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In 1943, imprisoned in the artist concentration camp of Theresienstadt, composer Viktor Ullmann wrote his final work: a short opera entitled Der Kaiser von Atlantis. In it, a totalitarian leader declares war on the world and, resulting from the inhuman brutality, the character of Death quits his job. Millions who should be dead lay on the battlefield, unable to pass on, forced to look upon their dismembered parts. After the public rehearsal of the opera, the work was banned, Ullmann was shipped to Auschwitz, and he died soon after.
Germany is not immediately known for their comedies, but the tragedies that have befallen that nation and its people have made for extremely black satire. Here, we have Wolfgang Standte's 1951 entry, The Kaiser's Lackey, following Dietrich, a turn of the century proto-Nazi, forging a path to the coming holocaust.
Facts of the Case
Dietrich (Werner Peters, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) has grown up in mortal terror of everything around him: his father, mother, school, girls, you name it. As he gets older, this fear has made him spineless, but it also taught him a valuable skill. He knows that, by groveling at the feet of his superiors and throwing his friends under the bus, he can advance his social status to no end.
I have a hard time laughing about The Kaiser's Lackey. Director Wolfgang Standte (The Murderers Are Among Us) brutally satirizes German nationalism and its effects on the citizenry. With Germany still reeling from the effects of Hitler's regime, I doubt it was much of a knee-slapper in 1951, either.
Dietrich is a special kind of slime. Unintelligent, unthoughtful, and mean, he is the sort who would have gladly and with relish joined in the holocaust if, for no other reason, to ensure that no fingers are pointed in his direction. He hasn't an original thought of his own at any time, he is deeply influenced by the first person to whisper an idea in his ear. He denies everything natural about himself if someone, anyone, doesn't think it's right. He puts himself entirely in this position, but the fact that the world he lives in contains so many who would influence him negatively is just as rotten. The film is not so much a strike against one man as an indictment of a society that readily accepts cronyism and bigotry as normal.
It didn't have to be this way for Dietrich, however. As a child, he's a snitch and utterly submissive; good qualities in the eyes of his elders, but damning to his peers. When he's grown and heads to college, he seems to be a blank slate and, with no friends, he commits himself to his studies. He falls immediately for the first woman he has real contact with, the daughter of a family friend. When he is informed by the border at the house where she lives that his intentions toward her trump Dietrich's and Dietrich can "have her" after he leaves town, Dietrich readily accepts this without fight. In the meantime, while keeping hope that he'll see her again, he joins up with an organization called the Neo-Teutons, a drinking group that favors traditional morals, heightened nationalism, and matching moustaches. He soaks up their proto-fascist tenets like a sponge, irrevocably changing his spirit. When he does see the woman again, he beds her and declares his love for her, but he can't love anything but Germany and the Kaiser any more. When the woman's father asks Dietrich to marry her, he says he cannot because a Neo-Teuton would never marry an impure woman.
Dietrich's rise in society coincides with the rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Socialism in him, leading to the arrests and shootings of good people simply based on what he insinuates to the authorities that they believe, whether or not his finger pointing has merit at all. Werner Peters, in both voice and body type, is perfect for the role of Dietrich; trim that moustache a little and he could be the spitting image of Hitler. His performance appears entirely based on the dictator and, though the allegory is far from subtle, it is scarily effective.
This allegory is taken much further in Wolfgang Staudte's direction. In the opening tracking shot, the camera follows the interior of Dietrich's childhood home where we see a room cluttered with trinkets and paintings, symbols of wealth and authority, accompanied by a morose piano line that is abruptly cut off in favor of a military march as the camera holds on a painting of the (then current) Kaiser with a picture of baby Dietrich underneath. The film is filled with shots of authority lording over the populace. In the final iconic shot of a statue of the Kaiser looking proudly over a demolished city street while a Nazi battle march plays cements the allegory. Again, not exactly subtle, but an especially dark way to fade to black.
The Kaiser's Lackey was produced by DEFA, the East German state film company and was rightfully lauded as a great artistic statement. In West Germany, however, in their post-war history of drastic revisionism, saw it as a pot-shot at their attempts to reconstruct their country and subsequently banned the film. While it resurfaced a few years later, with the most biting scenes removed entirely, it was always viewed as something of an insult. In light of that, it is amazing how clear and beautiful the image looks. First Run Features has, once again, done considerable justice for an under-seen film. The black and white contrast is stark with surprisingly little damage to the print. There are no transfer errors and, though the image is not quite of reference quality, this is as good as the film could possibly look. The mono sound is equally good and, actually, quite loud. Full of military marches, the horns bite the ears while all the dialogue is perfectly balanced and clear. The only extra, beyond a historical timeline of the events of the film and some brief bios, is a twenty-minute discussion, "Interpreting The Kaiser's Lackey." Ten bucks says you can guess what this is about. It is quite informative, though the speaker is less than comfortable in front of the camera.
Beautifully filmed and finely acted, The Kaiser's Lackey is must-see satire. Black as night and sometimes quite mean, this film is a fantastic example of thoughtful, if unsubtle, German comedy.
Achtung! This film is not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
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