When one thinks of East German movies, car racing films are not the first things that come to mind, but they did make one. Rivals Behind the Wheel (Rivalen am Steuer) tells the story of a race-car driver who discovers that the world of international car racing is filled with exploitative capitalists, only interested in lining their own pockets, without regard to the people behind the wheels and learns to put the needs of the collective over his own selfish interests.
The film is loosely based on memoirs of racing driver Manfred von Brauchitsch. Von Brauchitsch isn’t as well known today as his contemporaries Rudolf Caracciola and Hermann Lang. History belongs to the victors and von Brauchitsch rarely had the pleasure of winning. He was christened with the nickname Der Pechvogel (The Unlucky Bird) because he often saw victory slip from his grasp due to situations beyond his control. Most famously, at the 1935 German Grand Prix he was half a lap away from winning when one of his tires blew.
After WWII, von Brauchitsch went to South America in hopes of continuing his racing career, only to find that the folks there had other plans. Resentful and disillusioned, he returned to West Germany, only to find the United States engaging in its war-mongering and anti-socialist rhetoric to an alarming degree. He turned his support to East Germany, and, in 1951, he signed an appeal against the rearmament of West Germany. A couple years later, he was arrested as a spy for the GDR. While on bail, he defected to East Germany, where, not surprisingly, he was hailed as a hero.
At the start of the film, driver Manfred Falk (Axel Monjé) is racing for the Eisenacher Motorenwerke (EMW)—a motor sport collective in East Germany. Unlike von Brauchitsch, Falk is unmarried, but he’s dating an East Germany woman named Inge (Christa Fügner). While driving in a race in West Germany, Falk is approached by a man named Alvarez (Siegfried Weiss) and his seductive daughter Manuela (Edelweiss Malchin). The duo convinces Falk to leave the racing collective—and his girlfriend—and move to South America. There he discovers that things aren’t quite as rosy as he had hoped. When he’s not given credit for his victories for business reasons, he returns to East Germany, now recognizing the value of teamwork and the importance of putting the needs of the many before his own. It’s an old story, told several times in DEFA films (for another example of the story see Close to the Wind).
The racing scenes follow the usual style of racing films made in the forties and fifties (The Big Wheel, Devil on Wheels, Hot Rod, The Fast and the Furious, Hot Rod Girl, and Motorcycle Gang). Scenes of actual races are interspersed with scenes of the actors in the cars, intently wiggling their steering wheels in front of rear-projection screens. The scenes of actual races are exciting as are the actual accidents. The fake crash sequences are poorly handled. This was no doubt due to the cost considerations involved in crashing race-cars, but some blame has to go to the director, who, with a little more imagination, could have made them more interesting.
The film was directed by Erich Wilhelm Fiedler. Fiedler initially worked as an assistant in the projection room. He got his start as a cameraman working for Fritz Arno Wagner, whose film credits include Destiny (Der müde Tod), Nosferatu, Spies (Spione), and Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen). After the War, Fiedler joined DEFA as a cinematographer. He got his first chance to direct almost by accident. He was hired by Hans Heinrich to lens The Last Year (Die letzte Heuer), When Heinrich was arrested on suspicion of espionage, Fiedler took over the reins. He followed this with Sweeping Melodies (Rauschende Melodien), based on the operetta Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II. Rivals Behind the Wheel was Fiedler’s last effort as a director. Apparently, he preferred working behind the camera. He continued to work as a cinematographer right up until his death in 1960.
Axel Monjé was a West German actor, but he had more success in East Germany than in the West. At DEFA, he starred in a few films, while in West Germany, he was usually relegated to smaller roles. In between, he dubbed voices for US films, voicing everyone from John Wayne to Gregory Peck. As a resident of West Germany, his career in the East ended with the building of the Wall. He died a year later, collapsing on stage during a production of My Fair Lady, where he had been called in as an understudy when the lead actor developed a sore throat.
Rivals Behind the Wheel was released in April of 1957. Around the same time, the Eisenacher Motorenwerke was dissolved, turning the facilities into a manufacturing plant for Wartburgs—East Germany’s more expensive alternative to the Trabant. In spite of poor reviews, the film did well at the boxoffice, but was shelved shortly after its release. SED party official Anton Ackermann said he thought the film didn’t do enough to attack the bourgeois lifestyles promoted in the West. Privately, some SED officials were worried that the film would encourage the East German public to think about traveling to those intriguing (albeit, imaginary) South American locales. In reality, the pulling of the film from theaters probably had something to do with the emigration to West Germany of Edgar Barth, East Germany’s top race-car driver.
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