Stalingrad or Dogs Do Yo Want To Live Forever? – Hunde wollt ihr ewig leben (1958) The first Stalingrad

Dogs Do You Want to Live Forever? – Hunde wollt ihr ewig leben? is a German black and white movie from the 50s. Although the newer movie Stalingrad is generally seen as a remake I cannot agree with this view. Both movies focus on Stalingrad but the way they are told, the point of view is very different. While a modern movie will often appeal more to us because it’s not black and white, we know the actors and the special effects are normally superior, this first Stalingrad is an excellent movie and I would say as good as the one from 1993, if not in parts better.

The movie opens with Hitler watching a German army parade. A voice in the off which we will hear all through the movie, criticizing the decisions of Hitler and the high command, tells us that these marching soldiers will soon be dying in the Russian snow. After a while we leave the parading soldiers and the camera shows men dying in the snow. After that the story as such begins.

The movie tells of the encirclement of the 6th Army in Stalingrad from the point of view of a young, idealistic and likable first lieutenant. In 1942, just before the Russian offensive which will encircle the 6th Army, Wisse has been commandeered to an outpost, not far from Stalingrad where he is liaising with a Rumanian corps which fights along with the Germans.

When it is clear that the Russians have started the offensive, Wisse is posted in Stalingrad. The town is half-destroyed, the German soldiers are freezing as they are not equipped for the Russian winter and there is hardly any food left. In the end high command gives the order to stop feeding the wounded.

It is obvious from the beginning of the movie that Hitler miscalculated the whole campaign and that the only way the 6th Army could have been saved would have been to break out of the circle and retreat as fast as possible. The Russian army entrapped a Germany army which was lacking winter gear, ammunition and was almost starving. The generals and commanding officers pleaded with the Führer but he was adamant. Still, the German command refused to break rank and disobey Hitler to save the army.  By the time General Paulus decided to surrender, 60’000 soldiers were dead. 110’000 were left, of which only 6’000 would return to Germany after the war.

What is particularly harrowing in this dark chapter is the fact that Stalingrad had no strategic importance whatsoever. It was a purely political decision and for the same reasons Stalin decided to hold the city. What followed was probably the most infamous battle of WWII.

There are many reasons which make Dogs Do You Want to Live Forever? a great movie. In focussing on one man, first lieutenant Wisse, it exemplifies the disintegration of the whole army and illustrates the disillusionment and the realization of Hitler’s misguided megalomania. While Wisse is true to the party in the beginning, he, like all the other soldiers based in Stalingrad, becomes aware that Hitler doesn’t care what happens to them. He breaks his promises and as soon as he realizes the fight might be lost, he abandons them completely.

Wisse isn’t the only interesting character, there is the cowardly  commanding officer Linkman, the priest who speaks up and fight for justice and some secondary characters which are all well-rounded too.

While Stalingrad (1993) is a great movie, this one feels even more authentic because a lot of what we see is original footage and it’s blended in so well that we often only realize that we are back to the movie when we can make out one of the actors. I have rarely seen this type of blending done so seamlessly and well. The effect is not only realistic but chilling.

What was better in this one than in the new movie was the way the street fighting and the combat in the city was shown. That must have been so chaotic and both sides were battle weary and would have liked to stop fighting.

Stalingrad – Dogs Do You Want to Live Forever? is one of the top war movies, one nobody should miss. It’s well worth pairing the viewing with the 1993 version as they complement each other.

While finishing this post I discovered that there will be a new, Russian Stalingrad which should be released in 2013. Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, starring August Diehl. I’m really looking forward to that.

Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen aka Darkness Fell on Gotenhafen (1960) One of the Biggest Ship Disasters in History

What a surprisingly good movie. I discovered it purely by chance and didn’t expect much but it was well worth watching. The central theme of Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen aka Darkness Fell on Gotenhafen is the tragic sinking of the huge cruise ship Wilhelm Gutsloff. The Wilhelm Gustloff was named after a famous Nazi leader. In the final days of the war it was used to transport refugees from Eastern Prussia to safer German territory. The disaster of its sinking is called by some “the unknown disaster” and if it weren’t for websites like WM.S. Wilhelm Gustloff-The Unknown Disaster it would probably stay widely unknown outside of Germany. The Gutsloff was torpedoed by a Russian submarine and sank with over 6000 people on board. Most of them died, among them 4000 children. The sinking of the Wilhem Gutsloff is seen today as one of the symbols of the Downfall of the Third Reich.

Before watching I thought the whole movie would focus on the final hours but that wasn’t the case and that’s why it was such a great movie. Apart from a few melodramatic elements in the beginning, it’s surprisingly well done. Another main theme of Darkness Fell on Gotenhafen is the situation on the home front, what the women and children had to endure during the war in the city.

The film tells the story of one woman and starts with a ball on the Wilhelm Gutsloff on her maiden voyage as a cruise ship. Maria is engaged to Kurt but Hans is in love with her as well. Later, during the war, Maria and Kurt are now married and Kurt is fighting with the army, Hans, who is officer on a ship, is visiting the city and meets Maria. He is still in love with her and seduces her. She gets pregnant and afraid of the reaction of her husband and because the city is constantly bombed, she flees to a friend in the country, somewhere in East Prussia. She meets a group of interesting characters, a French POW and the widow of a an Army General.

Maria and her friends believe at first that they are safe in Prussia. They are far from any front and assume the war will soon be won. When tales of the Russian approach are heard, they don’t believe them at first until it becomes certain that Germany is about to lose the war and the Russians approach fast. Hans who wanted to see his son, has been staying with them for a while. He tells them about the Gutsloff that will evacuate a great number of women and children. He can convince them that they have no other chance. Finally  they abandon the house and flee together with many others to the Gutsloff. The Russians have already arrived and kill and shoot people.

The ship waits the whole night until it is allowed to sail. Nobody sees any danger. They think the Russians are still too far away and fought back by the German fleet. When the ship finally sails it is soon torpedoed. The ship sinks fast, too fast for most of the passengers.

One could say, the movie has five parts. Each part focusses on other elements of the war. First the war is only a foreboding, then we see how the civilians in the cities struggle, the fear and loneliness of the women, how many flee to the country and how they still believe the war can be won although its lost already. The moments on the ship are excellent and tell quite a few mini-stories. The end is done very well too, dramatic but not melodramatic.

I was surprised that there were such a lot of strong female characters in a 60s movie. Brigitte Horney, one of the great German actors, is outstanding in her role as widow of a General.

The movie has an English title but I have no idea whether it has been subtitled or not. And there was no trailer to be found. If you understand German, you can watch it on YouTube.

Der Untergang aka The Downfall (2004)

Der Untergang aka The Downfall is one of the very best war movies I have ever seen. It’s fascinating, chilling and marvelously well acted. Swiss actor Bruno Ganz gives one of the best Hitler performances I’ve ever seen and this despite the fact that he did at first not want to play the part. If you are familiar with Bruno Ganz you know that this accomplished and gentle actor usually plays very different roles.

The idea to focus on the very last months of Hitler’s life was very well-chosen and to open and finish the movie with the testimony of one of those who were in the bunker with him until his death, gave it an another dimension and explored something that I have never forgotten since I first saw this movie. Traudl Junge was 22 when she was hired to work as the Führer’s personal secretary and went to live with him and his staff in the bunker in Berlin. The whole time while the situation went from serious to hopeless, while the Russians were advancing in the East and the Americans and the other allies in the West, she stayed with Hitler, his wife, the Goebbels and many others in this sinister place. In the opening sequence and the closing part, the real Traudl Junge, meanwhile an old woman, says that she cannot forgive herself for not seeing it. She wasn’t any younger than Sophie Scholl, who died at 22 fighting the Nazis. Youth is no excuse, she says. Others saw it, she didn’t. Including her also underlined the historical accuracy of the movie.

In these final months when most of his generals and officers already knew that the war was lost and that the Russians would take Berlin, Hitler still tried to convince himself that they would still win. At the same time he carefully prepared his and his wife’s suicide, making sure that their bodies wouldn’t fall into the hand’s of the Russians. That Hitler was mad is undeniable but in these final months even the most hardened followers started to realize that he had some serious and fatal issues. He went from one outburst to the next, raging and roaring and putting everyone ill at ease. Some  of the people around him tried to tell him that all was lost but he didn’t listen. Some, like Hitler, still believed the war could be won and others who knew better still stood by his side as they had sworn allegiance. These were the ones who would never leave him. The number of suicides that followed Hitler’s suicide and the German capitulation is amazing.

Although I had seen The Downfall  before there were a lot of details I had forgotten. For example the fact that Hitler didn’t care what was happening to the German people. In his reactions to the generals and officers who were pleading to save the German people one could really see the extent of the madness of this man.

I had also forgotten how intense the fighting was in the city of Berlin and how on the side of the Germans everyone was fighting, even children.

The most chilling part is played by Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels. The wife of Joseph Goebbels and mother of seven children was the exemplary German wife and mother. A fervent Nazi and believer in Nazi ideology she not only decided to follow her husband in his suicide but she took all of her children with her, killing each one of them with her own hands.

If you haven’t seen this movie already, you should really watch it. It’s fantastic and you will be able to see most of the great German actors in outstanding performances.

The Downfall is one of the movies on my list of  10 German War Movies You Must See Before You Die

Deutschland bleiche Mutter – Germany Pale Mother (1980)

The German movie Deutschland bleiche Mutter aka Germany Pale Mother  is a heavy movie. Heavy, tragic and depressing but excellent.  Eva Mattes gives an absolutely outstanding performance.

When the movie begins we hear the deep voice of a woman recite a poem by Bertold Brecht, (you can read it here Germany – Deutschland), in which he calls Germany “a pale mother”. This sets the tone. The movie is literary and symbolic and deeply rooted in German culture. The story is to a certain extent told by Anna, Lene’s daughter. In a voiceover she narrates her beginning, how her parents met in 1939, just before the war, how they got married, how shy and awkward they were, how her father was sent off to the Eastern front and little Anna was born during an air raid.

When their house is bombed, Anna’s mother decides to leave for Berlin. We see her stand in the ruins, before she leaves, she tries to find something, anything but all has been shattered, broken, they don’t have much more than their lives and a few clothes.

In Berlin they live in the empty house of relatives. Hans is on leave and joins them but the stay is very difficult for all of them. Anna is jealous of the father she doesn’t know. Lene feels estranged and wants to be alone with her daughter and Hans is tired, very changed and disappointed.

The movie follows the lives of these three people until after the war when everything seems to be normal again but is not. Her mother contracts a very mysterious illness and a doctor advises to extract all her teeth. She becomes highly depressed and wants to die. Her husband is equally miserable and abandons her emotionally.

In the middle of the movie there is one long impressive scene in which Lene walks with Anna through the woods. She has left Berlin because she is afraid to die in an air raid. On the way she tells the little girl a story. It sounded quite familiar and I had an idea it was a fairy tale of the bothers Grimm.  I managed to find an English translation of it. The Robber Bridegroom is one of the bloodier fairy tales the Grimm’s have collected. There is a lot of symbolism attached to the forest in Germany. This started a long time before WWII but it culminated during the war. The scene of Lene walking through the woods and telling this gruesome tale to her little daughter is very oppressing. And what happens in the woods even more so.

In Germany Pale Mother director Helma Sanders-Brahms told the story of her own parents. It shows how much the life of the Germans was shattered, how they desperately tried to go back to normal which is symbolized by the coffee ritual in the sitting room. What made sense before the war has become some sort of cruel mockery. Things are changed forever.

Germany Pale Mother is German narrative cinema at its best.

I attached an excerpt of the movie. The full movie can be watched on YouTube.