Nackt unter Wölfen (Naked among Wolves) 1963 German Democratic Republic DEFA (119 minutes) directed by Frank Beyer; cowritten by Beyer and Bruno Apitz, based on Apitz’s novel of the same title; cinematography by Günter Marczinkowsky; editor, Hildegard Conrad.
It is April 1945. The organized madness that had been the Third Reich’s ‘security state’ is unraveling, among which its immense internment and slave labor system.
Nazi officials fearing war crimes prosecution for their treatment of the Third Reich’s ‘undesirables’ work to hide evidence of their misdeeds as they evacuate prison populations ahead of advancing Allied troops.
In the midst of this chaos, a small boy turns up in a suitcase in Buchenwald concentration camp.
When inmates find the boy, the largely self-governing prisoner administration must decide whether to jeopardize prisoners’ lives and their underground organization by hiding him in the camp, to keep him moving through the system to an uncertain fate, or to turn him over to the Nazis.
This beautifully shot, superbly acted 1963 East German tour de force set at Buchenwald in the final weeks of the war was the first German film to take on the subject. It is said to have captured prison camp life as well as Billy Wilder’s popular Stalag 17 (1953) about Allied prisoners of war in Nazi Germany.
DEFA director Frank Beyer filmed the movie on the actual location from a novel by Bruno Apitz, a former Buchenwald political inmate. A number of the actors, including Erwin Geschonneck, one of the leads, also were former prisoners.
|Erwin Geschonneck and Armin Mueller-Stahl in Frank Beyer's Nackt unter Wolfen.|
The film sketches personalities and relationships among the diverse inmate population and Nazi camp personnel, as well as interactions between the inmates and their Nazi overseers. (Notes at the end provide details concerning the variety of ranks, duties and badges of the SS personnel and inmates which appear in the film.)
The Nazis constructed Buchenwald in the mid-1930s in virgin forest near Weimar, the heart of classic German romanticism. The camp held mainly political prisoners; chief among these were German Communists.
Many of the inmates had been in the system since the mid- to late-1930s. There were professionals and academics, tradesmen, technicians, and artists of all skill levels and ability; Jews and Gypsies, suspected political and religious opponents of the regime, and a full complement of criminals and ne’er-do-wells.
In short, the Nazi SS [Schutzstaffel] which ran the camps warehoused the Reich’s undesirables and left it to the inmates to organize their own survival through self-government.
The SS appointed a hierarchy of inmate trusties to administer prisoner needs, though generally the inmates first picked or recommended them. Communist party members vied with criminals for control of the inmate administration. The SS reportedly preferred to work with criminals—many of its members shared the same lumpen background and outlook—but the well-organized, disciplined party won out in the long run.
Inmates also maintained an intelligence network which kept tabs on camp authorities and monitored international news broadcasts, particularly the Allied advance, on contraband radios. In addition, they collected arms and trained personnel anticipating their takeover of the camp.
At the center of this story is Walter Krämer (Erwin Geschonneck), the Lagerälteste, or senior camp inmate whom SS camp authorities put in charge of the inmates’ administration. (This fictional character may be based on a heroic Buchenwald inmate of the same name who was not a lagerälteste.)
The story opens with Krämer crossing the empty, nearly four-acre Appellplatz, Buchenwald’s actual mustering area. Behind Krämer is the camp’s distinctive tower with its motto below on the main gate, Jedem das Seine, ‘To each his own.’ The crematorium chimney belches ominous black smoke off to his right—and throughout the film.
Krämer, a German Communist party member with a decade in the system, must balance his fellow inmates’ best interests against the SS camp authorities’ requirements and the instructions of the Communist party apparatus within the camp.
SS personnel ranged from cynical bureaucrats to fanatic ‘chicken hawks’ dodging dangerous line duty, to uniformed criminals looking to enrich themselves and bullies and sadists who enjoyed abusing defenseless inmates.
Standartenführer Schwahl (Heinz Peter Scholz) is the SS bureaucrat in overall command of the camp. The splenetic Hauptsturmführer Kluttig (Herbert Köfer) is Lagerführer, or officer-in-charge of the prisoners. Untersturmführer Reineboth (Erik S. Klein) is Kluttig’s cynical right hand as the Rapportsturmführer, or roll call officer.
|Erik S. Klein, foreground, and Herbert Koefor, background, search for 'das judiche Kind' in Nackt unter Wolfen.|
In the movie, once the inmate population of Buchenwald’s main camp assembles for morning roll call, Reineboth orders them several times to remove and replace their caps en masse. This typically was done at the whim of the rapportsturmführer until he was satisfied that the inmates had executed his order with the proper respect.
German officials characteristically raise their voices as they lose patience. Along similar lines, at several key moments in the film, inmates are more focused on the toes of the SS officers’ highly polished boots than their faces.
André Höfel (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a Kapo, or inmate work detail foreman, here in charge of the personal effects intake depot, and coworkers Rudi Pippig (Fred Delmare) and Marian Kropinski (Krystyn Wójcik), find the child (Jürgen Strauch) among the personal effects of prisoners force-marched from Auschwitz in western Poland.
|Fred Dalmare and Armin Mueller-Stahl in Nackt unter Wolfen.|
Zbigniew Jankowsky (Boleslaw Plotnicki), the Pole who brought the boy in the suitcase, tells them that the boy came with his parents to Auschwitz from the Warsaw Ghetto at the age of four months. His father and others concealed him in the camp. Jankowsky looked after him after both parents went to the gas chamber.
