While Kolberg was premiering in a nearly ruined section of Berlin, a withering film unit was running around town trying to shoot Joseph Goebbels' other epic, Das Leben geht weiter / Life Goes On. Allied bombs were razing great chunks of the city, and actors were being called into military service, leaving a skeleton crew to carry on with the most ridiculous project of the Third Reich.
Even from a Hollywood standpoint, the seeds of disaster were already being sown as huge sums of development money went into writing and re-writing scripts that failed to satisfy Nazi Propaganda bigwig Goebbels. If the scripts stink and proposed directors want nothing to do with an emerging folly, why carry on?
Goebbels' supervised and approved the use of huge sums of money and sparse resources on two productions - Kolberg and Das Leben geht weiter - whose combined box office and inspirational success relied on a supportive populace sharing the Minster of Propaganda's optimism that his 'total war' could be won with the military's miracle weapon (namely the V-series rockets). Yet between 1944-1945, few film theatres were in any shape to show films, and cash-strapped film geeks would have to dodge bombs and ignore the eerie shells of former multi-storied buildings that decorated the route to the local kino.
Previously called in to help with the revisions of director Veit Harlan's Kolberg, Wolfgang Liebeneiner, UFA's production leader and the Reich's No. 2 director (after Harlan), was subsequently drafted by Goebbels to direct Leben. With a finished script and elaborate designs for massive sets - including a huge train station - Liebeneiner kept filming until it was clear the war was going to be a greater killjoy than a common studio bean counter bearing orders to shut down production forthwith.
After the Allied victory, the film's history became a mini-legend of sublime folly, and the fate of the missing footage was slowly pieced together by author Hans Christoph Blumenberg, whose book subsequently became the basis for this Emmy Award winning documentary by producer/co-writer Carl Schmitt, and co-writer/director Mark Cairns.
Also titled Das Leben geht weiter, the 2002 doc mined ever historical footnote, surviving newsreel, archival interview, and piece of cinematic ephemera to trace the original film's genesis and aborted production. The doc also dips into a bit of sublime absurdity: one feels genuine sadness for the tragedies that basically ignited the film's need, yet sometimes laugh at the near-Kubrickian events that continued to push the film into production when everything that could go wrong did.
Cairns, a British filmmaker, perhaps injected his own native wry humour into the project, and with co-producer Schmitt, the team crafted an inventive structure and film technique to avoid the pitfalls of a standard talking head doc.
With no footage from the original film, the filmmakers simply dropped the equine-jawed host and narrator, Dieter Moor, into recreated sets for key moments during WWII, and let his resonant voice dryly deliver the contextualized facts of Germany 's film industry under the Nazis, and the production of propaganda films up to, and including Kolberg and Leben.
Densely larded with archival materials, Moor takes us on a fluid, ever-engrossing journey through private screenings, production meetings, and the eventual filming of Leben: he talks to the camera, whispers to us when Goebbels and Liebeneiner are fuzzily in conference in the B.G., and brushes off broken glass when an Allied bomb shatters a studio window; it doesn't take long for us to become fellow travelers in Moor's historical trip through wartime absurdity.
From a technical stance, the filmmakers adopt a kind of multiplaned After Effects design so that Moor can comfortably walk away from a bombed street and adjust a film camera while actors wait in the B.G.; or leap out of the way when a tank rolls too close as he's describing the advancing Allied forces. Just as magical is the seamless integration of archival footage, as when Moor plays bathos-drenched scenes from Kolberg on a vintage Steenbeck. Another clever moment has Moor sitting in a theatre with high ranking UFA personnel, watching a smuggled print of Gone with the Wind; as the burning of Atlanta plays, the footage slowly morphs into scenes of an incendiary Berlin.
The use of newsreels is just as amazing, as their research unearthed gems of surreal propaganda from prints far superior to the multi-dupe versions taken from old VHS copies. One highlight includes newsreel clips in which Germans are seen coping with wartime life in underground and basements locales; proving an urban society can still drink coffee, dry clean, and shop for modish clothes when the outer buildings are skeletons, surrounded by swept-up rubble.
