Sylvester Groth shines in this East German movie about a luckless private in a Polish prison, thrown in with a group of defeated Nazi war criminals. For a country that usually paints the ideological divide in black and white red, Frank Beyer’s film of Hermann Kant’s semi-autobiographical story is surprisingly even-handed. An excellent addition to films from behind the old Iron Curtain.
Held for Questioning
The DEFA Film Library
1982 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 98 min. / Der Aufenthalt, The Turning Point, Staying Alive / Availability noted August, 2017 / available through the DEFA Film Library Store / 29.95
Starring: Sylvester Groth, Fred Düren, Matthias Günther, Klaus Piontek, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Alexander Van Heteren, Horst Hiemer, Günter Junghans, Krzysztof Chamiec, Gustaw Lutkiewicz, Roman Wilhelmi, Andrzej Krasicki, Zygmunt Maciejewski, Andrzej Pieczynski.
Cinematography: Eberhard Geick
Film Editor: Rita Hiller
Original Music: Günther Fischer
Written by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Dieter Wolf from a novel by Hermann Kant
Produced by DEFA
Directed by Frank Beyer
East German films mellowed out a bit in the years before the wall came down, but not much. 1982’s Held for Questioning (Der Aufenthalt) is still doggedly debating the moral issues of WW2, but the anti-West antipathy isn’t as strident. The grim prison picture is sourced in a well-known book, yet as adapted for the screen takes on the shape of a stage drama. Adding to the interest for some fans might be the film’s star, Sylvester Groth. A brooding fellow with a striking but less-manic resemblance to Klaus Kinski, Groth played Joseph Goebbels in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The best place to see him shine is the excellent 2015 miniseries Deutschland 83, as a devious East German STASI spymaster. If we want to play a ‘where were you in ’83?’ game, this show gives the answer for Herr Groth.
Author Hermann Kant’s education was interrupted by WW2, and he didn’t graduate high school until the age of 26. A late-war conscript, he spent time in a Polish prison, which provided the basis for his novel. Director Frank Beyer was one of the more controversial East German directors prone to examine the morals of the political system rather than simply extol them. Beyer was best known for the affecting Naked Among Wolves and Jacob the Liar. We’re told that he’d been demoted to television work for several years and that Held for Questioning was put together by DEFA to rehabilitate his reputation (read: political viability).
Held for Questioning follows the sad story of Mark Niebuhr (Sylvester Groth), an ordinary Wehrmacht private who surrenders with thousands of other German soldiers. If he thought there was any honor in the German army before the defeat, he doesn’t find any afterwards. Held by Polish guards at a train station, Mark is recognized by a Polish woman, who accuses him of murder. He’s pulled out of line and transported to a Warsaw prison for suspected war criminals, where his Polish captors try to get him to confess to being in the SS, and to connect him with various ‘Final Solution’ atrocities in Lublin.
Mark is kept isolated for a time, and is told to ‘write his story.’ The warders never say what they want, but it’s clear that they expect him to confess. Odd work duty borders on the surreal when he’s put into a chamber filled with cabbage, that he’s expected to season with a sack of spices. They force him to climb unsafe ruins in a demolition team, where he falls and breaks his arm. He’s eventually put in a holding cell with twenty other war criminal suspects, awaiting confirmation of their crimes. The other German prisoners are as guilty as sin, for crimes as simple as killing an individual Pole to participating in the mechanized slaughter. Some of them crack up. A strong authoritarian crumbles and begins making feeble excuses for shooting hostages. But Mark does not have a good time. The Poles appoint him the cell commander, causing plenty of resentment. His countrymen theorize that he has been planted as a Polish spy. Mark finds himself adrift in a hostile situation, among guilty men waiting for their crimes to be proven.
The Soviet bloc understandably never let go of the need to cast blame on Fascists for the horrors of WW2; we could have used a bit more of that here but even by the 1960s the captive East German population must have been sick of movies on the subject. Held for Questioning has its solid literary basis, although author Kant has been described as an apologist for the East German regime.
