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

Ehe im Schatten (Marriage in the Shadows)

1947, East Germany, b/w, 105 min. 
Director: Kurt Maetzig
Kurt Maetzig, Hans Schweikart
Friedl Behn-Grund, Eugen Klagemann
Alice Ludwig
Wolfgang Zeller
Ilse Steppat (Elisabeth Wieland), Paul Klinger (Hans Wieland), Alfred Balthoff (Kurt Bernstein), Claus Holm, Lothar Firmans, Karl Hellmer, Hans Leibelt, Willy Prager.
DVD-NTSC, English subtitles - renting information

Marriage in the Shadows was the first postwar German film to explicitly address the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. A heartbreaking account of the true story of Meta Baer Gottschalk and her husband Joachim, this film called on Germans to accept collective responsibility for the anti-Semitic crimes of the Third Reich.

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

Plot Summary

Set during the rise of the Nazi regime, Marriage in the Shadows is modeled after the tragic true story of Meta and Joachim Gottschalk. In the film, Elisabeth Maurer and Hans Wieland enjoy successful careers as actors in Berlin; Elisabeth in particular is adored by the public. Confident in her career, Elisabeth, who is Jewish, ignores the advice of a colleague to leave Germany in the face of increasing anti-Semitism. When Nazi influence on the theater’s management grows, Elisabeth is forbidden from performing. Believing that he can protect her if she becomes his wife, Hans convinces Elisabeth to marry him. In the following years, as Hans’s career thrives, Elisabeth awaits the end of the Nazi terror which bars her from public life. When the situation worsens in 1938 with the Kristallnacht pogrom, Elisabeth decides to leave the country, but Hans, who still believes he can protect her, convinces her to stay with him. Eventually Elisabeth is scheduled to be deported; instead of accepting separation, the couple opts for a double suicide.


When Marriage in the Shadows premiered in 1947, the story of the Gottschalks and their legacy as performers were still well known to German audiences. During the 1930s and 40s, Joachim Gottschalk had been the leading man in numerous plays and feature films. Joachim’s high-profile marriage to the Jewish actress Meta Gottschalk eventually targeted the couple for persecution by the Nazis. Joachim was pressured by his studio (Universum Film-AG, UFA) to divorce Meta and separate from his young son, Michael; Joachim refused. The stardom and critical acclaim that had once blessed Joachim soon became a curse. Not willing to relinquish a star, UFA forbade him to break his contract, which kept Joachim and his marriage to Meta in the spotlight. Following the Nazis’ infamous Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938, the pressure on Joachim to leave his family became enormous. Friends of the couple did their best to persuade them to leave Germany, yet neither Joachim nor Meta wanted to flee. In April 1941, Meta risked her life to attend the premiere of her husband’s film Die schwedische Nachtigall (The Swedish Nightingale). Despite her attempts to keep a low profile there, she was introduced to Joseph Goebbels, Propaganda Minister of the Third Reich; within a month, Goebbels had declared Joachim Gottschalk “inadmissible in German film” and drafted him into the army. Not long thereafter, Meta and her son received notice that they were soon to be deported to a concentration camp. Left with no other escape, Joachim and Meta Gottschalk and their eight-year-old son Michael committed suicide on November 7, 1941. The Nazis suppressed news of the Gottschalks’ deaths, and the press was forbidden to mention Joachim ever again.

Six years later, following the end of the Second World War, Marriage in the Shadows premiered October 3, 1947 as the first postwar film to explicitly thematize the fate of the Jews during the Nazi period. Director Kurt Maetzig, whose own Jewish mother had committed suicide to avoid deportation by the Nazis, based the script on a novella by Hans Schweikart (Es wird schon nicht so schlimm, It Won’t Be So Bad). Schweikart was a personal friend of the Gottschalks. In an interview, Kurt Maetzig said:

“During the Nazi period, I experienced tragedies in my surroundings that came close to this fate. I did not know the Gottschalks myself, but I did know countless people who found themselves in circumstances similar to those of the Gottschalks. It was also my intention to accuse the people in the Wielands’ surroundings for their lack of civil courage and also sometimes merely for their indolent hearts. … It is impressed upon our minds never again to behave in such a manner and never again to allow such things to come to pass” (Jung 48).

