The Head (1959)

Rating: B

Dir: Victor Trivas
Star: Horst Frank, Karin Kernke, Dieter Eppler, Michel Simon
a.k.a. Die Nackte und der Satan

This was a surprisingly decent effort across the board. Here’s an indication how good it was: we watched a print dubbed into English, and didn’t feel an immediate need to go running off to find a subtitled copy. Believe me, that’s praise indeed. But in general, this isn’t the campfest you might expect from the title – the original German one translates, more or less, as The Naked and the Devil – or the poster. It benefits from a great performance by Frank as the peculiarly named “Dr. Ood” (not his real name, making the choice even weirder!), who comes across as among the most committed of mad scientists. Or he certainly should be committed, to re-use the old joke. 

He gloms on to cutting-edge transplant research being carried out by Prof. Dr. Abel (Simon) into organ transplants. Abel looks more like a farmer, and it’s no surprise to hear he has a heart condition. Nor is it a surprise he ends up a living, severed head. Listening to him bicker with Dr. Ood, I wonder if this was an inspiration for Re-Animator, especially the line, “You want a freak to show in the circuses?” Ood wants Abel’s secret transplant serum, and like Abel, intends to help crippled nun Sister Irene (Kernke). But rather than regular surgery, Dr. Ood intends to give her a whole body transplant. He’ll drop her head on the torso of a stripper, much to the concern of the unwilling donor’s boyfriend, artist Paul Lerner (Eppler).

Considering we were still almost a decade before the first human heart transplant, this is ahead of its time. Indeed, I was distracted in the early going, looking up the Russian research mentioned [The unsettling short doc Experiments in the Revival of Organisms has you covered, if you are interested] There are some elements that have not survived well, and Sister Irene’s postoperative behaviour certainly seems un-Dominican, shall we say. But Frank holds the whole thing together, giving it a core that lets even modern viewers buy into the narrative. There’s no malarkey about advancing science, or this being necessary for the greater good. Dr. Ood just likes playing around with body parts, and has a long dubious medical record, as his conversation with the stripper demonstrates. 

It definitely helps that Abel’s lab looks like a proper scientific facility. Production designer Hermann Warm had worked on the sets for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, almost forty years earlier, and all his experience probably makes this punch considerably above its B-movie weight. The ending, probably inevitably, sits in line with conventional morality, yet we are still left with a nun’s head sitting on the body of a murdered stripper. It’s an issue nobody seems keen to address or even acknowledge. Having gone into this expecting a Teutonic take on the usual disembodied brain nonsense, I was surprised how genuinely I enjoyed this, and not for the expected reasons of mockery.