[9 March 2007]
Almost immediately after the end of World War II, both the American and Soviet occupation forces instituted denazification programs in Germany. Included as part of these programs, Tony Judt writes in Postwar, “German civilians were taken on obligatory visits to concentration camps and made to watch films documenting Nazi atrocities” (Penguin Press 2005). Judt quotes Stephen Hermlin’s memory of one screening:
In the half-light of the projector, I could see that most people turned their faces away after the beginning of the film and stayed that way until the film was over… [They were] not interested in being shaken by events, in any “know thyself.”
Despite and because of such willful disinterest, Deutsche Film (DEFA), the film production company started in Germany’s Soviet sector, made commercial films about the rise of Hitler, complicity of citizens in the Nazi regime, and anti-Semitism. Employing the rich remnants of Germany’s prewar theater and film talent, DEFA produced films from within the society under criticism. First Run Features, continuing its collaboration with the DEFA Film Library, has recently released Rotation and Council of the Gods.
Rotation (1949) is directed by Wolfgang Staudte, an actor who also directed Germany’s first postwar release, The Murderers Are Among Us. According to an interview with historian Christiane Muckenberger included on the DVD, Staudte realized while working on Murderers that in order to reach his audience, he couldn’t depict the horrific crimes of the Nazi leadership, characters too easily rejected. In Rotation, then, “His hero typifies the ordinary man in the audience. And the story he tells mirrors the experience of the majority of the audience. He preys upon their guilt.”
Hans Behnke (Paul Esser) is one such “hero”. A machinist whose ethical compromises lead to his ruin, he enjoys a brief spate of optimism upon his marriage to Charlotte (Irene Korb) and the birth of their son Helmut. But this is soon eroded by the poverty and unemployment of the Weimer Republic. His brother-in-law Kurt (Reinhold Bernt) joins the Communist Party, while a family friend joins the National Socialists. When Hans gets a job with a printing company that produces Nazi propaganda, he resists joining the party, humorously shooing a recruiter from his apartment. His eventual enlistment is subtly conveyed: a tiny portrait of Hitler on an apartment wall, a swastika pin on a jacket lapel. Around the same time, Helmut (now grown up and played by Karl-Heinz Deickert) resents his childhood poverty and finds another family in the Hitler Youth. When Kurt seeks assistance printing resistance fliers and Hans reluctantly agrees to help, Helmut reports his father, who is subsequently sent to prison.
Cinematographer Bruno Mondi’s fluid tracking shots and expressionist lighting and framing produce a number of thrilling hyper-realistic scenes. An argument between Kurt and Hans in the Behnkes’ bombed-out apartment, conducted by candlelight, gradually turns abstract, highlighting their angst, torn between resistance and survival. Characters are frequently framed through bars, a motif that builds until the climactic Battle of Berlin sequence (a technically remarkable highlight), when a final close-up of a birdcage sinking into water, a desperate canary inside, represents the self-destructive confines of Nazism.
Staudte is both sympathetic toward and critical of Hans. Making the film was, as Muckenberger quotes the director, his “self-questioning” attempt to deal with his own passivity during the war. The film is a convincing chronicle of how thousands of ostensibly “good” people supported a terrible regime. According to Muckenberger, the pacifist Staudte’s decision to end the film with a warning about the similarly corrupting effects of the Cold War was roundly criticized by his Soviet superiors.
Council of the Gods, produced one year later, shows how quickly DEFA’s demands to toe the party line obscured critical sentiments. While not nearly as artistically accomplished as Rotation, the schizophrenic-seeming Council offers a captivating representation of the competing interests of its time. The plot, concerning big industry’s complicity in building weapons, is based on Nuremberg Trial transcripts about the chemical company IG-Farben. The look of the film—flimsy studio sets, sinister labs, and cheap stock footage—is reminiscent of B horror movies. The villains, ravenous capitalists, reek of Communist (and ironically Nazi) propaganda stereotypes. And the overriding “up with people” sentiment appears lifted from the ‘30s Federal Theatre Project. (It is “dedicated to the friends of freedom all over the world.”)
Like Hans in Rotation, research scientist Hans Scholz (Fritz Tillmann) is a simple family man drawn into larger events through unwitting complicity and deliberate ignorance. While developing a “devilish brew” for a Rhineland “monster company”, he repeatedly rejects the warnings of his collectivization-minded fellow workers. In histrionic arguments about the nature of their work, they shout, “You’re abetting our slide into another war!” and “I’m a scientist, not a politico!”
The factory owners, the self-proclaimed “council of the gods”, form an international capitalist coalition to build weapons for the approaching world war. They care only for business and blithely joke about the effects of their policies. “Did we come here to wage war on each other?” an executive jokes in negotiations with Standard Oil. Scholz learns too late that the gas he developed is being marked for Auschwitz. The brokers’ dealings are conducted with a cackling glee verging on camp. Yet the examination of Standard Oil’s role in assisting the Nazis is an intriguing topic, largely unexamined at the time by Americans who were equally eager to sweep their unsavory wartime acts under the rug.
Gods follows the postwar attempts of Scholz and his coworker Karl (Albert Garbe) to turn the factory into a “people’s factory.” But Chairman Mauch (Paul Bildt) returns from the Nuremberg trials intent on producing chemical weapons for the US (which spared the factory during bombings), anticipating a “new war to make billions.” Scholz stages a rally for peace, proclaiming, “That’s the truth. The whole truth. Nobody can say they didn’t know it.” The conclusion, however, is ambiguous, seemingly supporting Communist ideology while sounding the alarm about an impending arms race (involving the Soviets). The closing sequence doesn’t choose between a broadly humanitarian hope and what the DVD biography cites as director Kurt Maetzig’s “committed socialist convictions.”
There’s no mistaking the direction of the DEFA films. Watching the company’s “The Eyewitness” newsreels, included on both DVDs, one can almost see the Iron Curtain descend from 1946 to the early ‘50s. A story covering the banquet announcing DEFA’s first production slate is perky, a story on the making of Rotation in 1949 includes catty asides like “In the West, the 70 or so licensed stage companies are stagnating.” By the early ‘50s, Americans are being referred to as “repellent hyenas” and the West Germans as “traitors.”
The term “denazification” implies a cleansing that borders on brainwashing that could not have been possible. Judt writes, “By the time the Western Allies abandoned their denazification efforts with the coming of the Cold War, it was clear that these had had a decidedly limited impact.” In opinion polls “throughout the years 1945-49, a consistent majority of Germans believed that ‘Nazism was a good idea, badly applied.’” In any event, the anti-Nazi “message” was mostly overshadowed by new totalitarian governments and jingoistic foreign policies.
Though part of such efforts, cautionary tales like Rotation and Council of the Gods sought to examine, rather than preach on, the sacrifices made and crimes committed during war. The effects of such films are unknowable and at the time, probably slight. Audiences turn away from uncomfortable truths whenever they can.