The following is my contribution to the “Made in 1938” blogathon. See below for details.
Dreizehn Stühle (= Thirteen Chairs) is a black&white Austrian comedy based on the Soviet novel The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov. This classic satirical novel has been put on screen many times. Films include Soviet adaptations, European co-productions – and even Brazil and Cuba adapted the novel. Naturally, there are also a number of English-language adaptations, including a British one from 1936 starring George Formby and a 1970 Hollywood adaptation by Mel Brooks.
This Austrian film from 1938 is one of the earliest film adaptations. The 1933 Polish-Czech film Dvanáct Křesel (= Twelve Chairs) – which is reportedly lost – is said to be the oldest adaptation of the material. And some of the changes that this 1933 version made (as compared to the novel) were also incorporated in the Austrian version, without being specifically credited. It is said that most film adaptations that followed are closer to the 1933 (or even the 1938) version than they are to the original novel.
+++ Felix Rabe runs a paltry little barbershop, and he is living in a room above the shop. He has fallen on hard times and is nearly bankrupt. Even his furniture and the contents of his shop are technically already bearing the bailiff’s seal. Rabe is a friendly, meek man of small stature, and he complains that he is always out of luck. “Rabe” means “raven” in German, and “Unglücksrabe” (= misfortune-raven), a word Rabe uses to describe himself, is a German term describing a person who seems to attract misfortune like a magnet attracts iron.
But now that he has almost hit rock-bottom, the bailiff shows up in an unusual capacity. He is delivering a letter from a big-city solicitor declaring that Felix Rabe is the sole heir to the property of his aunt, Barbara Wiesner; and per the instructions, Rabe is to travel to the city on the very same day and take possession of his aunt’s belongings. Rushing to the city by train, Rabe meets a young woman by the name of Lilly. She is charmed by the young man, but much more so, it seems, by the inheritance he is telling her about. Since he is lacking the necessary imagination, she tells him exactly what he should do with his future wealth, what car he should buy, which travels he should undertake, and what sports are suitable for a future gentleman of leisure.
Felix and Lilly part ways upon arrival, but Felix is determined to see her again once he has laid claim to his inheritance. But when he finally reaches his aunt’s apartment, he is in for a nasty shock… +++
1938 was, of course, a year of great upheaval that directly foreshadowed the outbreak of the war as well as the Holocaust. In the second week of March 1938, the Nazis forced their way into Austria and – after a mock referendum on April 10th – incorporated the country into Germany (the “Anschluß”). And following the Munich Agreement, German troops occupied the Sudetenland territory in Czechoslovakia on October 1st. Finally, the “Reichskristallnacht” on the 9th and 10th of November saw the large-scale destruction of synagogues in Germany and all these occupied territories.
I know that many older films have gone missing all over the globe, but I think we can safely assume that the German invasion of Eastern Europe contributed to the fact that the aforementioned 1933 film Dvanáct Křesel is lost today.
Dreizehn Stühle was created in an interim period for the Austrian film industry – after the Anschluß (hence being listed as a “German” film on IMDb and Wikipedia), but before the wholesale restructuring of Austria’s film industry which the new rulers decreed later in the year. But, in many ways, Austria’s film industry had already been following German instructions well before the Anschluß anyway. As a result of the very recent advent of the “Talkies”, Austria – as a very small, German-speaking country – had been completely dependent on the German market throughout the 1930s for its native film industry to survive.
Since 1933, many actors and other artists who had been blacklisted in Germany – either for their political beliefs or for being jewish – had found work in Austria. So when films they had participated in were running in German cinemas their blacklisting was undermined, which infuriated the Nazis. As early as 1934 they pressured Austria to ban those blacklisted people from Austrian film productions. Otherwise, so the threat, Germany would ban the import of all Austrian films – a ban which would de facto have meant the death of almost the entire industry. Wheeling, dealing, and compromising, Austria’s film industry was for a while able to play for time. But by April 20th 1936, Hitler’s 47th birthday, they had caved in. From now on, no jew was allowed to appear in or work on an Austrian film.
The German market and German film policies impacted Austria in other ways as well. Being dependent on the German box office for their films to break even, Austrian studios could basically not green-light any project that would run foul of German censors. Austrian filmmakers were thus effectively barred from expressing any anti-Nazi sentiment in their films, or from developing and portraying a different social vision for the future.
