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

Bronsteins Kinder (Bronstein's Children)

1990, Germany, color, 98 min. Feature
Director: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
Script: Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Jurek Becker
Camera: Witold Sobocinski
Editing: Helga Olschewski
Music: Günter Fischer

Cast:
Rolf Hoppe (prisoner), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Aaron Bronstein), Angela Winkler (Elle Bronstein), Matthias Paul (Hans Bronstein), Katharina Abt (Martha Lepschitz), Alexander May (Rotstein), Buddy Elias (Gordon Kwart).
35mm, English subtitles - renting information
VHS-NTSC (English subtitled) - renting information

Bronstein’s Children is a story of the intergenerational conflicts that exist between the victims of the Holocaust and their children, as well as questions of redemption and forgiveness. Based on a book from Jurek Becker, author of Jacob the Liar, and featuring a performance by acclaimed actor Armin Mueller-Stahl.

Plot Summary
Commentary
About the Director
Kawalerowicz's Major Films
Related Reading

Plot Summary

Hans Bronstein is about to finish secondary school and needs to decide what to do next with his life. He has a girlfriend, Martha Lepschitz, who is an actress and whose parents seems to accept him with even fewer reservations than they accept their own daughter. Martha’s profession also provides a motif that comments on the cultural context of the film: as the Holocaust intrudes on Hans’s life and his relationship with his father through the narrative, Martha finds acting jobs in the presumably quite conventional output of Holocaust films, in which Jews are consistently portrayed as victims, confined safely to the historical past.

Hans has considerably more difficulty dealing with his Father, who is opinionated and authoritarian in regard to his son, and with his sister Elle, who is hospitalized in a mental institution. Her affliction leads her to attack people at random, in the apparent belief that they are about to do her harm.

The plot of the film puts places a historical dilemma against this backdrop: Hans goes to his father’s cottage outside Berlin one day, expecting to meet Martha there for one of their romantic trysts. Instead he finds his father and two other men, Rotstein and Kwart, who are holding a captive, intimidating him with the threat of torture until he confesses his crimes as a former concentration camp guard. Hans tries to convince his father to simply turn the captive over to the authorities, who in the GDR would certainly be harsh on him in any case. But when Arno Bronstein refuses, his son also finds himself unwilling to betray his father’s secret either.

Here the film, albeit in reduced scope from the novel, explores the conflicting aspects of identity and allegiance – Jewish and German, generational, legalistic. On the one hand, Hans is determined to set out on his adult life without either the advantages or the stigma of being the “son of a Holocaust survivor.” Through the dilemma with his father’s kidnapping and imprisonment of the old Nazi, however, he is forced to confront the reality of his father’s past for the first time – learning details about his father he had never known or been interested in.

At first, in the words of critics Susan Figge and Jenifer Ward, Hans “seeks to excape from the series of difficult identity choices confronting him on all sides. His father demands that he decide whether he is a Jew or a German; Martha needs him to retain his unquestioned reconciliation of his Jewishness and Germanness; the guard begs him to be a reasonable man and a fellow GDR citizen” (Figge/Ward 92). When Hans finally decides to intervene and set the prisoner free, thus making a break with his father at one level, it is too late for the latter aspect of the confrontation to take place. Instead of the feared death of the prisoner due to maltreatment or lack of needed medicine, Hans discovers that his father has died of a heart attack next to the concentration camp guard’s bed. In the film version, truncating the son’s ability to incorporate this event into his development as a morally conscious adult, Hans is left with both the unresolved conflict with his father and his father’s generation of victims of Nazism, and the unresolved dilemma of what to do with the perpetrators who remain present for him.

