Paget Pageantry

MARCH IS GERMAN CINEMA MONTH

Dream of dreams – the complete 203-minute edition of Fritz Lang’s legendary 1958 INDIAN EPIC has become available in a new dazzling two-disc Blu-Ray edition, thanks to the splendid gang at Film Movement Classics, in association with BETA.

The story of the movie’s history, like so much celluloid lore, is often as intriguing as the subject itself.

THE INDIAN EPIC began in the late 1950s when the iconic director, understandably pissed by the response and distribution of his final Hollywood effort (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, shunned then, but now acknowledged as a key film noir classic), decided to return to his native Germany – a land he had fled more than a quarter of a century before (and for obvious reasons).  The idea of filming a complete version of this sprawling tale would be a major undertaking from no less than two companies (CCC Film, Gloria Film) and three countries (Germany, France, and Italy).  It would be filmed on-location in India with a smattering of international (but mostly German) players – a necessary (then) pitch to guarantee worldwide distribution.  Expert finagling and expense would be intertwined to produce this ultra-adventure odyssey with bargaining/funding providing the necessary realistic décor, horses, elephants, camels, tigers, plus tons of human extras, costumes, and grizzly cliffhanging special effects.

Lang was a natural to helm this massive project, as he at one time was married to its author, the noted and often infamous Thea von Harbou.  Her novel, The Indian Tomb had already been filmed twice before in Germany, once as a silent (in 1921, with Conrad Veidt) and later as a Nazi propaganda tool (1938), akin to the Reichstag’s 1943 anti-Semitic version of Titanic.  Lang had long wanted to present his ex-lover’s tale on film, and now he had the chance.  And to do it his way.  As with his famed Die Niberlungen, in 1924, THE INDIAN EPIC would be unveiled in two feature-length parts: The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb.

The catalyst for the thrilling exploits of its hero would not be (as in, let’s say, Republic serials) a great treasure – but sex.  And what sex! Content and presentation combined, one can almost hear the ghost of von Stroheim weeping with joy,

On the surface, the movie resembles another earlier Lang effort, 1919’s The Spiders (also presented in two parts).  This had an adventurer doing his derring-do all over the world, and, most unusually for the period, doing it in a total 230-minute running time (from when most features, Griffith “specials” aside, ran about an hour).

THE INDIAN EPIC takes place around the time of The Spiders, perhaps a few years earlier, so unlike Lang’s original vision to do it as a contemporary adult adventure, it would now be a period piece.

The saga opens with dashing architect/engineer Harald Berger journeying from Germany to Eschnapur to help progressive young Maharajah Chandra build schools and hospitals for the nation’s populace.  Berger is immediately warned of a vicious tiger, who has been terrorizing villagers (indeed, within the first ten minutes, a child is eaten).  He is also informed that he will be accompanying the celebrated dancing beauty Seetha to the palace.  She had bewitched the recently widowed ruler, and he is now hopelessly in love with her.  This politically has ramifications, as the ruler’s psychotic former brother-in-law, Padhu, is insulted and conspires with Chandra’s evil sibling, Ramigani to steal the throne and ravish the woman.

En route, the caravan encounters the tiger, and Berger saves Seetha from the beast, falling head over heels in love with her himself; added dilemma, she now is enthralled with her savior.

Trying to “do the right thing” becomes a bit of a chore, and soon the newly treasured friendship between Berger and Chandra goes on the rocks, as does the Maharajah’s addiction to Seetha.  He orders the lovers tortured and executed, but they make their escape.

This is concurrent to the arrival of Berger’s drop-dead gorgeous sister Irene and her husband Walter, Harald’s business partner.  Chandra orders the wary Walter to create a spectacular tomb for Seetha, who will be killed when she is recaptured.

And that’s Part One, folks!

Part Two is even more frenetic and action-packed with wall-to-wall hairbreadth escapes, lethal encounters, mysticism, and erotic imagery.  Aside from aforementioned tiger attacks, there are high-tail flights on horseback, foreboding secret passageways, torture chambers, sacrificial altars, hidden crypts of insane homicidal lepers, crocodile infestations, super web-spinning spiders, poisonous monster snakes, flooded underground chambers, deathly trap doors, plus the usual prerequisite stabbings, gougings, and stranglings to dress up the relentless treachery, forbidden lust, murder and mayhem.