War buffs will also relish clips from some of the more notorious propaganda films, including Hitlerjunge Quex / Hitler Youth Quex, and Stukas! (The latter is excerpted with an all-singing, all swinging group of Wehrmacht pilots. It's a weird convention that even pops up in unexpected places, like the 1931 Curt Siodmak classic, FP1 Antwortet Nicht / FP1 Doesn't Answer. In an otherwise straight sci-fi/drama, two sequences jar the format: biplane pilots crooning the joys of flight; and grunt technicians singing about their boredom on an isolated landing rig in the middle of the Atlantic, evoking the Hammerstein-Kern Show Boat musical.)
Host/narrator Moor makes sure the doc's tone never ridicules its subject - he just allows the facts do the job. A key example is the dilemma Goebbels faced when he realized live theatres provided discreet locales to commiserate and share in dissent, so all stage performances were banned - except for puppet shows. Quotations from Goebbels' personal diaries are also used to contextualize official proclamations and policy - an approach also employed in the 2001 six-part ZDF-Discovery Channel series, Hitler's Frauen (which additionally used rare archival radio broadcasts).
Just as surreal are comments from more recent interviews, including one of the Leben actors, Gunnar Moller, who admits that many hopeful thespians were delighted to hear of the Allies' success at Normandy; with the destruction of the Third Reich would come jobs, and full creative freedom.
Keeping a doc about a lost movie interesting for more than 80 mins. isn't easy - unless there happens to be two amazing postscripts: when all seemed hopeless, one surviving crew member of the production is found, with an incredible rescue tale: it's like the search for the missing reels of Orson Welles' Magnificent Ambersons [M] , and what the filmmakers discovered from a pair of beaming (and rather embarrassed) perpetrators is sad, but painfully and appropriately funny, too.
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Polar Film's DVD contains several significant extras that cover both the historical and technical aspects of the film, although none are accompanied by any subtitles. The making-of featurette is actually quite straightforward, and is easily comprehended because the visual effects by Magna Mana Production are ultimately revealed through behind-the-scenes and demonstration montages that dissect the multiple layers which evoked winter scenes, explosions, and recreated period stills - all part of 150 specific effects shots that included some markedly simple tricks. Producer Carl Schmitt and several Magna technicians & artists describe selected effects, and the hardware that rendered the production's high-res images.
Of the two interviews archived on the DVD, the most significant is Dr. Fritz Hippler, who achieved immortal infamy as the credited director of The Eternal Jew (1940). Hippler began as a cutter in the newsreel department before directing and producing various documentaries and ads for companies like Lufthansa and VW. After co-directing the propaganda newsreel Wort und Tat / Word and Deed [M] (1938), Hippler directed, produced, and supervised a series of documentaries that showcased Germany's successful invasions, such as Feldzug in Polen (1940), and Sieg im Westen / Victory in the West (1941), and a series of training shorts known as Die Frontshau (1941-43) shown to soldiers before they where shipped to the front. The end of the war brought an end to his filmmaking career as a top-level member of the Third Reich's Ministry of Propaganda.
Although he appears in the Leben doc and relates Goebbels' fascination with Gone With The Wind and Mrs. Miniver, longer sections of the interview session have been grouped into several topic-themed chapters, and Hippler explains the basic chores of a working apprentice, assistant, and executive in the propaganda department, and also offers some insight into the assembly and distribution of propaganda newsreels and documentaries.
The wartime focus is also carried over in similarly themed sections with Wilfried von Oven, former Personal Assistant to Goebbels during the final years of the minister's life. The purpose is to impart an impression of the Minster of Propaganda, and von Oven begins with his first recollections of meeting Goebbels (with his big head amazingly supported by a short, clumsy-looking frame), his responsibilities as an assistant, Goebbels' unwavering concentration during a bombing raid, and the moment von Oven felt his boss finally realized a Nazi victory was never to be.
Both interviews are fascinating portraits of the propaganda machine and its chief, but without English subtitles, even viewers with a basic grasp of German might have trouble getting the full weight of the articulate remembrances.
That said, Polar Film's DVD is a first-rate production, and is currently available in a Region 0 PAL DVD in Germany that's worth tracking down.
For more information on the making of this documentary and its production, read our interview with filmmakers Carl Schmitt and Mark Cairns HERE !
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan