For today’s entry in our irregular Classic German Cinema Rewatch series, I use the term “classic” very loosely, because Das Schloß in Tirol (The Castle in Tyrol) from 1957 is not a classic by any measure. Indeed, I never planned to watch it at all. Alas, it showed up on TV instead of the film I was planning to watch to honour star Karlheinz Böhm on the occasion of his recent death. Why on Earth the TV station thought that airing this rather silly movie was the best way to honour Karlheinz Böhm, a man whose film career went from the Sissi movies of the 1950s via the classic thriller Peeping Tom in 1960 to Rainer Werner Fassbinder movies in the 1970s* to charity work in Ethiopia in the 1980s and beyond, will forever remain a mystery. I suspect it was the only movie starring Böhm for which they happened to have the rights.
And make no mistake, The Castle in Tyrol is a very silly film. It’s another entry into the perennially popular Heimatfilm genre, a genre that was not exactly notable for its high quality and thoughtful films. Instead, you mostly got high melodrama or gentle romantic comedies with a big dose of sentimentality and often rock-conservative morals, liberally peppered with stunning nature photography and random folk dance sequences.
The Castle in Tyrol falls on the comedic end of the Heimatfilm spectrum, since it is a typical comedy of mistaken identities. The young engineer Tom Stegmann (Karlheinz Böhm) wants to impress an American investor, so he hires a rundown castle in Tyrol (actually Castle Groppenstein, which is not in Tyrol at all, but in Carynthia) in order to play the master of the castle and fiancé of the lady of the house, since he unwisely told his American investor that he was engaged to an Austrian comtessa. Tom arrives at the castle, just as it is about to go under the hammer to pay for the debts racked up by generations of incompetent counts, and runs into lovely milkmaid Resi (Erika Remberg) who unbeknowst to Tom is the owner of the castle, Comtessa Therese. Since she desperately needs money, the Comtessa is only too happy to rent out the castle to Tom and even provide some personnel to go with it. And since Resi is such a nice young woman, the late Count’s debtors are only too happy to go along with the ruse and play staff at the castle. The local post mistress (Maria Andergast) also gets involved in the whole affair and poses as the Baroness, who is supposed to chaperon Tom and the comtessa.
Things get even more complicated when Tom’s fashion model fiancee Gloria arrives and immediately departs again to take part in a beauty pageant. So Tom is out of a bride, but luckily there is still Resi who’s both willing and able to pose as the comtessa. So basically we have a comtessa posing as a milkmaid who is posing as a comtessa. Given how silly the film is, the plot is surprisingly complicated.
But Tom and Resi both pretending to be people they’re not is not the only case of mistaken identity. For it turns out that the American investor Jackie Hover from Detroit (Gustav Knuth) who was born in Tyrol and emigrated as a child is not rich at all, but lost all of his money during a stock market crash (Was the script left over from the 1930s?). However, Mr Hover is not at all troubled by the fact that he lost all his money – on the contrary, he’s happier living the simple life in Tyrol than he ever was in Detroit. Because if there’s one message that all Heimatfilme have it’s that materialism is bad (also see the denunciation of the capitalist practices of Old Dag in Und ewig singen die Wälder) and that there’s no place like home, hence Mr Hover’s homesickness for Tyrol. What is more, he is also quite entranced by the baroness, who is really a post mistress posing as a baroness. Yes, I told you that the plot was complicated.
Eventually, the various charades, make believe games and hidden identities all come to light. Tom finds a portrait of Resi in full comtessa get-up that the old Count had painted and is surprisingly upset that Resi is not in fact a milkmaid. “He doesn’t like comtessas”, Resi muses at one point, “Maybe one of them bit him in the leg once.” Meanwhile, Jackie Hover confesses to Tom that he is not in fact rich and that he cannot invest in Tom’s great business scheme. So now both Tom and Resi face bankruptcy and the loss of everything they hold dear.
However, The Castle in Tyrol is a romantic comedy and so everything ends well after all. Tom finds another investor and gets a very good deal with some negotiation help by Jackie Hover and stops Resi just in time from selling off her castle to a slimy real estate developer, while Jackie Hover decides to stay in Austria with the post mistress.
The Castle in Tyrol certainly has the comedy part of romantic comedy down, since some of the dialogues are genuinely funny. For example, the slimy real estate developer informs Resi’s lawyer that he will tear down the castle to build a hotel with ski lift and swimming pool. “There will be no swimming and no pooling around here”, the lawyer replies. Or take the scene, where Jackie Hover finally confesses his love to the post mistress, while in mortal danger. “I want to spent the rest of my life with you. Unfortunately, it won’t be very long.”
