Posts Tagged ‘communists’

Five Cartridges

After World War II, Germans had an understandably uneasy relationship with war films. While Hollywood rolled out film after film about the heroics of our fighting men, neither East Germany nor West Germany had much taste for this kind of film, not were the expected to. From the German perspective, war was not something to be glorified. It was an ugly business in which everyone who participated lost part of their humanity. The first few films out of DEFA after WWII discussed the war in these terms. A few even showed scenes of battles, but, for the most part, the preferred to steer clear of the subject of men at war. Konrad Wolf’s beautiful film, Stars, observed the daily lives of German soldiers during WWII, but these were men far from the front. The lives and camaraderie of the men in the trenches weren’t subjects that any German filmmaker were ready or willing to touch. When they did, it was usually in the most pessimistic terms possible, a perfect example being Bernhard Wicki’s anti-war classic, The Bridge (Die Brücke).

When Five Cartridges (Fünf Patronenhülsen) came out, it was like no other East German film. Visually, it looked more like a John Ford western or a Kurosawa film than anything DEFA had to offer; and in spite of the inevitable futility of their fight (after all, Franco won), it treats the soldiers heroically. Of course, it helped that they were fighting against fascism. We already caught glimpses of the contributions that the communists made to the fight against Franco in the Ernst Thälmann films. At DEFA it was okay for soldiers to be heroes as long as they were communists, but even so, this sort of front line battle saga was not that common.1

After WWII, the Spanish Civil War was largely overlooked by the western film community. André Malraux explored it in his 1945 film, L’espoir (Man’s Hope), and Hollywood neutered the story for the film version of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, but most films used it more as a passing reference than a plot point.

Five Cartridges featured some of DEFA’s best male actors: Manfred Krug, Erwin Geschonneck, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Ulrich Thein all get a chance to demonstrate why they would become popular with audiences in East Germany. Erwin Geschonneck had already proved himself—most notably in The Axe of Wandsbeck. The others were relative newcomers. Manfred Krug and Armin Mueller-Stahl were just starting their careers and we already see glimpses of why they would become two of the most popular actors in East Germany. Ulrich Thein, while not as popular as Krug and Mueller-Stahl, went above and beyond the call of duty for his portrayal of the radio operator separated from the others. To prepare for the scenes where he had to play a man who had gone without anything to eat or drink for several days, he did just that. Even the most rigorous method actor rarely goes that far.

Most of the film was shot in Bulgaria, whose sandstone hills were acceptable stand-ins for the Catalonian countryside, but the crew was only allowed a few weeks worth of shooting. After they ran out of time, the film had to make do with the Harz district in East Germany. The problem was that the dark, loamy soil and rock formations of the Harz area looked nothing like tan and sandy terrain of Bulgaria. To solve the problem, production designer Alfred Hirschmeier, the man behind such classics as The Silent Star, Carbide and Sorrel, and Jacob the Liar, was given the task of making the Harz landscape look like Bulgaria. His solution was to paint the rocks white. The end result is effective and is only noticed if you are looking for it.

Five Cartridges was written by Walter Gorrish, an author and screenwriter whose own life is worthy of a movie. Gorrish had first-hand knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, having fought in Spain himself as a member of the XI International Brigade. While in Spain, he served as adjutant to fellow writer, Ludwig Renn, the author of War, which stands alongside All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun as a classic anti-war novels of First World War. After fleeing Spain, Gorrish was captured in France, and was sentenced to prison. Later, he was conscripted into the Strafdivision 999—a military battalion comprised largely of political prisoners. While serving on the Eastern Front, Gorrick did what many others in his battalion did: He defected to Russia. After the war, Gorrish moved to the Soviet Sector of Germany, where he worked as a freelance writer. He only wrote a few screenplays, concentrating, primarily, on his writing. He died in 1981,

Cinematography was by Günter Marczinkowsky—quite possibly the best cinematographer in East Germany. Like Rolf Sohre, Marczinkowsky worked in film lab before he became a cinematographer. He began his career as a camera working under Robert Baberske, considered one of the greatest cinematographers of all time (see The Axe of Wandsbeck). After the 11th Plenum, Marczinkowsky was “disciplined” for working on Trace of Stones by being moved to television productions. In 1979, he moved to West Germany, where he continued to work primarily in television. He retired the year that the wall came down, and died in 2004.

