Lansing-based producers tell stories of German POWs in the Midwest
As World War II raged in Europe, quieter dramas were happening throughout the United States.
Soldiers – 426,000 of them at the peak – were held in hastily assembled prisoner-of-war camps during World War II. Many were in the South, but others were nearby – Owosso, Lake Odessa, Waterloo. And some left dramatic human stories.
Locally, people talk of Ernst Floeter, once a German prisoner at Fort Custer (near Battle Creek) and later a Grand Ledge icon as a photographer, artisan and civic leader. And in Iowa, they tell a story that has now become a movie.
“Silent Night in Algona” opens Friday at the Celebration Cinemas in Lansing and Grand Rapids, after debuting a week earlier in Algona, Iowa. That’s where it was filmed (and where the real-life events happened), but the film is from Lansing-based producers, including director Anthony Hornus, writer/actor DJ Perry and actor Shane Hagedorn.
“This started 14 years ago …. It was put on a shelf for several years,” Perry said.
It was filmed a year ago, during three busy weeks. Now it arrives at a time when young Russian men are prisoners of a war they never wanted. “It’s history repeating itself, 80 years later,” Perry said.
The POWs in the Midwest, Hornus said, “were not the ideologue of the Nazis. Those who were sent somewhere else. These were the common soldiers and farmers.”
Americans desperately needed help bringing in the crops. In Algona and elsewhere, the prisoners began to do that. “It was an idea that was not completely popular at first,” Hornus said.
The film centers on that … and on a grand gift – still part of Algona today – from the prisoners.
The idea started when Perry was at a conference and someone told him the basics: Don Tietz, an Iowa businessman, wanted to make a movie taken from his childhood.
Tietz had the money; he’s been a farmer, pilot and cop, but then became a builder and developer. He also had the story: Back when he was 8, he saw the drama at his father’s farm.
In the film, Curran Jacobs of Owosso plays the father, Rudy Tietz. The role of young Don went to Samuel Peterson of Austin, Texas, making his film debut. “He has huge amounts of dialogue and did it perfectly,” Perry said.
Perry plays the earnest camp commander. Other sturdy figures are played by Terrence Knox (star of the long-ago Vietnam series “Tour of Duty”) as a former sheriff, and Hagedorn as a military police captain. “He was in World War I and his perception of the situation is a little tainted,” Hagedorn said.
There’s a solid, Midwestern feel to the story, Perry said – something the producers are familiar with. He grew up in Lansing, Hagedorn in Portland and Hornus in Owosso, where he was the newspaper editor. Taylor Nichols – a Lansing native who became a movie star (“Metropolitan,” “Barcelona”) and TV co-star (James Garner’s “Man of the People”) plays a chaplain.
They captured the 1940s look by filming in Algona, plus four days at a historical village in Forest City, Iowa. “The biggest fear I had was that I wouldn’t find enough vehicles from that time,” Hornus said.
Then he met an 86-year-old farmer. “He took us out to this pole barn. It was filled with military vehicles” that still worked. “We couldn’t believe it.”
The film will be shown in other Midwestern theaters and beyond. Hornus is hoping it will reach Germany, where his son has lived for the past 25 years. Like other films from the Lansing group (Collective Development Inc.), it will also go to various streaming sites.
First, it reaches the Lansing area, where such stories are familiar.
Floeter, for example, came to Grand Ledge with his family in 1960, 14 years after he was a German POW. He had a photography studio, was co-founder of Ledgecraft Lane and for 25 years was the local Uncle Sam in parades and shows – a symbol of all the men who had never wanted to be at war.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: ‘Silent in Algona’ tells story of World War II POWs in small Iowa town