The German cinema of the 1950s and early 1960s is usually dismissed as escapist crap. This assessment is grossly unfair (I go a bit more into the reasons here) and causes a lot of the wonderful films to be dismissed or ignored.
One of the many underrated gems of German postwar cinema is Kurt Hoffmann’s 1958 adaption of Das Wirtshaus im Spessart (The Spessart Inn). While there certainly were many fine critical and serious movies made in postwar Germany, The Spessart Inn is not one of them. Instead, The Spessart Inn is pure escapism, albeit with some hidden depths (more on that later), a frothy historical romance loosely based on the eponymous 1828 fairytale by Wilhelm Hauff, a German romantic writer who specialized in fairy tales and historical fiction who might have become Germany’s Sir Walter Scott, had he not died at the age of 25.
Director Kurt Hoffmann sticks to the basic plot of Hauff’s tale about two traveling journeymen who spend the night at a sinister inn in the Spessart woods in Southern Germany, which are beset by robbers and bandits. At the inn, the journeymen meet a travelling Comtessa and her retinue, who have gotten stuck after a wheel of the Comtessa’s coach broke. When the robbers appear to take the Comtessa hostage, one of the journeymen switches clothes with her, allowing her to escape and get help. Hoffmann and his scriptwriters take some liberties with the plot. For while the Comtessa in Hauff’s tale is a matronly married lady, Hoffmann’s Comtessa is a young woman (played by Swiss actress Liselotte Pulver, then 28) and therefore much more suited to the part of a romantic heroine. Never mind that the crossdressing and mistaken identity plot at the heart of the story wouldn’t work nearly as well with an older woman.
Hoffmann also omits the stories told by the travelers staying at the inn, who tell fairytales to avoid falling asleep (The Spessart Inn is the framing story for a fairytale collection similar to Arabian Nights), though he does manage to maintain the feel and structure of the orally told fairytale via an unusual narrative device. For the tale of the Spessart robbers is told in installments by a wandering balladeer delightfully played by Rudolf Vogel. Wandering balladeers, known as Moritaten- or Bänkelsänger, have a long tradition in Germany. These balladeers traveled from town to town and publicly performed stories in ballad form, often accompanied by a sort of early comic strip on large display posters to illustrate the ballad. The balladeers were a sort of early news medium and so many of the ballads were supposedly based on true events (usually loosely). They inevitably contained large doses of blood and guts, murder and death, true love and danger, i.e. all the things that make for good entertainment. There usually was a moral message, too, so things wouldn’t get too entertaining. The texts of a couple of old ballads may be found here, while here is a YouTube channel devoted to contemporary performances of old ballads (warning, going by the titles some of the songs may be politically problematic).
The ballad as a news medium gradually declined in importance, as newspapers became more plentiful and more people were actually able to read them, though wandering balladeers still existed into the 1930s, though now primarily serving as entertainers. The Threepenny Opera by Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill, which premiered in 1928, was strongly influenced by those old ballads and the famous song of “Mack the Knife” is a typical example of the genre. The balladeering tradition was killed off, like so many other good things, by the Nazis who neither liked itinerant people nor songs that could be (and were) used as political commentary. However, there were still people who remembered and so the ballad made an unlikely comeback in postwar Germany on the stages of the Kabarett theatres, which specialized in political satire, and also in the cinema of the time. The songs of the balladeers also survived and were still sung in homes well into the 1970s and 1980s. When I was a child, my Mom sang ballads that were likely more than a century old at that point to me. Unfortunately, she tended to forget the lyrics, which rather spoiled the effect.
Postwar German cinema was rather fond of the ballad as a framing device and commentary on the plot. Kurt Hoffmann used the ballad in Wir Wunderkinder (Aren’t we wonderful?) in 1958 as a cutting commentary on how certain unscrupulous individuals managed to survive every regime change in German history, while honest folks could never catch a break (a common topic in German postwar cinema). The ballad used as a framing device also shows up in Das Mädchen Rosemarie (The Girl Rosemarie), another 1958 classic based on the true story of a high-class prostitute in 1950s West Germany whose murder in 1957 remains unresolved to this day, likely because the police was unwilling to investigate the lady’s high society clients.
