Archive for the ‘Konrad Wolf’ Category

Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz
Konrad Wolf’s three feature films—Goya, The Naked Man on the Athletic Field (Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz), and Solo Sunny—form a loose trilogy. On the face of things, the three films are as different as can be, musically, stylistically and cinematically, but all three films deal with deal with artistic creativity, in each case seen from a different perspective. On one end of the spectrum, we have Goya, the story of a true creative genius who changed art forever, on the other end of the spectrum we have Solo Sunny, the story of a young lounge singer who is just talented enough scrape by, but not much more. In between, is The Naked Man on the Athletic Field, the story of a talented artist whose work is very good, but who cannot find acceptance with the general public. He will never be as famous as Goya, but neither will he be forgotten like Sunny. The thing all three main characters have in common is a strong creative urge. Goya paints in spite the threat of the Spanish Inquisition; Sunny tries to perfect a hit single in spite of never playing anywhere with more than fifty people in the audience, and Herbert Kemmel, the sculptor in The Naked Man on the Athletic Field, continues to follow his own visions in the face of civic criticism.

Being an East German film, this last issue is the most important. Since artistic abilities and the creative impulse are unique to an individual, what is its place in socialist society? Should this one man be allowed to follow his own muse, or should the will of the collective prevail? It also addresses what happens when the public is no longer able to discern good art from bad, relying instead on fixed categories of what they think art is supposed to be instead of nuanced intellectual examination. With Goya, Wolf placed the action in Spain in the late 1700s. The film’s hidden subtext was about East Germany, but Ulbricht was still in charge when Wolf started working on the film. Honecker, as of yet taken over the leadership, when he declared that “as long as one proceeds from the firm position of socialism,” there should be “no taboos in the fields of art and literature.”

The naked man in the title refers to a piece Kemmel is commissioned to sculpt for the local athletic field. Expecting a clothed soccer player, the local authorities are horrified to to see a life-size bronze of a naked man instead. Should the authorities accept this single artist’s vision, or should the will of the collective prevail? In this case, Wolf, a lifelong communist seems to suggest that in an ideal socialist society there is room for both. Throughout the film Kemmel discusses art with various people and finds their perspectives on the subject severely limited. Most of the film concerns the relationship between Kemmel and his model Hannes. Hannes is just an ordinary guy, a member of a local construction brigade who has agreed to pose for Kemmel. The two men are as different as chalk and cheese, but they eventually learn to understand each other’s perspectives.

The Naked Man on the Athletic Field

Konrad Wolf was one of East Germany’s most creative directors, but he is also a stylistic gadfly. Take any three Wolf films, and you’d be hard pressed to see that they were all made by the same person. The screenplay is by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, East Germany’s best scriptwriter. As always, Kohlhaase is concerned with the way people communicate. Usually this takes the form of people from different regions trying to communicate (Germans and Russians, Berliners and everybody else), but here it is about the limitations of communication between people of different walks of life.

Herbert Kemmel is played by Kurt Böwe, who brings a certain charm to every role. He is often called on to play police and government officials because of this. Here, he is slightly outside of the mainstream, but not dangerously so. Hannes is played by Martin Trettau, who worked primarily on television. Trettau first appeared on film in Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. He appeared in several feature films after that, but most of work, especially in the eighties, was for Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DFF), the GDR’s television company. Like many East German actors, Trettau found work after the Wende became more scarce, but did a few television shows before retiring. He died in 2007 in Berlin.

Various artists and sculptors were hired to create the artwork shown in the film. The naked man sculpture of the title was created by renowned East German sculptor Werner Stötzer, who also makes a cameo appearance as the town’s mayor. Works by fellow artists Will Lammert and Albert Ebert also appear in the film.

The Naked Man on the Sports Field

The film features a remarkably minimal score consisting of guitar and a pan flute. The score was by Karl-Ernst Sasse—East Germany’s number one composer. Sasse’s scores were often quirky, using percussion in interesting ways in combination with unusual instruments. Sasse could create an orchestral piece with the best of them, but he was no one-trick pony. If he or the director thought a film score required only one or two instruments, he could do that as well. Considering his versatility, one might assume that Wolf and he worked together quite often, but this was the only film on which they collaborated (Wolf was famous for using the same crew on most of his films prior to Solo Sunny, but this never applied to the composers; he rarely used the same composer twice). After the Wende, Sasse continued to compose for films right up until the turn of the century, when he retired. His last film score was for Rosa von Praunheim’s 1999 film The Einstein of Sex. The story of the renowned and infamous sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. Sasse died in 2006, not far from the Potsdam-Babelsberg studios where he did most of his work.

The Naked Man on the Athletic Field is a languid film. Too talky and low-key for the average American film watcher. But when viewed in conjunction with Goya and Solo Sunny, it completes a concept that addresses Wolf’s feelings about the relationship between creativity and society. After Solo Sunny, Wolf would explore artistic creativity one more time in the television documentary Busch singt (Busch Sings), but here he was working with several other directors and he died before the film was finished.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

Mama, ich lebe
Occasionally, East Germany’s film studio DEFA worked with production companies from other countries. This gave those countries access to the Babelsberg film studios, which were some of the best in Europe, and it allowed DEFA to provide a better variety of films to the East German public. With many of these films, the influence of what we’d call the DEFA style is minimized. The Crucible, for instance, is essentially a French film, and Five Days, Five Nights follows the socialist realist style of Soviet Union cinema more closely than the more objective style popular with East German filmmakers. DEFA partnered with, the USSR on fourteen films, and most of these look and feel like Soviet films. Two notable exceptions are the two directed by Konrad Wolf—Goya, and Mama, I’m Alive (Mama, ich lebe). Perhaps this is because, unlike most of his comrades at DEFA, Wolf spoke Russian at least as well as he spoke German, so he could express exactly what he was after without resorting to intermediaries, or perhaps he was more sure of his artistic vision than most.

Mama, I’m Alive is very much a Konrad Wolf film. It starts with a photograph of four German soldiers dressed in Red Army outfits, which provokes questions about the people in it. Who are they? What are their stories? The film answers these questions as it follows the exploits of the four German soldiers who decide to join the Red Army and are sent back into battle. As they prepare for their new roles, we are shown glimpses of the backstories of each man in flashbacks. Karl Koralewski (Eberhard Kirchberg) is an artist and seems to be the most self-assured. Helmuth Kuschke (Detlef Gieß) is a theology student, which leads to some interesting discussions on religion and socialism. Walter Pankonin (Uwe Zerbe) is a carpenter who is the quietest of the bunch, and a pacifist. When captured by the Soviets, he admits to having never shot at anyone. More than the others, he seems to know what he is and is not willing to do in the name of war. Perhaps this is the reason Red Army soldier Svetlana (Margarita Terekhova) falls in love with him. The fourth soldier is Günther Becker (Peter Prager) is a young pilot, straight out of school who is still trying to figure things out. Becker serves as the focal point for the story.

