This is a long film – 146 minutes – and one that gives ample time for its leading players to express themselves in lengthy close-up. There are none more expressive-impressive than Jenny Hasselqvist who has the highest level of physical and emotional control along with the grace and force of being also one of the leading prima ballerinas of the age.
Director Erich Waschneck made the most of this beguiling asset and in one sublime sequence the whole effort of the film is made worthwhile… with her character’s son having just killed the leader of the occupying soldiers, she turns from the door after waving him away and agonises for long moments – hands clasped in flickering resolution and arms dropped in despair: how can they escape from retribution, how can she save him?
There are numerous moments in which Waschneck lets his actors’ reactions tell the story – the action is mostly implied off-screen – and this is a psychologically-driven drama with relatively few title cards.
|Farmer and fist|
Brennende Grenze (Burning Border) is based in the aftermath of the Great War when an independent Polish state was established after a century of partitions from Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. A series of border wars lasted until 1922 when national boundaries were finally settled.
|Here come the Poles|
Jenny Hasselqvist plays Luise von Will Bold, a widower left with a grand house defended only by the old-guard of the German army and her loyal staff. Her 18 year-old son, Heino (Hubert von Meyerinck) is a new recruit in the army and is shown writing to his mother (Hasselqvist was only 33 when the film was made) from the front lines. He hands his letter to a cavalryman and we see it wend its way through montage of rail and road to his mother, who is busily engaged in entertaining local notables all with a keen eye on this noble widow.
|The commander and his gal...|
At the house, Luis smiles at the pigs running through the hall, only to be greeted by the farmer; his bandaged hand economically explaining the outcome of the confrontation… another transition from happy to sad: her face literally says it all.
|Oskar Homolka: what shall they do with the drunken sailor?|
Zeremski frolics with his moll, Nadja (Olga Chekhova) as baddies do but even these two have a human side, she treading on his toe as she rides their unwilling host and even showing vulnerability – this war has made them all a little mad and fear runs the day.
|A soldier but still a son|
And we’re hardly half-way through…
|Martial law and the invaders out of control...|
Martial law is declared and the Polish troops rampage through the town, taking their Kontribution – as they please. Tobias Raschoff takes a long walk in the country – his home soil - and we see from his pain that he is not as clear cut a collaborator as he seems. He has already sent his chauffeur off with a message trying to hold back the incursion but he is intercepted and Zeremski confronts him with his note… Nothing can now stop his troop from marching further.
But Raschoff is canny and takes the bull by the horns as the officers celebrate, ensuring they all get as drunk as possible, including the spiteful Nadja… a riot breaks out as the foot soldiers crowd at windows faces pressed against windows. Despite the party play – Waschneck builds a magnificent tension throughout – and scores will be settled.
Nadja runs riot on the table top dancing the full length before collapsing… she’s carried up to her room by Zeremski’s Adjutant (Hugo Werner) who he orders to despatch Tobias: we see him enter and the door closes… one on one.
|Heino bides his time waiting on Zeremski|
There’s so much to resolve in these final moments and the strands are brought together in dramatic fashion: love of mother for son, for country and each other triumphing against anarchy and opportunism – a message as welcome in Weimar Germany as any time since.
I watched the copy on the European Film Gateway which is as you can see low-resolution but watchable enough to show the performance skill and the cinematography of Friedl Behn-Grund. There’s no score so you just have to imagine and the German intertitles are a good excuse to brush up your translating skills but, in truth, they’re hardly needed such is the excellence of the performance.