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. Best remembered for its impressive futuristic sets, this film is on the talkier side. It’s secret weapons are German superstars Hans Albers and Brigitte Helm, and it was also made in a French version. (7/10)
Gold. Germany, 1934. Directed by Karl Hartl. Written by Rolf E. Vanloo. Starring: Hans Albers, Brigitte Helm, Michael Bohnen. Produced by Alfred Zeisler. IMDb: 6.8/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
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 followed up with Gold in 1934, 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), who has grown cold to her father’s evil plots and plans.
Tension brews between the workforce, Wills and Holk, and nobody is quite sure what the next man is up to, but eventually Holk announces that he has been able to successfully complete the experiment and has indeed created gold. However, the announcement that artificial gold has been made sends the entire world into economic chaos as the value of the metal plummets, which, as it turns out, is all part of Wills’ evil plan for world domination. However, Holk is seemingly determined to redeem his mentor Achenbach by going through with mass production of artificial gold, thus betraying his country and helping Wills become master of the world. This despite a brewing mutiny among the workers, who see their families’ lives ruined by the economic turmoil. But naturally, our hero has a plan all along, and the movie climacts in a riveting effects-laced scene in Wills’ futuristic, industrial gold factory.
Gold has a witty and poignant, albeit talky, 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 keep the audience guessing. There are a number of characters that serve both as red herrings, potential romantic rivals and unexpected allies. And while it is refreshing to see a film of this kind that takes its time with its character developments, the problem is that most of these are never quite resolved. Furthermore, the many fleshed-out supporting characters don’t have any real bearing on the plot and ultimately add to the feeling that there is a whole lot of dialogue serving as padding for a longer run-time. It is worth remembering that talking pictures were still no more than five years old, on the whole. Hearing people talk on screen was still something a novelty and the number of screenwriters with any extensive experience with writing talkies was small. As veteran critic Richard Sheib at Moria puts it: “Gold has characters talk and talk and talk. They do almost nothing else – all of the action almost entirely transpires in terms of dialogue. The result is almost an entirely inert film.”
Thankfully the dialogue, on the whole, is good, and 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 gold 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 in 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 witty 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, 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.
But all this is ultimately secondary. The reason Gold is remembered today are its sets and special effects. While the national film studio Ufa didn’t give director Karl Hartl the resources once heaped upon Fritz Lang for his epics, Wills’ futuristic gold-making laboratory/factory is one of the most stunning sci-fi set pieces created on the far side of the fifties. The point of interest in particular is the giant “atom splitting machine”, beautifully designed and big as a three-story building. If the art deco-inspired design seems vaguely familiar, it’s because the art director on the film was Otto Hunte, who had previously worked on both Metropolis and Woman in the Moon. Of course it may also be that you have seen most of the final 20 minutes of the movie before: In 1953 almost the entire final sequence of Gold was cannibalised by Ivan Tors and Curt Siodmak to provide special effects sequences for the low-budget sci-fi movie The Magnetic Monster (review).
The technical adviser on the film was Albert Berthold Henninger, who had previously worked with Hartl on F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer. Henninger is perhaps best known to the scientific community for filing a patent for a futuristic car with a self-suspended body.
Mention must also go to the optical and visual effects of Ernst Kunstmann and Theo Nischwitz. There are a number of very solid effect shots involving both the creation of gold (the transformation is seen on-screen) and electrical discharges and lightning, probably done with a combination of double exposure and animation. Both men had very distinguished careers as visual effects creators, even if Kunstmann’s ditto was later hampered by his close association with the Nazi party. For example in 1934 he worked with effect shots for Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous propaganda movie Triumph of the Wills, as well as Olympia (1938). In the mid-1930s, he set up the special effects department at the Tobis production company, where he created his most famous special effect—the memorable flight of the Baron von Münchhausen (1942) on a cannonball (with Hans Albers as the titular hero). His special effects for the sinking of the ship in the 1942 film Titanic were so impressive that the same footage was used in the American remake in the 1950s. In the twenties Kunstmann worked with Eugen Schüfftan to create the mirror shot technique that would eventually become known as the Schüfftan Process, and which was used to create many of the most impressive images in Metropolis. After WWII, Kunstmann avoided blacklisting by relocating to East Germany, where he eventually became head of the special effects department at state-owned studio Defa. Of his later work SF fans might be especially interested in two films released in 1960: Mistress of the World and First Spaceship on Venus. The first, directed by William Dieterle, is a run-of-the-mill “good scientist invents super-weapon and is kidnapped by villains” story. The second is a rather interesting, if flawed, Polish-East German co-production about an international and interracial expedition to Venus: perhaps the first movie to depict a black astronaut.
