Archive for the ‘Krimi’ Category

The Blum Affair

The Blum Affair is based on a famous court case that took place in Germany during the Weimar Republic years. After the Second World War, people realized that this case presaged the rise of the Nazis in ominous ways. The actual events took place in the Magdeburg area in 1925, and involved a prominent Jewish businessman named Rudolf Haas. Haas was arrested for the murder of an accountant named Helling who had worked for Haas. After Haas fired Helling, the accountant reportedly claimed that he had proof Haas was cooking his books. For the investigating judge, Johannes Kölling, that was proof enough that Haas was the man responsible for Helling’s death—that, and the fact that Haas was Jewish.

Even after an independent investigator found Helling’s body buried in the basement of the residence of a young, right-winged ne’er-do-well named Richard Schröder, Justice Kölling continue to pursue Haas as the murderer. Eventually the district president, Otto Hörsing, stepped in the put an end to Kölling’s kangaroo court antics. But Hörsing was a left-wing politician and Kölling was from the far right—the perfect storm as far as the newspapers were concerned—and the whole affair turned into a national debate on the culpability of the Jews and the socialists for the economic problems the Weimar Republic was facing. Eventually, over Kölling’s protests, the charges against Haas were dropped and Schröder was found guilty of the murder.

The names have been changed for the movie, but not much else. Most of the important particulars of the story are presented as they occurred in the actual case. Blum is portrayed as innocent of any financial shenanigans, which was an unusual stance for a DEFA film. Normally, rich industrialists are portrayed as the bad guys. Doing so in this case, however, would have only obfuscated the already complicated story. The Blum Affair was met with critical praise on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It was nominated as best foreign film by the New York Film Critics (it came in second behind Vittorio De Sica’s classic The Bicycle Thief).

As with many early DEFA films, such as Heart of Stone, Razzia, and Kein Platz für Liebe (No Place for Love), this film was directed by a West German. Often this pairing produced a film that—while made by DEFA—did not have the look and feel of a DEFA product. If anything, they usually ended up looking like the UFA films during the Third Reich. Unlike most West German directors, however, Erich Engel was not working at DEFA out of necessity. He considered himself “Marxist to the core” and was a long-time friend of Bertolt Brecht’s. Furthermore, unlike most of the other films made by West Germans for DEFA, this film feels like a DEFA film (a subjective call, I admit).

Before becoming a film director, Engel worked in theater as everything from a stagehand to the dramaturg. In 1924, he started working with Brecht. His direction of Threepenny Opera in 1928 was met with rave reviews and Engel became known as the foremost interpreter of Brecht’s work in Germany. Although he did work on films during the twenties—mostly notably on comedian Karl Valentin’s Mysterien eines Frisiersalons (The Mysteries of a Hairdresser’s Shop), which he co-directed with Brecht—his career as a filmmaker began in earnest in 1931 with Wer nimmt die Liebe ernst… (Who Takes Love Seriously?). During the Nazi regime, Engel managed to keep out of trouble in spite of his politics by concentrating on light comedies, occasionally slipping in anti-fascist messages below the radar when he could.

After the war, Engel continued his work in the theater with Brecht and started making films for DEFA—still the only game in town at that point. During the early fifties, after the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) was dismantled and West Germany got back into the moviemaking business, Engel started working primarily in the west, churning out light comedies like the ones he made for the Nazis. He returned to East Germany in 1958 to make Geschwader Fledermaus (Bat Squadron), one of the few films at the time to cast a critical eye at France’s colonial war in Vietnam.1 It was his last film. He retired from filmmaking at that point, but continued to work in theater. He died in 1966 and is buried in the Dorotheenstädtischer Cemetery, not far from his friend, Bertolt Brecht.

Most of the cast of The Blum Affair hails from the west. Some of them, Such as Paul Bildt and Arno Paulsen, starred in several DEFA films, but by the mid-fifties were working exclusively in West Germany. The Blum Affair was the first film for Hans Christian Blech, who played the reprehensible Karlheinz Gabler (the Richard Schröder character). Mr. Blech went on to a highly successful career in West Germany. He was one of the “go-to” guys when Hollywood needed and evil Nazi, but he also played a concentration camp victim in Armand Gatti’s L’enclos (Enclosure) and a resistance fighter in Morituri. He died in 1993 in Munich.

