"Opium" (1919)

Produced in Germany by Meinert-Films
Directed by Robert Dinesen
Released in 1919 with a running time of 112 minutes.

Cast Werner Krauss, Sybill Morel, Hanna Ralph, Conrad Veidt and Eduard von Winterstein

Cinematic Freedom

Germany in 1919 was a country that had been devastated by the war, four years of slaughter, famine, civil unrest, a civil war and runaway inflation. The country was in dire need of change. The Council of Peoples Representatives in 1919 abolished the military censorship that had been in effect since 1918. The council believed that the numerous political parties causing unrest would use the screen to spread their political views instead of battling in the streets. The political parties continued using the streets and beer halls to spread their message, but, having nothing to fear from government interference, the film industry decided to take advantage of the abolishment of censorship.

Every film studio took advantage of the situation, and there was a sudden increase in "Aufklarungsfilme" films pretending to be concerned with sexual enlightenment. Conrad Veidt was featured in "Es werde Licht" ("Let There Be Light") which dealt with the problems of human sexuality. When released 1918, it caused quite a stir since it dealt with subjects that were avoided in polite conversations. Many of these films were destroyed by the Nazis as they attempted to ban any exhibition of any controversial film which had no place in "The New Order" of Hitler's Germany. The German civilians, stifled by four years of military censorship and military control, as well as the demobilized soldiers not adjusted to civilian life, flocked to the theaters.

Many of the films were directed by established directors and well-known actors, and the films depicting sexual debaucheries were released with alluring titles such as "Prostitution," "Women Engulfed by the Abyss," "Lost Daughters," and "A Man's Girl."

The more privileged also enjoyed other stimulants as can be inferred from the success of the very popular film "Opium," which ran in an expensive Berlin movie house for three weeks with all seats sold.

In May of 1920 the National Assembly of the Weimar Republic resumed national censorship, and the flood of the supposedly sexually enlightening films was over.

In 1919 Conrad Veidt appeared in 19 films, and among them were "Prostitution," "Different From The Others," "Those Who Sell Themselves," "Whipped" and "Madness," and in that year he also appeared in two stage plays.

This silent melodrama is dated in the acting style of the time and of special note are the scenes depicting the debauchery of sex and drugs. The film warns over and over the consequences of the drug by showing the trance-like dreams of an abuser with bare breasted women suggestively beckoning.


Our story begins in China where Professor Gesellius has finished his research on the uses of opium. On the day before his departure for home, he is told of an opium produced by Nung Chiang which, if treated in a special manner, produces terrific sensations. It also can destroy both mind and body. While visiting Nung Chiang's opium den, he is approached by a young lady in a rickshaw who pleads with him to rescue her from a horrible fate.

The professor had been observed talking to the young lady, and, as the professor follows the rickshaw, he, in turn, is being followed by Nung Chiang. The rickshaw takes the young lady to another opium den where the professor agrees to help her escape. The professor is held hostage in the opium den by Nung Chiang who tells him that he had been happily married until seventeen years ago when another European had an affair and impregnated Nung Chiang's wife. Nung Chiang kept the child, killed his wife and made the European a prisoner. He kept the European in a locked room and supplied him with opium until he was physically and mentally destroyed.

The young lady the professor had promised to help is Sin, the child of the illicit affair.

Late that night she bribes a guard and escapes from Nung Chiang's clutches with the professor. They board a ship sailing for Europe, but as the ship pulls away from the pier, Nung Chiang arrives and swears vengeance against the European.

When the professor and Sin arrive at the professor's house, his wife, Marie, refuses to greet or acknowledge Sin. Sin is later enrolled as a nurse in a teaching hospital. At his college, the professor is greeted by Dr. Richard Armstrong (Conrad Veidt), the professor's assistant whom the professor greets warmly calling him his favorite student.

While Professor Gesellius was in China researching opium, his wife was having an affair with Dr. Armstrong. That evening, the professor is preparing a lecture on "Happiness." His wife slips out of the house and meets her lover, Dr. Armstrong, in the garden.

The next morning as the professor is on his way to give his lecture, Nung Chiang is among the spectators at the the college. After he has given his lecture on the evils of opium, he is greeted by a disheveled figure while leaving the campus who is the long lost Richard Armstrong who had disappeared in China seventeen years before.

Richard Armstrong is the father of the professor assistant, Dr. Richard Armstrong. The professor takes the senior Armstrong, who is a drug addict, to his sanitarium for treatment. When the senior Armstrong asks the professor about his son, the professor answers, "Your son is my pride and joy."

While being admitted into the sanitarium, the senior Armstrong recognizes Sin as his daughter! The film comes to a tragic ending which encompasses all of the characters.

Werner Krauss

Werner Krauss (1884-1959) was a star of the stage and screen when he appeared in Opium. From his film debut in 1916 until the advent of talkies Krauss made no fewer than 104 movies and he emerged as one of the outstanding interpreters of expressionist cinema. To the American audiences he is primarily remembered as the malignant Dr Caligari in Robert Wiene's outstanding film. He can also be seen in Jean Renoir's silent film Nana.

Many of the directors and actors departed Germany when the Nazis came into power. Krauss remained, and in 1933 he was made Vice-President of the Reichstheatkammer. In the anti-Semitic movie "Jud Suss" (1940) a cinematic curtain-raiser for the holocaust he played a half-a-dozen Jewish parts in the film. His portrayal of grotesque 'Semitic' characters was a macabre testimony to his professionalism. Quite a contrast from Conrad Veidt.

As a result of the film Krauss did not act again until several years after the war. Robert Dinesen born in Denmark (1874-1972) sometimes credited as Robert Reinert, was a director, actor, and writer during his career during the silent era. Directed his last film in 1929.

copyright 2001 by John DeBartolo. All rights reserved.

Return to "Rare and Obscure Films" page