THE BLUM AFFAIR (Erich Engel, 1948)

The Blum Affair (Affaire Blum—pronounced Bloom), a riveting postwar film from the German Democratic Republic, that is, East Germany, is based on an actual case and trial in 1926 in Magdeburg. This was during the Weimar Republic, the constitutional government with which Germany replaced its monarchy in very early 1919, only to see its democratic prospects hobbled months later by the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I, which imposed economic (and other) demands that the victors knew were impossible for Germany to meet. The war’s victors, who were determined to crush the German spirit by dismantling Germany’s military and consigning its people to abject poverty, thus spawned Adolf Hitler, who emerged to attempt to overthrow the government in 1923. This foot in the door of his exploited the crack that Germany’s appropriate feelings of subjugation and humiliation had created, not to mention the depressed economy in which unemployment flourished. Hitler was briefly imprisoned for his pains, but, ironically, became chancellor in 1933, whereupon he proceeded to dismantle the Weimar Republic and replace it with a “National Socialist” state headed by himself. Hitler’s transformation from a discredited political fringe figure to an all-powerful dictator was fueled in part by the virulent anti-Semitism he helped provoke in Germany, and the Blum Affair was part of the fallout from that. After yet another war in which Germany was defeated, World War II, Erich Engel, working with great visual fluidity from Robert A. Stemmle’s superlative script, made The Blum Affair in order to investigate the anti-Semitism that had so mightily contributed to Hitler’s political rise and, hence, to Germany’s ultimate defeat. A one-time Leftist who had staged, in 1928, the original production of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera but who nevertheless capitulated to nationalism and careerism and worked for the Nazi entertainment industry, Engel may have also considered the film as an act of atonement. In any case, The Blum Affair is engrossing, relentless, powerful, haunting.

The case involves a murder that the state will attempt to pin on an innocent man because he is a member of the political opposition and is Jewish. This is the manufacturer Dr. Jakob Blum, who is accused of murdering his discharged accountant, Wilhelm Platzer, presumably to conceal tax fraud. A subsequent audit and investigation of his company, however, reveals no irregularities. The sole witness against Blum is the thief, captured with Platzer’s checkbook, who in fact committed the murder: Karlheinz Gabler. In his twenties, Gabler served in the army and is trained as a pharmacist, but is now financially struggling. His guilt notwithstanding, the authorities convince their captive to accuse Blum. Justice isn’t the state prosecutor’s aim; silencing Blum is, along with covering up the mistakes that the police have made.

The black-and-white film opens with a combination of poetry and prose. The “poetry” is a rapid succession of newspaper pages suggesting the context of the times. One article on one of these pages, for example, refers to the publication of Mein Kampf, the quasi-autobiography that Hitler wrote from his jail cell, in which, among other things, Hitler described the political tactic, a favorite of the current U.S. president (George W. Bush), that he would use, once freed, to fan hatred of Jews, making them the scapegoats for Germany’s economic crisis: tell a lie loudly and often enough, and it will transcend ambiguity and controversy to seem revelatory of absolute truth; another newspaper column addresses the problem of Germany’s anti-Semitism. (The same visual technique later reappears as the press responds to Blum’s arrest.) The “prose” comes in the form of a voiceover narration that guides us to the last page, where the ads of those looking for employment overwhelm the few advertisements of job offerings—a narration that links Engel’s film to the documentary-style crime-investigation fictions that the U.S. produced after the war: The House on 92nd Street (Henry Hathaway, 1945), Boomerang! (Elia Kazan, 1947), and The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948), among others.

The center of attention is the final job advertisement: “Wanted: A cashier for a country bank. References needed. 1000 RMs — Security deposit required.” This ad, because it’s Gabler’s ruse to extract the money, illuminates with irony the dearth of genuine job openings in Germany (the one opening we see advertised doesn’t really exist), and it underscores the desperation that this breeds by leading to the murder-theft, with which, refusing to play games with the audience, the film opens. We know that Gabler is the guilty party from the get-go.

