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

Nackt unter Wölfen (Naked Among Wolves)

1963, East Germany (DEFA), b/w, 124 min. Feature
Director: Frank Beyer
Script: Bruno Apitz, Frank Beyer, Willi Schafer
Camera: Günter Marczinkowksy
Editing: Hildegard Conrad
Music: Joachim Werzlau
Cast:
Gerry Wolff (Bochow), Erwin Geschonneck (Krämer), Herbert Köfer (SS-Officer), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Höfel), Krzysztyn Wójcik (Kopinski), Hans-Hartmut Krüger (Riomand), Albert Zahn (Runki), Jan Prohahn (Kodiczek), Bruno Apitz (Old Man), Jürgen Strauch (child).
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Set just prior to the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, Naked Among Wolves is the true story of the male prisoners who risked their lives to hide a small Jewish boy from their Nazi captors. Based on Bruno Apitz’s famous autobiographical novella (1958), this movie became a DEFA film of international renown.

Plot Summary
Commentary
About the Director
Beyer's Major Films
Related Reading

Plot Summary

Jankowski, a Polish prisoner from Auschwitz, arrives at the Buchenwald concentration camp carrying a suitcase. Inside the suitcase is a small Jewish boy he has kept from harm. Once at Buchenwald, prisoners working in the property storage room discover the child. Although the sight of the innocent child moves many, his presence in the camp endangers the work of the camp’s communist underground, who have organized a resistance group. With a heavy heart, some men decide to arrange for the child and Jankowski to be transported to another death camp. As liberation of the camp approaches, the prisoners must come together to keep the young boy safe from their Nazi captors.

Commentary

Naked Among Wolves is based on a true story memorialized in a widely-translated autobiographical novel by Bruno Apitz (1958). The book proved a bestseller in the German Democratic Republic, a fact that surprised government officials who insisted that East Germany had already confronted the Nazi past and had since moved beyond it (Wischnewski 1995, 174). The book’s success was a “seismographic record for the inner consciousness of many people in [the GDR]” (Wischnewski 1995, 175) and it won Apitz the National Prize of the GDR in October 1958.

Following the success of the novel and a subsequent television production, DEFA bought the rights to Naked Among Wolves and quickly enlisted Wolfgang Langhoff, director of the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, to bring the story to the silver screen. Langhoff himself had been imprisoned by the Nazis and had published an account of his ordeal, entitled Die Moorsoldaten (Soldiers of the Moor, 1935). Yet Langhoff’s schedule proved too busy to accommodate the production, and Frank Beyer was assigned in his place (Beyer, 2001: 108). Frank Beyer, the film’s director, initially resisted the offer to undertake production of a film version out of concern that his career had largely focused too often on the issue of antifascism (see Fünf Patronenhülsen and Königskinder) (Beyer 2001, 108). Yet in reading Apitz’s book for the first time, Beyer became fascinated by the story, especially the conflict that arose among the prisoners between keeping the boy safe and carrying out their plans to mount an armed resistance against their SS guards. These men were forced to decide between two probabilities: that the child and his guardian might not survive the rigors of transport to another camp and subsequent internment, or that the pair and their fellow prisoners might be shot by Buchenwald guards before the American forces liberate the camp. As the movie progresses, the fate of the child is further bound to the fate of the camp (Beyer 2001, 113).

Some scholars such as Thomas Fox believe that Naked Among Wolves “provides a paradigmatic example of anti-Semitism as a peripheral phenomenon, one subordinate to class struggle” (Fox 1999, 103). He notes that neither Apitz nor Beyer draw attention to the Jewishness of the characters in question so that Jewish identity is downplayed to emphasize ideology. In his own defense, Beyer writes that the “illegal International Camp Committee,” the resistance group portrayed in the film, was remarkable in the willingness of its members to unite as one despite varied nationalities and languages (Beyer 2001, 111).

Both Apitz and Beyer cooperated to convince DEFA star Erwin Geschonneck to accept the role of Krämer. Geschonneck had himself been imprisoned in several concentration camps: Sachsenhausen, Dachau (where he was a block elder), Neuengamme, and others. Geschonneck was initially reluctant to accept the role out of respect for the victims (Wischnewski 1995, 178). Filming began during the cold winter months of 1959/60 and took place on the grounds of the Buchenwald concentration camp, nearly fifteen years to the month after its liberation. For the role of the little boy, Beyer chose four year-old Jürgen Strauch, a neighbor’s child. Beyer was careful to establish trust with the child, and to make his time on the set seem like a game. The director used code words upon which little Jürgen would climb into the suitcase and pretend to sleep (Beyer 2001, 115-117). Beyer recollects how he filmed the final scene in which the prisoners run free from the camp:

“It was a hot and dusty summer day when we set about filming the scence in Buchenwald’s main square. We arranged for five hundred extras, and lay a long camera track. I had given up wondering how I was going to elicit tears from Jürgen. I only arranged so that the little one would not be around as we prepared the set. We thoroughly prepped for the scene. Geschonneck, as the badly-injured Krämer, had a small doll tucked under his arm in Jürgen’s place, as he ran with the other actors toward the gate. Then we were ready to film. The camera was turned on. The masses of prisoners ran free. Little Jürgen did not understand what was happening. He was frightened by the tumult of the screaming men, and he began to sniffle and cry without hesitation. We had the scene in the can …. I took Jürgen in my arms and quieted him. He just broke my heart (Beyer 2001, 116-117).”

Naked Among Wolves competed at the 1963 Moscow International Film Festival where it received a silver medal for Best Direction. During the Moscow film screening at the Kremlin Palace, two audience members recognized the story as that of Dr. Zacharias Zweig, a Polish-Jewish attorney now living in Tel Aviv, who survived Buchenwald with his son. Newspaper reporters from Berlin followed the lead and “found” the young boy from Buchenwald, Stefan Jerzy Zweig, by then twenty-three and living in Lyon as an engineering student. One year following the release of Naked Among Wolves, Stefan and his “Buchenwald fathers” were reunited for the first time since liberation. Stefan went on to study cinematography and even interned with Frank Beyer, the man that brought his story to the big screen. Today, Stefan Zweig lives as a cameraman in Isreal (Beyer 2001, 118-119).

Frank Beyer also reserved a role for Bruno Apitz in the film version. The author can be seen looking after the child, dancing with him following liberation, and then being overcome with joy in the final scenes (Müncheberg 1995, 183). Naked Among Wolves premiered in April 1963 and was seen by over 800,000 moviegoers, which represented a large turnout for the GDR (Wischnewski 1995, 177). The film was awarded the National Prize of the German Democratic Republic in 1963.

About the Director

Frank Beyer was born in Nobitz, Thuringia in 1932. After completing his Gymnasium studies in 1950, he became a member of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED, Socialist Unity Party of Germany). He began studying directing in 1952 at the famed Prague Film School (FAMU) with Milos Forman and other budding Czechoslovakian directors. It was during this time that he had the opportunity to assist important DEFA directors like Hans Müller, Kurt Maetzig and Kurt Jung-Alsen. After completing Zwei Mütter, his thesis film, Beyer began directing at the DEFA Studios in 1957.

His early films dealt mainly with antifascist topics. In 1963 he directed the first DEFA feature film to portray life in a concentration camp, Nackt unter Wölfen (Naked among Wolves). Though Beyer was a party member whose philosophy was primarily in line with that of the SED, his film Spur der Steine (Trace of Stones, 1966) was banned by GDR state officials for being “politically inappropriate” and was not shown again until 1989. This was a tragic blow to Beyer’s career as a filmmaker, and because he would not confess to having made an “inappropriate” film, he was not welcome to continue making films for DEFA. He resorted to directing plays in a Dresden theater and to making television films throughout the early 70s.

His return to DEFA came in 1974 with Jakob der Lügner (Jacob the Liar), which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film at the Academy Awards in 1977. Geschlossene Gesellschaft, Beyer’s 1978 TV movie, led to another split with DEFA; as a result, he directed two films in West Germany before returning to DEFA in 1982. Since DEFA’s dissolve he continues to work primarily on films for television that take a socially critical stance, such as Ende der Unschuld and Nikolaikirche. His most recent project is Abgehauen, a biographical film about the East German actor Manfred Krug. Beyer is known for directing some of the most powerful and historically significant films at DEFA.

Beyer's Major Films

Zwei Mütter (Two Mothers, 1957), Eine alte Liebe (An Old Love, 1959), Fünf Patronenhülsen (Five Cartridges 1960), Königskinder (And Your Love Too, 1962), Nackt unter Wölfen (Naked Among Wolves, 1963), Karbid und Sauerampfer (Carbide and Sorrel, 1963), Spur der Steine (Trace of Stones, 1966), Das Versteck (The Hiding Place, 1977), Geschlossene Gesellschaft (Closed Society, 1978), Die zweite Haut (The Second Skin, 1981), Der Aufenthalt (The Turning Point, 1982), Bockshorn (Ram’s Horn, 1983), Der Bruch (The Break, 1988), Ende der Unschuld (End of Innocence, 1991), Der Verdacht (The Suspicion, 1991), Nikolaikirche (Nikolai Church, 1995), Abgehauen (1998).

Related Reading

Apitz, Bruno. Nackt unter Wölfen. Halle [GDR]: Mitteldeutschen Verlag, 1958.

 

Beyer, Frank. Wenn der Wind sich dreht. München: Econ Verlag, 2001. 108-119.

 

Fox, Thomas C. Stated Memory: East Germany and the Holocaust. Rochester [NY]: Camden House, 1999. 103-104.

 

Hochschule für Film- und Fernsehkunst der DDR. Berlin: Henschel, 1979. 332-334.

 

Müncheberg, Hans. “Vom Bildschirm ins Kino. Noch einmal zum Nackt unter Wölfen. 1963.” Regie: Frank Beyer. Ed. Ralf Schenk. Berlin: Edition Hentrich, 1995. 180-183.

 

Wischnewski, Klaus. “Die bittere Aktualität. Nackt unter Wölfen. 1963.” Regie: Frank Beyer. Ed. Ralf Schenk. Berlin: Edition Hentrich, 1995. 174-179.

 

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