Everywhere around the Potsdamer Platz one sees the Festival logo and the Berlin ‘Bear’. I read in Walking in Berlin, A Flaneur in the Capital, (Franz Hessel, 1929 – translation Amanda DeMarco) that, contrary to myth, the capital’s name is not related to the animal but to a Polabian word for ‘swamp’.
This day started with a programme of a short film and a feature.
Mit der Kamera durch Alt-Berlin was a nine minute film from 1928 on 35mm.
“It finds traces of old Berlin in the modern city. It juxtaposes drawings and engravings made about 1800 with the 1928 reality.“
Central to the tour is water and the River Spree. The director is unknown.
Die Unehelichen, Eine Kindertragödie (Children of No Importance, 1926) is an example of a genre of the period addressing the exploitation and oppression of children and often dramatising a ‘child tragedy’. The director was Gerhard Lamprecht, but here in the socially conscious mode. I had seen this film before in a programme at I Cinema Ritrovato and it was more typical of the work of the director.
We had an introduction by Daniel Meiller who explained that as well has having a long career in German film Lamprecht was also an avid collector of films and film memorabilia. He was a key person in advocating archives in post-war Germany. And his collection formed the basis of the Deutsch Kinemathek when it was set up in 1960.
The film centres on four children who have been placed with foster-parents. The adults are mainly interested in the income. The man drinks and is often violent The woman is feckless. An early scene shows the trauma for the children when their pet rabbit is killed. The two older children are Lotte (Fee Wachsmuth) and Peter (Ralph Ludwig). Lotte succumbs to the poor treatment and dies. Peter is given hope by kindly neighbours and then a woman who is prepared to adopt him. However, this prospect recedes when Peter’s father, who works on a barge, turns up and wants his son as additional labour. Peter has to pass through a traumatic and climatic ordeal before the film closes.
“The basis for making the film was an official report from a society for the protection of children against exploitation and cruelty and socially committed directorate Gerhard Lamprecht brought to light a deplorable state of affairs that was widespread in the Weimar Republic.”
Seeing the film again I was impressed. This time it was a digital transfer rather 35mm. It is well done and the children are convincing. However I did find that the narrative and representations were rather conventional and used stereotypes to a degree. Once again we have the ‘deserving’ and undeserving’ poor with not a great degree of nuance in the characterisation. The film does effectively offer contrasts. The film opens with a privileged child of a bourgeois household playing in the garden and watched, on the other side of the railings, by Lotte and Peter. Late in the film, when Peter appears to have found an equivalent home, he plays with friends in a well-appointed garden.
Frühling Erwachen (Spring Awakening, 1919) was another Eine Kindertragödie. However this film dealt with school students in their late teens: at a time before the ‘teenager’ had not been invented. The film was based on a Franz Wedekind play dealing with the ‘sexual tragedy of youth’. There are a group of students but at the centre are Moritz (Carl Balhaus) and Melchior (Rolf van Goth). Moritz’s family would seem petty bourgeois. His father harbours ambitions beyond Moritz’s abilities. But Melchior from a bourgeois family, [like Hubble in The Way We Were, 1973] is gifted and finds school life easy. We also follow the boys’ relationship with two girl students. Melchior has a close relationship with Wendla (Toni van Eyck) who lives alone with her mother. Whilst Moritz engages with Else (Ira Rina). Her father is a successful businessman. Ilse, the vibrant person in the group, organises a party at her home on one of his business trips. There is sexual experimentation. And a veiled description of this in a notebook causes Moritz to face expulsion, despite his innocence. This incident is the one that mainly determines the tragic outcome.>
The film was directed by Richard Oswald. I have seen his films before and found him a pedestrian film-maker. Spring Awakening is well produced and the cast are good. But the drama only takes off in individual scenes; shots in the cemetery are well done. And the treatment of awakening sexuality is timid. There is a sequence by a river with a young couple: I deduced rather than knew that coitus occurred. Of course, there was Weimar censorship. But other films, like those adapted from Wedekind’s other plays, are more explicit.
We had a good 35mm print to watch. And Stephen Horne provided a well composed score that was complimentary.
Die andere Seite (The Other Side, 1931) was an early sound version of R. W. Sherriff’s 1928 play, Journey’s End. So we had a German cast playing the British soldiers on the Front Line in 1918. The lead actor was Conrad Veidt as the commanding officer, Richard Stanhope. Once I got used to the German language for ‘Tommies’ I was really involved. Intriguingly we had two German performances of ‘It’s a long way . . .’, one the English original and one a German variant.
The film follows the play very closely. Its makes really good use of the moving camera, high and low angle shots, sound effects and inserts shots. The claustrophobia of the dug-outs, the squalor of the trenches and the desolate landscape between the lines are very effective. I thought that it worked better than the 1930 British/US version. The last time I saw that film it struck as rather studio bound, even with a pretty good cast. And I also found it superior to the newly released British version in colour and widescreen. That film adds additional scenes, apparently to fill out the pilot. In fact these rather dissipate the drama. And Die andre Seite works better at placing the placing the conflict and battle. In an early scene Stanhope shows the positions on the map and one has a clear sense of the lay-out of the opposing sides.
The last film of my day was a rather crazy drama, Opium (1919). I had seen the film once before but this was a new restoration presented on digital. We had an introduction on this from Stefan Drößler and Andreas Thein. Using nitrate elements at the Düsseldorf and Munich Archives at the Austrian Film Archive they achieved a longer version closer to the original. But notably they also reconstructed the vibrant tinting (lots of reds) of the film. This was a transformation from the version I saw a few years ago.
Made during a censorship free period, Opium combined the thrill of the exotic with them titillation of the erotic . . .”
The film is full of scenes of indulgence in opium and the vivid and bizarre dreams that the smokers experience. These in particular stand out in the film,
[Robert] Reinart and his cameraman Helma Lerski developed a brilliant, hallucinatory cinematic language . . .”
Another of Reinart’s films is Homunculus (1916), a serial about a Frankenstein creation. This also has vivid tinting and hallucinatory sequences. The plot of the film is picaresque, taking us from the USA to China, to Europe, back to the USA, to India and back again. There are supposed scientific investigations and good deeds. But there are also extra-marital affairs, long-term revenge journeys and, predictably with drug addicts, hospitalisation and death. This is a bizarre but powerhouse film. Keeping, I would think, the audience agog for its 91 minutes.
So back to the hotel after a full day. By now I had worked out the buses and U-bahn. These are very efficient. You can get a weekly ticket for 30 euros. They are frequent and there is an all-night service. Mealtimes take some fitting in. But there are the Berlin coffee shops, with excellent drinks and their splendid pastries. And I have managed a meal and a beer at a Beer Keller.