From the first frame of the opening credits, Wolz lets you know that it will be taking a lighthearted look at an otherwise serious subject. The theme song is typically German-sounding oompah march music, punctuated by gunshots. On paper, Wolz does not sound like material for humor at all. It follows the exploits of a man named Ignaz Wolz (Regimantas Adomaitis), who, while fighting in World War I, becomes disgusted to discover a rich merchant who has decided to use his gauze production facility to make corsets for rich women rather than bandages for the wounded soldiers on the Front. Inspired by the communist rhetoric of Ludwig (Stanislaw Ljubschin), the medic that saved his life, Wolz gathers some friends and they confront the gauze merchant, extracting money from him to help their cause. Thus begins Wolz’s campaign to make the merchants and politicians payback the public for embroiling them in a war that made the rich richer, but hurt everyone else. While fighting, Wolz reunites with Ludwig, who tries to convince Wolz that joining the party would be a better use of his effort, but Wolz is not a joiner. He wants to forge his own path, no matter how foolhardy it seems, and no amount arguing will convince him otherwise.
The film is based on Vom weißen Kreuz zur roten Fahne (From White Cross to Red Flag) the autobiography of Max Hoelz. Hoelz gained a name for himself in the Vogtland region as the “Communist Bandit.” In the 1920s, he was a sort of German Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to help the poor. In Hoelz’s case, this meant helping the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD), a far-left group that eventually fell out of favor with the Soviets for its tactics. Like Wolz, Hoelz managed to irritate people across the political spectrum, and like Wolz he was sentenced to life in prison, and later released. When things got too hot for him in Germany, Hoelz went to the Soviet Union, where he managed to piss off the people in charge there as well. After Hitler came to power, Hoelz was one of the people on Hitler’s first list of Germans the Nazis expatriated because they didn’t like their politics. At the end of the film, we see Wolz blithely walk into the water, sure of his path, and indifferent to the pleading of a woman trying to tell him that he’ll surely drown. This reflects Hoelz’s own death, having drowned under suspicious circumstances in the Oka river near Gorki.
The film started with a screenplay by Günther Rücker, whose work is usually grim. The light tone of this film comes directly from director Günter Reisch, who also gave us Anton the Magician and two entertaining Christmas films (A Lively Christmas Eve, and Like Father, Like Son). Rücker had been trying to get this film off the ground for a few years. This is a long ways from the relentlessly downbeat stories of Rücker’s The Gleiwitz Case and Until Death Do Us Part. Reisch had a style like no other East German director. He wasn’t the chameleon the Konrad Wolf could be, nor the risk taker that Egon Günther was. Like Ernst Lubitsch, he had a style all his own. The end result is a film that in the hands of nearly every East German director would have been the kind of dreary, didactic fare that DEFA was often accused (erroneously) of making.
Things are sometimes lost in translation, and we can see that here in this film’s subtitle: “Life and Illusion of a German Anarchist” (Leben und Verklärung eines deutschen Anarchisten). Verklärung doesn’t mean illusion. In fact, Illusion means illusion in German, so I have to assume that if that is what Reisch (or Rücker) had meant, he would have used that word. Verklärung means “transfiguration,” with all the religious connotations that the word implies, but it can also refer to the romanticized glorification of a character, which what I think Reisch and Rücker are going for here.
Regimantas Adomaitis, who plays Ignaz Wolz, is a Lithuanian actor who was just becoming a star when Reisch cast him as Wolz. He had made a big splash a year earlier in fellow Lithuanian Vytautas Zalakevicius’s film That Sweet Word: Liberty! Reisch was so impressed with him in Wolz that he cast him again in The Fiancée (Die Verlobte), a much grimmer film that was co-directed by Reisch and Rücker. Adomaitis has won awards for his acting in both East Germany and the Soviet Union. These days, he works primarily on stage at the National Theater of Lithuania in Vilnius.
Ludwig is played by the Russian actor Stanislaw Ljubschin, looking for all the world here like a young Peter Gabriel. Ljubschin started in theater, but soon moved to films. While still a student, he appeared in Andrey Tarkovskyss and Aleksandr Gordon’s short film There Will Be No Leave Today (Сегодня увольнения не будет). He first gained fame playing a Russian spy who infiltrates the Nazis in the four-part series The Sword and the Shield (Щит и Меч). He is better known in the West for his role in Georgiy Daneliya’s nutty science fiction parody Kin-dza-dza! (Кин-Дза-Дза). Ljubschin continues to star in films in Russia. As was usually the case with foreign actors, Adomaitis and Ljubschin were dubbed by German actors. In this case, Gerry Wolff and Justus Fritzsche respectively.
Also here is Heidemarie Wenzel as Agnes, a woman who fights for the rights of the people in spite of her posh upbringing. Wenzel is no stranger to this blog, having starred in several of the films discussed here. Made in 1974, Wenzel was still a popular artist at DEFA. That would all change with the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. As one of the signatories of the letter protesting his expatriation, Wenzel found career opportunities drying up in East Germany. She applied for an exit visa and was denied, but was eventually expatriated herself in 1988 (for more on Wenzel, see The Dove on the Roof).
The apparent moral of the film is that individual anarchy leads to nothing. A successful attack on capitalism requires organization. The authorities in the SED wouldn’t have trouble with this concept, so it’s no surprise that the film was approved, but the film works on a whole other level that surely eluded the powers that be. Wolz’s failure comes as much from his refusal to listen to others and take their advice into consideration. Made in 1974, the film presages the stubborn refusal of the East German government to acknowledge the protests against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, and Honecker’s resolute refusal to follow Gorbachev’s lead with Glasnost and Perestroika. The GDR’s—or, more accurately, the SED’s—inability to change with the times would eventually lead to the fall of East Germany. To what extent Reisch had this in mind is hard to say, but now the message comes across loud and clear. It’s a moral that some current U.S. congresspeople could stand to learn.
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