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Shadows and Sojourners: Images of Jews and Antifascism in East German Film
Touring Film Series

Das Beil von Wandsbek (The Axe of Wandsbek)

1951, East Germany (DEFA), b/w, 111 min. Feature
Falk Harnack
Hans-Robert Bortfeldt, Falk Harnack
Robert Baberske
Editing: Hildegard Tegener
Ernst Roters
Käthe Braun (Stine Teetjen), Erwin Geschonneck (Albert Teetjen), Gefion Helmke, Willy A. Kleinau, Ursula Meißner, Arthur Schröder.
VHS-NTSC, English subtitles:

The Axe of Wandsbek considers the role that common citizens played in Nazi crimes, at the same time as it portrays a social climate of conflict and contestation. This film adaptation of Arnold Zweig’s novel (1947) is set in 1934 and tells the story of a man who accepts money from the Nazis to serve as a public executioner, and the moral denunciation of his community that drives him to a ruinous end.

Plot Summary
About the Director
Harnack's Major Films
Related Reading

Plot Summary

When Albert Teetjen’s Hamburg butcher shop and livelihood are threatened by modern competitors, he and his wife, Stine, worry about their future. Stine pushes her husband to ask his old war buddy, Hans Peter Footh, to help them out financially. Footh has become a Nazi officer and a bourgeois shipping magnate who is trying to force his Jewish competitor out of business. Unknown to the Teetjens, Footh is being pressured by local authorities and his superiors in the Nazi party to solve a local problem. Four communists, among them a Jew, have been sentenced to death after being falsely accused of the shooting death of a Nazi SA (Storm Trooper) officer, but the execution has been postponed because the executioner is ill. Meanwhile, Hitler is scheduled to visit Hamburg and his supporters have the execution carried out without further delay in order to eliminate any disquieting “loose ends” that might mar the Führer’s upcoming visit. When Teetjen needs money, Footh offers him two thousand Marks to become the executioner and carry out “the Führer’s will.” Teetjen is conflicted at first, but feels his financial troubles leave him no choice. Using his grandfather’s prized axe and disguised in a top hat, tails and mask, Teetjen beheads the four communists. Meanwhile, the innocence of the “Reeperbahn Four” becomes increasingly clear. Despite Teetjen’s attempts to conceal his involvement, the residents of his neighborhood discover that he was a Nazi executioner. Customers shun Teetjen’s newly-renovated store in disgust, and the couple’s money troubles worsen. Stine is driven to suicide by her husband’s lack of remorse, their financial ruin, and the community’s moral condemnation. After finding his wife’s body, Teetjen takes his own life.


The Axe of Wandsbek premiered on May 11, 1951 to positive reviews and was seen by over 800,000 people in its first month. After a few weeks, however, the film was pulled from theaters due to a controversy that had shadowed the production from its inception. During writing and filming, officials at the DEFA Studios had become worried that Teetjen’s actions would be seen as the failure of an individual, instead of as the result of a criminal regime. They insisted upon the removal of the line “You poor dog” because it implied both sympathy and exoneration for the executioner. General Tschekin, a Soviet adviser to East Germany, noted that it was a mistake to have adapted Arnold Zweig’s novel for the screen because “the film will have an undesired and deleterious effect on people in the GDR, as it does not depict hatred of fascism, but rather pity for the murderers” (Schenk 1994, 69).

Nine days after the film’s premiere, East German newspapers began printing letters from outraged viewers who shared the officials’ criticism. Shortly thereafter, The Axe of Wandsbek was officially banned. Bertolt Brecht summed up the reasons for the film’s banning at a screening which took place at the Academy of the Arts in 1952: “The butcher appears as a pitiable fellow traveler who gets robbed by apolitical neighbors. It is important to emphasize that there can be no sympathy for a Nazi executioner. Behind the executioner there is a void. There is nothing further to discuss; sympathy must not be aroused through the soulful eye of a good actor.”

The controversy surrounding The Axe of Wandsbek hit Falk Harnack, its director, especially hard. Harnack had been a stanch opponent of the Nazi regime. The film represented the directorial debut for Harnack, and yet was the last production he ever made for East German audiences. During the Second World War, Harnack (1913-1991) narrowly avoided execution for his participation in the renowned Nazi resistance group, the White Rose (Weisse Rose). His brother Arvid, and sister-in-law Mildred, however, were killed because of their involvement in the anti-Nazi activities of the Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle). Furthermore, Mildred Harnack-Fish, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and scholar of Goethe, is the only American civilian ever to have been executed on Hitler’s direct orders. On February 16, 1943 she was beheaded at Plötzensee prison in Berlin for her part in a failed assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. During this time, Falk Harnack had deserted his post in the German army and had joined an antifascist partisan group in Greece. The end of the war brought Harnack back to Germany and back to his career in drama. Despite his steadfast anti-Nazi convictions, Harnack could not save his first film from intense public and official scrutiny. As a result, Harnack left the DEFA studios in 1952, and from then on directed only in the West, where he devoted his work to coming to terms with the past.

Even Arnold Zweig, author of the novel that inspired the film, did not intend under any circumstances for The Axe of Wandsbek to be sympathetic to Nazi murderers. Zweig had been labeled an enemy of the state by the Nazis, and wrote much of his novel while exiled in Palestine during the Second World War (Hermand: 1998, 241). Zweig’s son Adam asserts that his father based the novel on actual events involving a Wandsbek butcher who was hired to execute four Communists condemned to death for protesting a port strike in 1938. Zweig, himself a German-Jew, apparently first encountered the story in a newspaper while in Palestine. The “Bloody Sunday” of July 18, 1932 that took place in Hamburg, might have also contributed to Zweig’s story. On that day, members of the Nazi Storm Troopers marched into Altona, a working-class neighborhood of Hamburg that was home to Communists and Socialists, and provoked a violent clash. Sixteen people were left dead. As in the film, four communists were wrongly convicted over an altercation that killed Nazi Storm Troopers, and subsequently, were executed in 1933 by the Nazis with a hand axe. Zweig explained that the perceived empathy audiences felt for the executioner was a misunderstanding. His intention was to provide humanity to all of his characters, which he hoped would counter the “anti-Germanism” popular among right-wing Zionists in Palestine during the 1940s.

Following the film’s banning, DEFA studios were left with the question of what to do with the movie. Their solution was to remove any scenes that elicited compassion for Teetjen, the executioner. Despite the additional editing, Harnack was refused permission to re-release The Axe of Wandsbek in theaters on the occasion of Arnold Zweig’s 75th birthday in 1962. Ironically, the original version of The Axe of Wandsbek did return to theaters some thirty years after its cinematic debut; the occasion was Erwin Geschonneck’s 75th birthday. Geschonneck played Teetjen, the executioner.

About the Director

Born in 1913, Falk Harnack grew up in Jena and Weimar. From 1937 to 1940 he worked as a director, actor and dramaturge at the German National Theater in Weimar. He was active in the resistance movement against National Socialism which began with his membership in the resistance group “White Rose.” He narrowly escaped being sentenced for his involvement in the group, but his brother and sister-in-law were not so lucky. In 1942 they were executed for their involvement in the resistance group Rote Kapelle (known in English as the “Red Orchestra”) which undoubtedly solidified Harnack’s anti-Nazi stance. After being forced into military service in 1941, he deserted the German army in 1943 and joined an antifascist partisan group in Greece. After the war Harnack returned to his directorial and dramaturgical career in various theatres and began his work with DEFA in1949 as art director.

The Axe of Wandsbek, based on a novel by Arnold Zweig and released in 1951, was his debut as a film director. Initially critics praised the film for what was perceived as a realistic portrayal of the Third Reich, yet a month after its premiere it was banned for what was deemed a sympathetic depiction of a Nazi executioner. As a result Harnack left the East German studio in 1952, and from then on directed only in the West, where he continued to center his work around the topic of coming to terms with the past. In rememberance of Harnack’s work, Gerhard Schoenberner praised it by remarking, “At a time when West German postwar film had sunk to its artistic and political low, his work set new standards for the dictates of commerce and the false glorification of the past that had become fashionable during the Adenauer period as a result of the Cold War.” He died in September of 1991.

Harnack's Major Films

Der 20. Juli (The Plot to Assassinate Hitler, 1955), Nacht der Entscheidung (Night of Decision, 1955), Anastasia, die letzte Zarentochter (Anastasia: The Czar’s Last Daughter, 1956), Arzt ohne Gewissen (Doctor Without Scruples, 1959).

Films for Television: Der Prozess Mary Dugan (The Trial of Mary Dugan, 1959/60), Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Everyone Dies for Himself Alone, 1962), Manchmal spielt der Himmel mit (Sometimes Heaven Plays Along, 1964), Peenemünde (Peenemünde, 1970), Ein Fall für Herrn Schmidt (A Case for Mr. Schmidt, 1971), Der Verfolger (The Pursuer, 1973/74).

Related Reading

Breitkopf, Regina. "Das Beil von Wandsbek." Beiträge zur Film- und Fernsehwissenschaft 2 (1984): 211-223.

Brysac, Shareen Blair. Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.

Hermand, Jost. “The Rohme Episode in Arnold Zweig's Das Beil von Wandsbek.” Trans. Lisa A. Rainwater van Suntum. German Life and Letters 51:2 (1998): 240-249.

Pick, Erika. “Noch einmal zum Beil von Wandsbek”. Beiträge zur Film- und Fernsehwissenschaft 2 (1984): 224-243.

Rülicke-Weiler, Käthe. “Weitere Bemerkungen zum Film Das Beil von Wandsbek." Beiträge zur Film- und Fernsehwissenschaft 5 (1984): 176-186.

Schenk, Ralf, ed. Das zweite Leben der Filmstadt Babelsberg: DEFA-Spielfilme 1946-1992. Berlin: Henschel, 1994. 67-70.

Schoenberner, Gerhard. “Vom Roman zum Film: Das Beil von Wandsbek.” Arnold Zweig: Berlin-Haifa-Berlin: Perspektiven des Gesamtwerks: Proc. of the Third International Arnold Zweig Symposium, Berlin. Ed. Arthur Tilo Alt. Bern and New York: Peter Lang, 1995. 217-25.

Thunecke, Jorg. “The Economic Conditions of the Butchers' Trade During the 1930s: A Socio-Political Commentary on the Plot of Arnold Zweig's Novel The Axe of Wandsbek.” Arnold Zweig: Berlin-Haifa-Berlin: Perspektiven des Gesamtwerks: Proc. of the Third International Arnold Zweig Symposium, Berlin. Ed. Arthur Tilo Alt. Bern and New York: Peter Lang, 1995. 141-62.

Walter, Hans-Albert. “Die Geschäfte des Herrn Albert Teetjen: Das faschistische Deutschland in Arnold Zweigs Exilroman Das Beil von Wandsbek.” Neue Gesellschaft Frankfurter Hefte 36: 4 (1981): 49-62.

"'Was für Schicksale uns bürgerliche Menschen überfallen. Arnold Zweigs Das Beil von Wandsbek." Faschismuskritik und Deutschlandbild in Exilroman. Eds. Christian Fritsch and Lutz Winckler. Berlin: Argument, 1981. 131-151.

Zweig, Arnold. Das Beil von Wandsbek. Berlin: Aufbau, 1963.

- - - . The Axe of Wandsbek. Trans. Erich Sutton. New York: Viking, 1947.

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