I’ve watched a couple of those East German films about the war now. Of the two, Gerhard Klein’s The Gleiwitz Case from 1961 is definitely the one worth searching out. It’s based on an incident most people read about and then instantly forget, that the Nazis staged an attack by Polish nationalists on a German radio station and then used it as a pretext for, you know, subjugating an entire damn country. It’s shot in stark B&W with a million unconventional camera angles, and it’s best described as “unstuck in time”, with flashbacks and flash-forwards taking up as much space as the present-time story. It’s also quickly paced without seeming to skimp in any way, and the acting is all fine, too. I’m running through this it’s-all-okay checklist just to say that its origins as a GDR film don’t taint it or turn it into a platform for Soviet ideology. It’s legitimately good. It has two extraordinary sequences, in fact, one in which, through a series of percussive Citizen Kane-type flashbacks, we’re marched through the experiences that mold the leader of the commando squad into a rabid monster. The best passage, however, comes when the political prisoner whom the Nazis have selected as their patsy (they dress him in a Polish army uniform, then shoot him and leave his body at the radio station) is being transported to Gleiwitz. When the car brakes at a railroad crossing, the endless train carrying German soldiers and materiel toward the border causes him to realize with dawning awareness that this ride only goes one way.
Joachim Kunert’s The Adventures of Werner Holt (1965) is less experimental than Gleiwitz, but it’s still odd to see a conventional Hollywood epic built around the experiences of two German boys from high school to the end of the war. It’s expansive, sexually aware (hot chicks galore in it), and well-made, but it’s a meandering and unnecessary 165 minutes long. It was a huge hit and won several festival awards, though, and both it and Gleiwitz appeared at a time when the West German studios were pumping out serious treacle, the stuff that Fassbinder, Wenders & Co would soon be rebelling against.
What’s impressive is that both films probe deeply into the lives and backgrounds of their fanatics without either rationalizing or judging them. (I mean judging them from a bullying, triumphal point of view—a totalitarian point of view. Obviously the movies are anti-Nazi, anti-murder, etc.) I’ve got a couple more of them ordered, and it looks like the filmmakers were primarily interested in understanding the process by which normal people submit to a totalitarian regime, which is of course a surprise.