The elephant man

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German title The elephant man
Original title The Elephant Man
Country of production United States
original language English
Publishing year 1980
length 123 minutes
Age rating FSK 12
Director David Lynch
script David Lynch,
Christopher De Vore
Eric Bergren
production Jonathan Sanger
music John Morris
camera Freddie Francis
cut Anne V. Coates

The Elephant Man is an American film drama from the year 1980 , in which David Lynch directed. In the black and white film , John Hurt can be seen as the disfigured "elephant man" John Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as the doctor Frederick Treves .

The film is based on the real story of Joseph Merrick . The man named John Merrick in the film is shown as an attraction at fairs because of his bizarre physical deformity. Frederick Treves frees him from this situation, recognizes a sensitive and eloquent man behind the deterrent appearance and tries to integrate him into society.

The Elephant Man cost $ 5 million and grossed $ 26 million. At the 1981 Academy Awards , the film was nominated in a total of eight categories.


London 1881: At a fair, the surgeon Frederick Treves meets John Merrick, a man who, because of his terrible deformations, is known as the elephant man and is exhibited as a monster. Treves is interested in Merrick, frees him from the clutches of the drinking showman and takes him to a hospital. The reactions to the elephant man, completely disturbed by years of mistreatment, range from horror and fear to curiosity and pity, including when Treves shows him to an academic society. The back is covered with tumors, the right arm badly deformed and unusable (the real Joseph Merrick probably suffered from Proteus syndrome ). Most obvious is the grotesquely enlarged skull that forces him to sleep while sitting; when lying down his windpipe inevitably bends and he would suffocate in his sleep. The surgeon continues to struggle to keep him in the hospital as the director initially speaks out against it. But when it is discovered that Merrick is not "maddened" as assumed, but a friendly, intelligent and sensitive man, consent is given for his whereabouts.

Merrick is now beginning to develop his intellectual potential: with the support of Treves, he begins to read again, gains confidence in the language and proves his craftsmanship when he recreates a miniature cathedral, the spire of which he can see from his hospital room can.

In the course of his slow mental recovery in the hospital, the story of the elephant man is now becoming known in London society. A famous stage actress visits Merrick and talks to him about a passage from Romeo and Juliet . Even Queen Victoria is interested in Treve's patient and sends her regards, whereupon he is given a lifelong home in the hospital.

But curiosity about Merrick's fate does not only affect upscale society. A hospital night worker takes advantage of the opportunity and lets people from the backstreets of London take a look at Merrick for money. One night the amusement and display escalates: the onlookers storm into his room, devastate it and mock Merrick. Among the onlookers is his former master, who kidnaps him again and takes him to a fair in Paris. But John Merrick manages to escape with the help of the other artists and clowns, and he returns to the hospital in London by ship.

John Merrick sees the surgeon Frederick Treves as his friend, but the surgeon cannot free him from his suffering. When he and Treves go to a theater together, he is cheered by the visitors with applause as the actress expresses her thanks after the last act.

After the theater visit, John goes to sleep in his bed, but instead of sitting down as usual, he lies flat on his back and suffocates in his sleep. He once told Treves that his greatest wish was to sleep in a bed “like normal people”. In the last sequence, his mother's face appears to him in space.

History of origin

Preproduction and script

Frederick Treves - When researching the film, the scriptwriters mainly used his recordings as a guide.
Joseph "John" Merrick , the "Elephant Man" (photo from 1889).

Lynch worked with screenwriters Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren and producer Jonathan Sanger on the screenplay for The Elephant Man . The foundations were formed on the one hand by The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu and on the other hand by The Elephant Man and other Reminiscences , the notes of Sir Frederick Treves. With this film, Lynch wanted to celebrate its debut in mainstream cinema on the one hand , but also to transport art into the mainstream on the other.

