Posts Tagged ‘protests’

The Condemned Village
If you look up The Condemned Village (Das verurteilte Dorf) on Wikipedia (either the English or the German version) you’ll find it described as a “propaganda film.” You could argue that point, but if you look up The Steel Fist, My Son John, Red Snow, or Walk East on Beacon—all made the same year as The Condemned Village—you’ll find them described as “drama” and “adventure” films, or as “film noir.” Only later in their descriptions does the fact that these films are all virulent anti-communist even come up. Clearly, “propaganda” is in the eye of the beholder and the writers of these capsule reviews are most likely from the West.1

The Condemned Village tells the story of a village that rises up in protest against American plans to level their village and turn it into an airbase. The story starts when Heinz Weimann (Günther Simon) returns to the Bavarian village of Bärenweiler after spending five years in a Soviet P.O.W. camp. Weimann is a cheerful fellow in spite of his wartime experiences, but he’s also a communist, which rankles the local bigwigs. Weimann tries to disabuse them of the nonsense they’ve heard about communism, but they don’t pay much attention at first. Meanwhile, his childhood sweetheart Käthe (Helga Göring) has married Fritz Vollmer (Albert Doerner), an avaricious reptile of a man who can’t wait to get out of Bärenweiler.

Things come to a head after the U.S. Military shows up and decides that Bärenweiler would be the perfect place to put their new airbase. The locals at first try to do things “by the book,” but it becomes apparent that the government is going to do whatever the Americans tell them to do. The local priest appeals to the church, but the church isn’t interested either. Eventually, the townspeople decide that their only course of action is passive resistance. Weimann contacts his friends in local unions and they join the cause.

The Condemned Village

The story was written by the husband and wife team of Jeanne and Kurt Stern, and is reportedly based on an article they read about a similar protest in the Bavarian town of Hammelburg.2 The Sterns had been active in the Communist Party since before the War and joined the SED as soon as it was formed. The couple were part of the Intelligenzsiedlung (Intelligentsia Settlement), an exclusive neighborhood in Berlin’s Pankow-Niederschönhausen district reserved for creative-types and intellectuals who supported the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). Most of Kurt Stein’s work was in journalism, while Jeanne worked as a translator. They only wrote three feature film scripts. They also worked together as writers and directors of the 1962 documentary Unbändiges Spanien (Untameable Spain). Kurt died shortly before the Wall came down, while Jeanne lived to see her dream of a socialist state collapse under the forces of capitalism.

DEFA had wanted Falk Harnack to direct the film, but Harnack found the script formulaic and clichéd. It was obviously an attempt to duplicate the style of the socialist realism popular in the Soviet Union, but directors such as Maetzig, Harnack, Staudte, and others were trying to create something new; a more objective, less strident approach to storytelling. Other directors were approached but turned down the job. Eventually, Martin Hellberg was hired to direct the film

Up until that point, Hellberg wasn’t a filmmaker; he worked in theater. He got his start before the War, but, being a member of the KPD, he found it nearly impossible to find work once Hitler came to power. His unwillingness to renounced his political beliefs led to his exclusion from the Reich Chamber of Culture (Reichskulturkammer) in 1942. Like every able-bodied man in Germany, he was eventually drafted, but managed to get through those last years of the Third Reich relatively unscathed. After the War, he worked as a theater director in Munich, but found West Germany almost as hostile to his political beliefs as the Nazis were. In 1949, he moved to East Germany, working as a theater director in his hometown of Dresden.

The Condemned Village was his first film as a director and it was a hit. This led to more directing gigs at DEFA. His films include The Ox of Kulm (Der Ochse von Kulm), The Judge of Zalamea (Der Richter von Zalamea), Intrigue and Love (Kabale und Liebe), Emilia Galotti, and Minna von Barnhelm, or the Soldier’s Fortune. His last film as a director was the East German film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (Viel Lärm um nichts). Thereafter, he worked in films only as an actor and won praise for his performance as Goethe in Lotte in Weimar. He died in 1999 in Bad Berka, near Weimar.

