The name Karl (Karel) Anton is unlikely to ring many bells, even for devoted cinephiles. Unlike his fellow Czech director Gustav Machatý, Anton’s prolific output over three countries and five decades has watered down his reputation, not helped by the general unavailability of most of his features. For many years, when scholars even bothered to mention him, it was often as a footnote thanks to his contribution as uncredited associate director on the Nazi propaganda blockbuster Ohm Krüger (1941). He’d generally be described as a workmanlike director responsible for a potpourri of minor musicals in both France and Germany, with just a few touching on the fact that he directed the first Czech synchronized sound film, Tonka Šibenice (Tonka of the Gallows).
This changed once Tonka was restored just a few years ago, and audiences could finally appreciate the accolades accorded by contemporary reviewers: Hebdo-Film had called it “a powerful film of unusual dramatic force,” while S. Victorien in La Semaine à Paris wrote of its “magnificent radiance,” and the Prager Tagblatt wasn’t alone in labeling Anton’s ninth film “a masterpiece.” What struck critics of the era finds equal resonance today, as Tonka of the Gallows is a deeply empathetic portrait of a prostitute whose self-contempt is equal to the scorn she receives from those around her. Magnificently played by the Slovenian star Ita Rina, fresh off her success in Machatý’s Erotikon, the character of Tonka is yet another finely-drawn, complex portrait of a woman of the streets, of the type so movingly handled in a notable number of films of the late silent period. Viewing this drama now, we’re drawn to make comparisons with the works of Murnau and Borzage, with their humanistic portraits of working-class struggles played out against a background of hardship and the jeering callousness of a jaded post-World War I society, made more oppressive with masterful shadows that trap and imprison like strips of blackened phantom fly paper.
The source material is leftist writer Egon Erwin Kisch’s short novel Die Himmelfahrt der Galgentoni, first adapted for the stage in 1921 and starring the ill-fated actress Xena Longenová, noted for her portrayals of prostitutes and struggling members of Prague’s lumpenproletariat (the role later became identified with Rosa Valetti, best remembered today as the blowsy older woman staring down Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel). When adapting the story for film, screenwriters Willy Haas and Benno Vigny made several changes, most notably eliminating the bookending device in which Tonka pleads her case before a heavenly court. Instead, the movie opens on a rickety train chugging through the countryside, with Tonka standing out in her citified clothes complete with the kind of scrubby feather boa that’s a marker of her status as a lady of the night, especially when contrasted with the craggy-faced peasants beside her (the extras were recruited from the Moravian countryside around Veselí nad Moravou).
Tonka is temporarily escaping her sordid occupation in Prague for the purity of rural life and her loving mother, played by Vera Baranovskaya, star of Pudovkin’s Mother four years earlier. Though we’ve yet to see Tonka plying her trade, we keenly sense the contrast between her two worlds, especially in a beautiful scene in which she opens a trunk in her old room and pulls out objects from her childhood: dolls, a mini-blackboard, and clothes. Standing at the window while undressing, her back to the camera, she’s cleansed of impurities by the wholesome atmosphere, further emphasized by a montage of outdoor scenes showing village fêtes and livestock. Her mother hopes for a marriage between her daughter and Jan (Jack Mylong-Münz), but his importuning for her affections reminds her of her fallen status and the streetwalking clothes hidden away in a wicker basket; she returns to the city believing it’s too late for an “honest” life.
Back in a dark, forbidding Prague, Tonka is found in a cheap brothel populated by a panoply of cynical whores presented by cameraman Eduard Hoesch’s lurid pan across their jaded faces and crude body language. Plainclothes cops interrupt the usual transactions, seeking a volunteer to give succor to a convict on death row. The women are repelled by the idea, but Tonka, with nothing to lose and seeing an opportunity to offer sympathy to a fellow down-and-outer, accepts. (Jacques Vivien in Le Petit Parisien expressed amused surprise that the Czech justice system would grant condemned men such a wish: “Ours only offers them the traditional little glass of rum and a cigarette.”) The prisoner (Josef Rovenský) is in a twisted rage, which she soothes with warmth and artless distractions such as a wind-up doll that transports them both to childhood innocence. Anton sets up a meaningful visual distinction between this pair, shot from slightly above, to the warden seen from below, the camera’s contrasting angles turning the prison official into a figure of oppressive authority.
