Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Man from the Cap Arcona

Posted: October 29, 2019 in Uncategorized

Der Mann von der Cap Arcona
In 1982, Erwin Geschonneck starred in the East German television movie The Man from the Cap Arcona (Der Mann von der Cap Arcona). In it, Geschonneck plays a character called Erwin Gregorek, who has returned to Hamburg to appear in a documentary about the sinking of the Cap Arcona, a luxury liner that was being used to transport concentration camp prisoners at the end of World War II. It’s an amazing story, based on Geschonneck’s own experiences, and it’s a shame the film was consigned to television because it deserves more attention.

Geschonneck was the best actor in East Germany. For that matter, he was one of the best German actors period. He ranks up there with Peter Lorre, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Mario Adorf, and Christoph Waltz, yet look at any list of “Top German Actors” and you won’t find him.1 Such is the ignorance of us westerners when it comes to anything to do with East Germany and its films. Mueller-Stahl escaped this fate is because he left East Germany in 1980 and established a successful career in the West well before the Wall came down. Geschonneck, on the other hand, not only didn’t leave East Germany, he continued to support the ideals of Marxism after the Wende. In 1992, Film und Fernsehen magazine ranked Geschonneck as the best East German actor ever, and in 2044 was appointed as an honorary member of the Deutsche Filmakademie.

Geschonneck joined the KPD (German Communist Party) when he was a young man. He started his acting career performing in “agitprop” theater pieces and was an extra on Slatan Dudow’s banned film, Kuhle Wampe or: Who owns the world? (Kuhle Wampe oder: Wem gehört die Welt?). When Hitler took over, Geschonneck fled the country but was captured in Prague. He spent the next six years in concentration camps in Sachsenhausen , Dachau, and Neuengamme.

Der Mann von der Cap Arcona

Near the end of the War, prisoners at the Neuengamme camp were put on old, out-of-service ships in an attempt to hide them from the advancing Russian and Allied armies. Geschonneck was put on board the Cap Arcona—the most famous of the ships used to house prisoners. A former luxury liner, the Cap Arcona had seen better days. It was once the jewel of German luxury liners, but the last time it had been put in service was as a stand-in for the Titanic in the Nazi film of the same name (1942).2 Prisoners were treated as badly on these ships as the they were in the camps; locked below deck without food or water.

Reportedly, the Nazis planned to sink these ships with everyone on board, but the Royal Air Force did the job for them. British intelligence had received word that Heinrich Himmler was going to try and escape to Norway via ship so they decided to blow up every ship in the Baltic to prevent this. Swedish and Swiss Red Cross officials had informed British intelligence the day before that several prison ships were at anchor in Lübeck Bay, but the people responsible for approving the bombing claimed not to have received this information. Some prisoners escaped the sinking ship only to be shot by the SS soldiers on nearby boats or by the RAF planes, which continued to strafe the people in the water. Out of over 4,000 prisoners, only 350 survived. Geschonneck was one of them. When the British Second Army reached Neuengamme, they found the camp empty. Upon reaching the beach at Neustadt, north of Lübeck, the British 5th reconnaissance regiment reported bodies floating in the water and went to assist the few survivors straggling to the shore. This all happened on May 3rd, 1945. Hitler was already dead and what was left of the Nazi high command surrendered the next day at Lüneburg Heath—21 miles (33.7962 km) from Neuengamme.

The Man from Cap Arcona

The Man from the Cap Arcona starts with actor Erwin Gregorek (Geschonneck) arriving in Hamburg to work on a documentary about the singing of the Cap Arcona. There he meets old friends and old enemies and the story of what happened is told in flashback. Playing the younger version of Gregorek/Geschonneck is Jürgen Polzin. He’s a good choice. He resembles a younger Geschonneck enough that they don’t even need to explain which character he is. The Man from the Cap Arcona was Polzin’s first film, but he had already been working on stage at that point. Today, he is best known for portraying Karl May’s “Old Shatterhand” at the Felsenbühne Rathen, and outdoor stage in Rathen. In 2015, he made a few headlines in the Sächsische Zeitung—a Dresden-based regional newspaper—concerning a row he was having with tenants and an architect over a piece of property he owned.

One of the most effective scenes in the film concerns Gregorek/Geschonneck’s visit to the former site of the Neuengamme concentration camps.3 Immediately after the war, the main camp was used as an internment camp for Nazi bigwigs and SS officers. As soon as West Germany regained control of the land, they plowed under all traces of the camps that had been there and built prisons on the site. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Germany government finally acknowledged the crimes committed at Neuengamme and erected the KZ-Gedenkstätte Neuengamme (Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial),

The cinematography was by Werner Bergmann, who is most famous for his work with Konrad Wolf. Bergmann also co-wrote the script (for more on Bergmann, see Professor Mamlock). Parts of the film appear to be shot in Hamburg, presumably with a skeleton crew of people that were unlikely to defect (such as Bergmann and Geschonneck). I suppose it’s possible that DEFA had a large assortment of American and European cars they could use to shoot the street scenes, but I doubt it.

Der Mann von der Cap Arcona

The Man from the Cap Arcona was directed by Lothar Bellag, who got his start in theater before moving into television. Coming of age at the end of WWII, Bellag studied acting at the “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” University of Music and Theatre in Leipzig (then called the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik – Mendelssohn-Akademie). He moved from acting into directing, and in 1960, he was hired by East Germany’s television company, Deutscher Fernsehfunk, to direct a television production of George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses (Die Häuser des Herrn Sartorius). At first, he specialized in making TV-movies based on famous plays such as Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Mandrake (Mandragola), Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Was Ihr wollt), and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (Glasmenagerie).

Geschonneck’s career ended when the wall came down. Geschonneck was a lifelong communist. He was sent to a concentration camp and nearly died for his beliefs, so the “reunification” must have been a bitter pill to swallow. After the Wende, he stopped making movies, and appeared only once—in a TV movie that was directed by his son, which also starred his old DEFA comrade, Fred Delmare.

Geschonneck died in 2008, but his legacy lives on, and The Man from the Cap Arcona is a nice addition to his portfolio.

IMDB page for the film

Buy this film.

Stream this film (German only, no subtitles).


1. Of course, defining what makes an actor German is another matter entirely. Lorre was born in Hungary, Adorf in Switzerland, Mueller-Stahl in what is now part of Russia, and Waltz in Vienna. Still, all of these men are classified as German actors by most sources. Geschonneck, for that matter, was born in East Prussia, which is now part of Poland (although he did grow up in Berlin).

2. The story of the Cap Arcona is as remarkable as Geschonneck’s life. For a history of the ship and what happened to it, see Robert P. Watson’s excellent book The Nazi Titanic: The Incredible Untold Story of a Doomed Ship in World War II.

3. Neuengamme wasn’t one camp, but a network of camps used for different groups and purposes.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reise ins Ehebett
East Germany had a difficult relationship with musicals. As with western audiences, the East German public enjoyed musicals and paid to go see them. The box office was good for nearly all the musicals DEFA made but the art form is so inherently frivolous that it drove the more stodgy politicians crazy. Making fairytale films for children was one thing, but making happy fantasies for adults, that was bourgeois formalism!1

Nonetheless—and in spite of the East German government’s claims to the contrary—money could still dictate which films got made and musicals were a good investment. So it was that in 1965, director Joachim Hasler was hired to make Journey into the Nuptial Bed (Reise ins Ehebett), as formulaic a musical as East Germany would ever produce. The film is the story of a handsome young boatswain on a merchant marine ship (Claus Jurichs) who has a habit of bedding a different woman in every port, causing no end of troubles for the captain and affecting the morale of the rest of the crew. In classic movie musical fashion, the ship’s captain (Günther Simon) devises a plan to get the boatswain to fall in love, thus ending his romantic dalliances. To help him with this plan, he enlists Eva (Anna Prucnal) an attractive polish journalist who agrees to seduce the boatswain and then drop him. Secretly, the captain is hoping the two actually fall in love with each other, thus ending his problems. But fate has something else in store. When Mary Lou (Eva-Maria Hagen), a sexy redhead who sings at the Shark Bar, sneaks onto the ship in pursuit of the boatswain, things get complicated.

Reise in ehebett

The film is directed by Joachim Hasler, who got his start as a cinematographer, working on such classic DEFA films as The Invincibles, The Sailors’ Song, and The Silent Star. Hasler got his first taste of directing when Arthur Pohl was severely injured while working on Spielbank-Affäre (Casino Affair) and couldn’t finish the movie. Hasler took over and found he had a knack for directing. He went on to direct several more films for DEFA, sometimes acting as both cinematographer and director. He scored his biggest hit in 1968 with Hot Summer. This led to a long career as a director of light comedy, but his 1964 film Story of a Murder proved that he was just as adept at drama. His career ended with the Fall of the Wall. He died in 1995.

Claus Jurichs as the handsome boatswain bears a strong resemblance to Jean-Claude Van Damme. Jurichs is unique among German actors at the time. He lived in West Berlin and continued to work on East German films after the Wall was built. He was better known in the GDR, where he appeared in lead roles in several TV-movies. In the FRG he mostly worked in TV and dubbing. He worked in various capacities on several German sexploitation films, including Females for Hire (voice only), Swingin’ Swappers, The Sinful Bed, Reflections from a Brass Bed, and Caged Women (voice only). He also worked extensively dubbing American TV shows into German. He was the voice of McGarrett on the original Hawaii Five-O series and the voice of Cliff Barnes on Dallas. Jurichs died in 2005.

Journey into the Nuptial Bed

Günther Simon, Anna Prucnal, and Eva-Maria Hagen—the other three members of the romantic quartet—have been discussed at length here in previous posts (Günther Simon in The Ernst Thälmann Films, Anna Prucnal in The Flying Dutchman, and Eva-Maria Hagen in Don’t Forget My Little Traudel). Playing the fifth wheel in this story of romantic coupling, is singer Frank Schöbel. Although Schöbel was already a well-known figure on East German television, his ability to act was untested. He pulled it off and Journey into the Nuptial Bed helped launch his career in movies. He appeared two years later in Wedding Night in the Rain (Hochzeitsnacht im Regen) and the year after that in the classic Hot Summer. Like many other East German stars, the Wende wasn’t kind to him but he eventually reconnected with his audience and now appears regularly on television, especially at Christmas time.

Journey into the Nuptial Bed did well at the box office, but it was 1966, the year that the 11th Plenum was responsible for shelving or cancelling most of the good films DEFA produced, Aside from a some children’s films and formulaic crime films, the only other film from the East Germany production company that made into theaters that year was their first Indianerfilm The Sons of the Great Bear.

IMDB page for this film.

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1. Formalism was a common complaint against films in East Germany. Politburo types threw the term around so often that it eventually lost any meaning. The term was often used to attack any movie whose entertainment value was greater than its social relevance.

East German Cinema
Fans of East German cinema have asked me if there are any good books in English on East German movies. There is, of course, Defa: East German Cinema 1946-1992, edited by Seán Allan and John Sandford— a collection of essays by some of the world’s leading East German film scholars, including Barton Byg, Christiane Mückenberger, Rosemary Stott, and and many others, but the Allen/Sandford book has been around for several years now. A few other books tackle DEFA films in the context of German film history, but there are precious few English-language books that focus their attention on the films of the GDR exclusively. Enter Sebastian Heiduschke’s East German Cinema. I’ve known Sebastian for a few years now, and I can vouch that he is a veritable font of information on East German movies. He is one of the go-to guys I turn to when I’m stuck on a question that I can’t answer.1 For purposes of this review, however (and he case he needs quotes), I’m going refer to him as Mr. Heiduschke from here on out.

If you are regular reader of this column, you already know that East German cinema is a complicated subject. You can never discuss a movie without dragging history, politics, cultural differences, and daily life into the mix. One of the bonuses of exploring the films in blog form is that I never have to worry much about these issues; but as I try to reshape all of this data into a readable book form, I realize just what I am up against and it’s not pretty. Without the advantage of an on-going blog, Mr. Heiduschke had to find a way to present all this information in a coherent and linear fashion and he’s done a good job of it.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is an overview of the development and eventual dismantling of DEFA (East Germany’s state-owned film company) In this section he touches on the major events that shaped East German cinema (e.g., the 11th Plenum). The second half of the book examines popular East German films. Rather than try to cover every film out there, Mr Heiduschke chose to focus on twelve DEFA films that represent important milestones in East German history, starting with The Murderers Are Among Us, which was made before the GDR was even a country, and ending with The Latest from the Da-Da-R, a satirical film made by DEFA in the dying days of the socialist republic. Through these twelve films we travel the rocky road of DEFA history as every few years the government capriciously redefined its restrictions on what could or could not be filmed.

Each chapter in part two tackles one film, one genre, and one point in time. Inevitably, this approach comes with inherent limitations. It’s hard to do justice to Gegenswartfilme (films that deal with contemporary subjects) when you’ve restricted your chapter to a juvenile delinquent film from 1957 (Berlin – Schönhauser Corner). It also means that some truly important films that probably deserve chapters of their own are discussed only in passing—Coming Out, for instance, one of the most daring films to come out of East Germany, is barely mentioned. Also, the films discussed are restricted to the films that the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst has already released with English subtitles (more on this later). It’s an understandable choice, but it means that some classic examples of East German cinema are left undiscussed.

>Nonetheless, East German Cinema is a valuable book with plenty of information and some good insights into the films of DEFA. I even learned a few things myself and I spend hours every day with this stuff. The book also includes an impressive bibliography and is thoroughly footnoted. Included in the appendices are lists of DEFA film that are available with English subtitles and the ones without.

BOOKed series

As an added bonus, the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst has put together a 12-DVD set of the films discussed in the book. At $230, it isn’t exactly cheap, but the same films would cost you almost $70 more if you bought them separately. Between the DVDs and Mr. Heiduscke’s book, you have as good an introduction to East German cinema as anyone could hope for.

Buy this book.

Buy the DVD set.


The others are Barton Byg, Evan Torner, Seán Allan and Hiltrud Schulz. Technically, Hiltrud is not a guy, but I’m using the modern vernacular here.

East German Cinema

Posted: August 20, 2010 in Uncategorized

Welcome to my blog about East German Cinema. Much of this material will eventually end up in my book on the subject, but I wanted to make some of it public to make sure I get my facts right. If you find fault with any of it, please let me know. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I will enjoy writing it.