After graduating from medical school, a young doctor crosses paths with West German spies in this dark spy/crime film from the early sixties.
Right after the Wall was built, politicians were anxious to demonstrate that the Wall would have no effect on creative freedom, and that, if anything, it would protect the average person from the thieves and scoundrels who had been exploiting the porous border with impunity. Films from this period often addressed the Wall and why the GDR found saw it as a good thing. A great example from this period is The Baldheaded Gang, in which a gang of thugs is eventually tracked down and caught, thanks to the Wall (for a detailed rationale of East Germany’s reasons for building the Wall, see Look at This City). Another good example from this period is The Night on the Autobahn (Die Nacht an der Autobahn), which was directed by Wilhelm Gröhl. The film was made for television, but it was made at the DEFA studios, so it’s production quality is a cut above the non-DEFA movies on TV.
When it comes to crime films (Kriminalfilme or Krimis), West Germany far surpasses the GDR in quantity if not in quality. During the fifties and sixties, West German filmmakers released dozens and dozens of crime films.1 That’s not to say there weren’t any East German Kriminalfilme. Excellent examples include Razzia, Alarm at the Circus, Rendezvous Aimée, The Second Track, Black Velvet, Murder Case Zernik, Pension Boulanka, and No Proof of Murder. In most of these films, the crime is the direct result of either capitalist greed (the black market) or West German and Americans intentionally creating problems (counterespionage).
The Night on the Autobahn starts with a medical school graduation and follows the misadventures of newly-minted doctor, Eberhard Bogans (Harry Pietzsch). Bogans graduated with honors and is about to marry Regine Vandenberg (Annegret Golding), the daughter of a doctor who runs the clinic where Bogans is planning to work. Bogans, Regine, and her mother (Maria Rouvel) are traveling along the Autobahn on the way to the clinic when they stop at a roadside inn for the night. After an argument over politics (Regine dislikes the fact that Bogans proudly wears his SED party pin), the two women retire to their rooms while Bogans stays in the motel restaurant to read the newspaper and finish the bottle of champagne they purchased. A mysterious stranger comes in and drops an envelope on Dr. Bogans table without being seen. Inside the envelope is a business card for a music teacher named Elsbeth Kramer (Brigitte Krause). On the back, there’s a message requesting an urgent meeting. The address on the card is not far from the motel, so Bogans goes over to deliver the note. Suspecting something isn’t right, he enters the house and finds Elsbeth passed out next to the stove with the gas on. Reviving her, he learns she’s being blackmailed by her husband Kurt (Siegfried Kilian), who has returned from West Germany as part of an espionage operation. Kurt went to West Germany with their son to seek medical help for the boy. Kurt has returned without the boy, intending to pick up several cans containing something other than the products listed on the labels. Elsbeth thought it was drugs, but upon opening the cans, she discovers they contain electronics and realizes she’s is in the middle of some serious spy action.
As with most East German films from this period, and especially those made for television, there is no shortage of proselytizing about the advantages of socialism over capitalism. The focus here is on the relentless attempts by West Germany and the United States to topple the East German government by any means necessary (fair point). The Wall, in this world, was the result of West Germany’s inherent evil and relentless covert attacks on the GDR.
Director Wilhelm Gröhl was primarily known as an actor, appearing in Ernst Thälmann – Son of His Class, The Captain from Cologne (Der Hauptmann von Köln), Lissy, and Lotte in Weimar, among others. He also acted in radio plays, portraying the character of Herr Sommerlatte in the popular radio series Neumann, zweimal klingeln (Neumann, Rings Twice). He started directing for television in 1957, beginning with the crime film Der blaue Aktendeckel (The Blue Folder) and ending with episodes of the short-lived TV series Rund um die Uhr (Around the Clock). He died right before Christmas in 1985.
As a director, Gröhl’s work as an actor undoubtedly helped ensure good performances from his cast. So much so that you could watch this film with the sound off and follow nearly everything. It’s apparent almost from the opening scenes that we aren’t suppose to sympathize with Bogan’s wife-to-be Regine, even before she opens her mouth. Some of this is down to East German shorthand. We know that certain characters are bad by the cars they drive, and when Dr. Bogans opens the cupboard in Elsbeth Kramer’s kitchen, the fact that all the cans have labels for American brands is a clue that something is not right. But the fact that Gröhl is an actor first and foremost means things such as scene composition and camera movement take a backseat to the performances. Scenes are lit adequately, but seldom dramatically. There is virtually no camera movement beyond what is absolutely necessary. This might have been okay with more imaginative editing, but the editing here is strictly functional. One exception is the scene near the beginning where Bogans and Regine are getting off the the train, which is timed to remarkable perfection. By far, the weakest aspect of the film is its use of music. Plot points—important and otherwise—are telegraphed with musical stings. A face appears in the window: musical sting; Bogans finds a note: musical sting, and so forth. Given the Hitchcockian plot, the film would have done well to follow Hitchcock’s approach to music as well.
Harry Pietzsch was primarily a stage actor. He performed in plays throughout East Germany from 1949 until 1962, when he came to Berlin to perform at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. The Night on the Autobahn was his first movie, but not his last. He went on to appear in several movies, including Pension Boulanka, The Dead Stay Young (Die Toten bleiben jung), My Zero Hour (Meine Stunde Null), KLK to PTX: The Red Orchestra (KLK an PTX: Die Rote Kapelle), and The Persons Involved, as well as appearing in several popular television programs. After the Wende, he no longer appeared in films or on television, but continued to perform on stage at the Deutsches Theater. He retired from the stage in 1998, and died in September of 2003.
Brigitte Krause was a popular actress in East Germany, appearing in dozens of films, including Girls in Gingham, Rotation, Council of the Gods, Sun Seekers, Simplon Tunnel, Sons of the Great Bear, and many more. She also often acted on stage and, like Wilhelm Gröhl, was also a regular on the Neumann, zweimal klingeln radio series. From 1966 to 1988 she was an ensemble cast member at the Kabarett-Theater Distel, a Kabarett that often locked horns with the government over its satirical skits.2 In fact, Krause became so associated with this troupe that when she died in 2007, Die Zeit’s obituary read “Distel-Kabarettistin: Brigitte Krause-Biewer ist tot” (“Distel Kabarett artist Brigitte Krause is dead”).
Annegret Golding was an actress who worked almost exclusively in theater, radio and television. She started acting at the age of fifteen, but at the age of 36, she decided that acting wasn’t the life for her, and she began studying medicine. She completed her medical studies at the Köpenick Hospital and opened a practice in the Berlin-Mitte district, where—unless Covid has disrupted it—she stills practices today.
The Night on the Autobahn is a dark film. Nothing really works out for anybody and it ends on a remarkably downbeat note. In this aspect—and the fact that nearly all of the action takes place at night—the film almost qualifies as a film noir. It has most of the elements. Better cinematography (Otto Merz was never in the same class as Rolf Sohre, Hans Heinrich, or Werner Bergmann) and less inept use of music, and this might have qualified a great example of East German film noir.
1. Many of these were based on the lurid novels of English writer Edgar Wallace. These films were popular in Europe. So popular, in fact, that the Italians decided to start making their own and giallo films were bom.
2. As stated in preview posts on this site, the term Kabarett does not translate directly to the English-language understanding of cabaret. It was closer in spirit to groups such as The Groundlings, The Seond City, or Upright Citizens Brigade.
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