If this comedy of mistaken identity was all there was to the movie, it would be just another forgettable romantic comedy. However, there is one ingredient that pushes The Castle in Tyrol from forgettable over into totally bonkers territory and that is helicopter stunts. Yes, this is a romantic comedy movie with helicopter stunts. The helicopter stunts were performed by the Austrian army, who – along with a Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the helicopter squad – is even credited in the titles.
For you see, the invention that Tom wants to sell to the American investor is an air taxi, which is supposed to bypass traffic jams. Tom has a model of a big helicopter, which is supposed to work as an air taxi shuttling passengers to and away from major airports. He also has a full size two-seater helicopter in bright red. At the point where Tom reveals his great plan to Resi, I said to the person next to me, “Wait a minute, this is a film about a guy who invented a flying car and wants to sell the patent to an investor. By 1957 standards, this is science fiction.”
Okay, so the flying car is really just a bog-standard helicopter for budget reasons, but Tom is very clear about the fact that he expects that everybody will own their own helicopter in the future. So yes, this is definitely. It’s the first SF Heimatfilm.
And Tom’s fire engine red helicopter gets a lot of workout – well, if they had to hire the helicopter from the Austrian army anyway, they might just as well use it. First of all, Tom invites Resi to a helicopter ride and uses the opportunity to demonstrate that his helicopter can waltz. Yes, this is a film about waltzing helicopters!
The waltzing involves the helicopter flying in waves and circles very low above the ground and circling around poles randomly rammed into a field just in case a waltzing helicopter happens by. During the helicopter waltz scene, we were literally sitting in front of the TV open-mouthed.
[The helicopter begins its waltz routine to the stains of "Wiener Blut" by Johann Strauß.]
Me: “Please don’t tell me Stanley Kubrick got the idea for the waltzing spaceships from 2001 by watching this.”
[The helicopter just waltzes very low across a wheat field.]
Me: “So that’s where crop circles come from.”
[A bit later]
Me: “So how come the Austrian army has a squad of dancing helicopters? What were they supposed to do, waltz the enemy to death?”
[Yet a bit later, when the helicopter goes into a nose dive.]
Me: “Oh my God, that’s the Austrian version of a Stuka dive bomber. Only that it’s a helicopter.”
After the big waltz sequence, the helicopter stunt pilots of the Austrian army get two more chances to show off their piloting skills. The first is when Jackie Hover, the American investor, retreats to the helicopter with the post mistress/baroness in search of some solitude and accidentally manages to start the helicopter (because pressing random buttons is a really great idea, when sitting in the cockpit of an aircraft you cannot fly), whereupon the helicopter launches into a madcap flight across the Austrian landscape. The second is a chase sequence, where Tom in his helicopter goes after Resi, who has taken a train to the nearest city to sell her castle to a slimy real estate developer. It’s the “Oh my God, I’ve just found the love of my life and now I’m going to lose him/her forever” mad dash at the end of every romantic comedy movie, only that this one escalates into a train versus helicopter race. The train thinks it has won, when it enters a tunnel, but of course the helicopter can just fly over the mountain and thus wins anyway. Cue happy ending.
Unfortunately, there are no clips of this movie online at all (which is a pity, because the waltzing helicopters must be seen to be believed), but this German film site has a few pictures.
After Und ewig singen die Wälder and this film, I am beginning to suspect that the Heimatfilm genre was made by directors and film crews under the influence of heavy duty drugs, because only drugs can explain the madness of the waltzing helicopters. I mean, can you imagine what the screenplay development was like for this film? “We have Karlheinz Böhm and a castle in Tyrol [well, really Carynthia] and a love story and waltzing helicopters, because what this film really needs is waltzing helicopters.”
The stunning thing is that Das Schloß in Tirol was not some obscure B-Movie. Karlheinz Böhm, Gustav Knuth, Maria Andergast and Erika Remberg were all A-list talent in 1950s German language filmmaking. And those helicopter stunts sure didn’t come cheap either.
All in all, The Castle in Tyrol is a monument to how downright bizarre German filmmaking could sometimes be in the 1950s and 1960s.
*In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film Martha from 1974, Karlheinz Böhm (together with Margit Carstensen) actually became the subject of the very first of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus famous orbiting shots where the camera circles around one or more actors. The scene in question can be seen here. Ballhaus brought the orbiting shot to Hollywood (here Ballhaus uses it to film Michella Pfeiffer, Jeff Bridges and a piano in The Fabulous Baker Boys) and it has been used countless of times since, e.g. during the massive final battle in The Avengers (the orbiting shot starts at 1:20). However, Martha was the very first time this technique was used. Don’t bother with watching the movie BTW (which stars Böhm as an abusive husband and Carstensen as his abused wife) – this scene is all you’ll ever need to see of Martha.