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
1949, East Germany (DEFA),
b/w, 84 min. Feature
Rotation follows the fate of a “typical” worker from the final years of the Weimar Republic until the end of the Third Reich. While the film paints a portrait of blue-collar life in Germany and the seductive power of Nazism, it also incriminates the common apolitical Germans who benefited from the system, yet did nothing to fight it.
Hans Behnke needs a job. As a first-time father, he wants badly to be able to move from the damp basement flat he shares with his wife and his young son, Hellmuth. While Hans searches for work amidst the unemployment crisis of the early 1930s, he worries about providing for his family. Shortly after the Nazis rise to power in 1933, Hans finds work at a newspaper press. Like many Germans, Hans benefits from the economic reforms established under Hitler, yet he wishes to remain apolitical and uninvolved in the tumultuous political unrest of the day. Before long, the pressure on Hans to join the Nazi Party grows. At work, he is denied promotions and threatened with dismissal; at home, he receives intimidating visits from local Party affiliates. Hans finally agrees to join the Nazi party in the hope that it will protect his career and family. Later, when Hans’ communist brother-in-law appeals to him to help in the underground movement against Hitler, Hans reluctantly agrees. But soon thereafter, young Hellmuth finds anti-Nazi leaflets hidden at home, and he is compelled to report his father to the authorities. Hans is sent to prison; Hellmuth is sent into combat and taken prisoner of war. After the war, father and son reunite, both ridden with guilt for in various ways having failed one another. Hans accepts responsibility for his son's Nazi indoctrination and subsequent betrayal, but he compels Hellmuth to actively resist Nazism in the future.
“How did the Germans become guilty?” This is a question that director Wolfgang Staudte attempted to answer in the making of Rotation, his second postwar film. “[Germans] wanted to live apolitically in a political space. I wanted the example of Hans Behnke’s character to demonstrate the political struggles and the world outlook of the common German worker at that time … Both films, Rotation and The Murderers Are among Us, belong together; both were necessary to the inner debate with the Hitler era” (Mückenberger and Jordan 1994, 113). While discussing the nature of responsibility and complicity of common Germans within a family, Staudte also introduced a character who would become the model for future East German films on antifascism: Hans’ brother-in-law, the communist resistance fighter, Kurt Blank. Although Kurt remains on the periphery of the story, he argues “clairvoyantly” of the coming dangers of Nazi rule and pleads with Hans to join him in the communist resistance. Later DEFA films, such as Council of the Gods (Der Rat der Götter, 1950) and The Axe of Wandsbek (Das Beil von Wandsbek, 1951), also include communist characters who appeal to the moral conscience of the protagonists to fight against Nazi crimes and mass indoctrination. Their beleaguered appeals, as in real life, were unsuccessful at preventing Nazi rule. Their presence in these films, however, had several effects: to first place communists on higher moral ground than other Germans, secondly, to then indicate that a society of communists such as the GDR is necessarily antifascist, whereas the West is not, and thirdly, to prevent Germans from arguing that the crimes of the Third Reich were entirely unforeseeable. It is interesting to note that such a character also exists in the film Marriage in the Shadows (Ehe im Schatten, 1947), but is not identified as a communist. Kurt Bernstein, who pleads unsuccessfully with the main character to escape from Germany, is Jewish.
Rotation premiered in Germany’s Soviet-occupied zones in September 1949 and was the most expensive production to date for East Germany’s fledgling DEFA Studios. Prior to the film’s release, the DEFA management and its Soviet advisors required the director, Wolfgang Staudte, to change the ending of the film. Originally, Staudte intended to portray father and son Behnke burning Hellmuth’s soldier’s uniform, with Hans saying to his son, “That’s the last uniform you will ever wear” (Mückenberger 1997, 22). The scene, however, was the subject of much debate among studio executives, and the line was omitted. Sepp Schwab, DEFA Studios then new Director, further insisted that Staudte qualify Rotation’s seemingly anti-authoritarian conclusion with Hans’s character telling Hellmuth that it depends on which uniform he is asked to wear, and that one should always be willing to take up arms to fight oppression. Schwab reasoned that since the East Germans and their Soviet occupiers were in the process of organizing a new police force (Volkspolizei), such pacifist imagery would prove a major political liability. The new ending, which took Staudte six months to perfect, shows two young people, Hans’s son and his girlfriend Inge, optimistically looking to the future. Another censored scene includes a short dialogue between Hans and his co-workers concerning the 1939 Berlin Olympics. The dialogue was to be followed by excerpts from Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Olympia, which depicted the entrance march of the athletes, and was used as Nazi propaganda. Staudte intended to show that Hans’s decision to become a Nazi was partially influenced by the worldwide recognition of the Nazi regime. Soviet cultural authorities worried that Rotation’s recognition of “tacit international approval” for the Nazis, which existed to some extent prior to the outbreak of war, could be seen as an apology for national socialism (Silberman, ICESTORM). All told, the editorial disputes between Staudte and his censors drove the director to leave the studios for a year before returning to film Der Untertan (The Kaiser’s Lackey, 1951) (Mückenberger 1997, 22).
The most striking scene of Rotation depicts the drowning of hundreds of people in a Berlin subway tunnel after a bombing raid. This was a historical occurrence and, though shot in a studio, it looked so authentic that many viewers mistook it for documentary footage. On many levels, the scene depicted the entrapment and drowning of passive Germans under Nazism as well as the suffocation Hans experienced from imprisonment and his moral failures. Staudte also used documentary footage of the final battles of the Second World War from the Soviet film chronicle Berlin made in 1945 by director Juli Raisman. Unlike in his film debut The Murderers Are among Us, Staudte used documentary footage in his second film to gain an objective perspective. While Dr. Mertens from The Murderers Are among Us is shown in psychological detail as an individual broken by the war, Rotation sees Hans Behnke situated in a historical perspective where he, like so many others, failed to assume responsibility in the hopes of preserving personal integrity.
In a survey conducted by Deutsche Kinemathek of Berlin, Staudte’s Rotation was ranked by film critics, historians, and others as among Germany’s 100 most important films.
Wolfgang Staudte was born the son of the actor Fritz Staudte and of the actress Mathilde Firmans on October 9, 1906 in Saarbrücken. The family moved to Berlin in 1912, and in 1923 Staudte began to study engineering in Oldenburg. By 1925 he had completed a practicum with Mercedes in Berlin and with Hansa-Werke in Varel. The following year, he performed for the Volksbühne in Berlin; he also took part in some of Reinhardt and Piscator’s productions with his father’s leftist theater company. Staudte began making film appearances in 1931; he was denied the right to perform on stage as of 1933, but he made short films and worked as a radio announcer for a children’s program. Through 1942 Staudte took on supporting roles in propaganda films. He then made his first short studio film, then his first full-length feature, Akrobat Schö-ö-ön. In the summer of 1946 he filmed Die Mörder sind unter uns, the first post-war German film; Staudte was originally with indifference about his project from officials in the Allied zones, so he made the film in the newly established DEFA studios.
As of 1955, Staudte was a member of the GDR’s Academy of the Arts. He was a prolific director who made films in both East and West Germany. In 1978 he filmed Zwischengleis, his last work for the cinema. Staudte died on January 19, 1984 while filming Der eiserne Weg, a five-part television film.
Akrobat Schö-ö-ön (1942/43), Der Mann, dem man den Namen stahl (1944), Die Mörder sind unter uns (1946), Rotation (1948/49), Der Untertan (1951), Die Geschichte vom kleinen Muck (1953), Ciske-de rat (1955), Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (1959), Zwischengleis (1978)
Brockmann, Stephen and Frank Trommler, eds. Revisiting Zero Hour 1945: The Emergence of Postwar German Culture. Washington: American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, 1996.
Byg, Barton. "The Antifascist Tradition and GDR Film." Proceedings of the Purdue University Fifth Annual Conference on Film West Lafayette, IN. Purdue UP, 1980, 81-87. Text available from the DEFA Film Library.
- - - . "Nazism as Femme Fatale: Recuperations of Cinematic Masculinity in Post War Berlin." Gender and Germanness: Cultural Productions of Nation. Eds. Patricia Herminghouse and Magda Müller. Providence and London: Berghahn, 1997. 176-188.
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. 21-22.
“Nicht originell, sondern wahr und nötig: DEFA-Filmtheater Kastanienallee mit Rotation eröffnet.” Neues Deutschland 18 Sep 1949.
Silbermann, Mark. “The Discourse of Powerlessness: Wolfgang Staudte’s Rotation.” German Cinema: Texts in Context. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1995. 99-113.
- - - . “Rotation (Wolfgang Staudte, 1949)”. Video supplement. ICESTORM International, 1999.
Stern, Frank. “Film in the 1950s. Passing Images of Guilt and Responsibility.” The Miracle Years: A Cultural History of West Germany 1949-1968. Ed. Hanna Schissler. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. 271-273.
Ziewer, Christian. “Last Words for Wolfgang Staudte (1984).” West German Filmmakers on Film: Visions and Voices. Ed. Eric Rentschler. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1988. 118-20.
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