There’s a much bigger, better movie trying to get out of “Sass,” but only portions are revealed here. True tale of two brothers who became Berlin’s most notorious burglars during the ’20s and ’30s feels cramped and skimpy at less than two hours, when its ambitious script, stellar cast, widescreen lensing and good-looking production design seem capable of sustaining a longer and more substantial movie. This third feature by TV and commercials director Carlo Rola performed OK but below expectations on local release last fall and unfortunately looks destined more for the small than bigscreen offshore.
There’s an immediate sense of epic scope in the movie’s opening, which uses B&W docu footage to celebrate early 20th century Berlin and its people. The film quickly zeroes in on working-class brothers Franz and Erich Sass (Ben Becker, Juergen Vogel) and finds them on trial, sometime in the ’30s, for busting into a bank vault.
Story flashbacks to 1924, when the bros have just bought a garage business and start supplementing their income by safe-breaking. Hemmed in on the one hand by the cops, led by Commissar Fabich (Henry Huebchen), and on the other by a mobster, Adolf (Martin Feifel), who wants a cut of the action, Franz and Erich manage to stay one step ahead of everyone, moving up the social scale with their new wealth and becoming heroes of the people and press en route.
The confident, dashing Franz falls for sophisticated Sonja Weiss (Jeanette Hain), wife of Diskonto Bank’s president, while the more nebbishy Erich is entranced by Gertrude (Julia Richter), a hooker-cum-wannabe actress who almost proves his undoing. Not content with retiring on their riches, the brothers aim for one final, daring job — robbing the supposedly impenetrable Diskonto Bank, where the Nazis have 8 million Reichmarks in campaign funds.
The climactic robbery is well-staged without becoming obsessively concerned with detail. Missing from the movie is the background that could have elevated the story into a Leone-esque fable for its time and for the city in which it is set: how the pair became folk heroes, more scenes with their devoted parents (Otto Sander and Karin Baal), and more space for the large cast of characters to breathe beyond simple action. Too many scenes are lopped off just when they start generating some dramatic depth.
Hain gets far less screen-time than the character deserves, as does Huebchen in the role of their police nemesis. Becker and Vogel are OK as the brothers, but sometimes seem to be acting in parallel movies, with little fraternal feeling between the two.
Super-35 lensing by ace d.p. Martin Langer creates some fine vistas, confidently filled by art director Bettina Schmidt and costume designer Ulla Gothe, who show not only the familiar decadence of Berlin of the period but also its working-class drudgery. Georg Kleinebreil’s emotive music is under-employed in generating atmosphere and feeling.