A few years back, I was talking to the “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller. Eddie is the man behind the Noir City, a film noir festival held every year at the Castro Theatre here in San Francisco.1 Always on the lookout for new and undiscovered examples of this genre, he asked me if I could recommend any good East German films that would qualify as films noirs. I thought about it for a little bit. Some films, such as Bellboy Ed Martin, Murder Case Zernik, Razzia, and Story of a Murder (the best of the four) would certainly qualify, but they are not available with English subtitles. Others, such as The Gleiwitz Case and The Mistake, certainly expose the darkness in the soul that is so important to a good film noir, but stylistically they are sui generis. The only films I could think of that ticked all the boxes (B&W photography with chiaroscuro lighting, a crime, an antihero, and a femme fatale2) and were available with English subtitles were The Murderers are Among Us and The Second Track. Eddie eventually settled on The Murderers are Among Us.
Germany has its own variation on film noir—the Kriminalfilm (usually shortened to “Krimi”) Krimis have a long tradition in that country, thanks to classics such as M, The Blue Angel, and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. While film noir proper is about the exploration of the darkness of the human soul, Krimis cast a wider net, and can include anything from caper comedies to a courtroom dramas.
Pension Boulanka has a film noir vibe, but it is pure Krimi. It’s a murder mystery first and foremost, and it follows the classic conventions of that genre. The story starts when a Belgian man named Jan Gruyter (Peter Herden) moves into the Pension Boulanka—a boardinghouse in Berlin that caters to the showpeople working at a nearby Revue. When Gruyter turns up dead with a rope around his neck, the police learn that the man seemed to have connections with everyone living at the pension and that they all had reasons to hate him. The movie takes its sweet time setting up the story, giving Gruyter a chance to interact with nearly everyone in the boardinghouse before killing him off forty minutes into the story. As one would expect from this set-up, there are plenty of false clues and red herrings, with the most guilty looking people being innocent and convoluted explanations and actions that only occur in murder mysteries.
Pension Boulanka belongs to a curious subset of films that intersperse the action with variety numbers. Film like this don’t belong to any one genre. There can be comedies, horror movies, and even Mexican wrestling films. The story can be going along merrily when suddenly we’re pulled away from the action to watch someone, sing, dance, or perform some other variety act. These scenes are not there to advance the plot, or develop the characters. They are usually a way to pad a meager storyline out to ninety minutes, and give the audience something to enjoy while they wait for the plot to unfold. Examples span everything from Hellzapoppin, to Blue Demon destructor de espias, to The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.3 In Pension Boulanka, these variety acts include everything from a chorus line doing the twist, to trained poodles jumping through hoops of fire.
The film is directed with flair by Helmut Krätzig. Helmut Krätzig got his start working in East German television, primarily on series shows. The first TV-movie for which he received full credit was (Tote reden nicht—The Dead Don’t Talk), broadcast in January of 1963. A year later, he moved to the big screen with Pension Boulanka. Krätzig’s seemed to specialize in Krimis. Krätzig made dozens of these, mostly in the form of TV-movies and police series episodes. He directed 20 episodes of the ever-popular East German police show, Polizeiruf 110. After the Wende, perhaps owing to his background in television, Krätzig continued to work in German television until retirement in 2003. He died on July 9, 2018.
There is no one main star in this film. It’s an ensemble piece. In an effort to keep us guessing as to the identity of the killer, all the main actors are given plenty of screen time to explain their reasons for hating the dead man. It’s a solid cast with some of the better characters actors of the time (Karl-Heinz Weiss, Bruno Carstens) and up-and-coming actresses (Doris Weikow, Karin Schröder). A stand-out is Erika Pelikowsky, who plays the congenial, slightly ditzy pension owner Emmi Boulanka. Pelikowsky was an Austrian actress, who was working at the Scala Vienna after the War. When that theater closed, Wolfgang Langhoff offered Pelikowsky a job at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Pelikowsky stayed in East Germany until the Wende. She appeared in dozens of movies and TV-shows, but primarily worked as a stage actress. Pelikowsky died in 1990.
The music is by Wolfgang Pietsch and it works well, the theme song is a jazzy little number that fits into the “crime jazz” category. Pietsch was a self-trained musician who was often chosen to create jazzy scores for the popular TV series Polizeiruf 110. Pietsch died in 1974 and is buried in the Pankow III Cemetery.
Pension Boulanka is not a classic, but it is entertaining in the same way as those Edgar Wallace Krimis so popular in West Germany at the time. It’s fun to watch, but doesn’t go much deeper than that.
1. If you don’t live in or near San Francisco, never fear: The Noir City Film Festival tours the country. Eddie Muller also hosts “Noir Alley” every Saturday at midnight Eastern Time on the Turner Classic Movie channel.
2. I’m using the term femme fatale here in the broader sense of the term, that is, the woman whose actions lead to the anti-hero’s demise. While we often think of the femme fatale as an evil woman who leads the protagonist down the road to perdition, sometimes it’s a good woman, whose morality forces the anti-hero to do the right thing in spite of the consequences, with Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire being the classic example of this sort of femme fatale.
3. I’m not listing any Bollywood films here because nearly all of them fit into this category.
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