Right from the start, the east was always more willing to talk about World War II than the west. After the war, East Germany had no vested interest in placating the fat cats that had been profiteering under the Nazi regime. They nationalized large corporate holdings, and the leaders of any such companies were seen as enemies of the state, or at least in need of reeducation. Meanwhile in the west, the Allies and the Federal Republic were giving lip service to anti-Nazi sentiments and were punishing the worst offenders, but they were also quietly allowing many Nazi collaborators to return to business as if nothing had happened. Unlike the GDR, the Bundesrepublik wasn’t interested in overthrowing the capitalist system. It chose instead to make a deal with the devil and let some of the lesser offenders get back to work while the worst cases were paraded before the news media. Small wonder then that the East was first to make movies that mentioned concentration camps (see Murderers Among Us), and the first to set dramas in concentration camps.
Naked Among Wolves (Nackt unter Wölfen) is one of the first dramatic films to be set entirely within the confines of a concentration camp. It is based on the true story of Stefan Jerzy Zweig, a three-year-old Jewish boy, who was sent to Buchenwald. From there he was scheduled to be shipped off to Auschwitz for extermination, but through the clever deceptions and misdirections of some prisoners and his father, he escaped execution. Communist playwright, Bruno Apitz, was also a prisoner at Buchenwald at this time, and although he had no direct contact with Zweig, he heard about the boy through the prison grapevine and recognized the story’s dramatic potential. After the war, he approached DEFA with the idea of making a film out of the story, but they weren’t interested. Instead, he had the story published as a book, which quickly became a best-seller in East Germany, moving DEFA to rethink their position on the movie. A TV-movie, directed by Georg Leopold, was made from the film in 1960, with the theatrical film, made by Frank Beyer, released in 1963.
Frank Beyer had come to the attention of most East Germans a few years earlier with Fünf Patronenhülsen, a film about five anti-fascists chosen to transport secret information across enemy lines during the Spanish Civil War. Beyer was still considered something of a young gun at DEFA (he was 28 when he made Fünf Patronenhülsen), but certainly knew how to make a film.
To play Walter Kraemer, the oberkapo for the prisoners, Beyer had wanted to cast the popular singer/actor Ernst Busch. Busch, a life-long communist, was a popular interpreter of the work of Brecht and Weil prior to World War II. He spent much of the war evading the Gestapo and recording songs for the Spanish Resistance. He was eventually captured and thrown into Camp Gurs in France. After the war, he moved back to Germany, preferring, naturally enough, to settle in the east instead of the west. Although he had appeared in several films prior to the war, it wasn’t until Fünf Patronenhülsen was made that he returned to film acting. Busch was initially resistant to request to play the lead in Naked Among Wolves, but eventually agreed. Then two weeks before filming was due to start, he suffered a severe heart attack, forcing him to drop out of the project. Erwin Geschonneck was enlisted in his place.
Like Busch, Geschonneck had spent time in a concentration camp during World War II. At the end of the war, he was nearly killed by the Royal Air Force when they sank the Cap Arcona, a ship being used to transport prisoners.1 His story was turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1982 (Der Mann von der Cap Arcona). After the wall came down in 1989, The eighty-three year-old Geschonneck retired from filming, appearing only once more in the 1995 TV-movie, Matulla und Busch, which was directed by his son, Matti. Geschonneck died March 12, 2008 at the ripe old age of 101.
One common complaint about the film is the unavoidable fact that the actors playing the camp inmates look much too healthy. Some critics also attacked the film for not showing the atrocities that were occurring there and in nearby Ohrdruf. Reportedly, it was for this reason that the film did not win the best picture award at the Moscow International Film Festival, losing to Fellini’s 8½ after Polish film director, Jan Rybkowski, complained that the movie didn’t confront the atrocities with enough candor.
The lead performances are outstanding. Erwin Geschonneck was already considered the best actor in East Germany, but Armin Mueller-Stahl was a relative newcomer. He had already proved his merit in two previous Beyer films (Fünf Patronenhülsen, and Königskinder), and was well on his way to becoming one of the most respected actors in the GDR. But, unlike Geschonneck, he left East Germany before its collapse when he was forced out of the acting profession after protesting the denaturalisation of folk singer Wolf Biermann. After immigrating to the west he continued his career and soon became a popular actor on both sides of the Atlantic.
Naked Among Wolves is as much about the Buchenwald Resistance as it is about Stefan Jerzy Zweig. Since many of the prisoners were political, they did everything in their power to stymie the efforts of the Nazis in anyway they could, and even attempted a coup in the final days of the war. While the Buchenwald Resistance was, in reality, a motley group, made up of communists, social democrats, and other political and religious prisoners, the DEFA film concentrates primarily on the efforts of the communists. This is to be expected though; the west did the exact opposite, preferring to play down the resistance efforts of anyone too far left of center.
When Stefan Jerzy Zweig learned of the movie, he moved to East Germany and studied cinematography at the film school in Babelsberg, making a short film about Robert Siewert—one of his protectors at Buchenwald. Zweig was treated like a hero, but the anti-Zionist attitudes of the GDR found him often on the wrong side of arguments there. He eventually settled in Austria where he worked as a cameraman for many years.
1. In an odd turn of fate, the Cap Arcona was also a movie star. It was used to portray the Titanic in the 1943 German movie of the same name. Titanic is one of the only German films made during the Third Reich that is shown regularly on TCM, and is available from Netflix.