12 October 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
The clockwork man gets ticked off.
One of the most delightful silent films I've ever seen is Ernst Lubitsch's 1919 'Die Puppe' ('The Doll'), based on a tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann, starring Ossi Oswalda as a young woman who impersonates a life-size mechanical doll in order to woo a young man. This early German sound film 'Der Hampelmann' ('The Puppet') is largely the same story with the genders reversed. 'Der Hampelmann' lacks the magic of Lubitsch and Hoffmann, and isn't nearly as good, but it's enjoyable in its own right.
Herr Eickmeyer is a wealthy parfumier: well past middle age, and stout with it. His blonde wife Lissy is much younger, pretty and vivacious. Since Eickmeyer can't keep up with his young wife, he commissions a companion for her in the form of a life-sized talking clockwork man, purchased for 5,000 deutschemarks ... to be shipped to his home immediately it's assembled.
Speaking of money, Max von Storch is a handsome young baron, noble of title but short of pfennigs. He has a case of the hots for Lissy. When Baron von Storch learns of Eickmeyer's purchase, he disguises himself as the clockwork man and has himself shipped to Lissy.
Naturally, the lissome Lissy is delighted with her handsome new plaything. Of course, there are complications. The 'puppet' sneezes at inappropriate moments. He also gets hungry and thirsty, and must figure out how to snatch food and scoff it without being seen. (We're not told what he does about his toilet needs.) Eventually, of course, the real clockwork man arrives; now the baron abandons his disguise but is unable to leave. Various bedroom-farce complications ensue...
'Der Hampelmann' is deeply contrived in its situations. So was 'Die Puppe', but that film was set in a fairytale mise-en-scene that blatantly contradicted reality. 'Der Hampelmann' takes place in a somewhat more realistic milieu than Lubitsch's film, so the contrivances are more awkward here. It's worth noting that 'Die Puppe' was a silent film, whilst 'Der Hampelmann' is a talking picture ... and an early one at that, suffering from the unwieldy camera techniques of the time. Silent films had a basic air of unreality that worked very much to the benefit of 'Die Puppe', whereas the guttural voices of the actors in 'Der Hampelmann' keep us grounded in reality. Ossi Oswalda's clockwork doll didn't speak; in 'Der Hampelmann', the mechanical men -- the real one, and the fake -- both speak mechanically, and the effect is not charming.
In the leading role of the counterfeit clockwork man, Max Hansen gives a lively and extremely physical performance, but fails to ingratiate. The story might have worked better if Baron von Storch had money, so that we would accept that his interest in Lissy -- apparently equal parts lust and romance -- has no mercenary subtext. The best performance in this film is given by Szöke Sakall, better-known to fans of 1940s Warner Bros films as character actor S.Z. Sakall. As the wealthy Eickmeyer, 'Cuddles' Sakall is in fine form here, doing all of his beloved physical crotchets. At one point, he even clasps his fists to his cheeks, as he did so memorably in several Hollywood films. I was also pleased by a too-brief performance by Peter Lorre's wife Celia Lovsky. Less pleasant is this film's musical score, which sounds more mechanical than may have been appropriate for a story about a mechanical man. 'Der Hampelmann' is a very enjoyable film, which I'll rate 7 out of 10.