Posts Tagged ‘Russians’

Five Days, Five Nights
At the end of World War II, Russian soldiers went on a plunderfest across eastern Germany. Think Sherman’s March to the Sea, but with dividends. Houses were stripped of their valuables, stores were looted, and machinery was taken. Much of this looting was done on a personal level—soldiers helping themselves to the contents of the houses they invaded—and some of this was done as part of the Soviet Union’s campaign to get the maximum financial benefit out of the war. They certainly needed it. Hitler’s ill-advised attack on Russia hurt Germany, but it devastated Russia.

On a more organized level, specialized American, British, and Soviet troops were tasked with finding specific things, the best-known example of this is the race between Soviet Union and the United States to procure German scientists and their materials related to rockets and atomic research. On the Soviet side there were also trophy brigades, whose job was to find as many works of art and antiquities as they could. While most of the art looting by American troops was done by individuals looking to bring home souvenirs, Soviet troops had a mission: Find the art and bring it back to Russia.1

A logical place to start was Dresden. Dresden had been the art capital of Germany. The museums there were outstanding. As the war escalated, museum officials decided to move many of the most valuable paintings to safer locations in case the city was attacked. This turned out to be a very good idea indeed. Dresden wasn’t just bombed, it was nearly erased from the face of the Earth. U.S.and British bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of bombs and incendiaries on the city. The resulting firestorm was so intense that many people hiding in their air raid shelters died not of burns, but of asphyxiation when the firestorm sucked all the oxygen out of the area. The results of the firebombing are still visible today in the blackened facades of the buildings along the Elbe, and the calico churches built from the rubble left after the war.2

Fünf Tage - Fünf Nächte

When the Russians started arriving in Dresden, claiming they were there to save the artwork, the locals were, understandably, suspicious. Especially after these soldiers announced that they would have to take the artwork back to Moscow to protect it from the further deterioration due to mold and the elements. The Russians assured the locals that they were doing this for the benefit of the art, and they would return the artwork as soon as things had stabilized. No one in Dresden believed this for a minute, and they were probably right not to—Josef Stalin was not exactly the poster boy for trustworthiness. In truth, the collecting of the art of Germany was just what it looked like: an attempt at payback for the devastation and destruction that Germany rained down on the U.S.S.R.

But as the cold war heated up, the Soviets were looking for any ways they could to demonstrate they weren’t the ogre that the United States made them out to be. The subject of the Dresden paintings came up again. What better way to demonstrate their integrity than to show that the vow they made to the Dresdeners at the end of WWII was not just hot air? So it was that 750 of paintings were returned to Dresden in 1955. This wasn’t all of the artwork that was purloined, but it was a lot of it, and certainly enough to make for good press.

Five Days, Five Nights (Fünf Tage – Fünf Nächte) is the story of the Russian art recovery effort at the end of the war. The films was the first of several joint productions between East Germany and the Soviet Union. DEFA often joined forces with production companies from other countries to make movies. During the fifties, they made movies in conjunction with Swedish and French production companies, but after the border tightened up and relationships with western countries became strained, most of the co-productions were made with Eastern Bloc nations, primarily Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Whether or not these co-productions looked and felt like DEFA movies was largely dependent on the director and which film company wielded the most control over the production. Stars was made in cooperation with Bulgaria’s Boyana Film, but the film is pure DEFA, thanks to Konrad Wolf’s sure hand at the helm. On the other hand, the French/East German co-production Die Hexen von Salem (The Crucible) is, for all intents and purposes, a French film, having been directed by a Belgian from a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre, and starring Simone Signoret and Yves Montand.