Mama, I'm Alive

All four men believe in the socialist cause to varying degrees and hate what Hitler is doing in the name of Germany, but when they get to the front, they discover that saying you want to fight for the communist cause, and actually shooting your fellow countrymen are two very different things. Wolf touched on some of these themes in his previous film, I Was Nineteen, but this time it is from the perspective of people who, unlike Gregor Hecker in that film (or Wolf himself), did not leave Germany at a young age. They are not returning to a land that is alien to them, but to their homes. When they look at German soldiers, they see themselves. In one scene, the four men encounter a boxcar filled with German soldiers being shipped off to a prison camp. Koralewski’s attempts to engage them fall on deaf ears. They neither know nor trust him. He runs after the train, trying to toss potatoes to the hungry men in the boxcar, but it is a futile gesture, accomplishing little.

Director Konrad Wolf shows his usual skill here, keeping the rhythm of the film moving forward with a mix of close-ups and long shots. Partly this is thanks to his cinematographer, Walter Bergmann. Wolf had used Bergmann on every film he made up to that point, but this would be their last film together. Bergmann continued to work and even directed from time to time. Bergmann had lost his right arm to shrapnel during World War II, which makes his success as a cameraman all the more impressive. He also taught at the film school in Babelsberg and was one of the creators of Greif zur Kamera, Kumpel! (Grab Your Camera, Buddy!), an East German TV show intended to encourage amateur photography and moviemaking.

train from Mama, ich lebe

The screenplay is by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who is certainly no stranger to this blog, having written screenplays for such classics as Berlin Schönhauser Corner, The Gleiwitz Case, I Was Nineteen, and Solo Sunny. The film is based on Fragen an ein Foto (Questions About a Photo), a radio play by Kohlhaase that aired in 1969. As with most of Kohlhaase’s work, there is a focus on the subtleties of language, and their effects on our ability to communicate with each other. This time he moves outside of his usual Berlin sphere to tackle the problems of communicating across two different languages and the effects the ways cultural differences can impede the exchange of ideas. This was Kohlhaase’s third film working with Konrad Wolf, but it wouldn’t be his last. The duo would work together again on Solo Sunny, possibly their best effort as a team.

The four soldiers, Becker, Pankonin, Koralewski, and Kuschke are played by Peter Prager, Uwe Zerbe, Eberhard Kirchberg, and Detlef Gieß respectively. It was the first film for all four men and all four went on to successful careers in film and television. Prager and Kirchberg have appeared in dozens of films and television shows since the Wende, while Zerbe and Gieß have concentrated on stage acting.

Margarita Terechowa

Playing Pankonin’s love interest Svetlana is the popular Russian actor Margarita Terechowa. Two years before this film was made, Terechowa made an international splash in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. A year later, she starred with Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, and many other A-list Hollywood movie stars in George Cukor’s The Blue Bird, the only joint U.S. and Soviet film production, and a film so misbegotten that it ranks in the annals of cinema as one of the worst movies ever made.

The film was submitted to the Berlinale, and was nominated for Golden Bear. It didn’t win (the great Russian film, The Ascent won), but it did win a special mention with the Interfilm Award.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (no subtitles).

Professor Mamlock

 

In 1934, Friedrich Wolf’s play, Professor Mamlock, ruffled feathers around the world. In it, a conservative Jewish doctor tries to keep politics out the clinic he runs in spite of the growing presence of Nazis and Nazi support in Germany. As the doctor is incrementally stripped of power and control, he eventually realizes that his staunch refusal to get involved in politics helped the fascists take over his country. Friedrich Wolf started working on the play the night the Reichstag was burned down after friends came to him saying, “See what your awful communist friends have done!” Wolf knew better and began writing a play to warn Germans about what was happening to their country. It was one of the first plays to address the issue of Nazi antisemitism.

As a communist, and a Jewish one at that, Friedrich Wolf knew he stood little chance of surviving the Third Reich, so he and his family fled to Russia, where his anti-fascist, pro-communist plays were met with open arms. In 1938, Austrian-born director Herbert Rappaport directed the first film adaptation of Professor Mamlock in Russian. As one might imagine, the film was banned in Germany, but it was also banned in Great Britain and China. The film was a big hit in New York City, helped, no doubt, by the reports of Kristallnacht, which which occurred two days prior to the film’s New York premiere, but it was banned in Chicago, where the censors considered it “purely Jewish and Communist propaganda against Germany.” The film was banned in the Soviet Union after Germany and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact. That ban was lifted two years later after Germany invaded the Soviet Union. A U.S. version of the play was never filmed, although Edward G. Robinson once said he would give “his teeth” to play Mamlock in a movie.

In 1961, Friedrich Wolf’s son Konrad—already a well-respected filmmaker in East Germany—decided it was time to revisit his father’s play. Whether this was out of dissatisfaction with the Russian movie, or the two versions already televised on East German TV is hard to say. One thing is for certain: the younger Wolf was not going to be content to merely record his father’s work. He was going to make it a movie (for more on Konrad Wolf, see I Was Nineteen).

The result was the 1961 DEFA version of Professor Mamlock, a dazzling film from Wolf’s most artistically adventurous period. Konrad Wolf was never afraid to address the German public’s willful participation in Hitler’s insanity. His classic Stars, which looked at the subject of the holocaust so unflinchingly that only documentaries such as Night and Fog and Shoah can match the visceral power of its final scene. But Mr. Wolf was going for something more ambitious here. Not merely content to film the play, or “open it up” in the style of Hollywood’s versions of stage plays, Mr. Wolf wanted to turn the story into a truly cinematic experience. To say he succeeded is something of an understatement. Some critics argued that he succeeded too well. The West German actor/director Bernhard Wicki felt that the film was “too well photographed” for its subject matter.

Scene from Professor Mamlock

Wolf starts things out subtly, with a parlor scene that looks like it is filmed on a stage set, often shot from angles that mimic a balcony view of a stage. At first it seems as if he is going to simply film his father’s play, but Mr. Wolf is toying with us. A few minutes the the films drops all pretense of being a filmed stage play and turns into a full blown cinematic experience. In one scene, Mamlock’s philosophical turmoil is echoed in the editing when the scene cuts back and forth between him dealing with the new hospital policies and the flashing “Entrance Forbidden” sign above the operating room. In another, during the interrogation of a prisoner the camera starts one a level plane and tilts as the interrogation becomes more violent, eventually flying out a window. This is largely thanks to Wolf’s long-time cinematographer, Werner Bergmann.

In 1961, Werner Bergmann was easily the best cameraman in either of the two Germanys. This film and Konrad Wolf’s next film, Divided Heaven, show him at the top of his craft, producing such dazzling shots that it would be ten years before Michael Ballhaus in West Germany matched his work. Mr. Bergmann was trained as a portrait and industrial photographer, but started shooting films while working as a war correspondent for Die Deutsche Wochenschau—The Third Reich’s newsreel company. In 1943, a shrapnel injury to his right arm led to the arm’s amputation. Thereafter, he worked at the Babelsberg Ufa studios until the end of the war.

After DEFA was founded, Mr. Bergmann worked primarily on short films. In 1953, he switched to features, starting with Martin Hellberg’s Das kleine und das große Glück (Fortunes Great and Small). But it was partnership with Konrad Wolf for which he best remembered. The two had met while Mr. Wolf was still learning the craft working as an assistant director on the documentary, Freundschaft siegt (Friendship Triumphs). When it came time for Mr. Wolf to direct his first film (Einmal ist keinmal), he chose Mr. Bergmann to shoot it. Mr. Bergmann worked with Wolf on all of his films up until Solo Sunny, when Wolf decided that Bergmann’s gorgeous cinematography was unsuitable for the gritty story of an East German singer living on the fringes of society. Perhaps he was thinking of Wicki’s statement when he made this decision.

Juden Raus!

To star in the film, Mr. Wolf turned first to a recent stage production of his father’s play, in which the roles of Mamlock and his wife were played by Wolfgang Heinz and Ursula Burg respectively. Primarily a stage actor, Wolfgang Heinz had a long and illustrious career on stage and screen. Born in Bohemia, the son of a journalist/theater director and an actress, Mr. Heinz grew up in Vienna, but moved to Germany when he was seventeen to pursue a career as an actor. He joined the ensemble at the renowned Deutsches Theater in Berlin a year later. In 1919, he started appearing in films, most notably F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, where he played the first mate on the doomed freighter carrying Nosferatu’s coffin.

Like his character in Professor Mamlock, Mr. Heinz experienced first-hand the antisemitism of the Nazis. He was dismissed from the Deutsches Theater for being Jewish. He left Germany and spent most of the war living in Switzerland. After the war, he returned to Austria, where he co-founded the Neue Theater in der Scala in one of Vienna’s Soviet sectors. After the Austrian State Treaty was ratified in 1955, Mr. Heinz found himself once again under attack. This time not for being Jewish, but for being a communist. His theater was shut down and he left Austria for the second time, moving to East Germany, where he rejoined the Deutsches Theater ensemble.

While Mr. Heinz did appear in several DEFA films, he was primarily a stage actor, appearing in over 300 roles on stage, including that of Professor Mamlock. In 1959, he was hired as the director of the National Theatre School in Berlin (now the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts). In 1966, he was elected president of the Verband der Theaterschaffenden (Association of Theater Artists) and from 1968 to 1974 he served as the president of the Deutschen Akademie der Künste (Germany Academy of Arts). He died in Berlin in 1984 and is buried in the Adlershof cemetery in Berlin.

Branded

Ursula Burg’s role as Mamlock’s wife was a small but important one. It would also be her last appearance in a feature film. Ms. Berg lived in the western sector of Berlin but primarily worked in East Germany. After the wall went up, Ms. Burg found herself in a country where her film credentials had no value. She appeared in a few TV-movies, but was no longer seen on the big screen. She moved to Gelsenkirchen, where she continued to work in theater. She died in Munich in 1996.

The role of Mamlock’s communist son is played by Hilmar Thate. We last saw Mr. Thate a month earlier in Gerhard Klein’s incredible film, The Gleiwitz Case. In that film, Mr. Thate spent most of his brief screen time either drugged up or dying. This time around he gets to do more. Hilmar Thate grew up in Halle, the son of a locomotive repairman. He studied acting at school, eventually ending up as a member of Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, at that time under the direction of Brecht’s wife and pioneering actress, Helene Weigel. His first film was also Konrad Wolf’s first film, Einmal ist keinmal (Once is Not Enough). He went on to play parts large and small in many films and made-for-TV movies. His career hit a roadblock in East Germany after he, along with his wife, Angelica Domröse, signed the artists’ petition against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. When it became apparent that they would not be allowed to continue their careers unfettered, he and and Ms. Domröse emigrated to West Germany, where he had his biggest hit starring in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s classic, Veronika Voss (Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss).

Professor Mamlock did well at the box office, and probably would have done even better had it been given more international screenings, but coming at the height of tensions between the east and the west, it never got that chance. Less than three months after its release, the Berlin Wall was built. It would be years before the film was screened in New York. In fact, a search through the New York Times’ archive, shows only one mention of Wolf’s film at all, and that is a passing remarks that the film won a gold medal at the 1961 Moscow Film Festival. Even in a letter to the editor, in which its author, Edward Alexander, counselor for press and cultural affairs in the United States Embassy in East Berlin from 1976 to 1979, writes about his conversation with Konrad Wolf, only the Russian film is mentioned. If the film has ever been shown in New York, there is no evidence of it.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film. (Includes PDF essays about the play and Friedrich Wolf)

Epic is not a term one often uses with East German movies. As a rule, the films of DEFA keep to a human scale, charting life’s courses for ordinary people. Even the Märchenfilme (fairy tale films), while often dealing with fantastical kingdoms and imaginary worlds, keep the scale down to everyday proportions. But Goya or the Hard Road to Enlightenment (Goya – oder der arge Weg der Erkenntnis) is an epic. Its scale is huge and its sets are opulent. Using the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, Goya is shot in eye-busting color on 70mm film, with over 3,000 costumes, and locations in four different countries. Goya’s artwork was carefully reproduced by master artists, and an actual antique press was found to recreate the production of his Caprichos, right down to the recreation of the copper etching plates and hand-made paper.

From the opening moments of this film you know you are in for something different from any other film that ever came out of the GDR. Over somber chanting, a religious procession moves through a street in Spain. Some of the people in the procession wear white robes and capirotes, looking for all the world like members of the Ku Klux Klan. Others wear the same outfits in black. Men, stripped to the waist, their faces covered in white cloth, flagellate themselves as they walk in the procession, moaning in pain and religious ecstasy. Along the way, people kneel and make the sign of the cross as the statues of Jesus on the cross and the Virgin Mary trundle by in wooden carts.

