Saturday, 18 May 2013

German War Film: Have you ever thought of looking at a warfilm diff...

German War Film: Have you ever thought of looking at a warfilm diff...: The lone hero stands alone and faces a row of desperate opponents. The sun beats down on him as he raises his pistol and fires. His ...

Have you ever thought of looking at a warfilm differently? - What About a Western?

The lone hero stands alone and faces a row of desperate opponents. The sun beats down on him as he raises his pistol and fires. His shots are quicker and more surprising than those of his opponents and they fall down dead.  He holsters his weapon, laconically lights a cigarette and turns to mount his horse. He rides off slowly in to the distance and the camera pans back to see his image become smaller and smaller in a huge, desolate landscape. Western music plays as the hero disappears in to an uncertain future in a land of opportunity…This scenario could be the stock ending of a myriad of Westerns and at first glance the western genre would seem to be a strange genre would seem to be a counterintuitive one through which to explore the national identity of the GDR.

Elsaesser and Wedel, who proposed the notion of National Foundation films also suggested the western as a genre to investigate the national identity of the GDR. They propose that Wolf had been influenced by the western noting that he had, “ a keen appreciation of the classical western, in the manner of John Ford, Robert Aldrich or even Sam Fuller!” (Elsaesser, Wedel, 2001, 21). Wolf himself admitted to the influence o f Italian films and Directors, (Herlinghaus,1982, 64,) and it was Italian film making that had influenced and indeed reinvigorated the western genre in the 1960’s through the Spaghetti Westerns and the introduction of Clint Eastward as the “Silent Man”.  Not only were Hollywood westerns and Spaghetti Westerns an influence on East German film makers,  but also home grown literature such as the stories of German author Karl May writing in German at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Centuries. He wrote about his experiences in the Prairies of North America and this influenced DEFA filmmakers in the 1960’s to produce their own take on the Western for East German audiences.

Origins and features

The western genre is, perhaps, the oldest Hollywood genre,  which Andre Bazin, co-founder of Cahiers du cinéma , called, “ the only genre whose origins are almost identical with those of the cinema itself[…]” (Schatz, 1988,25). The earliest Hollywood films were Westerns, often using real cowboys and has at its root “[…]the conflicts…of the industrial age, …between old world and new…(Schatz, 1988, 26). The Western develops a popular language for the formational myths of America and is used to reinforce those myths, and drive out any other narratives, such as those of the native peoples (Schatz, 1988, 26).
At the centre of the foundational myth are two protagonists, the frontier and the solitary hero. The frontier is Janus faced giving and taking away, “ if the West was seen as a potential Eden, the garden of the world, it was also seen as a wilderness, the Great American desert. The life on the frontier was both ennobling because it was close to nature and primitive, at the furthest remove from civilisation” (Pye, 1977, 201). The frontier permeates the whole genre, it affects acceptable actions and how justice is interpreted. It permits actions and behaviour that would not be acceptable in the civilised homelands but are vital for survival on the frontier. The frontier is flexible and changing. This constant movement becomes the “crucible” of the nation, (Langford, 2005, 63).

The hero of a Western is a solitary romantic one (Pye, 1977, 201), he is the one who forms the narrative, by recognising the conflict in a community, deciding to engage in that conflict, participating in a life or death struggle and finally prevailing (Schatz, 1988, 27). Having prevailed he moves on to the next challenge rather than settling for the emasculating life of civilisation (Schatz, 1988, 30). The conflict in a movie reflects the conflicts of society but the hero’s engagement in that conflict alienates him from his society, he is “an ambivalent figure who embodies the savage and civilised[…]” (Schatz, 1988, 30), his alienation can only be redeemed through the final battle.

The settlers of this frontier, who travel with the hero,  become like the Jews searching for the promised land, linking the genre to the road movies genre. The hero is “ in a sense both attempting to find a promised land and [is] still wandering in the wilderness” ( Pye, 1977, 207). This sense of constant movement gives a sense of incompleteness and dislocation. The frontier is continually moving and the settlers are following behind with the lone hero. This movement has caused the genre to be described as “a symbolic representation of the American psyche[…]” (Pye, 1977, 208).

