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.