Friday, 23 February 2018

Weimar superstar… Christian Wahnschaffe (1919-21), with Stephen Horne, Berlinale 68 (Part Two)

Day three of the festival and it was back to the gorgeous Zeughkino for perhaps the major restoration, two films that were once considered lost and which had been painstakingly reconstructed over a two-year period… it was time for Conrad Veidt, a genuine Weimar superstar!

Directed by Urban Gad, the former Mr Asta Nielsen, the films were quite different with the first a sprawling tale of political subversion, nihilist revolutionaries on the prowl and the second a simpler, more entertaining tale of social injustice. We saw Connie the fashion plate, the feline sensitive, the noble hero, the Proteus - unfurling those steely limbs; defying the logic of form and substance… and always, always, carrying unconscious women.

Christian Wahnschaffe, Teil 1: Weltbrand (World Afire) (1919)

“You sacrifice thousands of souls in your desire for adoration…”

World Afire is still incomplete and whilst titles explained missing parts of the plot there were still some narrative jumps in a story loaded with character and sub-plots. Christian Wahnschaffe is the spoiled son of a wealthy industrialist whose eyes are opened to the struggles below his income bracket through his relations with a stunning dancer Eva Sorrel (Lillebil Ibsen) and her associate, a Russian Nihilist called Iwan Becker (Fritz Kortner, wide-eyed and febrile even without Lulu to push him through the gears…).

Lillebil Ibsen and Leopold von Ledebur
Eva is introduced with a great high-angled shot from Gad and his cinematographer Max Lutze who also perform similar service for the high-angled cheekbones of Herr Veidt. It’s Conrad the clothes horse with one combination of leather waistcoat and plaid jodhpurs being especially striking and we also see the Veidt ribs through a revealing satin dressing-gown – deliberate decadence setting him at the extremes of a long journey.

Christian fixates on Eva and drives his poor wife to misery as we meet the other players in Eva’s life Cardillac (Hermann Vallentin) a high-stakes investor and her step-father, the crippled dancer who made Eva dance over knives to succeed where he failed. It’s all very baroque – Eva’s father is introduced with a montage of naked dancers circling over his head – and as we skip from Paris to Russia the mood shifts.

Eva has attracted the interest of the Russian Grand Duke (Leopold von Ledebur) and the head of his secret police (Josef Peterhans) intercepts a secret document she has been hiding for Becker on behalf of the revolutionaries… As a revolution clearly very much like the one in 1905 gathers pace, Christian and Becker try to win them back.

The plot is considerably more convoluted than this of course but overall the film is a visually sumptuous melodrama incorporating fashion, dance and “nihilism”. But this was really only the set-up for Christain Wahnschaffe, the punch-line was to follow…

The Nihilists make secret plans
Christian Wahnschaffe, Teil 2: Die Flucht aus dem goldenen Kerker/ The Escape from the Golden Prison (1921)

The second “part” features far fewer characters and much more Veidt with a plot as taught as the sinews in the actor’s steely arms. This time Christian becomes drawn into the world of the poor by compassion and love although everyone’s motivations are at one time or another questionable, even Ruth (Rose Müller) the angel of the slums: wealth corrupts and Ruth is right when she tells Christian that “…your money sends people down the wrong path.”

Christian lives in splendour and is bored to tears at one of his own parties: tired of these “ceaseless revels”. His pal Amadeus Voß (Ernst Pröckl) suggests some slumming and takes him down to a dive bar well past the wrong side of the tracks. The denizens are drunk and feisty, and the posh boys cover up their bow-ties and try to look cool. It’s far too much for Christian though when a painter/pimp, Niels Heinrich (the excellent Werner Krauß) starts beating up his girl Karen (Esther Hagan). The violence is believably brutal from both actors – Krauß is so thoroughly menacing – that the intervention of Veidt’s character can’t come soon enough.

