Don’t Forget, My Little Traudel
Don’t Forget My Little Traudel (Vergesst mir meine Traudel nicht1) is the story of Gertraud (“Traudel”) Gerber, A 17-year-old whose mother died in the Ravensbrück concentration camp eleven years earlier. Since then Traudel has been living as an orphan but still carries around a last letter from her mother, which ends with the sentiment that serves as the title for this movie. The story starts when Traudel escapes from the orphanage and heads for the big city—Berlin, in other words.

Up until this point, the films of Kurt Maetzig had been serious affairs, often focusing on the socialist values that spawned the DDR, but sometimes too didactic for their own good. In this film, he turns away from all that. This is not to say the principles of good socialism aren’t discussed here, but they don’t dictate the story in the same way that they have in most of Maetzig’s previous films. This time he goes for comedy, sometimes rather broadly, and even manages to throw in a parody of Marilyn Monroe’s famous skirt-lifting scene in The Seven Year Itch, when Traudel gets her fancy new shoes stuck in a ventilation grate.

Tradel skirt-lifting scene

After escaping from an orphanage in a remarkably risky-looking escape scene (filmed in one continuous shot, lest there be any doubt that the lead actress actually performed the stunt), Traudel is nearly run over by Wolfgang, a high-strung teacher on a motorcycle. She follows him to Berlin and settles in with him and his roommate, Hannes, a who also happens to be a policeman. After Hannes unwittingly helps Traudel get new identity papers, he finds out who she really is, but by then is in too deep.

Traudel is a bit of train wreck. After years in the orphanage, the world offers too many temptations for the young woman who is apparently lacking a common sense gene. With nothing to hold her back, Traudel goes from one messy situation to another. Hannes does his best to try and keep her below the radar, but that’s not Traudel’s style. This is a comedy, so, of course, everything gets happily resolved in the end.

Playing the impetuous Traudel is Eva-Maria Hagen. Prior to working on this film Hagen had been acting on stage with the Berliner Ensemble. In 1954, she married the screenwriter Hans Oliva-Hagen, best known for his work on Carbide and Sorrel. Together they had one child—Catharina, better known as Nina Hagen. Eva-Maria Hagen jumped right into starring roles in her first year working for DEFA. Although Don’t Forget My Little Traudel was the first film she worked on, it was released a couple weeks after Spur in die Nacht (Trace in the Night). Hagen was an immediate hit with the public and her sexy good-looks led her to become known as the “East German Brigitte Bardot.” Although dark-haired in reality, she often appeared as a blonde in films.

Vergeßt mir meine Traudel nicht

In 1965, she met the singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann, and the two became an item. By this time, the SED (East Germany’s ruling party) was getting fed up with Biermann’s attacks on their failure to live up to Marxist ideals. After the 11th Plenum, he was denounced for criticizing the SED, and was banned from performing. Later, after the ban was lifted, he was allowed to travel and perform in the West (he was a West German by birth), but it was really a tactic to get him out of the country. After his expatriation, Hagen and her daughter applied for, and received permission to join him in the West.

As was usually the case, Hagen found it difficult at first to get a foothold in the West German film community, but was soon appearing in movies and TV shows, usually in the roles of mothers now. More recently she can be seen playing the role of the grandmother in Cate Shortland’s Lore.

Hannes is played by Horst Kube, who usually played supporting roles. His roommate Wolfgang is played by Günther Haack, who probably would have had a bigger career in East Germany had he not been sentenced to prison for drunk driving and fleeing the scene of an accident the year after this movie was released. He did manage to rebuild his career, but then died as the result of a another traffic accident in 1965 (this time, as a passenger). There are some other fun performances in this film, particularly from Fred Delmare who plays a slimy hipster that engages Traudel in what can only be described as a Judo Apache dance, and Erna Sellmer playing the nosy Frau Palotta in her last East German role. If you look fast, you’ll also spot Manfred Krug playing a hipster at the nightclub.

nightclub scene with Fred Delmare

The screenplay was by Kurt Barthel, using his usual pen name, KuBa. Best known as a poet, this wasn’t his first foray into films. He had co-written the screenplays for Familie Benthin (The Benthin Family), Hexen (Witches), and Cottages and Castles. KuBa got his start writing poetry for Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the German Communist Party’s official newspaper. KuBa’s poetry usually lauded the glories of communism, sometimes tot he point of parody. He is most well-known for his Kantate auf Stalin, a virtual love letter to Stalin (see The Story of a Young Couple). He also wrote a poem castigating the workers who protested duing the workers strikes on June 17th, 1953. Yet even he came under criticism for Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly), which he co-wrote with Christa and Gerhard Wolf—a testament to the sheer lunacy of the 11th Plenum. KuBa died during a performance of Revolution Revue in Frankfurt. Revolution Revue included his 50 Red Carnations piece. KuBa was there by invitation of the August-Bebel-Gesellschaft, a society devoted to the historical preservation of the events surrounding the Eisenacher Congress of 1869 and the development of the Social Democratic Labor Party (see The Invincibles). Things were going fine until members of the Socialist German Student Union decided to stand up and protest KuBa’s work as not being communist enough. As it was phrased in a scathing attack on KuBa in Der Spiegel the following week: “…That of all people the West Germans didn’t find the revolutionary red’s lyrics red enough was too much for KuBa restless struggling heart.” He died on the way to the hospital.

