The Kaiser’s Lackey is based on a book by Heinrich Mann. The actual title, Der Untertan, doesn’t translate well into English. As a consequence, it has been rendered variously as The Patrioteer, The Loyal Subject, The Man of Straw, and The Underdog. IMDB calls it The Man of Straw, which does have a poetic quality to it, but the film is currently available from the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst as The Kaiser’s Lackey, which is closer to the mark. [Note: For anyone curious about my website’s title formatting style, see “About the Titles” on the About page.]
As the titles Der Untertan and The Kaiser’s Lackey suggest, the film is the story of a man who subjugates himself to the whims of his superiors. The story takes place during the German Empire (Deutsches Kaiserreich), which lasted from 1871 to 1918. Most of the story revolves around, 1888, the so-called “Year of the Three Kaisers” (Dreikaiserjahr), when the country went through three rulers in quick succession, ending up with Wilhelm II, the man responsible for leading Germany into World War I. The film is the story of a man named Diederich Heßling—the Untertan of the title. With his blond twist of hair and chubby countenance, Heßling looks a bit like Tintin gone to pot. He is pompous and chauvinistic, and as full of himself as a man can be. The story starts with his birth and follows him to his crowning achievement: the installation of a gigantic bronze statue of the Kaiser in his town square.
What none of the various titles adequately reveal is the fact that, while Heßling willingly subjects his very soul to the Kaiser, he expects those beneath him to similarly devote themselves to him and his business. Heßling’s business is making toilet paper, and his crowning achievement is the production of toilet paper with nationalistic slogans printed on each sheet. As you’ve probably guessed by now, The Kaiser’s Lackey is a political comedy, and a mordant one at that.
The film was directed by Wolfgang Staudte, the premiere director during the early days of DEFA. Staudte got his start as an actor in the late twenties. He was, among other things, one of the students in The Blue Angel. At the beginning of his career, he worked primarily on stage, but because of his penchant for appearing in avant-garde plays, he found himself on the wrong side of the Nazis and was banned from the theater. He continued to work in radio and film, and often played in smaller roles, including one in the notoriously anti-Semitic, Jud Süß. During the thirties, he began directing short films and made his feature film debut in 1943 with Akrobat Schööön! (Acrobat Oooooh!). His second film, Der Mann, dem man den Namen stahl (The Man Whose Name was Stolen), was immediately banned by the Goebbels and Staudte’s career as a director was brought to a premature halt. He later remade the film for DEFA under the title Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B. (The Strange Adventures of Fridolin B.).
Staudte was responsible for some of the best films to come out of East Germany during its early years. He directed the first DEFA film, The Murderers are Among Us, and other early classics including, Rotation and The Story of Little Mook. In 1955, a combination of a quarrel with Bertolt Brecht during the filming of Mother Courage (Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder)* and the restrictions imposed on him by DEFA were too much for him to take and he headed west; first to Holland, directing the popular kid’s film Ciske the Rat and its sequel, then later to West Germany, where he made several films, including the 1962 version of his former collaborator Bertolt Brecht ’s The Three Penny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper). From 1970 on, he worked primarily in television, directing episodes for the popular TV shows, Tatort and Der Kommisar, among others. He died in 1984 while working on Der eiserne Weg (The Iron Way), a five-part miniseries for ZDF television in West Germany.
The author of Der Untertan, Heinrich Mann, was Thomas Mann’s older brother. Mann was a successful writer prior to World War I, and had made a name for himself with his book Professor Unrat, which was later turned into the movie, The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel), starring Marlene Dietrich in her career-making role. Der Untertan was scheduled for release in 1914, but the war put its publication on hold until 1918. Still stinging from World War I, the German public took to Mann’s caustic examination of how nationalism can lead men down dangerous and idiotic paths. The book was huge hit, but, as you can imagine, the Nazis didn’t think much of it. In 1933, after Hitler came to power, Heinrich Mann was one of the first 33 people that the Nazis declared personae non gratae (alongside author Lion Feuchtwanger and future President of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck). Mann fled the country, eventually ending up in Santa Monica, California, where he and Lion Feuchtwanger worked as script editors. By 1950, Mann was broke and alone, his wife having committed suicide a few years earlier. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting was gaining traction, and Mann was feeling very unwelcome in his new home. He was getting ready to leave the States and move to East Germany, where he had been elected as president of the German Academy of Arts, when he died.
