Archive for the ‘Nazis’ Category

Der verlorene Engel

Ernst Barlach was a German artist well-known for his plays, paintings, and particularly his sculptures. which powerfully expressed his feelings against war and the suffering it brings. Barlach wasn’t always against war. Prior to the First World War, he, like most Europeans, saw war as a noble endeavor, fighting to uphold and protect the values of one’s native land. He enlisted in the infantry and soon discovered that was not such a patriotic endavor after all. War is an ugly affair, fought by the powerless to protect the goals (or wealth) of a priveged few who never set foot on a battlefield. War brings misery, hardship, and death and he used his sculptures to make this point clear.

After WWI, Ernst Barlach championed pacifism in his plays and sculptures, and, for a while, the public went along with him. He received several awards for his work, and was a member of the Prussian and Munich art academies. Of course, all that changed when Hitler came to power. Barlach’s visions of pacifism did not jibe with the reborn war-mongering promoted by the Nazis. Although some Nazis, most notably Goebbels, thought highly of his work, a decision was made that, his work was yet another example of “degenerate art,” and was put of display at the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937 (Die Ausstellung „Entartete Kunst“), alongside the work of Marc Chagall, Georg Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and many others.

Fred Düren

The Lost Angel (Der verlorene Engel) is the story of one day in the life of Ernst Barlach. The angel of the title is his sculpture, Der Schwebende (usually translated as The Hovering Angel, but also as The Floating Angel), which was taken from the cathedral in Güstrow in the early hours of August 24th, 1937, and was destroyed by the Nazis. The action in the film takes place on the same day, after Barlach learns about the theft of his sculpture. He spends the rest of the morning observing the indifference of the public to the theft, remembering past events, and regretting his indifference to the increasing political power of the NSDAP.

The film was one of the film banned in the wake of the 11th Plenum. It was shelved for not delivering a clear Marxist message. It probably would have stayed there until after the Mauerfall, but the 100th anniversary of Ernst Barlach’s birth was coming up, and word of the banned film reached interested parties in Germany and Russia. With help from director Konrad Wolf, the film was eventually pulled out of storage in conjunction with the Barlach exhibition at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The censors only agreed to screenings of the film after heavy edits, removing twenty minutes from the final cut. This left the film in limbo between a full-length film and a long short (as oxymoronic as that sounds). The film received a few screenings, but only a few before it was shelved again. After the Wende, the film was resurrected, but the 20 minutes of footage edited out of the film in 1970 has yet to resurface and appears to be lost for good.

The film is based on Das schlimme Jahr, a novella by Franz Fühmann. Mr. Fühmann was a popular author in East Germany, best known for his children’s books and reinterpretations of folklore and myths. During WWII. he was a supporter of the Nazi regime, contributing news pieces on the war effort to German newspapers and writing poems for the Nazi weekly, Das Reich. After the war, he attended the Antifa-Schule in Noginsk—one of several camps set up to teach German soldiers the error of their ways. Apparently the lessons at the Antifa-Schule stuck, because Mr. Fühmann became a champion of of socialist ideals. At first he was supportive of the East German government, but as it became more restrictive and arbitrarily punitive, Mr. Fühmann became disillusioned. After the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, he was one of the first people to sign the protest letter against it. As with the others who signed the letter, he found himself blacklisted from many projects and under greater scrutiny by the Stasi, yet he remained defiant. In his will he wrote: “The bitterest thing is to have failed in literature and the hope of a society we all once dreamed about.” (“Der bitterste ist der, gescheitert zu sein: In der Literatur und in der Hoffnung auf eine Gesellschaft, wie wir sie alle einmal erträumten.”). As one final act of protest before dying of cancer, he asked that he be buried in Märkisch Buchholz, and not in “unloved” Berlin.

The Lost Angel

Ralf Kirsten directed the film. After studying at the film school in Prague, Kirsten began his career in television before moving to feature films. He had his first hit with On the Sunny Side, starring Manfred Krug. Mr. Kirsten and Mr. Krug had worked together on the TV movie, Hoffnung auf Kredit (Hope on Credit), and would work together on four more films. After the Wende, Mr. Kirsten started teaching at the Film and Television school in Potsdam (Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen Potsdam). His last film for DEFA before the Wall fell was a picture about Käthe Kollwitz (Käthe Kollwitz – Bilder eines Lebens), a colleague of Barlach’s and whose face adorns the Floating Angel.

Ernst Barlach is played by Fred Düren. Mr. Düren appeared in many DEFA films, including Five Cartridges, The Flying Dutchman, and Solo Sunny. He also made an appearance in Ralf Kirsten’s 1986 follow-up to this film, Käthe Kollwitz – Bilder eines Lebens, in which he played Käthe Kollwitz’s husband. Primarily working in theater, Mr. Düren was an actor’s actor. His portrayal of Faust in Goethe’s play is considered one of the best theatrical interpretations of a Goethe character, second only to Gustaf Gründgens’ performance as Mephistopheles. One need only compare his performance in The Lost Angel with the one in The Flying Dutchman—made only two years earlier—to see his versatility.

After the Wende, Mr. Düren’s life path took a very different turn from most of his colleagues. He converted to the Judaism, moved to Israel, and is now a rabbi. He only made one movie after reunification—a TV movie in which he played Albert Einstein.

Der Schwebende

Der Schwebende is a striking sculpture that is at once modern looking in its lines, and classical in its emotional effect. The film does a good job of expressing what a powerful piece of art Der Schwebende is. This is largely thanks to Claus Neumann’s fantastic cinematography. Nearly every frame in this film could stand alone as a photograph, from the opening shots of the angel, to the wedding scene, to the shots of the fields around Güstrow. Claus Neumann got his start at DEFA making documentary shorts. Unfortunately for him, the first two feature films he worked on for DEFA (Fräulein Schmetterling and this film) were both victims of the 11th Plenum. On the other hand, he was also fortunate because, unlike the work of his fellow cinematographer Roland Gräf, his work as the cinematographer did not also come under scrutiny. Mr. Neumann continued to work at DEFA until the end of its existence, contributing his camerawork to such films as Leichensache Zernik, Till Eulenspiegel, and The Flight. After the Wende he continued to work, primarily in television and for producer director, Rudolf Steiner. He retired from filmmaking in 1999.

Some movies are so beautifully filmed that, upon watching them on DVD, you find yourself wishing you could see them in a theater on a big screen. The Lost Angel is just such a movie. While it is unlikely that this film—or many other East German films, for that matter—will get repertory cinema screenings, the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst has done a superb job of translating this movie to disc. The scenes is which the statue is stolen from the church are so powerfully filmed, directed, and edited, that the incident stops being about the theft of an inanimate object and becomes a metaphor for the forced evacuation of millions of the innocent people during WWII.

NOTE: The Chicago Goethe Institut showed this film recently as part of their series. They will also be showing the next film I’ll be reviewing (Five Days, Five Nights). More information here: http://www.goethe.de/ins/us/chi/ver/enindex.htm

IMDB page for this film.

