Following the suicide of their unemployed son, the Bsnike family is evicted from its Berlin tenement and forced to move into Kuhle Wampe, a holiday camp that has become a refuge for the dispossessed. Shortly after finding work, their daughter Anni (Thiele) falls pregnant but, rather than marry, she has an abortion and devotes her energies to a workers' sports movement.
Since the Expressionist experiments of the silent era, German cinema has had surprisingly little impact on the international scene. It's doubtful whether we shall ever see much from the post-1933 period, but it's to be hoped that this reissue might spark a revival of interest in early German talkies.
Kuhle Wampe is clearly the product of a lost age of innocence. Playwright, lyricist and Marxist Bertold Brecht wrote and participated in the making of this Depression drama, which he claimed was the only film not to distort his ideas. Yet, for all its socialist commitment, what makes this so effective is director Dudow's mastery of staging and cutting.
It may not sound the stuff of entertainment, but this is far from a dry political tract (hence Hitler's decision to ban it on coming to power). The drunken engagement party is hilarious, the opening cycling sequence is a superior example of montage and the sports' day segment cautiously anticipates Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia. Hanns Eisler's score would also be echoed in British documentaries throughout the 1930s.
But, as the final train debate proves, this is also a rather sad film, as it's clear that the left-wing ideals that filled people with such hope have failed utterly to prevent big business from promoting the rights of the individual over mass solidarity.
A classic early talkie, it stands up to weighty political ideology and its heavy drama thanks to a lively story with some genuinely funny and touching scenes.