This discussion of the genre has concentrated on the settler and western experience, the experience of the native people and wilderness are seen, in the Hollywood genre, as a place where, “ In the end […] the land is exploited for the White Man’s dollars” (Lischke, McNab, 2005,283). The native people are forces of resistance who are pushing back against the White expansion. Here we see a divergence in the genre between the Hollywood and the East German western genre.
Indianer Filmen

Produced by DEFA in reaction to the West German production of Karl May’s stories in the early 1960’s, which East German citizens could see when they travelled to Czechoslovakia on holiday until 1968 (Gemünden, 2001, 26). DEFA produced its own version of the western genre, known as Indianer Filmen, which consciously decided to look at the Western from the point of view of the Indian rather than that of the conquering White settler.  Produced by the Die Abenteuer des Werner Holt’s production team, Roter Kreis, Native Americans were cast as the heroes of the films and the American, English or French settlers as the villains, (Lischke, McNab, 2005,283). “The Indians, struggling to survive imperialist and capitalist forces, would reflect the proletarian ideal of hard work and co-operation” (Lischke, McNab, 2005,286) and while the films tried to be historically accurate, they, like their American genre cousins, also reflected “war not peace” (Lischke, McNab, 2005,287). In portraying war the Indianer Filmen wanted to portray the capitalists as they really were and reflect the East German world view where, “peace is illusory and war becomes an end in itself” (Lischke, McNab, 2005,298).

While the “Whites” represented capitalism the Indians were a primitive but “noble”, (Gemünden, 2001, 28). The films “tap into broadly held notions of [GDR] national identity, firmly appropriating the “other” i.e. the North American Indians, as an “us” (Gemünden, 2001, 30) and therefore the “us” becomes a picture of the “noble[…]rallying against American materialism and greed[…]”(Gemünden, 2001, 30-1). The central figure and consistent star of the DEFA Indianer Filmen is Yugoslavian Gojko Mitic, who plays the chief Ulzana as a freedom fighter or Partisan he, “acts out the fantasy of the resistance fighter and anti fascist, providing a role model for young citizens and relieving older ones from responsibilities they may not have been up to during the 1930’s and 1940’s” (Gemünden, 2001, 33).

Thus, we see 2 streams of influence on Die Abenteuer des Werner Holt and Ich war neunzehn. The Hollywood Western genre, with its emphasis on the lone hero struggling to bring order to (a) an, wide, unruly frontier and the Indianer Filmen with its sympathy for the Native peoples who are oppressed and exploited by the “foreign” invaders and who have to resist as Partisans in their own land.

Elsaesser and Wedel  see a strong western motive with Hecker, in Ich war neunzehn,  acting as an Indian supporting the civilising forces, they say; “ Gregor[…] is perhaps best understood as the typical western figure of the Indian scout[…]” (Elsaesser, Wedel, 2001, 21). There appears to be little literature reviewing Die Abenteuer des Werner Holt the through western genre, however Kunert’s film is linked to DEFA’s Indianer Filmen through its production group, Rote Kreis. It seems not impossible to apply an Indianer Film and Western reading to Die Abenteuer des Werner Holt and Ich war neunzehn.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Have you Seen: Der Ruf, (The Last Illusion)?

Have you seen Von Baky's 1949 film, Der Ruf (The Last Illusion)?

It is a semi autobiographical film diected by von Baky and written by returned exile Fritz Kortner. The film, like Peter Lorre's 1951 Der Verlorene or Wolf's 1968 Ich war 19 tries to describe how difficult it was to return to Germany as an exile.

The film describes the story of Prof Mauthner, played by Fritz Kortner, who is a successful exiled professor in Califonia. He yearns to return home and leaves his Californian comforts fo the rigours of post war Berlin and an academic post at a University there.

In Germany he preaches that the nation must reject the old couse and embrace a new way of thinking. This message is cruelly rejected by the students, one of which being his son, who stayed in Germany during the war and fought with the Wehrmacht.

The film, shot in English and Germany, clearly captures the difficulties of returning home. Kortner, who wrote the piece, based the story on his own expereince of returning home back to Germany following exile in California. When he wrote the film he commented to Der Spiegel that he "expected protests" from the public about the film. Many of the German characters in the film speak against him and seem such unrefomed Nazis, that they were described by Der Spiegel as "seeming to want to don their old Nazi uniforms and invade America". While this may be an exageration, the Germans are certainly shown as trucluent, and resentful of the returning Mauthner.

