The Bootleg Files: Der Januskopf

BOOTLEG FILES 794: “Der Januskopf” (1920 unauthorized version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” directed by F.W. Murnau).

LAST SEEN: When it was theatrically released.


Murnau did not clear the rights to the Robert Louis Stevenson source material.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Excellent, provided that someone finds a print of the film.

In the early 1920s, the great German director F.W. Murnau made back-to-back horror films based on popular books from his era: “Der Januskopf,” based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and “Nosferatu,” based on Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” There was just one problem: Murnau never bothered to secure the rights to these books and tried to get circumvent copyright laws by making slight adjustments to their respective stories and changing the names of the characters.

Stevenson’s estate was unaware of the Murnau film and made no effort to stop the filmmaker from releasing his unauthorized adaptation of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The same year, two American film versions, one with John Barrymore and one with Sheldon Lewis, plus a parody with Hank Mann were in theaters. Also, there were at least nine other versions of the story before Murnau’s work, so it is safe to assume the Stevenson estate was not keeping an eye on this property.

But Stoker’s estate was made aware of the Murnau film version and filed a lawsuit in German courts, which ruled against the film’s production company, Prana Film, and ordered all prints be destroyed.

Today, “Nosferatu” is hailed as a masterpiece – despite the court’s orders, prints of the film survived outside of Germany and Murnau’s work has been seen by global audiences. Oddly, “Der Januskopf” is a lost film – no print of the film is known to exist, even though no effort was made to willfully destroy the work.

From what survives of the production – the screenplay, some production notes, several still photographs and the advertising posters – and based on the involvement of Murnau, screenwriter Hans Janowitz (fresh off “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari”) and cinematographer Karl Freund behind the camera and the great German actor Conrad Veidt in front of the camera – one can easily assume that “Der Januskopf” was on a level as “Nosferatu” for both style and substance.

“Der Januskopf” takes place in London and finds the quasi-Jekyll Dr. Warren (Veidt) acquiring a strange bust of the two-faced Roman deity Janus in a curiosity shop. He brings it to his fiancé Grace (Margaret Schlegel), but she is appalled by the bust and refuses to accept the gift.

Dr. Warren becomes obsessed by Janus’ double-faced appearance and theorizes that he can create a physical separation of the good and evil sides of human nature. In his laboratory experiments, he creates an elixir to separate these opposing aspects of the human psyche and an antidote to reunite them.

After trying the elixir on himself, Dr. Warren transforms into the hirsute, hairy being that becomes Mr. Warren (the Hyde character in Stevenson’s work). Warren rents a flat in the seedy Whitechapel section of London (best known as home to England’s ultimate cut-up, Jack the Ripper) and begins to commit horrible crimes, including the rape of Grace (who is unaware that O’Connor is the elixir-powered version of her fiancé).

But a problem arises that was not considered before: although Dr. Warren can revert back from the O’Connor beast he created, those transitions become briefer over time and he spends more time as O’Connor. At one point, he is trapped in this condition because the police are pursuing him and he is unable to return to Dr. Warren’s laboratory to mix the antidote. Ultimately, he reveals what he has done in a suicide note, but reverts back to O’Connor before the poison he swallowed exterminates his life.

Based on the surviving still photographs from this work and considering his performances of that era, Veidt’s performance must have been remarkable – especially when one views a photograph of O’Connor seeing himself in the mirror for the first time and shrieking in horror. There is also another surviving still of a panic-stricken Dr. Warren in a hallucination sequence where he is aghast at an army O’Connors marching against him.

Many film scholars today point out the presence of Bela Lugosi in the supporting role of Dr. Warren’s butler. This was the only time that Veidt and Lugosi worked together, but the latter did not seem to make much of an impression – at least not with the critics who reviewed the film, as they barely acknowledged his presence.

“Der Januskopf” played across Europe and in the U.S. – the English-language releases used the title “The Head of Janus,” though most critics pointed out the excessive borrowing from the Stevenson source material.

How long “Der Januskopf” survived is anyone’s guess. The survival rate of silent films is so poor that it is not surprising that this version disappeared. While there is always a possibility that a print might be located, logic dictates that Murnau’s version will remain a phantom presence in the history of the horror genre.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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