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Love & Death in the Sudetenland: The Golden City

1,847 words

[1]Die goldene Stadt [2]
Directed by Veit Harlan
Starring Kristina Söderbaum, Eugen Klöpfer, Rudolf Prack, & Paul Klinger

Die goldene Stadt (The Golden City) premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1942, where it won the Best Actress award as well as a special award for direction. It was an enormous commercial and critical success across a Europe that was undergoing the most brutal war in its history. Die goldene Stadt stands as a testament to German filmmaking prowess and is a worthy addition to the sadly neglected canon of masterpieces of National Socialist cinema, as well as being the only film ever made about the National Socialist ideology of Blut und Boden – blood and soil.

The story concerns Anna Jobst (Kristina Söderbaum), the daughter of a wealthy farmer (Eugen Klöpfer) in the southeastern German territory of the Sudetenland during the 1930s, the soon-to-be-annexed crescent of land surrounding Czechoslovakia which was host to a large German population. Anna is a sweet, charming girl. Enchantingly attired in her dirndl, she is a perfect picture of the flower of German girlhood at the time: all rosy cheeks, flaxen curls, and big, bright blue eyes, glowing with health both inner and outer. But Anna is also possessed of a restlessness of spirit, a wildness of heart that causes her to disdain her life on the farm. She is engaged to Thomas (matinee idol Rudolf Prack), a sturdy, hardworking young man employed on the farm, but she strikes up a friendship with a possibility of romance with Christian (Paul Klinger), an engineer from the city of Prague who has been briefly contracted to work on the moors on her father’s land.

We learn that Anna’s mother was from Prague, and had a nature much like her daughter’s: willful and restless, she was so overcome with unhappiness at her new life in the Sudetenland that she drowned herself in a swamp near the moors when her daughter was a child, leading her grief-stricken husband to despise the city and all its attendant decadence. He will not hear of his daughter travelling to Prague, which only fuels her desire to visit the city, if only for a day.

One day, while her father is away on business, such an opportunity presents itself. The scheming housekeeper in her father’s employ, Marushka (Liselotte Schreiner, giving one of the film’s strongest performances) suggests that, in his absence, it would be nice if Anna took a day trip to Prague. She even offers to lend her money for the journey. But Marushka has other intentions, thinking that if Anna meets Christian in Prague, the pair will inevitably elope, thus leaving the path clear for the second phase of her plan: seducing the wealthy farmer and becoming his wife, and thus the mistress of all that she surveys.

Once in Prague, Anna stays with her mother’s sister, Donata (Anni Rosar), a loud, boisterous, and rather plump (she could pass for Marie Dressler) woman who lives with her son, Toni (Kolberg [3]’s Kurt Meisel), a positively reptilian ne’er-do-well type, fond of seducing women and then stealing from them. Christian can immediately see that her relatives may not be the best influence on Anna, and warns the innocent, naïve, and trusting girl about them and the corrupting influence life in the city can have on people like her, suggesting that she return home: “Here you will find only dwarves,” he says. But it is too late, as Anna has already fallen for the questionable charms of Toni. In what must be one of the most disturbing scenes in National Socialist cinema (as well as one of the most frank, something at which German cinema of the time excelled), Toni forces himself on Anna, and as a result she becomes pregnant. Anna is unable to return home by this point, as her father, having discovered her absence and the reason for it, has disowned her and taken up with Marushka as a way of healing his broken heart.

Things in Prague take an even darker turn when Toni discovers this, and what was once a ‘’beautiful love affair’’ turns ugly: Toni has no interest in a girl who is clingy (Anna is deeply in love with him), broke, and pregnant, and he and her aunt turn very cold towards the girl in their desperation to be rid of her. The final straw is when Anna discovers Toni has rekindled his affair with his former employer, Frau Tandler (Dagny Servaes). At last, the wool falls away from Anna’s eyes, and she leaves for home, thoroughly disillusioned and badly in need of warmth from another human being.

As Anna steps through the door, however, she discovers not a father willing to greet his prodigal daughter back into the bosom of family life, but instead finds her father and Marushka holding a dinner for friends and neighbors to celebrate their upcoming wedding. Unable to deal either with this or the cumulative effect of her emotionally corrosive experience, to say nothing of her father’s deliberately ignoring her, Anna knows that she has nowhere to turn. She flees the scene and goes to her mother’s headstone on the moors, bidding life farewell before drowning herself in the swamp.

The film ends with a final shot of the moors a few months later, now transformed from marshland to a field of appropriately golden, glowing wheat, a change inspired by her father, who has broken his engagement with his treacherous and unworthy fiancée and forgiven his deceased and wayward daughter, in an act that speaks of renewed hope and faith in the beauty of life and all it has to offer.