Kortner's experience was certainly one of difficulty when he retuned to Germany, he had to pay his own passage, and found it difficult to find work as the Theatre he wanted to work in was now in the Soviet Zone of Occupation. If Mauthner's expereince was only a "half portrait" as described by Der Spiegel it certainly reflected the experiences of those who were exiles or victims of the regime and who tried to help Germany's youth to plot a new course in the Post War world such as Konrad Wolf and Pastor Martin Niemöller. Wolf, who returned from exile wearing a Soviet Uniform and as a Soviet citizen was involved in the Soviet efforts at Denazification and reduction. He described how when he was giving a lecture to University students he arrived one day to find " Traitor to the Fatherland" chalked on his desk.  Pastor Martin Niemöller, Concentration Camp victim and survivor, had a similar experience when talking to students in Munich of being barracked and shouted down.

Kortner's film is fast paced and shows that he had learnt in Hollywood, how to hold an audience. His message seems to be that you can never really expect to return home. Kortner stands out as someone who did make the transition succesfully and was able to fight through the negative experiences of the post war period, while those like Billy Wilder or Marlene Dietrich decided that Germany held nothing more for them and they remained in the US.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

But where can I find reviews of the films?

Often, when I am reviewing an old film I wonder where I can get a contemporary review of it so that I can better understand what people thought of the film at the time it was made.

If you are looking at British War films there are plenty of sources, such as the Times Online, however where do you turn for German sources when you are stuck behind a PC in the UK or the States? Obviously the best thing would be to jump on a plane and go to the archives in Berlin, but that's not always possible.

I have now found at least 3 sources of contemporary film reviews, in German, that can be accessed from the net.

Der Spiegel
The first is the German magazine der Spiegel. It has been commenting on the West German and German film scene since Jan 1947 and its whole archive is on line. It is easy to search and the articles are easy to find.

There is no need to log on and no need to register. You can read the article on line and also download a pdf of the page it comes from. This is massively interesting, not only for the article itself but also what is being advertised and the articles around it.

Der Spiegel's archive can be found at:

Die Zeit
This paper's archive also stretches back in to the Occupation period and again its archive is simple to navigate.

There is no need to log on or register, however you can only read the html version of the article. It appears that the articles have been scanned and the scanning is not very good as the text often jumbles words or adds spelling mistakes which can render the text illedgible.

The articles are down loadable however the pdfs are just in plain text and it is not possible to see the Ur Text, which would help the researche to get over the spelling issues and jumbling issues.

DDR Press
It has been pointed out to me that I rely very heavily on West German texts for the reviews that I use, which is a little strange given that I am trying to employ a cross German approach. This has been due to the fact that I haven't been able to find a good source of East German and SBZ newspapers on line. That is until now.

I recommend the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin which has a searchable archive of Neues Deutschland which goes back to 1946 it also hopes to have an archive of the Berliner Zeitung [BZ] Neue Zeit [NZ] going back to 1945 online shortly.

I have found the archive a little difficult to navigate however it seems to be a fantastic resource that all researchers can use. You have to register and this takes a moment or two, but once you are there everything you wanted to ask Neues Deutschland but were afraid to ask is available.

It can be found here

The Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin allows users to see the article in html format, but also to download the page of the newspaper in pdf format. So in this sense it is comparible to Der Spiegel.

It also has a number of other regional pre World War II papers digitised and they can be found here:

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Kurt Maetzig 1911-2012

August saw the death of one of Germany's key Trümmerfilm directors Kurt Maeztig.

Maeztig, who as a former socialist resistance fighter, was one of the founders of the East German DEFA film studios. His early films described an anger and desire to prevent any resurrection of fascism in Germany. His obituaries concentrated on his work in the 1950's and 1960's when he directed the lumpy Socialist Realist epics Ernst Thälmann - Führer seiner Klasse and  Ernst Thälmann - Sohn seiner Klasse from 1954 and 1955 or his famous banned film Das Kaninchen bin ich 1965.

His Trümmerfilm works however are a searing reminder of the horrors of the war. His most powerful film Ehe Im Schatten 1947 takes the terrors of the Holocaust and projects them on to a domestic relationship. In doing this we can see how fascism would affect us in our own lifes, we see our relationships, our families and our proffesions and have to ask what would we do and how would we react in the same situation.

