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Warner Bros.’s Moby-Dick Adaptation Dämon des Meeres (1931) as Part of a Transcultural and Textual Network

Over the past few decades adaptation studies scholars, popular culture scholars, and Melville scholars alike have considered the first Warner adaptations of Moby-DickThe Sea Beast (1926), Moby Dick (1930), and Dämon des Meeres (1931, ‘Demon of the Sea’) – “aborted effort[s] to film Melville’s masterpiece” and “the worst kind of romantic melodrama” (Inge 699-700; see also Cahir; Dowling). Yet, I consider the early Moby-Dick adaptations as democratic and culturally contested spaces that need to be studied as part of a “[trans]cultural and textual network” (Bruhn et al. 8). As melodramatic revisions of early nineteenth-century whaling narratives, these films offer an “ambiguous oscillation between advancement and nostalgia, innovation and containment, liberation and repression” (Poole and Saal 20). At the same time, these adaptations comment on the period they originated in, i.e. the 1920s in the USA and the early 1930s in Germany. They thus shed light on the hunt for the white whale as a transcultural phenomenon.

In fact, despite the popularity of The Sea Beast, which was well-received in Germany and Austria under its German title Wenn Meer und Himmel sich berühren (‘When the Sea and the Sky Meet’), Warner was faced with the question of how to bring the American sound version of Moby Dick to a German audience at a time when the country had begun to impose restrictions on the import of American sound movies. In this novel situation, Warner decided to recast a substantial part of its American players with German-speaking actors and hired the Austrian-Hungarian director Mihály Kertész, who became internationally known as Michael Curtiz. As James C. Robertson states, the success of the earlier versions “prompted Warners to produce a German-language equivalent, to which Curtiz was assigned while the part of Ahab was played by William Dieterle, an efficient German actor who was also a very able director and a new Warner recruit” (22).

Thus, my aim for this essay is two-fold: I first focus on the importance of the nineteenth-century folkloric precursors of the first cinematic adaptations of Melville’s Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale (1851). I have identified four of these narratives, one published in France and three in the United States, each providing invaluable insight into the nineteenth-century myth of hunting the white whale and this myth’s intricate interconnection with masculinity and rivalry. Equally noteworthy is the first known folkloric tale about the legend of the great white whale, as retold by Jules Lecomte in “La Légende Grand Cachalot Blanc” (1837, ‘The Legend of the Great White Whale’). I suggest that folkloric tropes play a significant role in the creative reception of Moby-Dick in the melodramatic Hollywood movies, revealing that the hunt for the white whale was transcultural and transmedial from the start. These processes of translation are also shaped by relationships of power, as Cristina Bacchilega explains:

If we understand both “folklore” and “literature” as products of modernity, the significance of translation for the articulation of folklore and literature is not limited to the circulation of stories across language confines or to the intermedial translation from the oral to the written/printed word; it expands further to the roles that translation plays in the commodification, expropriation, and re-appropriation of subaltern cultures […] [I]ntervening in and interrogating practices of translation contribute to confronting the legacies of –isms, including sexism and colonialism, in dominant configurations of folklore and literature (457).

In fact, colonialism, sexism, and racism have not only prevailed in these folkloric texts, but they have reemerged in the process of adapting Moby-Dick for the cinematic screen. Scrutinized in this way, it will become clear that the mythic white whale has been under continual revision since the early nineteenth-century through its connections to masculinity, rivalry, and sexuality. As Yvonne Griggs puts it in The Bloomsbury Introduction to Adaptation Studies: “adaptations reconfigure the cultural anxieties of these ‘mythic’ texts within different geographical, temporal, medial frameworks, but the cultural anxieties that they address connect them to the canonical text, even when reconfigured in a very different guise” (9).

