Saturday, September 28, 2019

Review - Gold (1934)

September 28, 2019

Gold – Germany, 1934

There’s a reason why Goldfinger resonates much more than other Bond films, especially the later ones, and it’s that the stakes seem so believable. The goal of the villains is not world domination or taking over every computer in the world, but rather triggering the collapse of the US economy and basking in the ensuing chaos. These lofty goals can be achieved because of a simple reality in 1964 – the gold standard. This was, of course, not a new revelation, for economists and politicians had likely been aware of this risk since the early days of global trading and interlocked economies. It is also the subject of Karl Hartl’s 1934 Gold.

In the film, a team of three scientists, Professor Achenbach (Friedrich Kayssler); his assistant, Professor Werner Holk (Hans Albers), and an engineer named Becker,  is hard at work on a machine that, on paper, can turn lead into gold – in other words, a mechanical version of the mythical philosopher’s stone, the earliest mention of which appears to be around ADE 300. In an early scene, we get pretty obvious hints that someone doesn’t want them to succeed, and pretty soon, Becker is seen sabotaging the machine at the behest of some shadowy organization. Of the three men, only Holk survives the ensuing explosion, and he only does so because the woman he is dating happens to have the same blood type as he. Interestingly, the doctors seem hesitant at first to accept her as a blood donor, and I can only assume that this is the result of some erroneous belief about the physical strength of women.

Like many cinematic heroes, Holk cannot put the past behind him, and therefore it’s not hard to predict that he’ll stop at nothing to unmask the murderer of his friend and mentor. However, while other films of this genre have average people suddenly becoming super sleuths or athletic supermen seemingly overnight, Gold is content to leave Holk exactly the way he is – a scientist seemingly in his late thirties or early forties with no skills as a marksmen and in hardly the shape to chase a suspect across rooftops or through busy downtown districts. In fact, he’s never even undercover. When “invited” by John Wills (Michael Bohnen), an English businessman with a reputation for being ruthless and not letting simple matters such as laws and regulations stand in his way, to complete a device that looks remarkably like the one Holk was working on with the professor, he is immediately suspicious, and Wills is as equally distrusting of him. However, you know what they say about desperate times.

Wills and his gang are classic adventure, sci-fi villains, replete with hordes of henchmen and secret underground lairs that are said to be 200 miles under the Atlantic Ocean and accessible only through an elaborate system of subways and box cars. As for the actual transformation contraption, it resembles a morbid Christmas displays surrounded by tree-shaped cones and topped off with odd cone-like, skyward-facing cylinders, from which you’d expect either fireworks or cannonballs to be launched. In other words, it’s a physical monstrosity capable of creating even more insidious horrors. It reminded me of the underground world of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the many lairs of Spectre.

For much of the first half of the film, the focus is on Holk’s quest for revenge and his schemes to put himself in the optimal position to achieve it. I remember wondering if he or anyone else had considered the real world implications of making gold such a common acquisition. Fortunately, this is a large part of the second half of the film, which even includes a montage of the panic that engulfs the markets in the days following Wills’ announcement that his company will soon be able to produce gold at will. I was also impressed by the way the film lets you know Holk’s plot, but then takes its time in enacting it, so much so that I found myself engulfed in questions about his methods and motives, the answers to which, I’m happy to report, are well worth the wait.

I have a few minor quibbles with the film. The addition of a love conflict is unnecessary and not entirely realistic, even though it is performed admirably by the actors involved. The film is also a bit too expository for its own good. At times, conversations in which key details are revealed go on too long and are slightly repetitive. Ending them sooner would have created more suspense, and I wondered if someone like Holk would be as open about his plans as he is. None of these objections, though, disrupts the rhythm of the film too much or diminishes any of the tension created throughout. And the ending doesn’t disappoint, with secrets revealed, fates handed down and humanity facing moral and financial self-destruction. It’s really only then that you can take a breath.

Gold is lesser known that other films of its era, perhaps owing to Hartl’s controversial work as the director of film production during the years in which the Nazi government had control of the Austrian film industry, as well as the popularity of Fritz Lang’s films, especially Metropolis, with which Gold shares a number of similarities. I hope that it’s discovered by a larger audience, though. It is extremely well acted, tightly constructed, and tremendously thought-provoking. I’d even go so far as a call it a near masterpiece. It’s that good. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Classics)

4 and a half stars

*Gold is in German with English subtitles.

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