Monday, 23 May 2016

Jenny Hasselqvist on the edge - Brennende Grenze (1927)

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?
Jenny H
I’ve compared Jenny H to Isabelle Huppert before and I think that is more valid than ever after watching this film. Two actors who can pack more emotional signalling into their deeply-generous features and never overplay; always holding something back of their truth… leaving that ultimate connection to the watcher.

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
A German farmer is confronted by the Captain of the occupying Polish forces; he stares in resistance at the platoon on horseback in front of him, clenching his fists with his granite features frozen in preparation, the camera switches from face to fist, face to gun until the spell is broken as the Captain shoots his hand… Waschneck does not need to show us a battle to reveal the tensions of occupation.

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
During this border struggle – Grenzkampf – there were many injustices on both sides and this film, being German, focuses on the incursions into previously-German territory years before Poland was re-invaded.

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...
Reading the letter Luise realises how much danger her son is in and the mood of the evening changes. The next morning Polish riders appear at the house for that well-wrought confrontation between the fist of the land manager and the commander of the Polish troops, Ladislaus von Zeremski (Hans Adalbert Schlettow).

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?
Meanwhile the invaders have quickly made themselves at home and are drinking the house dry led by a drunken sailor played by Oskar Homolka, an Austrian actor who enjoyed a huge career and was the star of many a sixties spy romp as a Russian or generic Euro-baddy for hire – he’s  great fun here as an emblem of the ill-disciplined occupiers.

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
An uneasy peace reigns and then Luis’ son returns home, found by his would-be sweetheart, Marlene (Camilla Spira), Luise’s housekeeper who  tells  her mistress and helps the soldier disguise himself as a waiter. The boy seems just that, gladly being cradled in his mother’s arms in a counter point to nasty Nadja’s moment of angst. But Heino is on the cusp of manhood and it takes all of his strength to resist knocking Zeremski to the ground after he starts dancing with Luise… this conflict throws the natural order up in the air and the commander is keen to taste the high life.

Fritz Alberti
But emotions really start to churn as one of Luis’ old loves, the traitor Tobias Raschoff (Fritz Alberti) re-appears as the Polish government’s nominated Commissioner… there’s a great reaction shot from Hasselqvist as she turns from playing the piano in her drawing room to face this man she loved so much but who now seems destined to be her oppressor.

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.

One  man walks alone with his guilt?
Some spoilers…

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
Zeremski then heads up to have his evil way with Luise only to find his way blocked by the mysterious young waiter who has been an irritant all along… he raises his knife to strike and… Waschneck cuts once again, but we’d already seen the axe in Heino’s hand.

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.

Maybe one day Die Edition Filmmuseum may digitise for DVD or some kind souls will project on the big screen where it belongs.

The border

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