The Sailors’ Song (Das Lied der Matrosen) is a dramatic retelling of the Kiel Mutiny, a revolt by sailors in 1918. The event helped end World War I; it virutallly ended the reign of Wilhelm II; and, at least in this DEFA account of the story, sowed the seeds for the establishment of the Germany Communist Party (KPD). The film starts in the Fall of 1917 with the execution of Max Reichpietsch and Albin Köbis, two sailors who led a revolt aboard the SMS Prinzregent Luitpold, protesting bad conditions and lousy food. Max and Albin were labeled “Marxist agitators” and sentenced to be shot by a firing squad. When sailors refused to shoot two of their own, the convicted men are transported to Cologne, where they are executed by soldiers instead. By this point, the Germans had lost the war, but they weren’t ready to admit it. The treatment of the sailors aboard the battleships remained bad, and by September of 1918, things had reached a boiling point. When the admiralty tried to implement a suicide attack against the Royal Navy, the sailors of the SMS Frederick the Great and others finally declare they’ve had enough and marched on the naval headquarters in Kiel.
The film is set up in dramatic fashion, with heroes who support the Russian revolution, and are trying to end the imperial oppression in Germany; and bad guys fighting for their beloved German Empire. In the middle is Jupp, a sailor who is recruited by the Navy to spy on his shipmates. At first, he is on the side of the military, but eventually comes to understand the viewpoints of his fellow sailors. Things come to a head after Jupp sees his mother shot during a protest march. It’s stirring stuff that even critics of the film’s politics had to admit was powerfully handled.
Determined to finish the film in time for the Kiel mutiny’s 40th anniversary, DEFA hired two directors to make the movie: Kurt Maetzig and Günter Reisch. Both Maetzig and Reisch believed in the ideals of the GDR, and both were superb craftsmen. Beyond that, their styles are as different as chalk and cheese. Reportedly Maetzig handled the scenes with the military officers and admirals in this film, while Reisch shot the scenes involving the sailors. It doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does.
The main heroes of the film are Henne Lobke and August Lenz, played by Ulrich Thein and Raimund Schelcher respectively. Ulrich Thein, a man of immense talent, was a West German by birth, but moved to the GDR to work at the famous Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Later on, he’d start directing as well (for more on Thein, see Anton the Magician). Craggy-faced Raimund Schelcher was one of the best actors in East Germany, but his drinking caused enough problems with productions that it became the stuff of legends. Born in German East Africa, Schelcher came to Germany after German East Africa was divvied up by the Treaty of Versailles He started working at various theaters in Germany during the Weimar years, and was arrested by the Gestapo and put into one of the probation battalions—Hitler’s weird policy of putting convicted criminals into their own battalions (for more on Schelcher, see Castles and Cottages).
The main villain of the movie is the naval officer Eberhard Schuckert, who is played with gusto by Ekkehard Schall. Schall is best known for his work with Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel at the Berliner Ensemble. He was mentored by Brecht and became keeper of the flame along with Weigel after the playwright’s death. Like Weigel, Schall saw Brecht’s work as set in stone and resisted any attempts to modify the performances with modern interpretations. He even married Brecht’s daughter Barbara. On film, he is best remembered for his role as a juvenile delinquent in Berlin–Schönhauser Corner, and the bizarre “Chief” in Gottfried Kolditz’s In the Dust of the Stars. Not surprisingly, Schall was considered a master interpreter of Brecht, and continued to perform the playwright’s works throughout his life. He was also one of the speakers at the Alexanderplatz demonstration a few days before the Wall was opened, supporting socialism, but calling for changes. After the Wende, Schall restricted his performances almost exclusively to theater, appearing in only one film (Der Auftrag). He died in 2005.
The morally conflicted Jupp is portrayed by Stefan Lisewski in his first feature film. Handsome and gaunt, Lisewski appeared as a leading man in such films as Love’s Confusion, May Wine (Maibowle), The Story of a Murder, and Approach Alpha 1 (Anflug Alpha 1). Like Eberhard Schuckert, Lisewski is strongly associated with the plays of Bertolt Brecht. He is reported to have played Mack the Knife no less than 500 times. During the seventies, and after the Wende, he concentrated more on theater than film. He died in Berlin in 2016.
You wouldn’t be out of order to call Kurt Maetzig the father of East German cinema. He was there on November 22, 1945 at the Hotel Adlon, helping to form the Filmaktiv, a group designed to revitalize filmmaking in Germany, and from which DEFA eventually sprang. When DEFA was officially launched the following May, he was put in charge of the group that made Der Augenzeuge (The Eyewitness) films—short newsreels that screened before the main movies. Although he retired from filmmaking in 1976, he outlasted DEFA by many years. In fact, he outlasted almost everybody, finally dying in 2012 at the age of 101. Maetzig’s films are often the ones that are held up as examples by those wishing to portray the films from East Germany as exercises in Soviet propaganda. Some of his films, especially his earlier films, wear their politics on their sleeves. His style borrowed heavily from documentary filmmaking, but he never forgot the importance of the human story in his films.
Reisch came to DEFA a few years later and soon started working with Maetzig as an assistant director. You can see his work in Council of the Gods and the Ernst Thälmann films. He got his first chance to direct with Young Vegetables (Junges Gemüse) and then in Track in the Night. He is also responsible for the most high concept pair of films to come out of DEFA: A Lively Christmas Eve and Like Father, Like Son. Both featuring essentially the same actors in the same parts, filmed twenty-five years apart.
The protest march at the end is spectacular, involving 15,000 extras. Today it would be done with CGI. How the director managed to keep track of Ulrich Thein in that crowd is beyond me. It’s a spectacular piece of controlled crowd filming. Whether this was Maetzig of Reisch, I can’t say (all signs point to Reisch), but it’s a stunning piece of work.
If you are new to the films of East Germany, The Sailor’s Song is probably not the place to start. It very much fits the mold of what most Westerners think East German films are like. It is didactic and filled with the socialist heroics. That’s not to say it’s a bad film; it’s an amazing film. Just don’t assume that it represents the average East German film. That would be like using Strategic Air Command as a representative example of Hollywood movies.