(7/10) In a nutshell: This smart, well filmed and very successful 1934 film marked the beginning of the end for German science fiction before the Nazis banned the genre. Hans Albers shines as the heroic scientist kidnapped by an evil businessman to make gold out of lead, and screen legend Brigitte Helm gives one of her most understated and balanced performances.
Gold. Germany, 1934. Directed by Karl Hartl. Written by Rolf E. Vanloo. Starring: Hans Albers, Brigitte Helm, Michael Bohnen. Cinematography: Günther Rittau, Otto Baecker, Walter Bohne. Editing: Wolfgang Becker. Art direction: Otto Hunte. Music: Hans-Otto Borgmann. Produced by Alfred Zeisler for UFA. IMDb score: 6.7
Germany was the leading country when it came to sci-fi films in the twenties, much thanks to cinema legend Fritz Lang and his two masterpieces Metropolis (1927, review) and Woman in the Moon (1929, review). In the early thirties USA started catching up, mostly through Universal’s and Paramount’s horror films, many of which dealt with explicit sci-fi themes. Lang himself moved to the States discarded sci-fi to instead begin pioneering film noir, but the German film industry still had an ace up its sleeve, and it was called Karl Hartl, who made the sluggish F.P.1. Does Not Answer in 1931 (review), and in 1934 he followed up with Gold, shortly after Kurt Bernhard had scored a hit with the 1933 film The Tunnel (review). (Trivia: neither Lang nor Hartl were born in Germany, but Austria.) Gold also featured Germany’s two most popular actors at the time; Hans Albers and Brigitte Helm.
Renowned German physicist Achenbach (Friedrich Kayßler) has made a an atom-splitting machine that he is certain will be able to turn lead into gold. Wise to the implications of such a discovery, he keeps everything under lock and key, but on the eve of the definitive experiment a saboteur is able to sneak in to the lab. The saboteur replaces the lead with an explosive, which kills Achenbach (which is a name that is tremendously fun to say out loud) and one of his assistants. The press thinks it is merely an experiment gone horribly wrong, and ridicules Achenbach for his alchemist experiments, and blame him for having killed his assistant. This greatly saddens Achenbach’s closest colleague, Werner Holk (Hans Albers), since he knows that Achenbach was on the verge of a great discovery, and suspects foul play.
When two goons show up on Holk’s doorstep with a proposition from Scottish businessman and scientist John Wills (Michael Bohnen), who just happens to be working on the exact same experiment, Holk smells a rat, but decides to take up Wills on his offer, just to be able to clear Achenbach’s name. It involves continuing his work in an unnamed location, but for the benefit of Mr. Wills.
After taking leave of his worried wife (well played by Lien Deyers), the trip takes him out to a vast laboratory in a cave under the Atlantic where Wills just so happens to have an exact copy of Achenbach’s machine. A witty cat-and-mouse game ensues between Wills and Holk, and the latter gains a confidante in Wills’ daughter, the world-weary Florence (Brigitte Helm in one of her best roles), who has grown cold to her father’s evil plots and plans. A romance starts to brew between Florence and Holk, and Holk gets in trouble with Wills’ technician, who wants to take credit for the experiment for himself, and tries to hinder Holk in his work. Finally, Holk calls together all the staff and Wills, to show he has succeeded in creating gold. As Wills announces the news to the world, the press and economic experts warn about a complete collapse of the world’s economic system, disastrous inflation and chaos. Holk wisely plays along with Wills, although some of his workers are growing suspicious about the whole project. Holk once more calls everyone together, for a ceremonial speech that would mark the start of mass production of gold. Instead, he calls out Wills on the murder of Professor Achenbach and his assistant, and wows never to make a grain if gold, but instead to destroy the machine and the lab with it. As the machine is set to blow, the cave would rupture drowning the machine, and anyone who is inside the huge blast doors. But – alas, the crazed Wills sabotages the doors, threatening to drown all the workers, just as the machine is about to blow. In an exciting final scene, Holk climbs up and inside the door mechanism to fix the problem, and manages to do so just in the nick of time, drowning Wills and his gold making machine. He then bids farewell to the beautiful Florence and returns home to Germany and his wife, to clear Professor Achenbach’s name.
This film is probably the only German sci-fi film that is able to hold a candle to Fritz Lang’s work, and Karl Hartl is a name that is worthy of greater international salutation. But unlike peers like Lang or F.W. Murnau, Hartl never emigrated to Hollywood, but rather stayed in Austria during the Nazi regime, where he became something of a quiet Anti-Nazi hero working within the system. In fact, he was head of the Austrian film industry under the Nazi regime, where he produced a number of historical films, but very rarely anything that could be called a Nazi propaganda movie. He was able to constantly delay the making of propaganda by blaming bad scripts, or this or that actor or technician not being available. By instead making historical films placed in the Austria-Hungarian period, he was in fact able to make subtle Anti-Nazi propaganda under the very eyes of Adolf Hitler.