Russian soldiers

Five Days, Five Nights, is very much a Russian film. It forgoes the usual, cool DEFA objectivity in favor of socialist realism (which, let’s face it, isn’t very realistic at all). People are either filmed at chest level, making everyone, even the children, look heroic, or from above looking up to the sky in triumphant bliss. The effect is further enhanced by a powerful score, written for the film by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Along with Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky, Shostakovich is one of the great Russian composers of the twentieth century. Unlike western classical composers, such as Erich Korngold and Max Steiner, the fact that he wrote scores for movies did not assign him to the film ghetto, or reduce his standing as a classical composer. He could write a score for a film one year, and compose an opera the next. This was largely due to the Soviet Union’s attitude toward film. Unlike the west, where film was was viewed as a form of mindless entertainment for the masses, the Soviets already saw the power of film to galvanize public opinion back in 1925 with Battleship Potemkin. So it was that Shostakovich was hired to write the score for October: Ten Days That Shook the World, a film about the October Revolution of 1917.

Shostakovich had a rocky career under the Soviets, thanks mostly to Stalin’s tin ear and lack of musical sophistication. Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда) was initially a hit, but later came under attack as “coarse, primitive and vulgar.” When Stalin attended a performance of the opera in 1936, he behaved boorishly, laughing and grimacing throughout, leaving poor Shostakovich sweating bullets in the back. This was around the time Stalin started his Great Purge. Having him as your enemy was a good way to wind up freezing to death in a Siberian prison.

To keep on Stalin’s good side, Shostakovich cancelled performances of his musically challenging fourth symphony and restricted much of his composing to film music, knowing Stalin was rather fond of films. With the release of his crowd-pleasing fifth symphony, Shostakovich got back in the good graces of Stalin and the public, at least until 1948, when he was once again attacked by Central Committee secretary Andrei Zhdanov, who accused his music of being “formalist”—a term that was thrown around a lot, and appears to have no more meaning to Soviet critics than “I don’t like it.”

After Stalin died, Shostakovich started receiving the attention he deserved. His work came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein in New York, who became a strong advocate for Shostakovich, and played his compositions in concerts on a regular basis. Eventually, Shostakovich joined the Communist Party in 1960, mostly as a formality so that the government could appoint him as the General Secretary of the Composers’ Union. This seems to have given him both clout and courage. He protested against the incarceration of the poet Joseph Brodsky, and was one of the signatories on a an appeal to Brezhnev not to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation. In both cases his causes were triumphant.

During the late sixties and early seventies, Shostakovich’s already bad health got worse. He had lost the use of his right hand to polio in the fifties, then broke both legs, causing him to remark in a letter to a friend: “All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order.” He died August 9, 1975, but his music continues to be a popular addition to movie soundtracks.

Five Days, Five Nights

With most films, the job of directing is assigned to one person and the resulting movie is attributed them as the auteur. The whole auteur concept falls apart when talking about the films from the East Bloc nations, where the contributions of everyone involved are given greater weight than in the west and the choice of cast and crew are not always left to the director.3 Five Days, Five Nights features three directors. The German language scenes were directed by Heinz Thiel, who directed Black Velvet, recently discussed on this blog; some of the Russian scenes were directed by Anatoli Golowanow, who probably would have receive a second unit or first assistant director credit in a Hollywood film; and the whole affair was overseen by the Russian director Lev Arnshtam, who is listed as the film’s head director.

Unlike DEFA directors such as Kurt Maetzig and Joachim Hasler, who came to filmmaking via the film labs, or Jürgen Böttcher, Arthur Pohl, and Peter Pewas, entered the field through graphic arts, Lev Arnshtam came to films via music. He studied piano at the Leningrad Music Conservatory and, for a while, was the music department head at Vsevolod Meyerhold’s theater. There, he met people in the film industry, and soon started working as a sound director and later a screenwriter. He directed his first film, Подруги (Girlfriends, originally released in U.S. as Three Women) in 1936. Mr. Arnshtam’s style is heavily influenced by the work of Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, whom he met while working at the Meyerhold Theater. Their influence is on full display here. After Five Days, Five Nights, he directed only one more film—Софья Перовская (Sofiya Perovskaya), a film based on the life of the Russian revolutionary, Sophia Perovskaya, who was hanged for her part in the assassination of Alexander II. Mr. Arnshtam died in 1979.

