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.

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