To cast the film, director Konrad Wolf chose actors from seven countries, from Russia to Spain. Donatas Banionis, who played Goya, hailed from Lithuania, while Olivera Katarina, who played the sexually rapacious Duchess of Alba, came from Yugoslavia; Tatyana Lolova, who played Queen Maria Luisa was from Bulgaria, and Charles IV was played by the popular East German actor, Rolf Hoppe. To ensure the best possible performances from everyone, actors played their parts in their native languages. The set for this film must have sounded like the lobby at the United Nations.

Since the government of Francisco Franco was not exactly on speaking terms with the GDR, Wolf could not film in Spain, so the back streets of Dubrovnik were used instead. To add a more authentic flavor to the film, a film crew made up of West Germans was assembled and sent to Spain. Supposedly, this team was there to make a documentary about bullfighting, but they were really working for DEFA, shooting the movie’s bullfight sequence.

The film is based on Lion Feuchtwanger’s book about Goya, chronicling the years in the painter’s life when he went from a celebrated court painter to an enemy of the church—roughly from 1789 to 1803. At the beginning of the story, Goya is perfectly happy to be a pawn in the game that people in power played with the public. It is only after a series of tragic events that he comes to realize that these people are not worthy of admiration and he begins to evolve as a painter. Lion Feuchtwanger wrote the book in response to the anti-communist trials that were being held by Senator Joseph McCarthy in Washington. Feuchtwanger also revisited the story of Jud Süß. Jud Süß is the second book based on the story of Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, the Jewish financial planner for Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg in Stuttgart. The famous German fairy tale writer, Wilhelm Hauff had written a version of the story back in 1827. Feuchtwanger considered Hauff’s book “naively anti-Semitic” and set about to fix the flaws he saw in Hauff’s version. Feuchtwanger’s version was first published in 1925 and was a huge hit in Germany. So much so that the Nazis felt compelled to ban the book and make a film based on the Wilhelm Hauff book that challenged nearly every detail in the Feuchtwanger book.* In Feuchtwanger’s book, it is Joseph Süß Oppenheimer’s daughter who is raped and killed by the Duke, while in the movie, Oppenheimer is the rapist. Although he lived in the United States, Feuchtwanger was especially popular in East Germany, partly due, no doubt, to his defense of Stalin in his book, Moscow 1937. Feuchtwanger died in 1958 in Southern California and his works were donated to USC create a Feuchtwanger library.

As a director, Konrad Wolf is a hard man to pin down. A quick look at his list of films demonstrates his versatility, but it also makes it impossible for proponents of the auteur school film criticism to pigeonhole him. Some of his films are small and intimate, some are gritty, some are grand. That is, perhaps the point. Wolf was a communist director working in a communist system in a communist way. Nearly everyone involved in making Wolf’s films had a say in the production, giving the cinematographer, composer, actors, screenwriter, and editor nearly as much influence as the director. Fans of the Hollywood’s bloated egomaniacs are not going to find much to like about someone like Wolf, who managed to keep his personal life out of his films (the key exceptions being I Was Nineteen, which is literally about his own experiences during WWII, and Professor Mamlock, which is based on a play by his father). Anyone who thinks they’ve got a pretty good handle on Wolf’s style after watching his first ten movies will be blindsided by Goya. It is like nothing he ever did before and like nothing he did after. It is majestic, intense, and unsentimental.

The film that it is intended as much as a criticism of government repression as it is as a story about eighteenth-century Spain. In an interview that is included on the DVD, the screenwriter, Angel Vagenshtain (author of Stars), admits this, but says that they weren’t as clever as they thought when it came to hiding this intention. As a co-production with Russia, the film was screened in advance in Moscow. The Russian official who screened the film asked that the final lines in the film—where the Inquisitor General of the Spanish Inquisition states that the name of Goya would be forever stricken from the records and forgotten by history—be removed from the film. Having recently made a similar pronouncement about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his work, they weren’t too happy about this inevitable comparison. To his credit, Wolf refused to remove the lines. Had it been any other director, this refusal would have either been ignored, or the film would have ended up on a shelf alongside the films of the 11th Plenum, but Wolf got away with more than most directors in East Germany. This was in part due to the fact that his father was one of the most-well respected playwrights in the world (and especially in Russia where he was exiled during WWII), but was mostly because his brother, with whom he was very close, was the head of the Stasi’s foreign intelligence division. Like J. Edgar Hoover, Markus Wolf was a man of such power that even government officials trod lightly around him (it was long believed that he was the blueprint for John Le Carré’s communist spymaster, Karla, although Le Carré denied this). Considering how often Konrad Wolf pushed the boundaries—most notably with Divided Heaven and Solo Sunny—there is a suggestion of truth to this.

Lithuanian actor, Donatas Banionis, was already known in the eastern bloc countries for his work in films such as, Watch Out for the Automobile (Beregis avtomobilya) and a Lithuanian version of The Little Prince (Malenkiy prints). He first achieved a measure of international recognition when he appeared in The Red Tent (Krasnaya palatka), the last film made by the brilliant Russian director, Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes are Flying, I Am Cuba). But Banionis would become best known to western audiences as Kris Kelvin in Tarkovsky’s classic, Solaris. Also, it is reported that it was his portrayal of a spy in The Dead Season (Myortvyy sezon) that convinced Vladimer Putin to join the KGB. Banionis would return to DEFA to play yet another deaf genius in Horst Seemann’s Beethoven: Tage aus einem Leben (Beethoven: Days in a Life), and he would work again with Konrad Wolf in Mama, ich lebe  (Mama, I’m Alive). One of his most unusual roles was in the Russian TV-movie, Poka ya ne umer (Before I Die), in which he portrays the corpulent New York detective, Nero Wolfe. Banionas makes a good Goya, passionate and confused, quixotic and vain, yet still sympathetic.

But it was lead actress, Olivera Katarina, who was best known to western audiences at the time. She had appeared a year earlier in the West German horror film, Mark of the Devil (Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält) under the name Olivera Vučo. Mark of the Devil was a big hit with the grindhouse crowd in America, in part because of its explicit scenes of torture, but mostly thanks to its exploitation advertising campaign which included barf bags handed out with each ticket in case an audience member couldn’t take the gore. Ms. Katarina was already an extremely popular singer and actress in Yugoslavia She starred in in the Aleksandar Petrovic’s Skupljaci perja (I Even Met Happy Gypsies), which featured both her singing and her acting. She sang songs in a variety of languages, including many gypsy tunes, and the Serbian folk songs of her native land. In 1984, when the relationships between the various states in Yugoslavia started to heat up, the Yugoslavian government decided that her songs were too nationalistic, she was quietly blacklisted and made no further albums until 1999. Today, a remarkable number of her songs are available in video form on YouTube. She continues to perform, and has her own website.

