Dec 30, 2012

Der Verlorene Sohn

If any National Socialist ‘propaganda’ succeeded in expressing the völkisch metaphysical feeling that permeated throughout various parts of the German-speaking world during the early 20th century, it is most certainly Der Verlorene Sohn (1934) aka The Prodigal Son written, directed, and starring South Tyrolean (Austrian-Italian) adventurist auteur Luis Trenker (The Mountain Calls aka Der Berg Ruft, Love Letters from the Engadine aka Liebesbriefe aus dem Engadin), yet the filmmaker was by no means a full-fledging fascist, let alone a Hitlerite as some might expect. While The Prodigal Son was exploited by the National Socialists as a work expounding the Faustian gospel of blood and honor in its dichotomous portrayal of the city as an unhealthy human zoo that spawns unnatural corruption, thievery, and starvation, and the country as a magical and majestic place of purity and bloody mysticism where one’s soul is rooted in the soil, Luis Trenker – a genuine man’s man and trained architect who not only directed films on dangerous mountain tops, but also performed his own stunts, including height altitude mountain-climbing and skiing – decided to move to Rome so as to avoid artistic subversion by the Nazi government. Incidentally, Trenker’s The Prodigal Son would act as a forerunner to Italian neorealism, as the film had a major influence on Italian auteur Roberto Rossellini (Europa '51, Journey to Italy) and would ironically direct arguably the most important post-WWII Italian film trilogy (Rome, Open City (1945), Paisà (1946), Germany, Year Zero (1948)); three anti-fascist war films utilizing the real ruins of war torn Europa. Although Trenker got his start in filmmaking in 1921 by working on Mountain films with the pioneer of the distinctly Germanic film genre Arnold Fanck (The Holy Mountain, The White Hell of Pitz Palu) and Leni Riefenstahl (The Blue Light, Triumph of the Will), the 'German Guido' – a filmmaker while mostly Germanic culturally, but also displaying a certain Italian sentimentalism – would eventually become a filmic Renaissance man in his own right with The Prodigal Son being his most unique and standout auteur piece. As film historian William K. Everson once wrote, “The mountain film was to Germany what the Western was to America, and Trenker, as its leading practitioner, was in a sense Germany’s John Wayne and John Ford rolled into one.” Doing his own death-defying stunts on the snowy Alps, traveling to the United States and directing scenes illegally guerrilla-style without permission in Great Depression era New York City, displaying a deeply religious faith in an idiosyncratic yet totally organic form of Germanic Pagan-Catholicism not unlike the sort of 'positive Christianity' espoused by Nazi philosopher Alfred Rosenberg (although firmly anti-Catholic himself) in his tome The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), and expressing a genuine oneness with his nation and kultur, Luis Trenker single-handedly proved real honorable and masculine men could apply the same sort of dedication and integrity that one would invest in commanding an army or building a skyscraper.

As a sort of Stroszek (1977) of its time, albeit by no means nihilistic and pessimistic in its concluding message, The Prodigal Son centers around protagonist Tonio Feuersinger (Luis Trenker), an adventurous Tyrolean logger and mountaineer who travels to the United States to climb the American Rockies, but he never quite gets there as the merry mountain-man's innate romanticism is to overwhelming for his own good and causes him to have a delusional vision of the supposed land of the free and home of the brave. While also inspired by the idiom “he who never leaves never returns,” to the dismay of his faithful lady friend Barbl Gudauner (Maria Andergast), Tonio also has his Tyrolean Teutonic eye on wealthy American beauty Lillian Williams (Marian Marsh) – a cosmopolitan lady more Aryan in appearance than his Tyrolean sweetheart – thus making for a secondary reason for leaving his small village. Far from the sort of negrophiliac barbarian typical of modern Hollywood action heroes with no sense of comradeship, Tonio is an old school male who takes pride in his hard work, even while working on Saturdays and singing the verse, “The merriest folks are the woodcutting folks,” while jollily busting his ass with his logger compatriots, as well as playing a fair good game of roughhousing with his friends. Tonio also puts family first above all else, finishing the work of his father (Eduard Köck) so as to help the old man with work that is getting harder and harder to do as he ages. A dual sun-worshipper and spiritual son of a Freyja-like Virgin Mary, Tonio has no idea that he is going to land on a virtual hell on earth full of beggars, degenerates, and racial mongrels of the superlatively American ‘melting pot’ sort. While dreaming of traveling to America and New York City, Tonio speaks too soon when he states, “God, I imagine living in a city must be a hundred times more beautiful than here,” as he feels like a “caged fox” and claims he does not, “like the mountains anymore,” but then again, as a son of the sun and blood and soil, the especially enthusiastic Aryan adventurist has yet to experience the distinctly inorganic manmade realms of crime-ridden cement metropolises of misery, which contain no natural beauty, free natural resources, or earthly adventure, but are instead teeming with distinctly human social abstraction and alienation, poverty and starvation, and rampant yet outlawed vagrancy; the sort of story that can turn a healthy farm boy into an HIV-positive tranny in no time.

