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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Sing Cowboy Sing
American pop singer Dean Reed’s popularity in East Germany cannot be underestimated. He was not called the “Red Elvis” for nothing. He played to packed houses throughout the Eastern Bloc nations, especially in Russia, where he was a huge star. Although he was born in Denver, Colorado, and under contract to Capitol Records, Reed’s big break came in South America, where his song “Our Summer Romance” was a hit in spite of its lack of airplay in the States. Reed started performing in South America exclusively, where he met and became close friends with Victor Jara, the Chilean singer and political activist who was tortured and killed by Pinochet’s goons after the U.S. orchestrated coup d’etat. Later, in East Germany, Reed would direct and star in a TV movie about his murdered friend, El Cantor.

When things got too hot in South America, Reed went to Europe, where he started appearing in films, primarily spaghetti westerns such as God Made Them… I Kill Them, Twenty Paces to Death, and Adios Sabato. In 1973, he starred in his first DEFA film, Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (The Life of a Ne’er-do-Well), but it was his next film for DEFA, Kit & Co., that brought him real attention. At that point, Reed decided to move to East Germany.

Dean Reed

This was a public relations goldmine for the GDR; up there with Angela Davis’ visit to the country a year earlier. While the U.S. government continued to paint the communist countries as hellish places that no one would want to have anything to do with, here was an American pop star living in East Germany and loving it. As a consequence, Reed was given a great deal more creative freedom than any East German filmmaker was ever allowed. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Sing, Cowboy, Sing, the western comedy that Reed starred in and directed.

Sing, Cowboy, Sing follows the adventures of Joe (Dean Reed) and his pal Beny as they travel across the American West, singing in saloons and performing in Wild West shows. It is a silly affair that would be a kids’ film if not for a few gags involving large breasts. There’s a shootout at the end, but nobody suffers anything worse than an injured hand. Occasionally the action stops so that Joe and Beny can perform a song. There’s some political content here but very little. The bad guy is, of course, a rich American, and the one town he doesn’t control is Liebenthal (literally, “Love Valley”), which was founded by Germans.

Sing, Cowboy, Sing is part of a fine old genre, the comedy western. It hearkens back to the silent era and includes such classics as Destry Rides Again, Along Came Jones, Cat Ballou, and Blazing Saddles; along with some very silly movies such as Ride ‘Em Cowboy, Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County, and The Apple Dumpling Gang. Sing, Cowboy, Sing falls squarely in the latter category. It is a very light and silly movie, but with touches that show an influence from Reed’s work on spaghetti westerns. Stylistically, it is all over the map. One scene will feature sped up action for comic effect, and the next will be played for high drama with scene that looks like it was shot by Gianfranco Parolini.

Dean Reed as gunfighter

The film uses an international cast, including Czechs, Romanians, and even Dean Reed’s old acting coach and TV director, Paton Price whom Reed had flown to East Germany to help him get through the production. As one might imagine, these actors were all dubbed by Germans. Reed himself was dubbed by Holger Mahlich, an actor often called on for dubbing on both sides of the wall (he left East Germany in 1982). He is often called upon to do the voices for Xander Berkeley and Ed Harris, but he has dubbed everyone from Harvel Keitel to John Candy. His is the voice of John Steed in the German release of The Avengers.

Beny is played by the Czech actor Václav Neckář, who is best known for his first feature film role—that of Milos in Jirí Menzel’s Oscar-winning classic, Closely Watched Trains. Like Reed, Neckář was a successful pop singer, with several hits in his native Czechoslovakia. Some of these songs were originals, while others were Czech cover versions of popular tunes such as “Mrs. Robinson,” “Suzanne,” and “Bungalow Bill.” Unlike Reed, Neckář started as an actor and came to singing later. He had several success singles in the sixties, then joined his brother Jan’s group Bacily (which translates to “The Germs”) in 1971.