Dresden

Perhaps the most striking thing about this film, aside from Shostakovich’s majestic score, is the representation of Dresden after the firebombing. By 1960, when this film was made, much of Dresden had been rebuilt. To recreate the destroyed city, miniatures were used to remarkably good effect. Much of the credit for this must go to production designer Herbert Nitzschke. Mr. Nitzschke got his start as a set painter for German film productions. He first worked as a production designer on L’Entraîneuse (Nightclub Hostess), a French/German co-production from 1939. Several more films followed. At the end of WWII, his career as a production designer went on hiatus until 1955, when he was hired as the production designer for Hotelboy Ed Martin, a film adaptation of Albert Maltz’s play, Merry Go Round.

Mr. Nitzschke’s career in film was starting to take off again, and his miniature work in Five Days, Five Nights is spectacular—helped greatly by Ernst Kunstmann, a master of filming miniatures, whose work includes Metropolis, Triumph of the Will, The Singing, Ringing Tree, and First Spaceship on Venus. Unfortunately, Herbert Nitzschke lived in West Berlin, and his career at DEFA came to an abrupt halt on the 13th of August, 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up. His last credit as production designer was on Five Days, Five Nights co-director Heinz Thiel’s Tanz am Sonnabend (Dancing on Saturday).

Also worth mentioning is Walter Schulze-Mittendorff, who designed the costumes for this film. A sculptor by training, it was Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff who designed the Maria Robot for Metropolis. At that point, Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff was still billed as a sculptor. With Amphitryon, he got his first billing as a costume designer and showed a real knack for it. After the war, he started working for DEFA, and often found himself on the same projects as his old Metropolis co-worker, Ernst Kunstmann. Like Herbert Nitzschke, Mr. Kunstmann lived in West Berlin and found his career at DEFA stopped cold with the building of the wall. He worked on a few West German productions, most notably, The Castle (Das Schloß), then retired in 1968.

The story of wartime art theft is not a new one, nor a dead subject. Jewish families are still wrangling for the return of artwork stolen by Nazis, and in November 2014, the son of an East German art collector—from Dresden, coincidentally—filed to recover artwork that was stolen from his father by the Stasi.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


1. The allies did have a team of people searching out art, but it was a much smaller effort. These people mostly worked alone (although the film The Monuments Men would have you believe otherwise), and their primary goal was to identify historic sites. The search for stolen artwork arose as a by-product of that effort, and a reaction to the Soviet Army’s art recovery efforts.

2. It’s probably worth pointing out here, that, as bad as the firebombing of Dresden was, it couldn’t hold a candle to Berlin, which saw nine-and-a-half times as many bombs dropped on it.

3. There are a few Hollywood exceptions to this: Tora! Tora! Tora! featured Japanese sequences by Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda, while The Longest Day featured a host of directors from different countries, all under the watchful eye of producer Darryl Zanuck.

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Star-Crossed Lovers

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the period between the building of the Berlin Wall and the 11th Plenum was a golden age for film in East Germany. The authorities were determined to prove that building the wall was not intended to repress the population, but was intended as an “anti-fascist protective barrier” (antifaschistischer Schutzwall) that would allow East German filmmakers greater artistic freedom without subversion from the west. Films that would have been deemed too experimental or arty before the Wall were approved now, and DEFA’s directors took full advantage of this change in policy. Small wonder, then, that any list of the best East German films shows a noticeable concentration of films made during this period.1

One of the first to take full advantage of DEFA’s new policy was Frank Beyer, a director on any short list of great East German directors, and the only one from the GDR to have an Oscar nomination (Jakob the Liar). With Star-Crossed Lovers (Königskinder), Mr. Beyer kicks things into high gear with vivid cinematography and an artist’s eye for frame composition. It is a dazzling film from a brief but exceptional time for East German cinema.

