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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (1956)

A movie based on a real story. In 1906, Wilhelm Voigt was freed from prison, where he had spent most of his life. First time he had been imprisoned when he was fourteen, for a minor theft, and then the small or not so small thefts and successive convictions went on. Eventually Mr. Voight had become an exemplary prisoner, very interested to read any book related to the military. Now that he was 57 years old, Mr. Voight was decided to make henceforth an honest living: finding a job, going regularly to church, drinking only on special occasions, all the good stuff. Only this proved impossible, because the authorities were treating him as an undesirable person, on the grounds of his prison background. In order to settle down some place he needed a pass, which nobody was willing to deliver. Exceeded by the continual bureaucratic harassment, Wilhelm Voigt decided to play them a prank to be the mother of all pranks. He bought a military uniform from a second hand store. Thus equipped, nobody dared to question his identity. As the uniform indicated the rank of Captain, he stopped a patrol of grenadiers on the street and commandeered them to the town hall of Köpenick (in the outskirts of Berlin). Here he told the local police officer to prevent any phone calls for one hour and asked the treasurer to handle him all money from the town hall money box. Then he ordered his troupe to arrest the mayor and the treasurer and to take them to Berlin for interrogations. Nobody realized it was a huge caper. His intention was seemingly to fabricate for himself a passport, only he should have chosen another town hall: they had no passport office at Köpenick. He was caught after a couple of days, but the prank had been so big that even the Kaiser started to laugh and eventually pardoned him.

The story with the Captain of Köpenick caused great excitement in the newspapers in Germany and abroad, and soon it passed to books, songs, and theatrical representations. In 1931 Karl Zuckmayer produced a superb play on this topic, which became so to speak a classic. A statue of the fake captain stands today just in front of Köpenick's town hall. There is also a commemorative plate there, and the uniform is on display. Wilhelm Voigt was even honored with a wax figure in the museum from Unter den Linden (and there is another one at Madame Tussaud's at London).

Wilhelm Voigt, der gefälscht Hauptmann von Köpenick
Bronzestatue vor dem Rathaus Köpenick
image: Lienhard Schulz
no copyright infringement intended

Several movies told the story of the Captain of Köpenick (the first two of them were made in the very year the event took place, 1906, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1071929/?ref_=fn_al_tt_8 and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1163782/?ref_=fn_al_tt_9, then followed other movies in 1926, 1931, 1945, 1956, 1960, 1987, 1997, 2001, and 2005). The best-known is the movie from 1956, starring Heinz Rühmann.

Following the plot structure of Zuckmayer's play, the movie tells two parallel stories: the one of Wilhelm Voigt (who cannot get a pass without having a work permit, that he cannot get without having a pass), and the other story, of the uniform itself (made for a Captain von Schlettow, soon discharged from the army for a stupid incident, refitted and passed to the Mayor of Köpenick for his promotion to Captain, stained by him in another stupid incident, thrown to a rag shop where it would meet Voigt). Thus man and uniform follow a somehow similar chain of avatars, both subdued to the absurdity of a bureaucratic regime dominated  by an over-military mentality, both eager to take revenge. Without the uniform's story the prank imagined by Voigt would lack zest, without Voigt's determination, the uniform would just stay quiet. The revolt of each one is supported by the other's revolt and the circle is complete. Heinz Rühmann is wonderful: a nice, even sweet, guy always trying to do the right thing, always caught in the wrong place at the wrong moment.

(Heinz Rühmann)



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