Who Is Helmut Käutner?

A German master, ripe for centennial rediscovery
by Christoph Huber  posted July 14, 2008
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Helmut Käutner, Filmarchiv Austria, April 4-May 13, 2008

"Helmut Käutner has made 36 films for the big screen. Those you will have to watch for yourself." The dry wit and subliminal challenge of this assessment at the beginning of Marcel Neudeck’s fine half-hour portrait Wer Ist Helmut Käutner? (Who Is Helmut Käutner, 2008)—itself the work of a waning filmkritik tradition, the scholarly television documentary—might have pleased the master himself. Käutner, who (like his peer David Lean) would have turned 100 on March 25, liked his comedy double-edged, whether elegant and understated or raucous and sharp. His tragedies are no less ambivalent. A humanist intellectual, whose layered studies of conflicting social forces and individual fates may have been too subtle for the culture surrounding them, Käutner qualifies as one of the pantheon directors of German cinema, possibly even the nation’s finest major filmmaker of the sound era save, perhaps, Fassbinder.

Yet unlike Fassbinder, Käutner hardly got his due: Even his centenary saw only a handful of retrospectives (all 36 of his features were shown, for instance, at the Austrian Film Archive in Vienna in April) and a small tribute on German television: the culture-oriented station 3sat presented Käutner’s three official masterpieces—Romanze in Moll (Romance in a Minor Key, 1943), Große Freiheit Nr. 7 (Great Freedom Nr. 7, 1944), and Unter den Brücken (Under the Bridges, 1945)—as well as his remarkably assured debut, Kitty und die Weltkonferenz (Kitty and the World Conference, 1939), plus Neudeck’s short.

Käutner’s magnificent melodramas from the last years of World War II may be rightfully recognized—and Große Freiheit Nr. 7, with its legendary version of “La Paloma” (the German lyrics penned by Käutner) sung by star Hans Albers, is a genuine popular classic—but when Neudeck asks seemingly random passersby “Who is Helmut Käutner?” all fail to identify him by name or picture. One at least recognizes Heinz Rühmann, Germany’s most popular actor for decades, next to Käutner in a photo. They had worked together on three comedies that are emblematic of the usual assessment in German criticism of Käutner's career. (In the English-speaking world he is alarmingly neglected; of the dozen or so of his films available on German DVD only Unter den Brücken seems to have English subtitles.)

Still a budding star, Rühmann played a tailor mistaken for a nobleman in Käutner’s third film, Kleider machen Leute (Clothes Make the Man, 1940). By the time of Käutner’s third-to-last feature, Das Haus in Montevideo (The House in Montevideo, 1963) he was perfectly cast as the puritanical patriarch. In between, Rühmann had given one of his most iconic performances as a uniformed impostor in Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (The Captain From Köpenick, 1956). Although characteristically consistent in their examination of false appearances and how they make society (or, in the case of Montevideo, its smallest unit, the family) work, each of these satires encapsulates one of Käutner’s three phases. First, there’s the subversive talent, even genius, of Nazi-era filmmaking, who directed nine films between 1939 and 1945 culminating in the above-mentioned hat trick. Another major work, In jenen Tagen (In Those Days, 1947) inaugurates the bulk of Käutner’s cinematic career, when he was regarded as an able craftsman for popular entertainments—well-respected but, given his early promise, a disappointment, an appropriately Käutnerian contradiction (and a stubbornly persistent misunderstanding). And then there’s the downfall from the ’60s onward, with Käutner unjustly dismissed as a dinosaur, forced to abandon cinema for television and a return to the stage.

A supreme visual stylist, Käutner started as a man of the word—whose cinematic potential he keenly recognized, as evidenced in some of the earliest films by the actor-turned-director (and great actor's director), which were successful stabs at German screwball. By the beginning of the 1930s, in his Munich student years, the son of a merchant’s family from Düsseldorf had become a leading member of a popular vaudeville act called “Die vier Nachrichter” (a bit of wordplay with typical Käutner humor: sounds like “the four newsmen” but actually means “the four henchmen”). Undoubtedly, ensuing experiences with National Socialist censorship—for being “unpolitically” political—sharpened the born comedian’s sense for incorporating critical commentary into the seemingly inoffensive entertainments he directed after a stint as actor-director for the Leipzig theater and scriptwriter from 1936 to 1939. (Käutner also instinctively knew how to protect himself: The one time he was told to insert an overtly propagandistic scene—in 1941’s Auf Wiedersehen, Franziska!—he made sure it was “marked” as an intrusion via fade-in and -out—to such startling effect, he later claimed, that it immediately convinced the Allied commission in charge of work permits after the war.)

