(Sun Seekers, East Germany - 1958/1972)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Ulrike Gerner, Gunther Simon, Erwin Geschonneck, Manja Behrens, Viktor Avdyushko, Willi Schrade
Genre: Drama
Director: Konrad Wolf
Screenplay: Karl-Georg Egel & Paul Wiens
Cinematography: Werner Bergmann
Composer: Joachim Werzlau
Runtime: 116 minutes

Realistic look at brutal life in the secret German uranium mine Wismut, started by the Soviets after World War II to "help prevent World War III" and co-controlled with the Germans from 1954-1990, when a 20 year cleanup plan was started to attempt to undo as much of the environmental damage as possible. The high security required to keep the establishment secret led to it becoming it's own little military zone where Soviets and Germans struggled for control. Wismut could be called The Wages of Relaxation, as unlike in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece, much of the early workforce consisted of people displaced by the war who - not knowing the toxic working conditions - thought they'd found a high paying refuge. Others, like the main character, had the choice of Wismut or prison, which turns out to be like comparing oranges to clementines.

Lotte Lutz (Ulrike Germer) is a young woman with no one to help her but over the hill whore Emmi (Manja Behrens). In many cases even bad help is better than none, but in essence, Lotte quickly winds up condemned to the mine largely by association. With this disgruntled character who needs a man but has always been objectified, Konrad Wolf depicts the struggle of women against authority that would render them powerlessness.

Politics and relationships between Soviets and Germans come in through the three men who want to possess her: green German miner Gunther (Willi Schrade), Soviet engineer Sergei (Viktor Avdyushko) whose life hasn't been the same since his wife was slaughtered by the SS, and former nazi who is now a head honcho Franz (Gunther Simon). This aspect is well realized, but these lesser characters seem to serve a much greater purpose and, in fact, even grow more than the main character, who just kind of drifts from one bad situation to another. Granted part of the point is there's no good options for her, but the character is basically stagnant.

Though purportedly part of the reason for the films ban is its fierce look at the relationship between the two countries, Sun Seekers is actually very optimistic about the ability of the Soviets and former nazis to put aside past differences and work together. It doesn't shy away from any of the mistrust caused by ideological differences with those recently forced to convert, but overall its message is communism will prevail. In trying to be thoroughly truthful it touches on several controversial aspects, and with heated talks on nuclear weapon control going on at the time the Soviets, who had approved Sun Seekers, suddenly decided to ban it the day before release.

Sun Seekers was an extremely timely film in 1958 that would have been considered to be of the utmost importance, but it didn't make a big impact since it wasn't dumped into a few theatres until 1972. Its prestige has grown though, especially among German critics, to the point it's considered one of the seminal films of the German Democratic Republic.

Influenced by G.W. Pabst’s Kameradschaft, Sun Seekers is certainly notable for it's recreation of the mining disaster. The combination of locations and sets, high contrast black and white photography, and expressionist effects really make this final segment stand out. The rest of the film has its ups and downs. It's one of those works that tries to do so much both with the all-inclusive story and the technical aspects that it's sometimes muddled and confusing, but is capable of brilliance.

First Run Features DVD is loaded with extras, including some interesting historical bits. What stood out to me was that in the early 1900's doctors were advising people to bath in (highly radioactive) uranium salt, this boost supposedly providing one of their vaunted quick cures.



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