But none of the studio-created phantasmagoria can compare to the greatest special effect in the pic – the movie’s star, Hollywood import Debra Paget.  While Denver-born, the actress had a definite exotic vibe about her that often had the dancer/singer/starlet cast as Indians, island natives, and alluring swarthy females (yet, she could also do 100% white bread).  She’s perfect in this movie – perhaps her finest work.  Having been essentially tossed aside by her studio (20th Century-Fox), Paget was a spectacular victim of bad timing; mind-blowingly stunning in musicals, she arrived when the genre was winding down.  Her best year, 1956, had her cast opposite Elvis in his first movie (Love Me Tender) and as Lilia, the sacrificial bonbon in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.  No doubt, it was these two titles (specifically, the latter) that prompted Lang to offer her the lead.  Paget’s dancing prowess proved to be a prime asset, although her twisting, turning and gyrating is less of an authentic Indian ceremony than it is the type of performance that closed down most carnivals in small town America.  Truly, I have never seen anything like her cobra dance in this movie.  Paget, the holder of my occasionally dubbed herald:  “ridiculously beautiful” (as in, no one REALLY looks like that) is possibly in THE INDIAN EPIC (especially The Indian Tomb) one of the most seductive women ever photographed on film.  Practically naked, her endless twerking for once lives up to a movie’s hype about a tempting, luscious beauty that no man can resist.  No fooling, the earlier alluded to dance sequence alone could easily bankrupt any pharmaceutical house hawking viagra.  The actress’ outstanding physical presence prompted literally thousands of couples to christen their Boomer daughters after her – some of them  becoming famous, either as Debra (Winger) or Paget (Brewster). 

Truth be told, Lang’s celebration of Paget could be yet another (at least partial) success in fulfilling his desired directorial bucket list.  Back in 1922, he hired the darling of German Weimar decadence, the wickedly amoral Anita Berber to dance in his crime thriller Dr. Mabuse the Gambler.  His request that she perform totally nude was answered nonchalantly by the woman with the question: “Pubic hair, yes or no?”  The sequence was shot, and promptly edited to a couple of shots only seconds long. Berber’s AC/DC/anything-for-pleasure persona was hijacked by Marlene Dietrich, who idolized the entertainer.  The Deutsche siren couldn’t really object, as by 1928 she was, not surprisingly, dead, her short life silenced by an over-abundance of 24/7 partying.

A celebration of Weimar darling Anita Berber. Lang had always wanted to feature her in one of his movies, and THE INDIAN EPIC finally provided a chance (SEE INSERT of Paget in The Indian Tomb; bottom right).

THE INDIAN EPIC’s male lead is of less interest.  Wayyyyy less.  Paul Hubschmid had been around for nearly a decade, even attempting to crash Hollywood in the early Fifties as “Paul Christian,” where he was best known as the star of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.  Despite speaking flawless English, this gig fizzled, and he returned to Germany, infrequently returning to Anglo roles in Funeral in Berlin (1967) and Skullduggery (1970).  According to all accounts, he wasn’t the nicest guy; certainly, there isn’t that much any incendiary chemistry between him and Paget.  She seems more comfortable with the second male lead, the hero/villain Chandra (Walther Reyer, who gives the best performance in the movie).  Other thesps worth mentioning include Sabine Bethmann (as Irene), Claus Holm (as Walter), Rene Deltgen (Ramigani), Jochen Brockmann (Padhu), Valery Inkijinoff, Richard Lauffen, Jochen Blume, and, as Seetha’s lovely servant, future Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi.

Lang gets marvelous help via the fantastic set designers and art directors (Helmut Nentwig, Willy Schatz), and scriptwriters Richard Eichberg and Werner Jorg Luddecke (with Lang himself making several uncredited additions) but, most notably, from the marvelous d.p. Richard Angst (who shot the lush, sensational color visuals in old school 1.37:1 – an homage to UFA-era Lang); another added perk, the European prints were in Technicolor.  A lovely but often thunderous score by Gerhard Becker is another plus.

I should mention that because of the movie’s length, no major Hollywood distributor would touch it.  Enter AIP, who cut the nearly three-and-a-half hour epic to 96 minutes, chopped the top and bottom of the frame off to hype the pic in “ColorScope,” had inferior Eastmancolor prints struck, dubbed it into English (with Paul Hubschmid once again becoming “Christian”), and released it into drive-ins and nabe hardtops in 1960 as Journey to the Lost City.  This butchery (up till now) has been the only version available to Anglo Lang enthusiasts.  Again, God bless Film Movement!