I situate my research within adaptation studies, although I use the term “creative reception” here to emphasize the processes of cultural production and reception connected to Hollywood motion pictures of the 1920s and early 1930s. Philip Goldstein’s and James L. Machor’s New Directions in American Reception Study (2008) serves as an important point of departure, particularly with their observation that “[r]eception study, which says that an audience’s interpretive practices account for a work’s meaning, has grown remarkably because it accepts [a] vast explosion of literatures and interpretative methods” (xii). This includes the role that scriptwriters and filmmakers play in the process of adapting a literary text not only for the screen but also in shifting cultural contexts. Linda Hutcheon’s seminal book A Theory of Adaptation (2012) is of relevance here as well. She explores the various processes that are involved in the engagement with a source text and paves the way for an adaptation as an independent “creative and interpretive act” (8). She explains: “as a creative and interpretative transposition of a recognizable other work or works, adaptation is a kind of extended palimpsest, and at the same time, often a transcoding into a different set of conventions” (33). As John Bryant highlights in “Textual Identity and Adaptive Revision”: “like translators they [adaptors] transform a text for a new or different audience, and address new conditions and problems in a culture” (48). In fact, as Birgit Spengler suggests: “It is not only or not so much the memory of a given text or time period that is at stake in the form of intertextual re-vision, but current self-conceptualization and the contemporary cultural imagination” (20, emphasis added).

Secondly, in my analysis of the early Moby-Dick adaptations, I am specifically interested in the “reception-generated changes” that are particularly captivating in transcultural adaptations not only as “cultural revision” (Hutcheon 171) but as transcultural revision. On the one hand, I am drawing here on Mikhail Epstein, who argues that

[t]ransculture is a new sphere of cultural development that transcends the border of traditional cultures (ethnic, national, racial, religious, gender, sexual, and professional). Transculture overcomes the isolation of their symbolic systems and value determinations and broadens the field of “supra-cultural” creativity. We acquire transculture at the boundaries of our own culture and the crossroads with other cultures through the risky experience of our own cultural wanderings and transgressions (330).

In this respect, Dämon des Meeres belongs, at least partially, to a transcultural realm of “supra-cultural creativity” by taking up Melville’s Moby-Dick as a subject matter for a German-speaking audience by way of an émigré experience. In this adaptive process, national borders dissolve as part of the transcultural realm of filmmaking. As will also become clear, other borders are re-established, for instance due to national censorship. Alef Benessaieh makes a further distinction between transculturation and transculturality:

The concept most often confused with transculturality is that of transculturation, coined by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz in the 1940s [...] to offer an important alternative to ‘acculturation’, and study the processes of resistance, exchange and appropriation that occur between culturally differentiated populations that have come into close contact with one another (16).

Both concepts are relevant for my analysis, which intersect with Wolfgang Welsch’s basic reflection that cultures are not homogenous but rather interwoven (12). This cultural interlacing extends not only to European émigré and migratory actors and directors working in the Hollywood industry but to the linguistic, performative and cinematographic attempt of translating and transcoding Moby Dick (1930) into Dämon des Meeres (1931). By turning to the nineteenth-century maritime tales in the section below, I will now briefly highlight the thematic relevance of the whaling lore as a previously overlooked connecting point for the later Warner adaptations of Moby-Dick, which in turn helps to shed light on Steindorff’s screenplay versions of Dämon des Meeres as a transcultural creative reception.

The White Whale as Part of a Transcultural and Textual Network

It is generally not widely known that around the time of Melville’s formative years as a mariner from 1841 until 1844, different narratives featuring a white whale began to surface in print culture. These texts are Lecomte’s already mentioned “La Légende Grand Cachalot Blanc”, William Comstock’s A Voyage to the Pacific (1838), Jeremiah N. Reynolds’s “Mocha Dick. Or, The White Whale of the Pacific” (1839), and a forgotten short story by Emma C. Embury titled “Love and Whaling” (1843). These four narratives about harpooning the white whale are intricately intertwined with representations of masculinity, sexuality and rivalry.

