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Almost everything we westerners know about WW I has to do with the Western Front, the British, the French, the Americans and of course the Germans.  Many hundreds of hundreds of books and films.  Less well known is the other side: the Eastern Front where in the summer of 1914 the Czar’s armies hurried into a war against the Germans they were little prepared for.  Defeat after defeat, miserable conditions and nationwide malnutrition — the Baltic and the Bosporus were both blocked and trade fell by 95%–  set in motion the only anti-war movement to ever actually stop a war: the Russian Revolution of March to October of  1917 resulted in a December Armistice and, soon after, a treaty between Russia and Germany.  From within that Leonhard Frank found a small human story to tell.  Written in 1926, Karl And Anna, has been spun off into at least three movies, and one play.  The nightmare is not the war itself, but what happens when a man comes home.

Movie Der Frau undKarl [Joachim Lätsch] and Richard [Peter Zimmermann] are two German soldiers in a Russian prisoner of war camp.  As Rainer Simon directs the 1985 Die Frau und der Fremde (The Woman and the Stranger), they are digging a long, deep trench, alone in a barren plain.  With only each other as company, they talk.  Richard talks about his wife, Anna, who he hasn’t seen for over three years.  Because he barely knew her and desire still ripe, the memories are too sharp and the detail too much.  Karl voraciously soaks everything in, imagines her as beside him. When the men are brought in to a camp, from “out there,” for a weekly bath, Richard gets hauled into another work detail and Karl makes a break for it.  After an exhausting journey of some one thousand kilometers he finds his way to Anna’s door.

She doesn’t know him, of course, even when he insists he is Richard, her husband.  She had received official notice of his death soon after he left. When neighborly gossip tells us, and reminds Anna, that replacing a missing husband with another is no new thing, husbands come and go –they’ve all got the same thing, goes a raucous sewing factory back-and-forth, when a young friend of Anna’s welcomes “Richard” back after he has “remembered” things about her, when “Richard” shows himself a sweet man, and handsome besides, Anna [the plain and lovely Kathrin Waligura] decides.  They satiate their longing. She has second thoughts and insists he go.  He persists in his kindness and support — and they become “husband” and “wife.’  A baby is soon on the way.

Then the Armistice breaks out.  Richard is released and makes his own labored way across the same thousand kilometers.  A boy on a bike, as he nears home, displays a red flag and shouts that change is coming to Germany, too! [We forget how high the expectations were all over Europe following the months of the several Russian revolutions: mutinies in the German Navy, in the French Army.  Newspapers and pamphlets churned out in the thousands.  Bertrand Russell in London writing of Pacifism and Revolution. A revolution in Germany only months away.]

Richard arrives home to a stunned Anna, and a doubly stunned Karl.  Weapons are found. Not blood but desperation soaks our senses. Despite our being witness of Karl and Anna’s happiness we can not escape the anguish of the returning man, betrayed and love gone after years of anticipation.  Husband and wife depart and Richard is left alone with his house.

The movie was made in East Germany before the fall of the wall, and so under East German strictures on creativity, yet Simon does a very fine job.  It is quiet, no underlying, pulsing sound track to shape our emotional response.  Some fine acting as for example, when the two men crawl in the trench dirt caught in desire for the imagined Anna, or Anna, as she slowly decides and yields to Karl.  I’d like to pitch also, the scenes of their first passion.  As one who is often put-off by the gratuitous fixed-eye spectation of love making in modern cinema, I thought actors and director hit just the right notes: clearly sensual, sound and motion to show, equal attention to flanks, chests, arms of both, each getting the ‘superior’ position, but the cutting so well done that it almost passed for a dream-impression.  No lingering, no staring, just those moments of joy and abandon, implying the world.

An interesting scene of townspeople selling iron nails to passers by, as part of the war-effort.  The nails are then pounded into a tall stature of “Iron” [General Paul von] Hindenburg, the hero of the Battle of Tannenberg which stopped the Russian advance in August of 1914, and by the time in the movie, was the all powerful Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces.  The nails, I suppose, are meant to symbolically contribute to his ‘iron’ character and bring the armies to victory.  A nice piece of local lore for a non-German audience.  There are other scenes of a wedding, despite the war, plenty of intimations of the near starvation brought on the entire population by the British blockade, and nice moments of a raucous neighborhood of children and women at work and gossip.

Some scenes are muted to the sepia tones so familiar from photos of the era. Others are shot in decent color of the 1980s.  I’m not sure, without another viewing, how the shift is meant thematically, though I would guess the color is linked to moments of hope as, for example, on the train when Richard is coming home.

I found it a very moving film, especially knowing the less than ideal conditions under which is was made.  For some the pace will be too slow, and without music, too quiet.  For me, not.  Both the quiet and the tempo seemed to emerge from Anna’s personality — even tempered, cautious, but listening, to him and to herself.  Despite the long separation between East and West Germany the movie was awarded the Golden Bear at the 1985 West German Berlin International Film Festival.

I saw it in a projection at the Goethe Institute in San Francisco which is having, along with its sister organizations around the world, a several month remembrance of the “Great War.”  Last week they had a  presentation of a new graphic novel of Remarque’s world-famous All Quiet on the Western Front.  The artist, Peter Eickmeyer was in attendance.  I don’t know if it will be offered in English, but the German edition is very fine to go through.  Large copies of many of the pages are on display at the Institute, 530 Bush St, San Francisco.

I haven’t found a copy of the film to view on-line, but the DVD itself is available — if you can play non-US format DVDs. Interestingly there is also a 1928 version by Joe May, called Homecoming, as well as George Cukor’s 1947,  Desire Me, with Greer Garson and Robert Mitchum, although it is set at the end of WW II. It would be very interesting to see both, but if you can get hold of the Simon, 1985 Die Frau und der Fremde you won’t be disappointed.

A war movie without a shot being fired!  Just imagine.

The story is not unknown in other lands, either.  One that comes to mind is Duong Thu Huong’s 2006 No Man’s Land, from Vietnam in which a blissful second marriage is interrupted by the appearance of the long-declared-dead first husband.  In that case the wife attempts to honor her first marriage, in great difficulty and sorrow.  In Germany, 1985 looking at 1917, the first husband is left on his own, crying out “If you are the husband and she is the wife, then who am I?  Who am I?  Am I a stranger?”  A very human cry from a still fiercely Stalinized East Germany.

Duong Thu Huong’s most recent novel, No Man’s Land (2006), – See more at: https://www.allinoneboat.org/2013/04/11/no-mans-land-a-novel-from-vietnam-by-duong-thu-huong/#sthash.2g3kM8vg.dpuf
Duong Thu Huong’s most recent novel, No Man’s Land (2006), – See more at: https://www.allinoneboat.org/2013/04/11/no-mans-land-a-novel-from-vietnam-by-duong-thu-huong/#sthash.2g3kM8vg.dpuf