Original Title: Die – oder keine. Musical 1932; 91 min.; Director: Carl Froelich; Cast: Gitta Alpar, Max Hansen, Ferdinand von Alten, Paul Otto, Fritz Fischer, Paul Henckels, Rudolf Platte, Wolfgang von Schwindt, Erich Fuchs, Lucy Malata, Barnabás von Géczy; Froelich-Tobis-Klangfilm.
As the throne succession in Marana hangs in uncertainty, a prince and his cousin fall in love with the same celebrated singer. A banker plots to gain control over Marana’s oil wells, and the cousin is appointed regent. However, the singer disguises the prince and smuggles him into Marana under the guise of a singing performance. As the singer garners public support for the true heir, the cousin relinquishes his claim to the throne.
A small, everyday coincidence brings two people together: Eva Petri, the famous singer and star of her troupe, and Michael, the young prince of Marana who may one day ascend the throne. She is unaware of his identity, and when he learns that the woman he instantly fell in love with is a renowned singer, he plans to leave that evening and return to Marana. However, the question of the throne succession in Marana is still unresolved. There is a cousin, Prince Wenzel, an older man without much intelligence, who is also in love with Eva. This situation is exploited by Ravel, an international financier and banker, who desires control over Marana’s petroleum wells for his own plans. Without informing Eva of the true nature of the arrangement, Ravel involves her in his intended business, as she places unlimited trust in him as her financial advisor.
Ravel learns that the old prince of Marana’s life is coming to an end. Now, he aims to persuade Prince Wenzel to sign the contract at Eva’s villa during a small farewell party that same evening. However, Michael, having heard Eva sing in La Traviata that night, decides not to leave until he has seen and spoken with her. Thus, Michael also arrives at Eva’s villa that evening. Meanwhile, Ravel discovers that the old prince of Marana has passed away. The path is clear for Ravel if he can outpace Michael and swiftly bring Wenzel to Marana.
It suits Ravel very well that Michael has fallen in love with Eva. It gives him an advantage. Ravel and Wenzel fly to Marana while Michael remains unaware. When he learns of the events in Marana, it is already too late; Wenzel has arrived and closed the borders to prevent Michael from liberating the country. Eva is beside herself with grief. She searches for a way to bring Michael secretly to Marana and eventually finds it. With her troupe, she will perform during the coronation festivities, and Michael, disguised as a member of the troupe, will cross the border.
Eva introduces herself and her troupe, and one by one, they pass through customs. Among them is a young singer pretending to be the understudy for the star, imitating Eva Petri’s coloraturas. Unbeknownst to them, the customs guard allows the young singer to pass, mistaking her for the Prince Michael, while focusing their attention on the tenor, Florian. He is arrested as Prince Michael and transported to the capital.
In the meantime, the true prince has obtained a uniform and blends in with the people, disguised as a soldier. Prince Wenzel, supported by banker Ravel and his followers, has already assumed control of the government and is set to officially ascend the throne the next day. Ravel naturally suspects that Eva has brought Prince Michael with her and orders a search. Michael has already made contact with some young officers and arranged a plan for the upcoming night. Meanwhile, he mingles among the singing and dancing crowd in the square during the coronation celebration.
The festivities at the palace come to an end, and Prince Wenzel escorts Eva to her chambers. She waits for the moment when she can establish contact with Michael. However, Ravel informs her that she is not allowed to leave her room without permission. Nevertheless, the guards on duty are friends of Michael, and as a result, Michael eventually stands guard outside Eva’s room. At two o’clock, while all is quiet, his friends plan to pick him up and seize the palace with their followers.
Restless and concerned for Michael, Eva cannot find peace. Lost in thoughts of him, she softly begins to sing the tango they danced together in her home.
Walter Jerven’s review in Film Kurier No. 228 (September 27, 1932)
How many sound films have depicted a poor little girl or a poor young man rising to wealth and happiness through fairytale-like strokes of luck (which in the movies are usually considered the same thing)? And how often have critics wielded their pens against these delightful illusions? This is what Erich Pommer also wondered and decided to turn the tables.