Maetzig was intent on conveying the passivity of the Germans during the Third Reich and implicating them as common spectators in the crimes of the Nazis (Fox 1999: 110). In the film’s opening scenes, while Elisabeth is acting out a suicide from Schiller’s play Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love, 1784), Maetzig reveals the audience and the actors offstage as spectators in Elisabeth’s onstage suicide — an image that reflects his desire to assign a wider responsibility for her actual suicide. Later in the movie, Elisabeth herself becomes a spectator when she witnesses the terror of the Kristallnacht pogrom from behind her apartment windows. Maetzig creates the feeling of that of a captive observer through his use of windows and glass, a technique that furthers the theme of exposure and vulnerability. Following Kristallnacht, it is clear to Elisabeth that her passive resistance has failed her and that the friends she expected to “step forward” on her behalf will not do so. Maetzig carries the theme of the spectator until the film’s dramatic end where Elisabeth remains a passive observer of her own suicide. Elisabeth watches Hans through a mirror as he slips poison into their coffee, and with silent acceptance, she drinks the poison. Only seconds before her death, she tells Hans that she saw him do it, but by that time, it is too late for the couple to seek a different escape. Of the couple’s fate Maetzig has said, “I do not find the death of the couple only sad, but also tragic. If they were merely victims, it would be sad, but it is tragic because there was no longer a way out.”

On the issue of Elisabeth’s Jewishness, film scholar Robert Shandley wrote:

“The only sign of [Elisabeth’s] Jewishness is her sense of solidarity with the other Jewish characters. And, the portrayal of Jewishness in those characters is done through language, through names such as Bernstein and Silberman or through explicit statements about their situations” (Shandley, 2001: 87). “Her Jewishness functions as a means to turn the story into a struggle with which a greater part of the audience would more directly identify. It transforms a story with which spectators would have difficulty identifying into one that was an actuality in their lives. The victimization of Jews becomes identified (and therefore perhaps universalized) with the plight of women in a patriarchy struggling to assert themselves” (Shandley, 2001: 89).

Shandley also notes that “the build-up of the first thirty minutes [establishes] successfully the presumption that Elisabeth is the epitome of Teutonic beauty,” an approach intended to subtly surprise audiences with her Jewishness at a time when it was not certain how the German public would “respond… to the fate” of the film’s Jewish characters (Shandley, 2001: 86-87).

Marriage in the Shadows belongs to the genre of the Kammerspielfilm, in which the plot is represented as a private tragedy rather than as an example of large-scale social and political events (Mückenberger, 1997: 18). As with other German films of the immediate postwar period (see The Murderers Are among Us), Marriage avoids direct interpretation of the politics of the Nazis. Instead, the brutality of the regime is revealed through its destruction of individual lives and relationships. Maetzig focused his lens on the subjectivity of the Wielands’ plight; no documentary footage is interspersed as in The Murderers Are among Us or Council of the Gods (Mückenberger, 1997: 18). The psychology of the drama takes precedence over the criticism of Nazi dictatorship. Stylistically, Marriage in the Shadows is in keeping with the filmic tradition of the melodramas of the 1930s and 1940s, despite the fact that director Kurt Maetzig deliberately omitted the figure of the Gottschalks' son, Michael, so as not to make the film even more melodramatic. It is also interesting to note that the film’s composer also composed the soundtrack for the infamously anti-Semitic propaganda film Jud Süß (Jew Süss, 1940) – “a career path that was by no means untypical for German film composers of this time” (Mückenberger in Allan and Sandford, 1999: 65). According to Mückenberger, the film’s soundtrack as with other films of the era, proved to be the most “conservative” feature of the film. In spite of such ideological conflicts with the past, Marriage in the Shadows offered not only distraction from the hardships of everyday life, but also access to one of the darkest chapters of German history on an individual and personal level.

Marriage in the Shadows proved easily accessible to audiences, who were still grappling with the aftermath of the war. The Weltbühne wrote in 1947 “[…] when the curtains fell, the audiences left in silence and in shame. Yes, that was it: they were ashamed of themselves” (Schieber 2001, 37). The film proved to be DEFA's biggest success of the late 1940s and was awarded the new German “Bambi” media prize in 1948. Marriage in the Shadows opened on October 3, 1947 and was the only postwar film that premiered simultaneously in all four sectors of Berlin. Within a short time, it was seen by over ten million people (Mückenberger 1997, 18). The success of Marriage in the Shadows is partly attributable to its dramatic setting as a love story in the world of theatre, film and the glamorous artists’ milieu. Film critics, historians, and filmmakers have ranked Marriage in the Shadows among the 100 most important German films.

