Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser (1957)

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Berlin, Schoenhauser Corner (German: Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser…)[1] is an East German crime film directed by Gerhard Klein. It was released in 1957.

Plot summary

Dieter, Angela, Kohle and Karl-Heinz are part of a group of delinquent youths who prowl Schönhauser Allee, in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg. The four, each with his troubled life, are often in trouble with the police. Karl-Heinz steals an identity document and uses it to enter West Berlin, where he murders a man while committing armed robbery. The police suspect that his friends assisted him. When he returns, Kohle and Dieter confront Karl-Heinz about an unpaid debt; he threatens them both with a pistol, and Kohle knocks him unconscious. Karl-Heinz recovers and runs away. But Dieter and Kohle believe they have killed Karl-Heinz. Kohle and Dieter get assistance in fleeing to West Berlin, and are staying in a home with other young men. They plan to get to the Federal Republic of Germany. Before long Dieter wonders whether Karl-Heinz is really dead, and whether it would be safe to return to East Berlin. He is threatened by some of the young men in the home where they are staying. Kohle is concerned that the two friends will be separated. He drinks a solution of coffee and tobacco to feign illness, so he can’t be sent away. On the next day, Dieter discovers Kohle dead, poisoned by the beverage. Dieter returns home, where Angela awaits his child, and explains the situation to the police. He is released, while Karl-Heinz is imprisoned.

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Cast

  • Ekkehard Schall as Dieter
  • Ilse Pagé as Angela
  • Ernst-Georg Schwill as Kohle
  • Harry Engel as Karl-Heinz Erdmann
  • Raimund Schelcher as Police commissioner
  • Helga Göring as Angela’s mother
  • Erika Dunkelmann as Kohle’s mother
  • Maximilian Larsen as Kohle’s stepfather
  • Ingeborg Beeske as Karl-Heinz’s mother
  • Siegfried Weiß as Karl-Heinz’s father
  • Manfred Borges as Dieter’s brother
  • Hartmut Reck as member of the Free German Youth
  • Gerd Michael Henneberg as American man

Production

The screenplay of Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser… was written in summer 1956 – during the early months of the Khruschev Thaw – and severely criticized by officials in the Ministry of Culture’s Cinema Directorate upon its completion. It was seen by the authorities as portraying only the negative side of the life in the country. Director Klein did not receive an approval to begin filming, but did so anyhow, starting at October. When Klein held a screening of Ecke Schönhauser in the Ministry of Culture, the officials present strongly disapproved of it, and intended to ban it. But when it was presented to the Central Committee of the Free German Youth, Hans Modrow praised Klein’s work and declared that it would be beneficial for the populace. The film was approved for release.[2]

Reception

The film was viewed by 1.5 million watchers in the first twelve weeks after its premiere.[3]

Mira and Antonin Liehm wrote that, while still attacking “West Berlin with the same propagandistic undertone of all DEFA films”, it also “took into account the shady aspects of life in the East”.[4] Dagmar Schittly noted that the film acknowledged the East German youth’s wish to emulate the life in the West, at least partially: on one occasion, Angela states that her model of the ideal man figure is Marlon Brando.[5]

At 1995, Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser… was selected as one of the 100 most important German films in history.[6]

References

  1. Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser… on DEFA Foundation’s website.
  2. Ralf Schenk (editor). Das zweite Leben der Filmstadt Babelsberg. DEFA- Spielfilme 1946 – 1992. ISBN 978-3-89487-175-8. Pages 127-130.
  3. Markus Münch. Drehort Berlin. Wo berühmte Filme entstanden”. ISBN 978-3-8148-0154-4. Page 63.
  4. Miera Liehm, Antonin J. Liehm . The Most Important Art: Soviet and Eastern European Film After 1945. ISBN 0-520-04128-3. page 261.
  5. Dagmar Schittly. Zwischen Regie und Regime. Die Filmpolitik der SED im Spiegel der DEFA-Produktionen. ISBN 978-3-86153-262-0. Pages 97-100.
  6. Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser… on PROGRESS’ website.
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Alice in the Cities (1974)

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Alice in the Cities (German: Alice in den Städten) is a 1974 German road movie directed by Wim Wenders. This was the first part of Wenders’ “Road Movie Trilogy” which included The Wrong Move (1975) and Kings of the Road (1976). The film is shot in black and white by Robby Müller with several long scenes without dialogue. The film’s theme closely foreshadows Wenders’ later film Paris, Texas.

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Plot

German writer Philip Winter has missed his publisher’s deadline for writing an article about the United States. He decides to return to Germany, and encounters a German woman, Lisa, and her daughter, Alice, who are both doing the same thing. After Lisa leaves Alice temporarily in Phil’s care, it quickly becomes apparent that he will have to look after her for longer than he expected.[1] Phil finds himself stuck with Alice, searching various cities of Germany for her grandmother, whose name and address Alice cannot remember. The only clue they have is a photograph of her grandmother’s front door with no house number and no one in the shot.