However, all the studios to which they submitted the finished script declined. Eventually the script fell into the hands of producer Mel Brooks who wanted to make it happen. Before that, however, he wanted to see earlier work by Lynch and therefore watched his cult film Eraserhead , which had achieved great fame through midnight performances. Contrary to Lynch's assumption, Brooks was enthusiastic about Eraserhead and hired Lynch with the words: “You madman! I love you!"

Then the material could be realized. Mel Brooks, who was mainly responsible for parodies of well-known films at the time, founded the Brooksfilm company for the shooting. Fearing that viewers would mistake the film for one of his silly comedies, he did not have his name printed on the movie posters or removed from the credits.

For the role of the elephant man John Merrick, John Hurt could be won, who had received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in 1979 for his impersonation of Max in midnight - Midnight Express . The surgeon Frederick Treves played the aspiring Anthony Hopkins . Anne Bancroft , who won an Academy Award in 1962 for her performance in Licht im Dunkel , was cast as Mrs. Kendal. British actor John Gielgud acted as head doctor Carr Gomm. The still relatively inexperienced director Lynch was initially intimidated by the high-profile cast: “You wake up in the morning and say to yourself, 'Today is the day when I will give Sir John Gielgud instructions.' It's stunning. "


Since the film was to be set in Victorian London , it was decided to do the shooting in Great Britain . In addition to various locations in London , the film was also shot at Lee International Studios in Wembley and Shepperton Studios in Shepperton . Because of the atmosphere, Lynch shot the film in black and white. In his opinion, the black and white image transports the viewer from the real world and reinforces the mood of being in the time of the industrial revolution .

The mask of John Hurt required a lot of effort. They wanted to recreate the look of the real John Merrick as faithfully as possible. After Merrick's death, casts of his head, arms, and legs had been made and were now being used. His organs were also kept in glass vessels, but they were destroyed during the Second World War. On a typical day of shooting, Hurt appeared around 5:00 a.m., then spent seven to eight hours in the mask before shooting, shot from noon to 10:00 p.m. and left the set around midnight after removing the mask for two hours. Due to this particular strain, Hurt was only filmed every other day. At first, even director Lynch himself tried to put on Hurt's mask, but soon gave up and handed the task over to make-up specialist Christopher Tucker. Hurt was very frustrated at the start of filming because he was barely expressive under all the makeup. In an interview in 2000 he said, "I thought they found a way to take the fun of shooting away from me."

Regarding the playful approach to his assigned role of the physically deformed character John Merrick, actor John Hurt stated in a video interview included in the bonus material on the Blu-ray Disc of The Elephant Man : "My posture was basically based on a corkscrew , because that's how his spine was shaped. His skeleton was still there and I had seen it. I don't know how he could move at all. "

David Lynch wanted to show the disfigured John Merrick in one of the first scenes, but actor John Hurt disagreed. In his opinion, the dramatic effect can be increased if the viewer is initially left in the dark about the man's appearance. “I was definitely no better [than Lynch] when it came to creating images on screen because I don't think anyone is better than him. He's the greatest director in the world in that regard, if he does his best. But when it comes to drama he's sometimes wrong, and I could tell he was doing it there. ”Indeed, Hurt's objection was taken up. At first Merrick can only be seen masked or standing in the shade and only reveals his appearance after half an hour of running.


The German dubbed version was created by Berliner Synchron GmbH based on the dialogue script and dialogue direction by Heinz Freitag.

role actor German Dubbing voice
Dr. Frederick Treves Anthony Hopkins Joachim Kerzel
John Merrick John Hurt Joachim Tennstedt
Madge Kendal Anne Bancroft Bettina Schön
Francis Carr-Gomm Sir John Gielgud Friedrich Schoenfelder
Mrs. Mothershead Wendy Hiller Gudrun Genest
Mr. Bytes Freddie Jones Friedrich W. Building School
Night porter Michael Elphick Harald Dietl
Princess Alexandra Helen Ryan Ursula Heyer
Fox, colleague of Treves John Standing Jürgen Thormann
Bytes' assistant Dexter Fletcher Sven Plate
Feathered dwarf Kenny Baker Friedrich G. Beckhaus
Councilor Alderman Frederick Treves Manfred Grote
A council member Dennis Burgess Martin Hirthe

