Occasionally, East Germany’s film studio DEFA worked with production companies from other countries. This gave those countries access to the Babelsberg film studios, which were some of the best in Europe, and it allowed DEFA to provide a better variety of films to the East German public. With many of these films, the influence of what we’d call the DEFA style is minimized. The Crucible, for instance, is essentially a French film, and Five Days, Five Nights follows the socialist realist style of Soviet Union cinema more closely than the more objective style popular with East German filmmakers. DEFA partnered with, the USSR on fourteen films, and most of these look and feel like Soviet films. Two notable exceptions are the two directed by Konrad Wolf—Goya, and Mama, I’m Alive (Mama, ich lebe). Perhaps this is because, unlike most of his comrades at DEFA, Wolf spoke Russian at least as well as he spoke German, so he could express exactly what he was after without resorting to intermediaries, or perhaps he was more sure of his artistic vision than most.
Mama, I’m Alive is very much a Konrad Wolf film. It starts with a photograph of four German soldiers dressed in Red Army outfits, which provokes questions about the people in it. Who are they? What are their stories? The film answers these questions as it follows the exploits of the four German soldiers who decide to join the Red Army and are sent back into battle. As they prepare for their new roles, we are shown glimpses of the backstories of each man in flashbacks. Karl Koralewski (Eberhard Kirchberg) is an artist and seems to be the most self-assured. Helmuth Kuschke (Detlef Gieß) is a theology student, which leads to some interesting discussions on religion and socialism. Walter Pankonin (Uwe Zerbe) is a carpenter who is the quietest of the bunch, and a pacifist. When captured by the Soviets, he admits to having never shot at anyone. More than the others, he seems to know what he is and is not willing to do in the name of war. Perhaps this is the reason Red Army soldier Svetlana (Margarita Terekhova) falls in love with him. The fourth soldier is Günther Becker (Peter Prager) is a young pilot, straight out of school who is still trying to figure things out. Becker serves as the focal point for the story.
All four men believe in the socialist cause to varying degrees and hate what Hitler is doing in the name of Germany, but when they get to the front, they discover that saying you want to fight for the communist cause, and actually shooting your fellow countrymen are two very different things. Wolf touched on some of these themes in his previous film, I Was Nineteen, but this time it is from the perspective of people who, unlike Gregor Hecker in that film (or Wolf himself), did not leave Germany at a young age. They are not returning to a land that is alien to them, but to their homes. When they look at German soldiers, they see themselves. In one scene, the four men encounter a boxcar filled with German soldiers being shipped off to a prison camp. Koralewski’s attempts to engage them fall on deaf ears. They neither know nor trust him. He runs after the train, trying to toss potatoes to the hungry men in the boxcar, but it is a futile gesture, accomplishing little.
Director Konrad Wolf shows his usual skill here, keeping the rhythm of the film moving forward with a mix of close-ups and long shots. Partly this is thanks to his cinematographer, Walter Bergmann. Wolf had used Bergmann on every film he made up to that point, but this would be their last film together. Bergmann continued to work and even directed from time to time. Bergmann had lost his right arm to shrapnel during World War II, which makes his success as a cameraman all the more impressive. He also taught at the film school in Babelsberg and was one of the creators of Greif zur Kamera, Kumpel! (Grab Your Camera, Buddy!), an East German TV show intended to encourage amateur photography and moviemaking.
The screenplay is by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who is certainly no stranger to this blog, having written screenplays for such classics as Berlin Schönhauser Corner, The Gleiwitz Case, I Was Nineteen, and Solo Sunny. The film is based on Fragen an ein Foto (Questions About a Photo), a radio play by Kohlhaase that aired in 1969. As with most of Kohlhaase’s work, there is a focus on the subtleties of language, and their effects on our ability to communicate with each other. This time he moves outside of his usual Berlin sphere to tackle the problems of communicating across two different languages and the effects the ways cultural differences can impede the exchange of ideas. This was Kohlhaase’s third film working with Konrad Wolf, but it wouldn’t be his last. The duo would work together again on Solo Sunny, possibly their best effort as a team.
The four soldiers, Becker, Pankonin, Koralewski, and Kuschke are played by Peter Prager, Uwe Zerbe, Eberhard Kirchberg, and Detlef Gieß respectively. It was the first film for all four men and all four went on to successful careers in film and television. Prager and Kirchberg have appeared in dozens of films and television shows since the Wende, while Zerbe and Gieß have concentrated on stage acting.
Playing Pankonin’s love interest Svetlana is the popular Russian actor Margarita Terechowa. Two years before this film was made, Terechowa made an international splash in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. A year later, she starred with Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, and many other A-list Hollywood movie stars in George Cukor’s The Blue Bird, the only joint U.S. and Soviet film production, and a film so misbegotten that it ranks in the annals of cinema as one of the worst movies ever made.
The film was submitted to the Berlinale, and was nominated for Golden Bear. It didn’t win (the great Russian film, The Ascent won), but it did win a special mention with the Interfilm Award.
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