The film is dominated by Gitta Alpar. Through her personality, this sound film operetta transforms into a specimen of a special genre. Today, there is a strive for a clear, new, cinematic style within the realm of singing and its conquest for the visual realm of the screen. Alongside the genres of film opera and film operetta, a third type emerges here: the musical film. Not in a banal sense, mind you! It’s not simply because there is singing (and beautifully sung) that makes it a musical film. (Otherwise, many others would fall into this category as well.)
It is so because the vocal performance here provides the fundamental chord for the direction of the people and the images. The sound is, so to speak, the foundation of the rhythm, the cinematic aspect. When Alpar sings the grand La Traviata aria at the beginning of the film (and how she sings it; with such noble respect even for the sixteenth notes that Verdi deemed so important!), there is no photographic depiction of the vocal performance. It’s not a visualization of Alpar singing! Rather, the film begins!
Carl Froelich doesn’t treat it in a grandiose or theatrical manner that she sings. He allows Max Hansen, who as a prince of an imaginary principality cares more about getting to know the singer than inheriting the throne, to venture onto the open stage. With subtle, graceful comedy, he stands in his tailcoat amidst the costumed ensemble, next to the singing La Traviata. It plays out in delightful accents mimically between her and him.
This is entirely natural and believable, despite the unusual situation. It’s neither pushed into farce (which the situation strongly tempts and probably would have led most directors astray) nor driven into a vocally overpowering force. It’s simply the “sound-determining” aspect of the film, built on musical notes. It’s a thoroughly musical film. The singing gives it life.
The plot glides along in the allegro of visual composition, growing into an optically-rhythmic uniformity of captivating lightness above a fragile manuscript. It’s a new Carl Froelich that we get to know; a new facet of his versatile directing. He unfolds a musically nourished wealth of ideas, fills scenes with atmosphere and vibration even where they lyrically fade away—adagio.
What an exciting breath, for example, in those morning, enchanting landscape shots into which Alpar strides after the lively bustle of a farewell party! Max Hansen’s partnership provides charming counterpoints. It’s a quasi-dramatic tonal vibration between him and her; a tension that translates to the events, and we willingly follow them into the fictional principality of Marana, where Prince Michael-Hansen nearly loses the throne to his rival.
How funny the arrival at the militarily sealed border. Through a row of intertwined rifles, the individual members of the singing troupe pass; each has their “entrance,” and each and every one of them (Fritz Fischer, Wolfg. v. Schwindt, Erich Fuchs, and Lucy Malaty) receives spontaneous special applause from the highly excited audience, alongside Alpar and Hansen, who is disguised here as a soubrette parodying and caricaturing Alpar, “faithfully” imitating her even down to the mouth position for vocalization. The audience almost shouts: Encore! Hansen is at work with extraordinary playfulness!
Finally, another embodiment of the tones! Alpar sings, and a state political speech, held beside her in front of the forum of an agitated crowd, dissolves into nothingness. It’s a grand furioso: according to her own notes, she rises, so to speak, into the
air; she is lifted, carried, transformed into a plaything by the masses, always in the rhythm, the exhilarating rhythm of her song. (The fact that in these turbulent scenes, which resemble almost acrobatic feats, she didn’t use a double and that this is only incidentally revealed privately speaks to her modest, devoted dedication to her work!)
The ensemble of actors (Paul Henkels, Paul Otto, and Ferdinand von Alten in well-defined episodes) fits stylishly into the whole, flowing with light parody, which Franz Schroedter in the architecture (one could say parodied Baroque) and Curt Courant at the camera deftly captured. The song lyrics by Dr. Johannes Brandt possess culture yet remain popular. The same can be said of Otto Stransky’s music. The main hit song, the tango “Wenn man sein Herz verliert”, is already sung by the audience as they leave the theater.
The applause, already enthusiastic during the film, refuses to die down at the end. After the evening screening, it took fifteen minutes for the last waves of applause to subside!