The obnoxious lackey of the title is played by Werner Peters. Peters had worked in theater during the Third Reich, but his career as a movie actor didn’t begin until 1947, when he appeared in Zwischen gestern und morgen (Between Yesterday and Tomorrow), the first post-war, western sector film made by a German film company (Neue Deutsche Filmgesellschaft). His next few films were made at DEFA though, including The Blum Affair (Affaire Blum), Die Buntkarierten (The Girls in Gingham), Rotation, and Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat). After The Kaiser’s Lackey, he appeared in a few more East German films, including The Story of Little Mook, and the Ernst Thälmann movies, but, like directors Wolfgang Staudte and Falk Harnack, Peters decided to head west. He went on to appear in dozens of West German movies, as well as a few American ones, usually playing either a villain or a buffoon. He appeared in several of the Dr. Mabuse and Edgar Wallace films that were so popular in West Germany during the 1960s. Other films he was in include: The Devil Strikes at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam), Rosemary (Das Mädchen Rosemarie), 36 Hours, A Fine Madness, The Secret War of Harry Frigg, and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. He was also a well-respected voice actor. It was his voice that people heard for Orson Welles in the German version of The Third Man.
The cinematography is by Robert Baberske, and it is impressive. Distorted images are used to heighten the absurdity of situations: After Heßling’s duel, we see the faces of his comrades twisted comically through their beer steins as they celebrate with him. When he is confronted by a superior on the academy grounds, the perspective is exaggerated, with Heßling appearing greatly foreshortened, as if being addressed by God. At the start of the film the images of Heßling’s parents are blurred around the edges, suggesting the distant and unclear memories that helped make him the man he became. [Note: for more information on Robert Baberske, see The Ax of Wandsbek.]
The music is by Horst Hans Sieber, who composed music for several shorts, propaganda films, and documentaries during the Third Reich. After WWII, he began composing music for feature films, starting with Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Happy Barge Crew), the first of the DEFA barge films by Hans Heinrich. He wrote at least one play (Ich heirate nur aus Liebe, 1950, published by Drei Masken Verlag), which suggests a theatrical background. That would make perfect sense given the highly theatrical nature of the music in this film. It is through the music that we first realize that we are dealing with a comedy. The film begins with nostalgic dance hall piano music, which suddenly switches to a lively fife and drum march, then a lullaby for harp and musical saw, ending with a full orchestra parade march. During the storm scene, when the statue of the Kaiser is being unveiled, the music swirls like the wind on the screen, as if several tunes are stirred up together. We hear the primary themes from the movie interspersed with the music of the Third Reich.
When the film was released in East Germany, it immediately generated negative comments in the western press. The film’s use of Nazi music, and its attacks on the upper-class and businessmen were not well received in West Germany. The film was banned outright and wouldn’t reach West German cinemas for another five-and-a-half years. Even then, the final scene was cut, along with the scene where a worker is shot for resisting a policeman. West Germany was much more sensitive to the subject of Nazis. Unlike East Germany, the Bundesrepublik quietly swept the Nazi trials under the rug and allowed some pretty heinous people to go back to work. People like Hans Globke, who served as the chief legal advisor in the Office for Jewish Affairs in the Ministry of Interior under Adolf Eichmann, but nonetheless was named by West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer as Director of the Federal Chancellory of West Germany; or Theodor Oberländer, a Nazi officer in charge of ethnic cleansing during WWII, and then—in a gesture of supreme irony—was named as Federal Minister for Displaced Persons, Refugees and Victims of War by Adenauer. The conservatives were in charge, and, like the United States, anyone whose philosophy leaned to the left was being marginalized. The Kaiser’s Lackey was too much for them to take. It would be years before people in the west would come to realize that they were looking at one of the greatest film to come out of either side of Germany during the 1950s.
* Reportedly, this film version of Mother Courage was eventually released in a highly abbreviated version. The film starred Helene Weigel, Bertolt Brecht ’s second wife, and the woman most famously associated with the role of Mother Courage. It also features Simone Signoret in the role of Yvette Pottier, the camp prostitute. The film was assembled from what footage Staudte had shot and was released as one of four DEFA-made films distributed by the short-lived Pandora-Film Company in Stockholm. As of this writing the film appears to be lost.