Understandably, Five Cartridges was a hit in East Germany and helped propel Frank Beyer’s career forward. During the early sixties, he was one of the most well-respected directors at DEFA. He had almost back-to-back hits with Star-Crossed Lovers, Carbide and Sorrel and Naked Among Wolves. His career probably would have continued to flourish had the 11th Plenum not come down hard on the film industry, and, in particular , on his film Trace of Stones. From here on out, with only a few exceptions (notably, Jakob the Liar), his directing would be relegated to the small screen.

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1. We wouldn’t see Third Reich soldiers treated with the any respect in a German film until Das Boot. Even then, Sam Peckinpah got there first with Cross of Iron (a huge hit in Germany, by the way).

Whether it’s Spielberg exploring the social dynamics of suburban children in E.T., or Paul Verhoeven recreating the horrors of war in Starship Troopers, a director inevitably brings some of his or her own past to a picture. Every so often, a filmmaker makes a movie that is completely personal. These run the gamut, from George Huang’s film à clef, Swimming with Sharks—about his time working as an intern for Joel Silver—to Oliver Stone’s Platoon, in which Charlie Sheen stands in for Stone as a young soldier in Vietnam, to Cameron Crowe’s recreation of his early years as a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine in Almost Famous. One of the best of these comes from East Germany. It is Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen (Ich war neunzehn), which is based on his diaries from World War II.

Born near Stuttgart in 1925, Konrad Wolf’s father, Friedrich Wolf, was a well-known doctor, writer, and playwright. He was a champion of workers’ rights, and founded the Spieltrupp Südwest—a theater troupe that specialized in agitprop plays. He was a member of the Communist Party, and of Jewish descent, so naturally, when the Nazis came to power, the Wolf family had to leave the country to survive. They eventually settled in Russia when Konrad was eight. There, young Konrad came into contact with the film community when his father started working with Soviet filmmakers. The boy became fascinated with the medium and set himself to learning all aspects of film production. At the age of seventeen, he joined the Red Army and soon found himself fighting for Mother Russia against his Fatherland. He was nineteen when the Russians broke through the German line. Suddenly Konrad found himself in the odd position of a German acting as the Russian liaison in Germany.

Using Wolf’s diaries, Wolfgang Kohlhaase wrote the screenplay. Kohlhaase is best known for his Berlin-based stories of modern youths, but his ear for dialog, and the regional differences in Germany, made him a good choice for the job. He knows how people speak, and, more importantly, he knows how people keep silent. Kohlhaase’s script does a good job of framing the strange, almost inenarrable emotions Wolf must have felt arriving as he did as a stranger in his homeland; ashamed of his heritage, but unable to escape it.

The film begins in mid-April, 1945; shortly before the Russians reach the Oder river in their push toward Berlin. The war is virtually over, but nobody has bothered to tell Hitler, who is holed up in the Führerbunker beneath the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Gregor Hecker is a young lieutenant in the Russian army, and has been assigned to travel with the troops in an old VAZ circus truck equipped with a P.A. and a record player. It’s Gregor’s job to act as translator and to broadcast surrender requests to the German soldiers still fighting along the front. In a kind of Red Army road movie, he travels across the German countryside, meeting every type of person, learning new things, and examining what it means to be German as he goes. With him on his travels are Wadim, a Russian teacher-turned-soldier who is a student of all things German; the music-loving Sascha, Hecker’s easy-going superior; and a taciturn Mongolian named Dshingis, who drives the truck. At Bernau, Hecker is made commandant, and has to deal directly for the first time with other Germans. Until now, his oft-broadcast statement that he is a German has no deeper meaning to him. It is simply a statement of fact. As he meets other Germans, his heritage becomes as much a source of shame as an asset. At a May Day feast held by the Russians for a group of freed concentration camp prisoners, Wadim asks one of these men how he is supposed to explain how the Nazis came to power to his students when he gets back to Kiev. “Goethe and Auschwitz. Two German names. Two German names in every language.” But this is an East German film and the answer—that it was the manipulation by industrialists and corporations—seems facile. At the end of the film neither Gregor nor we are any closer to understanding the mindset of the Nazis, but when he again says he is a German, it now means something.

Criticism has been leveled at the film for its soft-pedaling of the touchy subject of the thousands—perhaps millions—of rapes committed by Russian soldiers at the end of the war. With the atrocities committed against their families by the German soldiers still fresh in their minds, the Soviets wanted the German civilians—who not only seemed oblivious to what the German army did in Russia, but actively denied that it happened at all—to experience the same pain. Women and children were repeatedly raped, men were beaten and killed, homes were trashed, and belongings were stolen as the Red Army cut a swath of destruction and terror through eastern Germany that made Sherman’s March to the Sea look like an afternoon stroll. [Note: For a more thorough treatment of the subject, see Max Färberböck’s A Woman in Berlin (Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin), starring Nina Hoss.]

