The World Without a Mask

Rating: 5 out of 10.

German action star Harry Piel accidentally invents x-ray TV in this 1934 comedy. Devoid of Piel’s trademark hair-raising stunts, the film is somewhat plodding, but co-star Kurt Vespermann picks up the slack with his comedic abilities. 5/10

Die Welt ohne Maske. 1934, Germany. Directed by Harry Piel. Written by Hans Rameau. Starring: Harry Piel, Kurt Vespermann, Annie Markart, Olga Tschechowa, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Hubert von Meyerinck. Produced by Harry Piel. IMDb: 5.6/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

I have repeatedly praised the fantastic Classic Horror Film Board, where some of my greatest inspirations in the world of SF movie critique and scholarship hang out. Just recently I was contacted by one of its users, who offered to send me a load of movies that I had not as of yet been able to get my hands on. For that reason, I’ll now be reviewing a number of “films that got away” from me the first time around. The first of these is the German 1934 movie Die Welt ohne Maske, or The World Without a Mask, directed by legendary Harry Piel.

When unemployed electrical engineer Harry Palmer (Harry Piel) moves in next door to inventor Tobias Bern (Kurt Vespermann), sparks literally begin two fly. Bern is working on a new kind of television set, a wireless TV that would be affordable to all Germans, and not just the few rich who could afford such luxury. Harry offers to help, as there is a competition coming up for the best new TV set. In search of investors, the two approach broadcast millionaire E.W. Costa (Hubert von Meyerinck), who turns them down. However, through some sneaky manoeuvring, Harry is able to squeeze some money out of the patent office. Harry then makes a mess by tripping over the cables. Without Tobias around, he does his best to put the apparatus together, and accidentally stumbles upon a new kind of technology: an x-ray TV that can see through walls. When Costa, through his spies, learns of this, he tries to steal the technology for his own, to use for nefarious means. But when his goons get around to clearing out Tobias’ apartment, he and Harry have already set up a mobile TV studio in a laundry van. As the competition deadline nears, Costa gets desperate and kidnaps Harry’s girlfriend and secretary Erika Brenner (Annie Markart) in order to blackmail the two friends. However, with the help of a periscope “camera”, Harry and Tobias are able to track Costa’s and his henchman Merker’s (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) car. Simultaneously, the jury of the competition is gathering. After a wild car chase, Tobias and Harry are able to save Erika, but en route to the competition, they are forced to slam the breaks at a crossing, toppling over the equipment in the back. But Harry refuses to give up, and together the three scramble to get the studio up and running again. Unfortunately, Harry can’t remember how to set up the x-ray technology — but instead accidentally invents sound tv!

Annie Markart and Harry Piel getting married with Kurt Vespermann watching.

There’s a common misconception that TV wasn’t around before the 50’s. However, prototypes for TV started popping up in the beginning of the 20th century, and the first commercial broadcasts were made in the mid-20’s. TV was emerging, and Harry Piel, always interested in the latest technology, was in sync with the times, as usual. The World Without a Mask was made in 1934, and in 1935 Nazi Germany became the first country in the world to establish regular TV broadcasts. From the world’s first public TV studio, Fernsehsender Paul Nipkow, the Deutscher Fernseh-Rundfunk (“German TV Broadcasting”) broadcasted for 90 minutes, three times a week. The Nazis understood the power of TV, and heavily funded the development of both the technology and the availability of TV’s. Of course, the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were famously the first to be televised. However, TV was not for the working class. In the end of The World Without a Mask, we see a greedy company selling their new TV set for 2,000 Reichsmarks. This would have been the general price for a TV set in 1935: TV’s sold for between 2,000 and 4,000 Reichsmark. Historical worth conversion is always a bit tricky, but let’s say that this sum would be around the price range of a new Tesla in today’s money. For comparison, Harry’s and Tobias’ TV in the movie cost 120 Reichsmark.

As for the Nazi TV project, German engineers were working hard to get a TV set onto the market that ordinary people could afford, and came up with a set that would have cost around 600 Marks. However, the TV set failed to go into production when the war broke out.

Unveiling new television technology in Nazi Germany in 1935.

The TV in the movie is of course pure science fiction, and there seems to be little actual science behind the writing. It’s the usual SF jigamajags, a lot of electrical sparks flying, cables, blinking lights, wheels, levers and explosions. The “camera” itself looks more like a radar. There’s no actual lens, there seems to be no limit to its zoom capabilities, and many images shown on the TV screen look like they could not possibly be shot from where the “camera” is located. How the thing is supposed to work is left up to the audience’s imagination – which is often the right approach in these movies. When films start trying to explain to the audiences what the screenwriters can’t actually explain, it hurts the suspension of disbelief. If you say you’ve got a flying carpet, and I can see it fly, then I accept you’ve got a flying carpet. If you try to scientifically justify the existence of a flying carpet, I’ll call your bullshit.

Die Welt ohne Maske was the second in a trilogy of stand-alone science fiction films produced and directed by Harry Piel in 1933 and 1934. The first one, An Invisible Man Walks the City (1933, review), was an action comedy in the vein of The World Without a Mask, about a man who accidentally comes into possession of an invisibility helmet. The third and last was more serious in tone, and was the only one in which Piel didn’t star himself, Master of the World (1934, review), about machines turning on humanity.

Harry Piel replicating a Houdini stunt.

“Dynamite Harry” Piel was one of the biggest movie stars in Germany from his humble beginnings in 1912 throughout the Nazi regime. Writer, director, producer and lead actor, he was the Sly Stallone or Tom Cruise of his day and age in Germany. Thanks to a friend in the demolition business, Piel was able to catch actual explosions on film, without relying on special effects, often with himself in the frame. In his early days, he was known escaping explosions on motorcycles, and through his career dangled from airships, jumped speeding cars, dived off bridges, had fist-fights on airplanes and did just about everything his Hollywood counterparts like Buster Keaton or Douglas Fairbanks were up to. However, I have previously compared Piel to Harry Houdini (who also tried his hands at becoming a movie star). With his jet-black, curly hair, his stocky, athletic physique and his intense features, Piel bears more than a passing resemblance to the great escape artist-cum-action hero, and like Houdini he did his own stunts and liked putting himself in dangerous — but not too dangerous — situations on screen. Many of his films were jungle or circus adventures, with Piel wrangling and wrestling crocodiles and tigers.

However, we see precious little of the stuntman and action hero Harry Piel in The World Without a Mask, which focuses more on the comedy and the plot. There’s a few explosive fistfights and a couple of car chases, but they are rather conventional. Instead, the film’s enjoyment is seeing the trials and errors of Harold and Tobias desperately trying to get their shit together, while being thwarted at every corner either by the villains, by their own clumsiness or simply bad luck. Piel had good comedic timing and was a fair actor, but the real star of this film is his sidekick, played by Kurt Vespermann. An extremely prolific supporting actor, Vespermann shines in the role as the kind-hearted, shy and nervous inventor, and gets most of the best gags and laughs. There a sweet subplot where he first tests his TV, and accidentally ends up spying on a lady next door (Olga Tchechowa). When he heads over to apologise, he also fixes her radio, and the two end up as a couple.

Kurt Vespermann and Olga Tschechowa.

I have found little information on the background or making of the movie. As stated, Die Welt ohne Maske was one of three science fiction movies that Piel produced for state-owned film company Ufa in 1933 and 1934. While Ufa wasn’t the only film company in 1934, it was certainly the best funded, with its state-of-the-art studio at Babelsberg in Berlin. At this time the Nazi party had also started taking control of the movie business in Germany, and, coerced or not, many of the themes and ideological messages incorporated in the Nazi politics were prevalent in German film. However, it would be a historical fallacy to label all filmmakers whose output in the mid-30’s contain values or themes that can be linked to Nazi propaganda as Nazi sympathisers. There were legitimate concerns among ordinary Germans that stemmed from the aftermath of WWI. Stunted by war reparations, hyperinflation and the French and Belgian occupation of the resource-rich Ruhr area, the German economy slowly limped upwards in the 20’s, much through the help of American aid, making things even worse when the US economy crashed in 1929, and Germany was saturated with dollars. The working and middle classes bore the brunt of the troubles, and much of the country’s ills was blamed on American capitalists and their lackeys. Communism was on the rise, but when Hitler took power in 1932, one of his first acts was to ban communists from partaking in elections, instead setting up the NSDAP’s own brand of “national socialism” as the sole legitimate saviour of the “ordinary German man and woman”. The theme of the corrupted elite in league with predatory capitalism, taking advantage of a downtrodden working class was one that resonated with many, regardless of other ideological sympathies. Indeed, many filmmakers whose movies have been lambasted as Nazi propaganda were in fact vehement antifascists who were forced or compelled to leave the country in the late 30’s.