Don’t Forget My Little Traudel was a huge hit with the public. As to be expected, there was some criticism for the authorities, in particular Anton Ackermann, who was the head of the film administration for the Ministry of Culture at the time. Ackermann objected to the Catholic boarding school and the fact that Traudel wore a cross. Maetzig easily countered these objections by pointing out that, in fact, neither of these was in the film. It’s probable that Ackermann didn’t even bother to watch the movie, and got his information from the original working script. In defense of Ackermann, the only reason he was put in charge of the film board was because Walter Ulbricht saw him as a potential political threat in nearly any other position.

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1. This first word in this film’s title is usually rendered as “Vergeßt.” with the eszett (that funny ‘B’-looking thing). However, the title card for the movie spells it “Vergesst,” so I am using that.

Solo Sailor
There is a saying among boat owners that a boat is a “hole in the ocean you throw money into.” Suffice it to say, boat owning can be an expensive proposition. In The Solo Sailor (Die Alleinseglerin), a young woman named Christine learns first-hand the joys and sorrows of owning a boat. She has just been given the opportunity to submit her doctoral dissertation, when her estranged father suddenly dies, leaving her his sailboat in his will. At first, all she wants to do is sell the boat and be done with it, but she is unsatisfied with the offers. When it looks as if she might be able to sell it for more money in the spring, she dry docks the boat for the Winter, but quickly learns that boats can’t just be left alone. They require constant work and attention. Pretty soon she is spending all her free time working on the boat, and soon is in danger of losing everything and everyone in her life to the project.

The Solo Sailor is based on a book by Christine Wolter. It is clearly autobiographical. Besides sharing a first name, the main character also works toward a PhD in literature (in Wolter’s case, it was Romance Studies). Wolter’s father was Hanns Hopp, a modernist architect who helped reconstruct Große Frankfurter Straße as Stalinallee (rechristened as Karl-Marx-Allee after “De-Stalinization”). From 1962 to 1976 she worked as an editor at Aufbau-Verlag, East Germany’s largest publisher. Fluent in Italian, she also created German translations of books by Leonardo Sciascia, Alberto Savinio, and others. She left Aufbau-Verlag in 1976, and moved to Milan with her architect husband in 1978.

The film is directed by Herrmann Zschoche, who also gave us Seven Freckles and Island of the Swans. Zschoche is one of the more sensitive East German directors, and has a special knack for showing the alienation teenagers feel. Here, he moves into the adult world, but the alienation is still there. While the film is primarily from Christine’s perspective, Zschoche does a particularly good job here of showing everyone’s point of view. The film has a strong feminist message without turning the men in it into stereotypical boors. When men leave her, we understand why, but when she’s excluded from the camaraderie of the other (all male) boat owners, we feel her isolation.

Tina Powileit

To play Christine, Zschoche hired Christina Powileit in her only feature film role. At the time, Powileit was better known as the drummer for the East German, new-wave band, Mona Lise, which started out as East Germany’s first all-female rock band, but later added men to the line up. She is cited as the “first female drummer in the GDR.” With her wild mane of blonde hair, huge eyes, and expressive face, Powileit turns in a remarkably good performance for a first-timer, but Zschoche has always had a knack for that sort of thing. The lead actors in Island of the Swans and Seven Freckles were also first-timers. Powileit enjoyed the movie-making experience, but found that the early hours of film production were in direct conflict with her late hours as a drummer in a band, and she was, first and foremost, a drummer.

Shortly before the Wende, Mona Lise disbanded. After playing in a few intermediate groups, Powileit eventually joined singer-songwriter Gerhard Gundermann on tour until his untimely death in 1998. More recently, she’s appeared with Christian Haase, who joined her at the Torgau Kulturbastion on Valentine’s day 2015 with Die Seilschaft, Gundermann’s old band, which still perform his songs. She also played drums from time to time with Hollys Bluesband until the death of the band’s leader, Günter Holwas, in 2014.

There is a very nice turn here by Fred Delmare as a cantankerous little boat owner who shows Christine the ropes. It’s one of his best performances (for more on Delmare, see Black Velvet). He gets to play a wide range of emotions here, and adds a nice touch to the film.

