Friday, May 8, 2015

In Those Days

World War II in Europe ended seventy years ago today. In a country shattered by Allied armies from the east and west, Germans had nothing left but to pick up the pieces and slowly rebuild - with considerable help from the very people who just weeks before had knocked everything down. In films of the period, we were shown the extent of the devastation, but given only glimpses of its effects on ordinary Germans. Roberto Rossellini's film Germany, Year Zero used images of a German city (Berlin) reduced to rubble as a backdrop for a melodrama that ended with the suicide of a young boy who - quite unbelievably - threw himself off a ruined building after having wandered through the seemingly inescapable destruction. In A Foreign Affair, Billy Wilder, who escaped Germany before the war and established a successful career in Hollywood, used location footage shot in Berlin as literal - rear-projection - backdrops for a black comedy of American-German relations among the ruins.

Two years before Year Zero, Rossellini made what is easily the most famous film of the immediate post-war period, Open City (1945). It was filmed with no money in the streets with black market cameras and film stock that was sometimes put together from 35mm rolls of still camera film. Every country that took part in the war had their own stories of what they had endured to tell. 

German film production wasn't restarted until 1946. Authorities of the American Office of War Information Overseas (OWI) Motion Picture Bureau imposed its anti-Nazification agenda, which included the collection and confiscation of all Third Reich propaganda films and the screening of newsreels depicting the horrors of the concentration camps to remind Germans of their culpability. But aside from these attempts to reeducate the German people, there was a far more crucial takeover of the German film market, which included its international market, by Hollywood. Within three years of the war's end, about seventy per cent of German cinemas were showing American films. The West German film industry wouldn't recover until the 1970s.

In the years immediately following the war the whole of Germany, like Berlin, was partitioned among American, British, French, and Russian sectors. Anyone who has seen The Third Man, which was filmed in a partitioned Vienna in 1948, will have a good idea of what a bureaucratic nightmare daily life must have been like for ordinary Germans. Since the German film industry was centered in Berlin, a partitioned city well within the Soviet sector, the first postwar German film, Wolfgang Staudte's The Murderers Are Among Us (1946), was made in what soon became known as East Germany. Filmmaking in West Germany was complicated by actors and technicians from Berlin having to acquire transit visas between sectors that, as the Cold War kicked in, grew increasingly impossible to get. 

Despite the eagerness of many Germans for sheer escapism in films, and to see American films, like Gone With the Wind, that had been banned by the Nazis, there was a need for German-language films that mirrored (and validated) the experience of ordinary German people coping with everyday life. One of the first of what became known as Rubble Films licensed by the OWI, Helmut Kautner's In Jenen Tagen (In Those Days), is what the British called an omnibus film of seven separate stories about Germans, tied together by an automobile that two scavenging German ex-soldiers - Karl (Erich Schellow) and Willi (Gert Schaefer) find in a bombed-out building and begin to dismantle for its scrap metal and glass. As they methodically take it apart, the car begins to speak (the voice of the car is Kautner himself) and takes us all the way back to 1933, when it was first manufactured. (A kind of unofficial subtitle of the film is Geschichten eines Autos - "History of a car.")  

Helmut Kautner (1908-1980), who made films for the Third Reich that managed to avoid blatant propaganda, and that earned him a reputation with Nazi censors as "pro-English," (1) tried to establish a film company in Hamburg. Casting local actors, using equipment acquired on the black market, he managed to shoot In Jenen Tagen during the bitterly cold winter of 1946-47 on outdoor locations. The result is a deceptively comprehensive portrait of the experience of Germans through twelve years under Nazism. Some of the seven episodes are obviously more effective and more powerfully revelatory than others. But this has more to do with our expectations rather than those of the German people, for whom the film was made in the first place.  

In the film's first flashback, we are shown the "birth" of the narrating automobile in a bustling factory. It's first owner is Sybille (Winnie Markus), given to her as an engagement gift by Peter (Karl John). Sybille's and her friend, Steffen (Werner Hinz), drive to a secluded spot under the trees where he tells her that he can no longer stay in Germany now that the Nazis have taken power. Later, when Sybille and Peter drive through the city, they are stopped by a crowd watching a Nazi procession. Pete takes off Sybille's diamond engagement ring and scratches the date "30133," 30 January 1933 on the inside of the windscreen - the very day that Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. 

As they continue to strip the car, Karl hands Willi a woman's comb that was once worn by the car's next owner, Elisabeth (Alice Treff), a woman pianist. Her daughter, Angela (Gisela Tantau) discovers that Elisabeth is having an affair with a composer named Wolfgang (Hans Nielsen) when she finds her mother's comb in his car. Angela broods over this discovery, clutching her mother's comb obsessively in her hand. There is a beautiful, idyllic scene by a lake at which Elisabeth learns from her husband that Wolfgang's compositions have been banned as "subversive." In tears, Angela stuffs her mother's comb in the car's glove box.