Königskinder

Star-Crossed Lovers is the story of three childhood friends—Magdalena, Michael, and Jürgen. Michael and Magdalena are in love, but the fates conspire to keep them apart. Jürgen, a timid conformist, has lusted after Magdalena since childhood, but there is never really any romantic tension here—Magdalena loves Michael, Michael loves her, and poor Jürgen remains the odd man out. When they get older, Michael becomes active in the KPD (the German Communist Party) and Magdalena assists him. Meanwhile, Jürgen takes the path of least resistance and joins the SA. He still loves Magdalena, but, as one might imagine, his employment choice does nothing to improve his standing in her eyes.

The story is told in flashbacks, with the present-day action taking place during the final days of World War II. Magdalena is working with the Russians to provide aid to their troops on the front lines, while Michael is conscripted into the infamous Strafdivision 999 (Penal Battalion 999), Hitler’s remarkably ill-conceived attempt to use prisoners as soldiers. There he meets up with Jürgen, who has been assigned as an officer in the battalion.

The German title for the film comes from the folk song, “Es waren zwei Königskinder” (There Were Two Royal Children), which tells the story of a prince and princess who are kept apart by waters that separate them. Of course, the “waters” in this case Nazism and WWII, but Beyer is a sophisticated filmmaker and he reflects the idea of separation by water several times in several ways. Part of the fun of this film is spotting these references. Things end badly in the song, and the film hints at a similar tragedy, but Beyer leaves things open to interpretation.

Annekathrin Bürger

Playing Magdalena is Annekathrin Bürger. I’ve talked about Ms. Bürger in previous post (see Hostess and Not to Me, Madame!). Ms. Bürger started working films at eighteen after being discovered by Gerhard Klein, but 1962 was a banner year for her. She starred in two of the best films from that year—this one and The Second Track. After marrying Rolf Römer, Ms. Bürger often starred in films he directed. She continues to work in films.

Michael is portrayed by Armin Mueller-Stahl, who was just coming into his own when this film was made. He had appeared in some TV movies during the fifties, but it was his role in Five Cartridges that brought him to the big screen. Star-Crossed Lovers was his second feature film, followed a few months later by And Your Love Too. He starred in several classic DEFA films, including Naked Among Wolves, Her Third, Jakob the Liar and The Flight. In 1976, he joined other popular film stars in a protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. As with the others who signed the protest, he found that job opportunities had dried up, so he did what many of the others on the list did also, and moved to West Germany. For Mr. Mueller-Stahl this proved to be an especially auspicious move. There, he met up with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who cast him in Lola and Veronika Voss; and with Niklaus Schilling, who cast him in Der Westen leuchtet (The Lite Trap). He began to get more work in West Germany, but the big break came when Costa-Gavras cast him as the Grandpa with a secret in The Music Box. Other films followed quickly, including Barry Levinson’s Avalon, Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, and Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka. Mr. Mueller-Stahl is a true renaissance man. Besides being an actor, he paints, writes, and plays a mean fiddle. Of late, he has been concentrating on these other pursuits over acting.

Royal Children

To play the sad-sack Jürgen, Mr. Beyer cast Ulrich Thein. Mr. Thein, more than any other star in East Germany, was born to be an actor, his father was a theater bandleader. Although his father died when he was only four years old, the young Ulrich continued in his father’s footsteps, studying music and working in theater. In 1951, he joined the world-famous Deutsches Theater Berlin, where he continued to perform until 1963. Ironically, although he played the unloved man in this film, it was he who was in a relationship with Ms. Bürger at the time. During the sixties, Mr. Thein added film director to his list of talents—at first in TV movies, then later in feature films. After the fall of the Wall, he found that most of the films he was offered were lousy. In his words, “I won’t make the shit producers are offering me.” (“Ich will den Scheiß nicht machen, der mir von einigen Produzenten angeboten wird.”). He retired from filmmaking in 1992, and took up teaching.

