IN JENEN TAGEN: A Madame de . . . –style odyssey about a car narrated by the vehicle itself.
Sometimes, being a film critic is low-paying drudgery; at others, it can be low-paying transcendence — as when, a weathered moviehead who loves his Renoir and Lang as much as his Hou and Wong, I’m awakened to a master’s œuvre I hadn’t known existed. I’ll say it for the record: Helmut Käutner, as an eloquent narrative stylist, is the peer of his contemporaries William Wyler, Frank Borzage, Michael Powell, and Vincente Minnelli. Maybe even — dare I say? — Ophuls and Rossellini. Maybe.
Käutner should be famous, not merely as a great visual poet but as the only notable figure left standing at the center of that yawning, politically poisoned canyon in German film history between the Expressionists of the ’20s and the New Wavers of the ’70s. Amassing his first credits during the Nazis’ rampage through Europe, he apparently satisfied the need of German audiences, even in the Fascist flow, for a graceful, grown-up cinema. His films are, in fact, rather Ophulsian, romantic tragedies and ironic social melodramas, all of them executed with an emotionalism and a sensitivity that imbue even the small-boned narratives with epic grandeur. And they’re breathtakingly beautiful, chock-a-block with ornate traveling sequences, unorthodox points of view, and abrupt camera flourishes that a less confident filmmaker would dare once or twice in a single film. At the same time, he was one of his generation’s pre-eminent actor’s directors — the sampling from his early filmography on view at the Harvard Film Archives represents, among other things, some of the most moving and naturalistic acting captured anywhere in the mid century.
ROMANZE IN MOLL|ROMANCE IN A MINOR KEY (1943), which I reviewed last week, is a concise and floridly expressive world-beater adaptation of Maupassant. That such a symphonic, deeply humane piece of work was accomplished within the Nazi machine belies everything we thought we knew about that culture. (The movie did, in any case, flirt with Goebbels’s disapproval.) GROßE FREIHEIT NR 7|GREAT FREEDOM NO. 7 (1944; February 26, 9:15 pm) is another matter, a full-color musical set in a bustling northern seaport where a weary sailor (Hans Albers) works as a tavern musician and takes in a homeless girl (Ilse Werner) impregnated by his dying louse of a brother. Full of Old World brio, run through Käutner’s trademarked attention to emotional torque, and boasting one of the greatest barroom brawl scenes in movie history, the film did manage to get itself banned within Germany for dealing sympathetically with what were considered decadent and immoral situations.
UNTER DEN BRÜCKEN|UNDER THE BRIDGES (1945; February 27, 9 pm) is a more conventional three-way romance involving two lonesome barge-owning buddies (Carl Raddatz, Gustav Knuth) on the German waterways and a nervous girl (Hannelore Schroth) they think is contemplating a suicidal river jump; still, is this the sweetest, gentlest film of the Third Reich’s eleventh hour? Käutner’s magnum opus had to wait for the war’s end: IN JENEN TAGEN|IN THOSE DAYS (1947; February 24, 9:15 pm) is a strange and profound beast, a Madame de . . . –style odyssey about a car — narrated by the vehicle itself — as it passes from one owner to the next during the rise of Nazism and through to the ruins of Berlin. The word “Jew” is never mentioned, and yet the car’s rueful memories run from one scrambling horror story and disappeared victim to the next. “Human beings . . . are there any left?” is one of the film’s mordant refrains as Käutner roams around his tortured homeland hunting for truth. (His camera never stops moving.) Every sequence is a marvel of melancholy eloquence, and each tale is focused on the characters’ sympathies and devotions to one another. For Käutner, history is about love.