A family of Polish refugees tries to survive in post-World War I Germany. For a while it seems that they are making it, but soon the economic and political deterioration in the country begins to take their toll.
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The story follows a Polish professor and his family who have become refugees in the aftermath of World War I. They try to survive in Germany during the period of the Great Inflation. Carol Dempster is Inga, a Polish war orphan who struggles to provide for the family that has taken her in, while accumulating a meager dowry from the rubble of depression-stricken Berlin so that she can marry Paul. Returning to his family, weakened by the battlefront's poisonous gases, Paul invests in his and Inga's future by tending a secret garden which he hopes will provide the resources for them to live, and which serves as a symbol of optimism for the two young lovers. Written by
Fiona Kelleghan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Griffith's last great film is humane, moving, and tragically prescient
A disclaimer that appears at the beginning of this film may strike latter-day viewers as oddly worded. We're told first that we're going to see a tale of love triumphing over adversity, but then a second title card asserts that "the story is laid in Germany only because conditions there were most favorable for showing the triumph of love over hardship." The tone is unmistakably defensive, for director D.W. Griffith must have known that a story set in Berlin and focused on the desperate struggles of its defeated populace might not go over well in the U.S., or the other nations of the former Alliance. Six years after the end of the Great War there was still considerable hostility towards the Germans, which might explain why the characters at the center of Isn't Life Wonderful are presented as Polish refugees who have resettled in Copenick, a suburb of Berlin. Griffith adapted his screenplay from a short story by Geoffrey Moss, an Englishman and veteran who lived in Germany after the war, and was appalled by the suffering he observed among the common people. It is to the credit of both Moss and Griffith that they were able to put aside wartime chauvinism and sympathize with the plight of the former enemy, even if Griffith felt it necessary to blur the nationality of his fictional family. Plenty of Americans, Britons, French, and others were indifferent to severe conditions in Germany at this time, or if anything felt that the Huns had it coming. Griffith couldn't have expected a box office bonanza from this bleak drama nor did he get one, but he was courageous to make the film at this point in history, and it stands today as his best work of the period.
We follow the daily life of an average, beleaguered family (a professor, his wife and mother-in-law, their sons, and an adopted daughter) as they struggle to feed themselves, find work, and survive. Inga, the daughter, is an orphan who is in love with Paul, a veteran who comes home from the war with lungs damaged by mustard gas. In these early scenes the tempo is very slow, and everyone appears to be dazed. This feels dramatically appropriate, but also signals viewers that this film isn't going to be an easy ride, and that we'll need to adjust our expectations accordingly. As we get to know the characters we share in their setbacks and triumphs. Eventually, as Paul and Inga plan to get married and move into a small cottage we want to see their plans succeed, but feel anxious about their prospects. Paul is allotted a piece of land and manages to grow a modest-sized crop of potatoes, and we are given to understand that the couple's future hinges on the income that results. But we also know that food is scarce in Berlin, and that gangs of hungry men have been roaming the countryside attacking profiteers and taking their produce. As Paul and Inga haul their potatoes through the woods in a cart we fear for their safety, and their confrontation with the gang makes for a genuinely suspenseful climax. The film ends on a hopeful note, but the over all picture of post-war German society is grim.
When critics and historians speak of D.W. Griffith's artistic decline in the 1920s they often cite his insistence on featuring Carol Dempster in film after film as a major factor. Dempster, who was apparently the director's paramour at the time, was a rather plain-looking woman who showed little acting skill in most of her appearances, but it must be said that she gives a strong performance in Isn't Life Wonderful. Of course, the role didn't call for movie star glamor: Inga is an ordinary woman struggling with the most basic problems. Dempster is especially good in one of the film's most memorable sequences, a desperate attempt to buy food during the period of the "Great Inflation," stuck in line and watching in growing despair as the price rises beyond her ability to pay before she can get inside to make a purchase.
It's notable that when we first learn of the roving criminal gangs the director makes a point of humanizing them, rather than depicting them as thugs. We see a large, shabbily dressed man promise his wife that he'll bring her food, and later when the gangs are roaming the countryside we note that this man is one of the leaders. They're not animals, they're hungry, unemployed men -- most of whom are veterans. When Inga calls them beasts this man replies that war and years of hell have made them beasts. It's chilling to think of what the future held for Germany, and for men like these, when this film was made in 1924. Griffith filmed a number of scenes on location, an unusual practice at the time, and when he returned to the United States he wrote a letter to an associate in which he said "Germany must be restored or else Europe is lost." Unfortunately, he was dead right about that. Isn't Life Wonderful is a powerful drama that not only examines the ugly aftermath of one cataclysmic war, but unknowingly sets the stage for another that would prove to be even worse.
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