Posts Tagged ‘Poland’

Held for Questioning
The backstory of Held for Questioning (Der Aufenthalt) is the story of a film that was made against all odds, by a director that DEFA had, essentially, written off the books. Frank Beyer was one of the best filmmakers in East Germany. He proved this time and again, with movies such as Five Cartridges, Naked Among Wolves, and Star-Crossed Lovers; all of which were critically acclaimed on both sides of the Iron Curtain, He was also responsible for delivering East Germany’s only Oscar-nominated feature (Jakob the Liar); a film so good that Hollywood was quick to remake it (badly) in their own image. Watch Beyer’s films and you’ll see why. Here’s a director who understands the film medium better than most other directors—West and East.

You’d think this would have made him the darling of DEFA, but that was not how the GDR worked. In 1966, he got in trouble after the 11th Plenum, when the authorities decided that his film Trace of Stones was anti-socialist. Beyer was relegated to TV, and wasn’t allowed to make another feature film until 1974, when he made Jakob the Liar. The film was such a hit that he was allowed to return to feature filmmaking once more.

After Jakob the Liar, he made The Hiding Place (Das Versteck), a romantic comedy inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. It starred the always popular Manfred Krug and Jutta Hoffmann and had nothing particularly controversial in it, but right before the film was slated for release, the East German authorities decided it would be a good idea to expatriate Wolf Biermann while the folksinger was on tour in Cologne. Over one hundred writers, actors, directors, poets and other artists signed a letter of protest against the move. Four of those who signed the letter included Manfred Krug and Jutta Hoffmann—the stars of The Hiding Place—as well as the film’s screenwriter Jurek Becker and director Frank Beyer. The film was given an extremely limited release and quickly shelved. All four people were essentially blacklisted, with Krug, Hoffmann, and Becker moving to West Germany to get away from the work restrictions and constant surveillance. Beyer stayed behind, but once again found himself relegated to the world of television. Perhaps as an act of defiance, he went to West Germany and made a film starring Angelica Domröse and her husband Hilmar Thate, who, like Krug and Hoffmann, had signed the Biermann protest letter, and then left East Germany because of the punitive measures taken against all the signatories. At this point, it looked like Beyer would never be allowed to make another feature film in East Germany.

Der Aufenhalt

One night, while talking to screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Beyer mentioned that he would love to make a movie out of Hermann Kant’s semi-autobiographical novel, Der Aufenthalt (literally, The Stay), but he felt that the book’s interweaving stories would be too unwieldy for a film. Kohlhaase had a solution. “Just focus on the story of Mark Niebuhr, the nineteen-year-old German soldier who, at the end of WWII, is mistakenly identified as an SS officer and thrown into prison.” Beyer liked the idea, but DEFA wasn’t ready to let him back into the fold. They only relented after author Hermann Kant gave DEFA the ultimatum that either Beyer directed the film or no one would. And so, Held for Questioning was made.

As you might guess from the subject matter, Held for Questioning is a grim affair. The story starts in a railway yard, when a women identifies Niebuhr as the SS officer responsible for the murder of her daughter at Lublin. Things go quickly downhill for Niebuhr after that. Nobody will tell him what it is he’s supposed to have done. From his perspective, events are playing out like Franz Kafka’s The Trial. At first he is kept in solitary confinement, then released into the main prison with Polish prisoners who hate him. Later he is moved to the cell containing other German officers, and it is here that he learns of the heinous crimes his fellow inmates committed. He begins to understand that, while not guilty of the charge with which he’s accused, he is, at least, guilty of not bothering to pay attention to what was happening around him, and of helping their actions.

A story like this could be easily ruined by a less talented filmmaker, but Wolfgang Kohlhaase and Frank Beyer are far too good at their craft to fall into that trap. As usual, Kohlhaase leaves enough space between events to let you fill in blanks, and Beyer knows just how to direct it. In one scene, two Polish girls flirt with the handsome young Niebuhr, until they learn what he’s accused of. They look on him in horror. It is also the first time Niebuhr hears just what it is he’s charged with.

