Archive for the ‘Concentration Camps’ Category

The Story of a Murder

The Story of a Murder (Chronik eines Mordes) begins during an event in Würzburg, where an attractive young woman meets with the newly-elected mayor and promptly shoots him. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that the woman is named Ruth Bodenheim and that she is Jewish. The man she shoots, named Zwischenzahl, was responsible for the murder and internment of her family during the Third Reich, and her forced prostitution at a brothel in Poland. After the war, the American military throws Zwischenzahl in prison, thanks, in part, to Ruth’s testimony. The American captain is sympathetic to Ruth, and it looks like justice will be served, but the captain’s higher ups and local businessmen have different plans for Zwischenzahl, and he is released from custody. Ruth wants to kill him, but discovers that he has gone to America. She decides to put it all behind her and marries. She seems to be having a happy life, until one day downtown she comes upon row after row of posters promoting Zwischenzahl’s campaign for mayor. At that point she decides that the only way justice will ever be survived is if she takes matter into her own hands. She knows she will be arrested and she wants the opportunity to have her day in court, but there are still those who want to bury the story.

The Story of a Murder is a powerful film with excellent performances and exceptional black-and-white cinematography. It is based on a story in Leonhard Frank’s book, Die Jünger Jesu (The disciples of Jesus). The book and the film were met with harsh criticism in West Germany, mostly due to the fact that the basic premise—that ex-Nazis were allowed to weasel their way back into positions of power in West Germany—was inescapably correct.* Angel Wagenstein was enlisted to write the screenplay. Wagenstein was a Bulgarian Jew who fought with the resistance during World War II, He studied screenwriting in Moscow and made his mark with Stars—one of the most powerful fiction films on the holocaust, and the first DEFA film to win a prize at Cannes. He was unquestionably the best choice for this material. He brings all his knowledge of the subject and his anger to bear on the story. Like Stars, it is an unflinching portrait of the evil that men do.

The story takes place in the west, which gives us an interesting, and sometimes amusing window into the East German perspective on western culture. The west is a place where neon signs flash outside of every window, and politicians conduct business in seedy nightclubs; a film noir world of light and shadows, where people in power use their influence to thwart justice, and American soldiers roam everywhere, listening incessantly to jazzy versions of “American Patrol.”

Nightclub scene

With its film noir sensibility, jazz becomes an important component of the film. Composer Gerd Natschinski uses it so effectively that, as with many good movies, the music becomes a character in the film. His haunting theme threads its way throughout the movie, tying the numerous flashbacks within flashbacks together to help form a coherent whole. Natschinski wrote several fine film scores, including My Wife Wants to Sing, Midnight Revue, and Hot Summer. A serious composer at heart, he scaled back on his film score composition during the seventies to devote more time to his efforts at classical composition and conducting. From 1978 to 1981 he was the director of the Berliner Metropol-Theater. His son, Thomas Natschinski, went on to become a successful composer and singer in his own right, scoring a hit with his band Team 4 with the kitsch-pop classic “Mokka-Milch-Eisbar.”

Although I am not a big fan of the auteur theory, the films that come the closest to living up to this concept are the ones that are both shot and directed by the same person. The Story of a Murder is one such film, having been both filmed and directed by Joachim Hasler. Mr. Hasler got his start as assistant camera after meeting Bruno Mondi while working at the Agfa film lab in Wolfen (for more on Bruno Mondi, see Rotation). Mondi suggested that he come work as an assistant cameraman with him on Das kalte Herz (Heart of Stone). Hasler quickly moved through the ranks, filming such DEFA classics as Kurt Maetzig’s The Silent Star and The Song of the Sailors (Das Lied der Matrosen).

He got his start as a director almost by accident. While filming Spielbank-Affäre (Casino Affair), the director, Arthur Pohl, became ill and Hasler took over the reins. Although he did not receive a director’s credit for this, it did give him a foot in the door to start directing films. Most of Hasler’s early films are serious political thrillers that tackle subjects like war crimes and environmental pollution, but he is best known as the director of the light-hearted East German beach party movie, Hot Summer, for which he also served as cinematographer. During the seventies, probably as a result of his success with Hot Summer, Hasler moved toward lighter fare, making several comedies, including the poorly received sequel to Hot Summer, Nicht schummeln, Liebling! (Don’t Cheat, Darling!). In 1984, he stopped making films to work for DEFA in other capacities. This all came to an end with the Mauerfall, but Hasler opted for retirement rather than a return to filmmaking. He died in 1995 in Berlin.

Angelica Domröse

The Story of a Murder stars Angelica Domröse, an exotic-looking beauty, and one of the finest actresses to come out of the GDR—and that’s saying something. Several of the best actresses currently working in Germany got their start at DEFA, including Katrin Saß, Dagmar Manzel, Corinna Harfouch, Kirsten Block, and Christine Schorn. No film gives Ms. Domröse a better opportunity than this one to show off her acting ability as she believably goes from schoolgirl, to war-weary prostitute, to sophisticated older woman. It’s a remarkable performance.

Ms. Domröse was discovered by Slátan Dudow (see The Destinies of Women), who cast her in his final film, Verwirrung der Liebe (Confusion of Love). She continued to appear in feature films and TV-movies throughout the sixties, but it was her performance in The Legend of Paul and Paula that made her a star. A few years later, she found her career sidelined after signing the protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. Like Manfred Krug, Katharina Thalbach, and others who signed the protest, she decided to leave the GDR for West Germany, where she continued her career, primarily in television. In 2004, she stopped appearing in films to work in theater, but recently returned to films, starring in Bernd Böhlich’s comedy, Bis zum Horizont, dann links! (Fly Away).

