It’s 1930 in Berlin, and while the world may be sunk deep into the Great Depression, life is certainly not dull in Frau Weber’s (Emilia Unda) boarding house, a fact advertised in this film’s full title: Farewell: Serious and Fun Moments from a Family Guesthouse (Abschied: Ernstes und Heiteres au seiner Familienpension). A Russian profiteer (Konstantin Mic) is shouting down the phone (the kind attached to the wall in the hallway), the maid (Martha Ziegler) is going about her duties at full volume, the self-proclaimed Baron (Vladimir Sokoloff) is pinching cigarettes (to smoke) and aspirin (to sell), several gentlemen are hustling willing young ladies in or out of their rooms, and an out-of-work boarder (Erwin Bootz, who is also credited as the film’s composer) is playing the piano in the parlor, as he will for much of the film.
Above all, the handsome salesman Karl (Aribert Mog) and the pretty shop girl Hella (Brigitte Horney,* in her film debut) are experiencing the sweetness of young love. But that course has never run smooth, and today the issue is that Karl has a job offer that will require him to move away, and he hasn’t told Hella. Of course Frau Weber, who loves minding other people’s business, does that for him, and now Hella is mad at being left in the dark. The trials and tribulations of the young lovers form the central plot in Farewell, with the other actors supplying expertly-played stock characters whose smaller stories are spun out in the background.
Following the end of Farewell as director Robert Siodmak completed it, there’s a second ending, introduced by a title card, that was added by UFA in 1931. The film is certainly better without it, but the existence of this second ending, which is opposite in tone to the original ending, is interesting as a bit of studio interference (neither Siodmak nor screenwriters Emeric Pressburger and Irma von Cube were consulted) from way back when. This little coda also feels so stagey, in distinction to the carefully-crafted realism of the film proper, that it seems designed to break the fourth wall and announce to the audience that it was only a movie after all.
Farewell was the first feature film solely directed by Siodmak (he shared the directing credit on the silent People on Sunday (1930) with Edgar G. Ulmer), and was also the first sound film made by UFA. Given that background, it’s remarkable how polished this film is. Sound is everywhere—besides the dialogue (which is clear enough to comprehend even if, like me, you haven’t been in German class for decades), all manner of diegetic sounds are worked into the scenes, from the incessant piano-playing to the ringing of the telephone to the roar of the maid’s vacuum cleaner. The cinematography is creative enough in its use of angles and cuts and montages that you may not notice how static the staging is (a quality shared by many early sound films, due to the limitations of the technology then available), while Max Knaake’s art direction perfectly captures the shabby gentility of a Weimar boardinghouse that has seen better days.
If the actors in Farewell are not household names today, there’s a couple of standouts on the other side of the camera whom you may recognize. Siodmak, brother of Curt Siodmak, is best known today for directing noir classics like The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1949). Pressburger later paired up with Michael Powell to form The Archers, who together created British classics like A Canterbury Tale (1944), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948). And cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan worked on a wide variety of films, from Metropolis (1927) to The Hustler (1961), and invented the Schüfftan Process, a special effect used in Metropolis and later employed by directors including Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Jackson. | Sarah Boslaugh
*Her mother was the well-known psychoanalyst Karen Horney.
Farewell is distributed on Blu-ray and streaming by Kino Lorber. The only extra on the disc is an informative audio commentary track by film historian Anthony Slide. The print and soundtrack are both in pretty good shape thanks to a restoration by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Stiftung, the Deutsche Kinemathek, and the Museum für Film und Fernsehen.