Foreign posters and booklets.

Many of the themes prevalent in Nazi ideology and propaganda are on display in Harry Piel’s films. In Ein Unsichtbarer geht durch die Stadt (1933) Piel metaphorically uses his invisibility cloak to see through the hollow and rotten values and lifestyles of the rich and successful. The mining killer robots that take over the work of thousands of mine workers in Der Herr der Welt (1934) represents American Fordism as a plot to enslave the working class and enable US industrialists to rule the world. And once again, in Die Welt ohne Maske, the villains of the piece are shifty capitalists, who would suppress Piel’s gift of cheap TV to the people, and instead use his technology for nefarious means. However, the Nazi’s propaganda against American-style capitalism was largely just that: propaganda. In fact, while Hitler borrowed such parts of the communist economic system that suited him, the economy of Nazi Germany was largely based on capitalism. Hitler was an admirer of the Ford spirit, and most large companies not only remained privately owned during the Nazi period, but actually thrived under it. And these were not only heavy industries that manufactured weapons and machines for the war, like Siemens, Krupp or Thyssen, but also consumer brands like Nivea, Knorr, Persil and, famously, Hugo Boss. Neither were US companies banned in Germany during the thirties: Hitler promoted the efficiency of Coca-Cola’s factories, and sales of the soft drink soared in Nazi Germany, and Coke was heavily promoted, for example during the 1936 Olympics. Likewise, in Harry Piel’s films, the conclusion is seldom anti-capitalist. In Ein Unsichtbarer geht durch die Stadt, the happy ending is not only a romantic one. While Piel’s hero refrains from the life as a high-roller, he keeps enough money for his girlfriend to save her flower shop. In Der Herr der Welt, the labourers are not freed from the the yoke of capitalism through the use of machines to do their work, but their very existence is seen as a threat to their livelihood. Instead of nationalising the mining industry and distributing the gains of automation to the people, the heroes of the movie, who happen to be industrialists, modify the robots to aid the workers, forcing them to return to the gruelling toil in the mines. And it’s worth noting that Piel’s aim in Die Welt ohne Maske isn’t to give Germans free TV, but simply to sell his TV sets cheaper than the competition, turning television from an elite market to mass consumption.

Harry Piel in An Invisible Man Walks the City.

Another interesting theme in at least two of Piel’s SF movies is that of the invasion of privacy and of control mechanisms. In the end of Ein Unsisichtbarer geht durch die Stadt, Piel ultimately dismisses the invisibility helmet as bringing more problems than good, but notes that it does prove useful when foiling the villains. The theme is reprised in Die Welt ohne Maske. While Piel emphasises that it’s all fair and well that the x-ray technology he invented is lost, so that cameras stay out of law-abiding citizens’ homes, but without the all-seeing eye he previously invented, he would not have been able to catch the criminals and rescue his girlfriend. Piel here echoes the sentiment of the Nazi party’s 1933 invocation of Article 48, limiting the civil liberties of ordinary citizens, and indeed those of the Bush administration’s USA Patriot Act, as well as many others arguing for larger freedoms for authorities to put its citizens under surveillance: that desperate times demand desperate measures, but law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear by giving up their civil liberties.

Harry Piel about to get clubbed.

