“It is the destiny of Germans to unite the good of all peoples.”
— eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant
“Beautiful was once my Fatherland, / Where once proud oaks did grow so tall,/ And violets did so gently sway./ Alas! I dreamt it all.”
— nineteenth-century German poet Heinrich Heine
“A bad dancer is hindered by his feet.”
— Gregor, a teenager, quoting a Russian saying, in I Was Nineteen
Autobiographical, Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen (Ich war neunzehn), from East Germany, is a towering work. It’s a World War II film from an unusual perspective, because the main character, 19-year-old Gregor Hecker, a lieutenant in the Russian Army as it advances on Berlin in April 1945 in the war’s waning days, is German-born; his parents moved to Moscow, fleeing Hitler, when Gregor was eight years old. (Wolf’s father was dramatist Friedrich Wolf.) We watch, fascinated and more than once emotionally wrenched, as Gregor encounters various German soldiers, officials and ordinary citizens—bits and pieces reflecting who his parents might have been and whom he might have become had his family remained in Germany and been mistaken (and mistaken themselves) for ordinary Germans. One of these encounters is with a death camp guard. In one way or another, all the encounters are with himself. This isn’t a film to cozy up to.
Near the beginning, his voice amplified over a desolate landscape (the stunning black-and-white cinematography is by Werner Bergmann), the lieutenant, speaking German, beseeches invisible German soldiers to give themselves up since their cause is lost. He asks them to trust him; “I am German,” he says, not really believing this, not yet even grasping what this means, but simply trying to forge an instant connection that will lead to the enemy troop’s surrender. On a barge floating down the river, introduced in a grim, startling closeup, a hanged young German soldier is accompanied by a cautionary sign saying that he licked Russian boots; the image reflects on Gregor’s own complex position, a member of one army opposing the army of the country of his birth. (Gregor himself is introduced in a tight closeup that startles us with his youth.) Throughout, Gregor alternates between speaking Russian and German, depending on the situation, and this continually underscores the complexity of his national identity that he, initially, largely denies. At the end, Gregor repeats, “I am a German,” this time only to himself and us, and now meaning the words to the depth of his soul. We watch his vehicle disappear into the distance of another hauntingly bleak landscape that sums up a wearyingly enlightened life’s journey. The film’s quietly devastating finish is comparable in delicacy and force to William Wordsworth’s poem “The Solitary Reaper.”
Perhaps it’s due to the fact that Wolf is drawing upon his actual memories and life experience that the film is totally unforced, and untouched by sentimentality or melodrama. Wolf has no interest in manipulating his audience, as does, say, Lewis Milestone with All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which converts Erich Maria Remarque’s great analytical novel about war into a false, mostly rhetorical film. I Was Nineteen is a harsh film, to be sure, but it’s also very beautiful in its sobriety and humanism. Moreover, it’s unified by the complex of Gregor’s denials, about being German, being young, being appropriate and accurate in the way he behaves. In addition, no other film conveys so well the raggedy end of war, with German combatants persisting even after Hitler’s
Also, the film is a bit devious. In 1965, East Germany had passed a law prohibiting filmmakers from viewing the current situation in the country—social, political, economic—in a negative light. Therefore taking to the past, Wolf ironically wrought a work that addresses the past as a way of addressing the present because of the weight that the present brings with it from the past. What being German means isn’t just something that Wolf’s surrogate, Gregor, has to bear because of the circumstance of his family’s emigration in the 1930s. It’s a matter that all Germans need to address.
