In case you ever wondered what the Little Rascals (Our Gang) would look like as an East German concept, The Arctic Sea Calls (Das Eismeer ruft) answers the question. It’s the story of a band of spunky kids who take upon themselves to hike from Prague to the Bering Strait in an attempt to rescue the crew of a stranded Soviet steamship. The intrepid rescue team consists of Anton (Oliver Karsitz), the leader, Alex (Alexander Rohde), his right-hand man, Rosi (Vivian Schmidt), enlisted as the cook, and little Ferd (Thomas Gutzeit), who’s much too young for this trek, but didn’t want to be left behind. As one might imagine, the quartet doesn’t fully understand the logistics of what they are attempting, but they don’t let that get in their way. The trip involves crossing through Germany—a journey of some peril at that time. It’s 1934, and Hitler has been in power in Germany for over a year at this point, but hasn’t yet invaded Poland or Czechoslovakia.
The part about the ship stranded in the ice is true. On August 2, 1933, the steamship SS Chelyuskin (Челю́скин) set sail from Murmansk on an expedition to find out if there was a way for ships to sail the Northern Maritime Route from Murmansk to Vladivostok without the assistance of icebreakers. The Chelyuskin almost made it, but got stuck in the ice at the entrance to the Bering Strait, where it was crushed by the growing ice. The crew made it to the relative safety of the ice pack, and, using nothing more than a a few shovels and crowbars, managed to fashion an airstrip for rescue planes. After several failed attempts, they all were rescued safely in April of 1934.
The movie is based on the book of the same name by the German children’s book author Alex Wedding. Wedding’s real name was Grete Weiskopf. Like other female authors, she used a male pseudonym to avoid prejudice. Her first children’s book was Ede und Unku, which came out in 1931. It told the story of the friendship between an German and a gypsy, so, of course, the Nazis burned the book as soon as they came to power. As if to pour salt in the wound, the girl who was the model for Unku, later died in Auschwitz.
Das Eismeer ruft was Wedding’s second book and was published in London by the same publishing company as her first book (Malik-Verlag). After the War, her husband, Czech author Franz Carl Weiskopf, became a Czechoslovakian diplomat and served in several countries before retiring and moving to the GDR. Wedding died in 1966 and shortly thereafter the Alex Wedding Prize for children’s literature was established, which is awarded every few years on her birthday (May 11).
This was director Jörg Foth’s directorial debut. Foth is a talented and quirky director, whose work is best showcased in The Latest from the Da-Da-eR—as unique a film as ever has been made. Born in 1949, Foth was one of the last new directors to come out of the Film University in Babelsberg (Filmuniversität Babelsberg). After The Arctic Sea Calls, he went to Vietnam to co-direct Time in the Jungle (Dschungelzeit) with Vietnamese director Tran Vu. Like the other members of the Nachwuchsgeneration (East German Baby Boomers), Foth was finding it difficult to get a toehold at DEFA. Young directors, who had spent years learning their craft, were passed over on film projects in favor of the older directors who had already made a name for themselves. To help rectify this situation, he helped create the DEFA Nachwuchsgruppe (Young Filmmakers Group). By the time the group was created (1990) its reason for being was gone, and so were the careers of any young filmmakers in East Germany. After making a few more films for the now foundering DEFA, the young filmmakers of East Germany found themselves back at square one.
Only one member of the young cast—Oliver Karsitz—went to have a career in movies, but not in front of the camera. After the Wende, Karsitz became an editor, primarily working documentaries. As is often the case with child actors, they bring their own raw charm to the parts, and Foth handles this well.
In 2017, thanks to global warming, a Russian tanker finally managed to sail the Northern Maritime Route unaided by icebreakers. Since that time, several more ships have made the journey, with more doing it every year. Without intending it, The Arctic Sea Calls has become a chronicle of the Earth’s past as well as our own.
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