The Van Geldern Case

Original Title: Strafsache van Geldern. (5. Mai, 7 Uhr abends.) Kriminaldrama 1932; 85 min.; Director: Willi Wolff; Cast: Paul Richter, Ellen Richter, Lucie Höflich, Fritz Kampers, Lizzi Waldmüller, Elga Brink, Gregori Chmara, Hilde Hildebrand, Harry Hardt, Olly Gebauer, Friedrich Kayßler, Walter Steinbeck, Ernst Dumcke, Ernst Busch, Julius Falkenstein; Ellen Richter Filmprod.-Tobis-Klangfilm.

A lawyer with a gambling addiction asks his estranged wife for money, leading to an argument and the murder of the wife. The lawyer becomes the primary suspect, but a professional thief escapes from prison to uncover the true murderer. A court reporter exposes the murderer and thief, and the lawyer is acquitted and can pursue a relationship with the other woman involved.

“The King of Break-ins,” Willi Vogel, has once again been sentenced to three years in prison. This conviction would not have been possible without the renowned defense attorney Paulus van Geldern taking up his case. Van Geldern, an excellent lawyer, is married to the elegant Martha Streckaus, a former revue diva. However, their marriage is not a happy one, and van Geldern’s rough practice cannot compensate for his gambling losses.

Martha, on the other hand, has opened a fashion salon catering to artists from the stage and film industry. Her unique selling point is the ability for customers to trade in jewelry instead of paying in cash. Today, a fashion tea is being held to showcase Martha’s latest designs. Among the attendees are Loni and her boyfriend, the dancer Gert. Loni is captivated by an exquisite evening gown, but it costs 300 marks, and she only has half of that amount. Martha suggests that Loni trade in her diamond brooch, and they agree that Gert will bring the jewelry to Martha’s apartment later in the evening.

In the midst of this, Martha receives a phone call from van Geldern, who asks for money due to his gambling losses. However, Martha refuses to help him again. She has learned from Lula de la Rocca that van Geldern meets with her director, Gerta von Heerström, daily at a small pastry shop. Martha confronts Gerta about it, and Gerta does not deny anything. Later in the evening, van Geldern pleads with Martha once again for her assistance, as he had given his word to Prince Bavaritse to repay his gambling debts by the following day. Martha responds by saying, “I fired Miss Heerström today. You probably know why.” Van Geldern is now unable to ask his wife for the money he needs to settle his debt of honor. When he requests a divorce, Martha refuses to agree.

Minna, Martha’s former dresser and the person Martha truly cares about, overhears the increasingly heated conversation. Unfortunately, these scenes are not unfamiliar to her, so she sighs and goes to sleep. Suddenly, the tranquility is shattered by a piercing scream. Minna rushes into the room to find Martha lying lifeless on the floor with her arms outstretched. Van Geldern, completely distraught, is hunched over her. Martha has been murdered, and her valuable jewelry is missing. Van Geldern is immediately taken into custody as the prime suspect, while Willi Vogel manages to escape. Three days later, during the investigation, van Geldern is unexpectedly released from jail.

Vogel firmly believes in van Geldern’s innocence and wants to assist his defense attorney. As someone who knows the secret underworld well, Vogel believes he can find the stolen jewelry and potentially lead them to the real murderer. Through his girlfriend Hilde, Vogel manages to obtain a portion of the jewelry. However, despite Vogel’s efforts, the suspicions against van Geldern remain strong, and the testimony of a criminal is not enough to shake them. Vogel narrowly avoids getting arrested, despite being pursued by the police. He manages to confront the fence Schleich and uncover more information. In an attempt to force Schleich to reveal the murderer, Vogel is struck and fatally injured.

Meanwhile, the trial against van Geldern has commenced, becoming a sensation as a famous defense attorney stands accused of murder. Van Geldern continues to deny killing his wife, and numerous witnesses have appeared in court. Lula de la Rocca testifies about van Geldern’s relationship with Greta von Heerström, while Minna Müller, Martha’s maternal friend who despises van Geldern, blames him for Martha’s unhappy marriage. Prince Bavaritse also testifies about van Geldern’s gambling losses, heavily incriminating him. Greta is called to the stand and claims, “Van Geldern couldn’t have committed the crime because he was with me at the time.” The dancer Gert is also summoned to testify, and it is proven that he was at van Geldern’s apartment when the murder occurred. His girlfriend Loni attempts to cover for him but gets caught in contradictions. The question arises: Does this exonerate van Geldern, or is Gert the actual murderer?

The following testimonies shed further light on the case. Two children vividly recall seeing a man leaving the house on the night of the murder. The first child identifies Gert with absolute certainty as the man, while the second child just as confidently insists it was van Geldern. The mystery deepens as the courtroom tries to determine who the real murderer is.

-ner.’s review in Film Kurier No. 199 (August 24, 1932)
Collaboration between an author and the manuscript has its merits (aside from reducing complaints about rapes). In the case of Strafsache van Geldern, Hans Hyan, along with W. Solski, adapted his novel for the film, aiming to provide his characters with psychological depth. Hyan avoids overdoing it, staying within the boundaries of an entertaining film. He breaks away from the typical archetypes seen in crime and courtroom dramas, allowing room for the actors to infuse life into their roles. Realism in the defense attorney’s construction of the case to clear a suspect of murder isn’t the primary concern. In the realm of criminal trials and murder entanglements, life often takes strange paths. The crucial aspect is generating interest in the film’s characters and gradually building tension throughout the story.

There’s only one instance where the well-crafted plot veers off track, with an overly extended fashion show interlude featuring Ellen Richter. Such a display isn’t necessary for Richter, who, when skillfully portrayed by Dr. Willy Wolff, remains a captivating figure—a sophisticated and intelligent woman. This highlights the potential for utilizing her character effectively. In a film centered around courtroom trials and reliant on dialogue (taking inspiration from An American Tragedy beyond Mary Dugan), the performances need to be loosened up. Wolff’s keen focus on the essence of the story grants the actors freedom to shine. The inclusion of Lucie Höflich, a master of character portrayal on the stage, adds a gripping scene to the film. Friedrich Kayßler, Lizzi Waldmüller, Hilde Hildebrandt, Harry Hardt, Olly Gebauer, Chmara, Dumcke, Steinbeck, Ernst Busch, Falkenstein, Sokoloff, Lilien, each has the opportunity to break away from clichéd roles (Elga Brink, though her role is not very fruitful, remains delightful to watch).

Wolff’s appreciation for individual performances particularly benefits Kampers, allowing him to step away from slapstick comedy and embody more than just a good-natured, boisterously coarse character. With a touch of restraint, he infuses his portrayal with plenty of humor, somewhat reminiscent of Kameradschaft. Another standout is Wolfgang Zilzer, who skillfully depicts fragile and erratic characters, a rarity for him since Thérèse Raquin. In his subtle portrayal of the intellectual type Paul Richter, Nobel adds depth to the passive role of attorney Geldern. Each actor contributes to the film’s success. The vibrant mosaic of characters, captured by Emil Schünemann’s camera in sets designed by Sohnle and Erdmann, combines to create an exhilarating adventure game that garners strong applause from the thoroughly entertained audience.