In a way, the beginning of The Story of a Murder reflects the original ending of Murderers Are Among Us, except at that time, DEFA, as part of the Soviet sector, was still trying to play nice with the west and changed the ending, eliminating the assassination for fear that it might inspire individuals to follow suit. By 1965, no such niceties were necessary. This film does not pull its punches. It is unfortunate that it is not available with English subtitles. It is a classic DEFA film and, along with The Second Track one of the few examples of East German film noir.
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* The most glaring case of this was Hans Globke, a co-author of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws and one of the jurors who helped formulate the supposed “emergency” legislation that led to Hitler’s takeover of the German government. This man was a nasty piece of work. He was also West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s right-hand man.

Like Stars and Jakob the Liar, Marriage in the Shadows (Ehe im Schatten) deals with the subject of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. Unlike those films, however, this one came out in 1947 when the Nuremberg Trials were still going on and new revelations about atrocities at the concentration camps were arriving every day. The people of Germany were still in shock and denial, and the Allies and the Soviets were actively engaged in policies of “denazification.” Part of this involved the banning and destruction of hundreds of books that were favorable to Nazis and militaristic thinking, reenacting Hitler’s book burnings from the opposing end of the political spectrum. Another part of the policy involved the distribution of films and literature designed to make Germans acknowledge their collective guilt; a kind of national finger-wagging. The most famous example of this was the documentary, Nürnberg und seine Lehre (Nuremberg – Its Lesson for Today), which was released in Germany in 1948, but didn’t reach American movie screens until 2010. Many of the policies put in place—especially those instituted by the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS)—seemed to be intentionally designed to humiliate the German people. In the U.S. sector, Hollywood films that were openly hostile to Germans were shown at theaters, often without subtitles. Not surprisingly, this approach wasn’t popular with either the local townspeople, or the theater owners who were conscripted to show the films.

While the western sectors intentionally dragged their feet on the process of re-establishing film production in Germany, the Soviets had DEFA up and running by May of 1946. The western allies, and in particular, the United States, which had a vested interest in promoting their Hollywood films in Europe, were not too happy about DEFA. Many of the early DEFA films were either banned or edited for release in the western sectors. Marriage in the Shadows was the first post-war German film to be screened uncensored in all four sectors. It was also the first one to address the subject of Jewish persecution, and is still one of the most unflinching films on the subject.

The film begins during the Weimar years. Hans Wieland and Elisabeth Maurer are lovers and popular stage actors. The audience especially adores Elisabeth, and the fact that she’s Jewish doesn’t affect their enthusiasm. When the Nazis comes to power, things begin to change. The first signs of this occur when they are on vacation and come across a man posting an sign on the beach banning Jews. Things keep getting worse until eventually Elisabeth is no longer allowed to perform on stage. As Hans’ career continues to rise, Elisabeth’s life gets harder and harder. After taking Elisabeth to a premiere of his new film, the couple runs into a Nazi official who is at first charmed by Elisabeth and later horrified to find out that she is a Jew. He orders her sent to a concentration camp, but the couple decides to commit suicide instead.

The story is dramatization of the events in the life of the German film and stage actor Joachim Gottschalk. Gottschalk was one of Germany’s most popular leading men; a screen idol who often played the debonair heartthrob. Gottschalk’s wife was Meta Wolff, a Jewish actress who had been highly successful on stage, but found her career abruptly halted with Hitler’s rise to power. Because of Gottschalk’s popularity with the public, the fact that his wife was Jewish was quietly overlooked—at least at first. In some versions of the story (including the one in the movie), Gottschalk made the mistake of taking his wife to a premiere where she charmed some Nazi officials. When Goebbels found out about this he was livid, partly because he hated—really hated—Jews, and partly because it was on his instigation that Gottschalk moved from the stage to the screen and became a movie star. After attempts to get Gottschalk to divorce his wife failed, Goebbels ordered Meta Wolff and their son shipped off to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt, and ordered Gottschalk to report to the Wehrmacht for service. Rather than comply, Gottschalk and his wife gave their son a sedative and then turned on the gas. All three were found dead, and were buried without ceremony at the Southwest Stahnsdorf cemetery near Potsdam. Only a few of their closest friends attended, including Brigitte Horney, who starred opposite Gottschalk in four of his films. News stories and obituaries about what happened to Gottschalk were strictly forbidden and no further mention was made of them while the Nazis were in power.

For most Germans, the end credit that the film was based on the story of Joachim Gottschalk was the first they learned of what had happened to the actor and his family. Although the film follows the facts of the story closely, it gets much of its power from Kurt Maetzig’s own experiences. Maetzig was born in Berlin, January 26, 1911. His mother was Jewish, and, like Meta Wolff, killed herself rather than face deportation to a concentration camp. Maetzig himself was born in 1911, and had just begun a successful career in film when the Nazis came to power. Following the Nuremberg laws, Maetzig was forbidden from working in the film industry. He joined the Communist Party and went underground. After the war, Maetzig was one of the founders of Filmaktiv, a group dedicated to restarting the film industry in Germany. It is from this group that DEFA was eventually established.

Marriage in the Shadows was Kurt Maetzig’s first feature film, and he clearly wanted to make a strong first impression. The film features more razzle-dazzle than any of his later films. Slow fades back and forth between scenes, cross-cutting, emotionally charged internal P.O.V. shots, and clever transitions are used throughout the movie. It is also, rather ironically, one of his more traditional films in other respects. The use of glamour-shot lighting and emotion-laden music hearken back to the melodramas of the 1930s.

That music was composed by Wolfgang Zeller. Zeller was a well-known film composer who made his first big splash in 1926 with his score for the animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed), the oldest existing feature-length animated film. Zeller wrote film scores for many silent films, including Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic Vampyr. After the Nazis came to power, Zeller continued to work for them, providing the music for every variety of film, including several propaganda films. Most notoriously, he wrote the film score for the virulently anti-Semitic Jud Süß. Perhaps in an attempt to atone for his work during the Third Reich, Zeller imbues the score for Marriage in the Shadows with an intense emotionalism that occasionally overwhelms the visuals. Zeller did a few more films for DEFA, but his traditional, romantic musical style was better suited to the nostalgic films of West Germany. During the early days of DEFA he provided a few scores, but within a few years he was working exclusively in the west.

