'The Silent Revolution' ('Das schweigende Klassenzimmer'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
The Lives of Students.

After his award-winning 'The People vs. Fritz Bauer,' director Lars Kraume looks at another true story from mid-1950s Germany in his latest historical drama about the complexities of life in the era.

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution inspires a few East German teenagers to stage a wordless protest with far-reaching consequences in the handsomely accoutered The Silent Revolution (Das schweigende Klassenzimmer). After making the award-winning drama The People vs. Fritz Bauer, which looked at the hunt for Adolf Eichmann by the titular Jewish State Attorney General in 1957, director Lars Kraume is now back with another true story set in post-war Germany, set exactly one year earlier and starring not stuffy old men but idealistic, hormone-addled adolescents.

This Berlinale Special title should see interest from German-speaking markets familiar with its historical context, though the film’s unexpected transformation from earnest historical piece into overly melodramatic tearjerker will make it a tougher sell abroad.

Theo (Leonard Scheicher) and Kurt (Tom Gramenz) are two teenage lads from Stalinstadt, East Germany, who travel to West Berlin to visit the grave of Kurt’s grandfather, a former SS officer. (Though there were border checks, the Berlin Wall wouldn’t go up until 1961.) Before going back home, the curious boys decide to go and see the pin-up picture Liane, Jungle Goddess, from West-German director Eduard von Borsody. In the cinema, they are exposed not only to star Marion Michael’s voluptuous bosom but also to a newsreel about the Hungarian Uprising as told from the West German point-of-view, which they can’t wait to share with their East German classmates.

The Silent Revolution, also written by Kraume and adapted from the autobiographical book by Dietrich Garstka, deftly lays out the story’s complex socio-political and historical background. The differences between 1950s East and West Germany and between post-war Germany and the recent Nazi past all surface organically, with the writer-director impressively avoiding any kind of preachiness. This will allow the contemporaries of the teens onscreen to fully understand what a difficult and (equally) heavily politicized time kids in 1956 were living in, which bodes well for its potential as a hit for younger local audiences.

Theo and Kurt get their classmates to participate in a silent protest as a way to commemorate the victims of the violent uprising, with the dead reportedly including their Communist soccer hero Ferenc Puskas. They stage their event in their classroom, leaving their teacher puzzled as to why his pupils aren’t answering any of his questions. Since every action in East Germany was inherently political, their odd behavior ends up being investigated by the headmaster (Florian Lukas), the Education Board (Jordis Triebel) and finally the Education Minister himself (Burghart Klaussner, the titular protagonist from The People vs. Fritz Bauer).

The discovery of the fact Theo and Kurt went to the West and then helped spread Western propaganda in the East — which almost diametrically opposes the Eastern explanation of the struggle of the Hungarians against their Soviet occupiers — isn’t the only risk. Because the higher-ups don’t know what exactly the extent or goal of the protest is, they decide to give the entire class only one week to reveal the person responsible for the idea, or everyone will be banned from ever graduating in all of East Germany.

The ripple effect of a seemingly quite innocent idea and the subsequent, disproportionate reaction to it is fascinating to watch, and for roughly the first hour, the film offers an involving and soberly staged recreation of the events with only a few minor missteps.

Like in The People vs. Fritz Bauer, there’s a homosexual character here that Kraume doesn’t quite know how to handle, with his orientation seemingly irrelevant for the story except when someone notes that “homosexuals are treated terribly in prison” so people should be nice to him, which sounds very progressive for 1956, let alone 1956 small-town East Germany. The love triangle that emerges when Theo’s girlfriend, Lena (Lena Klenke), realizes she’s politically and morally more aligned with Kurt has potential, but suffers from Kraume’s general tendency to slight his female characters, with the only woman of any substance here Triebel’s psychologically rigid Miss Kessler, a bureaucratic drill sergeant of sorts whose only purpose in life — or at least in this movie — is to rat out the person responsible for the (mostly male) kids’ act of defiance.

The feature becomes more problematic in its second half, which is increasingly melodramatic and on-the-nose. When a preacher in a church bellows about the betrayal of Jesus and, a few scenes later, a riffle is brought into church and the betrayer is bathed in a heavenly light from an unseen window as his tear-streaked cheeks are being held by his peers while he lies on the floor as if he were a fallen saint, any sense of restrained storytelling has decidedly evaporated. What unfolds in what is technically the third act also feels dramatically unbalanced in relation to what has become it and therefore nearly anticlimactic. Indeed, everything that happens after the church episode could have been relegated to a couple of onscreen sentences and the now two-hour Silent Revolution would have been much better (and shorter) for it. A film like the Oscar-nominated Sophie Scholl — The Last Days, another historical film about German students defying the state, more successfully managed to retain an understated style without diminishing what was at stake for everyone involved.  

The film’s young cast is mostly appealing, with Scheicher (also in the upcoming Das Boot, a sequel in the form of a TV series) the standout as someone easygoing by nature who becomes burdened with questions of national, collective and personal guilt in a time when his own identity is still under construction. Gramenz isn’t quite as natural an actor, though Klenke, Isaiah Michalski and Jonas Dassler — the latter as a rare classmate who’s convinced the communist homeland is always right — are all convincing. In bit parts, Ronald Zehrfeld and Max Hopp play two very different fathers and do a lot in small parts, while Klaussner and Triebel are asked to be authoritative and not much more.

In terms of its production design, The Silent Revolution feels more convincingly lived in than the formally stiff The People vs. Fritz Bauer, which perhaps has to do with the fact Kraume has gone back to work with his regular production designer, Olaf Schiefner, after a one-off with Cora Pratz on People. Other technical contributions are solid.

Production companies: Akzente Film und Fernsehproduktion, ZDF, Zero One Film, Studiocanal Film
Cast: Leonard Scheicher, Tom Gramenz, Lena Klenke, Jonas Dassler, Isaiah Michalski, Ronald Zehrfeld, Carina Wiese, Florian Lukas, Jordis Triebel, Daniel Krauss, Michael Gwisdek, Burghart Klaussner
Writer-director: Lars Kraume, screenplay based on the book by Dietrich Garstka
Producer: Miriam Duessel
Executive producer: Susanne Freyer
Director of photography: Jens Harant
Production designer: Olaf Schiefner
Costume designer: Esther Walz
Editor: Barbara Gies
Casting: Nessi Nesslauer
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Sales: Studiocanal

In German
111 minutes