“A Fairytale for Grown-ups”: Cinematic and Financial Crises in Die Koffer des Herrn O.F. (1931)

Paul Flaig

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Abstract

Although it features performances by Peter Lorre, Alfred Abel and Hedy Lamarr, a timely screenplay by Leo Lania and lyrics by Erich Kästner, The Trunks of Mr. O.F. has been largely ignored by scholars of German film. Made at the height of depression, the 1931 film presents a comic fable of German economic recovery that is also a satire of the crisis’ causes and potential solutions. In this essay, I argue that the film is an ambiguous comic allegory for both the precarious German economy on the cusp of National Socialism as well as the German film industry’s own related crises, including the transition to sound, political censorship across Weimar and Nazi regimes and financial success in American markets.

The Trunks of Mr. O.F. was the second German film directed by Russian émigré Alexis Granowsky, after the controversial, heavily censored Das Lied vom Leben. Granowsky’s follow-up would seem to have eschewed such controversy. The film’s setting, a typically provincial German village, Ostend, is transformed when thirteen suitcases bearing the initials “O.F.” mysteriously arrive at a local inn. Through a combination of misunderstanding, wishful thinking and manipulation on the part of Lorre’s newsman, the suitcases are said to belong to a millionaire looking to invest in the town. Spurred by this potential influx of cash, Ostend transforms itself into a metropolis: citizens mobilize to modernize the town; cosmopolitan women are imported for jazz clubs and casinos; an “International Finance Conference” is held to discover how this village could not only escape a world-consuming depression, but become a fully industrialized urban center. Having begun by calling itself “a fairytale for grown-ups,” the film ends by showing Ostend’s prominent place on a map of desiccated Europe before admitting that the film is only a “Spiel,” a spinning globe detonating in a final shot.

This explosive moment suggests that the film is as much a satire as it is a “fairytale,” one marked, in the words of its screenwriter, by socialist critique of the fantasies of financial speculation as well as the realities of their ruin. If Germany’s hardships were best depicted in the realist fashion of Lania’s scripts for Prometheus-Film, the crisis and recovery of confidence is here staged as a farce of both economic panacea and popular film genres. The film optimistically suggests that recovery is only a matter of faith, yet this is a faith founded on nothing, the town’s modernization generating out of foolish delusion and cynical reason familiar from Lania’s plays, Kästner’s Fabian or, more presciently, the fascist mobilization of the years to come. This ambiguity was perhaps part of the reason the film was truncated after 1933, not least with its newly given title, Bauen und Heiraten. The Trunks of Mr. O.F. almost anticipates this censorship, not only in its mixture of fantasy and farce, but also in the way that it extends its satire to the German film industry. The film contains numerous references to Germany’s moribund film industry and its difficulties dealing with sound technology, foreign competition and stale comic and musical genres completely out of tune with the nation’s situation. Ostend’s modernization is explicitly tied to the development of the film industry, with the appearance of OTAG, Ostend’s “Filmgesellschaft,” which produces only “Tonfilm Operetten.” The essay will conclude with the many ways The Trunks of Mr. O.F. was understood not only by film censors at the start of the Third Reich, but in mixed reviews among German, Austrian and American presses. Parsing these texts in relation to broader German discussions of potential paths of recovery, I locate Granowsky’s film between deadlocks economic and cinematic. The “fairy tale” of a crisis escaped grows up into a satirical realization that faith in such escape is the very source of crisis itself.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationContinuity and Crisis in German Cinema, 1928-1936
EditorsBarbara Hales, Mihaela Petrescu, Valerie Weinstein
Place of PublicationRochester, New York
PublisherCamden House
Pages73-91
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)1571139354
Publication statusPublished - 4 Oct 2016

Publication series

NameScreen Cultures: German Film and the Visual
PublisherCamden House

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Keywords

  • Film & Theatre
  • Modern History
  • German Literature

Cite this

Flaig, P. (2016). “A Fairytale for Grown-ups”: Cinematic and Financial Crises in Die Koffer des Herrn O.F. (1931). In B. Hales, M. Petrescu, & V. Weinstein (Eds.), Continuity and Crisis in German Cinema, 1928-1936 (pp. 73-91). [3] (Screen Cultures: German Film and the Visual). Camden House.