Why does it often seem like the accumulation of great wealth and power by individuals does not necessarily come with an equal respect for ethics and morality? For Marion (Nadja Tiller), the heroine of Rolf Thiele’s Moral 63, the path to unbridled success is merely an escalating series of business transactions with rich and influential men who reward her for being beautiful, accommodating and discreet. Who cares about honor or virtue in a society where those attributes have no monetary value?
As you have probably guessed, Marion is little more than an expensive, high-class call girl but almost all of her friends and clients are from the upper echelons of West German society and the government. When we are first introduced to her she is dressed like a drum majorette and leading a parade before being whisked off to the authorities, jailed and charged with public misconduct and prostitution. Enter Axel (Mario Adorf), an opportunistic photographer/reporter, who sees Marion as a potential goldmine if he can convince her to give him an exclusive interview on her rise to fame.
Most of Moral 63, which was released in 1963, is told in flashback as Marion shares key moments in her life that made her the scandalous woman she is today. Unlike many women of her profession, Marion came from a well-to-do family and enjoyed a privileged lifestyle but Axel wants her to spice up her autobiography: “Your bourgeois upbringing won’t interest anyone. Bring in the social morass.” He encourages her to embellish or alter details about her life that would titillate the readers of tabloids so the flashbacks become a cheat, a mixture of the truth and wish fulfillment and that is part of Moral 63’s offbeat appeal.
Director Rolf Thiele is little known outside Germany today but in 1958 he made a big splash with the expose drama Rosemary, based on the life and murder of Rosemarie Nitribitt, a top tier prostitute whose clients included the West German industrial elite. That film also proved to be a breakthrough role for Austrian actress Nadja Tiller who would work with Thiele on numerous films including this one, the psychological drama Labyrinth (1959), and the critically acclaimed adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kroger (1964).
While Rosemary is a bleak and hard-edged critique of West Germany in the late fifties, Moral 63 is a much more gleefully cynical and flippant satire on the same topic of corruption and amorality in high places. It may lack the laugh out loud hilarity of Billy Wilder’s Cold War satire, One, Two, Three (1961), also set in West Berlin, but it is played lightly and provides a fascinating window into West German pop culture and politics at the time.
When Thiele’s breakthrough film Rosemary was released, West Germany was still ascending as an economic superpower thanks to a currency reform in 1948 that put an end to post-war rationing directives, allocation edicts and price and wage controls. By 1962, however, Germany’s economic miracle (Wirtschaftswunder) was beginning to stall and it would soon result in a recession that lasted until 1967. (Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s famous BRD Trilogy – The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss and Lola – takes place during this formative period.).
Moral 63 not only revels in the behind-the-scenes excesses of the rich and powerful but even directly references some of the more famous political scandals of the era like the Spiegel case and the Fibag affair which aroused public outrage at the actions of specific government officials like Franz Josef Strauss, the Federal Minister of Defense.
Marion becomes a willing pawn in the dirty tricks and games that drive the narrative of Moral 63 and Tiller is both beguiling and insouciant. She accepts her defeats as easily as her triumphs and only in her final scene do you detect a slight sense of loss or regret. Or is that merely a reaction to being splashed with soot-colored rainwater by a passing motorist?
The most intriguing part of her climb to fame is her relationship with wealthy publisher Dr. Kampfer (Charles Regnier), who becomes an influential mentor, schooling her in the ways of the world with philosophical tidbits like “Be as clever as the snakes and as innocent as the doves” or “Beware of people for they will hand you over to the courts.” He first installs her in his gaudy penthouse, complete with a fancy indoor pool, white marble statues, erotic wall art and a ceiling mirror over his circular bed. Then Dr. Kampfer sets Marion up in a satellite office of his publishing firm in Bonn, Germany. Eventually he finances her move to a lavish country estate which she transforms into an exclusive brothel. Meanwhile, her next door neighbor, an ex-army general (Rudolf Forster), monitors her every move like an obsessed voyeur.
The other crucial relationship in Moral 63 involves industrial tycoon Eduard Meyer-Cleve (Fritz Tillmann), who hires Marion to seduce his idealistic son Hans (Peter Parten) and convince him to become a capitalist and accept his fate as his father’s business successor. Will the mouse take the bait?
What gives the movie a solid jolt of energy and immediacy is Thiele’s almost breathless pacing and the dazzling black and white cinematography of Wolf Wirth, who appears to have adopted several visual techniques used previously by French New Wave directors. There are street scenes in real locations and shaky hand-held camera movements that have a documentary-like drama. Floor level shots introduce imposing characters while overhead views emphasize something decadent like Marion lying drunk on the floor while masked revelers dance around her. Thiele even has Wirth place actors in front of obvious rear screen projections to make satiric points about what is being said. In one scene, Axel even breaks the fourth wall when he addresses the audience and comments about the actress Najda Tiller while Marion looks on smiling.
The most visually dazzling set piece might be a masked ball at Marion’s country mansion which looks like it was modeled on Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting, The Garden of Earthy Delights. The effect is both hallucinatory and grotesque.
Sadly, Moral 63 is not currently available on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S. although you might be able to find a bootleg copy somewhere (European Trash Cinema has a decent print taken from a German television broadcast).
In fact, with the exception of Rosemary, most of Rolf Thiele’s work is not available domestically on any format. This is a real loss for classic cinema because Thiele was a key German director between the late fifties and mid-sixties. Unfortunately his later work often veered off into soft core exploitation like Grimm’s Fairy Tales for Adults (1969) and Sex Olympics (1972).
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