Rolf Aurich, Wolfgang Jacobsen:
Gli “ultimi” di Gerhard Lamprecht
Gerhard Lamprecht: “Keen Eye, Gentle Heart”
Deutsche Kinemathek 50
Gerhard Lamprecht (1897-1974), a passionate filmgoer and film collector from boyhood onwards, participated in nearly 70 films, in the capacities of actor, screenwriter, and director. He preferred a fixed team of technical collaborators; his films were created in a cohesive familial environment. He dealt in many genres, but it is his films of Berlin that rise above the others, bringing to the cinema an expanded version of Heinrich Zille’s view of the milieu (“Milljöh”). Zille even appeared in a small cameo at the beginning of Die Verrufenen (The Outcasts, 1925). Lamprecht was born and raised in Berlin, and his films set in his native city show a keen eye and gentle heart for its working class. Another trademark is his concern for children, expressed in his choice of subjects and wonderful collaboration with child actors, which reached its peak in 1931 with the first film version of Erich Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive.
Despite the political changes that led from the Weimar Republic to the National Socialist dictatorship and to the two differently oriented post-war German states, Lamprecht’s work retained its continuity. He went on filming, and his films were always of their time. His worldview was not so much realistic, but rather tended more towards the naturalism of the dramatist Gerhart Hauptmann. That said, these terms were not always consistently used by contemporary critics.
Human suffering is the focus of many of Lamprecht’s films; he intended his audiences to sympathize with his protagonists, and to make the world better through jointly experienced suffering, or at least to give a little push in that direction. “Curiosity and human interest” were what motivated him, Lamprecht once said. He came from a Protestant household; his father was a prison clergyman. As a director, he was a stereotypically conscientious and clean film craftsman, not an auteur in the modern sense of the term. This image of him was already prevalent in contemporary criticism, and it was maintained for decades, until it had solidified into a preconception. Lamprecht was fixated upon the “sensations” of everyday life, which he traced in almost ethnographic terms in his films. He avoided conventional cinematic effects; at most, they would sometimes slip in. He made films almost like a collector – driven by a documentary interest in the world and a retrospective but nonetheless contemporary obsession with looking ahead, and an insistence in finding a true observation of the essence of reality in an apparently trivial object or a glance at the mundane. The director Gerhard Lamprecht – and herein lies his underestimated auteurship – was not only an observer interested in humanity, he was an observer endowed with humanity.
By the time he was about 10 years old, Gerhard Lamprecht had already begun to build up a film archive, which he later called his “Kinemathek”. He cultivated and indexed his precious material, a scholarly pursuit in which he engaged at a time when resources for film studies did not yet exist, and the discourse was determined by contemporary witnesses of film history. He consciously limited his collection to early cinema up to World War I, while the acquisition of the stylistically decisive films of the 1920s seemed less urgent to him, these often being found in the archives of production or distribution companies, or the Reichsfilmarchiv. His 35 mm standard film prints and original negatives alas did not survive the war. What did survive, however, were the 16 mm reversal prints he had had made from 1935 onwards. In 1962, the State of Berlin acquired the “Kinemathek Lamprecht”. The history of this once private collection continues to this day, as a publicly available resource, the Deutsche Kinemathek, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. – Rolf Aurich, Wolfgang Jacobsen
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UNTER DER LATERNE (Under the Lantern) [Sotto il lampione] (Gerhard Lamprecht-Produktion der National-Film AG, Berlin, DE 1928) D: Gerhard Lamprecht; SC: Gerhard Lamprecht, Luise Heilborn-Körbitz; DP: Karl Hasselmann; AD: Otto Moldenhauer; C: Lissy Arna (Else Riedel), Gerhard Dammann (suo padre/her father), Mathias Wieman (Hans Grothe), Paul Heidemann (Max Thiele), Hubert von Meyerinck (Nevin), Carla Bartheel (Zora), Max Maximilian (Louis), Käte Haack (la tenutaria/the Madam), Hilda Schewior (Frieda), Sybil Morel (la vecchia/the Old One); DCP, 129' (transferred at 22 fps); print source: Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen, Berlin. Deutsche Zwischentitel.
Wolfgang Jacobsen: Else Riedel (Lissy Arna), locked out by her authoritarian father, seeks refuge with her boyfriend Hans. Complications threaten when Hans’s roommate Max falls in love with her, but the situation is resolved: the three remain friends, and decide to form a music hall act. They want to ascend, but how? A way out beckons when a theatrical agent named Nevin enters Else’s life. He is played by Hubert von Meyerinck as a slick and oily villain, who oozes refinement; his experience behind bars is waved away with a silk scarf. He is cunning to the point of perfidiousness, but is not completely unsympathetic. He also embodies a new type – the scrounger.
Nevin represents not the straight and narrow, but the crooked path. In this film it is portrayed as an understandable alternative, even though it doesn’t pay in the long run. At the music hall, lurking haughtily in his cutaway, he watches the début of the stage act of Else, Hans, and Max. The trio perform an equestrian number, the men in a horse costume, one as the head, one as the hind end, she the trainer in a tutu. Nevin has eyes only for Else. He wants to go to bed with her. First he gets rid of his old girlfriend.
The camera captures the stage number, looking into the orchestra pit from above, shows the stagehands enjoying themselves, and travels along the stamping feet of the customers in the front row, male trousers and female calves in silk stockings. Now sex appears. Else can escape the first attempt at violation. But she can only ascend by descending. She cannot escape Nevin’s clutches. A coincidence brings them together again. Lace underwear is laid out; blouse, panties, and hose are prettily draped on a line. The camera tracks slowly past this string of sexual promise and male imaginations of desire. What is happening outside the frame is not actually shown, but the staging could not be much more openly lascivious.
Else eventually ends up as a whore. At first she hires herself out as a bar girl in a club. There the chatting-up is like a military drill. Finally she walks the streets, and degenerates. From her room the camera’s gaze goes out through the window, capturing a gas meter and a railway line. In such a setting Anna Karenina threw herself in front of a train, an act committed in a mixture of revenge and despair. As cultural historian Peter Gray has observed, since the 1820s the locomotive has been “a symbol for power and revenge”, a “killer in sober reality” viewed as “suitable as an engine of retribution, a social superego punishing offenses against man and the gods”.
Though Else is not caught and crushed by a locomotive, her gaze imagines her longing for a transgression of frontiers, into the realm of Eros, but not via a return to the backroom of sex for money. This is not to be realized; in this vision, a redemptive death is taken into account. Male attributes have become “favourite players” in quite a different way in her life, and in her “theatre of the libido”. Other whores finally carry her outdoors. She wants to see the countryside just one more time.
Now the film really does lose its social composure. Else lies in the street; her eyes look up towards the light of a streetlamp. A dissolve follows, to the sun, to trees, and to a sea of flowers. This is paradise. And this is no barren field. A cut brings us back to the lamplight, and Else. Her eyes lose their light. A party rages on nearby. The director and his colleagues, more unconsciously than consciously, act as archaeologists of feelings. And determine that in this society, no good comes of them. – Wolfgang Jacobsen (adapted from his book Zeit und Welt – Gerhard Lamprecht und seine Filme, Munich: edition text + kritik, 2013)