In 1982, Erwin Geschonneck starred in the East German television movie The Man from the Cap Arcona (Der Mann von der Cap Arcona). In it, Geschonneck plays a character called Erwin Gregorek, who has returned to Hamburg to appear in a documentary about the sinking of the Cap Arcona, a luxury liner that was being used to transport concentration camp prisoners at the end of World War II. It’s an amazing story, based on Geschonneck’s own experiences, and it’s a shame the film was consigned to television because it deserves more attention.
Geschonneck was the best actor in East Germany. For that matter, he was one of the best German actors period. He ranks up there with Peter Lorre, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Mario Adorf, and Christoph Waltz, yet look at any list of “Top German Actors” and you won’t find him.1 Such is the ignorance of us westerners when it comes to anything to do with East Germany and its films. Mueller-Stahl escaped this fate is because he left East Germany in 1980 and established a successful career in the West well before the Wall came down. Geschonneck, on the other hand, not only didn’t leave East Germany, he continued to support the ideals of Marxism after the Wende. In 1992, Film und Fernsehen magazine ranked Geschonneck as the best East German actor ever, and in 2044 was appointed as an honorary member of the Deutsche Filmakademie.
Geschonneck joined the KPD (German Communist Party) when he was a young man. He started his acting career performing in “agitprop” theater pieces and was an extra on Slatan Dudow’s banned film, Kuhle Wampe or: Who owns the world? (Kuhle Wampe oder: Wem gehört die Welt?). When Hitler took over, Geschonneck fled the country but was captured in Prague. He spent the next six years in concentration camps in Sachsenhausen , Dachau, and Neuengamme.
Near the end of the War, prisoners at the Neuengamme camp were put on old, out-of-service ships in an attempt to hide them from the advancing Russian and Allied armies. Geschonneck was put on board the Cap Arcona—the most famous of the ships used to house prisoners. A former luxury liner, the Cap Arcona had seen better days. It was once the jewel of German luxury liners, but the last time it had been put in service was as a stand-in for the Titanic in the Nazi film of the same name (1942).2 Prisoners were treated as badly on these ships as the they were in the camps; locked below deck without food or water.
Reportedly, the Nazis planned to sink these ships with everyone on board, but the Royal Air Force did the job for them. British intelligence had received word that Heinrich Himmler was going to try and escape to Norway via ship so they decided to blow up every ship in the Baltic to prevent this. Swedish and Swiss Red Cross officials had informed British intelligence the day before that several prison ships were at anchor in Lübeck Bay, but the people responsible for approving the bombing claimed not to have received this information. Some prisoners escaped the sinking ship only to be shot by the SS soldiers on nearby boats or by the RAF planes, which continued to strafe the people in the water. Out of over 4,000 prisoners, only 350 survived. Geschonneck was one of them. When the British Second Army reached Neuengamme, they found the camp empty. Upon reaching the beach at Neustadt, north of Lübeck, the British 5th reconnaissance regiment reported bodies floating in the water and went to assist the few survivors straggling to the shore. This all happened on May 3rd, 1945. Hitler was already dead and what was left of the Nazi high command surrendered the next day at Lüneburg Heath—21 miles (33.7962 km) from Neuengamme.
The Man from the Cap Arcona starts with actor Erwin Gregorek (Geschonneck) arriving in Hamburg to work on a documentary about the singing of the Cap Arcona. There he meets old friends and old enemies and the story of what happened is told in flashback. Playing the younger version of Gregorek/Geschonneck is Jürgen Polzin. He’s a good choice. He resembles a younger Geschonneck enough that they don’t even need to explain which character he is. The Man from the Cap Arcona was Polzin’s first film, but he had already been working on stage at that point. Today, he is best known for portraying Karl May’s “Old Shatterhand” at the Felsenbühne Rathen, and outdoor stage in Rathen. In 2015, he made a few headlines in the Sächsische Zeitung—a Dresden-based regional newspaper—concerning a row he was having with tenants and an architect over a piece of property he owned.
One of the most effective scenes in the film concerns Gregorek/Geschonneck’s visit to the former site of the Neuengamme concentration camps.3 Immediately after the war, the main camp was used as an internment camp for Nazi bigwigs and SS officers. As soon as West Germany regained control of the land, they plowed under all traces of the camps that had been there and built prisons on the site. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Germany government finally acknowledged the crimes committed at Neuengamme and erected the KZ-Gedenkstätte Neuengamme (Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial),
The cinematography was by Werner Bergmann, who is most famous for his work with Konrad Wolf. Bergmann also co-wrote the script (for more on Bergmann, see Professor Mamlock). Parts of the film appear to be shot in Hamburg, presumably with a skeleton crew of people that were unlikely to defect (such as Bergmann and Geschonneck). I suppose it’s possible that DEFA had a large assortment of American and European cars they could use to shoot the street scenes, but I doubt it.
The Man from the Cap Arcona was directed by Lothar Bellag, who got his start in theater before moving into television. Coming of age at the end of WWII, Bellag studied acting at the “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” University of Music and Theatre in Leipzig (then called the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik – Mendelssohn-Akademie). He moved from acting into directing, and in 1960, he was hired by East Germany’s television company, Deutscher Fernsehfunk, to direct a television production of George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses (Die Häuser des Herrn Sartorius). At first, he specialized in making TV-movies based on famous plays such as Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Mandrake (Mandragola), Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Was Ihr wollt), and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (Glasmenagerie).
Geschonneck’s career ended when the wall came down. Geschonneck was a lifelong communist. He was sent to a concentration camp and nearly died for his beliefs, so the “reunification” must have been a bitter pill to swallow. After the Wende, he stopped making movies, and appeared only once—in a TV movie that was directed by his son, which also starred his old DEFA comrade, Fred Delmare.
Geschonneck died in 2008, but his legacy lives on, and The Man from the Cap Arcona is a nice addition to his portfolio.
1. Of course, defining what makes an actor German is another matter entirely. Lorre was born in Hungary, Adorf in Switzerland, Mueller-Stahl in what is now part of Russia, and Waltz in Vienna. Still, all of these men are classified as German actors by most sources. Geschonneck, for that matter, was born in East Prussia, which is now part of Poland (although he did grow up in Berlin).
2. The story of the Cap Arcona is as remarkable as Geschonneck’s life. For a history of the ship and what happened to it, see Robert P. Watson’s excellent book The Nazi Titanic: The Incredible Untold Story of a Doomed Ship in World War II.
3. Neuengamme wasn’t one camp, but a network of camps used for different groups and purposes.
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