Burglars (1930)

Toronto Film Society presented Burglars (1930) on Sunday, July 22, 2018 in a double bill with The Road to Singapore as part of the Season 71 Sunday Afternoon Special Screening #2.

Production Company: Universum Film (UFA).  Director: Hanns Schwarz.  Producer: Erich Pommer.  Screenplay: Louis Verneuil, Robert Liebmann, based on the play by Louis Verneuil, “Guignol le cambrioleur”.  Cinematography: Konstantin Irmen-Tschet, Günther Rittau.  Music: Friedrich Hollaender, Franz Waxman.  Art Direction: Erich Kettelhut.  Film Editing: Willy Zeyn.  Costume Design: Ladislaus Czettel.  Release Date: December 16, 1930.

Cast: Ralph Arthur Roberts (Eugene Dumontier), Lilian Harvey (Reneé Dumontier), Willy Fritsch (Jacques Durand), Heinz Rühmann (Victor Sérigny), Margarethe Koeppke (Mimi), Oskar Sima (Jean Amadé, der Diener), Gertrud Wolle (Hortense), Kurt Gerron (Polizeikommisar #1), Paul Henckels (Polizeikommisar #2), Sidney Bechet (Barmusiker), Greta Keller (Tänzerin), Franz Waxman (Schwarzer Musiker), Louis Douglas (Night Club Dancer).

Originally, I bought this film because of Lilian Harvey.  The first time I saw her was in the 1933 film I Am Suzanne! which was brought to a TFS May weekend by film historian William K. Everson many years ago.  Since then, I have only seen her in a couple of films and I wanted to see more of her.  In today’s film, to me, she has somewhat of a modern look of the actress Carol Kane.

When I first viewed this film back in 2014, I watched it in two sittings which sometimes can lead to an unexpected surprise.  As it turned out, and this is nothing you won’t learn in the first few minutes of the film, the first part is an odd sort of musical with some dancing inserted into a story about a young, unsatisfied wife attempting to live out her romantic fantasies that have nothing to do with her much older toy-manufacturing husband.  Okay, I thought, a little bit of a slap-stick plot and some curves that include some villainesque characters.  But when I resumed watching part two, I was gleefully entertained to see that it had an impossible ending for pretty much any Hollywood film made, even during the pre-Code era which this film falls into.

Although it was a dangerous time politically in Germany, it was still before Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor which didn’t occur until January 1933.  There were a number of Jewish artists involved in the making of this film whose fates weren’t all happy endings.  Some did escape to the States, such as composer Franz Waxman—who has one of his two ever screen roles in this film, as—if I have translated correctly, a black musician—or others who died in the camps such as screenwriter Robert Liebmann.  He had actually left for the States but unwisely returned to Germany.  Director Hanns Schwarz was able to escape after making a number of Ufa films including The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna (1929) starring Brigitte Helm and Francis Lederer which was screened in 2009 by TFS at Eastman House.

Willy Fritsch, who doesn’t show up until about a third of the way or so into the film, was a big European star along with Lilian Harvey.  They were a considered a “dream couple” and starred in eleven films together, beginning in the silents.  Just like in Hollywood, the film magazines wrote about their off-screen romance, but it appears that this was just a fantasy concocted to satisfy their fans.

In 1933, just after completing the filming on The Empress and I, Lilian Harvey left for America. Like other European superstars of the time, she had been wooed and won by a seductive offer from Fox Studios, which was eager to appropriate overseas talent, hoping to thereby gain Europe’s most charismatic actors for their own productions and simultaneously destroy their foreign competitors.  And as with a number of disappointed artists, Harvey ended up finding her way back to Europe after not reaching those heights promised in Hollywood.  However, her return was less welcoming than she had hoped.  “Look here, there is our little dancing flea!,” Minister President Hermann Göring said when receiving Lilian Harvey upon her return to Germany in 1935.

Producer of the film, Erich Pommer, is accredited for 217 films.  He produced such well-known films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Hitchcock’s first film, the silent The Pleasure Garden [click to read my review and scroll down to November 3] (1925), Mauritz Stiller’s Hotel Imperial (1927), Lon Chaney’s Mockery (1927), many of Fritz Lang’s films including Metropolis (1927) and Spies (1928), Joe May’s impressive Asphalt (1929), Schwarz’s The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna, mentioned above, and von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), continuing well into the talkie era.

There are also three titles for this film, the original Einbrecher, the English translation Burglars, and a title that, to me anyway, doesn’t really fit with the story of the film, Murder for Sale.

For people who watch Hollywood pre-Code, I think this film, which is considered a light German comedy, is worth viewing with an eye for comparison.  In the club scene near the end, there is a performance with a famous dancer of his time, Louis Douglas.  I’m not sure who the two women are and none of their names are listed in the credits.

