'Der Mädchenhirt' was a special 'CineFest Event' at this year's Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy, where I saw it last month. The festival screened a colour-stock print from Berlin's Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, which beautifully reproduced the delicate tinting and toning of the original nitrate release prints. However, I'd already seen the Czech remake of this movie ('Pasák Holec', 1930) when it was screened at the Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna in July 1996. My eagerness to see 'Der Mädchenhirt' at Pordenone was less to do with how heavily the festival committee emphasised the screening than because this film is based on a novel by Egon Kisch.
Kisch, a Bohemia-born Jew, first made his reputation as an investigative reporter, exposing the now-notorious espionage case of Colonel Redl. During the Anschluss, Kisch fled Europe and landed up in Australia, where he proceeded to make a commotion in local journalism. My own career in journalism began in Australia, and in my early days as a stringer I knew several old veteran reporters and editors who told me some astonishing tales about Kisch, who appears to have been a very colourful individual. In fact, he was literally colourful: although Kisch claimed to be an observant practitioner of Judaism (which forbids tattooing), he had festooned himself with several pictorially explicit tattoos before fleeing Hitler, and continued to embellish himself with more 'tats' while living in Australia.
There are several typos in IMDb's cast list for 'Der Mädchenhirt': the characters listed as Duschitz, Serenity and Lusie are actually named Duschnitz, Sereniy and Luise. Now, read on.
This German film's very intriguing title 'Der Mädchenhirt' translates as 'The Girls-Herdsman' ... which, as you might guess, refers to a pimp. Our story begins elsewhere, however: on a river near Prague (presumably the Vltava). Chrapot is a humble ferryman who rescues a victim from a boat-wreck and takes him home to dry off. The man returns the favour by seducing Chrapot's wife and impregnating her. (I guess he hadn't completely dried off yet.) The resultant boy is christened (in this movie) Jaroslav (in the original novel he's cried Jarda), and the movie implies that Jaroslav is innately a bad seed, who just can't help being evil.
In adulthood, Jaroslav runs a nightclub in Prague, which is actually a front for his prosperous prostitution business. (The nightclub, I mean; not the entire city of Prague.) Jaroslav is abetted by Betka, who is nominally the madame of the place. However, Jaroslav's sexual ardour is for young Luise, who is only just barely more virginal than Betka.
Jaroslav is arrested and thrown in the clink (I can't imagine why), and this film strongly implies that the police are more corrupt than the underworld. (Considering the time and place, I can readily believe it.) Since the entire law-enforcement system (in this movie) is corrupt, it stands to reason that the biggest crook of all must be police commissioner Duschnitz, who in fact has a secret of his own, to do with Jaroslav. (Have a look at the rest of my synopsis, if you haven't guessed.) While Jaroslav is in the Czech hoosegow, Luise must survive on the harsh streets of Prague without him ... so she throws herself on the mercy of Busch (well-played by Friedrich Kühne), who is a rival pimp. SPOILERS COMING. Eventually, Jaroslav gets out of prison, saves Luise from the clutches of Busch, reconciles with Chrapot and begins a new honest life.
One of my least favourite film clichés is the 'good crook / bad crook' rivalry, in which two equally dishonest criminals square off against each other but we're meant to sympathise with one of them because he's nominally more charming, handsome and better-dressed than his crude ugly thick-ear rival. 'The Girls-Herdsman' goes far down that road, romanticising and eroticising the antics of handsome pimp Jaroslav and sensual Betka whilst depicting pimp Busch as a double-dyed villain in the Snidely Whiplash mode.
Although 'The Girls-Herdsman' is a German production, it was filmed in Prague and benefits greatly from authentic exterior locations in the seamier districts of that city. I'm not sure if Prague ever had an equivalent to the Reeperbahn, but this movie would seem to indicate that it did. Considering the economic situation in Europe in 1919, I readily understand why so many people turned to criminal livelihoods, and why the police and other authority figures were widely regarded as corrupt. However, I can't help wondering if the decision by someone at the Berlin-based Künstlerfilm GmbH (this film's production company) to shoot 'Der Mädchenhirt' in Prague (where the original novel was set) might not at least partly have been a gambit to mollify German audiences and censors: you see, all this corruption and vice is taking place over there in Czechoslovakia, not here in Germany!
Director Karl Grune shows a sure hand with this material, and at several points during the screening I felt as if I was watching the same dark underworld depicted by Fritz Lang (my favourite director) in his masterpiece 'M' ... in fact, several cast and crew involved in 'Der Mädchenhirt' also worked with Lang. In my estimation, 'M' will always rate a 10 out of 10. As for 'Der Mädchenhirt': this movie would make an excellent companion piece to 'M' in a double-feature screening, and that's high praise indeed. Despite my dislike for a couple of plot twists that weren't quite so twisted as they pretended to be, I'll rate this excellent film 8 out of 10.
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