All Lost in Wonder: Edgar G.Ulmer

Uploaded 1 March 2001

for Bill Krohn

Edgar G.Ulmer (1904-72) suffered a series of strokes and toward the end of his life was almost totally paralyzed and unable to speak. These last years were his “purgatory,” his daughter Arianne recalls, “mostly because he was totally helpless to do anything for any of the people he loved so dearly. His was truly a Greek Tragedy. He never gave up but he suffered the pains of the damned since he knew he had hurt so many of his loved ones…but then he was an incurable Romantic.” [1]

For this German Romantic moviemaker, light was the romance. Light recorded the vibrations of the soul. In Green Fields (US 1937), a Yiddish miracle play set in rural Eastern Europe, Ulmer’s way of making us aware of the light falling on the fields; of the rounded, choreographed bodies of the harvesters; of photographic gray scales; all remind us that he trained under F.W. Murnau and called him “one of the most cultivated of all filmmakers,” [2] meaning of course that Murnau shows us that each moment in life is heavenly, adventurous, and magical. Cinema is a sense of space and time, of an event as luminist.

Thus in Green Fields, when a young rabbi sits in his synagogue one last time, before forsaking his friends and all he knows in obedience to a call to search the world for “some good Jews,” black smoke from a candle curls upwards, turning time into a luminous event, then into a spatial one as sun bursts through an opened door and across the darkness, setting the air ablaze. “The idea that spirituality is achieved through acceptance, not renunciation, of the material world is made apparent,” writes J. Hoberman. [3]

Incarnation of time into space, of the “word” into the world, is repeated in the next shot, when we watch our young rabbi wandering the countryside. It is not he who moves, but the countryside in back of him, in a series of superimpressions. He stays at frame-center, for life’s true journey is a moral one-trying to be a “good Jew”-and from this conviction he will not stray. Ulmer’s movie, indeed all of Ulmer’s movies, are morality plays not because heroes are saved or damned, but because they turn their convictions into action, their “word” becomes the world. At the end of one of Ulmer’s last movies, Hannibal (US/Italy 1960), Hannibal stands frame-center fighting but not moving, as a voice-off tells us that he is damned to fight ceaselessly for years, knowing all the while that he will not win, and we understand that it is Hannibal’s conviction that damns him. In movie after movie, Ulmer will track and pan following a hero or heroine in constant position in the frame, so that there is a constancy of self despite a change of place or desperation to escape. In contrast, when Ulmer keeps the camera still and makes the person move within the stable frame, we understand that the world stays the same while the person is changing, and perhaps that the world and change are out of the person’s control. We are both free and determined. In a magic moment in Ruthless (US 1948), impoverished 13-year-old Horace Vendig walks through the gate and into the yard of a rich family; the camera is still, for until this moment Horace has been a victim wherever his place. But now, as Horace stops and stands still, the camera, after a pause, begins to move in, tracking through the gate and down the path to join Horace, and we understand that Horace has taken control of his life and intends to conquer a place in this new home. It is typical of Ulmer’s art that, as with Murnau and King Vidor and John Ford, abstract ideas like conviction and free will are argued not in words but in sensory motions, and flesh becomes word. He even puts morality plays within morality plays, whereby he can be even more abstract aesthetically: the morality puppet-opera (Faust) in Bluebeard (US 1944), the morality ballet staged in The Pirates of Capri (US 1949); the morality fights-to-the-death for entertainment in Hannibal; the morality nightclub acts in Moon over Harlem (US 1939).

Ulmer had met the miracle play at the Jesuit prep school (gymnasium) he attended in Vienna. Morality plays-tens of thousands of them, on myriads of subjects sacred and secular-had been central to Jesuit education since the 1500s. They had formed Corneille, Molière, Voltaire, Calderón, Lope de Vega, and now Ulmer, whose upbringing had been agnostic and anticlerical. Jesuit plays taught language and poise, religion and morality. They trained students to grasp abstractions through the senses. They inculcated the Jesuit virtues: love of good, will-power, and self-control. [4]  Like the young rabbi in Green Fields. Like Edgar Ulmer himself. “He often examined Redemption, Predestination, etc., etc.,” says Arianne Ulmer. “He was truly a philosopher by curiosity.

“The Jesuits were always sending him into detention in the basement for the weekend with extra homework. Dad was a difficult unruly brilliant student. He did not have to pay since he was destitute. He always felt honored to have been chosen to attend an excellent school and obtain an excellent education with noble families, etc. They were very strict according to his memory.”

Edgar’s father Siegfried, a Socialist wine merchant from Moravia, had died of a trench infection during World War I, leaving four children in the care of his wife, a snobbish Viennese coquette named Henrietta Edels. Edgar, 11, was the eldest. Anti-Semitism was virulent in Vienna and it was only a few years later that, upon applying for the Jesuit school, which had a quota system, he discovered he was Jewish. When finally the war ended, the city was starving. From a bread line, the family would get just one loaf a day, and Henrietta would take half. Eventually she abandoned her children. An orphan society sent the two youngest to England and Holland, and Edgar, now 14, and Carola, 9, to Sweden, where Edgar was bounced back and forth among four families for a year. “He always spoke of Sweden with great affection,” Arianne Ulmer relates, “and I have a wonderful photo of him as a teenage boy sitting with his whole Uppsala family of Swedish women. He loved Uppsala.”

By 1920 Ulmer was back in Vienna, at the Jesuit school, seeking the good, will-power, and self-control. Because, like young Horace in Ruthless, he could not handle his anger that his mother was with another man, he was living on the charity of the parents of an actor friend, Joseph Schildkraut.