An older couple, art dealers (Willy Maertens and Isa Ehre), reaffirm their love for each other just before Kristallnacht. They have kept her identity as a Jew a secret. But when her husband watches as the other Jewish businesses on his block have their windows smashed by Brownshirts and others in a crowd, who leave the windows of his shop unmolested (because he is Aryan), he picks up a piece of pavement in disgust and throws it through his own window. The couple are found dead from apparent suicide in the morning.  

Peter from episode one shows up again in episode four. By now he is a common soldier, and he recognizes the car, now being driven by Dorothea (Erica Balque) whose husband is in the hands of the Gestapo. Peter begins to tell her the story of how he scratched the date on the windshield, but she drives the car away when, calling from a phone booth on the Swiss border, she learns that her husband is dead.

In what I think is the best sequence of the film, the car, now painted in camouflage, is somewhere on the Eastern Front. A Young German lieutenant (Fritz Wagner) needs a driver (Hermann Speelmans) to take him by night through snowbound partisan territory. On the way, with only the car's headlights to define the frozen landscape around them, the driver and lieutenant take turns at the wheel. In their conversations, the driver speaks his mind about the war and about the partisans' cause, which he bravely declares to be just. But when a flare suddenly illuminates the road, a sniper's bullet kills the driver. His arms around the dead driver, the lieutenant steers the car forward through the boundless dark.  

Late in the war, amid air raid sirens in a wrecked city, Erna, a machinist (Isa Vermehren), learns that an old woman she knows (Margarete Haagen) is the mother of one of the conspirators in the Stauffenburg plot to assassinate Hitler. She piles her into the car, now riddled with bullet holes, and attempts to drive her to safety - wherever that might be. On the way, the car breaks down, and Erna leaves the old woman with the car while she goes to fetch some fuel. A policeman approaches the car and asks the old woman for her papers. Her name sounds familiar to him, so he begins to go down his list of wanted conspirators. Just then, Erna returns with a gas can. He asks for a lift and climbs into the back seat. Before Erna can even start the car, the old woman tells the policeman who she is. She takes Erna's hand in a show of gratitude and support.

The final episode Is about Josef, a deserting soldier (Carl Raddatz) and a woman (Bettina Moissi) and child he encounters in a country barn. Attracted to each other, they form a relationship. As they lie together on a bed of straw, they can hear bomber planes winging overhead to Berlin. The soldier takes the woman and child as far as he can safely go into what's left of Hamburg. He leaves her there and speeds away, but is stopped by military policemen. When they ask him questions and aren't satisfied with his answers, they order him out of the car. Walking away in the twilight, he suddenly laughs and runs away from the policeman down a riverbank and the scene fades.    

Unlike some recent films that seemed to suffer from a kind of retroactive amnesia (The Book Thief is probably the worst offender), In Those Days doesn't offer excuses for the war or try to change history. The film accepts the fact that what happened happened. The Germans in Kautner's film saw it coming and could do little to get out of its way. If there is a false note, its the pervasive gloom that soon takes over, as each of the automobile's owners meets his and her end. The film passes over the elation with which Germans greeted the Wehrmacht Army's first astonishing victories in Poland and France. Even if the conquest of the whole of Europe was militarily impossible, Hitler came awfully close to doing it. It would help to explain the stoicism of Germans when the bombs began to fall on them in '42 and didn't let up until everything was destroyed. 

Due to the total absence of sound stages in the British Sector of West Germany, the film was shot mostly on outdoor locations (by Igor Oberberg). The images are sharp and well framed, using direct lighting (apparently in the early mornings or late afternoons). The rawness that gave Open City much of its power is surprisingly lacking. There is instead a polished appearance to the images which somewhat belies reports of the film's haphazard shooting schedule.

There are some minor technical problems in the film. When Sybille and Peter are prevented by a large crowd from driving the car across a broad avenue down which a Nazi procession is passing, it is all too obvious that the marching Nazis are being projected onto a none too carefully erected rear-screen. There is also an occasional shadow cast by the camera in a few shots. But given the difficulties of its making, In Those Days is often quite beautiful to look at, even if it tries to capture episodes from the worst period of human history.

(1) One such film directed by Kautner in 1944, Unter den Brucken (Under the Bridges), was considered devoid of propaganda and was released in 1946. Seeing it now, and remembering how hellish life must have been like for German civilians in 1944, reveals how extraordinarily film can be used to disguise reality.

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