“The Axe of Wandsbek” (1951)

Falk Harnack’s The Axe of Wandsbek is another DEFA production, this one about a Hamburg butcher whose shop is ailing because he can’t afford to modernize. The time is September 1933, i.e., just a very few months after Hitler took power, and through a string of circumstances (a couple of them a tad forced) the butcher is offered 2,000 marks if he’ll do the state just one tiny favor: behead four Communists who’ve been framed for murdering a soldier. The thing is, this isn’t like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie where Cosmo Vittelli had to choke down his scruples to commit murder. No, Albert Teetjen wants to perform the executions, because he wants the money, but knowing that he’ll be ostracized in his community if word gets out, he takes steps to hide the deed, even from his bourgeois, religious wife. Then, of course, word does get out, and…

The Second Track remains the most visually accomplished DEFA production I’ve seen, but The Axe of Wandsbek is the most poetic one. Axe opens with a Langian touch: some little girls playing hopscotch between the words “Heaven” and “Hell” scrawled on the sidewalk. The quadruple execution isn’t shown directly—instead, we experience it through the wildly varied reactions of four secondary characters watching it from an attic. The giant old axe which the butcher is so proud of—it belonged to his grandfather and, as he constantly points out, is made of “the finest Sheffield steel”—is a potent symbol. When things start going wrong for him, Teetjen literally tries to bury the token of his misdeeds, but a neighbor, spotting him, digs it up again, and the bad penny comes home with a vengeance.

The movie was made by people who lived through Nazism’s early years, so all the little social touches—the salutes, the atmosphere of the shops and beerhalls, the decor of the various abodes, the things the characters do for entertainment—ring true. What I’m less certain about is how safe it really was for people opposed to Hitler to air their views back then. None of the characters go so far as to deliver anti-Nazi speeches in the town square, but among themselves they express their political feelings with surprising freedom. A character like the social worker who shows open sympathy for the doomed Reds…well, I’m just not sure how long she would’ve stayed on the street, even in ’33. Communist propaganda is probably heavier in Axe than any of the other DEFA films I’ve seen, but at least it’s confined to the one or two scenes in which the butcher’s neighbors discuss the execution of the Reds primarily as a blow against “the workers”. Even with its symbolic shadings the film is mainly a character study, and a bully one at that.

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One Response to ““The Axe of Wandsbek” (1951)”

  1. A Hill of Beans | Tom Blog Says:

    […] The Axe of Wandsbek (Harnack 1951) […]

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