Saturday, 22 June 2019

Nice day for a Red Wedding… Mother Krause's Journey to Happiness (1929), BFI Weimar Cinema Season

“You can kill a man with an apartment just as with an axe.” Heinrich Zille

Mother Krause may well be the most brutally realistic of the socially concerned films in the BFI’s Weimar series. Grimmer overall than Kuhle Wampe, less polished than Pabst’s Diary and with far fewer songs than Threepenny Opera. It’s almost unbearably hard but with a more polemic agenda this is not surprising with director Phil Jutzi allowing plenty of improvised naturalism from an excellent cast. You can see why it is one of Faßbinder’s favourite films.

Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück is set in Berlin’s politicised “Red Wedding” district the film wanted to show the reality of the grinding poverty as families lived in pressure-cooked poverty, hand-to-mouth and month-to month, scrimping for the rent; borrowing to stay afloat and living on the “never-never” as my grandparents would have said in Liverpool.

These are the kinds of desperate circumstances that lead to revolution and which can also feed the need for a “strong leader”, but the future was not set in stone and in 1929 Willi Munzenberg, was the man with the money to finance films offering a Marxist alternative, through Prometheus-Films, a German subsidiary of the Soviet Mezhrabpom-Film company.  He wanted to show a future possible through collective action as well as to present “heroic legends” of the new revolutionary struggle that, as described by Bela Labazs, could present “tempestuous movement, monumental visuals, surprising entanglements… exceed(ing) anything the bourgeois film can show.”

Alexandra Schmitt
Mother Krause is certainly a different drama to the mainstream fare of the time and does provide and intensely-dramatic story which could only leave the audience in tatters after almost two hours… there are new heroes and there are the same old villains but Jutzi is careful not to play the obvious cards: this is not a melodrama but a dramatic serious work that asks much of the audience.

Take for example Gerhard Bienert as Mother Krause’s dodgy lodger, he is at turns a nasty piece of work but also a man quick to take action, sometimes supportive and other times just exploitative, all in a very “negotiated” way. He’s an anti-hero, survivor, sexual predator who, under other circumstances, could well be a Chief Executive or politician. His character gets a lot of screen time and drives a lot of the action as he constantly looks to impose himself on Krause’s daughter Erna (Ilse Trautschold – who is excellent), lead her brother Paul (Holmes Zimmermann) further astray and to “help” his landlady in his own peculiar way.

Erna tells him if he doesn't stop staring he'll get a squint.
He’s a real character of depth and deception and so is Erna who must resist his attentions and temptation: she is the hope to counter-balance his resigned criminality but she can’t do it on her own. Trautschold is a compelling presence and runs the full gamut of despair with a retrained display. At one point Jutzi moves his camera between her and Bienert’s lodger and then across to his wife, a prostitute played by Vera Sacharowa: they’re trying to get her to turn tricks to pay Mother Krause’s debts and her face runs a mixture of relief and dismay as she weighs up the benefit and the cost…

The Krause family lives off the rent from tehri tenant as well as mother and daughter delivery newspapers – it’s hard work and whilst Erna skips up the stairs with the daily news, mother is getting slower and slower. Widowed long ago by the war, she has raised her two children and it has ground her down.

Paul lets everyone down...
In such circumstances, you are only one pay day from disaster and so when her son Paul spends most of her wages on a mad boozy night, Mother Krause quickly runs out of options: she pawns what jewels she has but it is not quite enough to pay her rent. NO one will lend her any money and whilst her lodger gives her some, she is still 20 marks short and facing prison unless she can raise the cash.

The lodger tries to use this situation to get Erna on the game and Paul involved in his criminal side lines… bit by bit the situation gets worse, no one can really help anyone else. The exception here is Max (Friedrich Gnaß), Erna’s boyfriend who, despite being put off by the lodger’s crass admissions about Erna, eventually forgives her as she falls into step with a communist party march. This sequence has a pre-neo-realist feel to it as the camera follows Erna along the line of the march as she searches for Max and their re-union, despite his mate chiding him that “we’re on a protest”

As Mutter Krause Alexandra Schmitt gives a performance of quietly perfect desperation, a woman worn down by misfortune who has not only reached the end of her tether she’s seen it flash and burn as it flies off in front of her. She is the heroic figure Bela Labazs wanted and she takes it all the way: of Susan Sarandon had driven up in an open-topped sports car, she’d had been right with her.

The camerawork is also very “naturalistic” and, occasionally hand-held, captures actors and Berlin off their guard much as with Berlin, Symphony of a City, or, of course, People on a Sunday. I watched it with Joachim Barenz’ recorded score.

One thing that jarred is the almost gratuitous second victim in the closing tragedy, I could understand the first but the second seemed designed to expand on the shock. That said, this is an angry film with an agenda: the story was supposedly based on true events and you don’t have to imagine family tragedies in poverty for they are happening now, every hour of every day in Germany and in Britain.

What is to be done? 

The painting's on the wall.
You can still catch lots of excellent Weimar cinema in the last week of the BFI season - it is ending with a bang!

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