The worldwide call for the proletariat to lose its collective chains was answered not just by the Russian people. The German communists, too, shed blood on their country’s streets and scaffolds, mostly the highly politicized vanguard, fighting for ideals and bread on behalf of workers too deeply impoverished and worn out by World War I and its chaotic aftermath to act for the greater good. That movies could be a tool in that struggle occurred first to the Soviets, whose leader famously declared cinema the most important of arts and, at first, gave free rein to its boldest and brightest so they could create a new visual stimulus to motivate, mobilize, move the masses. German communists (and socialists) kept things small in the beginning, making their version of agitprop in the form of short informational documentaries to help fundraise for the global workers struggle.
Communist honcho and Weimar-era would-be media mogul Willi Münzenberg was head of Workers International Relief when it produced and distributed films to raise awareness and money for victims of the Russian famine in 1921. He later orchestrated the successful (and controversial) premiere of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in Berlin and injected capital into Soviet film production. Incubator of the other-worldly Marxist fantasy Aelita, Boris Barnet’s joyful Girl with the Hatbox, and three by Pudovkin, including The End of St. Petersburg, Mezhrabpom-Rus recognized the obvious benefits of exporting to a large, appreciative movie audience such as the Germans, especially after the upstart Bolsheviks had been spurned by the world’s markets. When the Weimar government (heavily lobbied, one can presume, by the conservative uber-studio Ufa) required foreign distributors to also produce domestically, Münzenberg pooled resources and radicals to form a Berlin-based studio, Prometheus-Films. According to film historian Marc Silberman, Prometheus released “as many as 15 films a year between 1927 and 1930” before going bankrupt in 1932. Harbor Drift was one of those films.
Using the best of German cinema’s unchained camera and chiaroscuro shadows as well as Soviet perspective-bending camera angles, Harbor Drift meant to capitalize on the popularity of strassefilm to convey the plight of the downtrodden. A hooker, a beggar, an out-of-work longshoreman, and a fence all dream of deliverance through one purloined pearl necklace. Documentary footage shot of unemployed dockworkers, which film historian Anton Kaes says is attributed to the film’s original director, Albrecht Viktor Blum, lent a gritty authenticity. When Blum fell ill, Mittler, a theater director from Vienna with a couple films to his credit, took over. Its artful, concise storytelling creates a longing for the silent era to continue so more such films could be made and, simultaneously, a resignation that the era must have reached its natural end, as there could be nothing more poetic and true than this particular cinematic expression.
Harbor Drift hasn’t the upbeat—if strident—optimism of its sister productions in Russia. Soviet characters were liberating Mars, toppling tsars, and finding love as self-sufficient and magnanimous hatmakers. The Germans, forced to endure the entire Great War and bear the burden of reparations, were stuck with the namby-pamby Weimar, trying to toe a moderate line between the increasingly murderous right and the incessantly bickering left. Their pessimism showed. Besides its gloomy strassefilme aesthetics, Harbor Drift’s narrative arc circles back to the same bad news from the opening and the grim reality that only fat cats still have the leisure to leer at a pair of pretty legs (or is it the boots?). The title character from Piel Jutzi’s Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness, another Prometheus masterpiece, doesn’t wrest the means of production from the oppressor’s hand but reaches for the gas line as a one-way ticket out. Fyodor Otsep’s The Living Corpse, based on Tolstoy’s popular play about a bad marriage, also ends with suicide. The German Reds, it seemed, were there to remind that times were hard. And, in 1929, they were about to get harder.
Cinema as a tool to unite us in revolution might seem a laughable idea now. Its language has become standardized and digestible, inciting emotion, sometimes awe, rarely action. But before cynicism takes hold remember that not so long ago the internet, the microchip, and their technological offspring, our precious handheld devices, promised to democratize media—a kind of potential Prometheus-Film founder Münzenberg might foster. “We are no utopians,” he wrote in answer to his critics who accused him of playing a capitalist’s game. “We do not consider it possible to defeat capitalism with economic endeavors . But we also believe that it is a punishable crime to allow bourgeois … concerns to monopolize the media for influencing public opinion without a struggle. We believe that everything must be done to break this monopoly whether in the daily press, the illustrated journals, or wherever.”
For almost a century, Prometheus-made films have been overshadowed by commercial fare like Metropolis, whose communism-tainted titles were edited by censors. Ufa, originally started as a propaganda tool at the tail end of Kaiser’s regime and taken over in 1927 by National Socialist Alfred Hugenberg, released 47 films in 1925 alone, the same year Prometheus began operating. The coming of sound, the worldwide depression, the rapidly changing political climate conspired to crush the dream of Prometheus in the end. There wasn’t going to be a revolution, and no more movies either. According to archivist Jan-Christopher Horak, in its final year, “the collective had to limit itself to educational shorts and to importing a few Soviet features.” In January 1932, before the studio could finish its first sound film, an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Kuhle Wampe, it went bust and the filmmakers turned to the Swiss for financing to finish.
Münzenberg spent his last decade denouncing Stalin’s purges, fleeing Nazis, and, finally, was found dead in a field in Saint-Marcellin, France. A few of the players left for Hollywood: Lissy Arna, rather unsuccessfully, Sig Arno, as a memorable supporting actor. When war broke out, Leo Mittler cast about Europe, directing alternative language versions at Joinville and a couple well-received musicals at Ealing, eventually ending up on the fringes of Hollywood filmmaking, where he provided the stories for the Val Lewton-produced Ghost Ship and the pro-Soviet Song of Russia (whose writers’ credits include fellow travelers, in one sense or another, Paul Jarrico and Edgar Ulmer). Produced at a time when the U.S. and USSR were allied against Fascists, the MGM movie featuring name-namer Robert Taylor was dragged out by HUAC as un-American. Mittler must have sensed the world going mad again. He returned to Germany where he worked in television until 1956. As for the German and Russian proletariat, after finding so much common ground during the interwar period, they met again as enemies on the bitter battlefields of the Eastern Front.
Presented at SFSFF 2014 with live music by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius