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
Der Rat der Götter (Council of the Gods)
1950, East Germany (DEFA),
b/w, 111 min. Feature
Council of the Gods, based on actual events, tells the story of I.G. Farben, a colossal German industrial corporation that helped supply Hitler’s war effort and manufactured the gas used in the Nazi death chambers. Using Nuremberg Trial records, this alarming film deals with the complicity of big business on both sides of the conflict and of scientists whose research contributed to the deaths of millions.
Chairman Mauch presides over I.G. Farben’s Board of Directors, a team of high-minded industrialists that refers to itself as the “Council of the Gods.” Renowned for advances in chemicals, fuel production, and synthetics, I.G. Farben and its “Council” are courted by Hitler as he maneuvers for control of Germany and prepares for war. Chairman Mauch and the Council agree that, regardless of Hitler’s politics, his plans for war will bring them untold wealth and worldwide market dominance. Meanwhile, the chemist Dr. Hans Scholz is a successful and diligent researcher at I.G. Farben. One day, Dr. Scholz is brought to witness the gassing of lab animals with chemicals he developed. Dr. Scholz is stunned, yet believes his superiors when they say that Zyklon gas is only a pesticide. Even after finding Zyklon canisters marked for shipment to concentration camps, Dr. Scholz denies that his research is being used to kill Jews and other prisoners.
At the end of World War II the members of the Council are behind bars awaiting trial at Nuremberg. Before the tribunal, they point their fingers at each other and then at Dr. Scholz, who accepts partial responsibility for the millions who died in gas chambers. Some defendants even call for the prosecution of America’s Standard Oil Company, which did business with I.G. Farben during the early war years and perhaps later. In the end, Chairman Mauch, Dr. Scholz, and most of the others face little if any punishment. But Dr. Scholz goes on to campaign against the use of science for the purposes of war, such as in continuing research in I.G. Farben in explosives labs. His cause captures the attention of the public after a tragic explosion involving rocket fuel claims the lives of I.G. Farben workers. Dr. Scholz is redeemed when he ultimately finds the courage to publicly condemn Chairman Mauch as someone who continues to profit from death.
The script for Council of the Gods was co-authored by acclaimed writers Friedrich Wolf of Germany and Phillip Gecht of Russia. Scriptwriting began very shortly after the verdicts at Nuremberg were delivered on July 30, 1948. In an interview years later, Gecht said of the film’s conception:
“We have an obligation to tell the viewers how wars are made, how they arise, who has an interest in waging them … do they really arrive from the heavens on high as some people still believe? … After the Soviet Army had worked through the mountains of material on I.G. Farben, and they allowed me to take a look into various restricted files, I busied myself with thoughts of making a movie about this case. I spoke about it with Friedrich Wolf, a dramatist with whom I had been friends for many years. He was enthusiastic about the project, and so we began working on it” (Kannapin 1997, 115).
The filmmakers sought to portray the longstanding and unbroken history of dubious ethics among I.G. Farben’s leadership, to bring to light the cooperation between German industry and U.S. corporations, and to question uses of science. Indeed, their purpose is encapsulated in Dr. Scholz’s final lines: “That is the truth, the entire truth, and no one should say from this day forward they did not know it.” Maetzig grasped the very contemporary theme of scientists taking responsibility for their research - as Bertoldt Brecht had done in The Life of Galileo (1938). Dr. Scholz’s journey is from one of perceived political neutrality and detachment to one of social responsibility and involvement. Many scientists who worked for the benefit of the Nazis during the war used the advancement of science and their isolation as researchers to excuse the horrific applications of their work.
The screenplay for Council of the Gods drew heavily from the trial protocols and from the book I.G. Farben by American author, Richard Sasuly. Sasuly had chaired the Kilgore-Committee, which investigated I.G. Farben on behalf of the American military, and his book was based largely on his own experiences (Maetzig and Agde 1987, 69).
Following the film’s creation, I.G. Farben’s Board of Directors had little trouble identifying their on-screen personae. Carl Krauch became Chairman Mauch, Max Ilgner became Herr Tilgner and so on (Kannapin 1997, 117). Yet the film’s depiction of I.G. Farben’s Nazi ties deviates from widely-accepted accounts to the extent that the film risks over-emphasizing Hitler’s dependence on the company. Concerning I.G. Farben’s financial support of the Nazi party, the movie neglects to inform the viewers that I.G. Farben contributed money to each of the non-socialist political parties, and yet, just as the verdicts for the Nuremberg trials were being announced, another event was garnering headlines. On July 28, 1948 in the German town of Ludwisghafen, an explosion at the BASF factory killed 280 people and seriously injured nearly four thousand others. Wolf and Gecht knew that this event must be incorporated into the film’s final scenes. Indeed, so did the ruling party of the German Democratic Republic (Socialist Unity Party, Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED), and the DEFA management, who felt that “the film must be produced as quickly as possible” (Kannapin 1997, 115).
The original documentary footage used in the film is from Nazi news broadcasts and Soviet archives. Paul Bildt, the veteran actor who portrayed Chairman Mauch, had himself appeared in Nazi propaganda films earlier in his career. The score for the film was written by Hanns Eisler, a modernist composer who had worked together with Brecht (Kuhle Wampe, 1932), Theodor W. Adorno, Fritz Lang and Alain Resnais (Night and Fog, 1955). Eisler was in exile in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s but returned to Germany in 1949 as a result of suspicion by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
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.
Ehe im Schatten (Marriage in the Shadows, 1947), 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).
Allan, Séan and John Sandford, eds. DEFA: East German Cinema, 1946-1992. New York: Berghahn, 1999. 66-67.
Billstein, Reinhold, Karola Fings, Anita Kugler and Nicholas Levis. Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors and Forced Labor in Germany during the Second World War. New York: Berghahn, 2000.
Brady, Martin. “Discussion with Kurt Maetzig.” DEFA: East German Cinema, 1946-1992. Eds. Seán Allan and John Sandford. New York: Berghahn, 1999. 77-92.
Kannapin, Detlef. “Der Rat der Götter.” Antifaschismus im Film der DDR. 1946-1955/56. Köln: PapyRossa, 1997. 111-132.
Müller, Herman. “Keiner soll sagen, er habe es nicht gewußt.” Neues Deutschland 13 May 1950.
Sasuly, Richard. I.G. Farben. New York: Boni & Gaer, 1947.
Schenk, Ralf, ed. Das zweite Leben der Filmstadt Babelsberg: DEFA-Spielfilme 1946-1992. Berlin: Henschel, 1994. 60-61.
Seidel, Gabriel, ed. Deutschlandbilder Filmreihe. Berlin: Graficpress; Fremde der deutscher Kinemathek e.V., 1997. 78-79.
United States. Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals. “The I.G. Farben Case.” Vol 7. Washington: 1953.
Zweig, Arnold. “Enthüllter Rat der Götter.” Neues Deutschland 7 May 1950.
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