As its title suggests, a recurring image throughout Rotation is the wheel. The wheel in this case appears in various forms, from the cylinders of the printing press that acts as the film’s Greek chorus, to the carousel at a fair where Hans Behneke, the film’s protagonist, is forced to work during the Weimar Republic’s economic collapse. When we first see it, the printing press is running news of the battle for Berlin. The war is almost over, and we are treated to some remarkably effective battle sequences. Hans Behneke is standing in a prison cell, listening to the guns and bombs outside. Why he is there, we do not yet know. From here, the story flashes back to the end of World War I, when Hans, young and still unmarried, is returning from the Western Front. The film follows his story through his marriage, and the birth of his son, to the economic travails of the Weimar Republic and the ensuing paranoia of the Third Reich, to the end of World War II. While the film is mostly about Hans, it is also about his son, Hellmuth, who reaches school age just as the Nazis comes to power. Hellmuth is properly indoctrinated into the Nazi way of thinking and soon finds himself at odds with his more liberal parents. It doesn’t help that his uncle is fighting with the resistance.
Rotation examines a subject that is rarely discussed: the Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend). Inculcated with Nazi doctrine at an early age, Hitler Youth members were the most virulently pro-Nazi people in Germany. On many occasions they were known to have turned in their own parents when mom or dad would say something derogatory about der Führer. Betraying one’s own family for the Reich was seen as an act of the highest honor. It demonstrated that the child understood that nothing—not even blood—was more important than the fight for the Fatherland. At the end of the war, it was the Hitler Youths who fought the hardest, even after Hitler had killed himself rather than face the music. Rotation follows Hellmuth—unfortunately born just in time to get both barrels of Nazi doctrine—from his early indoctrination, through his eventual realization that everything he learned was wrong (ah, we’ve all been there, haven’t we?). To the film’s credit, it does not place all the blame on Hellmuth for the travails he visited on his parent. It recognizes that he too was a victim of the Nazis.
Director Wolfgang Staudte is better than the average filmmaker at using the camera to create a symbolic narrative. He had already proved this with his use of the ruins of Berlin to show the internal desolation of the tormented protagonist in The Murderers are Among Us (Die Mörder sind unter uns). In Rotation, his use of the aforementioned wheel motif is only one example of this. Again and again in the film, people are blocked by bars and lattices, suggesting that everyone in the Third Reich is trapped in one way or another. The wooden slats on Hellmuth’s crib morph to the ornate iron gates that keep the rich separated from the working class, to the poles holding the protest banners of striking workers, and finally to the bars of a holding cell. In a pivotal scene, victims of a flooded subway shelter are shown trapped behind a a steel grate as the water rises to drown them. The scene cuts to a bird trapped in a cage that is slowly sinking into the same murky water. The message is clear: the restrictions we place on our freedom will first constrain us and eventually kill us. [Note: The fact that this message was delivered by a film studio that was under the thumb of the Soviet Union is more than a little ironic, but this is just one example of that fount of paradoxes that is East German cinema.]
Early scenes between Hans and his wife are repeated later with Hellmuth and his fiancée, suggesting that the rotation in the title is that of life itself. Staudte got his start as an actor at UFA during the Weimar Republic. He appeared as an extra in the classic, The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel), and did the German voice-over for one of the lead characters in All Quiet of the Western Front. He was already starring in films when the Nazis came to power. Coming, as he did, from an acting background, Staudte understands the relationship between the performance and the camera better than most directors of the time (although he did tend to err on the side of melodrama).
Staudte started his directing career during the Third Reich. His first feature film, Akrobat Schööön!, was a big hit in Germany when it came out. Thanks to its lack of political perspective, it continued to be shown on TV in Germany after the war. His next film, Der Mann, dem man den Namen stahl (The Man, Who Had His Name Stolen), did not fare as well. As with Akrobat Schööön!, Der Mann, dem man den Namen stahl was a comedy. In it, two men who are given the same identity, which causes all sorts of problems and funny situations. Goebbels had it banned, probably due to its central conceit that the state was capable of making such a mistake. Staudte must have had strong feelings about this movie because he ended up remaking after the war as Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B. (The Adventures of Fridolin), using footage from the original film.
In the early years of the German Democratic Republic, it looked like Staudte was slated to be the most prominent filmmaker on the East German filmmaking scene. He got the ball rolling with The Murderers are Among Us (Die Mörder sind unter uns), the first post-war German film; and a few years later would direct The Story of Little Mook (Die Geschichte vom kleinen Muck), still the best selling film to come out of the GDR. But disagreements between him, the East German officials and Bertolt Brecht led to his defection to the west (for more on this, see The Story of Little Mook).
Cinematographer Bruno Mondi was already a well-respected cameraman when the GDR came into existence. He had gotten his start back in 1921 with Fritz Lang as a camera assistant on Destiny. After the Nazi’s came to power, Mondi never stopped working, and was responsible for filming Kolberg, the most lavish color production of the Third Reich. After the war, he made films for DEFA, and then fled to the west, where his knowledge of color was put to good use in the stunningly photographed (and stunningly banal) Sissi films.
Wolfgang Staudte and his cinematographer, Bruno Mondi, had worked together before under the most unfortunate of circumstances. Mondi was the cinematographer for Jud Süß, considered the most virulently anti-Semitic film ever made. Wolfgang Staudte, still an actor in 1940, appeared in the film in a minor role. After the war, this film led to charges of “crimes against humanity” for the film’s director, Veit Harlan. Harlan successfully claimed he was just a pawn, hired to direct the film with no control over its content or perspective; perhaps the only occasion in history of a director denying the autuer theory. Mondi was not charged and seems to have managed to come through the Third Reich without the stigma that haunted directors such as Harlan and Riefenstahl. (For more on Veit Harlan, see the documentary, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss.)
During his long career, Staudte directed nearly every type of film, from light comedies to heavy dramas. During the seventies, he worked largely in television, directing episodes of the popular crime dramas, Der Kommisar, and Tatort. He worked right up until his death. His last film, a TV-movie called Der Snob (The Snob), was released two months after his death.