The ZFO film Der Rückkehrer - The Returnee (1943/44)
The ZFO, or Central Office of Film Production in the East, was established by the German government in 1941 to produce propaganda shorts and newsreels for audiences of the Baltic States, the Ukraine and other occupied territories of the Soviet Union. Between 1941 and 1944 thirty short films, some running better than an hour, were produced, in addition to newsreels.
The ZFO only attempted to produce one true feature film, based on a script using actors rather than as a documentary type film. This web page helps to tell the story of how the production of that film was stymied by war-related delays and challenges, as well as budget blow–outs and personnel issues which senior officials in the Rosenberg Ostministerium, Dr. Goebbels Propaganda Ministry, the Ufa Headquarters, the Film Credit Bank, and the ZFO itself could not overcome before the film was abandoned in early 1945.
The propaganda film The Returnee was to tell the story about the return of a farmer from Soviet prison to his old homestead, to discover that the hated Soviet collective farm system had been abolished and that farmers were now entitled to re-gain title of their lands into their private hands by the New Order Agricultural Program of the newly established Reichskommissariat Ostland. The film had the actors Josef Kamper, Andrews Engelmann, Lotte Rausch, Else Petersen, Gerhard Dammann, Bernhard Goetzke, Paul Rehkopf, Niko Turoff, Aruth Warten and Hans Hemes. Most of these actors had appeared mainly in small character roles or at best secondary named roles in German films; with the exception of Andrews Engelmann.
– Josef Kamper had appeared in both the DIII88 and Der 5. Juni military propaganda films. – Andrews Engelmann, born in St.Petersburg, appeared in many Nazi propaganda films, including Karl Ritter’s Über alles in der Welt, GPU, Kadetten, and Legion Condor, and Ucicky’s Heimkehr. – Lotte Rausch had appeared in Hans Steinhoff’s Rembrandt, amongst other Nazi films. – Gerhard Dammann appeared in Ritter’s Pour le Mérite and Über alles in der Welt and other propaganda films such as …reitet für Deutschland and Fronttheater. – Bernhard Goetzke had appeared in Jud Süß, Bismarck, The Dismissal and Ich klage an, amongst other propaganda films. – Paul Rehkopf had appeared in Ohm Krüger, Ich klage an, the HJ film Jakko, Robert Koch, and Münchhausen, amongst others. – Niko Turoff was Ukrainian born and appeared in Karl Ritter’s Stukas, Pour le Mérite, Kadetten, and Besatzung Dora. – Aruth Wartan had appeared in Tannenberg, Carl Peters, and Münchhausen, amongst many other silent and sound era films. –Hans Hemes appeared in over twenty Third Reich films, none of them propaganda films, including Veit Harlan’s Verwehte Spuren.
(Above, the film being announced in the 1 February 1944 issue of the German film newspaper of record, the Film-Kurier Tageszeitung.)
German Films Dot Net has a number of ZFO original letters and memorandum dealing with this film, all from the estate of the Stills Photographer Herbert Jacobi hired by the production company. A web page dedicated to those estate materials on this website can be found here.
Below, we have integrated the files/documents from the German Federal Film Archives obtained in our research with the Jacobi documents we own, in date order. The Jacobi ones are those entries which start with the # symbol. All the other documents/letters cited without the # symbol below are from the Bundesarchiv – Filmarchiv, with our translation.
The correspondents whose names appear in the documents below:
Dr. Müller-Becekdorff, Head/Chief of the ZFO Production Chief Gerhardt Senior Officer Dr. Michaelis Staffer Detlef Behrens Director of Der Ruckkehrer, Herbert Goldmann
The Alfred Rosenberg Ministry (“Ostministerium” or, formerly, The Ministry of the Occupied Eastern Territories)
Deputy Reichsminister: Alfred Meyer Senior Advisor Karl–Georg von Stackelberg Senior Advisor Job Zimmermann Head of anti-Soviet propaganda – Dr. Eberhard Taubert (also, scriptwriter of the film Der ewige Jude.)
Dr. Goebbels Ministry (“Promi”, or formerly The Ministry of Public Enlightenment & Propaganda.)
