I have split this post into two parts: the review, and a bit about the historical context. If you want to look at the historical context first, just scroll down to “part 2”.
part 1: review
+++ A charity gala at the Savoy Hotel draws a large crowd. The much-hyped event, which includes the Comedian Harmonists and which promises the premiere of a newly-written popular song, also attracts non-ticketed viewers in the wings: every single staff-member has left their post and is trying to catch a glimpse of the lavish affair. Consequently, when an ill-timed incident occurs, it takes too much time for the hotel to react. And when the dust settles, it becomes clear that the Savoy has turned into the current focal point of international espionage.
Reporter and compere Alfred Braun, who has been covering the charity gala for radio audiences, takes it upon himself to solve the mystery. +++
The German black & white sound film Spione im Savoy Hotel has been restored a few years ago, but there are still a couple of minor glitches in the film where 1 or 2 seconds of footage seem to be missing; and there is a brief scene which seems to have been missing its audio completely, because it has been newly ADRed (somewhat poorly). Talking of dubbing: I could not find any English-language release – and my German DVD does not even offer English subtitles.
As far as the content is concerned, it is a bit of an odd film. Plotwise it is a crime story, but over large parts it is a vaudeville show with running radio commentary. And then there is a rather minor love-story subplot, which feels like it has been squeezed in pro forma. Because of its crime plot, its musical interludes, and its whimsical side-characters, imdb lists it as “Comedy, Crime, Musical”. And yet none of these categories fit all that well.
In real terms, the film feels more like a vehicle to showcase an Italian clown troupe (consisting of Gustavo Fratellini, Max Fratellini, and Gino Colombo) and – to a lesser extent – the famous vocal ensemble Comedian Harmonists. Accordingly, the film has at times been called Die Galavorstellung der Fratellinis in German, and The Gala Performance in English.
More importantly, however, Spione im Savoy Hotel is an homage to German radio personality Alfred Braun, who is basically playing himself in this film and who has the lead role. A trained stage actor, Braun had been a radio announcer since the earliest days of German radio, working for the country’s first radio station in Berlin. Offering live commentary for major events (like Stresemann’s funeral or the Nobel ceremony for Thomas Mann) Braun became so famous that he was at the time considered more widely-known to the German public than most leading politicians. His activities covered a wide field: he also acted on occasion and directed many radio plays.
In Spione im Savoy Hotel we see him offering live commentary for the gala event – much in the same way (we must assume) as he would have done in his day-to-day job. I am not sure that we are ever specifically told that the city in question is Berlin, but the fact that Braun plays himself says just as much. Braun (the character), however, is not just a compere and commentator in this film, he is also the protagonist and is trying his hands at playing detective, often combining this with his radio work. Braun is at times literally describing live events (as a radio commentator) which are connected to his own investigation. If you suspend your disbelief enough, this audio-report is of a similarly weird nature as “found-footage” video in modern-day films.
This whole genesis leads to a lot of unusual elements that do not really improve the film. First of all the vaudeville parts of the film – two large galas and two shorter stints at two smaller entertainment venues – take up a lot of time in this 80-minute film and are (at least from today’s point of view) not very entertaining. Secondly, you have Braun commentating the gala events for a radio audience. Which means he is describing things that we can see anyway. For cinema-goers in 1932, this might have been interesting: hearing Braun the way they are used to from the radio while at the same time seeing him at work. For a modern audience, it is rather pointless and bizarre. Moreover, Braun keeps talking through large parts of the musical performances. It seems hard to believe that this is how concerts were covered on the radio in 1932, but since Braun is playing himself we must assume that this is pretty accurate.
The main problem with the fact that this is merely a vehicle for Braun and others is that the plot seems to have been an afterthought: a story that was merely needed as an excuse to somehow connect the performances. The espionage case at the centre of the plot is not very sophisticated or convincing. Most importantly, with the exception of about half a minute in the first act, we as an audience always know exactly who is who, and who is doing what, and we always know where the MacGuffin is. We merely witness others stumbling along trying to figure out all those things that we already know. This type of narration can be interesting in some cases, but it certainly is not in this film. There is no mystery, no suspense, no intrigue.
So, with the romantic sub-plot barely existing, the comedy infrequent and harmless, the crime plot weak and unengaging, and the vaudeville elements not entertaining, we are left with very little that would be worth our attention.
What little interest there is in the espionage story rests on the cast involved, especially Olga Tschechowa as the alleged master spy, Alfred Abel (Metropolis) as the British diplomat Palmer, and Leonard Steckel as the shady Almassy. But Tschechova’s role suffers from poor writing, and Abel and Steckel barely get enough screen time to do anything with their roles. The same can be said for Eugen Rex’s bumbling hotel detective, who is barely in this film and whose comedic overtones seem decidedly one-dimensional.
The two comic relief characters with meatier roles and enough screen time (even though both are still mere side-characters) are Braun’s hapless assistant Gottlieb (played by Erich Kestin) and a certain Wengert. Wengert is an elderly, awkward lyricist of popular songs who is getting on everyone’s nerves; he is played by Max Adalbert.
As mentioned before, the film seems in part to aim for a peak-behind-the-curtains angle in the mysterious new world of radio. And both Gottlieb and Wengert are characters that serve this angle. There are also at least two jokes that are meant to illustrate that you cannot always put trust in what you hear. In one scene, Braun and Gottlieb are faking traffic noises so that the soundscape fits their narrative. And in another scene we briefly catch glimpse of the woman behind a series of radio lectures entitled “How to Stay Young and Beautiful”, clearly perceiving that she has managed neither. There is also a scene in which Gottlieb keeps talking and talking in the belief that he is life on air, not realising that the microphone he is using has been unplugged.