Lecomte’s narrative translates and adapts the “Legend of the Great White Whale” for the first time in print as it is based on an oral fo‘c’sle tale of whalers from the Nantucket ship Oceania, “a fine American three-master”, and its fateful encounter with a white whale near the Falkland Islands in 1828 (qtd. in Stanonik 33).1 It describes the whale “above all [as] extraordinary because of his [its] colour, which was of the purest and most brilliant white” (ibid. 34). In this text, the folklorist recounts – in French – a tale of an excessive, hyperbolic, and phallocentric hunt by no less than twenty whaling ships around the Falkland Islands near Cape Horn. It is an act of revenge that is initiated by the Oceania’s captain, who in a recent attack by the white whale lost several crew members including one of his relatives. The captain promises his exoticized daughter, who is described as “one of those American Creoles whose whole appearance is a living axample [sic] of the union of the beauty of the girls from the North and those from the Caribbean Sea” (ibid. 36), to any lucky harpooner who kills the white whale. In a striking twist to the story, the successful hunter is described as a black harpooner, who is soon to be married to the most beautiful daughter in Nantucket. As Cristina Bacchilega confirms, such colonial fantasies were not uncommon: “The interlingual and intercultural translation of folktales and fairy tales has naturalized gender and ethnic stereotypes, promoted exoticizing fantasies, and played major roles in colonizing projects” (457). At the same time, this colonial fantasy makes it clear that hunting the white whale was transcultural from the start. As such, it “radically transforms and enriches […] cultural bodies” (Epstein 342) by going beyond traditional ‘racial’ imaginaries.

The second text, Comstock’s A Voyage to the Pacific, published in Boston, subverts the myth of the courage of Nantucket men in pursuit of the white whale. In fact, Comstock’s narrative exposes white, male rivalry as projected onto the white whale as foolish, if not down-right stupid. The 72-page narrative creates two prototypes of male rivals in New England’s whaling culture: Mr. Hussey, the first Nantucket mate, who possessed “to a high degree the only perquisite for a whaleman ‘strength and stupidity’” (Comstock 15) and Mr. Swain, the college-educated second mate, who makes fun of the uneducated whaler. In an act of economic rivalry, both mates are killed by a whale that is described as a fear-inducing “white speck on the far horizon” (ibid. 30), which scares the entire crew except the captain. In view of the first Warner adaptations of Moby-Dick, male rivalry becomes the most prominent theme, drawing upon the nineteenth-century narrative tradition as connected to whaling.

Jeremiah N. Reynolds’ “Mocha Dick; or, the White Whale of the Pacific”, published in the New-York monthly The Knickerbocker, reinforces the dominant role of the killing of the white whale as a masculine trope in New England’s whaling industry. As, for instance, the first mate shouts in an overtly sexualized language: “Now, boys, if you care about seeing your sweethearts in old Nantuck! If you love Yankee-land - if you love me - pull ahead, won’t ye? No then, to the thwarts! Lay back, my boys! I feel ye, my heartis! Give her the touch!” (Reynolds 388) This quote serves to briefly illustrate the direct connection between whaling and male sexuality, which Warner specifically takes up in The Sea Beast.

In this network of texts, Embury’s previously unexplored sentimental narrative “Love and Whaling” serves as a further case in point to grasp the connection between the earlier whaling stories, Moby-Dick, and the Warner adaptations as part of a transcultural and textual network. Writing the hunt for the white whale into a female cultural domain, the story revolves around the Nantucket daughter Marian “May” Morton (alluding to whaling tycoon Charles W. Morgan here), who is pursued by Tom H─, a hardy Nantucket whaler, as well as the effeminate but educated Louis W─ . As May remains undecided about whom to choose, Tom announces:

By the powers, I’d rather spend my life in chasing Mocha Dick, the old white whale who has balked every fellow that has pulled oar after him for the last ten years, and shakes off harpoons as if they were pin-hooks, than play off and on in this way with a girl that don’t know her own mind. Why can’t you say at once whether you like me or not? (Embury 27)

To prove his masculinity, Louis follows his rival in what initially translates into a successful “rite of passage toward male adulthood” (Norling 73). Yet, after killing fourteen whales, he is seriously injured after the attack of a large sperm whale. As the narrator states:

Weak, sick, and only half attended [...] Louis was thrown entirely upon himself […] to indulge his introverted habits of thoughts [...]. [A]nd while their unreal splendors gave a momentary brightness to his dreary existence, their transitory gleams but added deeper darkness to the reality in which he felt himself enchained (Embury 28).

Previously unobserved, this quote reverberates with Melville’s construction of Ahab’s fate, who after Moby Dick ripped away his leg “lay stretched together in one hammock rounding in mid-winter that dreary howling Patagonian Cape,” when “his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so interfusing, made him mad” (Melville 195).

