Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Naked Among Wolves is a lavishly-mounted prison camp film that can compete for tension and emotionalism with Western thrillers like The Great Escape and King Rat. It's the true story of the extreme risks taken by dozens of Buchenwald prisoners to hide one small child from the SS guards, who would have shot him on sight. I should say almost true; some key facts have been altered to hype the storytelling and better align events with Eastern bloc politics.
The First Run Features presentation is their best yet for quality; more on that subject below. First Run has a strong hand to play with this release, as it is not only a good film with an unusual angle on a commercially viable subject, it has a star well known in the West -- a very young Armin Mueller-Stahl.
Buchenwald labor camp, 1945. Prisoners and SS Guards nervously await the approach of the Allies; the SS officers are concerned with avoiding reprisals and punishment for their crimes, and the prisoners worry about when to stop obeying orders, to stall just long enough to survive. Then a tiny Polish boy, a Jew, is smuggled into the camp in a suitcase. The Communist Kapos who run the camp for the Germans attempt to keep the boy hidden, with the leader Walter Kraemer (Erwin Geschonneck) doing a good job of motivating the prisoners. Tailor shop inmates Pippig, Kropinski and Höfel (Fred Delmare, Krystyn W&ocatue;jcik, Armin Mueller-Stahl) take the brunt of the grief when a particularly cowardly SS officer (Wolfram Handel) plays both ends against the middle -- pretending to help hide the child to curry favor with the prisoners, and secretly turning the conspirators in to save face with his superiors.
The familiar concentration camp themes are all here, although with a different twist than in American films. Buchenwald is actually more of a work labor camp and it is true that Communists took over the prisoners' government instead of the criminal element that the Nazi guards encouraged at other camps. Famous Buchenwald survivors include Konrad Adenauer, Bruno Bettelheim, Robert Clary, and Elie Wiesel. But other details are glossed over. There is no mention of the mass killings that took place at the camp, nor the medical experiments. Although the East Germans filmed Naked Among Wolves at the real Buchenwald site, the camp looks much too clean at the time of liberation, and we see nothing of the malnutrition, sickness and death that were daily realities. The film exaggerates the prisoners' armed resistance when the Nazis flee, and collapses the hiding of the young boy into what seems at most like a couple of months -- elsewhere on the disc we're informed that the camp prisoners kept him secreted away for almost three years. Finally, the Communist ringleaders are almost all Kapos - German appointees presented in most Western accounts as compromised by their servitude and bitterly cruel to their own. Here, they're the equivalent of the inspirational ringleaders seen in pictures like The Colditz Story.
The East German film makes it seem as if Communist solidarity within the camp was the spark that kept hope alive in the darkest days just before the liberation. In reality, after the fall of Germany the Russians kept Buchenwald open for five years, using it to house Nazi war criminals as well as dissenters to Soviet rule. In the new order, some prisoners liberated by the U.S. Army found themselves again behind the same barbed wire. This fact doesn't mesh well with the film's final jubilant tone of freedom for all.
As a drama Naked Among Wolves is instantly arresting. The script presents an intelligent conflict between desperate prisoners and their conniving Nazi captives, all of whom are played by interesting actors free of the stereotypes found in American films. The cowardly warder Zweiling gropes for the right scheme to avoid capture and trial as a war criminal, to the point of pretending he's one of the prisoners. He's henpecked by a nagging wife. Two other officers push for harsh measures for the hated Communist ringleaders, and take pleasure in torturing Kropinski, Höfel and Pippig to find the whereabouts of the hidden boy. A real Gestapo interrogator uses a clever psychological trick to get information that can't be obtained through torture, and the pair make up lists of dozens of Communists to be shot. The camp commandant stalls before approving the plan, convinced he'll soon be facing a hangman's noose.
The U.S. 3rd Army (is that George Patton?) advances so quickly that plans for evacuation and mass murder have to be abandoned. The prisoners take up hidden arms just as the last guards are fleeing. It's exciting and uplifiting -- and probably a tad distorted -- to see a concentration camp film that doesn't end on an entirely depressing note. One can't help that think that the Nazi atrocities were lessened to keep the focus on saving the boy, and away from the nagging thought that Stalin's oppressive prison systems were equally as brutal and inhumane.
Frank Beyer's sharp direction strikes a balance between intimate drama and visual impact. All of the actors are excellent, with Armin Mueller-Stahl and the charming Fred Delmare having the strongest effect. Top comrade Erwin Geschonneck is a solid performer, but he still delivers a speech or two about Communist unity, as seen in earlier DEFA work like The Sun Seekers. This script is more subtle with its messages. It's also uncommonly fair in odd ways - as the Nazi guards flee, SS torture expert Mandrill (Fred Ludwig) curses Hitler for losing the war while preparing to release two of his prisoners. But Mandrill then tries to systematically kill everyone in the prison bock, cell by cell - he obviously wants as few witnesses as possible to be giving his name to the Allied authorities.
First Run Features' DVD of Naked Among Wolves is a fine enhanced widescreen transfer of a flawless film element. It's the best-looking First Run Features disc Savant has seen to date, and hopefully will be a yardstick for the future. Earlier DEFA releases have been letterboxed-flat, and some have suffered in quality.
The picture has been outfitted with a fat gallery of East German newsreel bits. We see the film's premiere in Moscow and appearances by the famous author. The fully-grown boy partially raised in Buchenwald is seen at a party. Text panels tell more of the history of the camp and give data on the filmmakers and actors who made it; an extra called Verdict on Auschwitz is a color featurette about the camp today. A photo gallery turns out to be made mostly of frozen images from the film (tsk, tsk).
Naked Among Wolves is a title most of us have never heard of. It turns out to be a pleasant surprise, an engrossing and intelligent study of the dynamics of the last days in a Nazi labor camp, with plenty of jeopardy and suspense to satisfy any viewer. Seeing the Soviet-bloc 'version' of these historical events will provide informed viewers with plenty to discuss.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Naked Among Wolves rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Supplements: Text extras, trailers, newsreel excerpts, docu Verdict on Auschwitz.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 29, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson