When they dig it up, what will they find? Fans will want to see this forgotten Deutsch-noir masterpiece. Helmut Käutner’s tale of trouble on an American air base in West Germany is a swirl of romantic, political and criminal complications — all down & dirty. A tiny burg that serves as a brothel for U.S. airmen attracts displaced women and dispirited men willing to do what’s necessary to survive. We’ve seen nothing quite like this riveting drama — its sixty-year absence carries a taint of political ‘inconvenience.’ If you like challenging fare like Ace in the Hole and Try and Get Me! you’re going to love it. Both censored and uncensored versions have been restored in excellent quality.
KL Studio Classics
1961 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 114, 113 min. / Street Date September 1, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Helmut Wildt, Ingmar Zeisberg, Hans Cossy, Wolfgang Büttner, Anita Höfer, Heinrich Trimbur, Peter Nestler, Edeltraut Elsner, Else Knott, Guy Gehrke, Ilse Pagé.
Cinematography: Heinz Pehlke
Film Editor: Klaus Dudenhöfer
Original Music: Bernard Eichhorn
Written by Helmut Käutner, Walter Ulbrich
Produced by Walter Ubrich
Directed by Helmut Käutner
Talk about an eye-opener — this West German show confronts a topical controversy and skips the usual filmic compromises. Popular films produced in the postwar Bundesrepublik Deutschland normally avoided controversy. Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 war film The Bridge (Die Brücke) is a tragedy of German child-soldier defenders that’s careful to offend nobody. In Billy Wilder’s fine, caustic comedies A Foreign Affair and One, Two, Three, defeated Germans find that puritan morals can be incompatible with just plain subsisting. Were audiences offended by Wilder’s indulgent winks at mild corruption? Gottfried Reinhardt’s 1961 Town Without Pity is partly about the friction between American soldiers stationed in Germany, and intolerant small-town locals. Bored & surly American GI’s rape a local fraülein, a crime that becomes an even worse tragedy. Yet that US-West German co-production was an exception — few movies criticized or even acknowledged the peacetime conversion of West Germany into a NATO warfront.
Helmut Käutner’s 1961 Black Gravel was reportedly very unpopular in West Germany, and may not have been seen in the U.S. at all. Some of that may be due to political pressure; the presence of U.S. forces in West Germany is not presented in a flattering light. The film’s initial release wa spoiled by an unfounded charge of antisemitism. The Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung organization has restored both versions of the picture, the premiere original and the slightly shorter release version that censors content deemed offensive and radically alters the conclusion. The darker-than-dark original ending is as downbeat as the most nihilistic of American films noir.
Black Gravel presents the peacetime presence of the American military in a truthful context. It doesn’t have an overt political agenda, as did numerous Japanese films made around the same time that depict American military bases as open sores of vice and corruption (prime example, Shohei Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships, 1961). Dealing as it does with working people trying to survive, Black Gravel is closer to Cy Endfield’s 1957 Hell Drivers, but without Endfield’s anti-capitalist venom. Fifteen years after the defeat, our German hero and heroine know they’ve become morally compromised. But the options left open to them leave little room for conventional morality.
Truck driver Robert Neidhardt (Helmut Wildt) hauls gravel to extend the runways and concrete ramps for a new U.S. Air Base. Right outside the gates, the tiny hamlet of Sohnen has been transformed into a sleazy vice district. The bartenders and ‘hostesses’ at the makeshift Atlantic Club cater to the bored & lonely airmen. Robert is one of a number of drivers working a racket with local fixer Otto Krahne (Wolfgang Büttner), faking gravel loads to multiply their take. One of Robert’s fellow on-the-take truck drivers kills a dog, and when Robert finds its owner he gets a surprise: she’s Inge (Ingmar Zeisberg), a former prostitute he had a romance with several years before. Robert exploits the coincidence to pursue Inge, only to discover that she’s married to Major Gaines (Hans Cossy), an officer expediting the airfield construction. Although Robert already has a steady bedmate in the spirited but unstable Elli (Anita Höfer), he makes a serious play to reclaim Inge. But trouble and tragedy close in from all sides.
Robert and Inge might have criminal records but they’re basically decent people. At one point Robert recites various unsavory things he’s been and done, starting from when he was a prisoner of war. Inge has married the stiff-but-decent Major Gaines in the hope of starting a new life in America, but Gaines’ language skills keep him stationed locally, at air bases where Inge is bound to run into old cohorts. ‘Military adjacent’ burgs tolerate vice districts to keep restless servicemen away from the locals’ daughters. Sohnen is the same as Phenix City, except with little scams instead of organized crime.
