Sterne [Stars], an East German-Bulgarian co-production that won a major prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and thereafter fell into obscurity, is itself the story of a memory on the brink of oblivion—a movie in which, for a few hours, time stands still before swallowing its protagonists.
Showing this Sunday, Jan. 22, at the New York Jewish Film Festival in a new digital restoration that will doubtless be surfacing elsewhere, Sterne concerns a transport of Greek Jews, en route to Auschwitz, detained by some bureaucratic snafu at a remote Bulgarian village. They are corralled in the town for a day or two, just long enough for Walter, a bored, somewhat self-pitying German corporal tasked with overseeing these surprise arrivals, to develop a crush on one of their number, a young and radiantly selfless Jewish schoolteacher named Ruth.
The corporal, whose fellows have given him the mocking sobriquet “Rembrandt,” is a would-be artist. Not especially sensitive but nothing if not alienated, he is contemptuous of his German comrades and, vaguely yearning for some sort of contact, seeks a measure of acceptance from the locals he supervises, ignoring the fact that some are certainly partisans. A similar longing accounts for his fascination with Ruth who, in their first meeting, shames him into grudgingly providing the deportees with a bit of humanitarian assistance.
Walter turns out to be a romantic but Sterne, like Ruth, recognizes the impossibility of this brief-encounter romance. Walter’s several meetings with Ruth—who is, in effect, arrested so that he might enjoy her company—are luminous nocturnes in which the couple walks together through the deserted town. Stars shine down but the conclusion is forgone. Each time, they wind up in the graveyard.
Directed by Konrad Wolf from a screenplay by Angel Wagenstein, Sterne is a fairy tale, albeit a hardboiled one that never forgets the degraded conditions of the deportees or their fate. The story of Walter and Ruth is an extended parenthesis. Sterne is framed by performances of the Yiddish poet Mordechai Gebirtig’s Jewish-resistance anthem S’brent [It Is Burning], a song that circulated throughout the ghettos of Nazi-occupied Poland. Its first scene, with the Greek Jews lined up in the rain and packed into cattle cars, is repeated at the end.
As a movie, Sterne manages to be both lyrical and monumental. As a statement, it practices a dialectic of unity and isolation. “What was he looking for in our little Bulgarian town?” the film’s narrator asks over introductory footage of Walter wandering through the marketplace. The answer is: his humanity. Sterne is striking for its internationalism, particularly in a linguistic sense. The dialogue is in both German and Bulgarian. In addition to Gebirtig’s Yiddish laments, the movie includes the Hebrew prayer “Eli, Eli.” Ruth addresses her pupils in Greek. Most remarkably, there is an extended scene in which, among themselves, the Jews speak Ladino—making Sterne the only feature I know with dialogue in the language of the Sephardim.
While the film is not devoid of Communist idealism, the rote affirmation in which Walter finds solidarity with the (presumably Communist) partisans is subsumed by the final image of Ruth clutching at a train’s barred windows, speeding toward death as she stares into the camera, leveling a j’accuse at the audience.
Sterne is not only universal but highly specific with a backstory that requires a bit of unpacking. Bulgaria was something of a sideshow during World War II, although, as an ally of the Axis, the Balkan kingdom received chunks of Romania, Yugoslavia, and Greece—including parts of Macedonia and Thrace—then home to some 14,000 Jews.
While old Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews were deprived of their rights, they were never, despite German insistence, deported en masse. On the other hand, Bulgaria provided the German army a land corridor to invade Greece and, starting in 1943, for some 75,000 Greek Jews (most of them from Salonika) to be shipped to Auschwitz. The government also allowed the Thracian and Macedonian Jews to be deported as well.
Dated October 1943, Sterne conflates the deportation of Greek and Thracian Jews while speaking to Angel Wagenstein’s personal experience. A Bulgarian-born Jew who spent his childhood in France, Wagenstein returned to Bulgaria to study and was an anti-fascist partisan during the war; in some sense, the movie is autobiographical.
In Andrea Simon’s documentary-portrait Angel Wagenstein: Art Is a Weapon (having its world premiere at the NYJFF), Wagenstein recalls witnessing the deportation of the Thracian Jews. He also suggests the character of Walter was based on an actual German corporal and identifies Bansko, the town in southwestern Bulgaria where Sterne was shot, as the cradle of the Bulgarian resistance movement.
Konrad Wolf’s experience of the war was less direct. East Germany’s leading director throughout the 1950s and ’60s, he was the son of the German-Jewish dramatist, medical doctor, and left-wing activist Friedrich Wolf (and the younger brother of East German spymaster Markus Wolf, whose autobiography, Man Without a Face, is filled with admiring references to his sibling’s movies).
