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

Sterne (Stars)

1959, East Germany (DEFA) and Bulgarian Co-Production, b/w, 92 min. Feature
Dir.: Konrad Wolf
Script:
Angel Wagenstein
Dramaturge: Willi Brückner
Camera:
Werner Bergmann
Editing: Christa Wernicke

Music:
Simeon Pironkow
Cast:
Jürgen Frohriep (Walter), Sascha Kruscharska (Ruth), Stefan Pejtschew, Erik S. Klein (Kurt), Ivan Kondow (Ruth's father), Stiljan Kunew (the camp doctor).
16mm, English subtitles
- renting information
 

Described by director Konrad Wolf as a Romeo and Juliet story for the modern age, Stars questions human conscience and personal responsibility in a love story between a German corporal and a Greek Jewish teacher.

Plot Summary
Commentary
About the Director
Wolf's Major Films
Selected Reviews
Related Reading

Plot Summary

Set in a small Bulgarian village in 1943, Walter, an artist before becoming a corporal, and his friend and superior officer, Kurt (Erik S. Klein of the Berliner Ensemble), live an almost idyllic life far away from the war—until a train pulls in and a transit camp is set up for a group of Greek Jews, who will be transported to Auschwitz in days.

Ruth asks the German corporal to assist a woman in danger of dying in childbirth. At first Walter refuses, but then changes his mind and sends a doctor into the camp. During a series of nightly meetings they fall in love when, moved by Ruth’s dignity and unrelenting hope, Walter questions his complacency. He contacts Bulgarian partisans in search of help for Ruth’s escape, but he is too late. His plan is thwarted by his friend and superior office, Kurt. Walter is helpless as he watches the departing train—Ruth and her imprisoned companions are taken to their certain death in Auschwitz. The experience changes him, however, and he gets involved with the Bulgarian resistance.

Commentary

The title alludes to both the star of David used to mark a people’s fate, and the stars of the night sky as symbols of hope. This, and especially the portrayal of Bulgarian collaboration with a soldier in Hitler’s army, touched cultural and political taboos established by Marxist-Leninist conventions. Attaining the conventional was not in the minds of the international team of filmmakers who set out to make this antifascist masterpiece.

While on vacation in Bulgaria in 1956, Konrad Wolf’s dramaturge, Willi Brückner, met with Bulgarian filmmakers, who expressed their desire to work together with filmmakers at DEFA. By the end of the year, Angel Wagenstein, a Bulgarian Jew (who later adapted Feuchtwanger’s Goya to the screen), sent his screenplay to Potsdam. Wolf was eager to work with him and other friends he made while at the film academy in Moscow, particularly on a film of this theme. Wolf also welcomed the collaboration of Spanish artist José Sanchez, whose detailed storyboard provided the foundation for every shot in the film.

The international effort is ever-present in Stars: the Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino, the Bulgarians Bulgarian and the Germans German; the German corporal spoke broken Bulgarian to the local partisans. The well-known Yiddish song S’brent (Es brennt) by Mordechai Gebirtig is featured in the title sequence. This film established Konrad Wolf’s international repute.

Vital to understanding both the film’s narrative and its production history is the fact that the Bulgarians demanded their Parliament and King defy the German order to deport the Bulgarian Jews, thereby saving nearly 50,000 people, despite the German occupation.

Stars distribution history is a testament to Cold War politics. The first DEFA/Bulgarian co-production, it received prizes in Edinburgh and Vienna, and won the Special Jury Prize at the 1959 Cannes film festival but had to be billed as Bulgarian because of the Hallstein Doctrine—a measure used by Bonn to deny the status of the GDR as an independent state by simply not recognizing its existence. Yet Stars’ critical acclaim interested West Germans in showing the film in their cinemas, but demanded the final scenes indicating the German corporal’s future involvement in the communist resistance be removed. The copy we offer here is in its uncut, originally intended form.

In a survey conducted by Deutsche Kinemathek of Berlin, film critics, historians, and filmmakers listed Stars as among the 100 most important German movies in history.

About the Director

Friedrich Wolf was a dramatist and activist whose pro-choice drama Cyankali remains a landmark pre-Nazi film on the abortion debate. His son, Konrad Wolf, filmed his father's exile drama Professor Mamlock, while his brother, Markus, became the GDR's head of international espionage. On October 20, 1925 Konrad Wolf was born in Hechingen. His father, Friedrich Wolf, was a prominent doctor as well as a writer, known especially for his antifascist activism. Because of Friedrich Wolf’s political activities, the family went into exile in 1934. In March of that year, they settled in Moscow. Konrad and his brother Markus attended the German Karl-Liebknecht-School in Moscow. In 1936 the Wolf family became citizens of the Soviet Union.

