This tight, visually compelling East German feature film recreates the crime that touched off the Second World War.
On the evening of August 31, 1939, German SS operatives disguised as ‘Polish nationalists’ briefly took over a German radio relay station at Gleiwitz near the German-Polish border. This event was part of a larger scheme orchestrated to justify the Nazi invasion of Poland.
In response to this staged ‘outrage’, early the next morning a German gunboat bombarded the port city Danzig/Gdansk—the ‘first shots’ of the Second World War—and German troops massed on the Polish border opened Hitler’s Blitzkrieg on Poland. Two days later (September 3), Britain and France, honoring their treaty obligations with Poland meant to deter Adolf Hitler’s ambitions, declared war on Germany.
The film opens with a voiceover on the image of a peaceful city at evening: ‘We have had peace for 20 years. The lull will be over soon.’ This cuts to a newsreel showing joint German-Italian air and naval exercises, and the apparent author of the opening thought, a young man in a full German movie theater.
The young man and the audience watch the images of German military might with apparent pleasure and approval. They also enjoy some Nazi high kitsch: Hitler with small children, and a jolly Reichsführer Hermann Goering hamming it up at a folk festival like a small-town, baby-kissing American politician.
The young man is SS Hauptsturmführer (captain) Alfred Helmut Naujocks (Hannjo Hasse), the officer picked to lead the Gleiwitz operation. He is in the movie theater to meet a contact who will take him to be briefed on the mission by Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller (Herwart Grosse), a figure who resembles an SS death’s head.
Müller directs Naujocks that he will carry out this mission using the operational name Birke at the head of a team of six ideologically pre-screened ‘Volksdeutschers,’ or ethnic Germans who had lived in Poland and speak Polish. The six were SS assets with special skills and military or paramilitary training.
The target is the radio relay station at Gleiwitz, near the southern Polish border in Upper Silesia, a former German province that Stalin annexed to Poland after the war. It is a sleepy little out of the way place; in our first introduction to the place we see a radio technician there in a white lab coat drinking coffee and reading a newspaper listening to Hawaiian music.
The plot moves quickly. Other than the last-minute scrambling for a broadcast microphone after they seized the station, the film only intimates that the mastermind planning the operation overlooked the detail that this installation was not a broadcast station but a radio relay station for the broadcast station at Breslau, thus had limited transmission capacity.
That Naujocks’ rendezvous point with security officials is, on two key occasions, a movie theatre—the first during a newsreel, the second during a glitzy musical—would underscore the sense of unreality about this plot if not the entire Hitlerian vision.
Of note is a montage sequence showing Naujocks travelling by train through the rich farmland of peacetime Germany surrounded by well fed, self-satisfied German soldiers and civilians, with a glow of smug satisfaction at the quick victory that he believes to be soon at hand.
Naujocks later reflects on his background and eight-year Nazi career: a jingoistic schoolteacher and problems with higher education shown when a ‘Jew professor’ tells him he needs to work and study harder to succeed; becoming a brownshirt by taking the Nazi oath before a sunset fire; work first as a domestic agent, then a foreign operative of the SD, or Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service).
More powerful is a montage sequence showing the blindfolded ‘unfortunate’ (actually a pro-Polish German named Franz/Franciszek Honiok whom the Gestapo had just arrested) en route to the staging area. He apparently is aware that he has a role in something evil afoot but is unable to do anything about it; his feeling is expressed as he flexes and wrings his hands and wrists in handcuffs between two policemen in the back seat of a police Mercedes sedan.
When the Mercedes jolts to a stop at a railroad crossing, an army train carrying trucks, artillery pieces and soldiers on flatcars and in boxcars to the Polish frontier rattles by, hypnotically synchronized with the ‘Juwi juwi di ha ha ha’ refrain of Schwarzbraun ist die Haselnuss (Dark brown is the hazelnut). This was a German folk song that was a popular marching song with the army and the Hitler Youth.
The Nazis and their views may sound overcooked to the postmodern viewer. However, director Gerhard Klein got into trouble with East German authorities at the time by making his Nazis too convincing: officials suspected that he espoused the attitudes they expressed. Klein, a life-long communist, had served in the Wehrmacht as a draftee and said that he based his portrayals on his experience.
Details vary among several versions of this event that exist. This story reportedly derives from an affidavit taken from Naujocks by a member of the Nuremburg War Crimes Commission.
The DVD set includes a 16-minute 2003 documentary about film editor Evelyn Carow, from the series ‘Film Professionals: The Editor Evelyn Carow.’ Carow’s work itself makes this movie worth seeing. She appears to have been to Klein what Thelma Schoonmaker is to Martin Scorsese.