Der Raub der Mona Lisa (1931)

vt The Theft of the Mona Lisa

Germany / 87 minutes / bw / Tobis-Klangfilm, Super-Film Dir: Géza von Bolváry Pr: Julius Haimann Scr: Walter Reisch Cine: Willi Goldberger Cast: Willi Forst, Trude von Molo, Gustav Gründgens, Max Gülstorff, Anton Pointner, Rosa Valetti, Fritz Odemar, Roda-Roda, Fritz Grünbaum, Paul Kemp, Fritz Alberti, Paul Wagner, Fritz Greiner, Paul Vincenti, Ernst Reicher, Hugo Döblin, Angelo Ferrari, Hubert von Meyerinck, Bruno Ziener, Teddy Bill, Elfried Jerra, Hermine Sterler, Molino von Kluck, Lilian Ellis, Alexander Granach, Max Linder, Ferdinand von Alten.

A quirky crime movie, (very) loosely based on real events, for which Antoine Laurain or Martin Suter should definitely be commissioned to write a much belated novelization.

Humble glazier Vincenzo Peruggia (Forst), an Italian expat working in Paris, is given the job by the Louvre of adding glass to the frame of the Mona Lisa, whose colors are beginning to fade because of its direct exposure to the light.

As he performs the task he falls in love with the painting and its famous smile, and on his way home he buys a print of it to hang on his wall. Imagine his delight when he throws open the window of his shabby apartment to see a living version of La Gioconda framed in the wall opposite. In fact it’s a chambermaid, Mathilde (von Molo), who works in the neighboring hotel; the “frame” is that of the window out of which she’s shaking a cloth.

Willi Forst as Vincenzo

Vincenzo is instantly smitten. Clued in by his landlady (Valetti, in a wonderful supporting role) to the fact that Mathilde habitually goes to a small local cinema on her night off, he strikes up an acquaintance with the girl, takes her out for an evening of dancing and imbibing, then lures her to his apartment.

Trude von Molo as Mathilde

The suspicions of a less love-blinded lad than Vincenzo might have been raised not just by the ease with which he maneuvered her back to his place but by the conversation they have concerning his print of the Mona Lisa:

Mathilde: “And why does the painting hang over your bed?”
Vincenzo: “Because she resembles you, Mathilde.”
Mathilde: “Me? But you’re crazy! I’m much prettier!”

She explains to him that there’s no way he’s going to bed her: the only men she’s interested in are the really special ones, the ones who’re famous for their achievements, the ones who’ll do something extraordinary and unique just for her.

So Vincenzo decides to steal the Mona Lisa.

Vincenzo’s first sight of Mathilde (Trude von Molo)

He does so by (a) using a gadget that looks like one of those intricate parts of a brassiere I’ve never fully been able to fathom and (b) entangling a Louvre warden (Gülstorff) in a breakfast-time game of chess during which they merrily quaff half-liters of beer—a fact that, I think, betrays quite a lot about German perceptions of the French in the early 1930s.

Of course, Mathilde doesn’t believe him when he shows her the painting he’s stolen, that it’s the real Mona Lisa. She assumes he’s just trying to impress the pants off her with the print she earlier saw hanging on his wall.

Illusionist Max Linder as himself in a movie Mathilde and Vincenzo watch together

Someone who does believe him is a stranger (Gründgens) who spotted him committing the crime in the Louvre, has for long been frustrated by the refusal of the gallery’s director (Odemar) to consider any offers for the painting, however large, and hopes to buy it from Vincenzo instead.

Gustav Gründgens as the would-be purchaser

Taken in for questioning, Vincenzo tries to confess to the theft so that he’ll become famous enough to impress Mathilde—currently off on a version of the Grand Tour with a rich lecher (Pointner) she met at the hotel. Unfortunately, the cops won’t listen: they’ve just apprehended a conman (Grünbaum) they stupidly believe is the real thief.

Fritz Grünbaum as the fake thief

So Vincenzo takes the painting back to his native Italy, to Florence, where—having finally recognized Mathilde for the little tart that she is rather than the impossibly idealized woman he saw in the painting—he confesses to the theft, saying he stole the Mona Lisa for reasons of patriotism: to return it to the land whence Napoleon stole it.

So he becomes a national hero . . .

Fritz Odemar as the Louvre’s director

Der Raub der Mona Lisa contains a good quota of magnificent silliness, reminding me of some of René Clair’s flights of fancy, such as The Ghost Goes West (1935). At one point the movie focuses on the song “Why Do You Smile, Mona Lisa?” (by Stolberte & Reiter; Google Translate intriguingly renders the German title into english as “Why Are You Licking Mona Lisa?”). To emphasize the song’s universal popularity we see not just violinists bowing it and trumpeters tooting it, etc., but even two Parisian sparrows sitting on a wire tweeting it.

Rosa Valetti as Vincenzo’s landlady

There are also moments of great self-referential hilarity, as when Vincenzo, on the run, ducks into a doorway which proves to be that of a cathedral, complete with choirboys a-singing and incense a-billowing. Sure enough, he has an apotheosis, just like in the movies . . .

The last couple of minutes of Der Raub der Mona Lisa don’t resonate too well today. In a somewhat fascistic scene a Mussolini-like figure (Granach) rants to a vast crowd about Vincenzo’s commendable patriotism. My hackles rose: perhaps I was just seeing this sequence through the filter of hindsight, but I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that just a few years later the merchants of fascistic faux-patriotism would be throwing Europe—and millions of innocent people—into the cauldron.

Anton Pointner as Mathilde’s well heeled beau

That said, the movie’s two leading players, Forst and von Molo, were far from Nazi sympathizers. Von Molo abandoned a screen career rather than carry on working in Germany, and fled to South America. Forst soldiered on, at risk of his life: at one stage he incurred the wrath of Josef Goebbels for his refusal to appear in an antisemitic propaganda movie, and it’s really quite surprising he didn’t find himself shipped off to a death camp.

Leaving such concerns aside, Der Raub der Mona Lisa is a movie that’s filled with good things. Yes, it has some oddities (for example, the signs in and around the Louvre tend to be written in German!), but for the most part it recognizes its own whimsicality, and revels in it.

7 thoughts on “Der Raub der Mona Lisa (1931)

  1. There was a real Vincenzo Perugia who stole the Mona Lisa in 1911, but his motives seem to have been a mixture of money and patriotism from the first, rather than love.

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