After World War II, Germans had an understandably uneasy relationship with war films. While Hollywood rolled out film after film about the heroics of our fighting men, neither East Germany nor West Germany had much taste for this kind of film, not were the expected to. From the German perspective, war was not something to be glorified. It was an ugly business in which everyone who participated lost part of their humanity. The first few films out of DEFA after WWII discussed the war in these terms. A few even showed scenes of battles, but, for the most part, the preferred to steer clear of the subject of men at war. Konrad Wolf’s beautiful film, Stars, observed the daily lives of German soldiers during WWII, but these were men far from the front. The lives and camaraderie of the men in the trenches weren’t subjects that any German filmmaker were ready or willing to touch. When they did, it was usually in the most pessimistic terms possible, a perfect example being Bernhard Wicki’s anti-war classic, The Bridge (Die Brücke).
When Five Cartridges (Fünf Patronenhülsen) came out, it was like no other East German film. Visually, it looked more like a John Ford western or a Kurosawa film than anything DEFA had to offer; and in spite of the inevitable futility of their fight (after all, Franco won), it treats the soldiers heroically. Of course, it helped that they were fighting against fascism. We already caught glimpses of the contributions that the communists made to the fight against Franco in the Ernst Thälmann films. At DEFA it was okay for soldiers to be heroes as long as they were communists, but even so, this sort of front line battle saga was not that common.1
After WWII, the Spanish Civil War was largely overlooked by the western film community. André Malraux explored it in his 1945 film, L’espoir (Man’s Hope), and Hollywood neutered the story for the film version of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, but most films used it more as a passing reference than a plot point.
Five Cartridges featured some of DEFA’s best male actors: Manfred Krug, Erwin Geschonneck, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Ulrich Thein all get a chance to demonstrate why they would become popular with audiences in East Germany. Erwin Geschonneck had already proved himself—most notably in The Axe of Wandsbeck. The others were relative newcomers. Manfred Krug and Armin Mueller-Stahl were just starting their careers and we already see glimpses of why they would become two of the most popular actors in East Germany. Ulrich Thein, while not as popular as Krug and Mueller-Stahl, went above and beyond the call of duty for his portrayal of the radio operator separated from the others. To prepare for the scenes where he had to play a man who had gone without anything to eat or drink for several days, he did just that. Even the most rigorous method actor rarely goes that far.
Most of the film was shot in Bulgaria, whose sandstone hills were acceptable stand-ins for the Catalonian countryside, but the crew was only allowed a few weeks worth of shooting. After they ran out of time, the film had to make do with the Harz district in East Germany. The problem was that the dark, loamy soil and rock formations of the Harz area looked nothing like tan and sandy terrain of Bulgaria. To solve the problem, production designer Alfred Hirschmeier, the man behind such classics as The Silent Star, Carbide and Sorrel, and Jacob the Liar, was given the task of making the Harz landscape look like Bulgaria. His solution was to paint the rocks white. The end result is effective and is only noticed if you are looking for it.
Five Cartridges was written by Walter Gorrish, an author and screenwriter whose own life is worthy of a movie. Gorrish had first-hand knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, having fought in Spain himself as a member of the XI International Brigade. While in Spain, he served as adjutant to fellow writer, Ludwig Renn, the author of War, which stands alongside All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun as a classic anti-war novels of First World War. After fleeing Spain, Gorrish was captured in France, and was sentenced to prison. Later, he was conscripted into the Strafdivision 999—a military battalion comprised largely of political prisoners. While serving on the Eastern Front, Gorrick did what many others in his battalion did: He defected to Russia. After the war, Gorrish moved to the Soviet Sector of Germany, where he worked as a freelance writer. He only wrote a few screenplays, concentrating, primarily, on his writing. He died in 1981,
Cinematography was by Günter Marczinkowsky—quite possibly the best cinematographer in East Germany. Like Rolf Sohre, Marczinkowsky worked in film lab before he became a cinematographer. He began his career as a camera working under Robert Baberske, considered one of the greatest cinematographers of all time (see The Axe of Wandsbeck). After the 11th Plenum, Marczinkowsky was “disciplined” for working on Trace of Stones by being moved to television productions. In 1979, he moved to West Germany, where he continued to work primarily in television. He retired the year that the wall came down, and died in 2004.
Understandably, Five Cartridges was a hit in East Germany and helped propel Frank Beyer’s career forward. During the early sixties, he was one of the most well-respected directors at DEFA. He had almost back-to-back hits with Star-Crossed Lovers, Carbide and Sorrel and Naked Among Wolves. His career probably would have continued to flourish had the 11th Plenum not come down hard on the film industry, and, in particular , on his film Trace of Stones. From here on out, with only a few exceptions (notably, Jakob the Liar), his directing would be relegated to the small screen.
1. We wouldn’t see Third Reich soldiers treated with the any respect in a German film until Das Boot. Even then, Sam Peckinpah got there first with Cross of Iron (a huge hit in Germany, by the way).