Isn’t Life Wonderful

Grapevine Video have made another rarity available on DVD. This time it is D.W.Griffith’s 1924 film Isn’t Life Wonderful, which tells the story of a family of Polish refugees in post-war Berlin, facing hunger, food riots and hyper-inflation. One of the best sequences shows a young woman who has gathered together an absurd amount of money, twelve million marks, so that she can join the butcher’s queue. As she nears the front of the queue, the price of meat is raised again and again, to increasingly surreal levels.

The opening titles make pretensions to documentary accuracy, and imply that Germany is the extreme case of a general post-war malaise:

Since it is by Griffith, the film centres on a highly emotional love story, and has its share of melodrama. The refugee girl, Inga, loves Paul, and ex-soldier. Together they struggle against adversity, and, because they have each other, and despite all that fate throws at them, they always feel the urge to say: ‘Isn’t Life Wonderful’. A title hammers the message home:

At the climax, Paul and Inga are wheeling a barrow full of the food that they have grown for themselves. A group of marauding thugs discover them, accuse them of being profiteers and demand the food. Paul explains that he is a working man like themselves, and shows his Union card as a proof of solidarity. The thugs are tempted to accept this, until their greed triumphs over their sense of brotherhood; the film’s politics are individualist and moralistic, not collectivist.

Six years earlier Griffith had made Hearts of the World, with its representation of Germans as utterly Hunnish. This time they are much more sympathetically drawn, and the troubles of post-war Germany are made very clear. But maybe making the central family refugees from Poland, and including some very nasty German roughs who terrorise them, allowed some of the audience to watch without having their wartime prejudices disturbed.

The filming is very much in Griffith’s usual style, with the camera never moving. There are fewer stagey sequences than in earlier films like Birth of a Nation, though, and fast editing keeps the story going. The best scenes are riveting, and there are some good examples of long close-up sequences which tell the story by subtle changes in facial expression. Griffith really was very good at that.

The film is credited as ‘By Major Geoffrey Moss, of the British Army, author of Sweet Pepper‘. Moss was an officer in the Grenadiers, apparently, and from what I can gather, this film is based on one of the stories in his 1924 collection, ‘Defeat’.

One Comment

  1. Andi K
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    In the original story by Geoffrey Moss (who was a british officer serving in post-WW1 Germany) the main characters Inga and Paul are german refugees, coming from territories that were cut from Germany or occupied after WW1. Obviously the story was changed by D.W. Griffith here, in order to feed the contemporary prejudices of the audiences.
    I guess the movie was first shot after the original story, but later the titles were changed, and Inga and Paul turned into polish refugees (but kept their german surnames)
    Unfortunately that makes no sense, as there were no polish refugees in Germany after WW1. Poland was finally resurrected after WW1 and many poles fled from Germany to Poland, but not vice versa. But there were many german refugees escaping from the new Poland, to Germany (as parts of Germany turned into polish territory). And these refugees were actually described in Geoffrey Moss novel.


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