+++ Vienna’s upper middle classes are having a masquerade ball. Former actor Ferdinand Godai , now a professor at a theatrical college, hopes that his costume will disguise him well enough so that he will not have to make conversation with the many people who know him. Much to his chagrin, he is easily spotted not only by one of his students but also by his ex-wife – in spite of the faux moustache and the porter’s uniform he is wearing.
Meanwhile, Alex Lischka, the young pianist in the orchestra hired for the night, is taking the opportunity of the masquerade ball to chat up a young woman and pretending to be from a different social background than he actually is. He says his father is involved in making big things move along which she takes to mean that he is either a diplomat or a black market dealer. The father is, in fact, a state-licensed porter (the “Dienstmann” of the title). And while Alex makes a reference to his father’s vehicle insinuating that it is a large car, it is in fact a small, hand-drawn wooden cart.
As Alex’s father Anton is forced to collect a passenger from the train station very early in the morning, he runs into Professor Godai (who – just coming from the ball – is still wearing the official uniform of a state-licensed porter) and so he drags him to his cart to assist him as the passenger in question has brought much more (and much heavier) baggage than he had expected. For Godai, who is already quite inebriated after the night’s events, this is a perfect opportunity to test his acting skills. And so he goes along with the whole thing, which he also sees as an opportunity to learn more about the attractive lady whose baggage they are going to ferry across the city on the wooden cart. But things get more complicated than Godai had anticipated and he might just find himself in hot water. +++
As you can see, this black & white Austrian classic is a comedy of errors. It has a pretty large number of characters who are used to further complicate the two subplots which are of course also connected in more than just one way. The cast is very good, with Annie Rosar probably being the most prominent and best known of the supporting actors. The film’s selling point, however, was (and still is) the fact that Ferdinand Godai and Anton Lischka are played by two of the country’s leading actors of the time: Paul Hörbiger and Hans Moser. Rosar, Hörbiger, and Moser were frequent collaborators. Moser was a leading comedian in Austria at the time and was known for the Vienna porter characters he had portrayed many times before, including on stage. Hörbiger (The Third Man), a member of an acting dynasty, was one of the country’s leading actors. The film’s basic comedy-of-errors plot is based on an idea which Hörbiger had been playing with for quite some time; and when director Franz Antel was looking for an idea for a new film for Hörbiger and Moser, Hörbiger handed his idea over to professional writers (Lilian Belmont and Rudolf Österreicher).
A lot of the film’s plot deals with the invisible social and professional boundaries that regulate people’s life in Vienna. Anton Lischka is a member of the working class and has very firm ideas about what is and is not appropriate for people of his social status. And he makes a clear distinction between his class and those whom he sees as below that class: a state-licensed porter should know how to behave himself, and not hang about with women of questionable morale. Anton is also very adamant that only another licensed porter can help him load his cart and transport the baggage. Only a licensed porter, he claims, knows the correct way to handle heavy or fragile objects and how to distribute the weight on the cart, etc., so he would never work with one of the many unemployed people who hang around the train station in the hope of earning a few Groschen.
Anton also dislikes cars. They are honking at him and are driving dangerously close as he tries to navigate the city’s street on foot with his wooden cart. He may also hold them partly responsible for pushing licensed porters out of business. Roughly 2000 licensed porters had been doing business in the city in the past, he says at one point, but only few are left today.
These porters, who were freelance workers but were state-licensed and officially registered (like cab-drivers in many cities today), were not just transporting luggage, they could also be used as messengers or for errands, and be hired for domestic work for a few hours. They might also work as temporary replacements for an indisposed concierge or similar; and they might supervise any number of day-labour-hires people might need for some bigger work. As such, pop-culturally speaking, the “Dienstmann” was a versatile and ubiquitous figure that was frequently used as a character for stage or film.
With its focus on social issues and social norms, Hallo Dienstmann is a late example of a “Wiener Film” comedy, a genre which was popular before the war and which studios tried to revive after the war in the hope of box-office success. While all films that fall into the “Wiener Film” category might put emphasis on the fine lines and shades of society’s structures, the comedies within that group would in addition also play with language and dialogue, using the Vienna dialect to great effect. In Hallo Dienstmann, Hans Moser is offering some of his trademark dialect tirades, often half-talking to himself or simply muttering in his beard. Consequently his lines are sometimes very hard to understand, but in these scenes it is often not what he says but how he says it that counts. “Wiener Film” comedies are also said to offer some quips and acerbic remarks similar to the ones you would expect to find within the exchanges of a screwball comedy. In this film, it is the female characters who show some of this, but the examples are few and far between. Some of the female acting students keep making disparaging remarks about each other’s talents, and two slightly older female characters are sparring verbally by one making a thinly-veiled remark about the other’s age as a reply to the other having insinuated that she is not wearing the latest designer fashion but cheap knockoffs tailored after fashion that would have been new three years ago.
The romantic subplot involving the younger cast-members is fine, but it is the Hörbiger plot-line that carries the film. As it is often the case with comedies-of-error, plot-twists, coincidences, and plot-conveniences are all more or less contrived. And often a line will be specifically inserted in order to set up a punch-line, or to deliver some bit of exposition or other information that the filmmakers felt is needed at that point. These moments always feel far more clunky than the rest of the film which is reasonably “organic”. All-in-all this is a good (if light-weight) comedy with enjoyable performances by Moser, Hörbiger, and Rosar. Rating: 7 out of 10.