When Tonio arrives in NYC, his senses are overwhelmed as he is bombarded with a curious cosmopolitan cocktail of pollution, claustrophobic atmosphere, stylistically sterile skyscrapers that block his view of the sky, unemployed Negros and other racial groups he has never seen before, pawn and cigar shops, and the endless lines of cars in traffic, which is in stark contrast to the relatively quiet and wide-open area of his mountain village where one need not worry about having too little personal space. Although he intended to meet up with the wealthy benefactor Mr. Williams (F.W. Schröder-Schrom) – a man who funded the prizes for a local ski competition in his hometown and would have provided the young man with financial security had his resources run dry – Tonio soon learns that the man is away for the winter, thus he must fend for himself without a dime to his name in a foreign city that eats people and spits them out in no time. Out of desperation, Tonio pawns all his belongs for a mere $1.50 and resorts to sleeping on park benches, where he is hassled by local police. Eventually, the Germanic immigrant finds work at dangerous job doing welding on a skyscraper in scenes that have a startling resemblance to the iconic photographs of American sociologist/photographer Lewis Hine, and, needless to say, Tonio is soon daydreaming about taking a boat back to his hometown. Despite working hard for virtually nothing, Tonio begins to resemble a degenerate drunken hobo of sorrowful sorts and even resorts to the previously seemingly unthinkable by stealing food and standing in foodlines, which a local police officers catches him for, but lets him go out of compassion for the immigrant's decidedly destitute state. Tonio ends up making one mere friend, Jimmy (Jimmie Fox) – an off-white Italian/Jewish type funnyman, not unlike a character from an early Fellini film like I Vitelloni (1953) – who is constantly in trouble with the law, but someone with whom down-and-out Tonio can identify due to his equally degraded and despairing position in American society. Eventually, by happenstance while interfering with a boxing match, Tonio becomes a successful prize-fighter and hooks up with wealthy Mr. Williams finally, even making his friend Jimmy successful in the process, but Tonio ultimately longs for the place of his birth and having experienced everything America has to offer, decides to go back home, where he is crowned the “Rauhnacht King” during the ancient Germanic pagan celebration of Rauhnacht where all the spirits rise from the earth (meadows, fields, fire, wind, etc.), in the from of the locals dressed in eerie and phantasmagorical costumes and masks, to worship the Sun-God, whereupon he is given the opportunity to choose between 12 Raunhnacht girls wearing masks to be his wife.

 Ironically, immediately after the conclusion of the Second World War, The Prodigal Son was banned in both Western and Eastern Germany, because whereas the American military occupying forces believed the film was innately anti-American in sentiment, the Soviets felt the film was an advertisement for Americanism and the American way of life. Indeed, the film is certainly not nearly as American as one would expect because while The Prodigal Son portrays NYC in a most unflattering light, it also depicts the cultureless country as a place where one can truly go from rags to riches virtually overnight with a little good luck and, of course, if one is willing to work hard enough, which is indubitably one of America’s ‘noble’ attributes, if not a mostly unrealistic one for most people. With its partial quasi-Mediterranean sentimentalism for the importance of friends and family, as well as its concluding setting during the holiday Rauhnacht celebration – an event that usually takes place during the 12 days of Christmas – The Prodigal Son is somewhat surprisingly in good company with Frank Capra’s Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946); a work also featuring a man who has to go on a spiritual journey of sorts, only to realize the intrinsic and irreplaceable value of friends and family in a small community and life itself, is infinitely more important to material gain. Unlike most films of its epoch, The Prodigal Son holds up quite well after all the years, so much so that I was rather surprised by how fast it went by in its immaculate editing, striking action sequences, and surprisingly ‘modern’ direction, so much so that that I can see myself watching it next Christmas season, but I cannot say the same about It's a Wonderful Life; a work I can tolerate viewing every decade or so.  Combining some of the best elements of the German Mountain film genre with proto-Italian neo-realist/Cinéma vérité imagery that depicts the bowels of the Great Depression era big rotten apple in an audaciously authentic manner like never seen before, as well as featuring Germanic Pagan and Aryanized Catholic imagery and costumes that would chill the most coldhearted of atheist's souls, The Prodigal Son is both an important piece of cinema and cultural history that makes one question who were the real barbarians during the Second World War.  Personally, I would rather celebrate Rauhnacht during a cold winter night than rage at an ecstasy-addled rave, but maybe I am just old fashioned.

-Ty E


Anonymous said...

Ty E, have you noticed how "The Hamster" seems to have been totally silenced by the sheer brilliance and genius of the last two reveiws, thats how great the reveiws are on Soiled Sinema.