BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Goethe Institut selects, round two.

SOME OF THE most interesting films of all-time came out of the socialist countries in the late 60s. But while East Germany’s film industry lacked the sheer inventiveness of places like Czechoslovakia or even Russia, some fascinating films were still made. I Was Nineteen is some kind of masterpiece, a dark brooding depiction of the last days of World War Two. We see the film through the eyes of Gregor Hecker (Jaecki Schwarz), an ex-pat German who fought with the Soviets. He’s only nineteen, a boy who rushed into life forgetting that the door was still open behind him. He’s forced to re-engage with his German-ness, and acknowledge the fact the Germans did some rather horrific things, despite fighting on the side of the ‘good’. He mirrors the conflict of East Germany too – despite being on the ‘good’ side, it had these dark, dark roots.

Of course given the state film funding model in East Germany, the film does cast the Soviets in a sympathetic light. The film doesn’t sugar-coat the Soviet suffering (which is understated in many accounts – the Soviets did lose an estimated twenty million people in the War). But considering that the film’s predominant audience was to be Germans, the ruthless portrayal of the German behaviour during the war was notably prickly. The film moves from one set-piece to another, the narrative a loose connection of moments in Hecker’s life. The film maintains a convincing realism, and maintains tension and drama throughout. Hecker (and consequently the audience) is shielded from the actual combat until near the end, the narrative delaying the moment that its baby-faced protagonist is forced to acknowledge the immediacy and cruelty of the war.

The visual style is all over the show, which mirrors the chaos of the goings-on, and the adolescent turmoil suppressed by the atavistic simplicity of war. (In many ways, it’s a precursor for the Soviet war film, Come and See). Things like sudden zoom ins, jagged montage, striking imagery, self-reflexive looks at the camera meant that the film was hodge-podge of New Wave type filmmaking styles. But it holds together remarkably well, assisted by the no-nonsense approach to the war, the excellent acting, and Wolf’s overall refusal to simplify the moral dilemmas. I Was Nineteen is an exceptionally good piece of filmmaking, and an emotionally powerful depiction of a confused nation-state.