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Cast

  • Rüdiger Vogler as Phil Winter
  • Yella Rottländer as Alice
  • Lisa Kreuzer as Alice’s Mother
  • Sibylle Baier as The Woman

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Production

The scenario of a young girl and a writer thrown together was inspired by his long-time collaborator Peter Handke’s experience as a single parent.[2] The influence of Handke’s 1972 novel Short Letter, Long Farewell, also featuring an alienated German-speaker travelling across the United States, can be inferred from the film’s use of clips from John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, itself heavily referenced in the novel. The film can be seen as a response to Handke’s novel.[3]

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Critical reception

Philip French of the Observer calls Rottländer’s performance as Alice “unforgettable”. He goes on to say that the movie would not be able to be made today “partly because of the invention of the mobile phone, partly because of our obsessive fear of anything that might be interpreted as paedophilia.”[4] Nora Sayre and Lawrence Van Gelder of the New York Times say that it is “a film with a great deal to say about Europe and America, about the exhaustion of dreams and the homogenization of nations, about roots and the awareness of time, about sterility and creativity, about vicarious and real adventure and, eventually, about the possibilities of the future.”[5]

Scoring

The film was scored by the German band Can. When interviewed about the experience, Can’s Irmin Schmidt stated that it was recorded by Schmidt, Michael Karoli and Jaki Liebezeit and that they were not able to see the movie before recording the music. Instead, they went through a collaborative approach with Wenders, who was very short on time. It was all done in one day.[6]

References

  1. Alice in the Cities at the Internet Movie Database
  2. King of the Road by Chris Petit in the Guardian Saturday January 5, 2008
  3. Brady, Martin; Leal, Joanne (2011). Wim Wenders and Peter Handke: Collaboration, Adaptation, Recomposition. Amsterdam: Editions Ropodi. pp. 169–170. ISBN 978-90-420-3248-4.
  4. French, Philip (5 January 2008). “Alice in the Cities”. The Observer. Retrieved 26 April 2012.
  5. “Alice in the Cities (1974)”. The New York Times. 9 October 1974. Retrieved 26 April 2012.
  6. “An Interview with CAN’s Irmin Schmidt”. Screen Slate. Retrieved 26 April 2012.

Heißer Sommer (Hot Summer) (1968)

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The beach party film – a long forgotten genre of American Cinema that produced dozens of formulaic features, complete with bikini-clad beach bunnies, the blindingly white smile of Frankie Avalon & tons of catchy pop songs.  With titles like Beach Blanket Bingo, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini & Muscle Beach Party, these movies (mostly released from American International Pictures) flooded movie palaces and drive in theatres across the country throughout the sixties, but the popularity of these movies weren’t just contained to the states.  Surfing the Atlantic to Germany, the beach party film genre reached East Germany with the 1967 film Heisser Sommer (Hot Summer), directed by Joachim Hasler.  This cult classic was recently screened as part of the Knoxville German Film Festival.  In order to understand the importance of this seemingly harmless teen musical, one must first take a look at the highly charged environment it was produced in.

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The Berlin Wall was constructed only six years before Heisser Sommer was released.  A divided post-war Germany was still trying to find its own identity – both in the East and the West.  Sexual freedom, the reidentification of the family unit and the new roles of females in the workplace were just a few of the issues that every German struggled with.  And as the Federal Republic of West Germany quarreled with the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union, the Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft (also known as DEFA) began to release films that promoted Socialism under the guise of competing with Western Cinema.  One of their most famous releases was Heisser Sommer, the German answer to Frankie & Annette.  The campy but catchy musical follows the exploits of ten teen boys & eleven teen girls and their attempts to enjoy the Hot Summer (complete with amorous dance numbers, a love triangle and a stolen fishing boat joyride).

DEFA’s plan was to reach the disaffected youth of East Germany through a film stylized after the beach party movie genre, a hugely popular selection of movies in the 1960s.  Heisser Sommer featured the real life husband and wife team of Chris Doerk and Frank Schobel, stars that were already popular in East Germany at the time.  Strangely, DEFA’s film served as pure escapist fun for the monotonous life of East German youth trying to escape the Orwellian trappings of their country.

It’s hard not to enjoy the catchy tunes and campiness of the movie (even with subtitles).  Viewed as a weird and kitschy film offering in today’s popular culture, Heisser Sommer was a very innocuous and innocent musical at the time.  I think movies like Heisser Sommer & Beach Blanket Bingo were welcome distractions for audiences on both sides of the Atlantic during the height of the Cold War.  The plots of these movies were very easy to follow.  In comparison to the movies of today, I guess Heisser Sommer and its ilk would be sort of comparable to summer popcorn flicks and Disney musicals of today.  These spectacles aren’t really meant to make you think about anything really “heavy” but merely just offer an escape, a momentary pause on the troubles of people’s lives and just enjoy a laugh or a song over an hour and a half.

From a film critic’s point of view, you have to prepare yourself for the movie you’re going to see.  Going into something like Heisser Sommer, you realize you’re not going to be viewing a substantive social commentary on the youth of Germany put against the backdrop of the GDR.  Instead, you anxiously wait to see the East German take on the adventures of Frankie & Annette.  Heisser Sommer is a guilty pleasure, like Grease or Rocky Horror Picture Show.  They’re not meant to be taken seriously.

From a critical point of view, the film is pretty standard.  DEFA’s high production values combined with a recognizable ensemble cast made a highly enjoyable film that enjoyed high success at the box office.  An unsuccessful sequel to Heisser Sommer was released five years later to little fanfare and hardly the box office numbers that its predecessor generated.  If you replaced Heisser Sommer’s numbers with the catchy tunes of Glee and Pitch Perfect, you would easily have a movie that today’s audiences would eagerly watch.  Sometimes, a movie is just that – a movie; something to just be enjoyed and not be taken seriously.

The Murderers Are Among Us (1946)

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Die Mörder sind unter uns, a German film known in English as Murderers Among Us in the United States or The Murderers Are Among Us in the United Kingdom) was one of the first post-World War II German films[1] and the first Trümmerfilm. It was produced in 1945 and 1946 in the Althoff-Atelier in Babelsberg and in Jofa-Ateliers in Johannisthal. It was written and directed by Wolfgang Staudte.

