The Jewish Communist partisan Angel Wagenstein was sentenced to death in 1944 — but he lived until 2023. From his Bulgarian homeland to postwar East Berlin, the filmmaker and novelist devoted his century of life to telling the stories of the persecuted.
Angel Wagenstein in a still from the documentary Art Is a Weapon. (Arcadia Pictures, 2017)
In 1922, the year of Bulgarian screenwriter and novelist Angel Wagenstein’s birth, the League of Nations’ high commissioner for refugees introduced the “Nansen passport.” It was intended for stateless refugees and migrants, whose numbers had soared after World War I and the attendant revolutionary upheavals. Yet just a few days before Wagenstein’s death last June 29, the current United Nations high commissioner for refugees announced that there had never been so many people seeking similar protection. A century of life had passed, but the age of refugees had not.
In “Landscape of Exile,” his first poem upon arriving in California, Bertolt Brecht called his peers “messengers of misfortune.” The overlapping crises and contradictions of the twentieth century are evident in their stories and lives — some of which Wagenstein told in his own films and books. Yet upon his passing, many of the misfortunes from the era of his birth remained unanswered. Even the question of the best political-economic system — a problem many believed had been resolved by the time Wagenstein reinvented himself as a novelist in the 1990s — seemed open once again.
When Wagenstein came into the world, the aftermath of the Great War was everywhere. When he left it, what Pope Francis called a “world war in installments” raged, exacerbating the climate catastrophe. Even in the twenty-first century, art cannot extricate itself from the conflicts of the age. But whether “art is a weapon,” as one film about Wagenstein is called, remains to be seen. What is certain, however is that Wagenstein’s work is what Shakespeare’s Hamlet called an “abstract and brief chronicle of the times.”
The Great War and a Question
“[B]ut time imposes its transparent layers one after the other,” the narrator reflects in Wagenstein’s novel Isaac’s Torah, “bringing closer or taking further away the events as if seen through binoculars — first from one side, then from the other — and then things that used to be unclear to you in the past are covered with thoughts of today or, if you’d rather call them, delusions of today.”
Anyone looking at these layers from today’s perspective will recognize that the aftermath of the Great War underpinned Wagenstein’s life. In the old Europe, destroyed in what George Kennan once called the “great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century, the burning question was what should change. Communist uprisings erupted in many countries, but were drowned in blood in Western and Central Europe.
‘I met my father in prison,’ Wagenstein told me during our first meeting in 2007, in Sofia’s Grand Hotel.
“I met my father in prison,” Wagenstein told me during our first meeting in 2007, in Sofia’s Grand Hotel. “He was an old Bolshevik, and remained one until the end of his life in the early 1990s.” His father had been arrested for his involvement in the Communist-led September Uprising of 1923, and Wagenstein was four years old when he was allowed to visit him behind bars. The family emigrated to France following his father’s release in 1927. Paris brought them only poverty, and the Wagensteins were relieved when a general amnesty allowed their return in 1934.
They did not return to their hometown of Plovdiv but to the capital Sofia, which had developed rapidly in recent decades and now counted around three hundred thousand residents. Yet, a fascist regime was in power there. “I mean a fascist regime like in Italy, not a Nazi one like in Germany,” Wagenstein explained. Nevertheless, here emerged the question that would profoundly shape his life: Does humanity need a radically different way of living together?
Though Wagenstein worked on many films in divided Germany, including his best collaborations with director Konrad Wolf, he did not live in Germany for any length of time. Still, as for most European Jews, the German events of January 30, 1933, marked the pivotal moment in his life. The handover of power to the Nazis represented the decisive milestone on Europe’s road to its second self-destruction. Surely, it is impossible to say what exactly would have happened without the Nazi dictatorship. Could World War II have been prevented? The Holocaust probably would not have happened. Would Oppenheimer or someone else have developed the atomic bomb? Would a world have emerged divided between two superpowers with proxy wars in the so-called Third World? Everything that Wagenstein wrote about or made documentaries about, some based on his own experiences, would have been different — and thus different in its telling.
