Judge Joel Pearce slaps on some sunscreen, grabs his boogie board, and delves into this cold-war flick about Soviet-German politics.
Banned by the Soviets. Now finally available on DVD.
It took nearly twenty years for Sun Seekers to be released after it was made. The Soviets had it banned for its savage look at the Uranium mines and Soviet-German relations, and it was finally put out in 1972. In truth, the history of the film is probably more fascinating than the film itself.
Facts of the Case
Lotte Lutz (Ulrike Germer), an 18-year-old German girl, goes to live with an aging prostitute named Emmi (Manja Behrens). After a wild local party, they are both sent to Wismut uranium mine, where there is a mix of Soviet-German tension and optimism for the future of Communism. Lotte soon finds herself courted by three men: Gunther (Willi Schrade), a pushy young German miner; Franz (Gunther Simon), the one-armed German foreman of the Soviet-run mine; and Sergei (Viktor Avdyushko), a handsome young Soviet.
When things start to go wrong at Wismer, it turns out that they have all had their hopes in the wrong place.
Sun Seekers is a mess. Some of the sequences are stark and beautiful, with great aesthetic intuition, subtlety, and taste. Other parts are loud, boisterous and sloppy, the work of a director experimenting with unusual camera angles but not yet comfortable with them. For each good aspect, there is an equivalent problem. The mining sequences are absolutely stunning. Gritty details jut out from the darkness; lighting is skillfully designed and executed. Point of view shots are used to pull the audience into the danger and excitement of the mines. In some of the smaller scenes, though, the camera roves around, constantly looking for that perfect angle. It will zoom in the middle of a shot to a good angle, but the film would have been more dynamic if it hadn't spent so much time looking for the great shots. Scene fades border on the ridiculous, such as a comic book explosion fade during a barroom brawl. In shooting and editing, a film needs to find a consistent, stable style. Considering that Konrad Wolf had twenty years to spend in the editing room with this movie, the end result should have been tighter.
Then, there is the problem of the story. The political relationships and maneuvering of the men at the mine are quite interesting. Since they fought on different sides of the war, much of that tension remains, even though they are now supposedly on the same side. The ideology from the war has dissipated for the most part, though it's clear that some of the men have different political backgrounds. Even more interesting is the sly, satirical view of the Communist system, with clear class differences between the German workers and the Russian overseers. The Soviets have arrived promising equality and justice for the miners, but it doesn't make much difference to them what political system they are struggling to work long hours in such dangerous conditions. These are clearly the points that Wolf wants to make, and he makes them well.
What he doesn't do as well is combine his political statements with his major plot threads. The Lotte story isn't nearly as interesting as the political subtext. Her character isn't very interesting, develops little over the course of Sun Seekers, and only ever seems to act in response to the other characters. Although she is actively courted by all three of the men, she never makes any kind of choice, simply going along with whichever is most aggressive at the time. As such, she gets knocked up by one, marries another, but loves the third the most. It's tiresome, even if it is meant to be a metaphor for the situation that they all live in. She is more a placeholder than a real character, completely bereft of spirit and personality.
And so, at the end of it all, Sun Seekers is a good snapshot of the mining and political experience of the East Germans during the period. It's a deeply flawed film that never comes together into a cohesive whole, and yet marks the distinct style of a culture's film industry.
First Run Films has put together a fine disc for Sun Seekers, digging up lots of additional material and a good print. The image quality is generally excellent, with a nice film-like grain and good contrast between dark and light. Some of the night scenes lose detail, but only as much as can be expected with a film this age. The sound is acceptable, retaining the original mono German soundtrack. There is occasional hissing, but overall the track has been well restored. Extras include detailed biographies for many of the key players and some filmographies. On the larger bonus page, there is a photo gallery with screen captures and a wide range of promotional materials. First up is a featurette showing what Wismer is like today. The rest of the features are short video clips, a smattering from various parts of Wolf's career, as well as a few of the actors. Many of them seem to be East German news reels from their tone, which is interesting. The only thing that's sorely lacking is some scholarship offering context for the film's history and politics.
Sun Seekers is an interesting window into a film industry we have not had much access to in the past. For that reason, this DVD release will be exciting for film historians and fans of classic European cinema. Others are more likely to be frustrated with the film's unstable tone and style, and would be much better off hunting down some better known (and respected) classics.
Although Sun Seekers left me cold, I think a definitive verdict is outside of the jurisdiction of this court.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
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