The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney. That is all that really needs to be said, and the review could end here. But perhaps a few things about the film The Penalty should be added, just for clarity.

Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920)

The plot is actually very interesting, even without Chaney’s magnificent interpretation. A young boy gets both his legs amputated by mistake. As he grows up, unloved and unloving, he gets involved with the criminal underworld, eventually rising to become a minor but ruthless crime lord, nicknamed Blizzard, and with aspirations for greatness. He has many young girls among his underlings, and his favourite gets to pedal his piano (since his handicap prevents him from doing so himself). The police has nothing substantial on him, so they decide to send their best female agent. Meanwhile, Blizzard is planning revenge on the doctor who amputated his legs, and on his beautiful sculptor daughter.

Even though it tends to get a bit melodramatic at times, this plot along with the crew’s skillful work are almost enough to raise it to the level of memorable contemporary pieces, such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, The Mark of Zorro or Klostret i Sendomir. But then along comes Chaney and quite by himself elevates the whole thing to the level of masterpiece.

This film is best enjoyed for Chaney’s brilliant acting. He is in total control at every moment. Someone compared him with the Robert De Niro of silent film, and there is some truth in that. Not only because of the acting, but also because of his absolute devotion to each role. For this film, he built a contraption that tied his legs up so that he looks totally convincingly amputated. It is said that it was so painful that he could only wear it for ten minutes at a stretch, and still the man could act better than most of today’s stars.

Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920)

The Penalty
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 30 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (622 M)

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Ich klage an (1941)

Over 70,000 people were killed as a direct result of Hitler’s Aktion T4 in the early stages of World War II. Some were jews, but many more were mentally or physically handicapped children and adults that, so Hitler said, would have meant an unnecessary cost for the “Vaterland” in times of war. As terrible as it is to think about all that, there was one arguably good thing to come out of that terror, namely the propaganda film Ich klage an, financed and produced to gain popular support for governmental use of so-called euthanasia (mercy killings).

Paul Hartmann and Heidemarie Hatheyer in pro-euthanasia film Ich klage an / I Accuse (1941)

Thomas Heyt is a medical doctor with a good career and a loving wife. But his life is turned upside down when his wife Hanna becomes the victim of severe, painful and potentially lethal mutiple sclerosis. Heyt seeks in vain for a cure, but Hanna’s condition becomes ever worse. She asks him to take her life before her pain becomes unbearable, which he eventually does. This, however, is not the end of the film, because Heyt thereafter has to stand trial for his actions, accused of murdering his wife.

When I first saw the film, I had no idea about its connection with Aktion T4. Nevertheless, I expected a propaganda film, but I was surprised to see how mild the propaganda is. So mild, in fact, that if it were not for its connections with Nazism, it could very well still be used to argue for voluntary euthanasia (and sometimes is, for that matter). The film does not in any way bring forth the subject of involuntary euthanasia that was actually the foremost purpose of Aktion T4, but it stays ethically within what several democratic countries legally allow today, apparently including the state of Oregon.

In an ironic twist of fate, the film came too late to save the project that had spawned it. In what has been described as the only successful popular protest against Hitler, public opinion was so strongly against the project that it actually had to be cancelled in 1941, only five days before Ich klage an premiered, heavily censored due to the criticism. (I am not sure whether the copy at the Internet Archive is the original or censored.) But even though Aktion T4 had been officially cancelled, Euthanasia according to the guidelines adopted by the project continued in many places throughout the war, killing tens of thousands more.

The available copy of this film has a unique feature, one that I have never seen before. The initial frames of the video file contain a slideshow with very interesting background information about Aktion T4 and about the film itself. If you have a player that can freeze the film on the first frame, and then step frame by frame, I can highly recommend these interesting slides, either before or after watching the film itself. The slides are pro-euthanasia, as is the film itself, but regardless of your own opinion on the subject, they provide a good historical background.

This film is best enjoyed in one of two very different ways. It can either be seen from a historical perspective, remembering that it comes from the same ideas and ideals that led up to the holocaust. Or it can be seen purely as a work of art: a film which, though controversial, is rich with excellent dramaturgy and acting. Indeed, these two perspectives may not be possible to disassociate entirely; they certainly complement one another and provide the watching with further depths.

Paul Hartmann in pro-euthanasia film Ich klage an / I Accuse (1941)

Ich klage an
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Year: 1941
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 51 min
Director: Wolfgang Liebeneiner
Stars: Paul Hartmann
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (661 M)