In any event, with this and the odd English title in mind, I hope the film will be something you will enjoy!

Sourced from Hitler’s Heroines: Stardom and Womanhood in Nazi Cinema by Antje Ascheid (2003)

Introduction by Caren Feldman

With the celebrity that Louis Douglas had gained performing with some of the leading African American and German entertainers of the day, it is not surprising that he should find his way to the film. In Weimar, Germany, film and radio enjoyed enormous popularity and afforded entertainers access to mass audiences. In just twelve months, Douglas appeared in three feature films. His first film, Einbrecher, was a German-French project produced by Ufa, Germany’s preeminent film studio and the source of a large number of German popular films in the 1920s and especially in Nazi Germany. A German version of the film premiered on December 16, 1930, in Berlin’s Gloria Palast. One of Germany’s earliest speaking films, Einbrecher had a cast that included some of Weimar’s most luminous stars: Lilian Harvey, Willy Fritsch, Heinz Rühmann, and Kurt Gerron. The already famous Friedrich Holländer, who had earlier that year composed the immortal song “Ich bin vom Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt” [“Falling in Love Again”] for Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, had composed the film music, and Sidney Bechet with his band performed in a scene located in a Parisian bar with a dance number by Douglas and two women. Most interesting in this otherwise routine film is the cabaret scene. The dancers and lookers-on in the cabaret are mixed: interracial couples as well as same-race couples are found throughout the small room. A hint of primitivism is conveyed by two mechanical monkeys on poles that twirl as the small orchestra plays. Louis Douglas and two apparently African American women perform two dance numbers, and at the end of the film, when the lovers sing a final duet, they are accompanied by the all-black jazz band.

A French version of the film, entitled Flagrant Dèlit, premiered in March of 1931. The cast was obviously changed to adapt to French tastes. Blanche Montel replaced Lilian Harvey; Ralph Arthur Roberts returned as the inattentive doll manufacturer, but his two rivals for his wife’s affection were played by Charles Dechamp and Henri Garat. Music was again provided by Friedrich Holländer, but French lyrics were written by Jean Boyer. Sidney Bechet and Louis Douglas also reappear in the French version, along with Franz Wachsmann, who for both versions is listed as a “schwarzer Musiker”—an interesting designation for a native of Upper Silesia who became famous because of his work on The Blue Angel and then in America composed music for classic films such as The Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard, and Rear Window under the name of Franz Waxman. Einbrecher is typical of the light-hearted comedies so popular during the 1930s.

Germans and African Americans: Two Centuries of Exchange edited by Larry A. Greene and Anke Ortlepp (2011)

Heinz Rühmann, Albers’s unequal partner in Monte Carlo Madness and The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes attained the status of “state actor” in 1940 by a different route (than Hans Albers’s). Rühmann began his film career playing the role of an aggressive draft resister (Das deutsche Mutterherz [The German Maternal Heart], directed by Geza von Bolvary for Ewe-Film, 1926). By 1939, he had become supportive of the regime and, on orders from on high, been classified as unavailable for military service. However, in 1941, he volunteered at the Rechlin Air Station for pilot training and then appeared in German newsreels as a prize example of a patriotic courier pilot, a role that (like his friendship with the air ace Ernst Udet) increased his favor with the regime, as did his successes in the Terra films Quax der Bruchplot (Quax Makes a Crash Landing, directed by Kurt Hoffmann, 1941) and Quax in Fahrt (Quax Under Way, directed by Helmut Weiss, 1943-44).

Not until he began working with Ufa did Rühmann find vehicles suitable to the development of his “blond gentleness of nature”—underlaid by a certain combative balkiness and suppressed rebelliousness; films like The Three from the Filling Station; Schwarz’s “musical comedy of marriage”, Burglars; and Kurt Gerron’s comedies of the crisis years, Meine Frau, die Hochstaplerin (My Wife, the Confidence Woman, 1931) and There’ll Be a Turn for the Better (1931-32). In 1931, he said, “The task of film, as I see it, is to cheer up our contemporaries, who are burdened with heavy cares, and to liberate them from an atmosphere of pessimism and discouragement by giving them fresh hope and new energy—those important weapons one needs to emerge victorious in the struggle for existence”. It is easy to see between the lines of this credo the opportunism that made his humor a standard ingredient in the affirmative entertainment of the “Strength through Joy” state.

The Ufa directors under whom Rühmann had begun as an edifying jokester and “predecessor of the Nazi fellow traveler”, as the film historian Ulrich Kurowski dubbed him, had all emigrated long since or were locked out of the profession when their hero celebrated his triumphs in the late 1930s in Terra’s Heinrich Spoerl films and, in 1940, contributed his song “Das kann doch einen Seemann nicht erschüttern” (“That Can’t Bother a Sailor Any”) to Eduard von Borsody’s fight-to-the-last-man Wish Concert (Cine-Allianz/Ufa). Rühmann’s vacillation between cringing timidity and rebellion did not contain those subversive qualities that Goebbels thought he detected when he classified Die Feuerzangenbowle (The Mulled Punch, directed by Helmut Weiss, Terra, 1943) as hostile to authority and refused to approve it. Rühmann contacted Hitler personally and managed to have the film released.

