Thoughts on a film: Hotel Berlin

hotelberlinJust watched an interesting film called Hotel Berlin, which came out in 1945, just about the time the war was ending. It is interesting for a variety of reasons.

It is from a novel by Vicki Baum, a Jewish Austrian writer who came to the U.S. in 1932 when her novel Grand Hotel was being made into a Hollywood film, and then who (quite naturally, under the circumstances) chose to stay. The novel from which Hotel Berlin was taken was actually written as a follow-up to Grand Hotel, and the two films would make a fascinating double feature.

The two films do have several things in common. They all take place in the lobby and rooms of a large, high-class hotel in Berlin, and they all concern the intertwining lives of a variety of people staying in or working in the hotel. And all the stories, in the end, follow a theme: In the earlier Grand Hotel, which was written in 1929, it is how the lack of and pursuit of money affects people’s lives. In Hotel Berlin, it is about how people cope with the waning of the Nazi regime.

In TCM’s commentary on the film, it is noted that this is one of the few films made during the war where both the good and the bad people are all German — and where both the good and bad are painted in complex shades of gray. A German general who had been a loyal member of the Reich until he lost all faith in his leader, and who took part in a failed coup, tries to escape his fate when he is discovered. A leading actress, who was quite happy to enjoy fame and fortune during the regime, switches sides back and forth in an effort to survive. A woman who became a hotel prostitute when her Jewish fiance was killed gives up her security when his mother comes to her for help. An escaping member of the underground depends on the actress for help — and then finds out that she may have betrayed him. And none of these people are portrayed as either completely sympathetic or totally inhuman. For the era, that’s unusual.

On retrospect, this becomes an even more interesting film, both because of some of the things we now know, and because of current events. For example, a Jewish woman walks into the hotel (after removing her star), is recognized and is told to go back to her section; when the film was made, the extent of the death camps were not yet generally known (or it is possible that the Hollywood producers, many of whom were European immigrants, were still hoping that some of their relatives were alive somewhere).

At the end of the film, two Nazi officials in plain clothes stroll out of hotel on their way to the airport; they are going to fly to South America, where they want to plan the re-emergence of the Nazi party there and in North America.

The film ends with a quote from a speech Roosevelt made in October 1944 that “it will be necessary for [the German people] to earn their way back into the fellowship of peace-loving and law-abiding Nations.” And I can’t help but fear that, considering recent events, this statement may, now or in the future, apply to the United States people as well.

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