Friday, January 15, 2010

NYJFF ’10: The Axe of Wandsbek

Despite their rigid internal censorship, the East German state-owned DEFA movie studio occasionally slipped up and accidentally produced a film that ran afoul of their Soviet masters. Given the skepticism openly expressed for central state planning in Frank Beyer’s Trace of Stones, it is easy to understand why it was banned by the Communist government. The ideological sins committed by Falk Harnack’s The Axe of Wandsbek were less obvious. Dutifully casting the underground resistance to National Socialism as ardent Communists in a convenient act of revisionist history, Harnack seemed to touch all the right propaganda bases. However, when the authorities deemed the psychologically realistic anti-hero-protagonist too sympathetic, Axe was quickly yanked from theaters after its 1951 opening. Fortunately, the film survived to enjoy the new vogue for DEFA’s films, with a newly restored print screening this Sunday as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival.

It is 1934 in the Wandsbek district of Hamburg. In five year’s time, Germany and the Soviet Union will sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, dividing Poland between the two regimes. However, as Axe opens, there are four Communist prisoners in Hamburg the Fuhrer wants executed, but there is no executioner available to get the job done. As long as the “Reeperbahn Four” still draw breath, the Fuhrer refuses to grace the city with his presence, which is most distressing to the shipping magnate and local SS enforcer, Peter Footh. Times are also tough for Albert Teetjen, a local butcher losing business because he cannot afford modern extravagances, like refrigeration. However, when the desperate Teetjen seeks the help of his old army comrade Footh, he gets an offer he never expected. It involves his grandfather’s axe, made of the finest Sheffield steel.

Teetjen does indeed stand-in for the absent executioner, earning 2,000 marks for his efforts. Initially, everything seems to work out swimmingly. Customers flock to buy Teetjen’s refrigerated meat while celebrating Hitler’s triumphant tour of the city. However, when word leaks out about Teetjen’s grim freelance work, he is shunned by the community and hounded by the Communist underground.

Axe is a strange film. Though loosely based on an actual incident, the film’s central premise, that the Third Reich would have difficulty executing four prisoners, seems bizarre. It is also a somewhat odd selection for the New York Jewish Film Festival, because it never addresses the Holocaust. Aside from an anti-Semitic remark here and there, it suggests the Nazis were chiefly concerned with persecuting the Communists (with whom they would ally themselves during the early years of the war.)

DEFA was most certainly in the propaganda business, so it is important to keep that in mind while screening Axe. Still, it is worth parsing the ideology for Harnack’s stylish film noir elements, particularly the visual flourishes of his scene transitions. Erwin Geschonneck, a former concentration camp prisoner, does in fact humanize Teetjen, conveying his desperation and rather guileless nature. He emerges as a protagonist much in the tradition of Socialist Realism, who is forced by economic circumstances to commit a heinous crime and is then crushed by the same heartless world for his sins. Indeed, the film could be deconstructed into a critique of the fickleness of “the masses,” those that first cheered for Hitler and then turned against his loyal executioner.

In and of itself, Axe is a terrible history lesson, but as a controversial product of the DEFA studio, it is film of great historical importance. It is also a surprisingly entertaining dark thriller for those able appreciate it in the proper context. It screens Sunday afternoon (1/17) at the Walter Reade Theater, where the 2010 NYJFF continues through January 28th.