Kuhle Wampe

Image: Anna Boghiguian


Notes on the production of one of the first sound films

a political work

In the summer of 1931, taking advantage of certain particularly favorable circumstances (dissolution of a film company, someone willing to invest a not very large amount of money in a film, in addition to his acting talent, etc.) a minor movie. Still under the influence of the lesson that was the Threepenny Opera, we stipulated, for the first time as far as we know in the history of cinema, a contract that made us the directors, responsible in the legal sense.

This cost us the loss of the right to demand the usual payment in cash, but allowed us, in conflicts during work, freedoms otherwise inaccessible. Our little society was made up of two screenwriters, a director, a musician, a production director and, last not least, a lawyer. The organization of the work obviously gave us much more problems than the artistic work itself; it is worth saying that gradually we were induced to consider more and more the organization itself as an essential part of the artistic work.

All this was only possible because work, understood in its entirety, was political work. As the end of this undertaking approached, which at every moment ran the risk of foundering – when we had already shot more than ninety percent of the film, spent considerable sums and exhausted all the credits – one of the credit societies, the one that had the monopoly of the machines we needed, informed us that he had no interest in our leaving (finish). He would rather waive the sums owed him than allow us to continue the work.

It explained (justified) that films of superior quality increased the demands of critics (which do not coincide with those of the public), and that our film could not become interesting from a commercial point of view once communism was no longer an issue. danger for Germany. On the other hand, the other companies refused to advance money because they feared that the film would be censored, in reality, more by the owners of the exhibition halls than by the State. This only expresses the will of those, since it does not in fact occupy an impartial position, above contradictions, but it is the great executor of the economy, that is, of one of the parties in conflict.


movie description

the sound film Kuhle Wampe it consists of four independent parts, separated by autonomous musical themes during which views of houses, factories and landscapes are projected.

The first part, which is based on a fact that actually happened, shows the suicide of an unemployed young man that summer in which a decree-law aggravated the misery of the lower strata of the population, suppressing unemployment insurance for young people. Before throwing himself out of the window, the young man took off his watch so as not to break it. The beginning of this part represents the search for a job as a job in itself.

The second part sees the dissolution of the family as a result of a court ruling (which declares that the misfortune of this family, which cannot pay the rent, is attributed to “their own fault”). The family takes refuge on the outskirts of the city under the tent of a friend of the daughter, in a camp called “Kuhle Wampe”, (for a while the film was called ante-doors). Here the girl becomes pregnant and the pressures of the petty-bourgeois conventions, of the ragged petty-bourgeois, in force in the camp (where a kind of “ownership” of the land and payment of a small rent creates its own social forms) impose the engagement. The engagement is broken by the girl's decision.

In the third part, proletarian sports meetings are shown. These develop on a mass scale and are perfectly organized. They are absolutely political in character; the distraction of the masses has a character of struggle. More than 30 sports workers from the circle "Fichtewander-Sparte” collaborate in this part. Among the athletes, the two youngsters from the second half make a small appearance. The girl, thanks to the help of her friends, managed to get the money needed to have the abortion and the couple abandoned the idea of ​​marriage.

In the fourth part, people are seen returning home, and in the train cabin they discuss the Brazilian coffee that is burned to support prices.


the songs

A homeless song it was suppressed for fear of a general interdiction; as also the appeal, but for technical reasons. O solidarity corner it was sung by about three thousand sports workers. O Corner of sports meetings is sung by a single voice during the projection of regatta and car racing scenes.

the poetry nature in spring, recited by a single voice, joins three walks of lovers. This part of the film, projected while the proletarian sportsmen were working, was criticized by them as it was judged to be too stripped down.


The direction

The film Kuhle Wampe was directed by young director Slatan Th. Dudow overcoming enormous practical difficulties. Most of the shots had to be done at a fast pace: a quarter of the film, for example, in two days. The only help we received came from the communist sports associations which led the movements of the sports workers (which on certain days numbered four thousand).

The difficulties we had in finding financial resources made it take more than a year to make the film; during that time circumstances in Germany evolved at a much faster pace (fascistization, rising unemployment, etc.). As soon as it was completed the film was banned by the censors. Its content and intentions are best evidenced by exposing the reasons why the censorship prohibited it.

He showed how, due to weariness and passivity, certain categories of workers fall to the level of the “miserable”. The Ministry of the Interior declared it an attack on social democracy. An attack of this kind is as prohibited as an attack against the Church, that is, against any institution that supports the State.

