Often cited as the finest examination of the confused dual-identity of East Germany in the decades following the Second World War, Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen is essentially a film about memory. An East German film from the late 1960s, sanctioned by the Soviets but thoroughly German in focus, it plays like Fassbinder through a fun house mirror. Semi-autobiographical in conceit and fraught with near-documentary style mise-en-scene, this strange film eschews narrative in favour of a series of episodic studies of what one reviewer has referred to as East Germany’s “bottomless sorrow”. And sorrowful it is, even if never feels remotely sentimental.
Gregor Hecker, a young, inarticulate Russian soldier (impressively embodied by then-unknown Jaecki Schwarz), has grown up in Moscow the child of German exiles. Now part of a conquering army, he is visiting his homeland for the first time since before he can remember. As he stumbles through the barrenness of a defeated Germany in the two weeks surrounding May Day, 1945, his superiors employ him for his ability to speak the language (the film is in both Russian and German dialects), but he is also used by the filmmakers to show the porousness of nationality.
He is repeatedly mistaken for a German (as in one symbolic sequence when he encounters a blind German soldier who immediately, unflinchingly, takes him as a friend and ally). His own people shoot him at more than once. Peace is hard won, and hatred and distrust linger as the film comes to its close. But, who is the enemy here? By offering us a way into this confused postwar world through such a character, one that is simultaneously of both sides, if only by association, Wolf’s film remains, if nothing else, a fascinating bit of history.
But it is by no means a fascinating story, and it must be said that the film struggles to maintain its momentum. After opening with a harrowing shot of a hanged man floating on a makeshift raft, the word TRAITOR scrawled across the board dangling from his neck, the first two thirds of the film hardly let up. We visit a concentration camp and learn of the cold, hard, truth of the extermination of Russian prisoners of war in their tens of thousands. We visit a series of small towns, learning of the pervasive fear of rape and murder that has enslaved their inhabitants. We meet an execution party, squabbling over the righteousness of what they are about to do, even as the poor man stands waiting, his eyes glassy with fear.
But, just as powerful as this first hour is, it is followed by a solid 20 minutes of near-complete inaction, such as long, languid coverage of a group of soldiers preparing dumplings for a May Day celebration. The banality and fundamental boredom of war is a worthy subject, and one that has been approached by diverse hands to great effect, and it has rarely been so vividly realized. After being unable to look away for the first hour of film, one finds it suddenly terrifically easy at this point to leave the room and make a sandwich. What is being demonstrated here is open to debate, but it seems to me that only the least fidgety of modern audiences will find any amusement here.
However, inexorably, the gears shift again, and in the final 15 minutes of the film a tightly constructed depiction of the complex process of surrender dominates the action. In what must be the most appalling of all realities of internecine warfare, even in the endgame period of defeat, surrender and victory, people continue to die. Roving bands of soldiers who haven’t been informed (or who have vendettas to fulfill) still aim their weapons at the “enemy” even after the negotiations are complete. Shouting “the war is over!” at your attackers is fruitless, and the bullets continue to fly. How horrible the thought of being killed in action, for nothing, after the outcome of the war has already been decided? In these final scenes, I Was Nineteen is riveting, uncompromising, and tragic.
Throughout the film, characters debate politics (of a kind generally unheard of in films from the Soviet Bloc in this period), offer explanations for Germany’s vast, and unconscionably blind adherence to Hitler and his psychotic machinations, and suggest ways forward, toward reconciliation. Since the Soviet invaders would indeed remain in East Germany until 1989, coming to terms with the horrible circumstances which begat this uncomfortable union seems the understandable purpose of the film. That no clear terms rest on the table in the final analysis is the ultimate brilliance of this wild, subversive, and thoughtful piece of work. I highly recommend this film.