Ernst Barlach was a German artist well-known for his plays, paintings, and particularly his sculptures. which powerfully expressed his feelings against war and the suffering it brings. Barlach wasn’t always against war. Prior to the First World War, he, like most Europeans, saw war as a noble endeavor, fighting to uphold and protect the values of one’s native land. He enlisted in the infantry and soon discovered that was not such a patriotic endavor after all. War is an ugly affair, fought by the powerless to protect the goals (or wealth) of a priveged few who never set foot on a battlefield. War brings misery, hardship, and death and he used his sculptures to make this point clear.
After WWI, Ernst Barlach championed pacifism in his plays and sculptures, and, for a while, the public went along with him. He received several awards for his work, and was a member of the Prussian and Munich art academies. Of course, all that changed when Hitler came to power. Barlach’s visions of pacifism did not jibe with the reborn war-mongering promoted by the Nazis. Although some Nazis, most notably Goebbels, thought highly of his work, a decision was made that, his work was yet another example of “degenerate art,” and was put of display at the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937 (Die Ausstellung „Entartete Kunst“), alongside the work of Marc Chagall, Georg Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and many others.
The Lost Angel (Der verlorene Engel) is the story of one day in the life of Ernst Barlach. The angel of the title is his sculpture, Der Schwebende (usually translated as The Hovering Angel, but also as The Floating Angel), which was taken from the cathedral in Güstrow in the early hours of August 24th, 1937, and was destroyed by the Nazis. The action in the film takes place on the same day, after Barlach learns about the theft of his sculpture. He spends the rest of the morning observing the indifference of the public to the theft, remembering past events, and regretting his indifference to the increasing political power of the NSDAP.
The film was one of the film banned in the wake of the 11th Plenum. It was shelved for not delivering a clear Marxist message. It probably would have stayed there until after the Mauerfall, but the 100th anniversary of Ernst Barlach’s birth was coming up, and word of the banned film reached interested parties in Germany and Russia. With help from director Konrad Wolf, the film was eventually pulled out of storage in conjunction with the Barlach exhibition at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The censors only agreed to screenings of the film after heavy edits, removing twenty minutes from the final cut. This left the film in limbo between a full-length film and a long short (as oxymoronic as that sounds). The film received a few screenings, but only a few before it was shelved again. After the Wende, the film was resurrected, but the 20 minutes of footage edited out of the film in 1970 has yet to resurface and appears to be lost for good.
The film is based on Das schlimme Jahr, a novella by Franz Fühmann. Mr. Fühmann was a popular author in East Germany, best known for his children’s books and reinterpretations of folklore and myths. During WWII. he was a supporter of the Nazi regime, contributing news pieces on the war effort to German newspapers and writing poems for the Nazi weekly, Das Reich. After the war, he attended the Antifa-Schule in Noginsk—one of several camps set up to teach German soldiers the error of their ways. Apparently the lessons at the Antifa-Schule stuck, because Mr. Fühmann became a champion of of socialist ideals. At first he was supportive of the East German government, but as it became more restrictive and arbitrarily punitive, Mr. Fühmann became disillusioned. After the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, he was one of the first people to sign the protest letter against it. As with the others who signed the letter, he found himself blacklisted from many projects and under greater scrutiny by the Stasi, yet he remained defiant. In his will he wrote: “The bitterest thing is to have failed in literature and the hope of a society we all once dreamed about.” (“Der bitterste ist der, gescheitert zu sein: In der Literatur und in der Hoffnung auf eine Gesellschaft, wie wir sie alle einmal erträumten.”). As one final act of protest before dying of cancer, he asked that he be buried in Märkisch Buchholz, and not in “unloved” Berlin.
Ralf Kirsten directed the film. After studying at the film school in Prague, Kirsten began his career in television before moving to feature films. He had his first hit with On the Sunny Side, starring Manfred Krug. Mr. Kirsten and Mr. Krug had worked together on the TV movie, Hoffnung auf Kredit (Hope on Credit), and would work together on four more films. After the Wende, Mr. Kirsten started teaching at the Film and Television school in Potsdam (Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen Potsdam). His last film for DEFA before the Wall fell was a picture about Käthe Kollwitz (Käthe Kollwitz – Bilder eines Lebens), a colleague of Barlach’s and whose face adorns the Floating Angel.
Ernst Barlach is played by Fred Düren. Mr. Düren appeared in many DEFA films, including Five Cartridges, The Flying Dutchman, and Solo Sunny. He also made an appearance in Ralf Kirsten’s 1986 follow-up to this film, Käthe Kollwitz – Bilder eines Lebens, in which he played Käthe Kollwitz’s husband. Primarily working in theater, Mr. Düren was an actor’s actor. His portrayal of Faust in Goethe’s play is considered one of the best theatrical interpretations of a Goethe character, second only to Gustaf Gründgens’ performance as Mephistopheles. One need only compare his performance in The Lost Angel with the one in The Flying Dutchman—made only two years earlier—to see his versatility.
After the Wende, Mr. Düren’s life path took a very different turn from most of his colleagues. He converted to the Judaism, moved to Israel, and is now a rabbi. He only made one movie after reunification—a TV movie in which he played Albert Einstein.
Der Schwebende is a striking sculpture that is at once modern looking in its lines, and classical in its emotional effect. The film does a good job of expressing what a powerful piece of art Der Schwebende is. This is largely thanks to Claus Neumann’s fantastic cinematography. Nearly every frame in this film could stand alone as a photograph, from the opening shots of the angel, to the wedding scene, to the shots of the fields around Güstrow. Claus Neumann got his start at DEFA making documentary shorts. Unfortunately for him, the first two feature films he worked on for DEFA (Fräulein Schmetterling and this film) were both victims of the 11th Plenum. On the other hand, he was also fortunate because, unlike the work of his fellow cinematographer Roland Gräf, his work as the cinematographer did not also come under scrutiny. Mr. Neumann continued to work at DEFA until the end of its existence, contributing his camerawork to such films as Leichensache Zernik, Till Eulenspiegel, and The Flight. After the Wende he continued to work, primarily in television and for producer director, Rudolf Steiner. He retired from filmmaking in 1999.
Some movies are so beautifully filmed that, upon watching them on DVD, you find yourself wishing you could see them in a theater on a big screen. The Lost Angel is just such a movie. While it is unlikely that this film—or many other East German films, for that matter—will get repertory cinema screenings, the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst has done a superb job of translating this movie to disc. The scenes is which the statue is stolen from the church are so powerfully filmed, directed, and edited, that the incident stops being about the theft of an inanimate object and becomes a metaphor for the forced evacuation of millions of the innocent people during WWII.
NOTE: The Chicago Goethe Institut showed this film recently as part of their series. They will also be showing the next film I’ll be reviewing (Five Days, Five Nights). More information here: http://www.goethe.de/ins/us/chi/ver/enindex.htm