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Deutschstunde / The German Lesson

How an authoritarian ideological society turns its children into unthinking automatons, only capable of responding to orders. But still not That One. We’ll get to that one eventually.

We start in some sort of prison for young offenders. A group of teenage boys are asked to write an essay on The Joy of Duty. Siggi’s paper remains empty. He is taken to his cell and strip searched. When asked why he hasn’t written anything he says “I have so much to say, I don’t know where to start”.

Flashback to Siggi’s childhood home in a village on the North-East German coast. Its the fag end of the Second World War. Siggi’s father Jens Ole is the local policeman, carrying out the commands sent to him from the Hauptstadt (a word that in German means both the capital and the Big City). He is the epitome of someone who sees Duty as doing what he’s told. He is only obeying orders.

Their neighbour is Max, an Expressionist painter. Max and Jens Ole were once great friends – Max is Siggi’s godfather and Jens Ole owes him a debt thanks to a live saving act that we only hear about in passing. But things have become a little strained recently.

Jens Ole receives a letter from the Hauptstadt which is franked with an eagle and a swastika. Max has been deemed to be a producer of Degenerate Art and Jens Ole has been tasked with ensuring that he doesn’t paint any more. This punishment is later extended and officers come round to confiscate all of Max’s work from the past 5 years.

Siggi receives more love and support from the degenerate artist than from his officious parents. This feeling is intensified when his elder brother returns from the front. He has shot himself to avoid duty and is starving and obviously traumatised. Will Jens Ole act according to his duty or will he protect his ailing son?

Deutschstunde questions the idea of thoughtless Duty by showing a society in which those who are supposed to be in charge forfeit their right to be respected. Even the good adults are barely able to function. In three separate scenes, Siggi is forced to feed people who are supposed to be looking after him but are barely able to look after themselves.

And all the while we know that something important is coming. We return twice to the prison for young offenders to remind us that we still don’t know what Siggi did to land himself there. Its difficult to explain in full without serious plot spoilers, but it wasn’t what I expected (and I guess few others saw it coming). I must also say that I didn’t think that what does happen fits Siggi’s character, though I see what point is being made.

I think I benefited greatly in that, although this is based on a very famous book (and from the off the film has a very literary quality) its not one I’d ever heard of, let alone read. There are enough scenes that hang on dramatic tension that it really helps not to know what is going to happen.

Also, the original book is apparently based on Emil Nolde, who’s relationship with the Nazis was much more pernicious than the “degenerate” Max, but as I only found that out afterwards, it worked as it was. And it did raise a number of Big Issues around duty and responsibility, including the twist that lands Siggi into prison. Even if I found that bit not fully convincing, full marks for being prepared to take on such subjects.

A final shout out to the cinematographer. It could have been embarrassing if a film which is at least partly about Art didn’t look good. But the shots of the bleak coastal landscapes, full of scary seagulls, and some pretty photogenic fires looked really impressive.

It wasn’t a film I was sure I’d get round to seeing, but I’m really glad I did

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