Wolf was no dummy, though. He recognized that only way he would get this movie made was if he avoided talking too candidly about this subject. Two years earlier, the government had scrapped a years worth of movies because they didn’t like what they said, so Wolf treads carefully through this minefield. When a young German woman (Jenny Gröllmann) seeks asylum with Gregor, we understand that it’s because she feels safer with him, a German, than with the Russian invaders. And when he is shipped out, we see the fear in her eyes as he leaves. This was as close as Wolf could get to tackling the subject in a film that was made with a great deal of help from the USSR—and on the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution to boot. One should never underestimate an East German audience’s ability to read between the lines. You can bet they understood what he was tip-toeing around.

Wolf often shifts his visual style to match whatever story he is telling. It is one of the reasons that, although he considered by many to be the best director to come out of East Germany, he is rarely discussed in auteur terms. In I Was Nineteen, he moves away from the dazzling camerawork that punctuated Divided Heaven to a more natural style. Still, there are many scenes that betray a skilled and controlling hand behind the camera. In the opening moments of the film, while Gregor speaks via loudspeaker to the Germans along the Oder, we see a raft drift by. On it, a gallows is constructed, and on the gallows a hangs a man with a sign around his neck that reads: “Deserter! I am a Russian lackey” (“DESERTEUR Ich bin ein russen knecht,” the last part liberally translated in the First Run Features edition of the film as “I licked Russian boots.”). In another scene, as Gregor’s truck pulls away from Bernau, the camera keeps its lens trained on Jenny Gröllmann’s character until she disappears when the truck turns, reappearing a moment later, further away now, and eventually fading into the mist.

When the troops reach Sachsenhausen, the film suddenly includes scenes from an actual documentary in which a former guard at the death camp explains how the poison gas was administered. This footage is interspersed with scenes of Hecker taking a shower. The juxtaposition is simultaneously jarring and logical; the gas chamber showers and the real shower. The impression is that Hecker is trying to wash away what he has seen, perhaps even his own German identity. In the next scene, we see Gregor and his pals interviewing a German intellectual who brings Hecker back to his German roots with one sentence. Here the film seems to mimic the documentary footage’s look. We know we are watching a dramatic recreation of events, but the effect is disorienting.

To play the lead, Wolf chose Jaecki Schwarz, a young actor fresh out of drama school. It was an inspired choice. Thrust so suddenly into a starring role, the young Mr. Schwarz could easily identify with the confused state of Gregor when he is handed responsibility for an entire town.
after I was Nineteen, Schwarz went on to appear in several more films. He has continued working since the Wende, primarily in television, playing Hauptkommissar Herbert Schmücke on the popular crime show, Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110), and the comic relief character Sputnik in Ein starkes Team (A Strong Team). He is an ardent supporter of gay rights, and is a member of the board of trustees for the German branch of Queer Nation.

The technical crew for this movie reads like a DEFA dream team. Besides scriptwriter Kohlhaase, Werner Bergmann, Konrad Wolf’s longtime collaborator, handled the cinematography. Bergmann had worked as a war correspondent and cameraman for the German war effort on various fronts. During the war, he lost an arm, but didn’t let this stop him from pursuing a career as a cinematographer. He made fourteen films with Wolf, and received several awards for his work. The editing was by Evelyn Carow, who would eventually become the best-known editor in East Germany, cutting such classics as The Legend of Paul and Paula, Solo Sunny, and Coming Out. This was the first film she did with Wolf, but it wouldn’t be the last.

The production design was by Alfred Hirschmeier whose importance to the development of art direction and production design in East Germany is impossible to over-estimate. Hirschmeier’s work was flawless and rarely repetitious. He was the inventor of the optisches Drehbuch (visual screenplay), a type of storyboard in script form that he used to create a film’s look and settings. A list of the films he worked on includes some of the best films to come out of the GDR, including, Five Cartridges, The Silent Star, Naked Among Wolves, Divided Heaven, Jakob the Liar, and Solo Sunny.

In 1977, Wolf would return to the subject of World War II one more time. In the film Mama, I’m Alive. Here, Wolf follows the exploits of four German P.O.W.s who decide to join the Red Army and fight against Hitler’s war machine. He assembled essentially the same technical crew as I was Nineteen (Kohlhaase, Bergmann, Carow, and Hirschmeier). It would be his last film about the war. Wolf would only make one more feature film (Solo Sunny, 1980). In 1982, he died while working on a documentary about Ernst Busch, the communist singer-songwriter.

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