Still, the agency of our access to this theme is Gregor’s individual experience and highly personal account. Wolf and co-scenarist Wolfgang Kohlhaase have been very careful to give the young soldier the due of his youth and to keep his utterances and behavior free of Wolf’s wider and deeper experience in the mid-1960s. We are in Gregor’s “present” twenty-odd years earlier; but the pensive, disembodied sound of his voiceover transforms this present into a complex poetic generalization touching on matters of time, memory, separation from home, separation from oneself, and the search for wholeness that Gregor’s immediate experience of war is helping bring to a point. The present totes the burden of the past. “I see German road signs,” Gregor confides in us. “They tell me that I’m in my homeland.” Homeland—in this case, a strange place made stranger, more challenging, more unwelcoming by the war that has brought Gregor there. At one and the same time, Gregor has a job to do, to help secure the region militarily, and is a wanderer in the vaster, unchartable, elusive regions of identity building. The fact that he can’t quite grasp the whole comprising both these elements of his current journey is delivered by a striking and ironical detail. Gregor can’t be given responsibility for Cologne, where he was born, because the American Army has secured that; he must settle for being commandant in Bernau, from where he doesn’t come, underscoring the degree to which he now exists removed from his own history, identity and sense of being. As a soldier, he is competent (the demands of war have helped make him so) and settled, especially now that the war decisively favors the Allied side; as a teenager in search of Gregor Hecker, a search both outside in his birth country and in his mind and soul, he is lost. If this weren’t so, there would be no need to find himself.
“I was nineteen,” he will tell us at the last, shifting his perspective to the past, disclosing the recollection or reminiscence that was implicit in the “present” of his and our contemplation throughout the action of Wolf’s film; and this shift collapses time in order to bring the whole film to its thematic head, the sense of the past’s lifelong impact on the present. Wolf has used the format of a coming-of-age story, the coming-of-age in the crucible of war, to explore one of the great themes, both ancient and modern. In his case, Gregor had always been German without knowing it, and now he knows it, and every other facet of his self-knowledge and self-awareness is wrought on the same diamond, that of his personality and existence, this being German of his. Early on, a superior asks Gregor where he comes from. “Moscow,” the boy answers. “But where were you born?” By the end of the film, Gregor’s remove from a direct response to such a question has been removed by the experiences we have watched unfold. I can’t recall another film that makes us so complicit in such a transformative journey.
What happens to Gregor along the way? Whom does he meet in Bernau?
His first encounter is with a girl in the street who appears almost in shock. “Someone has committed suicide,” she tells him. He enters an apartment; a subjective camera records his absorption in the place’s details, including, on different walls, a Christian cross and a print of Whistler’s Mother. Of the suicide, we see only her socked feet; she is in bed, and the tubing by it on the floor indicates that she has gassed herself. The girl in the street now is in the apartment along with Gregor; she must have followed him up, but Wolf’s decision not to show this intermediate action adds a faint shock to her reappearance correlative to Gregor’s commanding suppression of the enormity of the scene he has just taken in—more a denial of his youth, perhaps, than of his being German. He asks whether the dead woman was the girl’s mother. No. The girl explains that she herself hadn’t lived in this place until a few days ago. “Why did she do it?” Gregor thickly asks. The girl responds, “We should all do it,” to which Gregor, now almost willfully dull, cites the fact that Hitler is gone and Germany presently will be back to normal. “Where is your family?” he asks. “All lost.”
All lost. Thus begins Gregor’s moral education in the cost of war—something that the immediate physical and mental demands of combat have delayed for him. Gregor is in denial of one of the themes of the film in which he appears: that the past impresses the present. Germany, back to normal. Moreover, his dismissiveness of the girl’s overwhelming sense of defeat is correlative to his “not-me” attitude—his denial of being German.
When he first met the girl, Gregor had asked her where the authorities are. His next encounter, suggesting the film’s almost dreamlike continuity-discontinuity, is indeed with Bernau’s burghermeister. The man and his wife, who remains silent, welcome Gregor and those in his command, pouring white wine into glasses—a bourgeois touch that’s scarcely going to ingratiate them with the young Soviet. Falsely heartily, somewhat sycophantically, the mayor says, “We must all lean on one another.” Gregor is contemptuous, pulling down the mayor’s Nazi flag. He confiscates the place for command headquarters, evicting the mayor and his wife—another dismissal correlative to the denials that experience must help him overcome. Moreover, the theme of homelessness, now instanced by the girl and this couple, ironically reflects on Gregor’s own position back in a homeland he has yet to recognize as his own.
In one of the briefest encounters, someone visits Gregor asking if he can hold “a service” at command headquarters. I presume this is a Protestant minister. The two are seated facing one another in silence; the boy is plainly awkward. Intellectually, he knows that this request reflects the antagonism between Christianity and the Nazis, but his own experience in the U.S.S.R. deprives Christianity of this association with the “good side.” It’s striking seeing Gregor at a loss for what to say.