The Stay

Playing Mark Niebuhr is Sylvester Groth in his first feature film. Groth’s career in East German films was short. He made his last film for DEFA in 1986 (Das Haus am FlußThe House on the River). While visiting Austria as a guest actor, he decided not to return to the GDR, and began his career in the West. With his expressive and striking features, it didn’t take long for him to find work in West Germany, and then later in Hollywood. He has appeared in numerous films, including Inglourious Basterds, The Reader, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Whisky with Vodka (Whisky mit Wodka) and many more. Recently, he’s become familiar to American television viewers as Walter Schweppenstette in the popular TV series Deutschland 83, and for portraying Walter Ahler in NSU: German History X.

Held for Questioning was a critical success, and won several prizes. It was scheduled to be shown at the 1983 Berlinale, but it was pulled from the film festival and banned from any international distribution after a Polish military attaché denounced the film as anti-Polish. It was nothing of the kind, of course, but the attaché spoke very little German, and objected to the fact that the Germans made a movie in which the protagonist was imprisoned by Polish soldiers. It didn’t help that the Polish military officers were still wearing the same outfits in 1983 that they wore in 1946. With the recent clashes between the Polish government and the Solidarity movement, the film took on an entirely new subtext that neither Beyer nor Kohlhaase had meant or anticipated. After that, it was only allowed to be shown in the the state-owned theaters in East Germany.

In spite of the Polish objections to it, Held for Questioning was a popular film with audiences and critics, and it helped Beyer get back in DEFA’s good graces. Unfortunately, his return to feature films didn’t last long. Six years later, the end of the GDR also meant the end of the careers of many fine East German filmmakers and technicians. Beyer found himself once again relegated to the world of television, this time thanks to the forces of West German exclusivity rather than East German retribution.

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The Gleiwitz Case (Der Fall Gleiwitz) is director Gerhard Klein’s 1961 film about an event in southern Poland that was used by Hitler to start World War II. Hitler knew he couldn’t start a war without provocation, and since none was forthcoming, he did what any good tyrant would do: he created one. After all, it’s much easier to get the public behind efforts to gear up the war machine after a country’s been attacked. It was called the “Gleiwitz Incident” and it took place on August 31, 1939. The conspiracy came to light during the Nuremberg Trials, when an SS-Sturmbannführer named Alfred Naujocks spilled the beans. Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller entrusted Naujocks with the task of faking an attack on a German radio station in Gleiwitz (Gliwice), Poland. The attack was supposed to look like the work of the Polish resistance. Müller, along with his boss, Reinhard Heydrich, planned the fake attack down to the last detail, including a resistance fighter shot at the scene. For the unlucky martyr, the Gestapo dragooned a political prisoner, who was taken to Gleiwitz and shot. Klein’s movie recounts the events meticulously, from the moment the plan is put into action until its horrifying conclusion.

Clocking in at just under seventy minutes, The Gleiwitz Case is one of the shorter DEFA features, but, like any good story, it’s exactly as long as it needs to be to tell the tale. Klein mostly follows the facts, but that doesn’t stop him from creating an astounding film. He takes the expressionism of Weimar-Ufa and combines it with French New Wave and underground filmmaking to create a dizzying display of cinematic imagination. The camera takes on a life of its own, occasionally moving along at floor level like a rat, then swinging and spinning, as if the events on screen are too much for it take in. Equally audacious is Evelyn Carow’s editing, which treats the sound and the visuals as separate but equal aspects of the movie. In one scene, while a car is waiting at a railroad crossing for a troop train to pass, the singing of the soldiers on board the train turns into a rhythmic chant that mimics the sound of the passing train. The meaning is clear; the war machine is in motion and nothing can stop it.

When the film was shown to the GDR authorities, not everyone approved. Some thought it glorified Nazism and one person remarked: “Veit Harlan (director of the notorious Jud Süß) could have made this movie.” This infuriated Klein, who had worked with the communist resistance during WWII. The reaction of the authorities is understandable though. Most people come to a movie with the automatic assumption that there will be a protagonist who will prevail against all odds, but The Gleiwitz Case offers no such comforts. Klein knew the Gleiwitz Incident was the single most important event in the history of WWII, and any attempts to get on one’s high horse would detract from the story. Thus he presents it without the socialist proselytizing sometimes found in DEFA films.