Fred Delmare

The score for the movie is by Günther Fischer, who first worked with Zschoche on the weird space-opera Eolomea, and then again on Und nächstes Jahr am Balaton (And Next Year in Balaton) and Grüne Hochzeit (Green Wedding). Fischer was one of the better film composers in East Germany, contributing memorable scores to Hostess, The Flight, Fariaho, and others. He is best remembered for his score to the Konrad Wolf classic, Solo Sunny. He performed with many of the best musicians in East Germany, including Klaus Lenz, Reinhard Lakomy, and even Armin Mueller-Stahl (who is an accomplished violinist). In 1993, Der Spiegel magazine, “outed” Fischer’s role as an informer for the Stasi, turning in reports on Manfred Krug, Jurek Becker, and Armin Mueller-Stahl. While his primary instrument is the piano, he is just as adept at the saxophone, flute, and clarinet. A jazz pianist, first and foremost, Fischer keeps most of the music in The Solo Sailor stripped down to a piano trio, and it works well, particularly in the scenes of the boat on the water. He currently lives in Ireland, but still returns Germany for concerts with his daughter, Laura’s band. They still perform the theme song from Solo Sunny.

Like Hostess, and Hey You!, the film is also an excellent document of daily life in East Germany. There is a nice, although brief glimpse of Berlin street life, including East German punks and a gay couple.

The Solo Sailor did well on both sides of the Wall, and is good example of DEFA’s long-standing willingness to tackle feminist issues (see Destinies of Women). I wasn’t expecting much from this film, and I was pleasantly surprised by it. By all means, check it out.

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Hotelboy Ed Martin
Although Bellboy Ed Martin (Hotelboy Ed Martin) is considered a minor film in the DEFA catalog, there is no other DEFA film with quite as interesting a back story. It stretches from the great depression to the McCarthy era, with all sorts of intrigue and tragedy along the way. It comes with a script that helped plant the seeds of film noir, and is an excellent chronicle of an important American play that is nearly forgotten today. It’s a long and complicated story, but it deserves telling, and if I don’t tell it, who will?

Bellboy Ed Martin tells the story of a bellhop at an upscale hotel who has the misfortune of being on the scene when a gangster is shot and killed by one of his rivals. The dead man, it turns out, was carrying incriminating evidence against leading figures in the city government. In an attempt to save their skins, these men frame the bellhop for the murder, then try to cover their tracks when that plan goes south, concocting an even more evil solution to their problems. The film is based on Merry-Go-Round, a play by Albert Maltz and George Sklar. Maltz and Sklar wrote the play while attending the drama school at Yale. Both men were communists and helped organize the Theater Union in New York City. Both men were talented writers with several plays and stories to their names. Maltz in particular had a special knack for portraying the injustices in the world in both his plays and his short stories.

The play opened in April 1932 at the Provincetown Playhouse on Broadway. It played there a few weeks before moving to the Avon Theatre, which was immediately shut down by the License Commisioner James F. Geraghty—a move seen as primarily a political tactic to prevent it from opening. After some hue and cry, and pressure from the press, the commissioner changed his tune and the play was allowed to open. The ensuing publicity surely didn’t hurt the box office. A few months later, the play was made into a movie. The title was changed to Afraid to Talk to avoid confusion with another film titled Merry Go Round. On stage, the beleaguered bellhop Ed Martin was played by Elisha Cook Jr., well known to film noir fans for his roles in The Maltese Falcon, Phantom Lady, The Big Sleep, and many, many others. At this point though, Cook had no Hollywood credentials, and the part was given to the considerably more handsome (and less interesting) Eric Linden. Actually, most of the Broadway cast was replaced, except for Ian McClaren, who had been singled out by the New York Times play reviewer for his lousy performance. On the plus side, Edward Arnold was enlisted to play the evil Jig Skelli (Zelli in the original play), and he is sensational.

Hotelboy Ed Martin

The play is an uncompromising attack on government corruption in America, showing the futility of fighting against a system that rewards evil. There was no way Hollywood was ever going to present such a depressing concept to the hoi polloi, so the ending was rejiggered to allow for a happier outcome, while still retaining just a hint of the cynicism found in the original play. Afraid to Talk was was shot by the Karl Freund, one of the all-time great cinematographers. That same year, Freund would also step out from behind the camera and direct The Mummy. The director of Afraid to Talk was Edward L. Cahn, a talented director who treated directing as a job rather than an art. Cahn would go on to fame in the fifties for his ability to churn out dozens of horror and science fiction quickies for drive-in fodder. Among these films were the now classic B movies, Creature with the Atom Brain (immortalized by Roky Erickson in a song of the same name), It the Terror from Beyond Space (largely credited as the inspiration for Alien), and Invisible Invaders (reportedly the inpiration for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead). That may sound like a slam on him, but it is not. Cahn’s directing in Afraid to Talk is lean and efficient.

