The Karl Liebknecht Films

Posted: March 31, 2018 in communism, Günter Reisch, weimar republic, WWI
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Karl Liebknecht
In 1954 and 1955, director Kurt Maetzig made two films devoted to the life of communist pioneer Ernst Thälmann. Later, Maetzig would say he was embarrassed by the films and consider them his weakest work. Unlike most of his films, these two were not of his choosing. The authorities simply decided that it was time for DEFA to make films that championed the forefathers of their country. DEFA had planned to follow up the Thälmann films with films about about Karl Liebknecht, who founded the Spartacus League with Rosa Luxemburg, the group that would eventually become the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands—KPD). The old master Slatan Dudow was slated to direct it when he died in a car crash in the summer of 1963 (for more on Dudow, see Destinies of Women). Eventually, Günter Reisch was chosen to make the picture.

Reisch was a logical choice, he had worked as an assistant director on the Thälmann films, and had co-directed The Sailors’ Song in 1958, which also dealt with the formative years of the KPD. Reisch was an excellent director, and, more importantly, he believed in socialism (for more on Reisch see Jakob the Liar). Reisch would make the film, and do a good job of it as well. Of course, it didn’t hurt that in Liebknecht he had a genuinely heroic figure who stood up for what he believed in and wasn’t beholden to Stalin the way Thälmann was.

As Long as There Is Life in Me

For the first film—As Long as There Is Life in Me (Solange Leben in mir ist)—Reisch would be working from a script by Michael Tschesno-Hell, who had also written the screenplays for the Ernst Thälmann films. Tschesno-Hell was more party wonk than writer. It’s not surprising that none of the films that list him as the screenwriter list him alone. He did understand the power of the written word, and it was he who created Verlag Volk und Welt—an important publishing house in East Germany. He has been described by acquaintances as on “old Bolshevik.” Nonetheless, he was paid more money for writing As Long as There is Life in Me than any previous DEFA screenwriter had ever been paid, and he lived in the Berlin-Schönholz district, an area exclusively intended for the East German intelligentsia.

As Long as There Is Life in Me opens up in 1914, after Liebknecht has already been elected to the Reichstag as a Social-Democratic Party (SPD) member. Liebknecht receives papers showing that Germany is secretly getting ready for war. The film follows Liebknecht’s efforts to get Germany out of the war and galvanize the people against the monarchy in favor of a socialist system. As one might imagine, this didn’t go over very well with the fat cats at the top, who did everything in their power to first marginalize and then neutralize Liebknecht. Eventually throwing him in prison, which is where this film’s story ends. The title of the film comes from a quote from Liebknecht: “Solange Leben in mir ist, werde ich gegen den Militarismus kämpfen!” (“As long as there is life in me, I will fight against militarism!”).

Horst Schulze

Liebknecht is played with conviction and believability by Horst Schulze. Schulze got his start as an opera singer; a career that was briefly interrupted by World War II. After the war, he returned to the opera, then started appearing in films in 1958. Over the next three decades, Schulze continued to appear in films and sing in operas. Unlike many DEFA actors, especially older ones like him, Schulze did not suffer the job lag with the fall of the Wall, although his roles after the Wende were primarily on television.

Reisch had a knack for adding subtle sub-texts to his stories, and this one’s no exception. We see how, at the start of World War I, the general populace fell prey to mindless flag-waving and the politicians resorted to jingoism to get their way. Liebknecht and his family was subjected to every type of harassment for challenging the need to go to war and for not toeing the line. Liebknecht was right, of course. History has proven the war was stupid. It brought Germany to ruin, opening the path for Hitler and his thugs to stroll into the Reichstag and take over. In this respect the film is as relevant today as it was in 1965.

Karl liebknecht

The film was popular, coming second only to The Adventures of Werner Holt at the box office that year. Reisch, Schulze, and cameraman Horst E. Brandt were all awarded National Prizes for their work. Nonetheless, it would be six years before DEFA would attempt to finish telling the story the story of Karl Liebknecht.

In Spite of Everything!

In Spite of Everything! (Trotz alledem!) was the follow up to As Long as There Is Life in Me. As with that film, the title comes from a quote by Liebknecht about how the communist cause would eventually succeed “in spite of everything.” This time Michael Tschesno-Hell did not write the screenplay. He only provided the basic scenario. Reisch provided his own screenplay for the second film, with input—some might say meddling—from Günter Karl, who served as the dramaturge.1

The film picks up on October 23, 1918, when Liebknecht is released from prison. Germany, is in a state of upheaval, and the war is almost over. Things don’t look good for the German army, but the leaders are too stubborn to admit it. Then a little over two weeks after Liebknecht was released from prison, the sailors in Kiel mutinied and set into motion the November Revolution, signaling the end of the German Empire (for more on that incident, see The Sailors’ Song). The movie follows Liebknecht’s role in the founding of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), the publishing of the KPD’s party organ Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), ending with his and Rosa Luxemburg’s murders and the funeral that followed.

