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The Kaiser's Lackey - arthouse and international DVD / foreign language DVD / satire DVD / comedy DVD review
Not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America rating: 4 1/2 stars
Featuring: Werner Peters, Erich Nader, Gertrude Bergman, Friedrich Gnaß, Ernst Legal
Director: Wolfgang Staudte   Studio: First Run Features
DVD release: 17 February 2009   Runtime: 144 minutes
(1 disc)
Format: Black & White, DVD-Video, Full Screen, NTSC, Subtitled
DVD Features: Aspect ratio 1.33:1, Audio tracks (German), Subtitles (English), "Interpreting The Kaiser's Lackey, Historical timeline, Biographies and filmographies

Now here is a unique find for true film buffs. Rarely seen outside of Germany, The Kaiser's Lackey was one of the first films produced in the newly formed East Germany, and its biting satire proved too strong for West Germany, where it was banned for some time. While its historical value is noteworthy, it also stands on its own as a film: a well-directed, well-acted, sharply funny satire of pre-war Germany.

Based on the acclaimed novel Der Untertan by Heinrich Mann, the film is basically the story of young Deidrich (Werner Peters) who, from birth through his childhood, was continually scared and intimidated, be it from his abusive father and his mother (who liked to tell scary stories to him in the crib) to his domineering teachers. However, as a young man, he learns an ugly truth: by groveling to those of higher social standing then stepping on and mistreating anyone below him, he can advance far and prosper quite nicely in society. Will Deidrich one day achieve his ultimate goal, which is to have an audience with the Kaiser himself?

The film is a tongue-in-cheek historical satire of Germany from the late 1800s to the start of WWI, but it does have quite a bitter edge to it. At its core, it derides Germany's penchant for ultra-patriotism and authoritarianism - themes that still resonated all too strongly when this film was made. Peters also gives a terrific performance in what is an exceedingly difficult role; Deidrich is not a character the audience can easily identify with, as he goes from a meek, sympathetic, almost Woody Allen-esque character to a ruthless, despicable factory owner to a pathetic ultra-nationalist and wannabe "lackey" for the Kaiser. Relatively few performances require a character to be the hero AND the villain of the same film, yet Peters pulls it off admirably.

After viewing the film, one can see why it might have been a bit too strong to stomach for many in the fledgling West German government. For one thing, the film is clearly pro-Socialism. The most heroic figure in the film is an elderly worker named Fischer, who matter-of-factly proclaims his Socialism and decides to run for office in town, despite strong efforts by Deidrich and Deidrich's superiors to persuade him to change his mind. All symbolic figures of bourgeoisie society, be they clergy, land barons or factory owners like Deidrich, are always seen as closed-minded, intolerant and ruthless.

Furthermore, some ominous anti-Semitic remarks made by Deidrich and his cronies are obviously meant to imply that the society created by Deidrich and others laid the groundwork for rise of the Nazis, hammered home even more forcefully in the film's final scene, which was originally banned in West Germany. During a thunderstorm, Deidrich rather ridiculously bows (butt-end toward the camera) before the statue of the Kaiser he has just dedicated. As he bows, a Nazi march appears on the soundtrack. In the biting final shot, the film flashes decades ahead and shows the statue of the Kaiser standing amid the ruins of the town post-WWII, the town and the society Deidrich and others dedicated their lives to now reduced to rubble.

The Kaiser's Lackey is a newly unearthed gem that is worth seeing, not only for its historical significance, but because it is a well-made, entertaining film with points that still resonate sharply today. Deidrich might turn into a dislikeable fellow, but unfortunately he is a quite recognizable one as well.

  • A historical timeline from the beginnings of Germany as a sovereign nation in the mid-1800s to the death of director Staudte in 1984.
  • Biographies and filmographies of director Staudte and his star, Werner Peters.
  • An informative film entitled "Interpreting The Kaiser's Lackey," which fills in some of the background historical information behind some of the key scenes in the film, as well as giving a fascinating account on how the film was initially banned, then allowed but with key scenes cut, in West Germany.
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reviewed by Trent Daniel
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