Original Title: Kuhle Wampe, oder: Wem gehört die Welt—. Socially critical drama 1932; 73 min.; Director: Slatan Dudow; Cast: Hertha Thiele, Martha Wolter, Lili Schoeborn-Anspach, Ernst Busch, Adolf Fischer, Max Sablotzki, Alfred Schaefer; Prometheus-Tobis-Klangfilm.
A young man struggles to find work while his family faces eviction due to unpaid rent. Tragically, he takes his own life, and the family becomes homeless. Their daughter finds herself pregnant and engaged, but after leaving her fiancé, she reunites with him at a worker’s sporting event. In a climactic scene, they engage in a political debate with wealthy passengers, highlighting the divide between classes and the need for change.
The day of the 18-year-old motor locksmith Franz Bönicke is determined by one word: unemployment. He follows the typical path of an unemployed person who hasn’t given up hope, fervently reading the job ads in the newspaper and engaging in the insane pursuit of employment opportunities. Millions of people worldwide are consumed by the “hunt for work,” in vain. Everywhere they go, the positions are already filled, and someone luckier got there earlier. The cycle of hope, pursuit, and disappointment repeats itself. Exhausted and numb, the unsuccessful individuals make their way home.
Now Franz Bönicke also wants to go home. His home is a cramped apartment in the back of a building that, at first glance, gives an impression of bourgeois security. However, the Bönicke family’s living conditions are far from secure. The unemployed father suffers from his inactivity, and the mother is worn down by worries about daily bread. All the burden falls on the shoulders of Anni, their daughter. She is a young girl barely grown up, who spends eight hours a day working on an assembly line in a large electrical goods factory.
A gloomy lunchtime arrives, and the nerves of all family members are stretched to the breaking point. Franz cannot know that his father has just read in the newspaper that a new regulation will completely halt unemployment support for young workers. Even Anni’s arrival cannot improve the mood. The conversations revolve around the same unpleasant things: no work, unpaid rent, the welfare office, the bailiff, eviction…
Finally, the long-pent-up tension explodes into senseless bickering. They shout at each other, blaming one another, while Franz sits tired and silent amidst the chaos, as if it doesn’t concern him. The father angrily storms off, the mother goes shopping, and Anni breathes a sigh of relief when she hears a whistle in the courtyard—her boyfriend Fritz has come to pick her up. Franz is left alone. Despair overwhelms him. He opens the window and his gaze falls upon his wristwatch, the only valuable possession he has left from better times. Reflectively, he takes it off and carefully places it on the table. He approaches the window, his hand grasping the window frame, and then… A chorus of screams reveals what has happened. A crowd gathers in the courtyard. Police officers. “Jumped out of the window!” Anni and Fritz push their way to the spot where the body lies. And all that can be said about this incident is shrugged off by a woman, saying, “One less unemployed person.” The fate of the Bönicke family cannot be stopped. Eviction cannot be prevented. But in this hopeless situation, a strange notion brings a more friendly light: Fritz suggests to Anni’s family that they move with him to “Kuhle-Wampe.”
Outside the city, between the forest and the lake shore, lies a tent colony where several hundred people live for several months every year. Here, the family finds a new home. Tents are set up, and the displaced city dwellers strive to make themselves at home in their new surroundings. Over the weeks, the helpful friendship of the chauffeur Fritz blossoms into love, and the relationship between the two young people is not without consequences. New upheavals and confusions arise. New catastrophes threaten: Fritz wants to maintain his freedom. It is his friend Kurt who must make him understand what would happen to Anni then. Fritz and Anni are burdened with their old expectations, which seem even more senseless in the natural surroundings than in the city. And so, the tragicomic conclusion of this development is an engagement celebrated with great pomp and extravagance in a small cell.
Intoxication, noise, boisterous jokes—amidst the celebration of the engagement party, Fritz and Anni quarrel. It ends with Anni packing her things and returning to the city with her friend Gerda. Fritz, annoyed, remains in Kuhle-Wampe.
There are other young people who are also unemployed, who know hardship and deprivation but do not sink into sadness and inaction. Anni was once part of this circle, but the upheavals in her life had distanced her from her comrades. Gerda brings her back, and new forms of life brighten the gloomy atmosphere of her existence.
Fritz continues to live with his in-laws in Kuhle-Wampe. But he cannot forget Anni. And when he finally loses his composure, he visits his beloved again and finds her at the headquarters of the workers’ sports club, where everyone is feverishly preparing for a massive mass sports festival near Kuhle-Wampe.
Large groups of marching athletes, columns of motorcyclists, long rows of rowing and paddle boats on the waterways—all have a purpose.
