The Gleiwitz Case
First Run Features // Unrated // $24.95 // April 18, 2006
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 8, 2006
Highly Recommended
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The Gleiwitz Case (Der Fall Gleiwitz, 1961) is an excellent, visually-striking film from East Germany, about the Nazis' implementation of a plan to fake an attack on a German radio station, and thus justify the invasion of Poland. The austere film is like no other, made in early-'60s communist Germany that deliberately borrows cinematic styles from the 1930s and earlier yet somehow, in 2006, plays very contemporary.

The film focuses mainly on the enthusiastic preparations of real-life SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Alfred Helmut Naujocks (Hannjo Hasse), who receives orders from Gestapochef Müller (Herwart Grosse) to select six Germans that had lived and Poland (and speak fluent Polish) from an SS training camp. Dressed as Poles, the six are to raid a German government-operated radio station in Gleiwitz (which plays everything from Hawaiian music to "The Carioca"), on the German-Polish border, and briefly take control of the airwaves. Naujocks is also to receive a prisoner (Hilmar Thate) from a concentration camp who will be drugged, dressed in a Polish uniform and shot dead, to be left as evidence of the "Polish invasion."

The Gleiwitz Case is a hard film to classify. The East German government accused it of emulating the style Fascist filmmakers like Leni Riefenstahl a bit too closely, while critics over the years have declared it everything from expressionistic to documentary-like, from Cubist and avant-garde to New Objectivistic. (Some have even labeled the film a black comedy which it hardly is, though the picture is at times highly ironic.) In a sense it's all of these things and none of the above. Although apparently quite accurate historically with a screenplay adapted from Naujocks's own postwar testimony about the incident, the film is so densely stylized that to call the film documentary-style is pretty ridiculous.

It definitely favors geometrical configurations and the kind of Greek Gods-like idealization of the would-be Aryan heroes that Riefenstahl used in her documentaries. Other scenes employ entirely different techniques, including one aboard a train whose soft focus and merry passengers is like something out of an Ernst Lubitsch silent comedy. It also uses Russian-style editing techniques, particularly in an excellent montage that, in quickly-cut flashbacks reveal the origins of Naujocks's psychosis. Though the film has long passages of dialogue delivered in tight close-ups (a la Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc), other whole sequences have little to no dialogue at all (accompanied by Kurt Schwaen's excellent score) and resemble a silent film.

Another great sequence inter-cuts tight shots of the prisoner's blindfolded face and handcuffed wrists with sweeping shots of the car being used to transport him to Gleiwitz rolling triumphantly down the Autobahn.

The film's brevity - just 63 minutes, not the 70 listed on the box and on the IMDb (suggesting PAL speed-up, perhaps?) - and tight focus on a specific incident and just a few characters keep it engrossing throughout.

Video & Audio

The Gleiwitz Case is presented in its original full frame format and appears correct. (Apparently many Iron Curtain countries continued using full-frame on its non-scope/70mm productions well into the 1980s.) The transfer is excellent, with an image and soundtrack so clean of age-related wear and damage as to resemble a brand-new movie. Menu screens are offered in English and German, and the subtitles are excellent.

Extra Features

The supplements are a mixed bag, but the text extras and its featurette are great. Both the Biographies & Filmographies and Essay: The Case for The Gleiwitz Case (written by the University of Texas at Austin's Professor Sabine Hake) are detailed and immensely helpful in understanding the aims of the picture.

The 16-minute, 4:3 featurette Film Professions: The Editor Evelyn Carow is fascinating, with the Dede Allen-like cutter talking about the editing choices she and director Gerhard Klein made for the film, as well as her early life (watching Laurel & Hardy movies and life in Nazi Germany as a little girl) to the problems of making postwar movies under tight government restrictions.

On the other hand, the Trailer is actually just a video promo, not an original theatrical advertisement, while the Gallery is nothing more than a series of frame-grabs.

Parting Thoughts

Movies like this often present starkly stylized images at the expense of all else, but The Gleiwitz Case uses its unconventional storytelling techniques in intelligent, engrossing ways that, in the end, underscore how the entire epic tragedy of the Second World War in Europe ("43,000,000 Dead," the end title says simply) can be traced back to a single outrageous lie, its first perpetrator and first victim.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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