This piece was substantially revised in December 2014.
Festival Writer: Rudolph Cartier; Adapted and translated from: Theodore Plievier (novel), Claus Hubalek (play from novel); Director: Rudolph Cartier
The early 1960s was a transitional period for BBC television drama. New techniques, notably a move away from live transmissions in favour of pre-recording, enabled more ambitious and polished productions. Subject matter was changing too, with specially written television plays and series overcoming the BBC’s previous reliance on material drawn from the theatre or popular novels. Of course, these changes didn’t happen overnight, and a number of programmes of the period provide a snapshot of television drama in transition, containing elements of both the old and the new, sometimes uneasily colliding in the one production. One such drama is Stalingrad, from late 1963, which has roots in both a novel and its stage adaptation, but also attempts to make the material ‘televisual’, achieving mixed results.1 Here, we’ll examine the play, to see how it came to be made in a mix of styles and how critics and audiences reacted to it.
The novel Stalingrad had been published in the late 1940s by Theodore Plievier. Plievier was a German Communist who had fled to the Soviet Union when Hitler came to power. He served with the Soviet army during the Second World War and afterwards wrote his novel based on captured diaries and letters, interviews with German prisoners of war and his own experiences. The harrowing novel is a wide-ranging picture of the war on the Eastern front from the German perspective, depicting how battle, the Russian winter, and a lack of supplies and reinforcements slowly annihilated the German Sixth Army.
Stalingrad had proved controversial when dramatised for the stage by playwright Claus Hubalek in 1961, with protesters attempting to halt German performances. When broadcast by a Hamburg television station in 1963, it was condemned as a “defeatist fabrication” by the General Inspector of the West German Army, who banned soldiers from watching it and arranged manoeuvres for the night of transmission in case his order was disobeyed.2 The play was transferred to British television later the same year as part of BBC2’s Festival drama anthology. Introducing the series, its producer, Peter Luke, explained that Festival was “not conceived for the apathetic viewer. We want you to challenge and be challenged by our productions”.3 It was also a decidedly international series, showcasing work from dramatists as diverse as Beckett, Pirandello, Ionesco and Aristophanes. With its challenging subject and European origins, Stalingrad was a perfect fit for the series. The play was translated, adapted and directed by BBC staff director Rudolph Cartier.
The play focuses on a handful of characters from the sweeping novel to dramatise the human tragedy of the battle for Stalingrad. Its characters are private soldiers, generals, and all ranks in between. Through their eyes the audience experiences the misery and hopelessness of the siege that became the greatest military defeat in history. In Stalingrad we see generals who can surrender honourably having sacrificed their men; officers who have lost all faith in their “Füehrer”; common soldiers looking after each other; officials who enforce a death sentence on one of their own men in the face of outright defeat; and good men made ruthless by the appalling circumstances they find themselves in. It’s not known for sure how Stalingrad came to be chosen for BBC television, but it seems likely it would have been a suggestion by Cartier himself; he regularly visited Europe and maintained an interest in new European drama – which had previously informed his television work – and had a particular desire to tackle ‘big’ subjects and to present German perspectives on the Second World War.
Throughout his career, Cartier had demonstrated a desire to portray for British viewers the German experience of the Second World War. His dramas depicted the difference between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Germans, dramatising both the crimes of the Nazis (The Joel Brand Story and Doctor Korczak and the Children) and German opposition to hard-line Nazism (Cross of Iron and The July Plot).4 He clearly had a sympathy with the German people (he was Austrian by birth – although after the war he became naturalised as British – and had spent several years working in the German film industry before the Nazis came to power) and did not produce works that resorted to blanket stereotypes. Stalingrad is arguably Cartier’s greatest exploration of the German nation at war, depicting the diverse range of humanity it encompassed.