Christian protected by Ruth
Christian takes Karen to a hotel and she is naturally confused by Christian’s charity – good emoting from Esther Hagen. Sadly, they have been followed by Niels and so any relief will be short-lived…

Back in his mansion, Christian works out by boxing, allowing Veidt to show some impressive combinations, and thinks through what he should do. “The most exhausting work a man can do is nothing…” and spurred on he once again must rescue Karen on finding her being assaulted by Niels. Carrying her away from the hotel and back to her mother’s apartment, he passes through dozens of children lining the rickety stairways of their slum.

Here he meets the saintly Ruth who has devoted her life to helping and is transfixed by her example and, naturally, her smile. He offers his wallet, but she tells him to think harder. Voß cannot understand his friend: “… why are you here? Are you attracted by poverty?” no, replies Christian, “but I hate wealth”.

He follows this up by liquidating his assets and, sixty years before the KLF, sets flame to his fortune, causing a riot in the tenement. But there is one asset he wants to share and he gives his mother’s pearls to Ruth an act that does not go un-noticed and one thing leads to another, leads to a murder and more. Given the hyperinflation of this period – wheelbarrows of notes were required to buy groceries – this fascination with wealth and currency speaks for itself but we are also in the time when genuine alternatives to capitalism were closer to the mainstream. Whatever goes around…

On the Zeughkino’s Steinway, Stephen Horne was on top form and, having played the double the day before, was all over the narrative and emotion with multi-tasked inspiration. The closing passage to the second film was spectacular with a stunned audience hanging on the final, devastating, suspended notes and cinema staff putting in urgent calls to the piano tuner (possibly)… a fitting climax for that astonishing ending.

Die Unehelichen/Children of no Importance/Illegitimate Children (1926), with Maud Nelissen

Another film from Gerhard Lamprecht, this quite different from the first (Sins of the Father), but equally earnest in its pursuit of the social issues of the day namely child abuse in foster care. Lamprecht was the son of a prison padre and a humanist committed to moving society forward, a forward-thinking agenda that it’s all too easy to shake your head at: the rise of the most socially-destructive regimes was never inevitable and that is precisely why the recent history is so widely recognised in this city.

Peter Hewer (Ralph Ludwig), Lotte (Fee Wachsmuth) and Frieda (Margot Misch) are three illegitimate children in foster care with the Zielke’s. Herr Zielke (Max Maximilian) is a violent drunk who jokes with his pals in the bar that he’s off to have some fun beating his other half (Margarete Kupfer) who is just as hard on the children. Eventually this miserable existence takes its toll on Lotte and Peter is handed possible salvation by the well-off Frau Berndt (Hermine Sterler) only for his biological father (Bernhard Goetzke) to exert his legal right to take his child and work him hard on his barge…

Clearly there were injustices to be addressed but the film is naturalistic, well shot and delivers its message whilst entertaining. Lamprecht directs his young stars well and all three do very well… reader, there were moist eyes in the fifth row of the CinemaXx.

The Light of Asia / Prem sanyas (1925), with recorded score from Pierre Oser, and the ensembleKONTRAST

Lastly, I should mention the first film I saw, Die Leuchte Asiens, the first of the classic trilogy commissioned by Himansu Rai and Peter Ostermayer that came before A Throw of Dice and then Shiraz. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the excellence of the new Anoushka Shankar score for Shiraz, but I was slightly disappointed with the score that was played: a mix of chamber orchestration and electronica. There were treated instruments playing the leading lines and whilst these were not unpleasant I found them distracting and not always sympathetic.

Franz Osten directs this Indo-German co-production, which is never-the-less a special film with my main man Himansu Rai on top form as the Prince who wants to find peace with his god and the – rather young, 13/14?! - Seeta Devi, even then a performer of intensity and casual power, as his devoted wife.

A reminder, if one was needed that there’s more important philosophical work to be done to free ourselves from the mindsets of national identity and tribalism that bind our souls firmly to the ground.

Danke Berline, wir sehen uns nächstes Jahr!

Rocking the leather look

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