At first glance, The Crucible (Die Hexen von Salem) doesn’t appear to be an East German film at all. It is directed by a Belgian, it stars French actors, and it has a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre. Additionally, almost all of the technical crew are French. In this respect, it is reminiscent of DEFA productions of the forties and early fifties, such as Razzia and The Heart of Stone, which were, for all intents and purposes, West German films, DEFA in name only. Those films were the result of the fact that West Germany had no film industry at the time, thanks to the U.S. military government (OMGUS), doing as little as possible to encourage West German film production. They preferred, instead, for West Germans to watch Hollywood films, sometimes without even bothering to dub or subtitle them. This gave DEFA a leg up in Germany, at least until West Germany became a sovereign state in 1949 and film production was put back on track.
Even so, Hollywood had an edge in film production and distribution, not just in Germany, but in the rest of Europe as well. For one thing, many extraordinarily talented film people fled to America to escape the Nazis, and many decided to stay in Hollywood after the war was over.1 For another, most countries were too busy rebuilding their basic infrastructures to worry about things like film production. It was nearly impossible for a film company from any single European country to compete with the production capabilities of Hollywood.
To solve the problem, production companies from different countries would join forces to make movies. Those Steve Reeves sword-and-sandal films so beloved by the gay community, were Spanish-Italian co-productions, and the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood westerns were made with Italian, Spanish and West German money. Italians offer figured figured into things, thanks to Cinecittà, the movie production facilities built by Mussolini to make pro-fascist films.
East Germany should have figured into more of these co-productions. They had some of the best facilities for filming in Europe—partly thanks to East Germany’s early lead in European moviemaking, and partly because they inherited Ufa’s Babelsberg studios—but the United States and West Germany were doing everything in their power to marginalize East Germany; going so far as to hire hundreds of former Nazis to help them do the job. In 1955, West Germany took the ultimate step with the Hallstein Doctrine, which threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with any country that recognized the sovereignty of East Germany (excluding, of course, the Soviet Union).
Sweden’s Pandora Film was making films with DEFA, but Pandora was actually a front for Erich Mehl’s West German production company. The French were the only NATO country to engage in co-productions with East Germany. DEFA officials saw these joint productions as a way to thumb their noses at the Hallstein Doctrine, but, as we shall see, it was all for naught.
The Crucible is adapted from the play by Arthur Miller. It is known in France as Les Sorcières de Salem, and in West Germany as Hexenjagd (Witch Hunt). Miller wrote the play in response to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and its attacks on Hollywood writers, directors and actors. Started after the war (or, more aptly, rebooted), HUAC was designed to root out threats to the American way of life. For HUAC, this didn’t mean racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, that were lynching blacks in the South, or the companies that were actively doing everything in their power to stop unionization at their sweatshops; it meant communists. If you were a communist, you had no rights in America, and supporting that ideology could lose your job. Starting in 1947, HUAC began investigating and prosecuting suspected communist spies, but pretty soon it became engulfed in wave of anti-communist hysteria that saw Russian spies hiding behind every bush. Things got really ugly when the committee decided that the biggest nest of communists was Hollywood and started throwing people in jail for believing in the first amendment.
Miller’s play examined this deeply repressive, anti-communist committee by comparing it to the witch trials in seventeenth-century Salem, where a group of hysterical schoolgirls convinced the locals that their town was full of witches. Although today the red-baiting excesses of the fifties are pinned almost entirely on Senator Joseph McCarthy, in truth it started as a team effort by republicans bent on using a committee originally intended to find actual threats, as a way to push forward their conservative agenda and make left of center ideologies virtually illegal in America. McCarthy came late to the game and was just the schmuck to stupid to duck when public opinion turned.
The Crucible was first performed in 1953 and is now considered a classic of American theater. The play opened to mixed reviews, some reviewers clearly felt that by writing this play, Miller was catering to the commies, but the New York Times, to its credit, gave the play a glowing review and The Crucible went on to win the Outstanding Play award at the 7th Annual Tony Awards. It is certainly no coincidence that a few years later, Miller had his own confrontation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).
