This Berlin-set film arrived at an opportune time in David Bowie’s career, since he was living in the city for years as he recorded his classic Berlin Trilogy of albums. He was looking for a film to follow up his heralded turn in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and responded well to the role of a young Prussian soldier named Paul returning home from World War I with no idea of what to do with the rest of his life.
After trying his hand at a few endeavors without much success, Paul finally stumbles upon an opportunity to be a male escort for the wealthy ladies of Berlin high society. His heart belongs to a girl named Cilly who he’s known for most of his life (Sydne Rome), but he comes to that realization too late after she’s already agreed to marry another man. His new career brings him into the orbit of a wealthy socialite named Helga (Kim Novak), as well as his powerful boss, Baroness von Semering (Marlene Dietrich). Paul is foppish with no discernible talents aside from his striking good looks, making him an ideal match for his new profession, although the political unrest roiling Berlin in the aftermath of the war threatens his livelihood and his very life.
Director David Hemmings never seems to find his footing with this film, making it no surprise that he built his career on the other side of the camera as an actor. He also deals himself a recurring role as Paul’s commanding officer, to no particular benefit. He gets in a few beautifully composed shots, but loses the thread of why we should care about the lead, and shoots some scenes for misguided comedic effect in a project that is clearly better served as entirely dramatic. Even the soundtrack is off kilter, with a poor recurring theme of jaunty carnival-esque music entirely out of place in gloomy Berlin.
Bowie is completely magnetic in his role, even as his character is largely set adrift for most of the film, casting about for some sense of purpose that seems forever out of reach. I had never heard of his principal co-star, Sydne Rome, but she proves to be a delight as the object of Paul’s affection, a high-energy firecracker who nearly steals the show. Kim Novak is fine in her limited role as one of Paul’s clients, although her minimal screen time results in us never really knowing much about her character. And then there’s the grand dame Dietrich, still ravishing in her mid-70s and looking decades younger, gleefully calling the shots as the big boss character of the film. She hadn’t appeared in a film in 17 years and hadn’t sung in a film in 25, and yet picks right back up here in her final role as if no time had passed.
The original German cut of the film ran 147 minutes, which was subsequently whittled down to 105 minutes for U.S. release. Unfortunately, only the smaller U.S. cut is presented on the Blu-ray. The picture quality is a mixed bag. It’s very clean, with no apparent defects, but so hazy that it seems like a gauze filter has been applied, likely persisting from the original source but still seemingly something that could be enhanced in our digital restoration era. The soundtrack is presented in a basic DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix, perfectly fine for most of the film although poorly serving some combat scenes at its start. It’s a miracle the film is even available in the U.S. on Blu-ray, so while its technical quality could likely be improved, its release in this passable form is cause for celebration.
The Blu-ray includes an illuminating half-hour bonus feature about the making of the film including new interviews with the writer/producer and the assistant to the director. They reveal that Bowie and Dietrich actually didn’t film their sole scene together, since the movie was filmed in Berlin but Dietrich had long ago abandoned her native land and insisted on filming in her adopted home of Paris. The producer also recounts the amusing tale of how he managed to land the famously reclusive Dietrich for the film, a story which is fleshed out in even greater detail in the included booklet.
Although the film was a critical and commercial disaster, it’s worth a watch thanks to its amazing cast and its peculiar uniqueness. It’s the stuff of fever dreams, with the seemingly inconceivable appearance of Bowie, Novak, and Dietrich together in a weird German film in English. Its very existence seems impossible, especially when Dietrich launches into a stirring performance of the title song as the film winds down, and yet the proof is available on Blu-ray starting June 29th for any viewers adventurous enough to hunt it down.