Posts Tagged ‘WWII’

The East German film studio, DEFA, was founded in May, 1946. During the first few years in post-war Germany, it was, literally, the only game in town. While the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) in the west dragged its feet on film production (mostly at the behest of Hollywood), the east got the old UFA studios in Potsdam and the AGFA film lab in Wolfen back into production almost immediately. Somewhere in Berlin (Irgendwo in Berlin) is the third film made by DEFA, and the second example of a Trümmerfilm, literally, a “rubble film”—that group of films shot immediately after WWII in the wreckage of Berlin (for more on this see The Murderers Are Among Us).

Somewhere in Berlin is the story of a gang of children living and playing amid the rubble of post-war Berlin. Gustav is a congenial little boy who seems to have no qualms about making friends with strangers. Gustav’s father ran a garage in the neighborhood (now a bombed-out ruin). He was taken as a prisoner-of-war, and the family has had no word from him yet. Gustav’s best friend is Willi, whose parents were killed during the war. The adults in the neighborhood are in a state of numb indifference to the destruction that surrounds them. When Gustav’s father, he, like many other soldiers returning from war, is an emotional wreck.

Director Gerhard Lamprecht might be called the first child of the cinema. At the age of twelve, he was working at movie screenings (at that point, the film industry was still in its infancy and most screenings were held in meeting halls and legitimate theaters). At the age of seventeen, he sold his first script to Eiko-Film GmbH, and a few years later he began acting in films. It wasn’t long before he got behind the lens and started to direct, quickly establishing himself as a talented director. Lamprecht continued to make movies during the Third Reich, a fact that got in his way when he went to OMGUS after the war. Many ex-UFA technicians found that working under Goebbels was automatic grounds for rejection in west during the first few years after the war. This combined with the lack of film production in the western sectors made Lamprecht turn to DEFA for employment.

Lamprecht had already proven his ability to work with children with the pre-war UFA classic, Emil and the Detectives (Emil und die Detektive). The children in both films are spunky and prefer taking charge of things without much help from the adult community, and in both movies the kids are capable of rational thinking, even though sometimes their choices leave something to be desired. There is also a similarity between the evil Max Grundeis of Emil and the Detectives, and the slimy Waldemar Hunke in Somewhere in Berlin, although the latter film’s antagonist is bit more charming (but only a bit). The most spectacular scene in the film involves a boy climbing the crumbling ruins of a building that looms over the neighborhood. It certainly looks like he is climbing the building and it is breathtaking.

But Lamprecht’s heart really wasn’t in the east. He made one more feature film for DEFA (Quartett zu fünft), but as soon as it was feasible, he was back in the west where he made a few more films before retiring from the industry. he died in 1974 at the age of 76.

As with other early DEFA productions, many members of the technical crew were UFA alumni. Cinematographer Werner Krien got his start as a feature film cinematographer during the Third Reich. With Konstantin Irmen-Tschet, he had filmed the dazzling Münchhausen (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), regarded as one of the best films to come out of UFA during the war years. But Krien was more opportunist than communist. Somewhere in Berlin would be his only DEFA feature film. Editor Lena Neumann also got her start during the Third Reich, but, unlike Krien, chose to stay with DEFA, editing such classics as Kurt Maetzig’s Story of a Young Couple, Slátan Dudow’s Destinies of Women, and Konrad Wolf’s Lissy.

The music is composed by Erich Einegg and it is his only feature film. Einegg was a talented composer and is best known for his songs sung by the famous lesbian songstress of the 1920’s, Claire Waldoff (whose life was the basis of the East German TV-movie Claire Berolina). Einegg’s music here, however, is strident, march tempo music, similar to that used in U.S. films about the glories of the heroic F.B.I. Later, other composers such as Karl-Ernst Sasse, and Hanns Eisler would handle soundtrack composition with more subtlety.

