Archive for the ‘Rubble Film’ Category

The Bridge 1949

The Bridge (Die Brücke) was a 1949 film made by DEFA about displaced persons at the end of WWII. It has little in common with Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 well-known film of the same name except its relative time frame. In this film, a group of evacuees in a resettlement encampment encounter hostility from the people in a nearby town; not because they are Jewish, or black, or even from another country, but because they are from a different town. The prejudice here is not racial or anti-Semitic, but parochial—roughly analogous to a group of Californians trying to resettle in Mississippi. Thrown into the mix is a relatively formulaic love triangle between the Mayor’s nephew, a girl from the resettlement camp, and a scheming pub owner who smokes way too much for her own good. The bridge of the title is a wooden footbridge between the resettlement camp and the village. After the bridge is sabotaged, resulting in the death of one of the camp’s leading figures, the two groups are cut off from each other. It will take an even greater calamity to bring them together again.

As with Street Acquaintances, this film exists in that transitional space between old-school melodrama and the socialist realism promoted by the Russians. Visually, it hearkens back to the Ufa films from the Third Reich years, but the film’s message of tolerance is strictly post-war thinking. The screenplay is by Arthur Pohl, who also wrote the screenplay for Street Acquaintances, but this time he also directed the film. It was his first time directing a feature film, although he had already directed several stage productions.

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Arthur Pohl began his career as a set painter at the Staatstheater in Darmstadt. Later on, he moved into directing plays as well. In the 1930s, he began working in films as a screenwriter, co-writing the screenplays for Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur) and Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb), which were based on a book by Thea von Harbou (of Metropolis fame). In 1941, Mr. Pohl’s career in films came to an abrupt end when he was drafted and later captured by the Allied forces. After he was released from a P.O.W. camp at the end of the war, he moved to West Berlin. In spite of living in an allied sector, he got a job with DEFA; at first as a scriptwriter, then later as a director. After The Bridge, He went on to write and direct several more films for DEFA, including Corinna Schmidt, Die Unbesiegbaren (The Invincible), and Pole Poppenspäler.

In 1957, he wrote and directed Spielbank-Affäre (Casino Affair), based on Hans von Oettingen’s book of the same name. It would be Mr. Pohl’s last feature film. It was made as joint project between DEFA and Sweden’s short-lived Pandora-Films. The film told the story of counterfeiting and intrigue around a casino. While Pohl may have intended the film as a statement about capitalism and its deleterious effects on the human psyche, the authorities at DEFA felt that the film—which was DEFA’s first wide-screen production and was shot in gorgeous Agfacolor—made West German decadence look too appealing. In one of the weirder decisions to come out of DEFA, the film was screened in black-and-white in East Germany, while the color version was shown in West Germany under the title Parkplatz zur großen Sehnsucht (Parking Lot for Desire). As one might imagine, the western press had a great time making fun of this decision.

The foofaraw over the film led to a parting of ways between DEFA and Mr. Pohl. He started looking for work in the west, but, unfortunately for him, his long association with DEFA didn’t make this any easier. He made a few TV-movies in the early sixties, but by 1963 his career as a director was essentially over. Maybe he would have gone back to DEFA, but by that time the border was well sealed and working in the east while residing in the west was no longer an option. He died in 1970 in Berlin.

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If the film at times has the look of the Weimar Republic era Ufa films, there’s a good reason. The cinematographer was Fritz Arno Wagner—one of the most well-respected cinematographers in the business. He started working as a newsreel cameraman in 1913 and a feature film cameraman in 1919. A list of the films he worked on during the silent years is impressive. It includes Nosferatu, M, Diary of a Lost Girl, and both of Fritz Lang’s silent Dr. Mabuse films. Unlike his compatriot Karl Freund, Mr. Wagner chose not to go to Hollywood. He  stayed in Germany, filming unmemorable programmers and Nazi propaganda during the Third Reich years. Although Das kleine Hofkonzert (Palace Scandal), which Mr. Wagner filmed, was released by DEFA, The Bridge is the only film Wagner worked on that was actually made by DEFA. He started working in the west as soon as possible. In 1958, Mr. Wagner died when he fell from a camera car while filming Ohne Mutter geht es nicht (It Doesn’t Work Without a Mother).

The evil, chain-smoking pub owner Therese is played by Ilse Steppat, who, two years earlier, was much more sympathetic as the persecuted Jewish wife in Kurt Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows. After the restrictions on filmmaking in West Germany were removed in 1950, Ms. Steppat, a West German by birth, spent the rest of her career working in the west. She is best known to English-speaking audiences as the evil Irma Bunt in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Two days after that film premiered in Germany, Ms. Steppat died of a heart attack in West Berlin.

