Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Fifty years later, Americans are just now getting full access to films made in Soviet dominated Eastern Europe during the Cold War. One of the first East German films to appear after the war was Wolfgang Staudte's virulent anti-Nazi picture The Murderers are Among Us (1946). Three years later Staudte directed this abbreviated history of the Third Reich, as seen from the POV of an ordinary workman-citizen. A reasonably good drama, Rotation is nevertheless dominated by a script that could only have been written by a political committee.
In the middle of the depression of the early 1930s, unemployed machinist Hans Behnke (Paul Esser) marries his sweetheart Charlotte (Irene Korb). Charlotte's Communist brother decries economic injustice and the growing threat of the Nazis. The New Order brings Hans a job but also insidious personal restrictions. He's bullied into joining the Party (his workplace has become a Nazi showcase company) and harassed over the whereabouts of his brother-in-law. Hans's son Helmuth (Karl Heinz Deickert) comes up through the Nazi schools as a member of the Hitler Youth. Their neighbors the Salomons are taken away by the secret police. When the war comes the entire country militarizes. Lotte's brother returns from hiding in Czechoslovakia and asks Hans to repair a secret resistance printing press. Allied bombs damage the Behnke's apartment as the Soviet army invades Berlin. Finding resistance leaflets in the clutter, Helmuth informs on his father to his teacher/military mentor. With the Russians closing in, the Nazi guards rush to execute Hans and dozens of other political prisoners.
Just how effective were Cold War propaganda films from the state-controlled, closed media systems of Eastern Europe? Were they as crude as the anti-Communist American movies of the 50s, the ones that painted Reds as brutish ideologues suppressing churches and imprisoning dissidents? Our propaganda proudly touted America's basic Freedoms, allowing the economic perks of capitalism to sell themselves: consumer goods and a high standard of living.
The sophisticated Rotation is carefully constructed to play to German audiences wary of Soviet influence. The movie doesn't sell the Communist cause as much as it reminds Germans of the evils of National Socialism. The Nazis are an unwelcome intrusion from the very beginning, when sinister agents make casual visits to entreat the 'Everyman' hero Hans Behnke to attend meetings for his own good. Desiring only to live in peace, Hans avoids politics until the Nazi party makes joining unavoidable. Hans helps the resistance only briefly, and only because his wife's brother is involved.
The movie makes a strong bid for the heart and mind of the average German, avoiding negative statements about the national character. These Berliners love romance and children and sing jolly songs. The screenplay is careful to portray Nazi evil as mainly ideological. Villainous Gestapo policemen and calculating bureaucrats are everywhere, but militarism in general is not condemned. No strutting Prussian officers appear, and until the final battle we see few Germans in uniform. That's a smart public relations move, as East Germany in 1949 was occupied by authoritarian Soviet Forces. The show chooses to end on a young couple bravely facing the future, ignoring the obvious fact that the Gestapo and SS had been replaced by Russian troops and secret police.
The title Rotation refers to the idea that political unrest is cyclical in nature. Both Hans and his son Helmuth lay in the grass with their girlfriends and hope for better days to come, convinced that their situation is unique. The dialogue warns of a return to Nazi-like attitudes while director Staudte uses images of Hans's rotating printing press as a rhyming visual. Other touches are just as obvious. The Behnkes employ a little playpen-cage to keep baby Helmuth from wandering into trouble, and its wooden bars dissolve to iron bars that lock Hans out of a factory job. We're never told what possible advantage might be found in having a government dominated by foreign Communists. Problems like that aren't easy to distill into a simple image.
All of the acting is good, particularly Paul Esser and Irene Korb as the main couple. Director Staudte's professional direction avoids too many rubble & wreckage scenes, presumably because the German audience could see all the ruins it wanted just outside the theater.
First Run Features' DVD of Rotation is in almost perfect shape and would be stunning if its compression and encoding were a tiny bit better. The extras include several newsreels and a lengthy lecture-docu from film historian Christiane Mückenberger. Bios on the film's actors and creatives note that most emigrated to the West during the 1950s, which is the most telling comment on the film's promise of a grand Soviet future. The notes don't mention the talented Staudte's dramatic change of political stripes; he had been employed in the Nazi film industry straight through the war.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Interview docu, newsreels, bios,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 21, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson