Thursday, June 29, 2017

Himmel ohne Sterne / Sky Without Stars

Himmel ohne Sterne. Eva Kotthaus (Anna Kaminski) and Rainer Stangl (her son Jochen).

Taivas ilman tähtiä / Himmel utan stjärnor / Cielo senza stelle. Director: Helmut Käutner. Year: 1955. Country: Germania.
    Section: Watchful Dreamer: The Subversive Melancholia of Helmut Käutner.
    Scen.: Helmut Käutner. F.: Kurt Hasse. M.: Anneliese Schönnenbeck. Scgf.: Hans Berthel, Robert Stratil. Mus.: Bernhard Eichhorn.
    Int.: Erik Schumann (Carl Altmann), Eva Kotthaus (Anna Kaminski), Georg Thomalla (Willi Becker), Horst Buchholz (Mischa Bjelkin), Gustav Knuth (Otto Friese), Camilla Spira (Elsbeth Friese), Erich Ponto (Vater Kaminski), Lucie Höflich (la madre di Anna).
    Prod.: Harald Braun per Neue Deutsche Filmgesellschaft. 35mm. D.: 108’. Bn.
    From: Goethe Institut.
    Introduce Adriano Aprà.
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna.
    A 35 mm print with English subtitles. E-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti. Sala Scorsese, 29 June 2017

Olaf Möller (Il Cinema Ritrovato): "Käutner’s mid-50s (inter)national critical successes all belong to the dreaded category of Big Subject Pictures: Die letzte Brücke (The Last Bridge, 1954), Des Teufels General (1955), Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (The Captain from Köpenick, 1956), and Ein Mädchen aus Flandern (The Girl from Flanders, 1956) all castigate war and militarism and celebrate individual acts of resistance against these evils while stressing their futility in the greater scheme of things.

Only in Der Hauptmann von Köpenick, the lone comedy of this bunch, do things end well for the protagonist – albeit not the nation that less than a decade after the events narrated here would be lost to WWI. In these works, Käutner comes ideologically uncomfortably close to the official cinema of the period which was so invested in the few good Germans and the lessons one could draw from their seemingly exemplary lives.

Befitting their fundamentally conservative attitude, the films are also among his least interesting formally – yes, they’re elegantly and intelligently directed, but for all their beauty also a bit bland, sans aura or secrets…

In between these, Käutner made one of his most outstanding works, Himmel ohne Sterne – another film with a political subject, but a contemporary and extremely painful one: relations between the two post-war-born German states as experienced by a border guard from the FRG and a seamstress from the GDR.

Käutner spiritually invested a lot in this project – which turned into a work many felt uneasy about: the East castigated it on the pages of its main daily, “Neues Deutschland”, while the West lauded its noble intentions but refused to truly embrace it. To make matters worse, it fell victim to a diplomatic skirmish resulting in its cancellation from the 1956 Cannes competition. And yet, good things did happen at the Croisette, albeit two years later when Käutner shared jury duties there with Sergej Jutkevič who then invited him to the USSR, where he showed among others Himmel ohne Sterne to great acclaim, he remembered."
Olaf Möller (Il Cinema Ritrovato)

AA: Himmel ohne Sterne has been highly regarded in Finland since its release, and in Helmut Käutner's obituaries in our country it was mentioned among the handful (or even among the three) of his best films. Thanks to the Goethe-Institut it has also been screened on two occasions in Finland during the last ten years (in the Helmut Käutner Centenary series in 2008 and the German Post-War series soon after) so I have no excuse but the fact is that I saw this masterpiece first now.

After James Whale's The Road Back, Himmel ohne Sterne is for me the second highlight of Il Cinema Ritrovato this year. Incidentally, both are exceptional films about ordeals in the German history in the 20th century.

Himmel ohne Sterne is the best film I have seen about the division of Germany after the Second World War. It is also one of the best films I have seen about borders.

The year is 1952. Germany has been divided into occupation zones since the end of the war, but the border between the Soviet and the Western occupation zones is not yet insurmountable, not yet completely closed.

This is a story of a family divided between the Eastern and the Western zones in Bavaria. The mother Anna Kaminski (Eva Kotthaus) has remained in the East. The father has died on the front after a three week romance. The son has been taken care of by the father's parents in the West. Anna's parents have stayed in the East. "You can't transplant old trees".

Having commuted for years between East and West Anna finally, before the closing of the border, takes her son with her to the East, helped by a kindly Western policeman, Carl Altmann (Erik Schumann), who risks his career therefore, and is predictably fired. Their romance continues on no-man's-land until a bitter end.

The story is inflammatory and engrossing, but Käutner tells it with tact, without over-emphasis. Himmel ohne Sterne is a great, compelling drama. It is clear on whose side Käutner is, but he abstains from demonizing conditions in the East, including Soviet occupation forces. The Soviet protagonist, the soldier Mischa Belkin (Horst Buchholz in one of his first roles) is a decent guy who refuses to abuse his position and is rather less fanatic than East German politruks. Neither does Käutner idealize the West, instead exposing its commercial and selfish biases.

There are no bit parts in this movie. The truck driver commuting between West and East is earthy and memorable. The strongest performances are perhaps those of the grandparents. Anna's mother has been in Dresden and experienced there both the 1945 firebombing and apparently a fate worse than death in the hands of the Soviet invaders. Since Dresden she has been delusional. But she immediately connects with her grandchild. Käutner elicits a wonderful performance from Rainer Stangl as the little Jochen who is bullied in the East at first because of his cowboy costume.

Until now I have loved Käutner's 1940s masterpieces best. Now Himmel ohne Sterne is my favourite Helmut Käutner movie.

A reason for the fact that Himmel ohne Sterne has always been highly regarded in Finland might be our own experience with the divided Karelia. Almost half a million people were evacuated from East Karelia in 1944, and family tragedies were inevitable. It is easy for us to relate to Himmel ohne Sterne. (Incidentally, Karelia is mentioned in the movie. An East German politruk has fought there and learned to know Carl's brother who fell on the front).

The visual quality of the print is not good. It is in low contrast, with a visibly duped look.


Einer der wenigen deutschen Filme der 1950er Jahre, die sich kritisch mit der damaligen Gegenwart auseinander setzten.

Die junge Anna Kaminski lebt unmittelbar an der Zonengrenze in Thüringen. Ihr Sohn, dessen Vater im Krieg gefallen ist, lebt bei den Großeltern in Bayern, nur wenige Kilometer entfernt im Westen.

Da sie ihn aber immer wieder sehen will, stiehlt sie sich heimlich über die Grenze. Bei einem ihrer Gänge trifft sie auf den bayerischen Grenzpolizisten Carl Altmann. Der Westdeutsche hilft Anna, ihren Sohn illegal in den Osten zu holen und beide verlieben sich ineinander.

Die einzige Möglichkeit sich zu treffen, ist aber zwischen den Grenzen in einem verlassenen Bahnhof. Schließlich will Anna mit ihrem Sohn endgültig in den Westsektor fliehen, aber die Grenzen werden immer dichter – und die Geschichte einer Liebe nimmt ein tragisches, ein tödliches Ende.

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