275: Marriage in the Shadows (1947)

Archival Spaces 275

Marriage in the Shadows (1947, Kurt Maetzig)

Uploaded 6 August 2021

At the Nazi Mixed Marriage Office in Ehe im Schatten (1947, Kurt Maetzig)

Although I have been studying German cinema for decades, I’m less familiar with films from the German Democratic Republic, simply because for a long time, it was just harder to see those films. The DEFA (Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft) was formed in 1946 and as an arm of the communist Socialist United Party (SED) maintained a monopoly until the demise of the GDR in 1990. Now Kanopy has made a very large selection of films from the DEFA collection at the University of Massachusetts- Amherst available, and I have been watching regularly. Recently, I caught up with an early so-called “rubble film” classic, Ehe im Schatten / Marriage in the Shadows (1947), directed by Kurt Maetzig. Starring Paul Klinger, it was the film debut of Ilse Steppat, who would later marry Max Nosseck, a German-Jewish director returning from Hollywood.  In retrospect, I’m, surprised I never saw the film, given Ehe deals with the expulsion of German Jews from theater and film after 1933, a topic of my dissertation. While the black and white film is very much a melodrama in the Ufa style before and during the Third Reich, – Bertolt Brecht called the film kitsch – Marriage in the Shadows clearly states that anti-Semitism was rampant in the German population and not just imposed from above by the Nazis.

The film opens in early 1933 with a theater performance of Friedrich Schiller’s “Intrigue and Love” (Kable und Liebe, 1784), staring Elisabeth Maurer and Hans Wieland. The Jewish actress is blacklisted shortly thereafter, and inexplicably, the “Aryan” Wieland marries her in the belief that he can protect her. Hans, initially the second fiddle to her star, continues his upwardly mobile career in Nazi Germany, even though a Jewish colleague strongly suggests the couple emigrate. Flash forward to the days before the November 1938 pogroms: His career is going gang-busters, while Elisabeth is suffering from intense isolation; unable to appear in public, she expresses doubts about their marriage, but he again dissuades her from emigrating. Like her Jewish former costume assistant, she spends days at the Nazi Mixed Marriages Bureau, applying for ration cards. The film’s last third takes place in 1943 when Elisabeth is ordered to hard labor, and Jews are being deported “to the East.” Hans talks her into attending the premiere of his newest film, ostensibly to cheer her up, where she charms a high-ranking Nazi, who is unaware of her status. When he finds out, he orders her deportation, and the couple commit double suicide.

Joachim and son 1930s

Marriage in the Shadows is dedicated to the German film star Joachim Gottschalk, who committed suicide with his Jewish wife and 9-year-old son in November 1941. Meta Wolf had been a successful young actress when the couple married in 1930. Somehow, they avoided attention after the passing of the Nuremberg Race Laws, because Gottschalk was only acting on local stages. However, in 1937 Gottschalk scored a huge film hit with You and I, so-starring Brigitte Horney, becoming with her the Ufa’s dream couple, idolized by millions of German women. Despite pressure from Ufa executives, Gottschalk refused to divorce his wife. However, when in April 1941 Gottschalk took Meta to the premiere of The Swedish Nightingale, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels banned him from film work unless he divorce. Gottschalk refused, further infuriating Goebbels who ordered Gottschalk drafted and his family sent to Theresienstadt. Goebbels forbid anyone from attending the funeral, although Horney and a few brave colleagues did go, while the German public only learned of Gottschalk’s fate after World War II, although there were many rumors.

Looting Jewish shops in Ehe im Schatten
Hans imagines his wife on a train to Auschwitz in Ehe imn Schatten

In adapting the Gottschalk story to film, Kurt Maetzig probably intuitively understood that only a melodramatic treatment about a tragic film star could reach a primarily female audience hardened by twelve years of anti-Semitic propaganda. Interestingly, Maetzig who was himself blacklisted by the Nazis in 1935, and whose Jewish mother committed suicide in 1944, moved the fictional couple’s suicide to 1943, probably so he could portray the effects of the Allied bombing of Berlin (blamed on the German Fascists) and the deportations of Berlin’s Jews, which only began days before the Gottschalks killed themselves. Simultaneously, Maetzig limits his visualization of Nazism to a few brief shots: the Brownshirts marching in 1933, a single S.A. man ordering civilians to loot Jewish shops on 9 November 1938, while several SS types appear during the final premiere; furthermore, Hans imagines Elisabeth’s deportation and incarceration in a camp by the SS, but in contrast to the reality of the 3rd Reich, there are no Swastikas visible, and only two tiny Nazi Party pins. Two years after the end of German fascism, such symbols may have been too potent, possibly calling forth positive rather than negative reactions. Ironically, this dearth of Nazi symbols reinforces the film’s thesis that the German middle class, especially artists, were collectively guilty of turning a blind eye to Jewish suffering and opportunistically refusing to resist fascism.      

Ilse Steppat and Paul Klinger in Ehe im Schatten

But, according to film scholar Bernhard Groß (Die Filme sind unter uns), Hans and Elisabeth are also responsible for their own fate. Like the protagonists in Schiller’s bourgeois tragedy that opens the film, they suffer from hubris, rubbing her Jewishness in the face of the Nazi bureaucrats, and by refusing to emigrate, despite numerous opportunities. Their tragedy is that like many German intellectuals, they keep telling themselves things will not be so bad under Fascism, that they can mitigate the worst Nazi excesses, that they can protect themselves. Indeed, the film is based on a post-war novella by Hans Schweikert, It Won’t Be so Bad, who, by the way, was one of those opportunists who profited greatly from the film industry, though not an overt Nazi.

Dr. Kurt Maetzig (1911-2012)

When Marriage in the Shadows opened in Hamburg in April 1948, Veit Harlan and his wife, Kristina Söderbaum, the notorious director and star of Jew Süß (1940), attempted to attend the local premiere but were rebuffed. Like far too many Germans, they yearned to continue their lives without repercussions for their passive and active crimes. Thanks to American Military Occupation policy, which favored anti-Communism over de-Nazification, all but the worst German mass murders were allowed to continue their middle-class lives and careers without consequences. Meanwhile, Marriage in the Shadows became a huge hit, bringing in over 10 million viewers in all four zones of occupation. Gottschalk’s female fans, millions of them war widows who had lost husbands and sons, made it so.

Acting out Intrigue and Love

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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