Culture, which has for so long – for too long – had only the weapons of the intelligence to defend it against the material weapons of the aggressors, that culture is itself not only an emanation of the spirit but also and above all a material thing. And it is with material weapons that it must be defended.
~ Bertolt Brecht, Speech at the Second Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture
Kama Tank School, near Kazan; October 1933
Beers were passed around whilst the projectionist fumbled with the outdated machinery to the mockery of his comrades. He was always able to respond back that he had proven to be the least useless in getting the thing to work.
The viewing house wasn’t the most comfortable cinema Peter had ever sat in but it felt like a privilege all the same. The students of the tank school hadn’t had a cinema at all during his previous excursion to the Soviet Union and it felt like a luxury. Even if it was little more than a hut with a screen and some chairs.
Peter was happy for the distraction, film or not. It was the sort of comfort that made his life easier in the duplicitous role he was playing. He wished he could have pursued something that actually corresponded to his official remit for the National Reconstruction Council but he was glad the People’s Guard were more willing to look after their soldiers despite them being posted so far away. Like the Reichswehr before them events had made it paramount to continue the military cooperation with the Red Army whilst economic cooperation strengthened even further between their two countries. The Soviets needed Germany just as much as the Germans needed them it seemed, though they maintained the rumours of a devastating famine in the months beforehand weren’t true. Their Red Army hosts were more accommodating than they had ever been before, it was one of the reasons they were finally able to get German films in without a lengthy review by Soviet censors.
The projector spluttered to life and a cheer arose from the assembled audience as the lights in the barn were dimmed. All eyes turned to the newsreel preceding the film before another cheer from the Communist members among the crowd as the first story featured Chancellor Hitler, opening a tractor factory. Those attending the event were also shown to be clapping enthusiastically whilst Hitler spoke about their continued efforts to achieve a powerful worker-based economy. The workers didn’t control the factory itself but they did manage it. Peter supposed that was a start.
The next story showed that the progress Germany had made wasn’t going unnoticed, some of his supposed colleagues in the National Reconstruction Council were visiting Washington D.C. as part of a trade delegation. The Foreign Minister was pictured in the White House shaking hands with the new American President.
Roosevelt was no socialist himself but he was clearly impressed by what Germany had achieved and Peter couldn’t help but wonder whether this move was also something of an indication of the United Front’s new direction. The effort to unite the Communists and Social Democrats was a troubled one but perhaps efforts to renew a relationship with the Americans showed that the Communists were willing to indulge the Social Democratic vision of what the republic should be. It certainly seemed to be a concern amongst his comrades.
Footage of protests in France went on to show yet another French government collapse, this time over increased defence spending. The French left were outraged by this, even if they were far more divided than their German brothers. It was more reassuring to see Spain’s left-wing government survive in the following story. More strife was then shown on the streets of Colombia as a general strike turned into a wave of riots. The screen froze on a man and a woman, apparently the leaders of the dissension, being bundled into a police car.
Hammering on the projector followed until the machine relented, now a football match between Borussia Dortmund and a visiting Scottish team replaced the couple on the screen. German football had suffered in the wake of the civil war and reconstruction, Dortmund had become one of the better sides by virtue of their squad holding together better than most in the aftermath. All the same the match ended 5-1 to the Scottish side, a complete disaster. Peter was sure his own Bayern Munich would have made short work of the Scots a few years ago, back when they were the major source of local pride in their home city instead of dreams of Bavarian independence.
There was a general muttering throughout the barn, Peter wasn’t aware of any Dortmund fans amongst them but the German team losing so badly stung them all regardless. It was unifying in its own way but they had settled down by the time the film had begun.
The feature was called The Testament of Dr Mabuse by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou. It was a talkie sequel to a previous two-part silent film made by the pair. Peter had been too young to see the previous film when it had first come out and with his father subsequently denouncing Lang as a Bolshevik he had had to wait until the aftermath of the civil war to watch the thriller.
Its sequel began with a power plant in an unnamed German city where the workers were complaining of strange noises. They were forbidden from talking about it by the owner of the power plant, only for it to turn out the man was being controlled by the noise. The demonic Dr Mabuse was giving orders to the plant’s owner remotely with his mind, for the criminal mastermind was living in exile in a crypt beneath Rome. The aftermath of the previous films had forced him to flee to Italy where he had first perfected his mind control.
The heroes of the film were the workers of the power plant instead of the detectives from the first film. The police were portrayed as also being susceptible to Mabuse’s control and aided the owner in attempting to use the power plant to supercharge the villain’s mind power, allowing him to take over the entire city.
Peter found himself transfixed in a different way by the eeriness of the film. Although the workers found that they were able to resist the hypnosis by their collective class consciousness the film ended without Mabuse being defeated, instead it finished with him resolving that he would try the same scheme over and over in different parts of the country until he was victorious. The screen faded to black with only the warm light used to represent the combined power of the workers flickering until it too faded.
The lights in the viewing house were turned back on but an awkward silence remained before Peter and his fellow tankers awkwardly started to shuffle out.
The cold night brought a relief to the tension and soon the group were making their way to the tank school’s bar. Like the cinema it was managed by themselves and provided a socialistic atmosphere amongst the different ranks. Their own triumph of cooperation over hierarchy.
His colleagues were new to this place, his old group scattered. Klaus’ talents had apparently been deemed sufficiently worthwhile to keep him in the fatherland. Franzhad died in Lehrte alongside many of his former friends in the civil war, whether they had belonged to the secret reading group or not. Those who had survived had fled or were sent back to their families, not ideologically suitable for the People’s Guard. Some were still in prison.
This left Peter as something of an old man amongst the new set, even though his young face didn’t give him much seniority. His rank had also been elevated beyond his years but the People’s Guard had less consideration for that than the old Reichswehr, especially amongst this small island within the Soviet Union.
The world's first socialist state was no longer considered to be the epitome of evil in the same way it had been by the Reichswehr, even if the German revolution marched at a different pace fraternisation of the sort Peter could only have dreamed about before now took place openly. The same fears about spies remained in place but it had always been clear that the fraternisation itself had been what had made the Reichswehr leadership so paranoid. The Bolsheviks were not meant to be their friends, merely the enemy of their enemies.
He paused outside the bar for some fresh air, the stark imagery of the film lingering in his thoughts. The welcoming light from the windows was joined with shouts of greeting as the German party joined the Russians inside. Peter wondered if this was the sort of solidarity the film had been trying to instill.
In spite of the darkness the silhouettes of the tanks they had been working with stood out defiantly. They represented the continued triumphs of German-Soviet cooperation, an alliance that seemed increasingly to be borne of its time. The bodies of the machines were larger, their shapes more fearsome, than anything the Reichswehr had been working with three years beforehand.
Soon they would be ready to face the world outside, either to rally against the encroaching darkness, or to spread their light to others.
Peter wondered if he would be ready by then to embark on another crusade.
The still is from The Testament of Dr Mabuse