Reception and aftermath

The Elephant Man celebrated its world premiere on October 3, 1980 in New York City . From October 10, 1980, it was open to the public in the United States. In Europe, the film didn't start until the following year. In January 1981 he was seen at the French Avoriaz Film Festival . It was shown in West German cinemas on February 13, 1981, where only around 185,000 people wanted to see the five million US dollar film. Even so, the film was a financial success. In the US, at $ 26 million, it was able to bring in more than five times the cost of production, in the UK it was £ 3.75 million.

The film was received positively by audiences and critics alike. The detailed reconstruction of the Victorian era was appreciated by many critics. Lynch himself had little knowledge of the era when we started filming: “I didn't know anything about the Victorian era before I started [filming], which really worried me. I mean, here I was, from Montana, doing this Victorian drama. But I think you can adjust to a place or a time. We did a lot of research. "

A contentious issue was sentimentality in the film. In the Spiegel one could read about it, Lynch had a feeling for touching effects and fairytale-like painted cinema clichés, but he avoided sentimentality. Although he created a dream with Merrick's entry into the upper class , he did not let this triumph over the misery outside.

In his review for Die Zeit , Hans C. Blumenberg wrote that The Elephant Man contains sentimentality, but uses it for the film. “This ending is as provocative as the whole film. It is the end of a passion story. But it is precisely their ruthless sentimentality that hits the viewer harder and more cruelly than a documentary reconstruction of the case. "()

The American film critic Roger Ebert, however, rated the sentimentality of the film rather negatively. Contrary to the historical model, the misshapen John Merrick could suddenly speak, quote psalms and read Romeo and Juliet, which he described as pure sentimentality. In his eyes the philosophy of the film is "superficial" and the only statements that can be inferred from the film are on the one hand "Wow, the elephant man looks really hideous" and on the other hand "Thunderstorm." Isn't it amazing how he can keep it up in spite of everything? "

The BBC critic Almar Haflidason regards the film as “heartfelt” and praises John Hurt's play in particular: “Buried under an unbelievable amount of make-up, John Hurt manages to fill his portrait of John Merrick with dignity and bravery.” Also Roger Ebert, who couldn't get much good out of the film as such, found John Hurt “very good” in The Elephant Man . He found Lynch's directorial work competent, but described the unsuccessful opening and closing scenes as “inexcusable” and “idiotic”.

There were also positive voices about Lynch's directorial work. Der Spiegel wrote that the black and white of the film increased the "nightmare atmosphere".

With this success Lynch had achieved what he wanted: He had established himself as a director in Hollywood. However, because of the location in London , the Montana- born director was initially mistaken for a resident of the United Kingdom. For example, Christian Bauer wrote in a review of the film in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on February 18, 1981 about the "British director" Lynch. As a result, Lynch received various film offers. Among other things, George Lucas offered him to let him direct the return of the Jedi . Lynch decided, however, for the production of The Desert Planet by Dino De Laurentiis , because he would have more freedom there than in Lucas' film.

Shortly after the film was completed, director David Lynch explained in a video interview that can be found in the bonus material on the Blu-ray Disc of The Elephant Man , that the historic Victorian buildings in London, where the film crew shot, were largely demolished and replaced by modern ones New buildings have been replaced. That is why The Elephant Man is one of the few film documents that those Victorian districts could at least capture optically, with the help of cameraman Freddie Francis . "So it was pretty much the last chance to film in these authentic, fantastic locations," said Lynch in the video interview.


The elephant man was one of the favorites for numerous awards in the run-up to the 1981 Academy Awards. The film was nominated for an Oscar in a total of eight categories, but could not hold its own against the competition in any of these categories. Leading actor John Hurt lost to Robert De Niro , who was awarded for his portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta in Like a Wild Bull . The screenwriters De Vore and Bergren had to admit defeat in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay Alvin Sargent , who had delivered the script for A normal family . Since this film was also awarded in the category of Best Picture and Robert Redford for him as Best Director , even David Lynch could not take an Oscar home. The other nominations were for costumes , camera , music and the best editing .

