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The Kaiser's Lackey
(Der Untertan)

The Kaiser's Lackey
First Run Features
1951 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 105 min. / Der Untertan / Street Date February 17, 2009 / 24.95
Starring Werner Peters, Paul Esser, Renate Fischer, Ernst Legal, Raimund Schelcher, Eduard von Winterstein, Friedrich Maurer, Sabine Thalbach, Friedrich Gnass.
Cinematography Robert Baberske
Production Design Karl Schneider. Erich Zander
Film Editor Johanna Rosinski
Original Music Horst Hans Seiber
Written by Wolfgang Staudte, Fritz Staudte from the novel by Heinrich Mann
Produced by DEFA
Directed by Wolfgang Staudte

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The diplomatic Cold War of the 1950s and 60s was mirrored by a cultural propaganda war fought between the film studios of East and West Europe. Each side regularly banned the other's filmic output, usually accompanied by charges of provocation and propaganda. The western sector turned out anti-Communist exposé entertainments like George Seaton's The Big Lift and Carol Reed's The Man Between. East Germany counterattacked with heavy-handed, often hypocritical message films denouncing the west.

The first post-war East German feature to attract major political attention was Wolfgang Staudte's 1946 The Murderers are Among Us. It shouted that not enough was being done to root out the many Nazis still active in the ruins of Berlin. Staude's 1949 Rotation advises that the only way for Germany to shake free of its Nazi past is to embrace a Communist future. Council of the Gods goes even farther, claiming that American capitalists were linked to the production of gas for the death camps and conspired with German firms to control the world's oil production. Thanks to DVD, many Eastern-bloc productions of this period are now more readily available in the west.

Released in 1951, Staude's much more subtle The Kaiser's Lackey represents a high point of East German film production. It's from a novel by Heinrich Mann, the author of Professor Unrat, the basis for the famous Marlene Dietrich film The Blue Angel. Mann was an outspoken critic of the authoritarian and militaristic excesses of Germany in the late 19th century. We're told that the German title Der Untertan is not easily translated. The main character is both a bully and an underdog, a sort of servile tyrant. The often-funny film doesn't so much attack the politics of the west as create an exaggerated, unflattering portrait of Germany's Prussian heritage.

In 1880s Prussia, baby Diederich Heißling is terrorized by a cruel father and a mother who tells him frightening folk tales. The authoritarian conditioning begins in grade school. Diederich soon learns to cope by snitching on his classmates. When he becomes a young man, the cowardly Heißling (now played by German star Werner Peters) is easily corrupted by fellow students. He seduces his sweetheart Agnes (Sabine Thalbach) and then abandons her because she's no longer worthy of him. He joins a drinking club and goes through fencing rites to gain the mandatory facial scars. Beer-drinking and casual cruelty are all rationalized as part of a mindless worship of the Emperor. Graduating as a chemist, Heißling tries to join the army. His flat feet force him to withdraw.

Heißling is by now perfectly groomed to assume a role back in his hometown. He runs the family paper factory with an iron hand, indirectly causing an innocent worker to be shot on the street by the guard of a town big shot. The local aristocrats declare that the shooting was justified because the worker was insolent. Hoping to crash the local political establishment, Heißling overplays his hand and calls out a member of a liberal political party for supposedly defaming the Emperor. Heißling's peers abandon him when the ensuing trial becomes an embarrassment. But the cowardly aristocrat turns defeat into victory by embellishing his already perjured testimony with a rousing salute to the Emperor.

Heißling finally gains the acceptance he craves. He marries and then ignores a fat but wealthy woman (Renate Fischer), preferring to concentrate on wildly exaggerated patriotic activities. Hearing that the Emperor is visiting Italy, Heißling rushes to Rome to stand guard outside his hotel. He attacks an innocent Italian he imagines to be an assassin, and runs alongside the Emperor's royal carriage begging to be acknowledged. Although he barely receives a nod, Heißling imagines himself indispensable to the Empire.

