Saturday 19 September 2020

Streaming on YouTube - Barrie Pattison discovers Ingrid Bergman's only pre-war German movie JA, JA DIE LIEBE/DIE VIER GESELLEN/THE FOUR COMPANIONS (Carl Froelich, 1938)

So there I was flicking through YouTube one more time and up came 1938’s  Ja, ja die Liebe  / Die vier Gesellen / The Four Companions, the one film Ingrid Bergman made in pre WW2 Germany, here available in a phenomenal Transit Film monochrome transfer with impeccable drop shadowed English sub-titles. That one ticked so many boxes, it went straight to the head of the queue. Click Here to watch it on YouTube 

Well it would be hard for any film to meet those expectations but this harmless piece of girlie fiction does fall short. 

Attention of course focuses on Bergman (above) who performs impeccably in German and is gorgeous, though she has yet to learn how to do her hair, not slump and deliver a shaded performance. What the heck- she’s already got that ability to communicate that she is bravely hiding a terrible sorrow which can break our heart, even if it’s not all that relevant here.

 She is one of four art students. They recognise that she and their instructor, a still presentable Hans Söhnker (Film Ohne titel) have got the hots for one another. At the end of year party, decorated stylishly by the students, he explains over wurst on rye that he has quit the school to manage the advertising of a Dresden factory, so their relationship would no longer be inappropriate but there, and when she sees his train pull out, they are unable to get together.

 Ingrid and her three art school chums aren’t making it in the labour market (montage) so they move in together and open a live-in company (square in a circle logo which they even print on their bedding) to find work. They land a campaign but, to the surprise of all, it’s with Hans’ company. Meanwhile Sabine Peters meets Heinz Welzel, who buys her a bus ticket so she won’t have to walk in the rain and takes her to Sara Leander movies, and Carsta Locks’ Tax Assessor turns out to be Erich Pronto (the second man in The 3rd Man) who gives the film’s best performance and proves to be an acceptable suitor in the Edward Everet Horton tradition in his top hat and Hitler mustache. Ursula Herking is (unfairly) apparently not considered glamorous enough to mate so instead she produces a painting for Proessor Leo Slezak to hang in his contemporary art exhibition. All this makes the company fail to meet it’s deadline and the women go off to raise families.

Director Carl Froelich (above) had a career stretching from a 1913 Life of Richard Wagner to a 1951 West German Gustav Fröhlich (no relation) vehicle, a success unbroken by the rise and fall of the 3rd Reich to whom he appears to have been acceptable - non Jewish, non-communist. Of his eighty three films, the only one to attract wide attention is the 1931 Mädchen in Uniform where he is credited as producer though its editor assured me Froelich was the principal director.

 Unfairly Die vier Gesellen has to stand in for all those hundreds of unknown German programmer movies that appear on the CVs of its crew and we’re not watching the film 1938 audiences saw. Our perception is inevitably distorted by later events. The campaign for Söhnker’s company is cigarette advertising. We look at the conventional painting and sculpture in Prof. Slezak’s exhibition and think of the contemporary persecution of “decadent” artists. Ponto hears about the girls’ collective and detects Freemasonry and he mentions bachelor tax. That’s about as political as it gets however. This one keeps on oddly evoking other films with shared lodgings which were to proliferate - Helmut Kautner’s Unter den  Brücken, Yves Allegret’s  La boîte aux rêves, James V. Kern’s The Doughgirls. I defy anyone to consider the film without associations creeping into their response. 

Though really it’s a kind of dull rom-com with some nice glimpses of Berlin - strong on craft but tepid on characterisation - Die vier Gesellen  is there because there’s a perceived market for formative Ingrid Bergman somehow landed up in pre-WW2 Germany. Well OK. So it’s only a small piece of the jigsaw, surviving while so much other material has been engulfed by the morass that is old foreign movies. Until we get a real Cinémathèque it will have to do.

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