However, not only Melville but also scriptwriters adapted this basic plotline. It reemerged for the first time in a scenario written by John L. E. Pell, who had grown up listening to whaling narratives, for Elmer Clifton’s Down to the Sea in Ships (1922). The film was produced by the Whaling Film Corporation in New Bedford. It features two rivals, one ethnically marked as Chinese American, the other one a white college graduate, who are both in pursuit of no less than Charles W. Morgan’s daughter Patience (played by Marguerite Courtot). Additionally, Down to the Sea in Ships draws on Moby-Dick for some of its intertitles for the first time in film history, just three years after Raymond Weaver’s centennial essay on Herman Melville was published in The Nation, launching the Melville Revival. Furthermore, the first ‘official’ screen adaptation of Moby Dick, The Sea Beast scripted by Bess Meredyth, creatively adapts the earlier mentioned nineteenth-century folkloric whaling narratives too. In its cinematic realization by Millard Webb, The Sea Beast depicts Ahab (played by John Barrymore) in a very similar situation to Embury’s injured Louis W─ (see Figure 1).

Warner Bros.’s Moby-Dick Adaptation Dämon des Meeres (1931) as Part of a Transcultural and Textual Network 
Martina Pfeiler (Ruhr-University Bochum)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Ahab’s agony over the loss of his leg (The Sea Beast).

As an intertitle paraphrases from Melville’s novel: “For weeks Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in a jolting bunk in the filthy fo‘c’sle, and his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another”. In this scene, Ahab has just been deceived by his villainous half-brother Derek (played by George O’ Hara). The latter is ethnically marked as European in reference to the unmanly master from Bremen, Derick DeDeer, who is the captain of the ship Jungfrau (Virgin) in Moby-Dick (Melville 390). Moments earlier Derek pushed him out of the boat in an act of jealousy over Ahab’s chance at harpooning the white whale in prospect of marrying Esther (played by Dolores Costello). In this version, Ahab is constructed as a man in love who overcomes his trauma of male castration by killing Moby Dick and reuniting with Esther. In fact, this adaptation provides a Freudian reinterpretation of the hunt for the white whale Moby Dick as a symbol of repressed sexuality (see Figure 2).

Agreeing on History Adaptation as Restorative Truth in Finnish Reconciliation, Mads Larsen, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Moby Dick lurking in the background as a symbol of sexual repression (The Sea Beast).

This basic plotline about male rivalry is also noticeable in the medium two-shot from Lloyd Bacon’s sound remake, titled simply Moby Dick (1930), which introduces Ahab (again played by John Barrymore) and Derek (played by Lloyd Hughes) as two rival brothers who face each other for the first time after three years (see Figure 3). While Derek serves as a hypocritical, Victorian male model of masculinity – he is dressed in his best Sunday suit, firmly holds his Bible and forces a smile – Ahab wears a seaman’s coat and cap and carries a sharp harpoon as well as an oversized sea bag that is overtly sexualized.

Warner Bros.’s Moby-Dick Adaptation Dämon des Meeres (1931) as Part of a Transcultural and Textual Network 
Martina Pfeiler (Ruhr-University Bochum)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Derek and Ahab depicted as antithetical fraternal rivals (Moby Dick).

As can be expected, the two rivals are interested in the same woman, named Faith, whom Derek introduces to his blaspheming, drunk, and sexist brother in New Bedford’s harbor, and, in the course of the movie, has to face his own male monstrosities when his ship is dismasted by the white whale.

Framing Dämon des Meeres as a form of transcultural creative reception, the second step in this analysis will be to answer the question of how this basic plot structure concerning male rivalry was altered and reimagined for a German-speaking audience.

Dämon des Meeres as a Transcultural Creative Reception

Michael Curtiz’s German sound version Dämon des Meeres premiered at the Mozartsaal in Berlin on 12 March 1931. Although the film is lost, it is possible to investigate several script versions by the German translator and writer Ulrich Steindorff. I was able to locate these scripts at the Warner Brothers Archive at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, which also holds eight Vitaphone discs of Dämon des Meeres (currently not accessible).

According to James C. Robertson, Curtiz “was born in Budapest on or about 24 December 1888 to upper middle-class Jewish parents, and […] attended high school, university and drama academy before making his Budapest acting début in 1910” (5). During World War I, his career came initially to a halt and, after moving from Budapest to Vienna, he successfully directed feature films, most prominently Sodom and Gomorrah (1922) and The Slave Queen (1924), before moving to the US in 1926 (7-8). Robertson also remarks that “the film [Dämon des Meeres] was made during long daily hours over two weeks [...] in October-November 1930” (22).