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Arno Paulsen, who plays the town’s mayor will be immediately recognizable to any fan of early DEFA films. The rotund actor got his start as an opera singer. While working at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, he met Wolfgang Staudte, who cast him as the profiteering villain in The Murderers Are Among Us. From there he went on to appear in eleven DEFA films between 1946 and 1950, including Razzia, Chemistry and Love, Street Acquaintances, and Girls in Gingham. Due to his short and portly appearance, he was often cast as either the villain or the buffoon in films on both sides of the Iron Curtain. His last film for DEFA was Bürgermeister Anna (Mayor Anna), a comedy based on a play by Friedrich Wolf. After that he appeared exclusively in West German films and is well remembered for his role in Das Mädchen Rosemarie (Rosemary)—one of the better films to come out of West Germany during the fifties.

To a modern audience, the film’s socialist heroics will probably seem over the top. Like the man who uses his body to channel the irrigation water in King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, modern audiences laugh that anyone would do anything that selfless. It is impossible today to reflect on this film’s message about the importance of eliminating borders between German factions without thinking about the events of August 13, 1961. In The Bridge, people bravely cross a river to help people on the other side, creating unity between the two factions. Replace the river with a wall and the film takes on a whole different meaning.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (German only; no subtitles).

Street Acquaintances

Films about sexual hygiene and the dangers of promiscuity have a grand old tradition in cinema history, going back at least a century with D. W. Griffith’s 1914 film, The Escape (currently lost). Most of the feature films on the subject—at least in America—were made for the exploitation market. The subject afforded a neat way to get around the strict moral codes of the times by pretending to be intended for educational purposes. Some of these films, such as Because of Eve and Kroger Babb’s infamous Mom and Dad, contain graphic footage, while others, such as No Greater Sin and Dwain Esper’s Sex Madness, are relatively tame. Road agents would travel from town to town with these films stuck in the trunks of their cars, arranging screenings and doing double duty as a medical sex experts selling pamphlets between the films.

While Street Acquaintances1 (Straßenbekanntschaft) certainly is a commercial release, its discussions of the dangers of venereal disease in post-war Berlin are not there to titillate or for exploitation purposes. V.D. was a real problem in Germany at the time, brought on, mainly, by the combination of a sudden liberation from a repressive regime and huge influx of randy, sex-deprived soldiers from both sides. To combat the problem, the military governments regularly rounded up women for testing. Yes, it was sexist, and Street Acquaintances addresses this fact, which is unusual for a film made in 1948. At a time when American films had the “heroes” saying things like: “Don’t worry your pretty little head,” Street Acquaintances was showing just how difficult life in post-war Berlin was for women.

Street Acquaintances stands at an interesting crossroads in German film history. It is categorized as a “rubble” film because it deals with the emotional wreckage of the German psyche after the war, but unlike The Murderers Are Among Us, Somewhere in Berlin, and Germany Year Zero, it happens after the streets have been cleared and the streetcars are running again. Stylistically, it harkens back to the films of Weimar era and the Third Reich, but with touches of the dramatic realism and the themes that would become the hallmark of DEFA films.

Street Acquaintances

The story follows the misadventures of Erika, a young woman who is tired of the privation brought by the war’s end, and is ready to kick off her shoes and have some fun. In terms of plot, there is nothing new here. It’s the same basic concept used in practically every sex education film ever made: X decides to live a little; X has sex; X lives to regret it and learns a valuable lesson (or dies, as the case may be). Intertwined with Erika’s story are the stories of other women in Berlin that show just how tough it was for women after the war. As with Slatan Dudow’s Destinies of Women, and Evelyn Schmidt’s The Bicycle, the sympathies here are with the women. If their choices are sometimes bad, it’s because good choices are so few and far between.

Street Acquaintances is directed by Peter Pewas—a talented filmmaker who has only recently started receiving the attention he deserves. Like Saul Bass, Mr. Pewas’ entry into filmmaking came through the graphic arts. Unlike Mr. Bass, he did not design title sequences, but did create many classic movie posters during his lifetime, and is considered an important innovator in German film poster design.

His interest in film extended beyond posters however. One of his first attempts to make a documentary about Alexanderplatz in 1934 ended badly when the film was confiscated by the Nazis and Mr. Pewas held on suspicion of treason. In 1938, he attended the Babelsberg Film Academy and started working as an assistant director under Wolfgang Liebeneiner, a director who did as much to promote the Nazi philosophy as Veit Harlan, but got a lot less grief for it. As Liebeneiner’s AD, Mr. Pewas had the dubious distinction of working on I Accuse (Ich klage an), a film that was made to promote Aktion T4—Hitler’s euthanasia program for the disabled.