In German films of the 1930s, Rühmann and Willy Fritsch, Gustav Fröhlich, and Hans Brausewetter saw their star reduced to being the common man, that urban anonymity and late Weimar “objectivity” had formed. In the roles they played, the “man in the street” became the hero of grotesquely complex plots and sentimental dramas in which the emotions were no more than quotations—reflections from a now defunct culture with richer, deeper feelings than this one. Most of the plots revolved around money and love, and in most cases money—or the social order regulated by financial arrangements—prevailed.

The Ufa Story: A History of Germany’s Greatest Film Company, 1918-1945 by Klaus Kreimeie (1996)

Schwarz’s Einbrecher (Burglar[s]) of 1930 and his directorial début Ich und die Kaiserin (I and the Empress) of 1932-33.  These works, and the rest of the Pommer musicals, appeared in the last phase of the Weimar Republic, which had inauspiciously begun with the hunger, deprivation and street-fighting that followed the First World War and the Versailles Treaty; had then passed through the hell of monetary inflation in the early 1920s; had rallied after the stabilisation of the coinage and the influx of foreign loans between 1925 and 1929, only to have more than its share of world-wide misery, financial ruin, and unemployment which followed the New York Stock Exchange crises of October and November 1929. The soil was fertile for what R. Bruce Lockhart described as Hitlerite “exploitation of hatreds and resentments, nationalist propaganda, racism, flag-waving, and the desire to enforce conformity in the quest for power” (TLS, 15 August 2003). It was also well prepared, however, for the kind of holiday from everyday worries offered by film theatres increasingly called “palaces” (Ufa-Palast, Gloria-Palast, etc.) when they showed films in which attractive men and women sang and danced their way into luxury or simple comforts, and marriages that promised lasting happiness. The most popular example of that kind of musical (there were, as I shall show, other kinds) was Three Men from the Filling Station, significantly known in its French version as Le chemin du paradis—the Paradise Way….

After his success with The Blue Angel, a film to which I shall return along with The Congress Dances in the next section, Fredrich Hollaender was given the chance to put his ideas on music in sound films into practice once again in Einbrecher (a title which can be read as Burglar, in which case it refers to the character played by Fritsch, or Burglars which takes in Fritsch’s accomplice, played by Oskar Sima). It was directed by Hanns Schwarz, and first seen in 1930. Throughout this work, Hollaender plays instrumental and vocal variations on an opening song: “Lass mich einmal Deine Carmen sein” (“Let me be your Carmen for once”). Despite its dissemination on gramophone records and through the radio, this song never achieved anything like the popularity of other Hollaender Schlager; in Burglar[s] it is outshone by a nonsense song performed by Fritsch at the piano, accompanying a dance by Harvey. Here the singer proposes to have his body painted black and go live a simpler life on the Fiji Islands: “Ich lass mir meinen Körper schwarz bepinseln….”

The film’s plot has Harvey’s character married to an elderly puppet manufacturer, played by Ralph Arthur Roberts, and yearning for greater sexual and emotional satisfaction than her husband is able or willing to offer. Her yearning is answered when she falls for an apparent burglar played, of course, by Willy Fritsch, who is in reality a writer in search of inspiration for a piece featuring burglary, which he is composing. He is aided and abetted by another such writer, played by Oskar Sima, who takes a job as the puppet-maker’s servant for similar purposes. The plot, based on a play by Louis Verneuil adapted by Robert Liebmann, calls for a directorial lightness of touch such as Lubitsch possessed and Hanns Schwarz did not. Neither the film, in which Kurt Gerron appears briefly as a police inspector anxious to ingratiate himself with his superiors, nor the songs featured within it, had anything like the success of Three Men from the Filling Station and The Congress Dances—to say nothing of the international fame of The Blue Angel.

Between Two Worlds: The Jewish Presence in German and Austrian Film, 1910-1933 by S.S. Prawer (2005)

Hanns Schwarz was an Austrian film director. He was born in Vienna in 1888. He directed twenty-four films between 1924 and 1937, in both English and German. During the late-silent and early-sound eras, he was a leading director at the German giant studio UFA. In the early 1930s, he worked on several Multi Language Version films for UFA, producing the same film in distinct German and foreign-language versions. Schwarz was Jewish and was, therefore, forced to leave Germany in 1933, when the Nazis took over, going into exile in Britain. His last film was the 1937 British thriller Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He died in California in 1945.


Notes compiled by Caren Feldman

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