Commentary

Film, Novel and German History
The film and novel are both set in the GDR of 1973, but the historical emphasis is decidedly different in the two works. In the time of the novel’s publication, 1986, the generation conflict between Arno and Hans Bronstein about Jewish and German identity was placed against the backdrop of the institutionally guaranteed “antifascism” of the East German state. It is a critique of this antifascism that leads Arno and his two friends to appropriate to themselves the power to levy justice against the former concentration camp guard. It is not enough that a court would declare him guilty and punish him, because, as Arno scoffs, this would not be due to any deeply held conviction but because this part of Germany happened to be occupied by the Soviets who ordained the GDR’s antifascist stance. Their goal, on the contrary, is to elicit from the guard a confession of his own guilt, not a pronouncement from outside.

This critique of the “antifascism” from above in GDR history is mitigated by the many metaphors of generational change present in the novel. Hans Bronstein is coming of age as he develops his own view of his Jewish and German identity, and his own position on the crimes of the Nazis and his father’s and others’ scars from their sufferings. A new generation was “coming of age” in Germany as well, as the novel refers to two major transitional events of the time: the death of Walter Ulbricht, the long-time Party leader of the GDR, and the resignation of Willy Brandt, the West German Chancellor of Ostpolitik (foreign policy toward East Germany specifically and Eastern Europe in general).

The novel’s details specific to East Germany are much reduced in the film, however, and Figge and Ward theorize that this is due to the fact that 1989 and German reunification have replaced 1973 as the historical turning point against which the questions of memory and identity are set. Instead of the “prescribed antifascism” of the East German state, 1990 threatened to bring not only a return of anti-Semitism, which has indeed occurred, but also an institutionalized forgetting – which is still brought into dramatic focus by the dilemma of Hans Bronstein in the film. “In the evolving post-Wende context, the film addresses the legacy of the Holocaust in a new Germany, where a certain kind of historical accountability may be about to disappear – an accountability shaped in the GDR by its own function as the officially antifascist state, in the West by the Cold War, and in both cases by the passage of time.” It is no longer the responsibility or burden of Bronstein and the World War II generation to see that memory and justice are served; it is the task of the generation of Bronstein’s children.

Jurek Becker on Film and Television
From at least the script of Jacob the Liar, also featured in this series, Jurek Becker consistently adapted his own work for film and television and wrote original scripts as well. Since he lived in West Berlin for the last decades of his life, yet retained his GDR passport until German unification, he also spans the boundaries of East and West Germany, East and West Europe. Such concerns, as well as the issues of memory and identity discussed above, are thus suggested by the production history of his work as well.

In addition to his work’s investigation of Jewish identity in a GDR context, he was involved in productions in the West that pursue parallel investigations from that historical vantage point. Two examples are films where Becker contributed to the screenplay: Peter Lilienthal’s David (1980) and Thomas Brasch’s The Passenger – Welcome to Germany. The former was the first West German film to narrate a Jew’s experience in, and survival of, Nazi Germany from the Jewish point of view. Brasch’s film features Tony Curtis as an American Jew who returns to Germany for the first time after decades of absence, to confront both a changed reality as well as the specters of the past.

Becker’s greatest audience success in West Germany, however, was the ARD television detective series he created, Liebling Kreuzberg, starring the popular (and former GDR star) Manfred Krug. Otto Meissner, producer of Bronstein’s Children, also worked with Becker on the series.

Becker’s screenwriting career came full circle in a way, however, with the Hollywood version of Jakob the Liar starring Robin Williams. Although the film was not released until after Becker’s death, he was involved with and approved the French director Peter Kassovitz’s early development of the script from the novel.

East and West Europe
As a native of Poland writing in German, Becker also maintained a position toward Europe that went beyond the confines of East or West Germany. Even the Hollywood version of Jakob the Liar features East-European influences brought by the Hungarian-born director, the Hungarian scene design and studio work, and cinematography by
Elemér Ragály.

