The film was directed by Hans Werckmeister and stars Emil Jannings and John Gottowt. The story centers on a human who is given a machine by an alien spirit which, if used, would allow him to rule the world. The sets for the movie were constructed by Walter Reimann, one of the set designers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (released February 1920).
The film was produced by the Deutsche Lichtbild-Gesellschaft (German Light Play Company) in Berlin and was distributed by Universum Film AG (UFA). Its first release was on 3 September 1920 in Berlin, and was subsequently released worldwide including a launch in Finland on 7 November 1921.
For many years it was believed that this was a lost film. However, an intact version has now been recovered. It was screened by MoMA on Monday 29 November 2010, 7:30 p.m. as part of their film exhibition Weimar Cinema, 1919–1933: Daydreams and Nightmares.
The story follows the life of Robert Herne, who works in a coal mine, and his friendship with Maria Obal. While working in the mine, he encounters an inhabitant of the planet Algol who gives him a prototype machine which can provide a virtually unlimited source of power. Over the next year Herne sets up a factory providing energy; however, instead of simply relieving workers of the difficult job of mining, the device creates massive economic upheaval throughout the world.
Over the next 20 years, Herne continues to increase his power and influence, but he has lost touch with Maria who now lives in the one part of the world to which his influence does not extend. The film follows the machinations of Herne’s son Reginald and his – ultimately unsuccessful – attempt at a coup, aiming to seize the secrets of the machine for himself. Meanwhile, Maria has had a son who travels to meet Herne to ask for his assistance: his country's coal reserves have expired. Herne initially refuses assistance; Maria visits him to ask in person. He comes to realise the extent to which he has been corrupted by power. In a moment of realisation, Herne destroys the machine, thereby preventing his son from taking control after his death.
Emil Jannings as Robert Herne: The main protagonist of the movie. The film follows his life from that of a normal man to that of corrupt dictator over a period of 20 years.
John Gottowt as Algol: An Alien presumably from the planet orbiting the Algol star. He gives Robert Herne an advanced alien machine allowing him to produce unlimited energy reserves. The motivations of Algol for providing such a technological device to a less advanced culture are not made clear or examined further during the movie.
Hans Adalbert Schlettow as Peter Hell: The son of Herne's friend Maria. He lives in the one part of the world over which Herne still has no influence. As that country's coal supplies are exhausted, he travels to meet Herne, only to be told that no assistance can be provided for his people. He eventually returns to his mother and his homeland without access to the machine but with Magda (Herne's daughter).
Hanna Ralph as Maria Obal: Maria and Herne met in the coal mines before his encounter with Algol and became friends. During his rise to power however they lost touch and she moved to live in the one part of the world over which he has no control. Following her son's unsuccessful attempts to negotiate an energy source for their people she recalls her once close friendship with Robert and decides to visit him in person. It is partly her influence which makes him realise what he has become; a realisation which ultimately leads to him destroying the machine.
Erna Morena as Yella Ward.
Ernst Hofmann as Reginald Herne: Robert Herne’s son and chosen successor. Despite his father's promises to one day show him the secrets of the machine, he becomes hungry for power and seeks to overthrow his father by means of a coup. Robert, however, destroys the machine before his son can learn its secrets.
Gertrude Welcker as Leonore Nissen.
Käthe Haack as Magda Herne: Robert Herne’s daughter. Following her father's refusal to provide energy to Maria’s country she realises the extent to which he has become corrupted and chooses to leave with Peter.