Jonny Stiehlt Europa (1932)

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+++ Jonny is down on his luck. He owns one of the fastest horses around, but cannot afford to feed her. He owes a lot of money to a large betting consortium and is forced to share his accommodation with his horse, his dog, and his jockey (whom he cannot pay).

In order not to lose his horse through public auction (with the risk of a low bidding price), he is trying to sell his horse to an American millionaire who is in Germany on business. The man’s daughter, Ursel, is particularly interested in securing the horse for her father, but at their first encounter some tension is developing between Jonny and Ursel.

After some chaos and lots of subterfuge, the story heads towards a climax at the French Riviera. +++

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This film was directed and produced by Harry Piel, who also stars in the leading role as Jonny. Piel was one of Germany’s earliest directors, but it seems that he was not regarding film as art, like Lang or Murnau, but chiefly as entertainment.

Apparently, Piel was a restless fellow full of curiosity for new things. In 1909, aged 17, he started training on the German training ship Grossherzogin Elisabeth, transitioned into an apprenticeship to become a merchant, which he quit in 1911 to go to Paris because he wanted to become an aerobatic pilot. One year later, however, he was in Berlin and made his first film, Schwarzes Blut, a 32-minute adventure drama which he wrote, directed, and produced, and which became a big success. Piel made several more adventure and action films and was nicknamed “the dynamite director”: Piel knew an explosives expert who was involved in demolition work, and through his insider information Piel was able to catch many an explosion with his camera and work the footage into his films.

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Jonny Stiehlt Europa – for which there are seemingly neither English audio track nor English subtitles available – is based on a novel by Werner Scheff who also wrote the film’s screenplay. The title translates as “Jonny steals Europa” (Europa being the name of the horse). The film’s plot is convoluted, but not complicated. But it is suffering from the fact that the motivation of the parties involved are neither clear nor consistent – and the question I cannot answer is if that problem already existed in the novel or crept into the screenplay during the transition and inevitable trimming.

The only clear motivation in the film is that of the people who stand to lose money if Jonny’s horse is competing and winning at an upcoming race in Nice. They are doing everything they can to stop that from happening. The people who have bet money on the horse winning in Nice should actually support Jonny, who has been the key to the horse’s success so far, but instead they are hostile towards him. Jonny seems keen for the horse to race, even though he can make no profit out of it. And he is keen to sell the horse to an American millionaire, even though that man seems to be more interested in using the horse for breeding rather than racing. And in between, there are a number of scenes in which people do something that seems contrary to their actual aims. Not to mention the fact that it is never made clear how the owner of a horse that has won a string of recent races has barely enough money to put food on the table.

The story with the horse shenanigans and the competing interests contains a lot of trickery, bluffing and bravado, all of which gives the film a bit of an adventure story flair. The film is also trying to sell us a blossoming romance between Jonny and Ursel, but it fails to do so convincingly.

All-in-all, the film is an odd mix, but certainly not unusual for the time. But more than the story, the plot, or the characters, the film puts a focus on key scenes involving the animals, an element favoured by the film’s producer/director/leading man, Harry Piel.

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After three years of filmmaking, Piel had also started to act in front of the camera in 1915, and one year later he got his first lead role in the sci-fi thriller Die große Wette. But he was also still working behind the camera, for example shooting Unter Heißer Zone (1916), which he wrote and directed, and in which he included for the first time scenes with wild animals. Over the following two-and-a-half decades Piel continued to work with wild animals, some of whom he trained personally. Not without setbacks: in 1927, a tiger unexpectedly stood on its hind legs and rested its front paws on Piel’s shoulders – in an entirely friendly manner, a newspaper of the day assures us – and this caused Piel to tumble over a banister, falling down 3 to 4 metres, after which he had to be taken to hospital.

Jonny Stiehlt Europa contains some of this animal work, albeit not as excessively as some of Piel’s other films. Still, a fair amount of time is devoted to little tricks or curious habits of Jonny’s horse and dog. And Jonny can only pull off a number of his bluffs and schemes because he is able to “communicate” with his animals through a series of whistled commands.

Apart from the animals, the focus of the film also turns to the “exotic” landscape of the Riviera in the latter parts of the film, but only briefly. This also includes some city scenes as well as parade scenes from a street carnival. From the way these scenes – largely unconnected to the plot – are included in this film, it seems fair to assume that Piel regarded them as an additional selling point.

As I said, the plot is not all that convincing, even though the action and adventure elements largely work.

