The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

“People coming, going. Nothing ever happens”: Hotels in Representative German and American Interwar Films

Claudia Kotte
Independent Scholar



As railway travel and tourism expanded massively from 1850 onwards, hotels—a quintessential space between—became a literary and cinematic setting par excellence. While the hotel serves as a foil to the traditional bourgeois home and a stage for a multinational cast of characters who embody new notions of home and community, in the interwar years hotel films in particular emerge as a distinctive cinematic genre, undergoing a profound shift by the end of the 1930s. Hotels in films such as Grand Hotel (1932) and Der Page vom Dalmasse-Hotel (The Page from the Dalmasse Hotel) (1933) epitomize an opulent, cosmopolitan lifestyle. By the end of the decade, they become increasingly entangled with issues of policing, othering, and doom, as can be seen in Hotel Sacher (1939), as well as in Hotel Berlin (1945).

Keywords   hotels in film / interwar period / Vicky Baum / grand hotel / Nazism

If there is one title word that recurs frequently in films made in the first half of the twentieth century, it is “hotel.”1 As railway travel and tourism expanded exponentially from 1850 onwards, and as the bourgeois concept of home became tenuous in the final decades of the nineteenth century, hotels became the literary and cinematic setting par excellence. The space of coincidental encounters and interlocking fates, hotels provided excellent narrative potential and countless possibilities to explore notions of the public and the private, identity and anonymity. In their depiction of social and geographic mobilities and modern communication technology, hotels were indicative both of the internationalism of the early twentieth century and of the general rootlessness and restlessness associated with the interwar period in particular. While hotels in film became part of the zeitgeist, hotels quite literally played an increasing socioeconomic role throughout the Western world.

In what follows, I discuss four hotel films made between 1932 and 1944, two German and two American: Grand Hotel (1932), Der Page vom Dalmasse-Hotel (The Page from the Dalmasse Hotel, 1933), Hotel Sacher (1939), and Hotel Berlin (1945). I argue that while the hotel setting serves as a foil to the traditional bourgeois home and as a stage for a multinational cast of characters who embody new notions of home and community, its representation undergoes a profound shift in the interwar years. While grand hotels in films of the early 1930s epitomize an opulent, cosmopolitan lifestyle emblematic of the upper class’s “conspicuous consumption” (Veblen 49), they become increasingly entangled with issues of policing, othering, danger, and doom as the decade progresses.2 

Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel may indeed be considered a template for the hotel film. Based on the bestselling novel by Vicki Baum, the episodic film tells the stories of six individuals from all walks of life, whose lives crisscross at the eponymous hotel in the interwar years and whose fates change dramatically in the course of two days.3 The all-star movie featuring Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, and Lionel Barrymore was an immensely popular and critical success whose essential look and arrangement were frequently copied.

As indicated by the opening shot, the Berlin-based Grand Hotel is the epitome of the latest technologies. Operators at a switchboard aim to put through the calls of the various protagonists who are desperate to dispatch or receive messages. The Grand Hotel’s head porter is anxiously expecting news of his soon-to-be-born baby. An accountant named Kringelein asks a friend to tear up his will as he has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and wants to spend the last days of his life in luxury. A factory owner named Preysing is eagerly awaiting the closing of a merger with a cotton company in Manchester. The personal maid of a Russian prima ballerina informs the theatre that the dancer won’t be attending rehearsals. And a con-man named Baron von Gaigern is plotting to steal the dancer’s jewels to pay off his debts. Diverse though they are, all of them embody certain types emblematic of the late Weimar Republic: the lowly employee, the greedy industrialist, the capricious artist, and the impoverished aristocrat.4

At the end of the film, Preysing will be arrested for the murder of Baron von Gaigern; Kringelein will have been lucky at cards and lucky in love, taking off for Paris with the stenographer Flämmchen; the Russian ballerina will have fallen in love with the baron but travels on to Vienna. And the head porter will have become the father of a boy. Only Dr. Otternschlag, a supporting actor, remains where he is—at the Grand Hotel, its stoic observer and commentator: “People coming, going. Nothing ever happens.” 

This observation is of course an ironic understatement as the editing of the opening scenes suggesting constant change illustrates. The pace of life in Berlin in the late 1920s is as hectic as it is noisy. The switchboard is indeed a fitting emblem of the hotel, characterized as it is by its interconnectedness, repetitious yet constant change: “A hundred rooms leading to one hall, and no one knows anything about the person next,” as Dr. Otternschlag puts it. Other essential features of the mise-en-scène, to recur in other hotel films, are the reception desk with its nearly omniscient head porter or receptionist, an opulent lobby, which serves as a stage for new arrivals and unexpected encounters, a bar and a dining hall.5 The spaces that social climbers dream of, all of them quintessentially theatrical, inviting dramatic entrances and exits. The resulting narrative is fast-moving, jumping among the various characters, narrative strands, and settings.

