(5/10) Comedy star Heinz Rühmann shines as an alien who falls in love with an Earth woman while marvelling at the cruelty of the Earthlings. Made by artists who worked in Germany during the Nazi rule, this 1948 “mea culpa” is a stylishly filmed, but slow-moving, preachy and incoherent effort.
Derr Herr vom andern Stern. 1948, West Germany. Directed by Heinz Hilpert. Written by Max C. Feiler & Werner Illing. Starring: Heinz Rühmann, Anneliese Römer, Hans Cossy, Otto Wernicke, Gert Fröbe. Produced by Heinz Rühmann & Alf Teichs. IMDb: 6.1/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
The end of WWII caused a veritable outpour of anti-war, anti-authoritarian and anti-military films championing, love, kindness and understanding between people, not least in Germany, a country that experienced the mother-load of all moral hangovers in the late forties. For some, the the task was more personal than for others. Case in point: Heinz Rühmann, who was one of the Third Reich’s favourite actors, and a personal favourite of Adolf Hitler himself. His film of penance was Der Herr vom andern Stern, which can be translated as ”the man from another star”.
Unlike many actors and filmmakers in Germany, Rühmann didn’t flee Germany when the Nazis came to power, despite the fact that he was married to a Jewish woman (their marriage was failing, and he later divorced her, she married a Swedish actor and fled to his home country). Rühmann wasn’t a Nazi sympathiser, he rarely commented on politics and despite the fact that he made over a dozen pictures during the Nazi rule, he was able to avoid overtly propagandistic films. In fact, his most successful film in Germany, The Punch Bowl (1944, Der Feuerzangenbowle) was even briefly banned before Rühmann personally screened it to propaganda minister Göbbels, who then persuaded Hitler to lift the ban. Instead, Rühmann’s role as the country’s top comedian was to make fun films to help the people of Germany take their minds off the war.
Rühmann managed to avoid the five-year blacklisting that befell many of the actors that worked within the Third Reich, but nevertheless had problems finding roles after the war ended. Der Herr vom andern Stern was only his second film since 1944, and as such an important project for Rühmann, as it was a way for him to deal with his critics and take a stand against the system that he had thrived in as an actor. The film was not a resounding success, but it had the desired effect, and it wasn’t long before he had re-established himself, now as one of Germany’s leading character actors. International audiences may know him from the title role in the 1956 film The Captain from Köpenick (Der Hauptmann von Köpenick), as a cobbler who dresses up as a military officer and takes control of a small town. The role earned him a New Cinema Award at the Venice Film Festival and a Golden Gate Award at the San Fransisco Film Festival. He also starred in the thriller It Happened in Broad Daylight (Es geschach am hellichten Tag, 1958).
Rühmann’s career very much resembled one of Germany’s other top comedians’, Hans Albers’, who starred in the sci-fi films F.P.1. Doesn’t Answer (1932, review) and Gold (1934, review). The two actually starred together on a number of occasions, perhaps most famously in the mystery comedy The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes (Der Mann der Sherlock Holmes war, 1937) and the 1956 remake of On the Reeperbahn at Half Past Midnight (Auf der Reeperbahn nachts um halb eins). Further, Rühmann did one role in the United States in the 1965 drama Ship of Fools, starring Vivien Leigh and José Ferrer. Director Stanley Kramer cast him as a German Jew in the movie. His very last role came in 1993, in Wim Wenders‘ Faraway, So Close! (In Weiter Ferne, so nah!).
The plot of Der Herr vom andern Stern is more fairy-tale than science fiction. It tells the story of a being from a distant star who is propelling himself across space through the powers of concentration. But the unrest on Earth breaks his concentration and forces him to land on the planet, in the middle of Berlin, to be more precise. He takes on the form of a mannequin in a shop window and is immediately apprehended by the police, who take him to the authorities.
At the police station he helps the beautiful, young Flora to get past the kafkaesque bureaucracy by magically making a missing stamp appear on her documents, and informs the clerk that he has no registration since he is a man from another star. This he proves by showing them his powers of concentration, with which he can alter or duplicate objects. Soon this gentleman from space is pulled in all directions by people who wish to take advantage of his powers and his growing fame, from film stars to weapons manufacturers to businessmen, the army and of course the politicians. He plays along with the charade to learn about Earth people, and the more he sees, the more appalled he becomes by the way in which the rich and powerful take advantage of ordinary people.
He agrees to become the spokesperson of the party in power and reads a bombastic campaign speech, eerily reminiscent of a dictator from not too many years past, and gets resounding applause, until he steps out of character and informs the listeners that he simply read what the party had forced him to read, to see how long he could talk absolute nonsense without anyone noticing. He them informs them that the party and the powers that be have no thought for their well-being or happiness, only their own money and influence, their wars and victories, and asks everyone to instead be kind to one another and join hands in true brother- and sisterhood.
