The Weimar-era German film Algol, or Algol – Tragödie der Macht (Tragedy of Power) is a singular bit of celluloid for all sorts of reasons. For one, it’s a science fiction movie dating from 1920, making it among the very first of the genre. It predates Metropolis by seven years but like that film, its depictions of oppression from above and uprising from below are very much a reflection of contemporary political concerns.
Algol was shot in Berlin, with some exterior shots among the palaces and other cast-offs of Prussian glory in nearby Potsdam. The studio, Deutsche Lichtbild-Gesellschaft, had been set up during the First World War to make documentary propaganda films and the same year as Algol they were still making films with titles like Barmen – Germany’s Ribbon Weaving Town and How Pencils Are Made.
The angular sets for Algol‘s interior shots are by Walter Reimann, fresh from working on the hugely influential Cabinet of Dr Caligari, made earlier the same year. Algol‘s cast members would go on to star in three further landmark Weimar-era movies. John Gottowt, who plays an alien inhabiting the titular star, appeared in Nosferatu two years later, the same year that Hans Adalbert Schlettow, who has a double father-son role in Algol, featured in Dr Mabuse. Emil Jannings, here a coal miner who ends up as the most powerful man on earth, would turn up as the luckless professor in The Blue Angel ten years later.
All of this would be remarkable enough, but towards the end comes a tumultuous celebration, and the dance put on as entertainment is something very special indeed. What, you will in all likelihood ask, what is this spectral vision of writhing, lascivious, satanic, vampiric glamour? This black-hearted, blasted bastard child of a temple whore and a hound of hell? This spaced, wasted, serpent-hipped, anthracite-eyed, poison-kiss-curled, demonic divinity, upstaging the sleaziest rock gods decades before they were even born? Why, it’s our old friend Sebastian Droste!
Honestly, it’s one of the most amazing dance performances I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen Grace Jones hula-hooping).
Update: the original YouTube videos (in eight instalments) were taken down, but thankfully you can now see Algol in one go. Naturally I’d urge you to watch the whole thing but if you’re keen to see Droste, he first appears at the 1:47:16 mark.