Not only modern means of communication, but modern means of transport, too, have become an integral part of life for the cinematic characters. Kringelein, for example, treats himself to a trip in an airplane and to a trip by motorcar driving at 100 miles an hour. Along with the increasing ease and speed of travel, a new worldliness and internationalism have entered the picture. Director Preysing expects to travel to Manchester on business to sign a contract with a clothing company. The Russian prima ballerina has engagements in Munich and Vienna and a villa in Tremezzo, while the baron plans to flee on the night train to Amsterdam. For him, the Grand Hotel has become a surrogate home, even a way of life—the meeting point of the rich and famous, from whom he can steal. All guests indeed embody new notions of home, homelessness, and community. While Dr. Otternschlag has become a permanent resident, the ballerina Grusinskaya is tired of moving from hotel to hotel; she wants to connect to a place and find a home. Fittingly, at the end of the film, the nouveaux riches Flämmchen and Kringelein are off to Paris, where they expect to stay at another Grand Hotel, for “there are Grand Hotels everywhere in the world.” They, too, have become part of the new class of travelers who take up residence at a hotel. James Hay has pointed out that “the cinema-Grand Hotel nexus was part of a geography, economy, and technology for travel and transport as ‘popular’ activity, and for mobilizing popular culture commercially and politically, nationally and internationally” (15). Grand Hotels, in other words, contributed to new international economies and networks at the same time as they functioned as their icon.

Society had not only become more mobile, but also more focused on appearances. The unassuming Kringelein is only treated as a respectable figure once he puts on tailor-made clothes and drinks nothing but champagne and cocktails. In the new “society of the spectacle”—an apt term coined by Guy Debord in 1967 to denote an image-saturated consumer culture that alters human interactions—poseurs enjoy special prestige, and deception is a matter of course. Not surprisingly, the working-class stenographer Flämmchen aspires to be a film star and deliberately tries to catch the eye of potential male admirers. For others, bluffing and lying are the new social imperative. Preysing saves his company by cooking the books and pretending his new deal with Manchester was successful when it has effectively fallen through. Madame Grusinskaya lives a life based on illusion and insecurity. She must be assured that her performance is sold out in order even to get out of bed. When her new lover, the baron, is killed, her assistant does all she can in order to prevent her from learning the truth.The final pretense is that someone must assure her that he is still alive. Duplicity is of course the very raison d’être of the flirtatious baron. By pretending to be an aristocrat, he gains access to the upper crust only to relieve them of their money. At the same time, this society of appearances allows for a new power dynamic, as Kringelein and Flämmchen find temporary luck, yet do not forget their humble origins. Kringelein publicly indicts his former boss Preysing, while Flämmchen hands out large tips to staff when leaving the hotel.

Opulent and sheltered though the hotel may seem, the trauma of the First World War and the impact of the Depression can still be felt. Dr. Otternschlag for example is a former military doctor and disfigured veteran of World War I, who was injured by a grenade and spent two years in recovery. In addition to bearing a scar on the right side of his face, he seems to have suffered a psychological trauma. Similarly, the dancer Grusinskaya laments that all the people she loved in Petersburg are dead. Even the suave baron admits that he was taught to “kill and hide” in the war. 

The woes of the Depression era are just as present. Flaemmchen is struggling to make ends meet and eats only one meal per day. The film therefore clearly resonated with contemporary audiences, who were also financially desperate and worried about their futures. To them, the Grand Hotel offered an escapist fantasy, featuring celebrity faces and a life of leisure and luxury, undercut by poverty and pretense.

Though it lacks the star power of Grand Hotel, the little-known German cross-dressing comedy Der Page vom Dalmasse-Hotel (The Page from the Dalmasse Hotel) also brims with false identities and unexpected turns of fate as the self-assertive protagonist—a flapper dressed up as a page boy—uncovers a female imposter, who pretends to be an American heiress and millionaire. In the Depression-plagued Berlin of circa 1930, Friedel Bornemann is incapable of finding a job. Astute and resourceful, she decides to dress up as a boy and promptly lands herself a job at a hotel. Hardly has she started working when she falls in love with one of the guests, a wealthy middle-aged landowner called Baron von Dahlen. He is in turn wooed by a certain Miss Mabel Wellington, a rich American, who is staying at the hotel with her mother. Waiting for a medical appointment and eager to return to his rural estate in northern Germany, Mr. von Dahlen is responsive to Miss Wellington’s advances and impressed by photos of the lands her family supposedly owns in Florida and Texas. When an undercover policeman, however, shows up at the hotel and Friedel overhears the Wellingtons speak with an Austrian accent, the supposed Americans arouse suspicion. As it turns out, the two women are confidence tricksters who regularly show up at hotels to relieve wealthy guests of their money. Mr. von Dahlen eventually returns to his estate in the company of Friedel, his personal assistant, where his mother discovers the cross-dressing charade. Friedel becomes the proud wife of her former employer, and the next time she arrives at the Dalmasse hotel, she checks in as Mrs. von Dahlen.

