Lost and Found

Nick Pinkerton on “The Lost Years of German Cinema: 1949–1963”

Helmut Käutner, Black Gravel, 1961, 35 mm, sound, 117 minutes.

“WE WERE A GENERATION OF ORPHANS” is how Werner Herzog, the most prominent survivor of the celebrated class of filmmakers whose disparate practices were said to constitute the New German Cinema, has described the situation he and his contemporaries faced coming into their own in the 1960s. In their most literal sense, his words refer to the ruinous casualties of World War II, but Herzog was also speaking to the peculiar situation of German cineastes looking for a way to connect to a national tradition whose continuity had been severed during the years of National Socialism, when the mighty filmmaking mechanism that had made possible the accomplishments of Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau, and G. W. Pabst had fallen into the hands of Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.

There is also more than a touch of mystical self-creation myth to Herzog’s statement, however, for even if we were to banish the collected output of the German cinema under the Third Reich into the dustbin of history—and it is hard to imagine any institution would risk the blowback that would come with screening the collected works of Dr. Arnold Fanck or Veit Harlan—one must still contend with the output of an active film industry at work in the ensuing years, produced by the capitalist, NATO-aligned Federal Republic of Germany from the moment of its formation in 1949. Restoring the cinema of the Adenauer era, named for the FRG chancellor who served from 1949 to 1963, was the mission of an extensive retrospective organized by Olaf Möller and Roberto Turigliatto, which played the Locarno International Film Festival last year, and which makes landfall this Wednesday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in a much abridged, thirteen-film version, including a bonanza of 35-mm prints.

Among these are titles likely to be unknown to even die-hard cinephiles, such as 1952’s Rosen blühen auf dem Heidegrab—translated here as Roses Bloom on the Moorland, though more often it’s been called Rape on the Moor. A particularly glum and gothic entry in the heimatfilm, a Mitteleuropean genre defined by the unfolding of romantic complications against a bucolic backdrop, the movie counterpoises picturesque scenes of the gale-tossed lowland moors outside of Bremen with a narrative that is anything but country cozy. Farm girl Ruth Niehaus is victimized by both a local landowner and her superstitious self-identification with a local legend concerning a female victim of the Thirty Years’ War, which ties folkloric tradition into a history of martial humiliation and violence against women that was likely to resonate with audiences of the day. The film ends with an eleventh-hour rescue from a bed of peat that might signify the primordial muck of ignorance.

Roses Bloom on the Moorland is the sophomore feature by Hans Heinz König, a figure on whom English-language sources offer little information, though several other films at the Film Society of Lincoln Center are connected to better-known imprimaturs. The Lost One (1951), for example, is the lone directorial effort of Peter Lorre—and a rather remarkable one-off it is. Born László Löwenstein to a Jewish family in a Hungarian-majority town in the Carpathian Mountains, Lorre started his career acting for the stage in Vienna, then headed for bumptious Berlin. There he collaborated with Bertolt Brecht and Fritz Lang, who gave Lorre his signature role as child murderer Hans Beckert in M (1931) (the international notoriety Lorre gained in the role helped him to flee when the Nazis came to power in 1933). He did well for a time in Hollywood, as did many German émigrés––including technicians who were instrumental in creating the look of the hard-bitten American thrillers that would eventually be called film noirs––but his fortunes had reversed by the end of the 1940s, and so he returned to Germany, bringing something of that noir spirit back home with him.

The Lost One, a film whose presiding air is one of overwhelming, unshakable, suffocating melancholy, picks up with “Dr. Neumeister” (Lorre) as he works at a displaced persons camp in the aftermath of the war. A series of flashbacks prompted by the arrival of an ex-assistant strip back our subject’s civilized veneer, revealing his sinister history as Dr. Karl Rothe, who was once sent into a tailspin of bloodlust upon committing a crime of passion. Confronting the recent history that much of Germany was eager to suppress in collective amnesia, Lorre’s film was rejected by audiences but was nevertheless influential, drawing an analogy between individual transgression and wider social disintegration in a manner that recurs throughout these “Lost Years of German Cinema” films.

