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Saturday 8 July 2017

Hotel Berlin (1945)

Director: Peter Godfrey
Writer: Jo Pagano and Alvah Bessie, from the novel by Vicki Baum
Stars: Faye Emerson, Helmut Dantine, Raymond Massey, Andrea King and Peter Lorre

Index: 2017 Centennials.

There’s a scene towards the end of Hotel Berlin where Faye Emerson ignores a speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, delivered in the magnificent voice of Peter Lorre’s character, because, well, she’s finally got the new pair of shoes that she’s been dreaming about for the entire film. You know, priorities. This was a cinematic in-joke, because at the time the movie was released, in March 1945, Emerson was married to Col. Elliott Roosevelt, son of the president and the favourite child of the first lady. They wed at the rim of the Grand Canyon in 1944, having flown there in planes provided by Howard Hughes, who had introduced them; Col. Elliott died in Scottsdale in 1990 in another Arizona connection. Their marriage didn’t last long; it was her second of three and his third of five. It also didn’t go well, given that she slit her wrists in December 1948 and was hospitalised during the recovery; she finally obtained a divorce in Mexico in 1950. By that point, she’d ended her screen career: 30 of her 33 films were released in the forties.

Instead, she moved from the big screen to the small one, where she soon became known as the ‘Best-Dressed Woman on TV’ and, somewhat inevitably, the ‘First Lady of Television’, though the latter has been reapplied to others every half decade or so. She was important enough early on to generate a rumour that the Emmy Award (for which she was twice nominated) was named for her; it wasn’t, being named for the Immy, the ‘image orthicon tube’ used in early television cameras, which was feminised to Emmy to go with the female image on the statuette. She hosted her own shows, such as The Faye Emerson Show in 1950 and 1951; she co-hosted Faye and Skitch in 1953, with her third husband, a bandleader called Lyle ‘Skitch’ Henderson; and she became a frequent panelist on game shows such as To Tell the Truth, What’s My Line? and and I’ve Got a Secret. Her last screen performance was as a team captain on The Match Game in 1963. After that, she lived a private life in Europe, dying in Spain in 1983. She would have been a hundred today.

Initially, I chose to celebrate her life and career with a review of The Mask of Dimitrios, a Peter Lorre/Sidney Greenstreet film from Warner Bros. in 1944, in which she delivers a strong performance as an ex-lover of Dimitrios Makropoulos, the crook of the title. She does a lot with a little, not least because she plays the character in two very different eras: young and delightful in a flashback scene and then older and notably worn out fifteen years later. She’s so good that I remembered her for that film and was shocked, on a fresh viewing, to realise how little she’s actually in it. So I moved forward a year to Hotel Berlin, another Warner Bros. picture which shares some of the same cast. It’s a real ensemble piece, with the smaller stories of many characters weaving in and out of each other to build a bigger one of the chaos present in the dying days of the Third Reich. Hers is but one, but it’s a prominent one and she’s top billed for her efforts, even with names like Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre and Alan Hale in the cast.

We’re at a hotel in Berlin called, well, Hotel Berlin. The city is crumbling, as is highlighted in an aerial opening shot, but we quickly zoom in on the hotel’s sign and we spend the remainder of the film indoors. It’s a particularly interesting time in history, the point at which even the Nazis know they’ve lost but the war continues on unabated anyway, a vehicle too large to stop quickly. They are still active in Berlin, the most prominent subplot being the search for Martin Richter, an underground leader who has escaped the concentration camp at Dachau and is hiding out in the hotel. However, the Nazi officers we meet, such as the monocled Armin von Dahnwitz, have other things to worry about. As the last remaining survivor of a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, he’s been given the ‘gentleman’s alternative’, namely a polite request to commit suicide before they hang him. He tries instead to find a way to escape the country alive, but this is a drama and it isn’t going to be that simple.
It’s fascinating to watch all these varied characters interact. Of course, the story is flavoured with propaganda but it’s less obvious than usual because, even during production, Hollywood was aware that the war wasn’t going to last forever. In 1945, there was no need to convince people that the Nazis were the bad guys; by this point, the news was handling that capably without help. Instead, Jo Pagano and Alvah Bessie, adapting the novel by Vicki Baum, were able to explore the human aspects of such a momentous time. Some characters, suppressed and oppressed for so long, are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel; their emotions are hope, relief and a rising anger that threatens to overwhelm their patient subservience. Others, who have ridden high for so long, are seeing a similar light but realising that it’s an oncoming train; their emotions cycle through fear, panic and grudging acceptance. We don’t have much sympathy for them, but understand the unique terror which manifests when the surrounding mob discovers power.

Baum was the appropriate author for this sort of work. She was an Austrian Jew, who had worked in Berlin and knew it well, even training as a boxer there with Marlene Dietrich. She’d also written the pioneer novel for the hotel genre, 1929’s Menschen im Hotel, which was adapted first to the stage and then into an Academy Award winning picture, Grand Hotel, in 1932, the only film to win as Best Picture without being nominated in any other category. By pure coincidence, it was remade as Week-End at the Waldorf in 1945, the same year that this picture was released, but the two novels are only related by theme, as is 1937’s Hotel Shanghai. Grand Hotel is the definitive star-studded picture of the pre-code era, featuring two Barrymores (John and Lionel); rising star Joan Crawford; big names of the day like Wallace Beery and Lewis Stone; and the timeless Greta Garbo, issuing her timeless line, ‘I want to be alone.’ I can’t pretend that Hotel Berlin is of the same iconic stature, but I find that I enjoy it more because its timing has more resonance.
The Grand Hotel model, of placing a diverse set of people into a confined space for an ensemble drama, has been adapted into many other locations, especially within the disaster genre, where aeroplanes, tower blocks and cruise ships have replaced hotels. This is not about the end to a journey, though, but the end of an era, one of the most important of the last couple of centuries. Everything is change and everyone is trying to prepare for it. While Faye Emerson is top billed as ‘hotel hostess’ Tillie Weiler, we might surely be excused for believing that Lisa Dorn is the most prominent character, played with substance by Andrea King, an elegant actress whose genre films ran from The Beast with Five Fingers through Red Planet Mars to Blackenstein. Dorn is a prominent actress, maybe a Nazi and maybe not but certainly someone who has benefitted much from their time in power; Armin von Dahnwitz is her patron. She plays each side against each other in her attempts to escape the fading Reich, but her time is over; Tillie Weiler’s is coming.

