by Jan-Christopher Horak
Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 55-56
“Tenements Kill Like an Ax”
After numerous forays into commercial cinema, Soviet-German co-productions, and political documentaries, MOTHER KRAUSE’S TRIP TO HAPPINESS (1929) culminated the Prometheus Film Collective’s efforts to fuse documentary agit-prop and proletarian melodrama, Soviet montage and German moving camera, film acting and amateur theater. While synthesizing such Soviet models as Pudovkin's MOTHER and Vertov's THE MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA, MOTHER KRAUSE reflected the living conditions of the German proletariat, more specifically the plight of working-class women in the Weimar Republic. Directed by Piel Jützi from a script by Jan Fethke and Willi Döll, MOTHER KRAUSE also proved to be both a commercial success and effective propaganda.
It was the painter Otto Nagel, who after the death of his friend, Heinrich Zille, went to the Prometheus in August 1929, hoping a truly revolutionary Zille film could be produced. A member of the Social Democratic Party since 1871 (after 1919, KPD), Zille worked as a printer most of his life but became known as a cartoonist and photographer. Zille's "Milljöh" (Berlin dialect for milieu) was the area of Berlin-Wedding, the “red” Wedding. While Zille's photographs, strongly reminiscent of Jacob Reis’ New York tenement images, documented without pathos the harsh reality of the slums, and his cartoons softened the pain with humor. His subjects were friends and neighbors, workers, washerwomen, prostitutes, pimps, bums, ragged children between tenements, old men on park benches, working-class pubs, public soup kitchens, the proletariat and lumpenproletariat.
The commercial cinema industry soon discovered Zille. Giving local color to chiché-ridden plots, many so-called Zille films co-opted Zille's motifs for purely decorative effect. An even greater travesty were the faddish "Zille balls,” where Berlin's aristocratic and nouveaux riches dressed in rags to drink champagne and dance the night away. Zille repeatedly complained that his name was being misused by capitalist film producers, interested only in box office receipts. With the enthusiastic support of the Prometheus film collective and Berlin's working-class districts, the first authentic Zille film was finished in less than four months at a cost of only 35,000 Reichs Marks.(1)
MOTHER KRAUSE opens with a swooping moving camera montage through the alleys and over the rooftops of Wedding. In this environment old Mother Krause shares a small apartment with her unemployed son, Paul, and her daughter, Erna, while subletting the only bedroom to a prostitute, her little girl, and her pimp. At the fairgrounds, Erna meets a class-conscious worker, Max, and they soon become lovers. Meanwhile, Paul gets drunk on money that his mother has earned delivering newspapers. Desperate to help her mother meet her financial obligations, Erna goes to "borrow" money from a rich benefactor, aware that he might expect a favor in return. But she can’t go through with it and flees, joining Max at a demonstration. That night they take Mother Krause to a workers' garden festival while Paul and the pimp rob a pawn shop. Worried about her court summons, Mother Krause returns home to find her son being arrested. In an act of final desperation, she turns on the gas, killing herself and the little girl.
Mother Krause, old, grey, and bent, in a simple black dress, is the symbol of the helplessly exploited poor, forever chained to their class. The deep-set lines on her face give evidence of her lifelong struggle for survival. She is triply oppressed: as a woman, as an old person, and as a worker. Honest, hard working, and determined, she prays that these virtues will bring her happiness. She soon realizes that the system is programmed against her and her class. In one sequence, she runs down endless corridors from one government office to another, but the doors remain locked or are slammed in her face. That the poor, the old, and the sick are doomed to be exploited leaves her without hope. Before she turns on the fatal gas, she says to the sleeping child:
Thus, only in death does she believe there to be a release from the pain. Shrouded in ignorance, her attitude, like that of the Christian poor through the ages, is both apolitical and totally fatalistic. Unlike Pudovkin's Soviet mother, Germany's Mother Krause cannot find the way to a “revolutionary consciousness.” (2) That Mother Krause in her final act of resignation unwittingly murders the youngest generation of woman is both a warning to the proletariat and a bitter indictment of the capitalist system.
