By the spring of 1950, tensions between the west and the east were worse than ever. On Easter Sunday of the previous year, the USA had successfully broken the Soviet blockade of Berlin, and both sides had reverted back to the mistrust that characterized their relationship prior to World War II. Public opinion in America, with prodding by certain congressmen, was once again turning hard against communism. By the mid-fifties, calling someone a “red” was no longer just mild epithet: it could end a career. Films like The Red Danube, I Married a Communist, and, My Son John reflected this. Throughout the fifties, both Hollywood and DEFA would ramp up their propaganda machines, with films becoming more strident and proselytizing as the decade wore on.
But even in propaganda, there are truths to be discovered. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in DEFA’s film from 1950, The Council of the Gods (Der Rat der Götter). In this film we follow the story of IG Farben, Germany’s largest chemical manufacture, from its pre-war chemical advances, through its production of poison gases for the Nazis during World War II, to the resulting war crimes trial in Nuremberg. Primarily, the film follows the events in the lives Dr. Hans Scholz (Fritz Tillmann)—the idealistic and brilliant, but naive scientist who thinks his work at IG Farben will lead to a better world, and Chairman Mauch (Paul Bildt), the head of IG Farben, and a man without any apparent scruples. While Hans works diligently to try and discover new and useful chemicals derived from hydrazine, Chairman Mauch plots with Standard Oil and other western corporations to finance Hitler’s war machine. The main heavy is Mr. Lawson (Willy A. Kleinau), a ruthless capitalist who will back any horse that helps him see a profit. Before the war, we see him hobnobbing with Chairman Mauch on a regular basis, attending fancy dress parties and meeting during South American vacations. After the war, he is shown manipulating the Nuremberg trial to ensure that his friends at IG Farben do not receive much more than a slap on the wrist. When it looks like the American prosecutor is going to play hardball with the defendants from IG Farben, Lawson uses his pull to get the prosecutor replaced with someone more sympathetic to the cause.
It surprises most Americans to find out the extent to which Standard Oil colluded with IG Farben throughout the war. In truth, the Carl Krauch, the man on whom Chairman Mauch is based, did not get off quite as lightly as the DEFA film suggests, although his six-year sentence seemed inadequate to the survivors from Auschwitz. Also missing from this film is the fact that IG Farben was dismantled after the war, splitting the conglomerate back into the individual companies it had swallowed years earlier (Bayer, AGFA, Hoechst, and BASF, among others).
Paul Bildt plays Chairman Mauch with the right amount of congeniality and menace. Fritz Tillmann is a bit less believable as the gullible scientist who doesn’t figure out that IG Farben is making poison gas until, quite literally, the rest of Europe knows it. Willy A. Kleinau doesn’t even try for believability as the Machiavellian American businessman, Mr. Lawson. He chews up the scenery with gusto. It probably doesn’t help that, to western eyes, he looks like the stereotype of a Russian bureaucrat (one reviewer even commented on his resemblance to Boris Badenov, the evil cartoon spy on Rocky and his Friends).
The most remarkable performance in The Council of the Gods comes from Eva Pflug, who plays the very American daughter of Mr. Lawson. Her imitation of an American speaking German is so good that one reviewer wrote: “[Eva Plug] must be heard to be believed. German is obviously not her mother tongue…” Actually, Eva Pflug is very much a German, born and raised in Leipzig. The Council of the Gods was her first and last film for DEFA. Soon afterwards, she moved to West Germany where she continued appearing in movies and on television until her death in 2008.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this film is the production design by Willy Schiller. The movie called for enormous chemical plant and attached rail yard, but no such site was available to the filmmakers. In the north soundstage of the DEFA studios in Babelsberg, Schiller built a 25th scale replica of a vast chemical plant, with railroad tracks, trains, and the surrounding buildings. The effect is nearly perfect. When the script called for a Swiss chalet, the Schiller had miniature Alps built. These were then placed in front of the background and cut out to fit around a rustic house in the Hartz Mountains, using the forced perspective to create the illusions of distance and size.
In spite of the hollow calls for workers to unite, The Council of the Gods stands as a testament to the nature of greed and the dangers of corporate conglomerates like IG Farben. As Kurt Maetzig pointed out in an interview that is included in the extras on the Icestorm DVD, all the information about what IG Farben and Standard Oil did during World War II came from the testimony at the trials which were held by the Americans, and from the book, IG Farben, by Richard Sasuly, who was working as a chief financial officer in the US Military during the Nuremberg trials. Furthermore, all the documentary footage shown in the film was taken by the Americans.