Posts Tagged ‘Stasi’

Spur in die Nacht
In America, we tend to parse out films about crime into specific categories, such as heist films, detective films, film noir, mysteries, and so on. In both East and West Germany, these films are lumped into one big group: Kriminalfilme, or “crime films,” usually referred to as “Krimis.” Many West German Krimis center around a murder, but this is more unusual in East German Krimis. Murder, as an individual crime, is seen as a symptom of capitalism and less likely to occur in the GDR. In West Germany, the criminals are often members of crime organizations run by an evil masterminds, best exemplified by the Dr. Mabuse films. In East Germany, these films often revolve around West Germans and foreigners who are using the disparity between East and West Germany for their own ends. Track in the Night (Spur in die Nacht) falls squarely into this category.1 Its original title was Schmugglerkönig (Smuggler King), which gives some idea of the subject matter, but also clues the audience in to the criminals’ motives early on.

In Track in the Night, we follow the misadventures of a Berlin bricklayer named Ulli, who arrives in a small village on the Czech/German border to visit his girlfriend, Sabine. It’s skiing season, and Sabine is doing seasonal work at the local HO store. When she’s not there to meet him, he goes to the the Fuchsbau Inn where she’s staying, but Sabine isn’t there either. After a brief investigation, the local authorities decide Sabine is a Republikflüchtling—a person who left East Germany illegally—but Ulli doesn’t believe it and neither does Sabine’s friend and co-worker Traudel. Ulli starts his own investigation, and soon finds himself embroiled with a gang of smugglers.

Spur in die Nacht

In some respects, Track in the Night resembles an Alistair MacLean story (The Guns of Navarone, Breakheart Pass), where we find out later that someone we thought was possibly a bad guy turns out to be a good guy, but a good guy in this case means someone who works for the Stasi. In other respects, it resembles the format pioneered by Hitchcock, where an ordinary man is thrown into a situation outside of his usual experiences, and is forced to play the hero.

Track in the Night is the second film from director Günter Reisch. Reisch was one of East Germany’s most interesting and imaginative directors. He is best known for Anton the Magician, as well he should be, for it is a real classic, but his others films are also worth a viewing. Politically, he rarely rocked the boat, but this wasn’t out of timidity. He was resolutely socialist, and often attacked what he saw as a growing tendency toward bourgeois values in East Germany.2 His most unique contributions to cinema are the bookend films, A Lively Christmas Eve and Like Father, Like Son, filmed twenty-five years apart with nearly the same cast, right down to the bit parts.

Playing Ulli is Ulrich Thein, and this is his movie he appears in nearly every scene. He even takes to singing and playing guitar at one point. The song he sings, “Fuchsbau-Boogie,” was composed by Thein; rather quickly from the sounds of it, but it’s supposed to be an impromptu song anyway. Thein was a man of many talents. Although best known as an actor, he also directed films and plays, composed songs, and wrote screenplays. He died in 1995 in Berlin (for more on Thein, see Anton the Magician).

Ulrich Thein

Track in the Night also stars two of East Germany’s most beautiful actresses: Eva-Maria Hagen and Annekathrin Bürger.3 For Hagen, this wasn’t the first film she worked on—that would be Don’t Forget My Little Traudel—but it was the first film featuring her to reach the theaters. Her acting duties here are limited. She doesn’t appear until the last half-hour of the film, and even then only in a few scenes. These two movies arrived in theaters within weeks of each other, kicking Hagen’s career with a roaring start.

Annekathrin Bürger had already made a splash in her previous film, Gerhard Klein’s A Berlin Romance. When Track in the Night was made, Bürger was romantically coupled with her co-star Ulrich Thein. After splitting with Thein, Bürger dated and married fellow actor Rolf Römer. Although Römer is now dead, Bürger is still going strong and regularly performs programs of songs and poetry (for more on Bürger, see Hostess). Bürger’s contribution to the plot is not as limited as Hagen’s but the story doesn’t revolve around her either.

The music is by Helmut Nier, a classical composer, who brings to the score a nice Gershwinesque jazziness. Those who have seen New Year’s Punch, which was also scored by Nier, will recognize certain leitmotifs Nier used again in that film. The cinematography is by Walter Fehdmer, who worked in East Germany until the Wall went up, and thereafter worked in West Germany, suggesting he either chose this time to leave the country or, more likely, found himself cut off from his former employer. He retired from film work in 1970. No death date is listed for him, although, since he was born in 1913, he is either dead, or one of the oldest men in Germany. Fehdmer’s work is adequate, but not on a par with the likes of Rolf Sohre, Günter Ost, Joachim Hasler, or Werner Bergmann.

