Bulgaria-East Germany, 1959
Director: Konrad Wolf
Production: DEFA (Berlin) and Studiya za igralni filmi (Sofia); black and white, 35mm; running time: 93 minutes; length: 2,513 meters. Released March 1959, Berlin and Sofia. Filmed 1958 in Bulgaria.
Screenplay: Anzhel Wagenstein; co-director: Rangel Vulchanov; photography: Werner Bergmann; editor: Christina Wernicke; sound: Erich Schmidt; production designer: Jose Sancha; music: Simeon Pironkov; costume designer: Albert Seidner.
Cast: Sasha Krusharska (Ruth); Jürgen Frohriep (Walter); Erik S. Klein (Kurt); Stefan Peichev (Uncle Petko); Georgi Naumov (Blazhe); Ivan Kondov (Ruth's father); Milka Tuikova (Police officer); Stiliyan Kanev (The "Doctor"); Naicho Petrov (Police officer); Elena Hranova (Old Jewish woman); Albert Zahn (Soldier on duty); Hannjo Hasse (Captain); Hans Fiebrandt (Soldier); Tsonka Miteva (Mutsi); Waltraut Kramm (Mutsi's girlfriend); Trifon Dzhonev (Schmied); Leo Konforti (The nervous Jew); Gani Staikov (Feverish person); Avram Pinkas (Water carrier); Luna Davidova (Pregnant Jew); Petar Vasilev (Jewish merchant); Milka Mandil (Jewish merchant); Marin Toshev (Jew with cigarettes); Bella Eschkenazy (Jew with girl); Kancho Boshnakov (Greedy Jew); Georgi Banchev (Woodcutter); Yuri Yakovlev (Soldier at the station).
Awards: Cannes Film Festival, Special Jury Prize, 1959; Edinburgh Film Festival, First Prize and Honorary Diploma, 1959.
Cervoni, Albert, Les Ecrans de Sofia, Paris, 1976.
Liehm, Mira and Antonin, The Most Important Art: East EuropeanFilm After 1945, Berkeley, 1977.
Gregor, Ulrich, Geschichte des Films ab 1960, Frankfurt, 1978.
Wolf, Konrad, Direkt in Kopf und Herz: Aufzeichnungen, Reden,Interviews, Berlin, 1989.
Wolf, Markus, Die Troika, Düsseldorf, 1989.
Tok, Hans-Dieter, "Konrad Wolf," in Regiestuhle, Berlin, 1972.
Gehler, Fred, in Film und Fernsehen (East Berlin), no. 4, 1986.
Schwalbe, K., "Sterne," in Beiträge zur Film und Fernsehwissenschaft, vol. 31, no. 39, 1990.
Hoberman, J., in Village Voice (New York), vol. 43, 13 January 1998.
* * *
The lights and shadows of the Nazi night understandably dominated the cinemas of the East European socialist countries for almost two decades after the end of World War II before melting away, slowly and painfully, from memory into history. Sterne was made at that particular point when the schematic black and white "bad German" mode of depiction had already been recognised as artistically insufficient, but the new perception of human conflicts and contradictions in a complicated world, sparked by the Italian neorealism, had yet to gain prominence.
Though both Bulgaria and the German Democratic Republic had produced their own films on similar themes and of equal quality (On The Little Island—1958, Lesson One—1960, and And We Were Young—1961, in Bulgaria; and Stronger Than the Night—1954, Betrayed Until the Last Day—1957, They Called Him Amigo—1959 and Naked Among Wolves—1962, in the GDR), it was Sterne that introduced the cinemas of the two countries to the international film scene, where the Polish school and the Soviet "thaw" in the mid 1950s had already stirred the attention and dispersed the bias towards the cinema of the socialist countries. Much later Albert Cervoni in his Les Ecrans de Sofia (Paris, 1976) called the film "a masterpiece or a little less than that, but certainly a moving work where—rather uncustomarily—the formula of the co-production was justified on all levels, political, esthetic and also that of the screenplay itself." He stated this in part to cast a passing remark at the Quai d'Orsay, the French ministry of external affairs, for which the GDR did not exist in 1959. For this reason Sterne was shown at Cannes only as a Bulgarian entry. There was a shared tragic national experience behind the co-production; the Kingdom of Bulgaria was an ally of the Third Reich from 1940 to 1944, yet managed through firm resistance to save its Jews from extermination. A personal friendship was also involved as screenwriter Anzhel Wagenstein, a Bulgarian Jew and a member of a resistance unit, and director Konrad Wolf, son of exiled Communist writer Friedrich Wolf and an officer in the Red army, studied together at Moscow's VGIK in the early fifties.
The story of the disillusioned Aryan Unteroffizier who falls in love with the girl from the doomed transport of Greek Jews and tries to save her could have easily turned into melodrama but for its authenticity and sharpness, imbued with elegiac overtones. Starting with its title (the stars are twinkling witnesses of the lovers, and also humiliating yellow signs of racial Minderwertigkeit), the film attempts to blend poetic dreams with grim reality. The poetic side is less successful partly because of the somewhat old-fashioned and artificial cinematographic means that are applied, but mostly because of the inherent intellectual approach seeking—unlike Hiroshima, mon amour which is structured as an emotional, unpredictable and uncontrollable response to war traumas—a rational explanation for what seems an absurd and inevitable one-way situation. Highly realistic in its sight and sound, the film's images remain in one's mind: the small and quiet Bulgarian town, the yard of the school turned temporarily into a camp, the people behind the barbed wire and their eyes that keep looking out. Eyes that bring to mind the final sequence of Mikhail Romm's Ordinary Fascism; eyes that seem to have seen death at the end of the tunnel and are trying, hopelessly, to hide it.