Plot

Berlin in 1945 after Germany’s defeat in the war. The former military surgeon Dr. Hans Mertens (Ernst Wilhelm Borchert) returns home from the battlefield to find his home destroyed. He suffers from the terrible memories of the war and becomes an alcoholic. A photographer and Nazi concentration camp survivor, Susanne Wallner (Hildegard Knef), finds him living in her apartment as she returns home and they become roommates and even friends. Eventually, Mertens meets his formercaptain Ferdinand Brückner (Arno Paulsen), who had been responsible for the shooting of a hundred civilians on Christmas Eve of 1942 in a Polish village on theEastern Front. He is now a successful businessman, producing pots out of old Stahlhelme, the German military steel helmet. On Christmas Eve, Mertens plans to kill him, but Wallner stops him at the last minute. They decide to have Brückner put on trial then, and the two start a new life together.

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Filming

The film was shot in the ruins of Berlin. Originally the film was supposed to be named Der Mann den ich töten werde (The Man I will kill) and Mertens was supposed to succeed in killing Brückner, but the script and the title were changed because the Soviets were afraid that viewers could interpret that as a call for vigilante justice.

Murderers Among Us debuted on October 15, 1946 in the Admiralspalast, which was at the time the home of the Berlin State Opera, in the Soviet sector. The television debut in the German Democratic Republic was on November 1, 1955 and in the Federal Republic on November 18, 1971.

Reception

The picture sold 6,468,921 tickets.[2]

Most of the reviews were positive, although some criticized the fact that the characters appeared in modern and trendy clothes, which did not reflect the reality of the living conditions of Berliners in the immediate post-war period. In this film, Staudte was not only dealing with Germany’s past, but also with his own, as he had been involved in the filming of the Nazi propaganda film Jud Süß.

References

  1. Cinema in Democratizing Germany: Reconstructing National Identity After Hitler, Heide Fehrenbach, 1995, University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 0-8078-4512-4
  2. List of the 50 highest-grossing DEFA films.
  • The Murderer are among us in progress-film.de, the distributor of the complete DEFA film heritage
  • Die Mörder sind unter uns, 1946 in filmref.com. Retrieved 2007-01-19.
  • Murderers Are Among Us, The (Moerder sind unter uns, Die) in German-films.de. Retrieved 2007-01-19.
This article incorporates information from the revision as of January 19, 2007 of the equivalent article on the German Wikipedia.

The Unification Comedies

Movie poster for "Go, Trabi, Go!"
Movie poster for “Go, Trabi, Go!”

Go Trabi Go is a 1991 German comedy and road movie directed by Peter Timm. It was the first major box office hit about events concerning the newly reunified Germany. Unlike other films in this period that focused on the problems following reunification, Go Trabi Go sees the main characters, former citizens of East Germany, explore places in Europe outside the Eastern Bloc that they were not allowed to visit during the Communist era.

Synopsis

The year is 1990 and Germany has been newly reunified. German teacher Udo Struutz decides that his family should go on their first vacation in the “west” to relive Goethe’s Italian Journey in their family Trabant 601 (“Trabi”).

Plot

Udo Struutz (Wolfgang Stumph), teacher in the East German town of Bitterfeld, Saxony-Anhalt, is a great fan of Goethe and wants to visit all places described in Goethe’s Italian Journey. Following the German reunification in 1990, he sees the possibility to do so since it is now possible for him and his wife Rita (Marie Gruber) and daughter Jacqueline (Claudia Schmutzler) to travel to Italy. Driving in their family Trabant (called “Schorsch”), they set out to go on their first vacation in the “west”.

Their first stop on their journey southwards is Regensburg where Struutz’s brother-in-law (Ottfried Fischer) lives, who are portrayed as extreme opposites to the East German family. Following this short family reunion, the family with their Trabant is transported by a friendly truck driver to Italy where they continue on their own again. Arriving in Rome, the family’s borrowed camera is stolen which prompts mother and daughter Struutz to chase after the thief, not only recovering their camera but also the money the thief stole. Not being able to talk to the police about it and not being able to find Udo again, they decide to check into a luxury hotel with the recovered money. Meanwhile Udo sleeps in the car after driving through the city the whole day and is awakened by two young women who want to party with him, which leads to the Trabi driving down some stairs and casing being torn apart which they then replace with colorful spare parts. The family reunites at the Spanish Steps the next day and continues onto Naples where the Trabi loses its roof because the family forgot to secure it in place while trying to make a picture of themselves with Vesuvius in the background.

Reception

Go Trabi Go was a major box office hit, attracting 1.5 million viewers in both parts of Germany, making it one of only three unification films that enjoyed success at the box office.  This success has been described as being partly due to the love/hate relationship many East Germans had with their “Trabi”, which was the most well-known and ridiculed symbol of East Germany.

Stephen Kinzer of The New York Times described the movie as a way for East Germans to laugh “not precisely at themselves, but at the absurdities of the system under which they lived until last year.”  He likens the Trabi as a symbol for the people who built it, who “survive[d] through difficult times and ultimately triumph[ed]”. The film was also praised for its rollicking portrayal of the car as a main character while still getting across the problems of the “East” in the newly reunified country by using the car as a metaphor — slow, breaking down and ridiculed by the West.

