The Florida air is thick with heat; it’s 1938, and flies buzz around an old man with wire-rimmed glasses and shock-white hair. Before him, on a sort of mad scientist’s table, lies his beloved Elena…who’s been dead for seven years. No Place for the Living is a new documentary project just launched on kickstarter about the mad story of Carl Von Cosel, also known as Carl Tanzler, and his long-dead lover. The project’s creator, director Ronni Thomas, spoke to The Creators Project (from the basement of Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum, appropriately enough) about the story behind the film, his own obsession with Carl Von Cosel, and what it takes to make a documentary about undying love.
Ronni Thomas says he often has a hard time boiling down the essence of a project, but with No Place for the Living, summarizing the story is easy. “It’s a film about a guy who slept with a corpse for seven years,” he says, bluntly. “So I don’t have to go too much further than that to get people disgusted or intrigued… or both.” Thomas first heard the story of Carl Von Cosel after he was mentioned briefly on HBO’s Autopsy, and immediately needed to know more about the man. “If someone says ‘I’ve been sleeping with a corpse for seven years’ I want the whole story. I don’t just want the abbreviated headline, I want to know what the hell you were thinking. So I became obsessed with it.” That’s how the germ of this new project was born.
What was the whole story? Thomas gives a quick rundown. “This German immigrant named Carl Von Cosel decides he’s going to come to America for a better life. When he lands in Florida he’s not happy, something’s missing from his [life]. He had these premonitions when he was younger of this beautiful Spanish woman that he was supposed to marry. So he’s unhappy, he bails on his family, and moves to the Florida Keys.”
Von Cosel is given work as an x-ray technician to help people dying of tuberculosis. That’s where he meets a young Cuban immigrant named Elena Hoyos. He starts offering her favors, giving her jewelry, and claiming he can cure her tuberculosis. “Of course, it doesn’t work," says Thomas. "She dies. He pays for the funeral, puts her in the ground, and realizes ‘Shit, she’s going to get corroded.’ So he has her dug up, builds her a mausoleum, and starts communicating with [Elena]. There’s rumors that he even put a telephone in her mausoleum.” Under the cover of night he kidnaps her body, moves her into his house, and “he’s trying to bring her back to life. Over the next seven years he tries to use advanced scientific techniques with mystical occult-ish practices.”
And how does Thomas think the audience should feel about Carl Von Cosel? Is he a villain, a mad scientist, a creep? “I want you to like him,” Thomas answers. “I want people who see the film to feel the way the people in Key West Florida felt, after they found out about what he had been doing for seven years.” Wait, the people of the Florida Keys actually liked Carl Von Cosel? “He was adored,” laughs Thomas, “People loved what he had done. It’s wild. There’s headlines, and fan mail from women, friends in the town, they paid for his trial. For whatever reason it wasn’t a turn-off. That’s the most interesting thing about this story. He did leave a bitter man, but only because he never got his love back.”
One of the most daring aspects of No Place for the Living is the plan to film the flashbacks with puppets. Thomas explains his reasoning behind this non-traditional tactic. “The story is about manipulation. It’s about the manipulation of your own personal psyche, it’s about the manipulation of the people around you, it’s about the manipulation of inanimate things to be animate. So there’s a very clear connection to puppetry. I’ve always loved puppets, and I think artfully constructed puppets are very uncanny.”
In the end, Thomas reflects on the delusions of Carl Von Cosel.“He’s kind of like all of us. He just took his delusions to such a great level, to such great heights. And I think that’s pretty bold—sick and strange—but pretty bold.” For Ronni Thomas telling this story isn’t just about making a great documentary, it’s also about standing up for the weirdos of history. “Somebody has to take up the torch for these odd characters through history who really will fall so far through the cracks that they’ll hit the earth’s core.”
To support No Place for the Living, contribute via the project’s Kickstarter.