Munich University and Munich Art School, studying poster design,
graphics, and interior design.
Married actress/director Erica Balqué, 1934.
Writer and director for Munich Student Cabaret, "Die vier
Nachrichter," 1931–35; stage actor and director in Germany,
Austria, and Switzerland, from 1936; founder, with Wolfgang Staudte and
Harald Braun, of production company Camera-Filmproduktion (later Freie
Filmproduktion); later director, actor, and designer for television.
Kitty und die Weltkonferenz (+ sc, lyrics)
Frau nach Mass (+ sc); Kleider machen Leute (+ sc)
Auf Wiedersehen, Franziska! (+ co-sc)
Anuschka (+ adapt); Wir machen Musik (+ sc, lyrics)
Romanze in Moll (+ co-sc, role)
Grosse Freiheit Nr. 7 (+ co-sc, lyrics, role)
Unter den Brücken (+ co-sc)
In jenen Tagen (+ co-sc, role)
Der Apfel ist ab (+ co-sc, role)
Königskinder (+ co-sc, role)
Epilog ( Das Geheimnis der Orplid ) (+ co-sc, role)
Weisse Schatten (+ co-sc)
Käpt'n Bay-Bay (+ co-sc)
Die letzte Brücke (+ co-sc, role); Bildnis einer Unbekannten (+ co-sc); Ludwig II—Glanz und Elend eines Königs
Des Teufels General (+ co-sc, role); Himmel ohne Sterne (+ sc)
Ein Mädchen aus Flandern (+ co-sc, role); Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (+ co-sc, role)
Die Zürcher Verlobung (+ co-sc, lyrics, role); Montpi (+ sc, role)
The Restless Years ( The Wonderful Years ); A Stranger in My Arms ; Der Schinderhannes (+ role)
Der Rest ist Schweigen (+ co-sc, co-pr, role); Die Gans von Sedan ( Sans tambour ni trompette ) (+ co-sc, role)
Das Glas Wasser (+ sc, lyrics)
Scwarzer Kies (+ co-sc); Der Traum von Lieschen Müller ( Happy-End im siebten Himmel ) (+ co-sc, lyrics)
Die Rote ( La Rossa ) (+ sc)
Das Haus in Montevideo (+ sc)
Kreuzer Emden (Ralph) (role)
Schneider Wibbel (de Kowa) (co-sc); Salonwagen E 417 (Verhoeven) (co-sc); Die Stimme aus dem Äther (Paulsen) (co-sc); Marguerite: 3—Eine Frau für Drei (Lingen) (co-sc)
Film ohne Titel (Jugert) (co-sc)
Nachts auf den Strassen (Jugert) (co-sc)
Griff nach den Sternen (Schroth) (co-sc)
Franziska ( Auf Wiedersehen, Franziska ) (Liebeneiner) (co-sc)
Zu jung für die Liebe ? (Erica Balqué) (co-sc, role)
Versuchung in Sommerwind (Thiele) (role)
Karl May (Syberberg) (title role)
Von der Filmides zum Drehbuch , with Béla Balázs and others, 1949. Abblenden , Munich, 1981.
Koschnitzki, Rudiger, Filmographie Helmut Käutner , Wiesbaden, 1978.
Gillett, John, Eighteen Films by Helmut Käutner , Goethe Institute, London, 1980.
Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), July 1957.
Obituary in Filme (Paris), no. 4, 1980.
Obituary in Screen International (London), 19 April 1980.
Obituary in Cinéma (Paris), June 1980.
Gillett, John, "Helmut Käutner," in Film Dope (London), March 1984.
Fuchs, M., "Die Wiederentdeckun eines fast Vergessenen?" in Film-Dienst (Cologne), vol. 45, no. 19, 15 September 1992.
Nrrested, Carl, "Glemte kontinuitetsfaktorer: tysk film," in Kosmorama (Copenhagen), vol. 40, no. 207, Spring 1994.
Harmsen, Henning, Erlebte Filmgeschichte Helmut Käutner , for German TV, 1975.
von Troschke, Harald, Im Gespräch porträtiert: Helmut Käutner , for German TV, 1978.
* * *
Along with Forst and Sirk, Helmut Käutner was one of the great stylists of the cinema of the Third Reich. Admittedly the competition was extremely thin, but this in no way belittles the achievement of the director, whose best work stands comparison with Ophüls and is rooted in the same rich vein of Austro-German romanticism. In particular one notices the same concern with the passing of an era, an elegance bordering on dandyism, and what Louis Marcorelles has called "a subtle perfume of death and decadence." As John Gillett puts it in the catalogue produced to accompany a pioneering season of Käutner's films at London's Goethe Institute, the work of Käutner, Ophüls, and Forst "consolidated a film-making genre notable for its attention to period detail, its elaborate costuming and art direction, and for directorial styles which used the mobile camera to achieve a uniquely filmic musical structure and rhythm."
Käutner entered cinema as a scriptwriter in 1938 (although he had appeared in a small role in Louis Ralph's Kreuzer Emden in 1932) having studied architecture, philosophy, theatre, and art history, worked in cabaret in Munich as both writer and performer from 1931 to 1935, and gone into "straight" theatre in 1936. Some of his more caustic cabaret sketches had annoyed the Nazis, and as he noted, "I was not really interested in the cinema. Politically I was left-wing and that meant that I was disinterested in the cinema which, since Hugenberg, had been moving in a right-wing, nationalistic direction. I really wanted to go on working in the theatre, and I had very clear-cut ideas about the theatre—others would have called it cabaret."
