The Invincibles (Die Unbesiegbaren) was originally intended as the second of three films. The first was to chronicle the introduction of the Communist Manifesto, and the last was to follow Karl Liebknecht’s story up to the development of the Spartacus League, forerunner to the German Communist Party (KPD). The Invincibles was the only one of the three that got made. Its story takes place in 1889—one year after the “Year of the Three Kaisers” (Dreikaiserjahr) and toward the end of the period when the government’s anti-socialism laws (Sozialistengesetze) were in force.
The action in the film centers around the Schulz family. Mr. Schulz works as a train mechanic during the day, and uses his spare time to help workers organize. Schulz’s daughter Gertrud spends her evenings helping her friend Franz distribute socialist literature. Things come to a head when an informer breaks into the Schulz home and locates the socialist pamphlets. Mr. Schulz is sent to prison, but is released less than a year later when this silly law is finally repealed and Otto von Bismarck, the law’s main proponent, is sent packing.
DEFA films from this period are often extremely didactic, and this one’s no exception. In truth, DEFA was just following Hollywood’s lead. Since Hollywood had come under attack as a hotbed of communist revolutionaries, film producers were bending over backwards to demonstrate their patriotism. As a consequence, there was hardly an American film made during that period that didn’t trot out anti-communist sentiments somewhere along the line. One could argue that DEFA was simply following suit. This approach led to a lot of mediocre Hollywood films, and a perception in the West that all East German films were nothing but propaganda. A perception that, sadly, still persists.
The screenplay was written by the film’s director Artur Pohl and DEFA official Heino Brandes. Alongside Wolfgang Staudte and Kurt Maetzig, Pohl was one of DEFA’s go-to guys during its early years (for more on Pohl, see The Bridge). Brandes was hired to oversee DEFA’s short film department, then later moved to the science film section. He worked closely with stage director Hans Rodenberg, who was in charge of DEFA’s feature film unit during the early fifties, and the two of them wrote a treatise on socialist realism in theater and film together.
The cast features some of the best actors from the early years at DEFA. Playing Frau Schulz is Alice Treff, who already had a thriving career in Nazi Germany. She made a few films for DEFA, but primarily worked in West Germany after the war, both as an actress and as a popular voice dubber for American films. As a West German, Treff received flak for portraying the good socialist housewife Mrs. Schulz. Perhaps this is the reason for her strangely uncomfortable demeanor in the final scene at the rally where the socialists celebrate the end of the anti-socialism laws. While everyone else seems happy, Treff’s character looks oddly ill at ease. Or perhaps this was just the filmmaker’s way of letting us know that the battle wasn’t over yet. Treff managed to get past this mini-scandal and continued working in films in West Germany into her nineties. She died in 2003 at the age of 96.
Playing her husband is Willy A. Kleinau, so memorable as “Mr. Lawson” in The Council of the Gods. Unlike Treff, Kleinau stayed in East Germany, although he did appear in West German productions as well, most notably, The Captain from Köpenick, starring Heinz Rühmann (a popular star in West Germany and during the Third Reich). Kleinau continued to perform in films and on stage until his death following an auto accident in 1957.
Werner Peters—who turned in a spectacular performance in The Kaiser’s Lackey—plays the police informer Köppke. Most of Peters’ early films were from DEFA, although his first time in front of the camera was in the West German Rubble Film, Zwischen gestern und morgen (Between Today and Tomorrow). In 1955, Peters left East Germany, settling at first in Düsseldorf, then later in Berlin. Besides his work at DEFA, Peters also starred in some of the better West German films of the fifties, including The Devil Strikes at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam), Rosemary (Das Mädchen Rosemarie), and Roses for the Prosecutor (Rosen für den Staatsanwalt). He regularly shows up in West Germany Krimis (crime films), and made regular appearances in the Dr. Mabuse and Edgar Wallace films so beloved by West Germans. He also appears in a few U.S. productions, usually as either a Nazi or an evil doctor. You can also spot him doing a turn as an antiques dealer in Dario Argento’s classic Giallo film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo).
Appearing as the police captain, is Arno Paulsen, first seen by audiences as the evil Brückner in The Murderers are Among Us. Like Peters, Paulsen starred in several early DEFA productions, but eventually settled in the West. Paulsen worked with Peters again on the West German classic, Rosemary, both playing corrupt, fat-cat capitalists. He became the voice of Oliver Hardy for the German releases of the Laurel and Hardy alongside Walter Bluhm, who had been doing Stan Laurel’s voice since Hollywood stopped attempting to have the duo redo their routines in other languages.*
Portraying the feisty young Gertrud is Tamara Osske. Primarily a stage actress, Osske only has three film credits to her name. Since her name shows up as part of the cast for a 1980 production of Peer Gynt at the Saarländisches Landestheater, I have to assume she left the GDR at some point after 1960. Also here, playing Wilhelm Liebknecht, is Erwin Geschonneck.
The same year that this film came out, West Germany formed the Interministerial Committee on East-West film questions (Interministerieller Ausschuß für Ost-West-Filmfragen), created for the purpose of banning films that promoted socialism, but pushed their mandate to include any films that attacked colonialism, imperialism, and, sadly, even Nazism in some cases. The Invincibles was one of the first films they banned, along with other DEFA classics, such as The Council for the Gods and The Kaiser’s Lackey. The irony of banning a film about Germany’s repressive anti-socialism law because of its socialist content makes it impossible to satirize.
* A little-known fact about the early sound films. Back during the silent days, it was easy enough to distribute a film internationally. All you needed was to switch the intertitles to the language of choice. With the advent of sound, that was no longer an option. At first, movie producers tried to solve the problem by having the lead actors redo each scene in other languages. The best known example of this is The Blue Angel, which was first made in German, and then in English a year later. For some actors, speaking both English and German wasn’t a problem. Having grown up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Romania, Edward G. Robinson’s spoke excellent German, as did his co-star in A Lady to Love, Vilma Bánky, so the two of then reprised their roles in the German version (Die Sehnsucht jeder Frau), while most of the rest of the case was replaced. Laurel and Hardy’s German, on the other hand, was atrocious, but there was no way to replace them. They were already famous as “Dick und Doof” in Germany from their silent shorts. Rather than have the two comedians memorize their lines, the duo read the words spelled phonetically on cue cards, reenacting the same scenes in up to four different languages. Producers quickly realized that this approach was not going to work, and so dubbing was born.