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Die Buntkarierten

In the years after World War II, there was a lot of soul-searching in East German films. At first, this took the form of the Rubble Films, which used the destruction of Germany as a metaphor for the German soul—blown to pieces and ready for reconstruction. Rubble Films usually focused on a few people and took place over relatively short spans of time. At a certain point, the films moved away from this introspection, and started to look at the bigger picture in an attempt to answer the question: How did we get to this point? Films such as Rotation, The Kaiser’s Lackey, and The Council of the Gods take a broader perspective on German history, involve several people and groups, and cover many years. Girls in Gingham (Die Buntkarierten) is one of these films.1 It starts during the Wilhelmina period at the end of the nineteenth century, and ends right after World War II. It is based on a radio play by Berta Waterstradt, and its intro keeps the radio practice of introducing the characters by name along with the names of the actors playing them.

The story follows Guste, the illegitimate daughter of a maid who dies in childbirth. Guste is a headstrong young girl who has no intention of following in her mother’s footsteps, but history is stronger than will. Guste grows up, becomes a maid herself, marries, has two children, and suffers through two world wars. Along the way, observations are made on the inherently evil nature of a society where 1% of the population controls nearly all the wealth, and the way corporations use wars as an excuse to make money.

girls in gingham

Girls in Gingham was the second feature film directed by Kurt Maetzig, one of the most well-respected directors in East Germany, and no stranger to this blog. He directed such classic DEFA films as The Council of the Gods, The Silent Star, and the banned masterpiece, The Rabbit is Me. Mr. Maetzig, along with Gerhard Lamprecht , Peter Pewas, Wolfgang Staudte and others, was one of the filmmakers who helped found DEFA.

Reportedly, Mr. Maetzig’s decision to make Girls in Gingham was based on Bertholt Brecht’s criticism of Maetzig’s first film, Marriage in the Shadows. Never mind that it remains one of the most successful movies DEFA ever released, Brecht found the film kitschy. Girls in Gingham was Mr. Maetzig’s attempt to make a film more in line with Brecht’s aesthetics. One can see hints of Mother Courage in Guste’s character, but Mr. Maetzig has more faith in personal heroism than the cynical Brecht, which is probably why he was tapped to make the Ernst Thälmann films.

In 1976, Mr. Maetzig retired from filmmaking, but maintained a lively presence in the film community and was always there to offer advice younger filmmakers and impart his extensive knowledge of the history of DEFA. He died in 2012 at the age of 101 and is buried in the Dorotheenstädtischen Cemetery in Berlin.

Camilla Spira

Guste is played by Camilla Spira in a tour de force role that sees her go from a bright-eyed young woman to a war-weary old lady. Acting was in the blood for Ms. Spira. Both her parents, Fritz and Lotte, were successful actors on stage and screen, so it seemed natural for her to follow in their footsteps. She got her start in silent films during the Weimar Republic, only to see her career cut short by the Nazis. Unfortunately, the fact that her father was Jewish got in the way. Fritz and Camilla were send off to concentration camps, where Fritz Spira died in 1943. Camilla’s mother, who was not Jewish, divorced Fritz in 1934 under pressure from the Nazis. This allowed her to continued to acting in films, but after 29 years of marriage, the cost was too high. She died shortly after hearing about her ex-husband’s death.

Girls in Gingham was Camilla Spira’s first feature film appearance after the war, and she won the East German National Prize for her performance. She appeared in a few more DEFA films, but started working in West Germany in the early fifties. Among the West German films she appeared in were: Des Teufels General (The Devil’s General), Emil und die Detektive, and Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (Roses for the Prosecutor)—one of the few West German films to address the issue of lingering Nazism in West Germany, albeit in a comedic fashion. Her sister, Steffie Spira, stayed in East Germany and continued to appear in films until after the Wende. Camilla Spira died in 1997.

Considering how important it is to this film, it is remarkable that no credit is given for the make-up artist. Most DEFA movies at the time listed this information. Given the film’s production year, it is possible that the make-up artist was one of the technicians that went to West Germany to work. West Germany had just declared itself an independent state and was starting to wriggle out from under the anti-film-production policies of the United States Millitary authority (OMGUS). Directors, actors, and cinematographers who had previously been able to find work only in East Germany were now getting jobs in the BRD. In a year or two, the GDR would officially take a stand against this and stop using West German technicians, but this was a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has run off. A technician that made it public ally known that they were switching to western productions might well have found their name stricken from the credits on a DEFA film. If that is the case, my money would be on Jette Arlt, who did the make-up for Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows, but started working in the west in 1950. This is pure speculation, however. Whoever it was, they did a remarkable job of aging Camilla Spira and Werner Hinz and deserve more credit (and if anyone had more information on this mystery, please let me know in the comments).

Girls in Gingham was a hit both in East and West Germany and is one of the all-time, top-selling DEFA films. It’s anti-capitalist sentiments might have rankled the authorities in West Germany, but it still resonated with those who lived though the war. More importantly, it didn’t blame the people for Hitler’s actions, placing most of the blame, instead, on the Krupp family, which built a 400-year dynasty by providing armaments for all the major wars in Europe. This is a theme we’ve seen often in East German films from this period, where the primary blame for WWII is placed at the feet of corporations such as Standard Oil, Krupp, and IG Farben (see also, Council of the Gods).

IMDB page for this film.

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1. Due to an error made somewhere along the line in translation, you will often see this film listed under the title The Beaverskin. This weird error probably got it’s start with the English subtitles on the German DVD. There is a DEFA film titled The Beaverskin (in German: Der Biberpelz) that came out the same year as Girls in Gingham, and perhaps that has something to to do with the error. This mistake is so prevalent that even Wikipedia repeated it (although hopefully by the time you read this, I, or someone else, will have fixed that). Such is the power of the Internet.

Star-Crossed Lovers

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the period between the building of the Berlin Wall and the 11th Plenum was a golden age for film in East Germany. The authorities were determined to prove that building the wall was not intended to repress the population, but was intended as an “anti-fascist protective barrier” (antifaschistischer Schutzwall) that would allow East German filmmakers greater artistic freedom without subversion from the west. Films that would have been deemed too experimental or arty before the Wall were approved now, and DEFA’s directors took full advantage of this change in policy. Small wonder, then, that any list of the best East German films shows a noticeable concentration of films made during this period.1

One of the first to take full advantage of DEFA’s new policy was Frank Beyer, a director on any short list of great East German directors, and the only one from the GDR to have an Oscar nomination (Jakob the Liar). With Star-Crossed Lovers (Königskinder), Mr. Beyer kicks things into high gear with vivid cinematography and an artist’s eye for frame composition. It is a dazzling film from a brief but exceptional time for East German cinema.

Königskinder

Star-Crossed Lovers is the story of three childhood friends—Magdalena, Michael, and Jürgen. Michael and Magdalena are in love, but the fates conspire to keep them apart. Jürgen, a timid conformist, has lusted after Magdalena since childhood, but there is never really any romantic tension here—Magdalena loves Michael, Michael loves her, and poor Jürgen remains the odd man out. When they get older, Michael becomes active in the KPD (the German Communist Party) and Magdalena assists him. Meanwhile, Jürgen takes the path of least resistance and joins the SA. He still loves Magdalena, but, as one might imagine, his employment choice does nothing to improve his standing in her eyes.

The story is told in flashbacks, with the present-day action taking place during the final days of World War II. Magdalena is working with the Russians to provide aid to their troops on the front lines, while Michael is conscripted into the infamous Strafdivision 999 (Penal Battalion 999), Hitler’s remarkably ill-conceived attempt to use prisoners as soldiers. There he meets up with Jürgen, who has been assigned as an officer in the battalion.

The German title for the film comes from the folk song, “Es waren zwei Königskinder” (There Were Two Royal Children), which tells the story of a prince and princess who are kept apart by waters that separate them. Of course, the “waters” in this case Nazism and WWII, but Beyer is a sophisticated filmmaker and he reflects the idea of separation by water several times in several ways. Part of the fun of this film is spotting these references. Things end badly in the song, and the film hints at a similar tragedy, but Beyer leaves things open to interpretation.

Annekathrin Bürger

Playing Magdalena is Annekathrin Bürger. I’ve talked about Ms. Bürger in previous post (see Hostess and Not to Me, Madame!). Ms. Bürger started working films at eighteen after being discovered by Gerhard Klein, but 1962 was a banner year for her. She starred in two of the best films from that year—this one and The Second Track. After marrying Rolf Römer, Ms. Bürger often starred in films he directed. She continues to work in films.

Michael is portrayed by Armin Mueller-Stahl, who was just coming into his own when this film was made. He had appeared in some TV movies during the fifties, but it was his role in Five Cartridges that brought him to the big screen. Star-Crossed Lovers was his second feature film, followed a few months later by And Your Love Too. He starred in several classic DEFA films, including Naked Among Wolves, Her Third, Jakob the Liar and The Flight. In 1976, he joined other popular film stars in a protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. As with the others who signed the protest, he found that job opportunities had dried up, so he did what many of the others on the list did also, and moved to West Germany. For Mr. Mueller-Stahl this proved to be an especially auspicious move. There, he met up with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who cast him in Lola and Veronika Voss; and with Niklaus Schilling, who cast him in Der Westen leuchtet (The Lite Trap). He began to get more work in West Germany, but the big break came when Costa-Gavras cast him as the Grandpa with a secret in The Music Box. Other films followed quickly, including Barry Levinson’s Avalon, Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, and Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka. Mr. Mueller-Stahl is a true renaissance man. Besides being an actor, he paints, writes, and plays a mean fiddle. Of late, he has been concentrating on these other pursuits over acting.

Royal Children

To play the sad-sack Jürgen, Mr. Beyer cast Ulrich Thein. Mr. Thein, more than any other star in East Germany, was born to be an actor, his father was a theater bandleader. Although his father died when he was only four years old, the young Ulrich continued in his father’s footsteps, studying music and working in theater. In 1951, he joined the world-famous Deutsches Theater Berlin, where he continued to perform until 1963. Ironically, although he played the unloved man in this film, it was he who was in a relationship with Ms. Bürger at the time. During the sixties, Mr. Thein added film director to his list of talents—at first in TV movies, then later in feature films. After the fall of the Wall, he found that most of the films he was offered were lousy. In his words, “I won’t make the shit producers are offering me.” (“Ich will den Scheiß nicht machen, der mir von einigen Produzenten angeboten wird.”). He retired from filmmaking in 1992, and took up teaching.

To shoot the film, Mr. Beyer used his long-time collaborator, Günter Marczinkowsky. Like many of the better cinematographers at DEFA, Mr. Marczinkowsky came from the technical side of film, having work as a photo lab technician and a projectionist before starting at DEFA. He was assistant to the famous Robert Baberske, whose Berlin: Symphonie of a Great City remains a classic example of pure cinema. After Beyer’s Traces of Stones was banned, Mr. Marczinkowsky was relegated to work on TV movies—a common fate for anyone who found their work in the crosshairs of the 11th Plenum. He returned to features films from time to time, most notably with Abschied (Farewell) and Jakob the Liar, but most of his later work was for the small screen. Sadly, his career ended with the collapse of East Germany.

Of the films from East Germany, I would have to categorize this one as the best film that is not available with English subtitles. I suspect this is only temporary. It’s too good a film to go unrecognized for much longer.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (German only, no subtitles).


1. It probably didn’t hurt that during the same period, West Germany’s film industry was gaining a reputation for making lousy movies. So much so that, in February of 1962, a group of young West German filmmakers at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen released the Oberhausen Manifesto, stating that “conventional films are dead,” and calling people to challenge the film industry’s conventions, and free it from the control of commercial interests.

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.

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The Story of a Murder

The Story of a Murder (Chronik eines Mordes) begins during an event in Würzburg, where an attractive young woman meets with the newly-elected mayor and promptly shoots him. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that the woman is named Ruth Bodenheim and that she is Jewish. The man she shoots, named Zwischenzahl, was responsible for the murder and internment of her family during the Third Reich, and her forced prostitution at a brothel in Poland. After the war, the American military throws Zwischenzahl in prison, thanks, in part, to Ruth’s testimony. The American captain is sympathetic to Ruth, and it looks like justice will be served, but the captain’s higher ups and local businessmen have different plans for Zwischenzahl, and he is released from custody. Ruth wants to kill him, but discovers that he has gone to America. She decides to put it all behind her and marries. She seems to be having a happy life, until one day downtown she comes upon row after row of posters promoting Zwischenzahl’s campaign for mayor. At that point she decides that the only way justice will ever be survived is if she takes matter into her own hands. She knows she will be arrested and she wants the opportunity to have her day in court, but there are still those who want to bury the story.

The Story of a Murder is a powerful film with excellent performances and exceptional black-and-white cinematography. It is based on a story in Leonhard Frank’s book, Die Jünger Jesu (The disciples of Jesus). The book and the film were met with harsh criticism in West Germany, mostly due to the fact that the basic premise—that ex-Nazis were allowed to weasel their way back into positions of power in West Germany—was inescapably correct.1 Angel Wagenstein was enlisted to write the screenplay. Wagenstein was a Bulgarian Jew who fought with the resistance during World War II, He studied screenwriting in Moscow and made his mark with Stars—one of the most powerful fiction films on the holocaust, and the first DEFA film to win a prize at Cannes. He was unquestionably the best choice for this material. He brings all his knowledge of the subject and his anger to bear on the story. Like Stars, it is an unflinching portrait of the evil that men do.

