Posts Tagged ‘Jews’

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.

For its first 25 years, two things kept the rest of the world from learning that East Germany was producing some of the best films in Europe. First was the country’s unfortunate tendency to ban its directors’ best efforts. Films such as The Axe of Wandsbek, Sun Seekers, Born in ‘45, and The Rabbit is Me would have certainly put East Germany on the movie map if not for the fact that they were all shelved by the authorities. The second factor was the West’s refusal to accept that East Germany was a country at all. East Germany wasn’t recognized by the United Nations until 1973, and even then it was only because the GDR and the FRG had finally agreed to accept each other as sovereign states.

It was a consequence of this “East Germany-is-not-a-country” policy that the DEFA film Stars (Sterne) was submitted to the Cannes Film Festival as the official entry from Bulgaria instead of the GDR. But it is really an East German film, and it was the first—and is still the only—German film to ever win the Prix du Jury at Cannes. To add irony to the insult, the film, which was popular in East Germany, was banned in Bulgaria.

Stars is a classic doomed love story about a German soldier who falls in love with a Jewish prisoner. The soldier, who is known only as Walter, is a would-be painter who has been drafted into the war effort and finds himself in a small Bulgarian village, guarding Jewish prisoners from Greece. The prisoners are on their way to Auschwitz. There, they are told, they will work on vegetable farms. Of course, we all know this isn’t true. So do most of them, but no one wants to acknowledge it. Walter is trying to do his duty as a good German soldier, but his conscience keeps getting in the way.

At the time it was made, there weren’t many films that portrayed German soldiers in a favorable light. There were a few, such as The Murderers are Among Us, Rotation, and Sun Seekers, in which former German soldiers expressed remorse for their actions during the war (or, in some cases, their inaction), but there had never been a movie in which the  hero was a German soldier who was abetting the enemy. German soldiers were always portrayed as loyal to the death to the Third Reich, and therefore always the bad guys. Stars gives us a much more nuanced picture. Even the amoral Kurt—Walter’s immediate superior—is portrayed as a vivacious and ebullient character, who, in other circumstances, might be a great deal of fun to go bar-hopping with. Kurt has been to Auschwitz and there is some evidence that he knows what is happening there is wrong. He refers to Auschwitz as a “mill for human flesh” (Menschenfleisch). He notably does not say “Jewish flesh” (Jüdenfleisch), indicating that he recognizes the humanity of the Jews. But Kurt prefers not to think to hard about the situation and alleviates any qualms he may have by staying drunk as often as possible.

As Ruth, the headstrong Jewish prisoner, Sasha Krusharska turns in as close to a perfect performance as one could hope for. She is strong and vulnerable, tender and hard, and, unlike most of the actresses that were chosen to play similar roles in Hollywood (e.g., Millie Perkins in The Diary of Anne Frank), Krusharska looks Jewish. She is also stunning, and it is easy to see why a young soldier would fall for her. Sadly, Krusharska only starred in one more film (The Last Round, or Posledniyat rund) before marrying and settling down with Bulgarian film director Rangel Vulchanov.  Vulchanov had worked as a consultant director on Stars. Their daughter, Ani Vulchanova, has gone on to become a successful actress in Bulgaria.

In 1959, feature films that dealt directly with the holocaust were still relatively rare. In the United States, the true horror of Auschwitz was still an abstract concept. It wouldn’t be until the release of Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg that most Americans would see actual film footage from the concentration camps for the first time.* Germans, of course, were closer to the subject, but most of the films prior to Stars kept talk of the concentration camps as general as possible. Even in the GDR, which was far less averse to examining its Nazi past than the west was, the talk in films of concentration camps was mostly about the experiences of the political prisoners rather than the extermination the Jews (The Council of the Gods came the closest, with its discussion of the manufacturing ot Zyklon B).

Stars was written by the Bulgarian author Angel Wagenstein. Wagenstein, a Sephardic Jew, was arrested and condemned to death for anti-fascist sabotage during the war, but was liberated when the Soviet Army invaded the country. After the war, Wagenstein enrolled at the S. A. Gerasimov All-Union State Institute for Cinematography in Moscow, where he earned a degree in screenwriting. Upon returning to Bulgaria, he started writing scripts for Boyana Film, the state-owned film company. Wagenstein wrote the script for Stars in seven days, although he said he thought about it for 77 days before that and had already lived through the events depicted. When he finished it, he took it to Kurt Maetzig at DEFA, but Maetzig, perhaps tired of making films about WWII, wasn’t interested (Maetzig’s next film would be the sci-fi feature The Silent Star). Konrad Wolf, however, was interested. Wolf has just finished making Sun Seekers, only to see it shelved for political reasons. Perhaps Stars would fare better with the authorities.

Wagenstein would write many more films for DEFA over the years, including scripts for Joachim Hasler’s The Story of a Murder, Konrad Wolf’s Goya, and Herman Zschosche’s oddball science fiction film, Eolomea. More recently, he has turned to book writing. His novels—Isaac’s Torah, Farewell Shanghai, and Far from Toledo—comprise a trilogy that examines the Jewish experience in different regions during WWII. His books have been published in eleven languages.

After the film was made it was submitted to the East German authorities, who approved it for public showing. Back in Bulgaria, however, things were different. The exportation of Jews to concentration camps was a touchy subject. Although they were a member of the Axis powers, Bulgarians saw themselves as resistant to the Nazi war machine. They had begged out of Operation Barbarossa, and had repeatedly postponed the deportation of their ethnic Jews (Jews from Thrace and Macedonia, however, were not afforded the same consideration). Although it was banned on the grounds of being an “abstract humanist” film, certainly the idea of a film about the deportation of Jews from Bulgaria was a factor in their decision to not show it. In spite of the ban, the film was submitted to Cannes as a Bulgarian film because East Germany was still not recognized as a real country (in fairness, neither was West Germany). The film ended up winning the Prix du Jury that year (the Palme d’Or went to Black Orpheus). Thanks to the success of the film at Cannes, the film was also shown in West Germany. There, however, the ending was edited to remove the Casablanca-like scene where Walter decides to help the resistance.

As with Sun Seekers, Konrad demonstrates a keen facility for the use of film techniques to propel the narrative. After Walter meets Ruth, he looks back at her, and the camera angle is sharply skewed, showing that Walter’s world is about to tumble out of control. And when things are at their worst, the images are dark and grim. Occasionally, Wolf’s technique approaches the experimental with strange juxtapositions. In the scene when the baby is born in the Jewish encampment, Ruth’s face is superimposed over scenes of grassy fields and a babbling brook (a literal interpretation of the lyrics to the Jewish folk song “Eli, Eli”) while the baby cries in the background. it is a sad scene of hope in a world where hope has no right to exist.

The music in this film is by the Bulgarian composer, Simeon Pironkov, whose score comes primarily from two sources: the aforementioned “Eli, Eli” (“My God, My God”) and Mordechai Gebirtig’s “Es brennt” (“It is Burning”). Gebirtig was a Yiddish poet and songwriter who died in the Kraków Ghetto in 1942. The song was written in response to the pogrom of 1936 in Przytyk, Poland, two-and-a-half years before Kristallnacht. “Es brennt” went on to become the anthem of the Jewish resistance movement during the war and it is still sung on Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) in many parts of the world. It is the combination of “Es brennt” and Sasha Krusharska’s performance that creates a final scene that will hit you right in the gut.


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1. In the west, Germans were shown this footage in 1948 in Nürnberg und seine Lehre, a film made by the U.S. Military as part of their “de-Nazification” program. By the time this films was released, however, tensions between the United States and the Soviet union were strained to the breaking point, so it is doubtful that this film ever was shown in the east. The film did not receive an official release in the United States until 2010.