The side stories develop the social context without confecting conventional villains. Robert’s airman buddy Bill Rodgers (Peter Nestler) is a straight arrow who steers clear of the gravel scam. He prefers romancing the sweet shopkeeper’s niece Anni. Robert envies their innocence. A C.I.A. agent named Moeller — one of the films most sympathetic characters — is investigating the local procurement profiteering. Inge manages to tip off Robert to a sting by the Military Police, a bit of luck that makes him one of the few gravel drivers to escape capture.
When a terrible accident occurs Robert must cover it up to hide his relationship with Inge. This leads to two corpses being buried under tons of gravel foundation to be covered by concrete. But then Bill learns that Major Gaines is overseeing a series of sensitive sonic tests on the gravel beds. If the testing reveals ‘soft pockets’ the engineers may dig up the gravel to check.
The ugly secrets in the gravel seem a metaphor for the German-American ‘co-prosperity alliance’: is the foundation of the Wirtschaftswunder too corrupt to remain amicable? Just by asking the question, Black Gravel likely became a political target. Its thoughtful honesty is too easily equated with the East German propaganda pictures that lost no opportunity to accuse the West German-American alliance of Nazi gangsterism.
The movie acknowledges that crime is crime. The truck drivers aren’t the victims of labor exploitation as in Hell Drivers or Jules Dassin’s equally political Thieves’ Highway (1949). Robert and Inge are too hardened to be shocked by ordinary vices. He spends his time among the hookers at the Atlantic Club, where even the proprietor is concerned about the often-drunk Elli’s vulgar displays. Inge dresses elegantly to impress her husband’s friends, Americans that would never understand the life she’s led. Inge realizes that her Major needs her mostly for social functions at the Officer’s Club. She feels more kinship for Robert’s raw pragmatism — they understand each other’s hardship and humiliation. Inge doesn’t care that he flaunts his relationship with Elli. In these circumstances a dicey sex life is the least of one’s worries.
Black Gravel’s brief release was in the Spring of 1961, months before the East Germans sealed off the border and began construction of the Berlin Wall. The military buildup is in full swing. An airman is suspected of having defected to the East. The air base is off limits to the locals, who sometimes call it ‘the estate,’ in the feudal sense. They are not pleased by rumors that the Americans will soon be moving nuclear missiles onto German soil. Nobody wants to live on the front lines of an atomic war.
Because of its subject matter Käutner’s movie needed to be recognized as important from the start. But West German moviegoers wanted light entertainment and preferred escapist westerns and comedies. For crime films they flocked to Edgar Wallace Krimis. Especially popular were “Heimat” films — nice-nice ‘homeland’ fantasies about idyllic country values and traditional wisdom, starring smiling, fresh-faced young women like Liselotte Pulver and Romy Schneider. In other words, Germans didn’t flock to realistic pessimism any more than we Yanks did.
Black Gravel also isn’t openly sleazy, as was some of West German pop culture in 1961. Sex & crime movies with the word ‘black’ in the title have been described as outright sexploitation hiding behind moral outrage storylines: Schwarze Nylons – Heisse Nachte (‘Black Nylons – Hot Nights’, 1958) and Gefaehrdete Mädchen (‘Endangered Girls’, 1957). Just the same, writer-director Käutner doesn’t avoid vulgarities. Robert isn’t afraid to say exactly what he thinks of some of his corrupt associates. A dead dog keeps coming back into the storyline, buried, unburied, mangled in close-up. Some nudity slips into the bar scenes. Elli vomits on-camera, the earliest instance I know of such a scene.
The screenwriters make other, more subtle comments. Robert’s little homestead outside town includes a possible jab in the direction of the Heimat Film. Next to his shack of a house are two picturesque hobby projects, small-scale reproductions of traditional German buildings. Asked about his twenty-foot church model, Robert’s response indicates that no religious fervor was involved: he copied a picture from a calendar. That moment is echoed back on the Air Base, where Robert finds himself at a pre-fab, non-denominational chapel. It features a rotating altar, that switches quickly to serve both Protestant and Catholic ceremonies. Robert pauses to play with some American kids in front of their pre-fab military housing. His desire to share the Yankees’ secure, straight life is overpowering. Inge’s belief in a hopeful future is dashed when she discovers her husband’s real priorities: he considers their marriage and even the law to be secondary concerns, behind his all-important Air Force career.
The unfair charge of antisemitism.
We are told that Black Gravel’s commercial doom was sealed when it was sued by a private party, a member of an anti-Jewish defamation league. Postwar German laws prohibiting such behavior were severe, and even though the suit was thrown out the stigma stuck. The distributor ran for cover, cutting scenes and re-dubbing some dialogue to remove offensive material. The hasty re-edit also attempted to lighten the film’s pitch-black ending.