The story takes place in the west, which gives us an interesting, and sometimes amusing window into the East German perspective on western culture. The west is a place where neon signs flash outside of every window, and politicians conduct business in seedy nightclubs; a film noir world of light and shadows, where people in power use their influence to thwart justice, and American soldiers roam everywhere, listening incessantly to Glenn Miller’s “American Patrol.”

Nightclub scene

With its film noir sensibility, jazz becomes an important component of the film. Composer Gerd Natschinski uses it so effectively that, as with many good movies, the music becomes a character in the film. His haunting theme threads its way throughout the movie, tying the numerous flashbacks within flashbacks together to help form a coherent whole. Natschinski wrote several fine film scores, including My Wife Wants to Sing, Midnight Revue, and Hot Summer. A serious composer at heart, he scaled back on his film score composition during the seventies to devote more time to his efforts at classical composition and conducting. From 1978 to 1981 he was the director of the Berliner Metropol-Theater. His son, Thomas Natschinski, went on to become a successful composer and singer in his own right, scoring a hit with his band Team 4 with the kitsch-pop classic “Mokka-Milch-Eisbar.”

Although I am not a big fan of the auteur theory, the films that come the closest to living up to this concept are the ones that are both shot and directed by the same person. The Story of a Murder is one such film, having been both filmed and directed by Joachim Hasler. Mr. Hasler got his start as assistant camera after meeting Bruno Mondi while working at the Agfa film lab in Wolfen (for more on Bruno Mondi, see Rotation). Mondi suggested that he come work as an assistant cameraman with him on Heart of Stone. Hasler quickly moved through the ranks, filming such DEFA classics as Kurt Maetzig’s The Silent Star and The Song of the Sailors (Das Lied der Matrosen).

He got his start as a director almost by accident. While filming Spielbank-Affäre (Casino Affair), the director, Arthur Pohl, became ill and Hasler took over the reins. Although he did not receive a director’s credit for this, it did give him a foot in the door to start directing films. Most of Hasler’s early films are serious political thrillers that tackle subjects like war crimes and environmental pollution, but he is best known as the director of the light-hearted East German beach party movie, Hot Summer, for which he also served as cinematographer. During the seventies, probably as a result of his success with Hot Summer, Hasler moved toward lighter fare, making several comedies, including the poorly received sequel to Hot Summer, No Cheating, Darling! In 1984, he stopped making films to work for DEFA in other capacities. This all came to an end with the Mauerfall, but Hasler opted for retirement rather than a return to filmmaking. He died in 1995 in Berlin.

Angelica Domröse

The Story of a Murder stars Angelica Domröse, an exotic-looking beauty, and one of the finest actresses to come out of the GDR—and that’s saying something. Several of the best actresses currently working in Germany got their start at DEFA, including Katrin Saß, Dagmar Manzel, Corinna Harfouch, Kirsten Block, and Christine Schorn. No film gives Ms. Domröse a better opportunity than this one to show off her acting ability as she believably goes from schoolgirl, to war-weary prostitute, to sophisticated older woman. It’s a remarkable performance.

Ms. Domröse was discovered by Slátan Dudow (see The Destinies of Women), who cast her in his final film, Love’s Confusion. She continued to appear in feature films and TV-movies throughout the sixties, but it was her performance in The Legend of Paul and Paula that made her a star. A few years later, she found her career sidelined after signing the protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. Like Manfred Krug, Katharina Thalbach, and others who signed the protest, she decided to leave the GDR for West Germany, where she continued her career, primarily in television. In 2004, she stopped appearing in films to work in theater, but recently returned to films, starring in Bernd Böhlich’s comedy, Bis zum Horizont, dann links! (Fly Away).

In a way, the beginning of The Story of a Murder reflects the original ending of Murderers Are Among Us, except at that time, DEFA, as part of the Soviet sector, was still trying to play nice with the west and changed the ending, eliminating the assassination for fear that it might inspire individuals to follow suit. By 1965, no such niceties were necessary. This film does not pull its punches. It is unfortunate that it is not available with English subtitles. It is a classic DEFA film and, along with The Second Track one of the few examples of East German film noir.

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1. The most glaring case of this was Hans Globke, a co-author of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws and one of the jurors who helped formulate the supposed “emergency” legislation that led to Hitler’s takeover of the German government. This man was a nasty piece of work. He was also West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s right-hand man.

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.

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

Günther Simon as Ernst Thälmann

Although he died five years before the country was created, Ernst Thälmann was East Germany’s greatest hero. He was to the GDR what George Washington is to America: an icon and a founding father, preternaturally moral and incapable of mistakes. Both men fought for freedom from oppression. In Washington’s case, that oppression came in the form of English taxes that were cutting into the profits of the American businessmen. In Thälmann’s case, much of the oppression came from the businessmen, who seemed to be the only people not affected by the staggering inflation that was strangling Germany’s working class.
DEFA made two Ernst Thälmann films: Ernst Thälmann – Sohn seiner Klasse (Ernst Thälmann – Son of the Working Class), and its sequel, Ernst Thälmann – Führer seiner Klasse (Ernst Thälmann – Leader of the Working Class). Although they premiered a year apart, they are, essentially, two halves of the same film. Both are directed by Kurt Maetzig with the same cast, crew, and visual style. Nonetheless, most people, including the director, consider the first film to be the better of the two. As is often the case with historical dramas intended for a home country crowd, the film assumes a certain level of familiarity with Ernst Thälmann and events in Germany‘s past, so some background is in order.

Ernst Thälmann (“Teddy” to his friends) was the son of a Hamburg businessman. At an early age, he found himself repulsed by the capitalist business model, favoring the hard-working world of the proletariat instead. He got a job as a stoker on a freighter and joined the SPD—Germany’s leading socialist party. During WWI, he was drafted to fight on the Western Front. Thälmann wasn’t crazy about the life of an infantryman, and often found himself at odds with his superiors. After the war he returned home to a country deep in throes of change. The SPD had splintered, with its more left-wing members abandoning the party to found the USPD (Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), joining Rosa Luxemburg’s and Karl Liebknecht’s Spartacus League. But this agreement was not long lived. Fights broke out over whether the group should join the Comintern—the Soviet Union’s International Communist organization dedicated to spreading Russia’s version of communism. Eventually the USPD was absorbed back into the SPD and the Spartacus League members went on to found the KPD—a very pro-Soviet Communist party (I realize that I’ve abbreviated the facts here, but a fuller description would look like alphabet soup).

Unwilling to acknowledge their defeat, some of the military leaders, most notably Erich Ludendorff—the German general who famously considered Hitler “too moderate”—put forth the “stab-in-the-back” theory (Dolchstoßlegende), which maintained that Germany’s efforts to win the war were thwarted by traitors at home, specifically Jews and Communists. For some ex-soldiers returning from the front, this theory was compelling. It justified their sacrifices and denied their actual defeat. Many of these men joined the Friekorps—private militias made up of returning soldiers who took upon themselves to enforce whatever laws and positions they agreed with. It was members of one of these Freikorps that killed Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, dumping his body in the Tiergarten and hers in the Landwehr Canal.

