Director: Detlev Buck (Germany). Year of Release: 2021
Paris, around 1900. A well-dressed but ungainly man enters a plush hotel carrying a large bunch of red roses. As he ascends the main staircase, he stumbles and fall, The flowers all fall to the ground and only one is retrievable. He takes this up to the room and presents it to the woman he intends to marry.
But there are problems with their romance. The Marquis Louis de Venosta is used to good living, and his father disapproves of his relationship with Zaza. If they marry, he will be cut off without a penny, which would be just unthinkable. The father offers to pay for a world tour, where Louis can learn a little bit about life and forget about Zaza.
One evening, Louis bumps into a man in an exclusive restaurant. Eventually he recognises the man as Armand the hotel lift boy, although “Armand” is now carrying himself off with far more self-confidence and sense of entitlement. He explains that his name is not Armand – if you take the lift boy job, this name is assigned to you – but Felix Krull, the son of a German champagne manufacturer.
As Louis pumps him with champagne, Felix tells his story. His father was never good with money, and when he went bankrupt and suicided, Felix escaped to Paris. Here, he supplemented his income with work as a sort of gigolo – seducing hotel guests and accepting their gifts of jewellery. This was all organised by seedy head waiter Stanko who was sure to take his cut.
But Felix has a problem. The latest lady for whom Stanko has procured Felix is very young, and for once, he’s starting to have qualms. Maybe its also worth saying here that while all this has been going on, Felix has been sleeping with Zaza. So when Louis suggests sending Felix on his world tour pretending to be him, while he goes to Nice with Zaza, Felix sniffs the opportunity of taking up the offer – but taking Zaza round the world with him.
There has been a recent trend of German films to take novels from the beginning of the last century, and applying some modern direction. Burhan Qurbani’s Berlin Alexanderplatz did this with great panache, Dominik Graf’s Fabian was less effective. You’d have expected Felix Krull to be something similar – although Thomas Mann’s book was finally released in 1954, it was conceived of in the 1920s.
A better comparison, though, would be of the 1960s and 1970s British films which were either based on or shared the characteristics of nineteenth century novels – Tom Jones, say, or Barry Lyndon. These films were set not long after the bourgeois revolutions, when social advance was possible, but only to a few. They focussed on individual men, who were somehow attractive to all the women they mat, and used their charm to gain individual wealth and power.
After seeing the film, I learned that Felix Krull is a parody of Goethe’s autobiography. Not only is this fully believable – it catches Goethe’s vain pomposity perfectly – it explains why although this is set in the early twentieth century, it feels to belong to an earlier era. Added to this, as Felix, Jannis Niewöhner once more shows all the charm that he displayed in Je Suis Karl.
Like the heroes of the early romantic novels, Felix comes from a family that is poor but not plebeian. He is frustrated because his social superiors have not earned their wealth, but he’s still of the right sort. This means that he is allowed some social climbing without this feeling too vulgar. This makes the film able to make social commentary (there are regular shots of beggars to whom Felix regularly gives money) without disturbing the peace. This is no Germinal.
More worrying, perhaps, this is a costume drama, with all the dangers that this entails. There is often too much detail spent on what people are wearing than on their characters. And there are several scenes of a street running up to the Eiffel Tower, which is kitschy belong belief. Now I actually quite liked Amelie, but watching these scenes I was reminded of why some people hated its affectations.
Nonetheless this is a decent film, which is on the side of the good guys. It doesn’t reveal any great truths that we didn’t already know, but it tells a fairly compelling story with solid acting performances. I’ve seen German reviewers appalled that it deviates from the book they were forced to read in school. Fortunately, I was spared this experience, and taken on its own, the film stands up as something worth seeing.