Sunday, December 28, 2008

Niemansland (1931)

My brother Miguel is visiting and told me earlier this evening that our granddad, Leonhard Frank, wrote the script of a German anti-war film that caused quite a stir on both sides of the Atlantic in 1931-32. Here's a review published by the New York Times in 1932:

Niemandsland (1931)
New York Times, January 24, 1932
A GRAPHIC WAR FILM STIRS BERLIN; The Bitter New Picture Is Called "No Man's Land" and Presents War From a Unique Angle -- Other Recent Films

WE certainly have had our share of war films. First came that series in which every one was a hero and the more of the enemy he sniped the greater was his valor. These were the films of hate. But with the war over there came a reaction to this primitive viewpoint and we shifted to pictures like "The Big Parade," in which the enemy played a lesser rôle and the love interest gained in importance. This was followed by productions like "Journey's End," in which an objective realistic treatment of soldiers in the trenches made war abhorrent. And finally "All Quiet on the Western Front," which added a pacifistic tendency to the cold neutrality of the observer. That should have closed the cycle—I must confess that I attend each new war picture with apprehension and some distaste.

But now along comes "Niemandsland" (No Man's Land) at the Mozartsaal and knocks my theories lobsided. Here is a film that has a lot of things to say about war and says them in an entirely new language. The authors, Leonhard Frank and Victor Trivas, have gone at war with such a passionate bitterness, with such sardonic vituperousness, that a picture of very extraordinary virility and power came out. There are scenes in this picture which are as moving and stirring as anything I have ever experienced in a theatre. In Germany where the reactionaries are looming so threateningly in the background the Resco Film Company, who produced this picture, has done something very closely verging on the heroic. The judges who award the Nobel prize for peace could do worse than consider the parents of this film for their next award.

Odd Companions.

The basic notion about which the film is built is a simple one. Five soldiers, a German, a Frenchman, an Englishman, a Russian Jew and a Negro are caught in a shell hole in no-man's-land. Their common peril brings them together. The observers of the opposing armies report that there are human beings in no-man's-land and they are shelled front both sides. They crawl out of their retreat and side by side they march forward beating down the barbed wire barriers. That is a simple idea which might have occurred to hundreds of writers, it is the way it is carried out that gives the film its exceptional quality.

The picture opens with brief picturizations of the lives of its protagonists before the war. The Russian Jew is a tailor and is celebrating his marriage; the Englishman, a clerk, has just had a son born; the German is a contented carpenter, whose Sunday occupation is conducting a "Gesangverein"; the Frenchman is a factory worker who has just fallen in love; the Negro is a successful tap dancer in vaudeville. Then comes the war, symbolized by the reading of the various proclamations. All the five are wrenched out of their quiet, happy existences. Particularly original in conception was the German's mobilization. Dejected and unhappy he leaves his store. But as he walks along be gets into a crowd headed for the barracks. A military band is heard and he gets into the rhythm. His depression falls off and he marches along with chest stuck out, stroking his mustache and with an inane smile on his lips. After a few impersonal war scenes, which are a skillful blend of actual scenes and studio shots, we go directly to the sequence in the shell hole which opens into a deserted dugout. The German finds the Russian caught under a huge beam. It is too heavy for him to lift alone, and the Frenchman, who has been hidden in a dark recess, comes out and helps. Thus the first contact is established. Then the Negro in his Zouave uniform drags in the stunned Englishman. The other help to bring him around.

A New Problem Opens.

