The time could hardly be more auspicious for a restored version of Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?, the 1932 echt Weimar early talkie directed by Slatan Dudow from a script co-written by Bertolt Brecht. And—a welcome aesthetic stimulus—here it is.
The DEFA Film Library’s long-awaited DVD is available for rental and is also screening June 17 and 18 at Anthology Film Archives. Although largely lacking Brecht’s satiric humor, Kuhle Wampe is the most purely Brechtian—deliberately unemotional acting, dissonant sound, and all manner of dramatic non sequiturs— of the playwright’s several film projects. It’s also the most radical example of the so-called New Objectivity—socially conscious, anti-expressive, quasi-documentary. Named for a Berlin shantytown and shot mainly on location, Kuhle Wampe uses understated, even oblique, melodrama to analyze unemployment in the context of a single petty-bourgeois German family. The movie was produced by (and subsequently bankrupted) a Communist film company, with help from a CP sports club, and was initially banned for its frank depiction of suicide, abortion, and homelessness—not to mention its Communist optimism, embodied in the closing rendition of Hanns Eisler’s “Song of Solidarity.” The movie’s most celebrated scenes are didactic interpolations: the scene in which a displaced paterfamilias dramatizes his cluelessness by reading a newspaper story about Mata Hari, or the trolley car debate regarding the destruction of Brazil’s coffee crop. But Kuhle Wampe is also notable for its ongoing visual motifs (the unemployed bicyclists racing around Berlin) and the way political arguments are introduced and maintained in the editing (a discussion begun in the shantytown continued in the sports meet).
Dudow, a young Bulgarian who worked with Brecht and later became a director in East Germany, was obviously influenced by Soviet montage as well as epic theater. But seen today, Kuhle Wampe‘s Brechtian alienation effects seem startlingly Godardian. Indeed, Godard’s Une femme mariée (A Married Woman, 1964), coincidentally released this month on DVD by Koch-Lorber, makes a provocative comparison to Kuhle Wampe in its use of formal distance to make a social critique—although Godard’s focus is the consumer culture of the ’60s.
Another new, notable, socially conscious DVD release, far less known here than Une femme mariée or Kuhle Wampe, is Julien Duvivier’s last silent feature Au bonheur des dames (The Ladies Paradise, 1930). One of the discoveries of the Museum of Modern Arts’ recent Duvivier retro, Au bonheur is “an orgy of pure cinema,” per Scott Foundas’s Voice report. Adapted from a novel by Émile Zola, the film ambivalently considers the economic havoc wreaked by a new department store, based on Paris’s Bon Marché.
An impressive mish-mash, Au bonheur des dames has elements characteristic of artistic French silents (impressionist superimpositions, staccato camera moves, an extended “open-air” sequence), but, in its elaborate department store set and teeming street scenes, it’s much closer to the German films of the period. German actress Dita Parlo, immortalized a few years later in Jean Vigo’s L’atalante, stars as a provincial girl who finds work and love at the consumer paradise.