This change is epitomised in the fall, rise and fall of a minor character called Herman Plottke, so minor that this can’t be regarded as a spoiler. Alan Hale, known to generations as the hearty Little John in no less than three pictures (opposite Douglas Fairbanks in 1922, Errol Flynn in 1938 and John Derek in 1950), is a bizarre choice to play a Nazi but he captures the moment rather well. Before the war, he was a minor employee in a Jewish department store. He’s caught stealing but Max Bauer, the owner’s son, allows him another chance. His thanks, through his association with the rise of the Nazis, manifests itself by stealing the store for himself and sending poor Max off to the camps. Max’s girlfriend, who of course is Tillie Weiler, an employee at the same store, finally gives an eloquent and bitter voice to her hatred of Plottke in a public dressing down. A year earlier, she’d be shot for her impertinence, but she’s saved by Plottke’s arrest, this time for stealing from the German government. Plottke is a great metaphor for the Nazi party.
It’s these characters who are forced to deal with the changing times who shine brightest. Helmut Dantine is fine as Martin Richter, but, while he’d be the lead at any other point in time, his struggle is only one of many in this film and it’s buried in the rest. Before the war, he was a doctor, working with Peter Lorre’s character, a Nobel Prize winner by the name of Johannes Koenig. Both found themselves arrested and imprisoned at Dachau; both got out and found their way to the Hotel Berlin. However, Richter still fights for freedom while Koenig has almost given up. Instead of striking a heroic pose, Lorre is an exhausted drunkard bitter at what the Nazis have done to his beloved science and at the German population, which allowed them to do so. He compares Germany to the Biblical city of Gomorrah; Abraham was unable to find ten righteous men to spare the latter and Koenig doubts that he could find ten good Germans. It’s another fantastic and nuance-ridden performance from Lorre, a massively underrated actor.

Raymond Massey, another odd choice to play a Nazi, nails it absolutely, and he provides another fantastic reaction to change. He’s trapped, an aristocratic patriot and Nazi officer but also a target from within and without, now that the party knows he attempted to assassinate der F├╝hrer. He alternates between courage and cowardice, a fascinating depiction of the emotional response to a no way out scenario. Powerful at the beginning, he’s gradually forced in ever decreasing circles to an inevitable end, which he battles but eventually embraces. His best scene involves a powerful moment, ripping off his Nazi medals and giving them to a fellow Nazi aristocrat to give back to ‘the corporal’. It’s a deep portrayal, which dares at this late point to suggest that some Nazis were really patriotic Germans who turned a blind eye to Hitler’s less palatable policies because he was, at least, on the same side: ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ That’s ironically mirrored in the closing quote, signed by Churchill, Roosevelt and, well, Stalin.
There’s a lot to like here. The timing is perfect for another Grand Hotel type story and, frankly, couldn’t be more so. The actors are not the stars of that film but include some of the great character actors of the era; not just Lorre, Massey and Hale, but also Henry Daniell and especially George Coulouris, who plays a Nazi with relish; he may not be the highest ranking officer in the film but he’s in charge of what goes on in the hotel and he couldn’t be happier about that. Of everyone in the film, he’s perhaps the only one to remain in the moment; everyone else is looking back at what was or forward at what may just be. It’s well directed by British film director, Peter Godfrey, whose career, like Faye Emerson’s, would move to television in the fifties. I particularly appreciated how well it was choreographed; the separate subplots weaving together tighter and more often as the film ran on until the characters from one could walk past the characters from another to act as a sort of wipe to shift us to the characters in a third.

Perhaps the reason that there’s a lot to like is because there’s so much going on. It’s not difficult to follow the subplots and it’s not difficult to see the big picture, that depiction of a time when everything is changing. However, there’s so much depth to be found in that change that we could watch the film half a dozen times and still find something new. Each character has made choices and they can be both good ones and bad ones at the same time. Tillie’s choice allowed her to survive the war but, as she emotes to her lost boyfriend’s mother, she’s not the same person any more; this is a fantastic scene of survivor’s guilt. Lisa Dorn frequently does the right things for the wrong reasons, just as her mentor does the wrong things for the right reasons. The comparisons between Richter and Koenig are numerous and aided by just how much Peter Lorre could do in a single scene. And Faye Emerson, not long for the film world, shows what she could have done had she stayed in it. She could have had an amazing career in film noir.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent assessment of Hotel Berlin (1945), a film I have always enjoyed. I am happy to see someone praise the underrated Fay Emerson. Her performances had an interesting edge to them and she might have developed into a star. While starting to get a foothold in the studio system, she had the misfortune to be at Warner Brothers when Bette Davis, Ida Lupino, Olivia de Havilland, and Ann Sheridan got first dibs on good films. Thanks for reminding me of Emerson's contributions to movies (despite what sounds like a very hectic private life).