Archive for the ‘WWII’ Category

The Second Life of Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow
1973 was an interesting year in DEFA’s history. It’s not as historically important as 1966, when a dozen films were either pulled or shot down while in production; and it lacks the prodigious output of 1961, which saw the release of twenty-five films.1 But if you are looking for a year that is representative of most aspects of DEFA, 1973 is a good place to look. It is the year that saw the first appearance of all-American Dean Reed in an East German film (Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts), and the release Heiner Carow’s ground-breaking The Legend of Paul and Paula. In terms of genre films, it saw the release of a musical (No Cheating, Darling!), a fairytale film (Susanne and the Magic Ring), a western, (Apaches), a biopic (Copernicus), and a literary adaptation (Unterm Birnbaum). Just for good measure, the year ended with one film getting banned for the usual stupid reasons (The Dove on the Roof). The only things really missing from that line-up are a spy movie and a science fiction film.

The Second Life of Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow (Das zweite Leben des Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow) is a tragicomedy of the type Germans have been so good at making since the early days at UFA—which is to say, bitterly comedic. It goes through the entire life of the title character, from his birth to his later years, but it is mostly concerned with what happens to a man when his job has been made redundant, and he’s faced with finding a new occupation at a time when everyone thinks he’s past his expiry date. Having found myself in a similar situation, I can relate to this movie on a personal level, as will anyone who has ever had the dubious distinction of trying to find a new job once they’ve past the 55-year mark.

Das zweite Leben des Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow

Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow has had a good life working at a railroad crossing in a small German town. It’s a mundane job, but Platow is a man of limited ambition, so maintaining a railroad crossing is fine with him. When technology makes his job redundant, Platow and his son—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Platow—are given an offer: The son will go back to school for further training, and the father will take over the son’s job. But the son, has the same “I’d prefer not to” attitude that has marked his father’s actions throughout his life, so Friedrich decides to take Georg’s place at the school. The only problem is that Friedrich is much to old to apply for the job, so he buys a leather jacket and pretends to be younger. On the train to the academy he meets Malvine, a heartbroken young women who immediately guesses his age and then gives him pointers on how to appear younger. Throughout the film, an old lady and her grandson show up to make comments, eventually acting as sort of a two-person Greek chorus.

The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow uses film stock in an usual way. Everything is in color except for the scenes where Platow (and, in one case, his son) are either working or involved with co-workers. Those scenes are in black-and-white. Thus, Platow’s childhood (which is where most directors would use black-and-white), his internment on the Eastern Front, and his time at the academy are all in color. Perhaps this is to indicate the drab nature of the jobs, or to show the simpler, black-and-white nature of a daily routine. It works either way. The one exception to this is the scene where Malvine’s backstory is revealed. This scene is also black-and-white. Is the filmmaker suggesting that her previous life was a job? Or was it simply to separate the scene from those that come before and after it?

Das zweite Leben des Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow

The film is directed by Siegfried Kühn, a talented director who also gave us The Actress. He started his adult life as a mining engineer, but changed careers during a stay in Berlin. Kühn made up for lost time, plunging into his film studies with a fervor, studying at the film school in Babelsberg and under Sergei Gerasimov at the Moscow Institute of Cinematography (renamed the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in 1986). Kühn was not a particularly prolific filmmaker, and it would be five years after graduating from the film school in Moscow before he’d start working regularly for DEFA, working in theater at first, where he further honed his skills working with actors. Kühn hit his stride as a director around the time that wall came down, which brought his career to a screeching halt, from which he never recovered.

To cast the film, Kühn turned to East Germany’s theater community, hiring noted theater director Fritz Marquardt to play Platow. Marquardt was no stranger to film, having already appeared in smaller roles in The Falcon’s Trail, The Time of the Storks (Zeit der Störche), and The Man Who Replaced Grandma, but it was his role as a director at the Volksbühne, Berliner Ensemble, and various other theaters for which he is best known. More recently, he turned in a brief appearance as the bed-ridden father of the main character in Andreas Dresen’s Whisky with Vodka (Whisky mit Wodka).

Playing the cynical but sympathetic Malvine is Gisela Hess in her only theatrical film appearance. Aside from a couple television show appearances in East Germany, Hess has spent her career on stage at Theater Magdeburg. In 1982, her sister was sentence to two years and eight months for trying to immigrate to West Germany without exit papers.2

The Puhdys

The film has a solid cast all the way down the line. The popular actor Fred Delmare plays Platow’s father, Platow’s son is played by Lothar Warneke, a fine director in his own right, and Winfried Glatzeder of Paul and Paula fame makes a brief appearance as a clown.