Friedrich Wolf was briefly jailed for his 1929 play Cyanide, a defense of abortion rights, and went into exile once the Nazis came to power in 1933. His next drama, Professor Mamlock, which was written in France and premiered at the Warsaw Yiddish Art Theater in 1934, was among the first works to dramatize Nazi persecution of German Jews and made his international reputation. Professor Mamlock was filmed in the Soviet Union, Wolf’s adopted country, where it was well-received in 1938. His son Konrad released the film 23 years later in East Germany, to lesser acclaim.
Sterne, which would win a special-jury prize at Cannes, was released in March 1959—the same month that saw the opening of Hollywood’s first big Holocaust drama, The Diary of Anne Frank, also shown at Cannes. (While The Diary of Anne Frank was the first American movie to deal directly with the Holocaust, two earlier films—the 1953 Stanley Kramer production The Juggler, shot in Israel, and the 1956 independent feature Singing in the Dark—concerned traumatized Holocaust survivors played, respectively, by Kirk Douglas and Moishe Oysher.)
Not the first European film to depict the Holocaust, Sterne actually postdates a small cycle of movies were made in the 1940s. The earliest was a Soviet film, The Unvanquished (1945), directed by Mark Donskoi and starring Yiddish actor Venyamin Zuskin, that depicted a mass execution of Jews filmed on location at Babi Yar.
Marriage in the Shadows (1947)—directed in Soviet-occupied Germany by Kurt Maetzig, who, having a Jewish mother, had been forbidden by the Nazis to work and later joined an underground resistance group—was a film à clef. The movie dramatized the story of a well-known German actor who, refused permission to accompany his wife to the “model” concentration camp Theresienstadt, joined her in a suicide pact. Made in the American-occupied Germany with assistance from the U.S. Army, and consequently more positive, Israel Becker’s Long Is the Road (1948) was a quasi-autobiographical account of a young Polish Jew who jumps off an Auschwitz-bound transport to take his chances in the Polish countryside. (The movie was unfairly criticized as special pleading for Jewish DPs in the American press; it did later have a second life in a shortened version used as UJA fundraiser.)
One of the first films produced by the new Polish film industry, Natan Gross’s Yiddish-language Undzere Kinder (Our Children), 1948, was a semidocumentary of Jewish war orphans, many of whom enacted their actual situation for the camera. Two related films were produced almost simultaneously in Poland: Wanda Jakubowska’s powerfully disorienting The Last Stage (1948) was based on her own experiences in Auschwitz, and Alexander Ford’s Border Street (1948), a Czech-Polish co-production, had the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as its climax—scored to a near oratorio by composer Henoch Kon.
The masterpiece of this tendency was the Czech filmmaker Alfred Radok’s Distant Journey (1948), in which a Jewish doctor briefly forestalls her deportation to Theresienstadt by marrying a Czech colleague. As The Last Stage was partially shot on location in the women’s section of Auschwitz-Birkenau, so Distant Journey used Theresienstadt, where both Radok’s Jewish father and grandfather died. When the movie was shown in New York in September 1950, the Yiddish press reported the amazed public response of at least one spectator, who said that she recognized her fictional self in the film. The shock of recognition is crucial. Even today, Distant Journey et al. retain the urgency of an immediate response.
These eight films, plus Sterne, have several things in common. All, except Long Is the Road, were produced by Communist film industries that were not eager to focus on a specifically Jewish calamity. They are, in many ways, special cases. The most important thing was that they were made by and/or with people with first-hand experience of the Nazi war against the Jews—and can be considered a form of group psychodrama. More than movies, they were a form of testimony, not all of it welcome.
The state gave and the state took away. That, in most cases, these films were subsequently banned or shelved may explain why it has taken so long for them to enter the canon of Holocaust films. Shown at the first post-war Venice Film Festival, The Unvanquished received an award but disappeared from Soviet screens—and history—around the same time as its lead actor, Venyamin Zuskin, a victim of Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign.
The Last Stage, which won the Crystal Globe at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 1948, was considered acceptable, but Undzere Kinder was not. It was never shown in Poland (and also did poorly when a print made its way to Israel in 1950). Border Street was highly popular in Poland until it was banned, supposedly by order of Stalin, and likely cost Ford his job as the head of Polish film production. Distant Journey, which, like Border Street, acknowledged the role of indigenous anti-Semitism, was banned in Czechoslovakia—even as it was distributed abroad—and served to compromise Radok’s career.
Sterne was the first film to implicate Bulgarian authorities in the deportation of Thracian and Macedonian Jews. Despite its international acclaim, the movie was banned in Bulgaria for its “abstract humanism,” and Wagenstein did not make another film for several years.
To read more of J. Hoberman’s film criticism for Tablet magazine, click here.
J. Hoberman, the former, longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.