Thursday, January 7, 2010

THE ADVENTURES OF WERNER HOLT: Germany's first filmed look at its Nazi past

One of if not the first German film to tackle the dicey and (at the time -- 1965 -- relatively recent) subject of what-
did-you-do-in-World-War-II, daddy?, THE ADVENTURES OF WERNER HOLT, directed by Joachim Kunert and co-
written by Kunert & Claus Küchenmeister (from the novel by Dieter Noll), proves a lengthy but fascinating and relatively entertaining tromp through German history of the late 30s and early-to-mid 40s.

That the film was made in and by the German Democratic Republic (known to us Americans for 41 years as that naughty, scary Communist state, East Germany) makes Werner Holt even more of a curio. Once the Berlin wall came down in 1989 and the "East" ceased to officially exist by the end of the following year, the two Germanys became one again. Over the ensuing years, the East German culture of those closed decades has become more apparent, as all sorts of goodies have arrived -- from the boffo dramedy Good-Bye Lenin, the rich and exciting escape drama The Tunnel and the Academy Award-winning Best Foreign Film The Lives of Others to an entire stash of East German film productions that have now seen the light of day in the USA.

This is due in part to the combined efforts of First Run Features (FRF), partnering with ICESTORM International, which has released Werner Holt to DVD. Since June 2001, in fact, this partnership has led to FRF becoming the exclusive North American home video distributor of the films of DEFA (Deutsche Filmaktiengesellschaft), the state-run studios of the former German Democratic Republic.

Headquartered at the legendary UFA Studios in the "film city" of Babelsberg near Berlin (famous for the work of such artists as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich), DEFA is where Oscar nominee Armin Mueller-Stahl began his career, along with many of Germany's leading contemporary actors, directors and technicians. (FRF tells us that fourteen DEFA films were recently named among the "100 Most Important German Films" of all time.) Spanning 1946 through the 1990s, these DEFA films represent Europe's largest cohesive national cinema collection.

So, what kind of film is The Adventures of Werner Holt? A Nazi Youth story filtered through the sieve of East Germany in the 1960s, it comes complete with men and women that appear both of the 1940s and the 60s, which makes for an interesting combination: armpit hair on the women, high-schoolers who looks like college grads and a very European attitude toward sex and sensuality.

The film begins at nearly the end of WWII -- as the Russians and Americans are drawing ever closer to the heart of Germany, with German soldiers deserting en masse-- and finds Werner looking back on his school days and military service and at the events that have brought him to the present moment. Throughout, the film concentrates on Werner and his closest male pals; women are given but brief encounters, the longest of which is devoted to the stepmother of one of those pals, with whom Werner begins an affair. Before joining the military he falls for a blond bombshell who does not want her young man to go off to war. He does, of course, promptly becoming involved with that stepmother. Later he'll bond with a transplanted young woman, shown below, but again, the relationship is barely developed.

Sex and sin are seen but briefly and haltingly -- this was East Germany, remember, and nowhere near as "free" as Europe and the West: note the arty-farty shadows on the wall, reflections in a photo frame, and plenty of expressionistic touches, among the typically skewed views. Yet it works rather well, for its time-frame.

The title of the film is ironic, of course. It must be. "Adventures" -- when we're dealing with Hilter Youth and the concentration camps? The latter are are touched on here, but of course, the general German populace, not to mention the soldiers themselves, can't believe that anything like this could be possible. Still, the word "adventures" primes us for something like a Nazi version of Tom Jones. But little in the film, until its finale (shown above), seems particularly ironic or humorous. At that point, however, the ironies pile up like a multi-car highway accident.

At nearly three hours, the movie is certainly long but seldom uninteresting. And the scene toward the end, when Werner and his small, bedraggled crew discover the results of an SS visit to a small local town, is riveting -- even without the usual visual gore that would accompany such a scene were the film to be made today. The cast is well chosen and delivers on its promise: Klaus-Peter Thiele, above, makes a fine, troubled Werner, and he is aided by Manfred Karge, Günter Junghans, Peter Reusse and the late Arno Wyzniewski.

The film is available for sale by FRF or Amazon (wow-- FRF's price is cheaper than that of Amazon!), and for rental at Netflix.

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