Directed by Sonja Toepfer | Reviewed by Anushka Dutta
‘Josef is in the Stable’ is a non-fictional depiction of the Nazi-Era in the form of a documentary, written and narrated by a German clinical psychiatrist, Dr Friedhelm Röder. While working in the German countryside, he investigated and researched the execution of Josef Jurkiewicz, a Polish forced laborer in Germany during World War II, and the physical and psychological systematic subjugation of his lover, Luise. Through his narration based on documented research and contemporary witnesses, Röder brings to light the frighteningly effective indoctrination of the German residents during this time.
The film has a linear plot, predominantly based on facts and figures. It opens with an enactment of a man on the verge of losing his sanity, while unsettling music plays in the background. The mood of the documentary is heavily set in these six minutes, where we witness the insufferable agony and anguish confined in an asphyxiating chamber. This dingy, somber chamber perhaps signifies the ‘stable’ in the title. The opening scene is followed by five Acts, namely, Act I: Josef and Luise, Act II: In Custody, Act III: The Execution, Act IV: Luise and Franz, Act V: Last Chapter, and ends with an Epilogue. Each act is complemented with its unique props, natural moods, colour concepts, symbols and cinematic effects. At the end of the film, one might wonder whether the opening scene was merely a performance or a natural reaction of Dr Röder to the diabolical and sadistic Nazi ideologies and tactics to keep the common people under their administration.
When Poland surrendered their defeat to the Allied Forces, their army men were taken into custody by Germany and compelled to become slave laborers. Josef, with his prior knowledge of dairy farming, gets appointed to Franz’s farm. Not only do they get along as master and subordinate, but it is also here that he comes across Luise, Franz’s sister. When Franz gets drafted into military service, Josef takes up the management of the farm. Over time, Josef and Luise get intimate and as a result of this love affair, Luise gets pregnant with Josef’s child. It is for this crime of love that Josef is condemned to death and Luise chastised by the murder of her infant, by the telekinetic, authoritarian government systems regulated by automatons. But the real enemy perhaps is the inherent apathy and indifference of mankind.
To highlight this point, one can take the instance of Josef’s execution in front of his fellow Polish forced laborers. Here, Dr Röder gives the account of one of the witnesses, a twelve-year-old boy who watched the murder out of sheer curiosity and marvel. Moreover, the bloodthirsty bureaucratic puppet masters in the name of a government were alarmingly methodical, streamlined and productive. Through the execution of Josef, they conditioned the minds of the spectators to intake only the outcome of disobedience and indiscipline but prevented any lingering trauma to ensure optimal productivity. Furthermore, the coffin with Josef’s corpse gets transported to the anatomy lab of the University of Marburg for the dissection of muscles. “The purpose of the muscles’ dissection is to teach medical students the functions of muscles.” It is petrifying how one gets hanged for the ‘sinful’ act of consensual and mutual love and the slaughter, in some twisted way, gets transfigured into the purpose of educational and social progress.
Filmmaker and artist, Sonja Toepfer has skillfully given a cinematic form to the horrors in Röder’s research. The contrasting light and dark effects of cinematography elevates the scenery and background and helps gain clarity. The shot positions through this documentary aim to engross the spectators. The narrative of Dr Friedhelm Röder has a hypnotizing effect on the audience. This documentary experimental film is not shot in historically accurate locations but is dramatically removed from the individual domains to allow a psychological introspection of the events. These shots are dominantly taken in the countryside – a rural slaughterhouse, deserted ski jump and sawmill, a torched mill, grazing lands and so on. ‘Josef is in the Stable’ is colored by socio-political propagandas and bestiality. This work of art can potentially arouse horrid yet gripping emotions in its audience.
Anushka Dutta is a student of English Honours, and a part-time content writer. A writer, singer and an artist; they have worked as an ambassador for Japan Film Festival in 2020 organized in Kolkata, India. They are a professional singer and have done playback singing in movies.