Both Wir Wunderkinder and Das Mädchen Rosemarie are hardhitting commentaries on the political situation in 1950s West Germany (and belie the charge that postwar German cinema was escapist crap. They’re both well worth watching, too, if you can find them) and the use of ballads as a framing device and commentary very much contributes to this. Meanwhile, The Spessart Inn uses the ballad in its original sense, as a way of telling a romantic story full of death and slaughter and true love, which may or may not be true.
The music is by Franz Grothe, a prolific German film and operetta composer. Going by the music alone, it’s hard to imagine that this film was made at a time when Elvis Presley was already rocking jailhouses and hound dogs, while Bill Haley was rocking around the clock, and that the Beatles would arrive in Hamburg only two years later. For while the music is many things, modern is not one of them. Instead, the music and songs are written in the style of the operetta and not the jazzier operetta of the 1920s and 1930s either, but the sweetly postwar operetta of the Robert Stolz type. However, the operetta style suits The Spessart Inn, for the fairytale like story of dashing robbers and beautiful comtessas in the dark woods is pure operetta. Never mind that the operetta is an unfairly neglected artform, much like German postwar cinema. And that the music is old-fashioned does not make it bad. Quite the contrary, it’s very good indeed. Grothe really nails the style of the traditional ballad and particularly the opening ballad as well as the song of the two robbers are delightfully catchy tunes that you will find yourself humming for days after watching the movie. The cast are primarily actors rather than singers, but their not quite perfect voices work just fine here. And unlike other musical films, which are marred by characters randomly breaking out into song, the songs are well integrated into the plot here. The use of incidental music is excellent as well. Particular highlights are the use of George Bizet’s “Torreador” in a scene where a group of frightened men tries to sneak down a staircase to escape the robber-besieged inn as well as the use of classic marching band music (it’s a famous march, too, though I can’t place it) to replace the dialogue of a pompous army colonel.
After a delightful animated title sequence, which is a little work of art in itself, The Spessart Inn opens in full blown gothic mode with wandering Italian (the gentleman’s ethnicity will eventually become a plotpoint) balladeer Parucchio singing his tale of the horrible and bloodthirsty robbers of the Spessart woods on the historic market square of the town of Miltenberg, which still displays some postwar grimness and grimyness. Once Parucchio has sung the opening verse of his ballad, a messenger appears to report that the robbers have struck again and robbed Count von Sandau. The messenger also posts a Wanted poster offering the ridiculously low reward of 20 Gulden for apprehending the robbers. This tiny sequence both serves to tell the audience that the robbers are a real threat (because Parucchio, while delightful, does not look exactly trustworthy) and that Count von Sandau is so tightfisted he would make pre-ghost-visitation Scrooge seem generous by comparison.
The focus now shifts to the two travelling journeymen Felix (Helmuth Lohner) and Peter (played by popular comedian and voice actor Hans Clarin) who must cross the Spessart wood and are understandably terrified. The next scene sees Felix and Peter wandering through the mist-shrouded woods, which are shot to look as foreboding and terrifying as possible. They come upon a signpost pointing towards a village with the trust inducing name Mordgrund (murder ground, which is apparently a real townname in the region) and a roadside shrine commemorating a previous victim of the robbers. Even more terrifyingly, they encounter the robber gang itself, riding through the woods on horseback in full gallop.
The scene now shifts again to Knoll and Funzel, two members of the robber gang played by Wolfgang Neuss and Wolfgang Müller, a popular German musical comedy duo of the 1950s. Knoll and Funzel have been ordered to dig a pit to entrap a carriage, which is hard work they resent. Besides, what Knoll and Funzel really want is to live peaceful lives as peaceful burghers, as they explain in the delightful song “Ach das könnte schön sein…” (Oh, wouldn’t it be nice…). The first ten minutes of the movie with the first verse of the ballad as performed by Rudolf Vogel as well as Knoll and Funzel singing about the peaceful lives they envision for themselves may be seen on YouTube here. The full movie is also available on YouTube, albeit only in German without subtitles.
