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The Journey to Tilsit:
A Song of Two Movies

Sunrise-Poster1 [1]7,194 words

Many people consider F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: Song of Two Humans (1927) to be the greatest film of the silent era. But most are unaware that it was remade under Hitler as Die Reise nach Tilsit (1939), and directed by the notorious Veit Harlan.

Both films were based upon a novella – titled Die Reise nach Tilsit (The Journey to Tilsit) – by Hermann Sudermann. Largely forgotten today, Sudermann (1857–1928) was at one time an extremely popular and widely-acclaimed German playwright and novelist.

His first great success was the four act play Die Ehre (Honor; 1889), which is said to have been influenced by Nietzsche. Sudermann followed this with Heimat (1893) translated into English as Magda (the name of the heroine), one of the most successful plays of the fin de siècle. The story depicted the conflict between personal independence and duty, and was also filmed during the Hitler period (in 1938, by director Carl Froelich, starring Zarah Leander). In fact, more than 30 films were made in the last century based on plays or stories by Sudermann.

Hermann Sudermann [2]

Hermann Sudermann

In 1894 Sudemann published a novel, Es War (It Was), whose title is a reference to a passage from Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations. In 1926 it became the basis for the classic Greta Garbo-John Gilbert film The Flesh and the Devil (released in Germany as Es War). Sudermann was a nationalist, whose writings often celebrated ethnic identity and, of course, Heimat. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the German war effort during the First World War, penning a Kaiserlied (Song of the Kaiser). For his efforts to boost public morale during the conflict he received the Iron Cross Second Class in 1918. He died in 1928 of a lung infection.

“The Journey to Tilsit” is set in Memel, which had been part of Prussia but later came under the control of Lithuania. It is known today as Klaipeda. I will have more to say about the region’s relation to Germany later on, when I deal with Harlan’s Die Reise nach Tilsit, which was shot in Memel. The story concerns an unhappily-married couple who sail one day from Memel to Tilsit on an errand. Tilsit had also been part of Prussia, but following the Second World War it fell into Soviet hands and is known today as Sovetsk. Sudermann was born in this region, and went to school in Tilsit and in nearby Königsberg (now known as Kaliningrad). Both film versions differ in a number of significant ways from Sudermann’s story, but rather than summarize three versions of the same tale I will merely indicate now and then how the films differ from the original. (Indeed, I will only summarize Sunrise at any length, as the plot of Harlan’s film differs from it very little.)

Both films are very interesting for ideological reasons, and can be said to be strongly conservative in their “message” (at least, they look conservative today). Both can be seen as celebrating the traditional family, and such virtues as faithfulness, monogamy, and forgiveness. Both films also set up an opposition between provincial life, and provincial people and their virtues, as opposed to city life, and its deracinated cosmopolitanism. Though one would expect this of Harlan’s film, given that it was made under Hitler, the interesting thing is that these elements are much more pronounced in Sunrise.

Sunrise: Song of Two Humans

F. W. Murnau [3]

F. W. Murnau

F. W. Murnau is best known as the director of Nosferatu (1922). Sunrise (which is usually referred to sans its corny subtitle) was the first film Murnau made in the United States. (His last film before leaving Germany was Faust, 1926.) It was producer William Fox who had convinced Murnau to emigrate. Fox (born Wilhelm Fried) was the founder of the Fox Film Corporation, which later became Twentieth Century Fox (after its 1935 merger with Twentieth Century Pictures).

Murnau, however, planned Sunrise while still in Germany. The screenplay, based loosely on Sudermann’s original story, was by Carl Mayer, who had penned The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, among others. The film’s striking, Expressionistic sets were designed by German director Rochus Gliese. In short, though the cast was American (as were cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss), this was a very German film. And Murnau very consciously made the film in the style of German Expressionism – apparently at the urging of William Fox.

Indeed, I realized the first time I watched Sunrise that if I had missed the opening credits I would have assumed that this was a German film with intertitles translated into English. Such a mistake would be possible not just because of the stylistic elements in the film, but also because Murnau and Mayer chose to set it in an indefinite time and place. The unnamed city depicted in the film could be New York – or Berlin, or London. The little village in which the husband and wife reside is a sort English-Continental blend, and doesn’t look at all like a small American town. All of these settings, by the way, were constructed for the film at great expense (the vast “city” set is supposed to have cost around $200,000, an enormous sum in those days). Even the characters are indefinite, as they have no names. The three major protagonists are referred to only as “The Man,” “The Wife,” and “The Woman from the City.”