Ten years after the play had opened in New York, both Albert Maltz and George Sklar went to Hollywood to work. Maltz, in particular, was building himself a stellar reputation with screenplays for such classics as This Gun for Hire and The Naked City. All of that would come crashing down in the late forties, when the House on Un-American Activites Committee (HUAC), began conducting investigations intended to purge Hollywood of anyone left of center. Especially under attack were the screenwriters since they were the ones putting the words into people’s mouths. Nearly everyone of consequence in Hollywood was called before the committee at some point and asked to answer the question, “Are you, or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?” Many pleaded the fifth (such as Dashiell Hammett) and were charged with contempt of court and sent to prison. Others (such as Elia Kazan), named names and were able to continue their careers without regard to the destroyed lives in their wake.1

Hotelboy Ed Martin

One of the first screenwriters they called upon was Maltz, who refused to testify and challenged the legality of the entire proceeding, calling it a travesty of justice and a rampant disregard for the first amendment. Maltz was a communist, but telling the committee this would do nothing for his career. Of course, not admitting this did nothing for it either. In the end, nine other men joined Maltz in standing up against the committee. These men became known as the “Hollywood Ten.” As a result of their courage, they were sent to prison, fined $1,000 each, and denied their chosen professions thanks to Hollywood’s blacklist. Some of them (such as Alvah Bessie), never worked in Hollywood again, while others (such as Ring Lardner, Jr.) continued to write scripts for movies, but were forced to do so under pseudonyms, submitting scripts using “fronts.” A practice chronicled in Martin Ritt’s The Front, which was based on screenwriter Walter Bernstein’s personal experiences with blacklisting.

Like Bernstein, Lardner, and others, Maltz continued to write screenplays using fronts and pseudonyms. His screenplay for Delmer Davis’ Broken Arrow (using the front Michael Blankfort) was one of the first Hollywood films to treat American Indians as real human beings. He also co-wrote the script for The Robe. For both of these film, Maltz received no credit. When James Cagney decided to remake This Gun for Hire as the Short Cut to Hell (a very entertaining remake, by the way), the original screenplay was attributed to W. R. Burnett alone, with no mention of Maltz. Maltz would not receive credit for another Hollywood film until 1970, when he wrote the screenplay for Don Siegel’s Two Mules for Sister Sara. He remained a vocal advocate for communism up until his death in Los Angeles in 1985.

Meanwhile, in 1953, Merry Go Round was performed on stage in East Germany under the title Hotelboy Ed Martin. Somewhere along the line, George Sklar’s credit for the play was lost, so that when the film was made, only Albert Maltz is credited. Hotelboy Ed Martin stays very close to the original play. Two years later, the play was turned into a film, co-directed by Ernst Kahler and Karl-Heinz Bieber. How much each of these men contributed to the final result is hard to say, but Kahler was already familiar with the play, having directed it on stage. Primarily a stage director, Kahler nonetheless directed several feature films, shorts, and TV-movies in East Germany. He died in Berlin in 1993.

Karl-Heinz Bieber, on the other hand, came from a film background, and was probably there to deal with the cinematic issues. It was Karl-Heinz Bieber’s first feature film as director for DEFA; it was also his last. Bieber made three more films, all TV movies, before joining the Republikflucht. It would be another seven years before he got a chance to direct a film again, starting with the West German TV-movie, Der gelbe Pullover (The Yellow Sweater). He went on to make several more TV movies. In 1978, he moved back to feature film making with disastrous results. That film, Der Tiefstapler (a slang term for a person who understates their abilities), was such a disaster that Bieber had his name removed from the credits, letting his assistant directors take the blame for it. Critics trashed the film, calling it one of the worst German films ever made. It would be Bieber’s final effort behind the camera. At that point he switched to writing as the co-author of the Stormy series of books for children.

Thein and Matz

Ed Martin is played by Ulrich Thein, one of East Germany’s best actors. Thein really needs no introduction here, having appeared in several of the films I’ve already written about (see Star-Crossed Lovers). As usual, his performance here is solid and heartbreaking. playing his wife Peggy is Katharina Matz in her first leading role. Matz would make a few more films for DEFA before moving to West Germany. Also in his first leading role was Hubert Suschka, who played the evil Jig Zelli. He also joined the Republikflucht, leaving East Germany in 1959 and continuing his career in the West.

In terms of visual style and structure, Bellboy Ed Martin is not that remarkable. In most respects, it resembles a Hollywood film from the 1930s. Unlike Afraid to Talk, it makes no attempts to “open up” the play, restricting all the action to a few rooms and relying on dialog rather than action. Nonetheless, it is a powerful movie and a better chronicle of Maltz’s and Sklar’s play than the Hollywood film. It seems like a natural choice for subtitling, given the fact that almost all of the dialog started life in English. If one doesn’t understand German, one could, of course, simply watch the movie with a copy of the play in hand, but the play, it turns out, is scarcer than hen’s teeth. After extensive searching across eBay, Amazon, ABEBooks, and library web sites, I only came up with one copy, housed at the Yale Library (Sklar’s and Maltz’s old school), and it’s not for lending. It was actually easier to find copies of the Hotelboy Ed Martin script for sale (available on amazon.de). Given Maltz’s importance to the history of film, and his treatment at the the hands of the American congress, this is unfortunate. The play deserves to be better known. Happily, a collection of his short stories has been recently published in book form. Perhaps this will help raise the profile for a man whose importance to American film and theater history has been overlooked for too long.

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1. Kazan actually went one step further, making On the Waterfront, a film that posits a situation where the union is the corrupt force, not the rich owners of the shipyards. It is a powerful film, but helped promote the idea in the minds of the public that unions were bad and that unfettered capitalism offered greater opportunities.

Treffpunkt Aimée
In the mid-fifties, things were getting awfully messy in Berlin. With a border that porous, and two politico-economic structures so out of synch with each other, it was inevitable that all sorts of shenanigans would occur, usually to the detriment of East Germany. Goods purchased in East Germany, where the state was subsidizing some of the cost of manufacturing, could be sold for a lot more money in West Germany, where demand for certain production materials was skyrocketing, thanks to the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle). Rendezvous Aimée (Treffpunkt Aimée) is based on an actual case involving one such scheme—the smuggling of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from East Germany for use in West German manufacturing. Yes, you heard me right: Rendezvous Aimée is a movie about smuggling plastic.

The film gets its title from the name of a secret backroom in a West Berlin nightclub that one can only enter with a special pass. It is here that a mysterious underworld figure known only as the “Wasp” meets with his cohorts to coordinate his smuggling operations. The PVC is being smuggled out in the form of powder labeled as gypsum plaster (plaster of Paris), a product with no import/export restrictions.*

While not a film noir in the strictest sense, it is a crime drama, and it does use the trope of two women that represent good and evil. In film noir, the evil woman is normally a femme fatale, luring the unsuspecting hero (or anti-hero) to his fate. In this film, that woman is Erika, a member of the smuggling team who is working for the company that is smuggling the PVC out of East Germany, and she is no femme fatale, nor does she try to be. The good woman is Ursula, who works at the Hauptverwaltung Chemie, the GDR’s oversight committee for all things related to the chemical industries. The film touches upon many of the hot button topics of the era, including the effects of West Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder and the lack of cooperation East Germany was receiving in halting illegal smuggling. It even dares to bring up the Republikflucht (the flight of East Germans to West Germany), which by the time this film was made was becoming a real problem for the GDR.

Treffpunkt Aimee

The film features a twist, which I won’t divulge here, but it seems to have been designed to be more of a surprise to West Germans than to East Germans. There are some fun digs at capitalism and Americanism here. Western brands figure prominently a signals for evil intent, and the secret pass required to get into the Rendezvous Aimée prominently features an ad for Coca-Cola.

The film is directed by Horst Reinecke, who, up until this film, had worked as a dramaturge at DEFA, a job normally associated with legitimate theater, but common at DEFA. Reinecke only made one more film for DEFA (Reifender Sommer) in a shoot that proved especially difficult to complete. After that, Reinecke returned to working behind the scenes at DEFA. His eldest son, Hans-Peter Reinicke, went on to have a very successful film career, as did his two daughters, Renate (under the name Renate von Wangenheim) and Ruth.

Günther Simon plays Commissioner Wendt, the hero of the story. Fresh of his stint as Ernst Thälmann, Simon was guaranteed to be the hero here. It would be a while before Simon would be allowed to play anyone less than heroic. He almost lost the lead role in My Wife Wants to Sing for no better reason than the authorities thought casting Simon in a frivolous role would dilute his impact as the legendary “Teddy” Thälmann. While Simon would eventually go on to play less than heroic characters, he never did play a completely evil one.

good and evil

The good Ursula and the bad Erika are played by Renate Küster and Gisela May respectively. Both actresses went on to have successful film careers, although, in a touch of irony, it was the good Ursula, Renate Küster, who joined the Republikflucht and took up residence in the West. Küster had appeared in a couple films before this one, but Rendezvous Aimée was her first starring role. Within a couple years she was working exclusively in the West, appearing in such films as The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, and several TV movies. After 1993, she stopped appearing in movies and television shows and worked primarily as a voice talent. She has dubbed the German dialog for many actresses, including Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Raquel Welch, and Anne Bancroft. She retired in 2002.

Meanwhile, Gisela May continued working in the East, and became well known not just as an actress, but as a singer as well. After the Wende, May experienced the same drop in employment that other East German actors experienced, but soon became well know playing Rosa (“Muddi”) on Adelheid und ihre Mörder. Eventually re-establishing her career as a singer in unified Germany.

The film was well received, even in the West, where even Filmdienst—the Catholic church’s film review magazine in West Germany—had to admit it was a pretty exciting film. Fans of film noir and old crime films in general will want to check this one out.

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* There is a certain irony here—no doubt, intentional. Gypsum is such a prevalent mineral in the world that there have been no wars fought over it, which is why importing gypsum plaster back and forth across the Berlin border wouldn’t have been such a big deal. There is a saying in German: “Erzähl mir nichts vom Gipskrieg” (“Don’t talk to me about a gypsum war.”). It’s used when a person wants to tell another to stop fretting over something that’s not going to happen.

Alarm im Zirkur
In 1954, a young director named Gerhard Klein teamed up with an even younger screenwriter named Wolfgang Kohlhaase, and the world of East German cinema would never be the same. The duo would go on do several films together over the years, but Alarm at the Circus (Alarm im Zirkus) was their first. At a time when most DEFA films were concentrating on putting forth a strong pro-socialist message, sometimes to the detriment of the story, Klein and Kohlhaase’s film puts the story first. That’s not to say the film is apolitical. It makes a point of showing how a capitalist system’s lack of career opportunities for the underprivileged can lead to crime, but that message never interferes with the action, and helps provide motivation for some of the film’s shadier characters.

