by Willi Forst
Presented in competition at the Venice Film Festival 1934, Maskerade won the Best Screenplay Award. While following the canons of the Wiener Films, with a story set in the world of the upper middle class, its splendour, sumptuous costumes and music, both Willi Forst and screenwriter Walter Reisch wanted to give the whole thing a different touch, pointing the finger at a hypocritical and decadent society reminiscent of Arthur Schnitzler’s works.
The woman in the portrait
It must have been Willi Forst’s careful, sharp and sincere gaze. Or even the brilliant pen of Walter Reisch (who would later write feature films like Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotschka, Henry Hathaway’s Niagara – with a merciless Marilyn Monroe – or George Cuckor’s Gaslight). Or perhaps it was also thanks to the young, innocent face – now naive, now incredibly strong-willed – of a very young Paula Wessely (here in her film debut) that a film like Maskerade (original title: Maskerade) was the most successful film produced in Austria and Germany in the year 1934.
Yes, because, in fact, from the very first days of filming, the Tobis-Sascha-Filmindustrie decided to focus a great deal of attention on Maskerade, casting both names already known to the public, as well as new faces, completely unconventional for the time, but who, having already received much acclaim in the theatrical field, also promised a lot in film.
And the results, in the end, were very satisfying. Presented in competition at the Venice Film Festival 1934, Maskerade won the Best Screenplay Award.
Everything starts, then, with a portrait and a big misunderstanding. In a 1905 Vienna, a masquerade ball is taking place at a carnival party. First prize in the raffle is a precious chinchilla muff, which is won by aristocrat Anita Keller (Olga Tschechowa), engaged to orchestra conductor Paul Harrandt (Walter Janssen). The woman, still in love with the painter Ferdinand von Heideneck (Adolf Wohlbrück), meets the latter at the party and, irritated by the fact that he wants nothing more to do with her, forgets his muff on the table. Her sister-in-law, Gerda (Hilde von Stolz), married to the surgeon Harrandt (Peter Petersen), visits Ferdinand’s studio at night and lets herself be portrayed wearing only the muff and a carnival mask. The aforementioned portrait, however, accidentally ends up among the drawings to be sent to a newspaper and, since, precisely, Gerda is married, there is a risk of scandal. So the painter, in order not to be discovered by the woman’s husband, invents an imaginary name for the model portrayed – Fräulein Dur. Too bad that, in reality, a girl with this name actually exists (Paula Wessely). And when the young woman is tracked down in order to help him conceal the scandal, things get even more complicated.
Maskerade, then, perfectly satisfies the canons of the Wiener Films, with its story set in the world of the upper middle class, its splendour, its costumes and its music (the scene in the theatre while tenor Enrico Caruso – whose voice we hear only – sings the notes of Rigolettois truly impressive). And yet, in this case, both Reisch and Forst wanted to give the whole thing a different touch, pointing the finger at a hypocritical and decadent society reminiscent of Schnitzler’s works (surgeon Harrandt, for instance, as a doctor, reminds us of Arthur Schnitzler himself).
Amidst various misunderstandings and conspiracies, memorable, in this regard, is the scene in which we see Gerda’s portrait circulating around the city on newspaper copies, with both amused and scandalised readers laughing and commenting on the fact, dubbed by animal sounds, now of chickens, now of pigs.
And, in this regard, a separate discourse must be made on sound. We are now in 1934. In Europe, sound films had established themselves much later than in the United States. But if, in 1931, Fritz Lang – with his M had made this new art a true masterpiece, not all national films initially knew how to use it properly. And so it often happens that in Maskerade – shot entirely indoors – when the protagonists are forced to speak in low voices for script reasons, one struggles to understand what they are saying. This is due to the fact that, in order for the voices to be heard best, microphones were hidden behind plants or furniture within the set, since the actors themselves could not get too close to them.
But this, if you like, is a forgivable ‘mistake’ compared to the success of the film. And in Maskerade we see for the first time on the big screen what was to become one of the greatest Austrian actresses of all time (Wessely, in fact). Memorable are the close-ups of her face, now restless, now tenderly dreamy. And Willi Forst, for his part, perfectly knew how to enhance his actresses.
With a background as an actor and opera singer, Forst ventured into directing relatively late. And Maskerade – although considered one of his greatest successes – was only his second film as a director. And yet the whole world, from the Venice Film Festival onwards, took notice of him and his talent. So much so that he became one of the most important figures in the production not only of the Wiener Films, but also of other small works made after his expatriation during World War II.
Maskerade, then, literally won over the Lido audience in 1934. The following year Paula Wessely and Walter Reisch would collaborate again on the occasion of the feature film Episode – this time also directed by Reisch. On that occasion Wessely would win – again in Venice – the Volpi Cup for Best Actress. But that’ s another story.
Original title: Maskerade
Directed by: Willi Forst
Country/year: Austria, Germany / 1934
Running time: 90’
Genre: drama, romance, musical
Cast: Paula Wessely, Anton Walbrook, Olga Tschechowa, Hans Moser, Walter Janssen, Peter Petersen, Hilde von Stolz, Julia Serda, Fritz Imhoff, Liesl Handl, Grete Natzler, Josephine Rudiger
Screenplay: Willi Forst, Walter Reisch
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Produced by: Sascha-Verleih, Tobis Filmkunst