I Was Nineteen (1968)

“Perhaps you underestimate the Nazi movement’s irresistibility. It was a continuation of German history. You quoted Kant, but you misunderstood him. The categorical imperative to obey any order an authority gives us was a trait of this people before Hitler. The need to fulfill our duties. This was just an escalation. An artificially induced frenzy of obedience. The result of long-suffered degradation. An explosion of sadism. A phenomenon. We have been destroyed like no other race.”

I came across the title I Was Nineteen (Ich War Neunzehn) on a list of the ‘100 best German films ever.’ Some of the films are sadly no longer available, but I noticed that both A Girl Called Rosemarie and The Kaiser’s Lackey made the list, and since those were both great films, it seemed possible that  I Was Nineteen would be something special too.

It was….

I was nineteenI Was Nineteen is based on the memoirs of East German film director Konrad Wolf. Wolf was a lieutenant in the Red Army during WWII, and for a short period, he was the commander of Bernau in the spring of 1945.

The protagonist of I was Nineteen is 19-year-old Gregor Hecker (Jaecki Schwarz) who arrives on the outskirts of Berlin as a member of the Red Army advance scouting team. Part of Gregor’s job is to man the megaphone and tell the German soldiers that the war is over, they’ve lost, and they should surrender. Gregor is a uniquely valuable member of the team as he’s a product of a German parents who moved to the U.S.S.R and he can speak fluent German.

Based on Wolf’s diaries, the film is largely episodic and lacks a smooth narrative. Gregor is seen as a reflective mirror of the drama, and some of his recorded experiences remain more powerful than others. Some of the Germans, once they realise that Gregor is a ‘fellow’ German, imagine that this means he will be kinder and that they will receive different treatment at his hands. But Gregor doesn’t identify with Germany, its people or its lost cause in the least. He’s appalled by the actions of the Third Reich, and in one of the segments, he’s in the home of a German who intellectualizes the mass slaughter. Gregor isn’t even interested, and if anything, his slightly impatient expression seems to question why they even allow the man to spout his theories. Another of the very first segments depicts a young German girl in Bernau, obviously traumatized by recent incidents. The town is practically deserted, and the girl has drifted to Bernau from elsewhere. Terrified by the presence of the Red Army, she begs Gregor for protection in the hostile presence of a female Red Army soldier. There’s no sentimentality–even though for one moment, the film seems about to lean in that direction.

In another episode, Gregor arrives at a deserted concentration camp. He and his fellow Red Army soldiers anticipate liberating prisoners, but they have arrived too late. Archival footage of the gas chambers and the procedures used are grafted onto the film for a grim authenticity.

At another point in the film, Gregor is a translator for the Red Army officer who tries to persuade the German officers at Spandau to surrender. This is perhaps the most tense and arguably the most interesting segment of the film. The collapse of the Third Reich is evident at this point–it’s just that some people are admitting it and others are still delusional while the division between the Wehrmacht and the Nazi officers widens.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film’s unusual persepective is Gregor’s reaction to the German officers. While some of the Germans seem perplexed by Gregor’s role, Gregor views the officers as “blue-blooded bastards” who led the country into the path of madness. In spite of the fact that the war is ‘over,’ the film shows that this was an extraordinarily sensitive and dangerous time with some Germans refusing to accept defeat and surrender, while the ‘common’ foot soldier just wanted to go home. The film’s scenes show the destruction of the German army from within as some Germans refuse to surrender and try to kill those who hand over their weapons. 

I Was Nineteen is absolutely fascinating–in spite of its lack of momentum and with tension ebbing and flowing.  A May Day celebration, for example, interrupts the dangerous penetration of Germany, and makes the audience relax–much too early as it turns out. The fate of the German soldiers rounded up by Gregor and his fellow Red Army soldiers is not apparent, but their destination is the U.S.S.R, and many would never return….

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