The Weimar retrospective runs throughout the Berlinale. There are in most cases two screenings. The ones at the CinemaxX sited at Potsdamer Platz tend to be fully booked. However, the Zeughauskino, a brisk 30 minute walk away, is not usually packed out. This is a typical Museum auditorium, designed for multi-purpose use. It seats only 160 but the seating is comfortable, the rake is good and the sight-lines are fine. The acoustics, including for live music, are good. And the screen is a good size, masked for ratios. The cinema has a range of formats, 16mm, 35mm and Digital. The foyer is small and it gets crowded before a popular title. However, the staff are efficient and affable. And we get a brief introduction before a screening, including in English. So I spent my first day here. The first two films are ones that I wish to return to at fuller length.
Der Katzensteg / Regina, or the Sins of the Father was released in 1927. It was directed by Gerhard Lamprecht and adapted from a novel of the same name from 1890, by the noted author Hermann Sudermann. It is a period drama set in the times of the Napoleonic wars. The key characters are a Baron and his son; a Vicar whose daughter the son is taken with; and at the other end of the social scale a drunken coffin-maker whose daughter works at the Baron’s castle. The first act of the film presented events in 1797 with the French invading Prussia. There is treason which sets in motion a chain of catastrophic events. The acts of the fathers haunt the children.
By 1813 the wars near their end but revenge continues to blight the lives of the children. The conflicts come together in a powerful and tragic conclusion. This film was a dramatic tour de force though if often used conventional situations. Stylistically it was filmed with real panache. In particular the opening sequences involving night-time conflicts between French and Prussian troops were really gripping.
The film was projected from a 16mm print from the Deutsche Kinemathek. It was old and the definition was only fair but one could still enjoy the excellent use of the moving camera and effects like superimposition. The screening also benefited from a fine accompaniment by Maud Nelissen. Much of her music offered a slow and somber accompaniment and there were finely timed silences at key moments.
Kameradschaft – La tragedie de la mine – Comradeship (1931) is a famous German/French co-production. It was directed by the highly regarded George Wilhelm Pabst. Based on a mining disaster of 1906 the film shows how German rescue teams rushed to aid their French comrades after an explosion. The film opens by stressing the borders that separate France and Germany, including a reference to the French occupation of the Ruhr industrial area in 1921.
The digital restoration was introduced by Julia Wallmüller from the Deutsche Kinemathek. She explained that there had been two versions on release, German and French. The German release did not fare well but the French version was popular. In Germany a final ironic ending was cut leaving a more upbeat conclusion. The restoration now included that ending.
The film is bi-lingual, German and French. It is extremely well done and blends effectively the actual film footage with studio recreations. We follow the general direction of the disaster but also are encouraged to identify with sympathetic individuals from both communities. The underground sequences combine almost documentary sequences, with tension, pathos and relief. The film focuses on the working class communities either side of the border and there is a sense of class and craft solidarity. The management and authorities remain in the background. The changed ending in Germany was symptomatic of the future when the organised German working class failed to halt the rising Fascist Party. Predictably the Nazis did not like the film.
Der Kampf ums Matterhorn / Fight for the Matterhorn (1928) dramatized events leading up to Edward Whymper’s famous ascent of the key Alpine peak. The first six reels of the film chronicle the relationship between Whymper (Peter Voß) and Italian guide Jean-Antoine Carrel (Luis Trenker). Carrel lives in the village of Breuil with his wife Felicitas (Marcella Albani), his mother (Alexandra Schmitt) and step-brother Giaccomo (Clifford McLaglen): plus two dogs. The mountain drama is filled out with a triangle of passion with Giaccomo attempting to stir up enmities because of his desire for Felicitas. I found this melodrama distracted from the main mountaineering narrative. It appeared to be an attempt to provide dramatic aspects to the false rumours that Whymper had cut a rope when the later tragedy occurred.
The mountain sequences, with early attempts on the Matterhorn by Carrel and Whymper, are excellent (this is 1860 and 1863). The film generally blends location work with studio shots effectively. And it enjoys striking panoramas across the Alpine mountains. The cast involved skilled mountaineers and there are impressive shots of climbing on rock faces and steep snow slopes.
The film also has memorable canine moments. The house dog, a terrier, at one point nips at the dancers during a village celebration. The outhouse dog, a Labrador-cross, has an epic sequence. It races over snow, ice and rocks to call Carrel to aid his wife who, fleeing Giaccomo, has fallen down a slope on the glacier.
In the last three reels the film moves to the tragic events of 1865. Following the record fairly closely we see the party led by Zermatt guide Michel Croz with Whymper and the competing party from the newly formed Italian Mountaineering Club led by Carrel. Whymper reaches the summit first but there is a fall on the way down with the loss of four lives. The ascent is well filmed though the latter stages are presented through an iris (a telescope – long shots): presumably as they were not able to film high up the mountain.
There follows the accusation of a cut rope against Whymper. Here the film dramatises and we see Carrel climb up the Matterhorn and return with the rope to vindicate Whymper. The drama here works better than in the earlier reels which provide a reference point. But again I found it distracted from the central mountaineering story which is visually stunning. The DCP had introductory titles explaining that the restoration relied on several different print versions. The restoration and transfer were at 4K which produced an excellent and well-defined image. I did think the location and reconstruction shots were distinguishable, down I assume to the harder edges of digital. We enjoyed a piano accompaniment by Maud Nelissen: she made the melodramatic scenes passable and the mountain sequences imposing. The film runs for 117 minutes. There are shorter versions, including I believe a 9.5mm version of three reels.
The three films offered a fine introduction to what promises to be a week of cinematic treats.