In 1966, director Ralf Kirsten made The Lost Angel, a film about a day in the life of sculptor Ernst Barlach. That film centers around Barlach’s sculpture Der schwebende, which was destroyed by the Nazis for being “degenerate art.” The sculpture was inspired by Barlach’s fellow artist Käthe Kollwitz. So much so that the face on the sculpture is Kollwitz’s. Coming out, as it did, in 1966, the film fell directly into the path of the 11th Plenum’s Kahlschlag (literally: clear-cutting) and was promptly banned. The film was eventually screened in a highly edited form, but Kirsten clearly wasn’t through with the subject of German pacifist artists and their run ins with the Nazis, because in 1987, he released Käthe Kollwitz – Images of a Life (Käthe Kollwitz – Bilder eines Lebens).
Käthe Kollwitz is as different from The Lost Angel as apples from acorns. The earlier film is shot in black-and-white and follows the artist for a single day as he ruminates on how to respond to the Nazis. Käthe Kollwitz is in vivid color and charts the artist Kollwitz’s life from right before World War I until her death in 1945. The first film starts with the removal of Barlach’s sculpture from the Güstrow cathedral, while the second film starts with the actress Jutta Wachowiak, getting made up to play Käthe Kollwitz. Throughout the film, the story is interrupted with scenes of Wachowiak visiting various sites to learn more about the woman she was portraying. These interludes act as sort of a Greek chorus, filling in historical details where the narrative cannot. Since Kollwitz spent most of this time living with her husband in a large apartment in Berlin, the story is also interspersed with scenes of street life in her neighborhood and the changes it goes through during this time. Particularly poignant are the scenes involving an older couple that go from carefree to despondent as the movie progresses.
Kollwitz came from a middle-class background where socialism and religion were both important. Her talent was undeniable, and in spite of the inherent misogyny of the time, she managed to rise in the ranks of German artists, eventually being asked to join the prestigious Prussian Academy of Arts. After losing her son in World War I, Kollwitz became even more resolutely pacifist than she had been before the War, and eventually joined the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers Council for Art). Inspired by the woodcuts of fellow artist Ernst Barlach, Kollwitz applied her hand to this medium, creating the popular In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht (Gedenkblatt für Karl Liebknecht).
Jutta Wachowiak is considerably prettier than Kollwitz, but then, nobody looked quite like Käthe Kollwitz. In her early films, Wachowiak was often used as a character actress, cast in smaller roles. During this time, she was also appearing on stage and receiving acclaim for her performances there as well. In 1980, she scored her biggest success for her role in Günter Reisch’s The Fiancée (Die Verlobte). She continues to appear in movies and on television.
Fred Düren, who played Barlach in the earlier movie, returns here to play Käthe Kollwitz’s husband Karl. Düren got his start in theater, joining Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin Ensemble in the early 1950s, and performing with the Deutsches Theater Berlin from 1958 to 1988. Then Düren found religion; Judaism to be exact. He learned Hebrew, moved to Israel and became a rabbi (he certainly looked the part). Although he did a few TV movies after Käthe Kollwitz, his career as a film actor essentially ended with this film. Düren died in Israel in 2015.
Käthe Kollwitz was Ralf Kirsten’s last film. With his stubbornly idealistic streak, Kirsten may have found it hard to find work in communist East Germany, but it became completely impossible in unified Germany. With the fall of the Wall, he took up teaching at the Konrad Wolf Film and Television Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg. Kirsten died in 1998.
This wasn’t the last film shot by cinematographer Otto Hanisch, but his career also ended with the Wende. In his case, this probably had more to do with his age (he was 64 when his last film came out) than East/West politics. While the cinematography in Käthe Kollwitz does not have the stunning impact of Claus Neumann’s rich, black-and-white photography in The Lost Angel, it is sharply-focused and richly in color, signature features of Hanisch’s work.
Reviews were mixed on the film. While everyone admired Jutta Wachowiak’s and Fred Düren’s performances, but some felt that the modern-day interludes took the viewer out of the experience and created a distancing effect, lessening the impact of the story’s tragic elements.
Buy this film.
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