As in Grand Hotel, the Dalmasse Hotel is a fitting stage for an illustrious cast of characters, the space of unexpected encounters, and the epitome of modern technology, now infused with a new internationalism. We learn from Friedel’s job interview that the hotel manager gives an interview in English, and Friedel only gets the job because she speaks more foreign languages than all the other (male) applicants. The pace of life has indeed accelerated to such an extent that the supposed Americans pretend they cannot keep up with it. 

Role-playing and deceptive appearances are at the heart of a cross-dressing comedy. Friedel changes her haircut, puts on suits, and borrows a reference letter from her landlady to land a job at the prestigious hotel. She is not the only one involved in masquerades, as the Wellingtons and their crony “Count Tarvagna” travel under an assumed name (their true names are Eastern European), put on a fake American accent and make deliberate mistakes in German. They also pretend to be mother and daughter, while, in fact, are unrelated. After Miss Wellington has targeted Baron von Dahlen and learned of his preferences, she even claims she likes a quiet life. So omnipresent are masquerades and role-playing that the Wellingtons secretly fear that Mr. von Dahlen may also be putting on a show. The hotel setting seems to nurture nothing but fluid identities and deception.

Similar to Flämmchen in Grand Hotel, Friedel is a victim of the social upheavals of the time. She has not been able to pay her rent for two months and is desperate to find work, no matter how. Even more so than Flämmchen, Friedel is an independent, adventurous, and headstrong woman. Throughout the film, she is noted for her quick wit, her attentiveness, and her ambition. She cleverly infiltrates herself as personal assistant to von Dahlen and, when asked about her future plans, she even claims that she wants to become a hotel manager. Yet while Flämmchen deliberately manipulates Preysing and shows off her figure to entice him, Friedel tries to blend with the background and not draw any attention to her outward appearance for fear of being found out. 

What might have been a daring move to explore gender roles and challenge established notions of masculinity turns into a rather conventional story of “true” love, a return to the land and a sedentary lifestyle. The disguised page boy is undressed and then redressed in feminine clothes, just as the foreign imposters are handed over to the institutions of the state. While role-play was common practice in Grand Hotel, The Page carefully distinguishes between the true and the false, the authentic and the artificial. When Miss Wellington ostentatiously puts on lipstick at the dinner table, the down-to-earth Baron von Dahlen asks her why she is doing so; the lipstick will come off anyway. “In my rural profession, I tend to favor the natural,” he explains, dismissing makeup and jewelry as artificial and excessive. For Mr. von Dahlen, the hotel will always remain a necessary evil, not a lifestyle, for he is bound to the constancy of nature. Tellingly, his disability is not a result of the war, but of a hunting accident. 

Unlike the episodic Grand Hotel, which welcomed a varied cast from all walks of life and depicted hotel life as being in a permanent state of flux, The Page from Dalmasse Hotel follows a clear teleological trajectory: from cross-dressing page to devoted wife, from the metropolis to the countryside, from poverty to wealth. Neither social climbers nor industrial magnates, but old money and aristocratic bloodlines triumph. The film, in other words, confirms the notion of a bourgeois home and traditional values. In 1932 this vision of a still static society is hopelessly out of touch with reality because aristocrats have lost not only their financial power, but also their dominant influence in questions of style and fashion. As Bettina Matthias has argued in her study of hotel settings in early twentieth-century German and Austrian literature: 

the hotel is one of the key witnesses to, as well as the product of, major power-shifts in Western society in the late 19th and early 20th century, a shift from an aristocratic to a bourgeois leisure class, from a sedentary to a traveling society. More specifically, hotels mirror the degree to which geographic and social mobility became possible round the turn of the century, and they represent the stages on which a newly empowered social group could flaunt their social skills and wealth. (3)

Even as it uses the hotel as a contemporary setting and features a cross-dressing protagonist, The Page from Dalmasse Hotel is ultimately nostalgic for the good old days when landowners embodied an authentic, natural lifestyle free from the corrupting influences of money, internationalism and urbanity.6 

Tellingly, the film does not feature any professional actors or industrialists. And while the international guests coexisted peacefully in Grand Hotel, the first cracks of that vision are starting to show in The Page when a police inspector secretly infiltrates himself into the Dalmasse Hotel because he suspects a crime and wants to prevent further harm. In Grand Hotel, by contrast, the police are blissfully unaware of the baron’s career as a thief and are only called in after Preysing has murdered him. The urge to monitor and to police is carried even further in Hotel Sacher, which puts both romantic and national loyalties to the test. 

