A new kind of female protagonist emerged in the sixties who was free-spirited, independent, hedonistic and willing to exploit her beauty and charm for social advancement without being categorized as a typical prostitute. Audrey Hepburn certainly set the standard as the unconventional Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) but other famous examples include Julie Christie’s self-absorbed model in Darling (1965) and Genevieve Waite’s wide-eyed waif in Joanna (1968). Lesser known but a distinctly German variation on this prototype is 1966’s Playgirl (also known as That Woman in the U.S.) featuring Eva Renzi in her feature film debut.
Directed by Will Tremper, Playgirl is the story of Alexandra Borowski, a globe-trotting model who simultaneously juggles two or more affairs, unable to decide what it is she really wants. On the surface, the film is as superficial, animated and seductive as Alexandra but look closer and you might see a subtle critique of a younger generation (as represented by Renzi) who grew up in post-WWII Germany in the rubble of Berlin and other bombed-out cities.
The Berlin of Tremper’s film, however, is not the war-torn ruin glimpsed in such films as Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948) and Robert Aldrich’s Ten Seconds to Hell (1959). Instead, it’s a flourishing tourist attraction with a new skyline, a jet-set nightlife and boulevards teeming with Fiats, Porsches and Mercedes-Benzs. In some ways, Playgirl is a valentine to Berlin, a picture postcard time capsule of how the city looked in 1966 but the haunted past is lurking around every corner.
The ghosts are even conjured up occasionally as when Alexandra visits the Olympia Stadium for a swim and Bert Lahner (Harald Leipnitz), one of her current infatuations, casually mentions that it was the site of the 1936 Olympic trials where Jesse Owens won four gold medals, defeating his German competitors under Hitler’s baleful gaze. Alexandra has little awareness of that but her curiosity about the city’s past and the war is clearly an attempt to re-connect with where she was born (her family moved when she was small and she’s been on-the-go every since).
When Playgirl opens, Alexandra is shown sleeping in the passenger seat of a car while her current lover, a Hungarian businessman, speeds through the countryside toward Berlin. Once in the city, she quickly abandons the Hungarian when she sees the second rate hotel he has arranged for her and charms his assistant (Hans-Joachim Ketzlin), whom she nicknames 007, into taking her to another address. The 007 reference is never really explained since Ketzlin looks more like a Bond villain in the style of Robert Shaw’s Soviet assassin in From Russia With Love. One character even refers to him as looking like German actor Peter Van Eyck, which is closer on the mark, but his function in Playgirl is to provide a contrast to the type of men Alexandra pursues. Ketzlin recognizes “class” when she sees it and is only too happy to assist the model, who is clearly unobtainable to someone of his low rank in the social/economic hierarchy.
Alexandra quickly makes her way to the offices of real estate developer Joachim Steigenwald (Paul Hubschmid). Joachim previously enjoyed a fling with Alexandra in Rome but is now annoyed by her unannounced appearance and sends his assistant Bert (Leipnitz) to entertain her and hopefully send her on her way. But Alexandra is not that easily put off and soon seduces Bert away from his fiancée (Elga Stass) while reigniting a tempestuous affair with Joachim.
That is the basic storyline of Playgirl but Tremper doesn’t really treat it as melodrama or romantic comedy; he approaches it as if he is making a fictitious documentary on this new breed of German who lives for the present and her own pleasure. Clearly Tremper was influenced by the French New Wave in regards to the film’s free-wheeling narrative which is shot on location in the streets and sidewalks of Berlin with no need for studio sets or artificial interiors. The film’s pop-jazz score by the great Peter Thomas (who composed the score for numerous German krimi thrillers like Secret of the Red Orchid) adds a pulsating, urban feel to the ambiance and helps propel Alexandra from one telling vignette to the next.
One of the more visually enticing sequences involve Alexandra’s impromptu modeling for photographer Timo (Umberto Orsini), who hires her on the spot when a model becomes unavailable for a shoot. Their work together, which also includes an unavoidable mutual attraction, allows Renzi to put on quite a fashion show in various dresses, wigs and poses against such iconic backgrounds as the Berlin Wall. This segment of the film is highly reminiscent of the scenes in John Schlesinger’s Darling where Julie Christie’s gifts as a malleable photographic object are perfectly realized by gay photographer Roland Curram.
How you respond to Alexandra is going to differ from viewer to viewer. Tremper presents his heroine without any overt editorializing, allowing her behavior to speak for itself. Is she a manipulative flirt with an agenda or emotionally unstable? Or is she genuinely naïve and high-spirited with a knack for attracting rich, powerful older men?
She might be a composite of all those traits coupled with a directness and unpredictability that both attracts and confuses her male admirers. When she’s with Joachim, she asks him to show her monuments or statues dedicated to “this Hitler” she has heard so much about. He can’t tell if she’s being a provocateur or a clueless airhead but he is obviously resistant to discussing the past with her.