Gold has an extremely witty, poignant, and well-written script. Although the dramatic curve is all too obvious from the beginning, little known screenwriter Rolf Vanloo creates a number of surprising plot twists and an interesting and multi-dimensional set of characters, that keeps the movie fresh and engaging. There is an odd angle concerning an old friend of Holk’s, who has now taken on a false name and a career as first mate on Wills’ ship, and creates a sort of love triangle between him, Holk and Florence – the character takes up a lot of screen time and is ultimately more or less nothing but baggage for the plot. But apart from that, the film moves at a brisk pace. Many of the smaller characters are fleshed out, which keeps them from falling totally into cliché mode, but the downside is that we often wait for these characters to reappear and their stories to unfold, but this never materialises, which makes for a slightly bumpy ride as far as plot development goes.
The acting is top class across the board. Hans Albers and Michael Bohnen go head to head in several scenes, like two old and wise bulls circling each other before butting heads. Both actors rely on their inherit charisma and huge range to bring life to what could easily have become stock characters. This is also helped by the script that gives human features to these antagonists. Despite his deep affection for his wife, Holk’s heart is slowly won by Wills’ daughter Florence, who he at first suspects of being a lackey of the evil mastermind. The script is also ambiguous about his real intentions regarding the production of golf for a long time, and invents an interesting relationship between the workers’s foreman and Holk. Wills, on the other hand, has a soft spot in his heart for Florence, who has taken to avoiding him at all cost, rather spending time on exotic locations in Europe than with him on his floating castle. Bohnen, with his background mainly in opera, is just the right man to play the theatrically evil Wills with huge joy and delight. Albers dons the mantle of the leading man with ease, playing his role with a twinkle in his eye and a wily sarcasm just beneath the surface – but is just as convincing as the loving husband and the dramatic hero.
Brigitte Helm became an overnight sensation after her role as Maria/Maschinenmensch in Metropolis (1927), and by 1934 she was equally famous for her drunken driving and her lawsuit against film company UFA. She protested against being typecast as the femme fatale, and lost. The role in Gold does give her more to work with. Again, the script comes through. Although initially presented as a playgirl/femme fatale, Florence turns out to be a more fleshed out character, ultimately becoming a steadfast companion both in friendship and help to Holk. 25 year old Helm could probably relate to the character of Florence, being tied down and restricted by her dominating father, forced to lead a life she did not choose. She brings real depth and solid characterisation to the table, and must have relished in a role where she wasn’t required to use her trademark seductively wry smiles, pouting lips and drooping eyelids. We meet a very real and grounded Florence, and not a silver screen cliché.
The rest of the cast are all worthy of separate mention for outstanding performances, but suffice to say that they all do a very solid job.
The design and cinematography of the film is accomplished, but fairly mundane – with a notable exception, which is the gigantic atom-splitting machine, beautifully designed and big as a three-story building. The beautiful art deco-inspired design is no surprise, considering it was whipped up by Otto Hunte, who had previously worked with Fritz Lang on films like Metropolis and Woman in the Moon. So impressed were the American censors with the imagination of Hunte and engineer / technical advisor Albert Berthold Henninger (F.P.1. Does Not Answer), that when the film was finally released in the USA after WWII, it was supposedly reviewed at the Pentagon because of the suspicion that the Germans had discovered a way of making an atom bomb in the middle of the thirties.
Some non-German commentators have sniggered at the choice of the middle-aged, thin-haired and bulky Hans Albers for the heroic leading man roles in films like F.P.1. Does Not Answer and Gold. True, he isn’t quite the picture of the modern leading man, but the sniggerers fail to comprehend both art and history. First of all, looks be damned, Hans Albers is one of the greatest and most charismatic actors in history, unfortunately more or less completely unknown outside Germany. Unlike so many other European actors and filmmakers, he decided not to head for the Hollywood Hills as war broke out, and so is more or less unknown to an international audience – nevertheless he has a square named after him in Hamburg, accompanied by a statue, seen by many tourists, few of whom know the man behind the name of the sqaure, Hans Albers Platz. Second, his stocky frame and broad shoulders were actually the look of many a Hollywood leading man back in the day – that is to say a lot of action heroes and strongman-actors, like Cary Grant, Rock Hudson or John Wayne.