The Gleiwitz Case script was written by Wolfgang Kohlhaase and Günther Rücker. Wolfgang Kohlhaase and director Klein had already made names for themselves with their “Berlin Trilogy”—three films that examined modern life in the divided city (Alarm at the Circus, A Berlin Romance, Berlin – Schönhauser Corner). This was Kohlhaase’s first foray into the world of WWII storytelling, but not his last. He returned to the subject in 1968 with Konrad Wolf’s autobiographical film I Was Nineteen. Unlike many of the DEFA talents, the Wende had little effect on his career. he continues to write scripts; primarily for fellow Ossi, Andreas Dressen.

Günther Rücker was a talented and well-respected writer, whose work included plays, novels, short stories, and radio programs. He was a keen observer of women and the problems they faced in East Germany. His screenplays for Her Third, Until Death Do Us Part, Die Verlobte  (The Fiancée), and Hilde, das Dienstmädchen (Housemaid Hilde) all feature female protagonists from various walks of life. From 1974 to 1982, he was in charge of the Poetry and Linguistics department (Dichtkunst und Sprachpflege) at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. He won the National Prize of the GDR several times, and the Prix Italia for his radio play, Die Grünstein-Variante (The Greenstone Variation), which, coincidentally, was based on Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s theatrical adaptation of the stories of Ludwig Tureck.1 Rücker also directed a few films for DEFA. After the Wende, he made no further movies, and died in 2008.

The cinematographer  for The Gleiwitz Case was Jan Curik from Czechoslovakia (Czech Republic). Curik is best known in the west for his dazzling color work on Jaromil Jires’s psychedelic masterpiece, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (the inspiration for Neil Jordan’s coming-of-age fantasy, The Company of Wolves), and his equally striking black-and-white photography in Jires’s The Joke (Zerk). He was also the cinematographer on Frantisek Vlácil’s The White Dove  (Holubice). Some frames in The Gleiwitz Case are so perfect they could stand alone as still photographs: a man sitting at a radio console, a car on the autobahn, hands chained to a wall. In the scene where Naujocks addresses his stormtroopers, the combination of lighting and photography creates the effect of accentuating the skull beneath Naujocks skin, giving him the sinister appearance of a grim reaper. It is amazing to note that in spite of his important contributions to the history of world cinema, Jan Curik remains largely ignored. As of this writing, there is no biography of him on any version of Wikipedia, including the Czech version; and yet every critique of a film that Curik shot contains references to the outstanding photography. Curik died in 1996 at the age of 72.

Alongside the visual beauty of this film, its use of music stands out. The film opens in darkness with a frenetic piece of carnival music reminiscent of The Three Penny Opera. Not coincidentally, the composer, Kurt Schwaen, worked extensively with Brecht during the fifties and Brecht’s influence stayed with him throughout his career. Schwaen composed music for only a few soundtracks, preferring to concentrate on his serious compositions. In 1965, he became the head of the music department at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. He would go on to compose over 620 compositions; everything from orchestral works and operas to solo piano pieces. In scenes at the radio station, Schwaen’s soundtrack is replaced with the popular music being broadcast. When we first see the giant wooden radio tower in Gleiwitz, for instance, we hear the strains of Heinrich Berger’s orchestral version of “Aloha Oe” playing (we’ll hear this song again in I Was Nineteen). Later in the film, as the station is being attacked, choral music plays behind the chaos. This juxtaposition of light music with serious scenes is an ironic technique that was still relatively unknown in 1961 outside of the work of underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger. It would take Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in 1964 to bring this technique to American mainstream cinema, and filmmakers like John Waters and Quentin Tarantino to turn it into a trope.

Making a film without a likable lead character or a happy ending is always a risky proposition. Audiences seldom respond well to that sort of thing. So it’s no surprise that the film did poorly at the box office and quickly disappeared from theaters. Nonetheless, critics on both sides of the Iron Curtain were impressed with the film. The film critic for the West Berlin newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel cited it as the most visually striking film from the GDR since Konrad Wolf’s Stars. A few years after it played in the east, the film started showing up at film clubs in West Berlin. Some have complained that The Gleiwitz Case distorts certain facts (there is no evidence, for instance, that Naujocks fired the fatal shot). Nonetheless, the film stands as an exceptional example of what the DEFA directors were capable of when the authorities allowed it .

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1. In 1985, a West German version of the story was filmed by actor/director Berhard Wicki, with a screenplay by Wicki and Kohlhaase.