Next, Gregor converses with a printer, who will presumably print advertisements for the “service.” This elderly man shows Gregor the last issue, from February 1933 (Hitler became chancellor in January), of the publication with which he was associated; from it, it’s clear that the man had and presumably retains socialist sympathies. Gregor, decisive, appoints this man mayor. But he becomes momentarily (and endearingly) defensive when the printer corrects a misspelling of his in the ad’s draft. After all, Gregor is a commandant, not a schoolboy! Another dismissal, this, correlative to the complex of Gregor’s denials—and one of the film’s few light moments.
And the moment moves Gregor along because, although humorous, it points him in a new, more promising direction. A German has corrected Gregor’s German spelling; therefore, in defending himself, for the first time that we’ve seen, Gregor is responding as someone educated in German, principally, one presumes, by his parents, whose primary language German is. Because the moment is essentially comical, one might easily miss it as pivotal. I view this as self-determined; I believe that, in the midst of his heavy denials, Gregor has been unconsciously courting some opportunity to start his “German education,” that is, his difficult embrace of his being, to whatever extent, German himself.
The next episode, among the film’s most brilliant, bears this out. Gregor is at headquarters with another soldier—a young female soldier who, plainly more self-confident than he, offers to help with his sewing on a button, which, defensive again, he claims as his own job to perform. The Hawksian humor forges continuity with the previous episode; but the scene sobers up. The German girl from before reappears, pleading for a place to sleep. “Not with the commandant!” Gregor insists. The Russian female soldier, after commending Gregor for the excellence of his German, confronts the German girl, in Russian, with the horror of war that Germany inflicted on Russia by its invasion. Contributing to one of the film’s most trenchant themes, the Russian girl reveals her consequent homelessness; she also insists that Gregor translate her words to the German girl verbatim. Caught between two languages as well as two beautiful girls, with an implicit oedipal spin to the predicament, Gregor does a cursory job to end the travail that much sooner. This inspires the female Russian soldier to assail both him and the German girl more strenuously, wiping out from under him what little ground Gregor thought he had managed to maintain. The Russian girl’s recitation of the horrors to which the Germans had subjected her family and neighbors is gripping, as is the German girl’s outburst that she herself has harmed no one; but the moment’s contribution to Gregor’s growing sensitivity to the dual nature of his national complexion is paramount.
In perhaps the wittiest piece of continuity that the film provides, we learn next that headquarters had to be moved to the suburbs. This has nothing to do with anything we’ve seen; the real motive is military. Nevertheless, the sequence of episodes provides a heightened sense of how difficult for Gregor, with its Russian-German confrontation, the previous event was. In his new post, Gregor is asked by the German supply officer formerly in charge whether he is German. Gregor doesn’t answer, shaking the question off with exasperation. Earlier, he would have plainly stated, “I am Russian.” His feelings have begun to change.
Another shift in location brings Gregor and his company to Sachsenhausen, where a guard explains in exacting detail how death camp prisoners were killed either by gassing or gunshot. He tells how guards looked through peepholes as gassed prisoners’ throats rattled and groaned. He describes the functioning of the crematorium. He explains how other prisoners were fooled into thinking they were being given an eye examination in a doctor’s office as set-up to their being shot to death. The prisoners there: “What was their nationality?” the guard is asked. Response: “All nationalities.” But mostly Russians, he continues. In 1941-1942, he reports, 13,500 Russians were killed. These disclosures are intercut by shots of Gregor, his demeanor grim, showering, as if to cleanse himself of the horror of the truth. The beginning of Gregor’s grasp that he is German as well as Russian coincides with his learning the most horrible things that the Germans have done—and, in this instance, to Russians. Underplayed during the interrogation of the blandly moon-faced guard and punctuated, one might almost say expressionistically by the stark closeups of Gregor as water pours down on him and he then covers his face, as if in shame, with a towel, this constitutes an especially trenchant passage.
