Posts Tagged ‘Joseph McCarthy’

The Crucible

At first glance, The Crucible (Die Hexen von Salem) doesn’t appear to be an East German film at all. It is directed by a Belgian, it stars French actors, and it has a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre. Additionally, almost all of the technical crew are French. In this respect, it is reminiscent of DEFA productions of the forties and early fifties, such as Razzia and The Heart of Stone, which were, for all intents and purposes, West German films, DEFA in name only. Those films were the result of the fact that West Germany had no film industry at the time, thanks to the U.S. military government (OMGUS), doing as little as possible to encourage West German film production. They preferred, instead, for West Germans to watch Hollywood films, sometimes without even bothering to dub or subtitle them. This gave DEFA a leg up in Germany, at least until West Germany became a sovereign state in 1949 and film production was put back on track.

Even so, Hollywood had an edge in film production and distribution, not just in Germany, but in the rest of Europe as well. For one thing, many extraordinarily talented film people fled to America to escape the Nazis, and many decided to stay in Hollywood after the war was over.1 For another, most countries were too busy rebuilding their basic infrastructures to worry about things like film production. It was nearly impossible for a film company from any single European country to compete with the production capabilities of Hollywood.

To solve the problem, production companies from different countries would join forces to make movies. Those Steve Reeves sword-and-sandal films so beloved by the gay community, were Spanish-Italian co-productions, and the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood westerns were made with Italian, Spanish and West German money. Italians offer figured figured into things, thanks to Cinecittà, the movie production facilities built by Mussolini to make pro-fascist films.

Die Hexen von Salem

East Germany should have figured into more of these co-productions. They had some of the best facilities for filming in Europe—partly thanks to East Germany’s early lead in European moviemaking, and partly because they inherited Ufa’s Babelsberg studios—but the United States and West Germany were doing everything in their power to marginalize East Germany; going so far as to hire hundreds of former Nazis to help them do the job. In 1955, West Germany took the ultimate step with the Hallstein Doctrine, which threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with any country that recognized the sovereignty of East Germany (excluding, of course, the Soviet Union).

Sweden’s Pandora Film was making films with DEFA, but Pandora was actually a front for Erich Mehl’s West German production company. The French were the only NATO country to engage in co-productions with East Germany. DEFA officials saw these joint productions as a way to thumb their noses at the Hallstein Doctrine, but, as we shall see, it was all for naught.

The Crucible is adapted from the play by Arthur Miller. It is known in France as Les Sorcières de Salem, and in West Germany as Hexenjagd (Witch Hunt). Miller wrote the play in response to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and its attacks on Hollywood writers, directors and actors. Started after the war (or, more aptly, rebooted), HUAC was designed to root out threats to the American way of life. For HUAC, this didn’t mean racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, that were lynching blacks in the South, or the companies that were actively doing everything in their power to stop unionization at their sweatshops; it meant communists. If you were a communist, you had no rights in America, and supporting that ideology could lose your job. Starting in 1947, HUAC began investigating and prosecuting suspected communist spies, but pretty soon it became engulfed in wave of anti-communist hysteria that saw Russian spies hiding behind every bush. Things got really ugly when the committee decided that the biggest nest of communists was Hollywood and started throwing people in jail for believing in the first amendment.

Les Sorcières de Salem

Miller’s play examined this deeply repressive, anti-communist committee by comparing it to the witch trials in seventeenth-century Salem, where a group of hysterical schoolgirls convinced the locals that their town was full of witches. Although today the red-baiting excesses of the fifties are pinned almost entirely on Senator Joseph McCarthy, in truth it started as a team effort by republicans bent on using a committee originally intended to find actual threats, as a way to push forward their conservative agenda and make left of center ideologies virtually illegal in America. McCarthy came late to the game and was just the schmuck who was too stupid to duck when public opinion turned.

The Crucible was first performed in 1953 and is now considered a classic of American theater. The play opened to mixed reviews, some reviewers clearly felt that by writing this play, Miller was catering to the commies, but the New York Times, to its credit, gave the play a glowing review and The Crucible went on to win the Outstanding Play award at the 7th Annual Tony Awards. It is certainly no coincidence that a few years later, Miller had his own confrontation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

In 1954, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret—the Brad and Angelina of France in the fifties—appeared in the stage version of Miller’s play at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt (now Théâtre de la Ville). Talk of turning the play into a movie started almost immediately, but this time with a screenplay by the renowned existentialist writer, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre wrote his screenplay for the film after seeing Montand and Signoret perform on stage. He liked the play, but felt that Marcel Aymé’s translation—an accurate translation of Miller’s original—concentrated too much on the story of one man’s struggle against mass hysteria. Sartre, still a Marxist at this point, saw the story as a cautionary tale about the use of religion to help the rich suppress and steal from the poor. He wanted to make a political statement, but it was one that wasn’t getting much traction in the west, where the U.S. was using its might to clamp down on any pro-communist thinking, sometimes using shockingly repressive techniques to do so. So it was that the producers turned to DEFA to help get the film made.

To direct the film, the Belgian actor-director Raymond Rouleau was chosen. Rouleau studied drama at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels before moving to Paris. He started as an actor, with an auspicious debut in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent. He started directing a few years later and continued to act and direct until his death in Paris in 1981. From 1944 until 1951, he, along with Lucien Beer, headed the Théâtre de l’Œuvre, the theater that premiered Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. While there, Rouleau directed La neige était sale (Dirty Snow), mystery writer Frédéric Dard’s theatrical adaptation of the novel by Rouleau’s countryman, Georges Simenon. As a director, Rouleau was more craftsman than artist. The mise-en-scène in The Crucible is logical and composed to drive the story forward, but does little to project the inner turmoil of the characters. For that, Rouleau relies almost entirely on the skills of his actors. Fortunately, they are up to the task.

Mylène Demongeot

At the center of The Crucible is Mylène Demongeot, who plays the sexy and spiteful Abigail Williams. Historically, Abigail Williams was a fourteen-year-old, but Miller pushed her age up to seventeen to create the adulterous situation the play needed to create the sexual dynamics that interested Miller. Demongeot exudes sexuality from every pore. Although it wasn’t her first film, The Crucible put her on the map and led to several more parts, including the carefree Elsa in Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse, Fandor’s girlfriend, Hélène in the Fantômas trilogy, and the sexy British comedy, Upstairs and Downstairs, which features the tagline: “The babysitter with the French touch! M-M-M-Mylène Demongeot.” She continues to act and is an active participant in several humanitarian causes.

Besides the lead actors, most of the technicians were also French. The cinematographer was Claude Renoir, grandson to the artist and nephew to director Jean Renoir. Much of the film’s unspoken drama comes from Renoir’s moody work. He shot the film in noirish black-and-white that reflects the way the characters view the world. Renoir got his start in films as an assistant cameraman on his uncle’s films, but he is best remembered for his dazzling work on Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, and Blood and Roses.

The most dramatic story behind the making of The Crucible almost goes by unnoticed at the beginning of the film. If you watch a print of the movie intended for western audiences, you’ll see the film’s composer listed as Georges Auric, but if you watch the East German version, you’ll see the composer listed as Hanns Eisler. Yet, the music in both versions is the same, so what gives? Georges Auric was an excellent composer, responsible for the scores to Cocteau’s Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast, Dead of Night, Wages of Fear, and many others, but he did not write the music for The Crucible. The music was by Eisler, and his own story parallels the story in the film in many ways.

Montand et Signoret

Hanns Eisler was born Germany to Austrian parents. His father was a noted philosophy professor who, along with Max Adler, founded the Vienna Sociological Society. The young Hanns, along with his brother Gerhart and his sister Elfriede, grew up in a hotbed of philosophical and sociological discussions. Although the senior Eisler was an atheist, his three children became highly active communists, particularly Elfriede, who took the name Ruth Fischer, and Gerhart. Hanns was more interested in music.

