When we think of the Weimar Republic we inevitably think of crazy, decadent cabarets and social chaos, inflation so rampant that workers would carry their wages home in a wheelbarrow and rush to spend them before they lost more value. It sounds ridiculous, unbelievable, but at its worst – in November 1923 – one US dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 (four trillion, 210 billion, five hundred million) German marks! That’s the kind of exchange rate we poor Aussies can only dream about. A loaf of bread at the time cost 200,000,000,000 (two hundred billion) marks.
The artist George Grosz recalled that speed was of the essence. One would fill a knapsack with bills and race to the shop. There was no time to consider purchases because in the time it took to walk into the store, the cost of a rabbit, for instance, might have increased by 2 million marks.
By 1932, when Ich bei Tag und Du bei Nacht was made, the hyperinflation had been reined in, but the economic crisis continued to bite. Weimar Germany was in no condition to weather the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and still held the world in its grip by 1932. Of a nation of 60 million people, 6 million were unemployed. Jobs were like gold – which is one of the subtexts of this movie – the sheer terror of losing one’s job!
The Weimar Republic lasted 14 years, from the end of the First World War to the Nazi assumption of power at the beginning of 1933. For 5-6 years, between hyperinflation and the Great Depresssion, there was a semblance of normality, but for most of the Weimar period, chaos ruled. The extremes of poverty and uncertainty gave rise to extreme politics. In the elections of 1928, the Nazis received only 2.8 percent of the vote. By contrast, at last year’s federal Australian elections One Nation received a 4.9 percent share of the primary vote.
By September, 1930, as the Great Depression hit home, the Nazis won 18.3 percent of the vote, making them the second largest political party in the Reichstag. As the government lurched from one crisis to another, new elections were held in July 1932, and this time Hitler’s party won 37.3 percent, becoming the largest political force in Germany. Yet another election in November of that year saw the Nazis lose ground to the Communists. The widespread fear of a communist takeover prompted President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as Chancellor on 30 January, 1933. One month later, the Reichstag mysteriously went up in flames and Hitler convinced Hindenburg to declare a state of emergency, effectively ending any pretence of democracy.
It’s a well-testified phenomenon that times of massive social and political upheaval are artistically fertile ones. The Weimar years saw German artists explore such movements as Expressionism, Dada, Constructivism, and the Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”). It was during these years that the Bauhaus pioneered radical new forms of modernist art and design. In literature, Erich Maria Remarque published his famous anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front in 1929. There were powerful books from figures such as Hans Fallada, Alfred Döblin, Joseph Roth, Kurt Tucholsky, Erich Kästner, Thomas and Heinrich Mann.
The Berlin nightclubs, immortalised in the novels of Christopher Isherwood, and Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972), were justly famous for their extreme and decadent spectacles. I have a book on the subject called Voluptuous Panic – the title says it all. In an atmosphere of economic despair, in which the famous punk logo “No Future” might have been stamped on everyone’s foreheads, some people decided to party like there was no tomorrow. “Take hold of it before it’s too late!” says one of the characters in this film.
Political satire and sexual innuendo were rampant in the Berlin cabarets. Every taste, every pecadillo, was catered for. The dark side was the Lustmord – violent sex murders which occurred with chilling frequency.
The Weimar years were fertile for the cinema, one of the few affordable pleasures for an impoverished population. German filmmakers of these years were incredibly inventive, and left a legacy that would change the industry forever. We think particularly of directors such as Robert Weine, (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), F.W.Murnau (Nosferatu, Sunrise, the Last Laugh), G.W. Pabst (The Joyless Street, Pandora’s Box) and Fritz Lang (M, Metropolis); but also of amazing oddities, such as Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform (1931), a queer classic for the ages.
In discussing Weimar cinema, nobody seems to think of the musical comedy, but this is exactly what we have in Ich bei Tag und Du bei Nacht. Should it really be so unlikely? The Weimar era was a time when people looked to the cinema for distraction from their woes, not simply as a mirror of their worst fears and anxieties.
Ich bei Tag und Du bei Nacht is a sparkling example of what Lukas Foerster, in the catalogue notes for this film, calls a Tonfilmlustspiel – literally a “talkie comedy”. It had been less than five years since The Jazz Singer opened up a new age of cinema, and directors such as Ludwig Berger, who had made his name with silent films, were rapidly adjusting to the new medium. This was his fourth talkie – or third, if we count a movie made in both French and German language versions as the same film. Every one of them was a musical comedy.
Berger was Jewish, like many figures in the German film industry, but this was not a problem until the Nazis came to power. Ich bei Tag und Du bei Nacht was released only two months before Hitler became Chancellor and set about purging Jews from all German enterprises. It was the end of the line for Berger, who would spend the war years inactively in Hollywood, and for actors such as Julius Falkenstein, who plays Herr Krüger in the movie, and who would die from natural causes before the year was out. There would be no more menorahs to be glimpsed sitting on top of bookshelves, as we see in Krüger’s office.
Its brief run at the cinema meant that Ich bei Tag und Du bei Nacht became a forgotten film, but it thoroughly deserves another look – not just because it is a sparkling, fast-moving comedy from a country not renowned for light-hearted humour, but because it is so finely attuned to the spirit of the times, telling us a great deal about its audience.
The plot is simple enough: a waiter and a manicurist share the same rented room, but never meet. She uses the bed at night, he sleeps during the day. Their formidable landlady, Frau Seidelbast, orchestrates their comings and goings, making sure her dual tenants never lay eyes on each other. When they finally meet in the street, they fall in love, and a screwball comedy of mistaken identity ensues.
The overriding joke is that the hero and heroine already share the same bed, just not at the same time. Both believe the other to be richer – and therefore more materially desirable – than they really are. Both have had their imaginations stoked by the cinema, which offers an endless parade of wealth and luxury to a population living largely on the breadline.
There are some great spoofs, when we dip into the movie theatre to catch a glimpse of Bombastik Film’s production, All This is Yours, starring Vera Veranda and Tito da Capo. A recurrent tune goes:
On Sundays when I go to my cinema and see the fine people in the film.
I think again and again, if could only once, just once, be as happy as them.
It’s a perpetual dream of champagne and caviar, flash cars and castles – for people who were only recently carting their wages around in a wheelbarrow. A clip in which the line “Madame is going out” is sung interminably, reveals the sheer vacuity of these movie fantasies.
Our hero, Hans, is dismissive of these illusions, but as his good friend, Helmut works as a projectionist, he is constantly exposed to them. The heroine, Grete, is more obviously seduced by it all, playing the same song over and over on her gramophone. But the influence of the movies is inescapable. Among the other characters we meet, there is Herr Krüger, a bigwig in the film industry, and his mannish, ultra-modern daughter, Trude, who looks as if she just stepped out of a painting by Otto Dix or Christian Schad. Trude, by the way, is played by Elisabeth Lennartz, who was a bosom buddy of Marlene Dietrich.
The lead character, Willy Fritsch (1901-73), may not strike us an irresistible specimen of manhood, but he was a wellknown heartthrob in those days, who would tiptoe his way through the Nazi years, and eventually appear in more than 120 films. His co-star, Käthe von Nagy (1904-73), was also a famous face of that era, with 57 movies to her credit. There is a bizarre story, probably apocryphal, that von Nagy was approached by Heinrich Himmler in 1940, who wanted to use her face and body for sex dolls distributed to soldiers at the front, as a way of combatting the spread of syphilis. Apparently the story of these “synthetic comforters” is real, but the invitation to von Nägy is anybody’s guess.
As screwball comedies go, there is a remarkable amount of high culture in this story. Grete and Hans’s first date is to Potsdam, where they take a tour of Friedrich the Great’s famous palace, Sanssouci. It shows how much Grete has become wrapped up in her dreams of castles and caviar. For Hans, it’s just a very expensive taxi fare. Nevertheless, we get a free guided tour of the palace. It’s not coincidental that Sans Souci means “without care” or rather “carefree”, reinforcing the escapist theme.
Their landlady, Frau Seidelbast is herself a former tragic actress, who recites lines from Goethe at opportune moments – to comic effect. Quoting from Faust she says: “My Gretchen, see! Still young thou art and not the least bit shrewd or smart”
She compares a big bottle of Chanel No. 5 to the phial of poison that Clara drinks at the end of Egmont.
Kennst du dies Fläschchen, Brackenburg?
(If one had any doubts about the dangerous infuence of Chanel No. 5, remember that Coco Chanel did a roaring trade in the perfume among German soldiers during the occupation of Paris.)
In a more modern vein, Herr Krüger and his daughter live in a house that could have been designed by the Bauhaus, while Berger himself has taken a few lessons from German expressionist cinema. The play of sharp angles and zig zags is a constant delight for the eye in a movie chiefly designed to tickle the funny bone.
One could write an entire essay about this fiilm based on Siegfried Kracauer’s famous analyses of popular culture in the Weimar era. It’s almost as if Berger and his scriptwriters read the essays in Kracauer’s book, The Mass Ornament (1963) before they made this movie. Since those essays were originally published during the Weimar years, it’s not impossible. Kracauer wrote that popular culture presented audiences with “an abundance of pictures to make sure one does not see anything.. in the end the audience takes the world for a revue: both are colourful when all is taken together.” (my italics)
With this, I realise I’m in danger of a cardinal offence against comedy: explaining a joke. So without further ado, I’ll take my leave and allow you slide into that colourful Weimar world, in shades of beautifully restored black-and-white.
An introduction to a screening of the film, ‘Ich bei Tag und Du bei Nacht’, as part of the 2023 Cinema Reborn Festival.
Randwick Ritz, 6 pm Thursday 27 April 2023