“A Hessian ‘Heimatfilm'”. (Schlöndorff 2011, p. 186)
1821 in upper Hesse: Although the farmers and the day laborers of Kombach are hard workers, the crop failure and the high taxes prevent them from earning enough to sustain their families. To end their misery a group of men create a plan, with a fatal aftermath: they want to rob the money transport of the Elector and with the looted money start a new, carefree life. However, the light-heartedness shall not last long, since: a destitute person that suddenly becomes rich makes himself suspicious…
Schlöndorff’s filmed homeland exhibition is classified into a new wave that, starting with Peter Fleischmann’s JAGDSZENEN AUS NIEDERNBAYERN (Hunting Scenes from Bavaria, 1968/69), became an alternative to the popular ‘Heimatfilm’ (regional film) from the 1940s/1950s, called the Sub-Genre of the Skeptical or New Wave regional film.
In the autumn of 1821, close to Biedenkopf, Jakob Geiz was mowing the lawn that belonged to Mr. Stapp, the head of the mail department. During his work the stocking merchant David Briel from Dexbach […] came up to him and spoke as follows: ‘Listen Jakob, […] I have a plan that could help both of us if you and a few other confidents would agree with my idea. You know that each month the money transport drives from Biedenkopf to Gießen. We will attack it and steal the money. Then, if that works, we will be rich people ’till our death. […] We will attack on the grounds of the Electorate of Hesse and the Elector of Hesse will then need to replace our Grand Duke’s lost money. Even if this would result in a new tax, it would only mean two to three Kreuzer for each of us—and that would still help us forever more.’ With these words, David from Dexbach planted the seed for the misdeed in his friend’s heart, and as they talked it over in depth, they parted in agreement ….
Der Postraub in der Subach (Mail Robbery in the Subach) titles the chronicle of a criminal case that took place in the early years of the 19th century in the valley of Subach near Kombach in the county Marburg-Biedenkopf. Hans Prescher, at the time head of the Fernsehspiel und Oper department (TV play and opera) of the Hessische Rundfunk and co-producer of BAAL (Baal), forwarded the document to Schlöndorff, who is strongly connected with his Hessian homeland.
“Fate had mercy on me: I jumped on the opportunity to create an alternative piece to the failed MICHAEL KOHLHAAS (Michael Kohlhaas) and gave it the old-fashioned title DER PLÖTZLICHE REICHTUM DER ARMEN LEUTE VON KOMBACH (The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach).” (Schlöndorff 2011, p. 187)
Especially the modesty, the neediness in this story was what caught my interest. If BAAL was sort of a recommencement, then I now truly had to go back to my roots. (Schlöndorff 2011, p. 188)
Preliminary work and shooting
Fast, with only a few materials and a small team—the conditions for the production were already from the beginning on set quite spare. A fact that was also supposed to be an aesthetic return to the firstling TÖRLESS (Young Törless). Schlöndorff works together with Margarethe von Trotta on turning the “Mail Robbery Chronicle” into a scipt. The extreme despair and poverty of the farmers and the dream of a better life in America is the central theme throughout the plot. Von Trotta and Schlöndorff’s working base are historic letters of emigrants.
Von Trotta fills the court record with old-fashioned folk songs and poetry, as well as quotes from Georg Buechner’s Woyzeck and fairytales from the Grimm Brothers—lines that reflect modesty but foremost the misery and sorrows of the people. The comments from the off (spoken by Margarethe von Trotta) and some parts of the dialogues stem from the passed on wording in the interrogation records. The settings are: Upper Hesse, Odenwald and again monastery Schäftlarn, already known as the location for the shooting of TÖRLESS. Franz Rath is once again responsible for the camera.
“I even wanted to confess to my dialect.” (ibid., p. 189)
For the cast Schlöndorff chose Hessian actors, in parts laymen, in parts professionals, to preserve the authenticity foremost through the diversity of the dialect. Especially due to his remarkable dialect, Schlöndorff casted the lyric poet Wolfgang Bächler the role of the Jewish traveling stocking merchant Briel, whom he had listened to at a poetry reading in Munich: “His Alemannic inflexion fit wonderfully to this poetic figure.” (ibid.)