Unfortunately I can recommend this film, however it is difficult to see. It is not available on Amazon or Icestorm I am looking for a copy on line, however when it comes available I will

Friday, 25 May 2012

The Best Warfilms Ever?

In 2011 Empire Magazine, one of the UK’s leading popular film magazines produced a list of the 500 greatest movies that film lovers should watch and while the list contains "classics" like Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming) and Star Wars (1977, George Lucas) it only contains 10 war films. With such a small contribution from the war film, it is a surprise to see that a third of these war films are German war Films.

Heimat Edgar Reitz  (1984)

Made in the early 1980's as a reaction to the American TV series Holocaust, Reitz created his TV series that chronicles the history of one family in a fictitious village in the Hunsrueck Mountains in Western Germany from 1919 to 1982.

It is compelling viewing as the audience sees the Simon family as it comes to terms with defeat in 1919, inflation, political unrest, the Nazis coming to power, the Second World War, defeat (again) and the economic miracle.

The film is a family history and harks back to the German tradition of the Heimat film, which is a particular German genre mythologising and sanctifying the German landscape. In an interview Edgar Reitz gave in 1986 to Film Quarterly Reitz said that he wanted to show that those that cooperated with the Nazis were not "others" as had been held in the 1950's, 60's and 70's but had been the German's themselves and to a greater or lessor extent part of the German culture of the time. (See note 1). In doing this he hoped to normalise memory and help the Germans to come to terms with who they were.

It is a long 11 part TV series but absolutely worth seeing. It is available from click here for a link to the page

Das Boot, Wolfgang Peterson (1981)

Perhaps one of the best known German films in the UK as it regularly re appears on Channel Four and Film Four.

It tells the story of a young propaganda officer who is assigned to a U Boat based in Western France. The U Boat is ordered to sea and the propaganda officer sees at first hand the privations and struggles of mainly honourable men as they try and stay alive. The U Boat not only has to fight the British but the North Atlantic weather and the idiots in the High Command. It is only by pulling together against these three enemies do the men survive to return to shore.

The German News Magazine Der Spiegel called the film, " An underwater Western that is spiced up with Apocalypse Now and surrounded with a fussily galactic which Peterson has tried to bring the  terrors of the war to a new audience" Note 2. 

Again this film can only be recommended and can be bought from here

Der Untergang, Downfall  Oliver Hirschbiegel (2004).

Hirschbiegel's 2004 classic which depicts the last few days of Hitler's life in the claustrophobic confines of the Berlin Bunker as seen through the eyes of his personal secretary, Traudl Junge. Based on her autobiography and Joachim Fest's book about Hitler's final days we see personalities slowly fall apart and weak men become strong in the face of severe adversity.

The film became famous as the first in which Hitler was shown with any personality. Swiss actor Bruno Ganz  seems to capture something of the spirit of the man in his portrayal. The film is also famous for bending the truth and making heroes of men who were in actual fact anything but. The greatest example of this being Dr Schenk, who is held up as a great humanitarian while actually being an SS doctor who worked at Dachau.

A German Studies review of the film said, "despite their portrayal as men with emotions, weaknesses, and, even, personal charm....the viewer's sympathies turn away from the leading Nazis, they are directed to
lesser characters, some real historical figures like Junge, and to the nameless Berliners,young and old, who give their lives in the war's waning moments for Hitler's insane determination never to surrender." Note 3

In this is the power of the film, our sympathy is not with the big men of the Third Reich but with their people who allowed themselves to be led in to oblivion and must now pay the price which their leaders are unable to bear.

As an aside Traudl Junge was interviewed about her life with Hitler and I attach a link to the film called: Im Toten Winkel  (note the attached is a fragment of the whole)

I have chosen this link as it has subtitles in English.

To order Der Untergang click here

To order Im Toten Winkel  click here


1. 1986, Birgel, Franz A, Reitz Edgar, You Can Go Home Again: An Interview with Edgar Reitz, Film Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Summer, 1986), pp. 2-10

2. 1981, Der Spiegel, Rauschhaftes Erlebnis, 38/1981 pp 229-231

3. 2005, Hochstadt, Steve, Film Review, German Studies Review, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Feb., 2005), pp. 241-243