Gettysburg Professor Delivers Lecture on German Entertainer

Forrest Terrell ’25, Guest Writer

Henning Wrage, Chairperson and Associate Professor of German Studies at Gettysburg College, presented “Wolfgang Staudte: the Politics and Genre of Entertainment” regarding his continuing research on Germany’s first major post-World War II director. Professor Wrage greeted me upon entering the talk with what at first seemed a peculiar remark: “Are you here for the credits?” The lecture, it turned out, was mandatory for current German students who constituted the bulk of the attendees. To get them to earn those credits, he occasionally raised Socratic questions to check their attention, lending the lecture a characteristic classroom energy; rather than intimidating, these more often humorous exchanges provided a respite from what was an otherwise dark and humorless topic.   

Wolfgang Staudte’s career in entertainment reached back to before World War II when he initially acted in and produced theater productions. By 1933, the Nazis banned him from acting because of his anti-Nazi tendencies and the modern flavor of his performances –– its raw emotion, its investigation of chaos and the imperfect, things at odds with the Aryan ideal. Thereafter, pursuing only minor roles, commercials and propaganda films, it was not until after the war and the end of the Nazi regime that his career blossomed. A founding member of the Filmactiv group and later DEFA studios in the Soviet sector, a pioneer in the revival of post-war German film, he released his break-away film, “Die Mörder sind unter uns” (“The Murderers are Among Us”). Under DEFA he released other successes like his satire of political bureaucracy “Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Fridolin B.” (“The Adventures of Fridolin B.”), and “Der Untertan” (“The Loyal Servant”). 

Professor Wrage went beyond filmography and began his exploration of Staudte’s engagement with post-war taboos in an unusual, if not immediately recognizable, way; he played a video clip of German comedian Johnny Buchardt tricking the audience members during the 1973 Cologne Carnival with a little game of call-and-response. 

“ZICKE ZACKE, ZICKE ZACKE,” Buchardt called –– a common toast; “HOI, HOI, HOI!” responded the audience. Again: “HIP, HIP” was met by “HURRAY!” When they got the rhythm he gave a “SEIG,” and, in response, without hesitation or thought, the audience gave a “HEIL” (a common Nazi salute, and, by 1970s Germany, not only taboo but prohibited by law). “What? So many old comrades here tonight…” Buchardt remarked with an acid tongue. The crowd roared with nervous laughter; our lecture hall was silent. Given the visible age of the Cologne dignitaries seated in the audience, many had doubtless been Nazi Party members. 

The audiences’ scandalous Freudian slip suggested that the Nazi legacy was still a part of the reflexive, institutional muscle memory. “Civilization is hideously fragile,” Wrage observed, quoting English novelist C.P. Snow, “there’s not much between us and the horrors underneath, just about a thin coat of varnish.” Germany had entered a new era: split into East and West, an Iron Curtain had fallen, but it could not conceal the Nazis’ indelible mark on the European stage. Germany had changed, but even more, perhaps, had gone unchanged and unexamined. Staudte understood the complexity of reconciling Germany’s need to move on with its troublesome proximity to Nazi genocide –– all that guilt and shame; but he observed that many of his fellow compatriots were perhaps too eager to move on and forget. Staudte, ever opposed to the suppression of history, viewed cinema as more than mere entertainment, but a means of forcing a much needed reflection on a society incapable and unwilling to reflect.  

His dogged pursuit of a politically conscious and active cinema did not put him on the best terms with politicians. A persistent critic of the post-war mainstream, Staudte was “dedicated to remembrance” Professor Wrage remarked in summary, paraphrasing German journalist Wolfram Schütte, he was “the eternal outsider.”

An intriguing yet bewildering lecture on historical memory and erasure, genre study, and the power of film, the talk was not without its headache; however, if one leaves a lecture more confused, the lecturer has done their job, such is the source material. 

For those interested in Wolfgang Staudte, you can find an incomplete collection of his works on Prime Video and Kanopy, the latter of which you can access through the Waidner-Spahr Library’s website.