Set on New Year’s Eve 1913 at Vienna’s Hotel Sacher, the film is a snapshot of European high society in the immediate prelude to the First World War. Exuberant though the mood is, it is also highly charged as ethnic tensions in the Austro-Hungarian empire are about to boil over. A disgraced Austrian civil servant called Stefan Schefczuk meets his former lover Nadja Woroneff, a Russian spy. Schefczuk has just been released from prison because he wanted to arrest a group of conspirators who had been warned by Nadja. The embittered civil servant cannot wait to be rehabilitated, yet his Austrian superiors have come across dubious financial transactions linked to him and continue to be skeptical of his integrity. Nadja happens to be in Vienna and is initially afraid of confronting Schefczuk, while he actively seeks her out to learn whether she deliberately betrayed him. Chaperoned by representatives of the Russian Embassy, she tries to win Schefczuk over to the Russian side by offering him full rehabilitation if he promises not to use his position to the detriment of the Slavic people. Schefczuk, however, will not be swayed and is determined to have Nadja arrested. While she unsuccessfully tries to escape to the Russian Embassy, Schefczuk kills himself in order not to have to choose between his love of Nadja and duty to his country.

What was an episodic plot in Grand Hotel and a detective or marriage plot in The Page is now an espionage plot, making full use of the national tensions on display at the renowned Viennese hotel. As the prologue to the film informs us: 

The Hotel Sacher in Vienna was known all over the world before the war. Anyone who had a say in the political or business life of Europe knew that everyone who had any status in Austria used to meet there. History was often made there in the elegant booths, more momentous and more serious than in the consultation rooms of parliament and the offices of the ministries. 

Hotel Sacher stands not so much for a way of life as for a microcosm of European society in general and the Austro-Hungarian elite in particular.

The atmosphere is filled with doom from the very beginning. Two police inspectors enter the picture in the film’s opening scenes; Schefczuk is to be under constant supervision, which is why they need to spend New Year’s Eve at the hotel. The Austrian civil servant of Ruthenian background is indeed emblematic of Austria’s fraught multi-ethnic identity. He cannot deny his Ruthenian origins and is drawn to his former lover, Nadja; yet, he is also a loyal civil servant devoted to Austria and determined to do his duty. When a guest at the New Year’s Eve party exclaims, “They all seem like foreigners here,” the hotel owner Frau Sacher replies that there are many different peoples in today’s Austria and that Austria, like a hotel, will be able to accommodate the various ethnic and national groups. 

Such confidence is increasingly undermined in the course of the film. The clique of Austrians at the hotel, notably Mr. and Mrs. Erlauer, consider their multicultural monarchy rotten at its core and crack jokes about its schizophrenic state of being. Mrs. Erlauer cynically claims that idealism and nihilism are one and the same thing because “a multinational state means that you don’t know whom you can rely on.” To her and her circle, Schefczuk is but one more proof of the treacherousness rampant in the monarchy whose ethnic tensions are only waiting to explode. When the head porter at the Hotel Sacher looks at the calendar for 1914 and wonders: “What’s to be different? Another 365 days,” his remark—unlike Dr. Otternschlag’s dry and apt comments in Grand Hotel—has a false, painfully ironic ring to it.

Whereas foreign guests seemed to exude a certain cosmopolitanism in Grand Hotel, they are clearly characterized as a potential danger in Hotel Sacher. Tellingly, the various Russian, French and Austrian factions stay within their separate boxes at the opera and celebrate New Year’s Eve in separate rooms at the hotel. Their different outlooks are further emphasized by different ways of dressing and singing, and the already dubious Schefczuk adds to his status as outcast by joining the Russian party. When a Russian general pretends that “We Slavs are one big family,” thus incorporating the “Slavic” Ruthenians into the Russian Empire, Schefczuk protests, insisting that the various regions have developed differently because of centuries-old borders. Yet, even he eventually fears that the current system of government is outdated. The Russians in general and Nadja in particular have expressed that position all along, claiming that Austria is out of touch with the new reality, because its various ethnic groups have come of age and demand their freedom. 