In the lead role of Ahab, Warner cast William (Wilhelm) Dieterle, who had been born in Ludwigsburg, Germany, two years after Melville’s death in 1891. He had achieved international success as a stage actor in 1920 with a performance of Brutus in Julius Caesar (Schütze 80). Until the late 1920s, Dieterle was celebrated as one of the country’s most renowned actors, receiving contracts in Zurich, Munich, and Berlin, but eventually saw his career at risk due to his leftist political views. In fact, Larissa Schütze paints a detailed picture of Dieterle’s anti-Nazi activism, which extended to helping numerous Jewish actors and writers come to California after his emigration in 1930 (16).

To translate Alexander Grubb’s and Oliver H. P. Garrett’s American script, Warner hired the Jewish-German screenwriter Ulrich Steindorff, who was born in Berlin in 1888 and died in Sherman Oaks, California, in 1978. Steindorff was a well-known journalist in the Weimar Republic (Raabe qtd. in Schuhmann 120), and he had penned a review of Dieterle’s performance as Brutus (Schütze 80). In an increasingly anti-Semitic climate, he was forced to leave Germany for good and emigrated to the United States in 1933, where he began to use the pseudonym Ulrich S. Carrington, working as a Mark Twain translator and as a playwright.

As in all the other versions from the cultural and textual network, the German screenplay Das Seebiest (following the title of the silent film The Sea Beast), introduces the theme of the hunt for the white whale as intricately intertwined with male rivalry. This time it is dramatized by making the two rivals, here named Christoph and Martin, best friends (see Figure 4). The former is a whaler, while the latter is a school master, and both are interested in the local smith’s daughter Thea.

Warner Bros.’s Moby-Dick Adaptation Dämon des Meeres (1931) as Part of a Transcultural and Textual Network 
Martina Pfeiler (Ruhr-University Bochum)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Christoph and his rival Martin (Dämon des Meeres).

It becomes strikingly clear that under German censorship, the “Fourth Treatment. New Story With Dialogue” renames the main protagonists by using the German-sounding names Christoph (played by Wilhelm Dieterle), Martin (Anton Pointer), and Thea (Lissi Arna), implicating that the German-speaking audience should not be exposed to the “Americanness” of the production via names such as “Ahab”, “Derek”, and “Faith”. On the other hand, renaming the protagonists made them a more plausible source of identification when writing the U.S. cultural trope into a “German domain”, albeit still set in New England. As “fluid texts” (Bryant 2002, 174), Steindorff’s treatments reflect the processes of transculturation by creating a new, geographic location for some of its plot. Steindorff decontextualizes the local setting of the once famous American whaling harbor New Bedford and changes it to New Haven in the “Fourth Treatment”, before changing it once more to “Milford, Mss”. Although there is a U.S.-American town of this name connected to ship-making, it is in Connecticut, while Milford, Massachusetts, is strongly associated with the mining industry. Thus, the script deemphasizes the specifics of the American cultural setting to some extent. It remains unclear if a German audience would have recognized the shift from whaling to mining based on the change in town names. It is, however, noteworthy that Steindorff takes part in “transculturating” (Hutcheon 146) when Germanizing the opening scene that is set at an amusement fair, at which Martin, Christoph, and Thea consume beer, wine, and cakes. Since the movie is lost, it is now unclear how and where exactly the geographic location is depicted, but from the perspective of North Germany’s whaling past, it makes sense that a plot summary in the Illustrierter Film-Kurier from March 1931explains that Christoph has just come back from the “Northern Seas” in hope of winning the heart of Thea as a harpooner (“Wilhelm Dieterle”).

In addition to geographic modifications, one other important transcultural creative reception of the earlier sound version revolves around the financial crisis following the stock market crash on 25 October 1929, which had global repercussions and put a large proportion of Germany’s population out of work. Quite strikingly, unlike the American sound version, the final German script version emphasizes the economic reality of the period that put a halt on the whaler’s marriage plans. In a gesture that reflects the modernist era’s secularization, Christoph sardonically remarks that, despite everyone thanking God, people are still financially broke (Steindorff, “Final Script”, Shot 35). According to Thea’s father Franklin, named after the American self-made man Benjamin Franklin, whaling is no longer profitable. The local smith fears that he will soon go out of business since he is forging harpoons during “bad times” (Shot 60a). Thus, Franklin does not allow his daughter Thea to marry Christoph but favors the – only seemingly – stable and conservative schoolmaster Martin, who eventually turns to drinking. By 1931, the myth of the hardihood of whalers had become largely obsolete.