The cinematographers for Marriage in the Shadows were Friedl Behn-Grund and Eugen Klagemann, both of whom had worked for Tobis Filmkunst—Germany’s second largest film company after UFA—during the Nazi years. Like Wolfgang Zeller, Friedl Behn-Grund’s career began during the silent era. During the Third Reich, he was the cinematographer for Titanic, one of the few German films from the Nazi period that is still regularly shown throughout the world. During the early days of DEFA, Behn-Grund shot some of the most well-respected films to come out of that film company, including The Murderers Are Among Us (which he co-filmed with Klagemann), Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B. (The Strange Adventures of Fridolin B.), Die Buntkarierten (The Girls in Gingham), The Blum Affair (Affaire Blum), and The Council of the Gods.

Eugen Klagemann, on the other hand, got his start as a still photographer in early 1930s, and moved to cinematography in 1943 with Kurt Hoffmann’s Ich werde dich auf Händen tragen (I’ll Carry You on My Hands). Unlike Behn-Grund, Klagemann continued to work in East Germany, even though he lived in a western sector of Berlin. After the wall went up on August 10, 1961, Klagemann’s access to DEFA was cut off. By that time, attitudes in West Germany towards the GDR were running hot and Klagemann was unable to continue his career as a cinematographer because of his perceived “collaboration with the enemy.”

The migration to West Germany was a common occurrence in the early days of the GDR in all fields, but especially in the movies. Many of the film technicians working for DEFA during the first few years were actually Wessis, but couldn’t find any work in the western sectors due to the Allied forces’ restrictive policies toward filmmaking. Once the West German film industry was back up and running, they were perfectly content to continue their careers closer to home. In some cases, film people who were actually from the Soviet sector decided to join the Republiksflucht and head west to the promise of better money. For Paul Klinger, who played Hans Wieland and was a West German (born in Essen), Marriage in the Shadows would be his only East Germany film. He would continue with a successful film and television career in the west, right up until his death in 1971, and in 2007, Germany had a postage stamp made in his honor. His co-star Ilse Steppat, who played Elisabeth Maurer, made a few more films for DEFA but by the mid-fifties also was working exclusively in the west. Most of the rest of the film crew ended up in the west as well, including, the editors (Alice and Herman Ludwig), the art director (Kurt Herith), and the Costume Designer (Gertraud Recke).

When the film was first shown it hit German moviegoers like a punch in the gut. Audiences attending the screenings are reported to have responded with somber silence; still sitting in their seats when the lights came on. Marriage in the Shadows signaled not only a new attitude for the German people, but a new kind of filmmaking. One that would flourish in the east, while the west was content to expend most of their effort making sentimental Heimatfilme.

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There are a few East German films that, in spite of the political differences, are acknowledged as classics on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Stars, The Murderer Are Among Us, and The Rabbit is Me have all entered that exclusive group, but—with the exception of Stars—these films did not receive much attention until after the wall fell. Jakob the Liar (Jakob, der Lügner), on the other hand, was immediately recognized as a classic. So much so that it was nominated, against all odds, for an Academy Award, and Hollywood felt the need to create its own heavy-handed version starring Robin Williams.

Jakob the Liar is the story of people living in a Jewish ghetto, near the end of WWII. They are always in imminent danger of being shipped off to the concentration camps, and the question that’s on everyone’s mind is: Will the Russians get there before its too late? When a man named Jakob Heym overhears that the Russian troops aren’t far away, he tells everyone that he heard it on his secret radio. In fact, he heard it while he was waiting to be chastised at the local military headquarters. As time goes by, the lie gets bigger and everyone in the ghetto turns to him for hope. We know nothing good can come of this scenario, but the film manages to maintain a fine balance between hope and tragedy. This is thanks largely to the deftly written screenplay by Jurek Becker.

Becker first wrote the story as a film script in 1968, but DEFA—still under the influence of the 11th Plenum’s rules against anything even remotely provocative—nixed the idea. Becker turned his screenplay into a book, and the book proved to be popular on both sides of the wall. After Erich Honecker took over the reins of government from Walter Ulbricht, the restrictions against films were relaxed a bit. Becker’s screenplay was dusted off, and the film was greenlighted for production.

Jurek Becker was born in Łódź, Poland, probably in 1937 (his actual birthdate is something of a mystery). Being Jewish, he and his family were moved into the Łódź Ghetto in 1939, and later shipped out to concentration camps. He and his mother ended up first in Ravensbruck, then in Sachsenhausen at the Königs Wusterhausen sub-camp, where his mother died of malnutrition shortly after the camp was liberated. His father was sent to Auchschwitz, and miraculously survived. Jurek was reunited with his father after the war and the two of them moved to the Soviet Sector because his father felt that the Russians were doing a better job of curbing anti-Semitism than the western allies.

At first, the young man fit well with East German society, but while still at school studying philosophy, he got in trouble for his contrary views and was expelled. Becker spent the next few years working as a freelance writer, writing articles and screenplays. Jakob the Liar was his first novel, but was followed by many others, including The Boxer (Der Boxer), Sleepless Days (Schlaflose Tage), and Bronstein’s Children (Bronsteins Kinder), all of which have been made into movies (primarily for German television).

Frank Beyer directed Jakob the Liar. Beyer was well-respected for his WWII films, Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers), a politically-charged love triangle during WWII; Carbide and Sorrel, a comedy set in the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden; and  Naked Among Wolves, the first DEFA film to examine life inside a concentration camp. In the wake of the 11th Plenum, Beyer’s film, The Trace of Stones, became the biggest bugbear of the East German government and Beyer spent the next ten years working at the Dresden State Theater, and later  in television. Jakob the Liar was also originally intended for television, but its popularity led to theater distribution.