Alexandra is equally a challenge for Bert, baiting him with questions about racial prejudice. Although he confesses that he doesn’t like black people (using the odious N word), Alexandra’s attempts to appear more enlightened are completely discounted by her same derogatory term for the race as if it were the only word to describe them. Was there not a less insulting, more acceptable title at the time for black Germans like Afrodeutsche (Afro-German)? At any rate, Alexandra’s two romantic rivals agree she is a handful but for Bert she’s enthralling and for Joachim she’s a “tender schizophrenic.”
In scenes such as the above, Playgirl suggests that it is not just a contemporary portrait of Berlin’s current “It Girl” but a depiction of the city and its social mores during the “economic miracle” of the late ‘50s-early 60s. Even though Tremper presents it as a stylish, fast-moving entertainment, the post-WWII years of Germany would soon become fertile thematic ground for more penetrating, art house fare from a new wave of native filmmakers like Alexander Kluge (Yesterday Girl), Werner Rainer Fassbinder (The Marriage of Maria Braun), Helma Sanders-Brahms (Germany Pale Mother), Wim Wenders (Alice in the Cities) and others.
As the star of Playgirl, German born Eva Renzi makes an impressive film debut that showcases her chameleon-like beauty and natural screen presence. It should have led to bigger and better roles but after a brief flurry of films, including Funeral in Berlin (1966) opposite Michael Caine and The Pink Jungle (1968) with James Garner, she never attained international stardom and concentrated mainly on German films and television. American viewers probably known her best for her disturbing performance in Dario Argento’s signature giallo, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).
I was not able to find much information on Renzi (she died at age 60 in 2004) other than some minor biographical data that said she was unhappy with her film industry experiences and was considered difficult by some directors. One interesting bit of trivia is the fact that she married her screen co-star from Playgirl – Paul Hubschmid – the year after they made that film. They divorced in 1980.
The rest of the cast of Playgirl is a mix of well-known German actors with high profile Berlin celebrities in cameo or tiny bit parts like hotelier Heinze Zellermayer, fashion designer Heinz Oestergaard, Swiss musician Paul Kuhn and artist Reinhold Timm. IMDB even lists Hollywood director Nicholas Ray among the cast members although his scenes were later deleted.
Playgirl didn’t make much of an impact with German film critics or moviegoers when it first appeared and Tremper would only direct one more film, 1970’s The Naughty Cheerleader (Mir hat e simmer Spab gemacht), a soft core sex comedy starring Barbi Benton (Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend at the time) and guest appearances by Hefner, Broderick Crawford, Lionel Stander, Klaus Kinski and others.
It wasn’t a very glorious end to a writing/directing career that began in the mid-fifties and found success almost immediately with his screenplay for Die Halbstarken (1956), a hard-hitting social drama about juvenile delinquency, which was like Germany’s answer to Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The film was a smash hit (it was released in the U.S. in an English dubbed version entitled Teenage Wolfpack) and helped make Horst Buchholz a star.
Tremper’s directorial debut Flight from Berlin (Flucht nach Berlin, 1961) was a highly successful and topical Cold War thriller inspired by an article in Stern magazine. The film won awards for Christian Doermer’s performance and the film score by Peter Thomas. His follow-up film, The Endless Night (Die endlose Nacht, 1963), is generally considered his finest film and won numerous awards including Best Film from the German Film Critics Association. The entire movie unfolds at the Berlin-Tempelhof airport where passengers are stranded after a thick fog has caused the cancellation of all flights. Made the same year as another airport terminal drama, The V.I.P.s, which featured an all-star cast headed by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, The Endless Night is not a lavish, Metrocolor soap opera like the latter film but a much more somber and complex drama with multiple characters and highlighted by the luminous black and white cinematography of Hans Jura (The Lickerish Quartet).
Unfortunately, Tremper’s subsequent work was overlooked and today he is almost forgotten while his contemporaries like Rolf Thiele (Rosemary, Tonio Kroger), Berhard Wicki (The Bridge), Kurt Hoffman (Confessions of Felix Krull) and Robert Siodmak (The Rats, The Devil Strikes at Night) are usually singled out as the most important German directors during the post-war years of the fifties.
Playgirl is currently unavailable on any format in the U.S. but the good news is that UCM.ONE, a Berlin-based distributor, has restored the film and it is available for theatrical distribution in Europe. That means there is a chance that it might end up being programmed by some film archive in the U.S. like the Film Society of Lincoln Center. If this were to happen, it might help revive interest in the films of Will Tremper, who certainly deserves to be better known, if only for Flight from Berlin, The Endless Night and Playgirl.
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