His first film, Kitty und die Weltkonferenz , a light, frothy comedy, evoked comparisons with Lubitsch, but its favourable portrait of a British minister and slightly satirical view of relations between Italy and Germany incurred Goebbels's displeasure and the film vanished from view. His next film, an adaptation of Keller's novella Kleider Machen Leute , in which a humble tailor finds himself mistaken for a Russian prince, could certainly be read, beneath its apparent retreat into Biedermeyer mannerism, as an allegory about Germans' exaggerated respect for figures of power and authority and their consequent readiness to fall under the Nazi spell. However, this does not seem to have occurred to the authorities. The film has a lightness of touch and a feeling for fantasy that anticipates both Minnelli and Cocteau, and is distinguished by some marvellous swirling camerawork in the musical scenes. On the whole Käutner avoided contemporary subjects during his Third Reich period, an exception being Auf Wiedersehen, Franziska! , which deals with the strains in a newsreel reporter's marriage caused by his numerous absences. The authorities insisted on an upbeat, flag-waving ending quite out of key with the film's poignant, carefully nuanced atmosphere and, like Sirk in Stutzen der Gesellschaft , Käutner deliberately makes the whole thing stand out a mile. The film is also distinguished by a marvellous performance by Marianne Hoppe.
Käutner's masterpiece is undoubtedly Romanze in Moll , a highly Ophülsian adaptation of Maupassant's Les Bijoux. Maupassant's dark vision of life did not endear him to the literary authorities in the Reich, and this film, though not banned, was condemned in some quarters as "defeatist" and "destructive of marriage and morals." Käutner himself acts in the film, playing the part of a resigned, world-weary poet, a role which, his films suggest, was close to his own in real life. As Francis Courtade and Pierre Cadars put it in their excellent Histoire du Cinéma Nazi , "Everything centres on the almost palpable re-creation of this fin-de-siécle milieu in which a woman, condemned to death by her surroundings, suffers. Composition, framing, camera movement, editing, sound, remain, from start to finish, crystal clear. . . . Like Claude Autant-Lara, Käutner is fanatical over details. His direction of actors is magisterial. . . . The overall result is an exemplary reconstruction of the style and atmosphere of the original story, and one of the two or three most faithful adaptations of Maupassant."
In spite of his difficulties with the authorities, Käutner was entrusted with an expensive and elaborate Agfacolor project in the latter days of the Reich. This was Grosse Freiheit Nr. 7 , a melancholy, bittersweet story of disappointed love set amongst the sailors' clubs and bars of the Hamburg waterfront, with clear overtones of Carné, Clair, and in particular (through the presence of Hans Albers of Blue Angel fame) Von Sternberg. Apart from difficulties caused by bombing, Käutner also had to cope with Goebbels's request that the film include shots of the harbour with ships flying the Nazi flag. His response was to make copious use of artificial fog in the panoramic long shots. When the film was released Admiral Dönitz complained that its representation of German sailors visiting prostitutes and drinking was damaging to the reputation of Germany in general and Hamburg in particular, and the film was banned.
Käutner's last Third Reich film, and one of his best, was Unter den Brücken , which is set amongst the bargees of the River Havel and, like its predecessor, shows the clear influence of French pre-war "poetic realism": in particular there are distinct overtones of L'Atalante. At one time thought to be a "lost" film, Unter den Brücken finally turned up and revealed itself to be, in the words of the Süddeutsche Zeitung , "a subtle depiction of a private world, half-tones full of melancholy and a quiet sublimination of the free life . . . a story told with great sensitivity which, softly but insistently, counteracts the grimness of contemporary reality with the longing for private happiness and the right to a non-regimented self-realisation."
Käutner's post-war films never reached the heights of his best work in the Third Reich, though some of them are not without interest. The main problem seems to have been a rather ill-advised turn towards social realism and "problem" subjects in films such as In Jenen Tagen, Die Letzte Brücke, Himmel Ohne Sterne , and Schwarzer Kies which simply did not suit his artistic temperament. In Der Apfel ist Ab and Der Traum von Lieschen Müller Käutner attempted to bring something of his old cabaret style into the contemporary cinema, but with mixed results. In 1957 he signed a seven-year contract with Universal in Hollywood which resulted in The Restless Years ( The Wonderful Years in the UK) and Stranger in My Arms. In 1959 he directed a modern-day version of Hamlet titled Der Rest ist Schweigen , but in the 1960s his time was increasingly taken up with more conventional literary adaptations (many of them for television), a direction already signalled in the 1950s with his productions of Zuckmayer's Des Teufels General, Ein Mädchen aus Flandern , and Der Hauptmann von Köpenick. He also played the German pulp writer Karl May in Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's film of the same name, which also included several other notables from the cinema of the Third Reich, a period which it is hard not to regard as representing Käutner's finest hour. One German critic has suggested that his films of this period are "illustrative of an inner immigration which could express its opposition only secretly and in cyphers," and it may well be that the need to proceed by allusion, understatement, ambiguity, and suggestion suited Käutner's remarkable talents peculiarly well.