Street Acquaintances

In 1944, Mr. Pewas was allowed to direct his own feature film, and he once again found himself running afoul of the Nazis. The film, Der verzauberte Tag (The Enchanted Day), was the story of a young woman not dissimilar to Erika, who wanted something more from life and was frustrated with the limitations put on women. Like the neorealists, Pewas wanted to show the lives of ordinary people in a realistic fashion. As one might imagine, Goebbels and his compadres weren’t too keen on this approach and while it was never officially banned the film was not released either.

After the war, Pewas was one of the directors in attendance at the famous Filmaktiv meeting at the Adlon Hotel on November 22, 1945. It was from this meeting that the roots of DEFA took hold, starting with Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are Among Us. Pewas had been trying to expand cinema’s vocabulary with Der verzauberte Tag, so the things discussed at this meeting must have struck a chord with him. He went on to make Wohin Johanna? (Which way Johanna?), a short documentary intended to promote the SED party. As with both Der verzauberte Tag and Street Acquaintances, the story takes a feminist perspective.

Sadly, Mr. Pewas’ affinity for the SED was not long lived. By 1950, he had moved to West Germany. This did little for his career. While his former mentor, Wolfgang Liebeneiner, thrived in West Germany’s Nazi-tolerant environment, Mr. Pewas’ leftist proclivities were less acceptable. Aside from one feature film (Viele kamen vorbeiMany Passed By), Mr. Pewas’ directorial efforts were restricted to a few short films. As it got harder and harder to find work making movies, Mr. Pewas relied primarily on revenue from designing film posters—his one skill that the Nazis also had no problems with. He died penniless in Hamburg; a fate that certainly wouldn’t have befallen him had he stayed in East Germany. Happily (although not for him), his films resurfaced recently in the form of a DVD set, which includes Der verzauberte Tag, Street Acquaintances and Wohin Johanna.

Gisela Trowe

Playing Erika is Gisela Trowe. That same year, she appeared in three more films, including a short but memorable turn as the killer’s girlfriend in The Blum Affair. Her fourth film in 1948 was a West German film, and thereafter she worked in the west. She continued her film career, often appearing in the films of her father-in-law, Erich Engel (director of The Blum Affair). One of her earliest screen appearances in West Germany includes a short but memorable turn as a prostitute in Peter Lorre’s gloomy Die Verlorene (The Lost One). Ms. Trowe died in 2010 (for more on Ms. Trowe, see The Blum Affair).

As was the case with many of the early DEFA films, much of the film crew was made up of actors and technicians who either migrated or returned to West Germany once the heavy restrictions on filmmaking imposed by the U.S. military government (OMGUS) had ended. Composer Michael Jary was already a well-known composer when he wrote the music for this film and his songs, “Davon geht die Welt nicht unter,” “La Paloma,” and “Roter Mohn” were very popular in Germany and regularly crop up in films about World War II. His song, “Wir wollen niemals auseinandergehen” was sung by Heidi Brühl as a possible entry in the 1960 Eurovision Song Contest, it did not make the cut, but has gone on to become a popular tune on with lovers of Schlagermusik. By the time he shot this film, Austrian cinematographer Georg Bruckbauer already had a long career as a cinematographer, stretching back to the Weimar days, but this was his only film for DEFA. Editor Johanna Meisel got her start as an editor during the Third Reich and worked on several films for DEFA during its early years, but she also went west in the 1950s, working on several films there before retiring from films in 1962.

As one might imagine, Street Acquaintances did well at the box office on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Sex always sells, even when the intentions aren’t prurient. This is a remarkable film and possibly the best film for showcasing the changing film styles during the early years at DEFA. It is equal parts UFA and DEFA, and should not be overlooked.

IMDB page for film.

Buy this film (part of DVD set).

NOTE: English subtitles are available from several sources, as are AVI files of the film. Some adjustment may be necessary for syncing.


1. This is a literal translation of the title as given by IMDB. The term refers to casual acquaintances. The kind of people you’d say “hi” to on the street but wouldn’t have over for dinner.

Police Raid

DEFA, East Germany’s state-owned film production company, was formed in 1946—three years before post-war Germany’s Soviet sector would become its own country. Immediately after the war, the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) was doing everything it could to hobble German film production in the western sectors, largely at the behest of the Hollywood studios. The Soviets, on the other hand, had been champions of film since the early days of their revolution. and they were willing to let the filmmakers in their sector get back to work immediately. Thus, if you were a director or film technician in post-war Germany, DEFA was the only game in town.