Although Goya contains no songs by Ms. Katarina, it does contain a couple wonderful numbers by Carmen Herold, who plays the folksinger, Maria Rosario Gomez. Ms. Herold sings in Spanish, and in the few scenes where she speaks, she seems to be speaking Spanish, but there is very little information available on this wonderful singer. Goya appears to be her only film, and her name does not turn up in any sources I could find outside of references to this movie. She has a remarkable face and a powerful singing voice, and she deserves more fame than she has received.

The music for the film was composed by the Azerbaijani composers Kara Karayev and his son, Faradsh. The Karayevs were trained as classical musicians, and Goya has an outstanding score. It could be played by an orchestra without any reference to the film and it would impress people. It is richly textured and classically structured, while at the same time experimental with many unexpected touches, such as the frenetic solo organ piece used to reflect Goya’s inner turmoil. The elder Karayev wrote over 100 pieces of music, including ballets, symphonies, and chamber pieces. Today, his work is still performed around the world and an annual festival in his honor is held every April in Baku, Azerbaijan. Goya was one of his last film scores. He died in 1982. Faradsh Karayev has gone on to become a well-respected composer in his own right, having composed almost as many pieces as his father at this point.

As with most of Konrad Wolf’s films—at least until Solo Sunny—the cinematographer was Werner Bergmann. This time, however, he was assisted by the Russian cinematographer, Konstantin Ryzhov. These two men have very different styles of filming. Bergmann often used a freer, hand-held technique. This was especially impressive considering he had lost one arm during the war. To compensate, Bergmann devised a special sling mount for his camera. Ryzhov, on the other had, seemed to prefer the more traditional, tripod-mounted approach, which was particularly well-suited to convey the opulence of the ballroom scenes. It is fun to watch the film with this in mind and try and guess which cinematographer handled which scenes.

Cinematography was not the only technical aspect handled by a tag team. Costume design, production design, and many of the other tech credits appear to be split almost evenly between East Germans and Russians. This wouldn’t have been a problem for Wolf. Having spent his formative years in exile in Russia, he spoke that language better than his native German. One credit that did not have shared billing was the editor. As always, Wolf used a woman editor, but this time it was Russian film editor, Aleksandra Borovskaya. It is the only time he worked with Ms. Borovskaya. On his previous film, I Was Nineteen, Wolf used the talented editor Evelyn Carow, and returned to her after Goya for all his subsequent films. How well or badly he meshed with Ms. Borovskaya, is not known, but he obviously was not predisposed to work with her again.

As an example of Wolf’s directing, of a DEFA film, or any other yardstick you care to use, Goya stands apart from the other films in the DEFA library. It is powerful and grand, and does a good job of portraying the turbulent times in which Goya lived. Its attention to detail is remarkable, with an accuracy that Hollywood seldom attempts.

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* Feuchtwanger was on the Nazi’s enemy list even before they came to power because of his book Erfolg (Success), a fictional account of the rise and fall of a dictator who very much resembled Adolph Hitler. Within a year after Hitler was elected Chancellor, the first of many lists was published announcing the expatriation of undesirable German citizens. He was included on the first list of 33 citizens, alongside Heinrich Mann (author of The Kaiser’s Lackey), and future president of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck.

Divided Heaven

Posted: December 4, 2011 in 11th Plenum, Dean Reed, Feminism, Konrad Wolf
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East Germany’s history is surprising, paradoxical, and weird. Just when you thought things were going to to lapse into a bleak recreation of 1984, the government would make a U-turn on some policy and relax the rules. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film community, where periods of creative freedom were followed by vicious clamp downs, and vice versa. The most pronounced example of this shift happened right after the Berlin Wall was erected. Touted as an “anti-fascist protective barrier,” authorities in the GDR were eager to demonstrate that the wall would help their country blossom by keeping out the insidious influences of American capitalists and West German Altnazis. Filmmakers and writers were granted a level of freedom of expression they had not seen before. It was during the first few years after the wall went up that some of the best books and films that the GDR had to offer were made. Meanwhile on the other side of the wall, West German films had gotten so banal that a group of young filmmakers at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen delivered their famous Oberhausen Manifesto, declaring that the “Old film is dead. We believe in the new” (Der alte Film ist tot. Wir glauben an den neuen).

One person who would take full advantage of this renaissance was a talented writer named Christa Wolf. Ms. Wolf’s first book, The Divided Heaven (Der geteilte Himmel) was an immediate hit on both sides of the Wall. Shortly after its publication, filmmaker Konrad Wolf (no relation) decided to make a movie of it. Ms. Wolf and her husband Gerhard were hired to write the screenplay, along with Kurt Barthel, a poet and author who had already demonstrated a talent for screenwriting with the scripts for Kurt Maetzig’s Castles and Cottages and Don’t Forget My Little Traudel under his pseudonym, KuBa.

The film follows the book closely. A young woman named Rita Seidel is shown staggering along the train tracks in a railroad car factory in Halle when she suddenly collapses. The rest of the film is told in flashback, relating the story of her love affair with Manfred Herrfurth, an ambitious young chemist. Manfred is a cynical young man whose personal ambition is in direct odds with socialist ideology. Rita, on the other hand, remains positive, and wants her work to benefit the community, not just her own ego. Most of the action takes place in the months prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall. Disgusted with the initial rejection of his new chemical process, Manfred moves to West Berlin. Rita goes to join him but finds the rampant consumerism, endless street noise, and the interpersonal alienation too much to bear. Accepting that she and Manfred live in different worlds, she returns to Halle where she collapses on the job (in the book, her collapse is due to an attempted suicide, in the movie, it seems to be simply her sadness overwhelming her nervous system).

What makes this film (and the book) so unique is the even-handed way in which it deals with both sides of the divided country. While its heart is admittedly closer to the socialist side of the things, the film does a good job of making us understand Manfred’s frustration with a system that is sometimes its own worst enemy. The portrayal of the work brigade in this film is similar to that in Frank Beyer’s film, Trace of Stones, which came out after the 11th Plenum and faced heavy criticism in spite of the fact that the book it was based on was already a best seller in East Germany.