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As far as the acting is concerned, the film also has little to offer. Judging from this film, Piel was not exactly a brilliant actor. There is the additional problem that Jonny is portrayed as a loveable rogue without any flaws and comes off as far too smug. With Piel being both the director and the leading man, there was no filter to check that the “level” of smugness was kept at appropriate levels. Dary Holm is offering a solid performance as Ursel, but there is not much to that character and the unconvincingly written interactions between Ursel and Jonny always feel wooden. Holm had been married to Piel since 1927, and this seems to be just one of those cases (frequently found in films) where a real-life couple is unable to sell on-screen romance, maybe because of a general feeling of awkwardness.

This was only Holm’s second sound film, and it was the final film she made before retiring from acting. She had been a successful actress in the silent film era, and it is said that sound film killed her career. (From her performance in this film it is difficult to judge if there was anything wrong with her accent/voice, as her character is speaking German with a fake American accent.)

Alfred Abel (Metropolis; Spione im Savoy Hotel (1932)), playing Ursel’s father, is very good in what for him was a standard role. But he is only in two or three short scenes and his character is in fact superfluous for the plot. The same could be said about his secretary, played by Margarete Sachse. Walter Steinbeck shines in the antagonist role, and some enjoyment can be derived from watching the comic relief characters, namely Hermann Blaß (as the antagonist’s assistant) and a handful of the men who have made bets for the race (including a performance by Kurt Lilien).

Finally, Carl Balhaus, as Jonny’s loyal jockey Monk, does a solid job, but his “eternally sunny” and naïve character stays very flat.

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The film looks very solid, and the between the outdoor filming, landscape shots of southern France, and soundstage work, DP Ewald Daub did a good job. Gustav A. Knauer (Spione im Savoy Hotel), who did the art direction, contributed to the solid look of the studio sets. The film also has some nice but simple opening credits which show geometrical drawings that look like a form of “soft modernism” which reminded me of Futurist Italian architecture. The professional appearance of the film is accompanied by nice music by Fritz Wenneis.

This film is interesting, and given that a large amount of Piel’s work is considered lost (see below), we are lucky to have it in a reasonably decent quality. But it has to be said that this is definitely not a great film. Had the same material been made by UFA, for example, with a stronger screenplay and someone like Rühmann in the leading role, it could have become something worthy of attention. But being what it is, Jonny Stiehlt Europa stands – for me – at 4.0 or 4.5 out of 10.

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historical context:

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As an active supporter of the Nazi-party, Piel was briefly imprisoned after the war and was also banned from working in the film industry for 5 years. As a creative, this ban hit Piel hard, but not nearly as hard as the fact that he had lost his personal film archive in a bombing raid in the closing days of the war. With big studios, there is always the chance that several prints of films exist, possibly in different locations. But since Piel was chiefly his own producer, the loss of his private archive, combined with the general chaos of the war, means that today 70% of Piel’s work is considered lost. Surviving pieces are usually incomplete or of poor quality. Jonny Stiehlt Europa has been cobbled together from such surviving bits and pieces of poor quality in the 1950s, and the resulting copy now lies in the federal archives in Berlin. Modern technology made it eventually possible to turn this source into something passable that was fit for home release. Still, some glitches and small gaps remain.

 After being allowed back to work in 1950, Piel hardly made any films. However, he managed to reconstruct and finish his “magnum opus”: a lot of Piel’s time and effort in the early 1940s was devoted to a film project titled Panik (once again involving lots of exotic animals); which, after it was completed, was suppressed by the Nazis because it contained footage of an aerial bombing of a German city, which the regime regarded as bad for morale. In 1953, Piel finally managed to complete and release a version of Panik under the title Gesprengte Gitter.

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With Jonny Stiehlt Europa not exactly being a highlight of filmmaking, one justification for the restoration efforts (just as with Spione im Savoy Hotel) might lie in the fact that this is a film that exists at a turning point of history and a moment of severe disruption for the film industry. Roughly 6 months after this film’s premiere, the Nazis would come to power, and while Piel joined the Nazi party at the first opportunity and continued to make films, jewish cast and crew members saw their careers destroyed. Hermann Blaß died forgotten in New York in 1941, and Kurt Lilien was killed in a concentration camp in 1943. The author, Werner Scheff had to flee to London in 1934 and died in abject poverty in 1947. Andrew Marton (who did sound and picture editing for the film, but is listed as the film’s assistant director on imdb) fled to the US, but unlike Blaß he got the chance to rebuild his career there. Marton has an impressive Hollywood filmography as a director, which includes King Solomon’s Mines and Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion. He also worked as second-unit director on films such as Ben Hur, Cleopatra, and Catch-22.

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