As a result, many West German directors, who had no particular enthusiasm for the socialist ideals, went to the Soviet Sector to get their films made. People such as Hans Deppe, Paul Verhoeven, and the Austrian filmmaker Arthur Maria Rabenalt made films for DEFA, but unlike directors such as Kurt Maetzig and Wolfgang Staudte, they weren’t socialists and had no interest in creating a new form of cinema. They just wanted to continue making films—the same types of films they had made during the Third Reich. When West German film production finally got up to speed in the 1950s, these same men would scurry back to the west to make their Edgar Wallace potboilers and Heimatfilme, and produce films so safe and unchallenging that West Germany’s young filmmakers would eventually rise up against them and deliver the Oberhausen Manifesto.

For this reason, several of the early DEFA films are DEFA in name only. They could have been made ten years earlier under auspices of Joseph Goebbels or ten years later by Constantin Films. That’s not to say they are bad films, they are not, but there is nothing uniquely East German about them, or, for that matter, uniquely West German either. They are standard movie fare, meant purely for entertainment.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than with Razzia (AKA Police Raid), DEFA’s first thriller (Krimi). Its expressionistic lighting, diffusion filter close-ups, and musical interludes would have fit comfortably in any Hollywood production. Most of the technical crew, including the director and screenwriter, had worked for German production companies under the Nazis and most would end up working in West Germany once its film industry was back up and running. They were at DEFA for no better reason than a paycheck, and had no sympathy for the socialist cause.

Nonetheless, these men did have the skill sets needed to make movies on time and on budget, and they understood the craft. Maybe the people in charge of DEFA thought that they would help expand the talent pool at the film studio (they did not), or maybe the simply wanted to get as many films out there as quickly as possible to demonstrate their superior film production capabilities to the rest of Germany (that they did). Most of these directors brought their own production teams with them, and they left East Germany with them as well. It would take people like Maetzig, Konrad Wolf, Egon Gunther, and Gerhard Klein to develop a new style—the DEFA style.

Razzia takes place in post-war Berlin, where black marketeers sell contraband American cigarettes in the streets and children play hide-and-seek amid the corroding debris of the war machine. The screenplay is by Harald G. Petersson, who started writing screenplays in 1934 after his novella, Herz ist Trumpf was turned into a movie. Petersson had a knack for writing the kind of engaging, tension-filled scenes that cinema thrives on. In Razzia, Petersson takes the tropes of the Rubble Films—the hollow man returning from the war and the rubble-strewn streets—and crosses them with the popular characteristics of film noir: the femme fatale, charming criminals, and good people caught in bad situations. Most of the time, the story follows a typical Hollywood-style structure, but Petersson manages to pull a few surprises out of his hat. Just when it looks like the film is going to follow one character throughout, it takes a sharp right turn into new territory.

The film is directed by Werner Klingler, who started his career as an actor during the Weimar Republic and then became a director during the Third Reich. He made several popular films at this time, but is most famous for taking over the directing of Titanic after its director, Herbert Selpin, was arrested for saying some unfavorable things about Hitler’s regime (Selpin was later found hanged in his cell—reportedly a suicide). Klinger is a craftsman director. The kind of director that film production companies thrived on for most of film’s first fifty years. He knows how to tell a story in pictures, but he never tries to push the limits of style. The most striking scenes in the film are the ones that take place on the streets, but this is more reflective of the situation in Berlin than Klingler’s flair as a director. He is highly skilled at his craft, but never transcends it.

Playing police commissioner Naumann is Paul Bildt. Bildt’s career in films reads like history of the first fifty years of German cinema. Originally a stage actor, Bildt started appearing in films in 1910. He was one of the busiest actors in Germany, appearing in as many as eleven films a year. Goebbels thought so highly of Bildt that he added him to his Gottbegnadeten list—a list of musicians, artists, authors and actors that Goebbels felt were the Reich couldn’t exist without. This fact is even more amazing when you consider that he his wife, who died of cancer in 1945, was Jewish. When the war ended, Bildt was living in a small town east of Berlin. Rather than face the wrath of the oncoming Russian troops, Bildt and his daughter attempted to commit suicide by overdosing on Barbital. His daughter died but he was found in time and rushed to the hospital. After several days in a coma, Bildt made a full recovery. For a time, he appeared on stage, primarily at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, before going to DEFA to make movies. He appeared in several of DEFA’s most well-known early films, including Somewhere in Berlin, The Blum Affair, and Council of the Gods. In 1949, he was awarded the GDR’s National Prize for his work in films, but it wasn’t enough to keep him in East Germany. In the early fifties, he went to the west, where he continued his career until his death in 1957.

Nina Kosta

Making her first and only film appearance is singer Nina Konsta who plays the club singer Yvonne. Konsta was a popular singer in Germany during the late forties, but her star has since been eclipsed by other, more famous singers. She had a beautiful voice, and was known as “The Greek Nightingale.” While not an actress, she plays the role of the femme fatale well enough, and she has the looks to pull it off. She was a talented woman, and it is a shame she is nearly forgotten today.

Razzia was the first post-war krimi made in Germany for the German audience, and response to it was positive in all sectors. So much so that the Allied sectors saw the film as a threat; especially after Nicola Napoli’s communist film distribution company, Artkino Productions, started distributing it in South America. After it played in Chile, an editorial in the New York Times decried the efforts of Hollywood to hobble western sector film production, but it wouldn’t be until after West Germany was declared a country and allowed some autonomy over its film production that they would catch up with the east. The film was also the first DEFA production to make it to these shores, playing in New York City in 1948.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (Part of a six film set. Highly Recommended.)

The East German film studio, DEFA, was founded in May, 1946. During the first few years in post-war Germany, it was, literally, the only game in town. While the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) in the west dragged its feet on film production (mostly at the behest of Hollywood), the east got the old UFA studios in Potsdam and the AGFA film lab in Wolfen back into production almost immediately. Somewhere in Berlin (Irgendwo in Berlin) is the third film made by DEFA, and the second example of a Trümmerfilm, literally, a “rubble film”—that group of films shot immediately after WWII in the wreckage of Berlin (for more on this see The Murderers Are Among Us).

Somewhere in Berlin is the story of a gang of children living and playing amid the rubble of post-war Berlin. Gustav is a congenial little boy who seems to have no qualms about making friends with strangers. Gustav’s father ran a garage in the neighborhood (now a bombed-out ruin). He was taken as a prisoner-of-war, and the family has had no word from him yet. Gustav’s best friend is Willi, whose parents were killed during the war. The adults in the neighborhood are in a state of numb indifference to the destruction that surrounds them. When Gustav’s father, he, like many other soldiers returning from war, is an emotional wreck.

Director Gerhard Lamprecht might be called the first child of the cinema. At the age of twelve, he was working at movie screenings (at that point, the film industry was still in its infancy and most screenings were held in meeting halls and legitimate theaters). At the age of seventeen, he sold his first script to Eiko-Film GmbH, and a few years later he began acting in films. It wasn’t long before he got behind the lens and started to direct, quickly establishing himself as a talented director. Lamprecht continued to make movies during the Third Reich, a fact that got in his way when he went to OMGUS after the war. Many ex-UFA technicians found that working under Goebbels was automatic grounds for rejection in west during the first few years after the war. This combined with the lack of film production in the western sectors made Lamprecht turn to DEFA for employment.

Lamprecht had already proven his ability to work with children with the pre-war UFA classic, Emil and the Detectives (Emil und die Detektive). The children in both films are spunky and prefer taking charge of things without much help from the adult community, and in both movies the kids are capable of rational thinking, even though sometimes their choices leave something to be desired. There is also a similarity between the evil Max Grundeis of Emil and the Detectives, and the slimy Waldemar Hunke in Somewhere in Berlin, although the latter film’s antagonist is bit more charming (but only a bit). The most spectacular scene in the film involves a boy climbing the crumbling ruins of a building that looms over the neighborhood. It certainly looks like he is climbing the building and it is breathtaking.

But Lamprecht’s heart really wasn’t in the east. He made one more feature film for DEFA (Quartett zu fünft), but as soon as it was feasible, he was back in the west where he made a few more films before retiring from the industry. he died in 1974 at the age of 76.

As with other early DEFA productions, many members of the technical crew were UFA alumni. Cinematographer Werner Krien got his start as a feature film cinematographer during the Third Reich. With Konstantin Irmen-Tschet, he had filmed the dazzling Münchhausen (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), regarded as one of the best films to come out of UFA during the war years. But Krien was more opportunist than communist. Somewhere in Berlin would be his only DEFA feature film. Editor Lena Neumann also got her start during the Third Reich, but, unlike Krien, chose to stay with DEFA, editing such classics as Kurt Maetzig’s Story of a Young Couple, Slátan Dudow’s Destinies of Women, and Konrad Wolf’s Lissy.

The music is composed by Erich Einegg and it is his only feature film. Einegg was a talented composer and is best known for his songs sung by the famous lesbian songstress of the 1920’s, Claire Waldoff (whose life was the basis of the East German TV-movie Claire Berolina). Einegg’s music here, however, is strident, march tempo music, similar to that used in U.S. films about the glories of the heroic F.B.I. Later, other composers such as Karl-Ernst Sasse, and Hanns Eisler would handle soundtrack composition with more subtlety.

Worthy of special mention here is Paul Bildt, who played Herr Birke. Bildt had already made a name for himself  as a popular character actor during UFA’s early years. He also  was Gerhard Lamprecht’s acting teacher when the director was trying to break into movies. Bildt continued to work throughout the Third Reich, appearing in Veit Harlan’s Opfergang, and the extravagant Kolberg. At the end of the war he and his daughter attempted to commit suicide when the Russian Army invaded the town where they were staying (an all too common reaction; stories of the Red Army’s brutalities preceded them). Bildt’s daughter died, but he was nursed back to health and continued his acting career in the east. He appeared in several East German films, including Razzia, The Beaver Coat, and Heart of Stone. Most notably, he played the evil Chairman Mauch in Kurt Maetzig’s classic, The Council of the Gods.

Also worth mentioning is Charles Brauer, who played Gustav. After making one more Trümmerfilm for DEFA (Und wieder 48), Brauer moved to West Germany where he has continued his acting career to this day. Today, he is best known for his role as Hauptkommissar Peter Brockmöller on the popular German-TV crime show, Tatort, playing opposite former East German film star, Manfred Krug.

In spite the inherent grimness of Somewhere in Berlin, the film’s tone is positive, suggesting that the future of Germany is in the hands of the children, and that it will survive. It is interesting to compare the Trümmerfilme of DEFA with Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini’s attempt at the genre, Berlin Year Zero. In spite of the grimness of the situation, the urban destruction, and the national disgrace the people of Germany must have felt, both Somewhere in Berlin and Murders are Among Us end on positive notes. Rossellini’s film, on the other hand, remains relentlessly downbeat. Rossellini sees no future for Germany. His ending—remarkably similar in some respects to the Lamprecht film—leaves us without hope. Fortunately for all of us, Rossellini was wrong.

 

IMDB page for the film.

Purchase this film.

In 1947, the Soviets began mining operations in the Schlema Valley in the southeastern region of Saxony. They called their mining company “Wismut,” the German word for bismuth, because they didn’t want the U.S. to know what they were really mining: uranium. After what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Russians wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t suffer the same fate as the Japanese and they stepped up their efforts to develop a bomb of their own. Whether the fact that the Soviets had the bomb deterred its use or increased its threat is still a matter of debate. At the time, the Americans went collectively insane over the idea that anyone else would have this weapon and cheerfully executed Julius Rosenberg for the crime of sharing the technology with the Russians. For good measure, they executed his wife Ethel too, even though it appears she did little more than type up her husband’s notes.

The choice of the name Wismut for the mining company is indicative of the level of paranoia that existed on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It’s doubtful that anyone was fooled by this ruse though. The spa at Oberschlema was already well know by then to be sitting on top of a vast lode of radioactive material. During the 1920s the place was a popular destination for people looking to bask in the radium springs and drink its radioactive water.

By the early fifties, the Soviets had changed the once verdant Schlema valley into a muddy, barren mess that looked more like a concentration camp than a mining company. Security at the mine was tight. People working there were essentially cordoned off from the rest of society, existing in a cocoon of their own. They had their own community, and communication with the outside world was carefully monitored. Geiger counters were installed at the gates to make sure that no one walked out with any of the ore lest they sell it to the Yanks. Health problems, as one can imagine, were legion and still linger today. The size of the mine was immense. By the time it shut down in 1990, it comprised 54 mine shafts spaced 30 meters apart.

In 1958, director Konrad Wolf, along with writers Karl-Georg Egel and Paul Wiens, created Sun Seekers (Sonnensucher), a paean to the workers of the Wismut mine. The story takes place in 1947, and follows the exploits of Lotte Lutz, an attractive young woman who had lost her mother during the war. Tired of the sexual abuse on the farm where she was living, she flees to Berlin where she hooks up with her aunt Emmi, a boisterous woman who looks like Rosemary Clooney and acts like Joan Blondell. After a barroom brawl, Emmi and Lotte are sent by the soviet authorities to work at the Wismut mine. Although it is never explicitly stated, there is a suggestion here that the reason the women are sent to this mine is because they had been fraternizing with the Wismut miners and the authorities were still trying to contain knowledge of the mine’s existence. At the mine we see that the peace between the Russians and the Germans is still on tenuous ground. The Russians are in charge, and are still smarting from what the German army did to their country during WWII. The Germans are trying to prove their loyalty to the communist way of life, although some are obviously not on board.

In many respects, Sun Seekers resembles the Rubble Films of the late-forties. Lotte is a burned-out husk of a woman,, who has come to distrust all men, and is incapable of smiling. Likewise, the one-armed Beier, who had been a German soldier on the Russian Front is filled with remorse and self-loathing for what he had seen and done. Together, these two wounded birds eventually find, if not happiness, then at least some small comfort together. As the emotionally crippled Lutz, Ulrike Germer effectively conveys the frailty masked by frigidity and the artless sensuality of the character. Likewise, Günther Simon, best known for his portrayal of the German Communist Party leader Ernst Thälmann, is better used here as Beier, the one-armed German with a secret past, who wants to find whatever happiness might be left in Lutz’s soul.

Unfortunately for this film, it was made at exactly the wrong time. In August of 1957, the United States announced a two-year suspension on nuclear testing (although they would renege on this plan exactly one year later), and in September of the same year, a huge explosion at the Mayak nuclear facility in Russia released tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere (although this was carefully hushed up by the authorities at the time). After years of fear-mongering and forcing children hide under their school desks, people—in both the east and the west—were growing weary of atomic fear-mongering. The Soviets wanted to show that they too were worried about the potential dangers of atomic weapons and were willing to slow down the arms race. The idea of a film that championed the Soviet efforts to mine the vast uranium deposits in the Schlema Valley was deemed too provocative to release at that time, and the movie was shelved until 1972. Of course, a old black-and-white propaganda movie on the importance of uranium mining to the communist way of life went over rather badly in 1972 and the film did not do well at the box office.

Director Konrad Wolf was as close to royalty was one could get in a communist country. His father, Friedrich Wolf, was a well-respected doctor, playwright, and communist provocateur. In 1932, Friedrich Wolf founded the Southwest Theater Troop (Spieltrupp Südwest) in Stuttgart, and began writing plays that championed the communist cause. Two of his plays, Professor Mamlock and Cyankali, were made twice into films. During WWII, Friedrich Wolf also worked as a doctor in Spain and was briefly interred in a concentration camp in France before being allowed to emigrate to Russia. Konrad’s brother, Markus, was the head of the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA), East Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, and is now considered one of the greatest spymasters that ever lived. It is widely believed that the character of Karla in John Le Carré’s Karla Trilogy is based on Markus Wolf, although Le Carré always denied this (a closer match is the character of Fiedler in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). Konrad Wolf himself fought with the Soviet Army during World War II, and his story was made into the movie, I Was Nineteen in 1968, which he also directed.

As a director, Wolf had a powerful, if sometimes melodramatic, style. Shots in his films are carefully framed, and he isn’t afraid of using unusual angles and novelty wipes when the scene calls for it. For most of his early career, Wolf seemed content to tow the party line. His early films are didactic and very pro-communist. Later in his career, he began to push the envelope with films like Goya, The Naked Man on the Athletic Field, and Solo Sunny.

Erwin Geschonneck shines here as the ex-circus strongman turned ardent Bolshevik, Jupp König. Geschonneck would later go on to become the most popular actor in East Germany, but in the fifties, two of his most important roles—that of Jupp König in this film and Teetjen the butcher in The Axe of Wandsbek—were suppressed, postponing his fame (see Carbide and Sorrel).

Manja Behrens as Emmi also deserves special mention here. She, along with Geschonneck, give this movie its vitality. Behrens started her career in Dresden prior to WWII. During the war, she made two films for the Third Reich before running afoul of Joseph Goebbels. After the war, she moved from Dresden to Berlin to continue her career in theater. There she began working in films and quickly became a popular character actress. In the 1960s, British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper uncovered the fact that Behrens had been the mistress of Martin Bormann during the war. Upon this revelation, she was blacklisted, appearing only occasionally on television in small roles after that. Throughout her life, she continued to appear on stage both before and after the reunification of Germany. Ms. Behrens died in Berlin in 2003.

Today, the Schlema Valley is home to the rebuilt Bad Schlema health spa. You can go there once again to soak in the radon springs. Parts of the mine are left intact as part of the Saxon-Thuringian Uranium Mining Museum, but the muddy landscape of the fifties is gone.

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Immediately after the war, West Germany shied away from getting back into the business of filmmaking. The country was still in ruins; Germans were embarrassed by the enormity of  the horrors for which they were culpable; and the Allies didn’t really want to remind the rest of the world of the destruction wrought on the most beautiful country in Europe. It would take a few more years for the west to get back to making movies, and even then, the films tended to be lighthearted comedies, romantic costume dramas, and an endless parade of Heimatfilme—those pictures about the joys of alpine living that only people in the Bavarian regions of the Germany, Austria, and Switzerland can truly appreciate.

East Germany, on the other hand, was anxious to start making films again. This was partly thanks to the influence of the Russians, who considered cinema was one of the most powerful media for enlightening people to the benefits of communism, but it was also due to the fact that the heralded UFA Studios in Babelsberg were now in the Russian-controlled sector. In 1946, the first film of the GDR started filming before DEFA was fully established. That film, The Murderers Are Among Us (Die Mörder sind unter uns), still stands as one of the greatest films to come out of East Germany.

The Murderers Are Among Us is the first of what became known as Trümmerfilme (literally “rubble films”). These are films that were shot in and among the ruins and debris of post-war Germany. They do not shy away from the severe destruction that was left after WWII, and often show the characters wandering amid piles of bricks and twisted metal. But the Trümmerfilme (and the ensuing Trümmerliteratur movement) were also about the effects of this destruction on the German psyche. The people in these films are often dissolute and apathetic; the destruction on the streets mirrored in their eyes.

The Murderers Are Among Us takes place in Berlin right after the war. Susan Wallner (Hildegard Knef), an attractive young woman is returning from a concentration camp where she was imprisoned for reasons that we never fully discover. She returns home to find that a strange, surly man named Hans Mertens (W. Borchert)  has taken up residence in her apartment. All her attempts to placate or succor him are met with hostility. Clearly we are dealing with someone with a past. As the story progresses, we learn that Mertens was once a surgeon, but something he witnessed during the war has rendered him unable to stand the sight of blood or the sounds of human suffering. Just when it looks like he is starting to get over it, Ferdinand Brückner (Arno Paulsen), the man responsible for his nightmares, comes back into his life.

In some respects, The Murderers Are Among Us is a fairly run-of-the-mill film. It uses many of the tropes that were standard Hollywood issue at the time (an absurdly beautiful concentration camp refugee, and cliched use of music) It also features many of the signatures of expressionism that made the earlier German films so interesting, but were, by 1946—thanks to heavy influx of the best of Germany’s craftspeople—fairly common in Hollywood film noir, (the use of reflected and diffracted images to represent the psyche, chiaroscuro, and unusual focus shifts). Nonetheless, the film remains powerful; in part due to the inescapable truth of the situation. Germany was in tatters, and any melodrama inherent in the story was tempered by the fact that, indeed, things really were this bad, or worse. Director Wolfgang Staudte uses extreme close-ups to keep us off-guard and uncomfortable. He also has a flair for the cynical. In one scene the camera pans up from a newspaper headline reading, “2 Million Were Gassed,” to Brückner eating his breakfast. In another scene, while Brückner is protesting his innocence to the world, the scene around him transmogrifies from a building hallway to the inside of a jail cell.

In its original version, Mertens kills the evil Brückner. While this was and emotionally satisfying way to end the story, there was a problem with it. The trials were in progress in Nuremberg and it was already apparent that not everyone was going to pay for their crimes. Examples were being made, but some of the people responsible for the deaths of thousands were walking away with little more than a slap on the wrist (see The Council of the Gods). Putting out a movie that promoted the vigilante killing of these people was seen as a bad way to get the new Germany off the ground. The Allies appealed to the filmmakers to change the ending. In the final version of the film, the fate of Brückner is left up to the courts. This resolution feels forced and rings hollow, like some of the films from Hollywood under the Hays Code.

Hildegard Knef’s performance in The Murderers Are Among Us made such an impact on David O. Selznick that he offered her a contract, but only if she changed her name to Gilda Christian and told people that she was Austrian instead of German (one of life’s little ironies was that Americans didn’t like Germans because  they thought that Adolph Hitler—an Austrian by birth—was a German). Knef refused but still found some success in Hollywood under the name Hildegard Neff, which was how Americans insisted on pronouncing her last name anyway. Both of her co-stars, Ernst Wilhelm Borchert and Arno Paulsen, also eventually ended up in the west before the wall went up.

Perhaps because it was made so soon after the war, or perhaps because the story didn’t require it, there is very little of the proselytizing found in later DEFA films. We suspect that Susan Wallner’s imprisonment and her willingness to share her space with a stranger have something to do with communism, but it is never explicitly stated. The bad guy is clearly a capitalist of the worst sort, selling pots made from the helmets of dead soldiers, but even here, he is evil because of his war-time activities; the connection between capitalism and his inhumanity is tacitly acknowledged, but never pounded home. The Murderers Are Among Us sets important precedents that will help shape the course of DEFA up until the state was abolished in 1990. There is an honesty and a commitment to artistic expression that the west wouldn’t rediscover for a decade. Later on, these same characteristics would put many East German filmmakers in direct confrontation with the GDR officials. It was a bold start to the beginning of a new order.

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