Category Archives: German

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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A Virus Has No Morals (1986)

“Mother, what are you doing here? You were always a bit eccentric, but I didn’t realise that you were so perverse.”

A son meets his mother in a public toilet. Nurses on the graveyard shift throw the dice to see which AIDS patient will die next. A virologist uses dildos to demonstrate the effects of AIDS. This all happens in A Virus Has No Morals (AKA Ein Virus Kennt Keine Moral), Rosa von Praunheim’s satire about AIDS. A satire about AIDS!!!! Yes, you read that correctly. There are probably only a handful of directors who could pull this off successfully (John Waters leaps to mind). Rosa von Praunheim is a renegade German director who’s made a number of documentaries about AIDS, and his gay activism brought him death threats in his native Germany. Only someone with von Praunheim’s reputation as a fierce, unrelenting defender of gay rights could make this film and get away with it.

As its title suggests, A Virus Has No Morals argues that AIDS does not discriminate when it comes to infection (i.e. it’s not sent by some deity as a punishment). But when the film begins, we see several moral authorities who have various twisted beliefs about AIDS. The film’s moral authorities include: virologist, Dr. Blood, a therapist (Regina Rudnick) who believes that AIDS is psychosomatic, and a reporter (Eva Kurz) for the sleazy tabloid Purple Pages. Of course, their smug attitudes grant them a certain comfort. After all, if they are fine, upstanding, moral people, then they can’t have anything to worry about….

On the other side of the fence, in the face of infection, there are many who still think they are invulnerable–including a sauna owner (played by von Praunheim). He sees AIDS as detrimental to business, and he tries to dream up social events to encourage business.

By showing the entire spectrum of those involved one way or another with AIDS, von Praunheim illustrates the social dynamic of the disease. There are those who make money off of AIDS by sensationalizing it (the Purple Pagesreporter), and those who promise ‘cures’ (the therapist). Outraged by the “fascist medical regime,” a caring nurse forms a revolutionary group called AIDS (Angry, Sick, and Impotent Direct Action). Meanwhile as paranoia runs unchecked in the country, the Minister of Health draws up plans to start shipping AIDS patients to “ideal isolation” on an island for Quarantine. here AIDS patients will exist in a “post modern viral infection park,” with its own condom factory.

A Virus Has No Morals isn’t von Praunheim’s best film (my favourites are Neurosia and Anita: Dances of Vice), but it is typical von Praunheim fare–very colourful outrageous, and complete with a savage, riotous wit. Somehow, when I watch his films, I have the sensation that the situation is barely under control, but at the same time, it’s obvious that von Praunheim is having a great time making his films. Take for example, the sequences of von Praunheim’s version of Masque of the Red Death, scenes that are interjected into the middle of the film. It’s all von Praunheim madness and marvellous mayhem, and if you are a von Praunheim fan, you won’t mind a bit.

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The Kaiser’s Lackey (1951)

 “If your political dilettantism continues, there will be an explosion.”

Director Wolfgang Staudte’s marvelously understated satire, The Kaiser’s Lackey, a 1951 film, was recently released on DVD. Set mainly in the 1890s, the film is based on Heinrich Mann’s novel Der Untertan. Originally banned in Germany, The Kaiser’s Lackey is now considered one of the 100 greatest German films ever made.

kaiserThe film’s protagonist Diederich Hebbling is hardly a hero; as a boy Diederich is terrified of everything. From his father’s impassioned, tyrannical rants to his mother’s ghastly tales of what happens to children, little Diederich learns to never take chances, and dog-like he follows the rules. The very first glimmer of Diederich’s character appears in an early classroom scene when he curries a teacher’s favour by tattling on a fellow student.

By the time Diederich (Werner Peters) is an adult and attends university, his character is set. Attracted to Agnes Gopel (Sabine Thalbach), he scurries away when threatened by a rival, and turning from the challenges of love, instead he becomes enthralled with the Neo-Teutons–a group that gives a sense of identity and kinship and that ultimately shapes his notions of German superiority and imperialism. Dabbling with contrived duels to gain obligatory, status scars, he “experienced a sort of suicidal élan,” and gradually Diederich’s inclusion in the Neo-Teutons becomes a substitution for personality. He evades military service by pulling strings, and lacking imagination, spontaneity, and individualism, Diederich becomes the perfect material for a politician. Eventually, with the confidence and comfort gained from extensive drinking rituals and the superficial camaraderie of the Neo-Teutons, he despoils Agnes and then casts her aside due to his notions of ‘unblemished’ womanhood.

