If movie monsters are meant to speak to our innate fears, is any movie monster better than the literal devil? Directed by legendary stage and screen icon, Youssef Wahbi, Ambassador of Hell (1945) is a classic Faustian tale about the devil showing up on a poor man’s doorstep and offering him a million pounds in exchange for his soul. The man is Abdel Khalak, a down-on-his-luck schoolteacher who feels (and is) disrespected by everyone around him, from his corrupt principal at work to his insubordinate children at home. When a dashing, smirking man (who is very obviously the literal devil) appears one day in the form of a lawyer who goads him into lying about who he is so that he can inherit a fortune, Abdel Khalak immediately acquiesces.
As Abdel Khalak’s fortunes skyrocket, his daughter, Afaf, runs away and marries a creepy, rich old man, while his son, Farid, marries a dancer. Things quickly go south for both. Afaf falls in love with her husband’s son and the devil tricks them into killing the rich man. Meanwhile, Farid develops a cocaine addiction and finds out that his wife is cheating on him, so (again, under the guidance of the devil) he decides to bomb her nightclub, killing her, and is then arrested by the police and sentenced to death. Abdel Khalak has been so busy with his newfound money that he only hears about this on the telephone. A fleeting moment of weakness has led him down a path of destruction from which his family cannot hope to recover.
Until they do because it was all a dream from which he wakes at the end of the movie. It’s a cop out and it’s incredibly frustrating.
This framing device, in which the Egyptian nuclear family is catastrophically led astray by the weakness or absence of the patriarch, was not all-that unique in this period of Egyptian cinema. Just five years later, Youssef Chahine would direct his debut, Baba Amin (1950), a somewhat similar story about a working-class father who witnesses the tragic fate of his family after his death, only to wake up in the end and realize that he still has a chance to be present in their lives. The moment of waking is an undeniable relief from the literal nightmare, but it is a relief that I am actively uninterested in. You never get to sit with the downfall of the family in these types of movies. You are momentarily overwhelmed by the possibility that the awful thing is the real thing that happened, but you still feel disappointed by the mundane return to the status quo.
Much like the infuriating, Code-mandated ending of Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944), these instances of waking are aggressively underwhelming in that they rob the characters of any meaningful change. The entire experience is rendered meaningless. Characters don’t learn anything, except maybe the hopelessly general axiom that “things could be worse.” They’re not even presented with an opportunity to change their behavior according to the experience of the dream because the waking always immediately precedes the end. Just when things might get interesting, the movie, along with its cast’s shot at an arc, is done.
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Yet Ambassador of Hell does remain a remarkable, and often bizarre, film. For starters, it’s exceedingly difficult to land on any single generic category that feels apt for it, even by Egyptian cinema’s often syncretic and pastiche categorization. Prominent film critic Sameh Fathy identifies it as the first Egyptian horror film, but the tone is more consistently comedic than anything else. The devil, played by Wahbi himself, is more silly and mischievous than he is a terrifying embodiment of damnation. He is a joyful and boisterous trickster who finds the utmost glee in luring vulnerable people like Abdel Khalak to their demise, but he is rarely meant to be scary, at least not in a visceral way.
At the same time, you can’t discount the horror element, especially considering that this was a film produced for a presumed mass audience in which the dangers of falling prey to the destructive seduction of the devil is not such an abstract idea. Growing up, I never worried that a man with horns and a trident would come to my house and buy my soul off me, sure, but I did genuinely believe that there was a devil who stood on my ear lobe and whispered sinful thoughts all day and night. The association of deceptive whispering with the devil is incredibly common across Islamic traditions and societies, owing to how the Quranic verse 114:4 describes him as “the lurking whisperer.”
Ambassador of Hell literalizes the devil’s lurking. Rather than an immaterial being who speaks to your soul, he becomes a shady business partner who speaks to your ear. The horror of the film lies in our fear of temptation, of something being too good to be true. The horror is losing yourself to capital, to losing your actual soul to money such that the need for money robs you of the people for whom you supposedly wanted the money in the first place. It’s a tale as old as time, and one by no mean exclusive to the domain of horror, but the involvement of the devil embeds the film with a sense of dread that not even its light tone can embellish.
But the horror of Abdel Khalak’s downfall is also meant to speak specifically to the anxieties of the Egyptian patriarch in a time of rapid sociopolitical change. These are cautionary tales that, on the one hand, warn the presumed fathers in the audiences of their sacred “duty” towards their families, while on the other warn the rest of who are not fathers to remain obedient to our own lest their absence destroy the very fabric of our family.
Beyond the subtextual horror of the family’s destruction, the film also takes a heaping of aesthetic cues from German Expressionism, particularly in an early scene in which Wahbi’s devil, in full make-up, is introduced. Shot from a low angle, the devil hides behind a spiderweb in a dark cave as he muses to his servant about how Abdel Khalak would make a perfect target. In the next scene, we see him walking through a miniature set of Cairo searching for Abdel Khalak’s home. He poofs into it and the oppressing smallness of the place is immediately recognizable. Wahbi keeps shooting himself from low angles and uses sharp contrasts and shadows to emphasize the hideousness of the devil as he seduces Abdel Khalak and his family in their sleep. As comedic as the rhymed dialogue is, a tradition Wahbi inherited from theater, it’s still an undeniably chilling scene.
When in human form, Wahbi’s devil echoes Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928) in his hyper-expressiveness. Though his face is not permanently grinning, his slicked-back hair and unsettlingly wide smile evoke Conrad Veidt’s legendary performance, and it fits. Ambassador of Hell is similarly multi-faceted in its generic formulations, moving between comedy and melodrama seamlessly while retaining a potent element of the sinister and frightful. Wahbi’s exaggerated performance, too, straddles the lines between different modes. It’s more often than not funny, for sure, but there’s also a deep tragedy in the fact that Abdel Khalak is so oblivious to the fact that his “lawyer” is manipulating him into such harmful behavior. We grow to understand that it is not actually that funny that he cannot see that this man is the literal devil because that speaks less to the successful shiftiness of the devil as it does to Abdel Khalak’s own rabid desperation for money.
Though horror might not be the main engine of the film’s tone, the penultimate scene, in which the devil appears in his true form before Abdel Khalak can repent for his sins, is by far one of the tensest and thrilling sequences I’ve seen in a classic Egyptian film till now. Unobscured by shadow or low angles, the devil is a frightening, upsetting sight, especially as he stalks Abdel Khalak mercilessly, attempting to end his life so that he can collect his soul before God has forgiven him.
“Ambassador of Hell literalizes the devil’s lurking. Rather than an immaterial being who speaks to your soul, he becomes a shady business partner who speaks to your ear.“
Abdel Khalak tries to run away, out of his home, into the street, into a car––but the devil is inescapable, all around. This echoes the subtext of his children’s demise at the hands of the rich, old man and the dancer; the devil’s influence is everywhere. He may not even be the only ambassador from hell. There might be other ones, everywhere you don’t watch your step. Hell is a real country. It has dispatches.
Then Abdel Khalak wakes up and none of it matters much. It was all just a tired patriarch’s fever dream.
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