Baron Dr. Carl von Engelhardt Dr. Fries - Head, Abteilung [Dept.] Film Dr. Müller–Goerne, Head of the Office of the Reichsfilmintendanten, Ufa Haus, Berlin Staff Advisor Bruno Pfenning
Cautio-Aktien-Gesellschaft [the Holding Company of the state–run German film industry]
Dr. Max Winkler, The Chief of Ufa and appointed by Hitler as the Plenipotentiary of Third Reich Film Lawyer/Senior Advisor Dr. Günther Dahlgrün
Dr. Richard Ott, Financial Consultant/Examiner
In April 1943, the film script for Der Rückkehrer had been submitted by the film’s Director, Herbert Goldmann to Herr von Stackelberg, senior official in the Rosenberg Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories (“Ostministerium.”) ——
Letter from von Stackelberg to the ZFO dated 24 July 1943
This is to acknowledge that ZFO, on behalf of the Ministry, is commissioned to produce an anti-Soviet feature-length propaganda film throughout the entire German Reich territory. ——
A letter five days later from von Stackelberg to all Reich authorities was issued to state that the Director Goldmann “is to be provided all assistance in the fulfillment of his commission.” ——
On 11 August an internal memo of the ZFO from Production Chief Gerhardt stated that the film was discussed on the telephone with Propaganda Ministry (“Promi”) lawyer Pfennig and Dr. (Eberhard) Taubert and that “everything seems to be in order.” The memo stated that Goldmann had listened in to the conversation.
# ZFO memo - Dated 25 August 1943, confirming that Herbert Jacobi applied for work on the film Der Rückkehrer.
# ZFO memo - Dated 25 August 1943, the same day, issuing Jacobi a notice of employment as the Stills Photographer on Der Rückkehrer, an anti-Soviet propaganda feature film - commissioned by the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories and important to the war effort.
# ZFO memo - Dated 28 August 1943 —Jacobi informed of his train departing at 9.35am on 1 September for Frankfurt/Oder from Berlin Bahnhof am Zoo, and a room at Hotel Drei Bergen in Frankfurt/Oder where he is to stay whilst other production crew arrive
# ZFO memo - Dated 30 August 1943. - Notice providing Jacobi two months of travel between Frankfurt/Oder and the ZFO offices in Berlin.
# ZFO Film Contract to Herbert Jacobi as Stills Photographer for Der Rückkehrer, commencing 2 September 1943. His wages were RM40,- per day, and on travel days he would be provided a Second Class train ticket and meals.
# ZFO memo - Dated 3 September 1943 - a notice to issue Jacobi train tickets between Frankfurt/Oder and Berlin as he is the Stills Photographer on Der Rückkehrer, “an important-to-the-war-effort anti-Soviet feature-length propaganda film commissioned by the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, and must travel between Frankfurt/Oder and Berlin frequently.””
# ZFO memo - Dated 9 September 1943 , a notice similarly worded as the previous one of 3 September but with specific employment dates from “ 1 September to the End of October .”
Internal memo - ZFO. Dated 8 October 1943.
To Production Head Mr Gerhardt
The business situation related to the development in Ukraine requires the ruthless avoidance of all unnecessary expenses. I therefore ask you to pay attention to all issues and to check with particular care whether you are being held responsible, as otherwise we could get into trouble due to the current status.
The principle that applies to the production department is that it has to feed itself. From the ZFO, nothing can be expected from the money that has been earned other than through production.
[signed] Dr Müller-Beckedorff (Chief, ZFO)
—- An internal memo written by Goldmann dated 24 July 1943
Describing a meeting between the ZFO’s Gerhardt, von Stackelberg of the Ostministerium and himself about the filming of Der Rückkehrer. Goldmann estimated that the film budget would be RM500,000 “if there were no special difficulties during the pre-production or the filming to occur.” Von Stackelberg stated that this amount was too expensive and to recalculate it. Goldmann was reassured that this was a formality. Goldmann then submitted a request for RM400,916- to von Stackelberg which ended up being reduced even further to RM350,000.
—— Letter to von Engelhardt at the Promi from Goldmann at ZFO. Dated 15 October 1943
Goldmann thanks von Engelhardt for traveling to Frankfurt/Oder on the 6th to visit the film production and to see film rushes. “The film rushes were silent —it stands and falls on viewing it with sound. “
Goldmann reiterated that he had visited von Engelhardt on the 11th at his office in Berlin and he was told that the sound work for the film would be paid for by the Promi. Goldmann stated that if the situation in the East did not allow it to be shown there, that there were still 4 million POWs and a huge contingent of volunteer guest workers to whom the film was a means of propaganda.
The financial side of this film’s situation is still not fully clear, Goldmann wrote.
