Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Unter den Brücken (1945)

As I was leafing through the pages of Felix Moeller's 'The Film Minister: Goebbels and the Cinema in the "Third Reich"', I stumbled upon a name I had hardly ever heard: Helmut Käutner. Typing his name in several search boxes and clicking numerous links, I soon found enough about him. Käutner started his directorial career in 1939, though his first film, KITTY UND DIE WELTKONFERENZ, was banned in Germany for its supposedly pro-British views. He continued to work throughout the war years, eight films in total. After the war, he directed some notable films such as DIE LETZE BRÜCKE (1954), LURWIG II: GLANZ UND ENDE EINES KÖNIGS (1955), and DER HAUPTMANN VON KÖPENICK (1956), with a couple of award nominations, including Oscar nomination for the last one. Now, Moeller mentions that Goebbels developed fairly reasonable critical eyes for the art of filmmaking after overseeing German film industry for several years, and rightly praised Käutner's ROMANZE IN MOLL (1943) and UNTER DEN BRÜCKEN (1945) as the 'exceptional works of art'. As I have been exploring some films under Nazi Germany and Japanese Imperial regime, naturally I was intrigued by such a statement. Not many films under such totalitarian regimes are likes of JUD SÜSS (1940), and that's exactly why it is all the more frightening.

UNTER DEN BRÜCKEN is an exceptional work of art. It was filmed in 1944, as the Allies bombed Berlin and other major cities night after night. It passed censors in March 1945, but never released until 1950. In 1945, there was no theater to open it. However, in this film, there is no hint of devastation, confusion or tragedy taking place in the real world outside the frame. This is the world with no war, no bombing, no Nazi officer, no casualty, no, none of that. It is a tranquil world of poetic serenity, flowing water rhyming with creaking of a rudder. Nothing happens, except two buddies - Hendrik and Willi - working on a barge, fall in love with the same girl, Anna. Their encounter was at a bridge in Potsdam, with the girl on the bridge and the guys underneath it. They thought she would jump but she threw a 10 mark bill over the rail instead, oblivious of two men under the bridge. This mysterious incident acts as a solvent for their story, which eventually evaporates off as they share the sense of loneliness. A series of episodes tell us much more about their soul and life, which is filled with simplicity and honesty. One of the most moving moments is when Hendrik tells Anna the story of noises you hear on the barge during the night. Anna is nervous of the unfamiliar surroundings of the barge and cannot sleep. Hendrik tells her these noises are not noises, but nice music to fall asleep to, if you know what they are: wind in the reeds, water in the hull, flogs, rubbing ropes... it's a moment of tender intimacy told with the most delicate visuals.

The film derives its tempo from the flow of the river, - slow but continuous. Occasional bridges cast shadow over the barge, quietly pausing for crotchet rests. The images, shot on location, are incredibly naturalistic, full of sun and water. It seems Käutner and his crew painstakingly removed any evidence of the war out of their way. His assistant director, Rudolf Jugert, had worked for Alessandro Blasetti in Cinecitta in late 1930's, whose 1860 (1934) and QUATTRO PASSI FRA LE NUVOLE (1943) are considered as forerunners of Italian Neorealism. This is not realism, though. This is a fairy tale - a tale of a parallel world, which probably many Germans realized they should have had chosen. It is no coincidence that, in this 'other' world, Hendrik and Willi have been on the barge since 1933 - the year Nazi seized power. They must have experienced none of the Nazi frenzies, of the quick descent into nightmare. During the night, real Berliners were afraid of real noises - distant roars of the Allied bombers, hollowing inhumanity of sirens, shrieking of menacing bombs ... it's a regret 12 years too late. So all the more, it reflects back to us that we should never regret such a regret. We should never let anyone regret such a regret. Käutner longed for this world, which had branched off from their own many years ago, and made sure to preserve it in the frames of the film.

When I was a graduate student, I was hunting for old papers on chemistry of a rare compound in University library. As I smelled the dingy adhesive of old bindings (it was before internet and electric journals), I wondered what it was like to publish scientific papers in Nazi Germany, especially during the last days of the war. There wouldn't be anything revealing, no atomic bomb or rocket propulsion, I was sure, but what could they publish, then? I looked up one of the German scientific journals, and browsed through the issues published in 1940's. As I progressed from 1940 on, each issue got thinner, with less pages and less reports. In the last issue before the end of the war, published sometime in 1944, there was only one paper. I cannot recall the title, but it was about the ecology of butterflies. I could pick up only several of German words, but there were a few figures of butterflies, probably of very rare bleeds, I suppose. Staring at these figures, I was spellbound for a while. Where did they come from? Were they for real? Among the burning buildings, collapsed houses, rabbles in the streets, these pages had been printed. As if there had been no war. As if they were printed in another world. I could feel the surface of the paper, smell of the ink, but felt unreal.

The strange thing is, I can't find that paper anymore. 

Unter den Brücken (1945)
Directed by Helmut Käutner
Written by  Leo de Laforgue, Helmut Käutner, Walter Ulbrich
Music by Bernhard Eichhorn
Cinematography by Igor Oberberg
Starring Hannelore Schroth, Carl Raddat, Gustav Knuth

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