Jakob the Liar shows the sure hand of a director who, through earlier experimentation and a variety of different film projects, has mastered his craft. Every scene is composed to tell the story as economically as possible. The experimental camera angles and scene compositions of his earlier work—most notably Königskinder—have been toned down in favor of straight-forward storytelling. The cinematographer was Günter Marczinkowsky, who had shot every Beyer film since Eine alte Liebe (An Old Love) in 1959. Here, he and costume designer Joachim Dittrich work from a palette of grays, browns and olive drabs that create an appropriately oppressive atmosphere. In 1980, Marczinkowsky left East Germany to work in the west, where he continued in television production until 1989.

After success of Jakob the Liar, Becker teamed up with Beyer a second time to create The Hiding Place (Das Versteck), starring Manfred Krug and Jutta Hoffmann. It was during the production of this film that Wolf Biermann was forcibly expatriated. Several popular East German film people signed a letter of protest about this. Among the signatories were Beyer, Becker, Hoffmann and Krug. The SED, running scared by this time, ended up driving most of these people—along with Angelica Dömrose, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and several other of East Germany’s brightest talents—out of the country.

Becker was given a two-year visa, which he used to move to the United States and teach for six-months. After that he moved to West Berlin and continued writing, although his books were no longer published in the GDR. Beyer found himself in the doghouse once more, but, remarkably, he was given a work permit to make films for West German television. Nonetheless, he did not give up his East German citizenship and continued working on both sides of the border, making a few more feature films for DEFA before the wall came down. After the Wende, Beyer worked primarily in television. He has since retired. His last film was the TV-movie, Abgehauen (roughly translated: Beat It), based on Manfred Krug’s autobiographical account of the events that led to that actor’s expulsion from the GDR.

Jakob the Liar’s minimal but haunting score was by Joachim Werzlau. Beyer and Werzlau had worked together many times before, starting with Beyer’s first feature film for DEFA, Zwei Mütter. Zwerlau was born to make music. His father was an orchestra musician who taught him to play piano and violin, and the boy was already trying his hand at classical composition at the age of twelve. At first he did not study music, but began working at the Blüthner piano factory. later he was accepted at the Leipzig Conservatory of Music, but was kicked out because of his left-leaning associations. After the war he was a member of the Cultural Alliance for Democratic Renewal of Germany and composed “Weil Wir Jung Sind, Ist Die Welt So Schön” (“Because We Are Young, The World Is So Beautiful”), a song frequently sung at FDJ meetings (Freie Deutsche Jugend, or Free German Youth, the official socialist youth movement of the SED).

Jakob the Liar was Zwerlau’s last film score. Like Simeon Pironkov’s score for Stars, its inspiration comes from Jewish folk tunes and is hauntingly melancholy. After this film, Werzlau concentrated on his classical compositions, in particular, his opera, Meister Röckle, based on the book by Ilse and Vilmos Korn that was adapted from a version of a old fairy tale that Karl Marx had re-interpreted.

No examination of Jakob the Liar would be complete without mentioning the film’s exceptional cast. To play the lead, Beyer cast Vlastimil Brodský, a Czech actor whose sad-sack expression was perfect for the part. The Czech spoke German very badly, so his voice was dubbed. Scenes of dialog between Brodský and other actors were reportedly very difficult for all involved. Sadly, Brodský committed suicide in 2002.

Playing Jakob’s best friend, Kowalski, is Erwin Geschonneck, arguably the best actor in East Germany. Geschonneck had wanted to play Jakob, but Beyer convinced him that a smaller, more inconspicuous man was needed. [For more information on Erwin Geschonneck, see the article on Carbide and Sorrel.]

Most of the leading actors in the film went on the have successful careers in unified Germany. Among them, Henry Hübchen and Blanche Kommerell, who played the young lovers, Mischa and Rosa, and, of course, Armin Mueller-Stahl, who has the singular distinction of appearing in both film versions of the story. Worthy of special mention is the charming performance by Manuela Simon as the young girl, Lina, who serves as the last symbol and childhood innocence in the ghetto. It is her only film performance, and it is a heartbreaker.

Although the film did not win the Academy Award (that honor went to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Black and White in Color), Frank Beyer won the Interfilm Award for his directing, and Vlastimil Brodský won the Silver Bear for best actor at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1975. The Holllywood version of the story went unnominated by the Motion Picture Academy, but Robin Williams did garner a Golden Raspberry award nomination for worst actor (he lost to Adam Sandler in Big Daddy).

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The East German film studio, DEFA, was founded in May, 1946. During the first few years in post-war Germany, it was, literally, the only game in town. While the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) in the west dragged its feet on film production (mostly at the behest of Hollywood), the east got the old UFA studios in Potsdam and the AGFA film lab in Wolfen back into production almost immediately. Somewhere in Berlin (Irgendwo in Berlin) is the third film made by DEFA, and the second example of a Trümmerfilm, literally, a “rubble film”—that group of films shot immediately after WWII in the wreckage of Berlin (for more on this see The Murderers Are Among Us).

Somewhere in Berlin is the story of a gang of children living and playing amid the rubble of post-war Berlin. Gustav is a congenial little boy who seems to have no qualms about making friends with strangers. Gustav’s father ran a garage in the neighborhood (now a bombed-out ruin). He was taken as a prisoner-of-war, and the family has had no word from him yet. Gustav’s best friend is Willi, whose parents were killed during the war. The adults in the neighborhood are in a state of numb indifference to the destruction that surrounds them. When Gustav’s father, he, like many other soldiers returning from war, is an emotional wreck.

Director Gerhard Lamprecht might be called the first child of the cinema. At the age of twelve, he was working at movie screenings (at that point, the film industry was still in its infancy and most screenings were held in meeting halls and legitimate theaters). At the age of seventeen, he sold his first script to Eiko-Film GmbH, and a few years later he began acting in films. It wasn’t long before he got behind the lens and started to direct, quickly establishing himself as a talented director. Lamprecht continued to make movies during the Third Reich, a fact that got in his way when he went to OMGUS after the war. Many ex-UFA technicians found that working under Goebbels was automatic grounds for rejection in west during the first few years after the war. This combined with the lack of film production in the western sectors made Lamprecht turn to DEFA for employment.

Lamprecht had already proven his ability to work with children with the pre-war UFA classic, Emil and the Detectives (Emil und die Detektive). The children in both films are spunky and prefer taking charge of things without much help from the adult community, and in both movies the kids are capable of rational thinking, even though sometimes there choices leave something to be desired. There is also a similarity between the evil Max Grundeis of Emil and the Detectives, and the slimy Waldemar Hunke in Somewhere in Berlin, although the latter film’s antagonist is bit more charming (but only a bit). The most spectacular scene in the film involves a boy climbing the crumbling ruins of a building that looms over the neighborhood. It certainly looks like he is climbing the building and it is breathtaking.

But Lamprecht’s heart really wasn’t in the east. He made one more feature film for DEFA (Quartett zu fünft), but as soon as it was feasible, he was back in the west where he made a few more films before retiring from the industry. he died in 1974 at the age of 76.

As with other early DEFA productions, many members of the technical crew were UFA alumni. Cinematographer Werner Krien got his start as a feature film cinematographer during the Third Reich. With Konstantin Irmen-Tschet, he had filmed the dazzling Münchhausen (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), regarded as one of the best films to come out of UFA during the war years. But Krien was more opportunist than communist. Somewhere in Berlin would be his only DEFA feature film. Editor Lena Neumann also got her start during the Third Reich, but, unlike Krien, chose to stay with DEFA, editing such classics as Kurt Maetzig’s Story of a Young Couple (Roman einer jungen Ehe), Slátan Dudow’s Destinies of Women (Frauenschicksale), and Konrad Wolf’s Lissy.

The music is composed by Erich Einegg and it is his only feature film. Einegg was a talented composer and is best known for his songs sung by the famous lesbian songstress of the 1920’s, Claire Waldoff (whose life was the basis of the East German TV-movie Claire Berolina). Einegg’s music here, however, is strident, march tempo music, similar to that used in U.S. films about the glories of the heroic F.B.I. Later, other composers such as Karl-Ernst Sasse, and Hanns Eisler would handle soundtrack composition with more subtlety.

Worthy of special mention here is Paul Bildt, who played Herr Birke. Bildt had already made a name for himself  as a popular character actor during UFA’s early years. He also  was Gerhard Lamprecht’s acting teacher when the director was trying to break into movies. Bildt continued to work throughout the Third Reich, appearing in Veit Harlan’s Opfergang, and the extravagant Kolberg. At the end of the war he and his daughter attempted to commit suicide when the Russian Army invaded the town where they were staying (an all too common reaction; stories of the Red Army’s brutalities preceded them). Bildt’s daughter died, but he was nursed back to health and continued his acting career in the east. He appeared in several East German films, including Razzia, The Beaver Coat, and The Cold Heart. Most notably, he played the evil Chairman Mauch in Kurt Maetzig’s classic, The Council of the Gods.

Also worth mentioning is Charles Brauer, who played Gustav. After making one more Trümmerfilm for DEFA (Und wieder 48), Brauer moved to West Germany where he has continued his acting career to this day. Today, he is best known for his role as Hauptkommissar Peter Brockmöller on the popular German-TV crime show, Tatort, playing opposite former East German film star, Manfred Krug.

In spite the inherent grimness of Somewhere in Berlin, the film’s tone is positive, suggesting that the future of Germany is in the hands of the children, and that it will survive. It is interesting to compare the Trümmerfilme of DEFA with Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini’s attempt at the genre, Berlin Year Zero. In spite of the grimness of the situation, the urban destruction, and the national disgrace the people of Germany must have felt, both Somewhere in Berlin and Murders are Among Us end on positive notes. Rossellini’s film, on the other hand, remains relentlessly downbeat. Rossellini sees no future for Germany. His ending—remarkably similar in some respects to the Lamprecht film—leaves us without hope. Fortunately for all of us, Rossellini was wrong.

 

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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.

 

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UMass DEFA Film Library page

 

*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.

In 1947, the Soviets began mining operations in the Schlema Valley in the southeastern region of Saxony. They called their mining company “Wismut,” the German word for bismuth, because they didn’t want the U.S. to know what they were really mining: uranium. After what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Russians wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t suffer the same fate as the Japanese and they stepped up their efforts to develop a bomb of their own. Whether the fact that the Soviets had the bomb deterred its use or increased its threat is still a matter of debate. At the time, the Americans went collectively insane over the idea that anyone else would have this weapon and cheerfully executed Julius Rosenberg for the crime of sharing the technology with the Russians. For good measure, they executed his wife Ethel too, even though it appears she did little more than type up her husband’s notes.

The choice of the name Wismut for the mining company is indicative of the level of paranoia that existed on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It’s doubtful that anyone was fooled by this ruse though. The spa at Oberschlema was already well know by then to be sitting on top of a vast lode of radioactive material. During the 1920s the place was a popular destination for people looking to bask in the radium springs and drink its radioactive water.

By the early fifties, the Soviets had changed the once verdant Schlema valley into a muddy, barren mess that looked more like a concentration camp than a mining company. Security at the mine was tight. People working there were essentially cordoned off from the rest of society, existing in a cocoon of their own. They had their own community, and communication with the outside world was carefully monitored. Geiger counters were installed at the gates to make sure that no one walked out with any of the ore lest they sell it to the Yanks. Health problems, as one can imagine, were legion and still linger today. The size of the mine was immense. By the time it shut down in 1990, it comprised 54 mine shafts spaced 30 meters apart.

In 1958, director Konrad Wolf, along with writers Karl-Georg Egel and Paul Wiens, created Sun Seekers (Sonnensucher), a paean to the workers of the Wismut mine. The story takes place in 1947, and follows the exploits of Lotte Lutz, an attractive young woman who had lost her mother during the war. Tired of the sexual abuse on the farm where she was living, she flees to Berlin where she hooks up with her aunt Emmi, a boisterous woman who looks like Rosemary Clooney and acts like Joan Blondell. After a barroom brawl, Emmi and Lotte are sent by the soviet authorities to work at the Wismut mine. Although it is never explicitly stated, there is a suggestion here that the reason the women are sent to this mine is because they had been fraternizing with the Wismut miners and the authorities were still trying to contain knowledge of the mine’s existence. At the mine we see that the peace between the Russians and the Germans is still on tenuous ground. The Russians are in charge, and are still smarting from what the German army did to their country during WWII. The Germans are trying to prove their loyalty to the communist way of life, although some are obviously not on board.

In many respects, Sun Seekers resembles the Rubble Films of the late-forties. Lotte is a burned-out husk of a woman,, who has come to distrust all men, and is incapable of smiling. Likewise, the one-armed Beier, who had been a German soldier on the Russian Front is filled with remorse and self-loathing for what he had seen and done. Together, these two wounded birds eventually find, if not happiness, then at least some small comfort together. As the emotionally crippled Lutz, Ulrike Germer effectively conveys the frailty masked by frigidity and the artless sensuality of the character. Likewise, Günther Simon, best known for his portrayal of the German Communist Party leader Ernst Thälmann, is better used here as Beier, the one-armed German with a secret past, who wants to find whatever happiness might be left in Lutz’s soul.

Unfortunately for this film, it was made at exactly the wrong time. In August of 1957, the United States announced a two-year suspension on nuclear testing (although they would renege on this plan exactly one year later), and in September of the same year, a huge explosion at the Mayak nuclear facility in Russia released tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere (although this was carefully hushed up by the authorities at the time). After years of fear-mongering and forcing children hide under their school desks, people—in both the east and the west—were growing weary of atomic fear-mongering. The Soviets wanted to show that they too were worried about the potential dangers of atomic weapons and were willing to slow down the arms race. The idea of a film that championed the Soviet efforts to mine the vast uranium deposits in the Schlema Valley was deemed too provocative to release at that time, and the movie was shelved until 1972. Of course, a old black-and-white propaganda movie on the importance of uranium mining to the communist way of life went over rather badly in 1972 and the film did not do well at the box office.

Director Konrad Wolf was as close to royalty was one could get in a communist country. His father, Friedrich Wolf, was a well-respected doctor, playwright, and communist provocateur. In 1932, Friedrich Wolf founded the Southwest Theater Troop (Spieltrupp Südwest) in Stuttgart, and began writing plays that championed the communist cause. Two of his plays, Professor Mamlock and Cyankali, were made twice into films. During WWII, Friedrich Wolf also worked as a doctor in Spain and was briefly interred in a concentration camp in France before being allowed to emigrate to Russia. Konrad’s brother, Markus, was the head of the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA), East Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, and is now considered one of the greatest spymasters that ever lived. It is widely believed that the character of Karla in John Le Carré’s Karla Trilogy is based on Markus Wolf, although Le Carré always denied this (a closer match is the character of Fiedler in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). Konrad Wolf himself fought with the Soviet Army during World War II, and his story was made into the movie, I Was Nineteen (Ich war neunzehn) in 1968, which he also directed.

As a director, Wolf had a powerful, if sometimes melodramatic, style. Shots in his films are carefully framed, and he isn’t afraid of using unusual angles and novelty wipes when the scene calls for it. For most of his early career, Wolf seemed content to tow the party line. His early films are didactic and very pro-communist. Later in his career, he began to push the envelope with films like Goya (Goya – oder Der arge Weg der Erkenntnis), The Naked Man at the Stadium (Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz), and Solo Sunny.

Erwin Geschonneck shines here as the ex-circus strongman turned ardent Bolshevik, Jupp König. Geschonneck would later go on to become the most popular actor in East Germany, but in the fifties, two of his most important roles—that of Jupp König in this film and Teetjen the butcher in The Axe of Wandsbek (Das Beil von Wandsbek)—were suppressed, postponing his fame (see Carbide and Sorrel).

Manja Behrens as Emmi also deserves special mention here. She, along with Geschonneck, give this movie its vitality. Behrens started her career in Dresden prior to WWII. During the war, she made two films for the Third Reich before running afoul of Joseph Goebbels. After the war, she moved from Dresden to Berlin to continue her career in theater. There she began working in films and quickly became a popular character actress. In the 1960s, British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper uncovered the fact that Behrens had been the mistress of Martin Bormann during the war. Upon this revelation, she was blacklisted, appearing only occasionally on television in small roles after that. Throughout her life, she continued to appear on stage both before and after the reunification of Germany. Ms. Behrens died in Berlin in 2003.

Today, the Schlema Valley is home to the rebuilt Bad Schlema health spa. You can go there once again to soak in the radon springs. Parts of the mine are left intact as part of the Saxon-Thuringian Uranium Mining Museum, but the muddy landscape of the fifties is gone.

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Bad Schlema website

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Your Unknown Brother takes place in 1935; many years before the GDR was established. Although it is ostensibly about the Nazi regime, the parallels to East Germany in the 1980s are obvious. Uwe Kockisch plays Arnold Clasen, a member of the banned Communist party who was arrested for painting communist slogans on a wall. After being released from a concentration camp, he takes a job as a projectionist at the local movie house, where his boss, a sexually frustrated woman named Heidemarie Fritsch (Karin Gregorek), has the hots for him. Like many Germans at the time, she has bought into the Nazi philosophy and admires Hitler greatly. Likewise his good friend, Richard Deisen (Bohumil Vávra), who runs a local tobacco shop, puts total faith in the fascist regime, only to see it repaid with callous indifference. Arnold tries to get back in touch with other party members, but he is no longer sure whom to trust. He finally opens up to a man named Walter Kepler (Michael Gwisdek), who seems to be a true communist loyalist, but eventually Arnold begins to doubt his allegiances as well.

