A fascinating footnote in mid-20th-century German history gets an expectedly worthy treatment by writer-director Lars Kraume in “The Silent Revolution,” one of those deeply respectful historical fictionalizations where the good people are allowed character development and the bad people largely remain very, very bad. Set in 1956 when a senior classroom of East German high schoolers subversively held a two-minute silence for those just killed in the Hungarian Revolution, the film sticks to a classic mainstream retelling (roughly based on the memoir of one of the participants) where the only unforeseen element is an odd Christian overlay. Box office in Germany and Austria will likely be strong, but apart from some continental European distribution, it’s hard to see this getting any kind of international traction.
Helpful text at the start reminds audiences that the film is set five years before the Berlin Wall went up, at a time when it was still possible for East Germans to travel to the West provided they could plausibly state their reasons for the journey. The locale is Stalinstadt, today’s Eisenhüttenstadt, a city on the Polish border within relatively easy reach of Berlin (the real events took place even closer to Berlin, in Storkow). Kurt Wächter (Tom Gramenz) and Theo Lemke (Leonard Scheicher) head West to put flowers on Kurt’s grandfather’s grave, and while there they sneak into a cinema. A newsreel of the ongoing uprising in Budapest offers a very different take than the propaganda at home, and they return to school inspired by the thought of a Soviet-bloc nation rising up against the occupier.
Eager for more news, the boys learn that schoolmate Paul (Isaiah Michalski) has an eccentric uncle Edgar (Michael Gwisdek) with a radio tuned to the U.S.-sponsored RIAS broadcasts, so a group from class meet there in the evenings and hear that their soccer hero Ferenc Puskás was killed in the revolution (the news was subsequently proven to be false). With the putative death of the sportsman as an official excuse, Kurt proposes an in-class moment of silence to honor the fallen Hungarians.
A few discourage the idea, most especially rabid pro-communist Erik Babinski (Jonas Dassler), but the majority agree and they go ahead without telling their teacher, who blows a gasket at their unexplained silence until finally Erik reveals it’s a protest action. Principal Schwarz (Florian Lukas) tries to contain the whole thing, but word gets to the district school board, whose chairwoman Kessler (Jördis Triebel) comes to investigate, refusing to back down until the ringleaders are identified.
To give the students some background, Kraume fills in a few family stories. Theo’s working-class father Hermann (Ronald Zehrfeld) turns out to have been involved in the 1953 East German Uprising (odd that his 18-year-old son wouldn’t be aware of what his father did just three years earlier), and tries to prevent his boy from making a similar “mistake.” Kurt’s father Hans (Max Hopp) is a City Council Chairman whose short temper is clearly hiding some nasty secret, while his mother Anna (Judith Engel, forced into just one expression) displays all the mannerisms of a battered wife. Added to the mix is Lena (Lena Klenke), Theo’s girlfriend who shifts her attentions to Kurt when the former temporarily loses his political backbone.
Subtlety is not Kraume’s strong suit, as previously demonstrated by his film “The People vs. Fritz Bauer”: How convenient that Erik enters church just when his minister stepfather (Götz Schubert) is speaking of the betrayal of Christ. Or when he subsequently barrels in with a gun and the beam of light illuminates a large crucifix. Similarly, a steel factory is presented as the very opposite of Soviet industrial propaganda, turned into a fiery hell-hole set against a brooding sky, accompanied by infernal clanging. Kraume wants everything so scrubbed that when Kurt is on the eve of escaping, it’s hard to focus on anything other than the way his blond hair forms a perfect swoop under his hood.
Performances are generically earnest, which is the most that can be expected with such an anodyne script where broadly-drawn characters like Kessler are over-the-top in their brutish behavior. It’s fitting therefore that the repetitive schmaltzy orchestrations seem so tediously familiar.