In pre-production, Luke designated Stalingrad a “Special Project” and arranged significant resources for it.5 This included a generous budget which increased from around £6,500 to over £8,000 during production.6 Cartier was allowed three days of filming on the largest stages of the BBC’s Ealing Film Studios over 23 to 24 September 1963. About a quarter of the whole duration of the play was pre-filmed, the rest being recorded in studio three of the BBC Television Centre over a further three days, 16 to 18 October 1963. Unusually, rather than recording to videotape, with the pre-filmed material transferred to the master tape during recording, Cartier telerecorded the electronic studio output to 35mm film, later editing in the pre-filmed sequences.7 Although the reason for this is not documented, it was likely to enable greater editing than videotape would allow, particularly in view of the number of days’ recording required.
During pre-production, Cartier undertook significant research via archive film, hiring a film about Soviet cinema and attending viewings at the Imperial War Museum in London.8 The BBC’s commercial arm Television Enterprises signalled their intention to market the recording of Stalingrad internationally and asked Cartier to ensure that any newsreel footage he included was clearable for overseas sales.9 In the end, no stock footage appears to have been used in the production itself, only for research purposes, with Cartier noting having spotted Nikita Khrushchev, then the leader of the USSR, in footage of the German surrender at Stalingrad.10
During the final editing of the play it was found to be significantly over-length, requiring Cartier to remove two whole scenes. The first of these depicted a Christmas party, while the second was a pre-filmed sequence set in a field hospital. The removal of the latter resulted in the complete omission of the character of Pastor Kalser played by Edward Ogden, who appeared only in that scene.11 Indeed, despite being budgeted as a 90 minute production, the finished Stalingrad ran to 104 minutes. Although it isn’t clear from the BBC production file, presumably an extension to the expected running time was agreed during production as it’s hard to believe a 14 minute over-run could have come about entirely accidentally.
Calling it “one of the best anti-war plays we could possibly put on”, Luke provisionally scheduled Stalingrad for 13 November 1963, the nearest Festival slot to the annual Armistice Day commemoration. He floated the notion of requesting a special slot on 11 November itself with Sydney Newman, the head of the BBC’s television drama group, who in turn put it to Donald Baverstock, the chief of programmes for BBC1. Baverstock dismissed the idea of any link being made between the play and Armistice Day and Stalingrad was put back in the schedule. It eventually screened as the eighth production in the Festival series, on 4 December 1963.12
Taking place largely in basements and bunkers, Stalingrad has a claustrophobic atmosphere, as is appropriate to a drama about an army besieged within a shrinking front. Even so, Cartier characteristically attempted to expand the scope of the play beyond the limits of the theatre text, reverting to the original novel in places. As we’ll see, this move was not considered wise by all critics. Introducing the play in the Radio Times, Cartier explained that “the prologue and the epilogue are transferred to the fog-shrouded burial ground of the German soldiers by the Volga. The stiff ceremony of the Russian surrender offer is taken from the novel, as well as the panic scene at Pitomnik airfield when the last hospital plane leaves and the Russian tanks attack”.13
This latter scene is the most horrific of the production and its execution is indicative of Cartier’s directorial flair. Presumably unable to film with real tanks, the sequence is shot from a Russian gunner’s point-of-view, framed by a prop version of a tank’s gun-slit. With the camera’s movements, along with sound effects, simulating the tank’s advance, the viewer witnesses the machine-gunning of the abandoned, panicked German wounded. Cartier also suggests the departure of the last plane on the airfield by again using a point-of-view shot, this time craning and tracking the camera backwards, accompanied by the appropriate sound effects. The tank called for at the play’s conclusion is not quite so well realised. This time a gun turret enters the frame, but it is obviously a lightweight prop manipulated on a trolley.
Although still often theatrical, with numerous lengthy dialogue-heavy scenes, and more action occurring off-screen than on, the play is harrowing and it is easy to see how, as stories of massacred prisoners and other horrors emerge, it could have so disturbed its original German audience, watching with the battle itself still within recent memory. Interestingly, critical opinion on the British production was divided, notably around the dichotomy of the ‘claustrophobic’ and ‘expansive’ elements of the production, which betrayed its mixed parentage from stage and novel.