In fact, on 12 February 1932, the Austrian Paimanns Filmlisten makes a reference to a peculiar kind of weapon that Christoph uses when heroically killing the white whale: a pair of scissors (“Dämon des Meeres” 1932). In the context of whaling narratives this comes across as a rather absurd weapon, given the glorification of harpooners in the American whaling milieu. It helps, however, to foreshadow the whaler’s new profession that the disabled whaler Christoph would be able to take up after the heroic killing of the white whale (something Melville’s Ahab never considered in his obsessive hunt). This important alteration leaves the transcultural creative reception of Moby-Dick deeply intertwined with the cultural, economic, and social politics of the day.

This transcultural function also becomes clear when the melodrama establishes a leitmotif of empathy toward an unnamed “Peg-Leg” (“Neger-Stelzfuss” in the German script), who is on one level presented as the racialized ‘Other’. Yet, Steindorff’s script includes a scene at the Harpune, where six drunken seamen lift an elderly African American whaler with a peg-leg onto the inn’s table and force him to dance as a form of entertainment. He is verbally assaulted, when Roter Simson (‘Red Simson’, a reference to ‘Red Whiskers’ the tyrannizing character in Melville’s Billy Budd; Or, the Sailor) bullies him by threatening to “smash his mast” if he does not comply (Shot 24). As a direct response, Christoph voices his anger about the humiliation of his African American mate and tosses his harpoon at Roter Simson, which makes everyone disperse fearfully. Only then does Christoph learn from his new friend “Peg-Leg” that he not only lost his leg to the white whale but that he is also speech-impaired. Thus, Christoph is functionalized in the script as a character who departs from his own culturation, even if it is still evident in the behaviour of his shipmates. As Mikhail Epstein puts it:

among the many freedoms proclaimed as rights of the individual, there emerges yet another freedom-from one’s own culture, in which one was born and educated. […] Transculturalism is especially needed in world politics, where the factor of fixed cultural identity based on race, ethnos, religion or ideological commitments turned out to be a source of conflict and violence (328).

When Christoph intervenes, he steps out of the cultural behaviorism represented by the white sailors who discriminate against the racial and disabled ‘Other’ and this is replaced by “an appeal for a transcultural […] empathy” (ibid. 346). Additionally, the scene foreshadows Christoph’s own plight, which makes him “share the experience of ‘the other’” (ibid. 340).

A still from Illustrierter Film-Kurier in March 1931 visually captures this scene. In an act of censorship, the blackfaced actor’s head is cut off (see Figure 5), yet the image provides us with an idea of the heightened cultural tension that is described in Steindorff’s script. In fact, in the shot below it becomes clear that Christoph unmistakably defends his disabled African American friend from the other white sailors surrounding him by threatening members of his own ethnic group with his harpoon. Equally striking, a blond Wilhelm Dieterle in the still below is depicted right next to a Queequeg-type of character, suggesting the idea of racial equality to a German audience (fig. 6).

Warner Bros.’s Moby-Dick Adaptation Dämon des Meeres (1931) as Part of a Transcultural and Textual Network 
Martina Pfeiler (Ruhr-University Bochum)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: Christoph saves “Neger-Stelzfuss” from humiliation (Dämon des Meeres).
Warner Bros.’s Moby-Dick Adaptation Dämon des Meeres (1931) as Part of a Transcultural and Textual Network 
Martina Pfeiler (Ruhr-University Bochum)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Fig. 6: Wilhelm Dieterle as Christoph next to “Peg-Leg” (Dämon des Meeres).

