“The last beautiful days before winter: In “Berlin 1933 – Diary of a Big City” Volker Heise has contemporaries tell about the Nazi takeover.
Big city bustle Unter den Linden, at Alexanderplatz and Kottbusser Tor. Hectic hustle and bustle of people, cars and trams – all in black and white. This beginning of the film is reminiscent of Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s “Menschen am Sonntag” (1930).
“Berlin, autumn 1932“, it sounds from the off: “The last beautiful days before winter. People get up, go to work, stroll through the streets, sit in cafés, go to the cinema or to the variety show.” Variety show dancers swing their legs at the cue. Paul Dorn sings to the foxtrot: “Have you already seen Berlin at night? Man, Berlin at night is beautiful.” It could go on like this. But today we know that the autumn of 1932 was also the autumn of Weimar Republic was.
Further off-text: “Street fights are increasing in Berlin. The cracks get deeper. The new year must bring the decision. A year of which diaries and letters provide information, photos and films.”
The film is not historical, but the latest coup by Volker Heise, who is probably the world’s most resilient documentary filmmaker. For “24h Berlin – A Day in the Life” (2009), the film was also unmistakably based on models such as Walter Ruttmann’s “Berlin – The Symphony of the Big City” (1927), he had to view 750 hours of film material shot by 80 camera teams. The finished film, which was still 1,440 minutes long, also required stamina from the viewers.
But Heise is a gifted fitter. Most recently (2022), his Netflix documentary “Gladbeck: The Hostage Drama” got by without the usual talking head know-it-alls and reenactment embarrassments. They were pure collages of historical footage. Just like the two-parter “Berlin 1945 – Diary of a Big City” before (2020). This is now followed by “Berlin 1933” – after the end, the beginning of the end.
Known and unknown people from back then
The film tells about the people of that time. From well-known (like Carl von Ossietzky and Harry Graf Kessler), less well-known (like several ambassadors in Berlin) and completely unknown like the young doctor Willi Lindenborn, who is concerned with his women’s stories. “I met Lili at eight. […] She wanted cigarettes, ate a bockwurst, drank beer. All at my expense, of course.”
The film also tells of Joseph Goebbels (“Gauleiter, NSDAP”): “Hitler arrives at two o’clock. Our SA is marching in front of the Karl Liebknecht House. A great thing! Terrible loss of prestige for the KPD!” The American trade unionist Abraham Plotkin notes: “It was pure luck that the day did not end in a bloodbath.” Meanwhile, doctor Lindenborn continues to meet with his Lili: “Our conversation was very monotonous. She was very upset that I didn’t pay for her. We parted very coolly.” Goebbels goes “to eat with Hitler. politicized. Hitler fabulous as always. With him again ‘Rebel’ film. Shaken again. What a throw!”
At this point, Volker Heise can fall back on the images from the Luis Trenker film. “The Rebel” is set at the time of the Tyrolean uprising in 1809. The British reporter Alexander Werth also watched it in the cinema: “Some of the audience cheered wildly when the French were massacred.”
Heise also cleverly illustrated the diary entries of his unknown protagonists with appropriate sequences from contemporary feature films. The “seizure of power” as a flow. Within a few months, the Nazis penetrated all areas of life: “Today, above all, people are asking about their political views,” states the tight-fisted philanderer Lindenborn: “In the evening we played Doppelkopf. I will probably report as an SA doctor in the next few days. I would be dying to be.”
At the end of the first part of “Berlin 1933”, Lindenborn, still a little bewildered, reports on a tour with two of his new SA cronies, during which they raped a Jewish girl. “Berlin at night” – is no longer beautiful.