Monday, April 25, 2011

Morphine, Cappucine, and Dino De: FRAULEIN DOKTOR (1968)

Currently available only on Netflix streaming (the openly sapphic poster above may be a clue to why it's never seen the light of DVD or network reruns, animal abuse may be another), is this big budget but never leaden, endearing, openly referential to von Sternberg's DISHONORED, sometimes confusingly-edited, reasonably engrossing, mildly titillating melodrama from Dino De Laurentiis, FRAULEIN DOKTOR (1968). Also known as FRAULEIN DOCTOR (on Netflix), it's the story of a German morphine-addict bisexual super spy who--among other things --helps assassinate a Naval admiral, after first stealing a French poison gas formula by by seducing and then assassinating its lesbian chemist (Cappucine) creator.

What makes it so indelible as that for all its potential sordidness (she celebrates success by shooting up), the film is clearly structured along a DR. ZHIVAGO (1965) template, which is to say, it has big elaborate international WW1/Russian Revolution-era sweep, Jarre-ish orchestral soundtrack (by Ennio Morricone!), a superfluously detailed train journey; a big crowd scene WW1 attack, and romantic leads who look a lot like Julie Christie and Omar Shariff (Suzy Kendall and James Booth).

However, this ain't your mom's ZHIVAGO clone, unless your mom is a lesbian junky super spy working for WW1 Germany (i.e. the bad guys). The opening barbed wire silhouette and deep color splotch credit design is something straight out of the Corman Poe series, which is the next best thing to Saul Bass in the cool credits department, and Morricone's typical mix of avant-garde frisson and emotional sweep trumps Jarre's tediously repeated peasant carnival waltz theme to make this a winner from the start. Shorter, meaner, more jaded, cool, and allegedly true. Dipping its toes in a druggy kind of debauched super genius nastiness--our fraulein --like a cross between Nico, Dietrich, Julie Christie, and a Fassbinder Sukowa, shoots up a lot of morphine--it's her real romantic partners--and when she stares lustily at the soldiers in her Red Cross train (she's disguised a nurse) you know it's because they're all being given shots of the good stuff. You imagine that's what's in her bug-out bag, but we never lean (the filmmakers miss a good chance by not bringing back the morphine haul at the end- maybe it was edited out). It's rare in a movie like this you would feel that junky longing, the time to watch her eyes whenever a short of morphine shares the screen. While the lesbian seduction has a creepy Aldrich-style freakshow quality, the fact that it's there, and is so central to the film it makes it on the poster, all while staying true to the Zhivagosian 'sweep' shows this has got De Laurentiis' ballsy fingerprints all over it (Morricone's score makes it the most romantic moment in the film, even more so than the later instances of romantic connection between the Doktor and her reverse double agent confederate (James Booth, refreshingly practical). Much more than this, as per De Laurentiis' best works, there's a sense of real moral ambiguity, where if immorality is condemned, it's also championed equal measure. And with his other films, it may be packed with extras, vistas and sweep, but it also zips along, careening with the joy of forward momentum, careening past all the flowery places filmmakers like Lean would stop to dawdle. Only the end, a muddy sea of extras in gas masks with helmets too similar to tell if they're German or French, all climbing over each other trying to escape or capture various trenches and roads, gets a little monotonous, but by then we're at the climax, so a little sweep isn't going to kill you (just make you squirm over endless close-ups of French infantrymen's hands and fingers dissolving into taffy from the the Dokotr-stolen gas.)

I never did much cotton to ZHIVAGO (the only character I liked was Rod Steiger's, so it made rooting for Omar a real hard task) but I dig that FRAULEIN takes what it wants (romance, WW1, blonde nurse with an excellent Germanic jawline, trains) and leaves the rest. I also like that FRAULEIN keeps itself under two hours, and doesn't get lost in a maddening love story so much as have occasional touches of 'what might have been but may or may not be two lovers bullshitting each other.'

But for all the differences, there's no doubt what blockbuster film our FRAULEIN is aping. It's superior and unique in its way though, and still is, if for no other reason than what other movie is about a beautiful blonde junky possible psychopath. Only at the end do we see any display of emotion other than the rapture from or over the thought of a post-op fix. It's so unique it's almost dangerous - is this why the film is so hard to find?? Put it out on DVD, I command you!

Far less lush than Dr. Z, and occasionally dopey, Dr. F is still underrated, under-seen and would be just a stilted sweeper ala ENGLISH PATIENT, except for one thing -- Ennio Morricone!

Ennio Morricone was more than just the guy who brought electric guitars to the western, or children's sing song la la la's to giallo -- he proved that the right music could 'make' a movie appear out of nothing but a bunch of scenes. Under his baton the score became as essential an ingredient as actors or dialogue, even more so where international films are concerned and dubbing issues could often muddle and sour the story without a weird musical score to fill in the blanks. DOKTOR's long lesbian scenes with Cappucine, the druggy 'shooting up' music when our junky anti-heroine fumbles for her vial; or the heroic little gestures of the Giancarlo Giannini's world weary spy, are amped up like a case of delirium tremens when Morricone is working the magic. Suddenly something that is inert becomes tragic and larger than life. Make no mistake, without Morricone, Italian exploitation cinema, from giallo to Laurentiis' blockbusters, would be only fun, not the magic they are!

Surprise of surprises: the events in this film are all allegedly true, but you know espionage tales, you'll never get straight facts. Those are classified so long people forget where they filed them. So just enjoy the luridness and the first rate cast: Capucine (above) as a lesbian poison gas designer; Kenneth More as the head of British Intelligence; Nigel Green as the head of German Intelligence, and a large crew of extras marching around in gas masks for the big finale, making me wonder if Ralph Bakshi used this movie for 'rotoscoping' backgrounds in WIZARDS. Best of all, it's set in World War I, not World War II, so the German were still 'sporting' and 'gentlemanly' to a degree. You don't have to hate them as badly as you would in a few years. 

It's also worth scoping out if you liked, say, a very similar international De Laurentiis film that mixed adult elements like drugs, (real) animal killing, hot girls, and lesbianism in with its 'historical' story, BLUEBEARD (1972). All that's missing, really, is what saved BLUEBEARD from Burton's boozy somnambulistic hamming, a little minx named Joey Heatherton.

Joey Heatherton... you make life complete. And FRAULEIN DOKTOR, you're not far behind. Firing Squad, commence streaming!


  1. You've sold me, Erich. I'll have to look at this crazy thing sometime this week after much hesitation. But about Morricone: he was but the tall tip of an ocean-liner killing iceberg of outstanding Italo movie composers floating about in the Sixties. Had he not existed, someone like Riz Ortolani would have stepped up to take his place.

  2. true, dear Samuel. And if they were anything like Hollywood's composers, they ripped from each other all the time. I'd be interested to know who 'invented' that atypical giallo 60s romantic theme music, if it just grew naturally from orchestral schmaltz or was an LSD-inspired take on it. Either way, Fraulein Doktor is groovy but partially because there's not much music, so when it comes in, you feel it like a knife to the heart, carving out all the lost loves... I wonder if Quentin Tarantino likes this film


  4. Terrible film, the "sexy" scenes seem so imposed and the scenes of poisoning the rats and dogs are horrific ... Were these deaths, tortures, real?


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