Combining elements of classic noir with East German cinema's fetid but herein practically neglected over-politicizing of past events Joachim Kunert's The Second Track surprises with depth and nuanced characters more likely to be seen in the works of Reed and Preminger. Pic's moody tone is also uncharacteristic for the typically upbeat and filled with communist extolment DEFA output.
A railroad inspector (Albert Hetterle) is faced with a difficult dilemma when he sees two fellow workers stealing. He is asked to recognize the thieves but instead of pointing them to the authorities he walks away. Soon, it becomes obvious that an old secret dating back to WW2 is the motivator behind the inspector's decision. While looking to uncover why her father's demeanor has changed the inspector's daughter (Annekathrin Bürger) is told an unbelievable story.
Lacking the political intensity of traditional DEFA films The Second Track surprises with impressive visuals and a solid suspense story culminating in a somewhat predictable finale. In it strong political overtones are practically unused as is the typical for East German cinema populist rhetoric. Aside from the "secret" the main protagonist is attached to one would be hard-pressed to guess the creative environment, or lack there of, The Second Track shared.
Pavol Simai'score is an integral part of the manner in which the story is told. The music does not have a supporting role, it does not enhance the dramatic progression, and it does not introduce closure during key scenes - in many ways it directs the flow of the story, it supports the tense noir tone mentioned earlier. Occasionally however the strong co-relation between score and script disallows the camera to focus more extensively on the conflict raging in the main protagonist's soul.
The long and carefully composed shots of the train station where most of the action takes place are certainly unusual. They reveal an emphasis on detail most East German films from the early 60s were devoid of. The manner in which the camera moves suggests that despite of the restrictive conditions East German directors were faced with external influences were certainly a factor in their approach to social realism.
In the larger scheme of things however The Second Track might well mislead those who aren't accustomed to socialist cinema and its deceivingly simple characters. Those looking to uncover a secret message of discontent will unquestionably be disappointed by the film's mostly straightforward narrative, the lack of a subversive element allowing the audience the reconsider its message. On the other hand those looking forward to a traditional film noir with polished visuals and a story assembled for the sole purpose of entertainment will be certainly intrigued by its uncannily deep rooting in social realism in the wake of the "thawing" era.
How Does the DVD Look?
Thus far all of the First Run Features/DEFA discs introduced on the North American market have been converted from a PAL master. They all offer solid and clean transfers with conversion being just about the only issue to be unhappy with. The Second Track isn't an exception to the rule. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 this release is also a PAL-NTSC conversion revealing the mandatory for such transfers "ghosting" patterns. Aside from that however the print is clean, free of damage, and quite pleasing. Contrast is quite well addressed and blacks appear solid. I am unaware whether or not this film has undergone a full-blown restoration, probably unlikely, but there certainly has been some sort of a clean-up performed here as occasionally the print looks very strong. With this in mind even though the conversion issue described above might bother some of you the fact that this film actually is now available on disc is enough of a reason to recommend it.
How Does the DVD Sound?
Presented with a German mono track and optional English subtitles (the viewer is allowed to set the main interface in either English or German) the audio presentation is on par with the video treatment. Dialog and music come off the speakers nicely without any issues to report (there weren't any hissings, pop-ups, or cracks).
This disc offers detailed biographies/filmographies for the director and cast in text format. Their career paths and notable work are highlighted. Next there is short documentary about cinematographer Rolf Sohre in which he recalls his fascination with cinema and photography during GDR's existence. In addition he also speaks about the specific technical challenges his team had to overcome while working on The Second Track. Next, there is a short essay by film historian Ralf Schenk titled Breaking With Conventions, in text-format, which addresses the film's unusual synthesis of different styles. Finally, there is a photo gallery.
First Run Features deliver yet another forgotten film from the vaults of DEFA shedding light on the progress and technical maturation German socialist cinema revealed during the early 1960s. Aside from the conversion issue described above the actual presentation if very good and I hope that people would appreciate the fact that FRF continue to bring previously unseen in the US films. Recommended.