Staudte's film is an absorbing social document of pre-war Prussia, a long-passed German culture that is little understood, at least in America. Viewers intrigued by the brief glimpse in Michael Powell's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp will find the era much more thoroughly covered here. Our image of the militaristic Prussian is either a lean maniac obsessed with dueling scars, or a fat martinet with a waxed moustache and a funny helmet -- stereotypes ridiculed in cartoons like The Katzenjammer Kids. Heinrich Mann's Prussians are too powerful and cruel to be funny. Heißling desperately wants to take his place of privilege in a ruling class contemptuous of the rest of society.

The elaborate production has excellent period costumes and déor. Director Staude moves his story quickly, showing a flair for expressive camera angles and clever scene transitions. One memorable shot views a long line of dueling-society members through their drinking mugs, distorting their already scarred faces. In another painfully funny scene, Heißling enters an important office. He abases himself before the official and the official's dog, who seems to know darn well that Heißling is lower on the pecking order.

The Kaiser's Lackey ends on an ominous note. Public funds have been squandered on an enormous bronze statue of the Emperor. Heißling is in the middle of a strident militaristic speech when a huge storm blows up. The scene dissolves to a few years later. The town square now lies in wartime rubble, with the lonely statue the only thing left standing. We hear Heißling's Hitler-like slogans promising to forge a new nation on the battlefield, from blood and steel.

The movie's clear message is that the old Germany's militaristic and authoritarian ways led to the disastrous wars of the 20th century. Mann's point was that Germany's inflexibility precipitated the insanity of WW1, but The Kaiser's Lackey implies that the same politics brought on Hitler and the Nazis as well. The film shows no organized Communist opposition, just isolated liberals like the powerless shop foreman Napoleon Fischer (Friedrich Gnaß). I can well imagine West German officials immediately concluding that this film was made by "Germany haters" wishing to promote Soviet ideology.

Stout actor Werner Peters is excellent as the pompous, repellent Diederich Heißling. Peters eventually moved to West Germany. His prominent part as an unlikely undercover hero in Fritz Lang's The 1,000 Eyes of Dr.Mabuse led to many roles in German mystery thrillers. He occasionally played villains in American movies as well: 36 Hours, Battle of the Bulge.

First Run Features' DVD of The Kaiser's Lackey is a fine B&W transfer of excellent film elements. The clear audio track accentuates several period songs and the martial main theme. The good English subtitles are unfortunately part of the film image and cannot be removed.

First Run gives us text bios on Wolfgang Staudt and Werner Peters, and a lengthy taped lecture by Amherst historian Andrew Donson. He reminds us that the film is meant to be an exaggerated satire of conditions in pre-WW1 Prussia; Germans find much of the film very funny. The lecture explains the scene in which a series of portraits are replaced in quick succession: in 1888 two Emperors died only fifteen weeks apart, a game of royal musical chairs that put the 26 year-old Kaiser Wilhelm II in power.

Donson also explains that the blame for the later rise of Hitler and the Nazis was equally the fault of the liberal political parties that tried but failed to revitalize Germany after the Great War. Staudte's ominous finale stresses the continuity of German militarism but oversimplifies history.  1

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Kaiser's Lackey rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Lecture-featurette Interpreting The Kaiser's Lackey, Historical Timline, Biographies and Filmographies
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 10, 2009

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies .


1. From Steve Guarento, March 30, 2009:
Hi Glenn, I was interested in your review of the Kaiser's Lackey disc, primarily (although not exclusively) because of the name of its director. Wolfgang Staudte, you see, was responsible for creating the German dub for Kubrick's Clockwork Orange -- quite a highly-regarded attempt at conveying the polyglot qualities of Anthony Burgess' nadsat dialogue (according to my German source). On the German Clockwork one-sheet poster (incidentally the only uncensored version of Philip Castle's artwork anywhere in the world), Staudte's name is writ almost as large as Kubrick's -- presumably an indication of Staudte's standing in the German film industry at the time...

That concludes today's broadcast from the Ministry of Useless Trivia. Best regards, Steve Guariento

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

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