Stella Goldschlag: A Jewish Gestapo agent in Nazi Berlin

Based on a true story, the biopic "Stella. A Life." is about a young Jewish woman who turned in hundreds of Jews to the Gestapo to save herself and her parents

Paula Beer about Stella's character: 'She has a very unstable personality and is heavily dependent on her surroundings' (photo: DW)
Paula Beer about Stella's character: 'She has a very unstable personality and is heavily dependent on her surroundings' (photo: DW)
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"Stella. A Life." is not your usual Nazi-era film. Based on the true story of a Jewish woman from Berlin who denounced fellow Jews during the Holocaust, it tackles a delicate topic, especially here in Germany, and even more so in times of rising antisemitism.

Yet this is not the first time Stella Goldschlag's story has been told.

Several books have been written about her. Goldschlag's former classmate, Peter Wyden, wrote a non-fiction book on her case, titled "Stella: One Woman's True Tale of Evil, Betrayal, and Survival in Hitler's Germany" (1993).

German journalist and author Takis Würger based his 2019 novel on the same character, offering a fictionalized account that sparked controversy among critics.

There was also an opera about her, a one-woman play, and now, a new feature film.

German film and TV director Kilian Riedhof (" 54 Hours: The Gladbeck Hostage Crisis," 2018; "You Will Not Have My Hate," 2022) manages to strike the right balance in his portrayal of Stella Goldschlag, sympathizing with her as a victim without embellishing her ruthlessness.

The result is a beautifully shot, realistic account of Berlin in the 1940s with a suspenseful plot.

A tragic victim

The film starts in Berlin in 1940, with a musical scene by a blonde and blue-eyed 18-year-old bombshell, Stella (Paula Beer), and her jazz band. Stella is pursuing her dream of becoming a jazz singer.

Beyond the fact that the music genre ends up banned by the Nazis, Stella's main obstacle is that she is Jewish.

The young woman, who grew up as a secular Jew, never felt Jewish until the Nazis persecuted her and her parents. According to Peter Wyden, it caused her to detest her own faith.

All the Goldschlag family's efforts to emigrate to the US fail, though. By 1943, Stella and her parents are working as forced laborers in an armament factory. Stella is stuck in a miserable marriage to her bandmate Manfred Kübler (Damian Hardung)

On February 27, 1943, the Nazis launch a major roundup, targeting Berlin's remaining Jews, who were by then mostly forced laborers working in armament plants. Since the surprise arrests largely take place in the workplaces, the major deportation program is known as the "Fabrikaktion" (Factory Action). Around 8,000 to 11,000 Jews are arrested that week.

Stella and her mother narrowly manage to escape an SS raid at their factory by hiding in the basement. Manfred is arrested and deported. Any Jews left in Berlin, thereafter, are illegal and live in hiding.


Living underground

To obtain ration cards and false documents for herself and her parents, Stella pairs up with Jewish passport forger Rolf Isaakson (Jannis Niewöhner). The couple become a cunning duo, selling Jews in hiding fake IDs for extortionate prices.

In early July 1943, they are both arrested. Stella is imprisoned by the Gestapo and tortured mercilessly. The Nazis want her to disclose the whereabouts of her former schoolmate, Cioma Schönhaus, an elusive Jewish passport forger who had also provided Stella with fake documents. She has no idea where to find him.

Stella manages to escape from prison and joins her parents at a rental property which ends up being raided by the Gestapo. All three get arrested and sent to a local assembly camp.

Making a deal with the devil

Awaiting deportation to Auschwitz, Stella is lured into working for the Gestapo as a "catcher."

At first, it is hard. Stella plays damsel in distress and tricks a fellow Jew into buying her lunch, while she excuses herself to use the payphone and notifies the Gestapo. She waits in the bathroom until the arrest is over.

Desperate to get her parents and herself off the deportation lists, she quickly toughens up.

Having Rolf by her side again makes things easier. They ambush and arrest Jewish friends and acquaintances in cafes on the Ku'damm, an avenue in Berlin with opera houses and cinemas. She even starts to enjoy the hunt.

And the job comes with perks such as money, stylish clothes and roaming around Berlin freely. Stella and Rolf plunder valuables from their victims before turning them in.

Stella briefly questions her actions but continues to collaborate; even after her parents are deported to Theresienstadt in February 1944 (and later to Auschwitz where they were murdered).

The 'Blonde Ghost'

Riedhof came across Stella Goldschlag's story in a newspaper more than 20 years ago. He was shocked and fascinated by the "Blonde Ghost," as she was also known.

The script, written by Riedhof, Jan Braren and Marc Blöbaum, is based on years of in-depth historical research, interviewing contemporary witnesses, reading previous works, talking with experts and studying the transcripts from Stella's trial in West Berlin in 1957 while scrutinizing witness statements.

Riedhof believes that the film is extremely relevant to our current reality. "We are experiencing a massive attack on democracy worldwide and in this country," the director said in a press statement.

In Germany and in Europe, "right-wing extremist, antisemitic, anti-democratic forces are once again growing. Quicker than we think, we could find ourselves in a situation like Stella Goldschlag's."


Stella's aftermath

The film skips the end of the war and jumps straight to Stella's trial in 1957, instigated by West Berlin's Jewish community. Stella denies the allegations when witnesses who survived her betrayal testify against her. She shows no remorse.

Figures vary, but it is estimated that Stella turned in hundreds of Jews. She was found guilty, but since a Russian military tribune had already convicted her of 10 years of prison in 1946, she was set free.

Stella's second trial in West Berlin took place at a time when West Germany was still crawling with Nazis whose crimes had gone unpunished. Six more years would pass before the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials were held, from 1963 to 1965. They were the first trials against Nazi German perpetrators under West German law (international law applied for the 1945 Nuremberg trials).

A problematic character

In the film, Stella starts out as a seemingly "normal" young woman, which makes her lack of regret even more disturbing.

Award-winning actress Paula Beer manages to portray a layered character: charming, with a zest for life, vulnerable, lonely, anxious, narcissistic, manipulative and cunningly capitalizing on her beauty.

There was no happy end for Stella. She suffered from poor physical and mental health, and led a lonely and isolated existence. She attempted suicide in 1984, and managed to take her own life a decade later.

Riedhof wanted to avoid a simple judgment: Is Stella a perpetrator or a victim? Instead, he hopes the audience will be left with questions: Would I have been capable of this betrayal? How far would I go to survive? Would I really have said no?

"Stella. A Life." comes out in German-speaking countries on January 25 and is also set for an international release in 2024.

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Published: 16 Jan 2024, 12:10 PM
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