Posts Tagged ‘red army’

Mama, ich lebe
Occasionally, East Germany’s film studio DEFA worked with production companies from other countries. This gave those countries access to the Babelsberg film studios, which were some of the best in Europe, and it allowed DEFA to provide a better variety of films to the East German public. With many of these films, the influence of what we’d call the DEFA style is minimized. The Crucible, for instance, is essentially a French film, and Five Days, Five Nights follows the socialist realist style of Soviet Union cinema more closely than the more objective style popular with East German filmmakers. DEFA partnered with, the USSR on fourteen films, and most of these look and feel like Soviet films. Two notable exceptions are the two directed by Konrad Wolf—Goya, and Mama, I’m Alive (Mama, ich lebe). Perhaps this is because, unlike most of his comrades at DEFA, Wolf spoke Russian at least as well as he spoke German, so he could express exactly what he was after without resorting to intermediaries, or perhaps he was more sure of his artistic vision than most.

Mama, I’m Alive is very much a Konrad Wolf film. It starts with a photograph of four German soldiers dressed in Red Army outfits, which provokes questions about the people in it. Who are they? What are their stories? The film answers these questions as it follows the exploits of the four German soldiers who decide to join the Red Army and are sent back into battle. As they prepare for their new roles, we are shown glimpses of the backstories of each man in flashbacks. Karl Koralewski (Eberhard Kirchberg) is an artist and seems to be the most self-assured. Helmuth Kuschke (Detlef Gieß) is a theology student, which leads to some interesting discussions on religion and socialism. Walter Pankonin (Uwe Zerbe) is a carpenter who is the quietest of the bunch, and a pacifist. When captured by the Soviets, he admits to having never shot at anyone. More than the others, he seems to know what he is and is not willing to do in the name of war. Perhaps this is the reason Red Army soldier Svetlana (Margarita Terekhova) falls in love with him. The fourth soldier is Günther Becker (Peter Prager) is a young pilot, straight out of school who is still trying to figure things out. Becker serves as the focal point for the story.

Mama, I'm Alive

All four men believe in the socialist cause to varying degrees and hate what Hitler is doing in the name of Germany, but when they get to the front, they discover that saying you want to fight for the communist cause, and actually shooting your fellow countrymen are two very different things. Wolf touched on some of these themes in his previous film, I Was Nineteen, but this time it is from the perspective of people who, unlike Gregor Hecker in that film (or Wolf himself), did not leave Germany at a young age. They are not returning to a land that is alien to them, but to their homes. When they look at German soldiers, they see themselves. In one scene, the four men encounter a boxcar filled with German soldiers being shipped off to a prison camp. Koralewski’s attempts to engage them fall on deaf ears. They neither know nor trust him. He runs after the train, trying to toss potatoes to the hungry men in the boxcar, but it is a futile gesture, accomplishing little.

Director Konrad Wolf shows his usual skill here, keeping the rhythm of the film moving forward with a mix of close-ups and long shots. Partly this is thanks to his cinematographer, Walter Bergmann. Wolf had used Bergmann on every film he made up to that point, but this would be their last film together. Bergmann continued to work and even directed from time to time. Bergmann had lost his right arm to shrapnel during World War II, which makes his success as a cameraman all the more impressive. He also taught at the film school in Babelsberg and was one of the creators of Greif zur Kamera, Kumpel! (Grab Your Camera, Buddy!), an East German TV show intended to encourage amateur photography and moviemaking.

train from Mama, ich lebe

The screenplay is by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who is certainly no stranger to this blog, having written screenplays for such classics as Berlin Schönhauser Corner, The Gleiwitz Case, I Was Nineteen, and Solo Sunny. The film is based on Fragen an ein Foto (Questions About a Photo), a radio play by Kohlhaase that aired in 1969. As with most of Kohlhaase’s work, there is a focus on the subtleties of language, and their effects on our ability to communicate with each other. This time he moves outside of his usual Berlin sphere to tackle the problems of communicating across two different languages and the effects the ways cultural differences can impede the exchange of ideas. This was Kohlhaase’s third film working with Konrad Wolf, but it wouldn’t be his last. The duo would work together again on Solo Sunny, possibly their best effort as a team.

The four soldiers, Becker, Pankonin, Koralewski, and Kuschke are played by Peter Prager, Uwe Zerbe, Eberhard Kirchberg, and Detlef Gieß respectively. It was the first film for all four men and all four went on to successful careers in film and television. Prager and Kirchberg have appeared in dozens of films and television shows since the Wende, while Zerbe and Gieß have concentrated on stage acting.

