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by Michael Kehlmann

grade: 7.5

An anguished sense of death and claustrophobia pervades Radetzkymarsch, directed by Michael Kehlmann in 1964 and an adaptation of Joseph Roth’s homonymous novel. The Habsburg monarchy, for its part, seems to us like a kind of golden cage. A cage inside which Carl Joseph and his father Franz, the film’s protagonists, are prisoners.

Watching eyes

A painting. An imposing oil painting, strictly observing everyone in the room where it hangs. Opposite it, an equally solemn painting of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. These are the two paintings that have always conditioned the lives of Baron Franz von Trotta (Leopold Rudolf) and his son, the young lieutenant Carl Joseph (Helmut Lohner), the protagonists of the film Radetzkymarsch (translated: Radetzky March), directed by Michael Kehlmann in 1964, and the TV-cinema transposition of the novel of the same name by Joseph Roth.

The person depicted in the first of the paintings mentioned is the father of Baron Franz, who, during the Battle of Solferino, had been awarded the title of nobility for saving the Emperor’s life. To commemorate this important event, every Sunday a music band plays the Radetzky March in front of the von Trotta house. It will also be this important event – so significant for his own family – that will make Franz encourage his son to pursue a military career, to spend a lifetime serving and honouring the Habsburg monarchy. But will this really be the best road to take?

During Radetzkymarsch, it is precisely the portrait of ‘Grandpa von Trotta’ that constantly recurs in the everyday life of the two protagonists. Grandpa von Trotta’s portrait together with that of Franz Joseph, which in turn hangs in practically every environment frequented by young Carl Joseph. And Carl Joseph himself – because of the education he got and the ideals he always held to – had no other goal than to serve the monarchy and honour his family name. There is no place for anything else in his life. Not even for love (as he repeatedly admitted, he will never fall in love). And as proof of this, any love affair he undertakes, most of them clandestine, will inevitably end tragically: the one with Kathi – the wife of an officer of his town, during which she will become pregnant and die prematurely – as well as the one, which never really began, with the wife of his friend, the medical officer Dr. Demant, whereby the poor husband had to challenge another officer to a duel – and then succumb to the death – after he had dared to mock him.

And it is precisely this anguished sense of death and claustrophobia that pervades Michael Kehlmann’s Radetzkymarsch. The Habsburg monarchy, for its part, seems to us like a kind of golden cage. A cage inside which Carl Joseph and his father Franz are prisoners. Just like their faithful butler’s canary, watched by all as he dies, but never freed by any of them. And so the monarchy, which has given so much prestige to a nation like Austria, is here – as in Roth’s original novel – strongly criticised as being too strict, too cold, practically obsolete. Yet despite such a dark portrayal of the empire, it is Franz Joseph (played for the occasion by Max Brebeck), whose thoughts we occasionally listen to in voice over, who seems to show a certain humanity. He is a now very old man with a gentle character, who here is shown to us in his private side, even in his nightshirt (which, at the time, did not please the local conservatives at all, who considered it unworthy for an emperor to be portrayed in such an outfit).

Franz Joseph, however, will not survive the von Trotta family. And he passes away just a few days before Franz, the last true supporter of an obsolete reality (interesting, in this respect, is the moment when, during a party, the news of the killing, in Sarajevo, of the heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand is given and, when the orchestra begins to play Chopin’s Funeral March, it soon turns into a cheerful Moravian folk dance, complete with pan shots – particularly liked by the director – to show us the dancers getting merrier and merrier).

Through the story of the von Trotta family, then, what Kehlmann – and Joseph Roth before him – staged in Radetzkymarsch is the end of a golden age for Austria. A despotic era, in which there was no place at all for humanity, which is represented here through the everyday life of a little, noble family. And all this made this Radetzkymarsch a real success even at the time. So much so that in 1994, director Axel Corti directed a remake. But this second film will be analysed separately.

Original title: Radetzkymarsch
Directed by: Michael Kehlmann
Country/year: Austria, Germany / 1964
Running time: 210’
Genre: drama, historical
Cast: Leopold Rudolf, Helmuth Lohner, Hertha Martin, Manfred Inger, Fritz Eckhardt, Jane Tilden, Rudolf Rhomberg, Eva Fiebig, Karl Ehmann, Pit Krüger, Erich Auer, Alfred Böhm, Peter Gerhard, Walter Sedlmayr, Erwin Strahl, Hans Unterkircher, Gustaf Elger, Albert Rueprecht, Alfred Reiterer, Anton Rudolph, Peter Michl-Bernhard, Xandi Schwarz, Lotte Neumayer, Max Brebeck, Hans Jaray, Fritz Lehmann, Georg Lhotzky, Helmut Qualtinger, Franz Stoss
Screenplay: Michael Kehlmann
Cinematography: Elio Carniel, Utz Carniel, Josef Vavra
Produced by: Bayerischer Rundfunk, ORF

Info: the page of Radetzkymarsch on iMDb; the page of Radetzkymarsch on film.at