A hunting party at an East Prussian estate becomes a tinderbox of emotions as WWII is coming to an end.
At an estate in East Prussia, landowner von Olbers (Arthur Jopp) is holding a hunting party. He is now a major in the German army and has turned over the everyday duties on his estate to his daughter Hella (Marion van de Kamp). Joining him on his hunting expedition are several high-ranking Nazi officers, including a particularly repugnant SS Obersturmführer named Meisel (Volkmar Kleinert), and Lieutenant Wünsch (Klaus Bamberg), the boyfriend of Anne (Gudrun Ritter), who handles the books for the von Olbers estate. To run things, von Olbers is using Soviet prisoners, who are literally freezing to death in a stable on the estate. When Anne directs estate manager Krawoleit (Ernst Kahler) to provide straw for the prisoners, the act of kindness gets her in trouble with Meisel, who threatens to report her. What Anne doesn’t know is that Krawoleit, whom she has trusted up until now, is a Gestapo informer. Anne doesn’t find any defenders in the von Olbers household, except for Hella, who only defends her because she needs her to run things. The film ends on a question mark, with news of Soviet troops approaching the area and the withdrawal of the German army. What happens after is left unspoken. We leave the story with the Soviet prisoners singing a Russian song, knowing they might soon be freed.1
From the opening moments of The Hunting Party (Die Jagdgesellschaft), we notice that this is a television production. Unlike the TV-movies shot at DEFA on film, such as Today is Friday or The Man from Canada, this is a DFF studio production shot in the style of any television video production, which is to say, it looks like soap opera, not only for the flat lighting, but for the fact that we catches glimpses of equipment shadows from time to time as the camera moves around the set. More than a soap opera, it reminds me of the old Omnibus and Kraft Theatre episodes, where shows were performed live on a soundstage.
The movie was directed by Wilhelm Gröhl. As discussed in A Night on the Autobahn, which he also directed, Gröhl was primarily an actor. First and foremost, he was a theater person and you can see this influence throughout The Hunting Party. It is, for all intents and purposes, a stage play virtually filmed in real time. This isn’t a bad thing. It gives The Hunting Party the kind of immediacy usually missing from films.
This is a talky movie, so it’s no surprise that author Walter Stranka is best remembered for his radio plays. He was the older brother of director Erwin Stranka (see Liane). The Strankas came from the region of Czechoslovakia that was heavily populated by Germans. At the end of the War, the Germans were chased out of that country and the family settled in Halle. At that point Walter was old enough to go his own way and he moved to Weimar, where he began to write. A communist from an early age, he never lost his enthusiasm for the system. You won’t find any challenges to the authority of the SED in the writings of Walter Stranka. Stranka had retired by the time the Wall came down. It’s probably just as well. His work wouldn’t have found much traction in those years after the Wende. He died in 1992.
The film stars Gudrun Ritter as Anne. No stunning beauty like Angelica Dömrose or Annekathrin Bürger, Ritter was often cast in secondary roles, playing secretaries and housewives. She was born in Marienberg, a town in the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge), and studied acting in Leipzig. Her first love has always been theater and she was a permanent member of the Deutsches Theater ensemble for more than forty years. She started appearing in television production in the sixties. Later, she started appearing in films, including the DEFA classics Jadup and Boel, The Airship, and Coming Out. Even with her movie and television performances, she had never stopped performing on stage and it was in the theater that you were most likely to see her immediately after DEFA and DFF were dismantled. Eventually, Ritter returned to the small screen and, later, to feature films. Most recently, we’ve seen her in the popular TV series Deutschland 86 (on Hulu), and The Last Word (on Netflix), as well as grandmother to Saoirse Ronan’s character in Hanna (on Amazon Prime).
The real star of the film is Volkmar Kleinert, who is mesmerizingly evil as Obersturmführer Meisel. He inhabits the role completely, from the way eats to the way he stands. Kleinert exudes menace in every scene. He was born into a musical family in Dresden in 1938. His father was an orchestra conductor and his mother was an actress and singer, primarily in operettas. Like Gudrun Ritter, Kleinert studied acting in Leipzig and eventually ended up at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. He first appeared on film in Slatan Dudow’s Love’s Confusion in a small role as one of the students. Since then, he’s appeared in dozens of movies and television shows, usually in the role of the villain. Perhaps it was because of his knack for playing the bad guys that Kleinert suffered fewer unemployment problems than many of his East German contemporaries. He has continued to work consistently since the Fall of the Wall, and is best known in the States for his role in The Lives of Others, ironically, one of the few times he didn’t play the heavy.
The Hunting Party ends before the Red Army arrives. History tells us what happens next, but that’s not an aspect of the post-War period that East German movies have ever been comfortable examining in any depth. The closest they came was in Konrad Wolf’s I was Nineteen, and even there, we leave before things get nasty. For that matter, West Germany wasn’t too keen on the subject either. To see this aspect of the War on film, we’d have to wait until 2008, when Marta Hillers’ 1954 autobiographical book (A Woman in Berlin (Eine Frau in Berlin, published anonymously) was finally made into a movie starring Nina Hoss.
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1. I don’t normally giveaway the ending to a movie, but the odds of this one ever receiving English subtitles is slim to none, so I’ve made an exception. Unless your German is C2 level, I don’t recommend attempting to watch this one. Like a stage play, it relies more on talk than on visuals.
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