The best of the films from East Germany that I’ve seen, Gerhard Klein’s The Gleiwitz Case (1961) depicts the incident that lit the fuse for World War II: the undercover operation where Nazi agents disguised as Polish partisans attacked a sleepy Reich radio station in Gleiwitz, on the Polish border (known today as Gliwice), early on the morning of August 31, 1939. The “attack” was meticulously stage-managed by the Nazis for maximum outrage and propaganda value, and it provided the official pretext for Germany’s invasion of Poland the following day.
Tracking this blackest of black ops from start to finish, The Gleiwitz Case is like a caper movie from hell. Based on statements the leader of the assault gave to the British military after WWII, the movie is an anti-Fascist statement of unusual power.
And yet, despite this, it was roundly denounced by East Germany’s socialist authorities in 1961 and quickly pulled from cinemas. (A depressingly familiar scenario: virtually every Eastern Bloc film of artistic note met with consternation, if not condemnation, from its government.)
The Gleiwitz Case runs a mere 63 minutes long — a dense, unsettling hour. In outline the movie is, as the title suggests, an objective case study, pure procedural. This is how they did it. Klein opens on SS major Alfred Helmut Naujocks (Hannjo Hasse) being recruited to lead the top-secret operation, and follows him as he in turn enlists a six-man strike force and lines up a patsy in the form of an unnamed concentration camp inmate. As if sticking to the record as closely as possible, the dialogue is terse and minimal throughout, consisting largely of commands.
But on screen The Gleiwitz Case is anything but dry or clinical. Because it builds toward the most unhappy of endings, the narrative up-ends the traditional movie scenario of heroic triumph. As the Nazi agents plot and carry out their grim charade, the suspense that builds up — not will they pull it off, but how — is cruelly ironic, and a little sickening.
Klein’s solution for how to film a procedural starring a ruthless Nazi protagonist is to remove any possibility of warmth or identification; he means for the audience to watch in a spirit of bitter detachment. Accordingly, Klein and his cinematographer, the gifted Jan Curik (working in a very different mode, he later lensed Valerie and Her Week of Wonders), create an alienating mise-en-scene where characters are rarely centered in the frame or shown from conventional perspectives. The actors’ heads often appear at the bottom of the screen, literally depriving them of stature, as if to diminish the significance of the individuals in the larger, sinister historical process here.
Virtually every composition calls attention to itself; the viewer is never allowed to relax. On the soundtrack, Kurt Schwaen’s score seems to drip with irony, often sounding like a parody of martial music. The movie exemplifies cinematic modernism at its most icy.
We first encounter Naujocks in a packed cinema as he watches a newsreel that extols the might of the Reich. A fellow agent summons him from the crowd, and escorts him to the office of death’s-head Gestapo chief Müller (played by Herwart Grosse, a dead ringer here for the Nazi supervillain Baron Strucker of vintage Captain America comics).
Naujock’s orders are to stage an attack by “the Polish Insurrection Force”: his band of ersatz Polish partisans is to seize the radio station and broadcast a revolutionary appeal in Polish and halting German. Naujocks’ first stop is the Bernau Fencing School, where he has no trouble recruiting six ethnic Germans from the border region of Silesia (i.e., they all speak Polish).
It’s the sequence at the fencing school that drew particular criticism from the East German authorities once they saw The Gleiwitz Case: Klein introduces the scene with a montage of troops in formation, intercut with dueling fencers. Both the soldiers and the athletic swordsmen are rendered near abstract as the camera frames them in geometric compositions. The filmmaking here is a clear allusion to Leni Riefenstahl, which is what bothered Klein’s Communist overseers.
That the higher-ups in East Berlin were made so uncomfortable by Klein’s technique suggests that political hacks, no matter what the system, are invariably bad at ‘reading’ movies. Klein’s montage links the aristocratic culture of fencing with the Wehrmacht troops on the march; the sequence is an incisive nightmare of Prussian militarism. Klein recontextualizes what was always anti-human and repellent in Triumph of the Will, appropriating Riefenstahl’s style to turn it on its head.
Put another way, Klein credits the audience with knowing what this glorified militaristic aesthetic will lead to. Things hardly become less uncomfortable once Naujocks finds his men inside the school: as they present themselves for his inspection, the six recruits are all filmed for maximum Übermensch creepiness.
Klein packs a remarkable number of unexpected, even weird notes into a movie that’s barely an hour long. It’s startling when we later get a rapid montage of slivers from Naujocks’ biography, dating back to his childhood at the turn of the century — pointed vignettes that define a culture of pious nationalism, militarism and sadism. Naujocks’ life is marked by hostility toward anything that might constitute cosmopolitanism or “weakness,” and a notable absence of the feminine. (Klein and his screenwriters are hardly the first to depict Fascism as oppressively masculine, but even so it’s noteworthy how no woman in The Gleiwitz Case has a speaking part until 36 minutes into the film.)
The jump-cut tour of Naujocks’ psyche comes as he opens a few beers for his men. They’re cooling their heels as they wait for the call to launch their mission. Actor Hannjo Hasse skirts going over the top in portraying Naujocks’ reptilian charisma here, but he’s nothing if not convincing — his Naujocks is a Nazi creep for the ages.
Naujocks allows himself to relax just once in the movie. Awaiting the final go-ahead for the mission, he kills time in another cinema, and his face grows slack as he’s transfixed by an unnamed musical depicting a fairy-tale Austria. On the screen, a singer in top hat and tails is surrounded by waltzing dancers; presumably Klein means for his audience to reflect on the empty escapism of this Nazi-sanctioned pop culture. (In contrast, perhaps, to the ideological starch provided by the we-know-what’s-best-for-you popular culture of the GDR.)
The Gleiwitz Case ends with Naujocks and his men striding away from the radio station in the early morning light, their mission accomplished. A title on screen declares: “43,000,000 dead.” The title is superfluous — everything we’ve seen up to this point has been so convincingly grim that the movie hardly needs a didactic concluding note.
For more on The Gleiwitz Case and other East German films, check out the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s comprehensive DEFA Film Library (with links to stream, rent or buy the movies) and Jim Morton’s East German Cinema blog.