Monday, October 22, 2012

Konrad Wolf | Sonnensucher (Sun Seekers)

learning to smile
by 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.

      Spawned in the early years of the Khruschev Thaw, Wolf’s film, espousing as it does the goals of Socialism and the Communist Party, seemed assured of release. But because of the film’s honesty about the conditions it explores in the East German-Soviet shared uranium mines of Wismut and its open presentation of the ideological differences of some of the Soviet and German workers in the camp, it aroused controversy and was shown to the entire Politburo. Although some changes were demanded, overall the political leaders praised the film, and it was authorized to be released on October 5th, 1958. At the last moment, however, the Soviet embassy in Berlin intervened to ban the work, perhaps fearful of its documentation of the Soviet’s struggles in the international arms race and its negative presentation of the party boss, Weibrauch. By the time the film was finally released in 1972, the topical issues of the work had lost their potency, although the movie had continued to gain an underground reputation among East German film makers. In 1975, Wolf received the Society for German-Soviet Friendship’s Art Prize for this film and his 1968 work, I Was Nineteen.

      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.

      The make-up of Wismut workers, misled Germans who unaware of working conditions and the level of environmental damage, were drawn there by the high wages and promises of a better life, and the outcasts sent there, former SS officers, ineffective or haunted Russian military leaders, and German prostitutes, had predetermined the explosive events the film outlines. The film begins with a none-too-innocent, but reluctant country girl, Lotte Luz (Ulrike Germer), escaping from the arms of a local, none-too-attractive farmer, her aunt (presumably) shouting at her for being a whore and slut. The girl, learning now to hate all men, escapes to Berlin into the arms of Emmi (Manja Behrens), an overage prostitute who was evidently a friend of Lotte’s mother before her death. Although Emmi attempts to send the girl home, Lotte refuses, determined to make a better life through hard work.

     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.

     Beier, we quickly discover, is a man of contradictory pulls. On one hand he is an authoritative boss, almost puritan when it comes to sexual matters and demanding that his workers endure the harsh conditions of the mines without many rewards. On the other hand, he stands up to the Russian heads in his attempts to improve mine conditions and clean up the environment in which they work. Such demands mean a lesser output in uranium ore, and he given a limited amount of time to achieve the changes upon which he insists.

     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.

       Finally almost finished with mine improvements, Beier oversees the miner activities at the very moment with the new cables, obviously defective, catch fire. He orders one part of the mine to be exploded in order to put out the fire, but in so doing entraps himself, Sergei and two others in a closed-off pocket. Although a team of rescuers attempt to reach them, Beier, who has been hurt in the explosion, is in a fever, finally revealing to Sergei that it was his battalion that murdered Sergei’s wife. Sergei’s answer, that he has known that all along, is perhaps one of the most devastating revelations of Wolf’s film. We can now comprehend just how painful all those mediating conversations must have been to him, and it explains his often outward impatience with the former SS soldier. But the fact that Sergei has continued to work with Beier obviously reveals both men’s commitment to the higher ideal of their cause.

     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

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