“He did not have faith,” says Arianne. But he had faith in himself. And faith or the lack of it would be the focus of almost all his movies. He was fascinated with “the possibility of God, and the morality and humanity of man and his culture.” In each movie, as in Green Fields, the sense would constantly appear that ideas and values matter, and perhaps somehow transcend the individual. “Man couldn’t create the world,” remarks a boy in Green Fields, and the rabbi replies, “He can destroy it”-an idea with resonance in 1937, on the eve of World War II, and one which Ulmer repeats in 1960 with the warnings in Beyond the Time Barrier (US) of nuclear winter, and one which is portrayed in every film in the ways his heroes and villains conduct their lives. There is always a sense of our actions resonating in time and space. There is always the matter of being a “good Jew.” Following Vidor’s Hallelujah (US 1929), Ulmer puts people on a land, in a time, in a culture; ideas are tangible. Green Fields, typically, has folk tunes, singing, ceremonies, rituals and proverbs, and a working-class perspective, and elaborates the least-important-and-therefore-most-meaningful things in life, like two girls talking about a boy. By honing documentary material into skits, choreographing it into paintings, and orchestrating it into Murnau-like cinematography, Ulmer, like Murnau’s other disciples, Ford and Rossellini, turns documents into history and melodrama (opera, when possible), and lets us experience what’s going on in people’s emotions. Italian neo-realists, Vidor, Murnau, Jean Renoir, Ford, Flaherty, and Ulmer, all shared a populist perspective, and combined documentary with painterly style and melodrama. Ulmer’s movies are a series of ethnic studies: Hungarians, Yiddish, Ukrainians, blacks in Harlem, blacks in Alabama, Wall Street tycoons, Navajos, Mexicans, Berliners, Neapolitans, New York Dutch, Boston WASPS, Spaniards, Caucasians, Armenians, and Brabantians. But they are also studies in ethnic faith and conviction.

The critical wisdom of Ulmer’s champions has usually suggested otherwise. In 1956 Luc Moullet defined Ulmer’s world as “the great solitude of man without God.” [5]  And in 1974 John Belton described it as “an irrational [world] governed by crazy nightmare more than by any coldly mechanical sense of fate.” [6]

Yes, there is plenty of cold lonely mountain top in Ulmer, of feeling adrift in a senseless universe. That German romantic is always there. But Moullet’s notion of a “spiritual progression leading from yielding to sin to the salvation of the soul,” though accurate for The Naked Dawn (US 1955), belies the steadfastness of German romantic Will in Ulmer’s heroes, as does Belton’s nihilistic argument that “the world around Ulmer’s characters, both their physical environment and the events they experience, renders them its powerless prisoners.”

The world around them does sometimes threaten the sanity of Ulmer’s heroes, notably in Strange Illusion (US 1945), but it never succeeds (although it will destroy Fuller’s reporter in the Shock Corridor [US 1963]). Despite Belton’s contention that “the archetypal Ulmerian situation consists of one or more characters helplessly trapped in a hostile, unfamiliar setting…filled with a sense of doom and self-imposed retribution,” Ulmer’s heroes do not, in fact, question their convictions, succumb to solitude, yield to sin, or condescend to feeling helpless (Murder is My Beat [US 1955], Her Sister’s Secret [US 1946], The Pirates of CapriThe Naked Venus [US 1958], The Light Ahead [US 1939], Moon over Harlem, Hannibal, Girls in Chains [US 1943], Carnegie Hall [US 1947], Cossacks in Exile [US 1939], Thunder over Texas [US 1934]). They do progress spiritually, usually like the young rabbi in Green Fields who learns that the Torah has to be made flesh in nature and labor, [7]  rather than remain just a book in a synagogue, so that faith becomes our reality.

“You’ve got to believe. It’s the only thing we have to hold onto. You’ve got to. You’ve got to,” proclaims Fishke the Cripple in The Light Ahead. “Teach me to sing again!” insists a singer whose mother is shot in Moon over Harlem, while a black leader’s response to his community’s moral devastation is undoubting-“There’s so much to be done here! It’s fairly screaming for leadership!” There’s a declamatory quality to Ulmer’s heroes; they are not bashful. In Cossacks in Exile, a girl sings to the moon; but there is magic anytime anyone sings in Ulmer. In The Naked Venus a young lawyer (Arianne Ulmer) throws back her head, puffs cigarettes, never blinks behind the defiant black ramparts of her eye-glasses, acts as though she has the world on a leash-and can’t recall her married name on her honeymoon.

The paradigm of Ulmer’s heroes is Geneviève de Brabant (in an episode in The Loves of Three Queens [Italy 1954]). [8]  When this medieval countess is sentenced by her husband to be beheaded for infidelity, the ax-man, knowing her to be innocent, sets her free, and she dwells alone in the forest for five years with the son she has borne there. When finally her husband learns the truth and comes for her, her happiness is complete.

Who among us would be so readily forgiving? Is this a patriarch’s pipe dream?

In fact it is not Geneviève’s charity that is the theme of this morality play, but her conviction. Here is a woman with love of good, will-power, and self-control. She knows what she wants. She will no more destroy what she values now than she would speak out earlier, when a simple declaration of innocence would have saved her from being beheaded. It never occurs to her, nor to any Ulmer hero, to define themselves in others’ terms comparable instance occurs in The Light Ahead, Ulmer’s second Yiddish movie (Di klyatshe), released the week of Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, which makes not the slightest reference to any possible threat outside the Jewish world (in fact never suggests everyone on Earth is not Jewish) and instead makes searing denunciations by Jews of the degeneracy of their shtetl life-in the very areas the Nazis were about to “cleanse.” In Hallelujah, likewise, there is no hint that we are not all black, or that a black was being lynched each week in the American South. As with Geneviève, such moral defiance looks beyond mere physical survival and becomes a sort of faith.

The good stay good, the bad stay bad. Ulmer’s villains-Horace (Zachary Scott, Ruthless), Jenny (Hedy Lamarr, The Strange Woman), Dollar Bill (Bud Harris,  Moon over Harlem), and Bluebeard (John Carradine, Bluebeard)-are vampires, Fausts, indifferent to anything but their insatiable desires. “Anyone seeking to destroy our happiness is a menace to be done away with,” Bluebeard ordains. These people are unattractive, off-putting, and schematic; they are boring. As befits a proper morality play. Ruthless has been called Ulmer’s Citizen Kane, because it attacks wealth, and because Horace, like Kane and Jenny and perhaps Ulmer himself, strives vainly to earn the love of an abusive parent. But Ruthless resembles Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (and Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir) more than Kane. Welles deals with the frivolity of inherited money, Ulmer with an ethnic community-“rising capitalists”-and with the destructiveness of will-to-power. “I sure like the way you talk, Dollar. It makes us all feel like men,” lauds a gangster in Harlem, where wife beating, knifefights, and rapacious sexuality are normal events in the best families. “He wasn’t a man, he was a way of life,” a character remarks of Horace, but with applicability to all our villains. Horace’s manipulations on Wall Street mirror Jenny’s in the parlor, Dollar’s in Harlem, Hannibal’s in Italy-Hannibal who “cannot be stopped,” must “keep marching,” and can only destroy, never build. “Darkness has almost entirely absorbed the light, the robot has triumphed over the living,” writes Lourcelles of Bluebeard. [9]

“The invisible strings tying Bluebeard to his fate resemble those used to manipulate his beautiful puppets,” Lourcelles continues. Yet surely Bluebeard’s “fate” is the product of his own choices; a mindset that blames fate is already villainous for Ulmer. Ulmer’s failed people reject every grace offered them. They end up voids-black holes of egomania.