Murnau's vast city set [4]

Murnau’s vast city set

Here is the story: The Man and his Wife live on a farm in a small village with their young son and a couple of servants. Their village – for unnamed reasons – seems to be a vacation spot for city folk looking to get away from it all. One summer, however, long after the departure of the other “vacationists” (as they are referred to in the film), a glamorous “Woman from the City” lingers on. We soon learn why: she is having an affair with the Man. (In Sudermann’s original story, the Man – who actually does have a name – is having an affair with a family servant.) He seems, indeed, to be literally bewitched by her. She comes to the window of their house and whistles for him just as his Wife (played by Janet Gaynor) is setting the table for dinner. He struggles with himself but ultimately rushes out, while his Wife labors in the kitchen.

There follows a justifiably famous sequence in which the Man goes to meet the Woman in a kind of a marsh. Murnau sets up an elaborate tracking shot which follows actor George O’Brien out of the house, into the woods, over a fence, and into a clearing where the Woman waits for him in the moonlight. The Woman (played by Margaret Livingston) is heavily made up and dressed to the nines. In an amusing sequence earlier in the film, we find that she is renting a room from an old local couple. Murnau shows the Woman in her slip, fussing with her hair and staring into a mirror with a cigarette dangling from her lips. When she exits the room we find ourselves in a classic Expressionistic setting: the old couple are seated at their table having dinner – only the table is tilted up at an odd angle, and the lamp hanging overhead is tilted with it creating an unreal effect. (Rather than have actual soup in their bowls, the surface of which would, of course, have remained parallel to the floor when tilted, Gliese painted the inside of the bowls to look like they contained soup.) Wearily, the old lady gets up and polishes the Woman’s shoes, while the Woman blows smoke in her face.

Expressionism -- the old couple at dinner, as the Woman of the City emerges from her room [5]

Expressionism — the old couple at dinner, as the Woman of the City emerges from her room

The Woman from the City is, in short, a real Vamp. This is, of course, short for “Vampire.” And once upon a time the full word was used to describe . . . well, that kind of woman. In 1909 when architect Frank Lloyd Wright left his wife for another woman, one Chicago newspaper ran a story about Mrs. Wright’s reaction with the headline “Spouse Victim of a Vampire.” And indeed, when the Man meets the Woman in the moonlit clearing in the woods, she clutches him and bares her teeth, looking quite like the real thing. Murnau reminds us here that he was the director of Nosferatu.

The vamp as vampire [6]

The vamp as vampire

“Leave all this behind. Come to the City,” the Woman pleads. The intertitle that follows repeats the last three words in a larger font: “COME TO THE CITY.” It is a kind of siren’s call. And then she begins to tell him of life in the city and how wonderful it is. Over the gray sky above them, Murnau projects images of his generic city – images which appear to be a combination of paintings and models. It is a bright neon, twisted, hellish cacophony. And after a moment the scenes of the city fade into composite shots of a loudly-dressed brass band playing and gyrating manically. The scene fades back to the Woman, who has begun to move to the imaginary music – writhing and twisting like she’s suffering from Saint Vitus Dance.

Come with me to the city! To the City! [7]

Come with me to the city! To the City!

Unnerved, the Man pulls her towards him. “What about my wife?” he asks her. Grinning like a ghoul, the Woman answers “Couldn’t she get . . . drowned?” The words of the intertitle begin drooping as if water-logged (an effect which would no doubt amuse today’s audiences), and the Man has a vision of pushing his Wife into the water from a small boat. Horrified by this, and by the Woman’s cruelty, he tries to strangle her. But, in the end, her magic is too powerful for him, and he is unable to refuse.

Intertitles from Sunrise [8]

Murnau next shows the woman’s high-heeled shoes trudging through thick mud – suggesting the tawdriness of the whole thing. She is collecting bulrushes from the marsh. The plan is that the Man will go out onto the river with his Wife, push her overboard, and capsize the boat. He will use a bundle of bulrushes as a life preserver, which he will scatter once he reaches shore. The whole scenario has a simplicity that reminds one of a Bible story. The next day, the Man asks his Wife to sail with him to the city. Thinking that he wants to make amends, she is overjoyed and quickly agrees.