To shoot the film, Mr. Beyer used his long-time collaborator, Günter Marczinkowsky. Like many of the better cinematographers at DEFA, Mr. Marczinkowsky came from the technical side of film, having work as a photo lab technician and a projectionist before starting at DEFA. He was assistant to the famous Robert Baberske, whose Berlin: Symphonie of a Great City remains a classic example of pure cinema. After Beyer’s Traces of Stones was banned, Mr. Marczinkowsky was relegated to work on TV movies—a common fate for anyone who found their work in the crosshairs of the 11th Plenum. He returned to features films from time to time, most notably with Abschied (Farewell) and Jakob the Liar, but most of his later work was for the small screen. Sadly, his career ended with the collapse of East Germany.

Of the films from East Germany, I would have to categorize this one as the best film that is not available with English subtitles. I suspect this is only temporary. It’s too good a film to go unrecognized for much longer.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (German only, no subtitles).


1. It probably didn’t hurt that during the same period, West Germany’s film industry was gaining a reputation for making lousy movies. So much so that, in February of 1962, a group of young West German filmmakers at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen released the Oberhausen Manifesto, stating that “conventional films are dead,” and calling people to challenge the film industry’s conventions, and free it from the control of commercial interests.

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.

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In 1947, the Soviets began mining operations in the Schlema Valley in the southeastern region of Saxony. They called their mining company “Wismut,” the German word for bismuth, because they didn’t want the U.S. to know what they were really mining: uranium. After what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Russians wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t suffer the same fate as the Japanese and they stepped up their efforts to develop a bomb of their own. Whether the fact that the Soviets had the bomb deterred its use or increased its threat is still a matter of debate. At the time, the Americans went collectively insane over the idea that anyone else would have this weapon and cheerfully executed Julius Rosenberg for the crime of sharing the technology with the Russians. For good measure, they executed his wife Ethel too, even though it appears she did little more than type up her husband’s notes.

The choice of the name Wismut for the mining company is indicative of the level of paranoia that existed on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It’s doubtful that anyone was fooled by this ruse though. The spa at Oberschlema was already well know by then to be sitting on top of a vast lode of radioactive material. During the 1920s the place was a popular destination for people looking to bask in the radium springs and drink its radioactive water.

By the early fifties, the Soviets had changed the once verdant Schlema valley into a muddy, barren mess that looked more like a concentration camp than a mining company. Security at the mine was tight. People working there were essentially cordoned off from the rest of society, existing in a cocoon of their own. They had their own community, and communication with the outside world was carefully monitored. Geiger counters were installed at the gates to make sure that no one walked out with any of the ore lest they sell it to the Yanks. Health problems, as one can imagine, were legion and still linger today. The size of the mine was immense. By the time it shut down in 1990, it comprised 54 mine shafts spaced 30 meters apart.

In 1958, director Konrad Wolf, along with writers Karl-Georg Egel and Paul Wiens, created Sun Seekers (Sonnensucher), a paean to the workers of the Wismut mine. The story takes place in 1947, and follows the exploits of Lotte Lutz, an attractive young woman who had lost her mother during the war. Tired of the sexual abuse on the farm where she was living, she flees to Berlin where she hooks up with her aunt Emmi, a boisterous woman who looks like Rosemary Clooney and acts like Joan Blondell. After a barroom brawl, Emmi and Lotte are sent by the soviet authorities to work at the Wismut mine. Although it is never explicitly stated, there is a suggestion here that the reason the women are sent to this mine is because they had been fraternizing with the Wismut miners and the authorities were still trying to contain knowledge of the mine’s existence. At the mine we see that the peace between the Russians and the Germans is still on tenuous ground. The Russians are in charge, and are still smarting from what the German army did to their country during WWII. The Germans are trying to prove their loyalty to the communist way of life, although some are obviously not on board.