Lorre’s trans-Atlantic trajectory wasn’t unique. Through the 1950s, the American studio system that had offered steady, lucrative work during the war years was afflicted by an ongoing identity crisis, facing stiff competition from television, and several German-speaking filmmakers were lured back by the promise of the German Economic Miracle—the extended boom that was concomitant to the FRG’s rebuilding from the rubble. Robert Siodmak, responsible for a superb string of Hollywood noirs (Phantom Lady, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, Criss Cross), returned to Deutschland following a nearly twenty-year absence in the mid-1950s, and is represented here by the finest work of his late German period, The Devil Strikes at Night (1957). Nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, the movie is based on an infamous true-crime case of the wartime years: that of accused woman-killer Bruno Lüdke, played here with power and pitiableness by the young Swiss German Italian actor Mario Adorf. The movie begins as a race-against-time thriller, and with Lüdke’s capture its scope expands, placing his clumsy crimes in contrast to the vast, cool-headed criminal conspiracies of the Nazi party. (It is today widely believed that Lüdke, a mental deficient, may have been a total patsy, railroaded by the SS as justification for their euthanasia program.)

As any film about a German serial murderer necessarily must, The Devil Strikes at Night owes a significant debt to M, whose director also returned to work in Germany at the end of his professional life. Lang, who somewhat improbably claimed to have left Berlin after rejecting an offer from Goebbels to run the entirety of the vast UFA GmbH studio, returned to his silent-film roots with his last German-language films, produced by Artur Brauner, a Polish Jew who had become postwar West Germany’s premiere producer, today ninety-nine years young. Brauner, who had previously helped bring Siodmak back to Germany, produced Lang’s final entry in his series of films about the supervillain Dr. Mabuse, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), as well as several more non-Lang-affiliated sequels (Dr. Mabuse Vs. Scotland Yard [1963], The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse [1964]).

The Lang-Brauner partnership is represented at FSLC by the gaudy, glittering The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959), the first half of Lang’s “Indian epic,” a project whose genesis went back more than forty years, when then material appeared in a 1917 novel Das Indische Grabmal, written by Lang’s eventual second wife and collaborator, Thea von Harbou. Originally slated to film the book as a blockbuster diptych, the then-still inexperienced Lang was ultimately passed over in favor of Joe May, and so he cherished the opportunity to return to the material, shot on location in Rajasthan with a lavish budget. Centered on a love triangle between a temple dancer (Debra Paget), a European architect (Paul Hubschmid), and a jealous maharaja (Walter Reyer), the film is a cluttered clearing house for a century of opulent Orientalist fantasy images, full of fakirs, dungeons stocked with zombified lepers, and hair’s-breadth escapes across burning desert sands, all shot by DP Richard Angst, a veteran of the Bergfilme (mountain film) genre, which had nurtured the careers of Fanck and Leni Riefenstahl.

Von Harbou stayed behind in Germany after Lang left, somewhat confusingly falling in line with the new white-supremacist regime while conducting an affair with an Indian journalist, Ayi Tendulkar. She was not alone in her decision to remain. Of the filmmakers with no Hollywood pedigree playing at FSLC, the best-represented is Helmut Käutner, who directed his first feature in 1939 and worked steadily through the war years, making films in an escapist, apolitical vein. This was in stark contrast to the postwar output represented by the program’s three Käutner films, produced because the director was considered among the most consistently ambitious German filmmakers, in terms of both the dynamism of his camerawork and his willingness to prod the still-fresh wounds of national history. (Though uncredited, he is known to have lent a hand on the screenplay for The Lost One.)

Käutner’s Sky Without Stars (1955) is an exemplar of the so-called sozialkritische film, set in 1952, as the borders between East and West Germany were still being solidified, the momentary porousness allowing for a romance to briefly blossom between FRG border policeman Erik Schumann and GDR factory worker Eva Kotthaus, though their passion is ultimately extinguished by bullets and barbed wire. The film is suffused with something of the same romantic fatalism that marks Käutner’s Black Gravel (1961), a nasty neorealist piece of business steeped in the atmosphere of corruption, resentment, and moral decay surrounding an American armed forces base, shot on location in Lautzenhausen and using actual American GIs in supporting roles.

Though at the height of his powers in Black Gravel, Käutner was soon to be vanquished to a career mostly spent in television, though he returned to cinema to play the Western writer Karl May in a 1974 film by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. His Redhead would be the lone German competition film at the 1962 Berlin Film Festival, but his very prominence had long made him a tempting target for the rising generation—the film club Studio indicted him for “naive faith in humans,” and he was pilloried by the youth jury at the Eighth West German Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, where a declaration that would go down in history as the Oberhausen Manifesto called for “the production of new German cinema.” The revolutionary agenda demanded a symbolic sacrifice of the old as represented by Käutner and his contemporaries, of whose output no qualities could be admitted. Their films, however, have survived banishment—and seen by fresh eyes, they look quite luminous.

“The Lost Years of German Cinema: 1949–1963” runs November 15 through 23 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.