The soundtrack is by Hans Jürgen Wenzel, who worked as a conductor for various theatres and orchestras. He only composed music for seven films. The Time of the Storks was his first. The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow was his second. In 1976, Wenzel founded the Komponistenklasse Halle (Composers Class Hall), a training program for young musicians that is one of the few cultural programs from East Germany that is still in operation. He was a fan of expressionistic music, which the score for this movie hints at. It starts with an electric guitar, which is quickly replaced by an orchestral theme. It isn’t long, though, before the electric guitar is back, now more distorted than before, taking over the theme from the violins. It’s one of the cleverest movie themes around, sonically demonstrating the conflict between the old and the new.

The East German rock band The Puhdys also appear in the film, playing at a restaurant. Earlier the same year, they had made a big splash with the soundtrack for The Legend of Paul and Paula. Here, they get to demonstrate their hard rock chops, playing much more aggressive music than the lilting themes from Paul and Paula.

The film caused some grumbling among the SED officials who reviewed it. They felt that it wasn’t a fair representation of the working class. The film was released without a premiere, and was excluded from export. It wasn’t shown in unified Germany until 1996, and has had only limited screenings in North America since then. For this reason, the film remains relatively unknown, even in Germany. But don’t let its relative obscurity fool you—it is worth searching out. It is a genuine East German classic.

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1. There was actually one more film intended for release that year: The Dress—but it was banned for its references to a walled city run by an idiot king.

2. Here in the West, this would normally be characterized as “fleeing” or “escaping,” but I’m intentionally avoiding such loaded terms. The fact is, many people were leaving East Germany around this time. That’s not to say the East German government was making it easy to emigrate, but it could be done, as Manfred Krug, Nina Hagen, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and other demonstrated.

Mama, ich lebe
Occasionally, East Germany’s film studio DEFA worked with production companies from other countries. This gave those countries access to the Babelsberg film studios, which were some of the best in Europe, and it allowed DEFA to provide a better variety of films to the East German public. With many of these films, the influence of what we’d call the DEFA style is minimized. The Crucible, for instance, is essentially a French film, and Five Days, Five Nights follows the socialist realist style of Soviet Union cinema more closely than the more objective style popular with East German filmmakers. DEFA partnered with, the USSR on fourteen films, and most of these look and feel like Soviet films. Two notable exceptions are the two directed by Konrad Wolf—Goya, and Mama, I’m Alive (Mama, ich lebe). Perhaps this is because, unlike most of his comrades at DEFA, Wolf spoke Russian at least as well as he spoke German, so he could express exactly what he was after without resorting to intermediaries, or perhaps he was more sure of his artistic vision than most.

Mama, I’m Alive is very much a Konrad Wolf film. It starts with a photograph of four German soldiers dressed in Red Army outfits, which provokes questions about the people in it. Who are they? What are their stories? The film answers these questions as it follows the exploits of the four German soldiers who decide to join the Red Army and are sent back into battle. As they prepare for their new roles, we are shown glimpses of the backstories of each man in flashbacks. Karl Koralewski (Eberhard Kirchberg) is an artist and seems to be the most self-assured. Helmuth Kuschke (Detlef Gieß) is a theology student, which leads to some interesting discussions on religion and socialism. Walter Pankonin (Uwe Zerbe) is a carpenter who is the quietest of the bunch, and a pacifist. When captured by the Soviets, he admits to having never shot at anyone. More than the others, he seems to know what he is and is not willing to do in the name of war. Perhaps this is the reason Red Army soldier Svetlana (Margarita Terekhova) falls in love with him. The fourth soldier is Günther Becker (Peter Prager) is a young pilot, straight out of school who is still trying to figure things out. Becker serves as the focal point for the story.

Mama, I'm Alive

All four men believe in the socialist cause to varying degrees and hate what Hitler is doing in the name of Germany, but when they get to the front, they discover that saying you want to fight for the communist cause, and actually shooting your fellow countrymen are two very different things. Wolf touched on some of these themes in his previous film, I Was Nineteen, but this time it is from the perspective of people who, unlike Gregor Hecker in that film (or Wolf himself), did not leave Germany at a young age. They are not returning to a land that is alien to them, but to their homes. When they look at German soldiers, they see themselves. In one scene, the four men encounter a boxcar filled with German soldiers being shipped off to a prison camp. Koralewski’s attempts to engage them fall on deaf ears. They neither know nor trust him. He runs after the train, trying to toss potatoes to the hungry men in the boxcar, but it is a futile gesture, accomplishing little.

Director Konrad Wolf shows his usual skill here, keeping the rhythm of the film moving forward with a mix of close-ups and long shots. Partly this is thanks to his cinematographer, Walter Bergmann. Wolf had used Bergmann on every film he made up to that point, but this would be their last film together. Bergmann continued to work and even directed from time to time. Bergmann had lost his right arm to shrapnel during World War II, which makes his success as a cameraman all the more impressive. He also taught at the film school in Babelsberg and was one of the creators of Greif zur Kamera, Kumpel! (Grab Your Camera, Buddy!), an East German TV show intended to encourage amateur photography and moviemaking.

train from Mama, ich lebe

The screenplay is by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who is certainly no stranger to this blog, having written screenplays for such classics as Berlin Schönhauser Corner, The Gleiwitz Case, I Was Nineteen, and Solo Sunny. The film is based on Fragen an ein Foto (Questions About a Photo), a radio play by Kohlhaase that aired in 1969. As with most of Kohlhaase’s work, there is a focus on the subtleties of language, and their effects on our ability to communicate with each other. This time he moves outside of his usual Berlin sphere to tackle the problems of communicating across two different languages and the effects the ways cultural differences can impede the exchange of ideas. This was Kohlhaase’s third film working with Konrad Wolf, but it wouldn’t be his last. The duo would work together again on Solo Sunny, possibly their best effort as a team.

The four soldiers, Becker, Pankonin, Koralewski, and Kuschke are played by Peter Prager, Uwe Zerbe, Eberhard Kirchberg, and Detlef Gieß respectively. It was the first film for all four men and all four went on to successful careers in film and television. Prager and Kirchberg have appeared in dozens of films and television shows since the Wende, while Zerbe and Gieß have concentrated on stage acting.

Margarita Terechowa

Playing Pankonin’s love interest Svetlana is the popular Russian actor Margarita Terechowa. Two years before this film was made, Terechowa made an international splash in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. A year later, she starred with Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, and many other A-list Hollywood movie stars in George Cukor’s The Blue Bird, the only joint U.S. and Soviet film production, and a film so misbegotten that it ranks in the annals of cinema as one of the worst movies ever made.

The film was submitted to the Berlinale, and was nominated for Golden Bear. It didn’t win (the great Russian film, The Ascent won), but it did win a special mention with the Interfilm Award.

IMDB page for this film.

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Corinna Harfouch
One might think that, by now, there would be no stone left unturned when it comes to Nazi-era Germany in the movies. We’ve had films about the Holocaust, the resistance, the start of the war, the end of the war, and the daily lives of soldiers and ordinary people on both sides; we’ve had science fiction films, romances, mysteries and even a few comedies on the subject; so it comes as a surprise that The Actress (Die Schauspielerin) manages to uncover a subject that has been so ignored by filmmakers that most people don’t even of its existence—the Jüdischer Kulturbund.

Founded in 1933, the Jüdischer Kulturbund was a cultural organization designed to provide creative outlets for Germany’s Jewish artists who were no longer allowed to work in non-Jewish venues in Germany. This included musicians, singers, actors, and any other entertainers and writers looking for work. The group was originally called the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden (Cultural Federation of German Jews), but the Nazis made them change the name because they didn’t like to be reminded that these Jews were, in fact, real Germans. The Jüdischer Kulturbund was under very strict rules about what they could perform, and only Jews were allowed to see the performances. The Jüdischer Kulturbund was mostly a PR stunt, designed to demonstrate that the Nazis weren’t persecuting Jews. This pretense could not last, but the Jüdischer Kulturbund did manage to stay in existence for eleven years of Nazi rule.

The Actress (Die Schauspielerin) follows the adventures of Maria Rheine, a young German actress who is becoming a star of the stage in Germany during the waning days of the Weimar Republic. Rheine is in love with Mark Löwenthal, an equally talented actor who just happens to have a Jewish mother. While she becomes more and more famous, her lover is forced to out of the mainstream theaters and into the Jüdischer Kulturbund. Eventually, Rheine decides to give up her successful career and follow the man she loves, faking suicide and reinventing herself as a Manya Löwenthal, Mark’s Polish wife.

Maria becomes Manya

In some respects, the film mirrors the earlier DEFA film, Marriage in the Shadows, which is based on the true story of Joachim Gottschalk and Meta Wolff. Unlike that film, there is no suicide pact in The Actress. The book upon which the film is based, Arrangement with Death, follows the woman’s story through a concentration camp to her life afterward in East Germany. The movie wisely ends before that, allowing the viewer to see all the possible outcomes awaiting Manya/Maria and Mark..

The book upon which the film is based is by Hedda Zinner, a woman of many talents. Before the war, she wrote poems, social criticism, and satire for the various communist newspapers in Europe, including Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (Workers Illustrated Newspaper), and Der Weg der Frau (The Way of the Woman—an early feminist communist woman’s magazine). She also performed in theater revues and Kabarett.1

After the Nazis came to power, Zinner found things in Germany too hot for her, and left the country, eventually settling in Russia, where she wrote radio plays for Radio Moscow. Upon returning to the Soviet sector of Germany after the war, she became the general manager at Haus des Rundfunks (House of Broadcasting). Zinner was a prodigious writer, penning several plays, novels and books of poems. After the Wende, she received the usual treatment of creative people from East Germany, which is to say, she was largely ignored. Sadly, none of her work is in print today, not even in ebook form, not even in Germany. Zinner died in 1994 in Berlin.

Die Schauspielerin

The film is directed by Siegfried Kühn, who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Regine Kühn. Siegfried Kühn had been slated to become a mining engineer, but decided to study film directing instead. His first feature film, Oni ne proydut (They Shall Not Pass), wasn’t made for DEFA, but for the Soviet film company, Mosfilm. Coming to DEFA, as he did, after the 11th Plenum, Kühn faced the occasional bureaucratic run-ins. His film, Das zweite Leben des Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow (The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow) was withheld from release for three years, and only saw limited runs in spite of critical praise.

Kühn divorced Regine in 1980, but the two continued to write screenplays together right up until the end of DEFA. In 1991 Siegfried married to Katrin Saß of Goodbye Lenin! fame (for more on Katrin Saß, see Until Death Do Us Part). That marriage lasted until 2007. After the Wende, Kühn’s career as a film director came to a halt. He made no more movies. Ex-wife Regine, on the other hand had a thriving career in German television as a screenwriter.

The actress of the title is played by Corinna Harfouch. Harfouch was already an up-and-coming star in East Germany when she made this film, but The Actress sealed her reputation. Harfouch started appearing on the small screen in 1980 with an episode of Polizeiruf 110 and the TV-movie Die lange Ankunft des Alois Fingerlein (The Long Arrival of Alois Fingerlein). Her first feature film was the anthology film, Verzeihung, sehen Sie Fußball? (Sorry, You’re Watching the Game?). For her part in The Actress, she won the Best Actress award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and the Eberswalde Film Festival. A year later she was nominated again at Eberswalde for her performance in Treffen in Travers (Meeting in Travers).

Corinna Harfouch

Born Corinna Meffert, the actress worked as a nurse while studying acting in Berlin. She married young to a Syrian computer scientist named Nabil Harfouch and took his name. When The Actress was filmed, Harfouch was married to Michael Gwisdek, who plays Mario, Maria Rheine’s devoted agent and confidant. Although she and Gwisdek parted ways in the 1990s, they did not officially divorce until 2007, most likely so that Gwisdek could remarry, which he did shortly thereafter.

Perhaps thanks to her talent and relative youth, Harfouch had an easier time than most East German actors transitioning to a unified Germany after the Wende. She continued to appear in movies and on TV, and played Eva Blond in the popular comedy-drama police series, Blond: Eva Blond! She is best known in the west for her chilling portrayal of Magda Goebbels in Downfall (Der Untergang). In 2007, she teamed up with fellow East German actors, Kristen Block, Dagmar Manzel, and Christine Schorn in Franziska Meletzky’s oddball comedy-drama Frei Nach Plan (According to the Plan); and in 2011—in one of the more unusual turn of events in human relationships—she co-starred with her ex, Michael Gwisdek, in the TV-movie Schmidt & Schwarz, which was written by Gwisdek’s current wife Gabriela.

Playing the part of Mark Löwenthal is André Hennicke. Hennicke studied acting at the Academy of Film and Television in Babelsberg. He got his start in in films in 1984 with Iris Gusner’s Kaskade rückwärts (Cascade Backwards), and has never stopped working since. Like Corinna Harfouch, the Wende had little impact on his career. He has appeared in several popular German films, including Jerichow, Antibodies, Downfall, and a nasty portrayal as the rabidly Nazi judge Roland Freisler in Sophie Scholl: The Final Days—a portrayal that may seem over-the-top until you see old footage of the actual man. Hennicke also pops up regularly on German television, appearing in everything from Tatort to Edel & Starck, and also made an appearance on Harfouch’s show Blond: Eva Blond! His appearances in English-language films include Pandorum, and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method.

The Actress brings the curtain down before the real horror begins. In this respect, it has more in common with Jakob the Liar than it does with Marriage in the Shadows or Stars, both of which also address the issue of Jewish-Gentile relationships. The film did well at the box office and is listed as one the top fifty most successful films of East Germany,

IMDB page for this film.

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1. I’ve intentionally used the German word “Kabarett” here rather than “cabaret,” because, for Germans, the word Kabarett has a very different meaning from what we think of as cabaret. Although they both feature lots of singing, dancing and skits, German Kabarett is often punctuated by satirical political skits and comedy monologues of the darkest humor.

Five Days, Five Nights
At the end of World War II, Russian soldiers went on a plunderfest across eastern Germany. Think Sherman’s March to the Sea, but with dividends. Houses were stripped of their valuables, stores were looted, and machinery was taken. Much of this looting was done on a personal level—soldiers helping themselves to the contents of the houses they invaded—and some of this was done as part of the Soviet Union’s campaign to get the maximum financial benefit out of the war. They certainly needed it. Hitler’s ill-advised attack on Russia hurt Germany, but it devastated Russia.

On a more organized level, specialized American, British, and Soviet troops were tasked with finding specific things, the best-known example of this is the race between Soviet Union and the United States to procure German scientists and their materials related to rockets and atomic research. On the Soviet side there were also trophy brigades, whose job was to find as many works of art and antiquities as they could. While most of the art looting by American troops was done by individuals looking to bring home souvenirs, Soviet troops had a mission: Find the art and bring it back to Russia.1

A logical place to start was Dresden. Dresden had been the art capital of Germany. The museums there were outstanding. As the war escalated, museum officials decided to move many of the most valuable paintings to safer locations in case the city was attacked. This turned out to be a very good idea indeed. Dresden wasn’t just bombed, it was nearly erased from the face of the Earth. U.S.and British bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of bombs and incendiaries on the city. The resulting firestorm was so intense that many people hiding in their air raid shelters died not of burns, but of asphyxiation when the firestorm sucked all the oxygen out of the area. The results of the firebombing are still visible today in the blackened facades of the buildings along the Elbe, and the calico churches built from the rubble left after the war.2

Fünf Tage - Fünf Nächte

When the Russians started arriving in Dresden, claiming they were there to save the artwork, the locals were, understandably, suspicious. Especially after these soldiers announced that they would have to take the artwork back to Moscow to protect it from the further deterioration due to mold and the elements. The Russians assured the locals that they were doing this for the benefit of the art, and they would return the artwork as soon as things had stabilized. No one in Dresden believed this for a minute, and they were probably right not to—Josef Stalin was not exactly the poster boy for trustworthiness. In truth, the collecting of the art of Germany was just what it looked like: an attempt at payback for the devastation and destruction that Germany rained down on the U.S.S.R.

But as the cold war heated up, the Soviets were looking for any ways they could to demonstrate they weren’t the ogre that the United States made them out to be. The subject of the Dresden paintings came up again. What better way to demonstrate their integrity than to show that the vow they made to the Dresdeners at the end of WWII was not just hot air? So it was that 750 of paintings were returned to Dresden in 1955. This wasn’t all of the artwork that was purloined, but it was a lot of it, and certainly enough to make for good press.

Five Days, Five Nights (Fünf Tage – Fünf Nächte) is the story of the Russian art recovery effort at the end of the war. The films was the first of several joint productions between East Germany and the Soviet Union. DEFA often joined forces with production companies from other countries to make movies. During the fifties, they made movies in conjunction with Swedish and French production companies, but after the border tightened up and relationships with western countries became strained, most of the co-productions were made with Eastern Bloc nations, primarily Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Whether or not these co-productions looked and felt like DEFA movies was largely dependent on the director and which film company wielded the most control over the production. Stars was made in cooperation with Bulgaria’s Boyana Film, but the film is pure DEFA, thanks to Konrad Wolf’s sure hand at the helm. On the other hand, the French/East German co-production Die Hexen von Salem (The Crucible) is, for all intents and purposes, a French film, having been directed by a Belgian from a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre, and starring Simone Signoret and Yves Montand.

Russian soldiers

Five Days, Five Nights, is very much a Russian film. It forgoes the usual, cool DEFA objectivity in favor of socialist realism (which, let’s face it, isn’t very realistic at all). People are either filmed at chest level, making everyone, even the children, look heroic, or from above looking up to the sky in triumphant bliss. The effect is further enhanced by a powerful score, written for the film by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Along with Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky, Shostakovich is one of the great Russian composers of the twentieth century. Unlike western classical composers, such as Erich Korngold and Max Steiner, the fact that he wrote scores for movies did not assign him to the film ghetto, or reduce his standing as a classical composer. He could write a score for a film one year, and compose an opera the next. This was largely due to the Soviet Union’s attitude toward film. Unlike the west, where film was was viewed as a form of mindless entertainment for the masses, the Soviets already saw the power of film to galvanize public opinion back in 1925 with Battleship Potemkin. So it was that Shostakovich was hired to write the score for October: Ten Days That Shook the World, a film about the October Revolution of 1917.

Shostakovich had a rocky career under the Soviets, thanks mostly to Stalin’s tin ear and lack of musical sophistication. Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда) was initially a hit, but later came under attack as “coarse, primitive and vulgar.” When Stalin attended a performance of the opera in 1936, he behaved boorishly, laughing and grimacing throughout, leaving poor Shostakovich sweating bullets in the back. This was around the time Stalin started his Great Purge. Having him as your enemy was a good way to wind up freezing to death in a Siberian prison.

To keep on Stalin’s good side, Shostakovich cancelled performances of his musically challenging fourth symphony and restricted much of his composing to film music, knowing Stalin was rather fond of films. With the release of his crowd-pleasing fifth symphony, Shostakovich got back in the good graces of Stalin and the public, at least until 1948, when he was once again attacked by Central Committee secretary Andrei Zhdanov, who accused his music of being “formalist”—a term that was thrown around a lot, and appears to have no more meaning to Soviet critics than “I don’t like it.”

After Stalin died, Shostakovich started receiving the attention he deserved. His work came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein in New York, who became a strong advocate for Shostakovich, and played his compositions in concerts on a regular basis. Eventually, Shostakovich joined the Communist Party in 1960, mostly as a formality so that the government could appoint him as the General Secretary of the Composers’ Union. This seems to have given him both clout and courage. He protested against the incarceration of the poet Joseph Brodsky, and was one of the signatories on a an appeal to Brezhnev not to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation. In both cases his causes were triumphant.

During the late sixties and early seventies, Shostakovich’s already bad health got worse. He had lost the use of his right hand to polio in the fifties, then broke both legs, causing him to remark in a letter to a friend: “All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order.” He died August 9, 1975, but his music continues to be a popular addition to movie soundtracks.

Five Days, Five Nights

With most films, the job of directing is assigned to one person and the resulting movie is attributed them as the auteur. The whole auteur concept falls apart when talking about the films from the East Bloc nations, where the contributions of everyone involved are given greater weight than in the west and the choice of cast and crew are not always left to the director.3 Five Days, Five Nights features three directors. The German language scenes were directed by Heinz Thiel, who directed Black Velvet, recently discussed on this blog; some of the Russian scenes were directed by Anatoli Golowanow, who probably would have receive a second unit or first assistant director credit in a Hollywood film; and the whole affair was overseen by the Russian director Lev Arnshtam, who is listed as the film’s head director.

Unlike DEFA directors such as Kurt Maetzig and Joachim Hasler, who came to filmmaking via the film labs, or Jürgen Böttcher, Arthur Pohl, and Peter Pewas, entered the field through graphic arts, Lev Arnshtam came to films via music. He studied piano at the Leningrad Music Conservatory and, for a while, was the music department head at Vsevolod Meyerhold’s theater. There, he met people in the film industry, and soon started working as a sound director and later a screenwriter. He directed his first film, Подруги (Girlfriends, originally released in U.S. as Three Women) in 1936. Mr. Arnshtam’s style is heavily influenced by the work of Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, whom he met while working at the Meyerhold Theater. Their influence is on full display here. After Five Days, Five Nights, he directed only one more film—Софья Перовская (Sofiya Perovskaya), a film based on the life of the Russian revolutionary, Sophia Perovskaya, who was hanged for her part in the assassination of Alexander II. Mr. Arnshtam died in 1979.

Dresden

Perhaps the most striking thing about this film, aside from Shostakovich’s majestic score, is the representation of Dresden after the firebombing. By 1960, when this film was made, much of Dresden had been rebuilt. To recreate the destroyed city, miniatures were used to remarkably good effect. Much of the credit for this must go to production designer Herbert Nitzschke. Mr. Nitzschke got his start as a set painter for German film productions. He first worked as a production designer on L’Entraîneuse (Nightclub Hostess), a French/German co-production from 1939. Several more films followed. At the end of WWII, his career as a production designer went on hiatus until 1955, when he was hired as the production designer for Hotelboy Ed Martin, a film adaptation of Albert Maltz’s play, Merry Go Round.

Mr. Nitzschke’s career in film was starting to take off again, and his miniature work in Five Days, Five Nights is spectacular—helped greatly by Ernst Kunstmann, a master of filming miniatures, whose work includes Metropolis, Triumph of the Will, The Singing, Ringing Tree, and First Spaceship on Venus. Unfortunately, Herbert Nitzschke lived in West Berlin, and his career at DEFA came to an abrupt halt on the 13th of August, 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up. His last credit as production designer was on Five Days, Five Nights co-director Heinz Thiel’s Tanz am Sonnabend (Dancing on Saturday).

