For its first 25 years, two things kept the rest of the world from learning that East Germany was producing some of the best films in Europe. First was the country’s unfortunate tendency to ban its directors’ best efforts. Films such as The Axe of Wandsbek, Sun Seekers, Born in ‘45, and The Rabbit is Me would have certainly put East Germany on the movie map if not for the fact that they were all shelved by the authorities. The second factor was the West’s refusal to accept that East Germany was a country at all. East Germany wasn’t recognized by the United Nations until 1973, and even then it was only because the GDR and the FRG had finally agreed to accept each other as sovereign states.
It was a consequence of this “East Germany-is-not-a-country” policy that the DEFA film Stars (Sterne) was submitted to the Cannes Film Festival as the official entry from Bulgaria instead of the GDR. But it is really an East German film, and it was the first—and is still the only—German film to ever win the Prix du Jury at Cannes. To add irony to the insult, the film, which was popular in East Germany, was banned in Bulgaria.
Stars is a classic doomed love story about a German soldier who falls in love with a Jewish prisoner. The soldier, who is known only as Walter, is a would-be painter who has been drafted into the war effort and finds himself in a small Bulgarian village, guarding Jewish prisoners from Greece. The prisoners are on their way to Auschwitz. There, they are told, they will work on vegetable farms. Of course, we all know this isn’t true. So do most of them, but no one wants to acknowledge it. Walter is trying to do his duty as a good German soldier, but his conscience keeps getting in the way.
At the time it was made, there weren’t many films that portrayed German soldiers in a favorable light. There were a few, such as The Murderers are Among Us, Rotation, and Sun Seekers, in which former German soldiers expressed remorse for their actions during the war (or, in some cases, their inaction), but there had never been a movie in which the hero was a German soldier who was abetting the enemy. German soldiers were always portrayed as loyal to the death to the Third Reich, and therefore always the bad guys. Stars gives us a much more nuanced picture. Even the amoral Kurt—Walter’s immediate superior—is portrayed as a vivacious and ebullient character, who, in other circumstances, might be a great deal of fun to go bar-hopping with. Kurt has been to Auschwitz and there is some evidence that he knows what is happening there is wrong. He refers to Auschwitz as a “mill for human flesh” (Menschenfleisch). He notably does not say “Jewish flesh” (Jüdenfleisch), indicating that he recognizes the humanity of the Jews. But Kurt prefers not to think to hard about the situation and alleviates any qualms he may have by staying drunk as often as possible.
As Ruth, the headstrong Jewish prisoner, Sasha Krusharska turns in as close to a perfect performance as one could hope for. She is strong and vulnerable, tender and hard, and, unlike most of the actresses that were chosen to play similar roles in Hollywood (e.g., Millie Perkins in The Diary of Anne Frank), Krusharska looks Jewish. She is also stunning, and it is easy to see why a young soldier would fall for her. Sadly, Krusharska only starred in one more film (The Last Round, or Posledniyat rund) before marrying and settling down with Bulgarian film director Rangel Vulchanov. Vulchanov had worked as a consultant director on Stars. Their daughter, Ani Vulchanova, has gone on to become a successful actress in Bulgaria.
In 1959, feature films that dealt directly with the holocaust were still relatively rare. In the United States, the true horror of Auschwitz was still an abstract concept. It wouldn’t be until the release of Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg that most Americans would see actual film footage from the concentration camps for the first time.* Germans, of course, were closer to the subject, but most of the films prior to Stars kept talk of the concentration camps as general as possible. Even in the GDR, which was far less averse to examining its Nazi past than the west was, the talk in films of concentration camps was mostly about the experiences of the political prisoners rather than the extermination the Jews (The Council of the Gods came the closest, with its discussion of the manufacturing ot Zyklon B).
