The Murder of Rathenau

A 1961 television docudrama about the assassination of the German Foreign Minister for the Weimar Republic who tried to make peace with the Soviets. A morality play about the impossibility of finding common ground when you’re dealing with fascists.

As mentioned previously, there was cooperation between DFF (Deutscher Fernsehfunk—East Germany’s television company) and DEFA—the state’s movie production company (see The Night on the Autobahn). Some films made at the DEFA studios first appeared on television instead of in cinemas. Sometimes this was intentional, while other times it was due to a decision made after the film was in the can. As a rule, these movies had higher production values and were lensed better than those made exclusively for television. Occasionally, movies made for television went on to play in cinemas as well. The Murder of Rathenau (Mord an Rathenau) is an example of this. Although made for television, the production values are high here and would have a worthy addition to DEFA’s movie list and, reportedly, did play at theaters.

The Murder of Rathenau is a retelling of the assassination for Walther Rathenau. Rathenau was the son of German industrialist Emil Rathenau, who started AEG (Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft AG)1, the largest lightbulb manufacturer in Germany. Walther was also a successful businessman, but was more interested in righting the wrongs in the world than his father was. Besides helping run AEG, he wrote several books and worked as a journalist. He was a liberal, but not a socialist. He felt that through diplomacy and discussions, the various factions in Germany could find a happy medium under the Weimar Republic’s democracy. What he didn’t count on was the intense and implacable hatred that a portion of the German public felt toward the Treaty of Versailles. To them, the treaty was a “stab in the back” (Dolchstoßlegende) to Germany, orchestrated by the leftists of every stripe. Never mind that there was absolutely no basis in fact for this opinion, they continued to believe it and talk about it whenever they could. As far as they were concerned, the only way to correct things was to eliminate this new democracy and reinstall a government led by someone who didn’t have any use for talk of “diplomacy” and “common ground.” A leader who wasn’t afraid to challenge the powers that be, throw out democracy, and make Germany great again.

The main targets of contempt from these people were the Jews, whom they saw as the ones responsible for the country’s defeat in World War I and the draconian measures instituted by the Treaty of Versailles. One of their main targets of hatred was Walther Rathenau, who was a leftist, entitled, and Jewish. When he became the German Foreign Minister and signed a treaty with Russia to resume trading with that communist country (the Treaty of Rapallo), it was too much for these rightwingers to bear. With his support for the Treaty of Versailles, rich-boy liberal politics—and, above all, Jewishness—Rathenau had to go.

On June 24, 1922, Rathenau was on his way to the Foreign Office in Wilhelmstraße when a Mercedes touring car passed by. One man was in the front, driving, with two men in the back. It was a sunny June day, so both cars had their tops down. Driving the Mercedes was Ernst Werner Techow. Sitting in the back were Erwin Kern and Hermann Fischer. All three were members of the Organisation Consul, an anti-Semitic, anti-communist organization formed from the Ehrhardt Brigade, a Freikorps that disbanded after the failed Kapp Putsch (for more on this, see When Martin was Fourteen). As the Mercedes passed Rathenau’s NAG convertible, Kern stood up and fired on Rathenau with a machine gun, killing him instantly. Fischer followed by throwing a hand grenade into the NAG, killing the chauffeur.

Surely, the assassins thought the killing of Rathenau would help spur the ultra-nationalist into action, but it had the opposite effect. Thousands took to the street to protest the killing. A relentless manhunt began for the assassins. Organisation Consul leader Hermann Ehrhardt distance himself from the event, claiming he personally knew nothing of the assassination plans. During a shoot out with the police three weeks later, Kern was fatally shot and Fischer committed suicide. Only Techow was captured after being turned in by relatives. He claimed he was forced to engage in the assassination, and since he only drove the car, he was sentenced fifteen years. He only served six before being given amnesty by the German government, which was veering strongly to the right by that time. When the Nazis came to power, a monument was erected to the assassins, which remained standing until 2000.

