Friday, December 23, 2016

The Congress Dances (1931)

Director: Erik Charell                                      Writers: Robert Liebmann & Norbert Falk
Film Score: Werner R. Heymann                   Cinematography: Carl Hoffmann
Starring: Lilian Harvey, Willy Fritsch, Conrad Veidt and Carl-Heinz Schroth

This German film was made before Hitler took over in 1932. It’s a costume drama about the Congress of Vienna in 1814, in which the European powers met to make peace plans after the Napoleonic Wars. The Congress Dances (Der Kongreß tanzt) is a charming romantic comedy set in a world of manners that were by then long gone; the end of World War One had also seen the end of nearly all the old monarchies in Europe. Like many Ufa films from that period, an English and a French language version of the same film was produced for distribution overseas, with Henri Garat replacing Willy Fritsch as the Czar of Russia. The film was remade in Germany after the war, a 1955 version by director Franz Antel. Two stars of the film, Conrad Veidt and Lil Dagover, had worked together twelve years before in the silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Of course, Viedt would emigrate to the U.S. and become a well-known star in Hollywood, his most famous role, in Casablanca, coming shortly before his unexpected death. Lilian Harvey, who plays the lead, was born in England but grew up in Germany and Switzerland, and made several films with co-star Willy Fritsch for Ufa. This film led to a contract for Fox, but she returned to Germany during the Nazi rule and never really returned to the success she had attained in the early thirties.

The film opens with cannons being fired in Vienna. The aristocracy wonders who it’s for and this time it’s the King of Prussia, one of the many royals attending the Congress of Vienna. Conrad Veidt is the decadent Prince Metternich is hosting the congress at his estate, assisted by his manservant Carl-Heinz Schroth. At the moment he is upset by an enterprising young lady, Lilian Harvey, who insists on trying to sell gloves to every monarch who enters the city. It turns out, however, Schroth is in love with the girl. He tries to tell her to stop, but she is much more interested in the arrival of the Czar of Russia, Willy Fritsch. She can’t get near the Czar the next day so she throws a bouquet of flowers to him, but the people think it’s a bomb and she’s arrested. Schroth pleads on her behalf to Fritsch to intercede with Viedt and have her punishment commuted, even though it’s only a spanking on her bare behind. Fritsch arrive just in time to stop it, much to the disappointment of the young lad set to punish her. When Harvey and Fritsch finally meet, she doesn’t even know it’s him. Veidt is working with a countess, Lil Dagover, to keep Fritsch distracted so that deals at the congress can be made without him, but then he learns Harvey is serving the same purpose. Much to Schroth’s chagrin, he himself is put in charge of making sure things stay romantic between the girl he loves and the Czar.

One instantly notices the confident moving camera work of Carl Hoffmann, seemingly unperturbed by the requirements of filming in sound. One of his set pieces is a slow, 360 degree trip around a beer hall as the people sing together, beginning with Fritsch and Harvey at a corner table and eventually ending in the same place. The trip that Harvey makes in the carriage to visit the Czar is equally impressive as Hoffmann’s camera follows her, this time around the exterior sets. But this is just the beginning of an extensive fairy tale like sequence in which Harvey finds herself in the palace and can barely contain her excitement. While Schroth attempts to fob the Czar off on Dagover in order to keep him away from Harvey, it’s soon becomes clear to Fritsch what’s going on and he sends his double--played by Fritsch as well--to woo both women so he can attend the congress. Director Erik Charell left Germany in the wake of the Nazi takeover, but spent the rest of his career as a writer rather than a director. He does a terrific job here. The film score by Werner R. Heymann is also very good, and the film contains several songs sung by a chorus of extras that seem very advanced for the time in prefiguring the kind of big-budget musicals that would become popular in Hollywood twenty years later. The Congress Dances is a delightful film, and glimpse of a German film industry that, without Hitler, may have been able to challenge the dominance of Hollywood in a way no other country was able to do.

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