The film was criticised for relying almost solely on crude clichés and mostly ignoring politically sensitive issues.  Another reason for criticism was that the film paints the main characters in a humble, fair and nice way while their West German counterparts are depicted as vulgar, mean and shallow.

The film was followed by a sequel, Go Trabi Go 2: Das war der wilde Osten (1992), which did not match the success of the original.

Movie poster for "Go, Trabi, Go! 2"
Movie poster for “Go, Trabi, Go! 2”

Go Trabi Go 2 – That Was The Wild East is a German comedy released in 1992.   As in its successful predecessor, Go Trabi Go!,  (1991) the film stars Claudia Schmutzler and Marie Gruber in the leading roles.

Synopsis

The Struutz family return from holidays after the fall of the Berlin Wall to find their home being bulldozed to make way for a golf course. It gets worse when Udo inherits a nearly-bankrupt garden gnome factory and the corrupt mayor starts chasing Udo’s wife. Salvation is sought through the dubious influence of the charismatic Charlie, whose half-baked philosophies (“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”) are based on tired old Western rock songs and a minimal grasp of Zen.

Movie poster for "No More Mr. Nice Guy..."
Movie poster for “No More Mr. Nice Guy…”

No More Mr. Nice Guy (German: Wir können auch anders …) is a 1993 German comedy film directed by Detlev Buck. It was entered into the 43rd Berlin International Film Festival where it won an Honorable Mention.

Synopsis

Two brothers both of which can neither read nor write making their way across Germany in order to claim to their inheritance. On their way they meet Viktor, a deserted soldier of the sowjet red army and Nadine, a beautiful young woman. Later an incident with some highwaymen, which can be solved easily with Viktor’s kalashnikov, they become accused for murder – something they had neither intended nor realized. They claim Nadine to be their hostage, fleeing police forces until they reach the coast.

New York Times Film Review

Movie poster for "Good Bye Lenin!"
Movie poster for “Good Bye Lenin!”

Good Bye, Lenin! is a 2003 German tragicomedy film. Directed by Wolfgang Becker, the cast includes Daniel Brühl, Katrin Saß, Chulpan Khamatova, andMaria Simon. Most scenes were shot at the Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin and around Plattenbauten near Alexanderplatz.

Plot

In a prologue, Alex Kerner (Daniel Brühl) recalls as a child in 1978 how proud he was along with his countrymen when the first German to enter space, Sigmund Jähn, came from East Germany (the GDR).

The remainder of the film is set in East Berlin, spanning from October 1989 to just after German reunification a year later. Alex lives with his sister, Ariane (Maria Simon), his mother, Christiane (Katrin Saß), and Ariane’s infant daughter, Paula. His father fled to the West in 1978, apparently abandoning the family. In his absence, Christiane has become an ardent idealist and supporter of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (the Party). Alex takes part in an an anti-government demonstration, where he meets a girl by chance, but they are separated by the riot police before they could properly introduce themselves. When Christiane sees Alex being arrested, she suffers a near-fatal heart attack and falls into a coma. The police ignore Alexander’s plea to assist his mother, instead releasing him later that evening to go and see her.

While visiting his mother at the hospital, Alex again meets the girl from the demonstration, who is revealed to be Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), a young nurse from the Soviet Union taking care of his mother. Alex becomes smitten with her and asks her out. The two soon begin dating and develop a close bond.

Shortly afterward, the Berlin Wall falls. In that time, capitalism comes to East Berlin, and Alex loses his job before “winning” a new position in a lottery to install satellite dishes with West Berlin resident Denis Domaschke (Florian Lukas), an aspiring filmmaker with whom Alex quickly becomes good friends, while Ariane leaves university to work at a Burger King drive-through. After eight months, Christiane awakes, but is severely weakened both physically and mentally. Her doctor asserts that any shock might cause another, possibly fatal, heart attack. Alex realises that the discovery of recent events would be too much for her to bear, and so sets out to maintain the illusion that things are as before in the German Democratic Republic.

To this end, he, Ariane and Lara revert from the gaudy decor of the west to the drab decor they previously had in the bedroom of their mother (who is now bed-ridden) in the family apartment, dress in their old clothes, and feed Christiane new Western produce from old-labeled jars. Their deception is successful, albeit increasingly complicated and elaborate. Christiane occasionally witnesses strange occurrences, such as a gigantic Coca-Cola advertisement banner unfurling on a building outside the apartment. With Denis’s help, Alex edits old tapes of East German news broadcasts and creates fake reports on TV (played from a video machine hidden in an adjacent room) to explain these odd events. As the old news shows were fairly predictable, and Christiane’s memory is vague, she is initially fooled.

Christiane eventually gains strength and wanders outside one day while Alex is asleep. She sees all her neighbours’ old furniture piled up in the street for rubbish collection and advertisements for Western corporations. She also sees an old statue of Lenin being flown away by an Mi 8 helicopter, which seems to reach out to her. However, Alex and Ariane quickly find her, take her home, and show her a fake special report that East Germany is now accepting refugees from the West following a severe economic crisis there. Christiane, initially sceptical, finally decrees that as good socialists, they should open their home to these newcomers. The family decides to go to their dacha at Christiane’s suggestion.

While they are there along with Lara and Ariane’s new Western boyfriend, Rainer (Alexander Beyer), Christiane reveals her own secret; her husband had fled because the Party had been increasingly oppressing him, and the plan had been for the rest of the family to join him in West Berlin. However, Christiane, fearing the government would take away Alex and Ariane if things went wrong, chose to stay in the East. She has come to regret the decision over time.

Christiane relapses shortly afterward and is taken back to the hospital. After meeting his father, Robert (Burghart Klaußner), for the first time in years, Alex convinces him to meet Christiane again. Under pressure to reveal the truth about the fall of the East, Alex creates a final fake news segment, convincing a taxi driver whom he believes to be Sigmund Jähn to act in the false news report as the new leader of East Germany and to give a speech promising to make a better future including opening the borders to the West. However, Alex is unaware that Christiane had already been informed of the situation the nation was going through by Lara earlier the same day. She reacts fondly to her son’s effort, without telling him she had already acknowledged what had happened in the past few months.

Christiane dies peacefully two days later: she outlives the GDR, passing away three days after full official German reunification. Alex, Ariane, Lara, and Denis scatter her ashes in the wind (despite this being illegal in both East and West Germany) using an old toy rocket Alex had made with his father during his childhood.

Triumph of the Will

Original movie poster for Triumph of the Will, directed by Leni Riefenstahl.
Original movie poster for Triumph of the Will, directed by Leni Riefenstahl.

Triumph of the Will (German: Triumph des Willens) is a 1935 film made by Leni Riefenstahl. It chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, which was attended by more than 700,000 Nazi supporters. The film contains excerpts from speeches given by Nazi leaders at the Congress, including portions of speeches by Adolf Hitler, Rudolf Hess, and Julius Streicher, interspersed with footage of massed Sturmabteilungand Schutzstaffel troops, and public reaction. Hitler commissioned the film and served as an unofficial executive producer; his name appears in the opening titles. The film’s overriding theme is the return of Germany as a great power, with Hitler as the leader who will bring glory to the nation. Because the film was made after the Night of the Long Knives many prominent SA members are absent, having been murdered in 1934.

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Triumph of the Will was released in 1935 and became a prominent example of propaganda in film history. Riefenstahl’s techniques, such as moving cameras, the use of long focus lenses to create a distorted perspective, aerial photography, and revolutionary approach to the use of music andcinematography, have earned Triumph of the Will recognition as one of the greatest films in history. Riefenstahl won several awards, not only in Germany but also in the United States, France, Sweden, and other countries. The film was popular in the Third Reich, and has continued to influence movies, documentaries, and commercials to this day.  However, it is banned for showing in Germany owing to its support for Nazism and numerous portrayals of the swastika.

An earlier film by Riefenstahl, Der Sieg des Glaubens, showed Hitler and SA leader Ernst Röhm together at the 1933 Nazi party congress. After Röhm’s murder, the party attempted the destruction of all copies, leaving only one known to have survived in Britain. This can be viewed at theInternet Archive.

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Frank Capra’s seven-film series Why We Fight is said to have been directly inspired by, and the United States response to, Triumph of the Will.

Riefenstahl, a popular German actress, had directed her first movie called Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light) in 1932. Around the same time she first heard Hitler speak at a Nazi rally and, by her own admission, was impressed. She later began a correspondence with him that would last for years. Hitler, by turn, was equally impressed with Das Blaue Licht, and in 1933 asked her to direct a film about the Nazis’ annual Nuremberg Rally. The Nazis had only recently taken power amid a period of political instability (Hitler was the fourth Chancellor of Germany in less than a year) and were considered an unknown quantity by many Germans, to say nothing of the world.

Das blaue Licht (1932). Hata Bildir. Altyazı Dili:
Das blaue Licht (1932). Hata Bildir. Altyazı Dili:

In Mein Kampf Hitler talks of the success of British propaganda in World War I believing people’s ignorance meant simple repetition and an appeal to feelings over reason would suffice.   Hitler chose Riefenstahl as he wanted the film as “artistically satisfying” as possible to appeal to a non-political audience, but he also believed that propaganda must admit no element of doubt.   As such, Triumph of the Will may be seen as a continuation of the unambiguous World War I-style propaganda, though heightened by the film’s artistic or poetic nature.

Riefenstahl was initially reluctant, not because of any moral qualms, but because she wanted to continue making feature films.  Hitler persisted and Riefenstahl eventually agreed to make a film at the 1933 Nuremberg Rally called Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith). However the film had numerous technical problems, including a lack of preparation (Riefenstahl reported having just a few days) and Hitler’s apparent unease at being filmed. To make matters worse, Riefenstahl had to deal with infighting by party officials, in particular Joseph Goebbels who tried to have the film released by the Propaganda Ministry. Though Der Sieg des Glaubens apparently did well at the box office, it later became a serious embarrassment to the Nazis after SALeader Ernst Röhm, who had a prominent role in the film, was executed during the Night of the Long Knives. All references to Röhm were ordered to be erased from German history, which included the destruction of all known copies of Der Sieg des Glaubens.

Le riprese di Der Sieg des Glaubens, 1933
Le riprese di Der Sieg des Glaubens, 1933

In 1934, Riefenstahl had no wish to repeat the fiasco of Der Sieg des Glaubens and initially recommended fellow director Walter Ruttmann. Ruttmann’s film, which would have covered the rise of the Nazi Party from 1923 to 1934 and been more overtly propagandistic (the opening text of Triumph of the Will was his), did not appeal to Hitler. He again asked Riefenstahl, who finally relented (there is still debate over how willing she was) after Hitler guaranteed his personal support and promised to keep other Nazi organizations, specifically the Propaganda Ministry, from meddling with her film.

