Posts Tagged ‘prison’

The Fiancée
The Fiancée (Die Verlobte) is a grim film that offers very few moments of levity during its hour and forty-five minute running time. It’s a women-in-prison film, but has nothing in common with the likes of Caged Heat, 99 Women, or the dozens of other women-in-prison films of the sixties and seventies. There is nothing salacious here—just the grim reality of life behind bars in Nazi Germany.

The film follows the ten-year imprisonment of Hella Lindau (Jutta Wachowiak), an anti-Nazi resistance fighter who is arrested after a botched attempt to hand money over to the resistance. Hella suffers through solitary confinement and abuse by other inmates as well as the guards, enduring it all for the day she’ll get out and be with her fiancé Hermann Reimers (Regimantas Adomaitis) again. Hermann is playing a dangerous game, getting cozy with Gestapo official Hensch (Hans-Joachim Hegewald) to improve Hella’s living conditions.

The film doesn’t rely on simple caricatures for the people at this prison. The warden has a secret socialist past, and the guard who is the nicest to Hella happily moves up in the Nazi ranks when she has a chance. Through it all, Hella stays resolute and never betrays anyone, but meanwhile, Hensch is keeping an eye on Hermann.

Die Verlobte

The film is based on Haus der schweren Tore (House with Heavy Gates) and Leben, wo gestorben wird (Living Where Death Is), two autobiographical novels by author Eva Lippold. The books were part of intended trilogy that she never completed. Considering that the first two books were published in 1971 and 1974, and that Lippold didn’t die until 1994, its clear that the last volume was proving to be a bit of a problem for her. Lippold was born in Magdeburg in 1909. She started working as a shorthand typist when she was still a teenager, and joined the German Communist Party (KPD) when she turned eighteen. She worked for a while as a typist for the KPD newspaper Tribüne, where she met Hermann Danz, the inspiration for Hermann Reimers. Lippold was arrested in 1934 and sentenced to nine years in prison. She was released in 1943 and assigned to forced labor at an armaments factory. She was arrested again in 1944 for being a member of the Saefkow-Jacob-Bästlein Organization, an underground communist organization in Nazi Germany. After the War, she became highly active in the Soviet sector as a member of the SED. Lippold lived long enough to see the collapse of the DDR and the reunification of Germany. She had been an ardent supporter of the SED, so this must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

The film was co-directed by Günter Reisch and Günther Rücker, which is an odd combination. Reisch was one of the deftest filmmakers to come out of DEFA. He had a light touch and a way of making even the most serious subject bearable. His films about German Communist Party co-founder Karl Liebknecht (As Long as There Is Life in Me and In Spite of Everything!) would have been dull affairs in the hands of almost any other filmmaker, but he keeps things interesting and entertaining. His 1978 film Anton the Magician would have been nominated for a foreign film Academy Award had it come from West Germany. Reisch died on February 24, 2014 and is buried in the French Cemetery (Französischer Friedhof) in Berlin.

Günther Rücker, on the other hand, was better known as a writer with a penchant for the grim. He wrote the scenarios for Until Death Do Us Part and The Gleiwitz Case, two of the grimmest movies to come out of the GDR. Along with screenplays, he also wrote several successful radio plays and novels. Rücker was born in 1927 in Reichenberg (Liberec), Czechoslovakia, a town that was heavily populated by Germans prior to World War II.1 He studied theater at the Theaterhochschule Leipzig and got his start writing plays for the radio. After the Wende, it came out that he had been working as an Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter (informer) for the the Stasi. After that Rücker retired from public view although he continued to write. Rücker died in Meiningen in 2008.

Jutta Wachowiak

In spite of the seeming differences between these two men, Reisch and Rücker worked together throughout their careers, starting with Reisch’s first film, Junges Gemüse (Young Vegetables), right up through The Fiancée.

As Hella Lindau, Jutta Wachowiak turns in the performance of a lifetime. Wachowiak was trained as a stage actress, but has worked in film and on television since 1961, She had a small role in On the Sunny Side and did an uncredited turn as Marianne in The Baldheaded Gang. From there, she went on to appear in several DEFA films but it was The Fiancée that finally gave her the credit she deserved. In 1986, she impressed critics on both sides of the border with her performance as Käthe Kollwitz in the film of the same name. This would be the last time we’d see Wachowiak in the lead role in a feature film. Since the Wende, most of her work has been in television, or in smaller roles in features.

Regimantas Adomaitis

Playing Lindau’s fiancé is Lithuanian actor Regimantas Adomaitis. Adomaitis had worked with Günter Reisch previously on Wolz – Life and Illusion of a German Anarchist. His film career started in the sixties, but made his first big splash in That Sweet Word: Liberty! (Это сладкое слово). In 1988, he helped found Sąjūdis, a political reform group bent on putting Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika in action in Lithuania (East Germany wasn’t alone in trying to ignore the changes going on around them). More recently, Adomaitis appeared in the 2008 Norwegian film Iskyss, a fictionalized account of Gunvor Galtung Haavik, who delivered state secrets to the Soviet Union out of love for a Russian former prisoner of war.

Despite the film’s grimness, The Fiancée did well at the box office and was lauded by critics on both sides of the border.

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1. After the War, nearly all Germans were were either kicked out or killed—at first, by vigilante groups and then as part of a official decrees by President of Czechoslovakia Edvard Beneš. The exact number of Germans killed during Czechoslovakia’s forced expulsions is still debated. Estimates run from 15,000 to 270,000, depending on whose counting.