The opening credits of Your Unknown Brother (Dein unbekannter Bruder) offers us a clue to the pacing and style of this film. The titles are shown in silence over a background of slowly flowing teal-colored water. We are as far from the cinema of Mad Max as possible. No need for seatbelts here: this film is going to take its time. Reading member reviews of this film on IMDB, it is obvious that this approach is not for everyone. The most common complaint about Your Unknown Brother is that it is slow and boring. But for the viewer that is willing to put down the popcorn and pay attention, this film offers a clever attack on the East German government at a time when the Stasi was at its most invasive and effective, and that’s no small feat. Several scenes in the film do little to move the plot forward and seem to be in the film for the sole purpose of making sure that audience is aware that the film is not really about the Nazis at all. In one scene Arnold helps another man peer over a wall to see what people on the other side are doing, a popular pastime in East Germany after the wall was built, until the Volkspolizei made it nearly impossible to do. In another scene, workers complain that they are working harder than ever for less pay—the same complaint that led to the construction workers strike in 1953.

The main premise of the film—that trust is nearly impossible in a world where informants are everywhere—is unmistakably directed at the Stasi and their vast network of civilian informants (referrred to as inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or IMs , for short). The Stasi—short for Staatssicherheit—was the organization responsible for state security in the GDR. Their secret police seemed, at times, to know everything that everyone was doing. Their surveillance techniques were legendary and were well dramatized in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). They were particularly effective at recruiting informants that seemed above reproach. It was only after the Wende and the publication of the Stasi files that many people found out that the person they trusted the most turned out to be the one that betrayed them.

When Your Unknown Brother was released in the west, people immediately saw the similarities between the GDR and the vision of Nazi Germany portrayed in this film. Once the East German government figured this out, they stepped in and stopped it from being shown at Cannes. In 1982, when the film was made, the Stasi’s control over every aspect of daily life in the east was virtually complete. Your Unknown Brother demonstrates how, even in the worst of times, a clever filmmaker can attack the very system that is trying to control him. It is worth seeing for this reason alone. It is also a testament to how rigid and narrowly focused the East German government had become. One can only wonder how they would have reacted to this film in 1965, when so many films were banned during the 11th Plenum of the SED for even the slightest hint of government criticism.

It is, perhaps, ironic that the female lead in this film is played Jenny Gröllmann. After the wall came down, her husband from 1984 to 1990, Ulrich Mühe, claimed that Ms. Gröllman was a Stasi informant (IM), a claim that she denied under oath. Ulrich Mühe portrayed a Stasi officer in The Lives of Others, a film that details how an East German playwright’s wife is coerced into becoming an informant for the Stasi. Ms. Gröllman died of cancer in 2006 (Ulrich Mühe died of stomach cancer a year later).

Director of Photography, Chris Neumann’s work here is some of his best. Shooting in a foggy environment is never easy, and Neumann pulls it off without a hitch. But it is when things move into the lush world of the Nazi upper class that his work really shines with a richness of color comparable to Gordon Willis’ work on The Godfather.

Special mention should be given here to Production Designer,  Paul Lehmann, who vividly recreates the 1930s in a manner that never feels like set design. It seems real. Some have pointed out that this may be due in part to the fact that East Germany was, in many ways, stuck in time and still had WWII architecture available, but Paul Lehmann must still be given credit for making it all seem fresh and opulent in 1982 when the film was made.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

Your Unknown Brother takes place in 1935; many years before the GDR was established. Although it is ostensibly about the Nazi regime, the parallels to East Germany in the 1980s are obvious. Uwe Kockisch plays Arnold Clasen, a member of the banned Communist party who was arrested for painting communist slogans on a wall. After being released from a concentration camp, he takes a job as a projectionist at the local movie house, where his boss, a sexually frustrated woman named Heidemarie Fritsch (Karin Gregorek), has the hots for him. Like many Germans at the time, she has bought into the Nazi philosophy and admires Hitler greatly. Likewise his good friend, Richard Deisen (Bohumil Vávra), who runs a local tobacco shop, puts total faith in the fascist regime, only to see it repaid with callous indifference. Arnold tries to get back in touch with other party members, but he is no longer sure whom to trust. He finally opens up to a man named Walter Kepler (Michael Gwisdek), who seems to be a true communist loyalist, but eventually Arnold begins to doubt his allegiances as well.

The opening credits of Your Unknown Brother (Dein unbekannter Bruder) offers us a clue to the pacing and style of this film. The titles are shown in silence over a background of slowly flowing teal-colored water. We are as far from the cinema of Mad Max as possible. No need for seatbelts here: this film is going to take its time. Reading member reviews of this film on IMDB, it is obvious that this approach is not for everyone. The most common complaint about Your Unknown Brother is that it is slow and boring. But for the viewer that is willing to put down the popcorn and pay attention, this film offers a clever attack on the East German government at a time when the Stasi was at its most invasive and effective, and that’s no small feat. Several scenes in the film do little to move the plot forward and seem to be in the film for the sole purpose of making sure that audience is aware that the film is not really about the Nazis at all. In one scene Arnold helps another man peer over a wall to see what people on the other side are doing, a popular pastime in East Germany after the wall was built, until the Volkspolizei made it nearly impossible to do. In another scene, workers complain that they are working harder than ever for less pay—the same complaint that led to the construction workers strike in 1953.The main premise of the film—that trust is nearly impossible in a world where informants are everywhere—is unmistakably directed at the Stasi and their vast network of civilian informants (creferrred to as inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or IMs , for short). The Stasi—short for Staatssicherheit—was the organization responsible for state security in the GDR. Their secret police seemed, at times, to know everything that everyone was doing. Their surveillance techniques were legendary and were well dramatized in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). They were particularly effective at recruiting informants that seemed above reproach. It was only after the Wende and the publication of the Stasi files that many people found out that the person they trusted the most turned out to be the one that betrayed them.

