Haus de Berliner Festspiele

Today I saw my first film outside the retrospective Programme, at the Haus de Berliner Festspiele. This is some way from Potsdamer Platz but close to Kurfürstendamm where my hotel is situated. It is a Festival complex started in the 1960s. The cinema has a fine auditorium with a large and curved screen with drapes and proper masking. A fine place to watch a film.

Das Scheigende Klassenzimmer (The Silent Revolution), is adapted from a book by Dietrich Gartstka by the director Lars Kraume. The English-language title of the book gives a more accurate sense, ‘The Silent Classroom’. Dietrich was a part of the actual story which he recounts. A graduating class at a German Democratic Republic (GDR) school in 1956 decide to stage a ‘silent protest’ when they hear about the suppression of the Hungarian uprising. The response of the authorities is draconian and the group are faced with both collective and individual moral choices.

The film opens in fine style as two young students cross into West Berlin to experience western-style cinema. But they also see the newsreels of the initial fighting in Hungary. Coming back to East Berlin they report to their 17 fellow-students. A group then listen illicitly to RIAS, a West German ‘propaganda’ radio station. The protest commences and the conflicts begin. The group is deliberately varied. One student’s father died as a member of the Red Front-Fighters (Roter Frontkämpferbund) fighting Fascism. Several are religious and attend a Lutheran Church. Another’s father is still paying the price of his involvement in the 1953 uprising in the GDR. And one of the ring-leader’s father is a Council Member.

The spread of students and their families provides for debates from different standpoints. The authorities are more uniform, either hard-faced apparatchiks or professionals whose resistance has been beaten down. The treatment of character and plot tends to the conventional. But it is effectively dramatised. The audience responded with warm applause at the end.

It was filmed in colour and widescreen and screened with English subtitles. The production is very well done and the cast, especially the young members, are very good. The complexities of the politics of 1956 are not really engaged. The justification offered by adults for the Soviet invasion of Hungary merely defend what is mistakenly called ‘socialism’. And the radio propaganda does not give any sense of the actions of the Trans-Atlantic Alliance. It is in many ways a melodrama of protest. And the finale is that common trope of the genre, resistance but also departure. I was glad to see this film and I realised that it is the first new German film production I have seen in a year: Britain is not a great place to see their offerings.

The Weimar day started with Ihre Majestät die Liebe (Her Majesty, Love 1931). This was sound film starring Franz Lederer as Fred, the younger brother in a family combine who possesses fatal charm but little ready capital. Lederer, a Czech-born actor, was a popular lead in German film in this period. One of his most notable appearances was in G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora, 1929). To annoy his family Fred spurns a union with a wealthy investor and marries the barmaid at a night club he frequents. Lia (Käthe von Nagy) is already smitten with charming but feckless Fred. The family opposition mean that their romance has to surmount a series of obstacles. On the way the film satirises the attitudes of the snobbish bourgeoisie.

The film was directed by Joe May, a successful director and producer in German Cinema. He gave Fritz Lang his start in films and like him ended up in Hollywood. In fact, Hollywood quickly made a copy of this films with the same English-language title, also 1931. The film has delightful humour and some fine witty lines. Much of it due to

“The supporting actors [who] are the stars in this tempestuous film operetta. In a mad dash to a surprise ending, a colourful chorus of song numbers, sketches and artistic tomfoolery put those minor roles at the centre of attention – “

One of these being Szöke Szakall, later S. Z. Sakall, amongst whose Hollywood films is Casablanca (1942, as carl at the famous club).

Sprenbagger 1010 (1929) had its title translated to the memorable Blast Excavator 1010. This is a new invention by young engineer Karl (Ivan Kobal-Samborsky). It will increase production at the mining company dramatically. I did wonder if the technology actually made sense, but in the film managers and colleagues find his design brilliant. And, indeed, later in the film it does work.

“Set against the background of the Leuna Works complex and the coal fields of central Germany, first tie director Acház-Duisberg (son of the head of I. G. Farben) made an apologia for the age of the machine.”

Building the machine near a rich seam of coal means disrupting the tranquillity and livelihoods of a quiet pastoral setting. Predictability there is opposition, including in Karl’s own family. And the conflict is dramatised romantically as Karl is desired both by fellow engineer Olga (Viola Garden) and local land-owner Camilla (Ilse Stobrawa).

“The violent clash of rural idyll and industry, machinery and romanticism is matched by the cinematic collision of industrial reportage and melodrama.”

What stands out in the film is the cinematography by Helmer Lerski and the editing. There are extensive sequences of montage, especially when we reach the dramatic climax. The film has an early sound track of music. The score by Walter Gronostay has been recreated for the 35mm print we saw. However, it was mainly in the C19th orchestral tradition and I did not find that it matched the images. In the credits was the young Fred Zinnemann as an assistant cameraman.

Das Abenteuer einer Schönen Frau (The Adventure of Thea Roland, 1932) starred Lil Dagover in the title role. She is an independently-minded woman and a successful sculptor. A new commission sends her looking for a suitable male model. She finds him at a local boxing gymnasium: boxers were a popular film type in this period. However, her chosen subject is Jerry (Hans Rehmann) and English policeman and police boxing champion visiting Berlin for a fight. Inevitably romance, or at least desire evolves. Dagover convinces as the independent woman but Rehmann has his work cut out as the English Bobby. We do see him in one scene directing traffic in London.

The film works hard at generating humour. But what stands out is in the latter part Thea has a child whilst unmarried. Despite the social contempt she receives Thea sticks to her child and independent living. The conclusion is rather more in keeping with the then current mores but in the course of the narrative it seems that Thea is a ‘new woman’ and Jerry is a ‘new man’. There is a sense of equality in their relationship including in the care of their child.

We enjoyed a another good 35mm print. It is a film with some excellent production design including quite distinctive props as in the nursery. The film was directed by Hermann Kosterlitz, later Henry Koster, whose films in Hollywood include several of generic similarity such as My Man Godfrey (1957),

By this stage of the retrospective I was getting a sense of the variety of Weimar Cinema, which is in little over a decade produced a range of genres, styles and themes that were notable. I was also watching the transition from Silent to Sound era, which seem to be handled fairly adroitly.

Quotations from the Weimar Kino neu gesehen Brochure.