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Sun Seekers

Sun Seekers
First Run Films
1958-1972 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / min. / Sonnensucher / Street Date April 26, 2005 / 24.95
Starring Ulrike Germer, Günther Simon, Erwin Geschonneck, Manja Behrens, Viktor Avdyushko, Willi Schrade
Cinematography Werner Bergmann
Art Direction Karl Schneider
Film Editor Christa Wernicke
Original Music Joachim Werzlau
Written by Karl-Georg Egel, Paul Wiens
Produced by DEFA
Directed by Konrad Wolf

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Sun Seekers is a fascinating glimpse behind the Iron Curtain, made at a time when the Eastern bloc movies were classified as Soviet propaganda and banned in the U.S.. This movie is indeed Soviet propaganda, a 'worker's tale' designed to raise morale with a heroic portrayal of socialists striving to mine a mineral resource essential to keeping the Americans from overrunning the world - radioactive uranium. Completely propagandistic speeches and viewpoints abound. Our Washington politicians weren't kidding when they claimed the Soviet Union was running a totalitarian state, demanding their peoples' physical cooperation and the right to control their thoughts as well.

But this particular film is a special case in that it's a realistic portrait of the ugliness of forced labor, with a mixed group of nationalities and loyalties thrown together in a common struggle. The Soviets reportedly wanted more idealistic 'worker's paradise' films and suppressed this one for fourteen years. With a slightly different English dub, it could easily be a scathing criticism of Communist labor policy.

First Run features presents Sun Seekers as one of its acquisitions from the state-run Defa studio. Later this summer, First Run promises to release Defa's original East German version of First Spaceship on Venus, Silent Star, along with other Eastern-bloc science fiction films.


1946. Escaping from an abusive living situation, grim 16 year-old war orphan Lotte Lutz (Ulrike Germer) goes to Berlin and takes up with family friend Emmi Jahnke (Manja Behrens), a prostitute. They're both arrested and 'assigned' to hard labor at the Wismut uranium mine, a secret facility run by the Soviets with whatever labor can be be found among the repatriated and rootless population left by the war. The mines maintain brothels, but sullen Lotte catches the attention of three men. Worker Gunter Holleck (Willi Schrade) wants to marry her. One-armed shift boss Franz Beier (Günther Simon) trains her as a uranium detector while falling for her himself. And Russian supervisor Sergei Melnikow (Viktor Avdyushko) is interested in her welfare as well. Much in-camp political upheaval surrounds the pressure to produce more uranium ore, while Emmi's old circus pal Jupp Koenig (Erwin Geschonneck), a German Communist since 1919, slowly accepts his proper role as a party supervisor.

The fast-moving and emotionally involving Sun Seekers combines a gritty and realistic tale of the struggle of forced-labor mine workers with a constant flow of 'inspirational' Communist messages. The film starts with a debatable (but thought provoking) premise: America intends Hiroshima to be the dawn of an American century, and seeks to dominate the world with its plundering capitalism (this is the film talking, not Savant). The only way to stop Uncle Sam and save the world for socialism is to beat them in the production of nuclear weapons, which means reopening an abandoned silver mine in the German countryside and go after the uranium deposits.

The title Sun Seekers refers to this constant search for the radioactive element that can create the artificial sun of nuclear fission. The conceit of the ideologically-bent screenwriters is to claim that the disheartened and demoralized human flotsam of the war is also searching for the 'light,' seeking a reason to take heart and put their lives back together again. The solution offered is of course Communism. The story is basically a mining tale, and uses an underground disaster as an easy way to rush to a dramatic conclusion. It's How Radioactive Was My Valley, German-style.

Almost raped by a farmer, Lotte Lutz is prepared as a prostitute by her friend Emmi, until the authorities step in and send them both to forced labor. The surprising thing is that Sun Seekers pretty much shows the labor camp working as it might have in reality. It's a brutal and debased place for a lost girl. The camp has official brothels where Emmi goes right to work. Her old circus partner Jupp is an inspirational worker's leader, but is considered suspect because he associates with whores. The 'egotist' Franz Beier runs a good mine operation but is constantly in trouble with the Russian bosses for not showing enough communal spirit. And young Gunter Holleck is a hard worker but a bigger drunk. The mine is shown to be a prison for many miners pulled from the city jails but also a destination for desperate men in need of a job. The Russians hire Polish ex-rebels and German ex-SS men if they really want to work. Every accident is scrutinized for signs of reactionary sabotage, and Franz Beier is forced to make his men work in unsafe conditions.

