It’s time again for my irregular series of reviews of more or less classic German films from the 1950s and 1960s (maybe I should reorganize the posts as a proper series for easier reference). For more vintage German cinema, complete with links to full movies on YouTube, see this post.
Today’s classic German movie is Und ewig singen die Wälder (Duel with Death) from 1959, though a more literal translation of the title would be “And the woods sing forever”.
Und ewig singen die Wälder is a typical and somewhat above average example of that quintessentially German genre, the Heimatfilm (homeland movie), melodramatic tales of romance and family set against the backdrop of the spectacular scenery of the Alps or sometimes the Black Forest or the Lüneburg Heath. Heimatfilme are a large part of the reason why the West German cinema of the 1950s and 1960s has such a bad reputation, because most of them were sentimental, melodramatic, possessed of a simplicistic black and white morality (the message was usually, “There’s no place like home”) and often flat out silly. However, Heimatfilme also offered stunning nature footage (My Mom once told me that the nature footage was a large part of the reason people watched these films) and sometimes top-notch actors.
Und ewig singen die Wälder definitely boasts top-notch acting talent, since it stars Gert Fröbe (best known to international audiences as Auric Goldfinger from the eponymous Bond film), Hansjörg Felmy in a much too brief role, Joachim Hansen, the wonderful 1950s and 1960s villain Carl Lange in semi-sympathetic role for once and finally Swedish actress Maj-Britt Nilsson who also appeared in Ingmar Bergman films and was so popular in Germany that you’ll find a lot of women in their early 50s named Maj-Britt. As usual, Gert Fröbe steals the film, though Hansjörg Felmy would have come close, if his character hadn’t been killed of in the first twenty minutes.
Nonetheless, Und ewig singen die Wälder is unusual for a Heimatfilm, since it’s not set in Germany, Austria or Switzerland, as normal for the genre, but in Norway. Indeed, the movie is based on the first part of the Björndal trilogy by Norwegian writer Trygve Gulbranssen. The Björndal trilogy was written in the 1930s and was a massive worldwide success well into the 1950s. The German edition, which is a duology for reasons unknown, was published by the Bertelsmann book club and was a staple on German bookshelves in the 1950s and 1960s. Vintage hardcover editions still show up regularly on fleamarkets and in used book stores, though the trilogy itself is largely forgotten, at least in Germany.
In its day, the film adaption Und ewig singen die Wälder was a huge success as well. It drew an audience of seven million people into the theatres, which would put it in the top 5 of most successful German films of all time, except that the official list only begins in 1968 and is essentially useless, since it misses out on the era of mass audiences in the 1950s and early 1960s. The film also spawned a sequel entitled Das Erbe von Björndal (The legacy of Björndal) in 1960. Here is a fascinating review from Der Spiegel from 1960, which also addresses the popularity of adaptations of popular novels (many of which are forgotten fifty years later) in the late 1950s.
So how does the most successful German movie of 1959, a film which thrilled seven million cinema goers, hold up 55 years later? The answer is surprisingly well. For Und ewig singen to Wälder is thoroughly entertaining. It is also stark raving mad.
Romance, melodrama, thrilling action, stunning nature photography, antique furniture, folkdance interludes, innocent maidens and scheming villainesses, Christian sermons and anti-capitalist commentary, this film has it all in liberal doses. There are waterfalls, thrilling carriage chases on narrow mountain roads, duels on the edges of a bottomless abyss, fights against bears, sleighrides by torchlight in the snow, births, marriages, deaths, fires, musical interludes and a Christmas mass. I’m not sure how much of this is actually in Trygve Gulbranssen’s books, but the film adaptation certainly throws in everything and the kitchen sink as well.
So what’s the film actually about? Well, there is old Dag (Gert Fröbe), a wealthy farmer who lives on his estate Björndal with his two sons, Tore (Hansjörg Felmy), who’s charming, adventurous and a ladies man, and young Dag (Joachim Hansen), who likes hunting and making fur coats (really) and dreams of running away to sea, because his father totally prefers Tore. Interestingly, it took us about half the film to figure out that there were two characters named Dag, father and son. Up to that point, we had been calling the younger son Loki, for obvious reasons.
Old Dag is not a very pleasant person. For starters, he’s a crap dad who prefers one son to the other and also relentlessly hits on his daughter-in-law, which is really freaking creepy. Then he is a ruthless capitalist who kindly lends money to other farmers in trouble and then forecloses them to add their lands to his growing empire. What is more, Old Dag is an atheist and refuses to go to church ever since his wife died in childbirth ages ago. Atheism and refusing to go to church are very bad things, as the film repeatedly reminds us. Worse, Old Dag is also the sort of really annoying atheist who even hits a priest at one point (well, the priest sort of asked for it by being unberably sanctimonious). Finally, Old Dag has a massive inferiority complex towards his neighbour, an impoverished nobleman named Count von Gall (Carl Lange) who lives on the estate Borkland and looks down his nose at Old Dag and his sons.
So yes, Old Dag is not supposed to be likable. He even has a nasty scar on his face from an ill-fated encounter with a bear. However, Old Dag is also played by Gert Fröbe, who is an excellent actor and basically steals every scene he’s in. And since we’ve all seen Gert Fröbe in full-on villain mode in Goldfinger or The Green Archer or It happened in the bright light of day or Robber Hotzenplotz, we know what Gert Fröbe in villain mode looks like and Old Dag is not it.
Dag’s oldest son Tore shares his father’s permanent rivalry with the noble von Gall family, a rivalry which expresses itself in a thrilling carriage chase scene on a narrow mountain road in the first fw minutes of the film. However, Tore is also fascinated by Elisabeth von Gall (Anna Smolik), the haughty daughter of the old Count, and keeps flirting with her, much to the consternation of Elisabeth’s fiancé Lieutenant Markas. At a party at yet another neighbouring estate (that is never mentioned again), Tore dances with Elisabeth during the folkdance interlude that was practically obligatory for the Heimatfilm genre. The chemistry between the two is fabulous and they generate so many sparks that they probably could’ve powered Björndal, Borkland and all neighbouring farms. However, Elisabeth is still engaged to Lieutenant Markas, who promptly challenges Tore to a duel at the edge of an abyss high above a wild mountain stream (because why should you hold your duels in a more convenient place?). Tore grabs his horsewhip and goes all Indiana Jones on Markas. However, this is Und ewig singen die Wälder and not Indiana Jones, so Tore loses, when Markas stabs him with his sabre and throws him into the abyss. This happens approximately twenty minutes into the movie and is the last we see of Tore. And a pity it is, too, because Tore as played by Hansjörg Felmy is so much more interesting than his bland brother Dag.
Lieutenant Markas also vanishes promptly thereafter (we later learn that he died offscreen by falling from his horse) and Elisabeth von Gall is transformed from a coquettish miss into a red-garbed harpy. She spends the remains of the film screaching and complaining and plotting revenge against those of Björndal (ironically because she loved Tore and is furious that he’s dead) and generally doing her best villainess impression. Elisabeth always wears red, whenever she appears, and usually looks magnificent. Oh yes, and she wears trousers in complete defiance of historical accuracy. Not that the movie, which is supposed to be set in the 19th century, has a whole lot of that. In short, Elisabeth is your typical movie bad girl. And as it is so often with German films of the 1950s and 1960s, the bad girl is a lot more interesting than her good girl counterpart. Indeed, the film would have been much better with Tore and Elisabeth as the protagonists. Alas, Tore falls into a bottomless abyss and is never seen again, while Elisabeth eventually sets her estate Borkland on fire to prevent Dag from getting his fingers on it and expires in the flames, looking very mad, whereupon Old Dag reacts with a gleeful “Ding, dong, the witch is dead” impression.
However, the true protagonist of the movie is not Tore but his younger and duller brother Dag. Dag the younger spends most of the early parts of the movie sulking, hunting and talking about running away to sea. He goes on a bear hunt and is severely wounded. However, young Dag is lucky, because he is found by Colonel Barre (Hans Nielsen) and his angelic daughter Adelheid (Maj-Britt Nilsson). Colonel Barre and Adelheid are poor relations of Count von Gall. However, Adelheid accidentally overhears Elisabeth and her fiancé arguing about the death of Tore and is appalled. She is even more appalled that Elisabeth claims she doesn’t know what happened to Tore, when his father comes asking for him. But in spite of being appalled, Adelheid never tells Old Dag about Tore’s death either, even though she later lives at Björndal. However, Adelheid’s moral indignation is sufficient to make her insist that she and her father leave Borkland at once. And while on their way home, they find the injured young Dag, take him back to Björndal and stay on, Colonel Barre because Old Dag offers him lots of food and gin (Colonel Barre is a stereotypical humorous drunk) and Adelheid to nurse young Dag back to health.