The pimp and his wife, on the other hand, already convinced that their class is damned, fight back with the only means they think they have at their disposal: crime and prostitution. Their asocial behavior is acceptable in a nether world, where bourgeois values are a luxury no one can afford. But prostitutes and pimps in turn exploit their own class, and as Otto Rühle remarks in his Illustrated Social History of the Proletariat (1930):
Their selfishness is demonstrated when Mother Krause asks to borrow some money and they plead poverty. Their contemptuous attitude towards the honest poor is made clear in another scene. The pimp, having again had his sexual advances rebuffed by Erna, maliciously informs Max that he's had Erna before. Mother Krause gets very upset but is forced to hold her tongue because the pimp threatens to move out. Later the pimp leads Paul into the unsuccessful robbery scheme, while his wife suggests Erna visit one of her clients.
Thus, these lumpenproletariat, although they are products of a class society, are presented as counterrevolutionary elements from which the class-conscious proletariat must distance itself. The pimp and the prostitute are the only characters not given proper names in the narrative. Still both betray human characteristics beyond caricature. The pimp at one point goes to find Paul and then helps Mother Krause home when her drunk son slaps her. The prostitute's underlying goodness is revealed at her wedding. To quote Otto Ruhle:
Paul portrays the weak, spineless working man who, because of his apolitical stance, slips into the dishonorable life of a petty thief. One of six million unemployed, Paul occasionally sells a few rags, but more often he spends his time drinking in a pub. His character weakness is already evident near the beginning of the film when, thirsty for a beer, he tries to pry some coins from the little girl's piggy bank. In the Berlin dialect, he is called a "Penner,” a sleeper, a do-nothing. Basically honest, he nevertheless sees robbery as a quick and easy way to “earn" back his mother's money. It is a delusion which not only lands him in prison but also drives his mother to her death. Ironically, the robbery fails because Paul finds a broach his mother has pawned and is overcome by guilt and self-pity. Clearly, the Pauls, the apolitical working men faced with years of unemployment and poverty, can find self-worth only through class struggle.
Strong, determined, and optimistic, Paul's opposite is Max. Working on a road construction gang, Max is a conscientious organizer and comrade in the party. Already at the fairgrounds, Max's politics are indicated when he demonstratively leaves an overly exploitative sideshow. When Erna comes to his rooftop flat, he proudly points to a picture of Marx and later gives her a copy of Bebel's Woman in Class Struggle. Yet Max too is still in the process of developing class consciousness. When he deserts Erna, because she has had previous sexual relations with the pimp, his friend and comrade must remind him that “the environment and not the girl is at fault.” Max must overcome a slightly puritan attitude, already in evidence when he says goodnight to a disappointed Erna with no more than a perfunctory kiss. It is only after Erna finds Max and he pulls her into the column of marching workers that they are reconciled.
Erna too must undergo a learning process to achieve class consciousness. In the very first shot of Erna, we see her dancing with the pimp. After she meets Max at the fairgrounds, she attempts to put a stop to the pimp's sexual advances. Her rejection of his world in favor of Max's world view is, at first, emotionally and not politically motivated. Only after she nearly falls into the life of a prostitute and is repulsed and debased by its exploitation is her consciousness raised. As she is enclosed into the ranks of the proletariat, she makes a political commitment. The demonstrators carry banners asking working women and mothers to join the ranks.
For the audience, then, Erna becomes the central model for their own developing political consciousness. In this sense, she is very much in the tradition of Pudovkin's heroic figures, who through a series of circumstances tale up the struggle against their oppressors. Yet unlike STORM OVER ASIA, for example, MOTHER KRAUSE's narrative doesn't end in a moment of revolutionary optimism, with the integration of its central character into the politically committed masses. Erna must witness the death of her mother, a victim of the very forces that have become her enemy. She realizes that a very long, difficult, and painful struggle lies ahead before social justice is achieved. Thus, in this moment of despair, there lies another small awakening for Erna, another step towards an understanding of the dialectic movement of history. The closing image of workers' feet marching brings us back to the masses, indicating that the struggle will be carried on.
