DEFA Film Library
at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
Cinema of East Germany
Shadows and Sojourners: Images of Jews and Antifascism
in East German Film
Affaire Blum (The Blum Affair)
Soviet-Occupied Germany (DEFA), b/w, 105 min. Feature
Karl Heinz Gabler, a thief and black market profiteer, lures a man into his home and then murders him for his money. When Gabler is arrested for passing the victim’s stolen checks, he invents an elaborate ruse to exonerate himself. Gabler accuses Dr. Jacob Blum, a wealthy Jewish manufacturer and the victim’s employer, of the murder. The Police Inspector and State Prosecutor are inclined to believe Gabler’s story because it justifies their suspicion that Jews are part of a wider leftist conspiracy to commandeer the German government and judiciary. Dr. Blum, meanwhile, sits in prison awaiting trial having been denied bail, visitation rights, and access to his case file. His non-Jewish wife is horrified by the anti-Semitic outcry stemming from her husband’s arrest, and she convinces a friend in politics to have a special investigator sent from Berlin. Inspector Bonte works independently of the tainted investigation and soon uncovers the victim’s body buried in Gabler’s basement. As Gabler’s story unravels around him, Bonte surprises the judiciary with testimony from Gabler’s ex-fiancée who witnessed the murder. Dr. Blum is subsequently released from prison, and the embarrassed prosecutors shirk blame for the mishap. The movie ends on a solemn and foreboding note when Dr. Blum’s wife reassures her husband, “I knew all along it would work out. We live in a law-abiding country. After all, we live in Germany.”
The Blum Affair is based on the “Haas-Kölling” trial of 1926-27 from Magdeburg, Germany, in which Jewish industrialist Rudolf Haas was falsely accused of murder. Haas’ accuser was Richard Schröder, a member of the German Freikorps, a notorious band of militant thugs with ties to the extreme right. As in the film, Schröder lured his victim, bookkeeper Hermann Helling, to his apartment using a newspaper want ad. Once in Schröder’s apartment, Helling was robbed and murdered, and his body buried in the basement. Two days later on June 12, 1925, Schröder was arrested after being found with Helling’s checkbook and personal effects. Shortly thereafter, the investigation was assigned to Investigative Judge Kölling and Criminal Commissioner Tenholt. Both Kölling and Tenholt were unusually eager to believe the suspect’s story when Schröder placed the blame on Rudolf Haas, the Jewish factory owner who employed the victim. Schröder claimed that Haas killed his bookkeeper to cover up financial misdeeds. Subsequent examinations of Haas’ books suggested that Schröder was telling the truth. Also affecting the investigation was the undeniable anti-Semitic and anti-left prejudices of the judiciary, a situation that favored Schröder in light of his political involvement with the Freikorps and other nationalist groups. Indeed, Schröder found that the more accusations he made against Haas, the better he was treated while in custody (Pleyer, 1965: 68).
Meanwhile, Rudolf Haas’ attorney was able to convince Busdorf, a Criminal Commissar from Berlin, to begin his own investigation. Busdorf’s sleuthing led straight to Schröder’s basement, where the victim’s body was unearthed. Criminal Commissioner Tenholt rescinded the case against Haas and was disciplined for showing Schröder preferential treatment. An angry scandal ensued. Judge Kölling and the right-wing press declared that Haas’ case amounted to a threat against an independent judiciary, Busdorf was sent back to Berlin and replaced by two other Commissioners, and there were calls to re-instate Commissar Tenholt. Once the dust settled, Rudolf Haas was set free and Richard Schröder was convicted of murder. In September 1926, he was sentenced to death, and early the following year, his sentence was reduced to life in prison (Pleyer, 1965: 68-69). By 1933, Kölling, the Investigative Judge was declared by the Nazis a “Pioneer of National Socialism,” and the attorney for Rudolf Haas saw his writings burned in the cathedral square of the city of Magdeburg (Kannapin, 1997: 101).
