Monday, May 24, 2010

The German Movie Musical, Circa 1961

Warning; the following post is for those who, like me, watched the "Yes, we have no bananas" scene in One, Two, Three and wondered what they were singing on the other side of Berlin.

I don't have a lot to say about these clips from a movie called So liebt und küsst man in Tirol, a German (West German) movie musical from 1961; I don't know if it's typical of the German film industry at the time, though the print looks surprisingly well-preserved. But here they are anyway. I came upon them while doing some Google-based research on René Kollo, a moderately successful German pop singer who used his earnings to take operatic voice lessons, and became a highly successful Wagnerian tenor in the '70s and '80s. And this appears to be one of the few movies he ever appeared in during his pop years, but he has two numbers in this film.

The first, which is more or less normal, is a heavily reverb'd pop song about how great love is, lip-synched by Kollo, playing the singing bartender.

The next one is Kollo performing his most successful record, a German-language cover of Ricky Nelson's "Hello Mary Lou." I don't know who the blonde dancer is, and having only read a brief plot synopsis, I don't know who the generic Sheiks are supposed to be. The director appears to lose all interest in Kollo midway through the number and devote himself to close-ups of the dancer and the guy ogling her.

And finally, weirdest of all, is the film's title song, performed by the star, Vivi Bach, sometimes known as "Die Dänische Bardot" (the Danish Bardot). (That might also be her dancing in the other clip, but I'm not sure and I'm not going to watch the whole movie to find out.) The song itself isn't weird, it's the frequent cutaways to guys in lederhosen slapping each other. I honestly wasn't aware this was done in a movie outside of the famous stock footage.

I'm not really intrigued enough to learn more about the West German movie musical in the early '60s, but if this was what it was like all the time, it's... actually, not that far from what I would have imagined, given the era's combination of Old German nostalgia and U.S. pop influence, like a combination of Franz Lehár and Pat Boone.

Anyway, here's the last clip I could find, from what was apparently the biggest name in the movie, singer Fred Bertelmann (a big name in West Germany, I mean; I can't find an English-language bio). He comes off as somewhat frightening.

Update: Thanks to "Jim," in comments, who has some great information about German movie musicals and performers, both the low-budget quickie musicals of the '50s and '60s and the more elaborate (and memorable) productions of the early sound era, like this elaborate production number of Lilian Harvey singing "Das Gibt's Nur Einmal". One thing I notice from that 1931 clip is that UFA already had developed the technique of post-synched musical numbers -- though the technique of lip-synching was not yet perfected -- whereas in U.S. musicals, they were still mostly shooting musical numbers with direct sound. Jim notes that a Hollywood musical would never have had such an elaborate tracking shot at the time, but that's because they hadn't yet figured out that you could shoot a whole musical number without sound (and therefore a freely-moving camera).


Jim said...

German musicals of the fifties and sixties are great in the same way that Elvis and Frankie Avalon musicals are great; they just tried to produce something light and fun without getting remotely political. You forget most of the stuff within an hour or two, but its great while it lasts. Here are a few names to get you started:

The biggest star in German musicals is Peter Alexander who made dozens of the things, all perfectly adequate and lots of fun, but there's no defining piece that you ought to see. Just spend an hour going through some of his stuff on YouTube.

Peter Kraus was described as the German Elvis, but had neither the early rebellious period not the Vegas years, and was most of his career the sort of nice boy that mums approved of.

Gus Backus has the most interesting story. He was (well still is) an American. While in the army he sang for a while with the Del Vikings until he was transferred to Germany where he somehow found his way into films and became a pop-star. After leaving the army he stayed on in Germany for a while before returning to the US where he worked in the Texan oilfields before deciding that his German life was far nicer and returning there. This is quite a cute number from the film Das haben die Madchen gern (that's what girls like), a film with no comprehensible plot whatsoever but lots of sweet songs.

Top European stars of that time tended to appear in films in lots of different countries, e.g. Swedish star Lill Babs (last in the news for getting Bill Murray drunk and sending him into the centre of Stockholm in a golf cart). A mother at fifteen, she only became a singer subsequently and is still loved in Sweden. She appeared in some German films with and without her one-time boyfriend Peter Kraus, but I like the songs from Swedish musical "Pang i bygget" (Google translates that as Fawlty Towers) that I've found on You Tube. Try Ko or Pop i Topp for starters.

But if you want to go back to a time when German musicals had some artistic quality then you have to look all the way back to what ufa were producing in the early thirties. Exhibit one has to be the incredible Der Kongress tanzt of 1931, made in German, French and English simultaneously, with Lilian Harvey able to sound like a native in all three languages. Was Hollywoood even capable of doing the tracking shot at the start of the song (about 2 1/2 minutes in)? Or for another Lilian Harvey clip, here's a scene from Einbrecher complete with a very rare film performance of Sidney Bechet (watch out - parts of that make blackface seem the model of racial sensitivity). The rise of the Nazis destroyed a lot of that creativity, and German cinema spent much of the fifties making weak remakes of those gems of the twenties and thirties.

Jim said...

Oh, and re the lederhosen, the other big genre of German made films in the immediate post war years was the heimat films, rural fantasies set in mythical looking woodland villages near the mountains and packed with shots of men in leather shorts slapping each other. Most are unwatchable nowadays, as are the seventies soft porn spoofs based thereon. If you've ever been unfortunate as to sit through one of the British "Confessions of ..... " films you'll know what to expect.

Jim said...

And to see how poor German musicals of the fifties were, compare the remade version of "Das gibt's nur einmal" with the Lilian Harvey version. The cast of hundreds and the coach journey through the centre of town has been replaced by the minimum possible number of extras and a trip along a back alley in the midle of nowhere.

Steve said...

Whatever other shortcomings these films may have had, the technical aspects are outstanding. Still frames from these videos look like they were shot yesterday. The definition is astounding, not all grainy like American CinemaScope. The audio is pristine. There has to be some digital restoration at work here, but I'd believe it if you said there wasn't. The West Germans prided themselves on meticulous technical perfection. They built the best cameras, lenses, film, microphones... everything.

Unfortunately, all that technical perfection may serve to point out the performance shortcomings even more. There's no doubt it's all lip synced, and there seems to be little attempt to disguise it. By the way, some of the orchestration sounds like Bert Kaempfert.

That 1931 clip is incredible. That was one big long massive recording session, dozens of performers, done in real time. And the payoff at the end is worth it.

Unknown said...

You've got to track down EAST SIDE STORY (1997) which is a fun documentary on Iron Curtain musicals, including a number of East German films.

ebook leser said...

kollo was a famous actor in Germany, I remember my grandma saw a lot of his old movies and was always happy.

Robert said...

I used to go to a German language summer camp where we would learn dancing much like the guys in lederhosen were doing in that clip. They have a repertoire of intentionally silly and absurd moves that are concatenated together, like the "AutoStoppfen" which was a sort of hitchhiker's thumb gesture.