March’s Robert Siodmak film is one from the 1930s period in his native Germany, and it combines the elements of realism and expressionism which struggle together throughout his career. Like his first film, PEOPLE ON SUNDAY, it deals with a holiday resort, in this case a picturesque lakeside retreat where one might expect to meet the boys from Duvivier’s MARIANNE DE MA JEUNESSE at any moment. Like THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN and THE SUSPECT, it deals with adultery as a plot device, but it’s not a crime drama. Instead, the story is seen through the eyes of a young boy, who does not initially understand that the racing driver he idolizes has designs on his mother, and is using him as a way to get close to her.
Since for much of the running time there are in a sense two parallel stories, the little boy’s version of what he thinks is going on, and the bigger picture we in the audience are aware of, the story most resembles that of Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s later THE FALLEN IDOL. While the Reed-Greene is a masterpiece, Siodmak’s movie (from a book by Stephan Zweig, script by Frederick Kohner, who followed Siodmak to France and then the US) is something less, but it still shows great skill in sidestepping the various pitfalls of sentiment and moralising which could lie in its path.
The climax, where the boy has to decide whether to protect his mother and lie to his father, is particularly well handled in this regard — there’s a dizzying change of authority which the boy doesn’t know what to do with. Siodmak’s handling keeps our feelings unsettled and avoids easy answers.
Everybody gets a degree of sympathy in this story — which reminds us that Zweig wrote the source for Ophuls’ LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN — and Willi Forst as the loverboy, Hilde Wagener as the mother, and Hans Joachim Schaufuß as the boy, are all appealing and natural. Alfred Abel, of Murnau’s PHANTOM, appears briefly as the dad.
(The kid grew up to be a soldier and perished on the Eastern front. Forst turned down a role in Nazi propaganda horror JEW SUSS, survived the war and lived a full life, as did Wagener.)
Despite all this sensitive work, and a neatly worked-out plot which interweaves the lives of various hotel guests and staff into the narrative, my favourite part was still the sensationally expressionistic dream sequence, where the boy imagines his mother and her new man mockingly eloping and abandoning him. A sudden blast of feverish craziness in a film otherwise distinguished by its striking landscape photography and understated performances…