In 1954, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret—the Brad and Angelina of France in the fifties—appeared in the stage version of Miller’s play at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt (now Théâtre de la Ville). Talk of turning the play into a movie started almost immediately, but this time with a screenplay by the renowned existentialist writer, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre wrote his screenplay for the film after seeing Montand and Signoret perform on stage. He liked the play, but felt that Marcel Aymé’s translation—an accurate translation of Miller’s original—concentrated too much on the story of one man’s struggle against mass hysteria. Sartre, still a Marxist at this point, saw the story as a cautionary tale about the use of religion to help the rich suppress and steal from the poor. He wanted to make a political statement, but it was one that wasn’t getting much traction in the west, where the U.S. was using its might to clamp down on any pro-communist thinking, sometimes using shockingly repressive techniques to do so. So it was that the producers turned to DEFA to help get the film made.
To direct the film, the Belgian actor-director Raymond Rouleau was chosen. Rouleau studied drama at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels before moving to Paris. He started as an actor, with an auspicious debut in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent. He started directing a few years later and continued to act and direct until his death in Paris in 1981. From 1944 until 1951, he, along with Lucien Beer, headed the Théâtre de l’Œuvre, the theater the premiered Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. While there, Rouleau directed La neige était sale (Dirty Snow), mystery writer Frédéric Dard’s theatrical adaptation of the novel by Rouleau’s countryman, Georges Simenon. As a director, Rouleau was more craftsman than artist. The mise-en-scène in The Crucible is logical and composed to drive the story forward, but does little to project the inner turmoil of the characters. For that, Rouleau relies almost entirely on the skills of his actors. Fortunately, they are up to the task.
At the center of The Crucible is Mylène Demongeot, who plays the sexy and spiteful Abigail Williams. Historically, Abigail Williams was a fourteen-year-old, but Miller pushed her age up to seventeen to create the adulterous situation the play needed to create the sexual dynamics that interested Miller. Demongeot exudes sexuality from every pore. Although it wasn’t her first film, The Crucible put her on the map and led to several more parts, including the carefree Elsa in Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse, Fandor’s girlfriend, Hélène in the Fantômas trilogy, and the sexy British comedy, Upstairs and Downstairs, which features the tagline: “The babysitter with the French touch! M-M-M-Mylène Demongeot.” She continues to act and is an active participant in several humanitarian causes.
Besides the lead actors, most of the technicians were also French. The cinematographer was Claude Renoir, grandson to the artist and nephew to director Jean Renoir. Much of the film’s unspoken drama comes from Renoir’s moody work. He shot the film in noirish black-and-white that reflects the way the characters view the world. Renoir got his start in films as an assistant cameraman on his uncle’s films, but he is best remembered for his dazzling work on Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, and Blood and Roses.
The most dramatic story behind the making of The Crucible almost goes by unnoticed at the beginning of the film. If you watch a print of the movie intended for western audiences, you’ll see the film’s composer listed as Georges Auric, but if you watch the East German version, you’ll see the composer listed as Hanns Eisler. Yet, the music in both versions is the same, so what gives? Georges Auric was an excellent composer, responsible for the scores to Cocteau’s Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast, Dead of Night, Wages of Fear, and many others, but he did not write the music for The Crucible. The music was by Eisler, and his own story parallels the story in the film in many ways.
Hanns Eisler was born Germany to Austrian parents. His father was a noted philosophy professor who, along with Max Adler, founded the Vienna Sociological Society. The young Hanns, along with his brother Gerhart and his sister Elfriede, grew up in a hotbed of philosophical and sociological discussions. Although the senior Eisler was an atheist, his three children became highly active communists, particularly Elfriede, who took the name Ruth Fischer, and Gerhart. Hanns was more interested in music.
While his brother and sister became leading figures in the German Communist party (KPD), Hanns purused a career in music. He studied under Arnold Schoenberg, and wrote several pieces based on the twelve-tone system, but his communist beliefs turned him away from the intellectual sonic gymnastics of Schoenberg to the music of the oppressed class: jazz. It was around this time that Eisler met Bertolt Brecht. Until then, Brecht had been collaborating with Kurt Weill, but when the two went their separate ways, Brecht started looking for a composer whose political viewpoint would jibe with Brecht’s own. He found that person in Hanns Eisler.