Track in the Night is not one of the most daring or inventive Krimis to come out of DEFA. Those would come later. But it is entertaining, and has a perspective that is completely at odds with our western way of thinking.The proposition that it’s good to cooperate with the Stasi is not a position that one is likely to see repeated anytime soon. Even at DEFA, this position became less and less common as the Stasi became more and more invasive.

IMDB page for this film.


1. Note: I’ve translated the German word Spur as “Track.” This film could also be called “Trail in the Night” or “Trace in the Night” (the more common translation of Spur), and both would fit. The English word “spoor” comes from the same root, although it has lost much of its meaning in English and now is usually reserved to talk about animal droppings. I’ve chosen “track” in reference to one specific scene in the film, which I believe the title is in reference to.

2. Sadly, I never met the fellow, but reports from friends and associates make him sound like a wonderfully cantankerous old coot. I think I would have liked him.

3. Although most of the time I use the now gender-neutral “actor” in all cases, somehow the phrase “beautiful actors” just doesn’t work for me, so I’ve made this exception.

For Eyes Only

Right off the bat, For Eyes Only – Top Secret lets you know that this is not going to be a James Bond, sex and martinis fantasy. A title card appears after the credits, stating that, while the film’s plot is fictional, “similarities to actual events and real people are intended.” The events and people they are referring to are DECO II—a plan by the United States and West Germany to reunite Germany by fomenting uprisings in East Germany and then bringing in western troops—and the exploits of Horst Hesse, a Stasi agent who infiltrated the U.S. Military Intelligence Division (MID) and came back across the border with two safes filled with information on every MID agent working in East Germany as well as an emergency plan called Schweigefunker, that was to be activated in case of war. As a result of Hesse’s spy work, 521 MID agents were exposed, and 137 secret agents in working in East Germany were arrested. The U.S. Military, embarrassed and caught with their pants down, sentenced Hesse to death in absentia. After the wall fell, apparently the threat was forgotten. The emergency invasion plan turned out to be a smokescreen by GDR officials to help justify the building of the wall. This fact was kept from both the public and Horst Hesse himself, who only found out the truth after the wall fell. Hesse lived unmolested to the ripe old age of 84, and died in the town of Schwedt, across the border from Poland.

For Eyes Only is set in June of 1961, a little over a month before the Berlin Wall went up. The border is still relatively porous, and secret agents cross into each others countries with relative ease. Although it is never said outright, it is obvious that one of the subtexts of the film is that the U.S. was constantly engaged in intentional sabotage in East Germany and that the wall put an end to this (for more on this, see Look at This City!). For Eyes Only is an effective thriller with good performances and an exciting conclusion. It ranks as one of the best spy films of the sixties.

Several of the main characters in the film are Americans and speak English during their meetings. Rather than subtitle these scenes, the film uses the technique of overdubbing a translator’s voice in the fashion used by NPR and European news broadcasts. This serves two purposes: It eliminates the need for distracting subtitles, and effectively masks any obvious English dubbing, or giveaway accents. It also gives the film a slight documentary feel absent from other spy film of the period. Not all of the Americans in the film are German, however. Canadian folksinger Perry Friedman, American journalist Victor Grossman, and British journalist John Peet all appear in the movie without credit.

The hero of the film is Hansen, an East German spy who supposedly joined the Republikflucht to escape the GDR, but who, in fact, is a double agent named Lorenz. As one might expect, the Americans are portrayed as hedonistic louts, who drive too fast, and whose radio stations seem to play nothing but jazzy versions of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” To the film’s credit, though, they are not portrayed as bumbling idiots. It takes a great deal of guile for Hansen to outwit Major Collins, even if the man does have trouble keeping his pants zipped. It is these high stakes that keep the film exciting. Hansen may be one step ahead of the Americans, but only one step, and sometimes that is barely enough.

At times it seems like everyone in the film—not just Hansen—is leading a double life, from Major Collins and his evening peccadilloes, to pretty Peggy (Eva-Maria Hagen), the American secretary who keeps a set of falsies in her desk to wear on dates. The only person without secrets is Gisela (Renate Geißler, in her first film role), the attractive gas station attendant who dates the conflicted Czech chauffeur, František. She is also the one person with enough sense to walk away from the situation when she realizes she has been lied to.

Hansen is portrayed by Alfred Müller, an actor who, up to that point, had primarily worked in theater. His portrayal of Hansen here was so popular that he became known as the “James Bond of the East.” He probably would have made an even bigger splash as the morally conflicted judge in The Rabbit is Me if that  film hadn’t been shelved as a result of the 11th Plenum. Happily, neither the 11th Plenum, nor the Wende had much impact on his career. He continued to work in films throughout his life, retiring in 2007 and dying in 2010 from pancreatic cancer.