A number fantastic extras append this two-disc release, including audio commentaries by David Kalat, a wonderful booklet by my old professor Tom Gunning, and two documentaries, one on the flick itself, and another by Mark Rappaport, essentially a love letter to Paget (and who can blame him), featuring a plethora of excellent clips.

WARNING: don’t believe the bullshit about how this classic prefigures the Indiana Jones flicks.  This isn’t silly, kiddie serial mishegas.  I nonetheless accept the comparisons ONLY because they may have helped finance the restoration.  Trust me, this is first-rate thrilling, sexy movie-making by one of cinema’s all-time geniuses.

THE INDIAN EPIC: The Tiger of Eschnapur (101 minutes) and The Indian Tomb (102 minutes). Color. Full frame [1.37:1]; 1080p High Definition. 2.0 DTS-HD MA (German w/English subtitles). Film Movement Classics/BETA. SRP: $49.95.

Wagner the Dog

MARCH IS GERMAN CINEMA MONTH

A lavish extravaganza commissioned in part to celebrate the 25th anniversary of UFA, the opulent 1943 production, MUNCHAUSEN, comes to Blu-Ray via a superb 1080p restoration, thanks to the folks at Kino Classics/F.W. Murnau Stiftung/ARRI/Cinematheque Suisse/Goethe Institut.

Baron Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Munchausen and his preposterous escapades, as chronicled by Rudolf Erich Raspe in 1785, had long enraptured not only Teutonic audiences but readers across the globe.  The bragging owner of the moniker had become perhaps the most celebrated teller of tall tales – whoppers that always cast him as the world’s greatest soldier, explorer, adventurer and lover.  He was the pre-Bond fairy tale for adults, and has had filmed versions of his exploits hail from as diverse countries as France (1911, by Georges Melies, no less), Czechoslovakia (1962) and the UK (1988).  A popular American radio buffoon version helped the U.S. get through the Depression, even appearing in an MGM movie (1933’s Meet the Baron).

Munchausen, of course, is likely best-known to today’s masses as the basis for Munchausen Syndrome, a mental disorder defined by those who fake illness to gain attention.

Tall story short, MUNCHAUSEN, the movie, seemed the perfect Nazi propaganda tool for German audiences, especially in the ever-increasing darker days of 1943.  Goebbels knew that the Reich needed escapism, and here was his chance to do a pic that would rival The Wizard of Oz and Thief of Bagdad, two Technicolor epics he was particularly fond of.

Unlike its Anglo counterparts, this picture wouldn’t be geared toward young viewers, but for mature audiences – thus, there is a romance with “Cathy” (Catherine the Great), and, in fact, many a bedroom tryst accompanied by an occasional puff of the opium pipe.  Amazingly, there is a smattering of nudity throughout the pic’s 117-minute account of Munchausen’s odyssey, a debauched road trip that would take him from Germany to Russia to Greece to Italy, and, finally to the moon.  Oh, and, considering the project’s dubious country of origin, a plot for the invasion of Poland.  To finance this excursion, no expense was spared (6.5 million Reichmarks, or nearly $50M 2021 USD); that would translate to period décor, thousands of extras, armies of horses, state of the art phantasmagorical special effects…and, most importantly, color.

Agfa Color, the German alternative to the American three-strip system, would be pushed to the limit.  While not an imbibition process like Technicolor, the results could often be stunning.  Frequently coming very close to Hollywood hues and tones, Agfa could sometimes get a bit wonky, at worst resembling the abandoned two-strip Technicolor of old, dominated by greens and reds.  That said, the end result nevertheless constitutes an excellent job by d.p.s Werner Krien and Konstantin Irmen-Tschet (and ably apprended audibly by Georg Haentzschel’s whimsical score).

