Tonight at the Brecht Forum, Red Channels will be screening one of the neglected classics of political cinema, Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World (1932). Described by the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman as “the most fascinatingly Brechtian of the playwright’s several film projects,” the film makes G.W. Pabst’s rendition of The Threepenny Opera (1931)—which, by the way, Brecht hated and brought a lawsuit against—look like avant-garde child’s play. With aesthetics as radical as its politics, Kuhle Wampe is an unwieldy film to wrap one’s mind around. Film Scholar Noah Isenberg will be on hand for tonight’s screening to discuss the film and explain not only the political dynamics of coffee burning and motorcycle racing, but also the awesome dialectic of Mata Hari and the cost of bread (oh, the many joys of Brecht).
Slatan Dudow (a Bulgarian director for both theater and stage who also worked as an assistant to Fritz Lang on Metropolis) directed Kuhle Wampe’s script, co-written by Brecht and Ernst Ottwald. Their topic was nothing less than the then-current economic depression and the alienation of the youth who were unable to find work. At dawn, packs of the unemployed on bicycles fill the streets of Berlin in a futile race against one another for jobs that do not exist; young men remember to take off their watches before throwing themselves from windows; and boyfriends prefer to pay the “bachelor tax” instead of marrying their pregnant (and employed) girlfriends. Dudow ironically films on such boyfriend working underneath a car, underscoring the physical, class, and economic constraints that define the “freedom” he so desires.
In contrast to the city that offers economic strife and class competition, Kuhle Wampe—a communal campground just outside of Berlin—offers the characters an ideological haven. In this retreat to nature, solidarity of the masses is expressed through group sports (Rowing! Motorcycles! Swimming!) and arts, including a performance by the Red Megaphone—“the megaphone of the masses”—an actual radical performance art troupe which was quite well known at the time.
Complete with catchy Communist anthems by Hanns Eisler and direct-address shots (Brecht breaking that fourth wall, up to his old tricks as usual), Kuhle Wampe wears its political beliefs on its sleeve. Not surprisingly, the Nazis would ban the film the following year. Dudow was subsequently kicked out of Germany (after much traveling, he ended up in Switzerland), while Brecht and Eisler took temporary residence in America—until the House on Un-American Activities Committee took notice of them, that is. Brecht fled after his testimony, while Eisler was officially deported.
While it should be hailed alongside M (1931) and Maidens in Uniform (1931) as one of the great early sound films to come out of Germany, it has never gotten the proper release—anywhere in the world—that it deserved. With only a limited-release DVD intended for the educational market currently in distribution (released last year by UMass Amherst’s DEFA Film Library) and a shoddy digital copy online at archive.org, tonight’s screening is one of the rare opportunities that shouldn’t be passed up.