Archive for the ‘Joachim Kunert’ Category

Werner holt

Germans have such a complicated relationship with their history. They understand well the atrocities of WWII and the kind of thinking that led to it, but, at the same time, they were the bad guys in that fight and they know it. Beyond the inescapable evil of the top officials and “just doing my job” excuses of military brass, how does the Average Joe reconcile his part in the war? Over the years, both the GDR and the FRG made films that tackled this question. In West Germany, films like The Bridge (Die Brücke), Stalingrad (Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben), and Das Boot examined the issue from a strongly anti-war perspective. East Germany took it further, with films  such as Stars, The Gleiwitz Case, and I Was Nineteen, looking at the war from nearly every angle. The Adventures of Werner Holt (Die Abenteuer des Werner Holt), like Wolfgang Staudte’s Rotation, and Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge, examines the war from the perspective of young people who are ignorant of the facts, filled with patriotic enthusiasm, and ready to fight. The film is based on book one of a two part series by Dieter Noll. The book was required reading in East German schools and remains well-respected in unified Germany. Both the film and the book follow the exploits of the title character and his best friends as they go from enthusiastic army recruits, ready to fight for das Vaterland, to disillusioned soldiers, aware that they are fighting for the wrong side.

The story primarily centers around Werner Holt and his buddy, Gilbert Wolzow. Wolzow is a big lummox who comes from a military family and is anxious to prove himself in combat. He is intensely nationalistic and ready to die for Germany. Holt, on the other, hand is a thoughtful and rebellious young man, already prone to challenging authority in school. These two have little in common. It is only through an incident involving a smashed aquarium that they become friends at all, so it’s only a matter of time before the two part ways. The film follows the duo as they go from school to basic training to the Eastern Front. Joining them on this journey are other schoolmates including Holt’s thoughtful friend Sepp, who acts as the voice of reason in the film, and the frail and sensitive Peter, a talented pianist who is initially rejected from the army but later drafted as the Nazis started throwing everybody they could find into the fight towards the end of the war.

In the book, it’s the Americans that Holt is fighting against, and it is the Americans that eventually capture him. The movie shifts the story to the east, with the Russians as the opposing force. Holt’s capture is not shown, nor is it addressed, but it matters little; the story is complete and the film stands on its own as a masterpiece in DEFA’s catalog. The most startling difference between the book and the film is in its structure. The book maintains a fairly linear timeline. We follow Holt from his student days to his eventual desertion and capture. Kunert felt that this wasn’t really working in the film, and chose instead to give his movie a nonlinear structure, relying on flashbacks to tell the story (for more about Joachim Kunert, see The Second Track).

The book’s author, Dieter Noll, was one of the best and most respected writers in East Germany. He was a strong adherent to the ideals of East Germany’s brand of communism. He joined the Communist Party of Germany after the war and was a member of the SED and the East German Writers’ Guild (Schriftstellerverband), for which he served as acting chairman for several years. In 1979, a group of writers confronted the East German authorities after the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. In a moment of supreme irony, Noll denounced them publicly and helped get nine of them expelled from the Writers’ Guild. Noll ended up looking more like the rabidly authoritarian Wolzow, than the protagonist of his novels. In 1984, his son followed Werner Holt’s example and refused to fight for the GDR, immigrating, instead, to West Berlin, and eventually becoming a citizen of Israel, where he lives to this day.

Rolf Sohre
As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the auteur theory falls to pieces when it comes to East German movies. The idea of one mighty leader, controlling every aspect of a film is useless here (I think it’s useless when it comes to Hollywood films too, but that’s another story for another time). Everyone who worked on a film for DEFA had some say in their areas of expertise. On this film that was certainly true, and no one more than Rolf Sohre, the film’s cinematographer. Sohre and Kunert first collaborated on The Second Track, one the most visually striking movies DEFA ever produced. Werner Holt was their second film together and the results are no less spectacular, although markedly different. While The Second Track was all chiaroscuro and rich black night photography, this film is brighter, with much of the drama taking place in broad daylight. Sohre, nonetheless, is given moments to shine. In one scene, the camera focuses on a framed photograph sitting on a table, the focus shifts and we see Werner Holt’s face juxtaposed over the frame. In another scene, the camera spins around two dancers while the other dancers appear only as shadows on the wall. For that sequence, a rotating platform was constructed, with cut-outs used as stand-ins for the other dancers.

Production Managers and Art Directors are seldom given their due in film criticism. Writers might point out their contributions to set design, but rarely more than that. Gerhard Helwig’s input on Werner Holt was invaluable. Helwig made of habit of sketching his out ideas for a production in storyboard form. It was these same sketches that Kunert and Sohre used to construct many of the best shots in the film. The sequence of the jump cuts with the anti-aircraft guns, for example, was sketched out in exactly this fashion in Helwig’s notebook. Perhaps, if his sketchbooks still exist, it would be worth going back over the films he worked on and seeing how often his sketches were used to compose scenes. He may emerge as the secret director of many DEFA films.

The editor was an attractive young woman named Christa Schnitt, who ended up marrying Gerhard Helwig. As Christa Helwig, she went on to a productive career at DEFA, editing many popular East German films, such as Lot’s Wife (Lots Weiß), Apaches, and In the Dust of the Stars.

For almost everyone working behind the camera on this film, the Wende spelled the end of their careers, Kunert, Sohre, the Helwigs, et al, found it difficult to find work in unified Germany. For the actors, it was another story, Klaus-Peter Thiele, who played Werner Holt, had a long and successful career after wall fell. He worked primarily in television, both before and after the Wende, appearing the popular East German TV mini-series about WWII, Archiv des Todes (Archives of Death), and its sequel, Front Ohne Gnade (Merciless Front), and in popular post-wall German shows such as Unser Lehrer Doktor Specht (Our Teacher, Doctor Specht) and Hallo Robbie. He died October 2011. Likewise, Arno Wyzniewski, who played the conscious-stricken Sepp, continued working—also mostly in television—right up until his death in 1997. He was last seen in the daffy Canadian/German science fiction series, Lexx.

Manfred Karge, who played the dim-witted and authoritarian Wolzow, was primarily a theater actor. He made a few films, but his first love was always the stage. He got his start at the Berliner Ensemble, where he was discovered by Bertolt Brecht’s wife and muse, Helene Weigel. In 1993 he became a director at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts. More recently, he returned to the Berliner Ensemble. Today he is best known in the west as a playwright. His plays include Mauer Stücke, Lieber Niembsch, and Jacke wie Hose, which was translated into English as Man to Man and performed by Tilda Swinton. Karge’s The Conquest of the South Pole (Die Eroberung des Südpols) was also translated into English and first staged in Scotland before the wall fell starring a young Alan Cummings. Earlier this year it was staged at the Arcola Theatre in London.

Upon its release The Adventures of Werner Holt was a huge hit. In spite of its long running time (almost three hours) the film packed theaters. It sold over three million tickets in East Germany alone and was also popular in West Germany in spite of its East German origin. It remains one of the most respected films from the GDR.

IMDB  page for this film.

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Manfred Karge article in The Independent (U.K.)

Film noir is not a term that is usually associated with East German cinema. It is used most often when discussing the Warner Brothers crime films of the 1940s. Noir comes with certain rules that must be followed. The main ones are: characters whose complexity keeps them from falling into easily identifiable categories of good and evil; atmospheric use of shadows and unusual camera angles that serve as signifiers for the moral choices that the characters must struggle with; and usually—though not always—a crime or other tragic event. One of the best-known and most interesting examples of an East German film noir is The Second Track (Das zweite Gleis), directed by Joachim Kunert.

Based on a story by the director and the prolific German author, Günther Kunert, The Second Track starts with an incident in a trainyard in which yard inspector Walter Brock catches two men trying to steal goods from one of the boxcars. After one of the men is apprehended, Brock suddenly changes his tune and claims he can’t identify the man. The thief, a man named Erwin Runge, knows he has seen Brock before, but can’t remember where. He sends Frank, his young partner-in-crime, out to seduce Vera, the inspector’s daughter, in hopes of finding out just who Brock really is. The young thief gets emotionally involved with the daughter and the two of them go off to find out what happened to her mother. Pretty soon, all the dark secrets of the past come bubbling to the surface, for both Brock and Runge.