When Diederich inherits his father’s paper factory, he returns home to Netzig and becomes a petty tyrant. Rabidly anti-Semitic, he prides himself on his patriotism and harsh treatment of his workers. In unsettled political times, Diederich learns to curry favour from the socially superior bombastic governor, but he also gains cooperation from the oppositional Social Democrats by bribing one of their leaders. Some of the scenes involving the governor and his dog are hilarious. Diederich, who’s beneath the governor’s dog on the totem pole of power, must suffer various indignities without complaint in order to gain access to the governor’s presence, patronage, and privileged inner circle. And like the good little underling he is, Diederich knows better than to complain when the dog treats him like some sort of squeaky toy.

Eventually elected to the town council after gaining notoriety through a preposterous trial, Diederich’s pomposity and vanity have no limits. Courtship to a local heiress whose inheritance and bovine nature suit Diederich’s ambitions results in marriage and a honeymoon. Once Diederich learns that the Kaiser is expected in Rome, he diverts his honeymoon plans, and abandoning his wife temporarily in the street he succeeds in gaining a glimpse of his idol. Running alongside the Kaiser’s carriage like a faithful dog, Diederich is the last person to realize how insufferable and ridiculous he is.

The film, however, makes it perfectly clear that even though Diederich is a buffoon, and a cretinous underling, as an autocrat shaped by the “corps, the army and the Imperialistic spirit” he’s a destructive force, and this is established in the film’s final prophetic scene. Diederich gives a thundering patriotic speech given at the unveiling of the town’s statute of the Kaiser, and with a captive audience, he becomes carried away–even ignoring the governor’s order to stop. As Diederich’s speech becomes more impassioned, the weather turns sour and his speech’s militaristic, nationalistic tone parallels the gathering storm. Admonishing the crowd that the nation’s greatness is “forged on the battlefield,” Diederich finishes his speech ignoring the collateral damage occurring around him. This brilliant symbolism presages Germany’s coming destruction and a barking, insane and obsessed fuehrer whose notions of racial purity, militaristic traditions, and German imperialism plunged the world into war.

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Eight Miles High (2007)

 “This is fucked up. I only meant a metaphorical bomb.”

The interesting but ultimately unsatisfying and superficial biopic Eight Miles High (Das Wilden Life) from director Achim Bornhak covers just a portion of the life of German supermodel Uschi Obermaier–from the mid 60s until 1983. Culturally, these were probably the colorful years, but when the final credits rolled, I couldn’t help but wonder what parts of the story were missing….

eight-miles-highThe film begins when Uschi (Natalia Avelon) leaves home and her big-bosomed Bavarian mother behind and sets out for Berlin, landing in Berlin’s first commune–aptly named Kommune 1. In the ‘free love’ atmosphere, she begins sleeping with Rainer Langhans (Matthias Schweighofer), and the free love notion works well for Rainer until Uschi becomes a groupie and starts sleeping with Mick Jagger (Victor Noren) and Keith Richards (Alexander Scheer). Uschi’s relationship with two members of the Stones begins with a trip to England where she attends a party that could, uncannily belong to the Beggars Banquet album. The camera rightly concentrates on the impressions of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards–studiously avoiding close-ups and facial expressions.

The film depicts Uschi as the major reason for Kommune 1’s disintegration, and since she took ‘free love’ to a level, that apparently her lover Rainer could not tolerate, this might be accurate, and if it’s not true it’s certainly amusing. The residents of Kommune 1 are depicted as a bunch of brawling, immature, egomaniacal twits with Uschi as the only one who has her shit together.

The claim that Uschi was a “radical model” is shown is her ability to grab the cinematic opportunity–especially when she managed to get her photo on the cover of a magazine depicting her in between the police and protesters. Uschi continued to grab headlines worldwide and this continued after her explosive relationship with Hamburg nightclub owner Dieter Bockhorn (David Scheller)–a free spirit of an entirely different sort. Together he and Uschi traveled the world in pursuit of new adventures. These adventures are largely interpreted as Uschi going around naked (or marginally clothed), picking up animals, and daringly toting drugs across borders under the noses of the buffoons in charge.