I am ready to film the prison with about one hundred extras who I need, and the scenes will take three or four days, and one or two actors, who naturally have expenses in wages, travel costs and meal allowances. Goldmann added that he had been promised Schnapps and cigarettes by von Engelhardt for the production, and My main actors, consistent with their roles, have been for weeks running through the landscape barefoot and lightly clothed, and I fear that one or more of them will catch a bad flu and then I will have to abandon filming.
I earlier employed a great number of soldiers from the Frankfurt/Oder garrison, a portion of them war-disabled, as production workers or extras. I need Schnapps and cigarettes for them as well.
Letter from Dr. Fries, Promi, Abteilung Film to the ZFO, dated 18 October 1943
In consideration of the correspondence about the film please make a copy of the silent print of this film available to us, so that a decision can be made as to which Eastern languages the film should be synchronized. The production costs are to be given to the Promi to clarify the question of financing with the Ostministerium.
—— # ZFO memo - Dated 4 December 1943, a notice by ZFO that a Horch passenger car license plate IA-220738 shall be transporting war-important film material and supplies, including negative film, between Frankfurt/Oder and Berlin and that the driver of the vehicle is Herbert Jacobi.
# ZFO memo - Dated 9 December 1943, Jacobi is informed that any illness lasting more than three days must be excused by a doctor’s confirmation in writing.
# ZFO memo - Dated 17 December 1943, signed by the Director of Der Rückkehrer, Herbert Goldmann, informing Jacobi that a screening of film rushes was to take place the following evening at 8:15pm at the Skala Lichtspieltheater (cinema).
# ZFO letter on letterhead - Dated 11 February 1944, written by Detlef Behrens, ZFO senior staffer.
The letter asks Jacobi to urgently send by return registered post the photographs ordered some months ago, and to contact the ZFO office.
# ZFO memo - Dated 21 February 1944, this memo from Detlef Behrens was addressed to Frau Jacobi at their Berlin home address, confirming that Herbert Jacobi was ill and in hospital.
Letter to the Promi from ZFO with a cost breakdown for Der Rückkehrer. Dated 19 March 1944 (!!)
Letter to Dr.Müller-Goerne, Office of the Reichsfilmintendanten/Ufa House from Dr.Fries at the Promi, dated 21 March 1944
The letter stated that the enormous costs in the ZFO letter of 19 March 1944 could not be accepted and that an investigation of the film’s costs was undertaken by the Head Budget Office and the Reichsfilmkammer as follows. The letter then lists ten line items from the commission fee for the film script to the travel costs of the production crew and main actors. It totals RM340,538,70 (i.e., about 54% of the ZFO’s total claim) and that a submission from ZFO two months earlier for RM470,000 had grown by another RM150,000. [actually by RM130,000].
——- Letter to Dr. Max Winkler, [Head of Ufa and the Plenipotentiary of Third Reich Film] from Filmkredit Bank, dated 17 April 1944.
The letter complained that the Promi did not reduce the film’s expenses and were informed that the costs were RM566,000.- The money had already been spent. The letter talked of the “Inaccuracies of the Production Department " [of ZFO].
It was therefore recommended that a financial expert be engaged to report on the efficacy of the production.
—— Letter to the Promi from the ZFO, dated 18 May 1944
The letter recapped the meetings going back to 24 July 1943 including discussions of the estimates of the film budget with von Engelhardt based on a five week shooting schedule.
—— Letter from Dr. Fries at the Promi to the ZFO in reply, dated 3 June 1944.
Dr. Fries refuted that Dr. Taubert had approved the film on 11 August 1943 — Taubert only said that such a film could be made, naturally if the script was approved by the Promi. Furthermore, Goldmann’s memo of 18 October 1943 had “colored” the response of von Engelhardt after seeing the film rushes in Frankfurt/Oder, as von Engelhardt had said that he disapproved of the film. Dr.Fries then said that Gerhardt and Goldmann had asked the Filmkredit Bank for the money in advance using the letter of commission from the Ostministerium, stating that the production costs were within the budget estimates. The letter concluded that the higher cost must be borne not by the Promi but by the ZFO itself.
—- Letter from the ZFO to Zimmermann at the Ostministerium, dated 5 June 1944.
The Promi informed us on 21 April 1944: ‘As you already are aware, the film Der Rückkehrer, as a result of the recent censorship screening, is not suitable for use in foreign lands nor in the [Eastern] Occupied Territories. To reduce further costs, the intended production of the final scenes is not to be considered.’