Detour (US 1945) is usually interpreted as Ulmer’s genuflection to fate. For Lourcelles, here is “a really Ulmerian sense of the absurd…Ubiquitous fate imposes on the hero’s will unexpected detours which will end up annihilating him.” [10] And Belton agrees that the “journey” is the hero’s assassin: “Al Roberts embarks on a journey that destroys his identity and his will and that can only end in his death.” [11]

But the morality play in Detour is that Roberts makes constant choices, lies to himself, and has the perspective of a villain rather than a hero. As Roberts chatters away in always-self-serving rationalizations of his actions, the background music is often the then-popular tune, “I’m always chasing rainbows” (to Chopin’s Fantasy-impromptu), and Roberts’ “convictions” are as fallacious as they are illusory. His piano playing too is phony. And the princess he’s hitchhiking across the continent to save is not interested in him. After he accidentally causes the death of a man who gives him a ride, he moralizes his helplessness while all the while helping himself to the dead man’s car, clothes, and identity. For Ulmer’s villains, in contrast to Geneviève de Brabant, there is always a conflict between morality and survival. In The Wife of Monte Cristo (US 1946), a health official won’t sacrifice his fortune to save thousands of lives. In Beyond the Time Barrier, almost no one is willing to sacrifice themselves to save even the whole world. In Detour Roberts keeps choosing survival over morality, his desires over anyone else’s, just as Horace and Jenny do. But for Ulmer, only morality makes survival possible. Self-aggrandizement cannot be the basis of morals.

Roberts piles one lie on top of another, not because he has to, but because his conscience is corrupt. When he learns that the dead man whose belongings he has stolen was himself planning to bilk his own father, Roberts is cocky and righteous, ripe for the fall. “$760. This was a lot of jack. But believe me, it was the kind of money I’d rather not have,” he moralizes, while slipping the money swiftly into his pocket, as though hiding his decision, but the inconsistency of word and act can’t be hidden from Ulmer’s juxtaposition of voice-over and image, portending Bresson. “He wasn’t a big shot…just a chiseler,” Robert moralizes, and a few scenes later we find him plotting to steal $15 million. “Maybe the old man is lucky his son kicked off,” he moralizes, and a few scenes later we learn the old man is dying and calling for his son. The vanity of playing God. But in Ulmer’s morality tales, debts are always paid.

And Roberts does not accept his debts. “Just my luck,” he moralizes, when the hitchhiker he picks up turns out to be Vera, the girl the dead man had told him about. “Had to be the very last person I should ever have met. That’s life. Whichever way you turn fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” Yet in fact, he had been warned about this woman. In fact, it was hubristic to have contact with anyone while fleeing from a “murder” in the dead man’s car. Roberts even starts fantasizing about the hitchhiker’s hidden beauty (while Ulmer’s camera dwells on her cruel visage). “I began to feel sorry for her,” Roberts moralizes, driving along, just before Vera tells him he’s trapped and she’s boss, whereupon Ulmer jumps his camera’s point of view from looking at their faces in the front seat, to looking at the back of their heads, thus cutting back and forth across the axis (and figuratively superimposing them on top of each other) as Roberts begins slowly to comprehend-which in his case means repackaging lies. Similarly, Ulmer begins and ends each sequence in the motel room by peering from outside through a window (and Roberts voice-over), then cutting across the axis to show the camera inside the room, recording what actually happens, emphasizing an altered perspective.

These injections of truth climax when Roberts, after causing a second death accidentally, rushes into the bedroom and we see both him and his image in the mirror next to him staring at the corpse of Vera-a quote from the famous climax of McCarey’s Love Affair (US 1939), when Charles Boyer finds his painting in Irene Dunne’s bedroom. Except that Boyer awakens to reality, whereas Roberts closes down, this time in a hand-held pan around the room, trying and failing to focus on objects. “Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all,” he exclaims, sounding like despotic, irresponsible Queen Maria Carolina when she’s forced to abdicate in The Pirates of Capri: “Why was I permitted to be hated by the people all these years?” [12]

The camera follows Roberts, keeping him in frame as he walks along the road, not letting him escape himself, then holds steady as the police car stops and drives him out of the frame, and finally stares, portending the finales of Antonioni’s L’eclisse (Italy 1962) and The Passenger (Italy 1975), at the place on the road, empty now, where Roberts was. It’s a picture of absence-which for Roberts is a kind of surcease, one granted also to Horace, Jenny, and Bluebeard, if not to Hannibal. If we blame Roberts’ journey on fate, the empty spot on a road becomes an image of nihilism, absurdity, and predestination; indeed, in the sense that debts are always paid, the fearsome karma that passes between the dead man, Vera and Roberts in Detour is an allegory of predestination. But it is a predestiny which the individuals design themselves. There is an Old Testament justice in their mutual slaughter.