The only East German film to receive wide circulation in the US during the early sixties is a science fiction film titled The Silent Star (Der schweigende Stern). It is based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, The Astronauts, and was the first science fiction film to be made at the DEFA studios as a co-production with Zespoły Filmowe. The Silent Star tells the story of a multi-national team of astronauts that goes to Venus to investigate the possible existence of intelligent life there. [Note: this was before later space probes proved that Venus is actually an extremely inhospitable environment for nearly any form of life, except for some sulphuric acid-loving microbes.]

The film was picked up by Crown International Pictures (CIP), a company that specialized in cheaply-made exploitation films for the American drive-in market. Like that other drive-in movie distributor, American International Pictures, Crown International often supplemented their catalog of low-budget, American-made movies with heavily-edited foreign films. CIP bought the distribution rights to The Silent Star, dubbed it (badly), and chopped fifteen minutes out of it, rendering the already complicated story nearly incomprehensible. They then released it under the title, First Spaceship on Venus. Small wonder, then, that it ended up as a target for ridicule by the snarky film mockers at Mystery Science Theater 3000. In spite of the poor dubbing, choppy editing, and relegation to the grindhouse circuit, the movie still made a strong impression on those of us who saw it in 1962 (in my case, at the Lyric Theatre in Tucson, Arizona).

On of the most memorable things about the movie—at least to kids—is Omega (pronounced “OH-mee-ga”), a tiny tank-like robot that may well have served as the inspiration for R2D2. Radio-controlled devices were still fairly new at the time. The Nazis had used radio-controlled rockets and bombs during WWII, but these were heavy devices with large batteries and vacuum tubes. The advent of transistors made it possible to include these controls in smaller, lighter devices, leading to the model airplane craze of the late fifties. When the film first played in East Germany, Omega must have seemed like a pretty impressive piece of technology. By the time the film made it to the United States most people were familiar with radio-controlled toys, but that didn’t make Omega any less endearing.

The Silent Star starts with the discovery of a mysterious spool found in the Gobi Desert. It is made from an unknown substance and a group of scientists from around the world is brought together to examine it. The scientists discover that the source of the spool is Venus. They build a rocketship to go to Venus and investigate. On board the ship are an American nuclear physicist, a German pilot, a Polish chief engineer, a female Japanese doctor, a Soviet astronaut (the term cosmonaut had not been coined when Lem wrote his book), an Indian mathematician, a Chinese linguist, and an African technician. What they find is a civilization that accidentally destroyed itself while building a weapon intended to destroy our planet. The crew—as least the ones that survive—come back to Earth and convince everyone on this planet should live in harmony. The film ends with all the different crews holding hands. All that’s missing is Kumbaya.

It is worth noting that while people give Star Trek credit for using a multi-ethnic cast at a time when TV in American was almost exclusively the domain of white males, The Silent Star had done this six years earlier. More importantly, the film played in the United States in late 1962, shortly before Gene Roddenberry started working on the Star Trek pilot. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but the film did receive wide distribution, and was seen by many fans of science fiction.

Stanislaw Lem was never very happy with either his book or the movie. It was his first book, and he felt he was forced to bend some of the ideas to fit a specifically communist perspective. This is truer still of the movie, but the proselytizing is mild compared to many other films of the time (both east and west). It is no small irony that this tale of brotherly love and international friendship was made a year before the wall was built, sealing off East Berlin from the west for the next twenty-eight years.

The technical crew for this film consisted of the best that DEFA had to offer. The special effects supervisor was Ernst Kunstmann, who had done special effects for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The cinematographer was Joachim Hasler, who would later go on to become a successful director in his own right, mostly famously for the East German “Beach Party” movie, Hot Summer. And the editing was by Lena Neumann, who had gotten her start as an editor during the Third Reich and was, at that point, the most experienced editor in East Germany,

The director, Kurt Maetzig, had already made a name for himself with films such as Council of the Gods, Marriage in the Shadows, Die Buntkarierten, and the Ernst Thälmann films. At that point, he was the most respected filmmaker in East Germany. Maetzig got his start as a film technician during the Third Reich, but lost his work privileges after the Nuremberg Laws were enacted (his mother was Jewish). During WWII, he joined the banned Communist Party, and didn’t return to Berlin until after the war. In October of 1945, he co-founded Filmaktiv—a group dedicated to reinventing and reviving the German film industry. This eventually led to the founding of DEFA. Maetzig retired from filmmaking in 1976. He turned 100 in January of 2011.

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