An East German customs official goes undercover to investigate an international drug trafficking ring operating between Berlin and Budapest.
The late sixties saw the trend in international intrigue move from the Cold War to the Drug War. It started with the made-for-TV movie The Poppy is Also a Flower—which was financed by the United Nations in cooperation with the Xerox Corporation—and went through the early seventies, reaching its apex with William Friedkin’s classic The French Connection. Germany, on both sides of the border, was a little late to the party when it came to discussing drug abuse. Perhaps because it was Germany that gave us heroin and the first amphetamine.1 Heroin abuse was a bigger problem in the West than in East Germany, which is probably why DEFA was willing to make a movie demonstrating the GDR’s efforts to keep the drug out of the country.
In Heroin, the murders of two men spark an international investigation. The men—a french man named Henri Ledaux (Willi Neuenhahn) and a sleeping-car conductor named Max Runge (Willi Schrade)—are suspected of having been involved in a heroin smuggling operation operating on the train that runs between Berlin and Budapest. Customs officer Peter Zinn (Günther Simon) is assigned to go undercover in an attempt to break up the drug ring. He replaces Runge as the sleeping-car conductor and quickly makes contacts that lead him from Budapest to Belgrade where the source of the heroin is revealed.
As Customs officer Zinn, Günther Simon sports graying hair and dark mustache, making him look older than he actually was. Simon, still best remembered as Ernst Thälmann, doesn’t have much to do here. He’s brave but no lone wolf. He does everything by the book, which makes for a more believable movie, but tends to curtail the drama. Most of the men in Heroin are dull sorts. The movie really belongs to the two female leads: Eva-Maria Hagen as the caught-in-the-middle, drug courier Danuta Tisza, and Alenka Rančić as Lucia Nemanja, a Yugoslavian drug smuggler. Hagen does not have much to do here except look pretty and act suspicious, but she does it well. The real center of the movie belongs to Alenka Rančić.
Rančić was already a successful international actress, having appeared in The Camp Followers (Le soldatesse), Valerio Zurlini’s underrated film about prostitutes being delivered to the Italian soldiers fighting partisans in Albania, and “Black Wave” director Živojin Pavlović’s grim films, The Rats Woke Up (Budjenje pacova) and When I Am Dead and Gone (Kad budem mrtav i beo). Her career was put on hold in 1989 when the turmoil in Yugoslavia led to the breakup of the country. She continued making movies in the newly established Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, but that ended during the fighting and eventual dissolution of the republic as Serbia and Montenegro went their separate ways. Rančić died in Belgrade in 2005.
Heroin was co-directed by Heinz Thiel and Horst E. Brandt. Theil and Brandt often worked together, starting in 1959 with Thiel’s first feature film, On a Special Mission (Im Sonderauftrag). They apparently made a good team. Starting with Bread and Roses (Brot und Rosen) in 1967, Thiel shared the directing credit with Brandt whenever the two worked together. Their last co-production was teh TV mini-series Krupp & Krause, which also starred Günther Simon. After that, they went their separate ways.
Theil got his start as a journalist during the Third Reich. He was a member of the Nazi Party and was an officer in one of Hitler’s propaganda companies. He got on the wrong side of Himmler after writing honestly about the German army’s failure in the battle of Demyansk. Himmler had Theil write a more favorable article that made the battle sound like a victory. He started working at DEFA as an assistant director, then as the director of the “Das Stacheltier” shorts that were shown between movies. He finally got his chance to direct a feature film for DEFA with On a Special Mission. After that, he made several films for DEFA, including At Any Hour (Zu jeder Stunde), A Sock on the Jaw (Der Kinnhaken), Reserved for Death (Reserviert für den Tod), and Black Velvet. Something must have happened around 1971, because after helming Close to the Wind—essentially a recruiting picture for the Volksmarine (East German Navy), Thiel’s career as a feature film director was put on hold for several years. He continued to make short films and trailers for DEFA, but he wouldn’t make another feature film until 1977 when he directed DEFA Disko ‘77. That would be his last film (for more on Thiel, see Close to the Wind).
Brandt got his start as a cameraman at DEFA, working alongside Karl Plintzner, first on Slatan Dudow’s Stronger Than the Night (Stärker als die Nacht), and then on Kurt Maetzig’s second Ernst Thälmann film. Besides the occasional work on the “Das Stacheltier” short films, he worked on films throughout the fifties and sixties, including Günter Reisch’s first feature film Young Vegetables (Junges Gemüse), Ralf Kirsten’s first DEFA feature Bärenburger Schnurre (Bärenburg Tale), and Heinz Thiel’s first feature film On a Special Mission (Im Sonderauftrag). He got his first directing credit as co-director with Thiel on the 1963 TV-movie Irrlicht und Feuer (Will-o’-the-wisp and Fire). He continued to work with Thiel until 1969, when they went their separate ways. While Thiel’s career began to founder, Brandt continued working as a director throughout the seventies and eighties. A member of the SED, Brandt was a safe bet, not likely to rock the boat politically. As with most DEFA directors, Brandt’s career ended with the fall of the Wall.
The soundtrack is by Helmut Nier and it’s an odd one. Like most of the DEFA composers, Nier was classically trained. He got his start as a film composer with Track in the Night. Here, he contributes a weird score that is equal parts noir jazz, Herb Alpert, and Schlager music (for more on Nier see New Year’s Eve Punch).
Thanks, in no small part, to its use of international locations, Heroin did very well at the box office in East Germany despite weak reviews on both sides of the Wall. Critics found the movie dull. Renate Holland-Moritz, East Germany’s answer to Pauline Kael, said of the film, “…the plot drags on like a sailing ship when there is no wind.” (“…die Handlung schleppt sich dahin wie ein Segelschiff bei Windstille.”). Nonetheless, the film is worth a look if you are interested in East Germany and it’s perceptions of the West and other Eastern Bloc nations.
1. Heroin was sold over the counter in Germany, until it was banned after World War I. Methamphetamine was also sold over the counter in Germany under the name “Pervitin.” At first, the pills were given to soldiers fighting for the Third Reich to help them stay alert, but its use was officially curtailed after 1940.
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