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September 01, 2020

Black Gravel

black gravel.jpg

Schwarzer Kies
Helmut Kautner -1961
Kino Classics BD Region A

The most incendiary moment in Black Gravel is also an illustration of how the depiction of an anti-social act can sometimes be misread as an endorsement. A bit of background is required - the film takes place in a very small West German village, with a population of about three hundred people. A U.S. Air Force base is under construction nearby. One of several bars opened to serve the American servicemen is a converted barn. The barn's former owner, an old farmer who probably served in the first World War has a love of marching songs which are part of the offerings on the bar's jukebox. The farmer's attitudes towards the popular dance music is to make the derogatory comment of "Negro music". It is only casually indicated that the bar is now owned by a Jewish proprietor named Loeb. At one point, Loeb asks the farmer to stop with his repeated playing of a marching song, pulling the plug from the jukebox. The farmer calls Loeb a "dirty Jew". The next shot is of Loeb's arm seen through the jukebox glass of his concentration camp tattoo. The farmer reacts in a way that to me indicates a sense of horror and shame. A member of a West German Jewish committee sued writer-director Kautner and the production company for what he interpreted as the film's anti-Semitism rather than as a presentation of one character's verbal assault. The original release version of Black Gravel was cut. This new blu-ray has both that version plus the complete version restored in 2016.

Kautner's film was one of the few to look the impact of American military bases in Germany. Relationships are mostly transactional, with several of the men working on the construction site augmenting their salaries in the black market. The younger, attractive women work in the bars or as prostitutes. The young wife of one of the supervising American military officers, a middle aged man, has chosen security in an uncertain time. By chance, she is reunited with the man she really loves, currently transporting the precious gravel to the construction site, but also rerouting his loads illicitly. The sound of jets overhead are a constant reminder of the American presence in the area.

Programmer and critic Olaf Moller provided the commentary track, which offers a wealth of information about Kautner, as well as putting the film into the contexts of both the filmmaker's work and the events of the time. For those unfamiliar with Moller's writings, he is both erudite and at times extremely funny. His own theory regarding the charges of anti-Semitism is that there may have been more extreme sensitivity as the film was released at the same time as the Adolf Eichmann trial was taking place. Also, with greater tensions between East and West Germany, this was the year the Berlin wall was built. An example of Moller's humor is in his discussion of German beer halls. Kautner remains relatively unknown in the U.S. even though his Captain from Kopenick was a foreign film nominee for the 1956 Oscars. Even two English language films made for Universal, The Restless Years and A Stranger in my Arms are currently unavailable.

While the other German films about the impact of U.S. military bases are unavailable, it may be worth noting a handful of other films. Just one year earlier saw the release of the Elvis Presley vehicle, G.I. Blues, something of a fictionalized version of Presley's own time as a peacetime draftee in West Germany, with the base and soldiers as benign entities. The German-American Town without Pity (1961) was more serious, about four soldiers on trial for the rape of a German girl, while glossing over the cultural impact of the American military in Germany. It is the films of Japan that one can more frequently see action that takes place near military bases. Masaki Kobayashi's Black River (1957) may be the one Japanese film most similar to Kautner's in both subject matter and treatment.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 1, 2020 06:23 AM