Sunday 26 February 2023

The Treasure (1923)

Director: G. W. Pabst
Writers: Willy Hennings and G. W. Pabst, based on the short story by R. H. Bartsch
Stars: Albert Steinrück, Lucie Mannheim, Ilka Grüning, Werner Krauss and Hans Brausewetter

I’ve seen a few films directed by G. W. Pabst and I’ve generally enjoyed them. Pandora’s Box is an amazing picture and so is Westfront 1918, a superior German equivalent to All Quiet on the Western Front. Comradeship is excellent too but A Modern Hero disappointed me a little.

After I enjoyed The Treasure, or Der Schatz in German, I was shocked to find that it was his debut as a director. Sure, this would be fourth out of the five I’ve seen, because it’s simplistic but it’s superbly shot with a host of standout scenes. No wonder he reached such success if he started out like this!

He co-wrote the film, basing it on a short story by multi-Nobel Prize nominated Rudolf Hans Bartsch, from his 1910 collection called Bittersweet Love Stories. It really is a love story too, because the title has two meanings, one of them cheesy but abiding.

The first meaning, of course, is treasure in a literal sense, in this instance a supposed cache of gold that was secreted somewhere around a bellfounder’s house in Marbourg, now Maribor in Slovenia, close to the Austrian border. The story is that it was left behind by the Turkish army, which had been driven out in 1683 and nobody really believes it.

Well, nobody except Svetelenz, from whom we hear about it. He’s a journeyman working for Balthasar Hofer, the master bell maker in Marbourg, and he lives in Hofer’s house, so he believes that the treasure is right there in the walls where “the secret speaks to me”. That’s what he tells Beate, Hofer’s daughter, with a puppy dog look on his face, because he clearly lusts after both treasure and Beate.

I didn’t recognise Svetelenz, but he’s played by Werner Krauss, who had been so good only three years earlier as the title character in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I hadn’t realised just how much make-up he’d used on that film, but he’s decades younger here, albeit not as young as Beate. Krauss was 39. Lucie Mannheim was 24.

Anyway, Svetelenz has a book of folklore to teach him how to best acquire a dowsing rod. With that in hand, he wanders around at night in search of the treasure and he might still be searching, if not for the new kid in town.

He’s Arno, a young goldsmith in the form of future star Hans Brausewetter, who’s a bright young thing indeed. He walks into Marbourg at Hofer’s invitation, so that he can craft the ornamentation for a huge bell that Hofer has cast, but stops at the pub first to make fun of an entitled rich kid and seduce the landlord’s daughter. Both are effortlessly done.

You can see already how much he’s going to annoy Svetelenz, because it takes him no time at all to get himself invited up to Beate’s room. We don’t see anything untoward either time, of course, but it is so heavily implied we can’t fail to realise what’s going on. Maybe Beate is a little harder to get but she’s certainly got by the time they visit the wine cellar.

Well, once Arno moves in and learns about Svetelenz’s nightly hunt, he decides to tackle the quest himself and figures it out in no time flat. There’s the treasure, hidden within one of the foundational pillars holding up the house. Unfortunately, Svetelenz is watching him and steals his thunder, telling Balthasar where it is and helping him extract it while Arno is off on an errand with Beate. And you know this isn’t going to end well!

The acting is overdone but in the silent style so I have no complaints. The five members of the core cast, the fifth being Anna, Balthasar’s wife, are all excellent and firmly delineated at the start of the film. However, they gradually shift into one of two roles: those who become consumed by greed when the treasure comes to light and those who don’t. While there’s an arc to each character’s journey to one or the other, it never gets any deeper than that. The Pabst of later years would have endowed this with a great deal more nuance.

What the debuting Pabst of 1923 nails from the outset is the visual element. Everything is notable, from the composition of frame to the movement within it. The architecture is great, the set design is great, even the food is great. There’s a spot on the way into Marbourg that’s shown multiple times because the contours of the landscape are great.

There’s a particular shot of a raided wagon, shackled to a dead horse with a naked, surely raped woman draped by the wheel and a child wailing beside her, and as awful as that might suggest, it looks just like a painting by an old master.

There are films where I struggle to grab the screenshots needed to accompany a review. In this instance, I could just stop playing the film at random and I’d be happy with the shot that would be in front of me. It’s all beautiful stuff.

The cinematographer is Otto Tober, who I’m unsurprised to find was a photographer first. He shot newsreels during the First World War and again during the Second. I’m surprised he didn’t make more films, his output generally confined between 1919 and 1932, especially as Pabst’s career took off immediately and surely he recognised the talent he’d employed here.

The music is excellent too, due to a score by Max Deutsch that Pabst commissioned for the film. As the manuscript for this symphony was donated to the Deutsches Filminstitut, it was a given that it be recorded for a “synchronized restoration”, meaning that we can hear this as it was intended to be heard, a rarity for a film this old.

The only downside really is the simplicity of the story and that’s only a problem if we look with hindsight at what it would have been five or ten years later. Seen entirely in isolation, as it would have been in 1923, it stands up well as yet another beautiful German picture that fits into the expressionist period, right down to a few scenes with well-placed shadows.

In fact, it’s going to sit as a reference point for me as I work through this project. I will be comparing other films to this one and, if I ever find myself cutting a film some slack because of it being a century old, this one will be right there in mind to tell me what was being done by debuting directors. Slack does not need to be cut.

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