Adding to the general pressure, from 1936 onwards the money that Austrian films earned at German cinemas had to stay in Germany, which affected the cash-flow of Austrian studios and made them more dependent and vulnerable. One big studio was even sold to a Nazi-friendly German competitor because of the ensuing financial difficulties.
On a political level, German films shown in Austrian cinemas were – at least potentially – an ideal vehicle for propaganda (or at least for a positive portrayal of everyday German life under Nazi rule). Austrian films would not have been able to promote a different agenda, because of the studios’ aforementioned dependence on the German box-office. And the proto-fascist Austrian government, who had vehemently fought the Nazis at every turn, had no chance to prevent this, as any boycott of German films would have led to reciprocal measures that would have destroyed the Austrian film industry – as outlined above.
So, as Austria’s film industry had already gradually enacted many changes in the previous years, it was perhaps less drastically and immediately impacted by the Anschluß than the rest of the nation. Still, many individuals working in or alongside the industry were only feeling the impact now; like the many independent jewish cinema owners, for example.
Watching Dreizehn Stühle, however, you would never guess that it was shot at such an unsettling time. There is not even a hint. That has, of course, a lot to do with the fact that this is a light-hearted comedy; but perhaps also with the fact that the film’s director/producer E. W. Emo (Der Doppelgänger), reportedly somewhat sympathetic to the Nazi cause, was not a likely candidate to ruffle any feathers or to infuse his film with contemporary realism.
Dreizehn Stühle was exactly what it was supposed to be – light-hearted entertainment for the masses on both sides of the no-longer-existing border. And light-hearted entertainment was exactly what the minister for propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, expected from “his” film industry (as I had pointed out in an earlier review), and especially from the Vienna studios.
For the audience, this film certainly promised great entertainment. Felix Rabe is played by Heinz Rühmann, one of Germany’s top actors at the time and probably the nation’s favourite. The film’s main supporting actor, Hans Moser, was one of Austria’s most beloved character actors, and he is teamed up in this film with Annie Rosar with whom he had often successfully co-operated throughout his career (including in Hallo Dienstmann). Likewise, Moser and Rühmann had appeared in several films together throughout the 1930s.
All three of these actors are cast in roles that allow them to play their strongest and most successful archetypes. Moser plays Alois Hofbauer, a small-time businessman who is beset with worries. He is always muttering and grumbling, which was Moser’s trademark; but his character in this film is perhaps more henpecked than his characters usually are. Rosar has no difficulties playing Hofbauer’s domineering wife Karoline – thanks to her imposing physique, and thanks to the fact that she always played women who were unafraid to speak their mind.
Rühmann’s Felix Rabe is, as I said, a small, meek, boyish man; charming, but nervous and agitated. Rabe is exactly the kind of character that Rühmann would often play at this stage of his career.
As Rühmann’s and Moser’s characters join forces at one point to go on a wild-goose chase across the city, the actors’ differing trademarks and accents compliment each other well. Because of their quest – and variations of a recurring theme – the long second act has the nature of a serial. Rosar’s Karoline aside, other characters the two unlikely protagonists meet on their journey to nowhere are only minor players, including Lilly; and although some are played by very talented actors, none of these characters are memorable.
The film is, as I said, pure entertainment. If there is any message beyond the plot then it is the message that greed is bad. Apart form that, the only recurring theme seems to be that big-city girls are corrupt and shallow.
The musical score is very enjoyable, and there is a ludicrously luscious dream sequence displaying the luxuries that await Felix should he ever get his inheritance. But in the end, the film is resting solely on the great performances of its two stars, Rühmann and Moser. The long second act makes the film feel longer than its 84 minutes running time, but in this case this is not a bad thing. The film is very enjoyable, and easily deserves an 8 out of 10 rating.
Moser and Rühmann both survived the war. And although they both had cosied up to the Nazi regime as much as they deemed necessary to protect their careers (and their jewish wives), they were both able to enjoy long and successful careers after the war. But they only appeared together in one other film after Dreizehn Stühle, the 1952 comedy Wir werden das Kind schon Schaukeln (again directed by Emo who, perhaps more surprisingly, was also able to continue working after the war).
For more posts on the theme “Made in 1938”, click on the following links and check the posts/comments for links to the contributions: