Dreaming, Dancing, and Drinking Through History’s Darkest Days



Kino Classics presents on Blu-ray the 1933 UFA production of Laughing Heirs, the second film directed (although third to be released) by future cosmopolitan filmmaker Max Ophüls.

Similar to the individual cases of so many German film contemporaries who would later find their greatest success abroad – for political reasons entirely beyond their control – Ophüls’ career would come to span three languages, two continents, several vastly different film studio-systems, a multiplicity of diverse production methods, and a wide variety of styles and genres. Although later best known for his elegant, witty, droll, and irony-drenched romantic comedies-of-manner set in a by-then historically-remote European aristocratic milieu – the onscreen narrator of Ophüls’ signature film, the 1950 French social-roundelay La Ronde, played by the similarly geographically and politically displaced Austrian actor Anton Walbrook, would pointedly observe of a bygone world as-yet unravaged by world wars: “I adore the past. So much more restful than the present, and so much more certain than the future” – Max Ophüls began his film career, which was immediately cut short by social, political, and historical forces beyond his control, as a director of light, contemporary comedies made for Germany’s legendary, although (very) soon to be nationalized, Universum-Film AG, better known as UFA.

There, the second film made by this promising young director saw its release in early March of 1933, and, due to its success and subject matter, later found firm footing abroad, particularly overseas in New York City, as a (literally) frothy and escapist entertainment that took full advantage of both its picturesque setting and, especially, that region’s world-famous wineries and distilleries. Playing in NYC art theaters just months before Prohibition ended, Laughing Heirs seemed to capture some of that infectious spirit of (again, literal) intoxication soon to be more fully released by the re-legalization of liquor.

A (yet again) literal translation of its German title Lachende Erben, Laughing Heirs, according to Kino’s invaluably recruited audio-commentator Anthony Slide, does have a lexical precedent in a now obscure legal phrase referring to those who have inherited an estate despite little or no connection to the deceased; for example, someone receiving a vast fortune from a distant relative one had not known while they were living. (Such an heir, then, could be said to be “laughing all the way to the bank”.) Applied to this Rhineland-set comedy, the object, possibly objects, of inheritance are, appropriately, several acres of vineyards, along with its busy wineries churning sparkling water from the Rhine River, comprising the near-total outflow of the Rhine region’s vast output of champagne, spirits, and tonics to Germany and the greater world.

One Peter Frank (Heinz Rühmann), our “laughing heir”, stands to receive this vast empire of alcohol – named for his late, indulgent uncle Bockelmann – if, and only if, he can give up the intoxicating product of his inheritance for one long, grueling month. Complicating his lengthy abstention is Frank’s surreptitious romance with a possible second “laughing heir”, the fair ingénue Gina Stumms (Lien Deyers), who stands herself to someday receive her own vast kingdom in her rakish father’s renowned Stumms label, the great rival down the Rhine River to Bockelmann’s. Making love in the old sense of the term to a wine heiress unaware of his own connection to a competing winery, while secretly avoiding the unavoidable temptation of alcohol – despite the machinations of a married pair of disgruntled, disenfranchised Bockelmann cousins (Ida Wüst, Max Aderbart), the watchful eye and keen bald-domed perception of his late uncle’s most trusted advisor (Julius Falkenstein), and the prohibitory, deafening bark of an enormous, trained St. Bernard (!) – Peter Frank eventually marshals his own wavering resistance to romance and spirits in a mountainside sanitarium. Only to there find, in the happy end, that being human carries its own reward (and that others may soon follow).

Stylish, well-paced, and unusually well-performed, Laughing Heirs remains an advantageous if still slight early film from a later internationally renowned director, bearing some of Max Ophüls’ favored story and stylistic hallmarks of effervescence and elegance; with a handful of dolly-shots and a sprinkling of complicated staging in lengthier shot-takes all presaging the director’s celebrated roving camera of Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Le Plaisir (’52), Madame de… (’53), and his final completed feature, Lola Montés (’55). Indeed, that all of these stylistic and narrative features should be codified by Ophüls’ very next feature for UFA, the tragic Imperial romance Liebelei (1934), and then that the director should be immediately forced to flee Germany once the Nazis took indirect, and soon direct, control of UFA, may first suggest that Germany’s loss was the world’s gain, but also that the impending sense of tragedy that later enriched Ophüls’ great masterpieces made abroad – first in France, then Italy, then the Netherlands, then France again, then Hollywood, and finally France once more – would significantly impart his many nostalgic heroes and heroines with a palpable sense of loss, and foreboding sense of doom, behind the lightness and gaiety.

Adding immeasurable value in this regard is first Kino Classics visually sympathetic transfer of a recent German restoration of Laughing Heirs, from the historically and lexically-rescuing übermenschen at the world-estimable Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, and second the aforementioned feature-length audio commentary from British silent film historian Anthony Slide. “Coming out”, as it were, as a heretofore unsuspected devotee of 1930’s German cinema, Slide delves deeply into the odd confluence and effluence of topics related to Laughing Heirs’ effectively poetic Rhineland location-shooting. As our audio-guide down the Rhine River of the early-mid 1930s, one disembarks his grand-barge tour a good deal wiser about the diverging careers, personalities, politics, ideologies, fates, triumphs, defeats, tragedies, immigrations, emigrations, lives, and deaths of personnel both in front of and behind the camera – actors, technicians, promoters, producers, and its own director – who all happened to converge on this project, made weeks before the Nazis took total power of Germany, and when the entire world began to unravel.

Dreaming, dancing, and drinking on a charming luxury steamship carrying festive revelers to their various ends down the beauteous Rhine River, we are all, in viewing, Laughing Heirs – and otherwise – to their gains and losses, actions and inactions, evasions and escapes, lives and deaths to this day.

Images used in this review are used only as a visual reference to the film and do not represent Kino Classics’ Blu-ray.