Tonka’s mission of mercy becomes a source of taunts from her fellow sex workers, who brand her “the hanged man’s widow.” Unable to remain in the brothel, she ends up on the streets, the lowest rung on the ladder, where kindness is in ever short supply. Audiences of today trained to decry the punishments so often doled out to women who trespass social norms in movies of this era would do well to temper their analysis by questioning where our sympathies lie: with a cruel and unforgiving society of hypocrites, or with Tonka, a figure whose goodness remains uncorrupted? While it’s important to recognize the insidious ways film rebukes women existing outside a rigid sexual morality, we need to allow ourselves the emotional satisfaction of acknowledging our solidarity with a character so skillfully delineated and so affectingly portrayed.
Tonka of the Gallows was conceived in three versions: Czech, French, and German, of which the French version is the most complete and the main source for the restoration. Much satisfaction was expressed at the time about the quality of the sound recording—in the French release, a song is heard as well as a prayer, on top of the synchronized score composed by Arnošt (Erno) Košt’ál using both original compositions and excerpts from “Hatikvah,” Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture,” Siegfried’s funeral music from Götterdämmerung, and some folk music. Unusually, the reviewer from the Prager Tagblatt astutely criticized these choices for not fitting with the tenor of the scenes but conceded, “these are teething problems.” The rush to praise following the film’s Czech release on February 27, 1930, was swift and near unanimous, though one year later, pioneering critic Svatopluk Ježek, writing in La Revue Française de Prague, complained, “Karel Anton is a lyrical poet of the screen, and yet he missed the gift of dramatic construction and editing. All his works are only beautiful picture albums.”
Those are harsh words, unsupported by Tonka of the Gallows though undoubtedly true for some of the director’s later work. The French press in particular expressed great enthusiasm (the film was released in France as Tonischka), with most articles affirming the opinion of Hebdo-Film, which stated: “Karl Anton has used all the means of expression offered by modern cinematographic techniques, but his personality has always allowed him to avoid the traps set by convention and sentimentality.” Tonka appears not to have been distributed in the U.S. (however screenings for the Czech émigré community are likely) and, while Variety did publish a review from their Prague-based correspondent, the writer barely expresses an opinion, instead devoting considerable space to reporting on the appearance of noted songwriter and cabaret artist Karel Hašler in the prologue of the Czech sound version, who was also seated in a box at the screening.
Anton’s tendency to slip in and out of cinema styles and genres was noted early on, when his 1921 debut, the lyrical Cikáni (Gypsies), was followed by films of entirely different emotional registers, such as the madcap detective comedy Únos Bankére Fuxe (The Kidnapping of Fux the Banker, 1923). After Tonka he moved back and forth between Berlin and Prague, making two fictionalized versions of Egon Erwin Kisch’s reportage on Colonel Redl (István Szabó’s 1985 film of the subject takes a very different approach) before settling for a time in France, where he churned out a number of frothy musicals such as Un Soir de Réveillon (1933), featuring a remarkably risqué young Arletty. By 1936 Anton returned to Germany, where his anti-Bolshevik epic Weiße Sklaven (White Slaves, 1937) was considered not anti-Communist enough until Goebbels, on Hitler’s orders, forced the director to make several changes that increased the propaganda quotient. Anton must have learned his lesson, for apart from the uncredited work on Ohm Krüger, his subsequent films under the Reich, such as the enjoyable Stern von Rio (Star of Rio, 1940), starring La Jana, are pleasant yet stylistically and doctrinally undistinguished. His final directorial credit, fifteen years before his death in 1979, was for a television series in West Germany.
Presented at SFSFF 2019 with live music by Stephen Horne