One night at the railroad yards, an inspector named Block (Albert Hetterle) flashes his light across two employees in the act of stealing goods from a boxcar. They flee. Block gets a good look at the older man but, when everyone in the yard is gathered for a line-up, they exchange a glance of semi-recognition and Block fails to finger him.
They mutually cover each other’s secrets, which have to do with World War II. Block finds himself unable to face his past or risk telling the truth to his daughter Vera (Annekathrin Bürger), but she begins her own investigation into the truth of her background. She has meanwhile become romantically attached to the second thief (Horst Jonischkan). He’s lying to her about himself but, like her, he belongs to the younger generation who doesn’t quite know the truth that shapes the middle-aged men around him, and the two of them may pay for the older generation’s guilt. Thus, one broken generation breeds mistrust and deception in the next.
This is something of a late East German addition to film noir: a downbeat tale of moral corruption and heartbreak across an entire society. There are good people, but they suffer. The final shots, which feature characters separated by the omnipresent railroad tracks and moving ambiguously in directions that might or might not unite, deliberately evokes the ending of The Third Man, which is also about the legacy of WWII.
Joachim Kunert directed this film and co-wrote it with Günter Kunert. It’s shot by Rolf Sohre in a style of “New Wave” black-and-white self-consciousness marked by almost uncomfortable sharpness (except when a moment of focus-shifting is necessary), an eye for reflections and imprisoning compositions, and bits of hand-held freedom that suggest disorientation by looking upward to characters at an extreme angle or even tilting upside down. This is surely one of the few films scored for harp (another nod to The Third Man with its zither?), though this is played with modernist colors that don’t sound harpish.
What’s remarkable about this East German film isn’t that it’s well made or even that it’s downbeat, but that it seems to have escaped official censure. To be sure, the DEFA state film studio (known as UFA before the end of WWII) was encouraged to make anti-Nazi films and did so, especially just after the war, and these display the same expressionist flourishes that had been perfected at UFA in the days of Fritz Lang. Examples are Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are Among Us and Rotation. You can also see Peter Lorre’s salute to this in his finely Langian Der Verlorene (1951), made in West Germany, and which explores a situation similar to The Second Track of guilty recognition leading to flashbackery.
But the potential problem with this film, from the state’s point of view, is that it implies this supposedly closed chapter of history is still haunting and infecting the modern, progressive workers’ state, and also that the whole paranoid-power vibe common to this genre lends itself all too easily to contemporary political interpretations without admitting it. This is the guilty secret of why so many anti-Nazi films were made behind the Iron Curtain.
The subject of fighting fascism was worthy of official approval, and it gave filmmakers a covert freedom. Other East German films about WWII made during the ‘60s are the great I Was Nineteen, The Gleiwitz Caseand Naked Among Wolves, which all recount true stories with astonishing intelligence and clarity, while the motif of WWII film as secret contemporary critique becomes especially apparent, for example, in Czech films like the magnificent The Fifth Horseman Is Fear. According to the DEFA Film Library website at University of Massachusetts Amherst, The Second Track is “the only East German film which explores the theme of former Nazis leading normal lives in the GDR. This sensitive subject matter was one reason why the film was rarely shown in theaters.”
Still, this movie seems to have escaped the troubles that greeted other downbeat films of this time in East Germany, and which indeed led to the banning of almost an entire season of films in 1965-66. These have been called the Rabbit films because one of their number is Kurt Maetzig’s The Rabbit Is Me, now also available on DVD.
That movie centers on a teenage woman whose college plans are derailed when her brother is convicted of unspecified subversion. She gains insight into the justice system when she has an affair with the married judge who sentenced her brother. Aside from this problematic subject and the dour sense of an independent woman being hemmed in by society, the style is brisk and modern, with actions and sentences beginning in one location and finishing in another. These were all seen as good reasons for the Communist Party to ban it; they were sensitive to anything critical, anything modern, anything “foreign”. The politics behind the decision and some of the other banned films are discussed in the extras on that disc.
Meanwhile, Kunert’s film fell into obscurity until recently, having been overshadowed by the great commercial and critical success of his WWII epic, The Adventures of Werner Holt (1965), which also escaped trouble except that it had to be re-edited out of chronological order to avoid too much sympathy for the antagonist. So reports Sohre, who also shot that film, in an interview provided as an extra. The package says there are also unsubtitled newsreels about the film but I didn’t find any.