On the surface, MUNCHAUSEN is pure fantasy.  And an enchanting albeit saucy one.  But the movie, like its main character, is multi-leveled and complex.  The theme, as the pic’s obvious subversive anti-fascist creators in the studio envisioned, is never blurred:  this is a picture about deception.  And, as ethereally dreamlike and macho invincible as Munchausen’s dogma is, one can NEVER forget that he’s a liar – it’s all a sham.  You can only sugarcoat a lie until decay inevitably sets in, and, by 1943, the cracks were widening on a daily basis.  The Reich NEEDED a fanciful epic to quell the nerves of the populace, who either consciously or subconsciously saw the writing on the wall.  As such, MUNCHAUSEN was a wake-up call for the growing German resistance:  “You want to rule, I want to live!” – the logical choice being the latter – is hammered out to the audience via Erich Kustner’s screenplay, buttressed by Josef von Baky’s sly “read-between-the-lines” direction.  The cast was top-drawer for 1943 Deutschland, and featured superstar Hans Albers in the title role.  He is supported by an array of noted Aryan faces, including Hermann Speelmans, Ilse Werner, Ferdinand Marian, Kathe Haack, Marina von Ditmar, Walter Lieck, Michael Bohnen, Hubert von Meyerinck, Leo Slezak and perhaps the greatest name for a legit sexy cinema actress, Brigitte Horney (as Catherine the Great!).

The Kino Blu-Ray generally looks fantastic, and includes a number of wonderful extras, including audio commentary by Samm Deighan, a documentary on the production and restoration, Agfa Color test samples, the theatrical trailer, and more.

Even those detractors of anything filmed in Germany between 1933-1945 (including such insidious anti-Nazi-tinged fare as this) will nonetheless find it difficult NOT to be impressed by MUNCHAUSEN.

MUNCHAUSEN. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA (German w/English subtitles). Kino Classics/F.W. Murnau Stiftung/ARRI/Cinematheque Suisse/Goethe Institut. CAT # K24335. SRP: $29.95.

Hiss-tory Repeats Itself

MARCH IS GERMAN CINEMA MONTH

Perhaps the most subversive movie made during the Nazi Regime, 1943’s PARACELSUS, directed by the great G.W. Pabst, comes to Blu-Ray in beautifully restored edition, thanks to the archivists at Kino Classics and F.W. Murnau Stiftung/FFA Filmforderungsanstalt.

Devised to be a parable of the past in relation to the glories of the Third Reich, PARACELSUS, thanks to its gifted director, insidiously reversed the roles without giving the propaganda boys an inkling to what was actually going on – thereby pulling off a most amazing feat of motion picture prestidigitation right under the nose of Goebbels, Hitler and the entire Aryan film industry.

After the war, PARACELSUS didn’t get an American screening until the mid-1970s, where it was heralded as a magnificent work of grace under pressure.  True enough.  But the 20th century parable didn’t stop between the period this epic takes place (the 1500s) and the then current events of the 1930s and 40s.  It continues today – into the 21st century.  Think I’m kidding?  Here’s the plot.

In a fairly prosperous village, populated by greedy, self-serving science-deniers, arrives a chided and taunted philosopher, doctor, inventor, lay theologian, alchemist and general guru, known to all as Paracelsus.  That quacky-lackey physicians can perform fatal abominations upon their patients is due to essentially one person – the grotesque presiding head of the community, Herr Pfefferkorn.  Lying about his supposed untold wealth and holding a strange, creepy fascination for his daughter, Pfefferkorn grifts the populace, aided by his equally corrupt cartel of politicians, merchants and military.

Sound familiar?  Hold on to your hats.

Word arrives of an upcoming pandemic, spreading through Europe.  Pferrerkorn sloughs it off as a hoax, but nevertheless offers fake medicinal “snake oil” to combat it, thereby lining his pockets.  Paracelsus attempts to warn the village of the danger, and lays out a plan for social distancing, but is laughed at.  Pfefferkorn terms the plague as overblown, and maintains that the local economy will be damaged if precautions are taken.  Of course, the gates are opened, the infections go up, and death sweeps through the streets and homes with great rapidity (an extraordinary sequence of zombie-tized infected villagers, swaying to and fro in balletic formation is topped by the skeletal personification of the Plague, who grimaces a grateful thank you to all the idiots in charge.

Sufficiently gobsmacked?

Naturally, the point of this piece was to portray Paracelsus as the Super Messiah of White Supremacy, and oligarch Pfefferkorn and his minions as the thoroughly corrupt Jews and fools who deservedly should perish.  Thanks to Pabst, NONE of this is apparent; in fact, as indicated, the scenario conveys just the opposite.  The cruel, hypocritical tyranny of the town rulers reeks of Nazism; it is stunning that Goebbels or anyone in charge didn’t catch on.  That said, by 1943, things weren’t looking so hunky-dory anymore for the goosesteppers, and they had other problems to worry about.

