Posts Tagged ‘Werner Peters’

Kleinow und Treff
The Invincibles (Die Unbesiegbaren) was originally intended as the second of three films. The first was to chronicle the introduction of the Communist Manifesto, and the last was to follow Karl Liebknecht’s story up to the development of the Spartacus League, forerunner to the German Communist Party (KPD). The Invincibles was the only one of the three that got made. Its story takes place in 1889—one year after the “Year of the Three Kaisers” (Dreikaiserjahr) and toward the end of the period when the government’s anti-socialism laws (Sozialistengesetze) were in force.

The action in the film centers around the Schulz family. Mr. Schulz works as a train mechanic during the day, and uses his spare time to help workers organize. Schulz’s daughter Gertrud spends her evenings helping her friend Franz distribute socialist literature. Things come to a head when an informer breaks into the Schulz home and locates the socialist pamphlets. Mr. Schulz is sent to prison, but is released less than a year later when this silly law is finally repealed and Otto von Bismarck, the law’s main proponent, is sent packing.

Die Unbesiegbaren

DEFA films from this period are often extremely didactic, and this one’s no exception. In truth, DEFA was just following Hollywood’s lead. Since Hollywood had come under attack as a hotbed of communist revolutionaries, film producers were bending over backwards to demonstrate their patriotism. As a consequence, there was hardly an American film made during that period that didn’t trot out anti-communist sentiments somewhere along the line. One could argue that DEFA was simply following suit. This approach led to a lot of mediocre Hollywood films, and a perception in the West that all East German films were nothing but propaganda. A perception that, sadly, still persists.

The screenplay was written by the film’s director Artur Pohl and DEFA official Heino Brandes. Alongside Wolfgang Staudte and Kurt Maetzig, Pohl was one of DEFA’s go-to guys during its early years (for more on Pohl, see The Bridge). Brandes was hired to oversee DEFA’s short film department, then later moved to the science film section. He worked closely with stage director Hans Rodenberg, who was in charge of DEFA’s feature film unit during the early fifties, and the two of them wrote a treatise on socialist realism in theater and film together.

The cast features some of the best actors from the early years at DEFA. Playing Frau Schulz is Alice Treff, who already had a thriving career in Nazi Germany. She made a few films for DEFA, but primarily worked in West Germany after the war, both as an actress and as a popular voice dubber for American films. As a West German, Treff received flak for portraying the good socialist housewife Mrs. Schulz. Perhaps this is the reason for her strangely uncomfortable demeanor in the final scene at the rally where the socialists celebrate the end of the anti-socialism laws. While everyone else seems happy, Treff’s character looks oddly ill at ease. Or perhaps this was just the filmmaker’s way of letting us know that the battle wasn’t over yet. Treff managed to get past this mini-scandal and continued working in films in West Germany into her nineties. She died in 2003 at the age of 96.

Kleinow und Treff

Playing her husband is Willy A. Kleinau, so memorable as “Mr. Lawson” in The Council of the Gods. Unlike Treff, Kleinau stayed in East Germany, although he did appear in West German productions as well, most notably, The Captain from Köpenick, starring Heinz Rühmann (a popular star in West Germany and during the Third Reich). Kleinau continued to perform in films and on stage until his death following an auto accident in 1957.

Werner Peters—who turned in a spectacular performance in The Kaiser’s Lackey—plays the police informer Köppke. Most of Peters’ early films were from DEFA, although his first time in front of the camera was in the West German Rubble Film, Zwischen gestern und morgen (Between Today and Tomorrow). In 1955, Peters left East Germany, settling at first in Düsseldorf, then later in Berlin. Besides his work at DEFA, Peters also starred in some of the better West German films of the fifties, including The Devil Strikes at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam), Rosemary (Das Mädchen Rosemarie), and Roses for the Prosecutor (Rosen für den Staatsanwalt). He regularly shows up in West Germany Krimis (crime films), and made regular appearances in the Dr. Mabuse and Edgar Wallace films so beloved by West Germans. He also appears in a few U.S. productions, usually as either a Nazi or an evil doctor. You can also spot him doing a turn as an antiques dealer in Dario Argento’s classic Giallo film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo).

Appearing as the police captain, is Arno Paulsen, first seen by audiences as the evil Brückner in The Murderers are Among Us. Like Peters, Paulsen starred in several early DEFA productions, but eventually settled in the West. Paulsen worked with Peters again on the West German classic, Rosemary, both playing corrupt, fat-cat capitalists. He became the voice of Oliver Hardy for the German releases of the Laurel and Hardy alongside Walter Bluhm, who had been doing Stan Laurel’s voice since Hollywood stopped attempting to have the duo redo their routines in other languages.1

Youg rebels

Portraying the feisty young Gertrud is Tamara Osske. Primarily a stage actress, Osske only has three film credits to her name. Since her name shows up as part of the cast for a 1980 production of Peer Gynt at the Saarländisches Landestheater, I have to assume she left the GDR at some point after 1960. Also here, playing Wilhelm Liebknecht, is Erwin Geschonneck.

The same year that this film came out, West Germany formed the Interministerial Committee on East-West film questions (Interministerieller Ausschuß für Ost-West-Filmfragen), created for the purpose of banning films that promoted socialism, but pushed their mandate to include any films that attacked colonialism, imperialism, and, sadly, even Nazism in some cases. The Invincibles was one of the first films they banned, along with other DEFA classics, such as The Council for the Gods and The Kaiser’s Lackey. The irony of banning a film about Germany’s repressive anti-socialism law because of its socialist content makes it impossible to satirize.

IMDB page for the film.

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1. A little-known fact about the early sound films. Back during the silent days, it was easy enough to distribute a film internationally. All you needed was to switch the intertitles to the language of choice. With the advent of sound, that was no longer an option. At first, movie producers tried to solve the problem by having the lead actors redo each scene in other languages. The best known example of this is The Blue Angel, which was first made in German, and then in English a year later. For some actors, speaking both English and German wasn’t a problem. Having grown up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Romania, Edward G. Robinson’s spoke excellent German, as did his co-star in A Lady to Love, Vilma Bánky, so the two of then reprised their roles in the German version (Die Sehnsucht jeder Frau), while most of the rest of the case was replaced. Laurel and Hardy’s German, on the other hand, was atrocious, but there was no way to replace them. They were already famous as “Dick und Doof” in Germany from their silent shorts. Rather than have the two comedians memorize their lines, the duo read the words spelled phonetically on cue cards, reenacting the same scenes in up to four different languages. Producers quickly realized that this approach was not going to work, and so dubbing was born.


Der Untertan

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.

IMDB page for this movie.

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* 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.