February 10, 2010
Why the Original Wolf Man Howled
“I am the Wolf Man!”
This proclamation was not made by Lon Chaney Jr., who starred in the 1941 film “The Wolf Man.” Nor was it pronounced by Benicio Del Toro, who takes on the title role in the 2010 remake of the horror classic. These words belong to Curt Siodmak, the prolific writer and Jewish refugee who created the original screenplay for “The Wolf Man” while working for Universal Studios in the 1940s. Like many Jews in Germany, Siodmak and his wife, Henrietta, were forced to flee from their homeland after Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in the 1930s. And it was that experience — being a Jew in Germany during that black period — that inspired Siodmak’s most enduring story.
“I was forced into a fate I didn’t want: to be a Jew in Germany,” Siodmak confessed to me when I interviewed the then-96-year-old writer in 1999. “I would not have chosen that as my fate.”
Siodmak was born in Dresden, Germany, in 1902. He became a published writer at age 9, after his mother submitted a short story he’d written to the magazine Kinderwelt (Children’s World). In 1926, while working as a journalist for a German newspaper, Siodmak and his wife, also a reporter, worked as movie extras in order to gain access to the secretive, closed set of director Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece, “Metropolis.” This experience served not only as the young writer’s introduction to the film industry, but to science fiction, the genre that would later define Siodmak’s life work, including his influential novel “Donovan’s Brain.” Siodmak first found success as a novelist with the publication of his sci-fi novel “F.P.1. Antwort Nicht” (“Floating Platform 1 Does Not Answer”), which he later adapted as a screenplay. In 1929, Siodmak used the profits he made from his book to help fund an experimental film called “People on Sunday,” a collaborative effort that included several other young Jewish filmmakers, such as Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Edgar G. Ulmer and Siodmak’s brother, Robert. All of these men would eventually flee Germany and find refuge in Hollywood, where they would each make an indelible mark in American films.
But within a few years of his success, Siodmak and his book would fall prey to the “new order” in Germany. Siodmak left Germany in 1934 and migrated to England, where he wrote scripts for the British film industry. While living there, he received a letter from his former publisher in Leipzig that read: “I herewith inform you that all copies of your book have been confiscated by the Secret State Police (Gestapo).”
In 1937, Siodmak came to Hollywood and in 1940, with the help of director Joe May, landed a contract with Universal Studios. It was there that producer/director George Waggner assigned Siodmak to write a screenplay using a title that Universal owned for an unrealized Boris Karloff project called “The Wolf Man.”
“For ‘The Wolf Man’ I did a tremendous amount of research,” Siodmak told me. “I read everything ever written about werewolves.” The resulting screenplay that sprang from Siodmak’s mind has become the foundation of what many people believe to be actual werewolf mythology: The only way to kill a werewolf is by using a silver bullet or cane; the sign of the pentagram forecasting the death of its bearer; and, most famously, the limerick, which is by now widely believed to be gypsy folklore:
“Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.”
As Siodmak has stated, “History is made behind the typewriter.” But many of these elements had meanings that ran deeper than fictional horror. To Siodmak, they represented a very real horror that affected not only his life, but also millions of other Jews in Europe.
“The swastika is represented by the moon,” Siodmak explained to me. “When the moon comes up, the man does not want to murder, but he knows he cannot escape it. It’s the Wolf Man destiny. Something happens that you know is going to happen but you can’t escape it, like being sent to a concentration camp.” It is also no coincidence that the pentagram — a five pointed star — resembles the Star of David, and those who bear the sign are marked for death by the wolf.
Director Joe Johnston (“Jurassic Park III”), who helmed the 2010 remake, was unaware of Siodmak’s history until recently, but was impressed by the screenwriter’s assimilation of his personal anguish into the story.
“That’s pretty powerful stuff,” Johnston responded during our phone interview when I read him Siodmak’s revelations. “It’s fascinating that he was able to take that experience and translate it into something that became so prominent in popular culture.” Like many fans, Johnston discovered the original film on television as a youngster. “I must have seen ‘The Wolf Man’ about 30 times,” Johnston said. “It was my favorite of the Universal monster series.”
While the original’s themes dealt with fate and persecution, Johnston sees his remake in a more universal context. “The central theme is the uncontrollable dark side. For me it’s about the beast inside us all.” Johnston was also attracted to the characters’ relationships in the script by David Self and Andrew Kevin Walker. “It’s a father-son relationship, and it’s about a forbidden relationship between a man and his brother’s fiancee.”
Like Siodmak’s original character, Johnston also sees the Wolf Man as a victim, adding, “This character is both hero and villain. He’s the victim as much as he is the hero.”
Siodmak died at his 50-acre home in Three Rivers, Calif., on Sept. 2, 2000. He was 98 years old. During an interview at his home for the 1998 documentary “Universal Horror,” Siodmak made a remark that showed he had not only come to terms with his destiny, but also made peace with it.
“I’m sitting here on this palatial estate here today. Without Hitler I wouldn’t be here.”
A new, two-disc DVD of the 1941 film was released on Feb. 2. “The Wolf Man” opens in theaters Feb. 12.