Director Helmut Käutner may not be well-known outside Germany, but on the evidence of  Romanze in Moll, he should be. Like the  films of Max Ophuls which it resembles, Romanze is a booby-trap for anyone ready to dismiss it as a formulaic “weepie.” In fact, it works on many levels, including a softly spoken social sophistication whispered in the nooks and crannies of Käutner’s baroque style.

Marianne Hoppe stars as Madeleine, a prim, undemanding Hausfrau married to a bank clerk (Paul Dahlke; the character is never named). She finds love with successful composer Michael (Ferdinand Marian). While Michael views Madeleine as easy prey for seduction, he falls in love with her when she demonstrates a sensitivity to his music by suggesting he change a piece to a minor key. The lovers enjoy brief bliss until Madeleine’s husband’s boss figures out what is going on and blackmails her into sleeping with him. When Michael finds out, he kills the blackguard in a duel, while Madeleine commits suicide.

Romanze might be the cheap melodrama that synopsis suggests were it not for the sensitive handling by Käutner and the cast. Madeleine’s husband could be played as an insensitive brute, for example, or perhaps a negligent cipher, but while mediocre, he tries to make his wife happy in his own bumptious way. Michael, on the other hand, is neither a vile seducer nor a romantic hero, but a charming, selfish and superficial playboy whose shortcomings Madeleine recognizes from the beginning.

Which is what makes her a tragic figure. She is not grossly unhappy. She cannot (and does not) fool herself into thinking that her husband deserves to be cuckolded, or that her infidelity is somehow excusable because Michael fulfills her fantasies. She is a wide-eyed participant in her demise, expecting misfortune at any moment, but unable to avoid self-destruction.

To enhance the complex characterizations, Käutner and his technicians bring the subtly oppressive atmosphere of a provincial, late 19th century German town to life. Superficially pleasant, but undoubtedly intolerant of moral laxity, reactions to Madeleine’s adultery are never stated. No one other than the main characters mentions it, but silent, knowing disapproval is in the air like the smell of beer and sausages. The brief scenes in the husband’s office, where he seems to be the only one unaware of what is going on, are particularly ripe with unspoken pity or amusement or both.

Made in the Nazi era, Joseph Goebbels was ready to ban Romanze for being “defeatist,” according to film historian David Stewart Hull, but relented because of its high artistic merit. Few films demonstrate such delicate, understated emotional complexity, which is why Romanze in Moll deserves the attention of anyone interested in film as an art. It is therefore all the more ironic that having escaped totalitarian censorship, Käutner and his work should now fade into the invisibility of neglect. Then again, ours is not an era sympathetic to subtleties.