Film review: Der Mandarin (Fritz Freisler, 1918)

At times love and desire conjoin to drive a man mad. While it is already a bad thing not to get the one you want, sometimes it can be even worse to be able to seduce anyone you desire just by calling out a single name: “Man-da-rin!”. This is what happens to the protagonist of Fritz Freisler’s long-believed-to-be-lost early expressionist film Der Mandarin from 1918.

The dandy-esque Baron von Stroom (Harry Walden), a quintessential rich good-for-nothing, acquires a talisman whose possessor is said to be able to seduce any woman he desires. The small statue of a Chinese mandarin turns out to be an Asian ‘genie in a bottle’: every time the Baron calls out “Man-da-riiiin”, the statue becomes alive and a real moustached mandarin appears, ready to make another woman fall in love with his master.

Unsurprisingly, von Stroom willingly succumbs to the temptations offered to him on a silver platter. But soon he develops nostalgia for the times where he still had to conquer the women he desired. Unfortunately for him, his attempts to seduce women without the help of his ghostly servant are utterly unsuccessful: not even a prostitute is willing to give in to his yearnings. “No mandarin, no women!”, the mandarin exclaims. Unable to get rid of his devilish servant, van Stroom, the utterly unheroic protagonist of the film, is driven into madness and ends up in a sanatorium, seeing the mandarin everywhere and in everyone.

Der Mandarin was long believed to be lost. It only resurfaced some years ago in the collection of an American film collector, and it was restored by the Austrian film museum in Vienna. Martin de Ruiter wrote a new score for the film, which was performed and screened during the 2007 edition of the Amsterdam Filmmuseum’s Biennale.

Part of Der Mandarin’s charm derives from the realistic-to-parodistic depiction of the sanatorium’s patients, including a wanna-be king of Greenland, an old, toothless man dressed up in a fur dress with a crappy-looking crown commanding his present and absent inferiors back and forth. Von Stroom is a strikingly unlikeable character from the very beginning, a rich dandy who keeps a bunch of servants busy polishing his finger nails and providing his wardrobe, but his sheer unlikeability and whimpy characterization prepare the following unbelievable sexual success that follows his acquisition of the Chinese talisman. Still, it is a sign of Harry Walden’s abilities as an actor that, when the miserable von Stroom succumbs to madness, one cannot help but empathize at least a bit with him. Or, this seems so from a male perspective… The film ends with a clear and, for a contemporary Western audience, uncomfortably conservative and traditionalist message: while the clinic director and his visitor walk away, the former urges his writer-visitor to tell his readers about the dangers that await those who succumb to a life unbound by the established rules of morality and so-called decency.

Produced only one year before the German film classic Das Cabinett des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) (Robert Wiene, 1920), Der Mandarin is a predecessor of German expressionism, of which Caligari is the most remarkable example. Strikingly similar in their narrative framework, both films present their main story in flashback, framing it in screen time by a narrator who is telling this story to a listener: just as in Der Mandarin the tragic story of von Stroom’s journey into madness is told to a visitor by the director of the sanatorium, in Caligari the unlucky protagonist Francis (Friedrich Fehér) tells his story about the murderous deeds of the mad Doctor Caligari and his somnambulist slave Cesare (Conrad Veidt) to a casual listener. But in Caligari it turns out at the end of the film that Francis himself (apparently) is a hallucinatory patient in a sanatorium. In this, Wiene’s all-time-classic radically supersedes Der Mandarin’s rather traditional adherence to reliable narration.

There are other differences as well: while Caligari excessively uses its expressionistic sets that sometimes delve into surrealism, Der Mandarin is set in rather traditional locations, relying extensively on on-location shots in the streets of Vienna and indoor scenes. Still, it employs a set of convincing trick effects reminiscent of George Méliès’ trick cinema, especially during the first appearance of the mandarin, where the small statue is growing larger and larger until the talisman has reached life size.
Der Mandarin is a clever, stylistically elaborated filmic artwork that on the one hand shows such a quantity of seduction scenes (of which we are, though, spared the intimate details) that it maybe nowadays would get an R rating for American audiences. On the other hand it carries a very conservative, bourgeois, message: uncontrolled, uninhibited desire drives a man into madness. In this film, the price von Stroom pays for his Faustian pact is his mental sanity.

Der Mandarin. Austria, 1918. Duration: 54 minutes (18 frames per second). Director: Fritz Freisler. Screenplay: Paul Frank/ Fritz Freisler. Producers: Graf Alexander Klowrat/ Alexander Pressburger. Main Actors: Harry Walden, Karl Götz.