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February 20 - 27

The Lives of Others: Selected Films of Helmut Käutner

Helmut Käutner (1908–1980) was one of the most acclaimed German directors of his generation. Originally working in the theater as an actor and director, he began his film work as a scriptwriter before producing his controversial directorial debut Kitty and the World Conference (1939), which was withdrawn by the Nazi government due to its “pro-English tendencies.” Although active in the German film industry during the Third Reich, Käutner’s work was noted for its more humanistic depiction of daily life than his contemporaries. He rejected the UFA filmmaking establishment and produced thoughtful works which considered the struggles of the German people during a period of great turmoil. Käutner continued to thrive as a director after the war with such critical successes as The Last Bridge (1954), a stark, realistic war drama which won the International Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and Sky Without Stars (1955) which failed at the box office despite critical renown. Käutner moved to Hollywood where he produced two features for Universal Pictures: The Restless Years (1958) and Stranger in My Arms (1959) before returning to Germany to work in the television industry. This program presents a rare sampling of Käutner’s film production both during and after World War II.

This program is co-presented with the Goethe Institut Boston.


February 20 (Tuesday) 9:15 pm

Romance in a Minor Key (Romanze in Moll)

Directed by Helmut Käutner
Germany 1943, 16mm, b/w, 100 min.
With Marianne Hoppe, Paul Dahlke, Ferdinand Marian
German with English subtitles

Based on Guy de Maupassant’s novella and set in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century, Romance revolves around Madeleine, the wife of a respectable but conservative bank clerk, who has an affair with a young composer. The opening sequence is a cinematic tour-de-force: the camera moves from the roofs of Paris into Madeleine’s bedroom, where she lies like a corpse, but is suddenly brought back to life in narrative flashbacks that show her desperate and vain attempts to find fulfillment outside her home. Nearly banned by Goebbels as too defeatist, it is surely the most nuanced and sympathetic of the Third Reich– era films by virtue of its reflections on a woman who dreams of a more vibrant life.

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February 24 (Saturday) 7 pm

Sky Without Stars (Himmel ohne Sterne)

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

Käutner fashions a unique love story between a West German border guard and an East German factory worker who can meet only in the ruins of a train station in the no man’s land between the divided sectors. As the film heads toward its tragic conclusion, Käutner makes a stirring moral plea against the unnatural partition without engaging in the cold war polemics that often dominated such discussions. Unusual for its direct commentary on contemporary problems, Sky Without Stars was a commercial failure but a critical success.

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February 24 (Saturday) 9:15 pm

In Those Days (In jenen Tagen)

Directed by Helmut Käutner
Germany 1947, 35mm, b/w, 111 min.
With Gert E. Schäfer, Erich Schellow, Winnie Markus
German with English subtitles

Told in seven chapters,, Käutner’s first postwar film portrays the lives of average people overwhelmed and traumatized by the impact of fascism. Käutner uses the framing device of an automobile whose various owners serve as the film’s protagonists and initiate its episodic structure. The characters represent an interesting cross-section of the German people including a deserting soldier, a Jewish couple and a composer who has been labeled as a subversive. During a time when most Germans wanted to forget the past, Käutner eschewed the controlled setting of the UFA studios and chose to film in the bombed out streets of Berlin, crafting a humanistic rendering of recent history.

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February 26 (Monday) 9:15 pm

Great Freedom #7 (Große Freiheit Nr. 7)

Directed by Helmut Käutner
Germany 1944, video, color, 111 min.
With Hans Albers, Ilse Werner, Hans Söhnker
German with English subtitles

Set in a dive bar in Hamburg, Käutner’s first color film focuses on the unhappy life of the “singing seaman,” an entertainer who performs for an audience of prostitutes and sailors on leave. He is obliged by his dying brother to care for his former mistress and falls madly in love with the young woman. But she has no romantic interest in the singer, preferring the company of a young dockworker. The film’s title— which is the name of the street where the bar is located—caused a furor among the Nazis (despite strong support from Joseph Goebbels) who feared that audiences would misinterpret the film’s meaning. As a result, the film was banned in Germany until the fall of the Third Reich.

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February 27 (Tuesday) 9 pm

Under the Bridges (Unter den Brücken)

Directed by Helmut Käutner
Germany 1945, 16mm, b/w, 92 min.
With Hannelore Schroth, Carl Raddatz, Gustav Knuth
German with English subtitles

Under the Bridges is one of a number of transitional endeavors—so called "carryovers" —which, although produced during the Third Reich, were not premiered until after the war. Its narrative recalls Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, just as its style brings to mind the poetic realism of early Renoir in Boudu Saved from Drowning and Toni. A romantic triangle unfolds on a small boat that wends its way up and down the Havel near Berlin. Käutner took leave of the artifice of studios and, while bombs continued to fall on the Reich, shot on location. His film also took leave of UFA production values and departed from the Nazi era’s scriptbound predilections, rediscovering the wonder of immediacy and physical reality.

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