Survival Skills

Ed Halter on Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?

Slatan Dudow, Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?, 1932, stills from a black-and-white film, 69 minutes.  Left: Anni (Hertha Thiele) and Fritz (Ernst Busch). Right: Franz (Alfred Schäfer), Father Böhnicke (Max Sablotzki), Anni (Thiele), and Mother Böhnicke (Lilli Schönborn).

A NEARLY FORGOTTEN INSTANCE of late-Weimar social realism, Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World? (1933) is a strident anticapitalist drama built from partially documentary elements, directed by Slatan Dudow (a former assistant to Fritz Lang) and based on a screenplay by Bertolt Brecht and Ernst Ottwalt. The central plot concerns a working-class family, impoverished by the nation’s financial collapse and forced to move to a burgeoning tent city on the outskirts of Berlin, but the German people as a whole become the film’s ultimate protagonist. Influenced by Eisenstein’s experiments in montage and Walter Ruttman’s urban portrait Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), Dudow’s film impressed contemporary viewers foremost for its then-unusual blend of fact and fiction. Brecht’s script conveys how economic forces inexorably warp social interactions: A man becomes unhappily engaged in order to avoid alimony and taxes, a jobless father accuses his similarly out-of-work son of laziness, and a woman attending a funeral for a suicide simply sighs, “One less unemployed person.” The culmination of socialist wisdom of crowds comes in a final scene, directed by Brecht himself, in which people on a train discuss a newspaper story on the absurd destruction of twenty-four million pounds of surplus coffee in Brazil, burned by the government in order to keep costs high: a plain example of international capital directly affecting everyday life.

Reviewing Kuhle Wampe for a French publication, director Marcel Carné wrote that it “gives witness to the true face of a struggling, suffering nation. Made by four thousand unemployed people, it never aims to be a work of art but simply aims to portray . . . workers whose youthful energy is going to waste.” Some of this excess energy is burned off in the woods outside the tent city, where a voice-over tells us young lovers enjoy furtive meetings, and also in the activities of a socialist brigade, shown organizing rallies and athletic competitions. The latter sequences presage the unfortunately superior work of Leni Reifenstahl—a reminder that Kuhle Wampe was finished mere months before the rise of National Socialism, whereupon it was quickly banned from public view.

The Goethe Institute New York presents Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World? June 17–18 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.