Essay Film Festival:
Straschek was among the first cohort to graduate from the German Film and Television Academy (DFFB). He started studying film in 1966, alongside Hartmut Bitomsky, Harun Farocki, Holger Meins, Helke Sander and others. The Director of the DFFB confiscated his student film, A Western for the SDS (Ein Western für den SDS) (1967-1968), which led to an occupation of his office and eventually the dismissal of Straschek and other students in 1968.
Based on extensive interviews, shot on 16mm in a series of static long takes, Filmemigration aus Nazideutschland, is one of the most fascinating examples of ‘film history on film’ ever produced. Straschek devoted years to researching the topic and accumulating both film and non-film materials. Apart from some radio features and articles, however, this 290-minute TV programme remains the only published trace of Straschek’s lifelong work on the emigration of film personnel. He had intended to publish a three-volume book, encompassing all available data about 3,000 emigrants originating from the centre and peripheries of film production, but the book never materialised.
“Filmemigration aus Nazideutschland (1973–75), a series in five parts, around 50 minutes each, became Günter’s last and very extensive film. It was produced by the WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) in Cologne. The head of the film department, Werner Dütsch, was an old acquaintance from the years in Berlin at the end of the 60s, and who at that time worked at the Deutsche Kinemathek. He and Günter watched and discussed numerous films together. In general, they had the same preferences. They both admired Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet’s work.[vi]
The titles of the five episodes of the series:
1. Wer klug war, ging schnell raus («Those Who Were Smart Got Out Quick»).
2. Wir waren aufgescheucht und vogelfrei («We Were Startled and Outlawed»)
3. Aus Europa draußen und in einer gewissen Sicherheit («Away from Europe, and to Some Safety»)
4. Unter Palmen und blauem Himmel («Under Palm Trees and Blue Sky»)
5. Man wusste ja nie wem man die Hand geben konnte («You Never Knew Who You Could Shake Hands With»)
Part one starts with a long sequence depicting a soccer game. One hear the original sound, and then Günter’s voice-over:
This film is called Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt [‹The Führer Offers a City to the Jews›]. In 1944, the Berliner actor Kurt Gerron[vii] was forced to shoot the film in the concentration camp Theresienstadt.[viii] Barely any of the actors and soccer players have survived. Almost all were murdered. The director was gassed to death in Auschwitz. Before the national socialists took power in 1933, the Jewish population in Germany consisted of half a million citizens. At the end of the war: 23,000. 170,000 German Jews had been murdered. 270,000 were forced into exile, among them about 900 from the film industry.
Then one sees the audience leaving the square, the players going into the shower room at the «Central Bath». One hears the voice-over: «Ein Schwimmbad steht der Bevölkering zur Verfügung» (the people have a public bath at their disposal).
Then follows silent scenes from a newsreel from 1933 in which leading Nazis move around and take their seats at the first governmental meeting together with representatives from right-wing parties and big finance that had made the Nazi dictatorship possible, and had been appointed ministerial posts but were thrown out the year after. One hears Günter’s voice describing the origin of the film series:
A few years back the author started to investigate the history of German-speaking film emigration. This episode had been almost totally neglected by scholarly research, and the source materials were correspondingly insufficient. Furthermore, the project was almost started too late. Most of the film emigrants had passed away, and many of those that are still alive are old, isolated and have weak memories. Numerous films have been studied, authorities, institutes and archives have been visited, and many estates have been examined. And many of the film emigrants have been interviewed in order to document the lives of the almost thousand persons – actors, directors, screenwriters, producers, directors of photography, editors, architects, first assistant directors, critics, economists and agents – that were forced to leave Germany due to Nazism.
Then they begin to speak, those who were driven out of the country or fled for their lives across the borders to the neighbouring states of Nazi-Germany. During the filming they remember what had happened 40 years earlier. These witnesses, chosen by Günter, have far from «weak memories». Günter did put together a fantastic montage using all these voices, newsreels from the 30s, film sequences in which the emigrants had participated as actors or as creators behind the camera – directors, film photographers, assistant directors, composers, song writers, screenwriters, editors and producers. He also inserted sequences and statements that had been recorded a few years earlier by German public service TV, above all with Fritz Lang, whose words are a highlight, unforgettable.