The Condemned Village

The Condemned Village starred Günther Simon and was his first film. It’s apparent from this film that he was a shoo-in to play Ernst Thälmann in Kurt Maetzig’s films. He is a commanding presence in this film (for more on Simon, see My Wife Wants to Sing). Playing opposite him is Helga Göring. This is her first feature film as well, but it wouldn’t be her last. She appeared in over 100 films and television shows in East Germany, plus several more after the Wall came down. She started acting in theater in 1940 after graduating from the Academy of Music and Theater in Dresden. For a time, after the War, she used the stage name “Helga Bonnet” to avoid association with Hitler’s favorite drug addict, Hermann Göring. After seeing Göring in Erwin Anders’ short film Kann mir gar nicht passieren (It Can’t Happen to Me), Hellberg cast her as the lead in his film. She has a tough job here. She has to make Käthe sympathetic while acknowledging that the woman did marry the most repulsive man in the town. Somehow, she manages it.

Less effective are the “American” soldiers, most of whom sound like they’ve never heard the English language spoken before. Wolf Kaiser plays the main heavy here. His name is never given. He’s simply “The Colonel.” The Colonel is a strutting, sunglass-wearing martinet, equal parts Patton and MacArthur. He’s hell-bent of leveling the town whether the locals like it or not. Kaiser attempts to speak German with an American accent, but he seems to forget sometimes. His effort is much weaker than Eva Pflug’s amazing performance as an American in The Council of the Gods.

Stylistically, The Condemned Village could be called (and has been) a socialist realist Heimatfilm. It has elements of the socialist realism we see so often in post-War Soviet films, combined with scenes that look like they came right out of one of Leni Riefenstahl’s pre-War Bergfilme. The best scene in the film occurs when the police spray the protesters with water. The scene feels absolutely real and sticks out in an otherwise romanticized film.

Das verurteilte Dorf

It’s clear that this film was made exclusively for a German audience, perhaps to its detriment. When the villagers—dressed very much as they would have dressed one hundred years earlier—rally in front of the government building there is a whiff of pitchforks and torches about it. When one woman, her face contorted with hatred, shouts “Germany for Germans!” (Deutschland ist Deutsch!), it has the same venom as when Hitler said it. I don’t think Hellberg or the Sterns intended it that way, and that’s not how it was perceived by German audiences. By 1952, Germans were tired of the Americans dictating the terms of their lives. I suspect the audiences reacted to the line and this film with a hearty “right on.” The film was a huge hit in both halves of Germany, much to the dismay of the American Military authority.

It’s interesting to compare The Condemned Village with Samuel Fuller’s Verboten! which reflects the American attitude towards Germans and German indignation at the end of the War. Frankly, we didn’t care if the Germans were upset over anything our military did in their homeland; they were Germans and German = Nazi. They couldn’t be trusted. End of discussion. This is best exemplified by Your Job in Germany, a short film shown to troops in Europe after the War to make sure they never saw Germans as anything other than monsters.

So is the film propaganda? Yes, but 1952 was a banner year for propaganda. In terms of output, there were far more anti-communists films made that year than anti-American films. We just didn’t call them propaganda films. We called them entertainment.

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1. There’s no room here to get into the perception of the word propaganda, which was seen as a good thing in the early part of the twentieth century but eventually became the pejorative term it is today.

2. My attempts to corroborate this turned up nothing. The only similar event I could find was a failed attempt by Patton to free the prisoners at a P.O.W. camp near Hammelburg. That camp, Stalag XIII-C, became the basis of Stalag 13 on the popular sixties television sit-com Hogan’s Heroes.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Castles and Cottage

Castles and Cottages (Schlösser und Katen) is three-and-a-half hour, two-part film that covers the events in a small Mecklenburg village from the end of WWII to the protests on June 17th in 1953. It could be considered an epic if the details of the story weren’t kept so localized and the scale so small. The first part begins at the moment the war ends and the villagers hear that the Russians are coming. After the rich landowners flee to the west, the locals wrestle with their ideological differences in an attempt to perfect a socialist model that will give everyone in town an equal voice. To its credit, the film does not sugarcoat the process and shows good and bad people on both sides of the argument, and the difficulties encountered during the transition.

