It is not the first time that Siegfried Lenz’ The German Lesson (de. Deutschstunde) is made into a film. But it may be the first time that it will be remembered many years later. We reveal why in our review of the star-studded drama.
Jens Ole Jepsen (Ulrich Noethen) announces that his friend Max Ludwig Nansen (Tobias Moretti) is banned from working.
The plot summary
Germany, shortly after the Second World War. The teenager Siggi Jepsen (Tom Gronau) has to write an essay on the topic “The Joys of Duty” in a prison. He can’t find a beginning, the page remains blank. When he has to repeat the task the next day, this time in a cell as punishment, he obsessively writes down his memories. Memories of his father Jens Ole Jepsen (Ulrich Noethen), who, as a police officer, was one of the authorities in a small northern German village and was completely devoted to the duties of his office. During the Second World War, he has to convey to his childhood friend, the expressionist artist Max Ludwig Nansen (Tobias Moretti), a ban on painting that the National Socialists have imposed on him. He monitors it meticulously, and Siggi (Levi Eisenlaube), eleven years old, is supposed to help him. But Nansen resists – and also relies on the help of Siggi, who is like a son to him. The conflict between the two men continues to escalate – and Siggi stands between them. Adaptation or resistance? This question becomes crucial for Siggi…
The German Lesson Movie Meaning & ending
In the case of Christian Schwochow’s sixth feature film directing work, the film title “The German Lesson” fits in two senses. On the one hand, Siegfried Lenz’s novel of the same name is popular school reading, but on the other hand, the story told in it is also an illustration of German history, which today – a full 53 years after its publication – has a completely different urgency than it did back then just two decades ago after National Socialism. Because of course you can be upset, perhaps even amused, by the fact that German drama cinema likes to use the darkest years of world history as an opportunity to tell stories based on them. But the more time passes, the more you get the impression that the affective exclamation that things are now getting better with world war dramas is unfortunately no longer so easy to make. Because obviously film history has to constantly remind you that things like they once were should definitely not be allowed to happen again – and yet the world has never been so close to exactly that happening. Schwochow thus gives his “The German lesson” a particularly technically modernized touch, but leaves specific gaps in the narrative that ensure that the events in the film suddenly seem brand new again.
Ditte Nansen (Johanna Wokalek) hands the confiscated pictures to police officer Jens Ole Jepsen (Ulrich Noethen).
Although “The German Lesson” always told a story from the Second World War (or shortly afterwards, if you take into account the plot bracket in the prison), it never placed the events directly at the front or in the immediate surroundings of the war events. Yes, over the course of the lush 130 minutes you almost get the impression that the residents here in this small, tranquil village in northern Germany have little to fear so far away from the action; You don’t even see swastikas or other evidence of Nazi rule in “The German Lesson”. In addition, we experience the story through the eyes of an eleven-year-old who does not understand many of the subliminally threatening excesses of the Third Reich and cannot understand the connections as naturally as the viewer in the cinema. However, how depressingly threatening the situation is for the youngest of the Jepsen family becomes clear when he has to choose between his family and a once close family friend: his father Ole imposes a ban on painting on his confidant and artist Max and entrusts it to his son also to keep an eye on him in order to betray him to his father in the event of resistance. This inner conflict between self-sacrificing paternal love and affection for Max, along with knowledge of law and justice, is excellently expressed by the young actor Levi Eisenlaub (“SMS for You”) and, despite his young age, becomes a figure of identification for the audience confronted with the question of how it would have acted in its situation.
As in the novel, the pursuit of blind obedience in the wake of misunderstood loyalty (“We had no choice!”) in “The German Lesson” is not just an outgrowth of National Socialism. Director Christian Schwochow (“Paula”) and screenwriter Heide Schwochow use the illustration as an insight into the darkest human depths in which family fathers are willing to mistreat their children or even accept their death because the system demands it. Nevertheless, “The German Lesson” is not just an experimental arrangement, as a result of which one waits to see when the situation will finally escalate. Schwochow stages his story primarily as a family tragedy, which can be used to very subtly illustrate the effects of the Second World War. In the end, it doesn’t matter how far away from the action Siggi and his family are, the horror knows how to make its way. In the case of “The German Lesson,” Ulrich Noethen (“The Diary of Anne Frank”) mimes the personification of the very horror that loses all humanity in its downright manic desire to fulfill blind obedience; one of the best German acting performances of the year, which Tobias Moretti (“Mackie Messer – Brecht’s Threepenny Film”) counters with a no less powerful performance as the silently rebelling and ultimately trapped artist Max Ludwig Nansen. Sonja Richter (“The Homesman”) and Johanna Wokalek (“Woof”), as the wives of the two men condemned to watch, are no longer limited to suffering, but turn their supporting roles into ambivalent characters, somewhere between victims of circumstances and resolute rebels .
While the first film adaptation of “The German Lesson” was conceived as a two-parter for television in the early 1970s, Christian Schwochow took a visibly self-confident path to cinema release. And this is where the two-hour film drama belongs, because cameraman Frank Lamm (“Youth without God”) From the very first scene on the North Sea beach, he creates panoramas that, in their raw beauty, could not provide a greater contrast to the atrocities of the Nazis. You’d love to luxuriate in the endless expanse of the mudflats for hours – and you have plenty of opportunities to do so, especially in the first half, as Schwochow sticks to an extremely moderate pace that initially requires a lot of sitting. And the actual framework surrounding Siggi’s stay in the prison wouldn’t have been necessary either. But even as the plot picks up speed, the filmmaker always takes the time to put the exclamation mark of the absolutely necessary cinema release behind “The German Lesson”. At least based on this example, Lamm doesn’t have to hide from international colleagues like Roger Deakins. Along with the lush visual splendor, the soundtrack on which the compositions by Lorenz Dangel are also impressive (“Me and Kaminski”) noticeably in the background of the soundscape consisting of natural sounds. Actually, a film like “The German Lesson” in its dramatic moments would be ideal to underline the suffering of the characters with a dramatic score. But Christian Schwochow simply lets the horror speak for itself – something that many other filmmakers, especially German ones, can learn a lesson from.
Conclusion: The future generations of school classes are to be envied, as with “The German Lesson” they will receive a film adaptation of a must-read that not only takes up the topic in a contemporary manner and thinks it further, but also boasts an outstanding production.
“The German Lesson” can be seen in USA cinemas from October 3rd.