Judge Ben Saylor invites viewers to take a ride on this mystery train.
Dark secrets from the Nazi era…
During the Cold War years, when Germany was divided in two, Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, or "DEFA" for short, was the German Democratic Republic's state-run movie company. The studio churned out movies for several decades, spanning genres such as Western, science fiction, and drama.
Despite being controlled by East German officials, DEFA managed to produce many films that have come to acclaim. One such film is The Second Track. This 1962 work, from helmer Joachim Kunert (The Adventures of Werner Holt), was rarely seen for many years due to what was considered at the time of its release controversial subject matter. Now, decades after the fact, the film is available to reach a wide audience.
Facts of the Case
Train station inspector Brock (Albert Hetterle) witnesses two thieves burglarizing a train car one night. He recognizes one of them, a man named Runge (Walter Richter-Reinick), but keeps silent when questioned by the police. Runge also recognizes Brock, but wants to be sure the man is who he thinks he is, sending his partner-in-crime Frank (Horst Jonischkan) to discreetly glean more information from Brock's pretty daughter Vera (Annekathrin Bürger). The secrets unearthed as a result of this chance encounter will change the lives of all concerned forever.
The ending of my Facts of the Case is intentionally vague, because I'm trying as hard as possible not to ruin the plot that co-writer/director Joachim Kunert so skillfully and deliberately develops over his film's 80-minute runtime. The Second Track is very effective as a thriller because Kunert is careful not to give the viewer too much information, but instead builds tension through his visuals, performances, and music (although not all the time in the case of the music; see The Rebuttal Witnesses). The Second Track immediately reminded me of Fred Zinneman's Act of Violence, a post-World War II potboiler starring Robert Ryan and Van Heflin. That film is about as long as The Second Track, but is not nearly as effective because Zinneman lets the air out of the balloon way too quickly in terms of the connection between the characters played by Ryan and Heflin. Kunert, on the other hand, takes his time (but never allows the film to drag), doling out bits of information until an all-is-revealed flashback sequence.
The cinematography of The Second Track, which is credited on IMDb to Karl-Heinz Marzahn, Rolf Sohre, and Heinz Walter (although only Sohre is listed on the credits of the film itself), figures prominently in the film's success. The lighting in The Second Track is classic film noir, and setting key scenes in a train station was a perfect touch on the filmmakers' part, as the steam from the trains lends an eerie quality to the proceedings. Kunert, not content to merely shoot over-the-shoulder and master shots, keeps his angles and compositions varied; a low angle here, a long shot there. Mirrors are skillfully included in the visual scheme too. Most importantly, these various cinematographic techniques are executed without distracting the viewer from the characters and the story.
The performances are uniformly excellent, but two that are especially worthy of mention are Hettler and Bürger. As Brock, Hettler has the unenviable task of conveying a secret feeling of guilt to the viewer, one that must remain hidden for a considerable portion of the narrative. Hettler pulls it off, however, and he does so with a minimal amount of histrionics. He is aided and abetted in his task by Kunert, whose claustrophobic close-ups help us to register Brock's desperation all the more.
Bürger, too, is solid as the heroine Vera. Far from being a passive figure in the story, Vera is a significant character, and Bürger's performance conveys not only the character's strength but also her vulnerability and fear. It's mesmerizing to watch her character change from a doting daughter without a care in the world to a confused and frightened woman.
First Run's DVD of The Second Track boasts fantastic picture quality; it really looks sharp, with little to no blemishes. The sound tends to blare the music too loudly for my tastes, but is fine otherwise. Most of the disc's extras are text-only features: biographies and filmographies of Kunert and several of the actors; an essay on the film by Ralf Schenk; and a photo gallery. In addition, there is a brief featurette on cinematographer Rolf Sohre in which The Second Track is mentioned only once; the bulk of the discussion focuses on The Adventures of Werner Holt. On the German language portion of the disc (when you load it you get a choice of German or English language menus), there are four short newsreels that feature some of the people involved in The Second Track. All four play in unsubtitled German.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The packaging of First Run's DVD of The Second Track lists Carol Reed's The Third Man as one of this film's influences. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the film's music by Pavol Simai; the dissonant, jangly score (which sounds like a harp to me) is reminiscent of Anton Karas' famed zither music in that landmark 1949 film.
To me, however, the music of The Second Track does more harm than good. It's too obtrusive most of the time, jolting and distracting the viewer from what is going on. At its worst, the music is used as an over-the-top cue to a dramatic moment in the film, which ruins said moment. The quieter, more elegiac elements of the score do complement the film nicely (especially what plays at the end of the film), but overall, less would have been a lot more in this movie's case.
The Second Track is a very pleasant surprise. Anyone interested in German cinema, methodical thrillers, or foreign film in general should give this movie a try. First Run is to be commended for taking the time and money to put out a quality film like this one.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Short film: Portrait of Cinematographer Rolf Sohre
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