The two Dags decide to thank Adelheid by inviting her and her father to Björndal for Christmas. Young Dag also makes a fur coat for Adelheid, while he’s sulking in his cabin in the woods (young Dag does a lot of sulking), while Old Dag presents Adelheid with a precious necklace that once belonged to his wife. The angelic Adelheid also persuades Old Dag and entourage to attend Christmas mass for the first time in thirty years or so. Afterwards, Adelheid and Young Dag are married, following some pressure by Old Dag, because Young Dag is something of a bumbler.
Alas, the blissful happiness is soon interrupted, because Old Dag has the habit of hitting on his new daughter-in-law, which is just as creepy as it sounds. What is more, Old Dag agrees to a lucrative but risky business deal which requires him to deliver a lot of timber within a very short time frame. And the only way Old Dag can deliver his timber is via the river that is controlled by the von Gall family. Elisabeth von Gall now sees her chance for revenge (against whom, since she was supposedly in love with Tore and neither Old Dag nor Young Dag nor Adelheid are responsible for his death?) and flat out forbids Old Dag and his people from using the river. She also enforces this ban with a rifle. However, Old Dag has the marvelous idea to bypass the holdings of the von Gall family and simply hurl his freshly cut timber over the nearest waterfall, which leads to a marvellous bit of nature photography. One of Old Dag’s men gets killed during this operation, which so infuriates Young Dag that he runs away to sea after all, leaving his pregnant wife alone.
Adelheid meanwhile is so annoyed with Old Dag’s persistent hitting on her as well as appalled at his “ding dong, the witch is dead” routine after the fiery death of Elisabeth (never mind that Adelheid couldn’t stand Elisabeth in life) that she moves out as well and returns to the city to stay with her father. Young Dag returns from sea, finds a very pregnant Adelheid at her father’s home and together they move back to Young Dag’s hunting cabin in the woods, where Adelheid has her baby, a boy whom the couple promptly names Tore after Dag’s doomed brother.
Meanwhile, Old Dag is much mellowed by everybody running out on him. He decides not foreclose Count von Gall (which does the Count a fat lot of good, since his estate was burned to the ground by the insane Elisabeth) and even makes the arduous trek up to Young Dag’s cabin, where he promptly expires after having laid eyes on his newborn grandson Tore. And the woods sing forever…
I’m being quite snarky here about Young Dag and Adelheid (well, how could you not be snarky about that plot), but that is quite unfair, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with Maj-Britt Nilsson’s performance as Adelheid. Adelheid is simply not very interesting, because her main characteristic is goodness. Young Dag is something of a jerk, when he leaves his pregnant wife alone to run away to sea, but otherwise he is a decent sort. Unfortunately, Joachim Hansen also plays him with terminal blandness. There actually is a lot more chemistry between Adelheid and Old Dag, which leads to all sorts of creepy subtexts, because Young Dag is just so dull.
However, like most Heimatfilme one doesn’t watch Und ewig singen die Wälder for the plot, but for the visual spectacle. And this movie really dishes up the spectacle. The music is hyperdramatic. The nature photography, shot on location in Norway, is absolutely stunning. The interiors are full of so-called “Bauernmöbel”, striking furniture hand-painted with flowers and other ornaments (here is an example). Young Dag’s hunting cabin in the woods has furniture made from tree stumps and roots. The people of Björndal wear clothes made of leather and fur, Elisabeth always appeared garbed in blood red, the tunics of the military men are a deep rich green. Combined, the effect is a nigh hallucinatory riot of colour with a beautiful Agfacolor tint.
Indeed, Und ewig singen die Wälder is not so much a movie, but a look into a parallel universe, a universe where the colours are more vivid, the behaviour of the characters makes sense and 19th century Norway really looked like that. It’s extremely entertaining and also very, very weird. A true acid trip of a film that – unlike e.g. 2001 – A Space Odyssey – actually had a plot, even if it is a hypermelodramatic one. It’s a hallucinatory soap opera.
Unfortunately, the movie is not available online. But the original theatrical trailer, whose narration is almost as hyperbolic as the movie itself, may be found on YouTube and gives a good impression of what the movie is like (though sadly the colours are much faded, since the movie was restored and the trailer wasn’t).