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by Werner Hochbaum

grade: 8.5

Leaving aside any controversial issue of purely historical and productive nature, the beauty of a film like Werner Hochbaum’s Suburban Cabaret must be acknowledged, since it bears precious witness to a key era for film and beyond.

Against conventions

As the first of four films made in Austria by the German director Werner Hochbaum, Suburban Cabaret (original title: Vorstadtvarieté – Die Amsel von Lichtental), shot in 1935, is today considered a true film heritage. And not only because of its undoubted artistic value, but also because of its intrinsic meaning, its interesting interpretations and, last but not least, its historical importance. It is no coincidence, then, that this work, within the rich programme of the Diagonale 2019 – and, specifically, within the section Weiblichkeiten, dedicated to women – has been presented again together with the famous Maskerade by Willi Forst (1934). In both works, we find the archetypal figure of the Viennese girl, created by Arthur Schnitzler. This figure identifies, in simple terms, a girl of humble origins, who tries in every way to distance herself from her social condition.

In Suburban Cabaret, then, this important role is played by the singer Mizzi Ebeseder (played by Luise Ullrich), who falls in love with a young aristocrat (Mathias Wiemann), causing, predictably, the displeasure of his family. This love (but how far, from his point of view, can we speak of love?), is therefore hindered in every way, since the young man must conclude his military service and, in addition, a variety singer has never been considered a respectable person in upper-class society.

Poor Mizzi Ebeseder is therefore portrayed here as a victim of conventions and of a country that was still very inflexible and backward between the two world wars. It is no coincidence that Werner Hochbaum could make this criticism in Austria, when there were still three years to go before the Anschluss and where there was undoubtedly more freedom of expression than in neighbouring Germany, where Goebbels had already been Minister of Education and Propaganda for a good two years.

The figure of Mizzi is thus constantly represented as a victim of male chauvinism and insensitivity, with a crude mise-en-scene that touches the soul of even the most sceptical spectator. And yet, considering such crudeness and cynicism, Hochbaum, being a great connoisseur of the film language, was able to give us more than one memorable moment, such as the scene in which Mizzi and her lover walk along the paths of a park, stop next to a small lake and give us the poetic image of the two of them, close together, reflected in the water.

And yet, despite the fact that there was still a certain creative freedom to be enjoyed in Austria in those years, even Suburban Cabaret didn’t have it easy. First of all, the manipulation of the text itself, in which a tragic epilogue was the logical consequence and conclusion of the events. This, however – similarly to what the Hayes Code caused in the United States in those same years – did not please the censors, who at all costs wanted this work by Werner Hochbaum to include a forced happy ending. It was therefore up to the director’s skill to ensure that this epilogue was not completely disconnected from the rest of the film. And, fortunately, in the end it worked out that way.

The Mizzi of Suburban Cabaret is, therefore, a very good figure, thanks also to the elegance, the voice of a nightingale and the lovely face of the young Luise Ullrich, who, however, contrasts strongly with the other representative of the Schnitzler archetype, namely Leopoldine Dur (played by Paula Wessely) of Willi Forst’s Maskerade, who, even in the original text, finally manages to become part of the aristocracy.

Leaving aside any controversial issue of purely historical and productive nature, however, the beauty of a film like Suburban Cabaret must be acknowledged, since it bears precious witness to a key era for film and beyond. It is only at the end of the screening, then, that we can think back to the catchy song sung by Mizzi and to her image reflected on the surface of the lake with her lover on a sunny summer afternoon.

Original title: Vorstadtvarieté – Die Amsel von Lichtental
Directed by: Werner Hochbaum
Country/year: Austria / 1935
Running time: 93’
Genre: drama, musical
Cast: Mathias Wiemann, Luise Ullrich, Oskar Sima, lina Woiwoide, Olly Gebauer, Hans Moser
Screenplay: Werner Hochbaum, Ernst Neubach
Cinematography: Eduard Hoesch
Produced by: Styria-Film

Info: the page of Suburban Cabaret on iMDb