While his brother and sister became leading figures in the German Communist party (KPD), Hanns purused a career in music. He studied under Arnold Schoenberg, and wrote several pieces based on the twelve-tone system, but his communist beliefs turned him away from the intellectual sonic gymnastics of Schoenberg to the music of the oppressed class: jazz. It was around this time that Eisler met Bertolt Brecht. Until then, Brecht had been collaborating with Kurt Weill, but when the two went their separate ways, Brecht started looking for a composer whose political viewpoint would jibe with Brecht’s own. He found that person in Hanns Eisler.

In 1932, Eisler composed the music for Kuhle Wampe oder Wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?), director Slatan Dudow’s film with a script by Bertolt Brecht. Unfortunately, the film came out just as the Nazis were rising to power and the film was promptly banned. Both Brecht and Eisler found themselves on the Nazi Party’s first list of banned artist; both men fled Germany, eventually ending up in the United States; and both were forced to leave the U.S. thanks to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Around the same time, Eisler’s sister Ruth—who had become one of the leaders of the KPD—was constantly butting heads with Stalin. She didn’t care much for his reinterpretation of Marxism, nor the level of control he exerted of Germany’s communists. Ruth wanted a return to values of Lenin, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and a turn away from Stalin’s egocentric brand of communism. After traveling to Russia, she met with Stalin, and let him know exactly how she felt. She returned to Germany to find herself marginalized by the Communist Party, replaced with the very pro-Stalin Ernst Thälmann (for more on Thälmann, see The Ernst Thälmann Films). At that point, Fischer became a virulent anti-Stalinist. To the point where she started working with the U.S. to do everything in her power to end his regime. Going so far as to work for “The Pond”—a top secret precursor to the C.I.A.

Hanns Eisler

After Hitler came to power, all three of the Eisler children eventually ended up in America. Hanns got work composing film scores, and received Oscar nominations for his work on Hangmen Also Die! and None But the Lonely Heart. Gerhart, meanwhile, was working as a spy for Communist International (Comintern) in America. When Ruth was ousted from power in the KPD, Gerhart did not come to her defense. A fact that stuck in her craw. When Gerhart was brought before HUAC for espionage, Ruth was only to happy to against him at the hearing. He was found guilty, but while out of bail he fled the country, making his way to East Germany.

As the hunt for “those dirty reds” widened, Hanns Eisler was caught in the web. Called “the Karl Marx of Music” by HUAC secretary Robert Stripling, Eisler was blacklisted in Hollywood, dragged before the committee and charged with being a communist. As she had with Gerhart, Ruth Fischer testified against Hanns as well, and he was promptly deported. Like his brother, he went to East Germany, where he composed the music for the East German national anthem, “Auferstanden aus Ruinen,” and continued to write melodies for Brecht—who had also taken up residence in the GDR. Eisler continued to write film music, contributing scores to many classic DEFA films, including Our Daily Bread, The Council of the Gods, and Destinies of Women.

When The Crucible was prepared for release in the west, the producers decided that the film would have a better chance of U.S. distribution if the credits didn’t include a man who was forcibly removed from the States. The decision to list Auric as the composer was one that Eisler approved of. He and Auric were friends, and, presumably, he felt that if another composer must get credit, at least it was someone he liked and whose work he admired. When the head of the East German copyrights department asked Eisler if he wanted them to help him get the credit he deserved, Eisler responded “No, everything is perfectly arranged.”2

The Crucible

The film opened to generally favorable reviews, and won Simone Signoret the BAFTA award for best actress. Released in the States just months before Room at the Top, The Crucible undoubtedly helped Signoret win the Academy Award for that film.

While Arthur Miller wasn’t crazy about some of Sartre’s changes to his play, in a 1972 interview for Audience magazine, Miller said he was glad that the film was out there at a time when Hollywood refused to touch it. He would change his tune when Hollywood finally got around to making Miller’s version of the play with a screenplay by Miller himself. DEFA’s version of The Crucible was pulled out of circulation, reportedly thanks to Miller himself. The Hollywood version failed to perform well at the box office, but the end result of this is that the East German/French film is still out of distribution, although the folks at DEFA-Stiftung are working on correcting this situation. Meanwhile, VHS copies of the film are fetching high prices on eBay.

The expected benefits of co-producing films with the French didn’t pan out for DEFA. When the films were released in the west, DEFA’s name was removed from the credits. Worse, France did nothing to challenge West Germany’s absurd Hallstein Doctrine. After four films French/East German co-productions, East Germany abandoned these efforts, restricting co-productions to the Eastern Bloc and other communist countries. They wouldn’t engage in a co-production with a western nation again until 1978, when the Swiss/East German made-for-TV movie Ursula manage to offend nearly everybody on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Ironically, the first DEFA co-production with a western nation would be made with West Germany (FrühlingssinfonieSpring Symphony).

Special thanks to Sebastian Heiduschke, Hiltrud Schulz, Mariana Ivanova, and Peter Deeg for their help with this article.

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1. Lorre did return to West Germany to direct a film, The Lost One (Der Verlorene), but the experience didn’t encourage him to stay in his homeland. He quickly returned to Hollywood for the rest of his career. Wilder returned to Berlin to make his antic comedy One Two Three! But the film comes across as a thumbing of his nose to both halves of Germany. Two Hollywood refugees who did return to Germany to make films were Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang (technically, an Austrian).

2. Special thanks here to Peter Deeg at the International Hanns Eisler Society.

Epic is not a term one often uses with East German movies. As a rule, the films of DEFA keep to a human scale, charting life’s courses for ordinary people. Even the Märchenfilme (fairy tale films), while often dealing with fantastical kingdoms and imaginary worlds, keep the scale down to everyday proportions. But Goya or the Hard Road to Enlightenment (Goya – oder der arge Weg der Erkenntnis) is an epic. Its scale is huge and its sets are opulent. Using the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, Goya is shot in eye-busting color on 70mm film, with over 3,000 costumes, and locations in four different countries. Goya’s artwork was carefully reproduced by master artists, and an actual antique press was found to recreate the production of his Caprichos, right down to the recreation of the copper etching plates and hand-made paper.

From the opening moments of this film you know you are in for something different from any other film that ever came out of the GDR. Over somber chanting, a religious procession moves through a street in Spain. Some of the people in the procession wear white robes and capirotes, looking for all the world like members of the Ku Klux Klan. Others wear the same outfits in black. Men, stripped to the waist, their faces covered in white cloth, flagellate themselves as they walk in the procession, moaning in pain and religious ecstasy. Along the way, people kneel and make the sign of the cross as the statues of Jesus on the cross and the Virgin Mary trundle by in wooden carts.

To cast the film, director Konrad Wolf chose actors from seven countries, from Russia to Spain. Donatas Banionis, who played Goya, hailed from Lithuania, while Olivera Katarina, who played the sexually rapacious Duchess of Alba, came from Yugoslavia; Tatyana Lolova, who played Queen Maria Luisa was from Bulgaria, and Charles IV was played by the popular East German actor, Rolf Hoppe. To ensure the best possible performances from everyone, actors played their parts in their native languages. The set for this film must have sounded like the lobby at the United Nations.

Since the government of Francisco Franco was not exactly on speaking terms with the GDR, Wolf could not film in Spain, so the back streets of Dubrovnik were used instead. To add a more authentic flavor to the film, a film crew made up of West Germans was assembled and sent to Spain. Supposedly, this team was there to make a documentary about bullfighting, but they were really working for DEFA, shooting the movie’s bullfight sequence.

The film is based on Lion Feuchtwanger’s book about Goya, chronicling the years in the painter’s life when he went from a celebrated court painter to an enemy of the church—roughly from 1789 to 1803. At the beginning of the story, Goya is perfectly happy to be a pawn in the game that people in power played with the public. It is only after a series of tragic events that he comes to realize that these people are not worthy of admiration and he begins to evolve as a painter. Lion Feuchtwanger wrote the book in response to the anti-communist trials that were being held by Senator Joseph McCarthy in Washington. Feuchtwanger also revisited the story of Jud Süß. Jud Süß is the second book based on the story of Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, the Jewish financial planner for Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg in Stuttgart. The famous German fairy tale writer, Wilhelm Hauff had written a version of the story back in 1827. Feuchtwanger considered Hauff’s book “naively anti-Semitic” and set about to fix the flaws he saw in Hauff’s version. Feuchtwanger’s version was first published in 1925 and was a huge hit in Germany. So much so that the Nazis felt compelled to ban the book and make a film based on the Wilhelm Hauff book that challenged nearly every detail in the Feuchtwanger book.* In Feuchtwanger’s book, it is Joseph Süß Oppenheimer’s daughter who is raped and killed by the Duke, while in the movie, Oppenheimer is the rapist. Although he lived in the United States, Feuchtwanger was especially popular in East Germany, partly due, no doubt, to his defense of Stalin in his book, Moscow 1937. Feuchtwanger died in 1958 in Southern California and his works were donated to USC create a Feuchtwanger library.

