Due to different political and economic reasons Eastern European cinema has never been treated by US film distributors with the proper reverence. Often frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm provided by their European colleagues and unwilling to invest serious capital in films that were likely to remain unnoticed by mainstream audiences many film productions from the ex-Soviet block (SIV) remained persona-non-grata for American filmgoers. To this day unless an Eastern European film is highly decorated at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, or Toronto, neither the majors nor smaller independent US distributors are keen on investing time and money in providing adequate exposure. When we speak of pre-1980 Eastern European cinema the picture becomes even bleaker.
Fortunately enough after the perestroika of the early 90s many of the ex-Soviet satellite states began restoring and re-releasing films once part of their state-run film archives (Mosfilm, Boyana, etc). The result as you might guess is that films that would have never seen the light of day, especially in North America and Canada, slowly began re-emerging. In 1997 German-based Icestorm Entertainment GmbH acquired the rights for a film stock of more than 13000 productions representing one of the largest European film packages and began releasing films that were previously unavailable through mass-media carriers. In the United States many of the Icestorm/DEFA products are nowadays channeled through the film archive of the University of Massachusetts.
Based on the story of Arnold Clasen (Uwe Kockisch), a passionate communist who has been released from a camp for political prisoners and his struggle to adjust to the brittle social climate in Hamburg, Your Unknown Brother (1982) is a compelling film of subtle nuances. Its plot is built around Arnold's political deeds within the German resistance where he suspects a Nazi informant is on the loose. As Arnold's comrades begin to disappear one by one he is faced with a dilemma which poses many unknowns and forces him to reconsider his political future. Gradually Your Unknown Brother evolves into a complicated psychological game where no one is to be trusted.
It is interesting to note that despite of its enthusiastic political message(s) which on the surface were meant to criticize and condemn the Nazi regime Your Unknown Brother secretly delivered a much more subtle criticism aimed at the communist elite of the now defunct German Democratic Republic (GDR). Looking at the manner in which Ulrich Weiss' film is structured one could easily detect the intentional parallels which Your Unknown Brother draws between the two regimes. From the laughable political slogans and admiration for the Fuehrer to the commanding power of the Nazi apparatchiks which Weiss focuses on it is quite easy to sense how this film strives to deliver a different social message. There is no doubt in me that the reversible character of Weiss' film (you could easily substitute the Nazi regime with the Communist Politburo) is what inspired the German officials to deny Your Unknown Brother access to the Cannes Film Festival where the film was expected with great interest.
It is unusual to see how two political monsters from our recent past have been successfully attacked by this quite conventional film. Simple yet intelligently put-together Your Unknown Brother reveals a world which many might find strangely familiar. There is something unsettling in seeing and recognizing that political censorship, erosion of personal freedom, and political paranoia are still alive and well.
Your Unknown Brother was invited at the Cannes Film Festival and consequently withdrawn by the GDR political elite. In 1982 the film was nominated for the Max Ophuls Award for Best Director at the Max Ophuls Film Festival in Saarbrucken, Germany.
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 but not enhanced for widescreen TV's the print provided for this DVD offers some noticeable detracting elements. From the occasional dust specks to mild jitters it is obvious that the film has not aged quite well. Additional restoration work has not been performed and therefore I assume that the producers have simply looked for the best print possible. Given the history of this film and perhaps its limited market potential I believe that this would be the best quality we would get (especially on the North American market).
How Does the DVD Sound?
Presented with its original German Dolby track and optional English subtitles in my opinion the film sounds quite well. The music score is not elaborate but by all means the dialog is easy to follow. There are some mild fluctuations in terms of sound volume (at times the sound volume is rather uneven) but many eastern European films where shot that way. So, it is very difficult to know what the original print sounded like. Either way, if you are interested in pursuing this film I believe that the audio presentation should not detract from your viewing experience.
There are plenty of extras in this DVD presentation which as it was the case with Konrad Wolf's Sun Seekers are mostly in text format:
"The Eyewitness and Kinobox reports" offers a few short extracts taken directly from the archives of the former GDR State TV network. The first one is a very short (only a few minutes) trip to a camp for political prisoners which the GDR state officials turned into a memorial. The second, also short extra, goes behind the doors of DEFA and the staff that used to work there. In a typical socialist manner the narrator pays closer attention to the fact that the workers "usually" break the deadlines and deliver utmost quality for their products. The third and last extra is about Irene Harloff, an opposition fighter and a dedicated communist as she remembers the days of the German resistance.
An Essay about Your Unknown Brother: a text-only extra following the history of DEFA and the anti-Nazi films the studio created.
Film Stars/ Director info-
Your Unknown Brother is a unique and utterly revealing film that offers a look at the history of a country which has been through so many political and social changes during the last century. The DVD does not offer the typical high quality image we have come to expect but given the nature of the films that we've seen through DEFA this might very well be the best Weiss' film will look. Either way, I can not help but think that the image could have been anamorphically enhanced. RENT IT.