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It may be hard to believe for those of us born in the digital age—when every embarrassing moment can potentially be uploaded to Youtube for posterity—but an estimated 70% of all films from the silent era are thought to be lost. Of the silent film directors whose works have largely vanished, perhaps the most intriguing, at least for me, is the German director Kai Winckelmann (1887-1926). Although influential in his own era, he has since been largely forgotten, for reasons which I believe will become readily apparent if you read further in this article.
Winckelmann was born on September 18th, 1887 in Offenbach am Main, the son of a butcher. He reportedly found the family business very distasteful and did not get along well with his father, who drank heavily. In 1909, Winckelmann moved to Berlin, where he began a career as a journalist.
After the outbreak of World War I, Winckelmann enlisted as a volunteer—a decision that seems to have haunted him for the rest of his life. He attained the rank of lieutenant and fought several battles in Russia before being badly wounded in 1916 and being declared unfit for combat. While recuperating from his wounds at a veteran’s hospital, Winckelmann began writing poems and film ideas to pass the time. Most of his writings from this time period have not survived, but a poem of his published in a local newspaper gives an idea of his state of mind at the time; it is an impressionistic work, full of gruesome images of bodies destroyed by lime and mustard gas.
After recovering from his injuries Winckelmann married a certain Greta Schultz, a nurse whom he had met at the veteran’s hospital, and moved with her to her home city of Vienna, Austria. It was here that Winckelmann met the pioneering film producer Joe May and began working for him in an official capacity: first writing screenplays, and then directing films of his own. Winckelmann created many moderately successful films while working for Joe May, several of which survive in whole or in part, but by far his most successful work was the Lord Lister serial.
The Lister series, based on a series of pulp stories concerning a gentleman thief named Lord Lister who goes by the nom de guerre Raffles in the criminal underworld, consists of six episodes, each about an hour in length. The films bear a somewhat superficial resemblance to their source material. In the original novels, as in the first two episodes of the Lister serial, Lord Lister is a somewhat sympathetic Robin Hood-like figure, à la Arsène Lupin, who rarely commits any particularly egregious misdeeds. In Winckelmann’s Lister serials, however, he became a much more sinister figure: a seemingly omnipotent mastermind of crime who is not above rape and mass murder. In the serial, as in the novels, Lord Lister is pursued by a Scotland Yard detective named Baxter. In the early installments of the serial, Baxter is portrayed as a figure of fun, an incompetent drunkard who is always outwitted by the master thief, but in the later episodes, Baxter becomes a tragic figure, an honest lawman who is helpless to prevent the atrocities of his implacable persecutor, Lord Lister. Although Lord Lister was played by several different actors—the idea being that his true face was unknown—Detective Baxter was always played by Winckelmann’s friend and confidant, actor Olaf Schneider.
Olaf Schneider became close friends with Winckelmann shortly after the latter began working with Joe May. The two could not be any more different in appearance or in temperament: Schneider was healthy, muscular, and a lover of fast cars and boxing, while Winckelmann was a recluse and often in poor health. Nevertheless, the two shared a close relationship, perhaps finding common ground over the tragedies in their respective pasts: Winckelmann had had an abusive childhood and was left mentally scarred by his service in World War I, while Schneider’s wife had committed suicide in 1918, leaving him to raise their infant daughter alone.
The contents of the first five Lister films, insofar as they can safely be reconstructed at all—only one of them survives, and even then only in an incomplete print—are as follows:
1. Lister tritt ein (Enter Lister): The screenplay of this first episode was written by none other than legendary director-screenwriter Fritz Lang. In this installment, Lister, who is living under the assumed name Lord William Aberdeen, manages to steal a valuable painting during an art exhibition. The bumbling Detective Baxter eventually manages to arrest Lister, but the latter escapes, switching identities with a guard in a clever ruse. A spectacular chase scene ensues, during which Lister, of course, escapes.
2. Lister schlägt zurück (Lister Hits Back): The film opens with an elaborate scene where Lister steals the pearl necklace off of a duchess’ neck at the opera house. Shortly thereafter, Lister boldly announces his next crime via a newspaper advertisement: he will still the family jewels of Lord Willmore at such-and-such an hour. Baxter and his fellow policeman stand guard at Lord Willmore’s side at his mansion, waiting for Lister to appear—but he never does. Just when he is about to dismiss the incident as a hoax, Baxter hears muffled cries and discovers the real Lord Willmore bound and gagged in a wardrobe; Lister had been impersonating him the entire night, and the real jewels had already been replaced with identical duplicates. Baxter realizes that the mansion is rigged to explode and barely escapes with his life. This is the only surviving Lister film.
3. Lister in Amerika (Lister in America): Detective Baxter receives a tip that Lister is hiding in the United States. Baxter boards an ocean liner, but half-way across the Atlantic, the voyage begins to go horribly awry: the passengers are falling mysteriously ill. It seems that Lister has planted plague-infested rats onboard, presumably in an attempt to assassinate Baxter. Upon his arrival in New York, Baxter is swiftly arrested for a series of murders that Lister committed, and a local judge, really Baxter in disguise, sentences him to death by hanging. Baxter makes a desperate escape through the sewer system and emerges into the night air—where he is greeted with the sight of Lister taunting him from a rooftop. He is wearing his iconic costume: a black cloak, black gloves, and a black executioner’s mask. Lister mockingly crosses and extends his wrists, as if daring Baxter to arrest him.
4. Das tödliche Parfum (The Deadly Perfume): Detective Baxter investigates a series of grisly murders: someone has been replacing department store perfume with sulfuric acid, resulting in dozens of deaths and disfigurements. In order to uncover the truth, Baxter forms an alliance with a young woman who claims to have been Lord Lister’s lover. Despite being a married man, Baxter soon begins to succumb to her charms as well. The film ends with a shocking scene: due to the machinations of Lister, Baxter is forced to allow the young woman to be run over by a train in order to avert an accident that would kill hundreds of people.
5. Die schreiende Leiche (The Screaming Corpse): Little is known about the contents of this particular film, as contemporary reviews contain little but exclamations of disapproval. It is known to chronicle Baxter’s descent into alcoholism and depression after his repeated failures to capture Lister. The plot reportedly involved a deadly fire at an opera house and a surreal scene wherein Lister wears a man’s flesh as a mask.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their often morbid content, the films were quite popular with the contemporary viewing public—one might consider them the Saw of their day. As you might have guessed, the increasing darkness of Winckelmann’s films was accompanied by a corresponding crisis in his personal life: the affair between Winckelmann’s wife, Greta, and his closest friend, Olaf Schneider. Winckelmann seems to have known of the affair and tacitly allowed it, although eventually, this seems to have taken a considerable toll on his already fragile psyche. In a letter to his cousin, dated October 13, 1923, Winckelmann writes: “…And why shouldn’t she prefer him? A man like him can offer her what I, with my frail body and lacerated soul, could never hope to give her. My dark Muse has seized control of my life. I am powerless to do anything but obey its commands…”
This state of affairs continued for some time before an unthinkable tragedy put an end to both the Lord Lister serial and Winckelmann’s partnership with Schneider…at least for the time being.
In December of 1923, Winckelmann was away on business in Frankfurt, having left his 18-month-old son alone with his wife. The live-in housekeeper was away visiting her sister. According to the report that a distraught Greta later gave the police, she and Schneider were making love in the bedroom when suddenly she heard a loud thud from the child’s room. Her son had evidently climbed out of his crib, breaking his neck. Naturally, this created a gigantic scandal, and no one was particularly surprised when Greta disappeared one day, presumably to start a new life under an assumed name. As for Schneider, he emigrated soon thereafter to the United States, where he dropped out of the public eye.
Despite the horrendous personal tragedies that had befallen him, Winckelmann held up as well as well as could be imagined under the circumstances. Although he had been a doting father, he managed to bear his grief with a certain quiet dignity, even founding his own film company a few months later. Winckelmann’s studio was relatively successful at first, turning out several lucrative if unremarkable films. A few years after his son’s death, however, strange rumors began circulating around Winckelmann. It was said that he had fired most of his staff and spent his days wandering around his empty, decrepit Filmstadt. In an interview with the Vossische Zeitung dating to six months before his death, Winckelmann claimed that he had fully forgiven Schneider and, rather surprisingly, had been corresponding with him and planned for them to make a film together. To the surprise, and later dismay, of the viewing public, a final installment of the Lord Lister saga, entitled Listers Rache (Lister’s Revenge) was released in 1927.
Listers Rache was screened in only a few theaters before being permanently withdrawn from circulation. The film, only 40 minutes long, was much more surreal and expressionistic than any previous installment in the series—and much more unsettling. Contemporary accounts, though doubtless exaggerated, mention fainting fits and worse at advance screenings of the film. According to contemporary newspaper reports, the film begins with an intertitle explaining that Detective Baxter has lost his job with Scotland Yard and been abandoned by his family. Baxter is shown in a dirty, disordered apartment room, sitting at a writing desk; there is no other furniture around him. Baxter is writing a note whose contents we do not see and weeping all the while. He is surrounded by empty beer bottles and his appearance is unkempt and disheveled. The crying scene continues for an uncomfortably long time, after which Baxter leaves his apartment and wanders through the streets of London. The city is represented by a series of surreal matte paintings, reportedly very much in the style of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, full of absurd angles that would be impossible in reality. Sinister shapes can be discerned in the background: hanged bodies, weeping, disfigured faces, etc.
Detective Baxter finally pauses in the middle of a tall bridge, contemplating the rough waters and jagged rocks below. It is clear that he is considering suicide. Suddenly, a dark shape materializes at the other end of the bridge: it is Lister, wearing his usual executioner’s hood and cloak. Lister shouts “Jump!” (via an intertitle, of course), and Baxter, after a moment’s pause, manages to gather his resolve and chase after his nemesis. After a brief chase scene, Lister leaps into an enormous sinkhole, Baxter following close behind. In the next scene, the detective finds himself in an enormous cavern—presumably the master criminal’s base of operations. It becomes clear that the cavern is filled with furniture: a dining table with chairs, a wardrobe, a wash basin, even a book case. Baxter cautiously approaches the table, soon realizing, to his horror, that all of the furniture appears to be made of human bone. In the center of the cavern is an enormous pile of human body parts, casually stacked together like a compost heap. Baxter recoils in horror and attempts to run back to the entrance of the cavern, but it is too late: Lister, with two other masked men on either side of him, is swiftly approaching, carrying an axe. We see their shadows on the wall of the cave encroach on the detective’s, finally engulfing it completely.
The scene shifts yet again; Detective Baxter is shown inside a damp dungeon of sorts, his hands and feet manacled to the wall. He is bruised and bloodied. A large metal door swings open and Lister reappears, still accompanied by his two masked henchmen. One of said henchmen is carrying a struggling, wriggling form: a blindfolded little girl, around ten years of age. Lister tells Baxter “Now you and your daughter will be reunited, just as you wished!” With that, the two masked thugs hold the screaming and kicking little girl down on the ground while Lister withdraws a butcher knife from somewhere within his cloak and calmly, methodically slashes her throat. The two masked henchmen then place the dying little girl opposite the distraught Detective Baxter. Blood is oozing from her mouth and throat, but she is still breathing slightly. Lister declares “Leave him to his fate!” and the three masked men exit the room, leaving Baxter to watch helplessly as his daughter breathes her last.