Margarita Terechowa

Playing Pankonin’s love interest Svetlana is the popular Russian actor Margarita Terechowa. Two years before this film was made, Terechowa made an international splash in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. A year later, she starred with Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, and many other A-list Hollywood movie stars in George Cukor’s The Blue Bird, the only joint U.S. and Soviet film production, and a film so misbegotten that it ranks in the annals of cinema as one of the worst movies ever made.

The film was submitted to the Berlinale, and was nominated for Golden Bear. It didn’t win (the great Russian film, The Ascent won), but it did win a special mention with the Interfilm Award.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (no subtitles).

Whether it’s Spielberg exploring the social dynamics of suburban children in E.T., or Paul Verhoeven recreating the horrors of war in Starship Troopers, a director inevitably brings some of his or her own past to a picture. Every so often, a filmmaker makes a movie that is completely personal. These run the gamut, from George Huang’s film à clef, Swimming with Sharks—about his time working as an intern for Joel Silver—to Oliver Stone’s Platoon, in which Charlie Sheen stands in for Stone as a young soldier in Vietnam, to Cameron Crowe’s recreation of his early years as a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine in Almost Famous. One of the best of these comes from East Germany. It is Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen (Ich war neunzehn), which is based on his diaries from World War II.

Born near Stuttgart in 1925, Konrad Wolf’s father, Friedrich Wolf, was a well-known doctor, writer, and playwright. He was a champion of workers’ rights, and founded the Spieltrupp Südwest—a theater troupe that specialized in agitprop plays. He was a member of the Communist Party, and of Jewish descent, so naturally, when the Nazis came to power, the Wolf family had to leave the country to survive. They eventually settled in Russia when Konrad was eight. There, young Konrad came into contact with the film community when his father started working with Soviet filmmakers. The boy became fascinated with the medium and set himself to learning all aspects of film production. At the age of seventeen, he joined the Red Army and soon found himself fighting for Mother Russia against his Fatherland. He was nineteen when the Russians broke through the German line. Suddenly Konrad found himself in the odd position of a German acting as the Russian liaison in Germany.

Using Wolf’s diaries, Wolfgang Kohlhaase wrote the screenplay. Kohlhaase is best known for his Berlin-based stories of modern youths, but his ear for dialog, and the regional differences in Germany, made him a good choice for the job. He knows how people speak, and, more importantly, he knows how people keep silent. Kohlhaase’s script does a good job of framing the strange, almost inenarrable emotions Wolf must have felt arriving as he did as a stranger in his homeland; ashamed of his heritage, but unable to escape it.

The film begins in mid-April, 1945; shortly before the Russians reach the Oder river in their push toward Berlin. The war is virtually over, but nobody has bothered to tell Hitler, who is holed up in the Führerbunker beneath the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Gregor Hecker is a young lieutenant in the Russian army, and has been assigned to travel with the troops in an old VAZ circus truck equipped with a P.A. and a record player. It’s Gregor’s job to act as translator and to broadcast surrender requests to the German soldiers still fighting along the front. In a kind of Red Army road movie, he travels across the German countryside, meeting every type of person, learning new things, and examining what it means to be German as he goes. With him on his travels are Wadim, a Russian teacher-turned-soldier who is a student of all things German; the music-loving Sascha, Hecker’s easy-going superior; and a taciturn Mongolian named Dshingis, who drives the truck. At Bernau, Hecker is made commandant, and has to deal directly for the first time with other Germans. Until now, his oft-broadcast statement that he is a German has no deeper meaning to him. It is simply a statement of fact. As he meets other Germans, his heritage becomes as much a source of shame as an asset. At a May Day feast held by the Russians for a group of freed concentration camp prisoners, Wadim asks one of these men how he is supposed to explain how the Nazis came to power to his students when he gets back to Kiev. “Goethe and Auschwitz. Two German names. Two German names in every language.” But this is an East German film and the answer—that it was the manipulation by industrialists and corporations—seems facile. At the end of the film neither Gregor nor we are any closer to understanding the mindset of the Nazis, but when he again says he is a German, it now means something.

Criticism has been leveled at the film for its soft-pedaling of the touchy subject of the thousands—perhaps millions—of rapes committed by Russian soldiers at the end of the war. With the atrocities committed against their families by the German soldiers still fresh in their minds, the Soviets wanted the German civilians—who not only seemed oblivious to what the German army did in Russia, but actively denied that it happened at all—to experience the same pain. Women and children were repeatedly raped, men were beaten and killed, homes were trashed, and belongings were stolen as the Red Army cut a swath of destruction and terror through eastern Germany that made Sherman’s March to the Sea look like an afternoon stroll. [Note: For a more thorough treatment of the subject, see Max Färberböck’s A Woman in Berlin (Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin), starring Nina Hoss.]