As a director, Konrad Wolf is a hard man to pin down. A quick look at his list of films demonstrates his versatility, but it also makes it impossible for proponents of the auteur school film criticism to pigeonhole him. Some of his films are small and intimate, some are gritty, some are grand. That is, perhaps the point. Wolf was a communist director working in a communist system in a communist way. Nearly everyone involved in making Wolf’s films had a say in the production, giving the cinematographer, composer, actors, screenwriter, and editor nearly as much influence as the director. Fans of the Hollywood’s bloated egomaniacs are not going to find much to like about someone like Wolf, who managed to keep his personal life out of his films (the key exceptions being I Was Nineteen, which is literally about his own experiences during WWII, and Professor Mamlock, which is based on a play by his father). Anyone who thinks they’ve got a pretty good handle on Wolf’s style after watching his first ten movies will be blindsided by Goya. It is like nothing he ever did before and like nothing he did after. It is majestic, intense, and unsentimental.

The film that it is intended as much as a criticism of government repression as it is as a story about eighteenth-century Spain. In an interview that is included on the DVD, the screenwriter, Angel Vagenshtain (author of Stars), admits this, but says that they weren’t as clever as they thought when it came to hiding this intention. As a co-production with Russia, the film was screened in advance in Moscow. The Russian official who screened the film asked that the final lines in the film—where the Inquisitor General of the Spanish Inquisition states that the name of Goya would be forever stricken from the records and forgotten by history—be removed from the film. Having recently made a similar pronouncement about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his work, they weren’t too happy about this inevitable comparison. To his credit, Wolf refused to remove the lines. Had it been any other director, this refusal would have either been ignored, or the film would have ended up on a shelf alongside the films of the 11th Plenum, but Wolf got away with more than most directors in East Germany. This was in part due to the fact that his father was one of the most-well respected playwrights in the world (and especially in Russia where he was exiled during WWII), but was mostly because his brother, with whom he was very close, was the head of the Stasi’s foreign intelligence division. Like J. Edgar Hoover, Markus Wolf was a man of such power that even government officials trod lightly around him (it was long believed that he was the blueprint for John Le Carré’s communist spymaster, Karla, although Le Carré denied this). Considering how often Konrad Wolf pushed the boundaries—most notably with Divided Heaven and Solo Sunny—there is a suggestion of truth to this.

Lithuanian actor, Donatas Banionis, was already known in the eastern bloc countries for his work in films such as, Watch Out for the Automobile (Beregis avtomobilya) and a Lithuanian version of The Little Prince (Malenkiy prints). He first achieved a measure of international recognition when he appeared in The Red Tent (Krasnaya palatka), the last film made by the brilliant Russian director, Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes are Flying, I Am Cuba). But Banionis would become best known to western audiences as Kris Kelvin in Tarkovsky’s classic, Solaris. Also, it is reported that it was his portrayal of a spy in The Dead Season (Myortvyy sezon) that convinced Vladimer Putin to join the KGB. Banionis would return to DEFA to play yet another deaf genius in Horst Seemann’s Beethoven: Tage aus einem Leben (Beethoven: Days in a Life), and he would work again with Konrad Wolf in Mama, ich lebe  (Mama, I’m Alive). One of his most unusual roles was in the Russian TV-movie, Poka ya ne umer (Before I Die), in which he portrays the corpulent New York detective, Nero Wolfe. Banionas makes a good Goya, passionate and confused, quixotic and vain, yet still sympathetic.

