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"I like him -- he doesn't like the world, and that's a good start."
"Who will change the world?" / "Those who don't like it."
Berlin was a highly polarized political city in the early 1930s, with the National Socialists, the Communists and many other political parties trying separately to put together coalitions that would appeal to a majority of the public. Near the apex of the cultural scene was playwright Bertolt Brecht, the genius behind The Threepenny Opera. When G.W. Pabst prepared a talkie film version, Brecht wanted to rewrite the film script to express his growing anti-capitalist theories. When the playwright was prevented from doing so, he filed a famous lawsuit.
Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World? became Brecht's next filmic attempt to develop his "materialist aesthetics". It was actually a collective film made with the express purpose of showing the public that the way out of their social problems -- chronic unemployment & despair -- was to commit to Soviet- style collectivist political activism.
The simple storyline is constructed musically, moving from theme to theme. Several sequences are cut to Eisler's busy score. A group of bicyclists race between factories and employment offices, only to find that no jobs are available. The chapter "One Unemployed Worker Less" builds to the suicide of a despairing young worker. He's the unhappy son of an unemployed family that refuses to be political -- thereby risking, in the opinion of the filmmakers, being left behind in the flow of history. Neither the father nor the pert sister Anni (Hertha Thiele) can find work.
Evicted, the family takes up a tent in "Kuhle Wampe", a homeless camp outside of Berlin. In a lyrical pastoral scene, Anni makes love to her boyfriend Fritz (Ernst Busch), an event indicated only by Bertolt Brecht's song lyrics. Fritz decides against marriage at his engagement party (!), after which Anni joins a Communist Youth Athletics League in the city, a collective that apparently has funds for sporting equipment, including motorcycles. Fritz eventually loses his job as a mechanic and gravitates to the Youth League as well. The film ends with a sports meet entertained by a German agitprop theater group called The Red Megaphone. On the bus (or subway?) back to the city, League members engage in a spirited debate with other passengers over the news that Brazilian coffee growers are burning their crops to maintain market prices. Everyone agrees that the world needs to change, but who will do it? "Those who don't like it," is the final answer.
Veering between docu blandness and lyrical musical scenes, Kuhle Wampe is an interesting footnote to cinema history. The musical sequences are played over deceptively irrelevant montages -- irrelevant until we get the connection, as in the sunny love scene by the lake. The songs are very much like those of The Threepenny Opera, although Eisler's music isn't as melodic as Kurt Weill's.
Anni wears a short hairdo, white shirt and male tie, very much suggesting the subtext of her previous hit film Mädchen in Uniform. The destruction of her traditional engagement (forced by a pregnancy) and of the family unit as well turns out to be a good thing, as all of the young people find meaning with the collective Youth League.
Often pointed out as progressively cinematic is a pre-eviction scene in which the father reads a titillating newspaper account of the nude dances of Mata Hari, while mother tries to add up the food bill. Their major disconnect shows the purported irrelevancy of the media, which merely distract (the masses?) from important issues.
It's reported that Bertolt Brecht directed the final "coffee debate" scene, which resembles a more sophisticated version of an agitprop play. The cutting style becomes very theatrical as the various speakers on the subway car reveal their political identities -- conservative proto-fascist, clueless bourgeois, etc. Brecht peppers the talk with jokes and amusing character detail, while his main issue comes through strong: the existing capitalist system works for profits, not the good of humanity. 1
Kuhle Wampe is a focus point for the dashed hopes for communism in Germany at the end of the Weimar Republic, a conflation of fascinating artists committed to a single political direction. "Political commitment" of any stripe back then was never a trifling affair -- the people who worked on this film truly put themselves at risk, and several have permanent places in anti-Fascist history.
The film was released in April 1932, after some censor cuts: apparently some nude bathing and scenes referencing an abortion were removed. The Nazis banned it in March 1933, barely two months after Hitler was elected Chancellor. Brecht and Eisler fled West, eventually ending up in Hollywood making anti-Fascist films, such as Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die! Eisler was nominated for two Oscars, and also did the music for one of Joseph Losey's early industrial films. Brecht's wife Helene Weigel (seen in Metropolis), who sings a worker's song in Kuhle Wampe, played a role in MGM's anti-Nazi film The Seventh Cross. Famous cameraman Günther Krampf (Nosferatu, Pandora's Box) fled to England, where he filmed The Tunnel and propaganda pictures for Alfred Hitchcock.
Bertolt Brecht fame can be measured by the fact that his work was adapted into almost 100 movies and television shows ... and that's just the ones made after his death. But both he and Hanns Eisler were forced to flee the United States during the late-forties' anti-Communist witch hunts. They all regrouped in East Germany. Hanns Eisler wrote East Germany's national anthem. Director Slatan Dudow spent the war years in exile before helping to found Germany's DEFA studio. His last film in 1963 had in its cast a young Armin Mueller-Stahl. Hertha Thiele had a part in a popular East German film of the 1970s, The Legend of Paul and Paula.
DEFA / Omnimago's DVD of Kuhle Wampe is in actuality a disc being made available for educational purposes and not widely distributed; it can be ordered through the website given above.
The transfer is very good considering the film's age and history: an only surviving copy in the Cinematheque Francais made its way to DEFA in the middle 1950s when, despite the Cold War, the Cinematheque had a healthy cultural exchange going with East Germany. A new digital restoration has smoothed out many flaws without scrubbing the picture or soundtrack away from its original look and sound. Audio is quite good, especially considering the primitive system available to a the small Berlin production company, which went under before the movie was even finished. Removable English subtitles are in place for both dialogue and song lyrics.
Project producer Hiltrud Schulz has included a variety of well-chosen extras. The first is the 1930 short docu How the Worker Lives, Slatan Dudow's study of poverty in Berlin. Slatan Dudow - A Film About a Marxist Artist is a 1974 East German docu celebrating the filmmaker, clearly considered a right-thinking pioneer by the Communist authorities. It contains some clips from Dudow's later DEFA movies as well. Kuhle Wampe got an East Berlin re-premiere in 1958 and apparently was a staple on television, and a new introduction for the reissue is included on the disc too. Not included on the disc is a 1975 East German TV docu called Kuhle Wampe Censored that deals exclusively with the censorship of the original film, and features new recreations of some of the missing film material. Savant has reviewed it separately, here.
DVD-Rom text extras include an essay on the film's context and intellectual intent by Marc Silberman, and a piece on the recovery of the film by Wolfgang Klaue, who was at DEFA when it recovered the only known copy. In an interview excerpt from 1981 actress Hertha Thiele reminisces about her dealings with Brecht and Dudow -- they chose to have her long hair cut for the film. Being accepted by famous intellectual artists sounds great, but being "intellectually molded" by them seems a bit worrisome. A selection of Biographies and Filmographies are included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. An example of the Brecht theater style that we're all familiar with is in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, specifically the coffee-shop debate just before the attack on downtown Bodega Bay. Several sets of characters talk "across purposes" while a nervous mother objects in vain. A comic drunk keeps interjecting, "It's the End of the World!" Final conclusion: practical progress is impossible due to self-interest and poor communication. All that's lacking is a musical background, and perhaps some choruses. The famous "still" shots of Tippi Hedren looking at the gasoline approaching the doomed man in the car can also be interpreted as a Brechtian effect, one that emphasizes the artificiality of the filmic moment, pushing us back from 'reality' even as our emotional involvement shoots upward. (Acknowledgement of aid on this point: Allan Peach)
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