Do these sentiments Piel a Nazi sympathiser make? No, not necessarily. The fact that does make him a Nazi sympathiser is that he was not only a card-carrying party member, but also a patron member of the SS. However, as an artist, Piel seems to have been uninterested in overtly political topics, and between 1939 and 1945 he produced only two films — one of which was banned by the Nazis for depicting the air raids against Germany too realistically, and another one which wrapped just before the fall of the Third Reich, and wasn’t released until 1999. During the Nazi regime prior to the war, Piel’s function, much like that of fellow superstar Hans Albers’, was to produce harmless entertainment for the masses. Nevertheless film scholar Florentine Strzelczyk describes Piel’s pre-war output as as being located at “the crossroads between the Weimar Republic and the Nazi
era”, applying “the aesthetic inventory of the 1920s” while “the narratives’ economy and the solutions presented fold into the larger context of the futuristic promise of the Nazi cause”. According to Strzelczyk his SF movies provide a “superb example of how visions of technology folded into National Socialist utopias and illusions, while offering seemingly non-ideological of leisure and mass entertainment”. After the war, Harry Piel was jailed for half a year for his support to the Nazi party, and like many Nazi-era artists, slammed with a five-year “denazification” ban from the German movie industry. He made a slight comeback in the 50’s, but was never able to re-establish himself as a major star. He ended his career in 1955 with three animal-themed documentary shorts. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the negatives of 72 of his 100+ films were destroyed in an allied air raid on Berlin in 1945, and most of his silent films were lost. His entanglement with the Nazis has left Piel a bit of a persona non grata in the German film community, and his work as one of the true pioneers of the action and adventure films has therefore been, perhaps unjustly, forgotten.

Piel wrestling a tiger in his heyday.

I have found no contemporary reviews for The World Without a Mask. IMDb users give it a 5.2/10 rating, but based merely on under 20 votes, speaking to its obscurity. I have not been able to find English subtitles for the film, but you’ll get through it well enough with some basic understanding of German, and with the aid of the rather schematic and straightforward plot. If you can find it, that is. Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings writes: “though some of the humor is visual, much of it seems verbal and situational, and what I could make out of it was only mildly amusing. Some of it is obvious (the inventor and his assistant watch some showgirls undressing at one point), and nothing really happens that looks unusual or surprising. As a snap judgment, I’d say the movie is fairly ordinary, though there is always the chance that a translated copy might appeal to me more.” AllMovie gives the film a 2.5/5 star rating, but offers no review. Filmdienst in a capsule review calls it “an exhilarating bravura piece between fairy tale and adventure”. writes: “The World Without a Mask, with its intricate, complex plot and its very own mixture of Jules Verne and Aldous Huxley, is an outstanding example of the cinema of a highly questionable man whose cinematic thirst for adventure has remained unique to this day.”

Hubert von Meyerinck and Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Photo: Alamy.

The World Without a Mask is not Piel’s greatest film, but neither is it a bad one. It lacks the panache and action of many of his more serious movies. There are no action set pieces that can rival those in An Invisible Man Walks Through the City – where Piel hangs on to fast-moving cars, dangles high above a river from an Zeppelin and has a fistfight on an airplane. There’s a couple of fisticuffs and a long, but rather conventional car chase. There’s a few clever visual tricks used in conjunction with the TV apparatus and the x-ray machine, but nothing movie-goers hadn’t seen before. Other than that, the filming is quite conventional, as tended to be the case with Piel. However, the pacing is good and the story maintains the viewer’s interest until the end, despite perhaps a few too many plot twists that ultimately don’t have much bearing on the story. Piel and Vespermann have good rapport, with Vespermann playing the nutty professor broadly and with warm enthusiasm. Female foils Annie Markart and silent star Olga Tschechowa bring good talents to the board, Tschechowa in particular impressing. Legendary silent villain Rudolf Klein-Rogge, star of many of Fritz Lang’s movies, is oddly underused as the master villain’s henchman. Lauded character actor Hubert von Meyerinck also gets to play a surprisingly boring main villain. Fritz Wenneis’ lively score pulls the viewer along with a dramatic orchestral score, and lightens things up with occasional jazz influences.

Harry Piel.

