Monday, 30 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 91: The Divided Heart (1954)

‘based... on a factual story taken from the newspapers. Part of its appeal for me was that it was about the mother-child relationship... which, I recognise, was a recurring one in Ealing films.’ (Michael Balcon, quoted in Barr, 192-3) 
The idea that the mother-child relationship was a recurring one in Ealing might seem a strange observation, even coming from the man who ran the studio between 1938 and 1959. Maternal issues can, of course, be found across a range of Ealing’s films: there is the mother-battleaxe figure who has to be defeated (often by the new bride) in films like Young Man’s Fancy (1939) and Turned Out Nice Again (1944), and there are mother-child elements to Cage of Gold (1950), Where No Vultures Fly (1951) and Mandy (1952), but it seems a stretch to call this a recurring theme. Children are more visible in Hue and Cry (1947) and The Magnet (1950), but the mother-child theme is less evident; equally, an argument could be made that father-son (The Long Arm, 1956; Pink String and Sealing Wax, 1945) and father-daughter relationships (Lease of Life, 1954; Touch and Go, 1955, The Shiralee, 1957) are equally important to the studio output.

The focus of The Divided Heart can, however, be seen as a continuation of Ealing’s move into more domestic melodramas from the post-war period, a move that paralleled what Charles Barr and others have seen as a move towards the professional male figure of The Cruel Sea (1953) and The Man in the Sky (1957). Barr also saw this film as ‘worthy but tame – sober, academic, actressy, afraid of getting into any deep emotional water’ (192): an assessment that seems to ignore the film’s desire to elicit emotion in quite direct and manipulative ways. It is also very much (to use a potentially problematic term) a ‘woman’s film’, in that the subject matter appears tailored for an assumed female audience – and the film features two central female characters.

The film opens with Inga and Franz Hartl (Cornell Borchers and Armin Dahlen), on the Bavarian ski-slopes and at the birthday party of their son Toni (Michael Ray / Martin Keller). The party is disturbed by two child repatriation officers, notably Marks (Geoffrey Keen), who informs the Hartl’s that Toni’s biological mother is alive and living in Slovenia. During a court case to assess Toni’s future, and to decide which of his mothers he should end up with, there are flashbacks that fill out other elements of the story: the birth mother, Sonja Slavko (Yvonne Mitchell) was held in a concentration camp during the war, and lost her husband and daughters; after finding Toni at a German orphanage, Inga raised him by herself while Franz is away at war, and captured by the Russians. Toni (or Ivan) gets the chance to meet Sonja, and grows to like her, but tells the judges he would prefer to live with the Hartls. Sonja also comes round to the belief that Toni would be better with them. Despite this, the three American justices vote 2-1 in favour of returning him to Sonja, and the final image is mother and son, reunited, on a train heading home.

The film is richer and more complex than Barr’s assessment allows, not least because it is, like Frieda (1947) before it, a commentary from an English perspective, on the post-war German character and identity. At first, the Hartl’s are just a nice family, but as the flashbacks reveal, Franz was a Nazi soldier and Sonja (and other Slovenians) suffered at the hands of the German army. The symbolism and emotion is laid on fairly thick: Toni/Ivan has hysterics every time he sees a Nazi uniform because it (unconsciously) reminds him of being torn from Sonja; in court, Sonja speaks through a translator, but one word ‘Auschwitz’ echoes round the courtroom and is understood in all languages; there is a concern about whether the Hartl’s will tell Toni the truth about German actions in the war, particularly against Slovenia. Those moments aside, the film rarely takes a direct position for or against Inga, and Borchers gets her fair share of lingering close-ups when she talks about her love for Toni, or longing looks across the courtroom at her competitor for his love, Sonja.

It could be argued that Inga gets more than her fair share of the film’s portrayal of this custody case, not least because she speaks English throughout (although, in one of those cases of glorious movie logic, she is actually speaking German), while Sonja – to start with at least – has to speak through a male translator, thus striking her mute for at least half the film. Mitchell makes the most of her mostly silent role and, like Borchers, is given plenty of time for expressive looks and glances – one of the places where the film wades happily into the ‘deep emotional waters’ Barr thinks it incapable of. By the end of the film, when Toni/Ivan has saved Sonja from a snowball attack in his home village, and both mothers have mutely expressed their love, the film is an exercise in manipulative staging, framing and editing. (there are also several nicely composed shots that fir both women into the frame, often with Inga in close-up, Sonja further away, and arguably more distant emotionally) That it ends with clumsy speeches from the three judges giving their opinions is unfortunate, because it shifts the focus from the two actresses who have driven it along so far.

The film is solid throughout, and makes good use of its location work in St. Johann-in-Tirol and Skofja Loka (Yugoslavia), adding a European sheen and a set of different spaces to the tale. Indeed, the Bavarian setting (and much of the story) seems so alien to much of what Ealing was known for – despite Balcon’s claim – that when Sonja gets lost in the streets and alleys of the village, our sympathy as an audience may shift to her, because this is unfamiliar territory for the Ealing audience as well.

[UPDATED April 2014: The Divided Heart is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 10, from Network]

Next time, more Ealing European themes in His Excellency (1952)...

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