The Sudden Wealth
of the Poor People
The subject matter of Schlöndorff's next film, The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach (Der plötzliche Reichtum der armen Leute von Kombach, 1970), is similar to that of Michael Kohlhaas. Both films treat incidents from German history that involve unsuccessful rebellion against oppressive authority. In many ways, Schlöndorff corrected what can be seen as the problems in Kohlhaas. Where Kohlhaas's big budget may have weighed down the production, Kombach's more modest conditions of shooting clearly encouraged invention. Where the earlier film's specifically German qualities were diluted through the use of an international cast and multilingual shooting, Kombach is a thoroughly German project. Where Kohlhaas's political message was ambiguous and not clearly articulated, the discourse of the later film is precise and lucid. Where Schlöndorff never realized his original vision of Kohlhaas as a character modeled on Brechtian dramaturgy, The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach is the most systematic application of Brecht's theories of all of the film director's works. The movie's initial and continuing success with critics and audiences indicates that Schlöndorff got it right the second time.
The film marks a historical juncture in the New German Cinema. Kombach's excellent critical reception acknowledged that a real film movement was taking form rather than just a series of isolated individual successes. Schlöndorff here collaborated with four major figures of the cresting new wave: Reinhard Hauff plays the soldier Heinrich Geiz; Margarethe von Trotta, his common-law wife Sophie; Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a peasant; and critic Joe Hembus, a courtroom scribe. This casting documents for cinema history the communality and united purpose of a real movement.