Erich Engel, a film director of German-Jewish descent, was chosen by DEFA to direct The Blum Affair, based on R.A. Stemmle’s script (Shandley, 2001:105). Stemmle had followed with interest the proceedings of the Haas-Kölling trial, and in 1947 he pitched the film, then titled Mordprozeß Haas (Murder Trial Haas), to DEFA executives. The studio proved excited about the film, especially given its factual basis, although the production was not without controversy. Indeed, the script originally called for the depiction of an anti-Jewish pogrom following Dr. Blum’s release, but the scene was cut (Kannapin, 1997: 101). A “fierce discussion raged” over the topic of an appropriate ending to the film, in which Major Simowski, the film censor for the Soviet Occupation Authority (SMAD), suggested that any depictions of Nazi riots should also depict their opponents, such as those in the Reichsbanner, a paramilitary organization of social democrats (Ibid). Major Simowksi retracted his suggestion following criticism from DEFA Studio Director, Hans Klering, and director Kurt Maetzig (see Marriage in the Shadows, 1946; and Council of the Gods, 1950). In granting permission for the filming to begin, Simowski suggested instead that the filmmakers “take care that Dr. Blum is not overly depicted as an entrepreneur” for it would “cloud his character as a soldier in the [socialist] class war” (Kannapin, 1997: 102). The filmmakers opted instead to insert a line to make clear the opposing “political fronts” of the time into the scene in which the judges association gathers (Ibid).
Director Erich Engel, who had been deemed the “Director of the Scientific Age” by colleague Bertoldt Brecht (Mückenberger and Jordan, 1994: 98) successfully used the detective story genre to expose anti-Semitism in Germany prior to the Third Reich. It has been suggested that Engel’s unconventional use of genre served to broaden the context for the discussion of Jewish themes (Hochschule für Film- und Fernsehkunst der DDR, 1979: 102). In presenting the murder at the outset of the film, Engel does not engage the audience in a “whodunit” plot. He focuses instead on the crimes of a corrupt legal system and the eventual redemption of the innocent victim, Dr. Blum, an approach that places viewers on the side of the Jewish victim (Shandley, 2001: 106). Robert Shandley speculates that were Engel to have constructed the film so that viewers were uncertain who had committed the crime until the end, “the film could have investigated the spectator’s own attitudes towards Jews” (Ibid). Alas, writes Shandley:
“such an experiment in postwar Germany would have been unthinkable for many reasons. First, everyone knew anti-Semitism was still prevalent in 1948 in Germany…. Both the Soviets and the Western allies were striving to attract Germans to their worldviews and were, therefore, increasingly disinclined to make themselves unpopular by confronting Germans with their racism. More importantly, directors and screenwriters in Germany would not have trusted their narrative skills to be nuanced enough at making the film such that it did not come off itself as anti-Semitic” (Shandley, 2001: 106-107).
While the film has a happy ending, it is portrayed as the exception to the German justice system, rather than the rule. A lingering feeling of uneasiness remains. The Blum Affair was praised by East and West German critics alike and was screened in over seventeen countries (Film und Fernsehkunst der DDR, 1979: 90). Like Marriage in the Shadows, Rotation, Professor Mamlock, and other films from that time, The Blum Affair provides a historical perspective to German Nazism and analyzes some of its possible beginnings. Following the 1948 premiere of The Blum Affair, the real-life chauffeur of the wrongly-accused Jewish industrialist, who himself was implicated in the murder, came forward to thank DEFA for “bringing the truths to light” (Mückenberger and Jordan, 1994: 105). The film’s cinematic run ironically, yet fittingly, coincided with the controversial rehabilitation of Nazi judges in Germany’s western zones (Ibid).
Erich Engel was an exceptional director. He has been fittingly described as a “wanderer between political systems.” In spite of being a self-proclaimed “Marxist to the core,” maintaining a friendship with Bertolt Brecht and living in West Berlin, he managed to continuously build his career as a director without his work ever being banned, whether working under the Nazis, for the DEFA Studios or for West German productions.
