A documentary about the writer Walter Kaufmann

IThis film should have gone around the world with the protagonist. And since the writer Walter Kaufmann was first an exile, then for years a seaman and later as a reporter with an Australian passport for various GDR media without any travel restrictions, the documentarists Karin Kaper and Dirk Szuszies knew that the sphere of activity of the man to whom they dedicate their film wanted, actually included the whole world: Japan, Cuba, United States, Israel, of course Australia, Great Britain – to name just a few. And Germany in a multiple political constitution: Weimar Republic, “Third Reich”, FRG, GDR, reunified country. Walter Kaufmann, born in Berlin in 1924, died there in April 2021. In between he had a lot of life and hard work, and he was everywhere.

Kaper and Szuszies didn’t go anywhere for their documentary “Walter Kaufmann – Welch a Leben!” But the documentation came about, and after a ten-year attempt that says something about it. The shooting was finally made possible by the funding for the current anniversary year “1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany”, and the International Auschwitz Committee and the Association of Victims of the Nazi Regime committed themselves to the completion. Kaufmann was Jewish and persecuted, but he escaped Auschwitz because his adoptive parents had sent him to Great Britain in time. But both of them, Johanna and Sally Kaufmann, were murdered in Auschwitz. This is why the son, who had meanwhile arrived in Australia, decided to devote his life to the fight against fascism, and to do this he reflected on an aspect that had previously meant nothing to him. “Only when I returned to Germany did I insist on my Judaism: here are the murderers, and here I am.”

For Walter Kaufmann, New York was as fascinating as it was terrifying.  Shown here as a journalist traveling in the United States against the backdrop of Manhattan.

For Walter Kaufmann, New York was as fascinating as it was terrifying. Shown here as a journalist traveling in the United States against the backdrop of Manhattan.

Photo: Karin Kaper Film

Visiting the scenes of Kaufmann’s life in Germany was no problem for Kaper and Szuszies, but the pandemic made it impossible for them to cross the German borders. And Kaufmann was now very old: “I would have liked to have made a hundred,” he said to the two filmmakers, “but I don’t see it.” So that he could still see their portrait of his life, Kaper and Szuszies came up with an idea: They asked camera operators who were friends in the countries previously visited by Kaufmann for filming the relevant locations. Since very different stylistic impressions emerged, the filmed recordings of the conversations with Walter Kaufmann are now the parentheses of the dramaturgy. It’s a disparate film, but a harmonious one would not have done justice to the personality of this protagonist.

Kaufmann wrote his first books at sea and in English; It took years until they were translated into German, and for this it needed his status as an anti-fascist in the GDR. In 1985 he became general secretary of the local PEN – “that was something completely different than in the writers’ association”, but a staunch leftist Kaufmann remained beyond 1990: as a demarcation against the right. It is a shame that the film now has to go on a cinema tour without its active contemporary witness; Kaufmann knew how to tell succinctly but poignantly about his life. In 1961 in Cuba, as a reporter, he met several fellow writers from the GDR who were also traveling to the new model country of the revolution, including Eberhard Panitz. As the cynical coincidence would have it, Panitz has now also died, in the first week of the film. We need such witnesses because the witnesses will soon no longer be there.


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