The second part covers the months prior to the June 17th uprising. June 17th, 1953 stands as one of the most important dates in the history of East Germany; second only to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The country was a little over three-and-a-half years old in June of 1953, and the early promise of a utopian socialism was rapidly eroding in the face of human nature, crop failures, subversive activities, and Ulbricht’s slavish and ill-advised adherence to Stalin’s ruthless version of communism. When construction workers in East Berlin went on strike on June 16th to protest Ulbricht’s announcement that they must work twice as hard for half as much, the U.S.-founded West German radio station RIAS made the story their major news point, which helped inflame the situation across the GDR. Strikes and protests sprang up all over the country. In some places, the protests turned particularly nasty. In Rathenow, a Stasi official was hanged. Elsewhere, police stations, newspaper offices and radio stations were taken over by protesters. In his book, Wir waren die bessere Republik, Jürgen Fischer reports that in Magdeburg a policewoman was stripped almost naked and forced to lead the protesters’ train.

The situation was resolved with brute force when the Soviets arrived to remind everyone that they still held all the cards. Soviet and East German documents from that time now show us that the use of force was mostly Ulbricht’s idea, and the country would pay for this decision for the rest of its existence. It never fully recovered from the event, and it marked the end of the idea that workers had in power in East Germany. It also cemented the SED’s dependence on the Soviet Union for muscle; a dependence that would spell their downfall when Gorbachev cut those apron strings for good.

In spite of the failure of the strikes and protests, West German authorities treated the events of June 17th as an ideological victory. They would point to the use of force as proof that the only way the GDR could continue to exist was under bootheel of the Soviet Union. They would name a section of Unter den LindenStraße des 17. Juni” in honor of the day’s events and make the day a national holiday, calling it the “Day of German Unity” (now celebrated, more honestly, on October 3rd).

As one might imagine, the East German authorities saw the events of the day in a very different light, and it is in this light that Castles and Cottages is cast. From their perspective, the uprising was an attempt by outside forces to destroy the government; the crop failures were the result of intentionally poisoned grain shipments and sabotage, and the protests were led by agents provocateurs. The film also suggests that the events of the day helped weed out the intentionally subversive elements in East German society, leading to a more unified country.

The pivotal character in the film is Annagret, an idealistic young woman who is unaware that she is the daughter of the local aristocrat Graf von Holzendorf. A hunchbacked handyman called “Crooked Anton” (Krummer Anton) has pretended to be Annagret’s father for the sake of von Holzendorf’s reputation. Much of the film’s plot centers around a paper that proves Annagret’s birthright, and the value of the paper to different factions. The main villain of the piece is Bröker, von Holzendorf’s duplicitous overseer. Bröker pretends to side with the villagers, but is always looking out for his own interests. While the Von Holzendorf family may represent the plutocracy, Bröker represents the forces of destruction bent on tearing down the socialist system.

The film’s director, Kurt Maetzig, is no stranger to this blog. He had already made Marriage in the Shadows, Council of the Gods, and the Ernst Thälmann films when he took on this project. He was easily the most respected filmmaker in East Germany in 1957, which probably explains why he was able to give this film a more evenhanded approach than the Ernst Thälmann films. Maetzig’s allegiance is firmly in the socialist camp, but he does a good job here of fleshing out the viewpoints of the anti-socialist camp. Even those who are in favor of socialism are able to recognize the problems that they face. “Under capitalism I had no land. Under socialism, I have no time,” one character says.