While the two small time crooks in The Page already hinted at the danger emanating from Eastern Europeans, the “red menace” has become a full-blown presence in Hotel Sacher, in which a seductive Russian agent has enticed a high-ranking Austrian civil servant and defamed him. Caught between the loyalty to his country and his love of Nadja (which implies a call to treason), Schefcuzk has no option but to commit suicide to save his “honor.” As Raphael Gross has pointed out, the supposedly apolitical Hotel Sacher may not be openly propagandistic, but it propagates a value system that is fully in line with Nazi ideology.7 “My honor is loyalty” was not only the motto of the military wing of the SS, but the notion of honor was linked to racial purity as established by the 1935 Nuremberg Race Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor. Only those of related blood were eligible to be citizens, and relations with Eastern Europeans were construed as “racial defilement.” Hotel Sacher was indeed shot between October and December 1938, i.e., after the Anschluss with Austria in March 1938. The film may therefore be seen as a retrospective justification for the German annexation of Austria and an anticipatory justification of the Second World War as it insists on the irreconcilability of a Nordic and a Slavic mentality and the purity of the “Volksgemeinschaft” (the racially unified society propagated by the Nazi regime). 

Dress and uniform take on special significance in the parade of nations and ethnic groups in Hotel Sacher. They not only make the man as in Grand Hotel and The Page from Dalmasse Hotel, but they also carry symbolic, moral, and political weight. Men flaunt their military uniforms and badges, while the women are characterized by the style of their dress. The dignified Mrs. Sacher wears stately dresses characteristic of the old Habsburg monarchy to emphasize her matron-like status. In typical femme fatale fashion, Nadja wears a veil that partly hides her face and stresses her “orientalism,” as does her kaftan-like coat.8 

Men in uniform are a constant presence in Hotel Berlin, yet the film has nothing of the nationalist fervor that distinctive uniforms give to Hotel Sacher. An avowedly anti-Nazi film, Hotel Berlin features a varied cast coming together in Berlin in 1945 when it is clear that the defeat of the Nazis is only a matter of time. In an atmosphere of doom and desperation, Nazi fanatics and sympathizers, spies and underground activists, scientists and informants struggle to survive in one of the last buildings standing in Berlin. Among them is the underground activist Martin Richter, who has escaped from the Dachau concentration camp and is now being chased by a unit of the Gestapo led by Joachim Helm. Other Nazis at the hotel, notably Baron von Stetten, are arranging for an escape to America, where they hope to secretly rebuild their strength to regain power. Another guest is Nobel laureate Johannes Koenig, Richter’s friend from before the war, who was also a prisoner in Dachau and who the Nazis now try to enlist to provide a cover for their activities in America. General von Dahnwitz, the last of the leaders of a plot against Hitler, mistakenly seeks the help of pro-Nazi von Stetten, but is told that he will have to kill himself if he wants to prevent being executed by the Gestapo. Lisa Dorn, von Dahnwitz’s former lover and a famous actress, initially protects the disguised Martin Richter, hoping that his friends in the underground may help her leave Germany, but she later betrays him when the Gestapo suspects her of wrongdoing. While von Dahnwitz commits suicide, Lisa Dorn is arrested by the underground resistance and shot by Richter. Scheming and ruthless though the hotel “hostess” Tillie Weiler (a Nazi informer) seems to be, she eventually helps a Jewish friend, publicly indicts a Nazi officer, and is saved by the underground. 

In its final scene, Hotel Berlin becomes a “film à thèse” as Professor König reads out a speech by President Roosevelt. While Allied bombers fly over the city and von Stetten tries to escape to America, the declaration of the Allied leaders Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Roosevelt is displayed: “Our purpose is not to destroy the German people, but we are determined to disband all German armed forces,—break up the German General Staff,—eliminate all German industry used for military production…wipe out the Nazi Party and Nazi laws from the life of the German people—Germany must never again disturb the peace of the world.” The final image is one of heavy smoke over a dark and nearly obliterated city.

