Barberina, The King’s Dancer

Original Title: Die Tänzerin von Sanssouci. Historical comedy 1932; 93 min.; Director: Frederic Zelnik; Cast: Otto Gebühr, Lil Dagover, Rosa Valetti, Hans Stüwe, Hans Junkermann, Hans Brausewetter, Hans Mirendorff, Margot Landa, Iris Arlan; Aafa-Tobis-Klangfilm.

Frederick II brings the Italian dancer Barberina to his court, using this as a disguise for his political activity, and later catches the Austrian generals off guard. Meanwhile, the dancer has fallen for a younger man, but Frederick chooses mercy over justice.

A new star dances through Europe – Barberina. The whole world is at her feet. Even King Frederick II has heard of her and wants to engage her for the ballet of the royal opera. When she doesn’t immediately agree, he has her brought to Berlin under military guard.

It doesn’t take long, and all of Berlin is enthralled by the dancer, who is as beautiful as she is charming. The king himself starts taking an interest in Barberina. He invites her to supper and regularly attends the opera, as much as his duties allow. Barberina, who initially came to Prussia’s capital under duress, gradually becomes attracted to the king’s amiable nature.

Unbeknownst to her, the king had brought her to Prussia solely to create a false love affair and deceive the enemies into a false sense of security. Nevertheless, the grace of the dancer doesn’t leave the king unaffected. When Barberina learns that one of her former lovers, Count Cagliostro, is trying to obtain Prussian army deployment plans in Berlin to forward them to the Austrian headquarters, she warns the king, who is already well aware through his secret secretary.

Duty calls – the king leads his troops into the field and undertakes a bold surprise attack on the Austrian headquarters. Without a single soldier by his side, he captures the entire general staff in Lissa. When the king returns to Berlin, grand celebrations have been prepared in his honor. Barberina is also supposed to dance, but the king cancels it, deeming the festivities inappropriate for the gravity of the times. Instead, the money is used for the benefit of war victims, as per his explicit request.

Only the Bach concert, a court celebration with the personal participation of the aged master, is allowed to take place. Barberina is outraged by the austerity measures. In the absence of the king, she has fallen in love with the Privy Council Baron von Cocceji, a young Prussian nobleman. After a performance at the Bach concert, Barberina receives a reprimand from the king in front of the assembled court due to her provocative behavior. Determined, she persuades Cocceji to flee abroad with her.

Friedrich, having been informed of their plan, unexpectedly visits them in their apartment on Behrenstraße. He finds them on the verge of departing. Despite their expectations of a royal storm, Friedrich chooses mercy over justice. He believes that love makes everything understandable and approves of their union.

The people couldn’t resist giving an ovation to the victorious king. Thousands of torches light up the palace square as thousands of his subjects cheer him, hailing him as the great conqueror. Stepping onto the balcony, surrounded by shouts of jubilation, he can’t help but feel lonely – destined to be alone, always.

L. H. E.’s review in Film Kurier No. 220 (September 17, 1932)
You know her from her portrait by Pesne in Sanssouci – Barberina, a graceful woman, presenting herself with a tambourine in hand, her flirtatious foot raised in a dance step.

Charm does not ask for centuries: Dagover slips into the dress of Barberina with full grace, and it clings to her beautiful shoulders as if it were a part of her. She brings Barberina her charm, floating with humor and never becoming coquettish. She portrays capriciousness without vulgarity, turning it into a sparkling capriccio.

Even in those difficult moments when a dancer wants something and a king may not, she knows how to handle it charmingly. Barberina glides over them without resentment – with the small pirouette of her heart, she moves on to the next person who readily says yes.

The film gives her that role (which was probably assigned to her in history) – to deceive the king’s adversaries into believing that the king is distracted. People of that time thought of more serious matters. (Even Casanova wrote that Barberina had been harsh with the king when he knew her portrait was in the king’s bedroom.)

For Zelnik, it’s the opposite here: history must yield to the amorous adventures of a beautiful woman, and Prussia’s war episodes become occasional echoes, light and tastefully used as a veneer – a pretext for showcasing a beautiful woman and a beautiful spectacle.

Zelnik lavishly shares his gifts, intoxicated by the grand costume film. And he does it differently from his Dessau counterpart, who marked an entire troupe in the antechamber of Lissa (the city, not to be confused with Lyssa, where he carefully directed the production), so that the king could encircle the enemy.

Parade marches and drill exercises are used by the authors Fanny Carlsen and Hans Behrend with a sure sense, specifically for Zelnik, where his love for the picturesque is required. The procession of tall men pleasantly blends into tulips standing in line. (A small symbol of Zelnik’s approach to history, making it pleasing to everyone.)

Friedl Behn-Grund’s camera adds to it all – it revels in silk skirts, lights, the tangle of wigs, the splendor of dressed attire, graceful stairs, and draperies. Friedl Behn-Grund never becomes overly sentimental; he captures the fluidity of that meaningful and sensual era with a modern eye, giving life to beautiful images. And in the nighttime equestrian scenes, his cinematography compellingly portrays Otto Gebühr, Friedrich’s double.

Beside Friedl Behn-Grund, there is Leopold Blonden’s outstanding work, who, together with Willi Schiller, created buildings that do not timidly cling to a specific style. They transform the “kokoko” ornamentation into generous forms adapted to the present day, remaining true to the art. They create the necessary transition, the framework for the modern costume characters.

Mare Roland’s music follows the same approach as the architects: you can find charming echoes in the serenades, the gavotte, and the ballad, which he shaped in his own way. They are easily singable and will be sung by many.

The episode featuring Master Bach himself (Dr. Manning portrays him with restraint) casually incorporates contemporary elements. Sound engineer Hrich takes care of the sound, and Max Terpis ensures the lightness of the dances.

Playing alongside Dagover, Otto Gebühr knows how to step back and be her historically grand backdrop. With tact and dignity, he portrays the king; there is no trace of awkward routine here. He has immersed himself in the role and gives it his own profile.

Beside him, Hans Stüwe is likable in his youthful masculinity, a type of lover that the film could make good use of. Rosa Valetti creates an excellent portrayal: she humorously embodies the drunken, disheveled dance mother with broad gestures. It’s also amusing how Hans Junkermann skillfully transforms his officer type into the court flatterer figure of Baron von Pöllnitz.

The others are also in their rightful places: Mierendorff, Brausewetter, the graceful Margot Walter, Iris Arlan, Bernhard Götzke, Lipinsky, Karl Platen, Paul Otto, Hugo Fischer-Köppe as the prologue, and the others.

There was much applause at the end for the film and the actors; at times, it even spilled into the scenes (as the king speaks of saving money and cuts the ballet costs, conscious minds applaud the emergency decree).

Zelnik and Aafa have created a successful film that will attract crowds of moviegoers to the cinemas. Especially for those who cherish memories of the Prussian era, for those whose hearts are captivated by Dagover’s charm, this film is a beautiful portrayal of history presented as an enjoyable spectacle.