I won’t say how the ‘distribution version’ alters the ending, but the censor cuts actually remove thoughtful pro-Jewish scenes. Loeb (Max Buchsbaum) is the Jewish proprietor of the Atlantic Club. We see that he’s sensitive to other forms of discrimination, as when a group of white airmen decide not to enter the club because they see some black airmen inside. But in his first scene he jokingly refers to another man as ‘an American Yid.’ At another point, the corrupt Krahne complains that the Army cops wouldn’t be on his case if he were American, or Jewish.
The key deletion is a piece of a scene involving the Atlantic’s juke box. The airmen want to listen to American pop but a drunken elderly German, Rössler (Karl Luley) insists on playing an old marching song associated with the war. We already know that the club was formerly a barn, which Rössler sold to Loeb with the proviso that he could stay and drink all he wants. Loeb tries to silence the offensive ‘Nazi’ song, only for the abusive Rössler to shout, ‘Filthy Jew.’ Customers overhear this but say nothing. When Loeb re-starts the juke box we see the concentration camp number tattooed on his forearm. The man is not perfect; he’s just trying to survive like everyone else.
Commentator Olaf Möller explains that nobody bothered to notice the scene’s sensitivity. Just the suggestion that a Jew might run a sordid establishment was considered grounds for defamation. The accusation tainted the film in the public square and spoiled its release. A conspiracy-minded person might wonder if the suit was a surreptitious way to curtail the distribution of a film critical of the American military presence.
The excellent cast will be unknown to American viewers. Helmut Wildt’s Robert is roughly handsome, a little like Jeff Chandler crossed with Wolfgang Preiss. Wildt has the hardness of a man who must lie convincingly day in and day out, yet he maintains a personal integrity. Ingmar Zeisberg’s Inge escaped ‘the life’ years ago but feels more hemmed in than ever — and attracted to her old flame. Anita Höfer’s Elli lives up to her terrible reputation yet is so desperate to flee that when Robert turns her down, she falls in with the unreliable, hard-luck Otto Krahne. For once the German actors playing Americans are utterly convincing, switching between languages at will. Hans Cossy’s Major (↑) is more than credible as a U.S. officer who must keep up appearances with his peers. Future director Peter Nestler looks exactly like a fresh-faced young American serviceman, the kind that would find a nice foreign girl and fall head over heels for her.
We are told that Black Gravel was initially considered the worst movie of its year, by people that never saw it. Few film critics were even aware of it until the Murnau Stiftung’s recent restoration. The superior show reminds us of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, which for the first thirty years of its life was all but invisible to the general public yet is now considered an all-out masterpiece. It’s brilliantly made and less strident than similar Japanese crime films about occupation corruption. With its strong characters, sophisticated storyline and sensitive direction, it’s comparable to any dynamic film noir thriller about murky passions and crooked motivations.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Black Gravel is an excellent encoding of this quality German restoration. The crisp B&W captures the contrast between the town’s few old structures and the gaudy Atlantic Club; the surroundings are country roads and beautiful woods, which Robert’s truck navigates at all times of day and night. Several shots must have waited to capture Air Force jets in the frame (Top image ↑). We see several types of fighter craft. I don’t know what air bases are like now, but in 1960 planes would indeed routinely be taking off every few minutes, all day long.
I couldn’t tell the difference between the two versions. The restored footage in the long premiere version is a touch more contrasty because it was sourced from a surviving print. The re-edit of the final scene for the release version uses a jarring optical freeze frame — any editor would suspect it had been futzed.
The excellent audio includes some credible juke box music and a walk-out song for the end that is pure late-50s German pop, itself a kind of corruption of American Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Film festival arranger and expert Olaf Möller provides an easygoing commentary. He’s slow to talk about the movie and frequently drifts off to discuss other films related by theme. We are told that Helmut Käutner was an established director purposely making Black Gravel in a different, more modern style. We hear about some of the politics behind the film’s prejudicial reception, and Möller spells out the exact differences between the versions.
But seeing the differences for ourselves is essential: a couple of altered dialogue lines and a full forty-second deletion in the third act. The re-edit of the ending is a complete botch that imposes an imitation- Antonioni vibe, and gives the movie’s last words to the American Major.
This is an important picture for Kino Lorber. The Film Noir Foundation nabbed the restoration right away. It screened at their 2019 Noir City Exhibition as part of their celebration of achievements in ‘international’ noir.
I relate especially strongly to this show because I grew up as an Air Force dependent, although not in Europe. I really recommend Black Gravel — it’s a hard-hitting crime movie in which nobody ever pulls a gun. It deals directly with issues of military life that I would imagine were actively discouraged by official channels.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Audio commentary by Olaf Möller.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (but not for occasional English dialogue, which may be a problem.)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 2, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson