Ernst Toller


Recently I posted a link to a film which my grandfather John produced, and which had been directed by his twin brother Roy. It was one of the first of their collaborations, released in the summer of 1940, and titled Pastor Hall.


 John (left) and Roy Boulting


I should explain that I never met my grandfather (pictured on the left), or my great uncle. John died when I was 14 and though Roy lived far longer, he remained a stranger to me. I have only seen a handful of their films, to be honest. Their biggest successes were I’m All Right, Jack!, starring Peter Sellers, and Brighton Rock; a film that effectively launched the career of Richard Attenborough. The only other of their films I have watched was a little known story of a nuclear scientist in the early Cold War, whose crisis of conscience leads to him holding London to ransom by threatening to explode an A-Bomb: Seven Days To Noon is bleak, but worth a watch.




Pastor Hall however had always been a film I’d wanted to watch. For years I had searched for it in vain, until suddenly an account on YouTube helpfully uploaded it in its entirety. It tells  the story of a pastor in a small Bavarian town who refuses to comply with the Nazi regime and meets his end with his principles intact. It is also a product of its time and place: all the characters speak with clipped upper class British accents, the score is melodramatic, the sets charmingly pantomimic, the lighting sometimes erratic and the sound muffled. But it has its moments, principally because of the central performance by Wilfrid Lawson which starts off charismatically and finishes with a certain lack of control.


Wilfrid Lawson

But along the way there are scenes which stir and shock the viewer as the story follows its inexorable path towards the pastor's eventual martyrdom. The suicide of a child, the depiction from Kristallnacht, the duplicity of the authorities, the inhumaity of the language and the violence of the camps. With all the recent talk of the rise of intolerance and the duty to hold firm, such drama seems particularly poignant, 83 years later.


The story was adapted by a writing team (which included my grandfather John) from a play originally written by the German Ernst Toller, who I confess I had never heard of. I soon put that right.


   Ernst Toller


Toller was an expressionist playwright, political firebrand and author. He was also, for six days, President of the very short lived Bavarian Soviet Republic; one of the extremely brief expressions of the left-wing in the Weimar Republic, as they struggled to take control of a defeated Germany that was reeling from revolution and violence in the immediate post WWI years. Toller was imprisoned for five years for his part in the power grab, when the Freikorps seized back power. Exiled by the Nazis in 1933, he emigrated to the USA, where he continued to write, lecture and campaign. He became deeply involved in support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War (in which my grandfather had also seen action as an ambulance driver, and I wonder therefore if they ever met there).


But Toller’s life was unravelling. His marriage broke up, he fell into poverty and depression and his plays were no longer met with critical acclaim. In May 1939 he hanged himself in a hotel room, having spread out pictures on the desk beneath him of Spanish children killed in air attacks in the war.


On reading about his tragic end, I noted that W.H. Auden had written a poem in tribute to his late friend, Ernst Toller. I looked it up, and include it on this page, just below.


It is for this reason, in a roundabout way, that I have told you this sad story; because I believe this poem to be of the highest quality. It winds around the central theme of grief all the myriad complexities of living through the trauma of both the past and present, plotting a stubborn course that ultimately is beyond our understanding or control. I think it is writing of enormous power, and I hope you agree. Here it is:




By W. H. Auden.

The shining neutral summer has no voice
To judge America, or ask how a man dies;
And the friends who are sad and the enemies who rejoice

Are chased by their shadows lightly away from the grave
Of one who was egotistical and brave,
Lest they should learn without suffering how to forgive.

What was it, Ernst, that your shadow unwittingly said?
O did the child see something horrid in the woodshed
Long ago? Or had the Europe which took refuge in your head

Already been too injured to get well?
O for how long,like the swallows in that other cell,
Had the bright little longings been flying in to tell

About the big friendly death outside,
Where people do not occupy or hide;
No towns like Munich; no need to write?

Dear Ernst, lie shadowless at last among
The other war-horses who existed till they’d done
Something that was an example to the young.

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends; but existing is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.

Back to blog


Pastor Hall was released on blu-ray last year by the excellent Powerhouse Films on their Indicator imprint. A fine restoration with a wealth of extras and an interesting booklet. £16 to you guvnor!


Just posting this here to remove the fear of the being the first and only commenter. If you made it to the end, you might have some feelings about the Auden poem. Either way, thank you for reading this blog. It’s appreciated.


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