In 1894, Englishman, George Du Maurier, published a novel named Trilby, which became a bestseller. It was a novel about a hypnotist and his obsessive love for and eventual enslavement of a girl named Trilby. But, it wasn’t until this fantastic 1931 cinematic interpretation of Du Maurier’s compelling tale that the term “svengali” gained popularity in our lexicon to mean “evil mentor,” as stated on the back of the DVD cover.
In this very short, but nonetheless captivating, cinematic tale based on Du Maurier’s successful novel, actor John Barrymore is Maestro Svengali, a virtuoso and piano teacher who barely makes enough to survive in late 19th century Paris. With features that resemble Rasputin’s, he is a tall, unwashed and lanky figure with deep-set, piercing eyes; long, black, disheveled hair; pointed Luciferian beard, and dark, filthy clothes. We find him in the opening scene playing a piano very passionately in his squalid apartment. Here is where we first get a glimpse of his mysterious, hypnotic power as Madam Honori, a student of his, comes to visit to tell the maestro that she has left her husband to be with him instead. Discovering that she has left with no money for herself, Maestro Svengali cruelly turns on her, enthralling her with his hypnotic gaze and causing her to flee into the night, horrified and screaming. She is found dead the next morning, drowned in the river, and considered a suicide.
During a visit with a pair painter friends who play a joke on him and leave him alone in their apartment, the poor virtuoso meets a beautiful, young, blonde milkmaid named Trilby O’Farrell. She has come to visit the painters to offer herself as a model, only to find Svengali instead. During their brief encounter, Svengali discovers that she has a lovely singing voice and becomes enamored by her beauty and talent. After he departs, Trilby then meets a handsome, young English painter named Billee who also comes to visit the painters. She eventually falls in love with Billee and later promises to marry him.
Svengali later returns to visit Trilby, and the three painters. He wishes to speak to Trilby about her singing voice, and the beautiful model complains of a headache. Using the power of hypnosis, Svengali cures her. But, he also wickedly seizes this opportunity to impose his will upon her. Up until this point, Svengali appeared to be nothing more than a poor, struggling piano teacher, almost pauper-like with only one previous instance that alluded to his diabolical power and nature. Satanists will delight in the scene that follows as it is one which finds Svengali standing sinisterly at his open window, his dark eyes wicked and opaque. He sends his will out into the night, across the sleeping city, and into Trilby’s subconscious. She responds by coming to him in the early morning hours, resulting in her leaving Billee.
What later unfolds is Maestro Svengali suddenly reaching the height of fame as a brilliant composer, with Trilby as his cherished songbird. She is now under his hypnotic spell, which he hopes will make her love him. Unfortunately, the only time that his lovely student — now his wife — can sing is while she is under this same hypnotic trance.
Satanists will find this movie to be entertaining on many levels. The most prominent aspect of the film that is immediately noticeable is the “command to look,” mentioned in The Satanic Bible on pg. 111. The other is the aforementioned scene of Svengali sending his will out into the ethers. Both are fine examples of Lesser Magic. Also of interest is the employment of Caligarian angles akin to the German expressionistic films of the 1920s, which many Satanists find aesthetically pleasing and powerful. And there are others, such as the relationship between master and slave.
What makes this film entertaining is its use of humor, subtle elements of horror, and a sense of romantic tragedy, well blended to forge a finely crafted tale. Overall, this is a dark and tragic tale of a self-centered man who yearns for a love that he cannot have, but will employ almost any means necessary to capture that love. Svengali is driven by ambition and his passionate lust for young Trilby. While his hypnotic possession of her is very sinister, he is not really an overtly cruel man. Though, many people who’ve seen the film equate his intentions and employment of very unconventional means to achieve his goals with acts of evil. In the character of Svengali, we see his “satanic sadness” — a term Dr. LaVey used when he spoke of actor, Erich Von Stroheim, in The Secret Life of a Satanist, pg. 151. We also see Svengali’s very real human nature, which he never tries to hide. He pursues his love the way an animal might pursue its prey: with a single desire and purpose. The maestro is first viewed by his so-called friends as an object of ridicule. Later, he is considered a dangerous man because his hypnotic powers are viewed with condemnation and mistrust. Though his diabolical, abrasive nature may infuriate those around him, he makes no apologies for who he is. Nor does he deceive himself into believing that Trilby really loves him.
There have been other versions (remakes) of this film, but research has shown that this is the best, and probably the most Satanic, version to watch. Despite its length, 64 min., Svengali is a great film for any Satanist to have in his or her video collection.
[- Michael K. Silva]