I Was Nineteen – Ich war neunzehn (1968) East German WWII Movie

The East German movie I Was Nineteen – Ich war neunzehn is based on the film director Konrad Wolf’s war diaries. Set in April 1945, it is an episodic movie which tells the story of 19 year-old Gregor Hecker who moves with a Red Army  scouting team towards Berlin.

Hecker is of German origin, he left Germany with his parents at the age of 8 and has lived in Russia ever since. Returning to his home country is peculiar for him. He speaks fluently German and Russian but feels much closer to the Russians.

The movie shows a vast panorama of German society. People who have lost everything and despair, those who believe the war can still be won, some who are afraid of the Russians, others who threaten them. Gregor and his group try to persuade all the German soldiers and officers they meet to surrender; some follow the suggestions, some keep on fighting although the war is almost over.

As I said, the movie is episodic, more than a coherent story line we have a lot of short stories which illustrate the different reactions to the end of the war.

The Russians are also depicted in their variety, peasants and people with higher education, people from all sorts of social and ethnic backgrounds are shown.

I liked the movie, the characters are likable and the approach was interesting however I don’t think it’s a very realistic movie. Sure, it accurately depicts how estranged someone like Gregor would have felt, how different he was from the other Germans but that’s how far realism goes. What I didn’t find realistic is how peacefully they behaved. The Russians in this movie were all good-natured, mostly gentle, protective of women and children. I don’t think that was the case, there are too many horrible stories which tell otherwise.

The movie isn’t a German but an East German movie which may explain why the Russians were depicted in such a positive light.

There is only one instance in which it is shown how much they must have hated the Germans for what they had done to them. When a German woman asks Gregor whether she can sleep in the house he and his fellow soldiers have occupied a female soldier shouts at her in Russian and Gregor translates. She tells her that it serves her right to be afraid and that what the Germans did to the Russians was so horrible and painful that it deserved punishment.

Despite these reservations I’m very glad I watched this. The movie is available with English subtitles I just couldn’t find a corresponding trailer.

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18 thoughts on “I Was Nineteen – Ich war neunzehn (1968) East German WWII Movie

  1. Guy Savage says:

    I loved this film. It’s a perfect companion piece to Woman in Berlin.

  2. Alexander S. says:

    // I don’t think that was the case, there are too many horrible stories which tell otherwise. //

    I guess about the reasons of the myth of Soviet soldiers mass atrocities in the defeated Nazi Germany. It is partially the historical stereotype that has always been in the West towards Russia. It is partially, perhaps, Joseph Goebbels propaganda, which in the end of the war frightened German civilians by “the savage hordes from the East.” It is partially, I think, the Cold War legacy. Really, how else should Russian barbarians behave to the civilized Europeans? It is surprisingly how handy this myth lies on the “explanation” that the Soviet soldiers in their mass wreaking havoc on Germany civilians for Nazi atrocities in USSR.

    Nevertheless, the “historians” who exploit the subject, have only the individual facts of misconduct (such incidents occur in every army.) Typically, these individual facts have been statistically extrapolated to the Soviet army totally that is a mistake.

    As for the film “I was 19” (1968), I can say that it may be somewhat romanticized image of the Soviet soldiers, but this image is much closer to reality than a caricatured image of Russians created in “General Patton” movie (1970) or “Enemy at the Gates” (2001).

    • Thanks you very much for this, Alexander. I was so surprised to see it like this. A lot felt authentic, a lot didn’t. I agree there is a mix of propaganda and Cold War Legacy but there are also a lot of testimonies from the Fall of Berlin in which mass rapes seem to have been very common. I’ve seen the movie Anonyma which is based on a diary and read about this elsewhere too. Maybe that was limited to Berlin? I don’t know.
      In any case, it’s the first time I see a non-Russian movie in which Russians are depicted in an adequate way. I liked how they showed the variety and the charcaters are complex enough to be “real people” but I just felt they might not have been as peaceful when they finally met the Germans.

      • Alexander S. says:

        Unfortunately, the story is much politicized science so far.

        Unlike other war crimes, a rape is the most difficult subject to objective verification, especially in the circumstances that have been in Germany there. If it is difficult to test, it means that it is difficult to refute. So in this issue, the “historians” are usually based on rather incorrect statistical methods. If hold an idea that the Soviet soldiers en masse wreaking havoc on Germany civilians because the Nazi crimes in USSR, it means that the facts should be another type war crimes as well. It is known, for example, that the Nazis burned hundreds (!) Belarusian villages and their inhabitants, but there is no fact of the burning of at least one German village by the Soviet army. Stalin issued the special decree that Soviet soldiers come to Germany to release from the Nazis, but not revenge. Soviet Army headquarters ordered commanders to closely monitor a discipline in the divisions and apply the severe penalties for the violators up to execution.

        It might be interesting – an actor who played the lead character (a German teacher, translator) called Vasily Livanov. He is a Russian actor and later, in 1979-1986, he played Sherlock Holmes in excellent Soviet television series “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson”. Highly recommended!

