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Creating a Puppet Documentary for the Count Who Loved a Corpse

Mockup of a puppet reenactment for 'No Place for the Living' (courtesy Ronni Thomas)
Mockup of a puppet reenactment for ‘No Place for the Living’ (courtesy Ronni Thomas)

The fact that he slept for seven years with the corpse of a woman he loved is, for filmmaker Ronni Thomas, one of the least interesting things about Count von Cosel. The X-ray technician and self-appointed nobleman also known as Carl Tanzler exhumed the body of one of his patients in the 1930s in Key West, Florida, and mended her decaying body with his home remedies: silk for skin, coat hangers for bones, a fragile wig for her hair, and heavy doses of formaldehyde and perfume for the smell. This obsession, and the public’s fascination and subsequent forgetfulness, is the core of No Place for the Living, Thomas’s planned feature-length documentary currently funding on Kickstarter.

“One of the things that bothers me about the world we live in is how so many people’s lives and stories are often diminished down to a Wikipedia entry, a few footnotes, and ‘swipe,’ we move along,” Thomas told Hyperallergic. “In my perhaps twisted mind, ‘slept with a corpse for seven years,’ demanded more inquiry.”

Carl Tanzler, aka Count von Cosel, at work as a radiologist in Key West's U.S. Marine Hospital (via Florida Keys Public Library/Flickr)
Carl Tanzler, aka Count von Cosel, at work as a radiologist in Key West’s US Marine Hospital (via Florida Keys Public Library/Flickr) (click to enlarge)

Thomas is the man behind the web series Midnight Archives, and previously explored another form of reanimating the dead in the short documentary Walter Potter: The Man Who Married Kittens, about an English taxidermist who posed bunnies, cats, and other creatures into elaborate tableaux of anthropomorphic life. Now, with the support of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, where he’s filmmaker-in-residence, he’s further exploring our “perception of death.”

Thomas admits his own experience with the need for posthumous connection to someone treasured in life. “I once had a cat that died when I was a kid, and I tried to hide it, to spend time with it physically,” he said. “It’s a natural emotion to want to cling to the physical remains of a lost loved one.”

Von Cosel, however, never had a reciprocated relationship with Elena Hoyos. They were both immigrants to Florida — von Cosel from Germany, Hoyos from Cuba. He had a vision before he even arrived in the United States of a woman like her who would come into his life; she was stricken with tuberculosis by the time their paths crossed at his X-ray machine. When she died in 1931, at the age of 22, he paid for the funeral and her grand mausoleum, which he visited nightly. Eventually that wasn’t enough, and he brought her remains home. For a period, he protected her body against the ravages of time inside a handmade wingless airplane, hoping to somehow return her to life so they could fly together, both hopes equally improbable.

The "airship" built by Carl Tanzler to carry Elena's body (via Florida Keys Public Library/Flickr)
The “airship” built by Carl Tanzler to carry Elena Hoyos’s body (via Florida Keys Public Library/Flickr)
Elena Hoyos in life (via Florida Keys Public Library/Flickr)
Elena Hoyos in life (via Florida Keys Public Library/Flickr) (click to enlarge)

“What I found was less a story about death and necrophilia, and much more a story of mad science, delusion, mysticism, and madness,” Thomas said.

In No Place for the Living, interviews with psychiatrists, historians, and scholars will join puppet reenactments created by Robin Frohardt whose work includes 2013’s uncanny The Pigeoning at the HERE Arts Center. “This story is in many ways about puppetry,” Thomas explained. “Not just in the sense that Cosel was trying to ‘reanimate’ Elena, but in the way that he sort of played puppet master to those around him.”

This includes his manipulation of her family, and also his belief, according to Thomas, that he was under Hoyos’s ghostly power. “When he describes his adventure in the graveyard, he mentions that his motions were not his, his body was under the control of some otherworldly force,” he added. These scenes, and others in the film, will be based on Thomas’s extensive research through archives, talks with people in Key West, and reading of von Cosel’s own journal, published in Fantastic Adventures magazine.

The body of Elena Hoyos after years of preservation by Carl Tanzler (via Florida Keys Public Library/Flickr)
The body of Elena Hoyos after years of preservation by Carl Tanzler (via Florida Keys Public Library/Flickr)

Eventually, von Cosel’s secret was revealed, and the mummified Hoyos went from a private fixation to an equally obsessive public spectacle. Her face by then looked more like a papier-mâché project than flesh, and what proportions remained in her body were formed from wax, plaster, and stuffing. Perhaps the most bizarre part of the whole affair is that locals weren’t appalled; they were drawn in droves to pay one dollar to view the body at a local funeral home, and von Cosel even received fan mail. While he was initially arrested, the county solicitor and defense attorney later agreed on a release due to the statute of limitations.

“His was an extreme case of what we all suffer on a daily basis, our escape into delusion to assuage the depression of our simple lives,” Thomas said. “We all check out mentally from time to time in order to cope with the world around us, Cosel just never checked back in.”

Mockup of a puppet reenactment for 'No Place for the Living' (courtesy Ronni Thomas)
Mockup of a puppet reenactment for ‘No Place for the Living’ (courtesy Ronni Thomas)
The mausoleum of Elena Hoyos in 1940 (via Florida Keys Public Library/Flickr)
The mausoleum of Elena Hoyos in 1940 (via Florida Keys Public Library/Flickr)

No Place For The Living: The Mad Story of Carl Von Cosel is funding on Kickstarter through April 26. 

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