The Bartered Bride

Original Title: Die verkaufte Braut. Musical folk play 1932; 77 min.; Director: Max Ophüls; Cast: Jarmila Novotna, Max Nadler, Otto Wernicke, Paul Kemp, Karl Valentin, Liesl Karlstadt, Annemarie Sörensen, Willy Domgraf-Fassbaender; Reichsliga-Tobis-Klangfilm.

1859. The mayor of a Bohemian village has promised his daughter to a peasant boy. However, she is in love with a postilion who sells his rights to the girl for 300 gulden in order to be with his rival, a circus performer. This transaction causes great outrage. Later on, the postilion saves his beloved from mortal danger. Happy ending.

Kezal, the shrewd matchmaker, is on the verge of realizing a carefully devised plan. During the village fair, he intends to unite Marie, the beautiful mayor’s daughter, with Wenzel, the son of the wealthy couple Micha, for life. Everything seems to be going as planned. The mayor is in agreement, and the Michas are on their way to the village with Wenzel. However, they experience a little adventure beforehand, which throws a wrench in Kezal’s plans.

Michas’ carriage collides with the Brummer traveling circus at an intersection, blocking the path of the oncoming Dresden-Prague stagecoach. The stagecoach tries to swerve but hits a milestone, breaking a wheel in the process. Hastily, Hans, the postilion, removes the damaged wheel, unhitches the spare horse, and gallops off to the nearby fair village.

During the wheel repair, he meets Marie. They are instantly attracted to each other. Their encounter is abruptly interrupted by the watchful Kezal and the arrival of the Micha family. However, Marie can’t forget Hans. When she sees how she is being forced into a business-like union with Wenzel, she runs away and packs her belongings. Then she rushes to Hans and asks him to take her in the stagecoach to her aunt in Prague. But Hans can only continue the journey the next morning. His urban passengers have developed a taste for the village fair. To avoid being discovered by relatives, Marie disguises herself with Hans amidst the festivities of the fair.

Meanwhile, the Brummer circus has settled in, and the abandoned Wenzel has made the acquaintance of the young dancer Esmeralda, making him forget about the bride’s escape. But just like Marie with Hans, Wenzel is soon seen with Esmeralda. Another major family scene unfolds; the good reputation of both families is at stake. To separate Marie from Hans, the mayor locks her in her room, and to prevent Wenzel from being able to be with Esmeralda, he bans the circus, which already owes the community 300 gulden in back taxes.

While the village youth merrily dances on the festively illuminated marketplace, Hans searches in vain for Marie. In the late hours of the night, he climbs up to her window to give her the engagement ring. But jealous local lads knock down his ladder, leading to a fierce fight in which Hans remains the victor but compromises Marie.

Kezal has been observing everything with growing unease. Now he intervenes. He offers Hans a considerable sum if he agrees to no longer stand in the way of Wenzel’s marriage. Hans laughs off the offer and drives away. On the way, he meets Wenzel, who pleads with Hans to take him to the nearest county town. Wenzel intends to obtain permission for the Brummer circus to perform there. When Hans hears that Wenzel loves Esmeralda and is willing to give up on Marie, and that everything would be resolved if Wenzel could provide the circus with the 300 gulden in back taxes, he hands over the reins of the carriage to Wenzel and hastily rides back to Kezal. He accepts Kezal’s offer and delivers the money paid to him by Kezal to Wenzel. Radiant with happiness, Wenzel passes the money to Brummer, securing Esmeralda’s stay.

The news quickly spreads through the village that the mayor’s daughter was given up by the postilion for money. Marie is speechless. Kezal triumphantly arrives with the fact: Hans sold his bride! The shame shatters Marie’s pride. She gives up her resistance to the intended union desired by her father and sadly accompanies her parents with Wenzel to the gala performance of the Brummer circus.

Hans delivers his carriage to the next relay station and hurriedly returns to the fair village. He reaches the circus just as Esmeralda’s bear act is being booed because the clown hiding in the bear costume is drunk. While Wenzel rushes to Esmeralda, slips into the fur, and helps her act receive cheering applause, Hans retrieves his beloved from the circus. No one notices, as all eyes are fixed on Esmeralda, who places her head into the mouth of the brown beast. But when, in her gratitude, Esmeralda suddenly flips the bear’s head back to better kiss Wenzel, tension gives way to resounding laughter.

Furious, Kezal rushes behind the tent to remove Wenzel from the bear costume. In the process, he encounters the real bear, which he suspects to be Wenzel, and sets it free. A wild panic ensues. The bear is loose! The people rush into their houses. The streets are deserted. Only Hans and Marie, caught up in their joy of reunion, haven’t noticed anything and suddenly find themselves alone on the marketplace facing the beast. The mayor is horrified to see his daughter in danger. Only one person can save her: Hans, the postilion. And when he indeed brings her to safety through his fearlessness and the bear is lured back behind bars by Wenzel’s and Esmeralda’s trickery, the paralyzing shock quickly dissolves into jubilant joy, and the two brave couples can embrace with parental approval.

And Kezal? He puts on a good face as well because he knows his commission is already secured. He promptly received double reimbursement of the advanced gulden from both Micha and the mayor. Finally, everything is as good as it should be.