Gold was Tischwitz’ first film, and he had a career that spanned all the way to 1990. He is perhaps best known for his work on Wolfgang Petersen’s classic Das Boot (1981) and Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977). Tischwitz also worked on two German science fictions TV shows, little known outside their country of origin, and Victor Trivas’ cult horror SF movie The Head (1959), which has a rather more alluring original title: Die Nackte und der Satan, “the naked and Satan”. His last movie was Roland Emmerich’s science fiction story Moon 44 (1990), an English-language film produced in Germany, and Emmerich’s last film as a director before his Hollywood breakthrough with Universal Soldier (1992).
All this technical knowledge and special effect mastery put together supposedly led to the fact that when the film was finally released in the USA after WWII, it was reviewed at the Pentagon because of the suspicion that the Germans had discovered a way of making an atom bomb as early as the thirties.
Unlike peers like Lang or F.W. Murnau, director Karl Hartl never emigrated to Hollywood, but rather stayed in Austria during the Nazi rule, where he became something of a quiet Anti-Nazi hero working within the system. He was the 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 Austro-Hungarian period, he was in fact able to make subtle Anti-Nazi propaganda under the very eyes of Adolf Hitler.
And this leads us to the perpetual elephant in the room when talking about German films from the thirties and early forties. It doesn’t matter if it’s a jazz comedy or a historical melodrama, when viewed today any German film of the era will be held up to the mirror of Nazi ideology. But one would be hard pressed to call Gold a propaganda film, apart from the notion that any film is, in one way or the other, propaganda for something. Nevertheless, this film was made in 1934 by state-owned Ufa, a year after the Nazis had risen to power, and Nazi-controlled Ufa did spend lavishly on the production. And Gold draws inspiration from the same concerns of the public that the NSDAP so deftly utilised in their propaganda — real and to some extent very legitimate concerns, even if somewhat oversimplified on screen. While the Great Depression didn’t hit Europe quite as hard as the US, the turmoil in the American economy was also reflected overseas. Quite independently from this, Germany’s economy was in dire straits and this hit ordinary citizens more than anyone. The main culprit of the situation was the Versailles treaty struck after WWI, with which Germany was essentially crushed by the Allies. The enormous war reparations demanded of Germany in the treaty sent the country’s economy into tailspin, causing hyperinflation, economic chaos and crippling poverty. Adding insult to injury, Germany was stripped of its colonies, and thus much of its income, and its military, severely denting German national pride. The German public at large felt that it was being unjustly punished by greedy and revanchist foreign powers for a war that many of them had neither wanted or supported, much less understood.
Thus it’s no coincidence that the greedy villain of Gold is British, a foreign power sabotaging the work of a brilliant German scientist, stealing German inventions and luring another German to betray his country and his blood on false promises. The economic chaos that ensues in the film as the gold value plummets was familiar to all Germans from the hyperinflation of the early 1920s. The workers who complain that their savings are worthless and wonder how they will provide for their children are echoing the distress of millions or real Germans. (And of course, there was the decades-long animosity between Britain and Germany, two highly nationalist superpowers that had been rattling sabres loudly against each other since the 1870s.)
These issues can hardly be called labelled as “Nazi ideology”, even if the Nazis took advantage of the plight of the German people when they took power in the country. Neither is there any of the latent or expressed antisemitism present in this film that could already be seen in a number of German productions at the time. There is one odd little detail, though, that is telling of the nationalist attitude in Germany. It is used here as a romantic device, but seen in the light of Nazi ethnocentrism it takes on more sinister connotations: the fascination with blood ties. After the explosion in Achenbach’s lab, Holk is mortally wounded, and is saved by a blood transfusion from his wife. Holk waxes poetically about this “blood bond” and about how it makes the connection between him and his wife stronger. Later in the film, when Holk is on the verge of succumbing to the charms of Wills’ daughter, it is the reminder of his blood bond to his wife that makes him abandon the foreign seductress and return home. This blood theme feels a bit shoehorned and I wonder if this wasn’t an addition by Goebbels’ PR team.