As with some other Konrad Wolf films (e.g., Stars, Sun Seekers, Solo Sunny), the lead is played by a relatively unknown actress. Here it is Renate Blume, who was still in drama school when she got the part. After graduating in 1965, she started working primarily in theater and later as part of the East German television (DFF) ensemble. From 1965 to 1974, she was married to director Frank Beyer, but worked with him on only one project: the TV mini-series, Die sieben Affären der Doña Juanita (The Seven Affairs of Doña Juanita). After divorcing Beyer, she lived with the popular Indianerfilme actor, Gojko Mitic, whom she met while working on Apaches. In 1976, while working on Kit & Co, she met the American actor, Dean Reed, and fell in love. The were married in 1981, and Ms. Blume stayed with Reed until his death by suicide in 1986 (for more about Dean Reed, see Blood Brothers). As with many other East German actors, she found it hard at first to get film work in the newly unified Germany and began teaching classes in acting and appearing on stage. After a few guest roles on popular German TV shows (e.g., Tatort, Edel & Starck), she was hired to play Ingrid Lindbergh on the series, Fünf Sterne (Five Stars). which ran from 2005 to 2008 on NDF.

The cinematographer was Werner Bergmann, whom Wolf used for all but his last two films. As with other DEFA films from this period, the camerawork is stunning. Armed with the newer lighter cameras, and inspired by the work of the French New Wave, the filmmakers in East Germany were pushing the boundaries of filmmaking with each new project. One of the most startlingly photographed scenes occurs when a group of scientists are sitting around a coffee table, chatting. The camera continuously circles them while they speak. Ten years later, West German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus would be lauded for inventing this same sort of shot in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s TV-movie, Martha. From the very first time we see Rita and Manfred together, we notice that there is often a dividing element occupying the space between them. Sometimes it is a lamp pole, and other times it is a window frame or a railing. These act as subtle clues to the division facing the lovers, at first, ideological and after the wall, physical.

Helga Krause’s editing in this film is flawless. It seems to be intentionally following the jazzy rhythms of Hans-Dieter Hosalla’s score. The counterpoint between these two elements is exhilarating. Scenes jump from melancholy music to voice-overs to complete silence in startling and imaginative ways.

Also worth of mention is Konrad Walle’s sound work. Since film is primarily a visual medium, it is all to easy to overlook the sound mixing, but sound in this film, is as important as the images. At times it is remarkably subtle, such as the muted whir if a tape recorder rewinding in the background, or the dissonant banging on an organ that is meant to imitate car horns. Sometimes it is in your face, like the recreated broadcasts of Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space.

Christa Wolf is now regarded as one of Germany’s foremost authors. Her novel, Cassandra, is considered a classic of feminist literature and has been translated into nearly every major language. After her Stasi files were released to the public, it was revealed that Ms. Wolf had worked briefly an informer for the Stasi in 1959, but her benign reports led them to believe that she wasn’t really cooperating with them and they let her go, choosing instead to spy on her for the next thirty years. In 1976, she was one of the many signatories to the letter of protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. An action that got her banned from the East German Writers’ Union (Deutscher Schriftstellerverband). Sadly, Ms. Wolf died December 1, 2011 in Berlin while I was writing this blog entry.

Divided Heaven was one of the last films to take full advantage of the new creative freedom the wall afforded. A year after its release, the 11th Plenum of the SED would put and end to this brief but shining period in East German film history, blaming the media for the country’s economic problems and banning wholesale an entire years worth of films. After that, any film with even the slightest criticism of the way things were was seen as a threat to the system. Christa Wolf’s next film project was made with Kurt Barthel, whom she met while working on Divided Heaven. That film, Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly), was banned before it was finished and relegated to the storage facility at DEFA. After the Wende, nearly all the footage was found, but much of the soundtrack was missing. Although it already had been shown on both sides of the wall, Divided Heaven also found itself banned from time to time throughout the rest of the GDR’s existence, but remains as one of the best films that DEFA ever made.

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In the mid-seventies, Wolfgang Kohlhaase—arguably the GDR’s best screenwriter—became friends with a talented young film reviewer named Jutta Voigt. Ms. Voigt met Kohlhaase at “Die Möwe” (The Seagull)—a popular Künstlerklub (art club), where film people and other artists met—and introduced him to an exotic social misfit named Sanije Torka. Torka was the daughter of Crimean Tatars working in Germany in 1944 (Ostarbeiters). At that time, the Third Reich did not allow Ostarbeiters to have children and Sanije was put up for adoption. Her jet-black hair and dark eyes automatically made her an outsider in Germany. She was a wild and headstrong little girl, and she bounced from foster home to orphanage to juvenile detention, raising Cain at every turn. She occasionally worked as an actress, appearing in bit parts in films. She also worked as a singer, although, by all accounts, she was a better actress than singer. Her headstrong ways often put her at odds with the rest of the world. Kohlhaase became fascinated with Torka, who seemed to defy the very nature of a socialist government, barely scraping by, doing things that were tolerated but not officially sanctioned. He listened carefully to her stories of growing up as an orphan in East Germany and turned her tale into the screenplay for Solo Sunny.

Solo Sunny is the story of Ingrid Sommer, nicknamed “Sunny.” Sunny is a modestly talented singer who tours Germany as part of a low-rent variety show. She is a free spirit, who is not afraid to call it like she sees it, and who sleeps with whomever she wants. When we first meet her, she is the lead singer for “The Tornados,” a jazz-pop band. The band’s saxophone player has the hots for Sunny, no doubt spurred on by her carefree attitude toward sex with strangers; but Sunny has no interest in him which leads, indirectly, to an altercation between the sax player and a bar patron. While his lip heals, the sax player is temporarily replaced by Ralph, a cynical philosopher with a penchant for western culture (which is sometimes code in DEFA films for an amoral person). Sunny falls for Ralph, which proves to be a bad idea, sending her into a self-destructive, downward spiral. After a feeble attempt to tow the line, Sunny comes to the realization that she is who she is, and that’s not going to change.

Around the same time as Kohlhaase was finishing his screenplay, Konrad Wolf was fishing around for a new film project. Deputy Minister of Culture Klaus Höpcke had expressed a desire for more stories that reflected everyday life in the GDR. Höpcke was one of the people responsible for the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, a move that resulted in a substantial talent drain from the ranks of DEFA. Now, in typical GDR fashion, he wanted to show that this move had nothing to do with repression. As long as a story didn’t directly challenge the state, nothing, they claimed, was off limits. When Kohlaase came along with his story of the untameable Sunny, Wolf was not sure at first if he was the man to film it. The film would be a major departure from anything he had done before and he knew it. At first he balked, but during a car ride from Potsdam to Berlin, he figured out what to do. He could not rely on techniques he used in the past. The film had to be new and it had to be different.