The film follows the adventures of Max and Klaus, two poor kids in West Berlin who dream of becoming boxers. To get money to buy boxing gloves, the boys sell things they find, and do odd jobs for Klott, a bar owner in West Berlin who uses the bar as his base of operations for illegal activities. After a trip to the Barlay Circus in East Berlin, the boys stumble on a plot concocted by Klott and a U.S. soldier to steal horses from the Circus. When one of the boys tries to warn the West German police about the plot, they essentially tell him to get lost, so he goes to the Volkspolizei (literally “people’s police”—East Germany’s police force) who spring into action.

This wasn’t the first film from DEFA to examine the criminal underworld in Berlin. That honor belongs to Razzia. But Razzia was made by a West German director (Werner Klingler) who was only working for DEFA because the the U.S. military authority (OMGUS) was still restricting West German film production. In nearly every respect, Razzia is indistinguishable from the dozens of other “Krimi” films that Klingler would go on to make in the West. Alarm at the Circus, on the other hand, is East German right down to its roots. Kohlhaase and Klein were East Germans and proud of it. The heavies in this film are West Germans the and American soldiers who are orchestrating the crime.

Alarm at the Circus

Alarm at the Circus offered the realism that DEFA films demanded, but without the heroics normally associated with socialist realism. It is closer in style to Italian neo-realism, a fact that bothered the authorities at that time and would continue to bother them right up until the 1965, when the 11th Plenum put an end to that particular style of filmmaking at DEFA (truth be told, however, that style had already run its course in Italy years before). The fact that it is based on an actual event probably helped it get made.

Alarm at the Circus was the first of a trio of films—along with A Berlin Romance and Berlin Schönhauser Corner—that is usually referred to as the Berlin trilogy. In truth, it is part of a continuum. Klein and Kohlhaase’s later film, Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin Around the Corner), certainly fits in with the first three films the pair made, and would have made it a tetralogy had it not been banned after the 11th Plenum. Since Klein died in 1970 (see A Berlin Romance for more on Klein), we never got a chance to see more Berlin films by the duo, but Kohlhaase continued his explorations of the lives of the less privileged in Berlin with other directors, including Konrad Wolf (Solo Sunny) and Andreas Dresen (Summer in BerlinSommer vorm Balkon).

Wolfgang Kohlhaase was only twenty-two when he started writing scripts for DEFA. He wrote a few for the “Das Stacheltier” group that made short films to accompany the features, and a script for the children’s film Die Störenfriede (The Troublemakers). The following year, he joined forces with Gerhard Klein. Klein was a born and bred Berliner and was looking to make a film that reflected the reality of life in the city. He wanted to capture the rhythms and cadences of Berlin speech and actions. He found the perfect partner in Kohlhasse. Kohlhasse’s ear for Berlinerisch—that peculiar style of German used in Berlin—is especially acute, and he used it often (to best effect in Solo Sunny). Kohlhasse continues to write screenplays, most recently for Andreas Dresen’s As We Were Dreaming (Als wir träumten), based on Clemens Meyer’s controversial novel.

Max and Klaus

The actors who played Max and Klaus, were not picked from the usual acting roster, but chosen from a home for troubled youths. Klein gets remarkably good performances out of these novice actors. For Hans Winter, who played Klaus, this would be his only film, but Ernst-Georg Schwill, who played Max, decided that he liked working in the movies, and began training as a cameraman, later returning to acting and appearing in all three of Klein’s Berlin trilogy films, as well as roles in Five Cartridges, Close to the Wind, Motoring Tales, and many others. After the Wende, he experienced less neglect than some other East German actors. Film and television companies were always looking for people to play supporting roles, and Schwill was quick to admit that he was character actor, not a star. It wasn’t long before he was busy acting again, appearing on TV and in films regularly, most recently in Andreas Schap’s Das letzte Abteil (The Last Department).

The Barlay Circus (Zirkus Barlay) was a real circus, located at Friedrichstraße 107, the current site of the Friedrichstadt Palast. The circus was founded in 1935, when Reinhold Kwasnik, who used the stage name Harry Barlay, bought a bankrupt circus and made it his own. When Kwasnik fled to West Germany, the circus was taken over by the state. After a couple name changes, it was eventually consolidated with other East German circuses as the Staatszirkus der DDR (State Circus of the GDR). With reunification of Germany, the State Circus was broken up, and the circus that was once the Barlay Circus ended life the same way it began: with bankruptcy.

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Kleinow und Treff
The Invincibles (Die Unbesiegbaren) was originally intended as the second of three films. The first was to chronicle the introduction of the Communist Manifesto, and the last was to follow Karl Liebknecht’s story up to the development of the Spartacus League, forerunner to the German Communist Party (KPD). The Invincibles was the only one of the three that got made. Its story takes place in 1889—one year after the “Year of the Three Kaisers” (Dreikaiserjahr) and toward the end of the period when the government’s anti-socialism laws (Sozialistengesetze) were in force.

