An amateur inventor turns himself invisible, and is only able to reverse the effect by drinking alcohol. The gag is all that carries this German 1951 SF comedy, and it doesn’t carry it far enough, despite a great cast and and a seasoned director. 2/10
Hilfe, ich bin unsichtbar. 1951, West Germany. Directed by E.W. Emo. written by Rolf Meyer, Erwin Kreker, Herbert Tjadens, et.al. Starring: Theo Lingen, Inge Landgut, Fita Benkhoff, Grethe Weiser, Hubert von Meyerinck. Produced by Rolf Meyer. IMDb: 5.9/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Debt collector Fritz Sperling (Theo Lingen) is an amateur inventor who spends his family’s hard-earned money on his useless inventions, much to the chagrin of his young, but endlessly forgiving wife Ilse (Inge Landgut). Currently he is working on a machine that could turn himself invisible, as he dreams of a life in peace where no-one would bother he and he could come and go as he pleased. Taking his wife to a fun fair in her birthday, he sees a “Professor Orsini” (Hubert von Meyerinck) demonstrate such an invention, and in actually works! Or so, he thinks, at least. Later, Fritz sneaks in to test the machine on himself, and manages to become invisible. However, he soon realises that being invisible isn’t all fun and games and returns to Orsini in order to reverse the effect, as he had seen it done on stage. However, Orsini and his assistants are livid because Fritz almost ruined their show with all his questions earlier, and they attack him. After they have knocked themselves out chasing the invisible man, Fritz realises there is no help to be had there.
Now in dire straits, the tee-totaler Fritz has a drink, and soon realises that being drunk makes him momentarily visible again. Now follows a cavalcade of mishaps where Fritz is either drunk and visible and tries to convince his wife, his mother-in-law, his boss, his friend, the police and a couple of other people that he is drunk only because he is otherwise invisible — or when he is invisible and causes all sorts of ruckus. Unsurprisingly, he loses his job, his friends and his reputation, is on the verge of losing his marriage and finally his life. I don’t usually want to spoil endings, but I feel that in this case it’s important for viewers who go into this hoping that this film will manage to untangle itself to know that it uses that oldest and cheapest of clichés: it was all just a dream.
We’re looking at the German 1951 comedy Hilfe, ich bin unsichtbar (“Help, I am invisible”). This is one of those films that was long on SF cineastes list of lost or rare films. For decades, it was indeed thought to be lost, as there was no record of it at any film archive. However, it must have resurfaced in the collections or some collector or other, because for a few years now it has been known to exist and is, as of writing, available on Youtube. There seems to be no subtitles for the movie, but you can follow the proceedings well enough without understanding the dialogue. The Youtube copy has auto-generated German subtitles, which you can auto-translate to English. The accuracy is more miss than hit, but it’ll help you on your way, at least,
I have little background information on this movie. It was produced by Rolf Meyer for a small, short-lived company in and around Hamburg, and premiered in July 1951. Director was Austrian E.W. Emo, a comedy veteran, and the movie was tailored for its star, comedian Theo Lingen. It premiered the same year as Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, which may or may not be a coincidence. It seems to have not had any distribution outside Germany and Austria.
Invisibility, of course, had been a popular trope since the beginning of movies, as it was one of the effects that could be produced with the aid of cinema magic to such startling effect, even with the rather crude tools of the late 19th century. Universal’s director James Whale and special effects genius John Fulton are often credited with inventing the astounding visual effects for The Invisible Man (1933, review) and its sequels, but in fact much of the same techniques had been used as far back, at least, as 1909 and Segundo de Chomon’s The Invisible Thief (1909, review), itself inspired by Wells’ novel. Against this backdrop, the effects used in Hilfe, ich bin unsichtbar are on the cheaper side. Most of all, invisibility is portrayed through floating and falling objects and self-opening doors. These effects are fairly well produced, but there is really only one shot, that of a free-floating pen writing a message, that really impresses. There seems to be no real blue-screen type shots with a draped actor manipulating things, rather it all looks like wire gags. Shots of Fritz turning visible or invisible are simple fades where he comes into view clothes and all. No effort is put into portraying the physics behind it. Not only clothes, but objects he’s holding seem to wax and wane in visibility with no seeming logic. A bottle Fritz is holding becomes visible along with him after he takes a sip from it, but a pen remains visible when he holds it while invisible. His shoes and hat become invisible, but not the carpet he is standing on nor the chair he is sitting on. And why would his clothes be affected by his state of inebriation?