Ironically, Käutner’s first directorial assignment came under scrutiny (and landed in the vaults) for seeming too “harmless” once war had begun: After all, Kitty und die Weltkonferenz, a good-natured farce of old-world diplomatic intrigue set on neutral Swiss ground, pivoted around a sympathetic British diplomat. In hindsight its qualified nostalgia for civilized if not necessarily effective diplomacy on the eve of destruction is even more intriguing. Stylistically, Käutner is already remarkably close to the perfect polish and smooth flow of his finest work—a few sleight-of-hand-moments typical of first films are less distracting than charming—and Kitty introduces some key Käutner touches as well, from his penchant for cutaways to cats to the cosmopolitan trademark of insistently mixing languages.

French and English substitutions and translations intersect with Käutner's sharp German dialogue, leaving luminous traces even in the most obscure zones of his work, like the pent-up, Wellesian allegorical crime yarn Epilog (1950) or the bizarre erotic-existentialist tragicomedy Bildnis einer Unbekannten (Portrait of an Unknown Woman, 1954). In both, the device comes in handy for playfully dissecting swank-but-rotten bourgeois milieus (a Käutner specialty), whereas in many satires—like the Tashlinesque economic-boom showbiz lampoon Die Zürcher Verlobung (The Affairs of Julie, 1957)—Käutner uses its comedic effects to ironically emphasize the alienating aspects of a dream world coating “reality.” Certainly the related ironies of the hall-of-mirrors storyline—in which a writer's budding script for a movie romance progresses only in accordance with her mixed-up relationships, which in turn hinge on the progress of her script—are not so much a postmodernist contraption avant la lettre, but evidence of a sophisticated stance toward the estrangement that comes from living and working within the cultural industries.

In Der Rest ist Schweigen (The Rest Is Silence, 1959), a contemporary Hamlet set in the Ruhrpott industrial belt, a similar alienation effect is palpably dramatic, as Hardy Krüger’s remigrant peels off layers of (collaborator) guilt from whitewashed recent family history. Still, the device's most elegant application appropriately adorns Monpti (1957), a sublime treatise on love and innocence that may well be Käutner's secret masterpiece. To set up for a German audience the Paris-set romance of young lovers (Romy Schneider, Horst Buchholz), the narrator (as so often, Käutner himself) casually informs us—after contemplating alternate choices like subtitles—that we will just resort to the wonder of dubbing. Voilà.

Monpti's poetic refinement may conjure the memory of Unter den Brücken, whose achingly intimate ménage à trois on a barge rivals, and possibly surpasses, the very best of French poetic realism. Certainly the poetic realist label stuck with Käutner, even as Unter den Brücken is a shining example of the supremely nuanced expressions he achieved through a rich, unobtrusively stylized mise-en-scène. His stage-schooled penchant for sometimes comic, often complex reflexive visual and narrative arrangements and his perfect timing, not just for professionally placed gags, led to frequent uses of mirror images and breaking the fourth wall. Käutner's splendid musical comedy Wir machen Musik (1942) ends with an alarm signal for a wartime blackout and the protagonists giving the audience insinuating advice on what to do in the ensuing darkness. In mature Käutner, his modernist tendencies seem fully submerged in effortlessly fluent construction; the films often feature long takes so complex and supple as to warrant comparison to Max Ophüls. Exceedingly gentle but decisive, these movements conjure the inescapability of—as well as the finest graduations in—emotional forces, erotic attractions, and tragic bonds. The world is closing in, as Käutner’s protagonists inevitably struggle to achieve some measure of truth, not least about themselves. The mood may be hopeful—Unter den Brücken feels like a postwar work with its atmosphere of quiet reverie—but more often it is stifling: the flawless Maupassant adaptation Romanze in Moll, starring a radiant Marianna Hoppe as an adulteress, is a virtuoso construction of diminishing possibilities, to the death.