The action in the film centers around the Schulz family. Mr. Schulz works as a train mechanic during the day, and uses his spare time to help workers organize. Schulz’s daughter Gertrud spends her evenings helping her friend Franz distribute socialist literature. Things come to a head when an informer breaks into the Schulz home and locates the socialist pamphlets. Mr. Schulz is sent to prison, but is released less than a year later when this silly law is finally repealed and Otto von Bismarck, the law’s main proponent, is sent packing.

Die Unbesiegbaren

DEFA films from this period are often extremely didactic, and this one’s no exception. In truth, DEFA was just following Hollywood’s lead. Since Hollywood had come under attack as a hotbed of communist revolutionaries, film producers were bending over backwards to demonstrate their patriotism. As a consequence, there was hardly an American film made during that period that didn’t trot out anti-communist sentiments somewhere along the line. One could argue that DEFA was simply following suit. This approach led to a lot of mediocre Hollywood films, and a perception in the West that all East German films were nothing but propaganda. A perception that, sadly, still persists.

The screenplay was written by the film’s director Artur Pohl and DEFA official Heino Brandes. Alongside Wolfgang Staudte and Kurt Maetzig, Pohl was one of DEFA’s go-to guys during its early years (for more on Pohl, see The Bridge). Brandes was hired to oversee DEFA’s short film department, then later moved to the science film section. He worked closely with stage director Hans Rodenberg, who was in charge of DEFA’s feature film unit during the early fifties, and the two of them wrote a treatise on socialist realism in theater and film together.

The cast features some of the best actors from the early years at DEFA. Playing Frau Schulz is Alice Treff, who already had a thriving career in Nazi Germany. She made a few films for DEFA, but primarily worked in West Germany after the war, both as an actress and as a popular voice dubber for American films. As a West German, Treff received flak for portraying the good socialist housewife Mrs. Schulz. Perhaps this is the reason for her strangely uncomfortable demeanor in the final scene at the rally where the socialists celebrate the end of the anti-socialism laws. While everyone else seems happy, Treff’s character looks oddly ill at ease. Or perhaps this was just the filmmaker’s way of letting us know that the battle wasn’t over yet. Treff managed to get past this mini-scandal and continued working in films in West Germany into her nineties. She died in 2003 at the age of 96.

Kleinow und Treff

Playing her husband is Willy A. Kleinau, so memorable as “Mr. Lawson” in The Council of the Gods. Unlike Treff, Kleinau stayed in East Germany, although he did appear in West German productions as well, most notably, The Captain from Köpenick, starring Heinz Rühmann (a popular star in West Germany and during the Third Reich). Kleinau continued to perform in films and on stage until his death following an auto accident in 1957.

Werner Peters—who turned in a spectacular performance in The Kaiser’s Lackey—plays the police informer Köppke. Most of Peters’ early films were from DEFA, although his first time in front of the camera was in the West German Rubble Film, Zwischen gestern und morgen (Between Today and Tomorrow). In 1955, Peters left East Germany, settling at first in Düsseldorf, then later in Berlin. Besides his work at DEFA, Peters also starred in some of the better West German films of the fifties, including The Devil Strikes at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam), Rosemary (Das Mädchen Rosemarie), and Roses for the Prosecutor (Rosen für den Staatsanwalt). He regularly shows up in West Germany Krimis (crime films), and made regular appearances in the Dr. Mabuse and Edgar Wallace films so beloved by West Germans. He also appears in a few U.S. productions, usually as either a Nazi or an evil doctor. You can also spot him doing a turn as an antiques dealer in Dario Argento’s classic Giallo film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo).

Appearing as the police captain, is Arno Paulsen, first seen by audiences as the evil Brückner in The Murderers are Among Us. Like Peters, Paulsen starred in several early DEFA productions, but eventually settled in the West. Paulsen worked with Peters again on the West German classic, Rosemary, both playing corrupt, fat-cat capitalists. He became the voice of Oliver Hardy for the German releases of the Laurel and Hardy alongside Walter Bluhm, who had been doing Stan Laurel’s voice since Hollywood stopped attempting to have the duo redo their routines in other languages.*

Youg rebels

Portraying the feisty young Gertrud is Tamara Osske. Primarily a stage actress, Osske only has three film credits to her name. Since her name shows up as part of the cast for a 1980 production of Peer Gynt at the Saarländisches Landestheater, I have to assume she left the GDR at some point after 1960. Also here, playing Wilhelm Liebknecht, is Erwin Geschonneck.

The same year that this film came out, West Germany formed the Interministerial Committee on East-West film questions (Interministerieller Ausschuß für Ost-West-Filmfragen), created for the purpose of banning films that promoted socialism, but pushed their mandate to include any films that attacked colonialism, imperialism, and, sadly, even Nazism in some cases. The Invincibles was one of the first films they banned, along with other DEFA classics, such as The Council for the Gods and The Kaiser’s Lackey. The irony of banning a film about Germany’s repressive anti-socialism law because of its socialist content makes it impossible to satirize.