Such scientific trifles can be forgiven in a comedy if the rest of the film holds up well. However, what all this ultimately boils down to is a rather routine domestic farce with very little content to it. We have to wait until half of the film for the invisibility gag to be introduced, and up to that, the plot consists mainly of setting up Fritz as a well-meaning but egocentric jackass. After he blows up his own invention in his kitchen, ruining all the china and then soiling Ilse’s dressing gown with black paw marks, he promises to collect all his debts and buy her a gift to make up for it. Instead he stumbles over a shop with new lab equipment, and presents it to her as the gift. Needless to say, neither she, the mother-in-law, nor the other man fawning over her, are impressed. Lots of characters, all broadly drawn caricatures, are presented on the way. Not much changes after Fritz’ turn into invisibility. The comedy is tailored after Theo Lingen’s comical abilities as the “little man” overcoming bad odds in life, and his style can perhaps be described as a blend between Steve Carell and Adam Sandler. We mostly get a repeat performance of Lingen in a room with another character slowly turning visible or invisible, with the same result every time: the other person running screaming out of the room. Worst of all, no matter how many times this happens with his wife, her reaction is always the same. Of course, him being drunk when he is visible, does him no favours.
All this could have somehow worked, if Hilfe, ich bin unsichtbar at some point would have taken yet another turn, focusing on fixing the invisibility problem. Sadly, this turn never comes, and the screenwriters use the classic “we have written us into a corner and don’t know how to get out”-solution: Fritz awakes in his bed and finds it was all a dream. There’s a life-assuring message at the end, where he wakes up, and throws his research out the window. Now he shall live in the present and take care of his wife.
The verbal comedy is not exactly high-brow, either. When Fritz’ machine explodes, he gets an epiphany, and tells his wife: “I have cracked the egg!” We then pan to the ceiling, showing an actual cracked egg. The rest of the time we are supposed to laugh at people who get hysteric attacks at seeing floating stuff or hearing voices. And yes of course, some drunken antics. Not quite the stuff that classics are made of, unfortunately.
One thread that could have made an interesting turning point for the plot is the mystery of how Fritz has managed to turn invisible in the first place. His own inventions have all failed spectacularly, and the “scientist” whose machine he used turned out to be a fraud. This means that somehow Fritz must have willed himself into becoming invisible, through some sort of placebo/mind-over-matter process. However, such material are far too complex for the screenwriters to handles, so it just sits there by the curb, seemingly invisible to all involved in the movie.
I have found one contemporary review of Hilfe, ich bin unsichtbar, from Austrian newspaper Österreichische Zeitung from 1951, which is almost funnier than the film itself, and worth quoting in full: “‘Help, I am invisible’, shouts Theo Lingen, as the screenwriters haven’t been able to come up with anything better than this dusty trope from the silent era, in which Harry Piel dabbled years ago. This West-German comedy could well be prescribed by doctors as sleeping medication. The plot: Theo Lingen dreams that he is invisible and only becomes visible again when he drinks alcohol. Thus, he needs to drink cognac throughout the film and stumble across the screen. (Funny, right?) Fita Benkhoff and Grete Weisser play along, as best they are able. What else they get up to is largely uninteresting.”
Lexikon des Internationalen Films calls Hilfe, ich bin unsichtbar a “grotesque comedy, entirely tailored to Theo Lingen’s comic effect”. Phil Hardy in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies writes: “A sentimental domestic comedy even tamer than the Piel comedies of the thirties, and as fulsome in its praise for priggish mediocrity as Ein Mann geht durch die Wand“. According to Hardy the direction fails to overcome the flaws of the material by “playing down the farcical elements in favour of ‘human’ touches”.
Hilfe, ich bin unsichtbar has a 5.9/10 audience rating on IMDb, but with so few votes that it hardly registers. The only meatier German online review I have found comes from the anonymously edited Schlombies Filmbesprungen, where the reviewer complains about the movie’s sluggish start and cumbersome plot, filled with gag scenes that add little to the proceedings. He also notes that the film simply refuses to grab hold of any of the many interesting possibilities available for a more serious examination invisibility as a metaphor for social or psychological issues, but uses the trope exclusively for cheap gags: “Of course, in any project with Theo Lingen in the lead, one automatically expects light material. But in my opinion, none of it was funny or sympathetic enough [to outweigh the film’s flaws], and the narrative thread as a whole was ill-conceived. Sure, if you’re not expecting too much, you can sit through it once, preferably while doing something else (the ideal shirt-ironing film?), but you really haven’t missed anything if you give this, actually well-cast, comedy a pass.”
The only English-language online review I have been able to dig up is by Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings, who has seen it without understanding the dialogue, and notes that “The humor is primarily verbal, and what visual humor there is didn’t impress me”.
Despite the fact that Hilfe, ich bin unsichtbar didn’t seem to endear its director to contemporary critics, and doesn’t seem to have swayed later commentators either, Emerich Walter Emo was a both successful and influential director in the 30’s and during WWII. Born Emerich Josef Wojtek in Austria in 1898, and served in WWI as a young man. After the war he relocated to Berlin, where he entered the film business from the lowly rung as an extra and worked himself up through different positions behind the camera to becoming and assistant director, and finally in 1928 a director. In the early 30’s he relocated to Austria, where he quickly established himself as one of the country’s top comedy directors, contributing greatly to the success of Austria’s two leading comedic actors, Paul Hörbiger and Hans Moser. A third addition to his roster was German-born Theo Lingen, with whom Moser formed a long-lasting comedic duo. Wojtek soon changed his artist name E.W. Emo into his official name. During the Nazi era, Emo became one of the top directors of the nationalised Wien-Film, and he thrived as a creator of light, escapist entertainment during the dark war years. He only made one outright propaganda film, Wien 1910, intended to legitimize the Anschluss, but even so, it was banned in Germany. While none of Emo’s films are regarded as timeless classics today, during his heyday many of them were commercially successful. After the war his career started to decline, and his last hit comedy was the Hans Moser/Theo Lingen vehicle Der Theodor im Fußballtor (1950). He directed around a dozen more films before retiring in 1958.
