Melody of the Heart

Original Title: Melodie des Herzens. Folk drama 1929; 91 min.; Director: Hanns Schwarz; Cast: Dita Parlo, Willy Fritsch, Ilka Grüning, Marcsa Simon, Anni Mewes, Gerő Mály; Ufa-Klangfilm.

A peasant maid arrives in Budapest, falls in love with a soldier, then, after losing her job, is forced to find work in a brothel. By staying there, she can buy her lover a horse, which will allow them to enter into marriage. In the end, he finds out how she came by the money and rejects her. She buys him the horse and commits suicide.

From the home of mirages, from the Puszta, comes the story of an Hungarian spring. A sixteen-year-old peasant girl Juli moves to Budapest, the big city, unknown to her. In the park, the acacia trees and the white lilacs are in bloom, and on the merry-go-round, in a carriage with trumpeting angels, Juli loses her heart to the handsome soldier János Garas.

Poor János was forced into military service because his father’s small farm wasn’t enough for all his sons. So for János, saving money is essential. He wants to buy a horse, because having a horse means he can have a carriage, and a carriage is a good start. Then he doesn’t need to be a soldier anymore. Then… he could get married. Juli is a maid; she earns no more than 20 pengő, but these 20 pengő are to be saved in full… for the horse. These two young radiant children save and long for a horse with all their hearts. Their primitive imaginations gradually transform the horse into a shining symbol of happiness, a beautiful mirage of their future together. However, a cruel reality all too quickly destroys this wonderful, primitive dream.

Because Juli once sat too long with her soldier under the flowering acacias, she loses her job, so she is no longer able to save. In fact, she still has to spend the few pennies she has so painstakingly saved. There are no jobs at the agency. The little maid’s landlady, Ms. Czibulka, one of those vile people who exploit even the poorest people, threatens to throw her out on the streets. So, like other girls before her, she sets the innocent maid up in a disreputable house, where she becomes a prostitute despite still being innocent at heart. On Sunday afternoons, she wears her old peasant dress, the light flowered skirt and the little chain with the silver Crucifix, as pure in her heart as ever, and she goes to her soldier, who knows nothing.

As a result, they live in a dream of great beauty until, one day, the bubble bursts. One of János’ comrades pays for a round of drinks. The gypsies are playing, the tavern is bustling, and it seems only natural that the buzzed soldiers would think about paying the girls a visit. However, János does not want to go, even though his comrades assure him they won’t tell his fiancée. At last, they drag him into the brothel, where he sees the girl whose face he had described to his friends as resembling St. Mary’s… Suddenly, the house of cards collapses. The beautiful dream of the horse vanishes.

What is the use of saving now? János Garas, usually so thrifty, goes to the tavern like a man possessed, turns the whole place upside down in his rage and throws the money he has saved all his life for a horse between the drunks in a single gesture. At the same time, the little maid with a broken heart goes to the horse market and buys one from her saved-up pennies, which are now finally enough. Then, like someone who has done all she could in this world, she goes to drown herself.

As guests of the tavern rush to the riverbank, János Garas finds his girl dead. But on the river bank, there is a cheap horse. Around the horse’s neck hangs a note, scribbled on a piece of cardboard: This horse that I bought from the gypsy Jozsi today is from now on the property of the noble and kindly soldier János Garas. This was Juli Balog’s final wish, in the name of Jesus Christ.

By Ernst Jäger, Film Kurier No. 299, December 17, 1929:

“Complete” – , for the eyes and for the ears – – : What lies between the first fade-in and the last fade-out? A small, sad little legend of a dishonored maid, with all the pleasures and sorrows of this world surrounding her. Sound film variations on a folk song. It is quite similar to how Gustav Mahler incorporated nature and artificiality in “The Boy’s Magic Horn.” The sound film has the advantage of presenting its motifs in pictures, the disadvantage that their musical addendums are made by hobbyists and constructors. However, a tremendous amount of work has gone into the making of this film, it is a brand-new art form.
Despite the uniqueness, specialness, and accidental nature of the film, there is a gain: a new pictorial nature has been conquered, a new creative character has been developed.

Although this Pommer film comes exclusively from the silent era (which is good), the cinematic heights of “Hotel Imperial”, “Nina Petrovna” are preserved! Especially the “poetic” and “musical” camera, whose significance was first discovered in Germany, certainly hasn’t been forgotten here.
Another discovery comes out of Germany: the nature sound to accompany the nature picture. (This discovery must be acknowledged and recorded, so that upcoming sound films can also exploit the conquest).
It is not a matter of factual sound; in other sound films, too, trains rolled, streetcars rumbled, whips cracked, footsteps plodded, glasses clinked. This isn’t it, factual sounds were added incidentally, never intentionally, in this film.
The new, lyrical, pictorial-musical value of this company lies in the congruent uniformity of image and sound. This sound isn’t dependent on its musical source, on whether it is accompanied by a sorrowful woman or if it is a direct sound effect resulting from the visual experience – marching column of soldiers, singing male soldiers, roaring carnival orchestra – or whether the sound underscores the depiction of nature: a church bell resounds across the steppe, a duck quacks by the pond, a ceremonial taps call sounds over Budapest’s night sky.
You can feel it in every beat of the film: Erich Pommer and his collaborators immediately understood that this sound film, made during a period of transition, also had to be acoustically cinematic. Herein lies the appeal of the connections drawn between images and sounds, bringing to light and complementing each other. The film’s true highlights are not just images in motion, but specifically sound images.
Nature as resounding in the image of nature, the new pictorial quality of filming is hereby revealed.
That’s why no one can get past this film. Not even America. (An interesting curiosity: the effect is the same regardless if the sound is recorded at the same time or if it is added, retouched. And, as in the case of radio plays, the additional sounds need not necessarily be either natural or retouched.)