In collaborating with the veteran Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz on Bronstein’s Children, Becker again built bridges across national and political divides. Kawalerowitz began as an assistant director in the late 1940s, working on films such as director Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage (Ostatni etap, 1948) about women in Auschwitz working for the Germans—the first Polish film to receive international distribution. Kawalerowicz’s film Mother Joan of the Angels (Matka Joanna od Aniołów, 1961) won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes. According to Kinoeye, “For over fifty years, Jerzy Kawalerowicz has remained a major figure in Polish cinema. Like his colleagues Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrzej Wajda, Kawalerowicz is both a well-established director in his own right and the long-time artistic director of the film production unit KADR Films, established in 1955. Among other things, the films Kawalerowicz has directed are distinguished by bold, multi-faceted characterizations, subversive religious and political iconography, excellent camera set-ups and use of off-screen sound. Many are also adaptations of some of the Polish language’s most celebrated novels.”

Depictions of Jewish life have often played a role in Kawalerowicz’s work, such as his 1983 film The Inn (Austeria, 1983). In an interview, he explained his facility with depicting Jews as the result of his Ukrainian origins: “In the town where I was born, 60 percent of the people were Jewish, 30 percent were Ukrainian and 10 percent were Polish. It was a very typical Galician town, which was totally destroyed by the Holocaust. But because I lived with many people who died in the Holocaust, I remember everything about them. They were the basis for my film Austeria” (Kinoeye).

Kawalerowicz alienated himself from many of his colleagues in 1983, however, by signing a government report attacking the filmmakers connected to the Solidarity movement in Poland and sanctioning the closing of the film production units headed by Andrzej Wajda ("X") and Krzysztof Zanussi ("TOR"). Thus, in Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Becker had a partner who had been active in Polish filmmaking throughout the postwar period, had vast experience in adapting novels to film, and had personal experience with the antifascist claims and the political compromises of the socialist milieu of Bronstein’s Children.

About the Director

Born 1922 in Gwóździec, Ukraine, Jerzy Kawalerowicz was one of the leading figures of the "Polish School" of the 1950s and early 60s, and was prominent in the "second wave" of Polish films of the 1960s. Noted for his powerful, detail-oriented imagery he is considered one of Eastern Europe's most talented post-WW II directors. Kawalerowicz was versatile and his subjects ranged from historical dramas to intense psychological studies. He made his directorial debut in 1951 after working as an assistant director. In 1955 and 1972 Kawalerowicz was appointed head of the prestigious KADR production unit with Tadeusz Konwicki as his literary chief. Their work together on Matka Joanna od Aniołów (Mother Joan of the Angels/The Devil and the Nun, 1961) won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes. In 1983, Kawalerowicz alienated himself from many of his peers by signing communist government-generated reports condemning all filmmakers aligned with the Solidarity Movement and promoting the destruction of production units run by long-time associates Wajda and Zanussi.

Kawalerowicz's Major Films

Celuloza (A Night of Remembrance, 1954), Pod Gwiazdą Frygijską (Under a Phrygian Star, 1954), Pociąg (Night Train, 1959), Matka Joanna od Aniołów (Mother Joan of the Angels/The Devil and the Nun, 1961), Faraon (The Pharaoh, 1966), Śmierć Prezydenta (Death of a President, 1977), Austeria (The Inn, 1983), Za chto? (Why?, 1995).

Related Reading

Becker, Jurek. Bronstein’s Children. Trans. Leila Vennewitz. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Figge, Susan G. and Jenifer K. Ward. “(Sich) Ein genaues Bild machen”: Jurek Becker’s Bronsteins Kinder as Novel and Film.” Germanic Review 70.3 (1995). 90-98.

Fox, Thomas C. Stated Memory: East Germany and the Holocaust. Rochester [NY]: Camden House, 1999. 124-126.

Privett, Ray. “God and country (or maybe not): Jerzy Kawalerowicz interviewed.” Kinoeye 1. 7 (26 November 2001).

Taylor, Richard, Nancy Wood, Julian Graffy and Dina Iordanova, eds. The BFI Companion to Eastern European and Russian Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 2000. 124.

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Jessica Hale