Indeed, it’s Gabler who visits Platzer, ostensibly in response to Platzer’s response to his (Gabler’s) ad—an irregularity that Platzer’s need for a job, mirroring, ironically, Gabler’s predicament, causes him not even to question. The two men bicycle to Gabler’s home in order to complete the agreement. With his live-in girlfriend, Christina Burman, in the adjacent kitchen (she is totally uninformed about his intent), Gabler detains an increasingly agitated Platzer before drawing the blinds and shooting Platzer to death. It’s a great passage. Throughout, Engel keeps the camera outside Gabler’s gated home, as though we were eavesdropping and peeping in, giving us medium long shots and, as figures move closer to the window, medium shots—cunning correlatives to the “removes,” distanced by printed language, of the newspaper pieces with which the film opened. Moreover, the camera glides screen-left to catch Christina horrified at the sound of the gunshots, then screen-right as Christina becomes Gabler’s reluctant accomplice after the fact by helping him lift the corpse, then again screen left as (now) the two conspirators lug the body to the basement steps, and then down so that we end up peering through the basement window as Gabler digs a hole in which to bury the corpse. This astonishingly fluid use of camera is, coupled with the actions themselves, suggestive of the degree to which Karlheinz and Christina aren’t just hiding evidence of the crime from public view but from their own view. They are doing all they can to separate their minds and souls from the committed deed (“We couldn’t have gone on with our debts,” Karlheinz gently tells Christina to explain the crime), and our own “separation” from the deed and its burial, as it were, by our remaining outdoors becomes correlative to theirs—and, more subtly, to Platzer’s, in the sense that Platzer has been “separated” from his own life. What creative filmmaking!

As the film proceeds, though, the brilliance of Engel’s method in this early passage sharpens to a more deeply ironic and shattering point: the separation of the crime from the context of German anti-Semitism that eventually transforms it and makes of it, despite the lack of any such motive on Gabler’s part, a window into the national feelings and motives that will give rise to the political fortunes of Nazism and Adolf Hitler. Like “God’s grandeur” in the beautiful poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Engel’s film “gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil/ Crushed.”

We are introduced to the Blums in another great passage. It’s five in the morning, and the couple, in bed, are roused by the police, who have come to arrest Jakob Blum, along with his chauffeur, on suspicion of murder. From the start, then, Sabine and Jakob Blum are presented as a couple, and we continue to think of them in that way; theirs is a shared life and, in the current dire circumstance, a shared fate. While Sabine is understandably agitated by the arrest, Jakob retains a dignified and efficient calm; and, because they’ve been presented to us as an intimately connected couple (so unlike, for instance, Christina and Karlheinz), we instantly understand that Jakob’s equanimity is as much for his wife’s sake as for his own. When the couple return to the bedroom so that Jakob can dress, a police officer follows, explaining that protocol demands that they not be left alone. This is their bedroom. When they attempt to speak to one another, the officer intercedes, explaining that this also is verboten. When before he leaves with the police Jakob gives Sabine a long, loving kiss, in the background of the shot the officer stares at the couple, presumably making certain that words don’t pass between husband and wife. In fairly quick succession, these three police intrusions on the couple subtly and painfully reverberate with future worse official intrusions into German (and other) Jewish lives. Throughout, the film’s contextual elasticity is remarkable.

Although the local prosecutor in Magdeburg is determined that Blum should be found guilty no matter what the evidence, an independent commissar in Berlin, reviewing the case and conducting his own investigation, exonerates the innocent parties and identifies the guilty one. At the last, Stemmle and Engel allow themselves, forgivably because so beautifully executed, a tad of rhetoric. The Blums are seated together in a restaurant; but just as Sabine had been the more undone by Jakob’s arrest, now she appears the happier due to his exoneration. Jakob appears, by contrast, pensive, cautious, perturbed even. (The film is perfectly acted, but Kurt Ehrhardt, as Jakob Blum, gives the most profound performance.) Sabine, having dismissed her own anxiety, notes that this triumph of justice was inevitable and that they are fortunate to be living in a free democratic state. It’s clear from her husband’s silent expression, however, that he has been impressed by just how fragile German justice, freedom and democracy are. Yes, there’s a bit of rhetorical nudging here in the direction of Germany’s future by dint—from the vantage of the film rather than the events portrayed in the film—of Germany’s recent past; but the whole film is like sand pouring into this final scene, and the moment is great. This is due in large part to the fact that Ehrhardt, as Blum, seems to be looking deep within himself, not ahead, as though he were surveying the complete ordeal that he and Sabine had been put through and is plumbing its implications.

The Blum Affair has been embraced thus far, at least in the United States, only by Jewish organizations that routinely write about it and exhibit it. This isn’t right; this is not a film of narrow interest. It’s a superior piece of work (and an immensely entertaining one, too), and it should be seen by the widest possible audience, including those with an interest in film. Few seem to know about The Blum Affair, and some who do may be delaying their encounter with the film on various grounds. This was true in my case. I worried that the film might depress or enrage me by a suggestion that the most horrible thing that Hitler did was to leave Germany in ruin and defeat. But the film isn’t at all the film I worried it would be. Nor is it a flashy, by-the-numbers thriller like Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), with which it shares some common generic ground. (It shares this ground with a lot of later films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s tremendous The Wrong Man eight years hence.) The Blum Affair is a real find, and I recommend it without reservation to anyone and everyone.

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