However, as they set sail in their small boat, a remarkable event occurs. The family dog suddenly goes wild, leaps into the bay, and swims after them. The Wife is amused, but the Man is not. George O’Brien plays the Man as if he is in a kind of trance. It is evident that although he is determined to kill his wife, it is as if he is acting under the influence of a spell, rather than through his own free will. In an earlier scene, the Man sits and broods guiltily about the planned murder, while, through a double exposure, Murnau shows the Woman caressing him with her claw-like hands and whispering in his ear, as if haunting him.

Sunrise double exposure [9]

The Man and Wife pull the dog into the boat, and the man rows back to shore. Moving like a zombie, he leads the dog back onto the property and ties it up. As he does so, we see his Wife sitting in the boat smiling, evidently delighted by the dog’s fierce loyalty. But then suddenly her expression changes and the light goes out of her eyes. Suddenly she understands what the dog’s behavior means – that it was acting to protect her. And as the Man approaches the boat we see that the Wife now understands that he means to kill her. All of this is conveyed entirely through Janet Gaynor’s facial expressions. One can see the exact moment when she realizes what her husband’s intentions are. It is an acting tour de force, and I was reminded when I saw it of the words of the immortal Norma Desmond: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”

En route to the city, the man does indeed behave as if he is about to throw the Wife overboard. She cowers in fear, but he is suddenly overcome with self-loathing and cannot go through with the deed. When they reach the other shore, she rushes from the boat, trying to get as far away from her husband as possible. The Man pursues her, pleading “Don’t be afraid of me!” She clambers up a hill and into the woods.

It is then that we enter into a kind of fantasyland. A tram appears from the city – though what it is doing out in the woods is not clear. The Wife boards it and the Man soon follows, jumping on just as the tram begins to move. She cowers, avoiding his gaze, while the Man desperately tries to make amends. But his efforts are in vain, for the Wife is deeply traumatized. Both terrified and hurt, her world seems to be in ruins.

Via process shots, Murnau shows us the progress of the tram along its route. It leaves the woods and suddenly we enter a nightmarish industrial landscape that becomes progressively more and more threatening and inhuman. When it reaches the city, the Wife bolts from the tram, with the Man pursuing her. He guides her into an elegant café and bids her to eat. When she tries to eat a piece of bread, she begins weeping uncontrollably. The Man and Wife leave the café and move aimlessly through the streets. She continues to shrink from him, as he tries ever more desperately to reach her.

Finally, they enter a church while a wedding is taking place, sitting in one of the pews near the back. As he hears the groom promise to protect his bride from all harm, the Man begins weeping. “Forgive me,” he implores his Wife. And now, at last, she does so, embracing him and kissing him tenderly as the church bells ring.

The church sequence -- O'Brien weeps [10]

I have already commented on Janet Gaynor’s performance, and here I must say that George O’Brien is really splendid as well. His emotion – and tears – in this scene appear to be quite genuine, and the entire sequence of scenes I have just described is really quite moving.

George O'Brien [11]

George O’Brien

O’Brien was, I suppose, an unlikely choice for this role, for he was basically a Hollywood “hunk” at the time. A former Navy man, O’Brien had served on a submarine in World War One and had been decorated for bravery. Near the end of his Navy career he had been light heavyweight boxing champion of the Pacific Fleet. Almost forgotten today, O’Brien was a popular star in the ’20s and ’30s, who specialized almost exclusively in Westerns. He re-enlisted in the Navy when the Second World War broke out, and thereafter made only a few films (several of them directed by John Ford, who was particularly fond of the actor). (An interesting footnote is that O’Brien’s father was Chief of Police of San Francisco, and was famous as the man who ordered the arrest of Fatty Arbuckle in September of 1921.)

After the scene in the church the mood of the film shifts dramatically, and becomes joyous – ecstatic, even – and lighthearted. As they walk through the streets, arm in arm, the Man and his Wife completely lose all sense of their surroundings, and imagine that they are moving through a sunlit grove. Their reverie is abruptly brought to an end when they realize that they have carelessly walked into the middle of a busy street, and are surrounded by cars blowing their horns. This and the rest of the city sequences continually contrast the simple, honest naturalness of the couple, with the manic chaos and degeneracy the city.