Stars was written by the Bulgarian author Angel Wagenstein. Wagenstein, a Sephardic Jew, was arrested and condemned to death for anti-fascist sabotage during the war, but was liberated when the Soviet Army invaded the country. After the war, Wagenstein enrolled at the S. A. Gerasimov All-Union State Institute for Cinematography in Moscow, where he earned a degree in screenwriting. Upon returning to Bulgaria, he started writing scripts for Boyana Film, the state-owned film company. Wagenstein wrote the script for Stars in seven days, although he said he thought about it for 77 days before that and had already lived through the events depicted. When he finished it, he took it to Kurt Maetzig at DEFA, but Maetzig, perhaps tired of making films about WWII, wasn’t interested (Maetzig’s next film would be the sci-fi feature The Silent Star). Konrad Wolf, however, was interested. Wolf has just finished making Sun Seekers, only to see it shelved for political reasons. Perhaps Stars would fare better with the authorities.
Wagenstein would write many more films for DEFA over the years, including scripts for Joachim Hasler’s The Story of a Murder, Konrad Wolf’s Goya, and Herman Zschosche’s oddball science fiction film, Eolomea. More recently, he has turned to book writing. His novels—Isaac’s Torah, Farewell Shanghai, and Far from Toledo—comprise a trilogy that examines the Jewish experience in different regions during WWII. His books have been published in eleven languages.
After the film was made it was submitted to the East German authorities, who approved it for public showing. Back in Bulgaria, however, things were different. The exportation of Jews to concentration camps was a touchy subject. Although they were a member of the Axis powers, Bulgarians saw themselves as resistant to the Nazi war machine. They had begged out of Operation Barbarossa, and had repeatedly postponed the deportation of their ethnic Jews (Jews from Thrace and Macedonia, however, were not afforded the same consideration). Although it was banned on the grounds of being an “abstract humanist” film, certainly the idea of a film about the deportation of Jews from Bulgaria was a factor in their decision to not show it. In spite of the ban, the film was submitted to Cannes as a Bulgarian film because East Germany was still not recognized as a real country (in fairness, neither was West Germany). The film ended up winning the Prix du Jury that year (the Palme d’Or went to Black Orpheus). Thanks to the success of the film at Cannes, the film was also shown in West Germany. There, however, the ending was edited to remove the Casablanca-like scene where Walter decides to help the resistance.
As with Sun Seekers, Konrad demonstrates a keen facility for the use of film techniques to propel the narrative. After Walter meets Ruth, he looks back at her, and the camera angle is sharply skewed, showing that Walter’s world is about to tumble out of control. And when things are at their worst, the images are dark and grim. Occasionally, Wolf’s technique approaches the experimental with strange juxtapositions. In the scene when the baby is born in the Jewish encampment, Ruth’s face is superimposed over scenes of grassy fields and a babbling brook (a literal interpretation of the lyrics to the Jewish folk song “Eli, Eli”) while the baby cries in the background. it is a sad scene of hope in a world where hope has no right to exist.
The music in this film is by the Bulgarian composer, Simeon Pironkov, whose score comes primarily from two sources: the aforementioned “Eli, Eli” (“My God, My God”) and Mordechai Gebirtig’s “Es brennt” (“It is Burning”). Gebirtig was a Yiddish poet and songwriter who died in the Kraków Ghetto in 1942. The song was written in response to the pogrom of 1936 in Przytyk, Poland, two-and-a-half years before Kristallnacht. “Es brennt” went on to become the anthem of the Jewish resistance movement during the war and it is still sung on Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) in many parts of the world. It is the combination of “Es brennt” and Sasha Krusharska’s performance that creates a final scene that will hit you right in the gut.
*In the west, Germans were shown this footage in 1948 in Nürnberg und seine Lehre, a film made by the U.S. Military as part of their “de-Nazification” program. By the time this films was released, however, tensions between the United States and the Soviet union were strained to the breaking point, so it is doubtful that this film ever was shown in the east. The film did not receive an official release in the United States until 2010.