Kuhle Wampe—or to use its longer title, Kuhle Wampe or Who Owns the World?—is a film that’s probably better seen as a historical document than as a completely satisfying film. It was written by playwright Bertolt Brecht, and would turn out to be one of his final projects in his native Germany before he left the country. Brecht fled Germany in 1933, fearing prosecution due to his political views. He was a Marxist, but one who also had some anarchist sympathies. Brecht made his way around Europe until 1939, when he sought and was granted asylum in the US. He flourished in his new homeland for awhile, until the HUAC came around and he was instantly blacklisted. He eventually spent his final years in East Berlin.
The film itself is clearly agitprop, with an opening sequence that is significantly in debt to the work of Dziga Vertov with its scenes depicting German life in a documentary style. The most successful aspect of the film comes when it’s more in documentary mode, depicting the waning days of the Weimar Republic before Hitler and his cronies took over in 1933 (Kuhle Wampe was made and released in 1932.) It’s centred on a family who end up down and out because of an economic downturn. After a suicide, they end up in a campsite, the Kuhle Wampe of the title.
The love story between the daughter, Anni (Hertha Thiele), and her fiancée is little trite and uninteresting. Thiele was also the star of the pioneering lesbian film Mädchen in Uniform, which of course was also banned by the Nazis—these are the two films she is best remembered for. However, if you are interested in getting an insight into what it was like in Germany right before the Nazis took over, it’s a completely fascinating experience. The footage of Germany is beautifully photographed, but overshadowed by an eerie feeling, given what we know is just around the corner.
The film was very much a collaboration between the film’s main director, Slatan Dudow, and Brecht, who himself directed the climatic sequence on the S-Bahn where a political debate occurs between two groups and they end up breaking out in Brecht’s own “Solidarity Song.”
The BFI Blu-Ray includes a brand new commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin, an archival intro and Q&A with Andrew Hoellering (the son of the film’s producer), and a series of shorts from the BFI archive connected to the film’s themes of solidarity, worker’s rights, social inequality, etc. The booklet includes essays by Martin Koerber and Henry K.Miller, and an archival review by Jill Forbes.