Monday, December 17, 2007

Trace of Stones

Trace of Stones
Directed by Frank Beyer
First Run Features

“The plan is a sacred cow,” says a party bureaucrat. Yet everyone knows the plan is hopelessly flawed, and questioning it can lead to a reprimand. Welcome to East Germany, circa 1966, as reflected in a scene from Frank Beyer’s industrial drama, Trace of Stones. If that sounds like risky material for East German cinema, one would be correct. Despite being produced as a prestige picture by the GDR studio DEFA, and heavily promoted as such, the East German authorities stepped in at the last minute, disrupting its premiere and then banning it outright. After twenty five years, it was finally given a proper premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, and is now available on DVD in America.

Trace is told in flashback through testimony at a party inquiry into Werner Horrath, the idealistic party secretary appointed to Schkona, a fictional behemoth of socialist engineering. The charges against him include: “immoral behavior as well as personal career-mindedness and political and ideological failures.”

At first, Horrath makes waves by openly questioning the flawed site plans and challenging the authority of Hannes Balla, the hard-living, rule-breaking boss of the Balla gang, the most productive work group on the site. (That the Ballas bear a certain resemblance to western cowboys probably did not help the film with GDR ideological authorities.) At first viewers root for the straight-laced Horrath as he stands up to the bullying of the anarchic Balla, but their relationship becomes much more nuanced as the film progresses and more of Balla’s character is revealed.

The married Horrath and the rebellious Balla both fall in love with a party engineer, Kati Klee, played by Polish actress Krystyna Stypulkowska (and dubbed by German actress Jutta Hoffman). As the love triangle unfolds, the Communist party apparatus looks increasingly grim, with the pregnant but unwed Klee facing a party star chamber seeking the identity of the father.

Ostensibly, Trace does not assail Communism—not directly, at least. Horrath and Klee remain loyal to the party throughout their travails. Balla however, is an antinomian wild card. While he and his entire crew are union members, only one belongs to the party. Though he might be reckless, he does live by a certain moral code, which appears to preclude party membership. He seems to even say this directly, in an off-hand comment to Horrath’s wife late in the film.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of Trace is the humor. As Balla, Manfred Krug at times shows a deft touch for comedic situations. He also convincingly conveys both the sensitive and loutish facets of Balla’s complex personality. Indeed, Trace is very well acted by all involved, including Eberhard Eshe as the well-meaning but timid Horrath.

It might not be Miracle on 34th Street, but as a good portion of Trace occurs during the Christmas season, this might be an appropriate time to screen it. It will definitely stand out. Though it is starkly naturalistic and ends a bit abruptly, it is a very satisfying film for its performances and honesty.

Eventually, Beyer would be allowed to direct again, bringing East Germany its only Academy Award nomination for Jakob, the Liar. He would later deal directly with the legacy of Communism in work for German television until his death in 2006. Based on the quality of Trace, one hopes his post-Communist work will also be released in America eventually