Harry Piel had a good run as the Number One German action hero on the silver screen for three decades, not just in Germany, but across Europe. So popular was he, that he received a multitude of nicknames, like “Iron Harry” and “Dynamite Harry”. At one time, every kid in Berlin could sing the popular rhyme “Harry Piel sitzt am Nil, putzt die Zähne mit Persil” (Harry Piel sits by the Nile, brushes his teeth with Persil). As Hans-Michael Bock puts it, Piel was “almost a popular genre in and of himself“. After his SF trilogy, he made half a dozen more successful movies, many of which had a wide international release, such as The Call of the Jungle (1936) and the crime adventure Neunzig Minuten Aufenthalt (1937). But, as stated, the war brought him trouble, despite his secure position as a Nazi party member. Many of his later films showcased his love for working with animals, although the only one actually released between 1938 and 1951 was one where he only served as screenwriter — a circus mystery melodrama based a silent film. Between 1940 and 1943 Piel worked on Panic, a remake of one of his own older films, about an animal catcher at the Berlin Zoo. At the end of the movie an Allied air strike releases the animals, allowing for the heroic animal catcher to gather them back. However, realistic images of planes bombing Berlin was too much for Goebbels’ censors, who banned the movie. A third film made during the war was The Man in the Saddle, a romantic melodrama in the world of horse training. The movie was almost completed when the Red Army invaded Berlin and put a halt to the production. The film was considered lost for decades, but it the 90’s, the original shooting negatives were discovered, along with the soundtrack, and the film was assembled and premiered in 2000.

Piel in The World Without a Mask.

One of Piel’s problems during the war was that in 1939, when the Nazis nationalised the movie business, his production company Ariel-Film was liquidated. Along with other sorts of difficulties, this led to the fact that for the entirety of WWII, this normally prolific director didn’t release a single movie. In the aftermath of the war, a British tribunal sentenced him to 6 months prison for his support of the Nazis, and with the addition of a 5-year professional blacklist, this meant that by the time Harry Piel made his comeback in 1951, he hadn’t released a single movie in 13 years. A younger generation now had no emotional bond to him, and to an older generation he represented a style of filmmaker that time had moved past. And of course, his Nazi involvement hung heavy around his neck. He made only two more feature films to moderate success, with little effort to renew himself. The Tiger’s Claw (1951) saw Piel back in the circus ring as a fearless animal tamer, trying to win the heart of a young lady. Elephant Fury (1953) was essentially his banned movie Panic, with some additional footage. In 1955 he released three animal-themed documentary shorts, probably filmed during a stint in South Africa, and then Piel retired from the movie business. He passed away at a private clinic in Munich in 1963, aged 70, from a stroke.

Harry Piel with his trademark motorcycle.

Being aware of Piel’s membership in the Nazi party, it is only natural for us to look for traces of Nazi ideology in his films. And you can find it, if you purposefully look for it. But his films were almost exclusively, as the Encyclopedia of German Cinema states, “emphatically apolitical”. Commenters on his later films have sometimes bent over backwards in order to squeeze some Nazi reference into the movies. For example, one IMDb commenter commenting on Die große Nummer (1943), which Piel wrote the script for, argues support for Hitler is seen in the fact that the film is concerned with the welfare of circus animals, and the Nazis had a progressive animal welfare programme. Another commenter points out that Der Mann im Sattel argues for the need for a strong leader of a community. And, yes, these are points that are in line with Hitler’s agenda, but long before the Nazi party was even conceived, Harry Piel was a great animal lover, which is apparent from his many animal-themed film, and almost always played an alpha male hero. In fact, in an ad for new scripts for his movies, he warned writers to stay away from “religious, political or national motives”. For some time, Piel even hid a Jewish person in his home. On the other hand, he joined the Nazi party as early as 1933, several years before many Germans did so out of convenience in order to be able to carry on living and working in their home country, and on many occasions spoke highly of Hitler and the NSDAP in public. As an article in The Düsseldorfer puts it: “we don’t know if Benrather Heinrich August Piel was an ardent Nazi”, but whether or not, he paid the price for his collaboration with Hitler and his ilk and is today one of the most neglected pioneers of cinema history. While new audiences have been introduced to those of his films that survived the British air raid that destroyed the negatives of 72 of his movies through TV and later through DVD:s and streaming, even the occasional retrospective, there will be no “Harry Piel Straße” either in Berlin nor his second home town of Düsselforff, no Harry Piel film prizes nor symposiums. Piel will never be mentioned alongside the Billy Wilders, the Fritz Langs or the F.W. Murnaus of Germanic cinema. And perhaps rightly so.

