Stupéfiants (1932) is interesting in itself, to a moderate degree. It's even more interesting for the lives around it, but more of that later.
Yes, the title literally means "stupefiers," and it's a drug drama, a French-German co-production delivering German thriller entertainment with a Gallic lightness of touch. The hero, Jean Murat, is the kind of energetic superman beloved of the German cinema of the era, with some of the agility that distinguished Roland Toutain in L'Herbier's crime romances of the period—one moment where he swings from a crane adds a welcome dash of Doug Fairbanks excitement to the proceedings: one watches keenly for the rest of the movie in case he repeats it, but sadly he doesn't.
Murat's sister has become addicted to drugs, and Murat embarks on his adventures first to save her, then to avenge her. Along the way, the movie delivers some surprisingly accurate behavior from the addict, conniving at her own destruction, protecting her persecutors, and lying incessantly to those who want to help her. Placed in a sanatorium, she escapes. This darkly authentic vision of the psychology of the addict sits slightly oddly amid the derring-do and comic-book villainy elsewhere, but it's a film of many parts, skipping around Europe and with a single cut jumping from a charming location to a wonderfully expressionistic studio slum.
Elevating all this from the diverting to the compelling is the presence of Peter Lorre as the chief villain, "the hunchback." In full bald head mode, just like his Gogol in Mad Love (1935), he's a little less spherical than his appearance in the previous year's M, but has that odd boxy quality we see in Mad Love, perhaps partly the product of tailoring. His character's spinal deformity doesn't really register, just his squareness. He's still a wonderfully precise actor, and he's not climbing all over the furniture to attract our attention, just calmly dominating every scene by the force of his intelligence.
Did any actor decline so effectively? As he transformed through weight loss and gain, dental surgery, chemical dependancy and simple aging, Lorre retained always that mesmeric quality, even as his acting technique shifted completely, from crisp professionalism to a shambolic, saggy loucheness... genuinely unaware of what his next line was going to be, he groped his way through scenes and made this work for him. He's utterly eccentric and yet completely real, in the moment because he hasn't learned the part, liable to do or say anything, any time. His best lines don't sound scripted, either because they've just popped into his head through a fog of unknowing, or because he's literally made them up that instant in order to fight his way through the scene. In The Verdict (1946), when a policeman declares that he heard a scream, Lorre, admittedly playing a drunk, protests, "No scream lives here."
(Asked for a retake on some B-movie, the actor grumbled, "I only do this shit once." The director challenged Lorre as to how he could have done all those Mr. Moto films in that case. "Easy. I was on drugs.")
With Lorre, whose role seems notably well-written (unpredictable, genuinely intelligent), the film surpasses its generic roots, as everything Lorre touched tends to.
He had a sympathetic director, Kurt Gerron, an actor himself (he plays the magician in The Blue Angel in 1930), and it is Gerron's story that gives this film its resonance. Gerron was Jewish. When Hitler came to power, Gerron was offered several chances to escape the country, but he never did. No doubt he was fearful: how could he earn a living as an actor in a country where he didn't speak the language. Better to sit this out, to wait for the political pendulum to swing back to normality, to sanity.
Inevitably, he was incarcerated, but at an unusual camp, Theresienstadt. This place was reserved for prominent people, people who might be missed. They were kept alive, so that they might be produced if someone required it. And it was decided that a film should be made about this place, showing how nice it was, how well the inmates were treated. Unfortunately, it wasn't that nice, and the first attempts to produce a documentary did not have the required aura of cosiness. The documentarist was taken off the job (and, I fear, killed) and Gerron got the job. His background in fiction rather than documentary made him ideal. His film, The Führer Donates a City to the Jews (1944), strove to depict his new home as a comfortable resort, even as his once-capacious waistline diminished under starvation. Gerron was only trying to stay alive, and as long as he could stay useful to his captors, he had a chance.
But even in hell, they have shooting schedules, and production was eventually declared complete. The film was never shown: events had overtaken it. Gerron was shipped to Auschwitz. He arrived on the last day of summary executions...
I first encountered this story as a bitter footnote in Josef von Sternberg's autobiography. It was subsequently detailed in Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender's excellent documentary, Prisoner of Paradise (2002).
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.