Blech and Trowe

Playing Gabler’s long-suffering girlfriend, Christina, is Gisela Trowe. Ms. Trowe had a banner year in 1948, appearing in four films, three for DEFA and one for the short-lived Camera-Filmproduktion. She was the daughter-in-law of Erich Engel, but if her casting here was nepotistic, it’s a moot point—her performance is very good, and is, in some respects, the most important one in the film. Ms. Trowe appeared in several movies on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the fifties. Once she decided to settle in the west, her roles were restricted primarily to television. With her sultry voice, she became one of the leading voice actors in Germany, often dubbing the voices for sexy women such as Melina Mercouri, Gina Lollobrigida, Rita Hayworth, and Simone Signoret.

The Blum Affair is based on a book by Robert A. Stemmle, who also wrote the screenplay. Having grown up in Magdeburg, the Haas case probably had special meaning to Stemmle. By 1948, when The Blum Affair was released, Stemmle was a successful film director in his own right. He made several movies for UFA during the Third Reich years, including Jungens (Boys)—one of the so-called Vorbehaltsfilme, (films banned in Germany from regular public screenings due to pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic content). In spite of this, he did not receive the level of criticism that befell Leni Riefenstahl and Veit Harlan. He wrote two screenplays for Engel—The Blum Affair and Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat)—but he did not stay in the east. In 1952, he wrote and directed Toxi, the first film to address the problem of mixed-race orphans in post-war Germany. During the fifties and sixties, he became well-known for his adaptations of Edgar Wallace and Karl May stories. He died of a heart attack in 1974,

The film ends on an ominous and unsettled note. Blum’s wife remarks that justice prevailed because, after all, they lived in Germany, which was a law-abiding country. Blum looks less sure of this. In fact, after the Nazi takeover of Germany, Haas and his wife committed suicide, while the offending judge, Johannes Kölling, was praised as a pioneer of National Socialism and rose rapidly through the ranks. Otto Hörsing, the district president who saw that justice was served, was stripped of his pension and died penniless.

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1. Some others from this period include Jump into Hell, China Gate, Five Gates to Hell, and Shock Patrol (Patrouille de Choc), but these are all told from the perspective of the colonialist invaders.

The Baldheaded Gang (Die Glatzkopfbande) is East Germany’s only biker film, and a possible precursor to the skinhead movement. Made in 1963—a full three years before Roger Corman kick-started the biker genre with The Wild Angels—the film follows the story of a gang of bikers who cause trouble at a vacation spot on the Baltic Sea. In this respect, it resembles Laslo Benedek’s classic The Wild One. Like The Wild One, it is based on an actual event; and also like The Wild One, the true story is far different than the one portrayed on screen.

The film was made shortly after the wall went up and was intended to demonstrate how the wall would protect the citizens of East Germany from West German carpetbaggers. This was a common theme in DEFA films at that time. The villain in the movie is a man called “King,” an ex-foreign legionnaire who hails from West Berlin (of course). King leads a motorcycle gang whose shoddy work at a construction site was responsible for the deaths of two people. A police lieutenant named Lothar Czernik is called onto the case. Czernik is an odd bird. He seems to have a strange three-way relationship with his pretty next door neighbor, Marianne, and his dog: an enormous German Shepherd that often steals the show. The dog hangs around with the woman during the day, and then returns home to Czernik for dinner. Rather than simply cross the yard to visit her, Czernik likes to call Marianne on the phone and stare at her through the window. He also likes to let the dog bark at her over the phone. This is one of those movie relationships that aims for cute but achieves disturbing instead.

The Baldheaded Gang gets off to a rollicking start with Helmut Nier’s percussive jazz score over artfully jagged titles, followed by a gang of motorcyclists tearing down a country road. Contrary to many descriptions of this film, the gang members are not riding mopeds, but their little bikes aren’t exactly Harleys either. At the beginning of the film, the gang members are hirsute, but later shave their heads in imitation of King’s personal hero, Yul Brynner.

