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Opera in Film: The Man Between

By Singingscholar @singingscholar
It's film noir weather in NYC, and with Fr. M. Owen Lee's Opera Quiz Book as my guide, I discovered "The Man Between," directed by Carol Reed of "The Third Man" fame. Lee's tantalizing teaser, from lists of films which use opera to underline an emotional point, or underscore a nuanced dramatic situation, is as follows:
Staatsoper, East Berlin, post-war, pre-wall. Onstage soprano launches into final scene from decadent German opera. Cue for black marketeer Ivo Kern and kidnapped Englishwoman Susanne Malleson to leave box for sinister streets in attempt to escape to Western sector.

Opera in film: The Man Between

Berlin. Still from "The Man Between"

This I had to see. As in the case of Reed's more famous "Third Man," a postwar city is perhaps the most significant character of the drama, shaping the lives (even, dare one say it, the souls) of the human actors whom we discover there. Filmed largely on location, "The Man Between" shows us a Berlin where banners in praise of Stalin flutter over bombed-out buildings and freshly-built guard towers. Children play in ruins, and spies hide there. An English military doctor is kept fully occupied with refugees. There are still nightclubs and cafes and skating rinks. James Mason is Ivo Kern, amoral opportunist extraordinaire. I say amoral... it would perhaps be more precise to say that he has decided to ignore his conscience because it is an instrument of torture. He wears a coat with an astrakhan collar. When inhabiting his public persona, he can be devastatingly charming; trying to keep his skin whole despite the best efforts of gangsters and police to make it otherwise, he is curt, with a blazing intensity of cynicism the sources of which are only gradually discovered by the audience. To summarize the tortuous plot would give important things away; it is, in the end, a drama of individuals.

Opera in film: The Man Between

Hildegard Knef, James Mason

The cast is a mix of English and German actors, which works well on the whole, but results in some oddities. Mason's German is casual, as scripted, so you can hear him say "Nanu, Bettine, du hier bei den Genossen?" in a convincingly offhand way, but with an accent which gave me pause. (My tentative diagnosis of this problem is that his cadences are sometimes off... which is to say, for English, they're idiomatic where they shouldn't be.) There's an East German gangster who is a fine actor auf Deutsch, but who, I suspect, must have learned his English lines by rote. Ernst Schroeder is excellent as an agent, and Hildegard Knef also very fine as the German wife of the English doctor mentioned above. The English doctor's radiantly beautiful and dangerously naive sister is played by Claire Bloom (at the age of 22.) She is quite taken with the dashing Ivo (unsurprisingly) and the more dangerous things get, the more caustic he becomes. The scene where they attend the opera is pivotal and superb. The fun begins when Claire Bloom is asked if she likes the opera; answering in the affirmative, she is offered tickets to East Berlin's opera, as it is judged superior to that in the west. After many vicissitudes, she and James Mason end up in a box, hearing Ljuba Welitsch sing Salome. Yes, really. I wished the camera had given us more details of Welitsch's on-stage performance, but was delighted with the choice of the director to linger here, on this singer, in this role. A pet peeve of mine is the careless use of "shorthand opera" in films, where characters are supposedly deeply moved by unexceptional performances of Tosca or Traviata or... insert Italian warhorse here. To wrap up a film noir replete with sexual and political tension, what better than this? Welitsch's incisive treatment of the text and incandescent defiance were shiver-inducing. A complete recording of Welitsch's Salome is available here; the entirety of the final scene (audio-only) here. In the film, we don't hear Herod's last line, but are soon given other things to worry about, as the fate of our protagonists hangs in the balance.

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