In Karl Freund’s 1935 film, Mad Love, many themes of Gothicism are addressed, such as the dichotomy of science and supernaturalism, the romance of suffering and the intrigue of insanity. However, one particular themepower through means of superiorityis addressed in thorough detail. In defining this power, Freund specifically utilizes the motifs of sadism, helplessness, and human destruction. Dr. Gogol embodies these motifs as he attempts to win the love of Yvonne, not through courtship, but rather through the use of his self-assigned superiority.
In staying true to the history of Gothic art, Dr. Gogol overestimates his supremacy, and ultimately loses his life as the victim of his own destruction. Sadism, the most persistent aspect of power in the film, has been a significant feature of Gothic literature and art. As stated by the American critic Mark Edmundson, “you cannot have Gothic without a cruel hero-villain; without a cringing victim; and without a terrible placein which the drama can unfold” (Davenport-Hines, 8). This description of sadism is witnessed in the character of Dr. Gogol, the only person capable of both saving and destroying the heroine, Yvonne Orlac.
As the film opens, the audience is presented with an overt depiction of Dr. Gogol’s incessant passion for Yvonne in the Theater of Horrors. As Yvonne is being brutally tortured on the stage, Dr. Gogol watches intently from his private box, partially obscured by the dark curtain. This initial representation cues the audience to identify Dr. Gogol as a particularly sinister individual. After the play ends and Dr. Gogol is recognized as a regular attendee of the theater, it becomes clear that this performance and its leading actress constitute Dr. Gogol’s infatuation with sadistic pleasures.
After Stephen Orlac loses his hands, Dr. Gogol realizes his position of power over Yvonne. As such, he personally indulges in sadistic behavior by secretly transplanting the murderer’s hands onto Stephen’s body, and once realizing the dangerous potential of the new hands, he does nothing to stop it. Rather, he manically rejoices in his creation and eventually exploits his medical position by framing Stephen for murder. Not only is Dr. Gogol pleased with the destruction he has caused, he appears to also be aroused after admitting to himself that he has killed Stephen’s father.
This overwhelming presence of sadism in Dr. Gogol’s obsession with Yvonne is employed not simply to win her love, but to exert an inescapable power over her. However, power actualized through sadism is not possible without the presence of a helpless victim. There are two personifications of helplessness in Mad LoveYvonne and Dr. Gogol himself. Yvonne, the more obvious victim, initially recognizes the eeriness of Dr. Gogol’s character during the cake-cutting ceremony. After Stephen loses his hands, she is forced out of helplessness to beg for Dr.
Gogol’s expertise in repairing her husband’s hands, thus confirming Gogol’s superiority and giving him the means with which to exert his sadistic behavior. Dr. Gogol takes advantage of her helplessness and falsely entitles himself to the role of the hero as he “miraculously” repairs Stephen’s hands. After this moment in the film, the audience understands that Yvonne is indebted to Dr. Gogol, and it is expected that he will claim what he supposedly deservesher gratitude and affection. Also, through the ever-present image of the wax figure, it is clear that Dr.
Gogol perceives Yvonne to be an object in his possession, Davenport-Hines portrays an historical example of such behavior through his depiction of the Earl of Lonsdale. Lonsdale was considered an extravagantly gothic figure, consumed by his need for domination, and he eventually constructed an open grave for his mistress, where he would go to admire her (Davenport-Hines, 92). Similar to Lonsdale, Dr. Gogol objectifies Yvonne through her wax figure, projecting a fantastical air of domination over her representation.
While this behavior gives Gogol a false sense of superiority, he ultimately becomes a figure of helplessness through his obsession for Yvonne. “In gothic literature the ambitious man is a tyrant before whom others must be abased, but all the same he succumbs to the power of others” (Davenport-Hines, 116). This observation is particularly poignant in regard to Gogol’s eventual fate. Though he appears to be a powerful, brooding figure at the beginning of the film, it is evident that he will never achieve the true love of Yvonne.
During the cake-cutting scene mentioned earlier, Yvonne draws away from Gogol when he attempts to kiss her, not only out of respect for her husband, but also in response to her fear of his presence. Though she tries to maintain a courteous exterior, it is clear that she is not interested in him intimately, putting him in an infinite state of helplessness. During the climax of the film, when he perceives her to be a wax statue come-to-life, it appears as though she may remain a victim of his domination. However, Gogol fails to maintain this impression of power, leading to his ultimate death.
The third motif in the film that draws upon aspects of gothic power is human destruction. More specifically, Dr. Gogol represents a striking resemblance to the figure of Dr. Frankenstein in regard to his transplanting of dead body parts. As noted by Davenport-Hines, the figure of Frankenstein’s monster is reflective of historical gothic representations of the French Revolution. During the revolution, it was understood that the rebellious soldiers would destroy the dignity of the aristocrats through mutilation of the bodies after death.
Also, Goya’s artwork, Los Chinchillas, depicts two figures, which are highly representative of Frankenstein’s monster (Davenport-Hines, 160). Similar to Frankenstein, Mad Love depicts a crazed doctor willing to mettle with the laws of science in order to advance his power. In Dr. Gogol’s case, his fundamental goal is to gain authority over his love object, Yvonne. He believes that restoring Stephen’s hands, regardless of the method, will allow him to achieve this objective. However, because he neglects the potential danger of transplanting a murderer’s hands, Stephen suffers the resulting destruction.
Still, like Gogol’s sadism and helplessness, the human destruction he creates finally leads to his own demise. Once he takes advantage of Yvonne’s dependence on his expertise, he resorts to framing Stephen for his father’s murder. However, the police realize the resulting situation, and the hands that he uses to lure Yvonne into his life are the hands that kill him in the end. Gogol’s attempt to use human destruction in order to maintain power causes him to destroy himself. Mad Love is an excellent example of art drawing upon elements of Gothicism, particularly the struggle of power and superiority.
Dr. Gogol spends the entire film striving for complete domination over his love interest, Yvonne, through aspects of gothic power such as sadism, helplessness and human destruction. However, while Yvonne is at one point reliant upon Gogol’s skills as a doctor, she remains the powerful figure in their personal relationship, regardless of Gogol’s attempts to undermine her will. Thus, as is often the case in gothic art, Gogol fails in his endeavor because he neglects the true power dynamic in his relationship with Yvonne, and this illusion he creates eventually brings about his early death.