Finally, amongst these world-of-radio elements can also be counted the rather beautiful opening shots which show a lot of radio station equipment being switched on or off.
Those opening shots are one of at least three sequences that show the talents of the film’s cinematographer Reimar Kuntze. Always interested in experiments, Kuntze may be best known for his contribution to Berlin – Die Sinfonie der Großstadt. The sequence that stands out most in this film in terms of cinematography is a number of scenes that show a criminal trying to escape through the backstage area of a theatre. Especially the shots of him running up and down the stairs and through the rafters are beautifully shot. In a similar vein, early on in the film, there are two very brief staircase shots that look quite nice.
It also has to be emphasised that this is a somewhat lavish-looking production. Not anywhere near the scale of the big UFA productions, of course, as Friedrich Zelnik’s production company could not have afforded that; but still quite lavish.
All the beautiful shots and nice moments and interesting tidbits aside, Spione im Savoy Hotel is, to say it frankly, not a very good film. There are a lot a small things in this film that don’t feel right.
The popular song that is the core of the charity gala keeps returning in one way or another throughout the entire film, sometimes as a vocal performance, sometimes merely instrumentally – it is also used as the film’s opening theme accompanying the credits. But it is far too melancholic for a theme, and in general seems an odd choice; it is just not the type of melody you want to have running continuously through your comedy, because it doesn’t really fit.
And the stage performance at the charity gala (which takes place at the start of the film) is dull and creepy at the same time and it includes a segment in which the audience is made to laugh on command, loudly and for a really long time. You know what they say: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” And most of these artistic choices to me feel bizarre rather than entertaining.
The main problem, however, lies in the construct behind the film: a showcase for Alfred Braun. Braun himself seems stiff in his acting, probably largely due to the fact that he is not really acting at all but trying to be a fictional version of himself. There is also a “casting” issue (if you can call it that considering that Braun was likely not cast for the film but the film built around him): Braun is a calm and authoritative man with a typically middle-aged appearance – he has all the looks of a respectable businessman. There is no trace of feverish activity in this man – but somehow this is what we would want for this role in this type of story: a plucky, excitable Tintin-type character who is either “boyish” or romantic-lead material. Braun is none of those things. So we have a crime/espionage plot without excitement, and a lead character who is neither exciting nor excitable – two pretty odd decisions for this genre.
For German audiences in 1932 this was not a problem: if they went to see this film they did so because they wanted to see Braun and Braun they got. But with Braun largely forgotten today, we have to look at the film on its own merits, and all-in-all I cannot give this film more than 5.0 to 5.5 out of 10.
part 2: historical context
Spione im Savoy Hotel is largely unknown today even in Germany, and the quality of the script is most certainly not the reason for its recent restoration and re-release. The restoration received some assistance (and probably some funding) from the German federal archives. And while the short appearance of the Comedian Harmonists was probably used as the main justification for this, and while this 1932 film can still be considered a relatively “early” example of a German talkie, I am convinced that the real reason for the restoration and re-release lies in the fact that this film in so many way represents the end of an era.
The life and society depicted in this film are very much representative of the Weimar Republic. Spione im Savoy Hotel had its premiere on November 4th 1932. Three months later, Adolf Hitler was appointed as chancellor of the Reich, and the Nazis never let power slip out of their grasp again.
The society and life-style depicted in the film slowly vanished, and likewise the film’s cast and crew were scattered. Director, writer, and producer, Friedrich Zelnik, left for London in 1933, because he was considered Jewish. For the same reason, actor Leonard Steckel went into exile in Switzerland. The same fate awaited the young couple of the romantic subplot: Walter Slezak, who had already worked on Broadway for a short while in 1930, went to the US for good, enjoying continued success on stage and later in film; Margot Walter also had to leave the country in 1933 with her Jewish husband (the aged silent film star Max Landa), and after her husband committed suicide the very same year, Walter went to London and only acted in one more film before vanishing from the big screen.
Karl Stepanek was not Jewish, but a Czech citizen. He could continue working in Germany throughout the 1930s, but had to leave for Italy in 1939 and London in 1940. He continued his career in British and American films, mostly portraying Nazis or communists.
Of course, there were non-political tragedies as well, such as Max Adalbert’s premature death from pneumonia in 1933, or famous composer Otto Stransky’s fatal car accident on November 23rd 1932, less than three weeks after the film’s premiere.
That this film represents the end of an era might today best be illustrated by the fact that it was amongst other things a vehicle for Alfred Braun and for the Comedian Harmonists. The highly successful vocal ensemble famously came under intense pressure because of its Jewish members. Because of their fame they were able to keep working for a short time on a string of exemptions and special permissions, but in 1935, the ensemble split into two groups and the Jewish members went into exile.
Braun, a well-known supporter of the social democrats and a symbolic figure of the Weimar Republic, was arrested in 1933 and spent several weeks in an early concentration camp. After his release he was able to emigrate to Switzerland and later worked as a teacher in Ankara. The full complexity of the situation back then is illustrated by Braun’s return to Nazi Germany (sources differ about the year; some say 1939, some say 1941), and the fact that over the next few years he would work in short succession for the Nazis, the Americans, and the Soviets. In 1949 he left East Berlin for the West, and re-started his career as an actor as well as a director of films and radio plays, which lasted well into the 1960s. In 1954, he was also appointed director general of the West Berlin broadcasting service SFB.