Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Seldom-Seen Holocaust Film Influenced Spielberg

Naked Among Wolves
First Run Features // 1963 // 119 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening Shot
Based on actual events, Nackt Unter Wölfen was the first picture about the Holocaust to be filmed in pre-unified Germany. That distinction alone earns the film an important place in world cinema.

Italian actor-director Roberto Benigni studied this intense drama of life in a Nazi concentration camp before he made the Oscar-winning La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful). Steven Spielberg has evidently seen it a few times, too. And that speaks highly of Nackt Unter Wölfen, a harrowing look inside a place of despicable evil, where the will to survive is the only weapon against inhumanity and despair.

A Bit of Plot…
Polish prisoners in Buchenwald concentration camp hide a four-year-old boy from their Nazi captors. Born in Auschwitz, the Jewish child escapes death when he is smuggled into Buchenwald inside a large suitcase. The boy’s innocence moves the hearts of these captive men, even though his very presence threatens them all. Höfel (Armin Mueller-Stahl, Avalon) urges his fellow prisoners to hide the young innocent, knowing that discovery means death for the child—but also for the men hiding him. The prisoners are unable to spirit away the little boy to freedom, so they move him instead from one secret spot to another within the grim confines of the camp. Soon, the Nazis realize a child is in their midst, and vow to locate and murder him. Torture and random executions fail to coerce the prisoners into delivering the child to these wolves of the SS.

When radio broadcasts report the Allies are rapidly advancing through Poland and may soon reach the camp, the struggle only intensifies between the prisoners of Buchenwald and the tyranny of evil men.

The climactic riot, though it rewrites history, is a small masterpiece of action montage and emotional catharsis.

Historical Context and Significance
Naked Among Wolves was directed by Frank Beyer whose thematically similar Jakob, der Lügner (1975) would be remade with mixed results in 1999 as Jakob the Liar, starring Robin Williams.

The picture before us is reputed to be the first film shot in East Berlin (a quarter century before the fall of the wall) dealing with World War II concentration camps. It is an intense, brutal film based on an autobiographical novel by Bruno Apitz, who is also listed in the credits playing a bit part. Apitz was a prisoner at Buchenwald from 1937 until the camp was liberated in 1945; his 1958 novel, which won the National Prize of the German Democratic Republic, bears the stamp of authenticity.
The film is not entirely historically accurate, although in the interest of avoiding review spoilers I leave it to the interested reader to research the history of Buchenwald in the final days of the European conflict in World War II. Suffice it to say that the ending as filmed is emotionally satisfying and more dramatic – strictly from a cinematic standpoint.

Comparisons to Schindler’s List may be inevitable. Those who watch both films could easily conclude that Spielberg has seen Naked Among Wolves many times. There is a direct parallel between the little girl in the red coat whom Oskar Schindler spies from a distance in the Krakow ghetto, and the small boy in this film, whose wide eyes are devastating. Sturdy performances by German actors are a hallmark of the picture, although only Mueller-Stahl will be familiar to most contemporary audiences.

What’s on the Disc Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Some edge enhancement and chroma-crawl are evident in the digital transfer of this black and white film, presented in anamorphically-enhanced 2.35:1 (that’s my careful measurement; the specs are not on the box). Overall, the framing and video presentation lend themselves to the stark subject matter. Even the occasional graininess contributes to a documentary feel, heightening the tension. The mono soundtrack in German is crisp and dialogue-centric, although there is no evidence of Dolby filtering and the laboratory’s logo is nowhere on the keepcase.

First Run Features delivers a rich package of extras, including biographies and filmographies, a selection of historic newsreels and essays that bring context to the film, a preview of the company’s forthcoming documentary Verdict on Auschwitz, a photo gallery, and more. Only the absence of a commentary track precludes a perfect score for the added-value content on this DVD. The keepcase contains an illustrated catalogue of the company’s other offerings, by turns grim and mostly high-minded titles.

Caveat Lector
As if it needed to be said, this is not the feel-good hit of 1963. Naked Among Wolves is as bleak as any of the more familiar films dealing with similar themes of inhuman cruelty and the shockingly casual nature of evil.

If not as emotionally devastating as Schindler’s List or the climax of Life is Beautiful, Beyer’s influential and important film remains a provocative cinematic experience, all the more daring for its production in then-Communist East Germany. The horrors of the Holocaust have scarcely faded 60 years on. But when this film was released in 1963, barely 18 years after the war, the experience of seeing it must have burned like fire in an open wound.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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