The perfect foil to Grand Hotel, Hotel Berlin was produced in a rush by Warner Brothers, who wanted to get the picture out before the Russians or Allies entered the German capital. As the film’s opening panning shot reveals, the modernity so proudly displayed in Grand Hotel is no more. Berlin is a city in ruins, its bombed-out houses overhung by clouds of smoke, its soundtrack the clicking of heels, the sound of sirens, and Allied raids.9 The first image we see of the lobby is through the broken panes of a glass door. The space is now decorated with swastika flags, a portrait of Hitler adorns the reception desk. Among the numerous men in uniform walking through the lobby is one man on crutches and another with his arm in a sling. Instead of cosmopolitan guests breezing in, a platoon of Gestapo abruptly enters the hotel chasing a man with slightly darker skin whom they beat up before a siren sends everybody to the air raid shelter. The mood is one of fear, doom, and defeat. While the corpse of Baron von Gaigern was secretly disposed of through the back exit in Grand Hotel, men are regularly beaten up in Hotel Berlin, and like Schefczuk in Hotel Sacher, von Dahnwitz has to commit suicide to save his honor.

Instead of indulging in a life of leisure and luxury, guests have accepted frequent blackouts, sporadic hot water, regular detonations in the immediate vicinity, a non-functioning elevator, and the constant noise of sirens. “This place is falling apart,” as Lisa Dorn says. The reception desk is no longer the central information hub of well-meaning, avuncular head porters, but a potential exit point stormed by guests who are desperate to leave the city. There are no trains, planes or buses, and even the telephone lines are no longer working. Far from being a symbol of social mobility, the hotel is a trap, surrounded by Gestapo, who patrol all entrances. It is no longer possible either to pass as someone else or to escape elsewhere. What was a sanctuary for people like Kringelein, the baron and the veteran doctor in Grand Hotel has become a way station to death in Hotel Berlin.

In this atmosphere of impending doom, everyone’s identity and loyalty are suspect, and masquerade is an essential instrument of survival. Richter is given a waiter’s uniform and assigned to room service to escape inspection. In an attempt to protect him, Lisa Dorn advises him to put on a Nazi officer’s uniform and teaches him to click his heels and behave like an SS officer. When Major Kauders barges in on their session, Lisa has the presence of mind to invent a new persona for Richter and pretends that he is Major Schreiber so that Kauders can provide a cover for his supposed colleague. Under Lisa’s instructions, Richter subsequently plays a drunkard and successfully escapes under the eyes of the SS men. 

As in Grand Hotel, a female performer plays a central role, but ultimately has to pay for her duplicity. When von Stetten announces that the Gestapo might question Lisa Dorn and prevent her from leaving Germany, she is ready to denounce Richter’s whereabouts and lead the Nazis to the underground scene. Tillie, too, constantly shifts her allegiances. Having formerly been in love with a Jewish store owner, she eventually becomes a Nazi informant. Solidarity seems to exist only in the underground movement. 

Whereas the revolving door as a symbol of mobility provided access to the Grand Hotel, access to the Hotel Berlin is barred by the Gestapo, who even comb through the private rooms. While circular forms—the revolving door, the roulette wheel, and the spiraling floors of the hotel— characterized the film from 1932, Hotel Berlin is dominated by images of bars, be it the bars of the lobby door or the bars of a mice cage which Professor Koenig uses to conduct his experiments.


The showcasing of a modern lifestyle is first of all a mainstay of the hotel film as audiences in the midst of the Depression were in need of escapism to more prosperous, exotic worlds. Hence, all the hotel films rely on a mise-en-scène featuring a theatrical lobby, grand staircases, and chandeliers as the classic cinematic tropes. A well-off class of old aristocrats and nouveaux riches industrialists flaunts its wealth and indulges in a lifestyle characterized by leisure, tourism, mobility, and ready acquisition of luxury goods, thus showcasing its exemption from the world of labor. The films only touch upon class issues under a comedic and non-threatening framework, but never fully explore them. From being a carefree and apolitical sanctuary, however, hotels increasingly came under the influence of sociopolitical upheavals. Theatricality and the power of appearance seem to be the common denominator of all four films. Yet while masquerades play out humorously in the first two films, they take on a more serious and even tragic tone in the later films. What appears to be an element of comic relief in Grand Hotel and The Page from Dalmasse Hotel becomes a matter of life and death in Hotel Sacher and Hotel Berlin. Foreigners are an essential feature of the hotel film, indicating an internationalism and urbanity that appealed to audiences and served as a projection screen for their dreams and desires. The cosmopolitan outlook of the early films, however, increasingly gave way to a nationalist, if not chauvinist vision in which foreigners were seen as a menace. The encounter with foreignness thus only served to affirm national identity. While guests floated in and out of Grand Hotel, the certification of their identity increasingly required policing, and the presence of the police grew significantly over the course of the 1930s.