That letter was then followed up by a five page single spaced letter again to Zimmermann at the Ostministerium by a letter dated four days later on 9 June 1944.
This letter reiterated the correspondence back to August 1942 . It refuted that Dr. Taubert had only given conditional approval. It refuted the accusation by Dr. Fries that Goldmann had “colored” von Engelhardt’s reaction to the film rushes screening. It said that von Engelhardt had said that the film had worth, it should be continued, and that underwriting would be possible. These comments were heard by Gerhardt, Goldmann, Weitzenberg [the motion picture cameraman for the film] and Pflüger. They denied that they had told the Filmkredit Bank that the production costs were within budget estimates. Von Engelhardt knew full well that Goldmann had told him that the film’s costing were RM600,000 in a memo of 18 October 1943 from Goldmann to von Engelhardt. Further, that at a film screening Dr. Taubert had stated that the film ‘was not so bad’. And Dr. Fries had said that the film could be considered for distribution in foreign countries such as Spain, France and Latvia, depending on the Promi.
Internal memo from Meyer to Dr. Hopf, Ostministerium, dated 23 June 1944
Meyer states that von Engelhardt did not handle control of the film costs well,and that a solution must be found. He asks Dr. Hopf if he can see any way that the film could be used, either for the Eastern Occupied Territories or domestically for internationally, without debiting the Ostministerium for perhaps a further RMN300,000 - could the film not be left with the ZFO, using an instruction that the contract was not fulfilled (not holding to budget, artistically unsatisfactory, politically unworkable). Examine the possibilities — we have to endeavor to keep the Ministry [separated] from these costs.
Internal memo, Ufa House, dated 26 July 1944
The Promi has issued us a statement that henceforth work can only be undertaken which has been put in writing beforehand.
——- Letter to Dr.Müller-Beckedorff, Chief, ZFO from Dr. Dahlgrün, Cautio-Treuhand-Gesellschaft, Ufa House. Dated 27 July 1944
“Zimmermann (Ostministerium) spoke with Dr. Winkler on 25 July about your correspondence of 9 June 1944” ….
At the meeting of October 18, 1943, and when the Propaganda Ministry (Dr Fries) obtained the decision on the same day, the production manager Gerhardt failed to inform the authorized and responsible representative of this Ministry that the production costs amount to RM 600,000 , on the contrary, has admitted this, but Goldmann’s memorandum with the amount of RM 600,000- that was submitted to neither Dr. Fries nor Dr. Taubert, was destroyed on the same day, which means that it was clearly established for those involved that this memorandum is of no importance.
Memo of Ufa-Film [author indecipherable]. Dated 28 July 1944 Sent to Dr. Winkler and to Dr. Dahlgrün
Dr. Ott of the Propaganda Ministry informed me that the Promi is not willing to make good the RMN 600,000 - for Der Rückkehrer.
It seems to me questionable whether it is possible for the ZFO to repay the production costs even in the tense financial situation in which it is currently, through no fault of its own, finds itself. In addition, the costs - you can treat them however you want - were paid from direct or indirect Reich funds.
Letter to Dr. Dahlgrün; Ufa/Cautio office from the ZFO, dated 31 July 1944.
Der Rückkehrer Our production files on this production were lost through enemy influence. Herrn Gerhardt and Goldmann had told von Stackelberg in July 1943 that a contribution of RM400,000- would have to allow for additional costs. In fact due to complications due to the war, the increased costs in the production of this film scarcely can be estimated. You reprimanded Gerhardt and Goldmann for failing to inform the Promi (Dr.Fries) on 18 October 1943 that the production costs were anticipated to be RM600,000- But Gerhardt and Goldmann left Dr. Fries in no doubt that the costs were RM600,000 on 18 October. We hope that an understanding between the two Ministries can be brought about as to which (fully or partially) Ministry will accept the costs.
ZFO memo to Dr. Dahlgrün, Cautio, dated 19 August 1944
Attached I am handing you the certified copy of a memo I made on October 8, 1943, from which it emerges that I refused Mr. Gerhardt any donation of money from ZFO to the production at the time, for your attention. [signed] Dr. Müller-Beckedorff
Letter from Dr. Müller-Beckedorff, Chief, ZFO to Dr. Dahlgrün, Ufa, dated 25 August 1944
The letter informed Dr. Dahlgrün that Gerhardt had departed the Ufa-Sonderproduktion [which had taken over the film’s production] and that Gerhardt was on holiday in anticipation of his being called up for military service.
