Emergency Call

Dig the crazy cabaret-style music and sound effects of Friedrich Hollander!

So, in answer to the calls for something about Robert Siodmak… maybe we could look at one film a month, and make a Siodmak Year of it that way? The item under analysis this time is LOOKING FOR HIS MURDERER, or DER MANN, DER SEINEN MORDER SUCHT, which BabelFishes out as “The man, who looks for his murderer,” giving the lie to those who argue that German isn’t a good language for comedy. They managed to get the key word to come at the end of the sentence, after all, which German syntax often forbids.

We don’t think of Germany in the 30s as a thriving era for comedy, for some odd reason… But there was a lot of the stuff going on. Was it actually funny? And if so, how tainted does it become by what followed in the socio-political, that is to say human, arena?

We’ll come back to that. This movie was scripted by Billy Wilder, which is a more cheerful way to start looking at things, along with a gang of others including Robert’s idiot brother Curt. It’s based on a play, and the IMDb suggests an uncredited Jules Verne link, which is very intriguing. Here’s the plot:

Our hero is suicidal, so he hires a hitman to kill him (easily done in the economical freefall of Weimar Germany, I would think). He says he doesn’t want to know when or how it’ll happen. “Just surprise me,” or words to that effect (I was watching without benefit of subtitles, so anything I say should be regarded as dubious: as David Lynch would say, “I don’t speak the German”).

Then our hero meets a girl, or is reunited with his ex, or something, and realizes he doesn’t want to die after all. But he has no way of contacting the contract killer, who will strike at random some time in the next week…

It’s a superb first act set-up, the only problem being that you need to come up with a second and third act to match, which the assembled writers can’t quite do, but they certainly throw in plenty of interesting situations. I have no idea how much of the film’s nuances and humour I was missing, but with Wilder having a hand in the dialogue, I would imagine plenty. Visual pleasures include the noir look, which shows Siodmak as having a predisposition towards this style long before Hollywood pushed him into it (this movie was made in 1931, although the busy RS had already squeezed in three more movies since his first, the celebrated PEOPLE ON SUNDAY).

Our hero lives in a studio apartment, overlooking expressionistic and cat-haunted Berlin rooftops, created in the studio, and the funniest gag is when a character crashes through the window. Giant sheets of sugar-glass being either beyond the budget or else technically impossible at that time, the moment is represented by an off-screen SMASH sound, Laurel & Hardy style, but then we get the character staggering into shot with his head jammed through the Venetian blinds. He then struggles to extricate himself for, like, a really long time. Again, Laurel & Hardy style — a durational gag, in which something becomes funnier just by eating up footage in a normally unjustifiable way. I’m going to have to keep my eye open for other signs of the L&H influence on Siodmak, this might be a treasure trove!

Now, about this plot — it turns up again in LES TRIBULATIONS D’UN CHINOISE EN CHINE (THE TRIBULATIONS OF A CHINESE MAN FROM CHINA) — and now the Jules Verne influence becomes clear: he is the inventor of this first act zinger. Everybody adapting the story simply uses it as a springboard for whatever form of romp they wish to promulgate: in this case, Philippe de Broca and star Jean-Paul Belmondo serve up another action-packed comedy with Belmondo essaying the kind of stunts that would have Jackie Chan saying “What do you think I am, crazy?”

According to Richard Lester, the same plot thread was under consideration over at Beatles Central as the basis for a follow-up movie to A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (with Ringo as the despondent hitman-hirer). It had already been decided to make the Beatles “the recipients of a plot,” passive participants in some kind of farrago, since the first film had covered their working lives, and their private lives were off-limits (John suggested a film on that subject would resemble FELLINI SATYRICON). But the arrival of De Broca’s movie put the kibosh on that.

X marks the spot. Seems like a grimly jokey reference to M, but it’s possible that Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN was on their mind too.

Siodmak’s leading man is Heinz Rühmann, Germany’s all-time most popular film star. A dapper little bespectacled fellow, he seems like an agreeable stand-in for Billy Wilder himself. It’s hard to know what to make of him as a person, though: this was a man who divorced his Jewish wife of 14 years because the Nazis told him to. On the other hand, he did smuggle her over to Sweden. On the other other hand, he then married a loyal Nazi and made a short film celebrating Goebbels’ birthday, in which he played Mrs Goebbels and all the little Goebbelses (you know, the ones she later poisoned to death? I’d like to see that film, I bet it’s hilarious). Rühmann was later present when his new wife was raped by Russian soldiers. In the end, I feel sorry for everybody in this story: the human race.

