Cinema, culture and modernity

Olaf Möller on Helmut Käutner, Wolfgang Staudte and Harald Braun

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Olaf Möller on Black Gravel (Schwarzer Kies) starring Ingmar Zeisberg, Helmut Wildt and Hans Cossy:
Olaf Möller on Black Gravel (Schwarzer Kies) starring Ingmar Zeisberg, Helmut Wildt and Hans Cossy: "This is really Käutner on his realism track."

At the Film Society of Lincoln Center inside the Furman Gallery of the Walter Reade Theater, Olaf Möller, the curator of The Lost Years of German Cinema: 1949–1963, discussed with me the films of Helmut Käutner, including his Hamlet adaptation, Der Rest Ist Schweigen (The Rest Is Silence), starring Hardy Krüger, Der Traum Von Lieschen Müller (The Dream Of Lieschen Mueller) and Bildnis Einer Unbekannten (Portrait Of An Unknown Woman).

OE Hasse, Lilli Palmer and Peter van Eyck in Harald Braun's The Glass Tower (Der Gläserne Turm)
OE Hasse, Lilli Palmer and Peter van Eyck in Harald Braun's The Glass Tower (Der Gläserne Turm)

Wolfgang Staudte's The Fair (Kirmes) starring Juliette Mayniel, and Harald Braun's The Glass Tower (Der Gläserne Turm) with Lilli Palmer, OE Hasse and Peter van Eyck, along with Käutner's Redhead (Die Rote) with Gert Fröbe and Ruth Leuwerik, Sky Without Stars (Himmel Ohne Sterne), starring Erik Schumann and Eva Kotthaus, and Black Gravel (Schwarzer Kies) are some of the titles screening in the illuminating 13-film program.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Helmut Käutner's Black Gravel film begins with a dog. I thought Käutner made it very clear that this is a fake dog, a toy [that is buried in the gravel]. Do you think so? I thought he was pulling us in emotionally and then throwing us out.

Olaf Möller: No. Just an awkwardness. I mean Käutner was so obsessed with realism in this film. The film was back then announced as being the latest in realistic filmmaking. This is really more of an awkwardness. There is a lot of, let's say, trompe l'oeils, a lot of stuff playing around with false objects, etc., that are there to put some distance, keep the viewer at some distance, in quite a few films of Käutner but not here.

Juliette Mayniel in Wolfgang Staudte's The Fair (Kirmes)
Juliette Mayniel in Wolfgang Staudte's The Fair (Kirmes)

AKT: I tied the stuffed dalmatian in with the house the main character built for himself, the toy-house atmosphere. But you don't think so?

OM: No. This is really Käutner on his realism track.

AKT: It's an extremely depressing film, I felt.

OM: Yes. That's why nobody wanted to see it.

AKT: It didn't let me go for a while. It's so German.

OM: Yes. The incredible hotness of Ingmar Zeisberg.

AKT: Is that it?

OM: No, but what I mean the film does have, it's …

AKT: … mood?

OM: It's moody and it's unrelenting. Unrelenting and unforgiving. And that, I'm tempted to say, very few films of that period are unrelenting and unforgiving. It's in many ways a really unique thing for the period. It was conceived by Käutner as that. Käutner had great, great hopes for that film. Käutner, like [Wolfgang] Staudte and also Harald Braun, they were all obsessed with the idea of being able to reinvent German cinema from within. Actually these three actually founded their own production company to have the freedom to do that. After two films they were broke.

Helmut Käutner's Sky Without Stars (Himmel Ohne Sterne) stars Erik Schumann and Eva Kotthaus
Helmut Käutner's Sky Without Stars (Himmel Ohne Sterne) stars Erik Schumann and Eva Kotthaus

AKT: Which two films?

OM: One is Käutner's Hamlet adaptation, Der Rest Ist Schweigen, and the other is Kirmes [The Fair] by Staudte. They also did, I think, two television things. I think Käutner's Annoncentheater [Ein Abendprogramm des deutschen Fernsehens im Jahre 1776] is also produced by the company - probably to get some money back for the losses of Kirmes. Der Rest ist Schweigen did okay, I think, but Kirmes was a catastrophe. They were really, really believing that it was up to them to find new ways, to not being defeatist, but to really fight for cinema.

And to fight for cinema's place in culture. And to fight for their idea of being modern. They, Käutner, Staudte, Braun, had very clear ideas about what a modern Federal Republic of Germany is. And they were thoroughly modern people. This is what they were trying to express and they had to find out that they were in many ways totally at odds with the country and the time.

AKT: For example the censorship of Black Gravel?

OM: There was no censorship.

AKT: Okay. What happened?

Ingmar Zeisberg with Hans Cossy in Black Gravel:
Ingmar Zeisberg with Hans Cossy in Black Gravel: "It's moody and it's unrelenting."

OM: Let's be very clear about terminology. The film was not censored. There are censored films but this is not one of them. What happened? Actually even the German state refused to have anything to do with it. What happened was that after the premiere of the film, the head of the Jewish community in Germany - the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland - he basically voiced the opinion that this film had something anti-Semitic to it, due to the fact that one sees a brothel owner who has been to a concentration camp, and that the scene was an insult to all Jews. This, of course, made waves and the distribution company together with Käutner edited the film to calm things down.

