A cigarette factory worker proposes to her boss but is immediately turned down… and then she wins the lottery. Director Rosa Porten’s sly romantic comedy showcases the best of the lighter side of German silent film.
Home Media Availability: Watch online courtesy of Deutsche Kinemathek.
Eyes on the Prize
As of this writing, Rosa Porten has not enjoyed the same retroactive laurels awarded to many of her silent era director comrades. The daughter of early director Franz Porten (he helmed Theodor Körner) and older sister of popular star Henny Porten, Rosa Porten’s sophisticated sense of humor and feminist sensibilities make her a kind of female Ernst Lubitsch.
Wanda’s Trick was directed by Porten and husband Franz Eckstein under their shared pseudonym Dr. R. Portegg. It’s one of six surviving films in which Porten served as both director or co-director and screenwriter and, fortunately for us, it’s available for online viewing.
(h/t: Maggie Hennefeld)
While the current selection of German silent films on home media might lead you to believe that audiences of the era liked only dark, depressing or arty fare, silent era Germans loved light entertainment as much as anyone else and their filmmakers exceled at comedies, both broad and romantic. Porten and Eckstein were no exception and Wanda’s Trick plays with the already-familiar tropes of a rom-com.
Wanda (Wanda Treumann) works at the Garboty cigarette factory and in the opening scene, she lands the prize that most American rom-com heroines spend the entire film chasing: a date with her dishy boss, Heinrich Löbel (Heinrich Schroth).
The date is wonderful and Wanda has such a lovely time with Heinrich that she decides to pop the question then and there. He can come by her house to ask her mother for her hand.
Yeah, about that…
It seems that Heinrich does not view Wanda as the kind of woman one must marry. Wanda’s no fool and dumps him on the spot. Way Down East, this is not. (Though I must note that Way Down East was seen as dated and corny and so last century at this point in history.)
Wanda is down and relies on her mother (Marie Grimm-Einödshofer) for sympathy but her life is about to change. The lottery results are published and Wanda’s numbers are listed as the winners. She is a rich woman, so she buys a round of beer for her coworkers and decides to quit her job.
Meanwhile, the Garboty brand is not selling and Heinrich is on the edge of financial ruin. He needs an infusion of cash yesterday. The news of the lottery win makes Heinrich realize that he likes it and should have put a ring on it, so he hurries to Wanda’s flat to correct his error. Now that she has all the power in the relationship, Wanda invites Heinrich to boil his head and he leaves, fully aware that he got what he deserved.
However, Wanda still loves the cad and decides that she will bail out his cigarette company. Not by giving him money or marrying him, at least not that she will admit. Rather, she proposes a contest that would be right up Willy Wonka’s alley: one box of Garboty Cigarettes will contain a picture of Wanda and whoever finds that picture will marry her.
Since Wanda’s lottery win has made the news, the gimmick is sure to work. Heinrich makes Wanda a co-owner of the company and the contest launches. Of course, Wanda has no intention of marrying some random smoker and has hidden the cigarette box containing her portrait. She intends to sell it to Heinrich when the time is right.
This is a clever trick, a bit dishonest but anyone who would agree to marry someone if they find their portrait in a cigarette box deserves what they get. Wanda’s plan is flawless and nothing could possibly go wrong. Unless, of course, that cigarette box with the portrait inside is… stolen.
Will Heinrich save his factory? Will Wanda win the man of her dreams or will a pickpocket lead her down the aisle? See Wanda’s Trick to find out.
The first and most important ingredient in this film’s success is the charisma of its star. Romantic comedies by their nature demand that their performers make the ridiculous seem natural. Wanda Treumann had a huge personality and every bit of it comes through to the audience. Her performance is vivacious, generous, sassy, everything you could possibly want in a heroine caught up in a madcap love story.
(By the way, English language resources ominously state that Treumann, who was Jewish, disappeared during the Second World War but the Association of Jewish Refugees reports that she escaped to Australia and settled in Melbourne, where she lived to be seventy-five. Eckstein and Porten stayed in Germany during the war but that was likely related to the Third Reich’s creepy obsession with her sister, Henny. I detail that in my review of The Ancient Law. Eckstein died before the war ended and Rosa Porten escaped to West Germany, where she resumed her career.)
Rosa Porten, who wrote the screenplay, created an appealing heroine for the audience to root for. Wanda knows what she wants and she’s not going to fall for any of the obvious pitfalls along the way. Heinrich is a bit on the bland side but at least he recognizes when he has been an idiot much earlier in the story than your average rom-com hero.
The Porten-Eckstein directing team creates a winking, knowing confection that can be favorably compared to the rom-coms of Ernst Lubitsch, their German filmmaking contemporary. Porten, Eckstein and Lubitsch all display respect for the audience’s intelligence. Wanda’s Trick is also a very human story and the filmmakers do not sacrifice warmth for sass. We get both!
One thing I really enjoyed about Wanda’s Trick is the emphasis on woman-to-woman relationships. Wanda’s mother both worries about her daughter and is her co-conspirator, the interactions between Treumann and Marie Grimm-Einödshofer are warm and natural. Filmmakers of the silent era did tend to idealize mothers much more than their modern counterparts but it’s still nice to see a healthy parent-child bond on the screen. On the same note, Wanda’s jolly camaraderie with her factory coworkers makes her popularity believable as we are shown and not told.
On a side note, I enjoyed the moody, shadowy cinematography that was so typical of 1910s productions. You know you’re watching a movie from the teens when even the rom-coms look like noir. I couldn’t find the name of the cinematographer but well done, unknown German.
Wanda’s Trick is a smashing romantic comedy and a real must-see for any devotees of German silent film. It’s also essential viewing for anyone who wants to appreciate silent era women directors beyond the most famous names. Wanda’s Trick is a hidden gem and I hope both the film and its director receive the recognition they deserve.
Where can I see it?
You can watch Wanda’s Trick for free courtesy of the Deutsche Kinemathek, which is derived from a digitized print from the EYE Film Institute. There are no English subtitles.
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