A legendary film, Willi Forst’s Maskerade lives up to its exalted reputation. A Viennese operetta, it takes place in 1905, beginning with an extravagant high-society carnival party, full of music and dance and romantic rivalry, and ending amidst falling snow at night, a window glimpsing in on a tender moment of love. It is all heartbreakingly beautiful, silkenly photographed in sparkling grays and black and white by Franz Planer, the future cinematographer of Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). The brilliant script by Walter Reisch and Forst took the screenwriting prize at Venice.
Somewhat stiffly played by Adolf Wohlbrück (who later fled to Britain and became Anton Walbrook), painter Heideneck draws gorgeous Gerda, wife of Dr. Carl Ludwig Harrandt (Peter Petersen, magnificent), wearing only a mask and a muff—the latter borrowed from Anita Helfer, the lover whom Heideneck has dumped and who wants him back. (Engaged to the court orchestra director, the doctor’s brother, she would also like her muff back.) When his maid is incorrectly responsible for the muffed drawing’s publication, Heideneck gives a made-up name to identify the nude model. Alas, it is the actual name of a homely maidservant, Leopoldine Dur, whom Heideneck starts to romance. They fall in love—a situation that Anita finds unenDurable. How common “Poldy” is!
And utterly kind and decent—and superbly and most movingly played by stage actress Paula Wessely. Poldy, it turns out, is the film’s protagonist.
Throughout, the camera moves subtly and graciously, and the shots are to die for. When Heideneck refuses one last time her plea for the restoration of their love affair, Heideneck offers her Sacher candies instead, which fall upon the snow-covered ground like drops of blood when Anita shoots him at point-blank range with her combination pistol/cigarette dispenser. Heideneck falls down right after.
Gaiety thus curdles. If Anita cannot have the man she loves, no one else can have him either. And light, lovely snow keeps descending.
Enrico Caruso, deceased by the time of this film, is nonetheless a character in it—an actor onstage in long-shot, matched-up with actual recordings of Caruso’s singing. The charms of this Austrian film run wide and deep.
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