The randy Major Collins is played by Helmut Schreiber, one of the hardest working men in East German cinema. Schreiber appeared in dozens of films and television shows, He was often cast as a villain, especially in the Märchenfilmen and Indianerfilmen. Like most character actors, his face was better known than his name. He was reaching retirement age when the wall fell, and did not appear in any more films after the Wende.

For Eyes Only was directed by János Veiczi, a Hungarian director who had a hard-scrabble life, working at forced labor in a munitions factory during World War II, and doing whatever jobs he could to support his ailing wife after the war. Responding to an ad in 1949 for people to work at DEFA, Veiczi became an assistant director, working with several talented directors, including Gerhard Klein and Carl Ballhaus. In 1956, he began directing his own features, starting with Zwischenfall in Benderath (Incident in Benderath). With the success of For Eyes Only, Veiczi was given carte blanche to make another spy movie. That film, Die gefrorenen Blitze, (Frozen Flashes), was the most expensive DEFA made up to that point. While not a flop, it did not match For Eyes Only at the box office. Veiczi moved to television at that point with the 11-part mini-series, Rendezvous mit Unbekannt (Rendezvous with the Unknown), a collection of stories taken from actual Stasi files.

For Eyes Only grabs you right from the opening titles thanks to a nice pop-jazz score by Günter Hauk. Hauk was a classically trained musician, who got his start as musical director at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater. His stage compositions include, among others, the music for the stage version of Around the World in 80 Days, which is reportedly where János Veiczi saw Alfred Müller, and decided to cast him as Hansen. Hauk became Veiczi’s go-to composer for his spy films, writing the scores for Die gefrorenen Blitze and Rendezvous mit Unbekannt. Besides For Eyes Only, he is best known for the score for The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs. Hauk died in 1979.

For Eyes Only opened in July of 1963, nine-and-a-half months after Dr. No premiered in London. At the time, some thought the East German film was a response to the British film’s glamorous portrayal of the life of a secret agent, but DEFA had been preparing the film for at least two years before its release. Actually, the two films are as different as chalk and cheese. The British wouldn’t follow suit with anything this realistic until The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1965. The DEFA film was extremely popular in East Germany. In spite of its Anti-American stance—or perhaps, because of it—the film was also well received in West Germany, where NATO’s plan to pepper their country with nuclear weapons (MC 96) was not particularly popular.

For Eyes Only is the latest DVD to be released in the United States by the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst. The DVD includes an East German documentary short in which Horst Hesse is interviewed based on the film, plus two PDF files containing an interview with the film’s dramaturg, and an essay by the University of Potsdam professor Bernd Stöver about the film’s veracity.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film.

Alle meine Mädchen

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the communist countries were way ahead of the west when it came to women’s rights. At the time of the Wende, over half the judges in East Germany were women, as were at least a third of the doctors. However, there were certain areas where women were decidedly underrepresented. Aside from a few secretaries, the Stasi was almost exclusively made up of men, and the upper echelons of government were still mostly men (and old ones at that). Another area where women lagged shamefully behind their male counterparts was in the ranks of feature film directors at DEFA. Although women were writing scripts and directing documentaries for the film company, there were only three women working as feature film directors: Ingrid Reschke, Evelyn Schmidt, and Iris Gusner. Even here, Ingrid Reschke died in a car crash three years before Evelyn Schmidt started at DEFA, meaning that at any given time there were only two women working behind the lens on DEFA feature films, and only one between 1971 and 1974.

That one was Iris Gusner. Gusner studied filmmaking in Moscow, and made her first movie for DEFA in 1973. Unfortunately for her, that movie, Dove on the Roof came at exactly the wrong time and was shelved until after the Wende. Her next film, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht) was a Märchenfilm. It did not suffer the same fate, and her career was back on track. She made several films for DEFA, but All My Girls (Alle meine Mädchen) is the film for which she is best known.

All My Girls starts with a film school student named Ralf Päschke, who is assigned to make a documentary about a brigade of young women who work at NARVA—East Germany’s state-run lightbulb factory. Soon, he finds himself emotionally and romantically involved with the women and worried about the future of the brigade as the bosses at NARVA threaten to separate the women while they retrofit the factory. Overseeing the brigade is Marie Boltzin, a no-nonsense woman who has seen her share of problems in life. Leading the brigade of women is Susi, an ebullient and shallow young woman with a feathered hairdo identical to the one worn by her American Doppelgängerin Debra Jo Rupp in the American sitcom, That ‘70s Show. Her sidekick, and the person placed officially in charge of the brigade, is Anita, an attractive woman with a pixie cut and a mean streak she uses to hide her emotions. The two others are Gertrud, a shy young woman with a bad case of the hiccups, and Ella, the most grounded woman in the group, and the only one with an actual relationship, albeit with a married man.