A vast, elegantly-appointed barber shop is the couple’s next stop. The man is immediately planted in a large chair and tipped backwards, while a bored and slightly effeminate barber massages his face. The Wife is left in the waiting area, where she keeps a close eye on him. A pretty, flirtatious manicurist approaches the Man and coos, “You’d look grand with a high polish.” He shoes her away, much to his Wife’s relief. But as the Man gets shaved, the wife has her own problem to contend with: a classic Hollywood “cad” has decided to cozy up to her in the next chair. The Man watches him from the barber’s chair, becoming increasingly alarmed. Once the shave is finished, he approaches the cad, steps on his shoe and threatens him with a pocket knife.

George O'Brien [12]

George O’Brien

O’Brien plays this bit very straight and is genuinely menacing. The effect is to contrast the truly masculine Man and his healthy male possessiveness, with the effete, citified cad who is incapable of violence, largely because nothing much really means anything to him. Here we must reflect on the significance of our main characters being called simply “Man” and “Wife.” These characters are archetypes of masculinity and femininity. The Wife represents one aspect of the feminine, what Julius Evola calls the “Demeter type,” or the archetype of the mother. The Woman from the City represents the “Aphrodite” type, or the lover archetype.[1]

As the Man and Wife leave, the manager tells them “Come again.” Thinking this is something more than an insincere pleasantry, the Wife responds “Thank you! And you must come and see us some time.” Again, the sincerity and genuineness of the couple is contrasted with the falseness and superficiality of city folk. There follows an amusing sequence in which the couple has their picture taken by a professional photographer, then it is off to a fabulous amusement park. The establishing shot of its enormous entrance is accomplished through trick photography, and reminded me of the effects in Lang’s Metropolis, released that same year. Inside, predictably, the Man excels at the carnival games. But his Wife wants him to take her for a spin in the grand dance hall.

Before they can get there, however, there is some hilarity involving an escaped pig that gets drunk by licking up a puddle of wine. When everyone else proves helpless, the Man easily captures the pig – again demonstrating his naturalness, and masculine capability. In the dance hall, the city folk all eye the rustic couple with evident amusement. The band strikes up a piece titled “Midsummer (Peasant Dance)” – identified by the sheet music that appear in one shot – and the crowd urges the couple to dance. The Man hesitates first as he clearly feels – correctly – that the others are ridiculing him. The Wife doesn’t care, however. And so the two begin to dance in a kind of expressive, exuberant peasant style that seems vaguely Russian. There’s quite a lot of kicking, and the Man swings his wife around as if she were a feather pillow.

The dance sequence [13]

The dance sequence

Later that night, exhausted but deliriously happy, the couple make their way to the tram. It takes them back into the forest and to the shore, where their little boat awaits. Sailing home on the calm waters, the Wife rests in her husband’s arms, and both seem absolutely at peace. All is forgiven, and they are beginning a new life together. One wonders at this point what will happen tomorrow – how will the Man deal with the Woman from the City. Will he confront her, and tell her to leave the village? Suddenly, however, the scene shifts back to the city, which is being whipped by a powerful wind. Seconds later, the sky over the river breaks open and rain pours down heavily on the couple. The wind begins to rage and the water churns ever more ominously.

Stormy weather in Sunrise [14]

The man starts rowing and soon we can actually see the dock of the little village. But one of the oars breaks, and the water now rocks the little craft so violently it looks as if it’s about to capsize. The Man suddenly remembers the bundle of bulrushes he had secreted under a blanket – the bulrushes that were intended to buoy him up after he had murdered his Wife and turned the boat over. But now he is no longer thinking of himself: he ties the bulrushes to his Wife. And it is a good thing he does, for a great wave comes up and capsizes the boat. The Man and Wife are separated. He manages to swim to shore, where he calls for her repeatedly. (It occurred to me at this point that a good lip reader might be able to tell what name he is calling – but all I can say is that it clearly consists of two syllables.)

The Man now enlists the aid of the entire village in looking for his Wife. Every boat is launched, and they fan out in all directions, sweeping lanterns over the dark surface of the water, desperately looking for any sign of the Wife. When he finds the bulrushes floating in the water, the Man begins to despair. After a long search, they give up hope and lead the emotionally-shattered man back to his house, where a grief-stricken female servant awaits, holding his little son. But then Murnau lets us in on something: we see the Wife floating on the water, apparently alive, but completely missed by the search party.