Writing in the Daily Mirror, Richard Sears felt that Stalingrad “came over with sickening force” and made “natural television.”14 Sears reported that “Rudolph Cartier’s production reeked with the futility of war and the bitterness of defeat. He built up the vast canvas of the battle in a series of telling scenes, confined to cellars.” He went on: “What the author did and Cartier translated in television was to strip the Germans of their uniform, making them humans caught up in war.” This latter comment eloquently recognises Cartier’s more general attempt to humanise the dramatic portrayal of Germans at war, as alluded to earlier.
The Birmingham Post reported that: “Within the limitations imposed by the medium, Rudolph Carter made an excellent job of the play Stalingrad on BBC television last night… The bitterness of the winter, the hopelessness of the German forces, were vividly portrayed. And though the wider outdoor scenes were a little lacking in reality, which was not surprising, the character studies were splendidly put over by a most competent team of actors.”15
The Observer’s Maurice Richardson was less impressed, finding it “a useful documentary reconstruction but rather synthetic”.16 He thought the production “about as good as one could expect, even though it never really hooked you for more than a few minutes at a stretch”, and felt that the more effective sequences were undermined by “an aura of non[-]verisimilitude” created by the early scenes. He continued: “The cast of doomed generals in the cellar command posts all played up with dedicated industry, but it wasn’t too easy to be convinced by the disintegration of characters who had never been truly planted. You can always trust the box to show up the weaknesses in a script.”
A review in The Times concluded that “Mr Cartier compelled 90 minutes to comprehend not only weeks of outrage but an eternity of moral hopelessness.”17 This overstates the fatalism of the play, which is not entirely bitter and lacking in hope. Gnotke (played by Harry Fowler) – who opens the play attempting to dig graves in the frozen ground, and closes it on the windswept banks of the Volga, looking to a future in which he can settle and farm the open country – provides the hopeful assurance that war does not corrupt all men. He spends much of the play looking out for his broken friend Gimpf (Tom Criddle) and represents the humane conduct that can sometimes still be found in even the grimmest of circumstances.
The day after transmission, Luke telegrammed Sydney Newman, then in New York, to report that the play was a “smash hit”, with “most notices raves so far”.18 A few days later, the BBC’s Director General, Hugh Carleton Greene, reported to the Corporation’s Board of Management that he had seen the Hamburg version of Stalingrad but found Cartier’s production “much better”.19 Expanding on this brief minuted note, Director of Television Kenneth Adam let Cartier know that Greene had found “ours was “infinitely better”. Our actors were better German generals, even, than their native counterparts.”20 Cartier later recalled that Greene had supposedly told the Germans: “You should have seen ours, Mr Cartier’s production was tremendous.”21
The play was one of the subjects under discussion the Sunday after broadcast on the BBC radio programme The Critics.22 The eponymous critics were HAL Craig, John Richardson, Karl Miller and Roger Manvell, the last of whom would work with Cartier on the Second World War drama The July Plot the following year. Their discussion included some criticism of the quality of the script, but more interesting were their thoughts around the staging of the production. Opening the discussion with his brief review, Craig wanted to “Give proper praise to Cartier’s power – and his ability to place Stalingrad and an army of 300,000 men on a few square feet of studio floor – for this in the loaves and fishes of dramatic increase is what he did. In the inches of the screen we had epic television.”23 Manvell concurred, noting that an “amazing sense of scale was achieved by an extraordinary minimum of means. You got a Russian tank’s eye-view of retreating terrified soldiers. Small pictures which gave an impression of largeness of action…”
This led to discussion about the ‘panoramic’ versus ‘claustrophobic’ treatment of the subject. Richardson suggested the treatment was “more suited to the wide screen of the cinema than it is to TV” and that “it should have a claustrophobic effect, we should have had a worm’s eye view of the Stalingrad campaign.” Miller felt a “sense of what a good thing [it was] that a small screen can encompass so much scale and scope” but that “one could make out a case for its having possibly been better on the stage, or would be better in film terms.” Lambert was in agreement with the latter, noting that although his attention was “wholly held”,
