Directly from the Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, or the DEFA, comes, I Was Nineteen (Ich War Neunzehn). If Ian Fleming could draw upon his experiences for his famous double-0, than director Konrad Wolf could certainly make an effective account of what if felt like to be a king for a day in almost-postwar Germany; a recollection that doesn't wait for the fog-of war to lift before attempting to analyze the madness.
Originally released in 1968, I Was Nineteen begins on a dank 16th of April, 1945, but from the car troubles and tired looks we can see the story was already in progress for these Russian soldiers. They've made it into Berneu, Germany, just northeast of Berlin, and it's their job to be a traveling welcoming committee - let the Krauts know that the war is over (even though it wasn't, exactly), and that its best to come out in peace. Gregor Hecker (Jaecki Schwarz) is a young Soviet Lieutenant, but he's also the kid of German exiles and because he can speak the lingo it's his familiar voice that is enlisted to coax the enemy into submission. After easily securing the town his superior asks Gregor where he is from, to which he replies, "Cologne." He's told that the American's are already in Cologne, but "You get Bernau." And just like that, Gregor went from Lieutenant to Commandant. He does a double take on the official paper just to confirm he's not dreaming. For now, he's the law, and he's only nineteen.
The promotion comes with a lot more baggage than Gregor anticipated, and the heaviest load turns out to his own as the new situation forces him to confront all notions national identity. Surrounded by despair and locals who are encouraged to commit suicide rather than go on in the shame of defeat (not to mention guilt), Gregor is constantly reminded that he is a German as well, no matter how it may disturb him. And while he exhibits disgust for his own origins, he protects an orphaned German girl, Deutsches (Jenny Gröllmann ), from the wrath of a young female soldier who is holding her accountable for the sins of her father and brothers. "I didn't do anything," is all she could answer, and it was true, she was only a little girl, how could she be held responsible?
Somebody has to be held responsible, however, and as the film continues, we see men on both sides of the war trying to work the "how and why" questions out. One surrendering German explains getting caught up in the hoopla of the moment, and getting seduced by the power of the Nazi's. His rationale places the mass crimes on the fact that the Germans are, by nature, hard working and obedient. He says it was just the continuation of German history; the need to fulfill their duties is what drives them, and following orders for so long lead to feelings of degradation, which lead to a resentment that bred to an uncontrollable sadism. That's one way of looking at it, but let's not forget the origin of this movie. The DEFA was responsible for some very creative films, but it was still under the auspices of a Communist GDR, so there's the inevitable Stalinist propaganda. The Russians are naturally portrayed as the heroes of the war, and made to be the biggest victims of the war.
In a chilling scene, we meet a man who worked at the gas chambers, and he explains how he ushered prisoners to their death, recalling how they gurgled as they choked on the hydrocyanic acid. He makes sure to tell us that it was mostly Russians that they killed - 13,500 lives he helped extinguish. And while it's obvious industrialists (of many countries) profited from the Nazi machine, the Communist spin essentially blames WWII on the inherent imperialism in capitalism much more than the outcome of unchecked fascism; and it's clear that they see the Capitalists on the other side of the wall as a future imperialist threat.
The heavy concepts are told through the almost neorealist lense of Werner Bergmann, a former cameraman for the Wehrmacht, and used to making films on the other side. It's because of him that we feel like we're watching real war photography with a touch of the New Wave, and an authenticity that is a great asset to I Was Nineteen. But the success of this picture should also be credited to Jaecki Schwarz, who's "Gregor," seems to embody everything that Konrad Wolf went through when he was the Commandant of Berneu - if only for a day.
Shot in black & white 35mm back in 1968, the film isn't so old, but don't expect it to be shiny. While the transfer preserved much of the contrast, there's no avoiding the blown-out and milky whites - even though it works for the film. It's presented in 1.33:1, which I believe is the original aspect ratio. There's definitely grain, but they did a good job cleaning up the image.
The soundtrack is presented in 2 Channel Digital Stereo, which for a movie practically done in the field sounds more than adequate. There's enough low-end to feel the tanks moving through the terrain, and there's enough high-end to hear those old phonograph records - even if it gets a little noisy up there the overall mix is fine.
Introductory Essay:This is a full essay on the history of the DEFA, the situation that surrounds this film, and the cultural importance of it.
Newsreels: Both a newsie for the film's original premiere in Berlin, and an interview with lead actor, Jaecki Schwarz are here for the watching. I like the interview because they talk about how he's a German that was learning Russian from his co-actors, a situation that mimics what we see on screen.
Set Design Gallery: Nice sketches of the storyboards.
Biography: Bio's on Konrad Wolf, Jaecki Schwarz, Henny Gollmann, and Alfred Hirschmeier.
Konrad Wolf's 1968 feels like a real 1945; he takes us back to his youth and we're submerged in the fog that he had to navigate through once upon a time. It spends a lot of time repeating it's points and questions, but when you consider the subject matter, isn't that the way it really is as well? It's hyped as one of Germany's greatest films, and while I'm no expert in Deutsche cinema, I can understand that it's definitely a film that deserves to be examined and appreciated.
Why are our days numbered and not, say, lettered?