Merchant sailor Klaus (Willy Fritsch) is given the highly trusted job of nightwatchman on an empty ship docked in Hamburg. On his very first night a young tearaway comes on board to hide from the police. When Klaus discovers that his unwelcome visitor is actually an attractive young woman, Jenny (Jenny Jugo), he decides not to turn her in…
Weimar’s silent cinema often seems like the gift that keeps on giving. Film after film shows a commitment to consistently high production values and an engagement with the latest technological and dramaturgical developments, without losing sight of the objective to engage and entertain its audience.
Despite its status as an all-but-forgotten work — which is surely due more to the director Erich Waschneck’s later output under the Nazi regime than to any shortcomings of the film — Docks of Hamburg rarely falls short of this standard. The resourcefulness and technical prowess shown by Waschneck and his team mean that almost every scene has some felicitous element to recommend it; however, it’s worth pointing out one particularly imaginative sequence which uses double exposure to highlight Klaus’ growing obsession with Jenny. Later, his fateful decision to commit himself to her is dramatically rendered in a long travelling shot along the dockside, which remains impressive even now.
The film mixes location shots of Hamburg itself with richly realised sets, courtesy of production designer Alfred Junge (who would go on to win an Oscar for Black Narcissus). There is a real relish to the detailed depiction of St Pauli, the rough area round Hamburg’s docks, and to the rogues who inhabit it. For instance, the quintet of smugglers who work with Jenny are each introduced with individual intertitles, complete with their nicknames, and the camera lovingly captures their weathered faces and maverick approaches to fashion. (A sixth smuggler, the leader — ‘The Captain’ — will appear much later in the film, upsetting the delicate power balance between the men that has been so advantageous to Jenny.) Two of the men particularly stand out: ‘the Doctor’, played by one of Weimar’s most recognisable villains (and a long-time Lang favourite), Fritz Rasp; and the diminutive ‘Nipper’ (Wolfgang Zilzer), whose devotion to Jenny goes way beyond the lustful yearnings of the others.
The original German title of Docks of Hamburg is Die Carmen von St Pauli. While this has a self-reflexive edge — it’s the name bestowed on Jenny by her coterie of besotted villains — the film also uses the tragic trajectory of Bizet’s opera as a loose framework for its narrative. It’s easy to see Jenny and Klaus as versions of the free-spirited Carmen and her naive, jealous soldier lover. Smuggling also plays a key role in both stories, and there is even a version of the celebrity bullfighter who turns Carmen’s head, in the form of a racing champion who comes to the bar where Jenny works. Still, having given the audience the expectation of an unhappy ending, the filmmakers subvert it every chance they get, not least in the portrayal of Jenny. As performed by Jenny Jugo, she comes over as deliciously modern: fun-loving, unabashedly tactile and sexually self-confident. Her strategic flirtation with the rest of her crew is a far cry from the devil-may-care lasciviousness of Bizet’s heroine.
In comparison with Jugo’s wonderfully free — indeed, mobile — performance and the busily expressive, vibrantly amoral characterisations from those on the wrong side of the law, Willy Fritsch as Klaus seems a little stuck in the past. It’s possible that this is a deliberate choice by the filmmakers: the stiffness of his home life and the representatives of the law contrasts effectively with the dynamic, shifting moralities of a more modern time.
In this performance the film was accompanied by a typically imaginative and supportive score from Stephen Horne, whose multi-instrumentalist skills have already made him a firm festival favourite.