One of the cultural institutions here in Los Angeles that screens movies on a regular basis is the Goethe-Institut; currently, it’s showcasing “Starring Berlin,” a series featuring the capitol in 40 films, from Paul Leni’s Backstairs (1921) to Detlev Buck’s Tough Enough (2006). The series continues throughout the year.
I’ve known about the Goethe-Institut for a while, but never visited their facility until this week–and what a treasure it is. Just east of Wilshire and Fairfax, their Media Lounge alone contains hundreds of books, VHS tapes, and DVDs–largely arranged by filmmaker–with rarities like Wenders’ Kings of the Road, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, and many other imported titles. The Lounge has its own viewing stations, or you can rent materials and take them home for a week or two. I purchased a $10 annual membership, and was offered a book of my choosing from a nearby stack of titles as a sign-up gift. (I opted for a copy of Hans Günther Pflaum’s simple primer, German Silent Movie Classics.)
I also caught up with two of the more interesting sounding titles of the Starring Berlin series, and thought I’d offer my thoughts on them here along with People on Sunday, another film in the series I discovered via the BFI’s excellent DVD release a couple of years ago.
People on Sunday (1930)
Building on the discoveries of the “city symphony” films of the ’20s, this breezy hybrid documentary captures “life as it is” by employing various nonprofessional actors to play themselves in a simple story about four young people picnicking at a lake one weekend. It’s a classic of the New Objectivity style in late-silent German films (which includes Pabst’s The Joyless Street) that emphasized social realism over fantasy, and its close observations of human behavior–casual flirtations, daily routines, swimming and boating, afternoon naps–are infused with the nascent creativity of its formidable crew: directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, screenwriter Billy Wilder, and production assistant Fred Zinnemann–all of them future Hollywood directors.
Like many late silent films, dialogue is kept to a minimum, with interactions more often expressed visually and dialogue left to the audience’s imagination. The lake visit is a particular highlight, with a romantic triangle developing around a wine dealer and his potential girlfriends (a film extra and a record shop worker). The film skillfully suggests the shifting attractions between characters with its assembly of actions, figure groupings, and POV and reaction shots.
Moreover, the film offers a startlingly sunny portrait of Weimar Berlin on the brink of its descent into the Nazi era; it could be any town, with well-dressed bourgeoisie dining at cafes and scurrying about scrubbed streets beneath elevated public trains crisscrossing town, glinting in the morning sun. A far cry from the shadowy expressionism of the 1920s, it evokes a blissful calm before the storm.
Kuhle Wampe (To Whom Does the World Belong?) (1932)
If People on Sunday reveals a fleeting cultural moment, this film reveals what seems like an alternate universe closer to the rise of Hitler in 1933. It’s also the product of an impressive creative team–avant garde theater writers Bertold Brecht and Ernst Ottwalt, director Slatan Dudow, and composer Hanns Eisler–assembled by Prometheus Films, a German distributor that emphasized Soviet imports. (Prometheus released Battleship Potemkin in Berlin in 1926.) The film is considered to be the crowning media achievement of the German Left, not only for its premise–an unemployed family, evicted from their home, joins a rural tent community (Kuhle Wampe) and discovers proletariat solidarity–but also for its method of production; the film’s miniscule budget required an extensive network of supporters. In his 1990 book, Film and the German Left in the Weimar Republic, Bruce Murray writes: “Members from leftist theater groups, including the Gruppe junger Schauspieler, and agitprop groups such as Das rote Sprachrohr played leading roles in the film, in addition to the volunteers from the various sports organizations. According to Brecht, as the collective grew, the interaction of its members became at least as important as the product of their efforts.”
The product of their efforts is a didactic but ambitious political fable that fulfills the filmmakers’ intentions to subvert and break commercial formulas. It contains striking formal invention, from an early montage sequence depicting unemployed workers racing on bicycles to various job opportunities, to the use of ironic intertitles (“The Best Part of a Young Person’s Life”), to visual counterpoint thrust into ordinary domestic scenes.
The film played commercially to small audiences for several weeks, but was summarily banned by the Nazis the following year. It’s a testament to the thriving political diversity of the era (in the election of November ’32, Hitler won by 30% of the vote, but the Communist party earned 13%) and a model of independent film production.
Under the Bridges (1945)
Though he later directed two Hollywood films and won awards at the 1954 Cannes festival for The Last Bridge, Nazi-era (but apolitical) filmmaker Helmut Käutner has mostly been ignored by historians and programmers, save for occasional appearances like a 2004 series at the Harvard Film Archive. Siegfried Kracauer doesn’t even mention him in his survey of German film, and Lotte Eisner quickly dismisses his work as “mediocre” in The Haunted Screen. But Käutner–who has been favorably compared to Max Ophüls on more than one occasion–seems to be a filmmaker of some note, particularly on the basis of this film, a simple but lovingly-rendered tale of a charming romantic triangle that develops on a river barge.
Goebbels hated “slices of life” pictures, and continually urged filmmakers to emphasize heroic, monumental, and escapist fare. At first, Käutner obliged with a series of comedies, but his apparent penchant for neurotic heroines and doomed romance eventually resulted in Under the Bridges, passed by the censors in March of ’45 (when, as David Stewart Hull puts it in his book, Film in the Third Reich, Goebbels’ “film viewing was severely curtailed”) but unreleased until ’50.
The film–atypically shot largely on location–offers a relaxed, languid atmosphere and subtle performances that amazingly belie little of the chaos and mounting devastation in the final days of the war. Käutner understands that the film’s romanticism will only work if it takes its time, and he allows the drama to unfold with unruffled ease. Scenes involving characters sitting on a deck at night, listening to the diversity of natural sounds, or sharing a moment while playing an accordion in the dwindling twilight typify the plot. Käutner applies a great deal of visual sophistication with moody chiaroscuro lighting and unexpectedly graceful camera movements that intensify the emotions with Ophülsian relish. I’d love to see more of his work.