The film follows a script similar to Der Sieg des Glaubens, which is evident when one sees both films side by side. For example, the city of Nuremberg scenes – even to the shot of a cat included in the city driving sequence in both films. Furthermore, Herbert Windt reused much of his musical score for that film in Triumph des Willens, which he also scored. But unlike Der Sieg des Glaubens, Riefenstahl shot Triumph of the Will with a large budget, extensive preparations, and vital help from high-ranking Nazis like Goebbels. As Susan Sontag observed, “The Rally was planned not only as a spectacular mass meeting, but as a spectacular propaganda film.”   Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect, designed the set in Nuremberg and did most of the coordination for the event. Pits were dug in front of the speakers’ platform so Riefenstahl could get the camera angles she wanted, and tracks were laid so that her cameramen could get traveling shots of the crowd. When rough cuts weren’t up to par, major party leaders and high-ranking public officials reenacted their speeches in a studio for her.  Riefenstahl also used a film crew that was extravagant by the standards of the day. Her crew consisted of 172 people, including 10 technical staff, 36 cameramen and assistants (operating in 16 teams with 30 cameras), nine aerial photographers, 17 newsreel men, 12 newsreel crew, 17 lighting men, two photographers, 26 drivers, 37 security personnel, four labor service workers, and two office assistants. Many of her cameramen also dressed in SA uniforms so they could blend into the crowds.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_152-42-31,_Nürnberg,_Leni_Riefenstahl_mit_Heinrich_Himmler

Riefenstahl had the difficult task of condensing an estimated 61 hours of film into two hours.  She labored to complete the film as fast as she could, going so far as to sleep in the editing room filled with hundreds of thousands of feet of film footage.

Triumph of the Will premiered on 28 March 1935 at the Berlin Ufa Palace Theater and was an instant success. Within two months the film had earned 815,000 Reichsmark, and Ufa considered it one of the three most profitable films of that year. Hitler praised the film as being an “incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our Movement.” For her efforts, Riefenstahl was rewarded with the German Film Prize (Deutscher Filmpreis), a gold medal at the 1935 Venice Biennale, and the Grand Prix at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris. However, there were few claims that the film would result in a mass influx of ‘converts’ to fascism and the Nazis apparently did not make a serious effort to promote the film outside of Germany. Film historian Richard Taylor also said that Triumph of the Will was not generally used for propaganda purposes inside the Third Reich. The Independent wrote in 2003: “Triumph of the Will seduced many wise men and women, persuaded them to admire rather than to despise, and undoubtedly won the Nazis friends and allies all over the world.”

The reception in other countries was not always as enthusiastic. British documentarian Paul Rotha called it tedious, while others were repelled by its pro-Nazi sentiments. During World War II,Frank Capra helped to create a direct response, through the film series called Why We Fight, a series of newsreels commissioned by the United States government that spliced in footage fromTriumph of the Will, but recontextualized it so that it promoted the cause of the Allies instead. Capra later remarked that Triumph of the Will “fired no gun, dropped no bombs. But as apsychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal.” Clips from Triumph of the Will were also used in an Allied propaganda short called General Adolph Takes Over, set to the British dance tune “The Lambeth Walk”. The legions of marching soldiers, as well as Hitler giving his Nazi salute, were made to look like wind-up dolls, dancing to the music. The Danish resistance used to take over cinemas and force the projectionist to show Swinging the Lambeth Walk (as it was also known), and, says Erik Barrow, “The extraordinary risks were apparently felt justified by a moment of savage anti-Hitler ridicule.” Also during World War II, the poet Dylan Thomas wrote a screenplay for and narrated These Are The Men, a propaganda piece using Triumph of the Will footage to discredit Nazi leadership.

One of the best ways to gauge the response to Triumph of the Will was the instant and lasting international fame it gave Riefenstahl. The Economist said it “sealed her reputation as the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century.” For a director who made eight films, only two of which received significant coverage outside of Germany, Riefenstahl had unusually high name recognition for the remainder of her life, most of it stemming from Triumph of the Will. However, her career was also permanently damaged by this association. After the war, Riefenstahl was imprisoned by the Allies for four years for allegedly being a Nazi sympathizer and was permanently blacklisted by the film industry. When she died in 2003, 68 years after its premiere, her obituary received significant coverage in many major publications, including the Associated Press, Wall Street JournalNew York Times, and The Guardian, most of which reaffirmed the importance of Triumph of the Will. Though the actual effectiveness of Triumph of the Will is hard to measure, in terms of numbers or statistics that actually state its effectiveness, its response from the people is well documented with the amount of views and the popularity of the movie during the time period.

Like American filmmaker D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a NationTriumph of the Will has been criticized as a use of spectacular filmmaking to promote a profoundly unethical system. In Germany, this movie is classified as Nazi propaganda and its showing is restricted under post-war denazification laws, but it may be shown in an educational context. In her defense, Riefenstahl claimed that she was naïve about the Nazis when she made it and had no knowledge of Hitler’s genocidal or anti-semitic policies. She also pointed out that Triumph of the Will contains “not one single antisemitic word”, although it does contain a veiled comment by Julius Streicher, the notorious Jew-baiter (who was hanged after the Nuremberg trials), that “a people that does not protect its racial purity will perish.”

However, Roger Ebert has observed that for some, “the very absence of anti-semitism in Triumph of the Will looks like a calculation; excluding the central motif of almost all of Hitler’s public speeches must have been a deliberate decision to make the film more efficient as propaganda.”