Director Veit Harlan may be most famous for his brilliant exposé of life under a Jewish-run system, the infamous Jud Süß [4], and his film Opfergang [5] is widely recognized as his masterpiece, but Die goldene Stadt is also a  very important addition to his filmography. The man was, like Stanley Kubrick (who married Harlan’s niece, and Harlan’s nephew, Jan Harlan, was the producer of many of his films, and Kubrick himself was a great admirer of Veit Harlan’s work), able to succeed in a very diverse range of genres, including historical epics (Der große König [6], Kolberg), coming of age films (Jugend), and intimate dramas (Immensee [7]). But in this film, working with a screenplay written in part by Joseph Goebbels, he demonstrates why his work has long been appreciated, albeit quietly, by cineastes, and why he is a true master of the medium.

Two scenes manage to stand out: early in the film, Anna has just received a postcard from Christian and longingly gazes out her bedroom window. A vision of Prague rises before her eyes and the music swells to an epic crescendo. While Harlan uses a gold-painted model of the city, the scene manages to transcend these limitations. The fact that we are looking at a model only manages to give the scene (gloriously photographed by Bruno Mondi) an added dimension, as it underscores one of the key themes of the film: that looks can be deceiving and all that glitters is not gold.

Another memorable scene takes place in Prague. Anna has been taken to the theater by Christian to see a performance of the Czech opera by Bedrich Smetana, The Bartered Bride. Anna is transfixed by the scene onstage. A woman dressed as an angel flies onto the stage. Anna cannot believe her eyes – such wonders to be found in Prague! The angel flies away, the villagers in the crowd scene onstage resume their dancing, and then Anna’s attention shifts to the beauty of the theater itself. We are seeing what Anna sees, and more importantly, feeling what she is feeling: almost overwhelming jubilation as her eyes scan the peerless magnificence of her surroundings, the exquisite architecture, and the intoxicating loveliness of the music as it reaches a fever pitch. “My heart was beating so hard I thought it was going to leap out!’’ exclaims Anna.

Harlan’s ability to convey an emotional state, an incredibly difficult thing to do, is remarkable. He is also quite subtle when it is called for. During the intermission at the opera, Anna is standing in the foyer, gazing about. In the background we see the other theatergoers, dressed in the latest fashion, giving curious and possibly disdainful looks as they behold Anna, conspicuously dressed in her traditional outfit. Given the recent political events of the time concerning the annexation of the Sudetenland and the tensions between the Czechs and the Germans, the scene is brimming over with pregnant silence. Perhaps this is why the film has earned the absurd claim of being filled with “racist subliminal imagery.” What gives the scene an added charge is the fact that, after the war, the Sudeten Germans were the victims of one of the worst genocides in human history at the hands of the enraged Czechs, who were whipped into a murderous frenzy by Edvard Beneš, the then new President of Czechoslovakia.

Veit Harlan began his theatrical career as an actor and this background made him expert in eliciting the very best from his actors. Everyone who has lines in the film is given a chance to shine. Rudolf Prack shows just why he was one of German cinemas’ most beloved figures. Strikingly handsome, he has such a quiet, good-natured presence that he makes the audience wonder just why Anna was in such a hurry to effectively abandon him to visit Prague.

Eugen Klöpfer was a true powerhouse of the screen, and all his scenes have a realism and truth to them, hinting at and sometimes showing with explosive conviction his pain, rage, and loneliness. Paul Klinger is as well-served here as he would be later in Immensee. Like Prack, he too was gifted with a wonderful charisma, and he lends Christian a kindly, almost paternal air – we get the sense that he deeply cares about Anna and what happens to her.

Still, there is no question that this is Kristina Söderbaum’s film. Long dismissed as a lightweight in the acting department, here she shows that she was much more than just a pretty face. She takes Anna from a vivacious, giddy girl, the sort of person who would tremble with excitement at the very idea of visiting the city she has long dreamed of seeing, to a young woman badly chewed up and spat out, both as a result of bad choices and unscrupulous characters, to being on the brink of suicide, yet exhibiting a surprising confidence. She pushes herself to achieve these emotional truths, and we feel her character’s pain and humiliation in her final outburst with Toni, as well as in the scenes where she is simply overwhelmed by sadness, despair, and a longing to return home. Seeing what happens to her in the film is akin to seeing a small child being hit – we, the audience, want to rescue this silly, deluded, but very kind, loving, and good-hearted girl. This is easily Söderbaum’s finest acting performance, and she and Harlan beautifully illustrate just why they were German cinema’s golden couple.