Back in Bologna: the forgotten films of Helmut Käutner

Now in its 31st year, the Cinema Ritrovato festival mounted by the Cineteca Bologna has become something of a pilgrimage site for cinephiles in search of restorations, rarities and rediscoveries. Indeed, some might argue that it is a victim of its own success; in recent years the number of attendees has increased so much that the Festival seems barely able to cope. At this year’s edition, many found themselves turned away from the most popular screenings; packed cinemas were unhealthily fetid in the hot weather; and shows frequently ran late due to poor scheduling or rambling, overlong introductions (to be frank, this is not a new development but unfortunately seems to be an integral part of the Bologna experience). Still, there were as always gems on offer.

At past editions of the Festival, I’ve often derived enormous pleasure from its explorations of Hollywood directors who worked both before and after the coming of sound – Hawks, Ford, Capra, McCarey and Walsh being great examples – though perhaps the most rewarding discovery for me in that regard was the work of France’s Jean Gremillon. There was nothing to match that remarkably high standard this year, though I did greatly enjoy my first encounter with the work of Helmut Käutner. Sadly, due to a lack of decent subtitled prints, the writer-director is barely known outside of Germany and Austria; yet judging by the five films I managed to catch, it would be great if the German archives could consider making better materials available to the rest of the world. Käutner is clearly someone deserving of further investigation.

Kautner pic
Helmut Käutner

Having worked in cabaret and theatre before the war, Käutner made his first films under the Nazis. They are known for being devoid of propaganda, and certainly the earliest of his films that I managed to catch – Under the Bridges, made in 1945 while the war was still being waged, but not released until a few years later – makes no mention whatsoever of the conflict (nor indeed of anything remotely military or political). Rather, it focuses entirely on matters of the heart: the complications that arise between two bargees when they both fall for the same young woman. With its low-key realism, the film has often been lazily likened to Vigo’s L’ Atalante, but it is far less interested in the woman or indeed either of the male-female relationships than in the friendship of the two men. Though the narrative and characterisations have their weaknesses – the resolution of the storyline is especially contrived and disappointing – Käutner’s attention to small significant details and his strong visual sense easily compensate for any such flaws.

The latest Käutner film I caught – an adaptation of Eugène Scribe’s creaky  play The Glass of Water, made in 1960 – was little more than a camp curiosity; presumably included by season curator Olaf Möller to give some idea of the direction Käutner would take in television during the 1960s, it was unlikely to win over any disbelievers to the Käutner cause. But three films made in the 50s were far more interesting. The broad lines of the plot of Sky Without Stars (1955, picture at top) – charting the seemingly insurmountable problems faced by a young widowed mother living in the GDR and a border guard  living in the Federal Republic after they fall for each other – are fairly familiar, yet Käutner again transcends the generic conventions of his material with a sharp focus on telling details: a Russian soldier’s games of chess with the heroine’s grandfather; the dementia of her grandmother, traumatised by the bombing of Dresden; the deft, vivid characterisation of the couple’s friends and work colleagues. Also impressive, the remarkably impartial film is free of propaganda: yes, life is shown to be tough in the East, but in the West we see black marketeers and smug capitalists.

Ludwig pic
Klaus Kinski and OW Fischer in Ludwig II – Mad Emperor

Clearly, Ludwig II Mad Emperor (1955) has very different subject matter, but in charting the Bavarian king’s gradual decline into isolation and paranoia Käutner again impresses through an overall restraint in terms of narrative and characterisation. OW Fischer’s central performance is nicely understated, and the director – shooting in colour, often on location in and around Ludwig’s castles – makes pleasingly subtle use of long takes and careful compositions to depict his protagonist’s state of mind; towards the end, as Ludwig becomes increasingly disenchanted by the world around him, he is framed in such a way that he almost seems to become part of the decor of his beloved baroque hideaways. Even more rewarding was Portrait of an Unknown Woman (1954), a complex, seriocomic love story of sorts involving a diplomat’s wife (Ruth Leuwerik, a frequent fixture in Käutner’s films, who would get to play the famous Sissi in Ludwig) and a somewhat eccentric painter (Fischer again). Wittily scripted, delightfully performed and elegantly shot, it takes off after a slightly awkward opening 20 minutes to become that rare thing: a film that repeatedly has you wondering where on earth it will go next, even as it remains wholly coherent and credible.

Portrait pic
OW Fischer and Ruth Leuwerik in Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Käutner’s may not have been the very finest films I saw in Bologna – he’s a terrific craftsman but not a major auteur – but they were extremely interesting and rewarding not only in themselves but for their resonance as works produced at a particularly fascinating period in German (and European) history. Since four of the five movies I caught proved to be superior, intelligent, engrossing entertainment, their inclusion in the Festival was undoubtedly a plus – and very evidently not for me alone, since the screenings of his work became increasingly ‘hot tickets’ as the week progressed. Who knows? If new subtitled prints of Käutner’s work could be made available, he might even achieve the international recognition that almost became his when his 1956 film The Captain from Köpenick was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

Anyway, here to close is a list (in order of preference) of my top ten films at the 2017 edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna: 

Scarface 2


Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932, USA)

Monterey Pop (D A Pennebaker, 1969, USA)

La Vérité (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1960, France)

Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Helmut Käutner, 1954, West Germany)

La Fêté à Henriette (Julien Duvivier, 1952, France)

Becoming Cary Grant (Mark Kidel, 2017, France)

Sky Without Stars (Helmut Käutner, 1955, West Germany)

L’ Insoumis

L’ Insoumis (The Unvanquished) (Alain Cavalier, 1964, France)

Ludwig II – Mad Emperor (Helmut Käutner, 1954, West Germany)

The Girl from the Marsh Croft (Victor Sjöström,, 1917, Sweden)

One thought on “Back in Bologna: the forgotten films of Helmut Käutner

  1. Turner Classic Movies just showed the first of Kautner’s two Hollywood films, THE RESTLESS YEARS(1958)but in the introduction and wrap-up, host Ben Mankowitz didn’t mention Kautner once!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s