Riefenstahl also repeatedly defended herself against the charge that she was a Nazi propagandist, saying that Triumph of the Will focuses on images over ideas, and should therefore be viewed as a Gesamtkunstwerk (holistic work of art). In 1964, she returned to this topic, saying:

“If you see this film again today you as certain that it doesn’t contain a single reconstructed scene. Everything in it is true. And it contains no tendentious commentary at all. It is history. A pure historical film… it is film-vérité. It reflects the truth that was then in 1934, history. It is therefore a documentary. Not a propaganda film. Oh! I know very well what propaganda is. That consists of recreating events in order to illustrate a thesis, or, in the face of certain events, to let one thing go in order to accentuate another. I found myself, me, at the heart of an event which was the reality of a certain time and a certain place. My film is composed of what stemmed from that.”

However, Riefenstahl was an active participant in the rally, though in later years she downplayed her influence significantly, claiming, “I just observed and tried to film it well. The idea that I helped to plan it is downright absurd.” Ebert states that Triumph of the Will is “by general consent [one] of the best documentaries ever made”, but added that because it reflects the ideology of a movement regarded by many as evil, it poses “a classic question of the contest between art and morality: Is there such a thing as pure art, or does all art make a political statement?” When reviewing the film for his “Great Movies” collection, Ebert reversed his opinion, characterizing his earlier conclusion as “the received opinion that the film is great but evil” and calling it “a terrible film, paralyzingly dull, simpleminded, overlong and not even ‘manipulative,’ because it is too clumsy to manipulate anyone but a true believer.”

Susan Sontag considers Triumph of the Will the “most successful, most purely propagandistic film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the filmmaker’s having an aesthetic or visual conception independent of propaganda.” Sontag points to Riefenstahl’s involvement in the planning and design of the Nuremberg ceremonies as evidence that Riefenstahl was working, not as an artist in any sense of the word, but as propagandist. With some 30 cameras and a crew of 150, the marches, parades, speeches and processions were orchestrated like a movie set for Riefenstahl’s film. Further, this was not the first political film made by Riefenstahl for the Third Reich (there was Victory of Faith, 1933), nor was it the last (Day of Freedom, 1935, Olympia, 1938). “Anyone who defends Riefenstahl’s films as documentary”, Sontag states, “if documentary is to be distinguished from propaganda, is being disingenuous. In Triumph of Will, the document (the image) is no longer simply the record of reality; ‘reality’ has been constructed to serve the image.”

Brian Winston’s essay on the film in The Movies as History is largely a critique of Sontag’s analysis. Winston argues that any filmmaker could have made the film look impressive because the Nazi’s mise en scène was impressive, particularly when they were offering it for camera re-stagings. In form, the film alternates repetitively between marches and speeches. Winston asks the viewers to consider if such a film should be seen as anything more than a pedestrian effort. Like Rotha, he finds the film tedious, and believes anyone who takes the time to analyze its structure will quickly agree.

The first controversy over Triumph of the Will occurred even before its release, when several generals in the Wehrmacht protested over the minimal army presence in the film. Only one scene, the review of the German cavalry, actually involved the German military. The other formations were party organizations that were not part of the military. Hitler proposed his own “artistic” compromise where Triumph of the Will would open with a camera slowly tracking down a row of all the “overlooked” generals (and placate each general’s ego). According to her own testimony, Riefenstahl refused his suggestion and insisted on keeping artistic control over Triumph of the Will. She did agree to return to the 1935 rally to make a film exclusively about the Wehrmacht, which became Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht (Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces).

Triumph of the Will remains well known for its striking visuals. As one historian notes, “many of the most enduring images of the [Nazi] regime and its leader derive from Riefenstahl’s film.”  Extensive excerpts of the film were used in Erwin Leiser’s documentary Mein Kampf, produced in Sweden in 1960. Riefenstahl unsuccessfully sued the Swedish production company Minerva-Film for copyright violation, although she did receive forty thousand marks in compensation from German and Austrian distributors of the film.

In 1942, Charles A. Ridley of the British Ministry of Information made a short propaganda film, Lambeth Walk – Nazi Style, which edited footage of Hitler and German soldiers from the film to make it appear they were marching and dancing to the song “The Lambeth Walk”.  The film so enraged Joseph Goebbels that reportedly he ran out of the screening room kicking chairs and screaming profanities. The propaganda film was distributed uncredited to newsreel companies, who would supply their own narration.

Charlie Chaplin’s classic satire The Great Dictator (1940) was inspired in large part by Triumph of the Will.  The film has been studied by many contemporary artists including film directorsPeter Jackson, and Ridley Scott.

Joyless Street

Movie poster for "Streets of Sorrow"
Movie poster for “Streets of Sorrow”

Die Freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street/The Street of Sorrow) was released in 1925 and directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst (Alexander, 1980).  The film, based on the novel by Hugo Bettauer, was one of the first films of the “New Objectivity” movement.  The Neue Sachlichkeit movement (also known as the “New Objectivity movement”, the “New Sobriety” or the “New Matter-Of-Factness”) was an art movement in early 1920’s Germany that served as a response to the Expressionism movement.  The movement peaked in 1929 and ended with the fall of the Weimar Republic (Kester, 2003). In cinematic terms, the New Objectivity movement was very straightforward and realistic, portraying everything as it was and at the complete opposite end of the spectrum when compared to the characteristics of the Expressionist movement.  Pabst is the filmmaker that is most associated with this movement; Joyless Street is considered the best representation of New Objectivity (Isenberg, 2009).

Joyless Street. Credits: Photo: The Museum of Modern Art / Film Stills Archive.
Joyless Street. Credits: Photo: The Museum of Modern Art / Film Stills Archive.

In writing an analysis of the film that was screened in class, it is important to remember that there are several cuts of the film currently in circulation.  This was done for distribution and censorship reasons.  The original film was ten thousand feet in length; France’s version removed any reference to “the street”, Vienna removed every scene with the butcher and Russia transformed the officer into a doctor & the butcher into a murderer (Rotha, 1967).  A restored version (142 minutes) was produced and released by Austrian Filmarchiv and shows the complete vision that Pabst had in mind.  The version viewed in class was missing a lot of the nuances and plot points that Pabst wanted to include in the movie.  Several examples of this include: the contrasting narrative between Grete and Marie, the subplot of Josef Geiringer (the butcher) & the revolt at the end of the movie. For purposes of this analysis, a complete version of the film was viewed and that will be the version of the film that this analysis refers to.

Filming started on The Joyless Street aka Die Freudlose Gasse. It was to be Pabst's contribution to the “street” films of the day.
Filming started on The Joyless Street aka Die Freudlose Gasse. It was to be Pabst’s contribution to the “street” films of the day.

When comparing the full version of the film to the version viewed in class, I have to be completely honest: I was bored with this version.  The story was very disconnected and just plain slow.  I don’t think that the viewer really understood the role of the butcher and the clothing shop/brothel madam in the story.  I feel that the couple was Pabst’s portrayal of a destabilized and corrupt government in 1920s Weimar society.  I can understand the thinking of countries censoring the film given the time it was released, but it is very interesting on how the different cuts of the movie take on completely different meanings.  The riot at the end was Pabst’s view of the widening gap between the rich and poor and the dissolving bourgeois community in 1920s Germany.

Street scene from the film "The Joyless Street"
Street scene from the film “The Joyless Street”

I was amused at the spectacle of Greta Garbo in this movie.  From the extravagant presentation of Garbo on the title card to her character’s name being Grete, Joyless Street is a great example of early cinema’s attempt to “bank” on the star system – the ability of an actor or actress to draw crowds to movies just for their appearance in it.  The star system focused more on the idea or image of the actor/actress versus their actual performance.  Studios would develop new names and backstories for their talent; they would also arrange “fake dates” between starlets and actors then arrange to have photographers film them in public to generate interest (Bassinger, 2007).  Pabst’s title card presentation of Garbo is just another reminder of how German cinema was beginning to utilize some of the practices from Hollywood.

The Joyless Street 1925. Garbo and Stiller on the Drottningholm NYC July 1925
The Joyless Street 1925. Garbo and Stiller on the Drottningholm NYC July 1925

After 1919, women in Weimar Germany had evolved into equals with their male counterparts (employment, suffrage, etc.) (Rogowski, 2010).  In Weimar Cinema, the portrayal of woman switched from chaste and reserved to femme fatales – seductive women who bring disaster to the men that are attracted to them (Kardish, 2010).  Female characters in these movies that stray from the “straight and narrow” are punished for their “sins” (Koller, 2004).  The full version of Joyless Street shows Marie paying for her life as a prostitute while Grete’s character is almost rewarded for “resisting” choosing prostitution.  Early Weimar films connected the uncontrollable urges of women with disorder; unmarried and non-monogamous women were labeled prostitutes during the 1920s (Rogowski, 2010).  They were portrayed as very simple and very sexual in nature, just objects that are easily controlled by men (Rogowski, 2010).

"Die freudlose Gasse" ("Joyless Street"), 1925. Werner Krauss plays a corrupt butcher who promises meat to poor women in return for sexual favors.
“Die freudlose Gasse” (“Joyless Street”), 1925. Werner Krauss plays a corrupt butcher who promises meat to poor women in return for sexual favors.

I almost feel that Pabst’s movie is a form of propaganda fueled by the anxieties and nervousness of a Weimar male population.  It’s portrayal of Marie and Grete is infuriating at points.  I had to keep reminding myself about the historical context and environment in which this film was released.  It was an uncertain world that the German population lived in.  The rich were getting richer & the poor were getting poorer.  The middle class was completely losing its identity (and inhabitants).  Women had more access to rights than they had ever had.  This scared the male population that had such a control over females during this time in history.

The Joyless Street, 1925
The Joyless Street, 1925

In retrospect, I appreciated the historical significance of this film but didn’t enjoy it as a movie.  I liked the very base and honest cinematography of Pabst’s work and feel that a lot of the movies from this period in Weimar cinema have influenced documentary filmmakers for decades.  Pabst’s metaphors for a corrupt government (the butcher/madam couple) was very effective while his images of women were deplorable.  Greta Garbo’s performance was way over the top for the film, but again, understandable considering it is a silent film.  Joyless Street was a joyless experience for me but I learned a lot from its viewing.

http://www.youtube.com/movie/the-joyless-street

References

Alexander Walker; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (October 1980). Garbo: a portrait. Macmillan. p. 183. Retrieved 29 January 29 2014.

Basinger, Jeanine (2007). The Star Machine. NY: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 18.

Isenberg, Noah William. Weimar Cinema: An Essential Guide to Classic Films of the Era. New York: Columbia UP, 2009. Print.

Kardish, Laurence. Weimar Cinema, 1919-1933: Daydreams and Nightmares (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), 68.

Kester, Bernadette. Film Front Weimar: Representations of the First  World War in German Films of the Weimar Period (1919-1933). Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2003. Print.

Koller, Michael. “The Joyless Street.” Senses of Cinema. Senses of Cinema, July 2004. Web. 29 Jan. 2014.

Rogowski, Christian. The Many Faces of Weimar Cinema: Rediscovering Germany’s Filmic Legacy (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010), 21.