A regatta takes place on the lake, motorcycles rumble along the road, and Kurt wins the race. And as the extraordinary tension of the athletic competitions subsides, the masses gather for a grand meeting.
Among the crowd of spectators are Fritz and Anni. The same worries and troubles that threatened to destroy their lives and love are what move all these young people. But they are driven by the desire for a community that is more beautiful and stronger than the confines of the self. The climax of the festival is the performance of a group of young workers who present self-written scenes addressing problems of workers’ lives. But resignation is not the result of this thinking; rather, it is the laughing will to change and improve the world.
And under this influence, Fritz and Anni find each other again.
The weekend’s end: crowded trains, haste, noise, fatigue. But the exhausting journey home cannot erase the impression of the festival. In a compartment of the suburban train, our friends sit together, returning to the city: Anni and Fritz, Gerda and Kurt. From jests and teasing, from the nervousness of some Sunday excursionists, a conversation gradually emerges that suddenly encompasses all aspects of daily life. But these young people do not agree with the melancholy of an old man who sighs and says, “We won’t change the world either.”
They believe they are capable of changing the world and fighting for a life of freer and more beautiful community.
And the echoing halls of the destination station resound with the athletes’ battle song: “Forward and never forget…”
Georg Herzberg’s review in Film Kurier No. 126 (May 31, 1932)
The main theme of this film is to make the workers understand that it is not enough for the proletariat struggle to simply cast red ballots during elections or carry a red party membership card in their pockets. It also requires a mental shift in the private lives of each individual.
First and foremost, the fate of a young unemployed man is shown, who jumps out of a window not because he has nothing to eat, but because his parents make his life unbearable with insults, taunts, and unjust accusations. They compensate for their own powerlessness in the face of hardship by lashing out at the only person they are allowed to kick down. Brecht and Ottwalt have observed this well, and S. Th. Dudow has staged it compellingly. In hundreds of thousands of German working-class families, people unnecessarily make their own lives difficult.
The film continues as the family is evicted and moves to a tent camp called Kuhle Wampe. Here, they find satisfaction amidst green trees, radios, and backstairs reading. The best scenes in the film are perhaps those of an engagement party that the disgusted bride leaves. The moral swine in these people breaks loose completely—they eat until they burst, they get drunk to the point of not being able to stand. These scenes, perhaps somewhat exaggerated to make an impact, as the aggressive intent may not be noticeable in the cinema seats otherwise, are indeed the film’s best.
In the third part, the film shows how the workers should live. This is where the film falters. Its intellectual backbone collapses here. Brecht and Ottwalt come up with nothing more than a sports festival.
First and foremost, it is a hymn to the club mentality. People stay up all night because they have to paste banners. They ride on highly feudal motorcycles on the roads. (Is it really any different when the Crown Prince stands next to a Mercedes driver in the Fox newsreel at the Avus car race?) They row and swim, make a bit of music, and seem to seriously believe that sports activities are an invention of the Communist Party. Who doesn’t engage in sports today? Which party doesn’t recommend it? Where is it not organized, and perhaps even better? I was at the Potsdam-Berlin relay race of the ††† bourgeoisie the day before, and it looked more serious and less theatrical.
In the end, the authors regain their footing. They depict a conversation in a train compartment. It begins with a note about burnt Brasil coffee and ends with the realization that this world can be changed. Dudow juxtaposes brilliantly observed character types.
The film can perhaps be seen as typical of some of our parties. As long as one condemns the mistakes of others, there is momentum and clear vision, but when it comes to portraying one’s own actions, one resorts to clichés.
The actors are effectively used, without room for exceptional performances. Hertha Thiele carries herself with an upright posture throughout the film, and her words are convincing. Ernst Busch believably portrays someone who wavers but ultimately undergoes a conversion. Max Sablotzki embodies a type of worker that shouldn’t exist, while Lili Schönborn plays the intellectually compatible wife with kitchen wall aphorisms and a longing for bourgeois life.
There are also Marta Wolter, Adolf Fischer, Alfred Schäfer, Gerhard Bienert, Hugo Werner-Kahle, Hermann Krehan, and others.
Günther Krampf’s photography is technically excellent.
Robert Scharfenberg and Carl P. Haacker designed the sets.
The film’s two ballads are sung by Helene Weigel and Ernst Busch. The music is composed by Hanns Eisler. It is a matter of personal taste whether one finds its harshness beautiful; it is quite a nerve test for the audience. Musical direction by Joseph Schmidt, conducted by Lewis Ruth.
At the end, there was a very strong applause.