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East German film studios produced plenty of straight entertainment films, but from 1945 to 1989 their most touted releases were message pictures promoting the humanism and morality of Communism. Dozens of pictures examined and re-examined the days of the Third Reich, making heroes of the early resistance against Fascism. Hitler's coming to power initiated a mass exit from Germany by Jewish intellectuals, artists and professionals suddenly deprived of their rights and their jobs. Among these was a doctor Friedrich Wolf, who took his family to France (and eventually Moscow). Immediately after the burning of the Reichstag he wrote Professor Mamlock, a play about the ease with which the German people accepted the Nazi outrage. It is considered the first play to dramatize the perilous legal status of Jews in Germany.
The Russians made a feature film of Professor Mamlock in 1938. By that time the Communists had dropped some subplots about Jewish-specific issues, to concentrate on the class struggle issue.
Thirty years later Wolf's son Konrad Wolf had become one of the best known of East German film directors. He adapted his father's prestigious play for the screen in 1961. Professor Mamlock retains dozens of position speeches about the gross injustice of the Nazi edicts and their hatefully absurd philosophy of racial purity and German supremacy. To us Americans the movie is incessant propaganda, whereas the GDR authorities clearly intended it as a teaching tool for younger generations of East Germans.
On New Year's Day 1933 Chief Surgeon Professor Mamlock (Wolfgang Heinz) must remind his fellow doctors not to talk politics in the clinic, although he remarks at length that nobody should be upset about the new Chancellor. Mamlock's wife Ellen (Ursula Burg) is an Aryan [the film's usage] and his peers at the clinic range from leftists to the budding Nazi Dr. Hellpach (Harald Halgardt). Mamlock's son Rolf (HIlmar Thate), a graduate medical student, claims that the Reichstag fire was a Nazi ruse to allow Hitler to exact harsh new anti-Semitic racial laws. When Mamlock insists that he disassociate himself from the Young Communist League, Rolf leaves home. Mamlock's younger daughter Ruth (Doris Abeßer) is terrorized at school and soon thereafter Mamlock is barred from the clinic. His Aryan friend Dr. Inge Ruoff (Lissy Templehof) is a right-winger made uneasy by her attraction to Rolf; she helps Rolf evade the police and advises Mamlock to leave Germany as soon as possible.
Mamlock instead crashes the clinic and is marched back home by a Nazi guard, with the word 'Jew' painted on the front of his surgery smock. Mamlock insists that the trouble will pass until his influential friends (a publisher and a banker) find it too inconvenient to stand beside him. Anyone who so much as verbally defends a Jew is asking for trouble. The banker needs a gall bladder operation and wants Mamlock to perform it; he uses his power to get Mamlock exceptional status (as a WW1 vet) so he can return to the clinic. But the vicious Nazi doctor Hellpach has been releasing lies to the press stating that Mamlock broke laws and embezzled money. Just as surgery is about to commence on the banker, Mamlock is told that he must first denounce other Jewish medical personnel... and a showdown takes place.
Professor Mamlock is a good drama about the way some German Jews were victims of their own complacency. It would have been just as effective without all the ideological lectures -- which were of course the reason it was made. The Nazi spokesman justifies his criminal acts with the claim that German blood requires that the intellect take a back seat to a greater 'emotional truth'. Mamlock's insistence that the constitutional government still exists under such conditions blinds him to reality, even though both his own son and the pro-Nazi Dr. Ruoff is tell him that a terrible new kind of pogrom is on the way.
Wolfgang Heinz is excellent as the warm but slightly unimaginative master surgeon, and Hilmar Thate is convincing as the son committed to political resistance. Doris Abeßer expresses well the terror of her character's situation. Lissy Templehoff has the most difficult role to play -- her Dr. Ruoff is split between her affection for the Mamlocks (especially young Rolf) and her feelings of loyalty to the Reich. One gets the idea that her part may have been softened in earlier scenes, to give the German audience of 1961 a non-Jewish character that follows her conscience and chooses a good path.
Director Wolf enlarges the play with well-directed street scenes as Rolf and his comrades mostly fail to outsmart the Nazi police. Many scenes expressing personal shock are handled with sharp cuts to tight angles on terrified eyes... such as young Ruth forced to flee from a circle of taunting classmates, a large Star of David chalked on her back. It may be that the already exposition-laden dialogue was augmented with extra Party-approved content. Yet the conclusion is fairly suspenseful. Mamlock finally sees how alone he is, and that he's expected to betray his people along with his personal beliefs. The message in Mamlock's dilemma is clear -- Fascism must be resisted at all times, without delay.
DEFA and Ice Storm have released a number of Konrad Wolf's films on DVD and Savant has reviewed three of them. 1959's Sterne (Stars) is an early picture about Greek and Yugoslavian Jews being shipped straight to Auschwitz. I Was Nineteen is Wolf's autobiographical story about spearheading a Russian Army unit invading German territory. Sun Seekers is about East Germans being forced to labor in deadly Uranium mines to support the Cold War effort. Guess which one encountered difficulties with Party censors.
DEFA Film Library and Ice Storm's DVD of Professor Mamlock is a fine quality flat encoding of this B&W picture. The transfer element shows little or no sight of damage. English subtitles translate the German language track.
Operating out of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the DEFA Film Library's disc producer Hiltrud Schulz has prepared the show primarily as an educational release. The disc has text biographies of the director, writer and three main stars, and another gallery presents some behind-the-scenes still photos by Walter Ruge. DVD-Rom files contain two essays, The Careers of Professor Mamlock by Stefan Soldovieri (Univ. of Toronto) and Friedrich Wolf: Beyond the Jewish/Communist Divide by Wolf biographer Henning Müller. A final DVD-Rom extra is an image of the original movie poster.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Professor Mamlock on DVD
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.