Monday, October 22, 2012
Konrad Wolf | Sonnensucher (Sun Seekers)
learning to smileby Douglas Messerli
Karol George Egel and Paul Wiens (writers), Konrad Wolf (director) Sonnensucher (Sun Seekers) / 1958, released 1972
By a fluke of Nexflix fulfillment, I watched East German director Konrad Wolf’s Sun Seekers on the 87th anniversary of his birth. Celebratory as that may seem, however, only one of my film guides, Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia, even mentions Wolf, and none of my several video guides gives an entry to Sonnensucher, despite the high reputation and importance of this film to East German and even Russian cinema.
Seeing this masterwork so many years after its creation, I was still struck by its powerful revelations and the honesty—despite its seemingly naïve arguments that the motivation of the German-Soviet mines were to protect the world from the American monopoly and the outbreak of World War III—about life in this militarized outpost, which, at times, almost reminds one of a town out of the American wild west.
But the high quality of Wolf’s black-and-white images, particularly those set deep within the mines are what particularly stand out, which, along with cinematographer-composer Joachim Werzlau’s score—which alternates between modernist fanfares and unexpected jazz interludes—are what makes this film so significant.
In a local Berlin bar, Emmi meets up with an old friend, Jupp König, whom she has hidden from the SS as the two worked in the circus, and who now is on leave from Wismut. Lotte also meets a young man with whom she hesitantly dances until a fight breaks out between Jupp and others, and the police are called. Both women, now arrested and lectured to by East European social workers, are sent to Wismut, where, at least Emmi looks forward to reencountering Jupp.
As the two women become acclimated to the wild life of Wismut, we also begin to uncover the pulls and tensions taking place among the males. One of the major pit bosses, the one-armed Franz Beier (Günther Simon) first spots Lotte and orders her to his home where, presumably, he will engage her in sex. But when she shows up and resists, he admires her spirit. When asked whether she is a good girl or a whore, Lotte replies she doesn’t care, to which Beier praises her. She must seek the most of out of life, obtain, like himself, the highest of positions, he asserts; and, most importantly, she learn how to smile. He frees her, untouched.
Soon the young miner Gunther (Willi Schrade) also spots Lotte and almost immediately falls for her. At one dance, he and the Soviet engineer Sergei (Viktor Avidushko) vie for Lotte’s attentions, with Gunther, certainly the courser and less suave of the two, winning out. But we soon recognize, despite her passive acceptance of Gunther’s marriage proposal, that Lotte is more attracted to the handsome Sergei, who has lost his wife, the same age as Lotte at the time of their marriage, in a savage attack by the German SS.
One of the major problems of Wolf’s film is that, while centering much his attention on the often strong-minded Lotte, throughout much of movie she necessarily appears passive. Despite her instincts at survival, she is also a young country girl without the wisdom of knowing how to improve her condition in the world of shifting power-playing males in which she has been thrust.
Sergei may attract her, but Gunther, at least, has offered her marriage and a true house. He even obtains a marriage license, but instead of returning home where she has planned a celebration, he gets drunk, carousing with another woman.
Outraged by his brutal return, in which he pulls down a new painting of a mountain goat (a creature, it is suggested, that she resembles) she has just purchased, Lotte leaves him only to become once more involved with the older Beier. This time he offers her a larger and better home, a life far better superior as the pit boss’s wife, and she accepts. At the same time, however, Beier’s life is changing for the worst. The workers, dissatisfied with his seeming disinterest in their welfare begin to rebel, the wily Jupp—who has now married his Emmi—intelligently defending the boss. Tired of their ineffectual party leader, Wihrauch (Erich Franz), the miners demand Jupp take on that position.
The Russians and East European leaders, moreover, are fed up with the slowness of Beier’s “improvements” and his lack of uranium production, forcing Sergei to play the mediator—since he speaks both Russian and German—to be mediator between Beier, with whom he often seems to detest, and party leaders. Wolf effectively presents these discussions in both languages, in Russian (without translation) and German (with English subtitles). Although the audience can generally glean the substance of these talks, accordingly, we are put in very much the same position as the German workers and Beier who cannot always entirely comprehend what they are being accused of.
Beier’s problems become even more complex as he arrives home to discover Lotte packing her suitcases. She is pregnant, she declares, and the child is not his son. Once again, Beier, despite his sometimes offensive manner, reveals himself as a man of some honor, as he insists she unpack and stay: he will welcome the child into his own home. Suddenly a smile spreads over the mostly glum face of the girl. In a real sense, Lotte and her friend Emmi are the only ones who have truly found the “sun” which the others so desperately seek.
Rescuers arrive, but too late for Beier, who has died soon after his confession. The last scene of the film portrays Sergei leaving the camp, as Lotte, child in hand, kisses him goodbye—almost passionately in comparison with her tentative love-making throughout the rest of the film.
As she moves back to the city of Wismut, her small son behind her, the sun, for one of the first times in this film, is truly shining.
Los Angeles, October 21, 2012