When reviewing the post-war films of East Germany (or West Germany, for that matter), there is a tendency to temper one’s reviews by limiting any comparisons to the other German films of the the same era. That is to say, you can write lots of nice things about these films, but just don’t compare them to the Universum Film AG (UFA) films made in Germany after World War I. This is because, the films that came out German during the 1920s and early 1930s are still some of the best movies that ever flickered onto movie screens. Hitler managed to drive nearly every talented filmmaker out of Germany and into the waiting arms of Hollywood; most—although not all—because they were either Jewish, or had “Jewish blood.” Germany’s loss was Hollywood’s gain. Ex-pat filmmakers such as Michael Curtiz, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, and Frtiz Lang went on to direct many classics, including Casablanca, Scarlet Street, and Sunset Boulevard (for more on this, see Cinema’s Exiles).*
Nonetheless, there are a few post-war German movies (both east and west) that can hold their own with the best that UFA had to offer. One of these is The Axe of Wandsbek (Das Beil von Wandsbek), made in 1951, when the GDR was barely two years old. Based on Arnold Zweig’s book of the same name, The Ax of Wandsbek is a fictionalized account of the executions of four men who were wrongly accused or murder to cover up the actions of the SA and the police in the Altona borough of Hamburg. The event, which took place on the 17 of July, 1932, is now known as the Altona Bloody Sunday (Altonaer Blutsonntag), and the executions that followed it were the first official executions of the Third Reich.
Rather than write about the actual event, Zweig moved the story to Wandsbek, another borough of Hamburg, and turned his attention to the man who served as the executioner. In Zweig’s story, that man is a poor butcher named Albert Teetjen who is finding it hard to compete with the large, corporate butcher shops. To help modernize his business, Teetjen agrees to execute the convicts (the official executioner is, supposedly, sick). For Teetjen, the executions offer a chance to get out of debt and buy that new freezer he’s been wanting. For the local Nazis, the men are an embarrassment, and Hitler will not visit Hamburg until they are dead.
The moral center of the film is Dr. Neumeier, a well-respected female doctor who tends to the poor in Wandsbek. As a doctor, she is able to mingle freely with all classes of people, and it is through her eyes that we see most of the events unfold. She has scrupulously avoided taking sides in the disputes between the Nazis and the Communists, but is horrified when she learns the facts of the case against the four men. She makes some last minute attempts to win reprieves for them, but it is too little too late. The machinery of history is on the move, and any attempts to stop the Third Reich through the normal channels are doomed to fail.
Zweig, a pacifist and a Jew, wanted to show that blaming the man who wielded the ax was too facile; that he is merely the most visible symptom of a moral sickness and complacency that was eroding the German soul. Dr. Neumeier speaks for Zweig and the rest of us when she observes that we are all guilty. Zweig’s book was first published in Hebrew in 1943, with the German edition appearing in 1947 (not coincidentally, a few months after the conclusion of the Nuremberg Trials). By that time, he was already a well-respected author in Germany and the United States. His 1927 anti-war book, The Case of Sergeant Grischa, was a worldwide best-seller and is still in print in several languages. As a young man, Zweig became a fan of Sigmund Freud and his ideas on psychotherapy. For many years, the two men corresponded, and Freud’s theories pervaded all of Zweig’s later books.
Faced with the mounting anti-Semitism provoked by the Nazis, Zweig left Germany. A Zionist at the time, he decided to settle in Palestine. In 1948, he was invited by officials to return to the Soviet Zone, which would later become East Germany. By this time, he had lost faith in Zionism, preferring a more egalitarian, socialist solution, and saw the potential that East Germany had to offer in this regard. He moved to the GDR, where he spent the remainder of his life, no doubt disappointed at how badly the East Germany authorities botched the socialist ideal. He died in 1968 after years of ill health.
