A Little-Known Film Master, Kurt Maetzig

An extraordinary mensch, an extraordinary filmmaker who made extraordinary films and lived to the extraordinary age of 101, Kurt Maetzig, who died last week, was virtually unknown in the United States, indeed, in the western world generally.  The reason: he lived and worked in East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, whose films — many mediocre or less, some quite good, but not a few of them true masterworks — were almost totally ignored, indeed boycotted.  Maetzig was as much a part of this largely hidden story as anyone can get.  Of his twenty feature films, two stand out especially — one which has not been recognized enough, the other perhaps too much.

Born into a well-to-do Berlin family, Maetzig studied in Munich and the Sorbonne, got a doctor’s degree, and delved into the chemical side of filming.  When he was 22 the Nazis seized power — an early tragedy, for his mother was Jewish.  Bowing to pressure, his parents divorced, which meant that his mother eluded the train to Auschwitz only by taking her own life.  Kurt Maetzig, able to escape such a fate, was barred from film work.  He defied the Nazis by joining the underground Communist Party in 1944.

Within weeks of liberation he joined a cooperative to copy films for the Soviets.  But when US troops arrived, the shop was given to an owner who told Maetzig: “I can’t work with you.  You’re a Communist!”  The reply: “And I can’t work with you.  You’re a capitalist!”

Then the Soviets helped create the first post-war German film company, soon to be named DEFA; Maetzig was one of a handful of anti-Nazis who got it going.  Though a technical expert by training, he was soon directing the first post-1945 German newsreels.

Then he was sent an unprinted story so close to his own that he quickly began work on Marriage in the Shadows, DEFA’s second film.  (The first, The Murderers Are Among Us, which launched Hildegard Kneef’s career, was a stark condemnation of Nazi war crimes.  Maetzig’s film dealt with their pogrom against the Jews.)  The story, based on a true case, tells of a talented actor and actress couple.  Since she is Jewish the Nazis try to get the husband to divorce her.  Unlike Maetzig’s father, he refuses.  Her career is ended, and his can continue only if she remains out of sight.  But, for a big premiere with him, they weaken, she attends it and is recognized, which means her certain deportation.  The two, with their small son, commit suicide.

The extremely moving film, finely acted and beautifully directed, premiered in all four sectors of Berlin in October 1947.  It was seen by eleven or twelve million viewers, especially in eastern Germany, which means that almost all adults, most of them bitter, confused, cynical after the lost war and in a wrecked country, saw a soul-searing judgment of Nazi bestiality.  Its effect cannot be underestimated.

His next film, also sensitive, also successful, chronicled the story of a housemaid who survives two world wars and a depression, who quietly rejects a job making weapons and tries vainly to persuade her son to do likewise and, in her own small way, also vainly, to help a family of Jewish neighbors.

An exposé of the giant chemical concern I. G. Farben, its responsibility for poison gas in World War One, its genocidal murder in World War Two, and its return after 1945 (as Bayer and BASF), with music by the great Hanns Eisler, was hard-hitting, did not distort true events, but lacked the sensitivity of the first two films.

Maetzig’s talent at finding deeply human values in the midst of social upheaval was seen again in a saga about conflicts in the countryside, where noble Junkers were forced to leave their huge, feudal landed estates, and in a light comedy about a girl with constant troubles in finding a place in society, with a tragic background — a brief note from a mother murdered at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

A co-production with Poland was a big hit; it was the GDR’s first try at science fiction (based on a book by Lem), about a space ship with an international team which finds a planet, once a threat to the Earth, but now totally dead after an atomic catastrophe.  A Japanese scientist in the team had herself been scarred as a child by Hiroshima.  The connections were clear, the effects simple but very effective, and its irony increased when a western version of the film substituted an American hero for the Russian, a Frenchman for the Pole, and eliminated all references to Hiroshima!

In 1954-1955 Maetzig blundered.  Ten years after the Nazis’ murder of Ernst Thälmann, head of Germany’s Communist Party, its GDR follower, the ruling Socialist Unity Party, wanted a film about his life and deeds, and Maetzig accepted the job.  But due to the constant meddling by the party, up to and including its head Walter Ulbricht, what resulted was not a fine-feeling portrait of a controversial yet certainly heroic figure but two full-length films with huge numbers of extras showcasing a bigger-than-life hero, politically correct in every word and deed but with little subtlety and few if any nuances.  Maetzig was always ashamed of the two films.

Ten years later he had problems in just the opposite direction.  In the early 1960s, the Khrushchev era, when the Berlin wall, nasty as it was, protected the GDR economically and permitted rapid growth and relative openness, there emerged a large number of frank, honestly critical, often very good books and films.  One of the most interesting was Maetzig’s I Am the Rabbit (Das Kaninchen bin ich), a condemnation of careerists, in this case a judge, willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to move upwards — with the courageous fight of a young woman against him, her one-time lover.

But in 1964 Khrushchev was replaced by Brezhnev, who had different ideas, also for the GDR, and exerted pressure in all directions, political, economic, and in the arts.  The dogmatists had their day and banned a dozen critical films.  Maetzig was pressured into criticizing his own film and became deeply discouraged.  He directed a few films after that, one interesting and controversial about human genetics, but no more masterpieces.  He turned to work with cinema clubs, becoming vice-president of the international cine-club organization, then its honorary president for life.  By the time the pendulum turned again (as it so often did in the GDR) and honestly critical films were again produced, some of them quite wonderful, it was too late for Maetzig to try again.

The media, in eulogizing Maetzig, concentrate almost completely on the bad Thälmann films and, even more, the banned “rabbit” film.  In my view his most important film was his first one.

Ten years before his death he said: “In all the past decades I was for humanitarianism, for enlightenment, for democratic socialism.  That is what led me to join the Communist Party.  I kept to those beliefs and I still believe in them.”

Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

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