At the 1981 award ceremony, there was no regular category for the best make-up, which caused a real wave of protests among filmmakers after the award ceremony, who wanted to see Christopher Tucker's performance in The Elephant Man recognized. In the following year , the Oscar for the best make-up was introduced as a category and - except for 1984 - has been awarded every year since then.

Even at the Golden Globes , in which The Elephant Man was nominated for four prizes (direction, film, screenplay and John Hurt as leading actor), one went away empty-handed.

The British BAFTA Awards were nominated in seven categories. John Hurt won the Best Actor Award, Stuart Craig won the Production Design category and producer Jonathan Sanger accepted the Best Picture Award.

In addition, The Elephant Man was nominated for ten other film awards, five of which he won.


  • Michel Chion : David Lynch . 2nd edition. British Film Institute , London 2005, ISBN 978-1-84457-030-0 .
  • Anne Jerslev: David Lynch. Mental landscapes. Passagen, Vienna 1996, ISBN 3-85165-104-9 , pp. 85-106.
  • Chris Rodley (Ed.): Lynch on Lynch . Extended and updated new edition. Verlag der Authors, Frankfurt am Main 2006, ISBN 3-88661-291-0 , pp. 112-135.
  • Georg Seeßlen : David Lynch and his films . 6th, expanded and revised edition. Schüren, Marburg 2007, ISBN 978-3-89472-437-5 , pp. 40-61 (Elefantenmensch Film Analysis), p. 261 (Elefantenmensch Filmographie), pp. 270-271 (Elefantenmensch Bibliography).
  • Stephan Zöller: The subject of "self-alienation" in the feature film. In: Thomas Bohrmann, Werner Veith, Stephan Zöller (Eds.): Handbuch Theologie und Popular Film. Volume 1. Ferdinand Schöningh, Paderborn 2007, ISBN 978-3-506-72963-7 , pp. 313-326.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ The Elephant Man . In: British Film Institute .
  2. a b c d Henry Bromell: Visionary from Fringeland ( Memento of the original from May 1, 2009 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. , Rolling Stone, November 13, 1980. (English) @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  3. a b Hermann Weigel: David Lynch ( Memento of the original from September 27, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. , tip film book No. 1, 1985. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  4. a b Trivia on . (English)
  5. a b Geoff Andrew: John Hurt interviewed by Geoff Andrew , Guardian Unlimited, April 27, 2000. (English)
  6. Video interview with actor John Hurt, 21 minutes, included in the bonus material of the Blu-ray Disc Disc Der Elefantenmensch , 2013 ( Arthaus - Special Films + Studiocanal GmbH , Berlin + Brooksfilm Limited)
  7. German synchronous index: German synchronous index | Movies | The elephant man. Retrieved November 14, 2017 .
  8. Note: British actor (1925–2012) and great-nephew of the doctor of the same name from the film
  9. Michael Schwarze: The victim as a movie hero ( memento of the original from May 1, 2009 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. , Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 14, 1981.
  10. a b Arnd Schirmer: Bead of meat with a soul ( Memento of the original from May 1, 2009 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. , Der Spiegel, 7/1981.
  11. Hans C. Blumenberg: For example, John Merrick , Die Zeit, February 20, 1981.
  12. a b Roger Ebert: The Elephant Man , January 1, 1980. (English)
  13. Almar Haflidasson: The Elephant Man , on (English)
  14. Christian Bauer : Pity for a Monster ( Memento of the original from May 1, 2009 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. , Süddeutsche Zeitung, February 18, 1981.
  15. Video interview with director David Lynch, 25 minutes, included in the bonus material of the Blu-ray Disc Der Elefantenmensch , 2013 ( Arthaus - Special Films + Studiocanal GmbH , Berlin + Brooksfilm Limited), descriptions of the location from 12:49 pm