After the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Thälmann took over the reins of the party, making it even more pro-Soviet and less compromising than before. Meanwhile the Freikorps got too big for their britches, eventually collapsing during the Kapp Putsch—a failed attempt to takeover the German government. After that, ex-Freikorps members looked for a new outlet for their rage and found it in Hitler’s newly-formed Nazi party.

Ernst Thälmann – Son of the Working Class

The first movie starts with a bang—literally—opening in the middle of a battle on the Western Front in 1918. Ernst Thälmann and a group of like-minded soldiers are in the thick of it when they hear the news of the German Revolution back home, the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the release of Karl Liebknecht from prison. Thälmann and crew decide they’re tired of fighting for all the wrong reasons. They declare their alignment with the Bolsheviks in Russia and raise the red flag over their trenches. Right off the bat, we are introduced to four of the main characters in the story. On the side of good and righteousness are Thälmann (of course), and his close friend, Fiete Jansen. In the opposite corner are the evil Zinker and his stooge, Quadde—played by Werner Peters in a kind of extension of his character in The Kaiser’s Lackey.

After the mutiny in the trenches, the film moves away from the action on the front and goes to the political intrigues that were tearing Germany apart at that time. Zinker comes back into the picture as the leader of the Freikorps responsible for the deaths of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Kurt Maetzig understood that for a film to be emotionally satisfying there has to be dramatic tension and some sort of resolution; tragic or otherwise. Unfortunately, history in this case rarely affords such opportunities. Historically, the men most responsible for the deaths of the two revolutionaries were Freikorps captain Waldemar Pabst and his lieutenant, Horst von Pflugk-Harttung, neither of whom faced any charges for the murders, and went on to long and successful careers in West Germany (Von Pflugk-Harttung worked as a Nazi spy during WWII, and faced charges for it, but the U.S. government decided that he was more anti-communist than fascist and that was okay by them). In Zinker we have a perfect villain and we are allowed a resolution to the story that history denies us.

Kurt Maetzig also recognized that, by himself, Thälmann was not that emotionally engaging a character. He could be stiff, didactic, and so devoted to the cause of communism as to render any romantic possibilities inconceivable. To help the story along, the films follow the romance of two of his co-conspirators, Fiete Jansen and Änne Harms. Jansen acts as sort of an apostle Paul to Thälmann’s Jesus. We see him travel from Spain to Russia, spreading the gospel according to Thälmann, turning his old buddy into a martyr for the cause. Jansen is in love with Änne Harms, whose father we met briefly at the beginning of the film. It is Änne that is the most compelling and the most tragic character. She is the only one with conflicted attitudes, so when she finally decides to join the party it’s not an empty gesture. We may admire Thälmann, but it is Änne that we care about.

Thälmann returns to Hamburg in time to hear the news of the deaths of Luxemburg and Liebknecht and immediately steps into his role as the leader of the KPD. He helps organize the Hamburg Uprising and organizes people to put down the Kapp Putsch (in truth, Thälmann’s part in the defeat of the Kapp Putsch was minor if anything).

As with Maetzig’s previous film, The Council of the Gods, much of the blame for the situation that led to the Nazis taking over Germany is laid not at the feet of the Germans themselves, but on the doorstep of American corporations, who manipulate the situation in Germany to line their pockets; a kind of communist version of Dolchstoßlegende.

Ernst Thälmann – Leader of the Working Class

The second film doesn’t have the luxury of a nice, dramatically satisfying resolution. After all, history tells us that the Nazis imprisoned Thälmann after the Reichstag fire, keeping him in solitary confinement for eleven years, eventually assassinating him in 1944 at Buchenwald and blaming it on an Allied bombing attack.

The film starts in Berlin in 1930, thus scrupulously avoiding some of the most scandalous years in Thälmann’s political career. The Nazis have not yet come to power, and Thälmann is now  a member of the Reichstag and chief of the KPD. He is as resolutely communist as ever. Tensions have grown worse between the SPD and the KPD, and (according to the movie anyway) it is the failure of the members of the SPD to realize their folly that leads to Hitler’s ascendancy.

If Thälmann is treated with kid gloves in the first film, he is treated with downright reverence in the second. Understandably, then, the film does not show his eventual murder, preferring to end, instead, upon his transfer from Bautzen prison to Buchenwald in blaze of heroic sacrifice as the red flag of Soviet-style communism waves behinds him. It’s a bit much and Maetzig knew it, but anything else most likely would have been rejected by the SED authorities at that point.

Upon its initial release, the second film included scenes with Josef Stalin, showing his strong support for Thälmann. These scenes were added at the express request of party officials. When the film was released in October of 1955, Stalin was still being championed in East Germany and the Soviet Union as the greatest communist leader who ever lived. Five months later, at a speech in a closed session of the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU, Khrushchev delivered his On the Personality Cult and its Consequences speech, denouncing Stalin’s dictatorial rule, and heralding the beginning of the Soviet Union’s “De-Stalinization” program. Copies of the film were pulled and re-edited to remove the now-offending scenes, although the role of Josef Stalin still appears in the opening credits.

Scene from Ernst Thälmann film.

Director Maetzig was at the top of his form here. His work is crisp and satisfying, especially in the first film. In one memorably comic sequence, the action shifts from a parade of workers marching in the streets to a decadent cabaret where a man in a tux cheerfully sings “Yes We Have No Bananas.” Considering the difficulty East Germans had in acquiring this particular fruit, thanks the United Fruit Company’s near-stranglehold on production back then, this scene must have caused some chuckles. Maetzig would go on to make better films, but the fact that these films are still worth watching is a testament to his skill as a filmmaker.

Playing Thälmann is Günther Simon, the star of such East German classics such as Vergesst mir meine Traudel nicht! (Don’t Forget My Little Traudel), Meine Frau Macht Musik (My Wife Wants to Sing), The Sailor’s Song (Das Lied der Matrosen), and The Silent Star. Simon’s turn as Ernst Thälmann, was so believable that it actually threatened to hamper his career. When Hans Heinrich chose to cast him as the lead in his musical comedy, Meine Frau macht Musik, there was some push back from the authorities, who didn’t think the man who portrayed the great Ernst Thälmann should appear in something so light-hearted. Simon got the role anyway, however, and proved that he was as good at light comedy as he was he was at drama. Simon died in 1972, and is buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin’s Mitte district.

As Fiete Jansen, Hans-Peter Minetti is an interesting combination of Mr. Nice Guy and iron-willed revolutionary. With Thälmann in prison for most of the second film, it is up to the Jansen character to provide most of the action. This is not an easy part to make interesting. In the first film, at least we get some opportunities to see Jansen interact with his future wife, Änne, but those are taken from us in the second film. He is a man alone, and most of his interactions are with people he sees only once. Minetti does a good job in the part, as well he should, coming from an acting family as he does. His father, Bernhard Minetti, was a successful actor in the Weimar days, and later during the Third Reich, when he appeared in Leni Riefenstahl’s Lowlands (Tiefland), and The Rothschilds, one of the most notoriously anti-Semitic films of the Third Reich. Hans-Peter, like many sons throughout history, rebelled against his father’s fascist philosophy and took up the communist cause. After WWII, Hans-Peter went on to a career in East Germany, while his father and his sister Jennifer worked in the west; primarily in theater. Because of his strong communist beliefs, Hans-Peter went on to become an important figure in the East Germany theatrical community, a fact that hindered his film career after the Wende. His son, Daniel Minetti, has gone on to a successful career in German television.