In her Paris apartment the film historian, curator and critic Lotte Eisner – who had immigrated to France in 1933 – recounts how her life had been threatened in the newspaper of the Nazi party, Völkischer Beobachter. For a whole year, the journalists of the newspaper had subjected her to hateful attacks, and now, when the Nazis had taken power, they reacted to a critical text by Eisner on a Nazi propaganda film published in Film-Kurier. Eisner: «‹Film-Kurier tears its mask off, the bolshevist Jew journalist Lotte Eisner writes as follows …› And in another article: ‹Later on, when heads will roll, then this head shall also roll.› After that I naturally went away at once … Voilà!»
Günter’s series is a fantastic act of preserving personal testimonies. In its entirety it offers a rich variety of personal fates and experiences (often shaking, upsetting, touching, affecting), but thanks to Günter’s wise montage and his sensitivity, an image emerges of the difficulties of exile, its complexity and its contradictions. Testimonies are posed against and interweaved with newsreel segments that shed light on the Nazis’ well-planned preparations for mass-murder and later genocide. Günter doesn’t make it easy for us to deal with the reality he encountered and started to understand. And he didn’t have it easy during the shooting, when he met the emigrants in Hollywood and New York. In a typewritten letter from November 1974 to Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, there is a handwritten supplement in the margins: «Here, I was at first regarded as ‹very young with long hair›, then as a ‹Nazi that wanted to take people’s reparations [Wiedergutmachung] from them›, and now – and on this they have agreed – as a ‹communist spy!›»
In the same letter, Günter wrote:
During the morning I visited the now almost blind Fritz Lang, 84 years old. It was really an experience even if FL gave a wretched impression. He got excited when I asked him about the cave allegories in his films: no one had asked him about that before. He was very friendly towards the end, and he held my hands.
A sequence from the series is very striking, very affecting: Günter shows a sequence from the operetta film Der Kongress tanzt (The Congress Dances, 1931) with the original sound (a song). The film is a masterpiece – funny, romantic, playful, sentimental in a good way and with distance. Lilian Harvey plays the principal role of Christel, a sales girl in a glove store, whom the visitor of the Wien Congress, Tsar Alexander, falls in love with, and I’m reminded of the lovely Catherine Hessling in Jean Renoir’s Nana (1926). What one sees and hears is Christel’s ride in the luxurious carriage that was given to her by the Tsar. She sings a song I often heard being sung by adult women around me in my childhood years during the war. The refrain is as follows: «Das gibt’s nur einmal, das kommt nicht wieder, das ist die wahrste Träumerei. Das kann’s im Leben nur einmal geben, vielleicht ist’s morgen schon vorbei …».[xi] A long sequence, professional, with a fantastic fluency and choreography; funny as well as sentimental. After a while the music and the original sound are cut off, the carriage continues, the distance increases, a long shot.
The UFA film Der Kongress tanzt was in 1931–32 the most commercially successful sound film in Germany. A year later the emigration began, and five years later the Nazis banned this film. The director Erik Charell emigrated to Hollywood, the producer Erich Pommer emigrated to Hollywood. The scriptwriter and the UFA dramaturge Robert Liebmann emigrated to Paris. The composer Werner Richard Heymann emigrated to Hollywood. The songwriter Robert Gilbert emigrated to New York. The costume designer Ernst Stern emigrated to London. The director’s assistant Alfredo Crevenna emigrated to Mexico. The editor Viktor Gertler returned to Budapest. The actor Conrad Veidt emigrated to London, later to Hollywood. The actress Lilian Harvey emigrated to France and to the United States. The actor Otto Wallburg emigrated to the Netherlands, was captured there by the Nazis and murdered in Auschwitz.