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
Levins Mühle (Levin's Mill)
1980, East Germany
(DEFA), color, 117 min. Feature
Set during the 1870s in a West Prussian village, Levin's Mill is the story of a Jewish mill owner whose calls for justice go unanswered after a local German competitor sabotages his mill. An interesting portrayal of life in a socially diverse region of Eastern Europe, this tale of nineteenth-century anti-Semitism ends on a redemptive note when villagers drive out the saboteur.
In a small village in West Prussia in the 1870s, Germans and Poles, Gypsies and Jews live together as neighbors. Johann, the rich owner of a large mill, does not want the Jew, Levin, to grind corn in his small boat mill. Assuming that the law is on his side since he is German, Johann opens the lock one night and washes Levin's mill away. Levin protests and the whole matter is brought to court. Due to a lack of witnesses, the judge decides in favor of Johann. Levin resigns and leaves town with his gypsy girlfriend, Marie. But Johann's life also changes for the worse. A circus comes to the town and performs a re-enactment of Johann’s attack on Levin’s mill. In a carnivalesque episode, circus performers and respectable villagers join together in solidarity, overcoming national differences in moral condemnation of Johann. The circus leaves, but Johann’s shame remains, and he too eventually has to leave the community.
The novel Levin's Mill by the prominent East German author Johannes Bobrowski addresses the central themes of his work as a whole, namely German guilt, particularly in ethnically diverse, northeastern Europe. Bobrowski was born in 1917 in Tilsit, East Prussia. Boyhood visits to his grandfather's farm across the border in Lithuania, introduced him to a socially heterogeneous area with a large proportion of Jews. As Matthew Mead remarks, Bobrowski "is always a poet of the borderland where frontiers, so clearly drawn on the map, are to be seen only as guesses at some ghostlier demarcation. The accident of geography influences his work in many ways: past and present are defined by no neat division, the dead speak to the living, the living speak with the tongues of the dead, the stranger enters and is no stranger" (Mead 1971, 8).
Bobrowski presents Levin's Mill as the story of how the narrator's grandfather "swept away the mill," thus situating both author and narrator as heir to the bigoted and aggressive actions of the German nationalist, Johann. The non-Jewish Bobrowski takes responsibility for openly confronting the transgressions of Germans with respect to the people of the east. Set in the 1870s, the story evokes Prussian policy in Eastern Europe in relation to the dream-sequence incursions of the Teutonic Knights into the east; published in 1964, it inevitable critiques Nazi policy as well.
This point was bluntly addressed by director Horst Seemann who wrote in that the story "depicts the latent fascism of efforts to Germanize the eastern provinces of the German Empire where, for over one hundred years, National Socialist ways of thinking, contempt for Slavs and Jehovah's Witnesses, and anti-Semitism had existed." As Thomas Fox points out, the film's unremitting emphasis upon Levin as a passive victim who is helpless without his allies, recalls older, politically-orthodox East German representations of anti-Semitism (1999, p. 117).
At the same time, Seemann's film asserted a more contemporary and critical position with respect to the role of art and the artist. Stylistically, he rejected socialist realist conventions in order to capture the nuances of the novel. A contemporary review of the film noted that Seemann captured "the unique musicality of Bobrowski's language," translating it into images and music. Indeed, Seemann wrote that he "really concerned himself with the folk music of these eastern regions . . . and used original selections in places. For the feature song ‘Great Waters Have Come' I worked outwards from Bobrowski's own words in order to find the melody." But perhaps even more striking is the radically subversive role Seemann attributed to the imagination, art and music in the film, be it in the hands of Habedank, Weissmantel or Josepha. It is not by chance that the film's final shot is of the artist Philippi refusing to leave Johann in peace.
Horst Seemann was born on April 11, 1937 in Pyhanken, Czechoslovakia and grew up in Greiz in Thuringia. Because his father, a blacksmith, had an interest in music, Horst Seemann had the opportunity to play the violin, the trumpet and the piano. Horst played dance music, sang in a choir and did some acting at the theater in Greiz. After completing secondary school in 1956, Seemann registered with the National People’s Army (Nationale Volksarmee) and continued to play music there. From 1956-62 he studied at the German Academy of Film in Potsdam Babelsberg and was Assistant Director with Sergej Gerassimov and Günter Reisch. After he finished his studies at the Academy, Seemann became a director for the DEFA studio. He made films for the cinema and for TV. Seemann often stars in minor roles, and beginning with Levin’s Mill (based on the novel Levins Mühle by Johannes Brobowski) he has also composed the music to his films. Horst Seemann died in January of 2000.
Hochzeitsnacht im Regen (Wedding Night in the Rain, 1966/67), Schüsse unterm Galgen (Shots Under the Gallows, 1967/68), Zeit zu leben (Time to Live, 1969), Liebesklärungen an G.T. (Explaining Love to G.T., 1970/71), Beethoven – Tage aus einem Leben (Beethoven – Days in a Life, 1976), Hotel Polan und seine Gäste (Hotel Polan and its Guests, 1982), and others as assistant-director and in collaboration.
Bobrowski, Johannes. Levin’s Mill: a novel. Trans. Janet Cropper. London; New York: M. Boyars; New York: Distributed in the U.S. by Kampmann, 1988, c1964
- - - . Levins Mühle: 34 Sätze über meinen Großvater. Roman. Frankfurt [Main]: S. Fischer,1964.
Fox, Thomas C. Stated Memory: East Germany and the Holocaust. Rochester [NY]: Camden House, 1999. 116-117.
Mead, Matthew. 1971.
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