a booklet including brief essays about the film, its restoration, and the music composed for this edition by Stephen Horne.

Irvin Willat’s Behind the Door

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