Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Missing persons

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2004)

In 1980, the revised edition of David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema had an entry for Henrik Galeen, co-director of the 1914 version of Der Golem, that made a strange impression on me as a kid and sticks in my mind even now. It starts out:

  • As this is written, Galeen must be ninety-one – if he lives. Apparently in 1933, Galeen left Germany for America, though his last recorded film Salon Dora Green has German actors and a German title. No other information is available.
At the time I was just getting into movies, and into life in general, and I think it struck me as remarkable, stuck as I was in my mundane circumstances, that someone could simply vanish, while yet leaving enough of a footprint to earn a place in the reference books. In a certain way it seemed to encapsulate the romance of the movies themselves – ethereal, yet indelible. I certainly imagined, as Thomson seemed to, that Galeen was still alive, lurking in some benevolent shadow, frail but still plotting his comeback, no doubt chuckling at the mystery he’d left behind.

Finding Henrik

The Galeen entry vanished from the next edition of Thomson’s book. Perhaps the memory of him had finally become too frail. But when I thought of this again the other day, I looked him up on the Internet Movie Database. And there I found, rather to my amazement, the following:

  • Date of death (details) 30 July 1949 Randolph, Orange County, Vermont, U.S.A. (cancer)
There’s no more information (except the tantalizing bit that his spouse for the last two years of his life was called Comptess Ilse von Schenk), but there’s no reason to disbelieve it. Other than, that is, simple refusal to accept such a lame substitute for the myth woven by Thomson. I think it’s the parenthesis around “cancer” that really kills the magic, like something lifted from a drab medical report. Which may of course have been the source of the information.

Intrigued by this, I searched for Galeen on Google and came across, which gave Galeen’s year of death as 1940, and provided a link with the intriguing prospect: “Search his grave.” This supposedly led to a site called, which hasn’t worked for me the several times I’ve tried it. Another site, The Missing Link, gave the 1949 date, as did the German film institute site and a few others. But who’s to tell that all these apparently corroborating sites aren’t merely picking data off each other, spinning out the same piece of misinformation.

That’s about as far as Google took me, but I almost wish I were fascinated enough to launch my own investigation, which I like to imagine would spiral off as things do in movies into an unimaginable web of secrets and skeletons. I’m not quite that intrigued though, no doubt in part because I’ve never actually seen any of Galeen’s movies. Of course, it may be that never was much of a mystery, and that Thomson, writing in the pre-Internet age, simply didn’t have the resources (or the application) to track down a piece of not-particularly-obscure information. But if so, it’s easy to see why he didn’t search for as long as he could have: if the romance fits, who needs the facts?

Other mysteries

Cinema, generally a prohibitively expensive art form where deal making counts for at least as much as artistic vision, seems particularly suited to such missing person stories. A few strokes of bad luck and you might never get up there again. A recent Variety article pointed out “dozens of…examples over the past 20 years of Sundance award-winning films that never find distribution and hot new directors who never make another film.” Matty Rich won a prize in 1991 for his debut Straight out of Brooklyn, made one more (flop) film, and hasn’t directed another movie. Leslie Harris won an award in 1993 for Just Another Girl on the IRT and hasn’t been heard from since. And so on.

It’s not just directors. Just to take a few random examples from hundreds available. Andy and Dave Lewis wrote the fine script for Klute in 1971 and won an Oscar nomination. The Internet Movie Database lists one more credit for each in the following few years – since then nothing. Kitty Winn won the best actress prize at Cannes in 1971 for Panic in Needle Park, then appeared in The Exorcist and its first sequel. Since 1978, nothing. In part I wonder about the economics. The movies pay well, but I don’t see how someone retires on the back of the Klute screenplay. Could someone go from Sundance stardom to McDonalds? Absolutely. But you just plain wonder how they can stand it.

But maybe I’m letting my taste for the magic of cinema get the better of me there. Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” dictum is cited often enough that it obviously makes some sense to most of us. People can win a dream vacation, enjoy the hell out of it, then go back to their lives without any adverse effort. Why should making a movie be any different? Sure, some child stars never adjust to adulthood and to the loss of the spotlight, but it seems that the greater number just get on with things.

Comptess Ilse

Which might have made for a happy last decade for Henrik Galeen, out there in Vermont. But there’s a major problem with any attempt to convince oneself he opened a corner store or became a mail carrier – namely Comptess Ilse von Schenk. According to the IMDB he married her in 1948. It doesn’t seem likely that Galeen met someone with that kind of moniker just hanging out around Randolph, Vermont, although of course it’s possible. Maybe she was another refugee from fame (or from the Nazis), who followed the same random currents to New England, one day their eyes met at the corner store, they each recognized a kindred spirit, and that was that. Maybe she was a childhood friend, or an old flame from the wild parties in his film-making heyday. Maybe her real name was something like Adelaide Frump, and she changed it because she sensed the history books (or history websites) would demand her husband pair off with someone more exotic. She must be well over a hundred, if she lives. But no other information is available.

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