About the Director

Kurt Maetzig was born in Berlin-Charlottenburg on January 25, 1911. His father owned a publishing house and his mother came from a wealthy family of tea merchants from Hamburg and Denmark. Maetzig lived in Hamburg-Harvestehude with his grandmother during the First World War. After completing secondary school, he studied chemistry, business administration, and political economics in Munich. He also attended lectures at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1932 he began a series of internships with filmmakers. Maetzig completed his studies in Munich in 1935 with a degree in business and then worked for his father. In 1937 he was denied work by the Reichsfilmkammer because his mother, who had committed suicide after the Nuremberg Laws were issued, was Jewish. Maetzig worked as a specialist in film technology and photochemistry for a number of Berlin firms and eventually ran his own laboratory for photochemistry.

In 1944 Maetzig joined the underground German Communist Party; he was one of the members of the Filmaktiv involved in the founding of DEFA. He worked as a director, author, and speaker, and he also became DEFA’s artistic director in 1946. Maetzig was a member of the Academy of Arts of the GDR and became the first president of the newly founded Film Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg, where he was professor of film directing. In 1974 he became vice president of the International Federation of Film Societies, and was elected lifetime honorary president in 1979. From 1980 to 1986 he was the four-time president of the National Feature Film Festival of the GDR.

Maetzig's Major Films

Die Buntkarierten (Girls in Gingham, 1948/49), Der Rat der Götter (The Council of the Gods, 1949/50), Roman einer jungen Ehe (Story of a Young Couple, 1951/52), Ernst Thälmann - Sohn seiner Klasse (Ernst Thälmann - Son of the Working Class, 1954), Ernst Thälmann – Führer seiner Klasse (Ernst Thälmann Leader of the Working Class, 1955), Das Lied der Matrosen (Song of the Sailors, 1958), Das Kaninchen bin ich (The Rabbit Is Me, 1964/65), Mann gegen Mann (Man Against Man, 1975).

Related Reading

Blauert, Ellen, ed. Die Mörder sind unter uns; Ehe im Schatten; Die Buntkarierten; Rotation: 4 Filmerzählungen nach den bekannten DEFA-Filmen. Berlin [GDR]: Henschel, 1969.

Brady, Martin. “Discussion with Kurt Maetzig.” DEFA: East German Cinema, 1946-1992. Seán Allan and John Sandford, eds. New York: Berghahn, 1999. 77-92.

Fox, Thomas C. Stated Memory: East Germany and the Holocaust. Rochester [NY]: Camden House, 1999. 110-111.

Jung, Fernand. “Das Thema Antisemitismus am Beispiel des DEFA-Films Ehe im Schatten.” Nationalsozialismus und Judenverfolgung in DDR-Medien. Schiftenreihe Medien Beratung 4. Bonn: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 1997. 45-52.

Knuth, Gustav. “In memoriam Joachim Gottschalk.” …gelebt für alle Zeiten. Ed. Renate Seydel. Berlin: 1975. 273-277.

- - - . Mit einem Lächeln im Knopfloch. Frankfurt a.M.: 1976. 87.

Kracauer, Siegfried. “The Decent German: Film Portrait.” Commentary Jan 1949. 74-76.

Maetzig, Kurt, and Günter Jordan, eds. Filmarbeit. Gespräche, Reden, Schriften. Berlin [GDR]: Henschel, 1987. 35-58.

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. 17-18.

- - - , and Günter Jordan. 'Sie sehen selbst, Sie hören selbst...' Eine Geschichte der DEFA von ihren Anfängen bis 1949. Marburg: Hitzeroth, 1994. 73-85.

- - - . “The Antifascist Past in DEFA Films.” DEFA: East German Cinema, 1946-1992. Seán Allan and John Sandford, eds. New York: Berghahn, 1999. 58-75.

Pleyer, Peter. Deutscher Nachkriegsfilm. 1946-1948. Studien zur Publizistik. 4. Münster: C.J. Fahle, 1965. 73-75; 219-231.

Shandley, Robert. “Marriage in the Shadows: Melodrama as Critical History.” Rubble Films: German Cinema in the Shadow of the Third Reich. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2001. 81-90.

Schieber, Elke. “‘Vergesst es nie – Schuld sind sie!’ Zur Auseinandersetzung mit dem Völkermord an den Juden in Gegenwartsfilm der DEFA.” Cinematographie des Holocaust. Die Vergangenheit in der Gegenwart. Konfrontation mit den Folgen des Holocaust im deutschen Nachkriegsfilm. Frankfurt a.M.: Deutsches Filminstitut, 2001. 36-47.

“Von den Nazis in den Tod getrieben.” Berliner Zeitung 6 Nov. 2000.

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