“He was also fascinated with Calvin and Hegel and naturally Luther,” Arianne recalls. “I was principally educated by him. We traveled so very much that I was never around school a great deal. Father read to me practically every night from the lives of composers or operas or Greek mythology my whole childhood. Later on around ten I was to read on my own-Dickens, Carlyle, Goethe, Shakespeare, Balzac, Dostoyevski, etc., etc. Saturday morning was mine alone with him. We would listen to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio and I would give my book reports. We took piano together and often played the Well Tempered Clavier on two pianos. Soon I lost interest in the piano since he was making such fast progress…I felt I never could catch up. My piano teacher for a while was Leo Erdody’s father who was the last living pupil of Liszt. [Erody scored many Ulmer films.] Later on Paul Dessau who composed the score for Mutter courage at our house while he lived with us during the war was also my teacher. My godfather was Fritz Reiner-my middle name is Carlotta after his wife. Dad had known him in Hungary. He taught a class for one term at the Curtis Institute of Music while Reiner was there. Reiner helped Dad become close with the impresario Sol Hurock who in turn helped him obtain most of the fantastic artists used in Carnegie Hall [Stokowski, Rubinstein, Heifetz, Walter, Pons, Peerce, Pinza…]. He worked very hard at being an educator. He felt he could do a better job on me than any normal American school. He never worried about my social life. Children were not required since he felt I was being exposed to the great minds of the time. He loved Thomas Mann, Schiller, and Goethe. He was a European intellectual who had based most of his thinking on the great minds of the German language, only to find that it led to a stupid monster of an Austrian painter named Hitler. For the rest of his life he tried to understand how civilization could end up in barbarism. During the Second World War, Dad refused to have any German spoken around him. So I lost my heritage. He only counted in German when we played piano together or when he lost his temper and was cursing at me. French literature was also basic in the household. Molière, etc., etc. I was also trained to paint. I had ballet lessons from Kosloff, Brunislava Nejinski, Kyra Nejinski, Bekefi. He spent endless hours and days in museums teaching me art and showing me architecture and the great wonders of European cities. He also trained me as a photographer. I have many memories of dragging his Speed Graflex, two Rollies and Leica, plus camera kit and filters, like a donkey wherever we went. I worked many nights in his darkroom where he developed and printed his photos. To top all of this off: He trained me to cook. I started as a scullery maid learning the tricks of how to slice and prepare for him all he required for his experiments. As I became older he wandered far and wide looking for great eating experiences wherever we were. We were both insomniacs (I still am) and since our rooms adjoined, if he saw a light was on, or if I saw his light was on, we would get in the car and drive into the night on some wild adventure. Sometimes when in Europe, for instance, he would drive from Munich to Linz so we could have goulash soup at six in the morning with the farmers before they went into the fields. In Los Angeles we went to all night markets which were preparing for the next day and gobbled doughnuts. Paris was Les Halles and of course sausage at the Pied de Cochon

“My father even pretended (I don’t believe he ever gained an actual diploma) to be a Doctor of Philosophy. His letters to me from Germany in 1955 are all on a letter head that reads ‘Dr.Phil. Edgar George Ulmer’. When I got married, he gave me his blessings when we were alone, and said I would always feel lost in the valley of ‘normal life’. I belonged on a cold lonely mountain top. His letters to me speak of this often.

“He was an FDR New Deal Liberal. He feared the Germans would win the war but he was a socialist at heart. He disliked communism like all isms. Much too much of an individualist for that pitch. He loved this country, baseball, hot-dogs, Jackie Gleason, jazz, Sid Caesar, Jimmy Durante, and Bar BQs. His true love was classical music. He had really wanted to be a conductor. [His movies are full of Schumann, Wagner, Mahler, and Beethoven-German Romantics.] He hated Classic Comic Books, country music, and phony producers. He hated war, did not buy propaganda, backed the Civil Rights Movement, and mourned the losses of the 60s-the Kennedys, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King. He did not even know how to swim or play tennis or golf, did not drink (except exceptionally a good beer), sometimes smoked but never finished the cigarettes, collected first editions of mostly English and French writers.

“My father hated the Korean War. He also was enraged at Vietnam. He felt that General MacArthur was a monster and we celebrated when Truman fired him and brought him home. The idea that anyone would even consider using the A bomb was insanity! He was always raging at the dinner table. I must note that when I was 15 during the Red Scare in Hollywood, I was shocked that my father told me to stop demonstrating for UNICEF and for a Latvian Spanish teacher I had in the one year I attended highschool in L.A. who was being investigated. He was frightened and did not wish to be picked up as a Communist. I recall I called him a hypocrite who had lied to me. I did not make it easy for him. I was very young and idealistic. He understood. I think he knew what I was about.

“Dad first of all could draw, and many a night he would draw in advance every shot that came to mind. He had a large drafting table next to his bed. His storyboard activities were a means to plan for an inexpensive expedient, but they never fettered his creativity. He felt free to forget and reinvent during shooting. He loved to experiment within the confines of what he had in mind. He loved all the new technical happenings. I remember when Tri-X Film first came out and he could finally shoot dark corridors and ceilings without tons of light.

“Dad always had a light meter and frame tool around his neck. On the set he was always designing the set up. In real life he did the same. Loved Renoir father and son. He was a landscape artist. His love of the land (like Ford/Murnau) is always present. He made a huge painting of the shot in Green Fields of the man tilling the land with his plow and hung it in our living room over the coach. That is how much he loved the image. The peasant. The working man. Ulmer was never a Communist but he was part of the socialist revolutionary beliefs of his European era.

“He could be tough on actors if he felt he needed to liven them up. He usually charmed it out of you, but he had a quick temper and could intimidate when he wanted to. His Austrian accent and Germanic sense of humor (almost Talmudic) are really delightful. He really could be terribly funny or quite mad and frightening. In any case he was always dramatic and charming.”

“I felt he was the most attractive man,” recalls Helen Beverly, the ingenue in Green Fields and The Light Ahead. “He was young, he was handsome, he had a shock of black hair. He was temperamental, he was sexy. Women were all over him. They followed him. They adored him. There was a great sweetness and sensitivity about him. I remember him putting his hands on my cheeks and talking to me softly about what the scene is and what we would like to portray in a particular scene. It was almost like he hypnotized me with explaining. He did that with all the actors, even the men, the character actors. He would embrace them and tell them, and he knew his material. He knew his script word for word. He would direct the actors the way you direct music. The timing, you know, he would lead you and you would know when it was to be slow and when the other actor was to wait and not to jump in, he would give them the cue when to speak. That was amazing to me.”

He used a baton. At home, he conducted in the living room with records. On set he conducted actors. “He drove Hedy Lamarr crazy because he timed the way she spoke with the baton, and would slap her ankles with the baton if she goofed!” said his wife Shirley Ulmer. [13]  “He never put it down as far as I can remember,” said Beverly. “Higher for excitement, lower for control of emotion and sound. And he was very familiar with the music that he chose. It would swell to express the emotions that the people were feeling. He knew what he was doing.” [14]

Even in Ulmer’s “villain” movies, the interesting characters are not the off-putting, predictable baddies, but the people around them, the empathetic souls whom they devastate-Sue, in Moon over Harlem, who picks up her dead father’s picture from the floor; Ephraim, in The Strange Woman, who hangs himself; Martha, in Ruthless, who just disappears. The heart of the miracle play lies neither in its stalwart heroes nor craven villains, but in unguarded moments, in traces of soul caught mid wavering pools of light and shadow, such as a spontaneous smile on a girl in the background (Cossacks in Exile); a young woman’s expression when she looks to see if her beau has arrived (Club Havana [US 1945]); Mercedes’s sense of humor playing over her face (The Pirates of Capri); Nora’s glance at her young son leaning forward in Carnegie Hall; Tamara’s pose by the window when they tell her Yankel has requested her hand, with light falling on her face like in Vermeer or Dreyer (The Singing Backsmith [US 1938]). An Ulmer picture is always the work of a man who adored making movies. Who adored gazing at people during their magic minutes (the way Murnau gazed at Janet Gaynor in Sunrise [US 1927]).

At his frequent best, every shot can be something special, an adventure. People in most Ulmer shots are choreographed almost as in a dance, and these are the pauses, where we gaze at them even harder. A luminist event befalls Yankel as he sits singing with the sewing ladies: his comfort is destroyed by a close-up Ulmer sticks in of Tamara, whom he has never seen until now. Here is a miracle, and instant conversion. Yankel gives her long serious stares, completely engulfing; Tamara gives him half glances, completely revealing. In The Naked Venus, too, and Her Sister’s Secret, The Naked Dawn, The Pirates of Capri, Carnegie Hall and Hannibal even, attraction is instant, and something deeper, expressed in stares exchanged. As in Vidor, a minute or even a single shot is enough for two people who have never spoken to decide to marry, and from the evidence, Ulmer would have agreed with Vidor (and they were both dedicated gallants) that to depict romance otherwise, as films typically do, is to falsify life.

What is more adventurous than, in Ruthless, Ulmer’s long, wandering, nighttime track following young Horace, in deliciously wavering chiaroscuro, as, after penetrating the gate, he walks through the rich family’s yard and around several sides of their house, seeing the father through a window, then backing away vertiginously to stare up toward a second-story window which 12-year-old Martha has just opened, while brushing her hair, a loveliness beyond his class-or is she? Horace thinks like Stendhal’s Julien Sorel.


Much in the adventurous style of Murnau and Ford is the pictorial composition inside the house that follows-the ceiling and floor enclosing the kitchen (like the restaurant stop in Stagecoach [US 1939], also photographed by Bert Glennon), and the kitchen table that stands unmoving in the foreground, while behind it young Horace begs to be taken in. Similar, in The Light Ahead, was the foreground candle that, like the eye of God, witnessed ashabes meal behind it; or in Moon over Harlem the flowers on the piano that won’t be able to prevent Sue being thrown out of her home. But now, in Ruthless, comes a coup like Ford’s coup eight years later in The Searchers (US 1956) when Natalie Wood magically appears on the horizon behind John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter. Martha appears walking down the stairs, into a spotlight, behind her mother, Horace and the table, and her mother scurries to frame-left, setting up a triangle that turns Martha’s adoring stare into a kind of miracle for Horace, and a luminist event in geometric space for us, despiteour knowledge that Horace is manipulating Martha and her mother. Ulmer cuts closer, so that we look past the mother’s back to see Martha, but then the mother leaves the frame and we realise, as joyful close-ups cross-cut between Horace and Martha, that we were seeing Martha from Horace’s (emotional and physical) perspective. Each cut and composition is as revelatory as these two teenagers are to one another. Moreover, Ulmer’s staging and cutting here recapitulates similar manoeuvers near the beginning of the movie when, decades after our flashback of young Horace, old Horace “encounters” (the word is too mild) a Martha look-alike (in fact the same actress, Diana Lynn). Clearly this is a moviemaker who loved movies. The ultimate proof? He always knows where to put the camera. And he was never ashamed to gaze, unlike so many filmmakers today. Try to watch Washington Square (US 1997) or The Wings of the Dove (Germany/France 1988), where neither director has the courage to stare more than three or four seconds at Jennifer Jason Leigh or Helena Bonham Carter without cutting away.


“He adored Ford,” said Arianne. “He realised they were both influenced by Murnau.” Her Sister’s Secret, besides a second homage to McCarey’s mirror shot, has blocking reminiscent of Dreyer, a Mardi Gras like Sternberg’s in The Devil is a Woman (US 1935), constant evocations of Ophuls past and future, along with long adventurous tracking shots by Ophuls’s frequent photographer, Franz Planer, and even a sunrise out of Sunrise. (Planer shot for Murnau too: Die Finanzen des Großherzogs [Germany 1924]). And then there are Ulmer’s prodigious experiments in “Cinefotocolor” (two-strip dye-transfer!) in Muchachas de Bagdad (shot in seven months in Barcelona in 1952). [15]

Ulmer got into the miracle business through Pepi Schildkraut’s father, Rudolph, a matinee idol in 20s Vienna. “He not only took my father in as a teenager, he got him into Max Reinhardt’s dramatic school, where Dad started initially as a student to be an actor. But, very quickly, they decided that they would rather train him to do set design. So Dad was already at Reinhardt when he was 16.” [16] Joseph Schildkraut eventually got an Oscar nomination as Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola (US 1937). Ulmer worked on Reinhardt productions in Vienna and Berlin, on one morality play (Everyman) in Salzburg, and another (The Miracle) on Broadway. Along the way (according to Ulmer) he was involved with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Germany 1919), Nosferatu (Germany 1922), Die Niebelungen (Germany 1924), Metropolis (Germany 1926), Der letzte mann (Germany 1924), Faust (Germany 1926), Stiller, Pabst, Lubitsch and Korda. Moving to Hollywood, he was signed by Carl Laemmle at Universal, and (still according to Ulmer) directed at least two dozen two-reel westerns, while assisting or designing on loanouts to Lon Chaney, DeMille, Niblo, Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin, Marion Davies, Valentino, Barrymore, Griffith, Stroheim, Vidor, Walsh, Garbo, Einsenstein, and of course Sunrise.

Whether Ulmer actually participated in all of these pictures has been questioned. Fritz Lang, for one, declared that Ulmer never worked on a film of his. [17] What can be said unquestionably is that it would have been out of character for him to have stayed away from these productions, if he could have found any way to get onto the sets, to meet the people he admired, and to involve himself anyway he could. He was young, ardent, ambitious; he wanted to make movies. He could be useful at almost anything; he’d made sure of that. Did Lang know every carpenter on Metropolis?

Returning to Berlin in 1929, he co-directed the Vidor-like Menschen am Sonntag (Germany 1929) with Robert Siodmak, Eugene Schuftan, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinnemann. In the US, he directed his first feature, Damaged Lives, in 1933, scored a hit with The Black Cat (US 1934) with Karloff and Lugosi, and fell in love with Laemmle’s nephew’s wife.

“Mother and dad were living in ‘sin’ in a little hotel in Hollywood. She was all of 19 and he was recently divorced from his first wife and still needing to pay child support for Helen Joen, his five-year-old daughter from that marriage. The Laemmle family were furious and naturally would have nothing more to do with them.”

“Oh, we were told that we’d never work in Hollywood again,” recalls Shirley Castle Ulmer, who had written Thunder over Texas, which her husband had produced and Ulmer had just shot under the pseudonym of his first wife’s name, Joen Warner. “He couldn’t get a job-that’s why we went back to New York.” [18]

“My mother’s respectable banking family in New York wanted them to come back there and have a Jewish wedding. So they got into an old Plymouth and ran for New York where at least he could find ‘day’ work shooting Pathé newsreels”-and making twenty-four music shorts for Vitagraph. Shirley modeled hats. “My mother always tells the story that…their honeymoon was like three weeks of her being locked in a room with him educating her.” One night they slept in the New York subway “because they got kicked out of the 16th place where they didn’t pay their rent. Mother once sent him out for food, and he came hime with a bag of oranges and two tickets to [Beethoven’s] Ninth Symphony! This is the Man. We never worried about that. My mother worried about that, but my father and I didn’t….I thought it was all an adventure. We went up and down….He was so young and so successful, so early. That gave him a feeling of immortality during the early years….My mother was game….She believed that she was Trilby to the greatest Svengali in the world.” [19]

Svengali’s fortune appeared in 1937 in the form of the Ukrainian Union of Window Washers, who wanted to have a great national film, Natalka Poltavka, an operetta by Ivan Kotlyarevsky. Their producer, a dance impresario named Vasile Avramenko, had spent two years the U.S. and Canada raising $18,000 from Ukrainians in nickels and dimes in exchange for promises of a movie ticket. Ulmer was hired at $35 a week to help and promptly took control. To his amazement, sixty Finnish carpenters materialized out of nowhere and built a Ukrainian city on a farm in Flemington, New Jersey, and two-hundred kids came from all over to dance; it turned out they had been rehearsing for years. Miraculously, the picture was a huge success. “It had one thing which I could never recapture again-the enthusiasm of that mad bunch, it showed on the screen,” Ulmer recalled. [20]

Besides Ukrainians, New York had three million Yiddish-speaking Jews. Schildkraut’s friendship led to Green Fields. Once again a rival had rehearsed the actors-Ulmer did not see them until the first day’s shooting on location-and once again he promptly took control. “He didn’t know any Yiddish,” Helen Beverly recalls, “and he didn’t talk much in English either. We were standing in a straight line in front of the little hut as actors do sometimes on the stage, facing the audience, and we were doing our parts, and he stopped us: ‘No, no, no, no, no! You can’t do that in front of a camera.’ Then he explained the whole business of close-ups and detail shots, and how you didn’t have to face the camera. You were to behave perfectly natural, and the camera would look for you to shoot you.” [21] In making a movie of Peretz Hirschbein’s well-known play, Ulmer built up all the physical actions (as Murnau does in Sunrise), making abstractions sensual, making real grass and trees into luminous events (Helen Beverly mentions Van Gogh or Monet or Renoir), so that episodes such as the teasing interaction of the two ingenues became far more dominant in the movie than they could have been on stage. Stock characters became flesh. When Green Fields was playing in New York, Helen Beverly would sometimes make an appearance afterward. “It baffled the audience. Here they thought I was a little girl from Europe, a little European actress, how did I learn to speak English, someone must have taught me the speech in English.” [22]  On the set, “He would set the mood. In the dinner scene, where the mother and I are moving around serving, he caught the mood, entirely silent, tender and beautiful. Everything was worked out beforehand.” [23]

Two more Yiddish movies and a second Ukrainian opera, all shot in New Jersey, then a fourth Yiddish film in New York. Filmed operas are often ruined as movies, but in Cossacks in Exile, from Semyon Stepanovich Gulak-Atemovsky’s 1853 Cossacks beyond the Danube), Ulmer is obviously having the time of his life, finding opportunities for sailing where everyone else flounders on reefs. His Dovzhenko-like emphasis on the horizon is enough to make Newton, N.J., look like the Ukraine.

In the next three years, after (according to him) turning down an offer to make two Shirley Temple films at 20th Century-Fox, Ulmer made a series of multi-ethnic documentaries about TB for the American Lung Association, 42 industrial pictures, various military training films, including a series on celestial navigation, three Coca Cola commercials, and, between 1942 and 1946, eleven remarkable features for PRC Pictures, Inc., scripted mostly by Shirley Ulmer who, in any case, was Script Supervisor (and often much more) on every one of his pictures from 1934 on. By his count, he made 128 movies in his lifetime.
Thanks to the Cold War and Red Scare, and a conservative producer, Ulmer and his blacklisted writer, Alvah Bessie, had had to suppress some of their pet ideas for  Ruthless. [24] Sequences in The Naked Dawn and The Naked Venus might have been suppressed as well, had anyone bothered to take seriously a Mexican western or a nudie.

Social satires of American life were common during the 50s, yet few are so accurate in horrifying ways as The Naked Venus. Bob’s mother is one of Ulmer’s vampires, but more interesting because almost sympathetic, and Bob is her mama’s boy. He recalls how she sat with him the night before he shipped out to Korea, and she replies as though to a boyscout, “You got all the medals.” “If they’d only known how scared I was.” “Only you and I know,” she says, but of course she doesn’t know; the whole idea of his going to war had been hers. Now she wants to rid him of his wife, because of jealousy, but ostensibly because the girl (French, naturally) poses nude for artists and recreates in naturalist resorts-and Bob, who until now has adored his wife, allows his mother to convince him he wants a divorce. There are many Bobs in real life, but they are almost never shown in movies. He’s an incipient villain, in Ulmerian terms, already lying to himself. Ulmer establishes everything in the first shots: a lie, a moral tale, a child in a crib, the husband standing over the wife. “I’m afraid of your mother,” the wife says. The natural is opposed by the lurid and the aggressive. In a courtroom, constitutional freedoms are trampled on by a judge who looks like a pig and has the culture of a tabloid (rather than of a German romantic). In its own way, The Naked Venus paints a picture of McCarthy America as devouring as in McCarey’s My Son John (US 1952).

Organized naturalism had originated in Germany, around 1900, as “Freikörperkultur” (free body culture). It was a time of awakening and rejection of artifice, a return to nature. There’s a moment in Borzage’s Little Man, What Now? (US 1934), where a salesman replies to shock at his quitting his job, “Foolish? Independent! Perhaps being a nudist does that for me. Standing up in the sun gives one strength and courage.” The nudist movement grew quickly and became quite numerous, and international, including Ulmer and his wife, before being banned in Germany by the Nazis and inspiring persecution in the United States in the guise of Ulmer’s prurient mother, district attorney, and judge. The Naked Venus is a nudie without nudity-there are less than three minutes of resort sequences, all of people with their backs turned, with an occasional sideview of a breast-but except for producer Gaston Hakim, no names are credited on the print, except Victor Hugo’s, who nevertheless reminds us that “Because we do what we believe in we must bear the consequences.” Yvonne, in court, defines nudism as “complete relaxation. And a higher moral level.” But Ulmer treats the resort sequences as little documentaries, with no dialogue but only wind and ocean sounds, with people preening heroically (a bit like Leni Riefenstahl-no one not 22 and a “ten” would dare be seen in this place). A small girl keeps showing up to wave at us and relieve the hieratic tension, but the total effect is surreal and anything but “relaxing,” and we land back in the normal world with a thump, like tumbling back down into Plato’s cave. For Ulmer, as Hoberman says above, “spirituality is achieved through acceptance, not renunciation, of the material world.”

Which is also the moral in The Naked Dawn. The script, by the blacklisted Julian Halevy Zimet, is built around quasi-Marxist notions such as morality being determined by class and economic structures turning us into things (Maria, for example, has been sold to her husband as part of a land deal), and Zimet was immune to Ulmer’s art. “Although I liked the film when I saw it, I don’t think Ulmer brought anything much to the script through camerawork or interesting ideas…Betta St. John was amateurish.” [25]

St. John’s Maria is one of the highpoints of American cinema. Ulmer filmed her in takes as long as nine-and-a-half minutes, and evidently his baton technique was inspired, for her movements are completely balletic and her dialogue almost Lieder. Like Renoir’s gamine Nini (Françoise Arnoul) in French Cancan (France 1954), Maria is a composite of calculation and innocence, one of Ulmer’s deadly manipulators, an illiterate peasant beaten, raped and enslaved who nonetheless incarnates the poise and charm of a princess and the girl next door, a femme fatale who offers salvation. Evidently Zimet is blind to the miracle Santiago (Arthur Kennedy) comes upon, painted by Ulmer, of Maria doing her wash on the riverbank, like a moment stolen from Kenji Mizoguchi. Santiago would agree with Simone Weil that beauty is God’s way of communicating with us (and his romantic convictions will cost him his life), but Maria feels only grief-and is probably equally insensitive to the awesome, luminist event Ulmer finds in her bath beside the pigsty. Her husband digs miserably in a hole in the ground that he says is a well but which looks like a grave. They ignore Ulmer’s painterly landscape, à la Green Fields but in Technicolor now, of their picturesque farm nestled into the lovely valley. Given a chance, they will oppress their oppressors-unlike Geneviève de Brabant.

Ulmer’s villains argue, like Zimet’s script, that morality is artifice and that we are at the mercy of structures. Indeed, the question comes up in most Ulmer movies, and some Ulmerians cite this in evidence of Ulmer’s alleged sense of our helpless imprisonment in paranoia-even of Ulmer’s alleged agreement with his villains. These black-hearts overlook the morality play, the debate that has haunted western thought at least since Job over our ability to choose or refuse love of good, will-power, and self-control. We get to see all the arguments against free will in order to see free will (and to see sin). “We cannot begin to understand European culture,” notes Arianne Ulmer, “without some idea of the many artists who are tangled in the iconography of the faith. This is the European thinking mind. The Naked Dawn is almost like a Yiddish film for me. It is religious, not Marxist. I know the last scene with Arthur Kennedy up against the tree was definitely the crucifixion in iconography. I was on the set when that scene was shot. I was 16 and Dad talked a great deal about the Everyman aspect of this film. Note the use of the cross on the wall in many of the interior shots.”

Too often, discussion of Ulmer lays stress on the “poverty” of many of his productions. A succession of Puritans have lauded his endurance midst “the banality of his scripts and the weakness of his actors’ performances” (Belton); “the meager conditions and speed of…production” (Steven Jenkins); the “intransigent …disregard for…conventional aesthetics” (Myron Mesiel); the puny budgets, the sixty or eighty shots a day. [26] Such remarks belie the art achieved. What does it matter that Green Fields was shot in five days, for $8,000, or that Ulmer hadn’t had even twice as much negative to shoot with as his finished film would be, or that he had to share a bed with his assistant and they had all hocked their furniture to raise money? What do these things matter, unless to prove that money is bad for art, since nearly every movie ever made has cost more than Green Fields and looks impoverished alongside it. Miracles can’t be bought.

“God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light…” These are the last words in The Cavern (1965), Ulmer’s last movie. Goethe, too, went out speaking of light.

This essay first appeared in French translation in Cinémathèque 15 (Spring 1999).