Then there is Kerstin. Kerstin is there as part of her probation requirement for petty theft, and is not considered part of the group by the others. Unlike the other women, Kerstin has completed her Abitur (a secondary-school degree required for entry into a university in Germany). For this, she’s treated as an object of scorn and ridicule, primarily by Susi, who seems to be more than a little jealous of Kerstin.

The women in All My Girls are a happy-go-lucky bunch (be forewarned: they giggle a lot), but when they hear news of the brigade being disbanded they attack Ms. Boltzin for keeping this fact from them (she did not), and when Ms. Boltzin shows her notebook cataloging each woman’s tardiness, she is accused of spying on them—an allegation that brings with it the spectre of the Stasi and their Inoffizieller Mitarbeiteren (civilian informers). This is too much for Ms. Boltzin to bear and she withdraws from the factory, eventually suffering a nervous breakdown.

Playing the put-upon Ms. Boltzin is Lissy Tempelhof, a well-known East German actress who starred in several feature films and made-for-TV movies. The Berlin-born actress had just turned sixteen when WWII ended. There, she and her mother worked as Trümmerfrauen—the women who essentially rebuilt the bombed-out German cities after the war and suffered greatly at the hands of the Russian troops. She studied acting at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts (Hochschule für Schauspielkunst “Ernst Busch,” HFS), and worked as a prompter at the theater in Senftenberg. She appeared in many theatrical productions and started appearing in films starting in 1954. Her first major role came in 1961 with her performance as Dr. Inge Ruoff in Konrad Wolf’s film of his father’s play, Professor Mamlock. Wolf used her again in 1964, as the narrator of his next film, Divided Heaven. She was also a regular on East German television and appeared in five episodes of Polizeiruf 110 as five different people. She continues to work in film, television, and stage. Besides acting, she is a talented singer and teaches singing in Berlin.

Susi is played by Madeleine Lierck. Born in West Germany, She is the daughter of Werner Lierck, a comic actor who moved to the GDR in the early fifties and starred in dozens of the short Stacheltier films, which were shown before the main features in East Germany cinemas (more on the Stacheltier films at a later date). Ms. Lierck started working in films in the late sixties. A hyperactive performer, she was soon appearing in several films and TV shows every year. Her first feature role was as Thalia in the popular East German beach-party movie, Hot Summer. For Ms. Lierck, the Wende represented only a momentary hiccup in her career. She was soon working again and has appeared in several films and TV shows since then, including the popular TV mini-series, Wir Sind Volk (U.S. title: The Final Days), about the end of the GDR.

Barbara Schnitzler dancing

Barbara Schnitzler plays Anita. Although she had appeared in several TV movies prior to All My Girls, Iris Gusner’s movie was her first feature film role. Ms. Schnitzler has the dubious distinction of being the daughter of Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, the much-hated host of Der schwarze Kanal (see Look at This City!). Charges of nepotism might seem inevitable, but Ms. Schnitzler is a fine actress and manages to make her character both sweet and a little mean. In spite of what would seem like a handicap in unified Germany, Ms. Schnitzler has gone on to have a successful career. She has appeared in dozens of post-Wende films, and is part of the acting ensemble for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.

Playing Kerstin is the stunningly beautiful Viola Schweizer. Ms. Schweizer was a familiar face to East German television viewers, having appeared in dozens of TV movies with her breakthrough role coming in 1978 in Über sieben Brücken mußt du geh’n (You Have to Go Over Seven Bridges). After the Wende, Ms. Schweizer appeared in a few films and appeared in the short-lived TV series, Spreewaldfamilie, beside with her All My Girls co-star, Jaecki Schwarz, but, as with many other East German actors, she found film work got harder to come by after the wall came down. In 2001, she officially retired from from film and TV work in Germany, but continued to work in theater productions abroad. More recently, she has retired from the theater as well and lives in a small town near Berlin. Now 58, she is still very beautiful.

Inspiration for All My Girls came from a  documentary short by Jürgen Böttcher titled Sterne (Stars—not to be confused with the feature film of the same name). All My Girls struck a chord with the East German public. Like The Legend of Paul and Paula, the film resonated with the average worker for its portrayal of life outside of the rarefied world of the intelligentsia. Screenings were well attended and the reviews were mostly favorable. The film was chosen to open the first East German National Film Festival (Nationale Spielfilmfestival der DDR), where Lissy Tempelhof won awards for best actress and for “the most successful representation of a working personality.”