Wolf was no dummy, though. He recognized that only way he would get this movie made was if he avoided talking too candidly about this subject. Two years earlier, the government had scrapped a years worth of movies because they didn’t like what they said, so Wolf treads carefully through this minefield. When a young German woman (Jenny Gröllmann) seeks asylum with Gregor, we understand that it’s because she feels safer with him, a German, than with the Russian invaders. And when he is shipped out, we see the fear in her eyes as he leaves. This was as close as Wolf could get to tackling the subject in a film that was made with a great deal of help from the USSR—and on the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution to boot. One should never underestimate an East German audience’s ability to read between the lines. You can bet they understood what he was tip-toeing around.

Wolf often shifts his visual style to match whatever story he is telling. It is one of the reasons that, although he considered by many to be the best director to come out of East Germany, he is rarely discussed in auteur terms. In I Was Nineteen, he moves away from the dazzling camerawork that punctuated Divided Heaven to a more natural style. Still, there are many scenes that betray a skilled and controlling hand behind the camera. In the opening moments of the film, while Gregor speaks via loudspeaker to the Germans along the Oder, we see a raft drift by. On it, a gallows is constructed, and on the gallows a hangs a man with a sign around his neck that reads: “Deserter! I am a Russian lackey” (“DESERTEUR Ich bin ein russen knecht,” the last part liberally translated in the First Run Features edition of the film as “I licked Russian boots.”). In another scene, as Gregor’s truck pulls away from Bernau, the camera keeps its lens trained on Jenny Gröllmann’s character until she disappears when the truck turns, reappearing a moment later, further away now, and eventually fading into the mist.

When the troops reach Sachsenhausen, the film suddenly includes scenes from an actual documentary in which a former guard at the death camp explains how the poison gas was administered. This footage is interspersed with scenes of Hecker taking a shower. The juxtaposition is simultaneously jarring and logical; the gas chamber showers and the real shower. The impression is that Hecker is trying to wash away what he has seen, perhaps even his own German identity. In the next scene, we see Gregor and his pals interviewing a German intellectual who brings Hecker back to his German roots with one sentence. Here the film seems to mimic the documentary footage’s look. We know we are watching a dramatic recreation of events, but the effect is disorienting.

To play the lead, Wolf chose Jaecki Schwarz, a young actor fresh out of drama school. It was an inspired choice. Thrust so suddenly into a starring role, the young Mr. Schwarz could easily identify with the confused state of Gregor when he is handed responsibility for an entire town.
after I was Nineteen, Schwarz went on to appear in several more films. He has continued working since the Wende, primarily in television, playing Hauptkommissar Herbert Schmücke on the popular crime show, Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110), and the comic relief character Sputnik in Ein starkes Team (A Strong Team). He is an ardent supporter of gay rights, and is a member of the board of trustees for the German branch of Queer Nation.

The technical crew for this movie reads like a DEFA dream team. Besides scriptwriter Kohlhaase, Werner Bergmann, Konrad Wolf’s longtime collaborator, handled the cinematography. Bergmann had worked as a war correspondent and cameraman for the German war effort on various fronts. During the war, he lost an arm, but didn’t let this stop him from pursuing a career as a cinematographer. He made fourteen films with Wolf, and received several awards for his work. The editing was by Evelyn Carow, who would eventually become the best-known editor in East Germany, cutting such classics as The Legend of Paul and Paula, Solo Sunny, and Coming Out. This was the first film she did with Wolf, but it wouldn’t be the last.

The production design was by Alfred Hirschmeier whose importance to the development of art direction and production design in East Germany is impossible to over-estimate. Hirschmeier’s work was flawless and rarely repetitious. He was the inventor of the optisches Drehbuch (visual screenplay), a type of storyboard in script form that he used to create a film’s look and settings. A list of the films he worked on includes some of the best films to come out of the GDR, including, Five Cartridges, The Silent Star, Naked Among Wolves, Divided Heaven, Jakob the Liar, and Solo Sunny.

In 1977, Wolf would return to the subject of World War II one more time. In the film Mama, I’m Alive. Here, Wolf follows the exploits of four German P.O.W.s who decide to join the Red Army and fight against Hitler’s war machine. He assembled essentially the same technical crew as I was Nineteen (Kohlhaase, Bergmann, Carow, and Hirschmeier). It would be his last film about the war. Wolf would only make one more feature film (Solo Sunny, 1980). In 1982, he died while working on a documentary about Ernst Busch, the communist singer-songwriter.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.