[1] Arianne Ulmer Cipes, from discussions with TG, unless otherwise specified. As an actress, Arianne Ulmer appeared in five of her father’s pictures: The Light Ahead (age 2), American Matchmaker  (3), The Pirates of Capri (12), Naked Venus (21), and Beyond the Time Barrier (23). A sixth role, as young Jenny who tries to drown young Horace in the prologue to The Strange Woman (9), ended on the cutting floor because producer Hedy Lamarr judged her insufficiently nasty, and the prologue was reshot with another girl and (since Ulmer refused) another director, Douglas Sirk. By means of The Edgar G. Ulmer Preservation Corporation, Arianne Ulmer has been trying to locate and preserve her father’s work, and is currently producing a documentary in collaboration with Michael Henry Wilson, E.G. Ulmer “beyond the boundary.”
[2] Interview with Bertrand Tavernier, Amis américains (Lyon: Institut Lumière/Actes Sud, 1993), 163.
[3] Bridge of Light  (New York: Museum of Modern Art/Schocken Books, 1991), 251.
[4] William H. McCabe, S.J., An Introduction to the Jesuit Theater, ed. Louis Oldani, S.J. (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1983), 22-23.
[5] Cahiers du cinéma58 (April 1956).
[6] The Hollywood Professionals,volume 3: Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, Edgar G.Ulmer (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1974), 152.
[[7] Cf., Bill Krohn’s excellent, “King of the B’s,” Film Comment (July 1983: 60-64.
[8] The Loves of Three Queens is a US release, in color, running about 90 minutes, consisting of a framing story and episodes about Geneviève, Josephine Bonaparte, and Helen of Troy. Ulmer planned the production but directed only the Geneviève segment. Marc Allégret is credited as sole director and may have shot additional material for “Geneviève” as well. An Italian edition, Eterna femina, allegedly ran 270 minutes. According to Arianne Ulmer, “Dad was originally going to do the entire trilogy. The film was originally financed by Del Duca, the magazine magnet in Italy, but during the filming Hedy Lamarr married the Texan Howard Lee and had him buy out Cino Del Duca, and now Dad had to contend with Lamarr as producer. It was the only time he ever walked on a film…She still owns the film and has reedited it over and over again.” One such edition, apparently dealing only with Helen of Troy, was L’amante di Paride (US: The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships).
[9] Jacques Lourcelles, Dictionnaire du cinéma: les films (Paris: Lafont, 1992), 157.
[10] Lourcelles, 401
[11] Belton, 162.
[12] The Pirates of Capri (aka Captain Sirocco in the U.K.) was shot also in an Italian edition, I pirati di Capri possibly with different editing and running time, and with Elenora Rossi Drago in the role of Virginia Belmont. An Italian director, Giorgio Maria Scotese, was co-credited in order to obtain state subsidy.
[13] Interview with Tom Weaver, Cult Movies 25 (1998).
[14] Unpublished interview with Michael Henry Wilson, May 8, 1996, copyright BBC and Edgar G. Ulmer Preservation Corp. as owners of the original video interview for their documentary E G Ulmer “Beyond the Boundary.”
[15] Muchachas de Bagdad runs about 99 minutes. A Spanish director was co-credited in order to obtain state subsidy. The American edition, Babes of Bagdad, runs about 79 minutes.
[16] From an interview with Tom Weaver, “Her father’s keeper: Arianné Ulmer Cipes,” Video Watchdog 41 (1997): 36-7.
[17] In an attempt to reconstruct his career, Ulmer compiled two typed chronologies of his activites. Both are in Arianne Ulmer’s archives; one of them appeared in Italian in Emanuela Martini, ed., Edgar G.Ulmer (Bergamo Film Meeting, Riminicinema, 1989), 124-27. For Lang, cf., Filmhefte, New York, n° 1 (of two), Herbert Linder’s German translation of Bogdanovich’s interview.
[18] loc. cit, Cult Movies.
[19] Video Watchdog, 41, 37, 41.
[20] In Peter Bogdanovich, “Edgar G.Ulmer,” Who the Devil Made It New York: Knopf, 1997), 583.
[21] Helen Beverly to TG, Jan. 24, 1998
[22] Helen Beverly to Michael Henry Wilson.
[23] Helen Beverly to TG.
[24] Ulmer has perhaps embroidered this episode in telling Bogdanovich that five big sequences were cut after the first release, and that “S.K.Loren [sic] and G.Kahn…were names that were made up” (600). Both S.K.Lauren and Gordon Kahn have dozens of credits stretching back to the early 1930s. Arianne Ulmer observes that not only was her father confused at the time of the interview, after a massive stroke, but “besides he was a great story teller and each time he told a story it got a little bigger and better. He never could admit he did not know anything. He had to present himself always as knowing. My mother and I took this with a grain of salt. That is why I believe he is so very vulnerable in some of his recollections.”

[25] Tavernier, 526. The Naked Dawn credits its scenario to Nina and Herman Schneider, who do not exist, whom Ulmer identified to Tavernier first as Tennessee Williams’ house’s caretakers, then as Albert Maltz, then as Dalton Trumbo, but who is actually Zimet (523-34).
[26] Jenkins, Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1982; Meisel, in Todd McCarthy & C. Flynn, Kings of the Bs, 1975; cited in John Wakeman,World Film Directors: Vol. 1: 1890-1945 (New York: Wilsonm 1987), 1111.

About the Author

Tag Gallagher

About the Author

Tag Gallagher

Tag Gallagher has published definitive studies of John Ford (University of California Press, 1986) and Rossellini (ReviewedIssue 9 of Screening the Past). His "Hollywood Directors, 1932-55," which includes articles on Vidor, Hawks, Walsh, Tourneur and forty other moviemakers, appeared in Trafic 14-17 (1996). Major monographs include Renoir (Film Comment, January 1996; Cinémathèque, Fall 1996); Sirk (Film Comment, November 1998; Cinémathèque, Spring 1998); Ulmer (Cinémathèque, Spring 1999); McCarey (Jean-François Rauger, ed, Leo McCarey: Le burlesque des sentiments. Cinématheque française, 1998); Vidor (Nosferatu, November 1999); Francis Ford (Film Comment, November 1976); Abel Ferrara (Rotterdam Festival catalog, 1991). A piece critiquing genre studies appears in Film Genre Reader (ed. Barry Grant. University of Texas Press, 1986); one on Ford's treatment of Indians in Film Comment (September 1993) and in Jim Kitses & Gregg Rickman, eds., The Western Reader (New York: Limelight, 1998); and one on the family in American film in Mosaic (1983).View all posts by Tag Gallagher →