In December of 1942, at 17 years of age, Konrad voluntarily enlisted in the Red Army. In January he was sent to the front, where he served primarily as an interpreter. He took part in the liberation of Warsaw in 1945 and was later awarded the Red Star for his military service. After the war, Wolf worked for the Berliner Zeitung as a reporter for local news and also became co-founder of DEFA. In 1954 Wolf began his career as a director with DEFA. Over the course of this career, he directed numerous films and became internationally renowned for his work, especially for his antifascist films.

Wolf took over the position of President of the Academy of Arts in 1965, a post that he held for 17 years. He died on March 7, 1982 before completing his final film Busch singt. He received numerous awards for his filmmaking, such as the Karlovy Vary Grand Prize for Lissy in 1957, the Special Prize of the Jury at Cannes 1959 for Sterne, and the Prize for the Arts of the Society for German-Soviet Friendship for Sonnensucher and Ich war neunzehn in 1975.

Wolf's Major Films

Einmal ist keinmal (Once is Never, 1954/55), Genesung (Recovery, 1956), Lissy (Lissy, 1957), Sonnensucher (Sunseekers, 1958), Sterne (Stars, 1959), Professor Mamlock (Professor Mamlock, 1961), Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven, 1963/64), Der kleine Prinz (The Little Prince, 1966), Ich war neunzehn (I Was Nineteen, 1968), Goya (Goya, 1971), Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (The Naked Man in the Stadium, 1974), Mama, ich lebe (Mama, I’m Alive, 1977), Solo Sunny (Solo Sunny, 1980), Busch singt (Busch Sings, 1982).

Selected Reviews

Gordon, Eric. “Old Stars Still Shine.” Jewish Currents Feb. 1995.

“Mit Authentizität.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 15 July 1960.

Mollenschott, Ellen. “Sterne / Der erste deutsch-bulgarische Gemeinschaftsfilm.” Neues Deutschland 29 Mar. 1959: 6.

“Stars.” Bloomsbury 1988: 527.

“Sterne.” Variety 13 May 1959, vol. 10.

Related Reading

Bar-Zohar, Michael. Beyond Hitler’s Grasp. The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews. Avon, MA: Adams Media Corp., 1998.

Byg, Barton. “Konrad Wolf: “From Anti-Fascism to Gegenwartsfilm.” Studies in GDR Culture and Society 5: Selected Papers from the Tenth New Hampshire Symposium on the German Democratic Republic. Ed. Margy Gerber. (1985): 115-124.

Coulson, Anthony. “Paths of Discovery: the Films of Konrad Wolf.” DEFA: East German Cinema, 1946-1992. Eds. Seán Allan and John Sandford. New York and London: Berghahn, 1999. 164-182.

Fox, Thomas C. “Berlin, Moscow, and the Imagined Jerusalem: The Holocaust in East German Literature and Film.” Stated Memory: East Germany and the Holocaust. Rochester [NY]: Camden House, 1999. 97-144, [Sterne, 113-116].

Kasjanowa, Ludmilla, and Anatoli Karawaschkin. “Von Sternen, die im Schmutz versanken.” Begegnungen mit Regisseuren. Berlin: Henschel, 1974. 171-76.

Koch, Gertrud. “On the Disappearance of the Dead Among the Living – The Holocaust and the Confusion of Identities in the Films of Konrad Wolf.” New German Critique 60 (Fall 1993): 57-75.

Schwalbe, Konrad. “Sterne (1959). Um den Anspruch auf Leben, Liebe, über Vaterlandsverräter, Kameradenmörder.” Konrad Wolf. Neue Sichten auf seine Filme. Beiträge zur Film- und Fernsehwissenschaft 39.31 (1990): 65-71.

Silberman, Marc. “Remembering History: The Filmmaker Konrad Wolf.” New German Critique 49 (Winter 1990): 163-191.

Wolf, Konrad. “Sterne: meine erste Koproduktion. Interview für Iskusstwo kino, November 1958.” Konrad Wolf. Direkt in Kopf und Herz. Aufzeichnungen, Reden, Interviews. Ed. Anne Renk. Berlin: Henschel, 1989.

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Jessica Hale