Paracelsus was actually based on a real person, Theophrastus von Horhenheim (1493-1541).  Of course, it’s assumed he’s a German god; his nationality is never mentioned in Kurt Heuser’s script (the real Paracelsus was Swiss).

For Pabst, PARACELSUS was sweet revenge; he had been trying to escape Nazi Germany off and on for years, but was unable to flee due to moving a little too fast too late (he had earlier migrated to France, then briefly to Hollywood before returning home and realizing his mistake).  He was pretty much left alone in his artistic captivity, the Reischstag still basking in the triumphs of his past works The Joyless Street (1925), The Loves of Jeannie Ney (1927), White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929), The Three-Penny Opera (1931), and L’Atlantide (1932); post-Weimar, he was already considered the greatest director in German cinema, even though the Nazis had banned his 1930 triumph Westfront 1918).  Best known for transforming Louise Brooks into a cinematic icon, via Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (both 1929), Pabst turned to another cinematic legend for PARACELSUS, the brilliant though controversial actor Werner Krauss, who became an eternal part of celluloid history due to his 1919 performance as the title character in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  Apparently, the willing collaborator, too, missed the detour Pabst’s vision took; Krauss excels as Paracelsus, as do Harry Langewisch as Pfefferkorn and Annelies Reinhold as the would-be monarch’s daughter.

Pabst, working closely with screenwriter Heuser to insert every flip dig in, also had a marvelous support from Bruno Stephan, who lavishly photographed this opulent epic.  A thunderous score by Herbert Windt expertly compliments the proceedings The Kino Blu-Ray looks and sounds tremendous.  Audio commentary by film scholar Samm Deighan is included, but you may just want to soak in the atmosphere and experience the chilling foreboding narrative without any assist.

PARACELSUS. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]. 2.0 DTS-HD MA [German w/English subtitles].  Kino Classics/F.W. Murnau Stiftung/FFA Filmforderungsanstalt. CAT # K24715. SRP: $29.95.

The Great Flicktator

MARCH IS CINEMA MONTH

The obvious appeal of cinema aside, film’s main purpose was to be the greatest tool for indoctrination.  So said Joseph Goebbels, head of the Third Reich’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda; also infamous historical scumbag.  Not to be outdone, his boss thoroughly agreed and approved.  The fact of the matter was that in addition to the medium’s untold value of visually being able to “repeat the lie enough times,” both Goebbels and Hitler were mega-movie fans.  These fascinating tidbits coupled with what they achieved are examined in two extraordinary feature-length German documentaries, 2014’s FORBIDDEN FILMS: THE HIDDEN LEGACY OF NAZI FILM and 2017’s HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD, now both available on DVD from Kino Lorber, in collaboration with Zeitgeist Films (the former) and Looks/2DF/Arte/Medienbord Berlin/Deutsche Filmforderfonds/Hessischen Filmforderlung/WideHouse/Farbfilm/German Films (the latter).

Goebbels and Hitler were obsessed with American film stars; they strove to have a Nazi Garbo (they attempted to coax Dietrich back from Hollywood, she spit in their faces; they then tried in vain to groom Ingrid Bergman).  Adolf spent untold hours watching Mickey Mouse cartoons, Goebbels ran and reran his personal prints of The Wizard of Oz and The Thief of Bagdad.

Truth be told, there were over 1200 movies made during the Nazi Regime; most were straight genre items: comedies, romantic dramas, action-adventure, epics, musicals – the primary goal to provide escapism, especially during the final years.  While all contained subliminal triumphs of the Reich and the glories of white supremacy, at least 100 were blatantly racist and notoriously anti-Semitic. The indoctrination theory Goebbels put forth certainly seemed to be working as late as 1941 – it is estimated that over ONE BILLION Germans and other Europeans saw Jud Suss and The Eternal Jew (both 1940), two vicious, disgusting examples of Nazi cinema in full-blown infection mode.  What’s worse is that these aren’t shabby Kroger-Babb crap-looking works.  These movies are (sadly) expertly made, often lavishly produced and extremely cinematic.  Indeed, with full support of the Regime, UFA pushed the level of filmmaking both artistically and technologically in terms of directing, writing, cinematography, music, editing, and, most remarkably in the support and progression of color.  It was Griffith and Birth of a Nation on steroids.

