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Return to Babelsberg

by DAVID YEARSLEY

If the cinema is an art, it is much more a business. Any major film festival, such as the one just concluded in Berlin, boasts a prestigious jury charged with rewarding the latest artistic achievement. This year the Golden Bear statuette for best film went to Caesar Must Die, an Italian movie about the staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in a maximum security Roman prison.  Although held to be a startling upset by the German press, the decision seems in retrospect to be hardly surprising. In its blurring of the border between the real and the represented, this film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, shares an aesthetic attitude towards the movie medium harbored by the chairman of the jury, British filmmaker Mike Leigh, whose intense and often unrelenting depictions of working class life are known for their gritty realism.

A film festival such as Berlin is not only concerned with the latest products, but also with cinema history. These retrospective impulses also beat the advertising drum. 2012 marks the centenary of the founding of Germany’s major film studio in the town of Babelsberg beyond what were then the outskirts of Berlin. In honor of the anniversary year the festival screened a series of films stretching across the history of the studio, which remains to do this day Europe’s biggest.  Friedrich Murnau, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Fritz Lang among many other luminaries worked here before heading to Hollywood, either voluntarily in pursuit of greater fame and fortune, or chased there by the Nazis. Under the watchful eye of Joseph Goebbels the studio dedicated itself to sinister Nazi visions, most notoriously in the anti-semitic propaganda film Jud Süß of 1940, not shown in the Berlin festival. After World War II the studio became a state enterprise of the German Democratic Republic, churning out more than seven hundred films in some forty-five years.

After German Reunification in 1990 the studio was privatized, and one of the current principle investors and chairman, Christoph Fisser was on hand for a festival presentation of a beautifully restored print of one of the most famous of Babelsberg films, Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) of 1930 with Marlene Dietrich as the libertine revue singer, Lola Lola. Dietrich had been appearing in pictures in Babelsberg since the early 1920s, but Der blaue Engel proved to be her international screen breakthrough.

That Babelsberg retrospective was concerned not only with the past, but also with the present was clear from Fisser’s pre-screening interview. Under his leadership, the studio has been able to lure American productions to Berlin, and Fisser gushed about working with Tom Cruise on Valkyrie and Quentin Tarantino on Inglorious Basterds. Fisser recounted Tarantino’s arrival at the huge Babelsberg sound stage now Named Marlene Detrich Hall, where, among other films, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was shot. Tarantino fell to the floorboards and kissed them, exclaiming rapturously, “Marlene stood here! Marelene stood here!”  Tossed one softball question after the another, Fisser then defended the large public subsidies the studio enjoys (though, as he was quick to complain, they’re not as large as those of other countries) with an ode to the publicity avalanche and tourism dollars generated by Tom Cruise’s stint in Berlin working on Valkyrie. In one of the many Nazi films made during Visser’s tenure, Cruise starred in that film as Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the failed plot to blow up Hitler in the summer of 1944. The production was initially denied permission to film in the Defense Ministry buildings where the conspirators hoped to take over the government after Hitler’s assignation, because of Cruise’s Scientology. But money soon dispelled these ugly scruples, and the filming duly proceeded.

 

Fisser gushed that some two-thousand newspaper articles had been written about the Cruise family during their several-month stay and Berlin, and that this chatter had more than paid off the public investment in the Valkyrie production. Unclear was whether Fisser’s argument was sadder for what it said about the press or for its fawning attitude towards Hollywood royalty. It is perhaps fitting that Babelsberg now prides itself on the lurid Nazi porn of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds in which a squad of American Jewish commandos scalps Nazi beasts. The film’s orgiastic finale, in which Hitler and his lieutenants including his film honcho Joseph Goebbels, are gunned down and burned up in a Paris cinema, is as disgusting and bizarre as many of the Nazi’s own films made in the very same Babelsberg studio. Where would Fisser’s studio now be without the Nazis as film fodder?

After the dark-suited executive had scuttled off stage, the memory of his embarrassing appearance soon wafted away amidst in the smoked filled cabarets and louche boudoirs of Der blaue Engel. In 1930 the biggest star on the screen was not Dietrich but Emil Jennings, who received ten times her salary for the movie. Two years before, Jannings had won the first best actor Academy Award for his work in a pair of films, one of which was The Last Command directed by Josef von Sternberg, who would go one to direct Jannings in Der blaue Engel. As Professor Unrath—also the title of the Heinrich Mann on which the film is based—Jannings descent from fanatically strict high school teacher to melancholic, insanely jealous husband and pathetic cabaret clown is memorable for the intensity of gesture and emotion. Whereas Janning’s wild hair, grasping sausage-like fingers, and eyes alternatively furious and forlorn, jump off the screen, Dietrich’s sultry glances, brazen disrobings, and coquettish singing lure the viewer into it. Her performance is less shocking (that it certainly was for its day) than downright seductive. She was destined for greatness on the newly sounding silver screen in a way Jannings was not.  He returned to Germany after his sojourn in Hollywood, befriended Goebbels, flourished under the Nazis, and was banned from the movies by the Allies after the war.