Subsequently, Wolf presents shots of Gregor, alone, assimilating the import of other interrogations of Germans. It’s ever the case that a boy grows mentally under two circumstances: while he is asleep; when he is away from home—in Gregor’s case, ironically, in his homeland. “Leave me alone!” Gregor shouts at a fellow soldier when he, Gregor, feels most susceptible to feeling German. He needs to be alone because he feels so alone already. This is as good a place as any to note that, as Gregor Hecker, Jaecki Schwarz gives a remarkably flexible and prehensile performance, one that makes each of the character’s growth spurts clear to see within the framework of a consistent, recognizable personality. This is a true portrait of adolescence.
In yet another episode, a German commander honors a German boy with a medal for valor (medals being in short supply, he donates his own Iron Cross), and the boy looks almost exactly like Gregor—that is, what Gregor might have looked like five years earlier. The boy is also given as SS uniform. The scene would be incomprehensible but for the striking resemblance of the two teenagers. (As I write, American soldiers are in Iraq at the behest of a treasonous, murderous U.S. president who got into office much like Hitler. The news faithfully reports American deaths in the war and aftermath, deaths the president refuses to acknowledge by attending burial services, but gives only a vague sense of the ten-times-more innocent Iraqi deaths these American soldiers are causing. In advance of them by almost forty years, Wolf’s film addresses all these deaths.)
This is in Spandau, where, short of unconditional surrender, the Germans persist in the belief that the war is not yet lost. Gregor is now functioning as little more than the translator for a superior officer. Each translation he makes sets him painfully betwixt the Russian and German poles of his existence and personality. Added to that, a German officer baits him with accounts of Heckers in Germany he personally knows. “Is he a Jew?” the German officer asks Gregor about his superior officer, flatly adding, “Not that I’m prejudiced.” “See you in Cologne,” Gregor tells him before they separate. Gregor has decided he is now German—or should that be: Gregor, he has now decided, is German. The whole film turns on that degree of self-division and selfconsciousness, doesn’t it?
Gregor is not finished, however. A blinded German soldier who mistakes him for, and confides in him as, a fellow German soldier proves a difficult encounter. The German’s references to Russians exact a silent toll on Gregor that we read in his sighted eyes. Moreover, at a celebration of war’s end including Russians and captured German officers one of the latter group knows Gregor’s father and was in fact a frequent visitor to Gregor’s home, watching him grow up. Gregor, uneasy, can’t recall the gentleman. His memories, after all, are Russian. In a brilliant shot encapsulating the demand on him to balance the two nationalities that have a claim on him, Gregor walks part of the length of the rail of an upstairs veranda at night. He is drunk, of course, but the risk involved—he could fall to his death—suggests the dilemma of national identity that has come to a head for him. Indeed, the tightrope walk ends only when Gregor, losing his balance, does fall to the ground below. Coming to, he hears echoing in his head his mother’s admonitions from when he was eight—all in German, of course, not Russian. Surpassing even the passage where a subjective camera, representing Gregor, surveys the apartment of the German suicide, the later passage of Gregor’s outdoor balancing act, fall, and climb back up, recorded by an objective camera and uncharacteristically using chiaroscuro, constitutes the film’s finest achievement in mise-en-scène. I do not compare these two moments lightly, for the second is the culmination of the German journey, Gregor’s immersion in German consciousness, that the first passage launched.
Having climbed back up and into the official Russian-German dinner, Gregor must listen to a fellow Russian comrade say that all the German officers should be hanged. Even with a firm floor beneath him, Gregor must continue to walk a tightrope.
I Was Nineteen isn’t entirely original; at various turns, it reminded me of Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) and, in its use of landscape, a number of films by Michelangelo Antonioni, including Il grido (1957) and L’avventura (1960). Too, there are mistakes—for instance, a zoom-out in a battle scene that’s stylistic nonsense. Nor am I exactly pleased with Gregor’s increasing agitation during the standoff between his troop and Germans refusing to surrender. To me, this isn’t developing the theme of his Russian-German division but exploiting it, beating it. Nevertheless, Gregor’s whole journey seems entirely particular, even as it reverberates with overtones that transform it into a poetic generalization of human experience. We are all rooted in a national and cultural (not merely individual-psychological) past. We are all Germans—West Germans; East Germans. Germans. We are all the children of Goethe and Auschwitz, the two Germanys that a German character in the film, a teacher, worries will be inexplicable to future students. Nations may dematerialize, but the complex definition of being human does not.
I was nineteen once, and now I’m 60.
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