Karl Liebknecht

Unlike the first film, which focuses exclusively on Liebknecht, In Spite of Everything shifts occasionally away from Liebknecht to observe the turmoil occurring in one working family as they grapple with the changes happening in their country.2 We had been introduced to that family, the Schreiners, in the first film, but this time their story takes up more of the narrative, making the film more relatable and relevant to the average person. As with the first film, Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) leaders Gustav Noske and Friedrich Ebert are portrayed as the bad guys, and attitude that helped clear the path for Hitler, but that fact isn’t remotely broached or hinted at here. This time we have a new villain: Von Preuss, a creepy military man in a fur collar, played with gusto by Rolf Ludwig. We saw this character briefly in the first film, but this time we get to watch him in all his viciousness. Von Preuss is presumably based on right-wing militia leader Waldemar Pabst, the man who freely admitted to ordering the executions of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Why Reisch chose to omit Pabst in favor of a fictional character is hard to say. Maybe because Pabst never saw retribution for his actions, and, in fact, led a pretty full life as a businessman in West Germany, Austria and Switzerland before finally dying in Düsseldorf at the ripe-old age of 89.

In Spite of Everything!

This fudging of the facts dilutes the effectiveness of both films. Liebknecht’s family is reconstructed with the sons Robert and Wilhelm eliminated from the story with only daughter Vera remaining. Perhaps this was to simplify the familial issues, or perhaps it was because Wilhelm and Robert were still around and were doing nothing to support the SED, while Vera had the good graces to die in 1934. Reisch also falls down when it comes to the deaths of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, which were viciously brutal. Both were captured and tortured before they were killed, but you won’t see any of it in this film. Luxemburg’s body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal, while Liebknecht was shot while being forced from a moving car. For screenings of the film outside of the GDR, even the funeral was omitted, the film ending instead with shots of youths carrying pictures of Liebknecht at the 10th Youth World Festival in East Berlin (X. Weltfestspiele 1973).3

Although the government supported the making of this film, their reaction to it was tempered. After all, this film was all about overthrowing the government in charge. Like the Soviets, the East German communists were finding that their rhetoric about revolution was in danger of biting them in the ass. Revolution is fine as long as you’re not the one being revolted against.

Crowd scene

Perhaps in deference to Dudow, Reisch directed the first film in a similar to that director, whose style was heavily influenced by the films that came out of Ufa during the twenties. Not so with the second film. While the first film was black-and-white, this time everything is in color. Where the first film mimicked the style of Ufa films, the second film is pure DEFA, using that objective, almost documentary style for which they are so famous. In both films, Reisch gets to demonstrate his spectacular skill at manage crowd scenes. No one directed a crowd scene better than Reisch.

As is often the case with historical films made in countries where the events occurred, some things in these movies are left unexplained. In Spite of Everything was made for an East German audience and there were things they would have known about that are relatively unfamiliar to us in the West, and especially to those of us in America—like the Paris Commune, the Kiel Mutiny, or the fact that Karl Liebknecht’s father was one of the founders of the SPD. They are given only cursory mentions The audience was expected to know these things already.

As with Ernst Thälmann, history hasn’t been kind to Karl Liebknecht. While he still commands respect for his devotion to his principles, his refusal to compromise—while noble in its intentions—helped open the door for Hitler. If anything can really be learned from history, this is one lesson that would be well heeded.

IMDB page for As Long as There Is Life in Me

IMDB page for In Spite of Everything!

Buy or stream As Long as There Is Life in Me

Buy or Stream In Spite of Everything!


1. The role of the dramaturge in East German films is an interesting one that has no comparable counterpart in Hollywood films. The term is comes from theater and is the title given to the person whose job it is to fact check historical productions and also make sure that each production adheres to the theater company’s mission statement.

2. This isn’t the first DEFA to use this approach. Both The Sailors’ Song and The Invincibles use the technique as well. Other DEFA films such as Rotation, The Council of the Gods, and Professor Mamlock similarly follow the lives of individuals who are not central to the events of the times.

3. There is some irony in this choice of alternate ending. The World Youth Festival was an important annual event, especially—though not exclusively—in the communist countries. For the first time since 1951, the festival was being held in East Berlin in 1973. In an effort to ensure there wouldn’t be any of the unwanted protests seen in Helsinki when the festival was held there, the Stasi made sure anyone they suspected might have cause to disrupt the proceedings was arrested and either thrown in jail or institutionalized. More on this here, and here.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. 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.

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