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After the War/Before the Wall: German Film 1945–1960

After the fall of the Third Reich, the German film industry took a sharp turn inward, producing a body of work that both celebrated and questioned notions of German nationalism. Dismissively referred to as "Papa’s Kino" or "Daddy’s Cinema" and characterized by the dominance of the Heimatfilm (homeland film), the works of this period crossed the boundaries of established genres such as the war film, melodrama, musical, and comedy while remaining firmly entrenched in the exploration of modern German identity. Often neglected by film historians, this period features some of the most accomplished works from such internationally renowned figures of German cinema as Peter Lorre, Robert Siodmak, and Romy Schneider.

This program is co-presented with the Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes, Boston. Program notes courtesy Film Society of Lincoln Center.


March 7 (Friday) 7 pm

The Lost Man (Der Verlorene)

Directed by Peter Lorre
West Germany 1951, 35mm, b/w, 99 min.
With Karl John, Peter Lorre, Renate Mannhardt
German with English subtitles

In Peter Lorre’s first and only film as a director, he adapted his own novel about a doctor whose feelings of guilt about his actions during the Third Reich only intensify as he tries to adapt to postwar Germany. Lorre’s direction was heavily influenced by the prewar expressionist cinema in which he had worked, most notably in Fritz Lang’s M. Characters are always captured in half-light or shadows, and emotional states are given strong physical presence. An impressive first film, The Lost Man was nevertheless a failure with a German public as yet largely unwilling to confront questions of individual and collective guilt. Subsequently, Lorre decided to return to the United States and to his Hollywood career.

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March 7 (Friday) 9 pm

Film Without a Title (Film ohne Titel)

Directed by Rudolf Jugert
West Germany 1948, 35mm, b/w, 90 min.
With Hans Söhnker, Hildegard Knef, Irene von Meyendorff
German with English subtitles

A director, a scriptwriter, and an actor discuss the making of a movie in Germany immediately after World War II. By chance they hit upon the story of a couple, narrated in flashbacks and from different perspectives. In this film about filmmaking, screenwriter Helmut Käutner and director Rudolf Jugert cannily break all the rules, offering a variety of genres—from romantic melodrama to war film to comedy to pseudo-documentary. Like the cinema of the time, life in this film seems to oscillate between gloomy reminiscences of the war years and bright hopes for normal life. One of the first postwar productions, and at the time enthusiastically received, the film features a very young Hildegard Knef in her second appearance on screen.

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March 9 (Sunday) 7 pm

Kirmes

Directed by Wolfgang Staudte
West Germany 1960, 35mm, b/w, 104 min.
With Juliette Mayniel, Götz George, Hans Mahnke
German with English subtitles

Director Wolfgang Staudte was the most notorious social critic of the complacency of West Germany in the Adenauer era. Several of his films focused on the ways in which average postwar Germans continued to live their lives exactly as they had before, unaffected by all the country had endured. Kirmes opens in a small village in 1945, where a young soldier who has deserted from the nearby front returns home. From fear of the Nazis, the village authorities, the church, and even his father, all refuse to offer him refuge. Fifteen years later, in the same village, the skeleton of the young deserter is found, and once again nobody wants to assume responsibility: the old times are gone and should not be remembered. The film sparked protests throughout the country and was called a slander against the German people. Götz George, who played the young deserter, is today one of the most popular actors on German television.


March 9 (Sunday) 9 pm

The Bridge (Die Brücke)

Directed by Bernhard Wicki
West Germany 1959, 35mm, b/w, 103 min.
With Fritz Wepper, Michael Hinz, Volker Lechtenbrink
German with English subtitles

Bernhard Wicki’s first feature film is considered by many critics to be the most important of the period and was one of the first postwar productions with a truly worldwide release. An uncompromising study of the cruelty and absurdity of war, the film unfolds through the story of seven schoolboys in a small city who are called up to the army in April 1945. Without any training, they are assigned to defend a small bridge against the approaching Americans. While in Nazi cinema death often had been glorified as noble sacrifice for the country, Wicki’s film—which evoked comparisons to the merciless realism of works by prewar directors such as G. W. Pabst—sends the young protagonists from carefree adolescence into the full horror and delusion of war.

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March 12 (Wednesday) 7 pm

The Sinner (Die Sünderin)

Directed by Willi Forst
West Germany 1950, 35mm, b/w, 87 min.
With Gustav Fröhlich, Hildegard Knef
German with English subtitles

When it was released in 1950, The Sinner inspired vigorous protests and caused huge controversy for a film industry just getting back on its feet. Its tale of a young woman who survives as a prostitute after the war and later falls in love with a dying artist shocked conservatives and religious authorities. A popular actor and director of comedies since the 1920s, director Forst, in his first postwar movie, reveals a considerable feeling for melodrama. His narration proceeds without any sensationalism, and the theme of a great, ill-fated love is skillfully developed through the unfolding memories of the woman. Hildegard Knef, who had left Germany for Hollywood, returned to make The Sinner and subsequently became one of the German cinema’s biggest stars.

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Free Screening
March 12 (Wednesday) 9 pm
March 19 (Wednesday) 9 pm

A Call Girl Named Rosemarie (Das Mädchen Rosemarie)

Directed by Rolf Thiele
West Germany 1959, 35mm, b/w, 100 min.
With Nadja Tiller, Peter van Eyck, Carl Raddatz
German with English subtitles

In 1957, a Frankfurt call girl named Rosemarie Nitribitt was murdered. It soon emerged that her services had been highly regarded in some of West Germany’s most prominent industrial circles. Not surprisingly, the case was never solved, and when a film based on the incident was invited to represent West Germany at the Venice Film Festival, the German Foreign Ministry vigorously protested. Director Rolf Thiele retained and even intensified the political dimensions of the story, alleging that the call girl’s career had been actively promoted by one of the leading figures connected with the German "economic miracle" of the 1950s; another story line follows the efforts of a French industrial spy who tries to use the call girl to get information. In 1958, A Call Girl Named Rosemarie won the Golden Globe as Best Foreign Language film.

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March 14 (Friday) 7 pm

Fanfares of Love (Fanfaren der Liebe)

Directed by Kurt Hoffmann
West Germany 1951, 35mm, b/w, 91 min.
With Dieter Borsche, Georg Thomalla, Grethe Weiser
German with English subtitles

Although Billy Wilder’s remake of this German comedy as Some Like It Hot remains far better known, Fanfares of Love (itself a remake of a 1935 French film) captures the seamier side of German show business with flair. As it relays the story of two jobless young musicians who dress up as women to join a ladies’ band, the film chronicles the postwar revival of interest in swing and pop music: its score is laden with American-style big band numbers, composed by Franz Grothe, and typical German pop songs of the era performed by Inge Egger. The film stars Dieter Borsche, who later became one of the German screen’s best-known romantic leads, and Georg Thomalla, one of the most reliable comic actors of the 1950s.

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March 14 (Friday) 9 pm

I Often Think of Piroschka (Ich denke oft an Piroschka)

Directed by Kurt Hoffmann
West Germany 1955, 35mm, b/w, 96 min.
With Liselotte Pulver, Gunnar Möller
German with English subtitles

This German Heimatfilm situated not in Germany but in the Hungarian provinces presents beautiful landscapes, rustic customs, and village festivities as it relates the story of a German student who spends his summer holidays with a Hungarian family and falls in love with Piroschka, daughter of the local railway stationmaster. Comedic circumstances arise from the cultural differences between the German student and his Hungarian hosts as well as the student’s unfamiliarity with rural life. Director of the most successful German comedies of the period, Hoffman was especially adept at using language for comic effects. The Swiss-born actress Liselotte Pulver had worked in several films before, but Piroschka was her breakthrough, and she became one of the most beloved stars of the German popular cinema of the 1950s.

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March 15 (Saturday) 7 pm

The Hooligans (Die Halbstarken)

Directed by Georg Tressler
West Germany 1956, 35mm, b/w, 97 min.
With Horst Buchholz, Karin Baal, Christian Doermer
German with English subtitles

In this German Rebel without a Cause, a group of teenaged protagonists from well situated middle-class families reject their authoritarian fathers, products of the Nazi era. The sons knock around the streets, smoke, pick up girls, form small gangs, and fall into crime. The film’s most revealing scenes focus on the relationship between one of the boys and his family. The screenplay, co-authored with well-known journalist Will Tremper, creates an authentic portrait of juvenile delinquency and provides a much looser sexuality than comparable American films of the period. Its two young leads, Horst Buchholz and Karin Baal, soon became major German stars.

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March 15 (Saturday) 9 pm
March 18 (Tuesday) 7 pm

The Death Ship (Das Totenschiff)

Directed by Georg Tressler
West Germany 1959, 35mm, b/w, 98 min.
With Horst Buchholz, Mario Adorf
German with English subtitles

Based a novel by B. Traven, The Death Ship tells the story of an American sailor who, after his papers are stolen in the Belgium port city of Antwerp, sets out on an odyssey through Europe, finally signing on to an old ship that turns out to belong to smugglers. Director Georg Tressler, known for his more socially oriented works, here created an adventure film—a genre not often found in German cinema—that focuses on the sailor’s attempts to return home amidst a world of cutthroats and thieves. Horst Buchholz was regarded as one of the most promising young actors of the time, but with the emergence of the New German Cinema of the 1960s, he began to receive fewer parts and eventually emigrated to France and the United States.

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March 16 (Sunday) 7 pm

The Devil Strikes at Midnight (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam)

Directed by Robert Siodmak
West Germany 1957, 35mm, b/w, 105 min.
With Claus Holm, Mario Adorf, Hannes Messemer
German with English subtitles

Like Fritz Lang’s great Weimar-era classic M, Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night is the story of a serial killer. Siodmak’s film, however, takes place during the Third Reich, and every aspect of the case is filtered through the political reality and interests of that regime. Based on the real case of murderer Bruno Lüdke, Siodmak’s character has killed more than eighty women and is ultimately apprehended by an honest police officer. Yet in 1944 Germany, it was inconceivable to admit that a mass murderer had eluded detection or capture for more than a decade; by order of Hitler himself, news of the case is completely suppressed, and the police officer is sent to the front. Siodmak narrates this story with a kind of chilling detachment, avoiding sensationalism while focusing on the omnipresent influence of the Gestapo, even on criminal investigations.