When Your Unknown Brother was released in the west, people immediately saw the similarities between the GDR and the vision of Nazi Germany portrayed in this film. Once the East German government figured this out, they stepped in and stopped it from being shown at Cannes. In 1982, when the film was made, the Stasi’s control over every aspect of daily life in the east was virtually complete. Your Unknown Brother demonstrates how, even in the worst of times, a clever filmmaker can attack the very system that is trying to control him. It is worth seeing for this reason alone. It is also a testament to how rigid and narrowly focused the East German government had become. One can only wonder how they would have reacted to this film in 1965, when so many films were banned during the 11th Plenum of the SED for even the slightest hint of government criticism.

It is, perhaps, ironic that the female lead in this film is played Jenny Gröllmann. After the wall came down, her husband from 1984 to 1990, Ulrich Mühe, claimed that Ms. Gröllman was a Stasi informant (IM), a claim that she denied under oath. Ulrich Mühe portrayed a Stasi officer in The Lives of Others, a film that details how an East German playwright’s wife is coerced into becoming an informant for the Stasi. Ms. Gröllman died of cancer in 2006 (Ulrich Mühe died of stomach cancer a year later).

Director of Photography, Chris Neumann’s work here is some of his best. Shooting in a foggy environment is never easy, and Neumann pulls it off without a hitch. But it is when things move into the lush world of the Nazi upper class that his work really shines with a richness of color comparable to Gordon Willis’ work on The Godfather.

Special mention should be given here to Production Designer,  Paul Lehmann, who vividly recreates the 1930s in a manner that never feels like set design. It seems real. Some have pointed out that this may be due in part to the fact that East Germany was, in many ways, stuck in time and still had WWII architecture available, but Paul Lehmann must still be given credit for making it all seem new and opulent in 1982 when the film was made.

IMDB page for the film.Your Unknown Brother takes place in 1935; many years before the GDR was established. Although it is ostensibly about the Nazi regime, the parallels to East Germany in the 1980s are obvious. Uwe Kockisch plays Arnold Clasen, a member of the banned Communist party who was arrested for painting communist slogans on a wall. After being released from a concentration camp, he takes a job as a projectionist at the local movie house, where his boss, a sexually frustrated woman named Heidemarie Fritsch (Karin Gregorek), has the hots for him. Like many Germans at the time, she has bought into the Nazi philosophy and admires Hitler greatly. Likewise his good friend, Richard Deisen (Bohumil Vávra), who runs a local tobacco shop, puts total faith in the fascist regime, only to see it repaid with callous indifference. Arnold tries to get back in touch with other party members, but he is no longer sure whom to trust. He finally opens up to a man named Walter Kepler (Michael Gwisdek), who seems to be a true communist loyalist, but eventually Arnold begins to doubt his allegiances as well.

The opening credits of Your Unknown Brother (Dein unbekannter Bruder) offers us a clue to the pacing and style of this film. The titles are shown in silence over a background of slowly flowing teal-colored water. We are as far from the cinema of Mad Max as possible. No need for seatbelts here: this film is going to take its time. Reading member reviews of this film on IMDB, it is obvious that this approach is not for everyone. The most common complaint about Your Unknown Brother is that it is slow and boring. But for the viewer that is willing to put down the popcorn and pay attention, this film offers a clever attack on the East German government at a time when the Stasi was at its most invasive and effective, and that’s no small feat. Several scenes in the film do little to move the plot forward and seem to be in the film for the sole purpose of making sure that audience is aware that the film is not really about the Nazis at all. In one scene Arnold helps another man peer over a wall to see what people on the other side are doing, a popular pastime in East Germany after the wall was built, until the Volkspolizei made it nearly impossible to do. In another scene, workers complain that they are working harder than ever for less pay—the same complaint that led to the construction workers strike in 1953.

The main premise of the film—that trust is nearly impossible in a world where informants are everywhere—is unmistakably directed at the Stasi and their vast network of civilian informants (creferrred to as inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or IMs , for short). The Stasi—short for Staatssicherheit—was the organization responsible for state security in the GDR. Their secret police seemed, at times, to know everything that everyone was doing. Their surveillance techniques were legendary and were well dramatized in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). They were particularly effective at recruiting informants that seemed above reproach. It was only after the Wende and the publication of the Stasi files that many people found out that the person they trusted the most turned out to be the one that betrayed them.

When Your Unknown Brother was released in the west, people immediately saw the similarities between the GDR and the vision of Nazi Germany portrayed in this film. Once the East German government figured this out, they stepped in and stopped it from being shown at Cannes. In 1982, when the film was made, the Stasi’s control over every aspect of daily life in the east was virtually complete. Your Unknown Brother demonstrates how, even in the worst of times, a clever filmmaker can attack the very system that is trying to control him. It is worth seeing for this reason alone. It is also a testament to how rigid and narrowly focused the East German government had become. One can only wonder how they would have reacted to this film in 1965, when so many films were banned during the 11th Plenum of the SED for even the slightest hint of government criticism.

It is, perhaps, ironic that the female lead in this film is played Jenny Gröllmann. After the wall came down, her husband from 1984 to 1990, Ulrich Mühe, claimed that Ms. Gröllman was a Stasi informant (IM), a claim that she denied under oath. Ulrich Mühe portrayed a Stasi officer in The Lives of Others, a film that details how an East German playwright’s wife is coerced into becoming an informant for the Stasi. Ms. Gröllman died of cancer in 2006 (Ulrich Mühe died of stomach cancer a year later).

Director of Photography, Chris Neumann’s work here is some of his best. Shooting in a foggy environment is never easy, and Neumann pulls it off without a hitch. But it is when things move into the lush world of the Nazi upper class that his work really shines with a richness of color comparable to Gordon Willis’ work on The Godfather.

Special mention should be given here to Production Designer,  Paul Lehmann, who vividly recreates the 1930s in a manner that never feels like set design. It seems real. Some have pointed out that this may be due in part to the fact that East Germany was, in many ways, stuck in time and still had WWII architecture available, but Paul Lehmann must still be given credit for making it all seem new and opulent in 1982 when the film was made.

IMDB page for the film.