Annie Markart.

Kurt Vespermann was born into an acting dynasty, with his parents and grandparents in the trade, and spent most of his adult life, from he early 20th century to his death in 1957, on stage or on the screen. He made a successful transition from silents to sounds in the late 20’s, and as more and more artists fled Germany in the thirties and forties, and emphasis on light programming grew during the war, his stocks went up. Vespermann appeared in close to 200 films, and while never one of the biggest names in the industry, he was a well-known and respected character actor. Annie Markart was a 30’s starlet with a background on the musical stage who rose to some fame during the thirties in a string of roles as amiable girl-next-door, however her film career dwindled in the 40’s, and she found better employment as a translator.

Olga Tschechowa.

A book’s worth could be written, and has been written, about Russian-German actress Olga Tschechowa/Chekhova, born Olga Knippel in 1897 in Russia (current-day Armenia), and there’s no way I can do her history justice here. But very briefly, she came from a bilingual Russian-German family, and for a short while was married to Michael Chekhov, who later became the number one apostle for the Stanislavsky acting method in the US. Tschechowa arrived in Berlin in 1920, with a background in theatre, and decided to stay. In the late 20’s and early 30’s she was one of the most popular movie stars of Europe, and became a fixture in the jet set circles of Berlin. In the Nazi era Tschechowa became acquainted with many high ranking Nazi officials, in particular Goebbels, who was known to visit her frequently. A picture of her sitting next to Hitler at a social event spurred rumours of a relationship, however Hitler was reportedly more a fan of Tschechowa than a personal friend. During the war, her brother was sent from Russia to Berlin as a spy, but was caught, which made both the German and the Soviet authorities nervous about Tschechowa, and she was closely interrogated, even if Hitler reportedly stopped Himmler from having her outright arrested. After the war she was detained while visiting Russia, and interrogated on suspicion of having spied for Germany, but was released and allowed to return to Germany, where she continued her successful film career despite her wartime social relations and the many rumours surrounding her. Tschechowa was awarded Germany’s most prestigious lifetime film award in 1962.

Tschechowa with Adolf Hitler.

After the mid-50’s, Tschechova partially retired from acting, focusing more on running her new cosmetics company. Apart from acting, she produced a handful and directed one movie. International audiences may know her best from her supporting role as Baroness Safferstedt in F.W. Murnau’s The Haunted Castle (1921) and for her leads in the first Moulin Rouge film (1928), directed by E.A. Dupont and in Alfred Hitchcock’s German-British cooperation Mary (1931).

Ruldolf Klein-Rogge.

In a small supporting role we see legendary movie villain Rudolf Klein-Rogge, best known for his portrayals of Dr. Mabuse in several films both silent and in sound, and the mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis (1927, review). Pressured by his father to continue in his footsteps in the military, the young Rudolf Klein was put into one of the elite military academies of Prussia as a child (which he at one point escaped from). However, his father died in 1896, and the 11-year old Klein instead started studying humanities, which eventually led to a career as a stage actor, performing in several cities in the western and southern parts of Germany. Because there was already a well-known actor named Rudolf Klein, he added the name of his mother’s former husband and that of his half-siblings, Rogge, to his name. After one (of eventually three) failed marriage he married novelist and actress Thea von Harbou, with whom he moved to Berlin as she was building herself a name as a film scenarist. There is some contention as to when Klein-Rogge made his film debut, but it was at the latest in 1919. His intense energy, his frightening scowl and his ability to disguise himself with wardrobe and make-up offered him a string of small but colourful bit parts and supporting roles.

Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Brigitte Helm in the suit, in Metropolis.

Harbou divorced Klein-Rogge in 1921 and instead married up-and-coming director Fritz Lang. However, there seems to have been no bad blood between the trio, as it was Lang who offered Klein-Rogge the role of a lifetime, from a script by Harbou, as the criminal mastermind in Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922). His other signature roles also came through the hands of Lang and Harbou, as King Etzel in the epic Nibelungen films (1924), Rotwang in Metropolis and again in the lead as spy mastermind Haghi in The Spies (1928). He reprised his breakthrough role in the sound revamp The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). Klein-Rogge had a commanding voice and stage experience and had no problems as such to make the transition to sound. However, his theatrical, over-the-top performances were particularly well suited to the expressionist style popular during the 20’s, and with the change to a more naturalistic style in the 30’s, his talents weren’t as much in demand for leads and prominent star roles as before. However, Klein-Rogge was hardly unemployed, appearing in somewhere around 40 movies in the 30’s alone. Klein-Rogge surfed more or less unscathed from the Nazi regime and the war, despite being in opposition to the regime (he and Harbou protected a half-Jewish stepdaughter from his first marriage by providing her with a fake birth certificate), but appeared sparingly in movies in the forties. And like many other movie actors who remained in Germany during the war, he was blacklisted for five years after the war, a hiatus which more or less killed off his movie career. He remained active on stage, though. He passed away in 1955, aged 69.

Hubert von Meyerinck in Der Bucklige von Soho in 1966.

Hubert von Meyerinck, playing the main villain, is in his element as the oily foreign businessman, even though his role is under-written. Meyerinck and Klein-Rogge may or may not have shared childhood memories during the shoot, but if they did, they would have discovered many similarities. Meyerinck was also born into a military family, and was pressured by a stern father to keep up the trade. However, a pulmonary disease cut short his service in WWI, as well as his military career. To the chagrin of his parents, Meyerinck instead took up stage acting. He made his film debut in 1921, but his movie career really took off in 1926, and then never stopped, until his death in 1971. He quickly established his trademark, as I.S. Mowis writes in his IMDb biography: “Complete with waxed moustache and monocle, bald, straight-backed Hubert von Meyerinck looked every inch a poster boy for Prussian militarism. A practised condescension and raspy, sometimes shrill delivery further added to this image.” While he would sometimes play outright villains in serious films, more often he did a send-up of the character for comical effect: “Audiences loved him as oily swindlers, impoverished aristocrats out to marry for money, bigamists, effete movie folk or obtuse officials. Despite at times overplaying his outrageous personae, he improved many a lesser picture by his quirky, scene-stealing antics.” Seldom cast in lead roles, Meyerinck was one of German cinema’s most prolific character actors, appearing in over 300 films or TV shows. Despite his homosexuality being an open secret in the movie business, and despite hiding Jews in his apartment during the Nazi era, he appeared in close to 50 films during WWII. His popularity didn’t wane with the years, either, as some of his best remembered performances came in five Edgar Wallace comedies in the late 60’s, where he appeared as a Clouseau-like Scotland Yard chief. He died so to speak with his boots on in 1971, aged 73. He appeared in a couple of Hollywood movies, including Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1961), starring James Cagney. He appeared in three other SF comedies: Harry Piel’s Ein Unsichtbarer geht durch die Stadt, Hilfe, Ich bin unsichtbar (1951, review) and Herrliche Zeiten im Spessart (1967).

Janne Wass

Die Welt ohne Maske. 1934, Germany. Directed by Harry Piel. Written by Hans Rameau. Starring: Harry Piel, Kurt Vespermann, Annie Markart, Olga Tschechowa, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Hubert von Meyerinck, Philipp Manning, Hermann Picha, Gerhard Dammann, Ernst Behmer. Music: Fritz Wennels. Cinematography: Ewald Daub. Editing: Erich Palme. Art direction: Willi Herrmann. Makeup artist: Arnold Jenssen. Special effects: A.E.G., Telefunken Studio. Sound: Eugen Hrich. Produced by Harry Piel for Ariel Film.

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