All four films are also indicative of the wider transatlantic dialogue occurring between Weimar cinema and Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s. Once the wartime restrictions in Germany were lifted in 1921, foreign films flooded the market and Hollywood soon dominated the national screens. While Germany became the leader in European films, the influence from Hollywood proved overwhelming, informing the style and narrative of German films and challenging the dualism between high and low culture. Yet the transatlantic conversation worked both ways. As Hollywood marveled at the technical sophistication of Weimar cinema, especially its lighting, studio sets, and camerawork, it solicited German-speaking artists to appear both in front of and behind the camera. Paul Leni, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, and G.W. Pabst were lured by lavish budgets and superior studio equipment. Emil Jannings, Pola Negri, and Marlene Dietrich were tempted by generous payments, as were producers, technicians, set designers and screenwriters such as Vicki Baum. So, too, was Swedish-born Greta Garbo, who played the Russian dancer in Grand Hotel. As social and political upheavals increased in the 1930s and 1940s, the influx of European talent to Hollywood grew. German-born Dolly Haas, the cross-dressing page boy at the Dalmasse Hotel, left Germany in 1936 and worked in the U.S., starting in 1938, starring in The Bank Dick (1942) and Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), among others. Walter Szurovy, the newlywed husband from provincial Germany in Hotel Sacher, fled Austria at the beginning of the Second World War to pursue a career in Hollywood. Helmut Dantine, the leader of the German underground in Hotel Berlin, had indeed been involved in anti-Nazi activities in his native Austria in the late 1930s before emigrating to the United States, where his acting career started. Peter Lorre, the scientist in Hotel Berlin and the infamous child murderer in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), left Germany in 1933 because of his Jewish background and moved to the United States in 1935, where he is best remembered by American audiences for The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). 

While the tightening of censorship and the widening of employment bans after 1933 along with the wholesale subordination of the film industry to the Ministry of Propaganda in 1936 promoted the tremendous influx of German talent to Hollywood, the war itself seems to have sealed the fate of the hotel film. With the demise of the grand hotel, the genre also came to an end. While hotels have featured prominently in films since then, they never coalesced to form a distinct group of films as they did between 1914 and 1945. And never again did they provide such a symbolic space of mutual encounters between Europe and the U.S., Weimar and Hollywood. 



1 A quick search on yields 40 films made in Germany between 1919 and 1945 featuring the word “hotel” in their titles. In addition, films such as F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924), Paul Czinner’s Fräulein Else (1928–29) or Robert Siodmak’s Abschied (So sind die Menschen) (Farewell, 1930) are set in hotels even though their titles do not explicitly include the word “hotel.” The unprecedented interest provoked by hotels seems to have been a Europe-wide phenomenon. For the popularity of hotel settings in literature, see Bettina Matthias.

2 The American sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen coined the terms “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous leisure” in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899; see chapters III and IV). Conspicuous consumption denotes the act of buying goods of a higher quality or in greater quantity than is necessary. Conspicuous leisure, such as the knowledge of dead languages, games and sports, is the application of extended time to the pursuit of pleasure. Both are a mark of reputability and provide tangible evidence of status.

3 Baum’s publisher launched the serialized version of Menschen im Hotel with huge advertisements in various German newspapers in April 1929; to capitalize on its success, Baum wrote a stage version which premiered in Berlin in 1930 and went on to tour many countries. From 1930–31, translations of the book appeared in Norwegian, Dutch, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese, and English. MGM acted as co-producers of the play on Broadway, which became a major hit, and invited Vicki Baum to Hollywood to write the screenplay. For further details, see Lynda King (380). 

4 Immortalized in the drawings and paintings of Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix, George Grosz, and the photographs of August Sander, these social types represented a cross-section of a society caught between two world wars. While still processing the sense of defeat left over from World War I, they were harboring a bitterness and resentment that would soon contribute to the outbreak of World War II. The enduring images of late Weimar Germany, they also reflected a desire for taxonomy and order in times of pervasive social and economic change.

5 In his famous essay titled “The Hotel Lobby,” Siegfried Kracauer interprets the lobby in detective novels as an “inverted image of the House of God”—an impersonal place of unrelatedness and meaninglessness, an anonymous, isolated space in which names and individual features are no longer important (175). In my discussion, the theatrical and liminal qualities of the lobby seem more pertinent.

6 In his extensive study of German films made between 1930 and 1933, Helmut Korte has examined to what extent their plots, atmospheres, and myths served to prepare for the fascist regime. According to Korte, seemingly apolitical entertainment films carried a political message even before the Nazis took over power in 1933. As early as 1930, the Nazis assumed leading positions in the major film associations and institutions, thus shaping funding and censorship practices. Starting in 1931, therefore, the number of films critical of society sharply decreases, while films with a nationalist slant increase both in number and in terms of their box office success. This conspicuous turn to the right may also be observed in The Page from the Dalmasse Hotel.

