Black Gravel (Schwarzer Kies, 1961)
Directed by Helmut Käutner
Produced by Walter Ulbrich
Screenplay by Helmut Käutner, Walter Ulbrich
Cinematography by Heinz Pehlke
Edited by Klaus Dudenhöfer
Music by Bernhard Eichhorn
(1:53) Noir City International, AFI Silver, streaming
The unrelenting Black Gravel (1961) combines several elements of film noir and the Cold War, converging in a picture that’s both satisfying and devastating. Noir fans may wonder where this film has been all their lives. Wonder no more; it’s here, playing now at the Noir City International virtual festival and on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. If you’re on the fence about Noir City International and could only watch a handful of films, then you absolutely must watch El Vampiro Negro (1953) and Black Gravel.
The small village of Sohnen, in the Palatinate region of southwest Germany, consists of just a few hundred locals, but Sohnen is also home to a new American Air Force base housing 6,000 men. Although the locals despise the Americans, they recognize that they’re good for the economy. Thanks to the base, the small village can now support eleven bars and clubs, as well as provide greater opportunities for business, especially business of the black market variety.
One such black market opportunist is Robert Neidhardt (Helmut Wildt), a trucker who supplies the base with much-needed gravel, which is, of course stolen black market gravel. Robert is jaded, perhaps from the war, perhaps for other reasons, so he has little concern for his conscience, only for making a profit, usually illegally. “I’ve been a soldier, a prisoner, a survivor,” he tells one character. “I only started living recently.”
Robert’s callous lack of sensitivity displays itself in the film’s opening scene where he witnesses the brutal killing of a dog. (If you’re sensitive to animals being harmed, you may want to skip the first few minutes of the film, yet the scene is essential to the story.) A few moments later, we wonder if perhaps Robert is capable of displaying at least some humanity when he stops to help a man having car trouble. The man is an American officer named John Gaines (Hans Cossy), traveling with his German wife Inge (Ingmar Zeisberg). Robert offers to give Inge a ride home while Gaines waits for a tow. On the way, Robert learns that the dog that was killed belonged to Inge, but that means nothing to him. What matters is the fact that Robert can’t believe the woman he just picked up is his former lover.
Robert’s world, like Inge’s, has changed since the defeat of Germany. Inge is enjoying being married to an American while Robert is living the life of a rogue, sleeping with a woman named Elli (Anita Höfer), and hanging out at bars all night. He ridicules his friend Bill (Peter Nestler), who wants to marry and settle down with a local girl named Anni (Edeltraud Elsner), but saves his biggest ridicule for Inge, not so much because she has betrayed him by leaving years ago, but because she’s settled for a conventional (and boring) lifestyle. Yet when Robert confesses that he still loves her, Inge responds, “You always said there is no love. Love is just a fairy tale they tell us to keep us stupid. You said that.”
Although she still resists him, Inge spends more and more time with Robert, leading to their presence at an accident which claims the lives of two people. Soon Robert is not only trying to dodge the official investigation into these deaths, but is also attempting to divert suspicion away from Inge.
In his introduction to the film, Eddie Muller rightly compares the film’s lead Helmut Wildt to Richard Conte, especially Conte’s character Nick Garcos in Thieves’ Highway (1949). Yet while Nick is trying to both make a living and seek revenge for his father’s disability at the hands of an unscrupulous produce dealer (Lee J. Cobb as Mike Figlia), Robert is attempting to make a good life for himself at any cost. Any conscience he once had was seared long ago, yet he still feels something for Inge, something he can’t find with Elli. Wildt is tremendous in the role.
Black Gravel has several moving parts with characters who weave in and out of the story, all of which are integral parts to the film’s structure, but the movie also has bigger ideas in mind. The soaring of American planes is a constant visual and aural part of the film, reminding the defeated Germans that the Americans are always watching. (The further implication is that the planes are so far away, they can’t really see what’s really going on.) This also leads to a related concept Robert articulates to one of the members of the investigation, saying, “Justice is only for those in power.”
The film expertly encapsulates the question of how long a country or a person must suffer for the sins of the past. Inge is certainly ready to leave Germany (and, consequently, Robert) behind forever, but Robert has other ideas.
Other postwar changes seem to move more quickly. The area’s most popular bars is run by a Jew, which creates a scene of great tension with the owner and a drunken old-timer. This is no doubt one of the scenes which led some audiences of the time to cite the film as an example of anti-Semitism, which caused some scenes to be cut. The Noir City International version is uncut, and the Kino Lorber Blu-ray includes both cut and uncut versions.)
Make no mistake, Black Gravel is about as bleak as it gets. You’ll find no Hollywood Production Code-approved ending here, but what you will find is a well-produced film with complex, believable characters you’ll remember long after the film has ended.