I would like to speak with you next week about questions for Herr Gerhardt.
——— Letter from Dr. Fries, Promi to Ufa Film, dated 25 August 1944
Ref: Der Rückkehrer
The Ostministerium and Dr. Winkler have granted ZFO RM 300,000 to commission the feature film Der Rückkehrer. ZFO wrote on 15 June 1943 that the cost was between RM 350,000 and RM 400,000, to include the film synchronization. Herrn Gerhardt and Goldmann expressed in their correspondence of 18 October 1943 that the cost would be held within this range. In January of this year when the film Der Rückkehrer was made available to the Ministry, the ZFO made known that in light of unforeseen incidents RM 400,000 had been exhausted. At this point further work on the film was forbidden due to the uselessness of the film. Despite this, further work on the film was done and in March of this year an invoice for RM625,000 was received here. In view of the fact that: 1) the film is a silent version and absolutely unfinished, 2) no well-known actors participated, 3) the entire Directing staff ,with the exception of the first cameraman, consisted of people who are not at all in the class of the specialisation to which they were assigned here; it is completely unintelligible where the sort of expenses arises from. When the silent version was handed over, the RM 470,000 cost was reported. This amount has grown by RM150.000 In addition, it is communicated that the exterior shots of the film were made on the estate of director Goldmann's brother-in-law. Especially the amounts for the services of Goldmann's brother-in-law should be regarded as transmitted.
Since the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda is not prepared to take on the costs of the film that go beyond what is justifiable, we ask you to review the case and determine which costs would have been incurred if the otherwise usual commercial principles had been applied to the implementation of the project. From here on, only the costs to the draft budget be adopted.
——- Letter to Dr. Michaelis, ZFO from Ufa/ Cautio, dated 15 September 1944.
We put particular importance on an extensive explanation of the question of how the estimates, financing, cost monitoring and later credit procurement were handled.
In order to carry out the task assigned to you, we expressly authorize you to inspect files and question all those involved that you consider necessary.
[no signature - the scribbled initials probably those of Dr. Dahlgrün.]
Letter to Dr. Winkler, Ufa from Dr. Michaelis, ZFO , dated 6 January 1945 (!!)
This letter responds to the request of 15 September 1944 for the assessment of Der Rückkehrer.
He apologises for the long delay, citing that a number of the witnesses interrogated had in the meantime been either dismissed from the ZFO, or called up by the Wehrmacht. He concluded:
The ZFO must soon decide who bears the costs of the film, all the more because the loan at the Film Credit Bank in the amount of around RM 600,000 causes high interest costs on an ongoing basis.
Letter from Ufa Film GmbH to Dr. Fries, Promi, Abteilung Film, dated 12 January 1945
This letter informed Dr. Fries that Ufa had received the assessment from Dr. Michaelis at the ZFO, which they enclose.
———- Letter to Promi, Abteilung Film (presumably to Dr.Fries) from ZFO, copied to Dr.Dahlgrün (Cautio-Treuhand, Office of Dr. Winkler)- Dated 21 February 1945
The letter reiterates the issues regarding the costs of the film, and that the ZFO is continuing to incur interest charges at the Filmkredit Bank while these issues are unsettled. Should the Promi have any further questions about the assessment provided, to please inform the ZFO. The letter concluded:
In addition, as long as we do not have the decision to reimburse you for the costs of the film, we will not be able to complete our balance sheet. We would therefore be extremely grateful for the speedy decision.
This is the end of correspondence about the film as held in the German Federal Film Archives.
Given the arrival of Soviet troops in the Baltic States and Ukraine in mid- to late 1944, and the subsequent final retreat of German and Axis forces out of the previously held Eastern Territories, it is unsurprising that no remnants of this film, even the silent print, or any of Jacobi's still photographs, seem to have survived the war.
The Berlin ZFO offices shifted from Budapester Strasse to Rungestr. 25 late in the war.
The offices were in the former cigarette factory Josetti, now Josetti-Höfe, at Rungestraße No. 22–25, in Berlin Mitte. The building still stands today. Apartments, offices and small service enterprises (media, culture, fashion, design, etc.) are now located here. The building complex has been designated a historic landmark.
—-William Gillespie, for German Films Dot Net, April 2021.