Also worth mentioning is Walter Schulze-Mittendorff, who designed the costumes for this film. A sculptor by training, it was Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff who designed the Maria Robot for Metropolis. At that point, Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff was still billed as a sculptor. With Amphitryon, he got his first billing as a costume designer and showed a real knack for it. After the war, he started working for DEFA, and often found himself on the same projects as his old Metropolis co-worker, Ernst Kunstmann. Like Herbert Nitzschke, Mr. Kunstmann lived in West Berlin and found his career at DEFA stopped cold with the building of the wall. He worked on a few West German productions, most notably, The Castle (Das Schloß), then retired in 1968.

The story of wartime art theft is not a new one, nor a dead subject. Jewish families are still wrangling for the return of artwork stolen by Nazis, and in November 2014, the son of an East German art collector—from Dresden, coincidentally—filed to recover artwork that was stolen from his father by the Stasi.

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1. The allies did have a team of people searching out art, but it was a much smaller effort. These people mostly worked alone (although the film The Monuments Men would have you believe otherwise), and their primary goal was to identify historic sites. The search for stolen artwork arose as a by-product of that effort, and a reaction to the Soviet Army’s art recovery efforts.

2. It’s probably worth pointing out here, that, as bad as the firebombing of Dresden was, it couldn’t hold a candle to Berlin, which saw nine-and-a-half times as many bombs dropped on it.

3. There are a few Hollywood exceptions to this: Tora! Tora! Tora! featured Japanese sequences by Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda, while The Longest Day featured a host of directors from different countries, all under the watchful eye of producer Darryl Zanuck.

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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Castles and Cottage

Castles and Cottages (Schlösser und Katen) is three-and-a-half hour, two-part film that covers the events in a small Mecklenburg village from the end of WWII to the protests on June 17th in 1953. It could be considered an epic if the details of the story weren’t kept so localized and the scale so small. The first part begins at the moment the war ends and the villagers hear that the Russians are coming. After the rich landowners flee to the west, the locals wrestle with their ideological differences in an attempt to perfect a socialist model that will give everyone in town an equal voice. To its credit, the film does not sugarcoat the process and shows good and bad people on both sides of the argument, and the difficulties encountered during the transition.

The second part covers the months prior to the June 17th uprising. June 17th, 1953 stands as one of the most important dates in the history of East Germany; second only to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The country was a little over three-and-a-half years old in June of 1953, and the early promise of a utopian socialism was rapidly eroding in the face of human nature, crop failures, subversive activities, and Ulbricht’s slavish and ill-advised adherence to Stalin’s ruthless version of communism. When construction workers in East Berlin went on strike on June 16th to protest Ulbricht’s announcement that they must work twice as hard for half as much, the U.S.-founded West German radio station RIAS made the story their major news point, which helped inflame the situation across the GDR. Strikes and protests sprang up all over the country. In some places, the protests turned particularly nasty. In Rathenow, a Stasi official was hanged. Elsewhere, police stations, newspaper offices and radio stations were taken over by protesters. In his book, Wir waren die bessere Republik, Jürgen Fischer reports that in Magdeburg a policewoman was stripped almost naked and forced to lead the protesters’ train.

The situation was resolved with brute force when the Soviets arrived to remind everyone that they still held all the cards. Soviet and East German documents from that time now show us that the use of force was mostly Ulbricht’s idea, and the country would pay for this decision for the rest of its existence. It never fully recovered from the event, and it marked the end of the idea that workers had in power in East Germany. It also cemented the SED’s dependence on the Soviet Union for muscle; a dependence that would spell their downfall when Gorbachev cut those apron strings for good.

In spite of the failure of the strikes and protests, West German authorities treated the events of June 17th as an ideological victory. They would point to the use of force as proof that the only way the GDR could continue to exist was under bootheel of the Soviet Union. They would name a section of Unter den LindenStraße des 17. Juni” in honor of the day’s events and make the day a national holiday, calling it the “Day of German Unity” (now celebrated, more honestly, on October 3rd).

As one might imagine, the East German authorities saw the events of the day in a very different light, and it is in this light that Castles and Cottages is cast. From their perspective, the uprising was an attempt by outside forces to destroy the government; the crop failures were the result of intentionally poisoned grain shipments and sabotage, and the protests were led by agents provocateurs. The film also suggests that the events of the day helped weed out the intentionally subversive elements in East German society, leading to a more unified country.

The pivotal character in the film is Annagret, an idealistic young woman who is unaware that she is the daughter of the local aristocrat Graf von Holzendorf. A hunchbacked handyman called “Crooked Anton” (Krummer Anton) has pretended to be Annagret’s father for the sake of von Holzendorf’s reputation. Much of the film’s plot centers around a paper that proves Annagret’s birthright, and the value of the paper to different factions. The main villain of the piece is Bröker, von Holzendorf’s duplicitous overseer. Bröker pretends to side with the villagers, but is always looking out for his own interests. While the Von Holzendorf family may represent the plutocracy, Bröker represents the forces of destruction bent on tearing down the socialist system.