But it was lead actress, Olivera Katarina, who was best known to western audiences at the time. She had appeared a year earlier in the West German horror film, Mark of the Devil (Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält) under the name Olivera Vučo. Mark of the Devil was a big hit with the grindhouse crowd in America, in part because of its explicit scenes of torture, but mostly thanks to its exploitation advertising campaign which included barf bags handed out with each ticket in case an audience member couldn’t take the gore. Ms. Katarina was already an extremely popular singer and actress in Yugoslavia She starred in in the Aleksandar Petrovic’s Skupljaci perja (I Even Met Happy Gypsies), which featured both her singing and her acting. She sang songs in a variety of languages, including many gypsy tunes, and the Serbian folk songs of her native land. In 1984, when the relationships between the various states in Yugoslavia started to heat up, the Yugoslavian government decided that her songs were too nationalistic, she was quietly blacklisted and made no further albums until 1999. Today, a remarkable number of her songs are available in video form on YouTube. She continues to perform, and has her own website.

Although Goya contains no songs by Ms. Katarina, it does contain a couple wonderful numbers by Carmen Herold, who plays the folksinger, Maria Rosario Gomez. Ms. Herold sings in Spanish, and in the few scenes where she speaks, she seems to be speaking Spanish, but there is very little information available on this wonderful singer. Goya appears to be her only film, and her name does not turn up in any sources I could find outside of references to this movie. She has a remarkable face and a powerful singing voice, and she deserves more fame than she has received.

The music for the film was composed by the Azerbaijani composers Kara Karayev and his son, Faradsh. The Karayevs were trained as classical musicians, and Goya has an outstanding score. It could be played by an orchestra without any reference to the film and it would impress people. It is richly textured and classically structured, while at the same time experimental with many unexpected touches, such as the frenetic solo organ piece used to reflect Goya’s inner turmoil. The elder Karayev wrote over 100 pieces of music, including ballets, symphonies, and chamber pieces. Today, his work is still performed around the world and an annual festival in his honor is held every April in Baku, Azerbaijan. Goya was one of his last film scores. He died in 1982. Faradsh Karayev has gone on to become a well-respected composer in his own right, having composed almost as many pieces as his father at this point.

As with most of Konrad Wolf’s films—at least until Solo Sunny—the cinematographer was Werner Bergmann. This time, however, he was assisted by the Russian cinematographer, Konstantin Ryzhov. These two men have very different styles of filming. Bergmann often used a freer, hand-held technique. This was especially impressive considering he had lost one arm during the war. To compensate, Bergmann devised a special sling mount for his camera. Ryzhov, on the other had, seemed to prefer the more traditional, tripod-mounted approach, which was particularly well-suited to convey the opulence of the ballroom scenes. It is fun to watch the film with this in mind and try and guess which cinematographer handled which scenes.

Cinematography was not the only technical aspect handled by a tag team. Costume design, production design, and many of the other tech credits appear to be split almost evenly between East Germans and Russians. This wouldn’t have been a problem for Wolf. Having spent his formative years in exile in Russia, he spoke that language better than his native German. One credit that did not have shared billing was the editor. As always, Wolf used a woman editor, but this time it was Russian film editor, Aleksandra Borovskaya. It is the only time he worked with Ms. Borovskaya. On his previous film, I Was Nineteen, Wolf used the talented editor Evelyn Carow, and returned to her after Goya for all his subsequent films. How well or badly he meshed with Ms. Borovskaya, is not known, but he obviously was not predisposed to work with her again.

As an example of Wolf’s directing, of a DEFA film, or any other yardstick you care to use, Goya stands apart from the other films in the DEFA library. It is powerful and grand, and does a good job of portraying the turbulent times in which Goya lived. Its attention to detail is remarkable, with an accuracy that Hollywood seldom attempts.

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* Feuchtwanger was on the Nazi’s enemy list even before they came to power because of his book Erfolg (Success), a fictional account of the rise and fall of a dictator who very much resembled Adolph Hitler. Within a year after Hitler was elected Chancellor, the first of many lists was published announcing the expatriation of undesirable German citizens. He was included on the first list of 33 citizens, alongside Heinrich Mann (author of The Kaiser’s Lackey), and future president of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck.