… That Becomes Even Stranger

The mentioned “Aktwerk” contains 24 photographs by 14 different photographers, all names unknown to me – here’s the list : Willy Zielke (3), Heinz von Perckhammer, Bruno Schultz (8), Carl Semon, Alfred Grabner, Viktor Hayd, Trude Fleischmann, Max Rothkegel, Franz Grainer, Heinz Hajek-Halke (2), Franz Kepler, Ewald Hoinkis, Ursula Lang-Kurz und Heinrich Iffland.
I looked through the names and read wikipedia-articles, as far as they exist, and the last one – yes, I do lists from behind, the “wrong” way ; I simply do this, I can’t explain – and the last one was Willy ZIELKE (Ger.) (1902-1989) “…. photographer … expressionistic … who did “Das STAHLTIER” …” – ?
What ?
I thought I knew the canon of expressionistic German fillums from the 1920s & 1930s, but this one had escaped me. Also ZIELKE’s biography. He learned in Munich at the Staatslehranstalt für Lichtbildwesen in 1923 and 1924 (what later became the Fachakademie für Fotodesign), and was teaching there from 1928 until 1936. He took part in the Werkbundausstellung “Film und Foto” and so became known to a wider audience. In the early 1930s he started to make films, his first independent solo work was “Arbeitslos – Ein Schicksal von Millionen” (Unemployed – One of Millions) from 1933.
ZIELKE was commissioned to produce a film for the hundredth “birthday” of the Deutsche Reichsbahn, this is the already mentioned “Stahltier” from 1935. The heads of the railway expected a nice advertisement or promotion picture, and were less than underwhelmed with the finished product – much to ZIELKE’s shock and dismay.
He constructed a story around a Werkstudent / student employee who has to complete field training with a group of workers ; the relationship between the group and the “intellectual”, ongoing engineer, develops, especially because the young man knows the history of the railroad and tells & explains it to the workers. As I read the picture does not follow ns aesthetics, does not use contemporary symbols, depicts neither student nor workers as aryan superhumans or lies about the history of the steaming engine. In fact ZIELKE did an aesthetically outstanding artful picture in the category corporate film / Industriefilm that the purchaser did not like : They blabbed something about “communist aesthetics” and threw the thing in the drawer.
Interestingly this film later was used within the training of cameramen for German propaganda units, as example for what is possible.
After the war a complete copy was found in Paris, but the successor of the Deutsche Reichsbahn, the Deutsche Bahn, still regarded the film as “not publishable”, and urged ZIELKE to shorten his work. So from circa 1955 onwards exists a crippled 50 (?) minutes version of the original 70 minutes film. Only much later, in the 1980s, the uncut original was shown publicly.
ZIELKE’s STAHLTIER (GOd, what a title !) brought him to the attention of Leni RIEFENSTAHL. She had him as collaborator for her Olympia films, and ZIELKE independently made the “Prolog” for the pictures. There was a contract, and he had it notariazed, nevertheless he is not in the credits of said picture(s), RIEFENSTAHL just dispersed him.
What follows is disputable. It is a fact that ZIELKE from February 1937 until August 1942 was held as patient in the mental asylum / Kreisirrenanstalt Haar. He describes it as kidnapping and accuses RIEFENSTAHL of pulling strings. I am not convinced, RIEFENSTAHL simply would have not needed to do something like that. She was in a nearly untouchable position in Nazi Germany. Earlier she even had shown the STAHLTIER to GOEBBELS and argued for the picture – in vain, GOEBBELS simply did not like it.
I think ZIELKE suffered from a nervous breakdown, the diagnosis “Verfolgungswahn” / paranoia / delusions of persecution may be valid or not, I have no clue. ZIELKE was castrated while in Haar, against his will, but according to the law, as a German judge told him after the end of the Third Reich when he asked for compensation. ZIELKE says he was subjected to experiments, but I think that was not verified. He was glad not to be executed (Ger., Eng.), Haar was part of the murder machinery.
In August 1942 RIEFENSTAHL – of all humans ! – took him out from Haar, and used him as cameraman for Tiefland (Ger., Eng.).
ZIELKE survived the war, started to produce small films in the 1950s and worked as cameraman again. I read that at the beginning of the 1970s, when he was completely out of the public’s eye and forgotten, a French collector “borrowed” his collection of negatives, and “forgot” to give it back. At least one of his negatives was sold for a pretty large sum via an auctioneer’s house while ZIELKE had to live from benefits. He died in June 1989, 86 years old.
What a life.


The only account of ZIELKE’s biography and his film is found here (part I) & here (part II) (Go there for pictures !), written by Manfred POLAK. Of course my scribble heavily relies on Herr POLAKs work.
It would be very helpful if the article by Herr POLAK would be translated professionally into English. Also English versions of the German wikipedia articles about ZIELKE and Das STAHLTIER would be very helpful.

7 thoughts on “… That Becomes Even Stranger

  1. Those are some very interesting images from Das Stahltier (and Olympia) – I clicked the WhoKnows Presents Part II link. I particularly like the second from last image – the one of the man on the side of the train viewed through the oval (or lozenge) shaped window with the offset reflection.

    How are you feeling now? At least a little better, I hope?

    [unrelated, sorry] – I’m now off to find out more about “gunnite” or “Sprizbeton”.

  2. He had remarkable success within a few years (from first independent film 1933 to “Olympia” 1936, doing a part of it on his own, of course with the full risk too), even while his Steel Animal flopped. I would very much like to watch the “Animal” in the original version LẌ.

    Oh, there are images in both parts IDV. Willy really worked the camera and searched for new angles & views.
    Thank you, I feel better. It was very necessary to have this additional week off. Tomorrow I will drive again. I am still coughing a little, but it is nothing compared to what I had a week ago.
    I always wondered about artificial stone – concrete is nothing else but milled lime stone / “Kalkstein”, with some additions of course. We use it mostly in a very boring way. But this stuff can be coloured, surfaces can be worked & structured in different ways, it can be oiled, it can be used as thin layer ; it is even possible to form very thin, see-through (“durchbrochen” / or is open-work better ?) forms. It is not necessarily a bunker that forms when concrete is used as material !
    I would not want to live inside a house with open concrete areas – that is what one can inspect on those sites for modern architecture. Many of these interiors are either tasteless or boring, or cosy like a public loo. But for public areas & buildings concrete can still be used and a bit more sense for adventure would be good, I think.

  3. This is a rather sad story. But fascinating as such stories tend to be.

    We were almost coming to Germany for Christmas, but we’ve booked a cottage in Wales instead, not quite sure how that happened as I was rooting for Germany.

    Hope you feel tip top again soonest, X

  4. I feel tip from the top dear Eryl, thank you !
    I think a cottage in Wales is preferable than Germany in late December. At least “cottage” evokes the idea of something warm & cozy, a good place inside, with a real fire, something like “die Hütte in den Bergen”, while I of course have no idea how Wales looks in December.
    I know very well how Germany looks in December, and I admit that a Weihnachtsmarkt in a more or less romantic Southern city (Rothenburg/Tauber, Nürnberg) can have something, especially when you use some “Glühwein” or “Glühbier” – the last I once found strangely comforting. As long as it is no Kebab in Port Talbot …

    Difficult & dangerous describes the White House right now pretty good LGS

    It is really astounding what can happen. I know of a collection that was really looted, sacked, by oh so friendly “borrowers”.
    Thank you MsScarlet, I am feeling better by the minute !

Comments are closed.