When Martin Was Fourteen (Als Martin vierzehn war) is the story of a teenage boy who finds himself in the middle of the fighting that followed the “Kapp Putsch” in March of 1920. As with many German movies—East, West, and Unified—the films assumes a level of familiarity with German history that we in America know little about. To truly appreciate this film, a little background is in order.1
World War I officially ended on the 28th of June 1919, but, by then, it was all over but the screaming. The Central Powers (the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria) hadn’t lost as many soldiers as the Allied Powers (too many countries to name, but primarily France, Britain, Belgium, Russia, and, eventually, the United States), but they didn’t have as many to lose. Germany was roundly defeated and reluctantly signed the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty was draconian, blaming the war on Germany, reducing the size of the German state, and forcing that country to make reparations to the victors. People on both sides of the conflict thought the treaty went too far, but none more than the Germans. Especially galling was the clause stating that the war was entirely the fault of Germany. Philipp Scheidemann, the Chancellor in the newly established Weimar Republic, refused to sign it and resigned rather than sign this treaty. President Ebert didn’t see any choice but to sign it, and found a replacement for Scheidemann (Gustav Bauer) who was more willing to do as he was told.
The response to the treaty was immediate. Germans on the left and the right protested the signing. Most vocal were the Freikorps—right-wing groups of ex-soldiers who had put it on themselves to try and restore Germany to the military power it once had been. They saw the signing of the treaty as a vast left-wing conspiracy and blamed the communists and the Jews for Germany’s defeat. The only solution, as far as they were concerned, was to overthrow the Weimar government and rebuild the German Empire.
Leading this movement was a German general named Walther von Lüttwitz, who fought in World War I, and a journalist named Wolfgang Kapp, who didn’t. Kapp was a journalist who never let facts get in the way of his agenda. He was a strong proponent of the Dolchstoßlegende (stab-in-the-back myth), which maintained that the Germans were winning the war, but were betrayed by leftists and Jews back home. This anti-Semitism wasn’t a new. Even while the war was still raging, the Supreme Army Command (Oberste Heeresleitung) conducted a census (the infamous Judenzählung) to prove that Jews were not on the battlefields during the war, but hiding behind desk jobs. When the survey proved the exact opposite, the Oberste Heeresleitung buried the results. Ignoring all this, Kapp continued to spread the myth and called for former German soldiers to get rid of the new government.
While Kapp was the mouthpiece for this movement, Lüttwitz was the muscle. He was in charge of the Berlin Freikorps—paramilitary groups of former soldiers who had taken it on themselves to police the country in whatever fashion they saw fit. This included breaking up left-wing protests and killing anyone who resisted. They weren’t officially part of the government, but the government did nothing to stop them. On March 13, 1920, Lüttwitz’s troops—many sporting swastikas painted on their helmet, a fact that impressed a youthful coup supporter named Adolf Hitler—took over the Reich Chancellery and Kapp declared himself Chancellor. Reactions were strong and immediate. Workers went on strike all over Germany and the economy shut down. Five days later, the Kapp Putsch was over. Kapp and Lüttwitz fled the country and the Weimar government was back in power, but the damage was done. With the left emboldened by the effectiveness of the strikes, and the right emboldened by the putsch, the two factions continued fighting all over Germany, and the cowardly cut-and-run approach to the crisis by the leaders further deteriorated the already low opinion the public had of its government.
When Martin Was Fourteen takes place during those tumultuous five days. The events in the film appear to be based on the Ruhr uprising that took place in the west of Germany, but they’ve moved the action to rural Mecklenburg, presumably to make the story more East German. The film belongs to a subgenre of war films that follow the misadventures of young people on the cusp of adulthood who are thrown into violent conflicts and forced to grow up too fast. Other films in this subgenre include Ivan’s Childhood, Empire of the Sun, Hope and Glory, and Elem Klimov’s Come and See. While nowhere near as brutal as Klimov’s film, the message is still clear that war can kill a childhood.
Fourteen-year-old Martin (Ulrich Balko) is in love with his neighbor’s daughter Kathrin (Elfie Mann). While horsing around with her, he accidentally breaks her doll and promises to repair it. This minor event starts the ball rolling as Martin discovers that a local landowner is supplying arms to putschists. By the end of the film, that doll doesn’t seem so important to either Martin or Kathrin.
When Martin Was Fourteen was directed by Walter Beck, who mainly made films for children. A West German by birth, Beck spent most of his formative years in Berlin. In 1948, he enrolled in DEFA’s film program for young people (DEFA-Nachwuchsstudio) and received a degree in directing. From 1951 until 1958, he worked primarily as an assistant director on documentaries and newsreels. In 1958 he joined DEFA’s list of regular directors. In 1959, he directed his first feature film, Claudia, which set him on his path as a director of films for children. Over the years, he made several more movies for kids, including the popular fairytale films King Thrushbeard, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, The Prince Beyond the Seven Seas (Der Prinz hinter den sieben Meeren), The Bear-Skinned Man (Der Bärenhäuter), and The Frog Prince (Der Froschkönig). Like many other directors, actors and technicians from DEFA, his film career ended with the fall of the Wall,
The young stars of this film did not go on to do much in movies. For Elfie Mann, this was her only film, which is a shame—the girl has a good screen presence. Ulrich Balko appeared in three other films, all directed by Beck, but never did any others. The rest of the cast consisted of DEFA regulars such as Hans Hardt-Hardtloff, Lotte Loebinger, Manfred Heine, and Helmut Schreiber, most of whom found very little film work available after the Wende (not including Hardt-Hardtloff, who died in 1974).
This was the first film for cinematographer Eberhard Borkmann. Borkmann would go on to film several more well-known feature films and TV-movies. He was a talented cinematographer, whose work includes White Wolves, Fatal Error, and Isabel on the Stairs. Like Beck and the other actors in this film, Like Beck, Borkmann’s film career ended when the Wall came down.
When Martin Was Fourteen is a film worth seeing. Although a subgenre of war movies, the stories of the effects of war and violence on children are stories that need to be told. The film also serves as an interesting if flawed history lesson about the Kapp Putsch and its immediate aftermath.
Stream movie with English subtitles on Kanopy.
1. For a deeper dive on the subject, check out Versailles 1919: A Centennial Perspective, by Alan Sharp; Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, by Eric D. Weitz; and The Weimar Republic Sourcebook edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg.
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