I thought that too much of it in fact was put at us in the form of long monologues which could have worked in the theatre, but which didn’t work quite properly coming out of the television screen. One became aware that one was being wised up on events or emotions too directly as though they were being told to us and not illustrated. This is a kind of effect of concentration which works in the theatre and not, I think, on the television screen. And that worried me because then I began to feel either I wanted a wide screen and one two shots of the whole German situation, or I wanted the whole thing as it would have been in the theatre, focussed sharply right down onto the bunker all the time.24
The BBC’s Audience Research Report on Stalingrad estimated that the play was watched by 18% of the potential television audience, narrowly beating the 17% who watched ITV instead (which networked the variety show Stars and Garters and 14-18, a documentary about the First World War).25 Stalingrad’s Reaction Index of 76 was vastly ahead of the average for Festival, which was decidedly low at 46.26 One of the sample audience’s comment that Stalingrad was “A four star play if ever there was one, the powerful story of Germany’s greatest defeat in the second world war, grim and unpleasant but one I would not have missed on any account”, was noted to be typical. The report observed that common themes in the audience response included approval of the documentary aspect of the play and its exposure of the futility, senselessness and savagery of war. Others commended Stalingrad for making a vast subject comprehensible through its drama of seemingly real and individual characters.
The report went on to note that the vast majority of the audience sample found the production “outstandingly” realistic, with “authentic” sets and an atmosphere that well conveyed the cold misery of the Stalingrad battlefields. The quality of acting was praised, with Albert Lieven as General Vilshofen and Harry Fowler as Gnotke most frequently noted for their “excellent performances”. In view of his efforts in adapting the stage text for television, Cartier must have been pleased by one comment quoted in the report: “A wonderful atmosphere. Nothing that just seemed “theatre”. A really absorbing production.” Equally, Cartier’s inability or reluctance to depict all the sights of the battlefield resulted in praise from another respondent: “The suggestion of objects lurking in the mist was a good touch – it left something to the imagination.”
There was, however, some criticism from what the report called a “small minority” of the sample who were less pleased with the play. Several found its subject too grim and miserable for their tastes, while some disliked being reminded of the war itself, which was a common complaint around this time about such dramas.27 Finally, a few of the sample found it “slow and boring in parts”, with too much talk in place of action. The report goes on: “However, each of these objections was only made by very small groups and the overwhelming response was one of admiration for a gripping and dramatic play, and approval for its theme.”
Stalingrad was repeated on BBC1 on 30 May 1964, attracting a modest audience of just under 1.6 million viewers.28 As planned, Television Enterprises marketed their film print of the play overseas, with known sales to Germany (presumably West Germany as it was then) in 1966 and Cyprus in 1968.29 Although the play was made on 35mm film, it is a 16mm print that now resides in the archive. 16mm was the gauge marketed overseas so it seems likely that the original 35mm print was ‘junked’, as was common during the 1960s, at some point after its broadcast, with a copy for foreign sales having survived instead. Stalingrad was screened as part of a Rudolph Cartier retrospective at the National Film Theatre in London in 1990. It remains a harrowing piece of television drama, but also one in which the collision of expansive ‘televisual’ techniques and the more static, ‘claustrophobic’ stage elements sit uncomfortably together.
This article © Oliver Wake, 2014
Thanks to the BBC Written Archives Centre for access to research materials. Thanks also to Sue Malden at BECTU, and the staff of the BFI Reuben Library, for access to the Rudolph Cartier BECTU Oral History Project interview.
Originally posted: 19 December 2010. (First version.)
21 December 2014: The 2010 post was replaced by a substantially revised version. Changes include the addition of archive research.
11 March 2022: Added new paragraph on The Birmingham Post and added accompanying endnote.