After Bulgaria sided with the Axis powers in March 1941, Angel Wagenstein, member of an illegal Communist youth organization since age sixteen, joined the partisans. Most fighters did not look particularly heroic — some even went barefoot. But they undertook daring actions, including a bank robbery. They set fire to a large fur warehouse in central Sofia meant to supply the German Sixth Army with warm jackets for winter in Stalingrad. After these and other escapades, Jackie, as he was later called, retreated to Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia.
During the filming of Art is a Weapon, a documentary about Wagenstein’s life, Jackie told director Andrea Simon that he used celluloid camera film — which was easy to obtain and did not arouse suspicion — as an accelerant in the fur warehouse arson attack. Some of his comrades were shot, but he managed to escape, despite being recognized. A wanted poster led to his denunciation and arrest. As a partisan, Communist, and Jew, he faced certain death.
But then Allied bombs fell, Sofia burned, people fled, and many died. The city sank into chaos. Guards hurriedly evacuated prisoners to Sliven, and Wagenstein’s trial was delayed amid the confusion. By the time the death sentence was announced on May 9, 1944, the Soviet Army was on the horizon and the Germans withdrew. Following long days and nights in a dark, isolated cell, Wagenstein was able to escape. No one wanted to carry out the sentence.
Brimming with hope after his improbable survival — and confident that the era of fascism, occupation, and the Holocaust was over and a new society could be built — Wagenstein went to study film at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. It looked like a time of new beginnings.
Images learned to move as early as the nineteenth century. In 1895, a short film depicted workers leaving a factory, and in 1902 a movie showed a journey to the moon. Since then, cinema had oscillated between documentary and fantasy. It soon became the new narrative artform of the twentieth century.
Brimming with hope after his improbable survival — and confident that the era of fascism, occupation, and the Holocaust was over and a new society could be built — Wagenstein went to study film in Moscow.
Wagenstein’s lifelong nickname “Jackie,” given to him as a child, already hints at his enthusiasm for movies. He watched Charlie Chaplin’s legendary 1921 silent film The Kid several times accompanied by his aunts, who jokingly compared him to the little villain Jackie Coogan, who shot out windows so that his friend, a glasscutter, could replace them.
At the Moscow film academy he not only learned his craft — enabling him to complete over fifty feature and documentary films as a screenwriter and director. But there he also met his closest friend, Konrad Wolf. Both had fought weapon in hands — the exiled Wolf in the Red Army, and Wagenstein as a partisan. “Jackie” kept his old weapon, still in working order, in his apartment until old age. Both came from Communist households.
Between what he experienced and literary adaptations, whether in East Germany with Joachim Hasler or in West Germany with Wolfgang Staudte, his first stories were shaped by the consequences of Nazism and the Holocaust, which was not yet as firmly anchored in popular memory as it is today. Much of it began in the 1950s, when East German film studio DEFA asked him to pitch a movie. He wrote a story based on his experiences and observations in just a few days. Initially, the script was received enthusiastically, until Kurt Maetzig, cofounder and board member of East Germany’s only film production company, declined to direct it. The filmmaker, whose Jewish mother had committed suicide during the Nazi dictatorship, was apparently fed up with telling Jewish stories.
It was Wolf’s hour: Stars proved a sensation at the Cannes festival in 1959. The film tells the story of an unrequited love between a German military man named Walter and the Jewish woman Ruth. They meet in 1943 in a small Bulgarian town where a train full of Greek Jews has to wait three days on its way to Auschwitz. There, Ruth asks Walter to help a fellow prisoner who is giving birth. He assists as best he can, and the two fall in love. This brings about the gradual transformation of the former art student, whom his comrades call Rembrandt. Here appears the relationship between art and power — a recurring theme in Wagenstein.
A conflict soon emerges between his friendly superior Kurt, who gruffly demands that he fulfill his duty as a soldier, and the wish to help the Bulgarian resistance fighters working at the Wehrmacht base. He can’t do both — he just wants to save Ruth. Unable to prevent her deportation, Walter changes his attitude and hands weapons to the resistance. The narrator, a partisan like Jackie, explains: “For all of us, he was simply ‘Herr Unteroffizier.’ Nobody knew his name. That’s why we called him Walter . . .” The film tells the story of Walter’s transformation, but the last images belong to Ruth, who was imprisoned on the train to the extermination camps. A Jewish song is heard: “It’s burning! My house is burning, help! Don’t stand with your arms crossed — put it out with your blood, or it will set yours on fire!”