Karla Runkehl as Änne Harms in Ernst Thälmann.

But it is Minetti’s counterpart, Karla Runkehl that really steals the show. As the strong yet vulnerable Änne Harms, Runkehl turns in a performance that she would never equal in her career. It became the model for the good socialist woman. For her work in the Thälmann films, she was awarded the Art Prize of the GDR in 1959. Runkehl got her start in acting at DEFA’s young people’s studio, and appeared in many films, mostly in supporting roles. She also had a successful career on the East German stage, making guest appearances in production throughout East Germany. Runkehl died on Christmas Eve, 1986 in Kleinmachnow.

It’s unfortunate that these films probably won’t see a theater screen in America any time soon, because their use of color is spectacular (my screenshots from a weak DVD copy don’t really do them justice). As others have noted, the cinematography rivals Jack Cardiff’s work in the Powell/Pressburger films. While most of the visual information in these films is painted in broad strokes of army green and sienna brown, the red flags, bandannas, and armbands of the communists pop out of the screen like fireworks. The battle sequences are as good as anything Hollywood ever came up with. DEFA had not yet discovered the joys of widescreen filmmaking, which is too bad because these sequences were practically made for that format.

Willy Schiller’s and Otto Erdman’s production design is almost perfect, from the battlegrounds on the Western Front to the labyrinthine catacombs of the Hamburg sewer system. The only weak spot in the production occurs in the second film during the bombing of the women’s prison, where the problems of scale are apparent. Having the Brandenburg Gate on their side of the border certainly helped give power to the KPD march scenes in the first film, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the American military folks a couple blocks away thought of all that marching and flag-waving.

Matching the film’s visual hyperbole, Wilhelm Neef’s score is epic and anthemic. This was the fifties, after all, and huge triumphant scores were the order of the day. Matching the pompous grandeur of the scores of Miklós Rózsa and Dimitri Tiomkin, Neef turns in a score that is simultaneously rousing and overblown. Primarily a classical composer, Neef’s score functions well enough on its own. In fact, if taken out of context and played by an orchestra, I suspect the score would work even better.

The Ernst Thälmann films were some of the most viewed films in the DEFA library, but those statistics are a little misleading. The Thälmann films were virtually required viewing in the GDR. Students and factory workers were bussed on field trips to movie houses to watch them. Almost everyone growing up in the GDR remembers watching these films at some point during their school days.

History has not been kind to Ernst Thälmann. It was he, after all, who was most responsible for splintering the German left wing into virulently opposing factions. His refusal to back Wilhelm Marx in the 1925 run-off election is largely blamed for siphoning just enough votes away from Marx to ensure Paul von Hindenburg’s election, paving the way for Hitler’s rise to power. The fact that Thälmann courted the Nazi vote during that party’s early years and worked with them in an attempt to overthrow the socialist government in Prussia is unmentioned in the films. Also glossed over the movies is the Wittorf Affair, an embezzlement scandal in the KPD that got Thälmann kicked out of party duties until Stalin stepped in and used the situation to seal Soviet control over the KPD. A control that haunted East Germany to its very end. Since the Wende, many of the schools, streets, and parks named in his honor in the eastern states of Germany have been renamed. More recently, researcher Klaus Schroeder wrote a piece for Der Tagesspiegel suggesting that any remembrance of Thälmann is unwarranted.

IMDB pages for these films:
Ernst Thälmann – Sohn seiner Klasse
Ernst Thälmann – Führer seiner Klasse

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Der Untertan

The Kaiser’s Lackey is based on a book by Heinrich Mann. The actual title, Der Untertan, doesn’t translate well into English. As a consequence, it has been rendered variously as The Patrioteer, The Loyal Subject, The Man of Straw, and The Underdog. IMDB calls it The Man of Straw, which does have a poetic quality to it, but the film is currently available from the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst as The Kaiser’s Lackey, which is closer to the mark. [Note: For anyone curious about my website’s title formatting style, see “About the Titles” on the About page.]

As the titles Der Untertan and The Kaiser’s Lackey suggest, the film is the story of a man who subjugates himself to the whims of his superiors. The story takes place during the German Empire (Deutsches Kaiserreich), which lasted from 1871 to 1918. Most of the story revolves around, 1888, the so-called “Year of the Three Kaisers” (Dreikaiserjahr), when the country went through three rulers in quick succession, ending up with Wilhelm II, the man responsible for leading Germany into World War I. The film is the story of a man named Diederich Heßling—the Untertan of the title. With his blond twist of hair and chubby countenance, Heßling looks a bit like Tintin gone to pot. He is pompous and chauvinistic, and as full of himself as a man can be. The story starts with his birth and follows him to his crowning achievement: the installation of a gigantic bronze statue of the Kaiser in his town square.

What none of the various titles adequately reveal is the fact that, while Heßling willingly subjects his very soul to the Kaiser, he expects those beneath him to similarly devote themselves to him and his business. Heßling’s business is making toilet paper, and his crowning achievement is the production of toilet paper with nationalistic slogans printed on each sheet. As you’ve probably guessed by now, The Kaiser’s Lackey is a political comedy, and a mordant one at that.

The film was directed by Wolfgang Staudte, the premiere director during the early days of DEFA. Staudte got his start as an actor in the late twenties. He was, among other things, one of the students in The Blue Angel. At the beginning of his career, he worked primarily on stage, but because of his penchant for appearing in avant-garde plays, he found himself on the wrong side of the Nazis and was banned from the theater. He continued to work in radio and film, and often played in smaller roles, including one in the notoriously anti-Semitic, Jud Süß. During the thirties, he began directing short films and made his feature film debut in 1943 with Akrobat Schööön! (Acrobat Oooooh!). His second film, Der Mann, dem man den Namen stahl (The Man Whose Name was Stolen), was immediately banned by the Goebbels and Staudte’s career as a director was brought to a premature halt. He later remade the film for DEFA under the title Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B. (The Strange Adventures of Fridolin B.).

Staudte was responsible for some of the best films to come out of East Germany during its early years. He directed the first DEFA film, The Murderers are Among Us, and other early classics including, Rotation and The Story of Little Mook. In 1955, a combination of a quarrel with Bertolt Brecht during the filming of Mother Courage (Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder)* and the restrictions imposed on him by DEFA were too much for him to take and he headed west; first to Holland, directing the popular kid’s film Ciske the Rat and its sequel, then later to West Germany, where he made several films, including the 1962 version of his former collaborator Bertolt Brecht ’s The Three Penny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper). From 1970 on, he worked primarily in television, directing episodes for the popular TV shows, Tatort and Der Kommisar, among others. He died in 1984 while working on Der eiserne Weg (The Iron Way), a five-part miniseries for ZDF television in West Germany.

The author of Der Untertan, Heinrich Mann, was Thomas Mann’s older brother. Mann was a successful writer prior to World War I, and had made a name for himself with his book Professor Unrat, which was later turned into the movie, The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel), starring Marlene Dietrich in her career-making role. Der Untertan was scheduled for release in 1914, but the war put its publication on hold until 1918. Still stinging from World War I, the German public took to Mann’s caustic examination of how nationalism can lead men down dangerous and idiotic paths. The book was huge hit, but, as you can imagine, the Nazis didn’t think much of it. In 1933, after Hitler came to power, Heinrich Mann was one of the first 33 people that the Nazis declared personae non gratae (alongside author Lion Feuchtwanger and future President of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck). Mann fled the country, eventually ending up in Santa Monica, California, where he and Lion Feuchtwanger worked as script editors. By 1950, Mann was broke and alone, his wife having committed suicide a few years earlier. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting was gaining traction, and Mann was feeling very unwelcome in his new home. He was getting ready to leave the States and move to East Germany, where he had been elected as president of the German Academy of Arts, when he died.

The obnoxious lackey of the title is played by Werner Peters. Peters had worked in theater during the Third Reich, but his career as a movie actor didn’t begin until 1947, when he appeared in Zwischen gestern und morgen (Between Yesterday and Tomorrow), the first post-war, western sector film made by a German film company (Neue Deutsche Filmgesellschaft). His next few films were made at DEFA though, including The Blum Affair (Affaire Blum), Die Buntkarierten (The Girls in Gingham), Rotation, and Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat). After The Kaiser’s Lackey, he appeared in a few more East German films, including The Story of Little Mook, and the Ernst Thälmann movies, but, like directors Wolfgang Staudte and Falk Harnack, Peters decided to head west. He went on to appear in dozens of West German movies, as well as a few American ones, usually playing either a villain or a buffoon. He appeared in several of the Dr. Mabuse and Edgar Wallace films that were so popular in West Germany during the 1960s. Other films he was in include: The Devil Strikes at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam), Rosemary (Das Mädchen Rosemarie), 36 Hours, A Fine Madness, The Secret War of Harry Frigg, and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. He was also a well-respected voice actor. It was his voice that people heard for Orson Welles in the German version of The Third Man.

The cinematography is by Robert Baberske, and it is impressive. Distorted images are used to heighten the absurdity of situations: After Heßling’s duel, we see the faces of his comrades twisted comically through their beer steins as they celebrate with him. When he is confronted by a superior on the academy grounds, the perspective is exaggerated, with Heßling appearing greatly foreshortened, as if being addressed by God. At the start of the film the images of Heßling’s parents are blurred around the edges, suggesting the distant and unclear memories that helped make him the man he became. [Note: for more information on Robert Baberske, see The Ax of Wandsbek.]

The music is by Horst Hans Sieber, who composed music for several shorts, propaganda films, and documentaries during the Third Reich. After WWII, he began composing music for feature films, starting with Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Happy Barge Crew), the first of the DEFA barge films by Hans Heinrich. He  wrote at least one play  (Ich heirate nur aus Liebe, 1950, published by Drei Masken Verlag), which suggests a theatrical background. That would make perfect sense given the highly theatrical nature of the music in this film. It is through the music that we first realize that we are dealing with a comedy. The film begins with nostalgic dance hall piano music, which suddenly switches to a lively fife and drum march, then a lullaby for harp and musical saw, ending with a full orchestra parade march. During the storm scene, when the statue of the Kaiser is being unveiled, the music swirls like the wind on the screen, as if several tunes are stirred up together. We hear the primary themes from the movie interspersed with the music of the Third Reich.

When the film was released in East Germany, it immediately generated negative comments in the western press. The film’s use of Nazi music, and its attacks on the upper-class and businessmen were not well received in West Germany. The film was banned outright and wouldn’t reach West German cinemas for another five-and-a-half years. Even then, the final scene was cut, along with the scene where a worker is shot for resisting a policeman. West Germany was much more sensitive to the subject of Nazis. Unlike East Germany, the Bundesrepublik quietly swept the Nazi trials under the rug and allowed some pretty heinous people to go back to work. People like Hans Globke, who served as the chief legal advisor in the Office for Jewish Affairs in the Ministry of Interior under Adolf Eichmann, but nonetheless was named by West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer as Director of the Federal Chancellory of West Germany; or Theodor Oberländer, a Nazi officer in charge of ethnic cleansing during WWII, and then—in a gesture of supreme irony—was named as Federal Minister for Displaced Persons, Refugees and Victims of War by Adenauer. The conservatives were in charge, and, like the United States, anyone whose philosophy leaned to the left was being marginalized. The Kaiser’s Lackey was too much for them to take. It would be years before people in the west would come to realize that they were looking at one of the greatest film to come out of either side of Germany during the 1950s.

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* Reportedly, this film version of Mother Courage was eventually released in a highly abbreviated version. The film starred Helene Weigel, Bertolt Brecht ’s second wife, and the woman most famously associated with the role of Mother Courage. It also features Simone Signoret in the role of Yvette Pottier, the camp prostitute. The film was assembled from what footage Staudte had shot and was released as one of four DEFA-made films distributed by the short-lived Pandora-Film Company in Stockholm. As of this writing the film appears to be lost.

Like Stars and Jakob the Liar, Marriage in the Shadows (Ehe im Schatten) deals with the subject of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. Unlike those films, however, this one came out in 1947 when the Nuremberg Trials were still going on and new revelations about atrocities at the concentration camps were arriving every day. The people of Germany were still in shock and denial, and the Allies and the Soviets were actively engaged in policies of “denazification.” Part of this involved the banning and destruction of hundreds of books that were favorable to Nazis and militaristic thinking, reenacting Hitler’s book burnings from the opposing end of the political spectrum. Another part of the policy involved the distribution of films and literature designed to make Germans acknowledge their collective guilt; a kind of national finger-wagging. The most famous example of this was the documentary, Nürnberg und seine Lehre (Nuremberg – Its Lesson for Today), which was released in Germany in 1948, but didn’t reach American movie screens until 2010. Many of the policies put in place—especially those instituted by the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS)—seemed to be intentionally designed to humiliate the German people. In the U.S. sector, Hollywood films that were openly hostile to Germans were shown at theaters, often without subtitles. Not surprisingly, this approach wasn’t popular with either the local townspeople, or the theater owners who were conscripted to show the films.

While the western sectors intentionally dragged their feet on the process of re-establishing film production in Germany, the Soviets had DEFA up and running by May of 1946. The western allies, and in particular, the United States, which had a vested interest in promoting their Hollywood films in Europe, were not too happy about DEFA. Many of the early DEFA films were either banned or edited for release in the western sectors. Marriage in the Shadows was the first post-war German film to be screened uncensored in all four sectors. It was also the first one to address the subject of Jewish persecution, and is still one of the most unflinching films on the subject.

The film begins during the Weimar years. Hans Wieland and Elisabeth Maurer are lovers and popular stage actors. The audience especially adores Elisabeth, and the fact that she’s Jewish doesn’t affect their enthusiasm. When the Nazis comes to power, things begin to change. The first signs of this occur when they are on vacation and come across a man posting an sign on the beach banning Jews. Things keep getting worse until eventually Elisabeth is no longer allowed to perform on stage. As Hans’ career continues to rise, Elisabeth’s life gets harder and harder. After taking Elisabeth to a premiere of his new film, the couple runs into a Nazi official who is at first charmed by Elisabeth and later horrified to find out that she is a Jew. He orders her sent to a concentration camp, but the couple decides to commit suicide instead.

The story is dramatization of the events in the life of the German film and stage actor Joachim Gottschalk. Gottschalk was one of Germany’s most popular leading men; a screen idol who often played the debonair heartthrob. Gottschalk’s wife was Meta Wolff, a Jewish actress who had been highly successful on stage, but found her career abruptly halted with Hitler’s rise to power. Because of Gottschalk’s popularity with the public, the fact that his wife was Jewish was quietly overlooked—at least at first. In some versions of the story (including the one in the movie), Gottschalk made the mistake of taking his wife to a premiere where she charmed some Nazi officials. When Goebbels found out about this he was livid, partly because he hated—really hated—Jews, and partly because it was on his instigation that Gottschalk moved from the stage to the screen and became a movie star. After attempts to get Gottschalk to divorce his wife failed, Goebbels ordered Meta Wolff and their son shipped off to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt, and ordered Gottschalk to report to the Wehrmacht for service. Rather than comply, Gottschalk and his wife gave their son a sedative and then turned on the gas. All three were found dead, and were buried without ceremony at the Southwest Stahnsdorf cemetery near Potsdam. Only a few of their closest friends attended, including Brigitte Horney, who starred opposite Gottschalk in four of his films. News stories and obituaries about what happened to Gottschalk were strictly forbidden and no further mention was made of them while the Nazis were in power.

For most Germans, the end credit that the film was based on the story of Joachim Gottschalk was the first they learned of what had happened to the actor and his family. Although the film follows the facts of the story closely, it gets much of its power from Kurt Maetzig’s own experiences. Maetzig was born in Berlin, January 26, 1911. His mother was Jewish, and, like Meta Wolff, killed herself rather than face deportation to a concentration camp. Maetzig himself was born in 1911, and had just begun a successful career in film when the Nazis came to power. Following the Nuremberg laws, Maetzig was forbidden from working in the film industry. He joined the Communist Party and went underground. After the war, Maetzig was one of the founders of Filmaktiv, a group dedicated to restarting the film industry in Germany. It is from this group that DEFA was eventually established.

Marriage in the Shadows was Kurt Maetzig’s first feature film, and he clearly wanted to make a strong first impression. The film features more razzle-dazzle than any of his later films. Slow fades back and forth between scenes, cross-cutting, emotionally charged internal P.O.V. shots, and clever transitions are used throughout the movie. It is also, rather ironically, one of his more traditional films in other respects. The use of glamour-shot lighting and emotion-laden music hearken back to the melodramas of the 1930s.

That music was composed by Wolfgang Zeller. Zeller was a well-known film composer who made his first big splash in 1926 with his score for the animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed), the oldest existing feature-length animated film. Zeller wrote film scores for many silent films, including Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic Vampyr. After the Nazis came to power, Zeller continued to work for them, providing the music for every variety of film, including several propaganda films. Most notoriously, he wrote the film score for the virulently anti-Semitic Jud Süß. Perhaps in an attempt to atone for his work during the Third Reich, Zeller imbues the score for Marriage in the Shadows with an intense emotionalism that occasionally overwhelms the visuals. Zeller did a few more films for DEFA, but his traditional, romantic musical style was better suited to the nostalgic films of West Germany. During the early days of DEFA he provided a few scores, but within a few years he was working exclusively in the west.

The cinematographers for Marriage in the Shadows were Friedl Behn-Grund and Eugen Klagemann, both of whom had worked for Tobis Filmkunst—Germany’s second largest film company after UFA—during the Nazi years. Like Wolfgang Zeller, Friedl Behn-Grund’s career began during the silent era. During the Third Reich, he was the cinematographer for Titanic, one of the few German films from the Nazi period that is still regularly shown throughout the world. During the early days of DEFA, Behn-Grund shot some of the most well-respected films to come out of that film company, including The Murderers Are Among Us (which he co-filmed with Klagemann), Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B. (The Strange Adventures of Fridolin B.), Die Buntkarierten (The Girls in Gingham), The Blum Affair (Affaire Blum), and The Council of the Gods.

Eugen Klagemann, on the other hand, got his start as a still photographer in early 1930s, and moved to cinematography in 1943 with Kurt Hoffmann’s Ich werde dich auf Händen tragen (I’ll Carry You on My Hands). Unlike Behn-Grund, Klagemann continued to work in East Germany, even though he lived in a western sector of Berlin. After the wall went up on August 10, 1961, Klagemann’s access to DEFA was cut off. By that time, attitudes in West Germany towards the GDR were running hot and Klagemann was unable to continue his career as a cinematographer because of his perceived “collaboration with the enemy.”

The migration to West Germany was a common occurrence in the early days of the GDR in all fields, but especially in the movies. Many of the film technicians working for DEFA during the first few years were actually Wessis, but couldn’t find any work in the western sectors due to the Allied forces’ restrictive policies toward filmmaking. Once the West German film industry was back up and running, they were perfectly content to continue their careers closer to home. In some cases, film people who were actually from the Soviet sector decided to join the Republiksflucht and head west to the promise of better money. For Paul Klinger, who played Hans Wieland and was a West German (born in Essen), Marriage in the Shadows would be his only East Germany film. He would continue with a successful film and television career in the west, right up until his death in 1971, and in 2007, Germany had a postage stamp made in his honor. His co-star Ilse Steppat, who played Elisabeth Maurer, made a few more films for DEFA but by the mid-fifties also was working exclusively in the west. Most of the rest of the film crew ended up in the west as well, including, the editors (Alice and Herman Ludwig), the art director (Kurt Herith), and the Costume Designer (Gertraud Recke).

When the film was first shown it hit German moviegoers like a punch in the gut. Audiences attending the screenings are reported to have responded with somber silence; still sitting in their seats when the lights came on. Marriage in the Shadows signaled not only a new attitude for the German people, but a new kind of filmmaking. One that would flourish in the east, while the west was content to expend most of their effort making sentimental Heimatfilme.

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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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