While some members of his film crew remained the same as in previous films—most notably, Evelyn Carow, and Alfred Hirschmeier—other old favorites were jettisoned for new blood. The most startling of all was Wolf’s decision not to use Werner Bergmann, the man who had filmed every Konrad Wolf film up to that point. Instead he chose Eberhard Geick, a newcomer at DEFA, whose only work up to that point had been a TV show and some shorts. Wolf felt that Geick—who lived in the Prenzlauer district where much of Solo Sunny was filmed—would have a better feel for the neighborhood. In another first, Wolf shared the directing credit with Kohlhaase.

While Solo Sunny is enjoyable to those who don’t speak German, it’s real treasures belong to those who do. Sunny’s speech is littered with slang and Berlinerisch. Her famous statement upon getting out of bed the morning after a romp with a stranger, “Is’ ohne Frühstück.” can be translated with some accuracy to: “I don’t do breakfast,” but her closing statement defies easy translation: “Ich würde es gern machen. Ich schlafe mit jemandem, wenn es mir Spaß macht. Ich nenne einen Eckenpinkler einen Eckenpinkler. Ich bin die, die bei den Tornados rausgeflogen ist. Ich heiße Sunny.”1 In fact, even on the U.S. DVD, the term Eckenpinkler (literally, “corner pisser”) ends up with two different translations (I went with “pig” in the footnote below, although I find it less than satisfactory).

The irrepressible Sunny was played by Renate Krößner. Krößner had been appearing in films since the mid-sixties, but it was her performance in Hener Carow’s Until Death Do Us Part (Bis daß der Tod euch scheidet) in 1979 that caught Konrad Wolf’s attention. Krößner’s unusual and expressive face was the draw for Wolf, even though Krößner had no training as a singer. Having lived in Berlin for many years, the dialect was no problem for her. In 1985, Krößner was allowed to leave East Germany with her longtime partner, Bernd Stegemann, whom she finally married in 2005. Since leaving the GDR, she has appeared in dozens of movies and television shows. She is best known in the states for playing the club owner in Daniel Levy’s Go for Zucker (Alles auf Zucker!)

One area where Konrad Wolf never showed much loyalty was in the music department. Unlike many western directors who tie themselves to specific composers (e.g., Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone), Wolf changed his composer with every film (I suspect that this is the main reason fans of the auteur theory have so much trouble pigeonholing his films). This time, the music was provided by Günther Fischer. Fischer got his start in feature films with the Gojko Mitic western Tecumseh, but it was his work on his next film, Eolomea, that really caught people’s attention. While other DEFA composers—most notably Karl-Ernst Sasse—came from the world of classical music, Fischer hailed from the jazz world. In the mid-sixties, he played saxophone and flute with the Klaus Lenz Band, forming his own band in 1968. Fischer was a prolific composer, who wrote the scores for no fewer than ten movies in 1978. Since the fall of the wall, most of his work has been in television. He currently lives in Ireland, and still performs with his band.

Nowhere in the film is Kohlhaase’s inspiration, Sanije Torka, mentioned. In the west, this would have been cause for a lawsuit, but in the east it was for Torka’s own safety. East German society was not noted for its hearty acceptance of non-conformists (unless, like the American singer, Dean Reed, they moved from right to left), and drawing attention to a born troublemaker like Torka in the GDR would have done her no favors. She might have been forgotten altogether if not for filmmaker Alexandra Czok, whose film, Solo für Sanije – Die wahre Geschichte der Solo Sunny (Solo for Sanije – The True Story of Solo Sunny), brings her story to light. The film portrays her as headstrong and individualistic as ever. At the time of filming, Torka was about start a two-year sentence for shoplifting. It is through her reminiscences in this film that we learn the full extent of Torka’s influence on the making of Solo Sunny.

The message of Solo Sunny seems to be that it is more important to stay true to yourself than the system—a message that seems to be in direct conflict with the perceived East German stance. This fact didn’t elude all the officials, but it did get past the important ones. By the time that the authorities decided that the film might actually be subversive, it was too late. It had made it to the west and was entered in the Berlinale, West Germany’s prestigious film festival. There it won the International Film Critics’ Award for best picture, and garnered a best actress honor for Renate Krößner. That same year, it won the Gold Plaque at the Chicago Film Festival. After that, there was nothing to do but let the film play. It went on to become one of the top-grossing films in East Germany; the country’s biggest box office hit since The Legend of Paul and Paula.

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1. Roughly: “I do what I want. I sleep with someone if I feel like it. I call a pig a pig. I’m the one The Tornados fired. I’m called Sunny.”

Whether it’s Spielberg exploring the social dynamics of suburban children in E.T., or Paul Verhoeven recreating the horrors of war in Starship Troopers, a director inevitably brings some of his or her own past to a picture. Every so often, a filmmaker makes a movie that is completely personal. These run the gamut, from George Huang’s film à clef, Swimming with Sharks—about his time working as an intern for Joel Silver—to Oliver Stone’s Platoon, in which Charlie Sheen stands in for Stone as a young soldier in Vietnam, to Cameron Crowe’s recreation of his early years as a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine in Almost Famous. One of the best of these comes from East Germany. It is Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen (Ich war neunzehn), which is based on his diaries from World War II.

Born near Stuttgart in 1925, Konrad Wolf’s father, Friedrich Wolf, was a well-known doctor, writer, and playwright. He was a champion of workers’ rights, and founded the Spieltrupp Südwest—a theater troupe that specialized in agitprop plays. He was a member of the Communist Party, and of Jewish descent, so naturally, when the Nazis came to power, the Wolf family had to leave the country to survive. They eventually settled in Russia when Konrad was eight. There, young Konrad came into contact with the film community when his father started working with Soviet filmmakers. The boy became fascinated with the medium and set himself to learning all aspects of film production. At the age of seventeen, he joined the Red Army and soon found himself fighting for Mother Russia against his Fatherland. He was nineteen when the Russians broke through the German line. Suddenly Konrad found himself in the odd position of a German acting as the Russian liaison in Germany.

Using Wolf’s diaries, Wolfgang Kohlhaase wrote the screenplay. Kohlhaase is best known for his Berlin-based stories of modern youths, but his ear for dialog, and the regional differences in Germany, made him a good choice for the job. He knows how people speak, and, more importantly, he knows how people keep silent. Kohlhaase’s script does a good job of framing the strange, almost inenarrable emotions Wolf must have felt arriving as he did as a stranger in his homeland; ashamed of his heritage, but unable to escape it.