The internationalism lauded by Fisser, indeed required for him to turn the profit his shareholders demand, was vital to Babelsberg even in Golden Age. Der blaue Engel was shot simultaneously in German and English, but Dietrich’s coy German singing is, ultimately, untranslatable. Friedrich Hollaender provided the music for the film, which exploits the new medium of sound in diverse and often striking ways. Like many early sound movies, Der blaue Engel has almost no underscoring; what there is of out comes only at the beginning and the end of the film, in the form of an orchestral overture and a tragic coda.  Born in London, to Jewish German parents—his father was an operetta composer and his mother a circus singer—Hollaender’s family moved back to Berlin in 1899 when he was three years old. Hollaender would go on to thrive in Berlin’s cabaret scene of the 1920s, and had to flee quickly after the Nazis took power in 1933 since he was high on their musical hate list, not least for his parody song, “An allem sind die Juden schuld” (The Jews are to Blame for Everything). Along with his father, Hollaender made it to Hollywood where her remained until 1955, writing the scores for, among many other films, A Foreign Affair and  Sabrina by Billy Wilder, another refugee who got his start at Babelsberg.

Hollaender’s score for Der blaue Engel is a  masterpiece. The movie offers him a perfect vessel for his cabaret genius while also allowing him to demonstrate his fluent command of the style of high-culture along with with a knack for deflating its pretensions. Both the Overture and the final death march incorporate the melody of “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s Magic Flute. In that folksy little song the simple bird-catcher Papageno wishes himself a pretty little wife.  Hollaneder’s use of the tune in Der blaue Engel beats and blackens this harmless sentiment: having given up his job and destroyed his own prestige to follow the lascivious Lola, the Professor is then unceremoniously dumped by her. When Mozart’s melody returns in minor mode in Hollaneder’s concluding dirge it both laughs at and cries with Janning’s character as he trudges in his clown’s outfit to his death at the teacher’s desk from which he had once rebuked his hormonal students, who’s obsession with Lola had brought Unrath to her revue in the first place. With economical genius, Hollaender shows us how the frock-coated Unrath, laden down by the apparatus of Bildung and the burden of respectability, is just as simple- and single-minded in the art of love as the naïve birdcatcher. By conjuring the glories of Mozart in a netherworld of disrepute, Hollaender’s music makes us hear just how far the professor has fallen, just how unlucky he was to get the girl.

The sound design of Der blaue Engel is also masterful, though by present-day standards it would be deemed primitive; the school clock bells that summon the Janning’s Professor to his job each morning and in the end sound his doom, also play Mozart’s melody.

Within the body of the film—and by body I mean Dietrich’s—Hollaender’s cabaret songs flow freely. Her marquee number “Ich bin vom Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe gestellt”  (From Head to Toe I’m Made for Love) is oft-reprised in the film, and is the ultimate anthem to the liberties, lusts, and humor of the Weimar Republic and its short-lived emancipation from Bismarckian decorum.

After his years in Hollywood, Hollaender returned to Munich in 1955 and started up another cabaret. Just a few weeks ago the Berlin square once named after the German historian Leopold von Ranke was renamed after Hollaender, suggesting perhaps that there might just be more truth and cultural importance in Hollaender’s scurrilous songs and feisty refashionings of the classics than in the Prussian intellectual’s weighty tomes. Hollaender’s work is certainly more entertaining.

A few days before the screening of Der blaue Engel the Babelsberg series in the Berlin Film Festival had begun with another of Janning’s famous films—Der letzte Mann (The Last Man) of 1924, directed by Friedrich Murnau. Here Jannings plays a porter at an upscale Berlin hotel who loves his job and the brocaded uniform that goes with it.  The uniform is his mark of standing back in his tenement; he strides into the warren of flats after a long day carrying bags with the posture of a conquering general.  When the hotel manager demotes him to lavatory boy on account of his old age, Jannings’ tries to hide his humiliation from his family and friends but is ultimately destroyed. In a practice run for the equally unlikely happy end of his Hollywood masterpiece Sunrise of a few years later, Murnau swerves wildly into fantasy in the final ten minutes of Der letzte Mann. Murnau imagines what would happen if the devastated porter inherited millions from an unseen American industrialist guest of the hotel, farcically named Mr. Money. Jannings rockets from the toilets to a table sagging with caviar  and champagne. From prideful porter to the lowest laborer broken in body and spirit, Jannings makes all the failings of age and reputation of his Last Man larger than life. Never has acting looked more strenuous. The young movie guy with his accreditation pass sitting next to me at the screening was wrong to laugh at Jannings’ exertions: on the silent movie screen, tragedy required real effort, and through them Jannings convinced as an old, defeated man. One is surprised to see him five years in Der blaue Engel playing a main twenty years younger than The Last Man.

Accompanying the film at the piano was Eunice Martins, whose improvised playing was particularly good in its evocation of the lively popular song culture of 1920s Berlin. The black upright brought in for her was about as out of place in the Potsdamer Platz high-tech Cinemaxx theater, with its mega Dolby surround sound system silenced for once, as a clavichord among a battery of howitzers. But her use of speeding oom-pah boulevard bass lines, quizzically augmented chords, and pointillistic clusters disappearing into ominous silence punctuated the gaping cruelities and crushed hopes of the film, and painted a tuneful smirk on Murnau’s ironic lieto fine.

Just like the Last Man, Mr. Fisser must work hard for the American millions. He’s free to do that, just as long as he doesn’t let Tarantino shoot the piano player.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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