Worthy of special mention here is Paul Bildt, who played Herr Birke. Bildt had already made a name for himself  as a popular character actor during UFA’s early years. He also  was Gerhard Lamprecht’s acting teacher when the director was trying to break into movies. Bildt continued to work throughout the Third Reich, appearing in Veit Harlan’s Opfergang, and the extravagant Kolberg. At the end of the war he and his daughter attempted to commit suicide when the Russian Army invaded the town where they were staying (an all too common reaction; stories of the Red Army’s brutalities preceded them). Bildt’s daughter died, but he was nursed back to health and continued his acting career in the east. He appeared in several East German films, including Razzia, The Beaver Coat, and Heart of Stone. Most notably, he played the evil Chairman Mauch in Kurt Maetzig’s classic, The Council of the Gods.

Also worth mentioning is Charles Brauer, who played Gustav. After making one more Trümmerfilm for DEFA (Und wieder 48), Brauer moved to West Germany where he has continued his acting career to this day. Today, he is best known for his role as Hauptkommissar Peter Brockmöller on the popular German-TV crime show, Tatort, playing opposite former East German film star, Manfred Krug.

In spite the inherent grimness of Somewhere in Berlin, the film’s tone is positive, suggesting that the future of Germany is in the hands of the children, and that it will survive. It is interesting to compare the Trümmerfilme of DEFA with Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini’s attempt at the genre, Berlin Year Zero. In spite of the grimness of the situation, the urban destruction, and the national disgrace the people of Germany must have felt, both Somewhere in Berlin and Murders are Among Us end on positive notes. Rossellini’s film, on the other hand, remains relentlessly downbeat. Rossellini sees no future for Germany. His ending—remarkably similar in some respects to the Lamprecht film—leaves us without hope. Fortunately for all of us, Rossellini was wrong.


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Right from the start, the east was always more willing to talk about World War II than the west. After the war, East Germany had no vested interest in placating the fat cats that had been profiteering under the Nazi regime. They nationalized large corporate holdings, and the leaders of any such companies were seen as enemies of the state, or at least in need of reeducation. Meanwhile in the west, the Allies and the Federal Republic were giving lip service to anti-Nazi sentiments and were punishing the worst offenders, but they were also quietly allowing many Nazi collaborators to return to business as if nothing had happened. Unlike the GDR, the Bundesrepublik wasn’t interested in overthrowing the capitalist system. It chose instead to make a deal with the devil and let some of the lesser offenders get back to work while the worst cases were paraded before the news media. Small wonder then that the East was first to make movies that mentioned concentration camps (see Murderers Among Us), and the first to set dramas in concentration camps.

Naked Among Wolves (Nackt unter Wölfen) is one of the first dramatic films to be set entirely within the confines of a concentration camp. It is based on the true story of Stefan Jerzy Zweig, a three-year-old Jewish boy, who was sent to Buchenwald. From there he was scheduled to be shipped off to Auschwitz for extermination, but through the clever deceptions and misdirections of some prisoners and his father, he escaped execution. Communist playwright, Bruno Apitz, was also a prisoner at Buchenwald at this time, and although he had no direct contact with Zweig, he heard about the boy through the prison grapevine and recognized the story’s dramatic potential. After the war, he approached DEFA with the idea of making a film out of the story, but they weren’t interested. Instead, he had the story published as a book, which quickly became a best-seller in East Germany, moving DEFA to rethink their position on the movie. A TV-movie, directed by Georg Leopold, was made from the film in 1960, with the theatrical film, made by Frank Beyer, released in 1963.

Frank Beyer had come to the attention of most East Germans a few years earlier with Fünf Patronenhülsen, a film about five anti-fascists chosen to transport secret information across enemy lines during the Spanish Civil War. Beyer was still considered something of a young gun at DEFA (he was 28 when he made Fünf Patronenhülsen), but certainly knew how to make a film.

To play Walter Kraemer, the oberkapo for the prisoners, Beyer had wanted to cast the popular singer/actor Ernst Busch. Busch, a life-long communist, was a popular interpreter of the work of Brecht and Weil prior to World War II. He spent much of the war evading the Gestapo and recording songs for the Spanish Resistance. He was eventually captured and thrown into Camp Gurs in France. After the war, he moved back to Germany, preferring, naturally enough, to settle in the east instead of the west. Although he had appeared in several films prior to the war, it wasn’t until Fünf Patronenhülsen was made that he returned to film acting. Busch was initially resistant to request to play the lead in Naked Among Wolves, but eventually agreed. Then two weeks before filming was due to start, he suffered a severe heart attack, forcing him to drop out of the project. Erwin Geschonneck was enlisted in his place.

Like Busch, Geschonneck had spent time in a concentration camp during World War II. At the end of the war, he was nearly killed by the Royal Air Force when they sank the Cap Arcona, a ship being used to transport prisoners.1 His story was turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1982 (Der Mann von der Cap Arcona). After the wall came down in 1989, The eighty-three year-old Geschonneck retired from filming, appearing only once more in the 1995 TV-movie, Matulla und Busch, which was directed by his son, Matti. Geschonneck died March 12, 2008 at the ripe old age of 101.

One common complaint about the film is the unavoidable fact that the actors playing the camp inmates look much too healthy. Some critics also attacked the film for not showing the atrocities that were occurring there and in nearby Ohrdruf. Reportedly, it was for this reason that the film did not win the best picture award at the Moscow International Film Festival, losing to Fellini’s after Polish film director, Jan Rybkowski, complained that the movie didn’t confront the atrocities with enough candor.

The lead performances are outstanding. Erwin Geschonneck was already considered the best actor in East Germany, but Armin Mueller-Stahl was a relative newcomer. He had already proved his merit in two previous Beyer films (Fünf Patronenhülsen, and Königskinder), and was well on his way to becoming one of the most respected actors in the GDR. But, unlike Geschonneck, he left East Germany before its collapse when he was forced out of the acting profession after protesting the denaturalisation of folk singer Wolf Biermann. After immigrating to the west he continued his career and soon became a popular actor on both sides of the Atlantic.

Naked Among Wolves is as much about the Buchenwald Resistance as it is about Stefan Jerzy Zweig. Since many of the prisoners were political, they did everything in their power to stymie the efforts of the Nazis in anyway they could, and even attempted a coup in the final days of the war. While the Buchenwald Resistance was, in reality, a motley group, made up of communists, social democrats, and other political and religious prisoners, the DEFA film concentrates primarily on the efforts of the communists. This is to be expected though; the west did the exact opposite, preferring to play down the resistance efforts of anyone too far left of center.

When Stefan Jerzy Zweig learned of the movie, he moved to East Germany and studied cinematography at the film school in Babelsberg, making a short film about Robert Siewert—one of his protectors at Buchenwald. Zweig was treated like a hero, but the anti-Zionist attitudes of the GDR found him often on the wrong side of arguments there. He eventually settled in Austria where he worked as a cameraman for many years.

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1. In an odd turn of fate, the Cap Arcona was also a movie star. It was used to portray the Titanic in the 1943 German movie of the same name. Titanic is one of the only German films made during the Third Reich that is shown regularly on TCM, and is available from Netflix.

By the spring of 1950, tensions between the west and the east were worse than ever. On Easter Sunday of the previous year, the USA had successfully broken the Soviet blockade of Berlin, and both sides had reverted back to the mistrust that characterized their relationship prior to World War II. Public opinion in America, with prodding by certain congressmen, was once again turning hard against communism. By the mid-fifties, calling someone a “red” was no longer just mild epithet: it could end a career. Films like The Red Danube, I Married a Communist, and, My Son John reflected this. Throughout the fifties, both Hollywood and DEFA would ramp up their propaganda machines, with films becoming more strident and proselytizing as the decade wore on.

But even in propaganda, there are truths to be discovered. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in DEFA’s film from 1950, The Council of the Gods (Der Rat der Götter). In this film we follow the story of IG Farben, Germany’s largest chemical manufacture, from its pre-war chemical advances, through its production of poison gases for the Nazis during World War II, to the resulting war crimes trial in Nuremberg. Primarily, the film follows the events in the lives Dr. Hans Scholz (Fritz Tillmann)—the idealistic and brilliant, but naive scientist who thinks his work at IG Farben will lead to a better world, and Chairman Mauch (Paul Bildt), the head of IG Farben, and a man without any apparent scruples. While Hans works diligently to try and discover new and useful chemicals derived from hydrazine, Chairman Mauch plots with Standard Oil and other western corporations to finance Hitler’s war machine. The main heavy is Mr. Lawson (Willy A. Kleinau), a ruthless capitalist who will back any horse that helps him see a profit. Before the war, we see him hobnobbing with Chairman Mauch on a regular basis, attending fancy dress parties and meeting during South American vacations. After the war, he is shown manipulating the Nuremberg trial to ensure that his friends at IG Farben do not receive much more than a slap on the wrist. When it looks like the American prosecutor is going to play hardball with the defendants from IG Farben, Lawson uses his pull to get the prosecutor replaced with someone more sympathetic to the cause.

It surprises most Americans to find out the extent to which Standard Oil colluded with IG Farben throughout the war. In truth, the Carl Krauch, the man on whom Chairman Mauch is based, did not get off quite as lightly as the DEFA film suggests, although his six-year sentence seemed inadequate to the survivors from Auschwitz. Also missing from this film is the fact that IG Farben was dismantled after the war, splitting the conglomerate back into the individual companies it had swallowed years earlier (Bayer, AGFA, Hoechst, and BASF, among others).

Paul Bildt plays Chairman Mauch with the right amount of congeniality and menace. Fritz Tillmann is a bit less believable as the gullible scientist who doesn’t figure out that IG Farben is making poison gas until, quite literally, the rest of Europe knows it. Willy A. Kleinau doesn’t even try for believability as the Machiavellian American businessman, Mr. Lawson. He chews up the scenery with gusto. It probably doesn’t help that, to western eyes, he looks like the stereotype of a Russian bureaucrat (one reviewer even commented on his resemblance to Boris Badenov, the evil cartoon spy on Rocky and his Friends).

The most remarkable performance in The Council of the Gods comes from Eva Pflug, who plays the very American daughter of Mr. Lawson. Her imitation of an American speaking German is so good that one reviewer wrote: “[Eva Plug] must be heard to be believed. German is obviously not her mother tongue…” Actually, Eva Pflug is very much a German, born and raised in Leipzig. The Council of the Gods was her first and last film for DEFA. Soon afterwards, she moved to West Germany where she continued appearing in movies and on television until her death in 2008.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this film is the production design by Willy Schiller. The movie called for enormous chemical plant and attached rail yard, but no such site was available to the filmmakers. In the north soundstage of the DEFA studios in Babelsberg, Schiller built a 25th scale replica of a vast chemical plant, with railroad tracks, trains, and the surrounding buildings. The effect is nearly perfect. When the script called for a Swiss chalet, the Schiller had miniature Alps built. These were then placed in front of the background and cut out to fit around a rustic house in the Hartz Mountains, using the forced perspective to create the illusions of distance and size.

In spite of the hollow calls for workers to unite, The Council of the Gods stands as a testament to the nature of greed and the dangers of corporate conglomerates like IG Farben. As Kurt Maetzig pointed out in an interview that is included in the extras on the Icestorm DVD, all the information about what IG Farben and Standard Oil did during World War II came from the testimony at the trials which were held by the Americans, and from the book, IG Farben, by Richard Sasuly, who was working as a chief financial officer in the US Military during the Nuremberg trials. Furthermore, all the documentary footage shown in the film was taken by the Americans.

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