Monday, March 8, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Black Gravel" (1961)


It's debatable if "Black Gravel" belongs to the film noir tradition. That largely described American crime dramas of the 1940s and '50s, usually in urban settings with the rot of the big city wallowing underneath the gilded prosperity of the post-war era. "Gravel" is a 1961 German drama set in a sparsely populated town on the outskirts of a American military base being built.

It does boast plenty of bleak, tilting black-and-white cinematography -- which, of course, the Yanks pretty much lifted from German Expressionism of a few decades earlier.

The film, directed by Helmut Käutner from a screenplay he co-wrote with Walter Ulbrich, is an unsparing look at the slow-burning animosity between the defeated Germans and their American occupiers. The U.S. wants a place to launch its fighter planes and build nuclear missile silos, while the humbled Germans service the soldiers and workers with drink, prostitutes and more than a little black market enterprise.

The title comes from the material currently most valued, truckload after truckload of pulverized rocks being used to build roads, airstrips and other parts of the base. Robert Neidhardt (Helmut Wildt), the ostensible lead character, is a shady independent truck owner who hauls for the Americans and also works with a fellow former POW, Otto Krahne (Wolfgang Büttner), to milk a little extra off on the side.

It's a fairly comfortable arrangement for all parties involved, and the new American overseeing the operation, Maj. John Gaines (Hans Cossy), understands that a bit of grift serves as grease for the wheels of smooth operation.

However, the rub comes with Gaines' relatively new wife, Inge (Ingmar Zeisberg), a German native who used to roll with Robert back in the day during the early years after the war, always on the move and running some scam or another. They lived freely and lustily, an existence Robert is still practicing and Inge is trying to set aside for a straight life that will lead her, eventually, to the States.

Robert gives the Gaineses a tow after their car breaks down, and the rest of the movie plays out as one long slow burn as he tries to woo Inge back, she protests but not too much, and they get caught up in a horrid accident that turns into a major local scandal and military investigation.

I was less interested in the contretemps of the plot, which frankly get a little dull and repetitive after the one-hour mark, than the portraiture of Robert and Inge. Both Wildt and Zeisberg give impactful, "in the now" performances that reminded me a lot of the French New Wave.

Robert brims with the confidence of a sulking Jean-Paul Belmondo, a certain lunkhead machismo that is like catnip to more strata of womenfolk than an of us care to admit. John by contrast is upstanding, kind and practical, but can't hold a candle to Robert's practiced cruelty. 

Of course, it's all a front, and when the going gets tough Robert breaks down quicker than anyone expects.

I was quite taken with Zeisberg, a willowy brunette with large, emotive eyes and a passing resemblance to Hilary Swank, one of my favorite modern actresses. Her Inge is smart and tough, takes one look at Robert and knows he's exactly the same cad he was before, and seems unafraid of his machinations and come-ons. 

And yet, she's truthful enough with herself than when the breaking point is reached, she knows she'd rather choose a doomed existence with Robert than the quiet haven with John.

"Black Gravel" is quite unrelenting in its tone and sense of tragedy, in a way that American films of the same period flirt with but never quite dive all the way into. It starts with the death of Inge's dog, Tub, who is killed with a rock by one of the truckers because the pup is overly friendly while they're trying to dump their loads. 

Robert isn't at all bothered by this, flinging the carcass into the road bed where the gravel is being dumped -- first being careful to grab the new expensive-looking collar, always on the lookout for a few pressed Deutschmarks. Meanwhile, Krahne uses the distraction to fraudulently stamp out a few extra loads of gravel on the logbook. 

The older man is looking to cash out and move to Canada to go in business with his brother, which Robert considers a cowardly act of desertion -- to him, to their scam, to their country. Both were soldiers though not Hitler enthusiasts, more survivors who understand how to tack into whatever wind prevails.

Robert lives above the bar/brothel in Sohnen, the tiny village on the outskirts of the burgeoning base, and is pretty much the only game in town for the Americans. He works the payphone just outside his one-room place, which is frequently also occupied by Elli, (Anita Höfer), who is a barmaid, whore, or Robert's girlfriend, depending on her mood.

A bountiful blonde in the Brigitte Bardot mold, Elli seems very much in charge of her own little corner of the world, though like Robert much of it is a front. When Krahne tries to convince her to run away with him, Elli teases Robert with the possibility and is incensed when he's happy to cut her loose.

Höfer has a couple of brief bare-breasted scenes -- first the right, then the left -- which is still a fairly shocking thing to see in movies of this vintage. She spends much of her time in the movie lying in bed in various states of undress, playing footsie with Robert's ear or whatever piece of him she can reach. Teasing is her essence.

There are number of shots that seem to linger on women's legs and feet, and I think it's less of an icky Tarantino thing than a commentary on how these females are bound to this place and their fleshy vessels that are controlled by the whims of uncaring men. 

The other big notable shot of legs, of course, are those of Anni (Edeltraud Elsner), a sweet local girl who accidentally gets run down along with her American boyfriend, Bill (Peter Nestler), while Robert is fleeing after being tipped off by Inge that the police are wise to the gravel theft. The site of her legs splayed out from underneath the truck bed, with her beau's mangled corpse behind it, is a pretty arresting image for that era.

My attention waned as the movie went on from that point, as Robert decides to dump the bodies and cover it up rather than report the accident, which was no fault of his own. But "justice is for the rich," he growls, and so the rest of the story is spent in a predictable unrolling of nervous stares, whispered conversations, face-offs over who knows what, and so on.

"Black Gravel" was quite controversial in its day for its harsh depiction of German-American relations, and in fact the original ending was cut to remove Inge's death in the theatrical version -- another victim of Robert's big damn truck. He dumps her body in the gravel, too, also throwing himself in at the end. Strangely, the original ending just has him driving off into the mist with no resolution at all.

The film also had a moment that was labeled antisemitic and excised under pressure from the Central Council of Jews in Germany. It's strange because the scene is brief and anything but anti-Jewish. 

A drunken old patron calls the pub owner a "dirty Jew" because of his insistence on playing something other than old Nazi-era folk songs on the jukebox. The entire bar instantly grinds to silence at the insult, the camera lingering on the proprietor's arm with the tattooed serial number, and we are clearly made to feel sympathy for him and anger at this doddering relic of a poisonous past.  

The deleted scenes were thought lost to time, but were uncovered in an uncut print about a decade ago, which led to a restoration of the film. 

I can't say as I found "Black Gravel" to be a magnificent piece of cinema with or without these bits, but it does serve as a significant time capsule documenting a place and time, jammed in between showier pieces of history, that has largely been forgot.

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