24 November 2007 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Max Schreck gets snatched: cats and burghers but no catburgers.
I saw 'The Battle of the Tertia' in October 2007 at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy; the festival screened a print (with German and French titles) from the Murnau archive in Wiesbaden, restored on acetate colour stock to reproduce the colour tinting of the original nitrate release print.
IMDb's cast list for this film has a major omission: the villainous furrier Biersack is played by none other than Max Schreck, the actor famed for playing the vampire Count Orlock in 'Nosferatu'. In many of his film roles, Schreck appeared in heavy make-up or very briefly, or both; here, he has considerable screen time in a role which gives him an opportunity to demonstrate a range of emotions. Schreck has one of his largest and most visible screen roles in this film.
I misunderstood the movie's title; when I entered the screening, I assumed that Tertia was the name of a ship or a town in this story. In fact, the Tertia is (or was) the mid-level grade in a German secondary school: most of the characters in this movie are Tertianers, boy students in their early teens.
Many such Boy's Own movies have one girl in the otherwise all-boy gang, and her role is usually to be the token girl. Here, intriguingly, the one girl in the gang is also the leader: Daniela, slightly older (and definitely prettier) than the boys. They follow her lead eagerly, not questioning that she's the best qualified to give the orders.
Boestrum is (in this movie) a German coastal town; the Tertianers at the local school have organised a juvenile hideout for themselves on an island just offshore. Biersack, the local furrier, has convinced the town council (the Boestrum burghers?) to round up and kill all the local cats; Biersack will then take possession of their pelts, which he will fashion into garments and sell at a large profit, fobbing off the cat-fur as rabbit or something else.
The boys (and Daniela) mount a resistance intrigue, which starts out with simple stuff such as painting pro-moggy graffiti on the town's walls. Eventually it escalates into outright felonies, with the Tertianers kidnapping and torturing Biersack. These scenes reminded me of the climax of Cecil B De Mille's movie 'This Day and Age', in which American high-school students kidnap a gangster and threaten to kill him. The scenes on the island -- where the boys have set up their own community, with Daniela as ruler -- had tones of 'Lord of the Flies'.
'The Battle of the Tertia' was apparently meant for a juvenile audience, possibly slightly younger than the boys in the movie, so it's quite obvious how the adventure will end. Still, even though this is a movie for kids, I felt troubled by the violent (and definitely illegal) antics of the Tertianers. This movie was made in Germany in 1929: a time and place when many people felt that committing violence and breaking the law were perfectly valid acts for a 'higher' purpose. (And the word 'Kampf' in the title of this movie reminded me of guess-which book.) The fact that these Katzenjammer Kinder are breaking the law to protect a bunch of cats(!) made things even weirder. I have misgivings about this movie, but Max Schreck's excellent performance, and the fine performance of Ilse Stobrawa as the boys' leader Daniela, prompt me to rate it 7 out of 10. Here, kitty, kitty!