E. J.’s review in Film Kurier No. 208 (September 3, 1932)
Thunderous applause at the end. Curiously, at this premiere, the renowned claque hesitated to applaud, but the true film lovers said “yes” even louder. How critical, how engaged, how quickly they are enchanted by the beauty of the visuals, the drama within a film, a witty dialogue, the harmony of a musical score, or an actor’s gesture. This often maligned Berlin premiere audience (if it’s not overly composed of “film office” staff) clapped three or four times into the picture during an acoustically unfavorable screening. They would have shouted “Bravo” at every film meter if it weren’t for the sound issues, which were catastrophic for sensitive ears and diminished the overall impact of the 7 p.m. showing.

It is impossible to fully appreciate a meticulously crafted work, finely tuned to the smallest rhythmic nuances, on which a collective of talented individuals, led by Ludwig Scheer, toiled and honed with a substantial budget, when every other word is muffled, and the melodic splendor of the “orchestra” dies in its full beauty due to technical (and fixable) recording flaws in an “opera film.” The artistic value of this film must be indestructible if it still prevailed yesterday, as it did recently in Munich, despite the intrusive technical difficulties. It must prevail worldwide. Film enthusiasts, art patrons, German press, gather around! Ludwig Scheer and Karl Ritter have not promised too much. They aimed to achieve the seemingly impossible: to create a film of tomorrow at Geiselgasteig with rudimentary sound equipment, surpassing even E.A. Dupont’s Peter Voß and Karl Grune. They have succeeded so well that one can see their best intentions and considerable skills.

The film is rooted in music, a heartfelt opera that belongs to the unique and eternal works that have frequently appeared in opera history and the works of many opera composers (see Nikolai). Smetana flourishes from the depths of the heart. It is daring to claim, even at the risk of offending intellectual individuals and being laughed at by director Max Ophüls, that there are emotions, inner depth, and inner spirituality even if they are presented in a cool and interesting way, capturing the sale of a bride on a church fair Saturday in 1859 from a human perspective and artistically in terms of rhythm and visuals. This film, based on an emotional opera, does not deny its allegiance to feelings. To quote Shakespeare, music is not here to nourish love. Therefore, traditional opera enthusiasts will be furious, but avant-garde film lovers will be delighted. The violation of Smetana’s work is done with consistency. The master illustrator Theo Mackeben, who understands the brilliance and vivacity of Smetana, has awakened every fugato in the continuous musical score. Those who have fallen asleep during poor theater performances of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride will be struck by a musical or visual blow every minute or witness a revelation of beauty. It creates a frenzied musical chase, racing against the action and the actors on the screen. The result is a spectacle of the highest order, the ideal film operetta that theorists love, far from the singsong kitsch of typical studio productions. It is a film that must be played and seen (assuming the sound is repaired).

An anti-opera film has emerged, the first one clearly and perhaps unwittingly made against Smetana, without Smetana. Today, the spirit of cinema must prevail, says Ophüls. He and his writer, Curt Alexander, envision cinema as a disassembled and intricate work capturing life. It is a gripping story with a thousand visual beauties that occasionally become moments of optical delight, thanks to Reimar Kuntze behind the camera. Let’s not forget that Erwin Scharf is responsible for the sets and costumes, and it is worth emphasizing that Geiselgasteig provided the ideal combination of nature and open-air studios for this film.

The creators of this visually pleasing film, under Karl Ritter’s production supervision, were blind to one thing: the film is not a modern symphony; it needs internal dynamism and escalation. Even amateurs may have noticed that a filmed anti-opera or a theater adaptation, as well as any other narrative film, requires the old techniques of building tension and escalation. Lessing didn’t die in vain; as long as he continues to inspire films with theatrical elements, the “classical” rules of drama must remain. This film disregards them; it has magnificent episodes conceived as sparkling ideas combined with Smetana’s brilliant musical rumblings. There is a Meistersinger atmosphere, but unfortunately, the curtain falls a thousand times. It is no wonder that Wagner is mentioned. It might be even more appropriate to mention Ludwig Berger, who turned Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg into a charming and unjustly forgotten film. This Ophüls film will not be forgotten because, despite its hasty modernity, it portrays endearing characters through the actors. Ophüls can do that: reveal the essence of the actors. Wericke as Kezal, without pretentiousness, Nowotna with her austere charm, Max Nadler as a patriarch, and Annemarie Soerensen, making a significant impact even in her debut. In the film, Willy Domgraf-Faßbaender shines, leaving behind any trace of opera. He is both Fairbanks and Chevalier (well, not exactly, let’s not exaggerate, dear critic; he is a unique talent who should not be compared but regarded as a top-tier performer in German cinema). The ecstatic audience recognizes the visual and acoustic finesse, especially the duet on horseback. It is a symbolic ride, galloping into new territories of cinema. German theater owners, take note of this film, its nighttime celebration under trees, its joy of dance, the equestrian enthusiasm in a quasi-avant-garde Tom Mix style, intertwined tenderness towards women and children, including the trumpeter’s son! The film incorporates humorous photography inherited from the late Murnau, ballad fairs, and countless lively elements. It is worth celebrating, just as the Berlin Atrium puts the Schaumann circus bell in front of its doors and wishes for an enjoyable evening. One request: Pay attention to sound, gentlemen!

Closing remark: The Film-Kurier is biased, but Walter Jerven discovered Karl Valentin and Liesl Karlstadt for the film, and he did the right thing. The words of the hesitant dreamer Karl Valentin and the plump and cheeky Karlstadt were hardly understandable, and yet behind the makeup, rolling eyes, and witty murmurs, one could sense their immense artistic talent. The greatest reward for comedians is to be laughed at even before they appear in person. Their arrival is anticipated (they must be seen in new and upcoming films!).