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The Doctor and the Devils: Pabst’s Subversive UFA Propaganda Revisited in Paracelsus (1943) | Blu-ray Review

Austrian born G.W. Pabst remains one of the most celebrated figures of German language cinema in the Weimar Republic, his enduring works featuring Louise Brooks (Pandora’s Box; Diary of a Lost Girl, both 1929) enjoying continual circulation, while Criterion recently resurrected notable works Westfront 1918 (1930) and Kameradschaft (1931). But before emigrating to the United States like contemporaries such as Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch or Fritz Lang, Pabst was detained in 1938 France, forced to return to Nazi Germany, where he would make two films at UFA for Goebbels’ propaganda machine, the second of which would be the obscured Paracelsus (1943), a biopic on Swiss born alchemist/physician/philosopher Theophrastus von Hohenheim, revered as the ‘father of toxicology’ during the German Renaissance.

The project was meant to be a continuing series of films which exemplified German language historical notables who supposedly exemplified the persona of Adolf Hitler. However, Pabst’s interpretation of an artist condemned for his wisdom and contributions to the advancement of science instead conveys the opposite response with a man standing against the rigid, fascist polemics dictating the law of the land. Like many of the films produced at UFA, the title has long languished in obscurity, receiving a quiet U.S. premiere in 1974 to little fanfare.

Scripted by Kurt Heusser and based on Peter Peternel’s 1941 The King of Physicians, Werner Krauss stars as Paracelsus, an outsider to the medical establishment ridiculed by his Swiss counterparts for refusing to follow standard medical practices. However, when Paracelsus is called upon to rescue a citizen from unnecessary amputation, he quickly becomes the hero and voice of the people. Initially celebrated by the local authority (Harry Langewisch), whose beautiful daughter Renata (Annelies Reinhold) supports the mystical doctor as she herself attempts to escape an arranged marriage, Paracelsus is eventually driven out of town as a heretic.

In hindsight, it seems incomprehensible that Goebbels and company couldn’t see through Pabst’s machinations of showcasing Paracelsus as a man standing against the violence and corruption of the hierarchy, combating their selfish actions, which insisted upon the retaining of power and control at the physical expense of others. While Paracelsus’ contributions to medicine were literally in the efforts to stave off a plague, it’s not hard to see the obvious metaphors of what was going on in Pabst’s contemporary Germany.

As Paracelsus, Werner Krauss steals the show as the titular scientist speaking truth to power in a performance which deserves similar acclaim to his signature role in 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Pabst injects some moments of surreal artistry, such as moment of Death personified (supposedly meant to resemble Goebbels), but otherwise it’s a title which plays like a standard melodrama, a recuperation which recalls what Margarethe von Trotta would do for Hildegard von Bingham in 2009’s Vision.

Film Rating: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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