Saturday, September 16, 2023

Marriage in the Shadows (Kurt Maetzig, 1947)


The historical importance of Kurt Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows flows helplessly from the time and place of its making; a German film from 1947 dealing with the country’s then-very recent history of anti-Semitism, explicitly positing that those who went along with the Nazi project should face a subsequent moral reckoning. Assessed ungenerously, the film is an early exemplar of the (at worst) implicitly Holocaust denying strand of cinema that pushes the collective experience of the six million into the background, focusing on an individual narrative of relative privilege (albeit here of a short-lived kind). But the film has more than enough social and emotional authenticity and immediacy to surmount its narrative and cinematic limitations. It focuses on a group of actors, starting off in 1933 in flirtatious mode with the beautiful Jewish actress Elisabeth juggling several potential suitors, most of them assuming that the ascendant Nazism will either peter out or that their status as actors will somehow shield them from its worst impacts; eventually. Elisabeth marries the non-Jewish Hans, not her first choice, but seemingly providing some stability and protection. The relationship deepens, but eventually it’s clear that Elisabeth will be deported, and Hans fatally poisons her and then himself (the closing titles cites the actor Joachim Gottchalk, who died with his Jewish wife and son in 1941, and whose history the film draws on in several respects). With few exceptions (such as a late passage subjectively depicting Elisabeth’s overwhelmed mental state) the film is stylistically unremarkable, but it effectively enough conveys a horror greater than the characters’ capacity to comprehend it; even several years into the war, Hans is fatally naïve regarding his ability to protect Elisabeth, and another character deludes himself that he’s doing some good within the system, whatever the evidence to the contrary. Depressing contemporary resonances and parallels are, of course, all too easy to identify.

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