Levins Mühle © DEFA-Stiftung, Dieter Jaeger
In a small village in West Prussia in the 1870s, Germans, Poles, Gypsies and Jews live together as neighbors. One night Johann, a German mill-owner, secretly opens the dam gates and floods the mill of his Jewish rival Levin. After his business is ruined and his calls for justice go unanswered, Levin leaves town.
But Johann's life also changes for the worse. A circus comes to the town and performs a re-enactment of Johann’s attack on Levin’s mill. In a carnivalesque episode, circus performers and respectable villagers join together in solidarity, overcoming national differences in moral condemnation of Johann.
The superbly cast film is based on the novel Levins Mühle: 34 Sätze über meinen Großvater by Johannes Bobrowski, which has been translated into English as Levin's Mill by Janet Cropper.
The novel Levin's Mill by the prominent East German author Johannes Bobrowski addresses the central themes of his work as a whole, namely German guilt, particularly in ethnically diverse, northeastern Europe. Bobrowski was born in 1917 in Tilsit, East Prussia. Boyhood visits to his grandfather's farm across the border in Lithuania, introduced him to a socially heterogeneous area with a large proportion of Jews. As Matthew Mead remarks, Bobrowski "is always a poet of the borderland where frontiers, so clearly drawn on the map, are to be seen only as guesses at some ghostlier demarcation. The accident of geography influences his work in many ways: past and present are defined by no neat division, the dead speak to the living, the living speak with the tongues of the dead, the stranger enters and is no stranger" (Mead 1971, 8).
Bobrowski presents Levin's Mill as the story of how the narrator's grandfather "swept away the mill," thus situating both author and narrator as heir to the bigoted and aggressive actions of the German nationalist, Johann. The non-Jewish Bobrowski takes responsibility for openly confronting the transgressions of Germans with respect to the people of the east. Set in the 1870s, the story evokes Prussian policy in Eastern Europe in relation to the dream-sequence incursions of the Teutonic Knights into the east; published in 1964, it inevitable critiques Nazi policy as well.
This point was bluntly addressed by director Horst Seemann who wrote in that the story "depicts the latent fascism of efforts to Germanize the eastern provinces of the German Empire where, for over one hundred years, National Socialist ways of thinking, contempt for Slavs and Jehovah's Witnesses, and anti-Semitism had existed." As Thomas Fox points out, the film's unremitting emphasis upon Levin as a passive victim who is helpless without his allies, recalls older, politically-orthodox East German representations of anti-Semitism (1999, p. 117).
At the same time, Seemann's film asserted a more contemporary and critical position with respect to the role of art and the artist. Stylistically, he rejected socialist realist conventions in order to capture the nuances of the novel. A contemporary review of the film noted that Seemann captured "the unique musicality of Bobrowski's language," translating it into images and music. Indeed, Seemann wrote that he "really concerned himself with the folk music of these eastern regions . . . and used original selections in places. For the feature song ‘Great Waters Have Come' I worked outwards from Bobrowski's own words in order to find the melody." But perhaps even more striking is the radically subversive role Seemann attributed to the imagination, art and music in the film, be it in the hands of Habedank, Weissmantel or Josepha. It is not by chance that the film's final shot is of the artist Philippi refusing to leave Johann in peace.
|Special Prize for Engagement aginst Intolerance and Chauvinism (Horst Seemann), National Feature Film Festival, Karl-Marx-Stadt