Erna stands above the hopeless resignation of her old mother and the ruthless cynicism of the prostitute, as a positive image for working-class women. While the murder of the little girl demonstrates the destructive force of Mother Krause's despair, the self-destructive nature of the prostitute's daily humiliation is also rejected. That the dramatis locus is shifted to this constellation of proletarian women seems evident, considering that the original treatment calls for Mother Krause to have two sons similar to Paul and Max. Clearly, Erna's ideological growth is affected by emotional situations: her love for Max, her brush with prostitution, the death of her mother. The filmmakers have incorporated melodramatic plot devices to give dramatic credence to their ideological framework, in the same way that Pudovkin uses these devices, e.g., in MOTHER, where the mother joins the revolution only after the death of her husband and the arrest of her son. This tendency toward melodrama in MOTHER KRAUSE is, however, adequately modified by a brutally realistic depiction of the historical environment and is thus quite justified as a means of raising audience consciousness.
In the last analysis, it is the workinq people of the “red” Wedding who are the film’s central characters. In the scenes of proletarian life, a documentary portrait of a city comes to life. Compared to such contemporary efforts as Ruttmann's BERLIN SYMPHONY (1926) and PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (1929), though, the film opts for radical perspectives rather than liberal new objectivity. At the same time, MOTHER KRAUSE's depiction of people within a modern cityscape tends towards the warmth of Alfred Döblin's novel, Berlin Alexanderplace (1928). Though dynamically edited, the film never breaks down into rhythmic plays with light and shade, a serious problem with Ruttmann.
Much of MOTHER KRAUSE is inspired by Heinrich Zille's drawings. Both sympathetic towards their subjects and militant in their moral stance, Zille's cartoons confront the proletariat with their environment both visually and aurally, through the Berlin dialect. Like the masses in Döblin's novel (which has been called "cinematic"), Zille's masses are the sum of individual, humanized portraits. These prototypical proletarian figures, their dreams and motivations, are indivisible from their social environment. The scenes in the working-class pubs are pure Zille in their composition of subjects. Here fat women in floppy hats and skinny men in their worn-out bowlers gather for their beer and the latest news, while drunks sleep with their heads atop the tables and couples grope for each other under them. The corner pub is a meeting place for unsavory elements as well as for the working man according to Zille. This does not, however, keep him from polemicizing in his cartoons against excessive drinking. Already at the beginning of the film we see drunks tripping through street crowds and sleeping on empty back lots. Later, encouraged by his friends, Paul drinks up his mother's livelihood, then assaults her in a drunken stupor. At the fairgrounds the camera pans through the crowd, discovering another Zille motif, two drunks brawling.
The scenes at the fairgrounds, at Berlin's Lake Wann, and at a garden festival also pay homage to Zille. Zille's cartoons lovingly depict whole families with grandparents, naked children, baby carriages, beer and picnic baskets in tow. The filmmakers continuously cut away to these "Zille types," e.g., when Max and Erno are swimming, we see an old couple petting on the beach like teenagers. At the garden festival, most probably WIR sponsored, an amateur orchestra plays while couples dance and children play on a merry-go-round. A sense of community seems to exude from these film scenes, and they are filmed without a touch of condescension. But the problems are never forgotten. From the beach scenes, we cut to Paul's drinking spree while at the festival Mother Krause worries about her Prussian court summons.