The Second Track was made in 1962 and released just a little over a year after the wall went up. Although it was seen by West Germans and Americans as a symbol of oppression (quite understandably), the wall also afforded new opportunities for creative freedom in the East German film community. The GDR was anxious to make a point that the wall was built to stop the west from trying to destroy the East German economy and morale. It was important to show that the wall had nothing to do with oppression, and to this end, many restrictions on filmmaking were eased. For the more imaginative directors, this was a time to stretch their wings. It was during this period that we saw Konrad Wolf’s Divided Heaven, which presaged the New German Cinema by several years. It was also when Gottfried Kolditz reintroduced the musical to East Germany with Midnight Revue and Beloved White Mouse. For Kunert and his cinematographer, Rolf Sohre, it was an opportunity to demonstrate what they could do when left to their own resources.

Like any good film noir, the characters are complex and hard to categorize. Frank is a thief, but he is also the person that seems the most interested in finding out the truth. Likewise, Walter Brock is basically a good man, but he has been lying to his daughter all her life in an attempt to hide his shameful past. Vera is the most innocent person in the story, but even here our introduction to her is from a colleague who describes her as a block of ice. Even the venal Erwin Runge becomes more complicated when his ex-wife explains that he was once a good man who was changed by the war.

The character truest to the film noir genre is Frank. Like Philip Raven—Alan Ladd’s character in This Gun for Hire—he is a man on the wrong side of the law, who, through his love for a woman, comes to do the right thing. The actor, Horst Jonischkan, was primarily a stage actor (as was Albert Hetterle, who played Brock). Jonischkan appeared in several DEFA productions, most notably, The Song of a Trumpeter (Das Lied vom Trompeter), in which he portrays a young trumpet player who dies for the cause (the cause being communism, of course).

Director Joachim Kunert got his start in films as an assistant-director at DEFA, where he worked for six years before directing Ein Strom fließt durch Deutschland (A River Runs Through Germany), a 30-minute color film about the Elbe River. His documentary short, Martin Andersen Nexø, about the Danish author of the same name, was banned in West Germany. It was during the early sixties that Kunert was able to really show what he could do with The Second Track and his next feature, the extremely popular film The Adventures of Werner Holt. After the 11th Plenum, things got a bit more difficult for him. While attempting to make a film from Franz Fühmann’s book on Hans and Sophie Scholl, Kunert ran afoul of the authorities and spent the rest of his career making movies for television. As a fan of the work of author Anna Seghers, he has made three films based on her novels (Die Toten bleiben jung, Die große Reise der Agathe Schweigert, and Das Schilfrohr), and a segment for another film (Das Duell segment in Aus unserer Zeit).

The cinematography for this film was by Rolf Sohre, and it is sensational. The dramatic shots of the trains pulling in and out of the yard and roundhouse are reminiscent of O. Winston Link’s moody railroad photographs. Many scenes in the film are bathed in light and shadows, including that reliable old noir trope: the striping of venetian blinds at night. Faces often are either hidden or partly obscured by darkness, echoing the dark secrets that hide in the pasts of the two older men.

Sohre grew up around cameras and film. His father was a projectionist and owned a movie theater for a time, while his uncle owned a photography studio in Dresden. As a young man, he worked for both men, learning everything everything there was to know the art of photography and the mechanics of movie equipment. In The Second Track, he pours his knowledge of these things into every frame. Although several scenes take place in darkened rooms, the shots are never muddy or obscure. Every frame of this film is as clear as crystal. Toward the end of the GDR’s existence, Sohre left DEFA and took up photography full time. He lives in Nuthetal, a small municipality southeast of Potsdam.

The music for the film is by the Slovakian composer, Pavol Simai. Simai composed the music for a solo harp, played by the East German classical harpist, Jutta Hoff. Simai explores the harp in every way imaginable, having Hoff strike, pluck and even scratch the strings. It is one of the strangest film scores from East Germany—a country already notable for some very odd film scores. Simai only composed music for a few movies before bowing out to continue his studies. In 1968, he moved to Sweden, where he took up residence in Göteborg. There he taught and composed pieces for orchestra and guitar. He is best known for his “Impressions for Guitar” as performed by Czech/Swedish guitarist, Josef Holecek. In 2001, a CD of his classical pieces was released under the title, “Key.” It is currently out of print.

During its existence, DEFA, and its television counterpart DFF (Deutscher Fernsehfunk), produced dozens of Krimis (crime films). Stories about criminals and spies were very popular, and many of the DFF Krimis are available in Germany in boxed sets. The quality of these films vary greatly. A few films from the GDR can rightfully be considered film noir, but none is more deserving of the title than this one.

IMDB page for this film.

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