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As its title suggests,  a recurring image throughout Rotation is the wheel. The wheel in this case appears in various forms, from the cylinders of the printing press that acts as the film’s Greek chorus, to the carousel at a fair where Hans Behneke, the film’s protagonist,  is forced to work during the Weimar Republic’s economic collapse. When we first see it, the printing press is running news of the battle for Berlin. The war is almost over, and we are treated to some remarkably effective battle sequences. Hans Behneke is standing in a prison cell, listening to the guns and bombs outside. Why he is there, we do not yet know. From here, the story flashes back to the end of World War I, when Hans, young and still unmarried, is returning from the Western Front. The film follows his story through his marriage, and the birth of his son, to the economic travails of the Weimar Republic and the ensuing paranoia of the Third Reich, to the end of World War II. While the film is mostly about Hans, it is also about his son, Hellmuth, who reaches school age just as the Nazis comes to power. Hellmuth is properly indoctrinated into the Nazi way of thinking and soon finds himself at odds with his more liberal parents. It doesn’t help that his uncle is fighting with the resistance.

Rotation examines a subject that is rarely discussed: the Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend). Inculcated with Nazi doctrine at an early age, Hitler Youth members were the most virulently pro-Nazi people in Germany. On many occasions they were known to have turned in their own parents when mom or dad would say something derogatory about der Führer. Betraying one’s own family for the Reich was seen as an act of the highest honor. It demonstrated that the child understood that nothing—not even blood—was more important than the fight for the Fatherland. At the end of the war, it was the Hitler Youths who fought the hardest, even after Hitler had killed himself rather than face the music. Rotation follows Hellmuth—unfortunately born just in time to get both barrels of Nazi doctrine—from his early indoctrination, through his eventual realization that everything he learned was wrong (ah, we’ve all been there, haven’t we?). To the film’s credit, it does not place all the blame on Hellmuth  for the travails he visited on his parent. It recognizes that he too was a victim of the Nazis.

Director Wolfgang Staudte is better than the average filmmaker at using the camera to create a symbolic narrative. He had already proved this with his use of the ruins of Berlin to show the internal desolation of the tormented protagonist in The Murderers are Among Us. In Rotation, his use of the aforementioned wheel motif is only one example of this. Again and again in the film, people are blocked by bars and lattices, suggesting that everyone in the Third Reich is trapped in one way or another. The wooden slats on Hellmuth’s crib morph to the ornate iron gates that keep the rich separated from the working class, to the poles holding the protest banners of striking workers, and finally to the bars of a holding cell. In a pivotal scene, victims of a flooded subway shelter are shown trapped behind a a steel grate as the water rises to drown them. The scene cuts to a bird trapped in a cage that is slowly sinking into the same murky water. The message is clear: the restrictions we place on our freedom will first constrain us and eventually kill us.

Early scenes between Hans and his wife are repeated later with Hellmuth and his fiancée, suggesting that the rotation in the title is that of life itself. Staudte got his start as an actor at UFA during the Weimar Republic. He appeared as an extra in the classic, The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel), and did the German voice-over for one of the lead characters in All Quiet of the Western Front. He was already starring in films when the Nazis came to power. Coming, as he did, from an acting background, Staudte understands the relationship between the performance and the camera better than most directors of the time (although he did tend to err on the side of melodrama).

Staudte started his directing career during the Third Reich. His first feature film, Akrobat Schööön!, was a big hit in Germany when it came out. Thanks to its lack of political perspective, it continued to be shown on TV in Germany after the war. His next film, Der Mann, dem man den Namen stahl (The Man, Who Had His Name Stolen), did not fare as well. As with Akrobat Schööön!, Der Mann, dem man den Namen stahl was a comedy. In it, two men who are given the same identity, which causes all sorts of problems and funny situations. Goebbels had it banned, probably due to its central conceit that the state was capable of making such a mistake. Staudte must have had strong feelings about this movie because he ended up remaking after the war as Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B. (The Adventures of Fridolin), using footage from the original film.

In the early years of the German Democratic Republic, it looked like Staudte was slated to be the most prominent filmmaker on the East German filmmaking scene. He got the ball rolling with The Murderers are Among Us, the first post-war German film; and a few years later would direct The Story of Little Mook, still the best selling film to come out of the GDR. But disagreements between him, the East German officials and Bertolt Brecht led to his defection to the west (for more on this, see The Story of Little Mook).

Cinematographer Bruno Mondi was already a well-respected cameraman when  the GDR came into existence. He had gotten his start back in 1921 with Fritz Lang as a camera assistant on Destiny. After the Nazi’s came to power, Mondi never stopped working, and was responsible for filming Kolberg, the most lavish color production of the Third Reich. After the war, he made films for DEFA, and then fled to the west, where his knowledge of color was put to good use in the stunningly photographed (and stunningly banal) Sissi films.

Wolfgang Staudte and his cinematographer, Bruno Mondi, had worked together before under the most unfortunate of circumstances. Mondi was the cinematographer for Jud Süß, considered the most virulently anti-Semitic film ever made. Wolfgang Staudte, still an actor in 1940, appeared in the film in a minor role. After the war, this film led to charges of “crimes against humanity” for the film’s director, Veit Harlan. Harlan successfully claimed he was just a pawn, hired to direct the film with no control over its content or perspective; perhaps the only occasion in history of a director denying the autuer theory. Mondi was not charged and seems to have managed to come through the Third Reich without the stigma that haunted directors such as Harlan and Riefenstahl. (For more on Veit Harlan, see the documentary, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss.)

During his long career, Staudte directed nearly every type of film, from light comedies to heavy dramas. During the seventies, he worked largely in television, directing episodes of the popular crime dramas, Der Kommisar, and Tatort. He worked right up until his death. His last film, a TV-movie called Der Snob (The Snob), was released two months after his death.

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