This DEFA/West German coproduction about a daring bank robber was a huge hit on both side of the German border. It’s based on an actual bank robbery that took place in Berlin in 1951.
In November of 1951, a man named Walter Pannewitz rented office spaces on the ground floor of the Römischer Hof, a stately old office building on the corner of Charlottenstrasse and Unter den Linden in Berlin’s Mitte district. Nobody asked many questions at the time. Building owners were happy to have any tenants who could pay rent, and the Römischer Hof, in spite of its location, wasn’t exactly a sought after property; the building didn’t even have bathrooms! Nonetheless, Pannewitz had chosen this location carefully. He knew that drilling through the wall of these particular office spaces would put him in the vault of the Deutsche Verkehrs- und Kreditbank, where all the wages for the Berlin Reichsbahn (national railway) were kept. The thieves made off with almost $135,785 (roughly equivalent to $1.4 million today).
A story like that is prime material for a movie, so it’s surprising that it’s only been filmed twice—once in for a two-part miniseries on West German TV in 1966, and again in 1989 with this movie. The Break-In (Der Bruch), moves the story from 1951 to 1946-47, when Berlin was still in rubble and income sources were scarce. Walter Graf (Götz George) is new to the bankrobbing business, while his partner Erwin Lubowitz (Otto Sander) has only worked as a lookout, and sometimes badly at that. They need someone with actual safecracking experience, so they enlist the help of Bruno Markward (Rolf Hoppe), who only recently got out of prison. He was planning to retire, but the money was too enticing (an important component of the film is its indictment of capitalism, which offers few solutions for the jobless in times of strife).
The movie also follows the romantic entanglements of construction worker Bubi (Thomas Rudnick), cop-in-training Julian (Volker Ranisch), and sexually frisky Tina (Ulrike Krumbiegel ). Julian and Bubi are both in love with Tina, but she seems to love only the movies and newsreels at a shabby cinema built beneath an elevated train line that rattles the theater every few minutes.1 If you’re looking for a faithful girlfriend, Tina is not the person you want.
The two stories come together when Bubi is hired to help the bankrobbers dig a tunnel, and Julian sees Tina chatting up Graf (the Berlin of this movie seems to be a very underpopulated place). As one might expect, all of this comes to a head after the robbery. Police commissioners Lotz (Gerhard Haehndel) and Kollmorgen (Hermann Beyer) are hired to investigate the case. Lotz, a communist, had been in the same prison as Bruno during the Third Reich years and was new to the work. Kollmorgen was an experienced criminal investigator but lost his job under Hitler because he was a member of the SPD.
The film is directed by Frank Beyer, who should be well known to East German Cinema Blog readers by now (for more on Beyer, see Held for Questioning). Beyer was working from a script by Wolfgang Kohlhaase (see Berlin Schönhauser Corner and Solo Sunny), who should be even better known to readers here—does any other German screenwriter have more classic screenplays to his name? As with many of Kohlhaase’s scripts, the story is very much a story of Berliners, a fact he punctuates with the last line in the film.
The Break-In was Frank Beyer’s penultimate effort at DEFA. After DEFA was dissolved, he worked primarily in television. Kohlhaase continues to provide scripts for various directors, most notably Andreas Dresen.
One of the most surprising things about The Break-In is the casting of Götz George in the lead role. It wasn’t the first time a non-East German actor had starred in a DEFA film (or even the first time George had starred in a DEFA film), but it was the first time since the early fifties that a West German was hired to star in an East German movie. George was well known in West Germany, having appeared in dozens of movies and television shows. He was best known for playing Kommissar Horst Schimanski on the ever-popular crime show Tatort. George was the son of Heinrich George. Heinrich had been a popular actor in socialist-themed films prior to 1933. You can see him in Metropolis, where he plays Grot—Guardian of the Heart Machine and as Emile Zola in The Dreyfus Case. Once Hitler came to power, he was prohibited from appearing in films until he changed his perspective and embraced the Nazi platform, appearing in films such as the infamous Jud Süß and Kolberg. At the end of the War he was arrested by the Soviets and sent to the NKVD special camp in Sachsenhausen, where he died during an appendectomy.
Heinrich’s son Götz started his career early, appearing on stage in 1950 at the age of twelve and going on to appear in several films. Ironically, his first starring role was in an East German film, Old Barge, Young Love, but thereafter he would appear exclusively in films made in the West. In 2013, Götz George portrayed his father in the 2013 television docudrama George. He died in Hamburg in 2016.
Equally surprising is Rolf Hoppe’s performance here. Throughout most of his early career, Hoppe had been cast as the quintessential bad guy. Hoppe was the son of a baker. He grew up in Ellrich, a small town on the southern edge of the Harz Mountains, and was set to become a master baker like his father, but was bitten by the acting bug while performing in amateur theater in Ellrich. He studied acting at the Staatliches Konservatorium in Erfurt and began performing in various stage productions around East Germany. His career in films and television took off in the sixties. Although he appeared in many different types of roles, it was his appearances as bad guys in the Indian films that made him famous. Hoppe became the go-to guy when you needed a heavy. He is best remembered for his role as Tábornagy (based on Hermann Göring) in the Academy Award-winning Hungarian film Mephisto. In more recent films, he is often seen in supporting comedy roles, most notably Rabbi Ginsburg in the 2004 comedy Go for Zucker (Alles auf Zucker!). He died in Dresden on November 14th, 2018.
The cinematography is by Peter Ziesche, whose work with shadows and darkness here is on a par with the films of Gordon Willis and Jack N. Green. Born in 1955, Ziesche is part of the Nachwuchsgeneration—the Baby Boomers who were only just getting to make films when the GDR collapsed. He got his start in feature films with Heiner Carow, working on So Many Dreams (So viele Träume). He managed to get a few classic DEFA films under his belt before the Wall came down, including Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens, The Actress, and The Tango Player. After the Wende, like many DEFA technicians, he was relegated to television work.
As with many of the later films produced by DEFA, The Break-In was a joint effort, receiving some funding from Allianz Filmproduktion and the Cologne-based broadcaster Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR). It played to positive reviews on both sides of the Wall and won the Ernst Lubitsch Prize awarded annually by the Berlin film journalists club.
1. The concept of a movie house being constantly rumbled by a nearby train was also used to humorous effect in Basil Dearden’s charming The Smallest Show on Earth (1957).
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