Engel was born in Hamburg in 1891 and received his educational training at Leopold Jessners Acting School. With his employment at the German Theater in Hamburg in 1917 Engel started a long career as a dramaturge. In 1922 he moved to Munich where he met Bertolt Brecht and Caspar Neher. He worked with Brecht and Karl Valentin on his first film venture in 1923, a flim called Mysterien eines Frisiersalons (Mysteries of a Hair Salon). It was a short, mildly surrealistic slapstick comedy set in a barber shop. Though Engel did not return to film for another eight years, this first film foreshadowed the contributions he would eventually make to the comedy genre. During those eight years he worked frequently with Brecht in Berlin and staged the premiere of his Three Penny Opera in 1928. Engel made two comedies, Wer nimmt die Liebe ernst? and Fünf von der Jazzband, before the Nazis came to power in 1933, and surprisingly, he was allowed to continue making films - predominantly comedies - throughout the Third Reich in spite of his Marxist acquaintances and tendencies.
After the war he returned to his political work. His most significant postwar film, The Blum Affair, was released in 1948 and was Engel’s first DEFA production. In 1949 he received an award for that film, the Nationalpreis II. Klasse. In 1948/49 Engel continued his theatre work and collaborated with Brecht on productions at the German Theater in Berlin. His second DEFA production, Der Biberpelz, was released in 1949 and plans were made to film Brecht’s Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, but when those plans fell through, Engel turned to West German studios for the production of his films from 1950 to 1955. After Brecht's death in 1956 Engel continued the production of Das Leben des Galilei (The Life of Galileo) with the Berlin Ensemble, which he continued to work with for the rest of his life. His last film, Geschwader Fledermaus (1958), was a DEFA production. Interestingly, until his death in 1966, Engel lived in West Berlin but worked primarily in the East where he was recognized for his work and served as a member of the GDR Academy of the Arts.
UFA films include: Wer nimmt die Liebe ernst? (Who Takes Love Seriously?, 1931), Fünf von der Jazzband (Five of the Jazzband, 1931/32), Inge und die Millionen (Inge and the Millions, 1933), Pygmalion (Pygmalion, 1935), Der Maulkorb (The Muzzle, 1937), Hotel Sacher (Hotel Sacher, 1939), Viel Lärm um Nix (Much Ado About Nix, 1941), Fahrt ins Glück (Journey to Happiness, 1944).
DEFA films include: Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat, 1949), Geschwader Fledermaus (Bat Squadron, 1958).
FRG films include: Das seltsame Leben des Herrn Bruggs (The Lonely Life of Mr. Bruggs, 1950/51), Der fröhliche Weinberg (The Grapes are Ripe, 1952), Der Mann meines Lebens (The Man of my Life, 1953/54), Konsul Stotthoff (Consul Stotthoff, 1954), Du bist die Richtige (You Are the Right One, 1954), Liebe ohne Illusion (Love Without Illusion, 1955), Vor Gott und den Menschen (Before God and Man, 1955).
Fox, Thomas C. Stated Memory: East Germany and the Holocaust. Rochester [NY]: Camden House, 1999. 111-112.
Hochschule für Film- und Fernsehen der DDR. Film- und Fernsehkunst der DDR: Traditionen, Beispiele, Tendenzen. Berlin: Henschel, 1979. 100-102.
Mells, Monica. “Affaire Blum – ein grosser Filmerfolg.” Neues Deutschland 12 Dec 1948.
Mückenberger, Christiane. “Die ersten antifaschistischen DEFA-Filme der Nachkriegsjahre.” Nationalsozialismus und Judenverfolgung in DDR-Medien. Schiftenreihe Medien Beratung 4. Bonn: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 1997. 19-20.
- - - , and Günter Jordan. 'Sie sehen selbst, Sie hören selbst...' Eine Geschichte der DEFA von ihren Anfängen bis 1949. Marburg: Hitzeroth, 1994.
Pleyer, Peter. Deutscher Nachkriegsfilm 1946-1948. Studien zur Publizistik. 4. Münster: C.J. Fahle, 1965. 68-72; 345-377.
Shandley, Robert. “The Blum Affair: Detecting Anti-Semitism in Liberal Democracy.” Rubble Films: German Cinema in the Shadow of the Third Reich. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2001. 105-108.
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