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.
This film is not available commercially in the United States.