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* A little-known fact about the early sound films. Back during the silent days, it was easy enough to distribute a film internationally. All you needed was to switch the intertitles to the language of choice. With the advent of sound, that was no longer an option. At first, movie producers tried to solve the problem by having the lead actors redo each scene in other languages. The best known example of this is The Blue Angel, which was first made in German, and then in English a year later. For some actors, speaking both English and German wasn’t a problem. Having grown up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Romania, Edward G. Robinson’s spoke excellent German, as did his co-star in A Lady to Love, Vilma Bánky, so the two of then reprised their roles in the German version (Die Sehnsucht jeder Frau), while most of the rest of the case was replaced. Laurel and Hardy’s German, on the other hand, was atrocious, but there was no way to replace them. They were already famous as “Dick und Doof” in Germany from their silent shorts. Rather than have the two comedians memorize their lines, the duo read the words spelled phonetically on cue cards, reenacting the same scenes in up to four different languages. Producers quickly realized that this approach was not going to work, and so dubbing was born.

Hart am Wind
Close to the Wind (Hart am Wind) is one of those films that came out between the clamp down of the 11th Plenum and the loosening of the restrictions when Honecker took over. Most of the films of this period are careful to not rock the boat. They often have a message along the lines of “be a good socialist, work for the collective, and don’t let you ego interfere with the greater good.” An admirable message, but the era suffers from a surplus of films with exactly this message. Sometimes the message doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the film, such as with Hot Summer, in which the flirtatious Brit threatens the cohesion of the group. Sometimes the message seems more important than the story itself.

Such is the case with Close to the Wind. The film was made in close cooperation with East Germany’s navy (Volksmarine), so you know it’s not going to explore anything too controversial. In this respect, it resembles those Hollywood films that rely on the military to provide access to their planes, ships and even soldiers as long as they carefully avoid anything that makes the military look bad. Some classic examples of this are Sands of Iwo Jima, Strategic Air Command, The D.I., The Green Berets, and, of course, Top Gun.

Close to the Wind

A comparison between Top Gun and Close to the Wind is particularly apt. In Close to the Wind, a young, hot-shot electrician named Peter joins the Navy, where he gets knocked down a few pegs and almost loses his girlfriend before regaining his footing. In Top Gun, a young, hot-shot fighter pilot named Peter (nicknamed “Maverick”) is sent to the Navy’s elite Fighter Weapons School, where gets knocked down a few pegs and almost loses his girlfriend before regaining his footing. This is an old movie trope based on the hero’s journey, but it’s the differences between the two films that are the most telling. In Close to the Wind, Peter’s cocksure, anything-to-win approach creates a situation where he fails, which leads to his ostracism from the group. In Top Gun, Maverick’s cocksure, anything-to-win approach contributes to a situation where he fails, which leads to self-doubt. In the end, the protagonist of the East German film works to regain his respect among the collective. In Top Gun, he works to regain his self-respect as an individual. Both men learn important lessons about working as part of a team, but in the East German film he gets their by putting his trust in the team, while in the American movie, he gets there by putting his trust in himself.

Close to the Wind was directed by Heinz Thiel, who was a clever enough director to keep the film interesting (see Black Velvet article for more on Thiel). It was to be his last feature film for several years. Thiel joined the “defa futurum” group to produce short films about a character named Tobias Bremser. He only made one more feature—DEFA Disko ‘77—before moving on to other things. He died in Potsdam in 2003.

Peter is played by Frank Obermann, a tall, ruggedly handsome man who started as a railroad mechanic before turning to acting. Besides this film, Obermann also appeared in two more productions in 1970—Rolf Römer’s Hey You! and a TV-movie titled Der Sonne Glut (The Sun Glow). At the time Close to the Wind was made, Obermann was married to his leading lady in the film, Regina Beyer. Beyer was primarily known for her TV work. In 1972, their daughter was born. Obermann died in Dortmund in 1995. He was only fifty years old. Beyer continues to work—primarily in television—and is in a long-term relationship with fellow, former East German—television actor Volkmar Kleinert.

Regina Beyer

The music is by Gerd Natchinski, who gave us the catchy score for Hot Summer. Here, the score seems to be comprised entirely of one song—”Es gibt so viel Schönes im Leben”—which sounds like a leftover from Hot Summer. It is played over the titles, then lip-synched by the lead character—it was actually sung by Hot Summer star Frank Schoebel—then played again and again throughout the movie in various forms. It’s not a bad song, if you like the music of Hot Summer; Frank Schoebel had a hit with it, but the score certainly could have used more of Natchinski’s music.

As one might imagine, western critics were not kind to this film. They saw it as little more than a propaganda piece for the Volksmarine. Even so, as propaganda goes, it is a pretty innocuous little film. It apparently did help promote Volksmarine enlistment because DEFA followed a year later with another military co-production, Anflug Alpha I (Approaching Alpha I).

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