The movie is clearly trying for international appeal in that there are no overt propaganda speeches. It’s interesting that co-writer Wolfgang Kohlhaase is one of the scribes given credit on the much earlier The Silent Star (First Spaceship on Venus), in which practically every line spoken is a bitter anti-West sentiment. Kohlhaase says that the key to adapting the novel was dropping almost all of the dialogue and letting the story play off the faces and eyes of the prisoners. At least half of the dialogue is in purposely un-translated Polish, which further enhances the feeling of isolation and claustrophobia.
Director Beyer’s earlier Jacob the Liar is the first and only East German film to be nominated for an Academy Award. We’re told that this show was planned to be an East German entry for the Oscars as well. Held for Questioning is well directed for both acting and camera, but amid all the isolation and misery the filmmakers include a scene with ‘decadent’ appeal: waiting to have his broken arm mended, Mark Niebuhr is accosted by a group of women (student nurses?) being hustled to a locker room. Two of them stop to provoke him, and one opens the front of her dress to shake him up even further. Sylvester Groth answers with his best tortured Klaus Kinski face. The girls shrink in horror when a doctor tells them that Mark is an SS war criminal.
The dramatic center of the story is hearing the German prisoners reveal their crimes, with varying attitudes. A haunted-looking kid no older than Mark, Private Fenske (Hans-Uwe Bauer) fesses up to driving an execution van that asphyxiated as many as 700 victims a day. A somewhat sympathetic general is played by Fred Düren, the star of the earlier East German musical The Flying Dutchman. He’s eventually left isolated, reciting lame excuses as to why his mass shootings of unarmed civilian hostages was perfectly acceptable behavior. Although Mark is once or twice the recipient of his comrades’ anger and frustration, few of his fellow Germans believe he’s anything more than a green private who knows nothing and saw nothing.
The show’s ‘safe’ subject ended up being a problem, in a political atmosphere where any reference to historical truth can backfire. Fears of offending Polish officials — in 1983 the country was under tight military rule — caused it to be withdrawn from export. As Wolfgang Kohlhaase explains, the cautious DEFA officials later discovered that the Poles had no problem at all with the picture. Mark Niebuhr is unfairly accused, but he isn’t summarily executed or sent to a death labor camp.
The DEFA Film Library’s DVD of Held for Questioning is an acceptable presentation of this interesting drama, a war prison picture from the other side of the ideological divide. In terms of anti-Nazi sentiment, it’s much less harsh than the 1970 English film The McKenzie Break, where German POWs in a Scottish camp terrorize those among them unwilling or unable to continue resisting tooth and nail.
The transfer is just okay. Either by the nature of what looks like a so-so telecine, or through some conversion bugs, there is occasional breakup in the line structure, leaving what look like old-fashioned analog digital hits. Either they soon stopped or I stopped noticing them, for the film mostly looks okay, but not exceptional. The muted colors are appropriate and the picture is reasonably sharp. The soundtrack is rich, with Günther Fischer’s music score making a positive contribution.
The DEFA Film library includes some bios in its DVD-Rom extras, where we learn that actor Sylvester Groth effectively defected to the West in 1984. Another text extra is an essay by director Frank Beyer, When the Wind Turns: Held for Questioning. Beyer details the changes from the book, where Mark Neibuhr is talkative and positive-minded. The movie is a little more like Kafka’s The Trial. Beyer also explains that his work troubles stemmed from accepting jobs in West Berlin. The harassment included the dismissal of his wife as a broadcaster.
A welcome video extra is a ten-minute interview with writer Wolfgang Kohlhaase, that informed some of my notes above. Kohlhaase resigns himself to the fact that this superior movie was foolishly kept from a wider distribution.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Held for Questioning DVD
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good –
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: interview with Wolfgang Kohlhasse; DVD-Rom text essay When the Wind Turns: Held for Questioning by director Frank Beyer, bios, etc.; video interview Scriptwriter Wolfgang Kohlhasse on the Film Production 2001, 9 minutes.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 21, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson