Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Festival in Berlin… Weimar Film at 68th Berlinale

My first trip to the Berlinale - indeed to Berlin - and a long weekend in which the best pictures included work from Johannes Vermeer and the brightest star was probably a lass named Nefertiti born in about 1370 BC. Berlin is indeed a wonderful town and has many artefacts, ancient and modern, that demand investigation. It presents twentieth century impacts like the thousands of bullet marks on its Victorian museums, as part of an ongoing civic culture of recognition and renewal with the recent past and its wounds not overlooked but given their due. As we walked along a section of the Berlin Wall, we discovered the remains of basements used by the Gestapo and SS in the 30’s and 40’s as well as a control centre for the concentration camps.

Berlin has been reconstructed and you have to look hard for the kind of old neighbourhoods you’d find in London or even Paris. The roots of this architectural devastation lie in the events after the ending of the Weimar Republic and this year’s Berlinale celebrated that rich period of creative and socio-political hope between 1919 and 1933, including 28 features films of which I'd previously seen just two. I managed to catch about a third before departing and these included a rich variety of styles all containing themes reflective of yesterday and tomorrow. One short film, Streets of Old Berlin (1928), was a poignant reminder of how the city looked before disaster, it’s still out there, but this history doesn’t hold Berliners back it propels them forward.

The first full day was spent in the comfy seats of the Zeughkino, part of the Deutsches Historisches Museum, in an elegant screening room complete with a grand piano from those Steinway people. The first two films dealt with the Franco-Prussian border and eternal enmities…

Kameradschaft (1931)

Regina, or The Sins of the Father (1927), with Maud Nelissen

This film, whilst not the greatest print, was still satisfyingly-dramatic, well-acted and well directed with oodles of late-period silent style. The camera tracks a horse in full gallop, it follows the hate around the room in the festering alehouse and there are many atmospheric night shots along The Cat’s Bridge; a thin trail between the village and the castle housing the disgraced Baron… also the scene of the Berlinale Retrospective’s poster.

It’s 1807 and Prussia is at war with Napoleon’s France and in Schranden, the local Baron is co-operating with the French and when his son, a lieutenant in the Prussian army, is returning on leave, they put an ambush into play before he arrives. The Baron forces the local undertaker’s daughter, Regina, to lead the French along the “Cat’s Bridge” – throttling her if she doesn’t - and they massacre the Prussian forces.

Regina (Lissy Arna) is at the heart of this complex tale of incompatible love and loyalty… where even familial ties do not bind: “My Mother was Polish…” says the Baron (Gustav Rodegg) and “My mother was Prussian…” responds the son, Boleslav (Jack Trevor). Both act out of loyalty, but the son tries to find a higher sense of duty, arranging the burial of his traitorous father and turning even his most loyal men against him in the process.

Regina lives with Boleslav in the ruins of the family castle and as she clings to their last chance, he initially treats her with Baronial indifference – there are no simple paths taken and no easy resolutions in director and writer Gerhard Lamprecht’s world.

The hatred in the town is something to see and the sins of the fathers are not only passed onto the sons, they are also unforgivable. Regine’s father (Max Maximilian) cannot forgive her in his drunken rages whilst the townsfolk, revel in his acceptance of his father’s position, washing down the bitter tastes of hatred with flagons of ale supplied by the town’s Mayor (Rudolf Lettinger)

Napoleon escapes and once more Prussia calls on its men to defend the flag. Boleslav enlists the locals to fight under him yet even then he is challenged by one of the ring-leaders, the mayor’s son, (John Mylong) and has to have him arrested. His former lover Helene (Louise Woldera) pleads with Boleslav to show lenience for her new man; she is the daughter of the local priest (Andreas Behrens-Klausen) who also just cannot forgive. As the angry mob waits to ambush him at the bridge, Regine runs off to protect him…

There’s always a price to pay and the sins of the fathers do indeed pass onwards as Germany and France discovered so many times after the Napoleonic wars. As with all Weimar Cinema, hindsight makes every warning doubly poignant and the film makers were not wrong in the slightest. So it went and so it goes…

Gerhard Lamprecht directs this sprawling tale well and even though the subject is nominally a costume drama the real issue is perhaps a consideration of the “Great Betrayal” that festered in the post-war years – the act of national denial which ultimately led to further calamity. Lissy Arna is superb as the woman outcast - guilty but brave - whilst Jack Trevor is also tremendously nuanced as the war hero who discovers moral courage is more important than physical: the power to forgive is what we need to move on whatever the endless backlog of injustice.

Maud Nelissen accompanied with well-practiced pacing: I liked the lyricism in her playing, well-formed and dynamic structures and I also loved her clever use of paused playing, showing, as Miles Davis used to say, the power of the spaces between the notes. Given the rich emotional textures on show, she trod the cat’s path with balanced poise.

Sons and Fathers

Kameradschaft / La tragédie de la mine Comradeship (1931)

Next up a talkie based on an incident on the German/French border in which German mine rescue workers went to the aid of hundreds of French miners stranded underground by a fire.

One of Georg Wilhelm “Pandora” Pabst’s first talkies it is a remarkable well-realised early talkie and one that was naturally in French and German. The theme of men being united more by common workman’s pride: miners helping miners, did not play well in Germany where the film sank, possibly with some behind scenes encouragement, but in France it was a huge success.

You can see why, it’s a taught, action-oriented thriller, with substantial supporting characters and some lump-in-the-throat bravery. There’s some lighter touches and a good cast, signs that Herr Pabst had mastered the new art of sound.

The rescue crosses the same borders fought over in Regine, and showed that power of worker solidarity… Again, as with other films of this period, hinting at what could have been.

Der Kampf ums Matterhorn/ Fight for the Matterhorn (1928) with Maud Nelissen

This being a Weimar Retro, I was desperate to see at least one “Mountain film” but with Leni R’s Blue Mountain sold out, settled for this long but frequently breath-taking adventure. Based on the “true story” of the Matterhorn first completed ascent, it featured some gorgeous vistas with sun shining through menacing clouds at 12,000 feet and probably higher! Directors Mario Bonnard and Nunzio Malasomma hauled their kit so far up the alpine peaks you figured they deserved their fair amount of triumphant views.

The film is very reminiscent of The Holy Mountain (1926) especially given that Luis Trenker features in both. Trenker may not have been the best actor in the world but he was almost certainly the best mountaineer who could act. His face is bronzed through continuous exposure to sun and snow and he looks the part standing, sitting or climbing.

The story is loosely based on the truth and the novel it inspired, Der Kampf ums Matterhorn (1928) by Carl Haensel. Trenker plays mountain guide Anton Carrel who is improbably married to the beauteous Felicitas (Marcella Albani) who is also the centre of attention for Anton’s annoying step-brother Giaccomo (Clifford McLaglen, Stepney-born brother of Victor and Cyril… they were everywhere those boys!)

A British climber, Edward Whymper (Peter Voss) arrives wanting to climb the Matterhorn… Anton won’t accompany him, but he does save him and them allows his brother to wind him up as the suave Whymper impresses his wife. Step-bro needles and pushes Anton so hard he takes Whymper up to challenge the summit and possibly ensure he has a climbing accident…

The brother is so unfeasibly annoying and yet this aside a fine adventure develops although it could easily have been half an hour shorter… Still, stirring stuff all the same aided by fine accompaniment from Maud Nelissen who filled those airy vistas with some beautifully patient lines and stayed with the mood as resolutely as Trenker clung to the granite.

Luis Trenker holds on

Ihre Majestät die Liebe/Her Majesty, Love (1931)

The end of day two and we have a madcap delight in the form of a Joe May comedy that could have been filmed for the Brothers Marx. If you like songs about the sexy benefits of gymnastics and stories in which the rich guy must find the courage to love the poor girl, that this one is right up your 42nd Strasse!

Playboy Frederich von Willingen (Fritz, later Francis Lederer), is more concerned with the clubs and cabaret of Berlin than with contributing to the family business. This is dominated by his big – in every sense – brother Othmar (Otto Wallburg) who would like him to settle down, preferably in exchange for further investment in their business.

But Fred spends his time in idle pursuits, making bets on who can break the ice with attractive barmaid Lia Török (Käthe von Nagy), although even he can’t.

A meeting of the family board leads to his having to marry a rich potential investor, but he rebels and offers to marry Lia… Of course, it won’t be as simple as that and the pressure for Big Brother - a raise and a promotion – tests his will… Time for Lia to take the lead and so she does with hilarious results.

It’s frothy fun and with some excellent dance routines and if it had been made in Hollywood you’d class it and the gymnastics dance in particular (Tibor Halmay and Gretl Theimer, selling it well!), as definitely “pre-code”!

Where ever you looked there were fun, fantastic supporting performances, giving us the character and cabaret, we’d been hoping for, making us glad that we’d made the effort to come hear the music play and not stayed in, alone in our room…

Francis Lederer and Käthe von Nagy

And the winner for best picture...


  1. Thanks for the recap, Paul! They all sound great - Ihre Majestät die Liebe in particular sounds like great fun. I still haven't seen any of the Lamprecht silents, I shall have to look out!

    1. It was the first I've seen and both were impressive - these issues are still with us now and the only way is forward! Wish I could have stayed for more but very happy with what I got and no doubt they'll be shown elsewhere and on digital media! Best wishes, Paul