In 1932, Eisler composed the music for Kuhle Wampe oder Wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?), director Slatan Dudow’s film with a script by Bertolt Brecht. Unfortunately, the film came out just as the Nazis were rising to power and the film was promptly banned. Both Brecht and Eisler found themselves on the Nazi Party’s first list of banned artist; both men fled Germany, eventually ending up in the United States; and both were forced to leave the U.S. thanks to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Around the same time, Eisler’s sister Ruth—who had become one of the leaders of the KPD—was constantly butting heads with Stalin. She didn’t care much for his reinterpretation of Marxism, nor the level of control he exerted of Germany’s communists. Ruth wanted a return to values of Lenin, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and a turn away from Stalin’s egocentric brand of communism. After traveling to Russia, she met with Stalin, and let him know exactly how she felt. She returned to Germany to find herself marginalized by the Communist Party, replaced with the very pro-Stalin Ernst Thälmann (for more on Thälmann, see The Ernst Thälmann Films). At that point, Fischer became a virulent anti-Stalinist. To the point where she started working with the U.S. to do everything in her power to end his regime. Going so far as to work for “The Pond”—a top secret precursor to the C.I.A.
After Hitler came to power, all three of the Eisler children eventually ended up in America. Hanns got work composing film scores, and received Oscar nominations for his work on Hangmen Also Die! and None But the Lonely Heart. Gerhart, meanwhile, was working as a spy for Communist International (Comintern) in America. When Ruth was ousted from power in the KPD, Gerhart did not come to her defense. A fact that stuck in her craw. When Gerhart was brought before HUAC for espionage, Ruth was only to happy to against him at the hearing. He was found guilty, but while out of bail he fled the country, making his way to East Germany.
As the hunt for “those dirty reds” widened, Hanns Eisler was caught in the web. Called “the Karl Marx of Music” by HUAC secretary Robert Stripling, Eisler was blacklisted in Hollywood, dragged before the committee and charged with being a communist. As she had with Gerhart, Ruth Fischer testified against Hanns as well, and he was promptly deported. Like his brother, he went to East Germany, where he composed the music for the East German national anthem, “Auferstanden aus Ruinen,” and continued to write melodies for Brecht—who had also taken up residence in the GDR. Eisler continued to write film music, contributing scores to many classic DEFA films, including Our Daily Bread, The Council of the Gods, and Destinies of Women.
When The Crucible was prepared for release in the west, the producers decided that the film would have a better chance of U.S. distribution if the credits didn’t include a man who was forcibly removed from the States. The decision to list Auric as the composer was one that Eisler approved of. He and Auric were friends, and, presumably, he felt that if another composer must get credit, at least it was someone he liked and whose work he admired. When the head of the East German copyrights department asked Eisler if he wanted them to help him get the credit he deserved, Eisler responded “No, everything is perfectly arranged.”2
The film opened to generally favorable reviews, and won Simone Signoret the BAFTA award for best actress. Released in the States just months before Room at the Top, The Crucible undoubtedly helped Signoret win the Academy Award for that film.
While Arthur Miller wasn’t crazy about some of Sartre’s changes to his play, in a 1972 interview for Audience magazine, Miller said he was glad that the film was out there at a time when Hollywood refused to touch it. He would change his tune when Hollywood finally got around to making Miller’s version of the play with a screenplay by Miller himself. DEFA’s version of The Crucible was pulled out of circulation, reportedly thanks to Miller himself. The Hollywood version failed to perform well at the box office, but the end result of this is that the East German/French film is still out of distribution, although the folks at DEFA-Stiftung are working on correcting this situation. Meanwhile, VHS copies of the film are fetching high prices on eBay.
The expected benefits of co-producing films with the French didn’t pan out for DEFA. When the films were released in the west, DEFA’s name was removed from the credits. Worse, France did nothing to challenge West Germany’s absurd Hallstein Doctrine. After four films French/East German co-productions, East Germany abandoned these efforts, restricting co-productions to the Eastern Bloc and other communist countries. They wouldn’t engage in a co-production with a western nation again until 1978, when the Swiss/East German made-for-TV movie Ursula manage to offend nearly everybody on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Ironically, the first DEFA co-production with a western nation would be made with West Germany (Frühlingssinfonie—Spring Symphony).
Special thanks to Sebastian Heiduschke, Hiltrud Schulz, Mariana Ivanova, and Peter Deeg for their help with this article.
Buy this film: Currently, this film is not available. There is a rather poor copy on sections on YouTube.
1. Lorre did return to West Germany to direct a film, The Lost One (Der Verlorene), but the experience didn’t encourage him to stay in his homeland. He quickly returned to Hollywood for the rest of his career. Wilder returned to Berlin to make his antic comedy One Two Three! But the film comes across as a thumbing of his nose to both halves of Germany. Two Hollywood refugees who did return to Germany to make films were Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang (technically, an Austrian).
2. Special thanks here to Peter Deeg at the International Hanns Eisler Society.