- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2006

In “Film in the Third Reich,” his critical survey first published in 1969, historian David Stewart Hull singled out Helmut Kautner (1908-1980) as the best German director to have emerged during Adolf Hitler’s regime, when the movie industry was subject to policy directives and systematic interference from Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda.

In Mr. Hull’s estimation, Mr. Kautner’s output — he completed nine features between 1939 and 1945 — resembled “some slightly unwholesome flower blooming in a field of hot-house weeds.”

This belated admiration — no Kautner films were shown in the United States during World War II — also was shadowed by the realization that whatever merit attached to the filmmaker’s ability to deflect propaganda commissions and sustain a precarious artistic independence within the Nazi system was no longer of interest to a younger generation.

Although Mr. Kautner remained active in German theater and television in his 60s, he was being tailored for oblivion. “It would be hard to find a personality currently less fashionable,” Mr. Hull wrote, explaining that Mr. Kautner had become “the particular bete noire of the young Marxist intellectuals who control contemporary German film criticism.”

It’s possible that this faction resented Mr. Kautner’s international esteem during the 1950s more than his balancing act in Germany during World War II. Anyway, a reassessment — even a fragmentary one — is overdue.

In my adolescence, I became familiar with Helmut Kautner as the director of such prizewinning and importable movies as “The Last Bridge,” with Maria Schell, and “The Devil’s General,” with Curt Jurgens. Both dealt with the war years, as it happens, and both will receive rare 50th-anniversary revivals at the Goethe-Institut next month as part of a tribute called “Spotlight on Helmut Kautner.” Limited to a handful of titles, the series recalls some of the director’s credits from the 1940s this month, then showcases better-known titles from the 1950s in August.

Born in Dusseldorf and educated (in literature, theater, art history, philosophy and psychology) at Munich University, Mr. Kautner was known professionally first as an actor.

In the early 1930s, he helped found a popular cabaret troupe called the Four Night Riders, banned by the Nazis in 1935. He seems to have advanced methodically from acting to screenwriting before making his feature-directing debut with a romantic comedy in 1939.

His first major success was a durably haunting and perverse tear-jerker of 1943, “Romance in a Minor Key,” a postmortem account of infidelity set in Paris in the late 19th century.

Shown a week ago to inaugurate the series, “Romance” is one of the Kautner movies available from specialty video outlets, although usually in transfers from duplicate prints that have faded or darkened appreciably.

It defied the personal hostility of Goebbels (he thought it “defeatist”) and became successful enough to shield the director from official disapproval or reprisal. It shares affinities with the Max Ophuls classics “Letter From an Unknown Woman” and “The Earrings of Madame de … .” If you think you have seen the actor playing the heroine’s undesirable suitor, you have: He’s Siegfried Breuer, later cast by Carol Reed as one of Harry Lime’s sinister Vienna cronies in “The Third Man.”

In 1944, Mr. Kautner followed “Romance” with “Great Freedom No. 7,” which united the director with an established star, Hans Albers, who had partnered Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel” and also was adept at using his leverage to keep Nazi cultural commissars at arm’s length.

“No. 7” alludes to a street in Hamburg, where the hero is a cabaret singer. The available stills also suggest that Mr. Albers may prefigure the Curt Jurgens of a decade later, when cast as the gallant wreck of “The Devil’s General.” Playwright Carl Zuckmayer derived this protagonist, a disillusioned Luftwaffe eminence, from the World War I ace and movie stunt pilot Ernst Udet, who committed suicide in 1941 while being scapegoated for the reversals in German air power suffered over Great Britain and the Soviet Union.

There was a Hollywood chapter to Mr. Kautner’s career: He directed two Sandra Dee movies for Universal and producer Ross Hunter in the late 1950s, “The Dangerous Years” and “A Stranger in My Arms.” It’s possible that Douglas Sirk, an earlier German transplant who also was under contract to Mr. Hunter, helped facilitate this experiment, evidently a mutual disappointment.

The sheer professionalism and assurance of “The Devil’s General,” in particular, made Mr. Kautner a recruit with obvious skill and sophistication. Perversely, he ended up in just the wrong hands.

• • •

The American Film Institute Silver Theatre has acted on several entertaining impulses for the heat of the summer. Two defining summer hits of the past, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Jaws,” both directed by Steven Spielberg, of course, will be revived for a week each.

Tributes to Stanley Donen, Audrey Hepburn, David Lynch and Jim Henson will enable playful customers to entertain back-to-back dates with “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Jaws” a weekend from now. Not to mention “Roman Holiday” or “The Elephant Man” with “Singin’ in the Rain,” if those incongruities suit your fancy.

“It’s Always Fair Weather” will share weekend dates with “The Dark Crystal” and “Blue Velvet” at the end of the month. A threesome of “Damn Yankees!” “Charade” and “Lawrence of Arabia” could be a marathon possibility on Aug. 13. A week later, you could toy with the prospect of “The Straight Story,” “Two for the Road” and “Lawrence,” which returns to the Silver for six consecutive Sundays at 7 p.m., starting July 30.

Consult the Web site for a full schedule and ticket information: www.afi.com/silver.

SERIES: “Spotlight on Helmut Kautner”

WHERE: Goethe-Institut Washington, 812 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: Selected Mondays and Wednesdays between July 10 and Aug. 24. Starting times at 4 and 6:30 p.m. for most films

ADMISSION: $6 for the general public; $4 for members, seniors and students

PHONE: 202/289-1200

WEB SITE: www.goethe.de/washington

SCHEDULE: “Great Freedom No. 7” (1944), July 10; “Under the Bridges” (1945), July 17; “The Last Bridge” (1954), Aug. 14; “Ludwig II” (1955), Aug. 21; “The Devil’s General” (1955), Aug. 23; “The Captain of Koepenick” (1956), Aug. 28. All films in German with English subtitles

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