At the seaside resort of Bansin on Usedom, an island in the Baltic Sea, the gang proceeds to piss off everyone in sight, kicking over children’s sand castles, interfering with various games, and generally acting like your standard biker bad boys. During an evening affair at the local rec hall, the gang’s behavior leads to a fracas that quickly gets out of hand. Later that evening, after assaulting two vacationers who have been dogging them since the beginning of the movie, the gang learns what happened at the construction site and tries to get out of the country, only to find the way blocked thanks to the valiant efforts of the GDR to protect their borders.

The film was a hit when it was released, and went on to become one of the most popular films in DEFA’s history. To the dismay of the authorities, some teens seemed to miss the cautionary point of the tale and identified with the troublemakers. As a result, the film was eventually pulled from theaters in spite of its popularity. Whether or not any young rebels were inspired by the film to shave their heads and act up is not documented, but could it be that this minor spate of GDR rebelliousness trickled through the underground, surfacing in England in the late sixties as the skinhead movement? It certainly seems plausible.

Although you can make a strong case for this film being the precursor to the entire biker genre, in style it is closer to the juvenile delinquent films of the fifties. For one thing, it is black-and-white with a bebop jazz score. It would take Roger Corman with Dave Allen and the Arrows to add electric guitars to the sounds of motorcycles. For another, the perspective is that of the authorities. Very little is done to build sympathy for the gang members. Only the spineless Piepel arouses any sympathy for he has paid the highest price of all.

As the evil “King,” Thomas Weisgerber is effectively menacing. Particularly interesting is Rolf Römer, playing Johle—one of the odder, more aggressive members of the gang. With hair, Rolf Römer resembles Cash Flagg (Ray Dennis Steckler) of Incredibly Strange Creatures fame, but without hair he looks like Michael Berryman in The Hills Have Eyes. Also worthy of note is Irene Fischer, who plays the peroxide blonde, Jackie to slatternly perfection. She would be right at home in any juvenile delinquent film from the United States.

Although the movie is based on an actual event, the true story is far different from the one portrayed on the screen. In reality, the event took place a few days before the wall was built. Seven young men were arrested for playing rock’n’roll, which was seen by the authorities as a threat to civilization (the word Unkultur gets bandied about here, but it doesn’t translate well). Five of the young men had shaved heads, but they did not know each other. After their arrest, the people at the Bansin campground marched to the police headquarters. Some were there to protest the arrest of the men, but most were there to complain about the lack of amenities. The authorities over-reacted (as authorities often do) and the men were charged with an attempted putsch—a word laden with sinister overtones thanks to Adolph Hitler. The fact that five of the men had shaved heads attracted the media’s attention and they become known as die Glatzkopfbande. The court was hard on them, sentencing them to 27 years altogether, with eight years for the main defendant. After being released from prison, some of the men did exactly what their characters in the film were trying to do: they went west.

In 1965, Richard Groschopp followed up the film with Entlassen auf Bewährung (Released on Probation), which continues with the story of Conny Schenk, a peripheral character in The Baldheaded Gang, who initially abets the gang but then later helps the police run them in. In 2001, the 45-minute documentary film about the actual incident—»Revolte« am Ostseestrand (“Revolt” at a Baltic Sea Beach) by Jürgen Ast and Inge Bennewitz—was shown on German television. In 2004, Vorpommern Theater produced Glatzkopfbande. Erinnerung an Rock ’n’ Roll (The Baldheaded Gang, a Memento of Rock’n’Roll), a theater piece based on the story.

By the time DEFA was founded, Richard Groschopp had already made a name for himself filming documentaries and training films for the Third Reich. As a cameraman, he worked with Leni Riefenstahl on her classic, Olympia. After the war, he started with DEFA by making short films. During the fifties he helped create the “Das Stacheltier” group, which specialized in producing short, humorous films that were shown along with newsreels before the main features at cinemas. Groschopp began directing feature films in the late fifties and had a big hit with the romantic comedy, Die Liebe und der Co-Pilot (Love and the Co-Pilot). But his biggest hit came in 1967 with the Indianer classic, Chingachgook, the Great Snake. This would be his last feature film. After a few TV movies, Groschopp retired in 1971 at the age of 65. He died in 1996.

Whether there are any plans to release this film in the United States, I do not know, but I certainly hope so. This film has been missing from the biker film narrative for too long.

IMDB page for the film.

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.

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