The film begins in mid-April, 1945; shortly before the Russians reach the Oder river in their push toward Berlin. The war is virtually over, but nobody has bothered to tell Hitler, who is holed up in the Führerbunker beneath the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Gregor Hecker is a young lieutenant in the Russian army, and has been assigned to travel with the troops in an old VAZ circus truck equipped with a P.A. and a record player. It’s Gregor’s job to act as translator and to broadcast surrender requests to the German soldiers still fighting along the front. In a kind of Red Army road movie, he travels across the German countryside, meeting every type of person, learning new things, and examining what it means to be German as he goes. With him on his travels are Wadim, a Russian teacher-turned-soldier who is a student of all things German; the music-loving Sascha, Hecker’s easy-going superior; and a taciturn Mongolian named Dshingis, who drives the truck. At Bernau, Hecker is made commandant, and has to deal directly for the first time with other Germans. Until now, his oft-broadcast statement that he is a German has no deeper meaning to him. It is simply a statement of fact. As he meets other Germans, his heritage becomes as much a source of shame as an asset. At a May Day feast held by the Russians for a group of freed concentration camp prisoners, Wadim asks one of these men how he is supposed to explain how the Nazis came to power to his students when he gets back to Kiev. “Goethe and Auschwitz. Two German names. Two German names in every language.” But this is an East German film and the answer—that it was the manipulation by industrialists and corporations—seems facile. At the end of the film neither Gregor nor we are any closer to understanding the mindset of the Nazis, but when he again says he is a German, it now means something.

Criticism has been leveled at the film for its soft-pedaling of the touchy subject of the thousands—perhaps millions—of rapes committed by Russian soldiers at the end of the war. With the atrocities committed against their families by the German soldiers still fresh in their minds, the Soviets wanted the German civilians—who not only seemed oblivious to what the German army did in Russia, but actively denied that it happened at all—to experience the same pain. Women and children were repeatedly raped, men were beaten and killed, homes were trashed, and belongings were stolen as the Red Army cut a swath of destruction and terror through eastern Germany that made Sherman’s March to the Sea look like an afternoon stroll. [Note: For a more thorough treatment of the subject, see Max Färberböck’s A Woman in Berlin (Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin), starring Nina Hoss.]

Wolf was no dummy, though. He recognized that only way he would get this movie made was if he avoided talking too candidly about this subject. Two years earlier, the government had scrapped a years worth of movies because they didn’t like what they said, so Wolf treads carefully through this minefield. When a young German woman (Jenny Gröllmann) seeks asylum with Gregor, we understand that it’s because she feels safer with him, a German, than with the Russian invaders. And when he is shipped out, we see the fear in her eyes as he leaves. This was as close as Wolf could get to tackling the subject in a film that was made with a great deal of help from the USSR—and on the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution to boot. One should never underestimate an East German audience’s ability to read between the lines. You can bet they understood what he was tip-toeing around.

Wolf often shifts his visual style to match whatever story he is telling. It is one of the reasons that, although he considered by many to be the best director to come out of East Germany, he is rarely discussed in auteur terms. In I Was Nineteen, he moves away from the dazzling camerawork that punctuated Divided Heaven to a more natural style. Still, there are many scenes that betray a skilled and controlling hand behind the camera. In the opening moments of the film, while Gregor speaks via loudspeaker to the Germans along the Oder, we see a raft drift by. On it, a gallows is constructed, and on the gallows a hangs a man with a sign around his neck that reads: “Deserter! I am a Russian lackey” (“DESERTEUR Ich bin ein russen knecht,” the last part liberally translated in the First Run Features edition of the film as “I licked Russian boots.”). In another scene, as Gregor’s truck pulls away from Bernau, the camera keeps its lens trained on Jenny Gröllmann’s character until she disappears when the truck turns, reappearing a moment later, further away now, and eventually fading into the mist.

When the troops reach Sachsenhausen, the film suddenly includes scenes from an actual documentary in which a former guard at the death camp explains how the poison gas was administered. This footage is interspersed with scenes of Hecker taking a shower. The juxtaposition is simultaneously jarring and logical; the gas chamber showers and the real shower. The impression is that Hecker is trying to wash away what he has seen, perhaps even his own German identity. In the next scene, we see Gregor and his pals interviewing a German intellectual who brings Hecker back to his German roots with one sentence. Here the film seems to mimic the documentary footage’s look. We know we are watching a dramatic recreation of events, but the effect is disorienting.

To play the lead, Wolf chose Jaecki Schwarz, a young actor fresh out of drama school. It was an inspired choice. Thrust so suddenly into a starring role, the young Mr. Schwarz could easily identify with the confused state of Gregor when he is handed responsibility for an entire town.
after I was Nineteen, Schwarz went on to appear in several more films. He has continued working since the Wende, primarily in television, playing Hauptkommissar Herbert Schmücke on the popular crime show, Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110), and the comic relief character Sputnik in Ein starkes Team (A Strong Team). He is an ardent supporter of gay rights, and is a member of the board of trustees for the German branch of Queer Nation.

The technical crew for this movie reads like a DEFA dream team. Besides scriptwriter Kohlhaase, Werner Bergmann, Konrad Wolf’s longtime collaborator, handled the cinematography. Bergmann had worked as a war correspondent and cameraman for the German war effort on various fronts. During the war, he lost an arm, but didn’t let this stop him from pursuing a career as a cinematographer. He made fourteen films with Wolf, and received several awards for his work. The editing was by Evelyn Carow, who would eventually become the best-known editor in East Germany, cutting such classics as The Legend of Paul and Paula, Solo Sunny, and Coming Out. This was the first film she did with Wolf, but it wouldn’t be the last.

The production design was by Alfred Hirschmeier whose importance to the development of art direction and production design in East Germany is impossible to over-estimate. Hirschmeier’s work was flawless and rarely repetitious. He was the inventor of the optisches Drehbuch (visual screenplay), a type of storyboard in script form that he used to create a film’s look and settings. A list of the films he worked on includes some of the best films to come out of the GDR, including, Five Cartridges, The Silent Star, Naked Among Wolves, Divided Heaven, Jakob the Liar, and Solo Sunny.

In 1977, Wolf would return to the subject of World War II one more time. In the film Mama, I’m Alive. Here, Wolf follows the exploits of four German P.O.W.s who decide to join the Red Army and fight against Hitler’s war machine. He assembled essentially the same technical crew as I was Nineteen (Kohlhaase, Bergmann, Carow, and Hirschmeier). It would be his last film about the war. Wolf would only make one more feature film (Solo Sunny, 1980). In 1982, he died while working on a documentary about Ernst Busch, the communist singer-songwriter.

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