The film’s director, Kurt Maetzig, is no stranger to this blog. He had already made Marriage in the Shadows, Council of the Gods, and the Ernst Thälmann films when he took on this project. He was easily the most respected filmmaker in East Germany in 1957, which probably explains why he was able to give this film a more evenhanded approach than the Ernst Thälmann films. Maetzig’s allegiance is firmly in the socialist camp, but he does a good job here of fleshing out the viewpoints of the anti-socialist camp. Even those who are in favor of socialism are able to recognize the problems that they face. “Under capitalism I had no land. Under socialism, I have no time,” one character says.

The initial screenplay was by Kurt Barthel, an East German writer and playwright who often worked under the pseudonym, “KuBa.” Barthel was fighting for socialist causes from an early age. Before the war, he wrote for Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the communist newspaper founded by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. After the Nazis came to power, he fled to England where he joined the nascent Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth), a group that would take on an important role in the German Democratic Republic. He worked with Krista Wolf on the screenplays for Divided Heaven and Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly), which was banned while still in production as a result of the 11th Plenum.

From 1956 until his death, Barthel was the chief dramaturge at the Rostock People’s Theatre. As a lifelong supporter of communist causes, it is ironic that he died of a heart attack in Frankfurt, West Germany’s center of capitalism, during a touring performance of a revolutionary revue when the local SDS members rioted because they didn’t find revolutionary enough. He is buried in Rostock.

Playing the complicated character of Crooked Anton is the intense-looking Raimund Schelcher. Schelcher was born in 1910 in Dar es Salaam to German parents. He started his acting career on stage during the Weimar years and gained a name for himself as a talented stage performer. In 1938, he made his film debut in Veit Harlan’s The Immortal Heart (Das unsterbliche Herz), he made one more film before he was arrested for his outspoken views on National Socialism. From jail, he was conscripted into one of the Nazi’s infamous Bewährungsbataillonen (Parole Battalions) that were created when the German started losing too many men to the Eastern Front. Schelcher was captured by the Russians and spent the rest of the war in prison. Afterward, he moved to Bremen, where he returned to stage acting. In 1950, he moved to East Berlin to work at the renowned Deutsches Theater Berlin. From there, he started working for DEFA, appearing in several classic East German films, including, The Axe of Wandsbek, The Kaiser’s Lackey, and Berlin – Schönhauser Corner.

Schelcher was an excellent actor, but he had one small problem: he liked the bottle a little too much. Worried that this might affect his ability to perform in the film, Maetzig took the unusual step of filming his scenes twice. First with Schelcher, and then with his understudy, Hans Hardt-Hardtloff. Schelcher managed to make it through the film, and it is his version that was released. The incident was used to comic effect by Andreas Dressen in his movie, Whisky with Vodka (Whisky mit Wodka). As he got older, the drinking became more of a problem and Schelcher’s appearances in films got fewer and further between. He died in Berlin in 1972.

Playing the young and idealistic Annagret is the lovely Karla Runkehl. She first caught people’s attention playing the committed freedom fighter Änne Harms in the Ernst Thälmann films. Over the years, she appeared in over thirty films as well as several television shows, but it is her early appearances in films such as this one and the Thälmann films for which she is best remembered. Ms. Runkehl died in 1986 at the age of 56 and is buried in Kleinmachnow cemetery.

The villainous Bröker is played by Erwin Geschonneck, who, like Maetzig is regular in the pages of this blog. Over his long career in East Germany, Geschonneck proved he could play virtually any type of role, from the lovable nebbish in Carbide and Sorrel to the brave battalion leader in Five Cartridges. In Castles and Cottages, Geschonneck plays one of his least sympathetic characters. Even in The Axe of Wandsbeck, his portrayal of the avaricious butcher Albert Teetjen is not with pathos. But here his character is without almost any redeeming qualities. He represents the subversive element that was left in the Soviet sector after the war, constantly undermining the efforts to create a sustainable socialist democracy. [Note: for more on Erwin Geschonneck, see Carbide and Sorrel.]

The film score was composed by Wilhelm Neef. Like that other popular film composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse, Neef was a classically trained musician and it shows. The score is classical and beautiful. As an orchestral piece, it could stand on its own in any concert hall in the world and deserves more attention from the music community. Neef wrote dozens of films scores and is best known for his work on the Indianerfilme. During the seventies, he stopped writing film scores so that he could concentrate on his classical music career. He died in 1990 at the age of 74 in Potsdam.

Castles and Cottages is a unique film. It is usually shown in two parts with separate viewings. Each part tells a complete enough story to stand on its own. Its East German perspective on the June 17th uprising is reason enough for anyone interested in German history to give this film a look.

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