One of the many treats at this year's Il Cinema Ritrovato festival of restored or rediscovered films was a retrospective of the works of Helmut Käutner, who has been known and admired for a few select works but whose larger oeuvre is rarely screened. Curators Olaf Möller and Christoph Huber explained that this was partly because the German director's comedies often deal with German current affairs of the day in a way which makes them seem obscure even to modern German audiences. But one humorous movie proved timeless.
Käutner began his career during WWII, but never seems to have been seriously tainted by associations with the Nazi regime. Indeed his great successes shot during wartime, Grosse Freiheit No. 7 (1944) and Under the Bridges (1946) apparently made the authorities uncomfortable: framed in a setting that's not-quite period and not-quite alternate reality, where the war simply does not exist, they seemed...a touch defeatist.
After the war, Käutner had a brief spell in Hollywood working for producer Ross Hunter, just as Douglas Sirk did, and his Technicolor melodramas are apparently very strong (The Restless Years, 1958, gives the emoting to Sandra Dee). Techniolor stylization also plays a part in The Glass of Water (1960):
It's 1710 in the English court. A wily newspaper publisher is trying to stop a foolish and destructive war, but the vacillating queen is being manipulated by a scheming friend. Plus there are young lovers to sort out. There are always young lovers, for this is a comic musical.
Möller and Huber's program notes compare the resulting confection to a hybrid of Vincente Minnelli and Seijun Suzuki, which sounds both mouthwatering and insane. One can see where they're coming from, but the comparison needs a little decoding.
The world of the film is theatrical: big blow-up of period prints form the backdrops, while the foreground sets are incomplete, composed of suggestive fragments of architecture: your imagination must paint in the surrounding palace. There are also big colored modular walls to add a pop art quality.
The soundtrack is resolutely un-period pizzicato pop, with an amusing moment when a Highland band blow on their bagpipes and what comes out, mercifully, is a kind of harpsichord plinking. While the costumes make a stab at authenticity, the women's hair and makeup is blissfully mod. This was often the case in period movies back then: look at Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago: for all the attention to detail elsewhere, she might as well have been wearing white lipstick and false eyelashes. Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. is wearing false eyelashes. But Käutner takes things to a hilarious extreme, with a Vidal Sassoon look for his heroine that clearly isn't aiming to suspend disbelief so much as harpoon it and bring it crashing to the studio floor.
The movie makes a show of being about politics but really, like House of Cards, it's just about politicking, schemes and double-crosses by smiling hypocrites, with the dopey romantic leads moved around like chesspieces at the whim of their superiors. This is all clever enough, and the look of the film dazzling enough (characters stand in front of their own black-and-white flashbacks, narrating), that it survives not having any memorable or exciting tunes. The songs are pleasant, kitschy and fun, but it's the lunacy of the whole concept and execution that carries us along on clouds of crazy.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.