It showed the fate of an unemployed youth who fails to join the workers in struggle, and that Brüning's decree-law, suppressing unemployment insurance for young people, pushes them towards death. The Ministry of the Interior declared that this constituted an attack against the president of the court who had signed the decree, which was basically accused of inadequate assistance to workers in poverty.

The activity of the great sports associations of communist workers was represented, which in Germany grouped around two hundred thousand workers and which put working-class sports at the service of the class struggle.


Brief contribution to the theme of realism.

Only very rarely is a verification of the real effectiveness of artistic methods achieved. Most of the time, at most, vague approval is obtained ("yes, you described this fact very well, that's exactly how it happens to us"), or else one hears that an "impulse" has been given in a certain direction. Behold, however, a small test of good quality.

He had directed, with Slatan Dudow and Hans Einsler, the film Kuhle Wampe, which described the desperate situation of the unemployed in Berlin. It was a montage of quite autonomous little fragments. The first represented the suicide of an unemployed young man. The censorship posed great difficulties, and there was a meeting with the representative of the censorship and the lawyers of the cinematographic society.

The censorship representative was intelligent: “Nobody disputes their right to describe suicides. Suicides exist. And they can also describe the suicide of an unemployed person. There are also suicides of the unemployed. I, gentlemen, see no reason to be silent about these things. But I object to the way you described your unemployed man's suicide. This way is irreconcilable with the interests of the community that I have the duty to defend: I am saddened to make them an artistic repair in this regard”.

He continued: “You will be surprised that I reproach your description for not seeming human enough. What you show is not a man, but be it fair to say, a puppet. Your unemployed person is not a true individual, a man of flesh and blood, different from others, with his own worries and joys and, in short, with his own personal destiny. He is described in a completely superficial way and, I'm sorry, as artists, this expression is a bit rude to say that very few things are said about him. But the consequences are of a political nature and constrain me to oppose the release of the film. This film tends to make suicide a typical phenomenon, something that is not the affair of this or that (sick) individual, but the fate of an entire class. Your opinion is that society pushes young people to suicide by denying them the possibility of working. And not even you have the scruples to say what it would be necessary to advise the unemployed to obtain a change of situation. You are not really concerned with tracing a picture of a dramatic individual destiny, which no one could stop you from doing.”

We remained sitting in our chairs and completely embarrassed. We had the unpleasant impression that our thoughts had been read. Eisler, distraught, was cleaning his glasses. Dudow writhed as if in severe pain. I got up and, notwithstanding my loathing to give speeches, I gave a speech. I scrupulously kept to the lie: I pointed out the individual characteristics that we had attributed to our unemployed person.

For example, the fact that before throwing himself out the window he took off his watch. I maintained that only this particular, oddly human, had inspired the whole scene; that we also showed other unemployed people who did not commit suicide, at least four thousand, since we had taken shots of a large working-class sports circle. I protested against the intolerable accusation of not having followed an artistic procedure and alluded to an eventual press campaign against this accusation. I had no qualms about saying that my entire artistic doctrine was at stake.

The censorship representative was not afraid to scrutinize even the details of the work. Our lawyers watched in astonishment as a debate of an artistic nature unfolded according to legal norms. The censorship representative insisted on the fact that we had given the process leading to suicide an explicitly demonstrative character. He used the expression "something equally mechanical". Dudow got up angrily demanding that a doctor's appointment be made. These could testify that acts of the kind always evoke something mechanical.

The representative of the censorship frowned: “That may be so,” he said obstinately, “but you must nevertheless admit that in the suicide you describe, everything that could have been an impulse was avoided. The spectator has no desire to do anything to oppose it, which should happen in an artistic representation with human warmth. Great God, the author behaves as if he were showing us how to peel cucumbers!”

Releasing the film took some work, and when we left the room, we couldn't hide our admiration for that lucid censor. He had managed to penetrate to the very essence of our artistic intentions, much deeper than the more benevolent critics we used to confront. He had managed to teach a short course in realism. From the police point of view.

* Bertolt Brecht (1998-1956) was a playwright, poet and theater director. Author, among other books, of Santa Joana dos Slaughterhouses

Unfinished text published in the Italian magazine Cinema New, No. 229, May/June 1974.

Translation: Giuseppe Talento for the magazine cinemas no. 12, Jul-Aug 1987.



Kuhle Wampe (Who owns the world?)
Germany, 1932, 80 minutes
Directed by: Slatan Th. Dudow.
Screenplay: Bertolt Brecht
Music: Hans Eisler
Available in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8M5Mv__kxg


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