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

One of the joys of East German cinema is watching the way film and reality smack into each other. The DEFA Library at UMass in Amherst just released as perfect an example of this as anyone could wish for. The Flight (Die Flucht) is the story of Dr. Schmith, a medical researcher who is torn between staying in East Germany and fleeing to the west. He initially decides to leave the GDR after the review board where he works rejects his proposal for work on premature-birth infant mortality. He enlists the aid of an agency that helps people get out the country, but later, when the review board reverses its decision, the doctor has a change of heart. He tries to back out of the deal, but finds the people with whom he arranged the escape are unwilling to let him out of his contract. To compound matters, he begins a relationship with a young woman who was recently transferred to his hospital. He wants her to join him, but can’t bring himself to tell her about his defection plans.

Considering the touchy nature of the subject matter, and the often touchy disposition of the DEFA approval board, the fact that Roland Gräf was able to get this film made at all, much less shown in theaters, is a a bit of a magic trick. One misstep and this film would have ended up on a shelf until the wall came down. Gräf’s deft (some would say politick) handling of the subject matter is the secret.

Of course, the story is told from a strictly East German perspective. Some aspects of this film may seem absurd to western audiences. The people helping Schmith to escape are an evil, money-driven bunch, while the Stasi agent that questions Schmith about the attempted defection of a colleague of his is portrayed as an easy-going, jovial sort of chap. Like Manfred Herrfurth in Konrad Wolf’s Divided Heaven, Schmith’s decision to go to the west is based on his frustration at being rejected (in other words, his own ego). In both films, the initial rejection is eventually rescinded, suggesting that, in the end, the authorities will do the right thing.

The film stars Armin Mueller-Stahl, who, by the time this film was made, had already starred in some of DEFA’s best films, including Five Cartridges (Fünf Patronenhülsen), Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers), Naked Among Wolves, Her Third, and Jakob the Liar. After Wolf Biermann’s forced expatriation in 1976, Mueller-Stahl, along with many other leading actors, writers, and directors in East Germany, signed a petition protesting this action. Most of the people on the list—a list that included Frank Beyer, Angelica Domröse, Jutta Hoffmann, and Manfred Krug—found themselves blacklisted by DEFA. Mueller-Stahl made one more made-for-TV film (Geschlossene Gesellschaft) before his request for an exit visa was granted and he moved to the west. In West Germany, Mueller-Stahl quickly reestablished himself as a popular actor, drawing critical praise for his performances in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Lola and Veronika Voss. This led to a starring  role opposite Jessica Lange in Costa-Gavras’s Music Box, which in turn led to other roles in American films. In 1997, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Shine, and in 2011 he was given a Golden Bear lifetime achievement award at the Berlinale Film Festival, for which he received a three-minute standing ovation.

Of course, there is no way that Roland Gräf or anyone at DEFA could have known that Armin Mueller-Stahl would leave the country so soon after The Flight was made. The fact that he had already applied for his exit visa when it was being shot adds an ironic depth to some scenes, particularly the ones where the patriotism of people who leave the GDR is being discussed.

Playing his love interest in the film is Jenny Gröllmann at her most adorable. Gröllmann was a successful film and theater actress in East Germany, appearing in several feature films and TV movies. During the sixties, she primarily concentrated on her theater career, appearing in several productions at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin. In film, she attracted critical praise right from the start with her performance in the anthology film, Geschichten jener Nacht (Stories of That Night). She received further praise for her role as the frightened German girl in Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. After the Wende, Gröllmann continued to work, primarily in television, appearing in nearly every major show on German TV. In 2001, the weekly magazine SUPERillu published excerpts from the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives 522-page report that claimed Ms. Gröllmann had been a Stasi informer (IM). Her ex-husband, Ulrich Mühe, repeated these claims in a book he published after his star turn in The Lives of Others. Ms. Gröllmann went to court to stop these  allegations, stating under oath that she never knowingly worked for the Stasi. The court found in favor of Ms. Gröllmann and the offending passages were blacked-out in copies of Mühe’s book. Jenny Gröllmann  died of breast cancer in 2006.

At the time he made this movie, director Roland Gräf was ending a career as one of East Germany’s most respected cinematographers. He first made waves in the film community with his work on Jürgen Böttcher’s Born in ‘45 (but only in the film community—the film was banned before the public got a chance to see it). He began his career as a director in 1971 with Mein lieber Robinson (My Friend Robinson), which he also co-wrote and photographed. Also, it was Roland Gräf who discovered the long-lost copy of The Dove on the Roof, thus saving that film from destruction. As a cinematographer he was known for his cinema verité style, making the films he worked on seem almost like documentaries. Although The Flight is very much a dramatic film, we can see some of his love of realistic environments here, especially in the scenes in the premmie ward, which seem to have been filmed in an actual hospital.

