Hans Tintner's 1930 film, Cyankali Cyanide - is as much a social commentary and plea for liberalised abortion laws, as it is a highly watchable, if harrowing, melodrama. For most of its 85 minutes, the movie is silent with inter-titles, however in the final scenes, we are magically transported into the world of the talkie, as the tragedy which has unfolded reaches its denouement.
And the scene is set, with the sobering official figures of the time: up to 800 000 abortions are performed in Germany each year, with up to 10 000 resulting in the death of the mother.
The seedy northern districts of Berlin. Poverty, unemployment and labour unrest.
The beautiful Hedwig Heti lives a meagre existence with her widowed mother in a typically dank apartment, but there is the promise of a better life with Paul from the factory. And telling him of her pregnancy, they both for a moment dream in beatific innocence of a perfect world, in a place of their own. Paul is an honourable man who shares her joy, and he will accept his responsibilities as a father and provider.
But they are suddenly cast adrift from that ideal future by the news that an industrial dispute has shut down the factory. How can they possibly afford a child now? The ravages of poverty on neighbouring families have been plainly evident: Mrs Witt has jumped to her death with one of her many children. The futility of a life with a drunken unemployed husband. For the 17 year old Heti, such stultifying emptiness is not an option.
Paul and his friend Max must resort to burglary of the factory canteen no less in an effort to put food on the table, and while this doesn't sit at all well with Heti's mother, who refuses to take part in this feast, she can't help but notice the irony: for her life of honesty, she has been repaid with hunger. And it is at that table too, as the vile landlord makes an uninvited entrance, that Heti informs her mother of her situation.
There seems no other escape from her current dark morass, than to seek medical assistance.
It is then that we are offered another stark glimpse of the times; an altogether different, though no less confronting one.
Fresh from a flirtatious consultation with an obviously well heeled if sadly indisposed young lady, where he fabricates a legal scenario for her to undergo an abortion, the respectable doctor makes a point of telling young Heti that he is sorry, but it is illegal in Germany to provide this service for her. The law does not take economic hardships into consideration.
The only illness she is suffering is poverty, and while her pleas may elicit some pity, she is left with no choice but to seek help elsewhere. He warns her then of the dangers which lurk beyond his doors: unclean instruments, and the dreaded cyanide, a not-uncommon method of termination. Indiscriminate and random.
But you are the one who is sending me there!
In desperation, she is drawn to a small classified notice in the newspaper which offers a discreet service to women and girls.
The termination is procured. Cynically haggling over cost unclean hands on unclean instruments. And to be absolutely sure, she is given a phial of liquid to take home. To take from it five drops in water.
Her mother knows why, but her daughter is now home. Safe at least, please.
The drops. The fever. She can't take them, and fearfully begs for help.
This won't kill me, will it mother?
And so it is at this moment that some rather interesting things begin happening; incongruous moments that were perhaps part of the original print, or which came as a result of some re-editing.
It is 1930 and we are on the cusp of sound. There were hints of this throughout the first half of Cyankali: the use of crowd noises, knocking on a door, and all the while a richly diverse, musical background. Yet then for extended periods, a white silence.
Heti's cyanide cocktail brings on the spoken or rather the sung word, and we find ourselves being entertained (sic) by a neighbour singing in her apartment, while accompanying herself on guitar.
Then Heti calls, vocalises, to her mother for help. Not as escape from the guitar playing neighbour, but for the physical pain she is enduring. The anxious questioning.
It is here too in the final scenes that we listen to the impassioned pleas of Max and Paul, as they are brought by police into the dying girl's room, suspected of having procured a crime against the unborn. Impassioned demands for birth control, coordinated by the state, to save women from these amateur abortionists.
Every year, 800 000 mothers end up breaking the law A law which makes them criminals is no just law!
Heti's mother will soon be arrested for administering that fatal dose, while Heti opines to the screen, her final words: tens of thousands have to die. Will no one help us?
There is a terrible inevitability to this movie. The era of the Third Reich was near, and one is left to ponder the effect its message may have had on the movie-going public of the time. For the National Socialists, the blood of the Volk was sacrosanct. It was to be nurtured and worshiped, for in it, by it and through it, the destiny of Germany rested. Abortions were for the racially impure and the genetically suspect.
The actress Grete Mosheim, who played the tragic Heti, fled Germany for England in 1933 because of her Jewish heritage.
This is an important document from the Weimar period.
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