The initial screenplay was by Kurt Barthel, an East German writer and playwright who often worked under the pseudonym, “KuBa.” Barthel was fighting for socialist causes from an early age. Before the war, he wrote for Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the communist newspaper founded by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. After the Nazis came to power, he fled to England where he joined the nascent Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth), a group that would take on an important role in the German Democratic Republic. He worked with Krista Wolf on the screenplays for Divided Heaven and Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly), which was banned while still in production as a result of the 11th Plenum.

From 1956 until his death, Barthel was the chief dramaturge at the Rostock People’s Theatre. As a lifelong supporter of communist causes, it is ironic that he died of a heart attack in Frankfurt, West Germany’s center of capitalism, during a touring performance of a revolutionary revue when the local SDS members rioted because they didn’t find revolutionary enough. He is buried in Rostock.

Playing the complicated character of Crooked Anton is the intense-looking Raimund Schelcher. Schelcher was born in 1910 in Dar es Salaam to German parents. He started his acting career on stage during the Weimar years and gained a name for himself as a talented stage performer. In 1938, he made his film debut in Veit Harlan’s The Immortal Heart (Das unsterbliche Herz), he made one more film before he was arrested for his outspoken views on National Socialism. From jail, he was conscripted into one of the Nazi’s infamous Bewährungsbataillonen (Parole Battalions) that were created when the German started losing too many men to the Eastern Front. Schelcher was captured by the Russians and spent the rest of the war in prison. Afterward, he moved to Bremen, where he returned to stage acting. In 1950, he moved to East Berlin to work at the renowned Deutsches Theater Berlin. From there, he started working for DEFA, appearing in several classic East German films, including, The Axe of Wandsbek, The Kaiser’s Lackey, and Berlin – Schönhauser Corner.

Schelcher was an excellent actor, but he had one small problem: he liked the bottle a little too much. Worried that this might affect his ability to perform in the film, Maetzig took the unusual step of filming his scenes twice. First with Schelcher, and then with his understudy, Hans Hardt-Hardtloff. Schelcher managed to make it through the film, and it is his version that was released. The incident was used to comic effect by Andreas Dressen in his movie, Whisky with Vodka (Whisky mit Wodka). As he got older, the drinking became more of a problem and Schelcher’s appearances in films got fewer and further between. He died in Berlin in 1972.

Playing the young and idealistic Annagret is the lovely Karla Runkehl. She first caught people’s attention playing the committed freedom fighter Änne Harms in the Ernst Thälmann films. Over the years, she appeared in over thirty films as well as several television shows, but it is her early appearances in films such as this one and the Thälmann films for which she is best remembered. Ms. Runkehl died in 1986 at the age of 56 and is buried in Kleinmachnow cemetery.

The villainous Bröker is played by Erwin Geschonneck, who, like Maetzig is regular in the pages of this blog. Over his long career in East Germany, Geschonneck proved he could play virtually any type of role, from the lovable nebbish in Carbide and Sorrel to the brave battalion leader in Five Cartridges. In Castles and Cottages, Geschonneck plays one of his least sympathetic characters. Even in The Axe of Wandsbeck, his portrayal of the avaricious butcher Albert Teetjen is not with pathos. But here his character is without almost any redeeming qualities. He represents the subversive element that was left in the Soviet sector after the war, constantly undermining the efforts to create a sustainable socialist democracy. [Note: for more on Erwin Geschonneck, see Carbide and Sorrel.]

The film score was composed by Wilhelm Neef. Like that other popular film composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse, Neef was a classically trained musician and it shows. The score is classical and beautiful. As an orchestral piece, it could stand on its own in any concert hall in the world and deserves more attention from the music community. Neef wrote dozens of films scores and is best known for his work on the Indianerfilme. During the seventies, he stopped writing film scores so that he could concentrate on his classical music career. He died in 1990 at the age of 74 in Potsdam.

Castles and Cottages is a unique film. It is usually shown in two parts with separate viewings. Each part tells a complete enough story to stand on its own. Its East German perspective on the June 17th uprising is reason enough for anyone interested in German history to give this film a look.

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