257: Cinefest Hamburg

Archival Spaces 257

Cinefest: Cinema, War and Tulips

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The 17th International Festival of German Film Patrimony, sponsored by the Hamburg Cinegraph, screened online from 14 to 22 November: “Cinema, War and Tulips. German-Dutch Film Relations;” it was accompanied by a film historical conference (20-22 November). I’ll discuss the conference in my next blog, while focusing on the film program today, which presented 11 Dutch films, made between 1929 and 1939, the majority being so-called “exile” films made by German émigrés from Nazi Germany. I’ve been trying to track down some of these films since the 1980s when researching my dissertation on Anti-Nazi films made by German émigrés in Hollywood. I became aware of the Goethe Institute Amsterdam presenting a film program and catalog on German refugees to Holland in the 1930s, documenting the incredible influence they had on jump-starting the Dutch film industry. 

Thanks to the influence of German émigrés and some Dutch expatri­ates returning from Germany, the indigenous sound film industry in the Netherlands blossomed. The producers Gabriel Levy, Leo Meyer, and Rudi Meyer, the directors Jaap Speyer, Ludwig Berger, Max Nosseck, Friedrich Zelnik, Rudolf Meinrad, Richard Oswald, Henry Koster, Max Ophüls, and Kurt Gerron, as well as the script writers Jane Bess, Walter Schlee, and Alexander Alexander, played a decisive role in this development. However, due to the size of the domestic market and the limited possibili­ties for export, these films remained relatively unknown outside Holland.  Surprisingly, of 31 films produced in the Nether­lands in the 1930s, 23 can be classified as “exile” films, including Bleke Bet (1934, Richard Oswald), De vier Mullers (1934, Rudolf Meinert), De Big von het Regiment (1935, Max Nosseck),  Drei Wenschen (1937, Kurt Gerron) and Vadertje Langbeen (1938, Friedrich Zelnik). Considered mindless entertainment by some critics, many of these films nevertheless offer fissures that communicate the anxieties of exiled German-Jewish artists.

Zeemansvrouwen / Sailor’s Wives (1929/2003)

The present series started with three Dutch sound films, before the rise of Nazism brought German filmmakers to the Netherlands. Zeemansvrouwen / Sailor’s Wives (1929/2003, Henk Kleinman), which was to be the country’s first sound film, was released silent and only sonorized in 2003 (with post-synchronized dialogue); it is a neo-realist melodrama of a pregnant fishmonger, shot around Amsterdam’s docks.  Likewise, Jaap Speyer’s De Jantjes / The Tars (1934), produced by Leo Meyer, Holland’s second sound film, plays in the same milieu of Amsterdam’s Jordaan district and concerns three sailors returning home, who are unable to adapt to civilian life, while popular folk songs mitigate the tragedy. Finally, Dood Water / Dead Water (1934, Gerard Rutten) visualizes the reclamation of land from the Zuidersee, but killed off the local fishing industry; while the opening documentary prologue is a patriotic even nationalist hymn to progress, the fictional narrative that follows focuses on the human toll of modernization.

I first heard about De Kribbebijter The Cross Patch (1935, Henry Koster) when I interviewed Koster about his career in 1976. A light comedy of mistaken identities with music, De Kribbebijter concerns a Baron, a wealthy grouch who disowns his son for wedding his secretary and is trying to marry off his daughter to an accountant, whereby the children have their own ideas. Koster, who had specialized in comedies in Germany (The Ugly Girl, 1933) and Austria, before discovering Deanna Durbin at Universal, keeps it light, despite the Depression economics that motivate the action. The film was produced by Leo Meyer, who would become Holland’s most important distributor after World War II and would continue a correspondence with Koster well into the 1960s, and co-written by Alexander Alexander and Jane Bess, one of the most prolific women screenwriters in Weimar.

Mystery of the Mondscheinsonata (1939, Karel Lamac)

Kurt Gerron’s Het Mysterie van de Mondscheinsonate / Mystery of the Mondscheinsonate (1935), based on Willy Corsari’s detective novel, is a crime drama about the murder of a retired cabaret star, supposedly at the hands of her dance partner. With its expressionist cabaret set harking back to Weimar, Het Mysterie also touches on German exile themes, in particular, the threatened loss of economic status and identity, which motivates the murder. The film can also be considered a pure German exile film, given that the director, scriptwriter (Walter Schlee), producer (Leo Meyer), cameraman (Akos Farkas), art director (Erwin Scharf) and sound technician (Gerhard Goldbaum) were émigrés.

Another crime drama that starts out as a horror-comedy based on Arnold Ridley’s often filmed play,  was De Spooktrein / The Ghost Train (1939, Karel Lamač), which dumps a motley crew of train passengers in a deserted, “haunted” train station. Like many “haunted house” films of the period, the focus is on the eccentricities of the various characters who are trapped against their will. The ghosts turn out to be weapons smugglers, a highly politicized subject released only weeks after the start of World War II, but Lamač avoids politics like the plague, as did all Dutch features in the period, given the censorship restrictions of the government regarding discussion of Nazi Germany.  

The three best films in the program were undoubtedly Max Ophüls’ Komodie on Geld / Comedy about Money (1936), Ludwig Berger’s Pygmalion (1937), and Douglas Sirk’s Boefje (1939), the latter produced by Leo Meyer. I had seen the first two films at the Berlinale 1983 but realized just how good they were. All three films allude to themes of exile. Komodie om Geld satirizes the obsessive quest for money, its “rags to riches to rags story” closely resembling the fate of many émigrés, while the décor of the cabaret recalls Weimar Cubism and art deco. Pygmalion, starring Lili Bouwmeesteras Eliza Deuluttel, receives an exile-centric reading of Shaw’s text, in that language defines class and status, a fact that German refugees were painfully aware of, given they were forced to work in foreign languages after the loss of Germany. Boefje, which means brat in Dutch, concerns a good boy who is invariably regarded as a juvenile delinquent by the authorities, simply because of his origins. The prejudices encountered by Boefje as a member of the Lumpenproletariat reflect the situation of German Jewish refugees:  Often without passports, residency permits, or working papers, they were literally hounded from country to country by the authorities, like common criminals.  

Given the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, Holland remained a transit country for German émigrés, most eventually finding their way to Hollywood, although some, like Rudolf Meinert, Willy Rosen, and Kurt Gerron, were murdered in Nazi concentration camps, while Rudi Meyer survived Auschwitz, and Ludwig Berger remained hidden with false papers until war’s end. According to Ivo Blum, Leo Meyer committed suicide in Amsterdam in 1944. Jane Bess emigrated to Nazi-infested Argentina, while Alexander Alexander disappeared without a trace.  

Rudolf Meinert
Kurt Gerron

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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