Ultimately with lines like “what I needed was a man. The wilder the better” we are left with little understanding of what made Uschi tick. True she’s depicted as a woman who refused to allow any man to own her but this comes across in just a couple of scenes in mostly superficial ways. While the film was entertaining enough, this is a largely superficial treatment of Uschi’s life. I’d like to think that there was a lot more going on than just naked romps across the world. In German with subtitles.

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The Edge of Heaven (2007)

 “I’m a lady of easy virtue.”

Lives intersect and create permanent changes in the wonderful film The Edge of Heaven (Auf Der Anderen Seite) from writer/director Fatih Akin. Akin was born in Germany but is of Turkish descent, so his films provide a unique cross-cultural view of the lives of Turks living in Germany.

Edge of Heaven DVDThe film begins in Germany with elderly Turkish widower immigrant Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) visiting the red light district of Bremen and selecting prostitute Yeter (Nursel Kose). With her vinyl mini-dress and blonde wig, Yeter doesn’t seem the cozy type, but Ali is drawn to her. After a few encounters he suggests that she move in with him, and she accepts. She has few other choices at this point–she can’t stay in the red light area as she’s been identified and threatened by fellow Turks, so she moves in with Ali.

Add Ali’s son Nejat (Baki Dvarat) to the picture–he’s a university professor of German, and no doubt while he’s a success by cultural and societal markers, there’s something wrong…we see a scene of Nejat sitting in his messy office. Is he bored out of his mind or just contemplative? Another scene shows him listlessly lecturing students, so without explicit narrative or plot development, it seems clear that Nejat has ‘succeeded’ in German society, but he’s not thrilled about it.

Nejat doesn’t object to his father’s new housemate–in fact Yeter and Nejat have an excellent relationship. And this is in contrast to Ali’s relationship with Yeter. While he couldn’t wait for her to move in and promised to pay her, things quickly turn sour.

Circumstances take Nejat to Turkey and he begins a search for Yeter’s missing daughter, Ayten (Nurgul Yesilcay). The film takes us through Ayten’s story and activities in a revolutionary group. Seeking asylum in Germany, Ayten becomes involved with a German girl, Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska) and Lotte’s mother Susanne (Hanna Schygulla).

The Edge of Heaven is a wonderful film, and if I’ve managed to make it sound confusing, it really isn’t. The story threads are very well woven, and although the characters are connected, the viewer retains the knowledge of those connections–we have knowledge of those relationships that eludes the characters.

Watching The Edge of Heaven, I was reminded of Ozpetek’s wonderful film Haman (Steam: The Turkish Bath)–a film that also shows the exoticism and the dangers of Istanbul. Just as the main character in Steam, Francesco, is beguiled by Istanbul, Nejat is similarly entranced. There’s one scene where he walks into–of all things–a German book shop. There it is, apparently waiting for him. He steps inside and with a sense of quiet wonder he scans the shelves and silently logs the titles….

There’s a lot happening in this film–cultural identity, loss, redemption and the relationships between parents and their children who learn to accept loss and forgive errors and crimes. This is the best Akin film I’ve seen to date (In July, Head-On, and The Edge of Heaven).

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The Gleiwitz Case (1961)

 “The job we are doing is part of a master plan.”

gleiwitz caseThe documentary style black and white film The Gleiwitz Case recreates a long buried incident that sparked WWII. In 1939, a staged attack was conducted against a radio station in Gleitwitz–a few miles away from Germany’s border with Poland. The Gleiwitz incident was part of Operation Himmler–an orchestrated Gestapo plan to demonstrate “Polish aggression” against Nazi Germany, and it was supposed to provide the perfect excuse Germany needed to invade Poland.

Alfred Naujocks (Hannjo Hasse) organized the incident operating under the direct orders of Heinrich Muller and Reinhard Heydrich. The plan was to attack the station using Polish-speaking German officers. These officers–dressed in Polish uniforms–grabbed the airwaves and made hostile statements against Nazi Germany using Polish and broken German. Then as further ‘evidence’ left behind, the Germans took a Pole from a concentration camp, dressed him in a Polish uniform and shot him in the front of the radio station.

The film is basically a recreation of events–there’s no examination of the psychology of the characters, but this is an excellent portrayal of the cold efficiency of the Third Reich in operation. The film’s realism and pacing is reminiscent of The Battle of Algiers–with an emphasis on close-ups and a breathtaking immediacy. The film is a chilling reminder of exactly how calculating the Gestapo were when it came to propaganda, and it’s a demonstration of a government using a range of propaganda devices to ‘sell’ a war to the people–enraging a nation and whipping it into a war frenzy. In this instance, Hitler publicly preached reason and patience and in reality created a moral imperative and a fictional urgency to justify war. The Gleiwitz incident took place on August 31, 1939, and the next day, Germany invaded Poland. The film ends with the chilling caption: “43 million dead.” DVD extras include: the trailer, a photo gallery, an essay “The Case of the Gleiwitz Case”, biographies and filmographies. Directed by Gerhard Klein, the film is in German with English subtitles.

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Kameraschaft (1931)

“This damned drudgery will kill us all.”

Kameradschaft or Comradeship (AKA La Tragedie de la Mine) from G.W Pabst is an amazing, gripping and stirring film that follows the efforts to rescue French miners trapped 2000 feet underground. With its theme that comradeship transcends borders and nationalities, Pabst set the film in post WWI, but it’s loosely based on the real life mining disaster at Courrieres in 1906.

The mine straddles the Franco-German border, and the French miners work their side, and the Germans work the German side. When the film begins, German miners try to find work over on the French side but they are turned away. In these the post WWI years, strong sentiment still exists between both sides–particularly since some of these men fought on opposite sides just a few years previously. These hostilities and resentments surface at a local tavern one evening. The two communities don’t mix well, and they tend to stick with their own countrymen.

The early parts of the film establish various characters and story threads, and then these characters become identifiable in the chaos of the mining disaster. There’s a romance brewing between Francoise (Andree Duchret) and miner Emile (Georges Charlia), the best friend of her brother, Jean (Daniel Mendaille). Francoise hates the mining life, and after leaving the community, she now lives and works in Paris. She tries to get her widowed mother to move to Paris too, but the mother replies: “many have gone to Paris. They earn more money but not enough to pay the rent.”

Another story thread involves George (Pierre-Louis), the young grandson of a former miner. The grandfather sends the lad underground with mixed emotions–on the one hand there’s a grim acceptance: “each gets his turn.” But on the other hand, the grandfather has misgivings and asks Emile and Jean to keep an eye on George.

When an explosion rips through the French side of the mine and huge columns of smoke bilge forth from the mineshaft, the entire community rushes to the pit for news. The wives, mothers and children of the trapped miners are locked out of the area, and the gates are policed to ensure they don’t get past. The palatable anguish of the families pours from the frustrated, desperate crowd, and they must wait beyond the gates while the owner of the mine is let through. These scenes reiterate not only the hierarchy of the owners, the management, and the workers but also underscore the adversarial relationship between these groups of people. There’s one moment when the police contemplate calling in the troops on the crowd of distraught mining families.

When news of the mining disaster reaches the German miners, they rally together to assist in the rescue efforts. A great deal of the film follows the rescue attempts as the German rescue crew search for signs of survivors. In one brilliant sequence, trapped French miners tap to alert the rescuers of their whereabouts, and the film flashes back to scenes in WWI trenches; the frantic tapping of the trapped French miners morphs into rapid machine gun fire, and a German miner experiences the horror of the trenches once again.

There’s a lesson here in comradeship, of course. Some of the Germans reject the idea of risking their lives to save the French miners with a savage irony–after all just a few years have passed since a bloody shooting party raged between both countries, but as one German miner points out, “why should we mind the generals. A miner’s a miner.” In another scene, German miners sit down and eat while on a break, and they cannot carry on knowing that men are dying. Nationality and old resentments are cast aside as the miners embrace the notion of comradeship.

The owners and the management are all more interested in keeping the mine a viable operation and saving men is not the priority. The miners are quite aware of this, and the knowledge that they are expendable helps spur them in the search for their comrades. The final scenes include speeches by both French and German miners:

“Regardless of whether we’re French or German, we’re all workers, and a miner is a miner. But why do we only stick together when it gets tough? Should we sit idly by until they’ve stirred us up so we shoot each other down in a war?

The coal belongs to everyone whether we dig it up on this side or the other, and if they can’t reach an agreement at the top, we’ll stick together because we belong together.”

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending for the horses trapped in the mines, and while the film acknowledges their usefulness and the human reliance on horses, at no point is rescuing the horses even considered–neither is their abandonment in the mines mentioned. In French and German with subtitles.

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