      • What is certainly a fact is that rape is common during war and I’m afraid no country is much better than any other country in that regard.
        The way I’ve read about it, it seemed the Germans were more afraid of the Russians than of the Americans but that could have been bad conscience. After all, they didn’t invade the US, slaughter the people, put whole cities under siege for years.
        So I really get your point, a lot of what the West says and thinks about Russia is highly distorted.

      • Thanks for the recommendation.

      • Alexander S. says:

        Sorry for the mistake.

        Indeed, the History is much politicized science so far.

        🙂

  3. the war movie buff says:

    Excellent review. I will try to find it. As to the realism of the Soviet soldiers’ behavior. My reading on the Eastern Front pointed to the fact that the front line Soviet soldiers were pretty well behaved. It was the rear area soldiers that follwoed in their wake that committed numerous atrocities (similar to the Germans). Obviously the fact that it was an Eats German film means they would have downplayed atrocities even if the movie covered rear echelon units. A warts and all movie about their Soviet masters woudl have been inconceivable at that time.

    • Thansk, Kevin.
      I suppose the truth lies somewhere in between. Alexander is certainly right that, especially due to the Cold War legacy, there is still a stereotypical depiction of Russians in WWII movies – and in other movies as well btw. Aren’t a lot of the Russians who populate Western movies thugs or prostitues? Pretty unfair, come to think of it.
      In any case, this is well worth watching.
      The movie is from 1968, a time in which it became obvious that a lot of the old Nazis were still in place, hence the RAF… I guess the movie implicitly aims at this as well.

    • Alexander S. says:

      // It was the rear area soldiers that follwoed in their wake that committed numerous atrocities (similar to the Germans). //

      There is no fact of the burning of at least one German village by the Soviet army in rear area or elsewhere – unlike Nazis did. The same regarding to many another things…

  4. nem baj says:

    It is a very good movie in many ways, one that from a formal point of view attempts to reconcile ‘Western’ (Italian, German, French) and ‘Eastern’ (Russian) cinematographic influences – and in my opinion, succeeds in doing so.

    I can see your point about the portrayal of Russian soldiers (though at the time the film was criticized in the DDR for the opposite, ie not being tough enough on German soldiers), however I do not think it is central to the film at all — if we can cope with the ultra-favourable depiction of settlers in so many westerns, perhaps we can cope with this as well.

    This is the story of an exile’s reconciliation with his roots, the main point being German identity after nazism and the war (the working title of the movie was ‘Heimkehr 1945’). Of course, this is an ‘antifascist’ piece, with a strong sense of the ‘pioneer spirit’ (in that respect it is, in a way, a Western), but it doesn’t resort to the usual parabolic figures of propaganda.

    As much as it is politicized, the point of view here is definitely that of the individual, which is why we can still relate to it today – in the same way we can still relate to Fassbinder’s or Wenders’ 70s and 80s characters.

    • I think I should have thanked you for watching this. You mentioned it, right? I’m glad I did and it is precisely the point of view of the individual that I liked. I thought they were interesting characters as well and not too stereotyped. I never really interpreted this as Gregor’s “Heimkehr” though as I didn’t think he saw Germany as his home country.

      • nem baj says:

        No need for thanks, judging by your knowledge of German culture you would have watched it anyway.

        Surely at the beginning, having been exiled at an early age, Gregor is hardly ‘a German’ himself, though his parents are. But in my view he becomes one throughout the movie, on his own terms, as he goes through several problematic chapters of the country’s recent past. Obviously, this is not a homecoming of the easiest kind, but I think he succeeds in finding a rationale.

        Incidentally, he probably didn’t have a choice but to cope with this past – and neither did many young Germans in the 60s, who also felt estranged from their own country.

      • Sooner or later maybe, yes. In any case it’s interesting and one of the better DDR movies I’ve seen.

  5. nem baj says:

    Just adding my two cents on the ‘war crimes’ debate, though I certainly wouldn’t want this comment thread to reach the level of that of the Crusades Movies’ post…

    I do not think that evidence of war crimes committed by the Red Army throughout Central Europe can be denied. And in several instances (including the city I now live in) executions, rapes and deportations were conducted in systematic ways, clearly rising above the notion of ‘bad behavior’. Nevertheless, I certainly wouldn’t even try to equate those to the crimes committed by the Reich’s forces in the East.

    It doesn’t mean that the Soviet crimes can be deemed ‘justified’ or ‘nullified’ by the Nazi crimes (ideas I find utterly childish, and contrary to the mere notion of History). Simply, the logic and extent were different.

    • I agree but to stick with the movie, it might still be that there were quite peaceful troops and the depiction I’m used to from many German movies who portray the entire Red Army as rapists might also have been an exaggeration.
      I don’t doubt that there were many crimes.

      • nem baj says:

        These are post-1989 movies. As far as I know until the end of the Wall.no German movie, eastern nor western, had attempted to depict the Red Army in a bad light based on historical events.

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