But it wasn’t simply Zweig’s original story that made the film so memorable. There were already several DEFA films with complex and interesting stories (e.g., The Murderers are Among Us, Rotation, and The Council of the Gods). Some of the credit belongs to Falk Harnack, whose dramatic use of lighting, music, and symbolism harked back to the UFA films of old. The Ax of Wandsbek was Harnack’s first motion picture. His background in theater certainly helped him here, but his use of close-ups and cross-cutting indicates that Harnack had been paying close attention to the narrative techniques of cinema as well.
Falk Harnack’s own story is no less interesting than that of his movie. He came from a uniquely talented family. His mother was a well-respected painter, and his father was a professor of literature; his brother Arvid worked as a resistance fighter within the Nazi party, and was executed, along with his American-born wife, on December 22, 1942. Falk was close friends with Lilo Ramdohr, a prominent member of the White Rose (Weiße Rose), the Munich-based resistance group of which Sophie Scholl and her brother were members. Ramdohr and Harnack were arrested and detained for a time, but eventually were let go due to lack of evidence. Harnack, still a member of the armed forces at this time, was shipped off to Greece. Upon hearing from one of his superiors that he was about to be re-arrested, Zweig deserted the army and joined the Greek resistance. After the war, Harnack became the artistic director for DEFA from 1949 until 1952.
When The Ax of Wandsbek opened in East German cinemas, it was a big hit, and people lined up to see it. It was on its way to becoming one of the most successful films in DEFA’s history when word of the film reached the Soviets, who were still calling the shots in East Germany. The Soviets weren’t happy about the film. They felt that it was too sympathetic to the Nazis—an absurd claim, considering this film’s pedigree. The Ax of Wandsbek was pulled from circulation, returning to the screens in 1962 in a heavily censored version.
After the officials banned it, Harnack lost faith in his ability to make the kind of movies he wanted to in East Germany. Although he moved to the West to continue his career, he maintained his socialist beliefs, and never spoke out against the GDR. He continued to make films that examined Germany’s Nazi past, including The Plot to Assassinate Hitler (Der 20. Juli), and The Restless Night (Unruhige Nacht). Sadly, almost all of the films he made from 1960 on were made-for-TV movies. Harnack retired from filmmaking in 1976. He died in 1991.
A big part of The Ax of Wandsbek’s effectiveness is the cinematography by the late Robert Baberske. Baberske was one of the best, most talented cinematographers on the DEFA payroll. He got his start as assistant to Karl Freund. One couldn’t ask for a better teacher. It is not an overstatement to say that Karl Freund shaped motion picture and television cinematography in the twentieth century. His work on classic UFA films, such as The Golem, Metropolis, and The Last Laugh is still considered some of the best in the history of film. When Freund left for Hollywood (wooed there by studio officials, ahead of Hitler’s rise to power), Baberske took his place. Baberske had already distinguished himself as a fine cinematographer by the time the Nazis came to power. His work on films such as Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt) and Kameradschaft, has stood the test of time. Most of his work during the Nazi era was restricted to light comedies and romance, although he does have the unfortunate distinction of being the man who filmed, The Rothschilds (Die Rothschilds), one of the more virulently anti-Semitic films of the time. After the war, he made one film for a West German production company before moving to the East. He continued to work until 1956 when he developed a brain tumor. After a protracted illness, he died in 1958 and was buried in a cemetery in the Neu-Kölln district of Berlin.
The Ax of Wandsbek was also Erwin Geschonneck’s first starring role. Geschonneck—a member of Bertolt Brecht’s theater troupe—would go on to make some of the best films to come out the GDR, including Naked Among Wolves, Carbide and Sorrel, The Sun Seekers, and Jacob the Liar. In 1981 Geschonneck was honored for his contributions to East German cinema. When asked which films he would like to have screened for the event, he requested the original, uncensored version of The Ax of Wandsbek, effectively ending the state’s ban on the film.
*Ironically, the United States effectively duplicated this particular bit of Hitlerian insanity with Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC hearings. In an attempt to root out communists, McCarthy and his team of goons managed to drive many talented people out of Hollywood. Although hardly comparable to the enormity of events in Germany, there was a noticeable drop in the quality of the films coming out of Hollywood for the first few years after this purge.