Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 12 
27 Oct
2003

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Antonio Margheriti's La Vergine di Norimberga (The Virgin of Nuremberg, 1964) HORROR
Nazis over Nuremberg
Antonio Margheriti's La Vergine di Norimberga (The Virgin of Nuremberg, 1964)

Christopher Dietrich sings the praises and reveals the anti-fascist message lying at the heart of Antonio Margheriti's classic of Italian gothic horror, La Vergine di Norimberga


Introduction

The late Antonio Margheriti's mood piece La Vergine di Norimberga (The Virgin of Nuremberg, 1964) was a galvanising moment of mid-1960s Italian Gothic. The tableaux of horrors traumatised Baby Boomers everywhere with scenes of unbridled Eastmancolor sadism. It is a comment on the film that a stronger Japanese version was deemed unnecessary because La Vergine di Norimberga, with its extraordinary cruelty, remains a textbook of sadism unusual for its time. Three scenes in particular come to mind: when the protagonist, Mary Hunter (Rossana Podestà), finds a blonde beauty inside an Iron Maiden, her bloody eyes dripping onto the chamber floor; the discovery of a brunette, her head covered with a cage inhabited by a very hungry rat which has gnawed away at her face; and finally the killer himself unmasked, his face nothing more than a skull covered with the faintest suggestion of skin. These images are really quite outré for the 60s.

Antonio Margheriti's La Vergine di Norimberga (The Virgin of Nuremberg, 1964)The bride of German aristocrat Max Hunter (Georges Rivière), Mary is thrust into a living nightmare centring on that medieval torture device known as the Iron Maiden (here referred to as the Virgin of Nuremberg). On her first stormy night within the castle she witnesses the brutal slaying of a maid by a hooded maniac, The Executioner. He conceals himself in the depths of the castle's catacombs, emerging only to terrorise and torture those in his path. We later discover that he was previously a victim of Nazi tormentors, rendering him insane. It remains for our heroine to unravel her husband's dark secret before the nightmare is brought to a close.

A pacifist message beneath the madness?

A critic with the moniker "Murf" reviewed La Vergine di Norimberga for The New York Times on 15 April, 1965 (when it was playing at the Hollywood Theater). His observations and comments were less than kind, but time and critical reassessment tend to blunt this. The article begins thusly, with various portions deleted for reasons of space:

Inept horror pic. Rossana Podesta's looks and Christopher Lee's chillpix reputation don't save it. Grind house fate.
Zodiac Films continues its no-tradeshow policy with a tedious and ridiculous English-dubbed Italian horror, teaming Rossana Podesta—Christopher Lee and lower-cased with "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors." Lip synch in "Horror Castle" [the film's U.S. title] is awkward and English dialog is not to be believed. Dimmest prospects even in least discriminating markets.
Every directorial device available has been used by Anthony Dawson (and Richard MacNamara credited with direction of the English-language version) to follow Miss Podesta as she walks, and walks, and walks about the family castle in Germany owned by hubby George Riviere. Seems there's a fiend afoot, called "The Executioner," who employs medieval tortures on helpless people, and wifey intends to find out despite sealed lips of palace crew.
Lee, a horror film icon, is a war-scarred chauffeur who wanders about calling mysteriously to "mein Herr." Turns out the monster is hubby's father, an anti-Hitler Nazi who was horribly disfigured as punishment for attempt on Hitler's life, and in demented state kills most of the household, tries to drown his son and torture latter's wife before an FBI agent [sic] and town doctor stop the show.[1]

The reviewer considered the script inept, citing, "sample dialog, monster to victim: 'Modern science has developed new tortures, but the old ways are best.' All principles deserve better material. Producer Marco Vicario has not done well by his wife, Miss Podesta."[2]

Antonio Margheriti's La Vergine di Norimberga (The Virgin of Nuremberg, 1964)Located within such seemingly throwaway lines, however, one can detect a timely pacifist message—a message that runs counter to all of the film's post-World War II Teutonic angst. Dialogue spoken by Max and his chauffeur Erich (Christopher Lee) support the general hatred of Europeans for war. Erich was Max's father's orderly during the war. While taking his new bride through her home, he notes: "Try to imagine him without those scars on his face. He was a good-looking man but then he was wounded." Other lines supports this assertion: "You hate war"; "Anyone who had to live through that kind of hell would hate it"; "War has the faculty of ageing people before their time"; "The war left me in a worse state than you'd expect."

Among other films depicting Nazi atrocities during this period were Herbert J Leder's The Frozen Dead (1966), in which Dana Andrews (of all people!) plots to bring the Reich back via cryogenics,[3] and Jack Curtis's The Flesh Eaters (1964), with Nazi stalwart Martin Kosleck playing the part of a mad doctor who perfects a deadly virus that was smuggled out of the Fatherland just as the war was coming to an end. Like La Vergine di Norimberga, this film also uses black-and-white stock images to flash back to the war and remains a classic of its kind in the grind-house hall of fame.

Another example is Jean Brismée's La Plus longue nuit du diable (The Devil's Nightmare, 1971), a Belgian/Italian co-production which combines the legend of the succubus with the Nazis and which contains a prologue depicting a shocking infant-stabbing before the Allies drop the bombs, an action that brings our Nazi general (Jean Servais) to his native castle along with the succubus and her seven deadly sins. Finally, there is the 1971 British oddity Scream and Scream Again, directed by Gordon Hessler, which guest-stars Peter Cushing as the head of a Third World power attempting to use laboratory-created supermen for world domination (this picture was a personal favourite of no less a director than Fritz Lang). All of these films owe something to one another, but La Vergine di Norimberga is the closest to a true cinematic nightmare—one from which the audience will recover only after the final reel's denouement.

Background on the cast and crew

As noted above, Georges Rivière essays the role of German aristocrat Max Hunter, who is haunted by the evildoings of The Mad Executioner of his castle. The French-born actor starred in films not only in his native country but also in Argentina, West Germany and Italy. Rivière was also the star of Margheriti's Danza macabra (known in the United States as Castle of Blood, 1963), where he played opposite Barbara Steele.

La Vergine di Norimberga was an early effort in the career of the celebrated Christopher Lee who needs no introduction here. This film is among his finest work and was made the same year as his unforgettable performance as High Priest Billali in Robert Day's She (for Britain's Hammer Films) and his chilling turn as actor Karl Jorla in a classic episode of the TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents entitled "Sign of Satan."

Antonio Margheriti's La Vergine di Norimberga (The Virgin of Nuremberg, 1964)The film also boasts the presence of that Libyan-born, redheaded goddess of the Italian screen, Rossana Podestà. Her sultry, sexy good looks graced the Roman and international screens many times, notably in such fare as Solo contro Roma (Alone Against Rome, 1962), Robert Aldrich's Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) and Ulisse (aka Ulysses, 1954), which starred the legendary Kirk Douglas. Podestà also played the titular role in the Robert Wise-directed spectacle Helen of Troy (1956) opposite Jacques Sernas, Cedric Hardwicke and Niall MacGinnis. Quite appropriately, Helen of Troy possessed "the face that launched a thousand ships."[4] She is menaced throughout the duration of Margheriti's opus by the crazed killer in the Bavarian Schloss. Podestà's last screen work was in the 1983 version of Hercules with Lou Ferrigno, and a 1985 film entitled Segreti segreti (Secrets Secrets), directed by Giuseppe Bertolucci (younger brother of Bernardo).

A key character in La Vergine di Norimberga is portrayed by Mirko Valentin, a Yugoslavian actor whose work spanned a mere five years. This was his first film, though he appeared the same year in Il Castello dei morti vivi (Castle of the Living Dead) as the character "Sandro," opposite Christopher Lee and Donald Sutherland. He appeared in various pepla (all made in the very busy year of 1964), such as Ercole contro i tiranni di Babilonia (Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon), Golia alla conquista di Bagdad (aka Goliath at the Conquest of Damascus) and Maciste nell'inferno di Gengis Khan (aka Hercules Against the Barbarians). Valentin would later appeared in Spaghetti Westerns such as Un Fiume di dollari (River of Dollars, 1966) and Uno di più all'inferno (To Hell and Back, 1969).

La Vergine di Norimberga's heart of darkness is punctuated with an outrageous blend of saxophone and suspense by Riz Ortolani—a fusion of jazz with gothic overtones. The score was originally released in 1993 by CAM SpA (catalogue number CSE 109), along with tracks from Casanova & Company.

Roman-Born Marco Vicario wore the hats of producer, director, actor and scenarist during his career. As producer he was responsible for La Vergine di Norimberga, Homo Eroticus (aka Man of the Year, 1971), Danza macabre, Solo contro Roma and La Schiava di Roma (Slave of Rome, 1960). He was the director of such fare as Homo Eroticus, Sette uomini d'oro (Seven Golden Men, 1965), Il Prete sposato (The Married Priest, 1971) and Le Ore nude (The Naked Hours, 1964). And his wife was Rossana Podestà!

Directed with a knowing hand by Antonio Margheriti, La Vergine di Norimberga is undoubtedly among the filmmaker's finest work. This delirious dreamscape to the Cinema of Sadism is infused with gothic atmosphere and a ubiquitous sense of dread from start to finish. Along with the best works of Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda, La Vergine di Norimberga epitomises and legitimises the stellar reputation of Italy's "Golden Age" of horror output in the 1960s. An under-appreciated classic, it is also a high watermark for genre films concerned with thematising Nazi atrocities.

Christopher Dietrich

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Also of interest
About the author

Christopher Dietrich is Hollywood Correspondent, Film Critic and Staff Writer for DVD Drive-In. A freelance writer of many years, his articles have appeared in Video Watchdog, Cinefantastique, Films in Review, Cult Movies and others. He translated from Italian to English screenplays for Three Faces of Fear and Masque of the Demon. His book credits include The Vampire Film (edited by Alain Silver & James Ursini) and the Whatever Became Of? series (Richard Lamparski). His illustrations grace the upcoming Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (by Tim Lucas).

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Footnotes

1. "Murf," review of La Vergine di Norimberga, The New York Times (15 April, 1965).return to text

2. Ibid.return to text

3. This picture is noteworthy today mainly for Edward Fox's acting debut.return to text

4. She certainly launched this writer's ship!return to text

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