In FOBIDDEN FILMS, director Felix Moeller, who had previously made an entire feature chronicling a talented infamous director (Veit Harlan) and his equally infamous work (2008’s Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss), gives us a magnificent overview of the motion picture industry under Goebbels and Hitler (the movie opens with pro-film propaganda quote from the Ministry head).  We learn that 2000 reels of surviving Nazi film are stored in a special styled bunker (many in danger of being lost forever, never having been transferred to safety stock from highly inflammable nitrate), and asks the philosophical and time-sensitive question “Should they be saved?”  In fact, should they be shown?  And, if so, under what circumstances?  The answers are astounding, as Moeller takes a standard documentary approach and gives it a painful twist.  Aside from motion picture scholars and artists (Margarethe Von Trotta, Oskar Roehler, Moshe Zimmermann), he asks audience members exposed to these works in private screenings.  The results, culled from presentations in three countries (Germany, France, Israel) are quite jaw-dropping – although perhaps not so shocking in these post-Trump times.  One stinging response from someone who could only be today termed as a MAGAt is particularly disturbing; he sees now why these movies have been withheld, if not outright banned – because they tell the truth.  They have, in effect, opened his eyes.  Again, the above questions are asked, should these movies be shown, and, if so, under what conditions?

The 94-minute pic compartmentalizes the surviving works into various categories (Youth, Anti-Semitism, Stars, Force, Entertainment, De-Nazification, etc.), then examines each.  Of special note is 1933’s Hitler Youth Qeux, a movie where a young lad is abused by his union loving Bolshevik democracy-leaning father.  Until the kindly Nazis induct him into the protective and caring Hitler Youth.  It’s Boys Town gone Goys Town with hate substituting for love.  More insidious is 1941’s Ich klage an, a “poignant” tale of a couple torn apart by a debilitating disease.  A beautiful, loving wife (Heidemarie Hatheyer) is in the initial stages of MS, and begs her spouse to do her in.  Of course, he’s conflicted, but…While handling a similar narrative as the 1948 American drama An Act of Murder, the underlying theme here is markedly ugly:  there is no room in society for the physically or mentally disabled.  Goebbels, who especially commissioned the movie to help promote the abhorrent Aktion T4 euthanasia program, thought the Ich klage an to be the cornerstone of Reich cinema!

Moeller, by letting the clips and diverse talking heads tell a cautionary tale, serves up a modern nightmarish warning.  If you think this can’t happen again, you don’t know the Murdochs, or the Mercers.  Even if you’re vehemently anti-censorship, the power of these 80-year-old-plus celluloid reels may have you wondering about opening this Pandora’s Box.

Like Felix Moeller, Rudiger Suchland, writer/director of HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD, opens his excellent documentary with a quote – this time, from famed motion picture historian Siegfried Kracauer:  “Watching old movies is a way of watching one’s past.”  This is apt, as Suchland is also the director of the celebrated 2014 filmic depiction of Kracauer’s famed seminal 1947 work From Caligari to Hitler.

And the quote rings true to form.  The movies made under Hitler represent the rise and fall of the Third Reich, sometimes blatantly – other times cunningly.  There’s the early coming of the new order, the paradise of white Christianity living, the instilling of the killer instinct in Hitler Youth males and the Aryan breeding mandate for the females, the glorious victories, the purging of the inferiors, the nervousness of pretending to still be “winning,” and the messages inserted into the propaganda by courageous anti-Nazi directors and writers who, too, knew the power of cinema.

This is played out within the 1200 features that were filmed from 1933-1945.

