|'); document.write(''); //-->|
The films of the East German DEFA film library, distributed by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, have given us a number of interesting historical studies of German films made before and after the Nazi reign, such as Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?, an ill-fated pro-Communist film made just as the Nazis took power. Their latest release is Stars (Sterne), a 1959 East German / Bulgarian co-production with a fascinating background, handily delineated in the DVD extras.
In contrast to West Germany, where postwar movies pretty much swept the recent Nazi past under the rug, the Eastern bloc produced many films of varying quality about Nazi crimes and the tragic fates of Jews, partisans and patriots. Stars is different because it was a co-production written by an important Bulgarian author and partially based on his own experiences. The finished film was so compelling that it was a hit in both East and West Germany and won a special Jury Prize at Cannes. The film's leading lady Sasha Krusharska was hailed across Europe. The Defa Film Library is presenting Stars in an impressive restored transfer with new subtitles that for the first time translate all of its dialogue, which was spoken in German, Bulgarian, Greek and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish).
1943. A German brigade in a Bulgarian town is funneling Jews seized in Thrace and Macedonia -- the entire Jewish populations of Greece and Yugoslavia -- directly to Auschwitz. Two German soldiers supervising Bulgarian work crews and a motor pool watch the long lines of captives being delivered to a holding camp. Kurt (Erik S. Klein) is happy to be far away from Leningrad and in a place where the local girls are friendly. Corporal Walter (Jürgen Frohriep) slacks off and sketches arworks when he should be working. He has a limp from a leg wound received in Russia and also wants to forget about the war. Walter tries to ignore the captive Jews when young Grecian teacher Ruth (Sasha Krusharska) demands attention for a woman experiencing a rough childbirth. Walter waves off Ruth's request for aid but sneaks a doctor in to help the woman. Walter also abstains from reporting obvious partisan activity involving one of his Bulgarian workers, Bai Petko (Stefan Pejchev). Realizing that Walter is stuck on Ruth, Karl arranges for them to take nighttime walks, ostensibly for Walter to force her to have sex with him. But Walter instead works on breaking down Ruth's suspicion and hostility. She's finally won over when she discovers that Walter is the one who enabled Petko to smuggle medicine into the detention camp. She stops herself from kissing Walter but knows that her feelings for him have changed. Soon thereafer, some of her own people accuse her of being a spy for the Germans. Walter makes plans with Petko to hide Ruth with some local Bulgarian Jews (who are not in immediate danger of deportation). But Kurt hasn't been being honest with Walter...
Stars is an engaging, sincere and largely unforced film that distinguishes itself by not simply relying on an easy sense of outrage or by using the holocaust to promote a political agenda (as did many films on both sides of the Iron Curtain). We get one scene that shows members of a local Communist cell ordering Petko to somehow steal medicine from the Germans and distribute it to the needy in the detention camp, and to the partisans in the woods. Both Kurt and Walter voice rather philosophical attitudes about the war. Although Kurt shows no sympathy for the Jewish captives, he's also no sadist. He coerces the prisoners into giving up their desperately-needed stolen medicine, but he also cheats the rules to help his buddy Walter, who he thinks just needs to relax with an attractive woman. If things are a bit forced, it's in Walter's fairly easy fraternization with the partisan Petko. Anything's possible, and author Angel Vagenstein is a first-person witness to the events of the era, but one would think that the partisans would blackmail Walter as soon as he compromised himself. Frankly, if it meant helping the prisoners, Ruth probably would too.
But Stars doesn't push its little potential romance into anything more substantial than a meeting of the minds, and all of Walter's risky actions fail. Kurt finally "protects him from himself", like a good buddy should, as awful as that is.
Director Konrad Wolf moved freely between East Berlin and Moscow, where he met the writer Vagenstein. Wolf was no stranger to controversy, having filmed the excellent but frowned-upon Sun Seekers, a rather shocking exposé about uranium miners not told by the Communists how deadly their work was. The important DEFA director-administrator Kurt Maetzig turned down the Stars script because he thought it just another Holocaust film, but Wolf recognized the story's special qualities. Not only did Stars downplay the propaganda angle, it proposed the idea that a spectrum of attitudes and political commitment existed on all sides of the story. The film presents soldiers in the WW2-era German army as human beings and not heartless villains or automatons. The very first German soldier we see watching Jews being loaded on a train is heard saying, "I'm sleepy." An irate German officer gives Walter a piece of his mind but there are no rabid SS men or outright sadists. Bulgaria is at this time an open ally of Germany, and is a peaceful backwater where battle-ready soldiers are not posted. More of a threat is the Bulgarian secret police. When a young partisan is captured distributing Walter's stolen medicines, Walter can do nothing to help him. Even when beaten, the kid refuses to name his confederates or their German contact.
Jürgen Frohriep plays Walter as a sensitive but masculine fellow and comes off well. He had a flourishing career in East German movies and TV but apparently was toppled from his favored roost when the Cold War ended. Sasha Krusharska made only one more movie and split to the West, leaving films and instead living in Italy and London. Konrad Wolf had wanted actress Haya Harareet for the role but accepted the young drama student instead. Her performance is largely excellent. Director Wolf's main accomplishment is avoiding most clichés and staying true to the writer's logical and unforced conclusion. He uses two folk songs written by a Jewish camp prisoner, most memorably over slow pans across the faces of his convincingly realistic Auschwitz-bound prisoners. The only overstated moment occurs when a baby is born. The event plays on Ruth's delighted face, and Wolf apparently didn't find her expression sufficiently blissful. He overlays a fast-cut montage of images of purity and life -- skies, trees, babbling brooks. It's not exactly a moment of world-class cinema.
The DEFA Film Library's DVD of Stars is a fine restoration of this B&W film and the best looking and sounding DEFA film I've yet seen. The image is very sharp and well defined and the audio is so clear that even this viewer can tell when some of the language changes are taking place (although I'll be hanged if I can detect the Ladino passage(s)).
The extras make the show an educational experience for the viewer and a well-researched classroom aid. Biographies and Filmographies are provided for the film's director, writer and two stars. DVD-rom text extras include a critical essay by Thomas Elsaesser, a full history and timeline of the Holocaust in Bulgaria and an essay on the Multilingual context of the film.
The disc is also a fine introduction to writer Angel Wagenstein, who fought as a partisan, was captured and tortured but rescued from prison by Soviet forces. Wagenstein appears in a spirited interview discussing the making of the film and his thoughts about it. Until cooler heads reversed the decision, Stars was banned in Bulgaria because of its "abstract humanism", which I presume means that it didn't equate humanism with the state-approved political stance. Wagenstein is proud of the movie, and shows his bias when he refers to Black Orpheus, that year's Cannes competitive winner of the Golden Palm, as a light comedy of no great importance.
Also included is a trailer for a new documentary about Wagenstein to be released in 2012 (or so says a title card). The trailer has footage of the author in 1989, proudly addressing a triumphant crowd that has just liberated Bulgaria from its Communist government. A Bulgarian interviewee says that during the Communist years Wagenstein was known as "that undependable Jew", and after the fall of the Soviets, as "that filthy Communist". He seems a very lively personality.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.