Kuhle Wampe is the culmination, and swan song, of German proletarian cinema, as well as the only film in which Bertolt Brecht’s participation was concrete, almost on an artisanal level. (It’s an interesting case in the sense that the film does not resemble the ‘usual suspects’ of ‘Brechtian cinema’ as imagined in the literature on film.) A dream team was backing him: the director Slatan Dudow, the composer Hanns Eisler, the co-writer, with Brecht, Ernst Ottwalt, actors Hertha Thiele (lead actress of the contemporary Mädchen in Uniform) and Ernst Busch, the alltime greatest singer of proletarian songs and the future Galileo in Brecht’s famous Berliner Ensemble production. Kuhle Wampe builds on a multitude of elements: public (crowd scenes of 4,000 people) and private lives (the story of a worker’s family, and the relationship of two young workers); the city, with the bicycles already prefiguring the theme of anonymity of a forthcoming masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves, and nature (whatever Berlin offers of it, its beauty heightened in a song interpreted by Helene Weigel). Lyrical images are coupled with ironic insights about petit-bourgeois temptations.
The real hero of the film is the working class. Although the subject of the birth of proletarian consciousness is familiar from many Soviet films and, of course, from working-class literature, the splendid amalgamation of documentary, fiction and collage is deeply original. It is a unique monument to the ‘other Germany’, with great emotions (which Brecht was a specialist in manipulating, not liquidating) and the intelligence of razor-sharp dialogue. For instance, the subway scene, which centres on international news about coffee crops being burned, presents a splendid typology (class society through faces) of diverging opinions, illusions, relative truths, mutual misunderstandings and ways to see the world: honest, dishonest, absurd. There is not the slightest trace of filmed theatre.
The episodic structure works brilliantly. Right at the beginning a young unemployed man commits suicide by jumping out the window of his home, but not without first leaving his watch on the window ledge: his time is up, hopefully the times are changing. (Considering that this is 1932, we know that the future hardly encouraged the hopes expressed in the film.) Next: silence, the emotional distance and nonchalance of the neighbours: “Ein Arbeitslose weniger”, one less unemployed person. The best comment on the film came from the censors: “That scene shows that suicide is the destiny of an entire class.” Brecht and Dudow remarked: “That man gave us a crash course in realism, from the point of view of a policeman.”
If these lines have concentrated on the charismatic character of Brecht, it should be added that the director of the film, Bulgarian-born Slatan Dudow (1903-1963), was a great talent in his own right. He made Kuhle Wampe after a small, sharp film called Zeitprobleme: wie der Arbeiter wohnt (How the Berlin worker lives) and before a delicious satire called Seifenblasen (Soap Bubbles). His later film work (after exile in France and Switzerland) represents perhaps the best career of any director in the early decades of DDR cinema.
Peter von Bagh
Cast and Credits
T. it.: Kuhle Wampe, ovvero: a chi appartiene il mondo?. Scen.: Bertolt Brecht, Ernst Ottwalt. F.: Günther Krampf. M.: Peter Meyrowitz. Scgf.: Carl P. Haacker, Robert Scharfenberg. Mus.: Hanns Eisler. Int.: Hertha Thiele (Annie Bönike), Ernst Busch (Fritz), Martha Wolter (Gerda), Adolf Fischer (Kurt), Lilli Schoenborn (mamma Bönike), Max Sablotzki (papà Bönike). Prod.: Willi Münzenberg, Lazar Wechsler per PrometheusFilm-Verleih und Vertrieb GmbH. DCP. Bn.
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