At first, Interrogating the Witnesses (Vernehmung der Zeugen) looks like it’s going to be a murder mystery, or a police procedural. A boy named Rainer (Mario Gericke) has been stabbed to death, and the doctor investigating the scene believes her son Max (René Steinke) is the killer. It turns out she’s right, and the the rest of the movie is devoted to the testimonies of various witnesses as they go back through the events of the previous months to try and answer the question: How did this bright young man come to stab to death his former friend and classmate? The film prefaces each flashback with the testimony of a different person, as the people in the town try to come to terms with the murder. For some, that means looking at the killing with complete honesty, and recognizing how their own actions helped set the stage for the tragedy that followed. For others it means staying in a state of denial, unable to comprehend how it could have ever happened and not willing to acknowledge their own role in what happened.
Most of the story revolves around Max, Rainer, and the girl they both loved, Viola (Anne Kasprik). Max is new in town, pulled out of school in Berlin by his mother Beate (Christine Schorn). In Berlin, Max spent his free time sailing on the Müggelsee, but that isn’t an option in the tiny town of Wulkersdorf. Max’s mother hasn’t been around for most of his life. She was too busy pursuing her career goals, so she left Max in the care of her mother. Now that she’s in charge of the out-patient clinic in the town and is seeing a successful businessman named Gunnar (Franz Viehmann), she’s ready to play the mother role. The only thing is, Max isn’t sure he wants to be part of her new life. He had grown up with his grandmother, and would prefer to stay with her in Berlin.
Rainer is the alpha male at the school and feels threatened by Max’s presence. The two get off to a rocky start, but Max tries to smooth things over by inviting Rainer to come sailing in Berlin. They bring along Viola, who is attracted to both men and whose coy romantic games have life-changing consequences, both for her and the boys.
Interrogating the Witnesses is René Steinke’s first film. Playing Max would have been a hard role for even the most experienced of actors, but to throw a newcomer into the deep water at the beginning of his career is always a dangerous proposition. Using newcomers was a favorite technique of Herrmann Zschoche (see Seven Freckles), who felt that these actors often gave fresher, more compelling performances, but Zschoche specialized in films that were slices of life, where the actors were doing what they would have been doing anyway. Steinke has no such luxury. He does a passable job here, but he’s not playing to his strengths and it shows. Nonetheless, Steinke would get better, and go on to have a highly successful television career in unified Germany. He is best known for his performance as Tom Kranich in the popular series, Alarm für Cobra 11 – Die Autobahnpolizei (Alarm for Cobra 11 – The Highway Patrol).
It was also the first film for Anne Kasprik and Mario Gericke. Both actors turn in believable performances, especially Gericke as Rainer, playing a part here that would, almost certainly, star Frederick Lau if it were cast today. Since the Wende, Anne Kasprik has gone on to a long and successful career in German television, while Mario Gericke moved into theater and and songwriting. He is currently the head of Lunanox Produktion, and the author of Laroranja, a medieval fantasy stage play that’s kind of a cross between Lord of the Rings and Cirque de Soleil.
As Beate, Christine Schorn is good as always (for more on Schorn, see Apprehension), but it is Franz Viehmann as her mentally fragile signifcant other Gunnar Strach who shines. While Beate blames her mother and anyone but herself for what Max did, Gunnar feels personally responsible, having given the boy the murder weapon as a gift. During the interrogation scenes the two are often filmed together, and it is in these scenes that things finally come to a head. Franz Viehmann was already a well-established actor in East Germany by the time he took this role, appearing in films since 1963. Like Schorn, Viehmann was a graduate of the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts, and like Schorn he worked extensively in television both before and after the Wall came down. At the time of the Wende, Viehmann had been working with Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble theater, but was fired, along with 15 other East Germans, after the company was turned into a private enterprise. He appeared in a few television shows after that. Like many East German actors, he found plenty of work as a voice talent, doing radio programs and dubbing foreign films. Viehmann died in Berlin in 2016.
Director Gunther Scholz is primarily a documentary filmmaker, which probably had something to do with his choice to cast relatively untested actors in the lead roles, and the use of interviews where the people talk directly into the camera. I suspect he was going to for a cinéma vérité style that would give the film the immediacy and realism of a documentary. While this works in some places, it mostly doesn’t. Scholz’s choice to use static medium shots, sucks much of life out of the story. Perhaps Scholz was going for some sort of experimental objectivity here. If so, he can safely file this one away under “failed experiments.” The film is still worth seeing, and is one East German film that could stand an updated remake.
1. These subtitles were created by me from German subtitles. I took a few liberties to try and make the dialog sound more like actual speech, and I changed a few things that didn’t match what was actually said. A few things are so GDR specific that they don’t really translate well. If you find any errors, please let me know, and I will fix them as soon as a I can.
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