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by Karl Hartl

grade: 8.5

The Angel with the Trumpet, the successful feature film by Karl Hartl from 1948 and freely adapted from the novel The Vienna Melody, written by Ernst Lothar in 1946, is a family saga and faithful portrait of around sixty years of Austrian history, which successfully mixes the two different points of view – that of Hartl himself, as well as the point of view from the original novel.

Once upon a time…

One of the most important films of the time, The Angel with the Trumpet, the successful feature film by Karl Hartl from 1948 and freely adapted from the novel The Vienna Melody, written by Ernst Lothar in 1946. This is a family saga and a faithful portrait of around sixty years of Austrian history – from 1888, when the Habsburgs still reigned, to the end of the Second World War. A story in which all the love felt by the director – as well as by Ernst Lothar himself – for his homeland is evident, and which successfully mixes the two different points of view – that of Hartl himself, as well as the point of view expressed in the original novel. And if, in the pre-production phase, it was Lothar himself who made an important contribution to the screenplay and the complicated adaptation of his novel in its film version, probably no one better than Karl Hartl could have provided such a detailed, such a personal and, at the same time, such a faithful vision in bringing such an important story to the screen.

The Angel with the Trumpet (original title: Der Engel mit der Posaune) thus begins and ends elliptically with the image of the sumptuous house of the Alt family (manufacturers of fine pianos for more than a century), and immediately focuses its attention on the symbolic sculpture of an angel playing a trumpet above the entrance door, as a symbol of purity, art and the most heartfelt nationalism represented by the love for music. It is in this house, then, that the story of the rebellious Henriette Stein (played by Paula Wessely) takes place. She is married to Franz Alt (Attila Hörbiger), heir to the aforementioned piano factory, but was once madly in love with the heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown, Rudolf (the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth, who took his own life with his mistress Maria Vetsera in the Mayerling manor). It was in this house that their three children, Hans (Hans Holt), Hermann (Oskar Werner) and Martha Monica (Erni Mangold), were born and grew up, as well as the house itself suffered because of Hitler’s seizure of power and the subsequent racial persecution.

A project, therefore, clearly conceived on a grand scale, whose year of birth – 1948, in fact – proves to be particularly significant in indicating the great desire for rebirth, for a fresh start felt by the entire nation, still suffering from the terrible world war that had just ended.

Karl Hartl’s deep love for his homeland really tries hard to make the best of what we are told here. If, in fact, with regard to the indoor scenes, there are slow and skilful tracking shots that proudly show us the magnificence of the houses of the golden years, the same number of panoramic shots of evocative landscapes represent the surroundings of Vienna and the beauty of a land not immune to the bloodiest events.

The staging of Lothar’s complex novel was not an easy task. And yet Hartl was able to exploit all kinds of expedients – from the successful temporal ellipsis in which an offscreen voice tells the story, to moments in which a clever cross-cutting tells the events, as, for example, in the scene of the duel between Franz Halt and Count Traun. And if, therefore, when one wants to stage such a work, the risk of pompous and redundant direction is higher than ever, this is by no means the case with our The Angel with the Trumpet. It is precisely for this reason, then, that a director like Karl Hartl could get noticed and establish himself in a film scene that had already resumed its activity in a very frenetic way immediately after the war.

Although, by the very intention of making The Angel with the Trumpet an international film, the choice of such a distinguished cast is striking, with performers who, in their own time, had already been acknowledged and appreciated abroad (in addition to Wessely and her husband Hörbiger, there are Oskar Werner, Maria Schell, Anton Edthofer and even a very young Karlheinz Böhm, who, however, here plays a marginal role), particularly noteworthy is the portrayal of the protagonist Henriette Stein, the true pillar of the work. Hartl’s camera fully renders all her charm, elegance and dignity as an Austrian sadly resigned to her fate and that of her homeland. Thus there is little point in thinking about the differences with Lothar’s original novel. There is little point in noting how much more complex and not always “innocent” Henriette in The Vienna Melody actually was. The Henriette of The Angel with the Trumpet is perfect just as she is. And she perfectly integrates herself into the enormous fresco of Hartl’s film, capable of moving and inflicting heavy emotional shocks at the same time, making us feel part of a world that would otherwise seem so distant.

It happens, therefore, that a film adaptation differs a lot from the novel from which it is based. And this is also natural, since these are two different works of art. Yet, in conclusion of this consideration, a further remark is necessary: If, in fact, in The Vienna Melody all the despair and disillusionment about a better future of an author like Ernst Lothar – who, like others of his colleagues, had to emigrate following Hitler’s election and who, after the end of the war, gave life to his work after meeting a concentration camp survivor who inspired him to create the figure of Hans Alt – is evident, in The Angel with the Trumpet, on the contrary, we can observe a certain hope and cautious optimism. Just as is expressed by the evocative and proudly moving final shot, which shows us a view of Vienna from above, in which we can glimpse St. Stephen’s Cathedral under reconstruction.

Original title: Der Engel mit der Posaune
Directed by: Karl Hartl
Country/year: Austria / 1948
Running time: 132’
Genre: drama
Cast: Paula Wessely, Helene Thimig, Hedwig Bleibtreu, Alma Seidler, Maria Schell, Adrienne Gessner, Erni Mangold, Attila Hörbiger, Paul Hörbiger, Hans Holt, Oskar Werner, Fred Liewehr, Curd Jürgens, Anton Edthofer, Gustav Waldau, Alfred Neugebauer, Hans Ziegler, Erich Ziegler, Karlheinz Böhm
Screenplay: Karl Hartl, Franz Tassié
Cinematography: Günther Anders
Produced by: Neuer Wiener Filmproduktion, Vindobona-Filmproduktion GmbH

Info: the page of The Angel with the Trumpet on IMDb