And now the dramatically inevitable occurs. The Woman from the City emerges from her room to see what all the commotion is about. Perched catlike on a tree overhanging a road, she watches as the Man is led home by the villagers. Once they have all departed and the Man is left alone with his grief, she approaches the house and, just as before, whistles to signal to him that she is outside. The man is bent over his bed, his head in his hands, weeping. But when he hears the Woman’s whistle, he slowly lifts his head – and we see that there is murder in his eyes. He emerges from the house and slowly approaches her. No words have to be exchanged. She sees the look on his face and flees. The man pursues and catches her. Her wraps his finger around her throat and begins to strangle her.

The Man almost strangles the Woman from the City [15]

It was at this point that I realized what a genius Murnau was in showing us moments earlier that the wife was still alive. When I first saw that earlier shot I thought “Why does he reveal it to us now? Why not keep us in suspense a little longer?” But then I realized that Murnau was setting up a new, and heart-wrenching suspense situation. The Man had almost murdered his Wife – almost destroyed the most precious thing in his existence. But then he came to his senses and redeemed himself. To then have the wife drown accidentally is tragic enough. But think how much more tragic it would be if he murdered the Woman, not realizing that his Wife still lives! He would go to prison or be executed, and their beautiful, new life together would be destroyed, and their son would be without a father. I really cannot adequately describe the emotional intensity of these scenes. I have never seen this film with an audience, but I doubt that at this point there could be a dry eye in the theater.

Just as it seems the Man is about to throttle the life out of the wicked temptress, we see the grief-stricken servant appear at the front door. Murnau shows her in extreme close up, tears streaming down her face, as she calls to him, telling him that his Wife lives. Just in time, the Man releases his grip on the Woman, and she goes scuttling away. Now the Man and Wife are reunited. The Wife is exhausted after her ordeal, but looks radiant nonetheless. Early next morning, the Woman of the City is shown in the back of a wagon, leaving town with her trunks full of finery. She looks bitter and defeated. The film ends with the Man and Wife gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes and kissing, as the picture fades to a stylized sunrise.

The foregoing description has probably made the film’s themes rather obvious. As I have noted several times, Sunrise systematically contrasts city life and city folk with country life and country folk, and finds the former lacking. The city is portrayed as glamorous and enticing, but also as overwhelming, chaotic, inhuman, and ultimately hellish. City folk are portrayed as false and effete. Country folk as genuine and strong.

americanitis [16]“Neurasthenia” is the malady of the city dwellers here. This was a kind of catch-all “syndrome” that was widely employed as a diagnosis beginning in the 19th century, finally falling out of fashion in the 1930s. It was thought to be caused by the overstimulation of modern life, and was even colloquially referred to as “Americanitis.” (The Rexall drug company actually marketed an “Americanitis Elixir” for a while.) The symptoms were fatigue, depression, and insensitivity to pleasure – meaning that the sufferer had to seek out more and more intense sources of stimulation in order to feel anything at all. This certainly describes the Woman of the City, and her Jazz-age gyrations near the beginning of the film. Why, we must ask, has she spent so much time away from her beloved city in order to bewitch a hayseed and destroy his marriage? Evidently because it is an exciting new form of stimulation for her – a new game. And the people we encounter in the city sequences seem bored, creepy, and detached.

The film begins with an epigraph that actually seems deliberately intended to undercut its stark contrasts between city and country: “This film of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere at any time. For wherever the sun rises and sets – in the city’s turmoil or under the open sky on the farm – life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.” But this is decidedly not the message the film conveys! Apparently, Murnau did not have control over the intertitles created for the film. They are credited, in fact, not to screenwriter Carl Mayer but to Katherine Hilliker and H. H. Caldwell.

The first half hour of the film contains quite a few intertitles, and they are generally rather corny. Blessedly, they are few and far between in the rest of the film. The epigraph does seem deliberately intended to blunt the film’s obvious criticism of the city, perhaps so as to avoid the accusation of being an apology for what Marx called “the idiocy of rural life.” Or to avoid offending city-dwellers. Murnau’s intentions, therefore, had to be sacrificed on the altar of American egalitarianism and relativism.

In addition to the above, the film is obviously a hymn to the importance of marital fidelity, and to love of one’s own. It calls upon us to resist the lure of modern busy-ness and dislocation, and to remain true to home, homeland, and family.

On another level entirely, Sunrise is about a man’s awakening. And it can be interpreted on both a mystical and a (relatively) mundane level. The title of the film, in fact, refers to this awakening. In the earlier parts of the film, George O’Brien plays the Man as if he is sleep-walking. And in a way he is, of course: he is under the spell of the Woman, and almost completely oblivious of everything else. As suggested already, the Woman can be interpreted as a harbinger of modern decadence. Or as maya, an ephemeral dazzle which captivates and involves the man. Maya renders him unconscious of what is truly real: of the eternal logos (represented by the unchanging, cyclical verities of rural life) and of truth and beauty (and the truth is that the Wife is far more beautiful than the Woman).

On a less “mystical” level, Sunrise is about a man poised to destroy all that is dearest to him – who then “wakes up” and realizes what really matters in his life, just in the nick of time. Human beings often find themselves in the odd predicament of not realizing just how dear certain things are to them, until they are lost, or almost lost. Sunrise is about a man’s redemption; a man’s realization of what matters most. Anyone who has ever thrown away something dear to them, only to realize — when it was too late to go back — just how dear it was, will be greatly moved by Sunrise.

Before moving on to the Harlan remake, I should note that it is a bit of a misnomer to describe Sunrise as a “silent film.” In fact, it was the first film to employ the Fox Movietone “sound-on-film” system. This was a precursor to the processes we use today to synchronize a soundtrack to a film. But in this case, no dialogue was recorded, only a musical score (by an uncredited Hugo Riesenfeld) along with some sound effects. I don’t care much for the Riesenfeld score (though it has its defenders). The recent Blu-ray release of Sunrise [17] contains a new score by Timothy Brock. I found this score so effective, I can’t imagine watching the film without it. (The Blu-ray is actually a UK release, but is playable on American machines.)

Die Reise nach Tilsit

Cover of the pressbook for Die Reise Nach Tilsit [18]

Cover of the pressbook for Die Reise Nach Tilsit

Veit Harlan’s 1939 film is ostensibly a new adaptation of the Sudermann story. However, it replicates almost all of the changes Mayer made to the original tale (most notably the ending: in Sudermann’s version the husband, who is unsympathetic throughout, accidentally drowns). Thus, it has to be considered a remake of Sunrise. Indeed, in Sweden it was released under the title Soluppgång, or Sunrise. Publicity materials also prominently featured a stylized sunrise motif. One has to remember that Harlan’s film was made only twelve years after Sunrise, and many people must have remembered the original film.

However, the difference between the two productions is striking. First of all, Harlan chose to make a realistic film, eschewing the Expressionist and “magical realist” elements in Sunrise. This was a wise decision, for it would have been impossible to have topped Murnau’s approach, and would have prompted invidious comparisons to the earlier film. However, it was also Harlan’s belief that in a certain sense his approach made Die Reise nach Tilsit superior to Sunrise. He remarked years later:

I was a friend of Murnau when he was in Germany, and of course saw Sunrise when it came out. But I didn’t see it again before making my film. Murnau made his whole film into a piece of scenery, all in the studio. I did my version in Memel, where the story takes place. Murnau’s Sunrise was a poem, but if you’ll excuse me, mine was a real film.[2]

Poster art for Die Reise Nach Tilsit--note the sunrise motif [19]

Poster art for Die Reise Nach Tilsit–note the sunrise motif

That the film was shot in Memel is a fact of some significance. As noted earlier, Memel is called Klaipeda today, and is part of Lithuania. Originally, it had been Prussian. Under the Treaty of Versailles it was detached from Germany, and eventually came under the control of Lithuania. Memel (or Klaipeda) thus became one of the territories Hitler sought to re-acquire upon coming to power. Parties that were favorably disposed to rejoining Germany won majorities in all elections in the Klaipeda parliament. But the Lithuanian authorities fought back, imprisoning more than one hundred and fifty National Socialists, allegedly for conspiring to overthrow the government (they were later released due to German pressure). On March 20, 1939, German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop issued an ultimatum to Lithuania, demanding that the territory be ceded to Germany. Lithuania complied, and Klaipeda again became Memel, and German again, on March 22, 1939.