After this historical film was deemed “corrosive for manners and matrimony" by the authorities, Käutner pointedly responded by continuing the retreat inward—undercutting National Socialist entertainment policy and removing all signs of the escalating war from his images of contemporary Hamburg. Ironically, Große Freiheit Nr. 7 was literally made while fleeing the bombardments: First Hamburg lay in ruins, then so did its replica on Berlin sets. The film was finished in Prague. One of its most startling moments insinuates the truth of the state of the city: As Hans Albers and his mates sing the town’s traditional songs, he segues into its hymn—but falls silent after the second line that praises Hamburg’s stately appearance. The way Albers sings "La Paloma," however, is like a beckoning call to a peacful, utopian nowhere. In the end, Käutner’s first big production and color film, conceived by the regime as a made-to-order paean to German songs, was suppressed at home, although—like Romanze in Moll—the film was released in foreign territories for currency and prestige. It won Käutner the annual national film critics prize for the second year running in neutral Sweden. But even as Große Freiheit proved Käutner’s mastery on a big scale—down to a barroom brawl worthy of John Ford—his insult to “Hamburg's importance at sea and in the world” was unforgivable: The film had “defiled” the city by showing a St. Pauli full of whores, complained admiral Karl Dönitz, who added categorically, “German seamen don’t drink!”

The moment of liberty, when the Nazi regime finally fell, was overwhelming, Käutner remembered in an interview heard in Neudeck's short, adding that freedom was gone just as quickly. At least a glimmer of the freedom can still be felt in Käutner’s first postwar work, In jenen Tagen. Its astonishing episodes chronologically chart the fates of various people in seven self-contained vignettes leaping forward in irregular intervals from 1933 to 1945, each rendered in a distinct mode. It starts with a claustrophobic two-hander set in a car on the eve of Hitler's seizure of power and ends in a fairytale of grace and compassion near war's end that liberally uses Christian and mythic symbols. The stories in between focus on the persecution of Jews and people connected to the resistance, except for one episode set on the eastern front, which consists mostly of a debate on basic ethical principles between two soldiers, and anticipates the literary style as well as some of the themes of German Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll. The various narratives are held together by the voiceover of an automobile that's about to be dismantled. Again it is Käutner's own voice, providing the cautious chorus by asking, What is humanity? In sum, this constitutes the director's Germany Year Zero.

But by the time of the crazy fantasy comedy Der Apfel ist ab (The Original Sin, 1948), based on an unperformed prewar “Nachrichter” cabaret, the taste of times had gone sour: still hope amid hysterics, but no lessons learned (Käutner himself plays the doctor). “As soon as the bourgeois cultural industry was functioning again, the interest in what we did—and wanted to do—decreased abruptly,” Käutner noted bitterly. He felt “cornered again, but unlike before, since in the entertainment industry you did not have just one enemy—the NS regime—but many.” To make art, one had to “smuggle it in.” This, after years of living under a dictatorship, certainly adds another dimension to Käutner’s predilection for disguises, whether verbal or literal.

But art in the trivial filmic wasteland of the German Wirtschaftswunder, as the (not entirely unjustified) cliché has it, was also hard to take—and probably still is. One gets the feeling that the canonization of Käutner’s war-years masterpieces helps critics avoid dealing with the later films and certain unpleasant insights about the postwar cine-culture. Ironically, the boom years’ domineering, cliché-ridden Heimatfilme and love stories are the very material for satire in Die Zürcher Verlobung, which may explain why it never achieved the status of, say, The Girl Can’t Help It, despite a comparable wealth of garish colors, merciless caricature, and clever metatext (in a cameo as a journalist, Käutner berates colleague Bernhard Wicki’s actor-director because “I dislike filmmakers playing in their own films”)—there are also no “cool” ingredients like rock ’n’ roll.

