We are living in a ruined world. The general consensus seems to be that we’ve scorched the earth below our feet and now live in the last days. It is a malaise that transcends political persuasion. Left, right, and center: everyone agrees that the world has gone to Hell. If global warming, pandemics, and political destabilization were not evidencing enough, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed our world to the brink. It seems as if the apocalypse is unfolding all around us.
Growing up among a lot of Christian fundamentalists, I am quite used to living through the end of the world. The Rapture and the Mark of the Beast were always at hand, so I may be a bit numb to these recent signs of the End of Days. However, even though I generally expect the world to keep spinning until it does not, the notion that we are between epochs truly haunts me. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and its nightmarish Spiritus Mundi terrors have me looking toward Bethlehem to see what rough beast is waiting to be born.
We are, in a very real way “in-between” things. There is always going to be terror in the in-between. The liminal is where monsters emerge into our world.
Edgar G. Ulmer’s bizarre and too often unacknowledged film entry in the classic Universal monster cycle, The Black Cat (1934), is set in a time such as ours. Though it stars both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, each at the height of their uncanny powers, the film has traditionally left viewers confused and unsatisfied. It is outlandish and self-referential, both a horror film and a parody of a horror film, so critics and horror audiences have often been at a loss for what to do with it. Too often, its very existence is simply ignored.
Watching the film again in 2022, I argue that the world may have finally caught up to The Black Cat, and that it is a film entirely for and of our time, a visual feast of depravity for the end of the world. Contemporary viewers, if they look closely, might see a bit too much of our current situation in The Black Cat.
The Black Cat: The Plot
The film’s plot is lurid and melodramatic. American newlyweds Joan (Julie Bishop) and Peter (David Manners) are touring Central Europe on their honeymoon in the interregnum between the world wars. The Austro-Hungarian empire lies in ruins under their feet and the nation has built a new world on the wastelands, eager to show it off to rich, young Americans. An unlucky coincidence leads them to the decadent home of Architect Poelzig (Karloff), who turns out to be a Satanic High Priest.
Poelzig has constructed a futurist-inspired home of nightmarish modern architecture on top of the ruins of a military base, one that he himself betrayed to the Russians during the war, dooming his countrymen to death and torture. One of the survivors, Dr. Vitos Werdegast (Lugosi), recently released from military prison, has returned to exact revenge upon Poelzig, both for his military crimes and the personal crime of kidnapping and murdering Werdegast’s wife. After a series of accidents, including a fatal bus crash on a washed-out road, he brings the idyllic American couple along with him to Poelzig’s house of horrors.
As the story unfolds, we discover that Poelzig is not only a traitor, he is a serial murderer who kills young women at the peak of their beauty and preserves them, encased in glass, in the labyrinthine basement of his futurist home. And if that were not enough, he is a high priest of Satan and he sets his eyes on Joan as a sacrifice for an upcoming ritual.
Modern Architecture and Ruins
The doomed bus driver explains to his vacationing passengers that Engineer Poelzig constructed his masterpiece of modern architecture on the ruins of Fort Marmaros, a battlefield where tens of thousands of men died in a bloody chapter of the war. The Black Cat makes much of this paradoxical location. Significant screen time is dedicated to exploring this space, so much so, it often feels like a perverse HGTV show.
A disembodied camera frequently guides us through the angular, “open-concept” designs of Poelzig’s futurist living spaces, as well as the dark caverns of the subterranean “dead spaces” of the home. In horror films, basements lend themselves to psychoanalytic approaches: an architectural manifestation of the subconscious.
If we apply the lens of psychology to the film’s setting, Poelzig’s “new” architecture is not a radical break from the past. The nightmares of the past persist in the subconscious of the present. The house itself is an in-between space that carries the brutality of the past into the future. The shiny public face of his design is a mask that hides the horrors underneath. At this in-between moment in history, the past and the future still grasp hands at the site of Poelzig’s home.
Aesthetics and the Objectification of Women
The primary form those horrors take is Poelzig’s practice of literally objectifying women. Karloff’s Poelzig is his nation’s greatest architect and has mastered the aesthetic of its new age. He has taken the appreciation and study of beauty to terrifying, barbaric ends, however.
Early in the film, Poelzig takes us, then Werdegast on a tour of his macabre museum of exemplary women. Karloff’s large, intense eyes are perfect for this role. They turn Poelzig’s gaze into something sinister and disturbing. As he stares at his dead women, all clothed in white, preserved in their moment of aesthetic perfection, his gaze is intense and ravenous. This master of aesthetics has turned the appreciation of beauty into the consumption of the beautiful. He has dehumanized these women and made them into literal objects for his aesthetic pleasure. This element of the film has obvious relevance for the internet age, where women are infinitely reduced to images for male consumption. Poelzig’s hungry eyes are all over the internet.
Politics and the Occult
All of this, even the objectification of women, has political significance. Poelzig is not only an architect focused on the aesthetics of life. He was a military figure who made a genocidal political decision and his views on gender are political as well, in that they assume his absolute mastery over women; he is Lord of the castle and they are his subjects.
Poelzig’s authoritarian politics cannot be easily separated from his occult practices. This is where I find the 1934 film to be eerily prescient about our current moment of epochal crisis.
Everything about Poelzig screams “Nazi”: his black, straight-lined outfits, his authoritarianism, the futurist design of his home, his cruel obsession with blonde women’s bodies. Nazi power had already risen and Hitler was Chancellor when The Black Cat was released in 1934, and this film’s exploration of terrible transitions seems laser-focused on the dangers of the rising tide of right-wing politics. Poelzig’s status as an occultist is intimately connected to his association with far-right, authoritarian politics.
It is by now no secret that many Nazis were obsessed with the occult; Steven Spielberg made a film about this in 1981 called Raiders of the Lost Ark, which you may have heard of. Far-right groups today are still attracted to occult practices and symbolism. Many white supremacist groups embed their politics in the worship of Norse gods like Odin, for instance.
In fact, much of our political turmoil today features this strange intersection between far-right politics and the occult. The Qanon mythology is at its heart an occult belief system in which there is a “reality” that believers maintain is hidden (or occulted) from the uninitiated. The famous Q Shaman, Jake Angeli, of the January 6th Capitol riots is a perfect manifestation of the occult foundations of his political brand. His fur hat, horns, and face paint might fit right in among Poelzig’s followers.
We See ‘the Cat’ Clearly, Now
Somehow the strangeness of The Black Cat has lessened in recent years. The film’s seemingly random threads, architecture, Satanism, the horrors of WWI, the necrophiliac objectification of women, seem more coherent now than they used to, perhaps. In 1934, Ulmer captured the chaos of a disastrous historical transition in the strange horror this now seemingly forgotten film.
One of the more frightening ideas that the film puts forth is embedded in its climax. When the supposed hero, Dr. Werdegast, finally gains the upper hand on Poelzig, he does not take a heroic path. He too descends into barbarism. Werdegast binds Poelzig and skins him alive, a nauseating, horrific conclusion. The film’s bleakest observation about humanity is found at this moment: in times such as these, even our heroes become monsters.
Philips, Brian. “The Magical Thinking of the Far Right“. The Ringer. 12 December 2018.