Finally Back on the Silver Screen

Finally Back on the Silver Screen

Wicked Women

The programme section entitled Wicked Women zooms in on films in which unscrupulous and cunning women protagonists are neither punished nor called to account for their misdeeds. Yet they are by no means horrible monsters. The unconventional heroines Irma Vep, Diana Monti, Filibus, Mado and the (nameless) »Apache« Woman are depicted as attractive idols and charismatic rebels. They commit crime mostly for the sake of adventure and the fun of the forbidden. They come over as courageous as they are dangerous, as resourceful as they are malicious and as enchanting as they are cold-blooded. The fears that they could potentially instil into their audience soon evaporate into amusement at their roguishness and imagination.
These women employ a whole repertoire of clever tricks and smart devices, both traditional and modern, to outwit the hapless policemen, investigators and journalists pursuing them. If one of the women is halfway caught, she always manages to escape. There is no mention of punishment and atonement. In these comedy films, then, drollness and shenanigans galore defy the usual moralism. Yes, at the end of the story some of the women happen to die but that hardly proves that wickedness has been effectively dealt with. For none of them are actually dispatched at the hands of their pursuers – meaning that even in death they have got away with it once again. The films thus display an extraordinary and highly amusing game of cat-andmouse – jostling stringency with resourcefulness, violence with imagination, control with evasion. Not infrequently, the representatives of the struggle for law and order are made to look ridiculous or have their competence severely challenged. Glee becomes devilment.
But here’s the interesting thing: we are talking about silent films that are roughly 100 years of age. The oldest is La tournée des grands ducs (France, 1910) and it’s the one with the »Apache« in the lead role – in this context a female member of a gang of youths in the Paris of 1900. The comedy portrays the Apaches as a media phenomenon required by bourgeois »victims« in their search for thrills and entertainment. The crime serials Les Vampires (F 1915/16) starring Irma Vep and Judex (F 1917) starring Diana Monti were indeed conceived as antidotes to the popular American series featuring adventurous women. For although the American heroines were enterprising and even audacious, they were obliged, in keeping with the rules of the genre, to remain innocent and upright. Which cannot in any way be said of Irma Vep and Diana Monti! An intrepid cat burglar, Irma Vep is a member of a gang of jewel thieves while Diana Monti is a mendacious seductress who repeatedly lures her lovers into bad business. Both of them stop at nothing: abduction, poisoning, robbery, blackmail and deception are their specialities. They draw on all the classical forms of popular master-criminal literature.
Little is known of the genesis of Filibus (Italy 1915) und L’uomo meccanico (I 1921) but the main characters Filibus and Mado go about their criminal deeds with a total lack of scruple. They even employ advanced technology: Filibus is a female skyjacker with her own airship and Mado uses a giant robot on her forays. Moreover, our Italian women are obviously the leaders of their packs whereas their French counterparts are only unofficially in charge. Either way, all of them revel in their dastardly deeds and take a delight, with a mixture of ingenuity and charm, in mocking the pursuant officers of the law and their social victims. Today, especially today, we may still take pleasure in the roughish insolence of these wicked women.

_Annette Förster

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