Despite a growing nationalistic and racist climate at the end of the Weimar Republic, Steindorff, Curtiz, and Dieterle created this scene in which Christoph takes sides with social minorities. As such, the transcultural creative reception puts forth an attempt at signalling racial equality. Ulrich Steindorff’s script version as well as the connected material signal that, at least partially, the Warner adaptation thematically engaged in the politics of the day, offering – by way of Melville – a transcultural model that seeks to overcome “fixed cultural identity base[d] on race, ethnos, religion, or ideological commitments” (Epstein 328). It comes as no surprise that the German reception following the premiere in March 1931 was less than favorable, which I will discuss in the concluding section of this essay.

Dämon des Meeres ’s Critical Reception in Germany

Exploring the critical reception of Dämon des Meeres in German periodicals provides further insights into the transcultural creative reception of Moby-Dick in an era of severe national censorship. A selection of reviews of German periodicals, such as published in the Berlin-based Licht-Bild-Bühne, Der Film, Kinematograph and Börsenblatt, reveal the complexity of transcultural filmmaking during an era of growing German nationalism. By scrutinizing these reviews, it becomes evident that many German reviewers critique the American (i.e. ‘foreign’) influence in Dämon des Meeres, even though an all-German cast was actively involved in the production. In other words, these émigré actors, and temporarily-contracted actors, helped to replace earlier methods of dubbing and intertitles in the process of adapting an American sound production for a German audience, which according to Nelson B. Beli kept the dubbed film “strictly in the American manner and idiom” (Beli A2). Beli, a film critic working for The Washington Post, further elucidates the process of “Germanizing” American sound films for a German audience in his article on January 4, 1931:

Now, when a story is found that appears to meet the requirements of a popular picture in Germany, [...] it is turned over entirely to a staff familiar with the customs, tastes, languages and habits of the residents of that country and a free hand is given them to make a picture acceptable to the inhabitants of their country, according to their countries standards. […] Even the story and continuity are rewritten by a native who understands the predilections and peculiarities of his countryman as they pertain to his choice of entertainment. (Beli A2)

Just a day after the film’s premiere in March, 1931, Der Kinematograph reports quite favorably on the German sound-version, finding Wilhelm Dieterle’s performance of Christoph better than John Barrymore’s performance in The Sea Beast, thus highlighting the transatlantic competition in the film industry. And although the critic is generally pleased with the production, he argues against the subject matter of a sea adventure for being too “foreign” for a German audience (“Dämon des Meeres” 1931a). A reviewer in Der Film, however, exploits this nationalistic attitude toward the American film. He finds some weakness in Dämon des Meeres, arguing that it pretends to be a great sea epic inspired by the oeuvre of Joseph Conrad rather than Melville (“Dämon des Meeres” 1931b, 24). This comment is a clear sign of Melville’s lack of reputation at the time in Germany, with a drastically abbreviated first German translation of Moby-Dick by Wilhelm Strüver remaining largely unknown in Germany in 1927. The critic sees his negative view of the film confirmed in the audience’s response, noting that it prompted catcalls (ibid.). This opposition to American culture is a subtle reminder that although the United States had become the world’s leading nation with regard to its exportation of popular culture, as Martha Bayles, for instance, states in her book Through a Screen Darkly (2014), it still faced significant cultural resistance. And although there is some likelihood that the film’s Vitaphone soundtrack did not match up exactly with the dialogue of the actors due to technical issues, frequently causing frustration in the audience, the reception of the movie as a flawed cultural product is intricately linked to the cultural politics of the time. Indeed, the same critic suggests that Dämon des Meeres is as cheap and noisy as an advertising brochure, and that it failed to succeed because of the banality of its love story.

Here, the nationalistic attitude is intricately intertwined with the nation’s assumed superior Kultur (i.e. high culture) over America’s popular culture (“Dämon des Meeres” 1931b, 24). The reviewer also dismisses the transatlantic differences as being linked to the American production code, which necessitated that the film would be suitable for children, as compared to Germany where theatres required visitors to be eighteen years of age. As Nelson B. Beli observed at the time, “[n]aturally German pictures can be, and are, of a more sophisticated, subtle, and sometimes suggestive nature than the typical American output” (ibid.).