The Murder of Rathenau is presented from the perspective of Horst Bergmann (Jürgen Frohriep), a fictional character who is a cousin of Ernst Werner Techow. Bergmann had been a member of the Ehrhardt Brigade, but wasn’t on board with the Organisation Consul’s anti-Semitic, fascist platform. Out of work, Horst lives with his girlfriend Hilde (Karla Runkehl) and her brother Fritz (Horst Hiemer). He is also the nephew of Rathenau’s family doctor, who puts in a good word for Horst, helping him get a job at the AEG plant. As Horst gets to know Rathenau, he comes to respect the man, but he’s still hanging around with Teschow (Willi Schrade), Kern (Gerhard Rachold), and Fischer (Rolf Ripperger). He decides to try and play middleman, attempting to show the young fascists that Rathenau wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Horst thinks if they listen to the man speak, they will learn to respect him, but it only strengthens their resolve. This being an East German film, the message is clear: trying to negotiate with fascists and attempting to stay neutral accomplishes nothing and might even cost you your life.

The film was directed by Max Jaap. Jaap was one of the older directors working at DEFA. He was classified by the Nazis as “half-Jewish,” and was forced to work for the IG Farben company, the makers of Zyklon-B (see The Council of the Gods). IG Farben was a major shareholder in a German film company called Terra Film and Jaap used this to slip into a job as a costume designer at the film company, eventually moving up to a unit manager in 1944. After the War, he worked as a director and editor on DEFA’s Augenzeuge films. These were fifteen minute newsreels shown prior to the movies in East German theaters. With this documentary background, Jaap made Ludwig van Beethoven, a feature-length documentary on the famous composer. He followed this with a feature-length documentary on Friedrich Schiller. After that, he worked primarily in television. Jaap died in 1978.

Jürgen Frohriep’s career in movies got off to a strong start with Konrad Wolf’s Stars, in which he played a German soldier torn between his love for a Jewish woman and his duty to his country. Originally ​​a member of Studio 48 at the Drama School in Putbus Castle, the success of Stars led to dozens more appearances in movies and TV shows, often playing soldiers. During the seventies, he became a regular on the popular East German police series Polizeiruf 110 (now available with English subtitles as Silent Hunt), playing Oberleutnant Hübner. His career stalled after the Wende and he suffered from depression and alcoholism. After playing Oberleutnant Hübner one last time for Polizeiruf 110, he died in July of 1993, before the episode was aired.

As Horst’s love interest in the film, Karla Runkehl doesn’t have a big part, but it’s always good to see her. Runkehl appeared in several movies and TV series, usually in a supporting roles. She was pretty but never glamorous. To this day, she is best remembered for her portrayal as Änne in the Ernst Thälmann films. She died on Christmas Eve, 1986.

Although much of The Murder of Rathenau consists of dialogues between people either plotting the murder or debating their various political positions, Director Jaap keeps things visually interesting with frequent but not excessive camera movement. Changing the angles, panning, zooming in or pulling out as the content dictates. On the other hand, the murder sequence is handled in a remarkably matter-of-fact way that looks like the way Godard might have filmed it. It almost looks like 1922 newsreel footage.

The film’s political position is unequivocal. The dangers of ignoring fascism and not taking a stand against it is the primary point of the film. It’s a bit too didactic for its own good at times, but that was, after all, part of the mandate for East German television (and, to a certain extant, DEFA films as well). Given this requirement, Director Jaap has given us an interesting historical drama on an important incident that is nearly forgotten today.

IMDB page for the film.

Stream this film.



1. This translates to “General Electric Company,” although it was a separate company from the American General Electric Company, which was created around the same time.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

2 thoughts on “The Murder of Rathenau”

  1. I value your blog very much. You introduced me to films and filmmakers of value. I am thinking of the two films about Thalman. I was investigating and slowly acquiring films as DVDs and then Amazon threw a wrench into the machinery but requiring a local bank account when ordering from the non-American Amazons, i.e., amazon.de. Do you know of source for DVDs that don’t involve Amazon?

    1. Glad to hear you are enjoying the blog. Besides the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst (https://ecommerce.umass.edu/defa/), the only source for DEFA films in the States I know of is rarefilmsandmore.com (https://www.rarefilmsandmore.com/ddr-films). They mostly specialize in films about war, particularly WWII, but they have an East German section. Their film quality varies a great deal. Some have subtitles and some don’t. Some aren’t really East German films but are films about East Germany. Some sellers on Amazon in Germany will ship to the USA, but it’s hit or miss. You can also find some on eBay, but that is also hit or miss. It doesn’t need to be said, but you’ll need a multi-region player. It can be frustratingly hard, at times, to get ahold of these films.

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