An intertitle announces that three weeks have passed, and Baxter is still chained where Lord Lister left him. His clothes are ragged, his skin is covered in bruises and blisters, and his eyes have a wild, haunted look. Across from him is the corpse of his daughter, bloated and blackened. The iron door slowly creeps open, and Lord Lister reappears, once again shadowed by his two masked accomplices. This time, he is carrying what appears to be a burlap sack. The two henchmen unchain Baxter; he attempts to strangle Lister, but, in his pathetically weakened state, he is easily restrained. Lord Lister slowly pulls an object from the sack: it is a long-haired human head, still dripping blood. “Kiss your wife!” Lister exclaims. A horrified Baxter refuses, but the henchmen punch him into submission and restrain his arms. Lister forces the severed head’s lips against Baxter’s, the latter retching all the while. Baxter is then returned to his restraints, and the two accomplices proceed to savagely beat him with nail-studded wooden planks while Lister looks on. Lord Lister motions for his men to stop the beating, and Baxter looks up with dying eyes at his tormentor, lying in a pool of his own blood. “Do you realize now why you’ve never managed to catch me? Why you could never have won?” Lister says. Lord Lister begins to peel off his hood and turns around to face the camera directly. We see his true face for the first time—or rather, the space where one should be, for Lister does not possess one at all; his face is a blank wall of flesh with nothing at all to mark it as human accept a gaping black mouth. “Ich bin der Verlust,” he says, drifting closer and closer towards the camera, as if threatening to break through it. Lord Lister’s jaw opens wider and wider, far wider than should be humanly possible; it reaches almost down to his chest, as if threatening to engulf the audience and all the world. And with that image, the film abruptly ends.
As mentioned above, Listers Rache was a resounding failure with audiences at advance screenings, and it was quickly pulled from most theaters. Evidently, the film was “too much” even for a movie-going public that had made Winckelmann a wealthy man for his earlier forays into aestheticized violence. Audiences had found the film’s gore effects to be disturbingly convincing—so convincing, in fact, that many suspected that they were not “effects” at all, and a warrant was soon issued for Winckelmann’s arrest. After the police had searched in vain for Winckelmann at his home, a fire was reported at his downtown film studio. Several hours later, Winckelmann’s body, having been pulled from the smoldering ruins of his Filmstadt, was identified using his fingerprints. Though his garments were badly burned, he appeared to have been dressed in a black cloak.
The bodies of Olaf Schneider, his ten-year-old daughter, and his former lover Greta Winckelmann were never recovered.
Like most of Winckelmann’s films, Listers Rache has vanished almost without a trace. Some copies were lost in fires—an unfortunately very common occurrence, as early film stock was highly flammable—while others were deliberately destroyed. There is an interesting, though almost certainly apocryphal anecdote in Christian Eichheim’s Moderne Schauermärchen aus der Stummfilmzeit about a rediscovered copy of Listers Rache, which bears repeating here, if only for its dramatic interest. In 1974, so the story goes, Peter Fleischer, an Austrian film collector, acquired a copy of Listers Rache at an auction. After viewing the film on his private projector, he began to experience headaches, nausea, and finally hallucinations. He reported seeing a figure in a black cloak out of the corner of his eye, but the figure would vanish as soon as he turned his head. At first, this figure would appear to be far away, but it seemed to come closer over time. Eventually, Fleischer began to suffer from insomnia—the figure would stand over his bed at night, but disappear as soon as the light switch was turned on. Every appearance of this figure would cause a feeling of intense despair and dread in Fleischer. After several weeks of agony, Fleischer finally burnt the film reel in his fireplace. The hallucinations ended, but an inexplicable smell of charred flesh lingered over the chimney.
I have often wondered how I would react if I found a copy of Listers Rache in a musty old film archive or in some dark corner of the internet. It would doubtless be an invaluable discovery from the perspective of film history—but perhaps it would be a discovery best left to someone else.