Notwithstanding the exceptional war drama Die letzte Brücke (The Last Bridge, 1954), which won Käutner a Cannes prize after a few flops, he generally came to be seen as an above-average craftsman, uneven despite hits and “acceptable” adaptations of prestigious literature, like his three Zuckmayer-based films: Köpenick and two Curd Jürgens vehicles, Der Schinderhannes (Duel in the Forest, 1958) and Der Teufels General (The Devil’s General, 1955). The latter, a story about an insubordinate air force general working for Hitler's military, is usually reprimanded for deviating from the original play—yet the picture's outcome is essential Käutner. All his protagonists have to struggle through humorous misunderstandings or fatal dilemmas, and if this leads towards personal redemption, it is not necessarily a rehabilitation for their failures of responsibility.

The general course of German (film) history still hampers Käutner’s reputation. It may be instructive to ponder parallels to another maestro who started out near neorealism and moved toward something bigger. A decade before Luchino Visconti made The Damned, Käutner had similarly exposed connections between industry and (Nazi) ideology in Der Rest ist Schweigen, and his German Ludwig II (1955) predated the Italian’s by 17 years. Despite some restrictions imposed by the heirs, Käutner’s version is a dazzling meditation on myth and history as a requiem for German culture, and one of the most striking examples of his virtues being overshadowed by prejudices. The very notion of Trivialkino acting icons O. W. Fischer as the doomed Bavarian king and Ruth Leuwerik (no matter that she's always fascinating in her many Käutner roles) as Austrian empress Elizabeth seems enough to shut many blinders. Yet neither Visconti nor Hans-Jürgen Syberberg could improve substantially upon the earlier film, outstanding as their Ludwig films may be.

One last time Käutner managed to dream bigger, but his Hollywood detour was unsuccessful. After two rarely seen American productions—the psychological dramas The Restless Years (1958) and A Stranger in My Arms (1959) for Universal Pictures—he returned home, after being offered only a western, a genre for which he believed he had no use. He came to regret it, as he was soon sacrificed cinéma-qualité-style on the altar of a New Wave. When a young generation of German filmmakers announced their break with Papas Kino in 1962's Oberhausen Manifesto, the young critics accompanied their declaration with an award for “the worst achievement of an established director.” The shared prize went to Käutner's unusual crime drama Schwarzer Kies (Black Gravel, 1961), about corruption at U.S. military bases in Germany, which had already been (wrongly) attacked as anti-Semitic, and to his Der Traum von Lieschen Müller (The Dream of Lieschen Mueller, 1961), a thematic follow-up to Die Zürcher Verlobung somewhat disfigured by its producer.

After this unfortunate humiliation, despite his attempts to escape formula filmmaking, the death knell came with Käutner's melancholy and mischievous film maudit Die Rote (Redhead, 1962), about the Venice adventures of an unsatisfied secretary (Leuwerik). It was roundly dismissed as a disaster at its Berlinale premiere; even co-scriptwriter Alfred Andersch complained about how his novel had been mangled. But the accusations of Käutner jumping the Antonioni bandwagon completely ignored his long-standing modernist leanings. The disappointed director made only three more films for the big screen—all adaptations of time-proven, folksy classics—up to a Rühmann-less remake of that quintessential 1944 Rühmann comedy, Die Feuerzangenbowle (The Fire Tongue Bowl, 1970). Syberberg, at least, seemed to have caught on when he cast Käutner in the title role of his Karl May (1974), but there was no comeback for the increasingly reclusive and ailing filmmaker, who died in his Tuscan resort in 1980. And there is another sizeable legacy waiting to be discovered. Apart from never quitting his theater work, Käutner embarked on a series of about two dozen television features between 1962 and 1977, which are all but unknown. The rest, as they say, is silence. 


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Courtesy Filmarchiv Austria
Helmut Käutner's Die Zürcher Verlobung (The Affairs of Julie)
Photo Gallery: Who Is Helmut Käutner?


April 4-May 13, 2008 Helmut Käutner


Christoph Huber is a film critic and editor at the Vienna daily Die Presse and a contributing editor at Cinema Scope. He writes most of the program notes for the Austrian Filmmuseum and contributes regularly to various international film magazines and anthologies.

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