A 1926 German silent film called “Menschen untereinander,” or “People Among Each Other,” employs a handy storytelling device to introduce its characters without the extensive use of title cards. The story concerns the inhabitants of an apartment building in Berlin, where the successful and rich live with the impoverished. As the camera focuses on the apartment directory, two women, the concierge and cleaning lady, explain the characters that go with the names. We’re then taken inside each apartment one-by-one to meet the characters and learn more about their daily lives.
The episodic film, shown this year at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, then shifts back and forth between the characters as it tells the story. Chief among these tales concerns a pregnant woman, Gertrud Kohler (played by Aud Egede-Nissen) who is convicted of wrongdoing in a traffic accident. She’s the daughter of a public official who can do nothing to help her as she faces the loss of her child. In another apartment, a successful but kind jeweler and his daughter work hard to continue their successful business, but also show compassion for their less fortunate neighbors scrounging to survive in the hyper-inflationary times of 1920’s Germany. In contrast, the money-grubbing landlady lays down the rules and expects prompt payment of the rent each month.
Directed by Gerhard Lamprecht, who often took on social issues in his films, the film balances lighter elements with strident social commentary. One of the humorous stories involves the landlady of the house, who is mostly dismissive of the more impoverished tenants. Upstairs, a matchmaking establishment fixes her up with a gentleman from Australia. Romance beckons and the gentleman showers her with gifts, including a ring with a hideously large stone. The gentleman turns out to be a swindler, and before long the landlady signs over his fortune to him just before he disappears. He does so much damage to her finances that she’s forced to move and sell the building. The director, Lamprecht, treats the landlady with little sympathy as we see her riding off in a taxi forever.
The film plays up little coincidences that lead up to big circumstances. For instance, one of the apartments houses an impoverished piano teacher who earns little by teaching. One day, he does a favor for one of the dancers at the top floor ballet studio. The dancer gratefully arranges with the owner of the studio to have him play at the school for classes. It’s the kind of human exchange where everyone benefits, and it gives us a chance to forget the hard times for awhile.