‘Paracelsus’ Exposes the Tension Between Subversion and Propaganda

To understand a society, watch its films. Germany during the rise of the Nazis still had a film industry, controlled by a central propaganda machine that decreed what films could be made and their subject matters. By the start of World War II, many of Germany’s leading filmmakers, actors, writers, and other artists fled to France and then to the United States, either for fear of their lives or in protest against the Nazis. The result was a heavily controlled and at times impoverished film industry, producing films meant to reinforce the dominating Nazi narrative, telling tales of great German heroes, contemporary German workers, and Germany’s mythical, Romantic past. One of the few major filmmakers forced back to Germany was G.W. Pabst, who had remained in France for much of the 1930s and was eventually returned to Nazi Germany in 1938. He only made two films in this period: The Comedians and Paracelsus, the latter of which is now available in a gorgeous new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

Paracelsus takes the form of a supposed biopic of the Swiss philosopher and healer Paracelsus, viewed as the “father of toxicology” and a major, if somewhat mysterious, figure of the German renaissance. Here he’s played by Werner Krauss (that’s Dr. Caligari, to you), introduced when he saves the book printer Froben (Rudolf Blummer) from having his leg amputated by the Magister (Fritz Rasp) of the local medical school. But before we even meet Paracelsus, his name is spoken with awe by the peasants and with a mixture of admiration and fear by the other medical men and ruling aristocracy. His cult of personality has already grown; he’s seen as a healer and a magician, searching for the elixir of life. The combination of veneration, medical knowledge, and alchemy runs through the film, on occasion drawing into question whether we are meant to take Paracelsus as an aspirational hero or a dark sorcerer.

This is a film made in Nazi Germany about an almost mythic hero who seeks to save the German people from their contemporary rulers, returning them to a mythological tradition while simultaneously moving them forward into a dominating Germanic future. Is Paracelsus a Hitler stand-in, making this film a well-made propaganda piece? Or is Pabst injecting subtle commentary and subversion into his narrative, manipulating audience sympathy to reinforce humanist principles?

And herein lies the tension, between what the film wants to be and what it is required to be—which might explain why it seems to shift so wildly in places, trying to depict Paracelsus as an altruistic healer on the one hand, an iron-handed ruler on the other. One of the film’s centerpieces concerns a juggler, Fliegenbein (Harald Krautzberg), who sneaks into the city after Paracelsus closes it over concern for the plague. Beloved by the people, Fliegenbein arrives in the local tavern, where he proceeds to lead the drinkers in a “St. Vitus dance” (often referred to as the “Dance of Death” in contemporary analysis), a terrifying, moving piece that veers into Expressionism. It is Paracelsus who punctures this dance of death, exposing Fliegenbein as a carrier of the plague. But rather than eradicate the juggler, Paracelsus seeks to save him, using his sheathed sword against a skull-headed Death.

The role of Paracelsus as a healer, then, becomes about protection from disease and the defeat of death, rather than the veneration of it, a fact which undercuts the Nazis’ preoccupation with the death cult. Paracelsus declines to wield weapons; he acts as a defender and a protector. Later, when his young acolyte Johannes (Peter Martin Urtel) attempts to use Paracelsus’s formulas, he’s not punished for his hubris—the doctor takes on his shame, and accepts the damage done in his name. Perhaps Paracelsus is here the Germanic ideal, the self-sacrificing healer, but it is hard to see him as a total allegory for Hitler, or even as an allegory for the Nazi party itself, when he seeks so clearly to heal and to forgive rather than condemn.

Whether or not Paracelsus is textually subversive is an open question. It can certainly be read subversively, as the narrative of a healer working against authoritarian dogmas who ultimately refuses glory and power for the benefit of the masses—but that, in itself, feeds into the Hitlerian propaganda of the self-sacrificing hero who does it all “for Germany.” At the same time, it is a subtly humanist drama, a rejection of the cult of death that Germany was so strenuously embracing at the time. Paracelsus cautions against hubris, rejects an offer of power, and preaches the strength of love above all things. His representation is both Christ-like and Hitlerian—a terrifying juxtaposition—and yet the film appears to reject the notion of the will to power.

Paracelsus’ ascension is by no means an allegory, which in itself complicates an understanding of the film as either ideologically subversive or a piece of pure propaganda. It lingers rather in between, giving thematic nods to the ruling party while excoriating obsession with power and embracing love and healing. There may even be subversion within the later characterization of Paracelsus himself, who becomes increasingly dogmatic in his lectures and begins to veer into the sinister as his acolytes celebrate his might and near-militarism.

The fact will always remain that Paracelsus is a film made under UFA, under Goebbels, and with undoubted references to German exceptionalism and Aryan ideology. The moments when the light of subversion does break through complicates the narrative, not least because Krauss’s performance renders Paracelsus at once a benevolent and sinister figure. Is this a humanist attempt to undercut Nazi ideology? Perhaps. Is it a propaganda piece valorizing Germany and its perceived place in history? Perhaps. But beyond all else, it is important to look at films such as this and recognize their place within a propaganda machine, and how they might seek to undercut it. At the end of the day, Pabst worked for the Nazis, Paracelsus is a product of that collaboration, and the film exposes tension within the production of propaganda. But how we judge the film, its subject, and its maker is up to us.

Paracelsus is now available on Kino Blu-ray.

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