Friday, September 24, 2021

Robert Siodmak | Brennendes Geheimmis (The Burning Secret)

brave new world

by Douglas Messerli

Frederick Kohner (screenplay, based on the fiction by Stefan Zweig), Alfred Polgar and Robert Siodmak (dialogue), Robert Siodmak (director) Brennendes Geheimmis (The Burning Secret) / 1933

The German director Robert Siodmak—today known mostly for his noir US films of the 1940s such as The Spiral Staircase (1945) and The Killers (1946), as well as his now camp classic Cobra Woman (1944)—in my estimation is still very much underrated, particularly if you look back to some of his early German films such as Tumult (1932, the French version of his Storms of Passion)—a work which I also discuss in this volume—and his movie from 1933, Brennendes Geheimnis (The Burning Secret) which, after Joseph Goebbels attacked the film in the press and banned it, forced Siodmak to escape from early Nazi Germany.

      If The Burning Secret—whose central figure is a young pre-teen boy who plays a seemingly innocent observer of his mother’s adulterous relationship with a charming rouge race car-driver —is not precisely an LGBTQ drama, it certainly is a psycho-sexual portrait of a young man on the verge of a homoerotic attachment, the memory of which he will surely carry with him through his adult life. At such an early age young children are still often very much in flux concerning their feelings about gender and sexual attraction, so it would be absurd to argue that the incidents that Siodmak captures in this moody melodrama seen through the dual lenses of the adults and the boy involved represents a young man moving toward a homosexual identification.

     In fact, it doesn’t truly matter any more than the fact that the young actor playing Edgar (Hans Joachim Schaufuß) was killed as a Nazi soldier on Germany’s Eastern Front. In the context of the film the boy simply falls in love with the older man, Herr von Haller (Willi Forst) for a number of reasons including that he outwardly represents the excitement and virility of the adult male world, that he momentarily serves him as a better father than his own inattentive and absent pater (Alfred Abel), and that von Haller is the only adult who seems to pay attention to him as an intelligent and curious young man other than his perhaps too dependently-loving mother (Hilde Wagener). In this film Edgar is swept up into the arms of love as surely as is his sentimental and needy mother, the only difference being that the child begins to see through the lies he is being told by his would-be lover von Haller and deals with the painful consequences much quicker than does his mother. But given the age and inexperience of the younger being, those consequences are far more momentous than they are for the adventure seeking wife of a successful lawyer.

      Based on a story by the Austrian fiction writer Stefan Zweig, this film basically tells two stories simultaneously, one a domestic comedy that, in other circumstances, might have been played out a bit like a Feydeau farce, the second, however, being an almost noir drama involving attempted murder, psychological suffering, and dangerous escape that might have resulted in death.

      Let us begin with the comedy. We certainly have the ingredients for a Feydeau farce, a hotel in the off-season, with an upstart young porter Fritz (Hans Richter), who along with the knowing adult hotel keeper (Heinz Berghaus), aware of all his patrons’ sexual peccadillos, an all-too promiscuous regular guest, Fräulein de la Roche (Rina Marsa), and a penniless remnant of the aristocracy, Baron Tosse (Ernst Dumcke), along with the proper and beautiful matron (Wagener) and her innocent son, Edgar seem to be just the ingredients one needs to stir up naughty doings. Into this boiling brew sweeps the cad on his white horse of a Mercedes, von Haller, who’s bored from almost the moment he arrives after spotting all the elderly regulars about.

      What a delight, accordingly, when during lunch he spots a glimpse of the lovely woman and her son in a mirror, she spotting him in the same mirror observing her, moving a bit out of site, and he following by moving over to see her in the mirror once more, in a game of “reflecting tag.” By dinner he has already charmed his way to the table via his attentions to her son and through an evening game pretense, in which he claims to be able to read minds, he engages her to join him in looking for a needle in the haystack (the guests hide two needles for him to find while the couple are out of the room) of the bored geezers and one overweight older son who are delighted by his silly tricks of observation. The woman he is attempting to seduce, while certainly skeptical and ironic in her comments, is too pleased for his attentions to truly upbraid him. And that fact that she scoffs at his singing accompanied by his own piano playing and his vaudeville tricks, merely makes them allies against all the other patrons in awe of his talents, including Edgar.