Naturally, the glowing light of Communism eventually solves all problems. Three different men - callow young German, bitter older German and idealistic Russian - prove to Lotte over time that humanity has value, and in the end she finds a place in a system that values the human spirit. Lotte is obviously meant to symbolize the broken spirit of Germany, reborn under the Communist Star - Franz Beier keeps talking about someday seeing her smile.

It's more than a little chilling to see the beautiful German forest wiped out by miles of slag heap. There's also no mention of ill health effects on the miners, working around all the high radioactivity. Making the raw materials to hold the Americans in an atomic stalemate is a noble goal that justifies any human cost.

Savant has seen Russian entertainments that completely gloss over anything negative about Soviet society, even though several made during the late-50s ideological thaw (The Cranes are Flying) are more realistic about hardships and pro-party BS. It's easy to see why Sun Seekers would be banned - the Germans are essentially running a slave labor camp with all-powerful Soviet overseers in full control. Nobody is actually imprisoned or shot but our leading lady narrowly escapes institutionalized prostitution and eventually marries a man who first picked her out as a casual sexual partner.

Everything is blamed on the war. A laughable dramatic construction reveals that the bitter one-armed foreman witnessed the death of the Russian overseer's wife by the SS. But with everyone pulling in the same direction for the Soviet, all will turn out well in the end. The screenwriters make sure that the film's salt-of-the-Earth ex-Circus strongman Jupp Koenig is a natural Communist able to inspire his co-workers with righteous socialist arguments.

Director Konrad Wolf's work is excellent, with uniformly good peformances and sharp visual touches. A glowing sun is cleverly added to many sky shots as a constant reminder of the power that the Wismut miners are pulling from the Earth, to 'save the world.'

Sun Seekers is pernicious propaganda that needs to be put alongside such wanna-see Soviet message films as Silver Dust (1955), a science fiction film that reportedly takes place in America and has a U.S. scientist chased and eventually murdered by corrupt Wall Street agents and military secret police, so that his atomic invention can be stolen by the government. It reportedly has a scene commenting on the Civil Rights movement where a Yankee businessman beats and kicks his black servants! This one I have to see someday. But don't forget that Hollywood was turning out its own rabid anti-Communist propaganda, sometimes engineered by the FBI and sometimes just the work of religious fanatics. Red Planet Mars is a bizarre born-again movie about God speaking from his home on Mars (?!!) to inspire the fall of Stalin's regime. The Atomic City is about a break of security at a nuclear research facility. The presence of nasty Commie spies justifies outrageous 'homeland security measures' and extraordinarily illegal and repressive actions by government agents.

First Run Features' DVD of Sun Seekers is presented in a good B&W presentation that retains the original's slightly grainy look. The audio is good. Instead of just having English subtitles, there's an entire English language path on the menu that translates the German menu system into English and adds subs to the picture as well. The subtitles skip some Russian dialogue that was obviously meant to be translated, and does weird things like putting question marks at the beginning of question lines instead of the end.

The extras have a number of text bios and filmographies for the filmmakers. Director Konrad Wolf appears to have been a hand-picked German filmmaker with a background of Soviet indoctrination. A quote from a later German filmmaker (Volker Schlondorff?) isn't exactly full of praise.

A new video docu tours the Wismut area now using film clips to tell the tale of its use as a secret uranium mine. The Germans have completely rehabilitated the once-devastated area, something that American companies raping the landscape should be forced to do as well.

A section of newsreels is very revealing. The usual clips of movie stars at celebrations shows several actors (including African Julius Ongewe) from Silent Star obviously enjoying themselves, right around the time when the film would be in production. One of the Sun Seekers actors is the star of a number of gratingly unfunny comedy bits poking fun at the West. Bad jokes say that President Eisenhower can't get a rocket to launch, but is in daily conference with the war god Mars. Yuk Yuk. It's the same kind of nasty political humor that we now see every day in our newspaper comics.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Sun Seekers rates:
Movie: Excellent , just as long as one is aware of its propagandistic nature
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Followup docu, newsreels, newsreel propaganda blackouts, photo gallery and text extras
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 31, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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