The proletarian wedding scene was also directly copied from a Zille cartoon, "Wedding at Paesik's." A bride in white with child, a rotund bald man, a beer keg and phonograph propped up on a chair, a cramped table in an overcrowded room made up the details familiar to Zille readers. They also recognized the houses, streets, and backcourts, as well as the actors. Not only was most of the film shot on location in Berlin, but also most of the actors were nonprofessionals (excepting the leads) who had been picked up off the streets in Berlin-Wedding because they looked like Zille people. These workers, many unemployed, played for no more than beer and sandwiches while the professional actors received no more than 200 Reichsmarks:
Pudovkin's influence can again be seen in the handling of these nonprofessional actors-, e.g., when Jützi cuts to close-ups of shocked faces in the pub after Paul slaps his mother. The scene recalls Pudovkin's Mongolian fur traders in STORM OVER ASIA, a scene analyzed by Pudovkin in Film Technique.(6) Yet MOTHER KRAUSE's Zille types are not film types in the Eisensteinian or Pudovkinian sense, since they are not exclusively defined by the montage of actor and object. Observed in a specific environment, thus ontologically indivisible from their milieu, the actors move with such naturalness that even the staged scenes take on a documentary quality.
The first fifty-five shots in MOTHER KRAUSE (five minutes) are in fact a pure documentary portrait of Berlin's working-class slums. In the opening shots the camera pans endlessly up and down tenement walls, searching for an exit from the darkness: "The dismal world of the servile and enslaved, the wretched wards of sunless tenements” (title). The camera picks up life on the streets: a market hawker, an old horse collapsing, old men and women in a park staring into space, children playing in a sandbox dwarfed by tenement walls. The camera pans down from a group of silent, old women to a newspaper headline: “Beauty is tops." A handheld camera follows three babbling drunks while others sleep behind rubbish piles. Pan, dolly, and tilt shots link through montage the film's thematic focal points: old people, children, alcohol, housing, women, and general resignation.
The montage of dynamically changing images is a radical synthesis of Soviet editing and German moving camera. Unlike expressionist cinema, where the mobile camera is utilized for subjective visions, Jützi's moving camera shots act as engaged observers of the dismal details of proletarian life. This aspect of the camera as discoverer of social evil is especially evident in the opening sequence but also throughout the film. The narrative is thus indivisibly welded to the documentary environment through the moving camera. (Jützi had already used a similar moving camera montage in HUNGER IN WALDENBURG to visualize the inhuman conditions in the tenements.) The actual political analysis is developed through associative montage in conjunction with the moving camera. When Mother Krause receives her summons for embezzling newspaper receipts, the camera pans around her empty kitchen to the summons on the table; dissolve to an extreme close up of the letter's Prussian seal; tilt up to an eagle perched above the clock's face; close up of the eagle; fast dolly in to an extreme close up of the eagle's claw. The montage indicates that time is running out for Mother Krause. The state's ruthless force is unequivocal in its preservation of bourgeois law. Clarifying the motivations for her suicide, the tilt up to the eagle is repeated after she turns on the fatal gas. Earlier, Mother Krause is seen leaving a number of bureaucratic offices, attempting to plead her case. In a series of pan dissolves, we see her standing in front of the bureaus, never inside them, reinforcing the facelessness of Prussian bureaucracy. That the summons arrives the very afternoon her employers fire her gives credence to the suggestion that bureaucrats will work swiftly for the ruling political structures.
Yet the film achieves its propagandistic effect by concretely visualizing the oppression of the working class without overtly pointing a finger at the oppressors or suggesting concrete political action. (Censors consistently cut demonstration scenes organized by revolutionary parties because they "presented a danger to public security and order.”(7) Mother Krause ends with a demonstration only six seconds long due to censors' scissors. The final shot of Erna's feet marching with the proletariat suggests that in the final analysis only two roads are open to the worker: death with the gas main or active political struggle. Other forms of escape, e.g., crime, prostitution, or alcohol, only perpetrate the exploitation of the poor because they tacitly accept the power of the ruling class.
The final image, then, is one of hope for the revolution to come. The revolution, despite setbacks, lives on in what George Bluestone calls a mystical futurity. The revolution, i.e., bringing down the whole body politic, is postponed in favor of a more modest goal, namely the formation of a class-conscious revolutionary proletariat. In this sense, MOTHER KRAUSE is very different from its Soviet cousins. The historical struggles and defeats in POTEMKIN and MOTHER are mitigated through the knowledge that the filmed revolution already exists in the present as fact. Pudovkin and Eisenstein are more concerned with strengthening the ideological walls of the revolution through historical analysis. MOTHER KRAUSE can't rely on such hindsight. Rather, it is still laying the groundwork for a future revolution, hoping to convince the audience of its inevitability.