The music is by the jazz musician, Gunther Fischer. The credits list the music in this film as being “based on motifs by Mussorgsky,” but there is more than a little Morricone in mournful whistling of the theme song. By the time this film was made, Fischer was well on his way to become the second most prodigious film composer in East Germany (first place going to classical composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse). A few years after this film was made, Fischer would go on to score his biggest success as a composer with the hit movie, Solo Sunny.

As one can imagine, a DEFA film that openly addressed such a taboo subject proved to be very popular, both publicly and critically. It won the Grand Prix at the Karoly Vary International Film Festival in 1978, and the Association of Film and Television Workers in the GDR chose it as the best contemporary film (Gegenwartsfilm) of 1977. Critics on both sides of the Iron Curtain thought the film did a good job of addressing some of the reasons for people wanting to leave the GDR, although western critics, predictably found the film’s resolution of these issues unsatisfactory. In spite of these objections, the film stands as a rare glimpse into the feelings and perceptions of both the authorities and the people of East Germany when it came to the subject of Republikflucht, and is not to be missed by anyone interested in that country’s history.

 

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

Your Unknown Brother takes place in 1935; many years before the GDR was established. Although it is ostensibly about the Nazi regime, the parallels to East Germany in the 1980s are obvious. Uwe Kockisch plays Arnold Clasen, a member of the banned Communist party who was arrested for painting communist slogans on a wall. After being released from a concentration camp, he takes a job as a projectionist at the local movie house, where his boss, a sexually frustrated woman named Heidemarie Fritsch (Karin Gregorek), has the hots for him. Like many Germans at the time, she has bought into the Nazi philosophy and admires Hitler greatly. Likewise his good friend, Richard Deisen (Bohumil Vávra), who runs a local tobacco shop, puts total faith in the fascist regime, only to see it repaid with callous indifference. Arnold tries to get back in touch with other party members, but he is no longer sure whom to trust. He finally opens up to a man named Walter Kepler (Michael Gwisdek), who seems to be a true communist loyalist, but eventually Arnold begins to doubt his allegiances as well.

The opening credits of Your Unknown Brother (Dein unbekannter Bruder) offers us a clue to the pacing and style of this film. The titles are shown in silence over a background of slowly flowing teal-colored water. We are as far from the cinema of Mad Max as possible. No need for seatbelts here: this film is going to take its time. Reading member reviews of this film on IMDB, it is obvious that this approach is not for everyone. The most common complaint about Your Unknown Brother is that it is slow and boring. But for the viewer that is willing to put down the popcorn and pay attention, this film offers a clever attack on the East German government at a time when the Stasi was at its most invasive and effective, and that’s no small feat. Several scenes in the film do little to move the plot forward and seem to be in the film for the sole purpose of making sure that audience is aware that the film is not really about the Nazis at all. In one scene Arnold helps another man peer over a wall to see what people on the other side are doing, a popular pastime in East Germany after the wall was built, until the Volkspolizei made it nearly impossible to do. In another scene, workers complain that they are working harder than ever for less pay—the same complaint that led to the construction workers strike in 1953.

The main premise of the film—that trust is nearly impossible in a world where informants are everywhere—is unmistakably directed at the Stasi and their vast network of civilian informants (referrred to as inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or IMs , for short). The Stasi—short for Staatssicherheit—was the organization responsible for state security in the GDR. Their secret police seemed, at times, to know everything that everyone was doing. Their surveillance techniques were legendary and were well dramatized in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). They were particularly effective at recruiting informants that seemed above reproach. It was only after the Wende and the publication of the Stasi files that many people found out that the person they trusted the most turned out to be the one that betrayed them.

When Your Unknown Brother was released in the west, people immediately saw the similarities between the GDR and the vision of Nazi Germany portrayed in this film. Once the East German government figured this out, they stepped in and stopped it from being shown at Cannes. In 1982, when the film was made, the Stasi’s control over every aspect of daily life in the east was virtually complete. Your Unknown Brother demonstrates how, even in the worst of times, a clever filmmaker can attack the very system that is trying to control him. It is worth seeing for this reason alone. It is also a testament to how rigid and narrowly focused the East German government had become. One can only wonder how they would have reacted to this film in 1965, when so many films were banned during the 11th Plenum of the SED for even the slightest hint of government criticism.

It is, perhaps, ironic that the female lead in this film is played Jenny Gröllmann. After the wall came down, her husband from 1984 to 1990, Ulrich Mühe, claimed that Ms. Gröllman was a Stasi informant (IM), a claim that she denied under oath. Ulrich Mühe portrayed a Stasi officer in The Lives of Others, a film that details how an East German playwright’s wife is coerced into becoming an informant for the Stasi. Ms. Gröllman died of cancer in 2006 (Ulrich Mühe died of stomach cancer a year later).

