Swamp Thing

Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins (Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism) BY Noah Isenberg. University of California Press. Hardcover, 384 pages. $34.

The cover of Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins (Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism)

Early in Noah Isenberg’s biography of the legendary filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer—ultimate auteur of the desperate, no-budget, seventy-minute feature, the proverbial Eisenstein of Poverty Row—the author plucks the phrase “fever swamp” from one of the director’s later efforts, a purple western called The Naked Dawn (1955). The farther Isenberg dives into the blissfully cursed recesses of that swamp, the more Ulmer’s career seems like a perverse figment of a cigar-chomping imp’s imagination. It might have sprung fully deformed from an unproduced Coen brothers script (The Amazing Transparent Director) or lost chapters from Kafka’s Amerika.

Consider the monster in The Man from Planet X (1951)—or as Ulmer referred to the robot alien’s cheap fish-eyed costume, “the douche bag from space.” Working on a total budget of $41,000 and a shooting schedule of less than a week, Ulmer delivered a film that if not polished was nonetheless able to dredge shards of poetry and atmosphere out of a wholly misbegotten arrangement. During a forty-year career, his specialty was the last-ditch salvage operation—making the best of untenable situations, thread-bare scripts, second-rate casts, and bottom-feeding producers.

Ulmer was indefatigable. He started in the silent era, churning out two- to five-reel westerns such as The Border Sheriff (1926); his final film was The Cavern (1964), a bargain-basement Grand Illusion knockoff. Along the way, he directed Paulette Goddard and Gypsy Rose Lee at the decline of their careers in Babes in Bagdad (1952), as well as a nudist film, a potboiler aimed at educating the public about the treatment of venereal disease, instructional shorts (Diagnostic Procedures in Tuberculosis and Goodbye Mr. Germ), an all-black musical (Moon over Harlem, 1939), and self-explanatory quickies like Girls in Chains (1943), The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), and Murder Is My Beat (1955). In his final decade, he survived by writing scripts for The Doris Day Show and even briefly served as a cameraman on a piece of drive-in fodder scored by a very young Frank Zappa.

Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins is well documented, a bit disheveled around the edges, but all in all a cogent treatment of a singularly unlikely career. Isenberg’s writing isn’t especially stylish, but its recitative quality allows the monumental eccentricity of Ulmer’s underground journey to shine through. Of an early excursion into the implausible, Isenberg writes with an admiring incredulity: “The project . . . was something so outré, so completely obscure that, were it not for the surviving print of the film, it would stand to reason that Ulmer cooked it up in one of his more embroidered memories: a Ukrainian-language operetta called Natalka Poltavka (The Girl from Poltava, 1937).” He twice quotes the film historian Lotte Eisner calling Ulmer “the greatest liar in the history of cinema,” but the facts of his history are more peculiarly impressive—or nuttier—than his prevarications. Ulmer didn’t merely make Cossack films in New Jersey; he made Yiddish films as well, using the same locations and integrating some of the Ukrainian cast into them, for brotherhood’s sake!

Indeed, he actually worked on Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), as well as Douglas Sirk’s American debut (Hitler’s Madman, 1943). He directed the classic slice-of-German-life feature People on Sunday (1930) with Robert Siodmak, from a scenario by Billy Wilder. Ulmer’s big break came in 1934 when Universal let him make The Black Cat with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi—a truly twisted horror movie and a box-office success—but when Ulmer ran off with the wife of a studio chief’s favorite nephew, his outcast fate was sealed. The Black Cat is outwardly a stylish diversion, with Ulmer throwing some snazzy expressionistic light on the knowing, already-codified madman antics of Lugosi and Karloff. But just beneath that, there is a tremendous undertow of dread and sadism. The film involves quasi incest and a satanic cult built upon World War I’s corpses. The satanists are a living manifestation of war’s evil, a conjuration of wickedness cloaked in hollowed-out platitudes. The movie feels like it could veer off toward supersinister Kenneth Anger abstraction at any moment—or, just as easily, a Mel Brooks routine. After Karloff is skinned alive and his oddly modernist castle is blown to smithereens, the original script had the fleeing Americans flag down a car. The driver was to be Ulmer himself, who would inform them: “I’m going to a sanatorium to rest up after making The Black Cat in fourteen days!” That joke didn’t make it into the film, but it isn’t out of character.

In Ulmer’s work, the logic of bare necessity dictated an aesthetic of irreconcilable differences: Extreme incongruity is the norm; rank primitivism merges with sophistication; fly-by-night cynicism sits side by side with utmost earnestness. You can see this in The Black Cat, as well as in his immortal film Detour (1945), whose desolation seems boundless—the no-exit lives of its brutalized characters are as circumscribed as those of inmates held together in a maximum-security cell.

With Ulmer, pronounced self-awareness was coupled with a blind instinct for summoning up all the psychosexual and social discord the Production Code sought to airbrush away. Before there was a Twilight Zone (or, for that matter, Stalker’s Zone), there was Detour: What makes it such an unnerving film is that all the artifice is in plain sight, every mundane device is out in the open, and yet it feels like a recurring nightmare from which there is no return. Isenberg’s unembellished book about the long detour Edgar G. Ulmer’s life and art took is too prosaic—too sensible, perhaps—to be a work of art, but it astonishes all the same: such stuff as hallucinations and bittersweet fever dreams were made of.

Howard Hampton is a regular contributor to Film Comment.