Jazz musician and composer Klaus Doldinger (*12.05.1936) cooperated with Schlöndorff on three movies: Baal (1969), DER PLÖTZLICHE REICHTUM DER ARMEN LEUTE VON KOMBACH (The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach) (1970/71) and Palmetto (1998).
In contrast to the common “Heimatfilmmelodien” (sentimental film melodies), the soundtrack to KOMBACH is quite unusual. There are, except for a few occasions, no folk ballads, no passed on old-fashioned songs or country melodies that could awake a feeling of authenticity, but rather electronically arranged, light Jazz. Also, no fiddles are in use, which usually associate with the country folk, instead one can hear different percussion instruments, E-Bass, harps, flutes, organs, clarinets and trumpets.
According to Schlöndorff it has been a deliberate decision for that kind of music to avoid the usual kitsch that goes along with the “Heimatfilm” (sentimental film). The role of the music is to “dedust the genre” and to provide a modern day perspective to the happenings. (cf. Schlöndorff in the video interview).
The intention of the New Heimatfilm, to view German history from a new perspective and to find new forms of picturing the homeland, is therefore given on a musical level.
In this film, music is usually only used when movement is seen. Music is hardly heard after the assault in the second half of the film. The only exception is the use of diegetic music (whose source is visible in the film and also audible for the characters) during the wedding ceremony. For more than five minutes (with short interruptions) two violinists and a clarinet player play a cheerful tune, which invites the guests to dance and feels very insistent through the constant repetition of notes. The music therefore fulfils its role in creating the atmosphere.
Overall there are two evident main themes on the non-diegetic level (music that is only audible to the audience). The first main theme guides the men in the forest. The composition here is percussion-biased. The underlying bass is of driving nature and therefore in rhythmic unison with the men running through the woods. The melody is played by flutes. Throughout the film improvised flute solos are added.
The second theme is the leitmotif for the “Goldkärrchen” (the money transport). The fanfare, played by trumpets, announces the arrival of the carriage and represents the electoral authority of the country.
The two themes are often heard right after each other or merge together. As soon as the camera switches from the men to the carriage one hears the fanfare. The music therefore plays a role of providing narrative associations.
As in BAAL, Doldinger sets a poem, in ballad form, to music. The song Die Zeit ist reif, wir fahren nach Amerika (The time is right, we are going to America) is sung by Doldinger himself right in the beginning of the film. The title expresses the desire of the farmers for a better life. After the song finishes Ludwig Acker figuratively picks up the lyrics and yearningly talks about how he imagines life as a rich man.
Right after the successfully carried out robbery on the “Goldkärrchen” the song is played again, this time by high-pitched flutes. Through the repetition of the song it is stressed that the group now feels closer to their dream of a better life.
The filmed chronicle gained great national and international recognition. The International Film Festival San Sebastian 1971 recognized Schlöndorff and his team with four awards: Preis der spanischen Filmkritiker (award of the Spanish film critics) for the script, Preis der Auslandskorrespondenten (award of the foreign correspondents), Premio Luis Buñuel, as well as the OCIC award of the Internationale Katholische Filmbüro (international catholic film office). The Federal Foreign Office expresses its sorrow in a provisional award-giving letter about the fact that the German entry without exception received non-official awards, even though they are the most remarkable of this category: “The Spanish film critics called it a fantastic German film that was inexplicably ignored by the international jury.” Der Deutsche Filmpreis (the German film award) however awards Schlöndorff with the Filmband in Gold for Best Direction.
Also, the film critics split into two camps: as most of the critics namely looked at the film’s message as a left capitalism criticism.
Yet, in portraying the stocking merchant David Briel as a Jew, who unlike his accomplices escapes the execution via America, they primarily saw a message that operates with anti-Semitic stereotypes: “The negative figure of David Briel, its function and portrayal in the film, cannot be ignored, it establishes the dark-souled counterpoint to the dull cohort of farmers [ …]. The sly Jew uses them as a tool to boost his fortune. The death of the fooled doesn’t bother him much.”
For a detailed discussion on the anti-semitism, cf. Alfons Maria Arns’ article and Schlöndorff in the video interview.