When the eye from above, looking down, crosses over the treetops of a village, and pushes back, a soft sound echoes, turning the concept of “distance” into something never experienced before. The screen now offers a new reality.
Another scene: Father and son sit on narrow benches in front of the small farmhouse, its whitewashed front marked only by the shadow of a fruit tree. They sit in silence; there is only a faint humming accompanying this incredibly powerful visual impression. The old thing was to hear a tango played over it. Now, it is a bee, a fowl, a truck that hums along. The most important thing about this film, its most revealing moment, is that, at the end, it could finally, finally get rid of the unmotivated music. Opera would no longer be an element in film, making the film real. (The technique should not be departed from. The serious film must avoid every pseudo-musical bridge, every unmotivated musical invocation.)

A second enrichment of sound films is language, which in this film (by virtue of the recording technique) is used carefully and dramaturgically, which is by no means always a given. The German Ufaton technique reproduces the quiet, the intimacy of the language in this first great work, which is astonishing. People no longer need to be rhetoricians.
Therefore, it is clear that progress has been made in this first Ufaton film, which had to venture completely into the darkness of developments to come.

I find it amazing, therefore, how the collective seems to instinctively put together material with an effect that can’t fail to be pleasing to the audience, worthy of the highest recognition. The intended breakthrough right into the heart of the audience is completely achieved with so many raisins, so many confections conceived to satisfy all tastes.
The best way to appreciate János Székely’s work is to read his “405 Stations of a Maid” – fortunately they are available in print, as the screenplay for a talking picture – considered by itself. In the screenplay, the portrayal is fluid, like a pastoral suite about two young Hungarians.
Throughout “405 Stations,” the foolish maid and the Honved musketeer are made relatable despite their low social status as peasants, which in no way makes them royal children. As a result, Székely creates a wonderful folio: The director, the songwriter, the actor – each has an intelligent and at the same time never monotonous model to work with.
This film serves as a benchmark for Günther Rittau and Hans Schneeberger’s mastery, as they use delicious shots, vivid photography, which contrast consciously or unconsciously with the montage style of “Melody of the World.”
This is the direction Hanns Schwarz wants to take his feature film – the most nuanced acting ever captured on film.
A leader of actors, he is ambitious and obsessed with even the smallest details.
Although his compositions are admirable in terms of craftsmanship, his characters are sometimes rigid, which leaves them looking a bit lifeless. He seems indefatigable and inexhaustible in searching for picturesque moments as he goes chasing life itself with his cameramen. Group direction is his special talent. He has an eerie, amazing certainty in directing four, five actors at once.
All the performers astonished the audience in their own way: Willy Fritsch’s simple, folk-like singing carried his film debut past every conceivable danger. With a great tenor voice, he creates some delightful moments when he plays harmonica with his father and when he sings. Fritsch will guarantee the greatest popularity for this film.
Dita Parlo is ever charming, believable in her dual role of peasant girl and prostitute. Her task is to turn the early misfortunes suffered by Juli into a legend of the heart.
The entire ensemble, partly Hungarian, partly German, is excellent. Grüning stood out for her sharp, hearty tone.

Werner R. Heyman’s music, for the acoustic portion of the film, captures the audience, simple and unpretentious. It’s a blessing that there’s no saxophone in this sound film. Only cimbaloms, violins, and songs.
The music enhances the film and blends with the visuals in a way that provides a sense of harmony between the image and the sound.
The fact that the audio editing, the lack of acoustic dissolves do not impair the quality of W. R. Heymann’s work speaks volumes of its strength. Abraham and Gertler’s contributions are more powerful than the sweeping introduction and conclusion. The song of the proud hussar makes full use of Székely’s routine-like lyrics and will surely make the rounds.
Not to be overlooked: production designer Erich Kettelhut, sound master Fritz Thiery, and the gypsy group Balogh Jancai deserve the long-lasting and heartfelt applause they received for making this film. During the film, Fritsch received repeated applause.

At one point, spontaneous applause broke out. Several Hungarian boys burst into view because a suitor has come for their sister. That’s the complete illusion of reality – The audience does not notice for a moment that they are watching a mechanical, lifeless and canned piece of art.
Even the way the boys laugh, and the way they storm off, suggests the liveliest life; a beautiful starting point for Germany’s international success with sound films.