During the final year of World War II, the war in Germany became a war of children. Hitler’s war effort had so depleted the ranks of adult males that teenagers were drafted to fight. Having grown up under the Third Reich, indoctrination for the Fatherland started at an early age, these young men were Hitler’s last stand. Too young to question the reasons for fighting and not old enough to fear death, they fought ferociously and with commitment. A few films have been made on this subject. It figures prominently in Wolfgang Staudte’s Rotation, and in Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge (Die Brücke). The Russians Are Coming (Die Russen kommen) is another example. Unlike the other two films, much of the action in The Russians Are Coming takes place inside the mind of the protagonist. Dead characters return to haunt the living, and thoughts suddenly impose images on the film. In this respect, it resembles a Fellini film—an unusual thing for an East German film to resemble.
The protagonist of the film is Günter, a sixteen-year-old German boy who is proud to fight for the Fatherland. He begins to question his worldview after he helps his squad of Hitler Youths corner a Russian boy and kill him without reason. Günter earns an Iron Cross for helping trap the boy, as does the policeman who shoots the unarmed youth. This incident weighs heavily on Günter’s mind, and the boy—whose name, we find out later, is Igor—keeps appearing in Günter’s fantasies.
The Russians Are Coming is cited as the reverse side of the coin from Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen, in which a young German man who grew up in Russia is sent to the help the Russian army invade Germany. This is no accident. Wolf acknowledge this himself, and Heiner Carow starts his film with a title card reading “For Konrad Wolf.” It is also compared to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo), and Joachim Kunert’s The Adventures of Werner Holt.
Director Heiner Carow was fifteen when the war ended, which put him in a perfect position to understand what was going on in the mind of his protagonist. Like I Was Nineteen, some of what happens in The Russians Are Coming comes from Carow’s own experiences during wartime. Carow got his start at DEFA working on documentary shorts. His first film was Sheriff Teddy, based on Benno Pludra’s children’s book about a West Berlin gang leader whose parents move to East Berlin. The film was popular, and Carow would later direct two more features based on books by Benno Pludra. Carow followed Sheriff Teddy with They Called Him Amigo (Sie nannten ihn Amigo), about a boy who tries to help an escaped P.O.W. hide from the Nazis, leading to personal tragedy. But it was the 1972 hit The Legend of Paul and Paula that was Carow’s biggest success. It remains one of the most beloved of all East German films.
The Legend of Paul and Paula started Carow on a path of examining human relationships as honestly as possible with films such as Until Death Do Us Part, and Coming Out—one of the first films to explore gay relationships sympathetically. After the Berlin Wall came down, Carow made The Mistake (Verfehlung), the story of a woman exacting revenge for actions the Stasi took against her lover. After the Wende, Carow started working in German television, but died of a stroke in 1997. In 2013 the DEFA Foundation introduced the Heiner-Carow-Prize at the Berlinale. It has been awarded every year since.
The Russians Are Coming stars Gert Krause-Melzer as Günter. It was Krause-Melzer’s first film role, which is really being thrown into the deep end. He mostly does a good job, although he obviously struggles with the more emotional scenes. This would turn out to be Krause-Melzer’s only film role, but the actor continued to appear on stage. As of this writing, he lives in Potsdam and performs in the one-man cabaret show, Solokabarett Gert Melzer.
By the time he made The Russians Are Coming, Viktor Perevalov—who plays Igor—was already a popular child star in Russia. Like many child stars, he had a fallow period, when he became too old to continue playing teenagers, but was too typecast to be seen as anything else. It took a few years, but he eventually started appearing in films again in adult roles. He died in St. Petersburg in 2010.
The Russians Are Coming was not well received by the East German review board. They said it was “contaminated with modernism” (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean), and lacked a hero with good, anti-fascist values. Never mind that it was a truthful portrayal of one young man’s existential dilemma at the end of the war. As a result, the film was shelved. Carow ended up using clips from the movie as flashbacks in his next film Career (Karriere). A film that Carow reportedly disliked, but, as we shall see next time, deserves a second look.
The Russians Are Coming was thought to be lost, until Carow’s wife and well-known film editor Evelyn Carow turned up a copy and helped put it back together. By 1987, the climate in East Germany had changed enough to allow screenings of the movie. The film was hailed as a classic, as older films often are when revived, and it went on to earn Heiner Carow the Best Director award at the GDR National Feature Film Festival. The fact that the film could be shown in East Germany was seen as sign that the GDR had moved away from the restrictive censorship of the past, heralding a new, more progressive future for the country. Restrictions on films were, indeed, loosening up, but in a couple years it wouldn’t matter, because in a couple years there would no longer be an East Germany.
© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.