Archive for the ‘weimar republic’ Category

Karl Liebknecht
In 1954 and 1955, director Kurt Maetzig made two films devoted to the life of communist pioneer Ernst Thälmann. Later, Maetzig would say he was embarrassed by the films and consider them his weakest work. Unlike most of his films, these two were not of his choosing. The authorities simply decided that it was time for DEFA to make films that championed the forefathers of their country. DEFA had planned to follow up the Thälmann films with films about about Karl Liebknecht, who founded the Spartacus League with Rosa Luxemburg, the group that would eventually become the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands—KPD). The old master Slatan Dudow was slated to direct it when he died in a car crash in the summer of 1963 (for more on Dudow, see Destinies of Women). Eventually, Günter Reisch was chosen to make the picture.

Reisch was a logical choice, he had worked as an assistant director on the Thälmann films, and had co-directed The Sailors’ Song in 1958, which also dealt with the formative years of the KPD. Reisch was an excellent director, and, more importantly, he believed in socialism (for more on Reisch see Jakob the Liar). Reisch would make the film, and do a good job of it as well. Of course, it didn’t hurt that in Liebknecht he had a genuinely heroic figure who stood up for what he believed in and wasn’t beholden to Stalin the way Thälmann was.

As Long as There Is Life in Me

For the first film—As Long as There Is Life in Me (Solange Leben in mir ist)—Reisch would be working from a script by Michael Tschesno-Hell, who had also written the screenplays for the Ernst Thälmann films. Tschesno-Hell was more party wonk than writer. It’s not surprising that none of the films that list him as the screenwriter list him alone. He did understand the power of the written word, and it was he who created Verlag Volk und Welt—an important publishing house in East Germany. He has been described by acquaintances as on “old Bolshevik.” Nonetheless, he was paid more money for writing As Long as There is Life in Me than any previous DEFA screenwriter had ever been paid, and he lived in the Berlin-Schönholz district, an area exclusively intended for the East German intelligentsia.

As Long as There Is Life in Me opens up in 1914, after Liebknecht has already been elected to the Reichstag as a Social-Democratic Party (SPD) member. Liebknecht receives papers showing that Germany is secretly getting ready for war. The film follows Liebknecht’s efforts to get Germany out of the war and galvanize the people against the monarchy in favor of a socialist system. As one might imagine, this didn’t go over very well with the fat cats at the top, who did everything in their power to first marginalize and then neutralize Liebknecht. Eventually throwing him in prison, which is where this film’s story ends. The title of the film comes from a quote from Liebknecht: “Solange Leben in mir ist, werde ich gegen den Militarismus kämpfen!” (“As long as there is life in me, I will fight against militarism!”).

Horst Schulze

Liebknecht is played with conviction and believability by Horst Schulze. Schulze got his start as an opera singer; a career that was briefly interrupted by World War II. After the war, he returned to the opera, then started appearing in films in 1958. Over the next three decades, Schulze continued to appear in films and sing in operas. Unlike many DEFA actors, especially older ones like him, Schulze did not suffer the job lag with the fall of the Wall, although his roles after the Wende were primarily on television.

Reisch had a knack for adding subtle sub-texts to his stories, and this one’s no exception. We see how, at the start of World War I, the general populace fell prey to mindless flag-waving and the politicians resorted to jingoism to get their way. Liebknecht and his family was subjected to every type of harassment for challenging the need to go to war and for not toeing the line. Liebknecht was right, of course. History has proven the war was stupid. It brought Germany to ruin, opening the path for Hitler and his thugs to stroll into the Reichstag and take over. In this respect the film is as relevant today as it was in 1965.

Karl liebknecht

The film was popular, coming second only to The Adventures of Werner Holt at the box office that year. Reisch, Schulze, and cameraman Horst E. Brandt were all awarded National Prizes for their work. Nonetheless, it would be six years before DEFA would attempt to finish telling the story the story of Karl Liebknecht.

