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81 8 Learning the Alphabet The film adaptation of Krach im Hinterhaus (Trouble backstairs) was announced in July 1935. Only a few members of Harlan’s stage production were given the opportunity to repeat their performance onscreen, and Ilse Fürstenberg, the original Widow Bock, lost out to Henny Porten, who was a bigger name. The most important actress of silent German cinema apart from Asta Nielsen (a more mature Mary Pickford to Nielsen’s more sophisticated Theda Bara), Porten had done well in some early talkies but soon turned out to be a limited, sentimental actress. Furthermore, she refused to divorce her Jewish husband. As an institution, she could not be boycotted completely, but film offers were few and far between. She was most likely grateful to be cast as the lead of this low-budget production. As her costars, such names as Carsta Löck, Fritz Kampers, and Ida Wüst were mentioned,buttheywerenot aroundwhenshootingbeganinlateOctober. Rotraut Richter repeated her portrayal of teenage vamp Edeltraut Panse (“poor in orthography but strong in lovemaking”). Maximilian Böttcher adapted his own play for the screen, and his cowriter, Reinhold Meissner, was credited with “künstlerische Oberleitung” (artistic supervision), as if Harlan could not yet be trusted. Despite the low budget, the Film-Kurier considered Krach im Hinterhaus important enough to report in detail on its shooting. In Terra-Filmkunst’s glass house in the south Berlin district of Marienfelde, the architects “have constructed a completely enclosed set with enough room for major long shots which Bruno Mondi can perform with his camera.”1 Though most German cinemagoers would not have minded, this film was supposed to become more than another piece of filmed theater. Harlan was obsessed with the film medium and would not rely on the attractiveness of the play. Without having served an apprenticeship with a major (or even minor) filmmaker and without an acknowledged influence, he went on to use all possible aspects of cinema. Joseph veit harlan 82 Goebbels saw the film on December 17, 1935, and liked it, though he was far from enthusiastic, and he did not mention Harlan’s name.2 First shown on December 20, 1935, in Breslau, with the Berlin premiere taking place on January 2, 1936, Krach im Hinterhaus was praised for exploring a milieu in which filmmakers had shown too little interest in recent times. The Deutsche Filmzeitung reviewer had mixed feelings about the leading lady: “Let’s be honest, we are delighted to see Henny Porten again, but we would have preferred to see her in a different part. . . . She is—because she is no Berlin-based washing or ironing woman—outacted by the others, who really feel the Berlin soil below their feet.”3 Krach im Hinterhaus was expected to make some money, but the grosses turned out to be sensational. Among the big German box-office successes of the 1930s, it was, with a budget of 200,000 RM,4 the only inexpensive film by an unknown director. The other two box-office hits of the 1935–1936 season were Schwarze Rosen (Black roses), an expensive melodrama starring Lillian Harvey and Willy Fritsch, and Allotria, a light screwball comedy directed by Willi Forst with an expensive cast, including Renate Müller, Jenny Jugo, Adolf Wohlbrück, and Heinz Rühmann. The most surprising aspect of Krach im Hinterhaus is its tenderness. There is some low humor, to be sure, but it is never overdone. All characters are taken seriously. There is even a beautiful music score by Will Meisel and Fritz Domina, something one does not expect in this context. Best of all, the film is politically ambivalent. The conflict between duty and emotion remains unresolved. Right from the beginning, Harlan directs at high speed. During the credit sequence, the titles are literally stumbling over one another. And within a few seconds, Harlan explores his favorite subject: the contrast between two worlds. He first shows the tourist’s Berlin in all its glamour and then abruptly the depressing proletarian district, where small children are not even allowed to play games. A sign reads: “Treading on the lawn is forbidden.” There is hardly any green in this world, and whatever green there is, people are not allowed to touch. A caretaker is the chief villain of the piece. August Krüger treats the tenants like prisoners, intimidating them and taking notes about their alleged misdeeds in his black book. He is a sexual hypocrite, making advances to the...


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