Posts Tagged ‘film noir’

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.

IMDB page for film.

Buy this film.


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.

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Police Raid

DEFA, East Germany’s state-owned film production company, was formed in 1946—three years before post-war Germany’s Soviet sector would become its own country. Immediately after the war, the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) was doing everything it could to hobble German film production in the western sectors, largely at the behest of the Hollywood studios. The Soviets, on the other hand, had been champions of film since the early days of their revolution. and they were willing to let the filmmakers in their sector get back to work immediately. Thus, if you were a director or film technician in post-war Germany, DEFA was the only game in town.

As a result, many West German directors, who had no particular enthusiasm for the socialist ideals, went to the Soviet Sector to get their films made. People such as Hans Deppe, Paul Verhoeven, and the Austrian filmmaker Arthur Maria Rabenalt made films for DEFA, but unlike directors such as Kurt Maetzig and Wolfgang Staudte, they weren’t socialists and had no interest in creating a new form of cinema. They just wanted to continue making films—the same types of films they had made during the Third Reich. When West German film production finally got up to speed in the 1950s, these same men would scurry back to the west to make their Edgar Wallace potboilers and Heimatfilme, and produce films so safe and unchallenging that West Germany’s young filmmakers would eventually rise up against them and deliver the Oberhausen Manifesto.

For this reason, several of the early DEFA films are DEFA in name only. They could have been made ten years earlier under auspices of Joseph Goebbels or ten years later by Constantin Films. That’s not to say they are bad films, they are not, but there is nothing uniquely East German about them, or, for that matter, uniquely West German either. They are standard movie fare, meant purely for entertainment.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than with Razzia (AKA Police Raid), DEFA’s first thriller (Krimi). Its expressionistic lighting, diffusion filter close-ups, and musical interludes would have fit comfortably in any Hollywood production. Most of the technical crew, including the director and screenwriter, had worked for German production companies under the Nazis and most would end up working in West Germany once its film industry was back up and running. They were at DEFA for no better reason than a paycheck, and had no sympathy for the socialist cause.

Nonetheless, these men did have the skill sets needed to make movies on time and on budget, and they understood the craft. Maybe the people in charge of DEFA thought that they would help expand the talent pool at the film studio (they did not), or maybe the simply wanted to get as many films out there as quickly as possible to demonstrate their superior film production capabilities to the rest of Germany (that they did). Most of these directors brought their own production teams with them, and they left East Germany with them as well. It would take people like Maetzig, Konrad Wolf, Egon Gunther, and Gerhard Klein to develop a new style—the DEFA style.

Razzia takes place in post-war Berlin, where black marketeers sell contraband American cigarettes in the streets and children play hide-and-seek amid the corroding debris of the war machine. The screenplay is by Harald G. Petersson, who started writing screenplays in 1934 after his novella, Herz ist Trumpf was turned into a movie. Petersson had a knack for writing the kind of engaging, tension-filled scenes that cinema thrives on. In Razzia, Petersson takes the tropes of the Rubble Films—the hollow man returning from the war and the rubble-strewn streets—and crosses them with the popular characteristics of film noir: the femme fatale, charming criminals, and good people caught in bad situations. Most of the time, the story follows a typical Hollywood-style structure, but Petersson manages to pull a few surprises out of his hat. Just when it looks like the film is going to follow one character throughout, it takes a sharp right turn into new territory.

The film is directed by Werner Klingler, who started his career as an actor during the Weimar Republic and then became a director during the Third Reich. He made several popular films at this time, but is most famous for taking over the directing of Titanic after its director, Herbert Selpin, was arrested for saying some unfavorable things about Hitler’s regime (Selpin was later found hanged in his cell—reportedly a suicide). Klinger is a craftsman director. The kind of director that film production companies thrived on for most of film’s first fifty years. He knows how to tell a story in pictures, but he never tries to push the limits of style. The most striking scenes in the film are the ones that take place on the streets, but this is more reflective of the situation in Berlin than Klingler’s flair as a director. He is highly skilled at his craft, but never transcends it.

Playing police commissioner Naumann is Paul Bildt. Bildt’s career in films reads like history of the first fifty years of German cinema. Originally a stage actor, Bildt started appearing in films in 1910. He was one of the busiest actors in Germany, appearing in as many as eleven films a year. Goebbels thought so highly of Bildt that he added him to his Gottbegnadeten list—a list of musicians, artists, authors and actors that Goebbels felt were the Reich couldn’t exist without. This fact is even more amazing when you consider that he his wife, who died of cancer in 1945, was Jewish. When the war ended, Bildt was living in a small town east of Berlin. Rather than face the wrath of the oncoming Russian troops, Bildt and his daughter attempted to commit suicide by overdosing on Barbital. His daughter died but he was found in time and rushed to the hospital. After several days in a coma, Bildt made a full recovery. For a time, he appeared on stage, primarily at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, before going to DEFA to make movies. He appeared in several of DEFA’s most well-known early films, including Somewhere in Berlin, The Blum Affair, and Council of the Gods. In 1949, he was awarded the GDR’s National Prize for his work in films, but it wasn’t enough to keep him in East Germany. In the early fifties, he went to the west, where he continued his career until his death in 1957.

Nina Kosta

Making her first and only film appearance is singer Nina Konsta who plays the club singer Yvonne. Konsta was a popular singer in Germany during the late forties, but her star has since been eclipsed by other, more famous singers. She had a beautiful voice, and was known as “The Greek Nightingale.” While not an actress, she plays the role of the femme fatale well enough, and she has the looks to pull it off. She was a talented woman, and it is a shame she is nearly forgotten today.

Razzia was the first post-war krimi made in Germany for the German audience, and response to it was positive in all sectors. So much so that the Allied sectors saw the film as a threat; especially after Nicola Napoli’s communist film distribution company, Artkino Productions, started distributing it in South America. After it played in Chile, an editorial in the New York Times decried the efforts of Hollywood to hobble western sector film production, but it wouldn’t be until after West Germany was declared a country and allowed some autonomy over its film production that they would catch up with the east. The film was also the first DEFA production to make it to these shores, playing in New York City in 1948.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (Part of a six film set. Highly Recommended.)