The film won the Special Jury Prize and was distributed in seventy-two countries. Initially, it could not be shown in Israel, where authorities resented the positive depiction of a German soldier’s transformation, or in the Arab countries, where the suffering of the Jews was not to be shown on the big screen. Today, Stars is considered a classic film about the Holocaust.
Further films for DEFA were to follow, such as the science-fiction film Eolomea with Herrmann Zschoche, or the ambiguous adaptation of Lion Feuchtwanger’s Goya — or the Hard Way to Enlightenment with Konrad Wolf. Back home, Wagenstein rose to become a founding father of Bulgarian cinema.
Stalin and Still No End
When Konrad Wolf’s war diaries were presented in Berlin in October 2015, Wagenstein also spoke about his friend, whom he always called Konrad Fridrikhovich, his first name and patronymic in the Russian manner. Wolf’s early death in 1982 saved him from the difficult road to realization that Wagenstein had followed to the end. They once had an argument when this son of author Friedrich Wolf (hence Fridrikhovich) told him about a man who had left the gulag, subject to the rules of criminals, as a devoted Communist despite years of imprisonment. “Konrad Fridrikhovich said that he really was a great character — I replied that he really was a great idiot.”
In Wagenstein and Wolf’s 1971 film Goya, the horror of Stalinist ideology is mirrored in the horror of the Inquisition.
In their powerful 1971 film Goya, which tells the story of the Spanish court painter who died in French exile, the horror of Stalinist ideology is mirrored in the horror of the Inquisition. A scene similar to one in the film — in which the king, played by Rolf Hoppe, hesitates about how to judge the painting of the royal family until his wife resolves the embarrassment with rapturous praise — played out after a screening before Soviet officials in Leningrad. Vladimir Baskakov, a powerful film functionary who was only removed from power in 1986 during early perestroika, remained silent. “It felt like five minutes,” remembers Wagenstein. “Then he suggested we dine in a Georgian restaurant. It turned out he wanted Konrad Wolf to change the movie. ‘We’re already in so much trouble with Solzhenitsyn, and now this,’ he insisted.”
Wolf’s reputation and networks were by now strong enough for him to stand his ground. He had proven unable to do so with the 1958 film Sun Seekers. Looking back, it is clear that a turning point was reached between the two films. By the 1970s, indirect criticism based on historical material was still possible in the Eastern Bloc, but had lost its political and aesthetic power. The authorities perceived Solzhenitsyn’s documentary prose as the real danger. Both Wolf and Wagenstein sensed this change and sought to take a more direct approach in the Troika project, an autobiographical examination of Communism’s tragic history. Whether they could have succeeded will never be known, as Wolf succumbed to cancer in 1982.
In the Cold War’s Hot Proxy Wars
Before Wagenstein broke new ground as a novelist, he sought a more direct approach to the rapidly changing world as a documentary filmmaker. He filmed in Vietnam and Nicaragua, where battles spanning decolonization and proxy war raged.
It was not easy for Wagenstein to make his films. His report on Vietnam, A Cartridge and Three Grains of Rice, which aired on West German public television in 1973, prompted protest from conservative parliamentarians: How could it be that a Bulgarian Communist was reporting for West German television from North Vietnam? “In fact,” he mischievously remarked, “my past helped me. It was only when I told the Viet Cong leaders about my partisan past that I was allowed to document their guerrilla tactics on film.”
The role of violence in history, which runs through his work, was based on real experiences — from his father’s first visit to prison to Angel’s struggle as a young partisan and the guerrilla troops he visited as a filmmaker. Looking back on Wagenstein’s work, and how well it holds up today, it was never really just a “weapon.” He didn’t create political art so much as he acted politically — in art as in life.
The Novel as the Movie of the Poor
Wagenstein was actively involved in the upheavals of 1989, which soon mutated into a demolition. His apartment in Sofia served as the organizing office for the big demonstration on November 18 that heralded the end of Bulgarian state socialism. Full of pathos and deep conviction, he spoke before a large crowd, expressing his global, historically rich perspective: “From the bloodstained Tiananmen Square in Beijing to the site of the defeated Prague Spring, Wenceslas Square, from the Great Wall of China to the old walls of the Kremlin to the collapsed Wall of Shame in Berlin, a process of liberation is making its way through the frozen sea of lying socialism like an icebreaker, pushing aside general secretaries and party hacks alike.”
