(director: Georg Wilhelm Pabst; screenwriter: Kurt Heusser; cinematographer: Bruno Stephan; editor: Lena Newmann; music: Herbert Windt; cast: Werner Krauss (Paracelsus), Mathias Wieman (Ulrich von Hutten), Harry Langewisch (Fliegenbein), Fritz Rasp (Judge), Martin Urtel (Johannes), Annelies Reinhold (Renata Pfefferkorn), Victor Janson (Mayor); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Fred Lyssa for Bavaria Film; Transworld Films; 1943-Nazi Germany-in German with English subtitles-B/W)
“The Pabst film is ambiguous about its mystic subject.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The liberal Austrian-Hungarian born director and former actor, G. W. Pabst (“The Joyless Street”/”The Threepenny Opera”), considered by many critics as the most influential German director, under the wartime Third Reich, helms a biopic on the 16th century Swiss physician, healer, alchemist, astrologer and mystic, Philippus von Hohenheim, who went by the name Paracelsus. This is the only film made about this warrior physician, who identified with the common people, and because of his flaunting of the medical rules the authorities forced him into exile. The man of the people was ridiculed by the establishment Swiss doctors for not going by the book in his treatments and of following unapproved magical practices. He was further ridiculed and oppressed for choosing to write in German instead of the accepted Latin.
The film was adapted from one of the 1941 books on him, an historical fiction novel by Pert Peternel called Der König der Ärzte (The King of Physicians), and is scripted by Kurt Heusser.
Some critics call it a propaganda film for Hitler. I’m not sure if that’s quite right, as Pabst might have made the film during the Nazi era but tried to make it an anti-establishment film bringing up social and political issues. In other words, it was not a Nazi film.
Paracelsus is reinvented to make him an iconic German superman (or a national folk hero). I give Pabst credit for trying to not completely bend to the Nazi ways to make this a propaganda film, but by making any film under the Nazis and having it uncensored was not possible.
I only think parts of it are watchable, as this is not one of Pabst’s better films (anyway, by the 1930s he was losing some of his skills he had when making successful silents in the 1920s). Here, many of the subplots are inane and most of the narrative is muddled.
In the 1940s many of the German people, especially the intellectuals, considered Paracelsus a good inspiration for the Nazi movement and looked favorably upon him as one of them. That I’m afraid is a mistaken notion, he was anything but a forerunner for Nazism but, on the contrary, a colorful visionary at odds with his countries feudalism, outdated medical practices and with them worshiping false prophets. He was a man of Northern Renaissance thought, seeking to make the world a better place and not destroy it with hatred.
The Pabst film is ambiguous about its mystic subject, carefully choosing to embrace contradictory values about him–ones that would seemingly fit and not fit with the Nazi ideology. But in reality, Paracelsus’ principles are contrary to those of his Nazi admirers. Pabst, I assume, had a difficult time working this line of ambiguity to get the film past the crazed film censor–the Nazi fanatic Joseph Goebbels.
Paracelsus (Werner Krauss) is pictured as this crusty guy, full of praises for the Germans and their noble virtues, and someone willing and able to treat people from all over for their ailments through the healing powers he was blessed with.
In the film’s money scene, the thing it’s best remembered for (or should be), Death is depicted in the person of a juggler (Harry Langewisch), costumed to look like Goebbels and whose jerky movements resemble a Goebbels still beset with muscle spasms from his polio days. The juggler enters a town overrun by the plague and invites the citizens to join him in a victory dance, but he’s slain by Paracelsus. Realism and fantasy are interchanged, as the director shows off his arty stuff and ability to get dramatic when necessary.
Paracelsus is a drama by a filmmaker who returned to Germany from Paris at the war’s start and at a time when many talented German filmmakers (like Fritz Lang) were leaving the country.
Later on Pabst made The Trial (1948), a strong film that was a rebuke of anti-Semitism, which helped restore in the West his tainted image of working with the Nazis. Also, after the war he regained his creative powers and continued to make powerful anti-Nazi films such as The Ten Last Days (1955).
REVIEWED ON 6/23/2020 GRADE: B-