Albers could do it all, and was at ease in almost any type of role. He played in over a hundred silent films, but his real breakthrough was as the strongman who eventually wins the heart of screen legend Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 classic The Blue Angel. He followed up in the lead as a tough detective in the crime drama Der Greifer the same year, and played numerous military roles in historical dramas, detectives and daredevils in thrillers and adventure films, but shone equally as Quick the music clown in 1932, the enigmatic Peer Gynt in 1934, and the fantastical Baron Münchhausen in 1943. He was just as well at home in musical comedies, and one of his most famous roles came in 1937 with the film Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war (The man who was Sherlock Holmes). In the film he teamed up with his longtime collaborator, Heinz Rühmann, another forgotten great, to play a team of investigators who are mistaken for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
Hans Albers was probably the most popular male film actor in Germany pretty much from the beginning if the thirties until the end of WWII. So great was his fame, that the Nazi authorities even ignored the fact that Albers had a Jewish girlfriend for many years. Neither was he ever required to become a member of the Nazi party or even endorse the Nazis publicly (which he never did). His girlfriend Hansi Burg did escape to Switzerland in 1939, but they got married after the war. Münchhausen was ordered directly by the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to celebrate the film studio UFA:s 25th anniversary and was one of the most expensive films ever made in Germany, and only the third filmed in lavish Agfacolor (as an answer to Hollywood’s Technicolor films). It is a testament to Albers’ fame that he was chosen as the title character. Although a Pro-German film, it was not an explicite Nazi propaganda film, and banned screenwriter and author Erich Kästner even managed to sneak in some camouflaged critique against the the current state of affairs in Germany in 1943: “Nicht meine Uhr ist kaputt, die Zeit ist kaputt!” (“My watch is not broken, it’s time that is broken.”) As opposed to many popular actors during the Nazi regime, Albers was not blacklisted after the war, but was nevertheless almost out of work for five years, since the occupation government saw him as a hero of the ”Old Germany”, and wanted to promote new ones. After 1950 he again started getting roles, often as grey eminences, but was unable to ever again duplicate his former popularity.
Albers was almost equally famous for his singing as for his acting, and many songs from his films and plays were released as hugely popular records. Many of his songs concerned sailors, harbours and their women, and the harbour districts of Reeperbahn and St. Pauli in Hamburg. One of the most well-known images of Albers depicts him with an accordion (which he played in real-life) and a sailor’s cap. The picture accompanied many of the Hamburg-connected singles that he released and was a reconstruction of his role in the film Große Freiheit Nr. 7, filmed in 1944. This image of Albers was used as an inspiration for his statue in the colourful neighbourhood of St. Pauli – and his most famous song Auf der Reeperbahn nachts um halb eins is something of an unofficial anthem for the area. Albers himself hardly ever put his foot on a boat.
Cinematographer Günther Rittau received lifetime award for his outstanding contribution to cinema in 1967. He is perhaps best known for having worked with Fritz Lang on Metropolis and Die Nibelungen (1924), and for Josef von Sternberg with The Blue Angel. Editor Wolfgang Becker later made a name for himself as a director, doing work on many TV series, such as the acclaimed crime dramas Der Alte and Derrick, and in 1978 he was rewarded for making the best German TV movie of the year. The film features an uncredited bit part by Fita Benkhoff, a very prolific actress known for numerous scene-stealing supporting roles, and one of German cinema’s leading film comedienne’s during the thirties and forties.
Gold was also made in a French language version as L’Or – with Helm represing her role. Extensive parts featuring the gold-making machine would later turn up in the American sci-fi film The Magnetic Monster in 1953, directed by German expat writer/director Kurt Siodmak, who wrote books and scripts for a whole slew of sci-fi’s and horror films, starting with F.P.1. Does Not Answer, and including The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review), The Wolf Man (1941), Riders to the Stars (1954, review), Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956), Donovan’s Brain (1953, review) and Hauser’s Memory (1970). Although I haven’t found clear confirmation of it, it does seem like parts of the gold-making machine were re-used for the creation of the giant killer robot in the German sci-fi film Der Herr der Welt (Master of the World, 1934, review), that was made shortly after Gold.
Gold. Germany, 1934. Directed by Karl Hartl. Written by Rolf E. Vanloo. Starring: Hans Albers, Brigitte Helm, Michael Bohnen, Friedrich Kayßler, Erns Karchow, Lien Deyers, Eberhard Leithoff, Rudolf Platte, Walter Steinbeck, Heinz Wemper, Hansjoachim Büttner, Erich Haußmann, Fita Benkhoff. Cinematography: Günther Rittau, Otto Baecker, Walter Bohne. Editing: Wolfgang Becker. Art direction: Otto Hunte. Music: Hans-Otto Borgmann. Makeup: Waldemar Jabs. Produced by Alfred Zeisler for UFA.