Ironically, MOTHER KRAUSE's final image became an often used image for the fascist right. Both Trenker's THE REBEL (1932) and HITLER, JUNGE QUEX (1933) end with troops marching into the sky and ultimate victory after the hero's death. Yet the geometric constellations of Nazis marching mystically into the heavens are a far cry from Communist demonstrators in MOTHER KRAUSE, who keep their feet firmly on the pavement. On the contrary, the demonstrators symbolize the wish of the class-conscious masses for a united front against the rising tide of fascism.
MOTHER KRAUSE'S TRIP TO HAPPINESS, then, marks a high point in Weimar working-class film culture. Only Werner Hochbaum's recently discovered film, BROTHERS (1929), a fictional documentary account of the 1896 Hamburg dockworkers' strike, seems to achieve a similar synthesis of political agitation and radical form. Hans Tinter's CYNAKALI (1930), a working-class story advocating the repeal of abortion laws, on the other hand, displays admirable politics but a dull, anachronistic style. Piel Jützi's adaptation of Döblin's BERLIN-ALEXANDER-PLACE (1931) starring the ex-Communist and soon to become super-Nazi, Heinrich George, is, for all its stylistic bravura, a shallow, noncommitted film. KUHLE WAMPE (1932), despite structural difficulties due to the adverse conditions during filming, must be evaluated as the Prometheus collective's swan song.
Thus, the Prometheus collective's production efforts, synthesizing narrative forms of popular cinema and politically committed documentaries, practically ended after the huge success of MOTHER KRAUSE. As mentioned in Part I, this was in large part due to economic factors such as the depression and the prohibitive cost of sound production. But it also seems to be no coincidence that the Prometheus's period of greatest achievement (1926-1929) corresponded to a momentary trend in Comintern policies, whereby the CP openly supported alliances with other nonsectarian, leftwing organizations. The work of the WIR, as well as the Popular Association for Film Art in Berlin, was made possible through cooperation between the CP and left-wing political affiliations. Likewise, Willi Münzenberg's WIR propaganda work in publishing and film was highly successful because of his ability to enlist into the cause leftist writers and artists not necessarily members of the CP. While promoting working-class solidarity against the murderous power of monopoly capitalism, these intellectuals were nevertheless given the freedom to experiment with popular forms accessible to all segments of the proletariat. It was in this spirit of solidarity that MOTHER KRAUSE'S TRIP TO HAPPINESS was created.
1. Babette Gross, Willi Münzenberg (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1967). Margot Michaelis mentions 60,000 RM, 175,000 RM being the average cost at the time, in Film und Realität in der Weimarer Republik (Munich: Carl Nanser Verlag, 1978), p. 110.
2. Both figures are inspired by Käthe Kollwitz's famous drawing "Mother." A proletarian "mother" with features almost identical to Mother Krause appears prominently in Hochbaum's BROTHERS (1929). She too must take care of a household in her old age while her daughter-in-law lies sick in bed with TB. She must helplessly witness a break in relations between her two sons: one a dockworker, the other a member of the police force which brutally suppresses the dockworkers' strike.
3. Otto Rühle, Illustrierte Kultur und Sittengeschichte des Proletariats (Berlin, 1930; reprint ed., Frankfurt: Verlag Neue Kritik KG, 1971), p. 487.
4. Rühle, p. 487.
5. Michael Hamisch, Mutter Krausens Fahrt in Glück (Berlin: Henschel Verlag, 1976), p. 180.
6. Pudovkin, Film Technique (New York: Grove Press, 1970), p. 143.
7. Official censorship notes for Facts (1930), quoted in Proletarische Filme (Munich: UNIDOC brochure), p. 30.