Wagenstein was actively involved in the upheavals of 1989, which soon mutated into a demolition.
The breakthrough to democratic socialism failed — in Bulgaria as elsewhere. In their major book on Wolf, biographers Antje Vollmer and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel inquire as to other possible outcomes. This time there is no key date like January 30, 1933. “What if the Spanish Civil War had ended with the victory of the Republic? What if the Prague Spring had not been crushed under the tanks of the fraternal states?” Other markers they cite include an alternative American strategy involving cooperation between Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, or the example of Chile, or if the détente policy of the 1970s had led to the emergence of a common world order resolving serious conflicts such as the Polish Solidarność at round tables.
Time and again, history ended in flight and expulsion, prison and executions. The revolution ate or dismissed its children. The century imprisoned them — again and again. Missed opportunities, betrayed legacies. As in the West, so it was to be in the East in the 1990s. But the end of history never came.
The two large cinemas in Plovdiv, “Jackie’s” hometown, with its amphitheater and nineteenth-century Bulgarian Revival houses, closed in the 1990s and were converted into high-end department stores in a deeply stratified society. When I visited his birthplace in 2007 for a report on Romania and Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union, I saw young people peering into stores in the former cinemas like museums. Most of them wore cheap knockoffs of the brands they fingered. Bulgarian film production underwent a dramatic collapse in the 1990s, and Wagenstein’s art — like his political views — was now frowned upon. The ghosts of the past were never banished: on his ninety-fifth birthday, he was illustrated in a major national daily as a Jewish terrorist with a crooked nose passing out hand grenades to children, saying “Take them, they are sweets!”
Wagenstein took stock of his life in the novels he published after his film career ground to a halt in the 1990s. They remained light and funny despite all the tragic entanglements and bitter experiences. I heard him tell sarcastic jokes about the postsocialist era on several occasions. He was not only a great author, but also an impressive artist of life.
“One of the new [Bulgarian] mafiosi comes to Sicily,” Wagenstein began telling us in a beer garden in Sofia. “He is escorted in a luxury limousine to a two-story villa, where he is greeted by the top Italian mafioso: ‘Do you really have a proper mafia in the East?’ — ‘I would like to think so.’ — ‘Well, do you each have five luxury limousines like the one I brought you here in?’ — ‘No.’ — ‘Well, then. And a villa like this one?’ — ‘No.’ The head mafioso clutches his chest: ‘And do you wear chains of pure gold like this?’ — ‘No.’ — ‘Well, that may yet come.’ Back home, the new mafioso yells at his subordinates: ‘From now on, no one has more than five luxury limousines, you demolish the top floors of your villas, and you take the gold chain off your dog and hang it around your neck!’” When the shashlik skewers arrived, a dog trotted up and eyed the fresh, piping-hot meat. His panting made the hairs on his forearm tremble, his eyes looked at me with brown sadness until I threw him a piece. “That’s how we get into the EU,” Wagenstein laughed. “Like the dog, they only give us the scraps.”
The Persecuted and Displaced
Wagenstein’s second book, Far From Toledo, would tell the story of a family of Plovdiv Jews modeled on his own. When the Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century, they sought new homes in countries where they were tolerated. One was the Ottoman Empire, which stretched across the entire Balkans. By the sixteenth century, exiled Spanish Sephardic Jews soon appeared in the most important trading centers of the Balkans, including Plovdiv.
Wagenstein was a later descendant of the persecuted and displaced, as is the much younger Turkish narrator Mario Levi. Stars is not the only film featuring songs in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language, some of which survived for half a millennium via oral tradition and therefore probably changed over time. Wagenstein was able to sing them with emotion and spirit, which everyone can hear in Andrea Simon’s film, Art Is a Weapon. Many of these songs embody defeat and resurgence.