Now, this raises the interesting question of when Harlan shot his film in Memel. It was premiered on November 15, 1939 (I will have more to say about that event later, by the way). Given the simplicity of the production and its low cost (about $140,000), it is entirely possible that the film could have been shot in Memel following its return to Germany in March, and that all post production work could have been completed by November. Indeed, this is quite likely, since it seems doubtful that Lithuanian authorities would have given permission for filming prior to bowing to Ribbentrop’s ultimatum.[3]

When we take this into consideration, Die Reise nach Tilsit emerges as a film with much greater political significance than an uninformed viewer would expect. Further, in Harlan’s film the Woman of the City is Polish. (And she has a name – Madlyn Sapierska – as does everyone else in the film.) At the time, of course, German relations with Poland were poor, as the Poles refused to return Danzig to Germany. And there was much discussion of injustices and atrocities committed by the Poles against the German majority in Danzig. So, here is Harlan’s political twist on Sunrise in a nutshell: a Polish woman, whose countrymen are busily persecuting ethnic Germans, arrives in a disputed territory that had belonged to Germany and attempts to destroy the happy marriage of an ethnic German couple.

Soederbaum and Dorn [20]

Söderbaum and von Dongen

The couple here is named Endrik and Elske Settegast, and they are played by Frits von Dongen and Kristina Söderbaum (the wife of Veit Harlan; see my essay on the film Opfergang [21]). Dongen was a Dutch actor, born Hein van der Niet. When World War Two began, shortly after completion of Die Reise nach Tilsit, he fled Europe and settled in Hollywood. There he underwent a further name change (to Phillip Dorn) and continued making films into the 1950s. There is no reason to summarize the plot Die Reise nach Tilsit, as it follows Sunrise fairly closely, so I will simply comment on a few of the differences between the two films.

The screenplay for Die Reise nach Tilsit was written by Harlan and Wolfgang Schleif, who was assistant director on several of Harlan’s films, and also edited Jud Süß and Kolberg. I have already mentioned that their approach is quite different from Sunrise – realistic, rather than stylized. However, “realistic” should not be taken to mean “naturalistic”: the film, like all of Harlan’s productions, is Romantic through and through. One significant difference between the two films is that the Woman, Madlyn Sapierska, is portrayed a good deal more sympathetically. In Sunrise one gets the feeling that the Woman of the City is playing games with the lives of the Man and his Wife. In Die Reise nach Tilsit, Madlyn is depicted as genuinely obsessed with Endrik, and as somewhat unstable. In one scene, she confronts Elske and asks her to give Endrik up. The contrast between the two in this scene could not be more striking: Elske is the plainly-dressed Hausfrau, while Madlyn appears in mink. Though Madlyn is brazen in this scene, there is no hint of malice on her part.

Another major difference in characterization is the portrayal of Endrik. In Die Reise nach Tilsit he is much colder than is the Man in Sunrise. Indeed, he openly flaunts his affair in front of Elske, seemingly unconcerned with her feelings at all. In Sunrise, the Man sneaks out of the house to be with the Woman. In Die Reise nach Tilsit, Endrik does not make even a token attempt at concealing his affair. And here something must be said about the differences in the performances of the two leads. In the role of Elske, Söderbaum is a bit cloying and, indeed, verges on being rather too chirpy and wholesome. (This tends to be the case with many of Söderbaum’s performances, though she is usually likable.) One can almost (almost, but not quite) sympathize with Endrik for cheating on her with a woman who is not only more glamorous, but also more emotionally complex.

Poster for the Swedish release of Die Reise Nach Tilsit [22]

Poster for the Swedish release of Die Reise Nach Tilsit

But the real oddity here is the performance of von Dongen. Like O’Brien, he plays the part as if he is a man hypnotized (though he is a good deal more subtle than O’Brien). However, he maintains this quality throughout the entire film. So that even in the city scenes, even after he and Elske are reconciled, von Dongen still seems remote. O’Brien, by contrast, is positively exuberant in the city scenes, perfectly fitting the mood of that portion of the film. The – perhaps unintended – effect of von Dongen’s performance is to make us doubt if he really has been entirely cured of his love for the other woman. (In O’Brien’s case, there is no doubt of this.) In Die Reise nach Tilsit the change in Endrik almost seems as if it might be purely the result of a moral realization. Whereas in Sunrise, it is clear not only that the Man has realized the immorality of his actions, he has also awakened to the true and profound love he feels for his Wife. The result, in Die Reise nach Tilsit, is a much more low-key, much less joyous film.