7 Gross consistently describes Nadja and Schefczuk as Russians, while the film explicitly identifies them as Ruthenians.

8 Evelyn Hampcke has interpreted female dresses in the film as geopolitical allegories. While I agree with her reading of Mrs. Sacher’s dress, I am not convinced that the sable fur trimming on Nadja’s dress is an indicator of her Russian origins. Moreover, the plain dress of the young German, Mrs. Stoppeling, on her honeymoon is hardly meant to signal the future of the German Reich, as she and her husband are repeatedly characterized as naïve, foolish provincials who do not know to behave and who are oblivious to the blatant ethnic-national tensions.

9 Among the many anachronisms of the film are fuming smoke stacks; by early 1945, German industry was in ruins and smoke stacks would no longer have existed. Another blatant inaccuracy is the appearance of Mrs. Sarah Baruch, a Jew entering the hotel at the end of the film in search of medicine for her husband, sitting side by side with Gestapo officers in an air raid shelter.


Works Cited

Arns, Alfons Maria. “Luxus, Horror, Illusionen. Das Universum des Hotels im Film,” in Schiemann and Wottrich, pp. 11–24.

Clarke, David B., et al., editors. Moving Pictures/Stopping Places: Hotels and Motels on Film. Lexington Books, 2009. 

Gross, Raphael. Anständig geblieben. Nationalsozialistische Moral. Fischer, 2010.

Hampicke, Evelyn. “Dresscode mit Zeitbezug. Roben und Garderoben im Hotelfilm der NS-Zeit,” in Schiemann and Wottrich, pp. 116–26.

Hay, James. “Revisiting the Grand Hotel (and Its Place in the Cultural Economy of Fascist Italy),” in Clarke et al., pp. 13-47. 

King, Lynda J. “The Image of Fame: Vicki Baum in Weimar Germany.” The German Quarterly, 1 July 1985, vol. 58, no. 3, pp. 375–93. DOI: 10.2307/406569

Korte, Helmut. Der Spielfilm und das Ende der Weimarer Republik. Ein rezeptionshistorischer Versuch. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998.

Kracauer, Siegfried. “The Hotel Lobby” in The Mass Ornament. Weimar Essays. Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Thomas A. Levine. Harvard UP, 1995. 

Matthias, Bettina. The Hotel as Setting in Early Twentieth-Century German and Austrian Literature: Checking in to Tell a Story. Camden House, 2006.

Schiemann, Swenja and Erika Wottrich, editors. Film-Bühne Hotel. Begegnungen in begrenzten Räumen. Edition text + kritik, 2016.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. Oxford UP, 2007.


Abschied (So sind die Menschen) (Farewell). Directed by Robert Siodmak, performances by Brigitte Horney, Aribert Mog, and Emilie Unda, UFA, 1930.

Arsenic and Old Lace. Directed by Frank Capra, performances by Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, and Peter Lorre, Warner Bros., 1944. 

Casablanca. Directed by Michael Curtiz, performances by Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Peter Lorre, Warner Bros., 1942.

Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh). Directed by F.W. Murnau, performances by Emil Jannings and Maly Delschaft, UFA, 1924.

Der Page vom Dalmasse-Hotel (The Page from the Dalmasse Hotel). Directed by Victor Janson, performances by Dolly Haas and Harry Liedtke, Schulz & Wuellner, 1933.

Fräulein Else (Miss Else) Directed by Paul Czinner, performances by Albert Bassermann and Elisabeth Bergner, Bavaria Film, 1929.

Grand Hotel. Directed by Edmund Goulding, performances by John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Lewis Stone, MGM, 1932.

Hotel Berlin. Directed by Peter Godfrey, performances by Helmut Dantine, Faye Emerson, Andrea King, and Peter Lorre, Warner Bros, 1945.

Hotel Sacher. Directed by Erich Engel, performances by Willy Birgel, Sybille Schmitz, and Wolf Albach-Retty, Mondial-International Filmindustrie, 1939.

I Confess. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, performances by Anne Baxter, Montgomery Clift, and Dolly Haas, Warner Bros., 1953.

M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M). Directed by Fritz Lang, performances by Peter Lorre, Gustaf Gründgens, and Ellen Widmann, Nero-Film, 1931. 

The Bank Dick. Directed by Edward F. Cline, performances by W.C. Fields, Cora Witherspoon, and Dolly Haas, Universal, 1940.

The Maltese Falcon. Directed by John Huston, performances by Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, Warner Bros., 1941.


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