The most sarcastic and paradoxical criticism of the motion picture as an American production comes from a review in the Berliner Börsenblatt, signed F. O. for Fritz Olimsky, who became an official in the Foreign Press Department of the Third Reich Film Chamber in 1938. In his review, Olimsky complains about the poor acting standard of Germany’s emigrated cast, while casting doubts over Curtiz’s directing skills (Olimsky 27). Not only does he find the American subject of a heroic and disabled whaler misleading and its cinematic realization depressing, but he also accuses the film business ‘over there’ (in the USA) of no longer knowing what one can offer an audience ‘beyond this border’ (in Germany). In view of Larissa Schütze’s work, one has to assume that the conservative press kept attacking Dieterle because of his left-leaning politics and Curtiz because of his Jewish background.

In terms of the complex critical reception of Dämon des Meeres, the overall negative response calls into question whether the elitist and nationalistic Berlin-based reception corresponds to how the German talkie was perceived by the press outside of the censorship-driven capital. In this context, the Berlin correspondent for the Rheinisch-Westfälische Filmzeitung, after mentioning the successful precursor of Wenn Meer und Himmel sich berühren (i.e. The Sea Beast with John Barrymore) and reporting on the hostile audience reaction in Berlin, remains optimistic that the movie will be positively received by a less demanding, provincial audience in Germany (“Berliner Uraufführungen”). And while this relativizes the unfriendly reception that Dämon des Meeres received in Berlin, the German ‘home’-coming of the movie was a far cry from welcoming.


In The Fluid Text, John Bryant reminds us that “[c]ulture is a text we collectively revise; it is a fluid text” (174). In my investigation of whaling narratives concerned with the folkloric cultural trope of the white whale and its later relevance for Warner’s adaptive revisions of Moby-Dick, I have taken a similar vantage point of inquiry toward the broad cultural network of nineteenth century and early twentieth-century sources and their transcultural revisions of the whaling myth. As I have shown, the hunt for the white whale has been embedded in several contested transcultural spaces connected to sexuality, rivalry, gender, race and ethnicity, as well as a reconfiguration of economic issues. Ultimately, the 1920s and early 1930s film adaptations of Moby-DickThe Sea Beast, Moby Dick, and Dämon des Meeres – shaped the global awareness of Herman Melville as one of America’s great novelists during the Melville Revival in the 1920s. These motion pictures cleverly reimagined Moby-Dick in its folkloric, popular tradition, and they created a captivating transcultural reception in a range of shifting contexts. Ulrich Steindorff’s efforts stand out as quite remarkable here, given that the translator and scriptwriter – in a forced act of German national censorship – deemphasizes the Americanness of the cultural trope of the hunt for the white whale. At the same time his screenplay versions create a transcultural realm of “supra-cultural creativity” (Epstein 330) by negotiating economic and ethical concerns in the early 1930s and, thus, allowing for a pluralistic, cultural imaginary of empathy across and beyond cultures.

This article draws on my Habilitation thesis, titled “Ahab in Love: The Creative Reception of Moby-Dick in Popular Culture” (TU Dortmund 2017, in preparation for publication).


1  Lecomte’s story was published as an untitled, illustrated narrative about la légende du grand cachalot blanc in the French periodical Musée des Familles. Lectures du soirs. It came out as part of a series titled Études Maritimes de Quelques Animaux Apocryphes et Fabuleux de la mer” (97-104). It was first dealt with in an abridged form by literary scholar Janez Stanonik in his Moby Dick book of 1962, where he provides an English translation from which I am quoting here.

1  These sources are (as translated into English):

(1)  “Das Seebiest [“The Sea Beast”]. German Adaptation. 3rd treatment after the novel by Herman Melville. German Treatment and Dialogue by Ulrich Steindorff”, 68 pages.

(2)  “Das Seebiest. 4th German Treatment. New Story”, 25 pages.

(3)  “The Sea Beast. German Adaptation. 4th Treatment. New Story with Dialogue”, 68 pages.

(4)  “The Sea Beast. German Version” (# B German Final), 77 pages.

(5)  “The Sea Beast. Final Shooting Script. English. From the novel by Hermann [sic] Melville. German Version and Dialogue by Ulrich Steindorff. Directed by Michael Curtiz”, 77 pages.


Dämon des Meeres (1931). Dir. Michael Curtiz [lost film]
Down to the Sea in Ships (1922). Dir. Elmer Clifton. Grapevine, 2006.
Moby Dick (1930). Dir. Lloyd Bacon. Warner, 2016.
The Sea Beast (1926). Dir. Millard Webb. Televista, 2007.

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