The film introduces a number of characters not seen in Sunrise, including Elske’s father. Learning of his son-in-law’s infidelity, he confronts Madlyn and (offscreen) flails her with a small whip. Also, there are some notable differences in how the events of the plot unfold. First of all, the comic relief of the city sequences in Sunrise is almost entirely missing here. There is no drunken pig, no flirtatious lechers, no merry peasant dance. The last half hour of the film follows the sequence of events in Sunrise, but with some interesting differences. Just as in the earlier film, their boat capsizes and Endrik fears that Elske is lost, as does everyone else. Just like the Man, Endrik is devastated – but here, in his grief, he actually “confesses” to the village, saying “I murdered her, because of Madlyn Sapierska!” Later on, rather than being found by a fisherman, Elske washes up on the beach – where she is found by a clearly contrite Madlyn. (She refuses Madlyn’s help, and the “other woman” flees the town, evidently out of shame.)

Die Reise Nach Tilsit [23]So, what of the different “themes” of Sunrise – the critique of city life, and so forth? Are these to be found in Die Reise nach Tilsit? Yes, but in very muted form. Discussing both films with a friend recently, I said that if I knew nothing about who had made them and when, and was asked which one was made by a National Socialist I would say Sunrise, without hesitation. This is odd, but quite true. The emphasis of Harlan’s film is really more on marital fidelity, and the contrast between city and country life is not drawn nearly as starkly as it is in Sunrise. Part of the reason for this is that Memel is not (or was not) exactly “the country.” It is not a small village as depicted in Sunrise, it is a city of some 40 square miles. Thus, the decision to set the film in Memel effectively eliminated any Sunrise-like contrast between city and country.

In sum, the “message” of Die Reise nach Tilsit is far simpler, and much less interesting than Sunrise. Instead of a stark contrast between city life and rural life, the emphasis here is, in a sense, on “the local,” wherever that may be. The film celebrates fidelity to one’s own – one’s own family, one’s own place. But Die Reise nach Tilsit could have been set in Hamburg – a city of some 290 square miles and more than a million inhabitants – and the message would have been the same. One has to remember that the Nazis were not back-to-the-land agrarians. (Nor was Murnau, a thoroughly decadent citified homosexual – though it is harder to imagine a more anti-urban film than Sunrise.) The Nazis were essentially archeo-futurists, who sought to overcome the problems of the cities through social reforms and an increased sense of national unity, aimed at minimizing class distinctions.

Veit Harlan and Kristina Soederbaum [24]

Veit Harlan and his wife Kristina Söderbaum

None of the above is meant to suggest that Die Reise nach Tilsit is a bad film. It is simply less interesting than Sunrise. But how could it be anything else? Sunrise is widely thought to be one of the greatest films ever made. As noted earlier, Harlan very wisely chose not to try to compete with Sunrise, but instead to make a respectable, dramatically realistic, and absorbing film. And he certainly succeeded. Indeed, the film has been praised by some post-war critics, who usually have nothing good to say about films made during the Third Reich.

For example, one film historian has written that Die Reise nach Tilsit is “uncommonly well made.” He continues: “Although Sunrise is one of the great films of all time . . . the Harlan version is no pale shadow. . . . [It] is a beautifully produced work, stunningly photographed by Bruno Mondi, scored sensitively by Hans Otto Borgmann.”[4] It was well received on its premiere on November 15, 1939 – by everyone except Magda Goebbels, that is. A scandal was created when Frau Goebbels stormed out of the screening, evidently because in her eyes the situation in the film bore too close a resemblance to her husband’s recent affair with the glamorous Czech actress Lida Baarova. (An affair that came to an end when Hitler had the actress deported.)

On the boat -- Die Reise Nach Tilsit [25]

On the boat — Die Reise Nach Tilsit

As noted earlier, Sunrise is available in a beautiful Blu-ray [17] release, with a number of extras. The same cannot be said, predictably, for Die Reise nach Tilsit. The film is available – with optional English subtitles – from germanwarfilms.com [26]. Unfortunately, it looks like a bad VHS copy of a copy of a copy. It’s the only edition I could find – and that German War Films could find, apparently. The company has to be commended, however, for making this film available (in whatever form) and adding meticulously-translated subtitles. (The company has many other inexpensive DVDs of Third Reich films available, along with much else.)


1. Julius Evola, The Metaphysics of Sex, trans. anonymous (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1983), 125.

2. Quoted in David Stewart Hull, Film in the Third Reich (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), 153.

3. Of course, the film had to have been conceived, scripted, cast, and the interiors designed months prior to March 1939. Originally, the plan was probably to have some other city double as Memel. But when the actual location became available, Harlan decided to film there instead. However, I can find no information on exactly when the film was shot, or when the decision was made to film in Memel.

4. Hull, 153–54.