Theo Lingen was born in Germany in 1903 with the surname Schmitz, and took his stage name Lingen from the region he was born. His acting talents were discovered when he was still in school, and he quickly made himself a name on the Hannover stage, especially for his comedic timing. It was his work with Bertolt Brecht that brought him to Berlin, where he impressed movie director Fritz Lang, who cast him in serious roles in his classics M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). However, from the mid-30’s onward he only accepted comedic roles. Lingen struck up a successful comedy partnership with Hans Moser, often in films directed directed by E.W. Emo, while he continued to appear regularly on stage. Because his wife was of Jewish descent, he considered fleeing the country when the Nazis came to power, but because of his popularity, he was given special permission to work despite his “suspicious family connections”. In 1939 he moved permanently to Austria, where he worked on stage and continued making films. He worked extensively during WWII, and in 1944 was also active in a small resistance cell in Vienna along with Moser, which may have saved him from the 5-year professional ban that befell many actors working under the Nazis. In 1946 he became an Austrian citizen. Extremely productive, he appeared in over 260 films or TV series before his death in 1978. As Hilfe, ich bin unsichtbar demonstrates, Lingen’s films have not necessarily aged well, and few are remembered by a mainstream audience today, apart from his early collaborations with Fritz Lang and a couple of TV appearances in the 70’s. One little fun coincidence: Theo Lingen actually appeared in Harry Piel’s “invisible man” film Ein Unsichtbahrer geht durch die Stadt (1933, review) in a small role as a party guest.
While the name of Inge Landgut, playing Fritz’ wife Ilse in Hilfe, ich bin unsichtbar, may not ring many bells, she is one of the most recognised faces in movie history, namely the little girl who falls prey to Peter Lorre’s child molester in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M. Landgut was a prolific child actress from the age of 5 in 1927, whose career peaked in 1931. Not only did she play the memorable role in M, she played Pony Hütchen in the internationally distributed Emil and the Detectives. Landgut appeared in 20 over movies between 1927 and 1941, but after finishing high school took acting lessons and started appearing mainly on stage. She briefly returned to the screen with another dozen of movies between 1948 and 1952, and then started doing work in television. However, from 1951 on she also worked extensively with dubbing, in particular supplying voices for Dorothy Malone and Shelley Winters. She also dubbed such actresses as Olivia de Havilland, Kathleen Freeman, Angela Lansbury, Rosemary Clooney and Elsa Lanchester. She is known for dubbing Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny in two James Bond films. Friends of genre cinema would have heard her voice in films like Black Friday (1940, review), The Nutty Professor (1963), the TV series The Invaders (1968), the disaster movies The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Earthquake (1974), Jaws (1975), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) and Xanadu (1980).
Hilfe, ich bin unsichtbar is cast with great actors, such as the award-winning comediennes Fita Benkhoff and Grete Weiser. The first was awarded a lifetime Bambi award, the second a German Cross of Merit. The great Hubert von Meyerinck is underused in the small role as Professor Orsini. We have seen Meyerinck before on this blog, in Harry Piel’s SF movies An Invisible Man Walks the City (1933) and The World Without a Mask (1934, review). There’s also a small performance by the tragic teen sensation Adolf “Adi” Lödel, who sadly hung himself by the age of 18.
The visual trickery of the film can probably be accredited to veteran cinematographer Hans Schneeberger, who worked, among very many others, on Joe May’s Asphalt (1929), Josef von Sternberg’s Blue Angel (1930) and Carol Reed’s The Man Between (1953). Costume designer Trude Ulrich went on to work on the SF B-movies Dr. Mabuse vs Scotland Yard (1963) and The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse (1964).
Hilfe, ich bin unsichtbar. 1951, West Germany. Directed by E.W. Emo. written by Rolf Meyer, Erwin Kreker, Herbert Tjadens, Curth Flatow. Starring: Theo Lingen, Inge Landgut, Fita Benkhoff, Grethe Weiser, Margarete Haagen, Käte Pontow, Hubert von Meyerinck, Joseph Offenbach, Arno Assmann, Adi Lödel. Music: Friedrich Schröder. Cinematography: Hans Schneeberger. Editing: Martha Dübber. Production design: Franz Schroedter. Costume design: Trude Ulrich. Sound: Martin Müller. Produced by Rolf Meyer for Junge Film-Union Rolf Meyer.