So that's how this scene and a few others actually vanished from the film. So - repeat - this was not an act of censorship. This was self-censorship. They could have brought out the film just the way you will see it in a few days here. They self-censored the film and that's how it basically got into the cinemas, that version that was then distributed.

AKT: And the ending is?

OM: Different.

AKT: It's a different ending.

Peter Lorre in his The Lost One (Der Verlorene) screened in The Lost Years of German Cinema: 1949–1963
Peter Lorre in his The Lost One (Der Verlorene) screened in The Lost Years of German Cinema: 1949–1963

OM: Yes. This ending is much more depressive, the one that you basically see now in the digitised version of the print. I refuse to call it a restoration because there's nothing restored. This, what you see here, is the premiere version. The film print of it was always lying around in the Murnau Stiftung. Nothing has been done with the film, nothing has been put in again or whatever. It was always there in that state. If people knew they could actually even get it. I actually screened the film in Italy in that version. No mystery about it. It was just basically put from analog to digital.

What one should remember is that Schwarzer Kies is not alone, so to speak. The same year Käutner made Der Traum Von Lieschen Müller. Which is really interesting that he made one of his most abstract films and one of his most hard-hitting realist films in the same year. They were released in the same year.

There is the story that in the year 1962 when the Oberhausen Manifest was basically read out in Oberhausen, this group of critics calling themselves the young German film critic establishment or whatever, handed out an award for the worst film of the year by an established director.

And that award went ex aequo to Käutner for Schwarzer Kies and Der Traum Von Lieschen Müller. They say they couldn't decide which film was worse. And that was actually what basically people always knew about Schwarzer Kies. I mean, very few people have seen the film in fact in recent decades.

Gert Fröbe and Ruth Leuwerik in Helmut Käutner's Redhead (Die Rote)
Gert Fröbe and Ruth Leuwerik in Helmut Käutner's Redhead (Die Rote)

So what everybody knows is - worst film of the year. I guess that's also why this film was such a sensation when we screened it in Locarno. People were like - what the fuck is this? This is one of the greatest German films ever and they called it the worst film of the year? What on earth is going on here? I usually showed only the release version, not the premiere version.

Normally I refuse to show the digitalised version. I don't like digital. I like analog. I know that there is a good print. If Murnau doesn't want to hand it to me, fuck'em. Then I show the release version. I don't need to see the scene with the Jew. The film works basically perfectly fine without it. And that's something that also Käutner knew. I don't think Käutner did lose too much sleep about cutting the film.

AKT: Käutner is an incredible director. I put together a course on Käutner ten years ago here in New York at the JCC with just a few films and also presented Romanze In Moll at the Goethe Institut. For many this was a great new discovery. People had no idea who he was.

OM: I did a Käutner program actually in Bologna for Cinema Ritrovato, a tiny little homage to him. I'd say also one with a twist because I showed almost none of his famous films - meaning no Des Teufel's General.

The Lost Years of German Cinema: 1949–1963 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
The Lost Years of German Cinema: 1949–1963 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: No Unter Den Brücken?

OM: No, no, - Unter Den Brücken I showed, but not Die Letzte Brücke. I didn't want to be too neurotically original.

AKT: Ha!

OM: So Unter den Brücken and Grosse Freiheit Nr. 7 were there but from the postwar films there was almost none of the famous ones. Only the more obscure ones like this really, really crazy film noir Epilog - Das Geheimnis Der Orplid, which is really insane. The film is so complex and it's so crazy what he is doing there all at the same time, it's quite mind-boggling.

But also a film that was really for the Germans as well as for the foreigners a monumental revelation - Bildnis Einer Unbekannten which also barely anybody has ever seen and which is one of the most refined films that Käutner did. It was a huge disaster at the box office back then but it is one of his best films.

Read what Olaf Möller had to say on the work of filmmakers Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Kurt Hoffmann and Hans Heinz König in The Lost Years of German Cinema: 1949–1963 and the question of destiny.

The Lost Years of German Cinema: 1949–1963 is organised by Dennis Lim and Dan Sullivan of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and co-presented with the Goethe-Institut. The films selected are from the retrospective curated by Olaf Möller and Roberto Turigliatto at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival, organised in partnership with the Deutsches Filminstitut, in collaboration with the Cinémathèque suisse and German Films.

Film Society of Lincoln Center Walter Reade Theater remaining screenings:

White Blood (Weißes Blut) - Tuesday, November 21 at 2:00pm

The Glass Tower (Der Gläserne Turm) - Tuesday, November 21 at 4:30pm

The Dress (Das Kleid) - Tuesday, November 21 at 7:00pm

The Eighth Day of the Week (Ósmy Dzien Tygodnia) - Tuesday, November 21 at 9:00pm

Roses Bloom On The Moorland (Rosen Blühen Auf Dem Heidegrab) - Wednesday, November 22 at 7:00pm; Thursday, November 23 at 8:30pm

The Lost One (Der Verlorene) - Wednesday, November 22 at 9:00pm; Thursday, November 23 at 1:30pm

The Lost Years of German Cinema: 1949–1963 runs through November 23.

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