Now Knoll and Funzel are about as far from the image of the scary and bloodthristy robber painted by balladeer Parucchio as you can get, more Robber Hotzenplotz (though the book postdates the movie) than dangerous bandits. What is more, their desire to live peaceful lives as peaceful citizens is an interesting commentary both on the time the film is set (around 1830) as well as the time it was made. For the so-called Biedermeier era, the time between the Congress of Vienna/the end of the Napoleonic wars and the revolution of 1848, was both a time of brutal repression of any sort of political dissent and a time where the people living in the many small states and kingdoms that would eventually make up Germany retreated into their quiet private lives, lived in pretty houses with pretty furniture and wore fluffy crinolined dresses and only wanted to forget both the bloodshed and political uproar of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars as well as the dashed hopes for political reform. Any parallels to the situation in 1950s Germany are total coincidence. The Biedermeier was a time where the ideal was the quiet petit-bourgeois life, an ideal that is shared even by the bandits Knoll and Funzel in the film. And indeed the costumes and hairstyles, particularly those worn by the female extras, are a surprisingly accurate (by 1950s standards) representation of the fashion of the Biedermeier era with its high-collared jackets and tophats for the gentlemen and crinolined skirts and overblown hairstyles with braids, curls and topknots for the ladies. Again, any parallels to the iconic petticoat look of the 1950s are totally coincidental.
The pit dug by Knoll and Funzel is supposed to entrap a carriage carrying the Comtessa Franziska, daughter of Count von Sandau, as well as her maid Barbara, her fiancé Baron Sperling (whose name means sparrow in German and is a rather accurate description of the gentleman in question) and a pompous priest who mostly communicates in quoted Bible verses (My favourite is when the priest points out in response to the threat posed by the robbers that the prophet Jonah even survived inside the belly of a whale, whereupon Franziska replies, “Well, there weren’t any robbers inside the whale”). Franziska is not marrying Baron Sperling out of love (and indeed the Baron has all the personality of a sleeping pill) but to help out her perpetually indebted father. Besides, the Baron has given her some jewellery “that’s older, but rather nice” (“An accurate description of the Baron”, Franziska says. “I was talking about jewellery”, her maid replies). Once the carriage lands in the trap, everybody is worried about the robbers, though Baron Sperling assures Franziska that he will protect her. Unfortunately, the Baron doesn’t even know where to point his gun. While the carriage is being repaired, robbers Knoll and Funzel just happen to pass by, pretending to be the peaceful burghers they would like to be, and helpfully point out that there is an inn in the middle of the Spessart wood, where they party can find shelter.
The inn is another marvelously gothic setting, complete with a creepy innkeeper couple (he looks like Hodor from Game of Thrones, she looks like every wicked witch ever), who are in league with the robbers and tip them off about wealthy travelers. The two journeymen Peter and Felix are also staying at the inn, much to the consternation of the innkeepers who want them gone, so they won’t interfere with the planned coup. Balladeer Parucchio also shows up to sing another verse of his ballad about the robbers, wherein we learn that Parucchio was once the valet of a young Italian nobleman and that his master was kidnapped by the robbers, whereas Parucchio managed to escape. When the innkeepers’ daughter slips a note of warning to Felix and Peter, Parucchio leaves, preferring to sleep in the woods with his wagon and his dancing bear. “Bears are excellent deterrents against robbers”, he says. Felix and Peter are still arguing whether to leave as well, when the Comtessa and her party show up. Felix is quite taken with the Comtessa’s maid Barbara and so decides to warn them off the robbers. Soon, everybody is holed up in the Comtessa’s room, debating what to do now and how to escape, when the robbers appear at the inn, led by their dashing Captain (played by Argentinian actor Carlos Thompson).
Felix, Peter and Baron Sperling prove to be pretty much useless against the robbers, whereas Franziska snatches the Baron’s pistol and threatens the robbers. Alas, the robbers are not impressed and inform the party that they will let everybody else go, but keep the Comtessa Franziska as a hostage to be released when her father pays the robbers the princely sum of twenty thousand Gulden. No one in the party has that much money and Franziska is understandably terrified to stay with the robbers, especially since some of the more uncouth members of the gang have informed her that she will be hanged, if her father does not pay up. So Franziska switches clothes with Felix, who then stays with the robbers as a hostage along with Barbara and the priest. Baron Sperling is sent off to get the ransom money, while Franziska, now dressed as a boy, and Peter try to sneak out via the backdoor. However, they are caught by the robbers, whose Captain seems very taken with the two young men and even offers Franziska, who now calls herself Franz, to stay with the gang. However, Franziska and Peter manages to knock out two of the robbers and escape, “borrowing” the horses of Knoll and Funzel (who promptly complain about bold thieves who know no respect) in the process.
Still dressed as a boy, Franziska returns to her father’s castle (the castle scenes were shot at beautiful Mespelbrunn castle in the Spessart woods), hoping to persuade him to pay the ransom to free her friends. However, the tightfisted Count has no intention of paying the ransom and instead calls in the army, whereupon Franziska decides to free her friends herself by taking up the robber captain’s offer to join his gang. Since she does not know where the robbers hide-out is, Franziska returns to the inn, where she regals Knoll and Funzel with tales of her (entirely imaginary) exploits of robbing a mail coach and its passengers. She also offer proof in the form of two rings supposedly stolen from a jeweler who was a passenger aboard the coach. Since Knoll and Funzel are not the sharpest knives in the drawer, they take Franziska back to their leader, who is not remotely fooled by her disguise, but takes her on as his new personal servant anyway.
The film has lots of fun with its crossdressing plot and also offers some neat acting from Helmut Lohner who has problems maintaining a ladylike posture, plus his beard gets in the way, and Liselotte Pulver who is desperately trying to convince everybody that she is a man and yet is about as successful as Arya in Game of Thrones in her ruse. Her utter cluelessness in how to deal with men’s clothing and shaving provides lots of comic relief. Liselotte Pulver was a popular casting choice for tomboyish characters in the 1950s and 1960s and would indeed play another crossdressing heroine two years later in the (bloody depressing) Thirty-Years-War set melodrama Gustav Adolfs Page (Gustav Adolf’s Page). Indeed, it’s only the fact that Liselotte Pulver is more on the slim and boyish side and that Helmut Lohner, then 25, is not just slight and looks very young, but can also hide his face under the veil of the Comtessa’s bonnet that allows them to pull off the ruse at all. Now crossdressing plots can sometimes seem far-fetched, though they have some basis in fact, for in history there are many documented cases of people who dressed up as the opposite gender and remained undetected for a long time. As always with crossdressing plots, there is some mild sexual frisson, since the robbers lock up Felix, dressed as the Comtessa, and Barbara in the same cell, while Franziska is forced to share not just a tent but a bed with the dashing robber captain (which gives us a chance to see the bare chest of 1950s heartthrob Carlos Thompson). It’s all rather harmless, though if you watch closely, you’ll notice that it is implied that both Felix and Barbara as well as Franziska and the robber captain have sex. The priest is rather appalled by it all, but absolutely no one listens to him. Meanwhile, the homoerotic implications (Did the captain see through Franziska’s disguise at once or is he habitually so taken by handsome young lads that he wants to take them to his tent or bed?) were completely lost on my younger self, though they are very obvious when watching the film as an adult.
Now the dashing and romantic robber was something of a popular archetype in late 18th and early 19th century literature. Examples include Friedrich Schiller’s The Robbers. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen (which is partly set in Miltenberg and includes one of the most famous rude quotes in German literary history) as well as Rinaldo Rinaldini by Goethe’s more famous (in their lifetimes) brother-in-law Christian August Vulpius. Wilhelm Hauff was drawing on these models when he wrote The Spessart Inn. What is more, banditry was a genuine problem in the chaotic times following the Napoleonic War, including in the Spessart wood. And some real life outlaws such as Johannes Bückler, also known as Schinderhannes, became folk heroes. Many of those tales were still well known in 1950s Germany, indeed the story of the Schinderhannes was filmed in the same year as The Spessart Inn, starring Curd Jürgens and Maria Schell. And indeed the archetype of the romantic robber is one I am very familiar from my youth (Hostage to Passion was definitely influenced by The Spessart Inn), though I mostly got it via second and third hand sources.
Most tales of heroic outlaws, whether factual or fictional, end tragically. Schiller’s The Robbers pretty much kills off its entire cast, mostly by suicide. Götz von Berlichingen dies in prison and the real life Schinderhannes was guillotined with much of his gang. But since The Spessart Inn is a lighter take on the tale of the romantic outlaw, nothing really horrible happens to anybody. And so the robber captain is not just dashing and handsome, but also reluctant to hurt anybody, much to the consternation of his followers. “Compare that to our old leader”, Knoll and Funzel lament, “Sure, he was crazy, but at least he got things done.” Any parallels to real life political situations are of course entirely coincidental. The more radical of the robbers, led by the captain’s second-in-command, talk a lot about hanging their captives, but the closest they ever get to it is draping a noose over a branch. And even a brief moment of shock when the fake Comtessa is revealed as a man by a nosy female member of the robber gang (played by Kai Fischer who played bad girl characters in many German films of the period), is quickly smoothed over, when Felix and Franziska switch their identities back.
The situation threatens to come to a head, when the army, called in by Franziska’s father, advances towards the robbers’ camp. The army is headed by a Colonel played by Hubertus von Meyerinck, an actor who is best remembered today for playing Sir Arthur, head of Scotland Yard, in many of the Edgar Wallace films of the 1960s. Meyerinck’s Colonel is a pompous idiot without any brain to speak of, who really loves giving orders. Indeed, much of his dialogue is replaced by marching band sounds, while his catchphrase is “Zack, zack” (Quick, quick). The Colonel is a good example of how soldiers, particularly higher ranking officers in love with their own importance and with giving orders, were viewed in war weary postwar Germany.
To be fair, the Colonel’s plan to stake out the Spessart Inn where Baron Sperling is supposed to hand over the ransom money (Count von Sandau agreed to pay up after all, once his daughter took off to join the robbers) and then follow the robbers to their lair isn’t all that bad, though it is foiled by Knoll and Funzel who plan to keep the ransom money for themselves (to finance the peaceful life they crave) and by Baron Sperling who gets very, very drunk. When the army surrounds the inn, Knoll and Funzel manage to talk their way out of trouble by claiming that they came upon the drunken Baron and the ransom money and want to return both to their rightful owner in exchange for a nice cushy post.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, the robbers are getting antsy and decide to hang their prisoners now. The robber captain has no desire to hang either Franziska or anybody else, so he sides with the prisoners against his own gang. The priest is sent for help, while Felix, Franziska, Barbara and the captain fight off the entire gang. When they are just about finished, the army finally arrives. The Colonel is quick to claim the victory for himself, while the captain takes off on a horse, taking Franziska with him.
Franziska and the captain sneak back into her father’s castle (which is not all that smart, come to think of it), where Franziska hides the captain in the tower. They have a heart to heart and the captain delivers verse three of the ballad, telling how an old Italian nobleman once lent a lot of money to Franziska’s father, Count von Sandau. When the Count refused to pay back his debts, the old nobleman died and his son set off with his trusty valet Parucchio to force the Count to pay back his debts. However, on the way they are attacked by robbers and the young nobleman was taken prisoner. Since he cannot afford to pay ransom, the robbers are about to hang him. He is saved by a timely thunderstorm and the robbers, being a superstitious lot, decide to take that as a sign that the young Italian count is fated to be their new captain. The young nobleman accepts, because – as he tells Franziska – it’s better to be a robber than dead.
However, Franziska is still engaged to marry Baron Sperling (who was returned to the Count along with part of the ransom money by Knoll and Funzel). Even worse, the army arrives to apprehend the robber captain (because hiding your robber boyfriend in your Dad’s castle is never a good idea, particularly not when you ride off with him in front of the nose of an army colonel). The soldiers search the castle, but the robber captain escapes by swimming the moat hidden underneath a hollowed out ornamental swan. Back in the town of Miltenberg he is finally reunited with Parucchio, who is once again presenting his ballad. Together, they decide to abduct Franziska before she is married to Baron Sperling. Parucchio and the robber captain (whose real name is Count Patrizio) manage to sneak into the castle under the guise of providing entertainment for the wedding. Franziska recognizes the captain’s voice and locks her father in her room, while Felix locks the Baron and the priest in the chapel (“I don’t know what this is supposed to mean”, the outraged priest exclaims. “I do”, the resigned Baron answers). Franziska takes off with the captain, who can’t resist to inform her father that he is Count Patrizio. “You’ll get your money”, Franziska’s father promises. “Forget it”, the captain replies, “I’ve got the greater treasure.” The film then ends with Parucchio singing the final verse of his ballad.
It’s a true happily ever after ending for everybody. Even the capture of the remaining robbers (only the captain as well as Knoll and Funzel escape) happens off screen. We never learn of their fate, though going by historical precendent they would likely have been executed either by hanging or guillotining or by axe, depending upon what the local Duke preferred (Breaking on the wheel was still occasionally done, too, but was definitely on its way out). But such a grim ending, even for the villainous characters, would ruin the mood of such a frothy delight as The Spessart Inn.
That said, considering how conventional and authoritarian the 1950s were in West Germany, it’s interesting that there is a strong anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian streak running through the films of the time. Indeed, a lot of German films of the 1950s focus on the conflict between the essentially decent little man (or sometimes little woman) against a corrupt, inept and hypocritical establishment that survives even drastic regime changes largely unscathed. Many of the German postwar classics I already mentioned, Wir Wunderkinder, Das Mädchen Rosemarie and the wonderful Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (Roses for the Prosecutor) from 1960, are variations on this theme and deal with the many Nazi officials who nonetheless managed to make a career for themselves in postwar Germany, while their erstwhile victims still struggle. The Spessart Inn is a fantasy take on the same theme, transposed into the Biedermeier era of the post-Napoleonic restauration. Indeed, it’s interesting that all of the likable characters, such as the balladeer Parucchio and the two journeymen Felix and Peter, are itinerants and vagrants, barely a step above the robbers on the social ladder themselves. Meanwhile, the representatives of the authority are all inept or crooks or both. Count von Sandau is not just a tightfisted Scrooge, but – as it turns out – a thief who cheats a fellow nobleman out of his money by not repaying his debts. The army colonel is a pompous idiot. The priest dispenses Bible verses which are absolutely no help to anybody. His moral objections to the going-ons are ignored. Baron Sperling is not just terminally dull, but completely inept and unable to protect his bride. The only likable aristocratic characters are Franziska, who is treated like a bargaining chip by her father to pay off some more of his debts, and the robber captain, who lost everything, his wealth, his title and even his name, and was forced to become an outlaw to survive. There is a touching scene where the captain asks Franziska, who is still pretending to be a boy, what made a journeymen goldsmith become a highwayman. “We all used to be something better”, she replies wistfully. It’s a sentiment that many in postwar Germany – people who lost everything in the war, people who had their homes bombed, people who were forced to flee on foot from Silesia or Eastern Prussia or Pommerania and became vagrants themselves – could sympathize with.
The Spessart Inn was so successful that it begot two sequels, Das Spukschloss im Spessart (The haunted castle in the Spessart) in 1960 and Herrliche Zeiten im Spessart (Wonderful Times in the Spessart) in 1967. There is also a soft-porn parody called Das Lustschloss im Spessart (The pleasure castle in the Spessart). Spukschloss is set in contemporary times and features the ghosts of the robbers of old (including once again Wolfgang Neuss and Wolfgang Müller a.k.a. Knoll and Funzel) trying to help the current Comtessa (once again played by Liselotte Pulver) who is in danger of losing her castle to the debts she inherited from her late father. Spukschloss is enjoyable in itself and the political and social satire about the situation in postwar Germany is a lot more hardhitting than in The Spessart Inn. Indeed, rewatching it as an adult, I was stunned by how critical it was. Alas, Spukschloss is marred by a truly cringeworthy performance of Hans Clarin as an oriental prince which was a racist caricature even at a time when characters of colour were routinely played by white actors. I don’t remember a thing about Herrlichen Zeiten, though I have seen it. Lustschloss is bad in a way that only 1970s German soft-porn can be bad.
The Spessart Inn, however, is a true gem. In spite of some sly commentary on postwar West Germany, mostly dispensed by Knoll and Funzel, it is definitely an example of the escapist streak of postwar German cinema. However, it is escapism at it’s very best, extremely well made and still holding up after more than fifty years. Highly recommended, particularly if you like fairytales and historical romances about dashing highwaymen.