Monday, 30 August 2021

Gimme shelter... Zuflucht (Refuge) (1928), with Günter A. Buchwald, Bonn Silent Film Festival

So many vanished back then, never to be seen again…


This restoration was one of the highlights of the recent Bonn Festival and whilst it’s a relatively simple tale told very well it’s a reflection of its time in terms of polished late silent technique and the central premise of class loyalties disrupted during the Weimar years ten years after the uproar of war and revolution.


Whereas so many German films of this period we shot in studio, Refuge features a host of location shots of Berlin as director Carl Froelich exhibits the realist, "New Objectivity" style, a reaction against the expressionism practiced on the silent stage. It also features perhaps the most popular film star of this period, Henny Porten – star of The Ancient Law, Merchant of Venice (1923), and Lubitsch’s Anna Boleyn (1920) - providing an opportunity to see just why she commanded the affections of so many. This was also a co-production of the actress with Froelich; she chose the role and it shows.


This was the World premier of the new digitization from Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum and it looked fantastic even on our screens hundreds of miles away from the festival with the experience being enlivened by accompaniment on piano and violin from the maestro Günter A. Buchwald!

Francis Lederer, he lived long and prospered

We start with passengers unloading from a train repatriating German combatants from the German Revolution of 1918-19 which saw many communist sympathisers flee into exile. These include Martin Falkhagen played by Francis Lederer who was later to feature in Pandora’s Box and live a long life in film and education, stopping work just before he died aged 100! Born in 1899 Lederer lived through until the 21st Century and also saw action in the Great War for the Austrian-Hungarian Imperial Army. There’s a collection of photographs at his mother’s desk and one includes him in his uniform as she muses over all those lost in the war; a time when the losses were still so keenly felt across Europe.


Refuge is all about the War, it’s about loss and injustice and poor people trying to make ends meet in a society with huge inequality. It doesn’t beat the drum in the manner of say Kuhle Wampe but it is presenting a shared experience to an audience fully ware of the circumstances… Martin wants to make ends meet with people he loves and, as we learn, he turns his back on easier options, a man of principle in a country that, sadly, couldn’t always afford them.


People didn’t go to the cinema for politics, they went to see actors like Lederer and, especially, Henny Porten, living life as they did and here the film is as political as it needs to be. Germany was broken, what was to be done? Henny and Martin just want to get on with their lives and their love.

Henny Porten's character goes to work

Now, that’s jumping the gun… but yes, Henny meets an exhausted Martin after he has tramped his way to Berlin form the eastern border and slept rough at the allotment. She invites him back to the apartment she shares in a run-down tenement with the Schurich family, father (Max Maximilian), mother (Margarete Kupfer) and flighty daughter Guste (Alice Hechy). Their living space is cluttered and humble, with a bunk also being rented out to a loud-mouthed butcher, Kölling (Carl de Vogt).


Later that evening Kölling arrives back drunk gathering himself just enough to insult Martin and Hanne before the younger man falls deeply asleep. He’s still asleep the next day as Mrs Schurich and Hanne go to work in a vegetable stall at the market, the latter having to contend with the butcher’s “banter”… he doesn’t mince his words. Meanwhile Guste is fascinating by this sleeping prince… and flirts with him once he does awaken only for Hanne to rebuff her.


Hanne and Martin, well Hanne mostly, fall out with three out of four of the household – only her workmate supports her – and she goes off to another block to stay with her best friend Marie Jankowsky (Lotte Stein) who’s husband is away. Here they enjoy some freedom and begin to fall in love.


Mathilde Sussin

Meanwhile, across town, Martin’s background is revealed as his elder brother Otto Falkhagen (Bodo Bronsky) puts an advert in the paper calling for information about his missing brother. If nothing is forthcoming Otto will have him declared dead and therefore no longer able to benefit from the family’s fortune. Naturally mother Else (Mathilde Sussin) holds on to hope but Otto, having fallen out with Martin over the revolution, misses him rather less.


Martin gets a job as a manual labourer on the build for the Berlin subway and for a time the two are happy and plan to get married. But we know the lose ends will need to be tied and that a reckoning will need to be had.


What I like about this film is the balance of the characters, most of whom have shades of grey even the boorish butcher who shows concern and provides help when needed. The verbal scuffles are exactly as you’d expect from people living in such cramped conditions and, whilst the politics is under played, the crowds of genuine urchins who stare at the rich visitors and their car when Martin’s mother visits one tenement block. These buildings are all too real in comparison to the stage designs of say Murnau’s Last Laugh and the unpaid extras speak for themselves.


Simple pleasures for Hanne and Martin

Direct Carl Froelich keeps things at a believable pace whilst his cinematographer, Gustave Preiss works wonders, especially in catching the flight of expression across Porten’s face. She’s no Garbo but she is a great technician and so watchable.


The film was a success with Hanns Horkheimer of the Berliner Tageblatt raving: Henny Porten… has grown from a propaganda star to a human actress of such shocking urgency that, as a comparative standard, I would have to name the most sublime names even in spoken theatre…


For her alone the film is worth watching but this “small story” is still powerful for the concentrated and commonplace drama it presents. Günter A. Buchwald of course delivers the poignant and perfectly balanced support it needs and it still amazes me how he can do so playing violin and piano both at once!


Bravo Günter and danke Bonn again!!

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