So, German comedy in the 30s… a healthy medium? In box-office terms, it seems to have been. The Germans have always enjoyed their own comedies, which make up a large proportion of their movies, but are rarely if ever exported. Since Lubitsch had departed for Hollywood long before the coming of sound (in that first exodus, named by the sardonic Mr. Wilder as “The exodus of the talented ones”), German comedy had lost any international ambitions. I have, however, seen a couple of Ophuls comedies  from this era. THE MERRY HEIRS (1933) stars Rühmann again and gets its few laughs from a big dog gallumphing about and behaving like a person, et cetera. Ophuls took over the film at the last minute, and only manages to express his stylistic talents with some creative montage, which is an oddity coming from this master of mise-en-scene. THE BARTERED BRIDE (1932) is much more successful, but more as an operetta than as a laugh-getter. Ophuls swings his camera around with gay Teutonic abandon, even going handheld to follow antics in the fairground. It’s visually even more sophisticated and dazzling than the following year’s LIEBELEI, although that’s the only German movie where Ophuls really finds his true subject matter.

THE BARTERED BRIDE: the comedy bear costume is a sure winner.

I’ll end with a joke. This comes from a fine BBC documentary on comedy in the Third Reich — I wish I could remember the name of the comedian it concerns. This fellow had a habit of making fun of the Nazis, and he tended to get away with it too, but he frequently sailed close to the wind and risked censure or worse. On one occasion he was asked to report to SS Headquarters so they could inform him of their displeasure at something he’d said. He arrived at the front desk and was asked “Are you carrying any concealed weapons?”

“Why?” he replied innocently, “Am I likely to need them here?”

17 Responses to “Emergency Call”

  1. Ruhmann’s poster adorns Anne Frank’s wall in her former home even today.

    I wonder if it’s possible to make a film about the German industry during the Reich in the manner of Laissez Passer now that Quentin Tarantino has created space for Nazi-era cinema in the popular culture.

    One Nazi-era film that I want to see is Sirk’s SCHLUSSAKKORD which was apparently a huge success.

  2. Personally, I’d say that German comedy until March 1933 (when the Nazis won the elections) still fits: There’s a troubled background, yes, but this is not unlike American audiences seeking some relief during the Depression. “Viktor Viktoria” (the precedent of the Blake Edwards musical comedy) is from 1933 and till a rather carefree entertainment. I’d say that there still was a bit of hope, and a taste for irreverence, while teh Weimar republic lasted.

    It is said that Goebbels and Co tried to retain some of the talent (turning talented men with Jewish ancestors into “honorary Aryans”) the truth is that this type of offer wasn’t too attractive to the likes of Eric Pommer, Fritz Lang or the Siodmak brothers, who left as soon as they could and for good.

    The plot description of Schlussakkord, incidentally, makes me think that the story wouldn’t have been out of place with Sirk’s later US melodramas.

    I am curious about those who still remained in Germany for a while, as Sirk… Did they conform to the situation on an eraly stage but then found it untenable?

  3. For anyone who has not seen it, Dreyer’s excellent short “They Caught the Ferry” is on YouTube. The ending is quite creepy:

    Michael Dwyer, film critic for the Irish Times has died. RIP.

  4. That’s a terrific little Dreyer.

    Sirk’s German films, going by La Habanera, are innocuous on the surface (Goebbels is said to have disliked overt propaganda) but toe the party line to a surprising degree in their implications (Latin culture is sexy but decadent, ultimately to be rejected).

    Incidentally, I forgot to mention that the prints of Looking for his Murderer now extant are truncated due to Nazi censorship.

  5. The Nazis idea of popular entertainment is not out of line with the Michael Bay movies. I am especially thinking of that sequel to Bad Boys where Guantanamo Bay is transformed into a safe harbour at the end of the film. His films are destined to be and deserve to be put in the same breath as fascist movies and Reifenstahl. Although Leni unlike Bay had talent, unfortunately, and as much as I scoff at the defense of her “artistry” I’d rather see her stuff than Bay.