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March 16 (Sunday) 9 pm

My Schoolmate (Mein Schulfreund)

Directed by Robert Siodmak
West Germany 1960, 35mm, b/w, 94 min.
With Heinz Rühmann, Robert Graf
German with English subtitles

Siodmak’s film is based on the true story of a postman who, toward the end of World War II, wrote a letter to Hitler’s minister Hermann Göring, his former schoolmate, asking him to bring the war to an end. Johannes Mario Simmel, an author of popular novels, took this occurrence as the starting point for his story about a simple postman who survives his honest but disastrous letter only because Göring manages to declare him medically insane; after the war, however, he cannot return to his job because he’s still officially classified as mad. Siodmak’s adaptation, co-scripted with Simmel, investigates German bureaucracy during and after the war, focusing on the tragedy and, later, tragicomedy of the system.

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March 17 (Monday) 7 pm

Toxi

Directed by Robert A. Stemmle
West Germany 1952, 35mm, b/w, 88 min.
With Elfie Fiegert, Paul Bildt, Johanna Hofer
German with English subtitles

A well-to-do Hamburg family finds a five-year-old girl abandoned at the door of its villa. Toxi is black, the daughter of a now deceased German girl and an American G. I. who has returned to the States. Director Robert A. Stemmle effectively details then-current attitudes toward interracial relationships and multi-racial children, presenting German positions on race and racism with remarkable honesty and candor. Just as young Toxi has worked her way into the hearts of this German family, a resolution of sorts appears: her American father returns, hoping to take Toxi with him back to the States. The film premiered at the moment when the first generation of children created by liaisons between German women and American soldiers—many of whom were African American—began entering German schools, creating a public awareness of this situation.

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March 17 (Monday) 9 pm

Sissi

Directed by Ernst Marischka
Austria 1955, 35mm, color, 102 min.
With Romy Schneider, Karlheinz Böhm, Magda Schneider
German with English subtitles

Perhaps the quintessential Heimatfilm, Sissi resembles a kind of mass, popular dream: a Bavarian princess meets, falls in love with, and eventually marries the Austrian emperor Franz Josef. It was the sort of perfect idyll that allowed audiences to forget the strains of reconstructing a country destroyed in World War II. The landscape of the Alps, where the couple meets, is indispensable to the romantic aspects of the story; the sets and costumes at the Vienna court are extravagant; and the marriage scene—the film’s high point—gives way to a marvelous operetta. A large part of the film’s success was due to the luminous beauty of its seventeen-year-old star, Romy Schneider. Sissi and its two sequels, made in 1956 and 1957, were huge international hits, and made Schneider the darling of the film-going public.

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March 18 (Tuesday) 9 pm

Roses Bloom on the Grave in the Meadow (Rosen blühen auf dem Heidegrab)

Directed by Hans H. König
West Germany 1952, 35mm, b/w, 90 min.
With Ruth Niehaus, Konrad Mayerhoff, Hilde Körber
German with English subtitles

While the Heimatfilm genre typically portrayed friendly people in colorful landscapes, the northern German landscapes in Hans König’s drama are unfriendly and dark, photographed from impressive angles and overshadowed by a foreboding sense of catastrophe. Such catastrophe occurs when a farmer who becomes obsessed with marrying a young and innocent girl ends by raping her. Seeing no way out, the girl decides to die in the moor. She will be saved at the very last moment, but the ending is not without moral ambiguity. König’s story is embedded in the mythology of the region, where the shadows of Swedish ancestors who invaded the country centuries earlier are threateningly present. The film opened a new and unexpected dimension to the Heimatfilm that could only have been introduced by someone from outside the genre.

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March 19 (Wednesday) 7 pm

Sky without Stars (Himmel ohne Sterne)

Directed by Helmut Käutner
West Germany 1955, 35mm, b/w, 109 min.
With Eva Kotthaus, Erik Schumann, Horst Buchholz
German with English subtitles

One of the most distinguished scriptwriters and directors of the era, Helmut Käutner had begun his career with apolitical comedies and romances in the early 1940s. After the war he focused increasingly on political subjects, even daring to take on such important but controversial themes as the division of the country into East and West. In Sky without Stars he created a love story between a West German border guard and an East German factory worker, a couple who can meet only in the ruins of a train station in the no man’s land between the two pre-Wall sectors. As the film heads toward its tragic conclusion, Käutner makes a stirring moral plea against the unnatural division, although without the cold war polemics that typically dominated such discussions. Unusual for its direct commentary on contemporary problems, the film was a commercial failure but critical success.

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