In many respects, Sun Seekers resembles the Rubble Films of the late-forties. Lotte is a burned-out husk of a woman,, who has come to distrust all men, and is incapable of smiling. Likewise, the one-armed Beier, who had been a German soldier on the Russian Front is filled with remorse and self-loathing for what he had seen and done. Together, these two wounded birds eventually find, if not happiness, then at least some small comfort together. As the emotionally crippled Lutz, Ulrike Germer effectively conveys the frailty masked by frigidity and the artless sensuality of the character. Likewise, Günther Simon, best known for his portrayal of the German Communist Party leader Ernst Thälmann, is better used here as Beier, the one-armed German with a secret past, who wants to find whatever happiness might be left in Lutz’s soul.

Unfortunately for this film, it was made at exactly the wrong time. In August of 1957, the United States announced a two-year suspension on nuclear testing (although they would renege on this plan exactly one year later), and in September of the same year, a huge explosion at the Mayak nuclear facility in Russia released tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere (although this was carefully hushed up by the authorities at the time). After years of fear-mongering and forcing children hide under their school desks, people—in both the east and the west—were growing weary of atomic fear-mongering. The Soviets wanted to show that they too were worried about the potential dangers of atomic weapons and were willing to slow down the arms race. The idea of a film that championed the Soviet efforts to mine the vast uranium deposits in the Schlema Valley was deemed too provocative to release at that time, and the movie was shelved until 1972. Of course, a old black-and-white propaganda movie on the importance of uranium mining to the communist way of life went over rather badly in 1972 and the film did not do well at the box office.

Director Konrad Wolf was as close to royalty was one could get in a communist country. His father, Friedrich Wolf, was a well-respected doctor, playwright, and communist provocateur. In 1932, Friedrich Wolf founded the Southwest Theater Troop (Spieltrupp Südwest) in Stuttgart, and began writing plays that championed the communist cause. Two of his plays, Professor Mamlock and Cyankali, were made twice into films. During WWII, Friedrich Wolf also worked as a doctor in Spain and was briefly interred in a concentration camp in France before being allowed to emigrate to Russia. Konrad’s brother, Markus, was the head of the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA), East Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, and is now considered one of the greatest spymasters that ever lived. It is widely believed that the character of Karla in John Le Carré’s Karla Trilogy is based on Markus Wolf, although Le Carré always denied this (a closer match is the character of Fiedler in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). Konrad Wolf himself fought with the Soviet Army during World War II, and his story was made into the movie, I Was Nineteen in 1968, which he also directed.

As a director, Wolf had a powerful, if sometimes melodramatic, style. Shots in his films are carefully framed, and he isn’t afraid of using unusual angles and novelty wipes when the scene calls for it. For most of his early career, Wolf seemed content to tow the party line. His early films are didactic and very pro-communist. Later in his career, he began to push the envelope with films like Goya, The Naked Man on the Athletic Field, and Solo Sunny.

Erwin Geschonneck shines here as the ex-circus strongman turned ardent Bolshevik, Jupp König. Geschonneck would later go on to become the most popular actor in East Germany, but in the fifties, two of his most important roles—that of Jupp König in this film and Teetjen the butcher in The Axe of Wandsbek—were suppressed, postponing his fame (see Carbide and Sorrel).

Manja Behrens as Emmi also deserves special mention here. She, along with Geschonneck, give this movie its vitality. Behrens started her career in Dresden prior to WWII. During the war, she made two films for the Third Reich before running afoul of Joseph Goebbels. After the war, she moved from Dresden to Berlin to continue her career in theater. There she began working in films and quickly became a popular character actress. In the 1960s, British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper uncovered the fact that Behrens had been the mistress of Martin Bormann during the war. Upon this revelation, she was blacklisted, appearing only occasionally on television in small roles after that. Throughout her life, she continued to appear on stage both before and after the reunification of Germany. Ms. Behrens died in Berlin in 2003.

Today, the Schlema Valley is home to the rebuilt Bad Schlema health spa. You can go there once again to soak in the radon springs. Parts of the mine are left intact as part of the Saxon-Thuringian Uranium Mining Museum, but the muddy landscape of the fifties is gone.

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Bad Schlema website

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