Some modern critics inevitably are more sensitive to what they view as “propaganda” than others, with for example Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant writing “The Nazis can’t even keep the National Socialist propaganda out of a simple science fiction fable.” Despite this, Erickson gives it a largely positive review, calling it “a classic of giddy ’30s science fiction”.
The film was internationally distributed in 1934, and received praise overseas, with the New York Times calling it “well filmed” even if on the longer side, while the magazine Wonder Stories stated that Gold was “a masterful scientifilm fantasy” (note that “science fiction” still wasn’t a household expression in the thirties, with some genre outlets still preferring the term “scientifiction”).
Although still quite obscure to all but the more enthusiastic collectors of old science fiction, Gold has garnered a bit more recognition after a 2016 Kino Lorber blu-ray release. And on the whole, the movie doesn’t seem to have aged too badly, with the large majority of critics giving it good reviews, some even glowing, such as M. Enois Duarte at High-Def Digest, who gives it 4,5/5 stars, calling it “an extraordinary piece of cinema with impressive special effects and a striking production design, a film worth remembering and admiring but needing more attention”. Even John Sinnott at DVD Talk, who in my opinion overstates the Nazi angle and misunderstands some of the themes, gives it 2,5/5. All reviews praise the film’s visuals, and in particular the impressive sets, with Chris Alexander at Cominingsoon.net labelling it “an incredibly handsome looking film”. On the other hand, almost all critics note that the talkiness and the sometimes meandering plot. Stacia Kissick Jones at She Blogged by Night writes: “Gold is an odd little bird, irresistible and entertaining despite being a bit thin on plot. It’s believable and thoughtful and the performances range from good to fantastic.”
While most modern critics praise the presence of the ever-alluring Brigitte Helm, some seem to be a bit puzzled by the choice of the “large, older, balding man” (as Kissick Jones puts it) named Hans Albers as the heroic lead in the film. Albers, as no doubt many readers of this blog know, was the biggest star of German cinema in 1934, but also a star on stage, in the music business and German social life. Someone living in a bubble would have been just as puzzled by the choice of 69-year-old Sean Connery as the romantic hero opposite a 30-year-old Catherine Zeta-Jones in 1999’s Entrapment. But ladies still swooned over a 69-year-old “large, older, balding” Connery, just as German women in 1934 swooned over a 43-year-old Albers. And yes, in 1934 Albers was only 43. Today when personal trainers, groomers, plastic surgery and even digital enhancement can keep an actor in matinée idol shape over a four decades long career, it’s sometimes easy to forget that back in the day, movie-going audiences were more accustomed to their idols actually growing older. That is, at least if they were male. Another thing to take into consideration is that in the thirties and forties cultural norms were also different and when it came to men, it wasn’t the teenage charmer that was put on magazine covers. It wasn’t really before James Dean, Elvis and The Beatles that the young rebel stepped into the limelight. In the thirties the preferred hero was still the experienced father-figure, stern and stable. That said, the truth is that Hans Albers does look even older than his 43 years in the movie — it’s difficult to comprehend that Tom Cruise was 14 years older in Mission Impossible VI than Hans Albers in Gold.
John Sinnott at DVD Talk does not like Albers, calling him “wooden”, while Daniel S. Levine at Movie Mania Madness conversely singles out Albers’ as the best of the film’s “brilliant” performances. I personally maintain that Albers does splendidly with the material he is given. This is not a script that plays to his strengths: it is more serious in tone than the films he usually played, it is more of an intellectual spy thriller, and his character is far more subdued than the debonair rascals he normally played. It doesn’t have the humour of The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes, nor the emotional range of Blue Angel or F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer. Still, he “exudes personal integrity and a calm force of will”, as Glenn Erickson puts it, but I’d agree with Duarte when he states that Albers may have been slightly miscast, and “his appearance on this production is largely due to his being the major megastar of the time”.
Unlike so many other European actors and filmmakers, Albers decided not to head for the Hollywood Hills as war broke out, which is why he is not particularly well known outside of the German-speaking world. 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 square, Hans Albers Platz.
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.
So great was Albers’ popularity, that the Nazi authorities even grudgingly ignored the fact that he 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. 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 started getting roles again, 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. Quite a few of them 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-associated 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.
Gold’s Cinematographer Günther Rittau received a 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. Gold also 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 reprising 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 Curt 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.