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Film / Pillars of Society

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Pillars of Society (Stützen der Gesellschaft) is a 1935 film from Germany directed by Douglas Sirk, under his original name of Detlef Sierck.

It is an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen play The Pillars of Society. Karsten Bernick is a shipbuilder in Norway, a "pillar of society" in his community. He basically owns his town, a fishing village, and he's pretty highhanded about it. When a newspaper reporter writes an unflattering piece, Bernick has him fired. Worse, his expansion of the docks at his shipyard threatens to ruin the livelihoods of the fishhermen who are a large part of the village.

Bernick's little kingdom is threatened by the arrival in town of his Black Sheep brother-in-law Johann Tonnessen, who has returned home after twenty years as a rancher in America. Johann is shunned by most of the people of the village, for a couple of reasons. First, he is rumored to be the father of Dina Dorf, a lovely young lady of uncertain parentage who lives with the Bernicks. Second, he is rumored to have stolen funds from Bernick's shipping business before absconding to the States two decades ago. Karsten Bernick is the only one in town who knows the truth: he, Karsten, is Dina's father, and he, Karsten, allowed the rumor about Johann embezzling to spread in order to cover up his own business failures.


  • Abhorrent Admirer: Krapp wants to marry Dina, but Dina abhors him, what with Krapp being a slimy blackmailer. She runs off with Johann and the circus when she finds out that Berwick has promised her to Knapp.
  • As You Know: Betty's carping about Dina (Betty seems to hate her) is answered by Karsten saying "She's still your niece! The daughter of your brother Johann!"
  • Blackmail: Krapp, who wants to marry Dina, confronts Berwick with the truth that there's nothing in company records from 20 years ago indicating that Johann stole anything. Berwick angrily accuses him of blackmail, then caves and agrees to match him up with Dina.
  • Conversation Cut: Many. Arne, the man at the shipyard, responds to an unkind comment about Johann by saying "Tonnessen wasn't a bad guy!" Cut to Betty Bernick in her own home saying "He was my brother! A thief that fled to America!" A conversation between two businessmen about how Bernick has restored a ship cuts to sailors in a bar talking about the same thing. Bernick is told that Dina has gone to see Johann at the circus and says "Dina?"; cut to Dina at the circus saying "Ja!" as she asks about Johann.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Bernick is perfectly OK with sending out the Gazelle prematurely, before the resurfacing of the hull is complete, because he knows that if the boat sinks he can collect on the insurance.
  • Death by Adaptation: Ibsen's play has Berwick repenting and being forgiven by the townspeople. In this movie, he dies (of nothing in particular) after Johann rescues Olaf from the sinking Gazelle.
  • Freudian Slip: A pretty obvious foreshadowing of The Reveal when Bernick says "I haven't raised my daughter" (to boss her around) and then says "uh, I haven't raised Dina as my daughter."
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Dina's mother died in childbirth and no one knows who the father was. Berwick has allowed the town to believe it was Johann Tonnessen, while in fact it was Berwick himself.
  • Match Cut:
    • From the circus clown lighting his cigar in a gas lamp at the bar, to a servant using a wick to light the chandelier in Berwick's mansion.
    • From the circus clown drunkenly waltzing with another patron at the bar, to a couple dancing at the party at Berwick's.
  • The Plot Reaper: Berwick dies after Olaf is rescued. The film doesn't explain why. It could be a stress-induced heart attack, but he's talking right up until the moment he croaks. The only reason that he dies seems to be that the story needs him to be punished, and for Johann to take over the shipbuilding business.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Berwick confessing, and naming Johann as his heir to the shipbuilding business, is immediately followed by Berwick's death.
  • Say My Name: Berwick finds out that his young son Olaf has stowed away on the Gazelle, the ship that Berwick knows isn't seaworthy yet, but sent out to sea anyway in the hopes of killing Johann. He runs down to the docks in terror, only to be left repeatedly screaming "OLAF! OLAF!" into the surf, the ship having already departed.
  • Stealing from the Till: Discussed and ultimately averted. Legend in the town has it that Johann absconded to America with a lot of money from the family shipbuilding business. The truth is that Berwick suffered some business reverses and lost a lot of money back then, and let people think that Johann stole it in order to protect his own reputation.
  • Title Drop: Johann finally confronts Berwick about Berwick's lies, saying "And you call yourself a pillar of society!"
  • Translated Cover Version: The Translation Convention extends to having the American cowboys sing "Swanee River" in German.
  • Translation Convention: Yep, that's a bunch of American cowboys speaking German.