The alien also discovers human kindness and friendship – and love, as he falls for the kind-hearted Flora, but matters get complicated as he lives under the same roof as her and her boyfriend Emil (Hans Cossy), a successful boxer whose career is waning…
The film does not seem particularly well funded, and Rühmann himself acts as producer. The direction, however, has many qualities. The director was Heinz Hilpert, a veteran stage director and actor who dabbled in films from time to time, and who like Rühmann had cooperated with the Nazi regime and was down on his luck in the late forties as far as work offers were concerned, and who also had a need to comment on his past. Especially good is the beginning of the film, where the alien walks about Berlin in silence, wondering at the strange things he sees. Hilpert employs expressionistic lighting, fog and cramped sets to create an otherworldly feeling, and unusual camera angles throughout the film present a skewed vision of reality. The writers, Max C. Feiler and Werner Illing have also created an alternative Germany, with influences of both bloated Prussian generals and parodies of Nazi theatricality. The story itself came from Werner Illing, a journalist, author, scriptwriter and TV director, who wrote two utopian novels. Utopolis (1929) and Der Blaue Stern (1931). Illing served as a soldier in both WWI and WWII, and subsequently was a former Nazi soldier.
The script is also one of the biggest pitfalls of the film. It opens as a smart, visually inventive hitchcockian thriller drama, then turns into a social satire, and it looks as if the filmmakers have had an eye on Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator from 1940. The film’s pivotal point is the alien’s political speech, where one can draw many parallels to Chaplin. But after that the movie flounders and loses its direction. More and more it seems as if it lacks a central plot and consists of a number of disparate episodes, where the alien encounters different people and phenomena on Earth, just to point out their absurdity. One of the funniest is his meeting with a general, who claims to be a strong proponent of ”humane wars”. The shorter the war and the bigger the number of casualties, the better it is for humanity, he proposes. In one episode he encounters a film star desperate to win his love for the sake of her career, in another he makes fun of the military state and the armies’ exercises and protocols.
The problem is that we get the point halfway through the movie, and after that the film simply repeats its credo again and again. The script also underestimates the viewer, and writes the morals on the wall with capital letters, as if we wouldn’t get the point. It simply becomes a bit too preachy and sappy, especially during a trial scene near the end where Rühmann breaks the fourth wall and steps out of character to address the audience directly. It probably did wonders for his career, but at that point we pretty much know word for word what he is going to say. On the other hand, perhaps this was part of the healing process in Germany, and the German audience actually needed to hear their movie stars address these issues. There are moments of comedic brilliance, but as a comedy the film doesn’t quite carry through, for the above mentioned reasons. Der Herr von andern Stern film can be viewed as a form of dystopia. Although it clearly does reference the Third Reich, the filmmakers have created a fictional kafkaesque (or capekian?) Germany that closely mirrors Berlin in 1948, but with politics and authorities that have been drawn as caricatures of the ones existing at the time – but stretched to their logical end point, so to speak, as if to say: this is the situation we will get if we carry on as we have.
The film is well acted all the way through – Rühmann gives a sympathetic portrayal of the alien, and has a few fine comedic moments. Anneliese Römer as Flora is very good and has a natural acting style which begs the question why this revered stage actress didn’t appear in more films. She did appear in a number of TV films in the fifties, sixties and seventies, though. Römer also occasionally worked as a dubber of foreign films. Among others, she dubbed Kate Reid in the science fiction classic The Andromeda Strain in 1971. Der Herr von andern Stern was the first film role of stage actor Hans Cossy, who later appeared in the 1952 version of the pseudo-sci-fi story Alraune (Mandrake). He is best known, though, for his work on two TV series. One was Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion (“Space patrol – the fantastic adventures of the spaceship Orion”, 1966 as well), which was never released in either the UK or the USA, but was very popular in Germany and shown in a number of other European countries. Cossy played the brilliantly named Marshall Kublai-Krim.
The special effects of the film, such as things disappearing, changing and duplicating, are mostly done through clever editing tricks, but there are a few very neat double exposure shots of things changing shape in clear sight, and the alien himself appearing on the streets of Berlin. The technique, of course, had been around for decades, but I have seldom seen them done as precisely and cleanly in earlier films. The special effects man was Theo Nischwitz, who was one of the pioneers of special effects and special effects photography in Germany and worked on a number of high profile films in his career. For us the most important are perhaps F.P.1. Does Not Answer, Gold, that spaceship Orion TV series with the long and difficult name, the TV series Telerop 2009 – Es ist noch was zu retten (1974), Super (1984) and Moon 44 (1990), the film Roland Emmerich directed just before his international breakthrough with Universal Soldier in 1992.