Now comes the problem of making themselves understood to the others. The Jew is shell shocked and has lost the power of speech and the Negro, who has a smattering of all languages, is the interpreter for the other three. Everything goes along smoothly; photographs of wives, sweethearts and children are exchanged. But then the subject of who started the war gets into the conversation and the German, Englishman and Frenchman begin shouting fruriously at each other. The Negro breaks into this with a gale of laughter and getting up on a packing case beings to do a tap dance, introducing himself in three langages as the international vaudeville artist—at home all over the world. The spell of hate is broken. Now the outposts espy the smoke of the fire which the castaways have built and bobardment from btoh fronts begins. The Negro, naked to his waist, shouting and cursing at the cannons, begins a wild primitive dance of defiance and hatered of the death-dealing machines—an unforgetable moment. The firing stops, but they decide they must leave. They clamber up out of the shell hole. The five stand side by side in no man's-land. And then a march rhythm begins, faint, distant, but swelling to a triumphal hymn as the soldiers draw near the camera. Before them is a tagled barricade of barbed wire. As one man they beat it down with their guns and march on. This daring transition from naturalism to a symbolic picturization of the united nations beating down the idea of war was completely successful. The audience grasped it immediately and burst into a tumult of cheers and applause.

And all this was achieved by the director, Trivas, with actors none of whom bad ever even been featured; indeed, several of them here make their film deébut. And yet Ernst Busch as the German and George Péclet as the Frenchman gave performances of convincing humanity and sincerity. Wladimir Sokoloff had a touching helplessness as the dumb Jew and Louis Douglas as the Negro tap dancer a naïve charm and a jungle wildness. As this is Trivas's first film there are, of course, some technical imperfections. There are draggy sequences and others which would have been considerably more effective if they had been differently cut. But for me they did not disturb the evening at all. I came away with the feeling of having seen something young and sturdy and straight.

Another film of youth is "Der weisse Rausch" (The White Ecstasy), which is being shown at the Ufa Palast. This is the latest work of Arnold Fanck, the director of "The White Hell of Piz Palü" and "Mont-Blanc." As you have probably read in the news columns, Fanck has been engaged by Universal to make a mountain-climbing film in America. If he gets the right sort of help for his acting scenes he should be able to turn out a film which will interest everybody. He is a master of this milieu. Nobody knows better how to catch the grandeur of mountains up into the camera.

The present picture is a reversion to "Das Wunder des Schneeschuhs," which he made ten years ago. This was a scenic without story, which pictured the delights of skiing. It was an immediate and overwhelming success. And many spectators have regretted that he added plots to his later films. To me, however, his culminating point was "Piz Palü," probably because here the actors were directed by the excellent G. W. Pabst.

"Der weisse Rausch" as merely a modern version of "Das Wunder des Schneeschuhs" with dialogue and sound effects. There are many excellent things in it; the skiing is often entrancing and exciting and sometimes quite hilarious. But there is too little variety to keep you interested for an hour and a half. Particularly in the paper chase on skis, which takes up the last half hour of the running time, there is an enormous amount of repetition. The sixtieth time that the skiers go whizzing by the camera your thoughts begin to wander. But Hannes Schneider and the rest of the male skiers are masters of their art, and Leni Riefenstahl is undoubtedly the best skier of the film stars (why will she try to be kittenish?). Cut up into two or three shorts it would make a novel addition to any program.

NO One Man," which graces the Paramount screen this week, is from a novel by Rupert Hughes. With Palm Beach for its main field of action, the film follows a glistening beauty whose boast it is that she needs more than a constant husband to make her happy. The cast is headed by Paul Lukas, Carole Lombard, Ricardo Cortez, Juliette Compton and Ricardo Cortez.

The Roxy has a new item in the Fox series of Charlie Chan mysteries. This one is "Charlie Chan's Chance," and it gives the whimsical Charlie of Earl Derr Biggers' novels an opportunity to mouth oriental epigrams and solve a homicide at the expense of Scotland Yard. Warner Oland has his old role as the Chinese detective, and his support includes H. B. Warner, Linda Watkins, Alexander Kirkland and Marion Nixon.

"The Champ" is at the Capitol, following its engagement at the Astor. This is a sentimental tale of a broken-down prizefighter and his little boy, and Wallace Beery shares the spotlight with Jackle Cooper.

At the Mayfair is Helen Twelvetrees in "Panama Flo," a melodrama of the South American jungles. Charles Bickford and Robert Armstrong take turns persecuting Miss Twelvetrees, who appears as the unfortunate but inherently good girl of a Panama honky-tonk.