From its first shot, IN JENEN TAGEN grounds the viewer in both a mental and physical landscape that exists beyond resignation, where simple automonous acts of manual labor give the screen’s characters the sort of renewal and liberation that humankind must have experienced when they first used the wheel. It’s a Rubble Film, an early post-Nazi film from Germany created after the film industry was free from touting cultural homilies that supported the strictures of the Third Reich. The film’s creators simultaneously dredge up and attempt laying to rest the accumulated agony of living through the twelve year existence of the Third Reich, speaking through the lives of powerless witnesses: those who experienced the disappearance of friends overnight, those who felt the nausea of coercion to fight a dirty and unwinnable war, those whose hearts went out to brave yet doomed attempts to rage against the institutionalized psychoses imposed upon them. After the Reich was demolished and censorship lifted, the Greek chorus to the madness they lived through began to speak through Rubble Films.
IN JENEN TAGEN‘s journey was told in anthology, narrated not by a human (perhaps it was too soon for trusting in the voice of a fellow person) but by an automobile as the car passed hands through seven owners. At the open, men among the rubble are scaveging a derelict auto for scrap metal and glass. As it is stripped into nothingness, the car’s reveries go back to its original incarnation as a factory-fresh birthday present, given on the day the Nazis took power.
The vehicle passes hands to an artist whose work is labeled subversive and later an older Jewish couple. “Human beings…are there any left?” the car plaintively wonders as each owner succumbs to his fate and the atrocities accumulate. It’s conscripted by the state for military service on the Russian front. Then, as the surviving mortals scramble through a rapidly collapsing society, the rusted and decayed car is used by resistance fighters and finally by a solitary deserting soldier.
The film’s director, Helmut Käutner, had worked in the Reich’s film industry, managing to avoid arrest (although he was censured for “pro-English tendencies” in his work). Given a film license by the British (and later American) occupational forces after the war, he moved to Hamburg to start a film company. [Hamburg, a stridently pro-union town, was the only German city the union-busting Hitler never visited after coming to power.] Borrowing a camera and buying equipment on the black market, Käutner shot IN JENEN TAGEN in outdoor locations (sometimes in sub-zero weather) with a cast of local actors (the Allies denied transit visas to most Berlin performers) during the winter of 1946/47.
One of the first tasks Käutner set for himself after the war was the establishment of an artists’ network in Hamburg. It was a telling gesture as to his own craft and philosophical concerns: his work, like Renoir or Borzage, addresses how humankind can embrace the lives of others through the delicate sensitivities generated through intelligence: intelligence alone cannot generate empathy yet human frailties and sensitivity by themselves can easily fall into sentimentality and helplessness. IN JENEN TAGEN glows with this compassion, as it tells stories such as an older couple, she Jewish and he ‘Aryan,’ who commit double suicide when their home, business and lives are ruined after Kristallnacht. There’s the exhausted army officer on the Russian front, sickened by atrocities and the billious rhetoric of Berlin, who gets to vent to a superior that those they fight are people too and that his army is also the enemy, as they drive the car across a dark and bleak snowscape. Seconds after he unburdens his disgust, he crumples over the steering wheel, having taken a hit from a rogue sniper’s bullet. In perhaps the most visceral chapter, a woman working with the resistance tries to transport the mother of a ringleader from the botched 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler to a hideout, avoiding her arrest and execution. Their perilous drive though the bombed-out city seems almost to be approaching safe haven when they are stopped on a rubble-strewn street by the military police. As the police approach, the camera pans down to the women quickly grasping each others’ hand, in a THELMA AND LOUISE gesture of solace before death.
With the rebuilding of West Germany, Käutner thrived as a director, with one film, THE LAST BRIDGE (1954), winning the International Jury Prize at Cannes. Hoping to have discovered another Douglas Sirk, Universal recruited Käutner in the late 1950s, where he was given the Sirkian assignment of crafting melodramas with Ross Hunter. He only directed two: one of which, 1959′s STRANGER IN MY ARMS, has the resonance of the best Hunter/Sirk collaborations in its masterful craft and shining, encapsulated melodramatics. Yet Hollywood was a short-lived venture: in the ‘sixties Käutner returned to Germany where he directed television dramas.
The fatigue, the stress, the bewilderment, the overwhelm of the characters in this film rang so true that images from it have been haunting me lately. I had to write about it: the film’s attempt to process incomprehensible situations revisit me as I try to do the same. The fatigue and overwhelm captured through this film seem to be in evidence in every frank conversation I have with fellow progressives and liberals in the USA. The stress and bewilderment from the film I hear in my conversations with those whose lives have been recently upended such as friends in Japan and New Zealand.
The fact that — during this season of bleak times for many of us — I emotionally mirror situations from this film while its transcendant images come back to me says more about the qualities of this piece than anything I could possibly articulate with the written word.