    Sirk, whose second wife was Jewish(his first wife became a Nazi supporter…and they say his movies are melodramatic?!) probably had good reason to toe the Nazi line as much as possible at that time. He said later, that he was one of the leftists who believed that the Nazis were a passing thing that the people would eventually see them for what they were. The other personal reason for staying there so long was well he wanted to save his son.

  6. The story of Sirk’s son is a tragic one.

    Just tried to read the plot synopsis of Bad Boys II on Wikipedia but it gave me a headache.

  7. Yes. Sirk’s son was REALLY a Nazi. So the Sirks got the hell out of Dodge, and when they set-up shop dtsteside he made Hitler’s Madman — a rather important anti-Nazi film in the far from anti-Nazi U.S.

    The Siodmak looks very lively indeed.

  8. The Suicide Club is a terrific book. I love those interwoven yarns, influenced by The Arabian Nights. Another great story idea, where a group draws cards and one becomes the designated victim, the other his killer. Love the raddled old guy who declares that fear is the strongest of all emotions. “Envy me, sir, envy me — for I am a coward!”

  9. Christopher Says:

    No doubt Laurel and Hardy (Dick und Dof)were extermely popular in Germany then(as they were on TV in the 60s-80s),helped partly due to the German re-dos of their films with german speaking actors and the guys doing their own german on those earlier talkies…

  10. I remember seeing a Robert Montgomery movie based on The Suicide Club called Trouble for Two. Not one of my favorite adaptations.

  11. Through the German National Library you can access digitized editions of many “exile press” publications of 1933-1945. One of them is “PEM’s Personal Notes,” the little German-language newsletter put out by the exiled journalist Paul Erich Marcus, aka PEM, from London. Mostly it’s a rundown of the current doings of exiled actors, directors, and writers — a goldmine for researchers now, probably — but some of the most interesting parts are the bitchy comments about the people who stayed behind, e.g., “Emil Jannings was recently in Vienna, if anyone’s interested” or a congratulations to Gustaf Gründgens on being declared completely normal (after he’d been pressured into getting married).

    The archive’s search tool is old and lousy; the two mentions of Heinz Rühmann I find have him listed among the newly declared “Actors of the State” (an honor conferred by Hitler and Goebbels) and a note that a predicted divorce hadn’t occurred. (But as David notes, Rühmann did divorce his wife a bit later.)


  12. I’d never heard the plot line of this before!

    Billy Wilder’s brother W. Lee Wilder made a minor noir starring Albert Dekker called THE PRETENDER, about a man who contracts for a murder and then realizes that he’s made himself the target. (If I recall correctly, he wants his sweetheart’s fiancee murdered, but then gets lucky and becomes her new fiancee.) It’s very moody and certainly not a comedy, but it’s also one of W. Lee’s better pictures. I wonder if Billy’s nearly total detestation of his brother was partly because of this copycat angle.

  13. I wonder if Aki Kaurismaki was influenced by the Siodmak film, as his “I Hired a Contract Killer” has a similar plot, that of the depressive hero hiring a hitman to kill him, but changing his mind when he falls in love.

  14. The Belmondo movie is better known than the Ruhmann these days, although who knows what they know in Finland? So I bet Kaurismaki was influenced by one or the other, or the Verne book. Although it’s the kind of gimmick one CAN imagine somebody coming up with independently. That seems to have happened with Lester.

    Since Billy Wilder didn’t originate the storyline, I wonder if he’d have been that upset by The Pretender (perfect title for a film by an idiot brother!). That’s the WLW film I’d most like to see, although I’d settle for any of his noirs.

    Killers from Space has some trippy, demented stuff that crosses over from inept genre trash into underground cinema genius, mind you.

    Thanks for the link, Katya, that place sounds fascinating!

    The Suicide Club has been filmed a lot, but I don’t know if there’s a particularly good version out there. It’d be a natural for Ruiz.

  15. Having seen Le Magnifique I am bitterly disappointed now whenever I see Belmondo play anything straight. Pierrot Le Fou was just a drag by comparison.

  16. Not sure how “straight” I’d call PLF. Resnais’s marvelous Stavisky does allow JPB to display his light comedy charm in a much more serious context. Of the stunt films, Fear Over the City is perhaps the most incredible, but not necessarily a great film otherwise.

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