Alas, Rühmann and Hilpert were perhaps a bit too quick to start their own “truth commission” in urging the Germans to come to terms with their role in the atrocities of WWII. Der Herr vom andern Stern was a critical and commercial flop. According to the DVD booklet “At the Berlin premiere, the audience was enraged and some visitors wanted their entrance fee back”. Critic Erika Müller ripped the film in a review for Die Zeit newspaper: “In short: What a wonderful topic that is wasted here. Yes, wasted! The film should have remained a lighthearted mystery story (that’s how it starts out). But soon what begins as a witty comedy becomes a satirical lecture, a bloodless instruction. As soon as we are just about to laugh at film comedian Heinz Rühmann, we become aware that we are ensnared in the re-education again.” Müller does admit that there are moments of satirical brilliance in the movie; “but since comedy has always failed those who want to put in the service of a cause, it also comes up short here”.
In a way, the critique the film received from audiences and critics alike is understandable. Throughout the war, Heinz Rühmann had stood outside of the political sphere, a harmless and hugely popular comedian, whose films audiences went to see in order to forget the troubles of the world. Even if the war had ended, the post-war period was arduous and highly traumatic for the German people, and no-one entering the movie theatre could expect a political lecture from the man whom they had for so many years clung to as a respite from the horrors of reality — certainly not a lecture pointing a finger at themselves. Had this been a movie starring someone else, the reaction might perhaps have been a tad less dramatic. This was a classic case of a film clashing too violently with the audience’s expectations.
Modern reviewers have been kinder to Der Herr vom andern Stern. However, Heinz Hilpert, primarily a stage director, does get some flack for not quite mastering the medium of film. Hans Helmut Prinzler writes that the film “has amusing moments, but there are also some that are boring because the direction is too conventional”. Lexikon des Internationalen Films calls Der Herr vom andern Sten “an attempt at a post-war satirical dress-up, which fails because of the inconsistencies of the script and the lack of concept of the director”. It also writes that it is “a fussy entertainment film with low-key comedy, which at best can be praised for its good intentions, the courage to experiment and its commitment to humanity”.
Cinema.de gives the movie 3/5 stars, and Great Scifi 4/6 (what an odd scale), where “Reinhard” defends Heinz Hilpert, and the director’s influences from German Expressionism. He notes that Hilpert didn’t have the aid of the latest technology, nor could he muster up a lot of flashy effects, “but the story is emotionally staged and thematically appealing”. Finally there is Hans-Ulrich Pönack at Pönis Kinowoche, which is not as rude a site as it sounds, who gives Der Herr vom andern Stern a glowing review: “It is a cinematic work of art that is absolutely worth rediscovering today. Because much of what is cheerfully denounced here can also be smugly adopted for today. And this is terrifying – terrible -but brilliant.”
This here film is one of the very first sound films dealing with aliens visiting Earth, although the idea had been around for quite some while, not least in the serials. Actually, if I am correct, this would be the fourth feature film depicting an alien visitation from space, the first being German silent movie Algol (1920, review), and the British ditto A Message from Mars (1920, review), and the third the US musical comedy Just Imagine (1930, review).
Stories of aliens visiting or invading Earth started appearing in the late 19th century with novellas and novels by authors like J-H Rosny aine (Les Xipéhus, 1888), Robert Potter (The Germ Growers, 1892) and of course H.G. Wells (The War of the Worlds, 1898). The golden age of the pulp magazines began in the early thirties, and stories of alien visitors were frequent, but still the idea didn’t catch on in either films or even serials until the very late forties. Even in the serials there seemed to be a line which one didn’t cross: aliens belonged in outer space. Flash Gordon and Brick Bradford could very well visit their planets, but not the other way around. Superman was one obvious exception, as was The Purple Monster in the 1949 serial The Purple Monster Strikes. And it really wasn’t until the fifties that the theme of alien invasions caught on in sci-fi literature on a larger scale.
It wouldn’t take more than three years, though, for one of the most influential sci-fi films in history to be released, The Day the Earth Stood Still (review), another tale of a benevolent alien landing on Earth and urging humanity to stop fighting each other. That film was based on the short story Farewell to the Master, written by Edmund H. North in 1940, but doesn’t seem to have influenced Der Herr vom andern Stern. More plausible is that both the German and the American films have been inspired by older tales still, of supernatural beings manifesting themselves on Earth, bringing prophecy and advice for humanity. Such instances are found in most mythologies and many folk tales, closest to hand in these cases are probably the biblical tales of angels, or even the story of Jesus Christ. There is a clear religious allegory in both films of godlike beings descending on Earth, go through trials and are both hailed and ”crucified”, and then return to the heavens. In the case of Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, he is even killed and reborn.