Director of Photography, Chris Neumann’s work here is some of his best. Shooting in a foggy environment is never easy, and Neumann pulls it off without a hitch. But it is when things move into the lush world of the Nazi upper class that his work really shines with a richness of color comparable to Gordon Willis’ work on The Godfather.

Special mention should be given here to Production Designer,  Paul Lehmann, who vividly recreates the 1930s in a manner that never feels like set design. It seems real. Some have pointed out that this may be due in part to the fact that East Germany was, in many ways, stuck in time and still had WWII architecture available, but Paul Lehmann must still be given credit for making it all seem fresh and opulent in 1982 when the film was made.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

Your Unknown Brother takes place in 1935; many years before the GDR was established. Although it is ostensibly about the Nazi regime, the parallels to East Germany in the 1980s are obvious. Uwe Kockisch plays Arnold Clasen, a member of the banned Communist party who was arrested for painting communist slogans on a wall. After being released from a concentration camp, he takes a job as a projectionist at the local movie house, where his boss, a sexually frustrated woman named Heidemarie Fritsch (Karin Gregorek), has the hots for him. Like many Germans at the time, she has bought into the Nazi philosophy and admires Hitler greatly. Likewise his good friend, Richard Deisen (Bohumil Vávra), who runs a local tobacco shop, puts total faith in the fascist regime, only to see it repaid with callous indifference. Arnold tries to get back in touch with other party members, but he is no longer sure whom to trust. He finally opens up to a man named Walter Kepler (Michael Gwisdek), who seems to be a true communist loyalist, but eventually Arnold begins to doubt his allegiances as well.

The opening credits of Your Unknown Brother (Dein unbekannter Bruder) offers us a clue to the pacing and style of this film. The titles are shown in silence over a background of slowly flowing teal-colored water. We are as far from the cinema of Mad Max as possible. No need for seatbelts here: this film is going to take its time. Reading member reviews of this film on IMDB, it is obvious that this approach is not for everyone. The most common complaint about Your Unknown Brother is that it is slow and boring. But for the viewer that is willing to put down the popcorn and pay attention, this film offers a clever attack on the East German government at a time when the Stasi was at its most invasive and effective, and that’s no small feat. Several scenes in the film do little to move the plot forward and seem to be in the film for the sole purpose of making sure that audience is aware that the film is not really about the Nazis at all. In one scene Arnold helps another man peer over a wall to see what people on the other side are doing, a popular pastime in East Germany after the wall was built, until the Volkspolizei made it nearly impossible to do. In another scene, workers complain that they are working harder than ever for less pay—the same complaint that led to the construction workers strike in 1953.The main premise of the film—that trust is nearly impossible in a world where informants are everywhere—is unmistakably directed at the Stasi and their vast network of civilian informants (creferrred to as inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or IMs , for short). The Stasi—short for Staatssicherheit—was the organization responsible for state security in the GDR. Their secret police seemed, at times, to know everything that everyone was doing. Their surveillance techniques were legendary and were well dramatized in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). They were particularly effective at recruiting informants that seemed above reproach. It was only after the Wende and the publication of the Stasi files that many people found out that the person they trusted the most turned out to be the one that betrayed them.

When Your Unknown Brother was released in the west, people immediately saw the similarities between the GDR and the vision of Nazi Germany portrayed in this film. Once the East German government figured this out, they stepped in and stopped it from being shown at Cannes. In 1982, when the film was made, the Stasi’s control over every aspect of daily life in the east was virtually complete. Your Unknown Brother demonstrates how, even in the worst of times, a clever filmmaker can attack the very system that is trying to control him. It is worth seeing for this reason alone. It is also a testament to how rigid and narrowly focused the East German government had become. One can only wonder how they would have reacted to this film in 1965, when so many films were banned during the 11th Plenum of the SED for even the slightest hint of government criticism.

It is, perhaps, ironic that the female lead in this film is played Jenny Gröllmann. After the wall came down, her husband from 1984 to 1990, Ulrich Mühe, claimed that Ms. Gröllman was a Stasi informant (IM), a claim that she denied under oath. Ulrich Mühe portrayed a Stasi officer in The Lives of Others, a film that details how an East German playwright’s wife is coerced into becoming an informant for the Stasi. Ms. Gröllman died of cancer in 2006 (Ulrich Mühe died of stomach cancer a year later).

Director of Photography, Chris Neumann’s work here is some of his best. Shooting in a foggy environment is never easy, and Neumann pulls it off without a hitch. But it is when things move into the lush world of the Nazi upper class that his work really shines with a richness of color comparable to Gordon Willis’ work on The Godfather.

Special mention should be given here to Production Designer,  Paul Lehmann, who vividly recreates the 1930s in a manner that never feels like set design. It seems real. Some have pointed out that this may be due in part to the fact that East Germany was, in many ways, stuck in time and still had WWII architecture available, but Paul Lehmann must still be given credit for making it all seem new and opulent in 1982 when the film was made.

IMDB page for the film.Your Unknown Brother takes place in 1935; many years before the GDR was established. Although it is ostensibly about the Nazi regime, the parallels to East Germany in the 1980s are obvious. Uwe Kockisch plays Arnold Clasen, a member of the banned Communist party who was arrested for painting communist slogans on a wall. After being released from a concentration camp, he takes a job as a projectionist at the local movie house, where his boss, a sexually frustrated woman named Heidemarie Fritsch (Karin Gregorek), has the hots for him. Like many Germans at the time, she has bought into the Nazi philosophy and admires Hitler greatly. Likewise his good friend, Richard Deisen (Bohumil Vávra), who runs a local tobacco shop, puts total faith in the fascist regime, only to see it repaid with callous indifference. Arnold tries to get back in touch with other party members, but he is no longer sure whom to trust. He finally opens up to a man named Walter Kepler (Michael Gwisdek), who seems to be a true communist loyalist, but eventually Arnold begins to doubt his allegiances as well.

The opening credits of Your Unknown Brother (Dein unbekannter Bruder) offers us a clue to the pacing and style of this film. The titles are shown in silence over a background of slowly flowing teal-colored water. We are as far from the cinema of Mad Max as possible. No need for seatbelts here: this film is going to take its time. Reading member reviews of this film on IMDB, it is obvious that this approach is not for everyone. The most common complaint about Your Unknown Brother is that it is slow and boring. But for the viewer that is willing to put down the popcorn and pay attention, this film offers a clever attack on the East German government at a time when the Stasi was at its most invasive and effective, and that’s no small feat. Several scenes in the film do little to move the plot forward and seem to be in the film for the sole purpose of making sure that audience is aware that the film is not really about the Nazis at all. In one scene Arnold helps another man peer over a wall to see what people on the other side are doing, a popular pastime in East Germany after the wall was built, until the Volkspolizei made it nearly impossible to do. In another scene, workers complain that they are working harder than ever for less pay—the same complaint that led to the construction workers strike in 1953.

The main premise of the film—that trust is nearly impossible in a world where informants are everywhere—is unmistakably directed at the Stasi and their vast network of civilian informants (creferrred to as inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or IMs , for short). The Stasi—short for Staatssicherheit—was the organization responsible for state security in the GDR. Their secret police seemed, at times, to know everything that everyone was doing. Their surveillance techniques were legendary and were well dramatized in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). They were particularly effective at recruiting informants that seemed above reproach. It was only after the Wende and the publication of the Stasi files that many people found out that the person they trusted the most turned out to be the one that betrayed them.

When Your Unknown Brother was released in the west, people immediately saw the similarities between the GDR and the vision of Nazi Germany portrayed in this film. Once the East German government figured this out, they stepped in and stopped it from being shown at Cannes. In 1982, when the film was made, the Stasi’s control over every aspect of daily life in the east was virtually complete. Your Unknown Brother demonstrates how, even in the worst of times, a clever filmmaker can attack the very system that is trying to control him. It is worth seeing for this reason alone. It is also a testament to how rigid and narrowly focused the East German government had become. One can only wonder how they would have reacted to this film in 1965, when so many films were banned during the 11th Plenum of the SED for even the slightest hint of government criticism.

It is, perhaps, ironic that the female lead in this film is played Jenny Gröllmann. After the wall came down, her husband from 1984 to 1990, Ulrich Mühe, claimed that Ms. Gröllman was a Stasi informant (IM), a claim that she denied under oath. Ulrich Mühe portrayed a Stasi officer in The Lives of Others, a film that details how an East German playwright’s wife is coerced into becoming an informant for the Stasi. Ms. Gröllman died of cancer in 2006 (Ulrich Mühe died of stomach cancer a year later).

Director of Photography, Chris Neumann’s work here is some of his best. Shooting in a foggy environment is never easy, and Neumann pulls it off without a hitch. But it is when things move into the lush world of the Nazi upper class that his work really shines with a richness of color comparable to Gordon Willis’ work on The Godfather.

Special mention should be given here to Production Designer,  Paul Lehmann, who vividly recreates the 1930s in a manner that never feels like set design. It seems real. Some have pointed out that this may be due in part to the fact that East Germany was, in many ways, stuck in time and still had WWII architecture available, but Paul Lehmann must still be given credit for making it all seem new and opulent in 1982 when the film was made.

IMDB page for the film.