Enter the Bauhaus by matthew c. hoffman
“The very high level of conceptual detail in the decor of The Black Cat, remarkable in so ephemeral a construction as a film set, would be noteworthy in the context of an actual building. Each of the set’s individual rooms exhibits an impressive formal and spatial complexity. The bedrooms, for example, are vertically divided by cantilevered projections supported along one wall by freestanding, wedge-shaped piers. Every room is sparsely furnished with chrome tubular chairs polished to a high sheen. Luminous walls and ceilings, light fixtures, sliding doors, and digital clocks are among the electrically driven devices that serve the inhabitants of this elegant Corbusian machine a habiter.” ~ Donald Albrecht, Designing Dreams
The Black Cat (1934) is one of the most striking examples of Modernist design in 1930s cinema. In many scholarly examinations of director Edgar G. Ulmer’s masterpiece, authors frequently refer to the prevading “Bauhaus” influence. When I screen this film in the 2012 Screen Deco program, however, few in the audience will know what that is or what elements define it. So now is the time to shed some artificial illumination on the term.
The Bauhaus, or “house of construction,” was a state-sponsored design school in Germany that was very prominent in the Modernist movement. It was founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919 by Walter Gropius. He created an environment that fostered an artistic spirit. The school sought to harmoniously link all the visual arts together with modern technology. The objective: to blend art with industry for the betterment of mankind. The end result was often a product that could meet the needs of a society. In other words, the design took a functional shape. Form following function was one of the basic tenets. These designs were often simplified and devoid of ornamentation.
One of the concepts that the Bauhaus taught was that mass production and quality were not mutually exclusive. Something could be useful and have a beauty in its design. It was a style meant to transcend the different social classes. One of Gropius’ original goals, put forth in his 1919 manifesto, was to “create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist.” By the early 1920s, Gropius was seeking to adapt the Bauhaus philosophy to the industrial world of machines and modern production methods.
The second location in Dessau, Germany.
Though it would move to other cities in Germany and be run by other directors, the Bauhaus school remained at the forefront of artistic experimentation in interior and industrial design as well as in architecture. Buildings constructed in the Bauhaus tradition, for example, often had horizontal roofs and steep facades. The lines were simple and the shapes geometric. The Bauhaus went beyond building construction, though; in fact, the school didn’t offer classes in architecture until 1927. Everything from modern furniture to wallpaper was designed there. But many important names in the architectural field were connected to the school, such as the Hungarian designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, a member of the faculty, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who served as director from 1930-1933. Both men would emigrate to the United States. Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus school in Chicago. Mies van der Rohe, coincidentally, would also make a name for himself in Chicago as an architect.
The school, which had emerged in the wake of World War I under the liberal Weimar Republic, was eventually shut down by political pressure in 1933. The Nazis, who had recently come to power, attacked the cosmopolitan art of the Bauhaus. Hitler envisioned his thousand-year Reich built upon a neo-classical scheme. There was no room for “degenerate” Modernist aesthetics.
But the spirit of Modernism flourished in other parts of the world. In America, it reached the public en masse through the medium of motion pictures where audiences could for the first time discover this new architecture. In Hollywood, theatregoers experienced the Modernist trend in films like What a Widow! (1930), which starred Gloria Swanson. But one of the most memorable films of the 1930s was Universal’s The Black Cat, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.
Ulmer was a product of Weimar cinema. He had studied architecture in Germany before entering film and was undoubtedly familiar with the Bauhaus style. He served as a set designer early in his career for stage director Max Reinhardt. In addition, he was a designer-apprentice to the great German director F.W. Murnau before eventually coming to America. The Black Cat, his second film in the United States, has a strong Germanic influence throughout due to Ulmer’s (uncredited) hand in its set design. (Charles D. Hall, a brilliant designer himself, was the credited art director.)
The film begins with a honeymooning couple, Joan (Jacqueline Wells) and Peter Alison (David Manners)– “one of America’s greatest writers… of unimportant books.” On their train ride they meet the renowned Hungarian psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), a soldier from the Great War with a score to settle. After an accident on a bus in the countryside, Werdegast guides the weary travelers to a modernist house built on the ruins of Fort Marmaros. The owner, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), is the man Werdegast has sought out.
Joan becomes the object of Poelzig’s desire; the normality of the newlyweds’ lives is threatened by the otherworldliness he represents. He is a man who makes museum displays out of past loves and reads The Rites of Lucifer while in bed. The setting breeds an atmosphere of death. The film is about evil, and Poelzig is evil incarnate– a practitioner of the Black Arts who is masked by a veneer of sophistication. The couple will not be able to escape this house so easily. A sense of entrapment and doom pervade the movie. Their lives hang in the balance as Werdegast and Poelzig square off against each other in a game of chess that will decide their fate.
Poelzig is an architect. (His name is Ulmer’s homage to German Expressionist designer Hans Poelzig.) The home, built on the ruins of a World War I battlefield, is heavily influenced by the geometric asymmetry of the Bauhaus tradition. Despite having the “old dark house” trappings of stranded guests and secret rooms, The Black Cat is unique because its horror is set in a thoroughly modern and brightly-lit setting–not a castle or an abandoned house of shadows. In fact, Modernism is equated with evil in the film because everything in it is a creation of Poelzig. His home becomes a prison– stark and industrial. The Black Cat is a superb example of how set design can establish the mood and tone of a film.
“The house is a cold and glossy marvel of glass brick, Bakelite floors, and curving metal staircases,” write Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers in Screen Deco. “Furnishings include glass tables, Breuer chairs, and digital clocks. ‘When one sees The Black Cat today,’ mused Ulmer in an interview, ‘one realizes that the set could have been conceived by Poelzig twenty years after the film was made.'”
Ulmer was ahead of his time in designing Universal’s most perverse horror. It remains a favorite among genre fans and Karloff-Lugosi admirers alike, but it’s also Hollywood’s best example of the Bauhaus influence. It’s a landmark film in architecture because it shows the concepts of a style in practice. Where horror and the Bauhaus meet, you have The Black Cat. Enter at your own risk.
“The luminous two-story wall in the central hall, for example, is actually an illusion. Although its surface appears to be formed of a square egg-crate grid of thin fins infilled with frosted glass, the wall is actually a flat assemblage of panels painted with trompe l’oeil fins and shadows.” ~ Donald Albrecht