      Through Edgar’s utter enthusiasm for the promised next-day excursion in von Haller’s splendid motorcar (the day also a celebration of Edgar’s birthday), the man has seduced the mother to join them on an outing where he oozes charm, by the end of the day leaving the poor woman with the impression of having found someone—after all of these years of household responsibilities and patient waiting for her husband to return home from work—who might share in the adventure of romantic love. A night later she meets him in the woods for a kiss...and from his point of view, possibly other rewards.

      By the end of the film, however, he finally is revealed as a possible danger to her child and a man willing to pay a subtle bribe—despite that no actual sexual actions other than a kiss have taken place—from the Baron Tosse, desperate to pay his room tab.

      The following day, speeding on her way home and observing Van Heller now in the company of  Fräulein de la Roche, she is finally able to recognize—as the hotel keeper encourages von Haller to help her realize—the difference between an adventure and a romance.

      At this level, Siodmak has treated us basically to a story that might have been written by Arthur Schnitzler wherein a woman learns of both the joys and dangers of staying out of normative societal constraints. But simultaneously the director takes us on a brilliant detour into the territory of Schnitzler’s dear friend, Sigmund Freud, as we see the same story from the viewpoint of Edgar, the enchanted woman’s eager son.

      Although, all of the hotel patrons are in some senses desperate for distraction, Edgar has at least found the company of one engaging peer, Fritz, the young boy who operates the elevator and is sent on errands to serve the endlessly dissatisfied guests. A working class kid, Fritz, unlike his good friend, is no innocent, and might have even, given the possibility, introduced his buddy to the delights of sex (either homosexual or heterosexual) had he been given enough time and were it not for the fact that Edgar is so unschooled in the ways of the world that it might have been injurious to do so. As it is he pulls him away one evening to join up in the afterhours of the hotel kitchen where he teaches Edgar the fine arts of smoking and drinking, while the hotel maids and workers play sexual charades in the background.

      The moment von Haller rides into the picture, however, Fritz doesn’t stand a chance, Edgar almost immediately being swept up by the man’s charm as if the sports car driver’s only intention of visiting the hotel were to pay homage to him. Indeed, if von Heller had been just a little more of an immoralist, the movie might have taken a completely different and frightening direction. As it is, by allowing the boy to sit in the glorious auto, complimenting the child’s cleverness, and just simply communicating to him in a manner which no adult has ever done before, Edgar, as I suggest above, falls immediately in love with von Haller awed by his abilities at racing, singing, piano playing, reading minds, and charming everyone he meets. The fact, moreover, that this magical presence has appeared to the boy just before his birthday, makes it almost seem like he himself is a birthday gift no one else might have imagined awarding him. This is the same territory, in tone, explored in George Stevens’ Shane (1953), Pier Paulo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), and—in a far more buried sexual manner—Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol (1948). At least his mother has a veneer of cynicism to protect her, but for Edgar his love is unadulterated and pure, and withdrawn, according, represents the denial of the other’s entire existence.

      Even when Fritz attempts to put him wise to von Haller’s tricks when it comes to mind reading, the boy defends his new hero. It is only when, on their daylong outing, that he begins to see that von Haller is far more interested in his mother than in himself, that he begins to realize that something is amiss. When, having been left alone in a restaurant for what must have seemed like hours, he overhears von Haller dismissing Edgar as being simply a boy “who needs a lot of patience,” he realizes that he has lost the man’s love in a previously unperceived contest between him and his mother. 

      Try to remember when you didn’t quite know the difference between romantic and sexual love and the love of family and friends, when love was simply love and was not all delimited or defined by gender or sexual desire. When Edgar finds that von Haller’s love has been refocused, it is as if he has been unexpectedly jilted, dismissed as no longer someone even to be allowed into his heart.

      While some commentators have argued that the boy suddenly becomes worried about the man’s attentions to his mother as being something dangerous for her in relationship with Edgar’s father, others with whom I strongly agree recognize that at first it is not the fact that his mother is loved by von Haller that bothers the boy, but simply that he is no longer the central object of the man’s love, or, to put it simply in the boy’s terms, that he has lost his lover and, perhaps, even his mother.

       Locked away in his room by his mother, who sneaks out to join von Haller, Edgar has a terrible nightmare in which his mother returns with von Haller suggesting that he should have no fears of talking since the boy is asleep. Von Haller suddenly sits over the piano keyboard crackling out a sort of cabaret song in a devilish-like voice about how children should be asleep a 9:00, therefore allowing adults to pursue their activities. The boy cries out to his mother wondering what he can no longer understand what she is doing and saying, von Haller taking his mother off into a flying machine which leaves the boy at the bottom of a kind tube which seemingly threatens to suck him up out of existence since his mother and the man have flown off.

       The nightmare soon turns into an even more horrific event when he later awakens to find von Haller sitting on his bed, demanding he do what he tells him. 

        In reality, he is simply reacting to Baron Tosse’s threat issued from the other room to open the child’s door in search of von Haller, which would obviously prove the couple to be having an affair; by pretending that he is nursing Edgar back to health he can easily explain his presence in her hotel suite when Baron Tosse finally opens the door, which he does soon after.

        But in the child’s reality he is engaged in precisely what I hinted at earlier, a kind of child abuse—not of the sexual kind, although sitting on the bed, holding the child’s hand, and demanding he do as he asks is certainly suggestive of just that—but of another kind, using the boy for his own deceitful purposes as a cover.

        He soon leaves the room and the suite to pay off Baron Tosse, Edgar fully awakening and wondering to his mother if he has been dreaming or if von Haller has actually be in his room, his mother assuring him that it’s been a dream. And when a while later Edgar discovers a cigarette laying on the nearby bureau he realizes that his mother has also told him a lie.

        When the couple skip out to the woods the next evening for a late night kiss, Edgar’s mother finally determining that she should check up on her son, von Haller finds the boy waiting for him in front of the car, a large wrench hidden behind his back ready to attack and kill the man who is now the challenger to his mother’s affections. As Edgar moves to strike him, von Haller wrestles with him, the boy running off, with von Haller following after clearly to further do harm to Edgar who bites him and rushes away at the very moment that the mother returns and calls out, von Haller chalking it up to nothing but an “unpleasant altercation” in which the boy intended to hurt him.

        But Edgar does not return, and his mother notifies hotel staff and they the police, Fritz attempting to calm the woman as she sits terrified in her room, he noting how much he liked Edgar and how good the boy was.

       We see the boy running to the lake, terrified of what he might do to himself; but soon after he sneaks onto a train, finally being caught by the conductor who, when the boy explains that he wants to return to Zurich to see his grandmother, suggests the boy eat a sandwich he provides from his own satchel.

         In the very next scene the grandmother is seen caring for the boy, having contacted her daughter, who quickly orders up a car to take her to Zurich and her son. The boy’s father (Abel) also shows up, assured by his mother-in-law that Edgar is fine, still sleeping after the distressing voyage. Up to this point, if one ignored some clearly horrifying moments of real child abuse, one might still imagine this film as a kind of farce, of, if nothing else, a tempest in a domestic teapot.

        But Siodmak does let us forget the true consequences of all that has happened as the couple, finally rejoined—even as the father threatens that his must return to his office—attend to their son. The boy’s mother runs into the room, smothering Edgar with kisses, but his father pulls her away, saying “One minute.” He demands: “What got into you to run away and frighten your mother?” When the boy doesn’t immediately answer, he probes further, “Did someone do you harm?” And when Edgar still contemplates how to answer, he pushes angrily against his reticent son, “For heaven’s sake you had to have reason for running away without warning!”

        In one of the saddest moments put to film, the boy, seeing his mother’s look of horror as she stands behind the cross-examiner, answers: “I didn’t have a reason to leave,” dissimulating for perhaps the first time in his young life, something the adults have shown necessary for survival. All three of the major adult figures in his life, his mother, father, and von Haller have lied and abused him, forcing the child to abandon his innocence prematurely and enter into the world he knows he can never again fully trust. 

       When the father has left the room, Edgar bursts into tears. His mother’s kisses and acknowledgement of his having grown into a man which ends this amazing film ring hollow. And you can only imagine that once she has left the room he will desire to rub the memory of them off his face and stare out in deep contemplation of the “brave new world”—neither adventurous nor romantic—in which he now finds himself.

Los Angeles, September 24, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2021).


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