In his first novel, Isaac’s Torah, the tragedy of the main character, who survives two world wars and three concentration camps and loses five homelands, appears as a cryptic picaresque novel. The preface states: “The author sincerely thanks all known and unknown creators, collectors, collators, and publishers of Jewish jokes and anecdotes, through which my people have turned laughter into a defensive shield, and a source of courage and self-esteem through the most tragic moments of their existence!”
Wagenstein’s characters are like trees that bend and twist in the storm of history, damaged but usually unbroken. Mischievous, sometimes tough, they fight for survival by any means necessary. Rabbis become chairmen of atheist clubs, or neighbors from the shtetl who escaped the gas chambers are happy to meet again in the Kazakh steppe, where one, a “political prisoner,” is sent to a different gulag than the other, who performs forced labor as a “war criminal.” Or there are old people who fanatically waved national flags and longed for the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in their youth, but now sit nostalgically over coffee and cake in Vienna and moan about the good old days, which unfortunately will never return.
Here we also find the intense confrontation with Stalinism that he had wanted to mount with Wolf, right up to cases like the extradition to Germany, during the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, of Communists who had earlier fled to the Soviet Union.
At the same time, the overarching background of the persecution of the Jews becomes clear, which is also central to the third novel, Farewell, Shanghai. It tells the story of European Jews who flee from the Nazis to distant, Japanese-occupied Shanghai and become entangled in the contradictions of a new world. With a screenwriter’s eye for the essentials, Wagenstein’s writing is fast-paced but not hectic, completely focused on his subject matter. In his stories, he skillfully transforms real events into paradoxes, such as when a wealthy Jewish musician couple from Dresden, deeply rooted in German culture, slip into abject poverty after fleeing to China. Yet German is still regarded as a “symbol of particularly high social and cultural status” in the circles of the wealthy Baghdad Jews of Shanghai. Some of them even do profitable business with the Nazis — here, the incorruptibility of the grand narrator becomes apparent.
Wagenstein’s historically and spatially expansive novels and films tell of a bloody and at the same time hopeful twentieth century, in all its paradoxes. The author always knows how to lighten the heaviness of the subject matter with mischievous anecdotes. “We Bulgarians were always good smugglers,” Wagenstein often said. “My stories — whether in novels or films — are always suitcases with a false bottom.”
No Other Way Out
“I lived through many social orders,” Wagenstein told me when I once asked him about his key experiences. “Each time, they were destroyed — almost razed to the ground. And then, something new was built. We used to think things were moving forward, believed in progress. The law of history seems to be that an imperfect order is built up only to fall apart. Nevertheless, I am and remain a socialist.”
‘The law of history seems to be that an imperfect order is built up only to fall apart.’
In our fractured post-1989 age, this attitude is neither a stream nor a current, but a swiftly flowing tributary, formed by those who, despite the experiences of twentieth-century socialism, continued to believe that a postcapitalist world was necessary. Many are no longer with us, like East German playwright Heiner Müller, who once explained: “One must dig up the dead again and again, for only from them can one draw the future . . . the future arises solely from dialog with the dead.” In 1994, one of the world’s most outstanding historians, the late Eric Hobsbawm, ended his global history of the twentieth century with an eye to the coming millennium: one that could only be built with fundamentally changed societies. The alternative, and the last word of his monumental work, was darkness.
East German novelist Christa Wolf pleaded for fundamental change in a less Old Testament–like fashion. In the last decade of the century and of his life, the French left-communist novelist Jean Malaquais, who learned from André Gide and taught Norman Mailer, revised his slim but weighty oeuvre, the classic World Without Visa. Like Anna Seghers’s Transit, it is set among refugees in Marseille, sharpening his words for change-makers in our time. In 1996, the then eighty-eight-year-old author observed that the worst thing about Stalin was that he “discredited the idea of a classless society for a long time — perhaps for a century.”
The recent book on Konrad Wolf by Antje Vollmer and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel has a subtitle alluding to Hobsbawm, Chronist in the Century of Extremes. Like them, I shall end with a statement from a late interview with Wagenstein, well illustrating his approach: “I believe that socialism is a project, a human project, the most fundamental project of world civilization after Christianity. . . . The Inquisition was Christianity’s Gulag. . . . I am not a prophet of socialism. I only know that there is no other path for humanity. There is no other way out.”Original post