The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Great Freedom No. 7.
Set in a dive bar in Hamburg, Helmut Käutner’s first color film focuses on the unhappy life of the “singing seaman” Hannes Kröeger (Hans Albers), an entertainer who performs for an audience of prostitutes and sailors on leave. Hannes is obliged by his dying brother to care for his former mistress Gisa (Ilse Werner) and soon falls madly in love with the young woman. Gisa is torn between the singer and a young dockworker who courts her, leaving Hannes to struggle between pursuing her and a new life together, remaining in his cabaret, or finally returning to sea as a true sailor once again. Titled after the street where the cabaret is located in Hamburg’s red light district, Great Freedom No. 7 is emblematic of Käutner’s humane storytelling and his aesthetic resistance to the film culture of the Third Reich.
- New digital master, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
- Audio commentary by German film scholar Eric Rentschler
- Terra in Agfacolor, a new video essay with German film historian R. Dixon Smith on Terra film studios and the Agfacolor film process
- Collection of downloadable songs performed by Hans Albers
- New and improved English subtitle translation
- PLUS: A booklet featuring new essays by German film scholar Rembert Hueser and Helmut Käutner historian Robert C. Reimer
Excepting select titles from the early 1930s, the Criterion Collection’s German films are primarily taken from the New German Cinema movement starting in 1962. The intervening years of the ’40s and ’50s are full of fascinating examples of German cinema and the work of Helmut Käutner makes for an excellent entry into the period, being an unexpectedly compassionate voice in an uncommon time and place. Käutner, born in Düsseldorf in 1908, started his career as an actor in cabarets and theatres and then turned to cinema, first writing screenplays and then directing, releasing his first major films during the Third Reich. His work in Nazi Germany is arguably his most prolific, resulting in 3 masterpieces – his tale of adulterous melancholy, Romance in a Minor Key (1943), his bittersweet ode to traditional German song, Great Freedom No. 7 (1944), and the L’Atalante-esque success in poetic realism, Under the Bridges (1945). In truth, all of these films deserve a wacky “C” and should be released together in a box like the Collection’s forthcoming Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman set or the Josef von Sternberg Silent Classics box, but we’ll specifically focus here on Great Freedom No. 7 simply because of its availability online.
Filmed in Agfacolor, Great Freedom No. 7 stars Germany’s most popular actor and singer Hans Albers as Hannes Kröeger, a charismatic, but secretly dissatisfied, former sailor employed to sing in a Reeperbahn cabaret for sailors on shore leave and the molls and prostitutes who surround them. Kröeger has remained on dry land to resentfully watch over his irresponsible brother. When his brother dies early in the film, Hannes agrees to care for his former mistress Gisa, effectively perpetuating his exile from the sea. It’s no accident that the first appearance of the singing sailor is not of the man but of his automated replica outside his cabaret. Hannes’s smile is mechanical, for the benefit of his audience, and Great Freedom No. 7 presents Kröeger’s personal conflicts while resuming control over his life and choosing for himself a new path.
Hannes invites Gisa back to Hamburg with him, where she moves into his apartment and finds a job as a shop clerk. The two quickly discover a kinship between them. Kröeger even considers marriage with Gisa and contemplates leaving the nightclub to give harbour tours, but Gisa is also pursued by a bold dockworker whose brashly unapologetic manner increasingly gains favour with her. Great Freedom No. 7 has been called a melancholy comedy, and the film does avoid a conventionally happy ending as fate seems to prevent Hannes and Gisa’s stars from lining up (although each finds an alternative path to satisfaction). Still, this tale of unrequited love entertains and impresses. The nightlife of the Hamburg red light district and of The Hippodrome, Hannes’s cabaret, is a lively and glowing otherworld (complete with a John Fordian barroom brawl) that easily competes with the plain and reassuring domesticity that also tempts Kröeger. Albers’ musical performances, particularly his version of “La Paloma,” are hallmarks of his career and among the most indelible moments of the film. These songs, often evoking idyllic, far off lands, have an uncanny ability to transport the film spectator. These songs eventually becoming the basis for a fantastic and intricate dream sequence that blends the seductive (and somewhat nightmarish) imagery of seafaring and cabaret life. Käutner is often considered primarily a craftsman, but Great Freedom No. 7 reveals his technical skill in service of a sensitive and increasingly lovelorn narrative.
As Philip Kemp notes, Käutner’s approach to filmmaking in Nazi Germany rejects the perceived choices between self-imposed exile and collaboration with a totalitarian state. Kemp calls Käutner’s methodology “internal exile,” making films that blanketly resists representation of the state or its ideology. Reference to the Third Reich is almost entirely absent from Great Freedom No. 7, save for the modest iconography worn by a couple of local police constables who attend to break up the barfight. It’s a remarkable achievement considering that shooting began in March 1943 and continued through the year, that the production changed location 3 times under the pressure of Allied bombardment, and that Käutner could still represent a bombed-out Hamburg as untouched by war (even managing to obscure Nazi warships from view during the harbour tour sequence). Great Freedom No. 7 balances the material reality of its characters and locations with the spiritual freedom of its music to achieve a satisfying vision of frustrated love in a magically preserved European port city. While the film was considered by Nazi authorities to demonstrate moral defeatism or individual resignation (admiral Karl Dönitz famously complained, “German seamen don’t drink!”), it seemed that the film would avoid being banned outright, intended to debut at various remaining small theatres in Hamburg provided it could satisfy various required edits. It was delays in these edits due to logistical issues that caused Goebbels to announce 6 weeks before the end of WWII and the fall of the Third Reich that the film could not be released in Germany. As state objections did not extend to foreign cuts, the film first screened in Prague in December 1944 and won Käutner the annual national film critics prize in neutral Sweden.
Eric Rentschler describes Käutner’s films as engaged in “aesthetic resistance” against the Third Reich’s demands for Siegfried-esque heroism. Great Freedom No. 7 is a spiritually sombre film about disaffected people searching for better lives outside of conventional communities. On ships, in rooming houses, amongst criminals and transients, life is led and small happinesses are found in these liminal spaces. Alice X. Zhang‘s luminescent portraits would nicely capture the drowsy glow of the Reeperbahn and the Hippodrome. Her style, somewhat reminiscent of Criterion favourite Kent Williams, would produce a cover treatment in keeping with Collection’s aesthetic and faithful to the tone and spirit of Käutner’s tale of outsiders and doomed love.
Credits: Many sources were of great assistance in preparing this post, including Christoph Huber’s article for Moving Image Source, the Harvard Film Archive’s retrospective on Käutner, Philip Kemp’s article for Sight & Sound, Robert C. Reimer’s “Turning Inward: An Analysis of Helmut Käutner’s Auf Wiedersehen, Franziska; Romanze in Moll; and Unter den Brücken,” and Eric Rentschler’s The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife. Rentschler is a previous commentary provider for the Collection and seems knowledgeable of Käutner’s filmography, particularly during the Third Reich. R. Dixon Smith has been regular contributor to UK editions of German films of this period and provides a similar feature on the British DVD of The Adventures of Baron Münchausen (Josef von Báky, 1943). Albers’ distinguished career as a singer and the significance of his performances in Great Freedom No. 7 require acknowledgment in a Criterion edition, and as I was unable to find any satisfactory documentary on his career, making his songs directly available seemed like the most satisfying way of addressing this point. Rembert Hueser was selected to provide an essay based on his contribution to Brad Prager’s A Companion to Werner Herzog, which addresses, of all things, the presence of chickens and automata in Great Freedom No. 7.