In Spite of Everything!

In Spite of Everything! (Trotz alledem!) was the follow up to As Long as There Is Life in Me. As with that film, the title comes from a quote by Liebknecht about how the communist cause would eventually succeed “in spite of everything.” This time Michael Tschesno-Hell did not write the screenplay. He only provided the basic scenario. Reisch provided his own screenplay for the second film, with input—some might say meddling—from Günter Karl, who served as the dramaturge.1

The film picks up on October 23, 1918, when Liebknecht is released from prison. Germany, is in a state of upheaval, and the war is almost over. Things don’t look good for the German army, but the leaders are too stubborn to admit it. Then a little over two weeks after Liebknecht was released from prison, the sailors in Kiel mutinied and set into motion the November Revolution, signaling the end of the German Empire (for more on that incident, see The Sailors’ Song). The movie follows Liebknecht’s role in the founding of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), the publishing of the KPD’s party organ Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), ending with his and Rosa Luxemburg’s murders and the funeral that followed.

Karl Liebknecht

Unlike the first film, which focuses exclusively on Liebknecht, In Spite of Everything shifts occasionally away from Liebknecht to observe the turmoil occurring in one working family as they grapple with the changes happening in their country.2 We had been introduced to that family, the Schreiners, in the first film, but this time their story takes up more of the narrative, making the film more relatable and relevant to the average person. As with the first film, Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) leaders Gustav Noske and Friedrich Ebert are portrayed as the bad guys, and attitude that helped clear the path for Hitler, but that fact isn’t remotely broached or hinted at here. This time we have a new villain: Von Preuss, a creepy military man in a fur collar, played with gusto by Rolf Ludwig. We saw this character briefly in the first film, but this time we get to watch him in all his viciousness. Von Preuss is presumably based on right-wing militia leader Waldemar Pabst, the man who freely admitted to ordering the executions of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Why Reisch chose to omit Pabst in favor of a fictional character is hard to say. Maybe because Pabst never saw retribution for his actions, and, in fact, led a pretty full life as a businessman in West Germany, Austria and Switzerland before finally dying in Düsseldorf at the ripe-old age of 89.

In Spite of Everything!

This fudging of the facts dilutes the effectiveness of both films. Liebknecht’s family is reconstructed with the sons Robert and Wilhelm eliminated from the story with only daughter Vera remaining. Perhaps this was to simplify the familial issues, or perhaps it was because Wilhelm and Robert were still around and were doing nothing to support the SED, while Vera had the good graces to die in 1934. Reisch also falls down when it comes to the deaths of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, which were viciously brutal. Both were captured and tortured before they were killed, but you won’t see any of it in this film. Luxemburg’s body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal, while Liebknecht was shot while being forced from a moving car. For screenings of the film outside of the GDR, even the funeral was omitted, the film ending instead with shots of youths carrying pictures of Liebknecht at the 10th Youth World Festival in East Berlin (X. Weltfestspiele 1973).3

Although the government supported the making of this film, their reaction to it was tempered. After all, this film was all about overthrowing the government in charge. Like the Soviets, the East German communists were finding that their rhetoric about revolution was in danger of biting them in the ass. Revolution is fine as long as you’re not the one being revolted against.

Crowd scene

Perhaps in deference to Dudow, Reisch directed the first film in a similar to that director, whose style was heavily influenced by the films that came out of Ufa during the twenties. Not so with the second film. While the first film was black-and-white, this time everything is in color. Where the first film mimicked the style of Ufa films, the second film is pure DEFA, using that objective, almost documentary style for which they are so famous. In both films, Reisch gets to demonstrate his spectacular skill at manage crowd scenes. No one directed a crowd scene better than Reisch.

As is often the case with historical films made in countries where the events occurred, some things in these movies are left unexplained. In Spite of Everything was made for an East German audience and there were things they would have known about that are relatively unfamiliar to us in the West, and especially to those of us in America—like the Paris Commune, the Kiel Mutiny, or the fact that Karl Liebknecht’s father was one of the founders of the SPD. They are given only cursory mentions The audience was expected to know these things already.

As with Ernst Thälmann, history hasn’t been kind to Karl Liebknecht. While he still commands respect for his devotion to his principles, his refusal to compromise—while noble in its intentions—helped open the door for Hitler. If anything can really be learned from history, this is one lesson that would be well heeded.

IMDB page for As Long as There Is Life in Me

IMDB page for In Spite of Everything!

Buy or stream As Long as There Is Life in Me

Buy or Stream In Spite of Everything!


1. The role of the dramaturge in East German films is an interesting one that has no comparable counterpart in Hollywood films. The term is comes from theater and is the title given to the person whose job it is to fact check historical productions and also make sure that each production adheres to the theater company’s mission statement.

2. This isn’t the first DEFA to use this approach. Both The Sailors’ Song and The Invincibles use the technique as well. Other DEFA films such as Rotation, The Council of the Gods, and Professor Mamlock similarly follow the lives of individuals who are not central to the events of the times.

3. There is some irony in this choice of alternate ending. The World Youth Festival was an important annual event, especially—though not exclusively—in the communist countries. For the first time since 1951, the festival was being held in East Berlin in 1973. In an effort to ensure there wouldn’t be any of the unwanted protests seen in Helsinki when the festival was held there, the Stasi made sure anyone they suspected might have cause to disrupt the proceedings was arrested and either thrown in jail or institutionalized. More on this here, and here.

© 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.

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In November of 1957, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory was released in West Germany. It would appear in American cinemas a month later. When it did, film critics were rightly impressed and singled out one scene as a proof of Kubrick’s genius. It was the scene of the court martial, where the soldiers are shot from an elevated angle so you can see the chessboard pattern that the floor tiles create. The thing is, though, Konrad Wolf had already shot a similar scene for a film called Lissy that had been released in East Germany the previous May. So had Kubrick seen that film? He was in West Germany at the time, just getting started on Paths of Glory. At that point, he would have had to visit East Germany to see Lissy, It wasn’t released in the West until the following January. There is no record of him having done so, but back in 1957, visiting East Berlin from West Berlin was a simple matter. There was no Wall to get in the way.

Lissy follows the misadventures of a young woman as she goes from optimistic and cheerful shopgirl to a disillusioned wife of a Nazi soldier. At the beginning of the film, we see her working at a popular store, selling cigarettes and making small talk with the customers. Meanwhile, outside, a solitary Nazi brownshirt goes unheeded, asking for donations. Lissy has a steady beau named Alfred with a good job and everything seems copacetic. But this is Berlin during the Weimar years, just before the banks failed and the economy tanked. Soon, people would start blaming the Weimar government for the problem, and looking to a new guy named Adolf Hitler who claimed he could get them out of this mess.

Lissy

At the start of the film Lissy is passively left-wing. Her father is a socialist and union activist, and her best friends Max and Toni are highly active in communist politics, but Lissy would rather not bother with such things. She and Alfred both have good jobs. Then Lissy’s boss finds out she’s pregnant and she loses her job. Meanwhile, Alfred (Horst Drinda) isn’t too thrilled about having to raise a kid. He even visits an abortion doctor but the man has been arrested., Alfred and Lissy get married, then things get worse. He loses his job due to the growing economic woes, and tries to earn money as a salesman, but nobody’s buying anything. For Alfred, the populist rhetoric of Adolf Hitler starts sounding good. After all, weren’t his previous bosses Jewish? He starts hanging around with Nazis and things begin to improve financially for him and Lissy. Enjoying her newfound affluence, Lissy doesn’t make much fuss over Alfred’s politics. Or course, things eventually come to a head, and Lissy realizes that looking the other way isn’t the answer.

The story of Lissy is a variation on a story that has been told many times in movies and books. The 1940 Hollywood film, The Man I Married, treads similar territory when a wife (Joan Bennet) eventually realizes that her German husband Eric (Francis Lederer) is a Nazi and that this is not a good thing. Lissy is also similar to Wolf’s later film Professor Mamlock, in that Lissy’s silence and attempts to ignore the growing threat of Nazism helped Hitler come to power. Several times in the movie, we see Lissy and her husband staring at their reflections in mirrors and shop windows. Sometimes this is as a metaphor for the philosophical split between what they know is right and the Nazis they are supporting, and sometimes it seems as if they are looking in the mirrors to check for visible signs of their own guilt.

Lissy

Lissy is based on a book by Franz Carl Weiskopf. Prior to WWII, he lived in Prague, but once the Nazis marched in, Weiskopf marched out, eventually ending up in New York. After the war, he worked for the Czechoslovakian government as a diplomat in Washington, Stockholm, and Beijing. In 1953, he moved to East Germany, where he remained until his death in 1955.

Lissy was Konrad Wolf’s third film, and his first true classic (for more on Wolf, see I Was Nineteen). Here we see Wolf’s skill as a director in full bloom. Some scenes in this film as so perfectly composed, they could stand alone as photographs. Partly this is thanks to Wolf’s longtime cameraman, Werner Bergmann, who shot all of Wolf’s films until Solo Sunny. Bergmann’s background as a photographer certainly helped here (for more on Bergmann, see Professor Mamlock).

Lissy is played to perfection by Sonja Sutter. Sutter lived in West Germany, but appeared in films on both sides of the border. She was trained in the theater, and would return to the stage many times throughout her career. Her movie career started when she played the lead in Slatan Dudow’s Destinies of Women, but it was with Lissy that East German audiences really started to notice her. Her East German film career ended with the construction of the Berlin Wall. She later moved to Vienna, working at the famous Burgtheater for over forty years. After the Wall was built, she only appeared in a few movies, and was seen more often on television. Her last film appearance was in Hans W. Geissendörfer’s 1976 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. Sutter died on June 2, 2017 in Baden, Austria. Her daughter Carolin Fink has on to become a successful actress, appearing in several television shows.

Lissy

Horst Drinda had starred in Wolf’s first film, Once Does Not Count, a comedy about a put-upon composer who arrives in a small town for some R&R, only to find himself harried by the town locals that want him to compose songs for them. In Lissy, he’s a much less sympathetic character. Drinda occasionally played good guys, but his looks were always better suited to bad guys. He appeared in many DEFA films, including Love’s Confusion, Love and the Co-Pilot, and The Robe. During the seventies, he started appearing more often on television than in films. By the time the Wall fell, Drinda was appearing exclusively on TV, so the Wende had less effect on him than some of the bigger stars. He continued working on television, with only one post-Wende movie appearance (Jailbirds). In 2003, he suffered two strokes, and died in 2005.

As one might expect from the West German critics, Some attacked Lissy for being too pro-communist, but even the harshest of critics had to admit that Wolf was a talented director. The Hamburg Post gave the film a glowing review saying “Here we have a film that has been made in the masterful grip of a young director” (“Hier haben wir einen Film, der im meisterhaften Griff eines jungen Regisseurs”). A couple years later, Wolf would impress even his most virulent critics with one of the first German films to address the holocaust: Stars.1

IMDB page for the film.

Buy or stream this film.


1. Technically, the first German film to address the holocaust is the 1949 film Lang ist der Weg (Long is the Road), but that film was produced by the United States Army Information Control Division, as part of the “de-Nazification” program the U.S. was undertaking in Germany. In terms of release date, Morituri was the first, since it was released in 1948; although Lang ist der Weg was made in 1947. Morituri was produced by Artur Brauner, an actual concentration camp survivor.

© 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.