UNTERNEHMEN MICHAEL (1937)

Karl Ritter’s direction is skillful, but it is the soul of filmmaking that shine through more brilliantly than skill. The soul to make something complete is within him. A great filmmaker.

– Kenji Mizoguchi on Karl Ritter (1940)

I think Karl Ritter is overrated tremendously. When he handles a patriotic subject, he uses an extremely vulgar approach.
– Joseph Goebbels on Karl Ritter (1939)

In 1940, a German UFA production, UNTERNEHMEN MICHAEL was imported to Japanese market, only to be censored by the Japanese officials before its release in theaters. One of the leading movie magazines at the time, STAR, printed the round-table discussion on the film by prominent film artists – Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Tomotaka Tasaka, Tomu Uchida and Isamu Kosugi. They saw the original version before the censorship, and from their experience, they knew this film would be exorcised by Japanese censorship.

I didn’t quote these two remarks above to question Mizoguchi’s aesthetic taste or to highlight the Propaganda Minister’s cinematic literacy. Rather, what I want to emphasize is that it is possible for anyone to ‘mis’-interpret a piece of vulgarity under distorted social landscape and sickeningly sweet smell of self-sacrifice. I think, even though he must have been very careful about the choice of words fearing the keen eyes of the censorship, still Mizoguchi was trying to convey what he actually felt about the film and its director. So what impressed him so much?
Kinema Junpo’s top 10 foreign films in 1940 were [1]:
1. OLYMPIA I (dir. Leni Riefenstahl)
2. STAGECOARCH (dir. John Ford)
3. UNTERNEHMEN MICHAEL (dir. Karl Ritter)
4. ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (dir. Howard Hawks)
5. OLYMPIA II (dir. Leni Riefenstahl)
6. STANLEY AND LIVINGSTONE (dir. Henry King)
7. THE STORY OF VERNON AND IRENE CASTLE (dir. Henry C. Potter)
8. GOLDEN BOY (dir. Rouben Mamoulian)
9. MEN WITH WINGS (dir. William A. Wellman)
10. LA CHARRETTE FANTOME (dir. Julian Duvivier)
The list suggests how highly regarded this film and its director were in this particular time in Japan. Today, almost nobody mentions Karl Ritter as a classic German cinema director in Japan.
In fact, I found UNTERNEHMEN MICHAEL is an incredibly static, boring film (I saw it without any subtitles, aided by detailed hypnosis provided by Akira Iwasaki [2]). Heinrich George, who played the General Commander, appears to be imitating the Fuhrer, to the point it is unbearably pathetic. Everyone is standing around, trying to look serious, and talking a lot. Near the end when you think this is just enough, the story starts to move, and some battle scenes ensue. You will find, however, one interesting character: Rittmeister Wengern, who distances himself from other officers with war-weary remarks, while playing Chopin on the piano. According to Akira Iwasaki, this must be the father of all the war-weary-German-officers-playing-Chopin-or-Beethoven-on-the-piano-found-in-a-war-ravaged-house characters [3].
Though the overall message of UNTERNEHMEN MICHAEL is clear – there will be unbearable sacrifices in a bloody war -, this Wengern character nonetheless adds the extra dimension to the story. “This approach is good, though we cannot do it in Japan”, said Tomotaka Tasaka, a Japanese director who made several propaganda films under the supervision of the government. “How (our) censorship reacts to this film will be the rule of thumb for us”, said Yasujiro Ozu, pondering how far he could go with his own expression. In the round-table discussion, it seems they all agreed that UNTERNEHMEN MICHAEL had an organic view of the war-torn world, something even likes of Ozu and Mizoguchi could not achieve under the political climate of the time.
I think there are a couple of reasons for UNTERNEHMEN MICHAEL censorship. Most of all, Japan was already at war for several years (1940), while Germany wasn’t at the time of its domestic release (1937). For Japanese military, any hint of defeatism – especially from an officer – must not be shown to the public. Though victorious headlines from the Chinese fronts were splashed all over the media everyday, Japanese Army was already losing many of its men. Even a minuscule virus of antiwar sentiment is contagious, especially when your fathers or brothers are exposed to ruthless bullets of the enemy. Dramatic license? Not understood, nor allowed. In addition, xenophobic elements seemed to exist among the cultural officials in government, stressing Japanese concept of honor and sacrifice was more superior to those in the West. They viewed themselves as a spiritually superior race though Germans might have superior industry and technology. It is more revealing that German newsreels (in 1940, the Germans were at war) were welcomed since they showed tanks, canons, fighter airplanes and other war-machines, which they thought would inspire younger generations.
It might have been that, under this political pressure on artistic creations, directors and writers were searching for an alternative escape hatch, through which they could build humanistic depths in two dimensional world of propaganda. They might have ‘mis’-interpreted Ritter’s description of the war room in more humanistic terms than it had been intended. From what I saw, this Wengern character was presented as questions we all have in our minds, but afraid to ask. To these timid questions – do we need to fight? -, the super-commander – Fuhrer – will answer with determination.
The film might have traced the similar path in Germany, if it had been filmed later, after the invasion of Poland. It might have scrapped the Wengern character altogether. It’s an old trick: Before the war, the propaganda has to be constructed carefully so that questions will be answered. Once the war started, no question is allowed.
[1] “Kinema Junpo Best Ten Entire History 1924-2006” Kinema Junpo (2007)
[2] Akira Iwasaki, “Hitler and Movie” Asahi Sensho (1975)
[3] He pointed out that Roberto Rossellini ‘imported’ this character to his ROME, OPEN CITY (1945) to create Captain Hartmann, who questions the power of Nazi’s method, while playing the piano (actually, Captain Hartmann is sitting next to the piano while the other officer is playing).
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