As indicated in the earlier documentary, many of these movies were expertly made.  This is no accident.  It was work for artists, who were biding their time until they could escape (Douglas Sirk), or for those who didn’t want to (Leni Riefenstahl), and, the sad fates of those who never made it out (G.B. Pabst).  For Pabst, the premier result of his artistic imprisonment was the extraordinary Paracelsus (1942).  The narrative, which shall be further discussed in a subsequent piece, is beyond startling (especially in relation to current events); the movie is superbly made, and loaded with anti-fascist sentiments.  So, too, is the extremely beguiling and entertaining 1943 epic, Munchausen (also to be later commented on).  Goebbels, as mentioned beforehand, was obsessed with Hollywood fantasies, notably The Wizard of Oz and the partially British filmed Thief of Bagdad.  He wanted the Nazi versions.  That meant color.  Since Technicolor was off-limits to the Reich, the Regime was hard pressed to come up with their own process.  And they did.  AgfaColor was unveiled in 1933, but perfected in 1939.  While occasionally unstable, it often reaches the saturation and luster of Technicolor – frequently with stunning results.  Munchausen looks terrific, as do the many other color fantasies, lensed in Germany.  Clips from Nazi color musicals are virtually identical in quality to the movies they aped that were then being turned out by MGM and Fox.  More importantly, Germany utilized color for “everyday” pics, too.  Thus, romance, modern drama and comedies have an advanced look that Hollywood wouldn’t match until nearly a decade after the war. Nazi UFA was also the first to use color for newsreels, testing the hued waters as far back as 1933.  Color and black and white liberally recorded all genres for the German audience, except two.  Science-fiction was only given one title (1934’s Gold); and horror was avoided all together (can’t imagine why).  Of the many directors “trapped” in the Reichstag is the aforementioned Veit Harlan, the undeniably gifted filmmaker whose works are certainly worth re-evaluating (he and his surviving relatives claimed/claim he was forced to make Jud Suss).  And, indeed, the director’s later Nazi Era productions are crammed with anti-fascist messages.  Harlan’s movies are terrific extravaganzas, inventively made and thrillingly staged.  But even Harlan can’t hide the glazed zombie-tized expressions of young German men and women trying to keep the paradise lie going in 1942’s The Golden City; in fact, many Nazi movies filmed from 1944 on had to cease production at UFA, and be completed in Prague and elsewhere, due to the Allies stepping up the bombing raids.  Even the narratives have changed sides.  In the stunning color piece, Opfergang (1944), the usual Aryan goddess (Kristina Soderbaum) is considered second rate to the cold, rich capitalist woman (Irene von Meyendorff) the hero (Carl Raddatz) ends up with.  The former’s erotically-charged activities – riding half naked bareback on a white horse while brandishing her archery skills – look like  clips from the recent Wonder Woman movies, rather than a 77-year-old remnant of the Hitler Regime (like the 1000 Year Reich would soon be, she ends up dead in the movie).

HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD is one of the best documentaries on the war that I have ever seen, and explores these years with a cache of clips that are sure to stun any viewer. The movie is accessible in the original German (with director Suchland providing the narration), or the Anglo release, featuring English subtitles and an English translation narration track delivered by actor Udo Keir.

FORBIDDEN FILMS: THE HIDDEN LEGACY OF NAZI FILM. Black and white and color. Various aspect ratios [1.20-1.78; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 stereo-surround (mostly German w/English subtitles). Kino-Lorber/Zeitgeist Films. CAT # K23020.  SRP: $29.95.

HITLER’S HOLLYWOOD. Black and white and color. Various aspect ratios [1.20-1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic] 5.1 stereo-surround (German or German w/English subtitles); Kino-Lorber/Looks/2DF/Arte/Medienbord Berlin/Deutsche Filmforderfonds/Hessischen Filmforderlung/WideHouse/Farbfilm/German Films. CAT # K23246. SRP: $29.95.

Dress for Success

MARCH IS GERMAN CINEMA MONTH

“Clothes make the man” never meant more than in the 1933 German musical comedy VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA, now on Blu-Ray from the folks at Kino Classics (in conjunction with Murnau Stiftung and the FFA Filmforderungssanstalt).

Yes, you read right – this is the original version of the universally acclaimed Blake Edwards 1982 screen blockbuster (and later Broadway hit).  And while not hitting the gay subtext as heavily (the Robert Preston character is straight), it is (obviously) there in other areas and makes up for this absence with way more charm than its cinematic grandchild (I say grandchild, since there was another German version, filmed in 1957).

The movie is a merry, frothy and daring look at life in the diminishing years of the Weimar Republic – with the theatrical profession reflecting its American Depression counterpart.

Viktor Hempel, a ham actor of the highest order, has played everything from Shakespeare to Schnitzler…and all badly.  His only regular source of income is as a female impersonator at a popular local dive.  During another embarrassing audition, he runs into fellow suffering artist Suzanne Lohr, who obviously is not a fellow (and, unlike Hempel, is extremely talented).  She, too, is desperate for work.  While dining at a nearby automat, Hempel comes up with an inspired idea.  Why not have Suzanne do his act – as Viktoria, a “man” pretending to be a woman, who then is revealed as a man (haircut, butch clothes and breasts strapped down).  What seems like an impossible and certainly crazed plan nevertheless infects the young singer, who eventually (albeit reluctantly) agrees.  And he/she/he becomes an overnight sensation!

