Der Doppelgänger is a rather unmemorable comedy without much substance. This comedy of errors, directed by E. W. Emo, is loosely based on Edgar Wallace’s Double Dan. It was the last of a small number of early German films based on Wallace’s works, before a Wallace renaissance would kick in again in the 1960s.
+++ premise: Jenny Miller, a young Australian, is the heiress to a substantial British fortune left to her by her parents. Her distant cousin Harry Selsbury (played by Georg Alexander), who operates a business in London with his brother Bobby, administers and manages her inheritance for her. But a concerned lawyer contacts the uncle with whom she lives in Australia (he is only ever referred to as “Uncle Miller”), informing him of irregularities in the way Harry conducts Jenny’s affairs. Apparently Harry leads an unsteady life, drinks and gambles, and is embezzling significant parts of Jenny’s money in the process. “Uncle Miller” is concerned about these rumours, not least because he himself has invested 50.000 pounds with Harry. So he undertakes a cruise ship voyage with Jenny to Europe, planning to drop her off at Naples where he wants to hire a governess for her so she can study the culture and language.
Jenny, however, has different ideas. Though she has never met him, she has always admired Harry, who some years ago used to be quite an athlete. She has newspaper clippings of him winning the pole vault competition at the Olympics (setting a world record in the process), and she has fallen in love with his picture. And the rumours about his seedy and dissolute lifestyle intrigue her, with the thought that he might have embezzled some of her money and may possess a bit of a rogue streak further flaming her school-girl-like crush. She is resolved to go to London and marry Harry, much to the annoyance of both “Uncle Miller” and a certain Raimondo Dempsi (played by Josef Eichheim), a buffoonish little man who is stalking Jenny on the cruise ship trying to woe her. Hours before the ship is about to dock at Naples, Jenny turns 21, meaning she has reached the age of majority and can now buy her own tickets and travel on her own, etc. She has prepared for this moment, and once they are at Naples she sends both Dempsi and her uncle on a wild, time-consuming goose chase through Italy. Meanwhile, she stays on the ship before switching to a plane at Marseilles, which allows her to arrive in London many days ahead of her uncle.
Now, if you think that this sounds exciting, and sounds like it could look good on screen, you are probably right; but we see very little of it. All this is relayed to the audience in a few very short (and painfully expository) scenes within the first nine minutes of the film. We may get a rather good glimpse at the three characters involved, but these scenes are not mined for all the comedic potential they harbour.
Once in London, Jenny invites herself to stay at Harry’s place and immediately begins to redecorate his house and restructure his life. She puts Harry on a diet and buys fitness equipment for him, as she wants him to lose weight and regain his athletic competitiveness which has suffered greatly under his office job. Although she does not know him, and although he is less than impressed by her intrusion, she is still determined to marry him. Her only disappointment is that Harry is far from being the wildly romantic rake she had imagined him to be, because the rumours may have been unfounded. He seems to lead a very conservative bachelor life and he assures her that all her money is there and all her property untouched.
Harry, meanwhile, has his own set of problems. He worries that his younger brother’s “lady’s man” image might hurt their business. But more importantly, Harry himself has a lady-friend that might get him into trouble. Although there is “nothing inappropriate” about their relationship (as he keeps telling his brother), the situation is delicate as the woman in question is married and allegedly has a very jealous and mistrustful husband. +++
Several characters in this film, for various reasons, set wheels into motion that create a web of deception, ending in a number of switched and mistaken identities – hence the title of the film.
The humour in this film is not created through dialogue, but chiefly through the situation itself. The problem is that the comedy of errors at the heart of the plot is just not very good or convincing. And without a good centre, all which surrounds it falls apart a bit. In addition, the characters are rather poorly developed, especially the female characters.
The only thing that saves this film is Theo Lingen’s performance as a timid private eye in a major supporting role. He is not given much to work with, but he is making the most of it, showcasing the talent that would ensure his long and successful career.
With the exception of Lingen, the thin plot and the very mediocre dialogue do not allow for great performances by any of the actors, although I do like Jakob Tiedtke’s performance as the overbearing, short-tempered “Uncle Miller” in what is a fairly small role. The other actors are fine, but Camilla Horn seems very much miscast as Jenny.
Apart from Lingen, I know none of these other actors, although some of them are rather well-known, apparently. Camilla Horn was discovered by F. W. Murnau and later played the lead in two silent films in Hollywood in the late 1920s. Reportedly she was a friend of Charlie Chaplin and may or may not have had an affair with Joseph M. Schenck. With the rise of the “Talkies”, Horn eventually returned to Germany, although she had roles in a number of British films as well. She was mostly able to keep working in Germany despite being at odds with the Nazi-regime. Fritz Odemar, who plays Harry’s butler, has a very long filmography that includes roles in Victor und Victoria, as well as in Fritz Lang’s M. Incidentally it was Fritz Lang who had discovered Gerda Maurus (who plays Harry’s married lady-friend) and had cast her as the lead in two of his films. Lang’s fascination with Maurus caused the breakdown of his marriage to Thea von Harbou.
Der Doppelgänger has been restored with some assistance by various private and government funds. Even film material found in Moscow archives has been used. Still, the general picture and sound quality of the DVD are not that great, and there are even a few seconds of picture and sound missing here and there which could probably not be found anywhere for the restoration process.
As I said, this comedy is not exactly a gem of the silver screen; but with some funny moments and Lingen’s great performance, it is entertaining enough for me to rate it at around 5.5 out of 10.