A few words on the title of the film: I wrote earlier that Der Herr vom andern Stern can be translated as ”the man from another star”, but it is in fact a bit more complicated than that, and it matters because it has a direct bearing on the film. The problematic word is ”Herr”, which can mean a lot of things in German, just like for example ”man” can mean both a male person and a human being, you can work for or stick it to the ”man” and you can say ”oh, man” even when not addressing a man at all. Herr can be translated simply as a person of male gender, or ”man”, but there is a more widely used word for that in German, which is ”Mann”. Therefore, one can assume that the filmmakers made a point out of not calling the film ”Der Mann vom andern Stern”, but used ”Herr” instead. Herr is also the word you use for describing a gentleman and is used pretty much as you would use ”gentleman” in English. ”Meine Damen und Herren” means ”ladies and gentlemen”, and ”mein Herr” is used politely to address a man, as English speakers would use ”sir”. Thus the title of the film can also mean ”The gentleman from another star”, which suits the film well, as the alien is a gentleman in the word’s all meanings. But: ”Herr” also means ”ruler”, ”master” or ”lord”. ”Herr mein Gott” literally means ”Lord my god” and is used in the same way as ”Good lord” or ”Oh my god” in English. We have previously reviewed the film Der Herr der Welt (1934), which translates as Master of the World. So there is a word play going in the title, which connects with the film – a man from another star arrives on Earth and has the power of a god and would easily be able to rule as the planet’s master, but instead he behaves like a gentleman and, the longer the film progresses, the more he starts to think and feel as a human being, as an ordinary man. Quite quick, huh? In later DVD releases the somewhat archaic word “andern” has been replaces by the modern “anderen”.
As the ”humane” general the filmmakers have been able to get a real heavyweigther (in all senses of the word” – Otto Wernicke, known for his portrayal of police inspector Karl Lohmann in Fritz Lang’s films M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). Wernicke also starred in the German version of the sci-fi film The Tunnel (1933, review) and Der Herr der Welt, and joined Rühmann in The Captain From Köpenick. He had the honour of being the first person to portray Captain Smith in an ”official” Titanic film in 1943.
As an uncredited extra we see Gert Fröbe in his first ever film role. Fröbe was forever immortalised among the movie stars in 1964 when he played the legendary Bond villain Goldfinger in the film with the same name (although he was dubbed because of his accent). He had a prominent role in the 1967 sci-fi comedy Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon, and acted in a handful other Hollywood films. Incidentally, he took over the role as inspector Lohmann in the Dr. Mabuse adaptations of the sixties.
Among the three art directors, one worthy of mention is Rolf Zehetbauer, whose first film this is. Zehetbauer won an Oscar and a Bafta for his work on the 1972 classic Cabaret, starring Liza Minelli. In 1977 he worked with Ingmar Bergman on The Serpent’s Egg. In 1966 he worked as art director on the above mentioned sci-fi series about the spaceship Orion. In the eighties, Zehetbauer was director Wolfgang Petersen’s go-to guy. He worked on Das Boot (1981) and the sadly overlooked science fiction film Enemy Mine (1985), as well as all the Neverending Story films, based on the book by fantasy writer Michael Ende. A modern viewer might remember the last film he worked on, Luther (2003), starring Joseph Fiennes as the protestant reformer.
Derr Herr vom andern Stern. 1948, West Germany. Directed by Heinz Hilpert. Written by Max C. Feiler and Werner Illing. Starring: Heinz Rühmann, Anneliese Römer, Hans Cossy, Hilde Hilderbrand, Peter Pasetti, Bruno Hübner, Herbert Gernot, Rudolf Vogel, Gerhard Geisler, Rudolf Schündler, Bum Krüger, Ernst Fritz Fürbringer, Viktor Stefan Görtz, Helmut Krueger, Otto Wernicke, Erhard Siedel, Arbert Hehn, Lutz Götz, Hans Richter, Anton Farber, Josef Kamper, Gert Fröbe. Music: Werner Egk. Cinematography: Georg Bruckbauer. Editing: Max Michel. Production design: Gabriel Pellon, Max Seefelder. Rolf Zehetbauer. Costume design: Gertraud Raucke. Production manager: Erwin Gitt. Sound: Walter Rühland. Optical effects: Theo Nischwitz. Produced by Heinz Rühmann and Alf Teichs for Comedia-Film GmbH and Bavaria Film.