“I Was Nineteen”: Movies you might have missed

The 1968 film I Was Nineteen was written and directed by Konrad Wolf, who used the film to relate his experiences in the closing weeks of World War II.

When he was eight years old, Wolf’s family fled Hitler’s Germany. He was raised and educated in Moscow, but the Soviet drive on Berlin would bring him back to his native soil, this time uniformed as a Red Army lieutenant, working as a translator and broadcaster, encouraging the final Nazi resisters to lay down their arms.

The film presents a number of fascinating conflicts. The Soviets come face to face with the Germans, prior to this known to them only as an invading force of fascist murderers. But now the Germans are helpless civilians pleading for mercy, whom they must assist in the building of a new nation.

In an interesting scene, the Soviet officers relax in the elaborately appointed library of a cultured upper-class German intellectual, who holds court providing an analysis of the madness of the Third Reich. He delves into the German mindset and concludes that that war itself is “an anthropological problem” and that the Hitler years spurred a “frenzy of obedience and sadism.” The irony of course is that while all this pontificating takes place, the speaker hastily trying to absolve himself, standing in the same room is a son of the working class whose family opposed Hitler from the very start. Fed up with all the navel gazing, the German-born lieutenant barks at one of his Russian comrades who has been engaging in the dialogue, “You’re looking for a Germany you can only find in books.” From the Russian he gets the reply, “I’m looking for a Germany you can live in!” Later the same officer will be told by a released political prisoner that the story of the Nazi rise to power is not so mysterious as to require such philosophical soul searching. It can be summed up by the fact that the industrialists and militarists gave Hitler as much power as he wanted and he took it.

The film provides some playful insights into the German character. In one scene the Soviets burst in on a room full of German officers from a supply unit who, despite the closing days of the war, still arrive on time to inventory the boot polish. When the Soviets arrive and sit down at their desks, the Germans have to phone their superior for permission to surrender.

The joyful Russian soul is also well portrayed in a scene in which the officers prepare a celebratory May Day meal of pelmeni, filled dumplings. The moment becomes poignant when their general arrives and asks them to give up their seats at the banquet table to recently released prisoners from a concentration camp. In addition, the diversity of the Soviet forces comes through as we are introduced to Ukrainians, natives of Kyrgyzstan, as well as Russians.

The film leads the viewer to the conclusion that war, even when necessary, is a brutal, heartbreaking business, but the working class, united, can always lead humanity to a new day, even amidst the rubble where the memory of the crimes committed by the capitalists is still fresh.