Jankowsky tells this tale after a reverent pause over a piece of bread they have given him, a poignant detail that would not have been lost on camp survivors.
The three Communists decide to hide the boy. (Jankowsky subsequently is evacuated to Dachau.) Their SS overseer, the venal Hauptsharführer Zweiling (Wolfram Handel), catches them red-handed, but they give Zweiling a morsel for thought.
Later at home, Zweiling boasts to his wife Hortense (Angela Brunner) that saving ‘das jüdische Kind’ will put them in the good graces of the approaching American forces. Hortense, busily packing the Zweiling household beneath the portrait of SS commander Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler and expecting the order—or last-minute necessity—to flee, dismisses this as nonsense. They hatch another plot.
Meanwhile, Herbert Bochow (Gerry Wolff), a Communist party official, orders Krämer to get rid of the boy so as not to jeopardize inmates’ lives and the underground network.
The SS tries to find the child. The inmates’ self-government, brought about by Nazi disdain for lesser orders of humanity, and Communist party discipline, has rendered the population nearly inscrutable to them.
The prisoners keep the boy one step beyond SS reach. The search for the boy becomes a desperate, ruthless hunt to expose the suspected—and feared—armed resistance network and the names of its leaders.
The inmates also stall to resist evacuation as Allied planes roar overhead and the U.S. Third Army draws closer. Kluttig wants to liquidate the ‘troublemakers’—if not the whole camp population; many of his colleagues anxiously work out their own exit strategies. And some inmates burn to avenge years of unanswered indignities.
Background notes on Buchenwald concentration camp and the ranks, duties and badges of its officials and inmates which appear in the film:
The Third Reich’s concentration camps were operated by the Schutzstaffel, or SS, a military and police formation under Himmler’s command. The SS Totenkopfverbände (Death’s Head Units), an independent formation within the SS, oversaw the camps.
The Nazis established the camp system with the intent to ‘purify’ German Aryan society by isolating all political and moral opponents, criminals, homosexuals, and so-called ‘asocial elements,’ as well as ‘inferior’ ethnic groups such as Jews and the Roma. Many prisoners had been in the system going back to the mid- to late-1930s.
In general, inmates had not undergone a judicial process nor received a sentence. The ultimate aim of the camp system was to eliminate the Third Reich’s undesirables by attrition or extermination.
Each category of prisoner wore an identifying triangular ‘badge.’ The best known now of these badges are the superimposed yellow triangles which made the Star of David which Jews wore in all Nazi-ruled areas inside and outside the camps, and the inverted pink triangle worn in the camps by homosexual internees.
Buchenwald held mostly political detainees. ‘Politicals’ wore an inverted red triangle and a prisoner identification number. Single letters inscribed on the triangles indicated an inmate’s country of origin, such as a ‘P’ for Poles. A number across a red triangle indicated a person arrested in a round-up of suspicious people. Criminals wore an inverted green triangle. A line sewn above a triangle indicated a repeat offender.
The camp command designated a hierarchy of trusties to administer the inmates’ daily needs and to help insure order, beginning with the Lagerälteste or senior camp inmate. Under the Lagerälteste were Blockältestes or senior block inmates in charge of barracks, Kapos, inmate foremen in charge of work details, and Lagerschutz, inmate police, among others who wore black armbands with their designation in white lettering.
The SS was an ideological military and police organization separate from the German armed forces, though both organizations carried out the Third Reich’s policies. The SS wore the same rank insignia as German army personnel, but their ranks had different, ideological names, like the ‘dragons’ and ‘wizards’ of the Ku Klux Klan, but with a lot of sturms [storms] and führers [leaders].
Thus the film’s Standartenführer Schwahl, the installation commandant, wears the rank of an army oberst (colonel). Schwahl has a pair of subordinate sturmbannführers, or majors. Below them is Hauptsturmführer Kluttig, with the rank of an army hauptmann (captain). Kluttig also is called Lagerführer, ‘camp leader,’ the officer directly in charge of the prisoners.
Untersturmführer Reineboth has the rank of an army leutnant (second lieutenant) and also is called Rapportsturmführer, or ‘roll call officer.’ This officer conducted roll calls and personnel training and oversaw the disciplining of prisoners.
In the film, Kluttig commands the inmate population; Reineboth is his right-hand.
Under Kluttig is Hauptsharführer Zweiling with the army rank of oberfeldwebel, or master sergeant. Zweiling is a Blockführer, or block leader, an SS official in charge of a block, or unit of barracks. Oberscharführer Mandrill, the torturer, wears the army rank of feldwebel (sergeant first class).
MP consulted Eugen Kogon’s classic The Theory and Practice of Hell: the German Concentration Camps and the System behind Them (Der SS-Staat. Das System der deutschen Konzentrationslager) to compile these notes. Kogon, an anti-Nazi Roman Catholic, survived six years in Buchenwald.