Scen.: Karl Heinz Stroux. F.: Werner Krien. M.: Erwin Niecke. Scgf.: Paul Markwitz, Herta Böhm. Mus.: Hans-Otto Borgmann. Int.: Paul Wegener (the Mandarin), Käthe Haack (the mother), Christiane Felsmann (the daughter), Carsta Löck (the writer), Hubert von Meyerinck (the Chinese officer). Prod.: Georg Fiebiger per Nova-Film GmbH. 35mm. D.: 102’. Bn.
Another splendid stab at meta-movie glory, one so bizarre that it makes Film ohne Titel look almost plain and simple! Set partly in the postwar present and partly in a weird fantasy world that is half Wilhelminian Reich, half opium pipe-dream China (yes, Germans with queues and wide-brimmed straw hats), Stroux’s masterpiece tackles three of the period’s most urgent current topics: black-marketing, fears of falling again for totalitarian promises, and gender relations. The latter, from a modern perspective, might be the most fascinating aspect of Der große Mandarin, as emancipation becomes the key to its anti-totalitarian argument: to fend off all dictatorial threats, women and men alike have to be in power, and on equal terms. That Der große Mandarin would flummox audiences was obviously clear to everybody involved, because it opens with a sweetly phrased warning that things may be a bit complex so patience is needed, all elegantly disguised as a tribute to the spirit and legacy of Paul Wegener who died shortly after shooting’s end. One wonders why neither Der große Mandarin nor three other experimentation-prone fantasies unleashed around the same time – Helmut Käutner’s cabaret-groomed satire Der Apfel ist ab (The Original Sin, 1948), Heinz Hilpert’s science-fiction comedy Der Herr vom andern Stern (1948), and Josef von Báky’s exercise in Heimat horror Die seltsame Geschichte des Brandner Kasper (1949) – were ever really embraced by German film history. For the same matter, allegories in general such as Paul Martin’s ancient Greece-set musical comedy Die Frauen des Herrn S. (1951) didn’t fair better with critics in the young FRG. Remember also that Der große Mandarin is not the only film of its time with an Orientalist edge: Kurt Hoffmann’s also far from canonical Der verlorene Gesicht (Secrets of a Soul, 1948) is centred on a strange woman who speaks something that sounds like Tibetan, while Bettina Moissi in Käutner’s Epilog – Das Geheimnis der Orplid (The Orphid Mystery, 1950) plays a Malay painter. Was rubble realism a refuge from all the possibilities offered by reveries and stories told in a subjunctive mood? Do Germans dread dreams?