If you ever pondered what a pre-Code movie might look like from another country, VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA is it.  The pic truly has it all.  Risqué situations and repartee, fast paced action, romance, and music – all against a tapestry of wall-to-wall hilarity.  The cast is tremendous, led by the amazing Renate Muller, who is concurrently, lovely, riotous, seductive and generally all-out brilliant.  She is more than ably supported by Hermann Thimg as her mentor.  Not far behind are Fritz Odermar as a confused+ fan, Adolf Wohlbruck (later Anton Walbrook) as an at-first-infatuated-then-shocked-then (once he discovers her secret) relieved audience member (and out to turn the tables on the beauty).  Of special note is the wonderful Hilde Hildebrand, companion to both men – likewise outraged, then delighted; try as she does, Elinor (Hildebrand’s character) still cannot figure out this strange artist, but is willing to try in the bedroom.

VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA was the brainchild of the vastly underrated Reinhold Schunzel, who wrote AND directed this classic farce.  Seamlessly utilizing multi-leveled narrative fibers woven by contemporaries Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, Schunzel had a long career in German theater and cinema as an actor, comedian, writer and director.  His inventive use of Konstantin Irmen-Tschet’s and Werner Bohne’s moving camera not only is ingenious, but becomes part of the visual gags (particularly in the opening scenes at a theatrical agency).  Hand-in-hand with the clever imagery is the thoroughly innovative lilting dialog, often delivered as rhyming couplets (similar to Mamoulian’s 1932 Love Me Tonight, which probably had not yet played in Germany when Schunzel began production).  The movie’s conclusion more than suggests that this pic heavily influenced Preston Sturges.

VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA was a mammoth hit in Germany, and ensured Schunzel’s employment with a series of subsequent box-office smashes.  Schunzel, being Jewish, caused him to be called before the heinous Joseph Goebbels, who whisked the “problem” away with an Honorary Aryan certificate (Oy!).  The director responded by whisking himself away, landing in Hollywood in the late 1930s, where he was immediately signed by MGM.  Metro, who had no idea what to do with him, assigned the director to Ice Follies of 1939, infamously known as the Anti-Christ Title of that “magical year.”  Hailed as the worst movie Joan Crawford ever made at her studio, Ice Follies soon relegated Schunzel back to treading the boards – which he did brilliantly, as one of the top Nazis in Hitchcock’s 1946 masterpiece Notorious.  Returning to Germany, but unable to get a foothold back in the industry, he died of a heart attack in 1954.

The spectacular Muller suffered even more.  Vying for Queen of Weimar Berlin with Marlene Dietrich, she seemed to ace the tag once Dietrich left for Hollywood in 1929.  Proficient in English (she made two movies in the UK), Muller was actively courted by both Goebbels and Hitler, offering her the mantle of Aryan Goddess of the Cinema (she even had a private meeting mit der Fuhrer).  At first, accepting the title, she quickly became disillusioned with the fascist way of life, refusing scripts and speaking out against the regime.  The revealing of her romantic relationship with a Jewish man sealed the deal.  In late September 1937, she was checked into a hospital, ostensibly to undergo minor knee surgery.  On October 1, Muller “fell” out of her room’s hi-rise window.  The Nazi propaganda machine went into full swing, leaking that Muller’s hospital stay was in reality for drug addiction, which caused the dazed-and-confused woman to plummet to her death.  Other reasonable sources have two likelier theories:  1) severe depression, caused in part by her eschewing of Germany’s repugnant politics drove the actress to suicide.  The most popular and probable answer, however, is that Muller’s refusal to embrace Nazism and the taking of a Jewish lover was the last straw – so she was murdered.  Renate Muller was 31.

The new Blu-Ray of VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA looks wonderful (I had only seen clips before, and they were always washed out); some slight grain aside, the 35MM quality often dazzles as much as the stars on-screen.  The audio, featuring a delightful score by Franz Doelle and Bruno Balz, is clean and crackle-free.  NOTE:  the movie reached American shores, post-Code, in 1935, where it was shorn of nearly two reels; this is the complete 99 minute version.

Recommended 100%, VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA, may have you re-evaluating the Blake Edwards version; it will absolutely have you longing for more Renate Muller!

VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA. Black and white. Full frame [1.20:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA [German w/English subtitles]. Kino Classics/F.W. Murnau Stiftung/FFA.  CAT # K24761. SRP: $29.95.