In 2000, his named cropped up on a list of informants for the StB—Czechoslovakia’s version of the Stasi. This didn’t help his movie career any. Since the publication of that list, he’s only done one film as a voice in an animated movie, and a small part in the Czech TV show, Gympl. He continues to perform with Bacily, as several videos on YouTube can attest.

Neckar

The lead female love interests of Maria and Susann were played by Violeta Andrei and Elke Martens (née Gierth), respectively. Violeta Andrei is best remembered as the voluptuous cosmonaut Rall who dances with the snake at the party in Gottfried Kolditz’s wild East German science fiction film In the Dust of the Stars, and as Gojko Mitić’s love interest in Severino. She is a Romanian and appeared in several movies in her home country, including The Moment (Clipa) and The Pale Light of Sorrow (Lumina palidă a durerii). She was married to Ștefan Andrei, foreign minister for Nicolae Ceauşescu. She occasionally still appears in Romanian TV shows, but hasn’t done a feature film since the overthrow of Ceauşescu.

Elke Martens, appearing in this film under her maiden name, Gierth, hails from Dresden. Like Reed and Neckář, she is a singer, although she gets no chance to demonstrate it in this movie. She mostly here for cleavage gags. During the seventies and eighties, she performed in the GDR with her band, Megaphone. Occasionally, the band ran afoul of the authorities for its provocative lyrics and faced a year-and-a-half ban in 1980 because of this. More recently, Martens has made a name for herself in Schlagermusik—easily the least provocative music known to man. Martens outed herself as an IM, claiming that she was forced to sign an agreement to provide the Stasi information lest she go to prison. Reed’s original screenplay for this movie was in English. According to one source, it was Martens who created the German script for the film.

The music for the film is by Karel Svoboda, a Czech composer best known for his work on children’s films. Svoboda started out studying to be a dentist, but his love was always music. In 1963, with the burgeoning popularity of bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, he started the group, Mephisto, who later became the house band for the Rococo Theater (Divadlo Rokoko) in Prague. While the songs in Sing, Cowboy, Sing are adequate but forgettable, the score features some excellent set pieces that a clever director will some day repurpose. Along with his scores for several movies, Svoboda also wrote musicals based on popular fiction, including, Dracula, Monte Cristo, and Golem. In 2007, Svoboda committed suicide in the garden of his home in Jevany.

Critics were unkind to Sing, Cowboy, Sing. Renate Holland-Moritz, the resident film critic for East Germany’s humor magazine Eulenspiegel, found Reed’s directing unfocused and felt he was unable to tell the difference between what’s funny and what’s merely absurd, and West Germany’s Cinema magazine called the film amateurish slapstick. As is often the case with intentionally silly films, the general public found the movie more entertaining than the critics did. The film was a hit. As inane as much of the humor is, Reed’s ingratiating personality and his obvious cowboy credentials carry the movie. This would be Dean Reed’s last film for DEFA before his death.

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WozzeckWozzeck is an adaptation of Georg Büchner’s play, Woyzeck. The play has been performed on stage since 1913. It was the basis for Alban Berg’s popular 1922 opera and Manfred Gurlitt’s less popular one from a few years later. The Nazis banned both of these operas, but not the play. Gurlitt went on to make amends with the Nazis, which hasn’t helped his legacy (Berg died in 1935, so it never became an issue). The spelling of “Wozzeck” came from a misreading of the title due to the poor condition of Büchner’s manuscript, which was almost indecipherable due to fading.

The story of Wozzeck is well-known and based on an actual event. It is about a young soldier, so tormented and abused by his superiors that his mind finally snaps and he kills his wife. Georg Büchner never finished the play. It is believed that he had intended to end it with a courtroom scene that would tie everything together. As it stands, there’s a lot of room for interpretation, but the basic point never changes: You can’t treat people as inferior beings without consequences.

The DEFA film was the first film to be made based on the play. Since then, it has gone on to be the most often filmed of Georg Büchner’s works. There have been versions in Iranian, French, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, and Portuguese; Werner Herzog did a faithful adaptation of the play, while János Szász updated the story and filmed it in noirish black-and-white; and there are over a dozen made-for-TV versions, including a 2013 German one starring Tom Schilling that adds modern German/Turkish issues to the mix.

Wozzeck shaving scene

For the DEFA version, director Georg C. Klaren, who also wrote the screenplay, uses the conceit of setting the surrounding story in an operating theater where the body of Wozzeck is being discussed by a doctor and his students. The doctor had been using Wozzeck for absurd experiments, such as restricting his diet to peas, ar forcing him to avoid urinating. Now that Wozzeck was dead, the doctor blamed Wozzeck’s homicidal behavior on his genes. In attendance at the operating theater is a young Georg Büchner, still a student at this point. Büchner rejects the doctor’s supposition that Wozzeck was doomed from birth to be a killer and uses the moment to defend the soldier and show the part of the doctor’s part in the man’s eventual descent into homicide.

There is more than a hint of the Nazi in Wozzeck’s persecutors, from the doctor’s absurd experiments and his belief that you can tell the quality of a man by his appearance, to the outfits worn by the officers, which resemble those of the Gestapo.

Like many of the best filmmakers (Preston Sturges, Sam Peckinpah, Ingmar Berman and Federico Fellini, just to name a few), Klaren got his start as a scriptwriter. Besides creating his own scripts, he was also hired to write the German versions for films imported from England and Hollywood. He wrote and directed his first film in 1931 from his own novel, Kinder vor Gericht (Children in Court). Klaren had wanted to make a film of Wozzeck for many years, but couldn’t get any traction on it while Goebbels was in charge. Klaren’s left-leaning political views essentially kept him out of the directing business, but didn’t stop them from hiring him to write scripts for some of their propaganda films. He made a few films for DEFA, before returning to his home country of Austria where he made his last film, Die Regimentstochter (Daughter of the Regiment). He died in 1962 while visiting England.

Wozzeck whipping scene

Wozzeck is played by Kurt Meisel. Meisel’s Wozzeck isn’t as inherently psychotic as Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s version, nor as grubby as Lajos Kovács in János Szász’s version. Meisel’s portrayal evokes much more sympathy than most. He is an upstanding, likeable fellow, who tries to do the best he can, but has the deck stacked against him. There is some suggestion that he is already schizophrenic, but his murderous insanity grows under his mistreatment at the hands of those with more power.

Like Klaren, Meisel was an Austrian. He started working in films in 1934, playing Tip in the 1934 German adaptation of Little Dorrit and appeared in films throughout the Third Reich years. He appeared in the lavish and way over-budget Kolberg, a film sometimes credited with helping bring down the Nazi regime. Wozzeck is his only East German film. After that, he started directing his own films in West Germany and Austria. He is best known to American audiences as Alfred Oster, the man who teaches Jon Voight’s character to infiltrate the secret SS group, in the disappointing adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s excellent book, The Odessa File. Meisel continued to act both on stage and screen throughout his life and died in his hometown of Vienna in 1994.

Wozzeck

The cinematographer on Wozzeck is Bruno Mondi. Mondi was one of the leading cinematographers in Third Reich Germany, and was employed often during the early years at DEFA. Today he is best known for his colorful work on the Sissi films (see The Heart of Stone for more about Mondi). The editing was by Lena Neumann, one of the foremost editors during the early years of DEFA. The soundtrack was by Herbert Trantow, who, like Mondi, worked at DEFA until the West German film industry was back up and running, and then restricted his work to West German films. Trantow got his start in films with Wolfgang Staudte’s 1944 film, Der Mann, dem man den Namen stahl (The Man Who Stole My Name), which was banned by the Nazis and wasn’t put back together and re-released until 1996. Wozzeck was Trantow’s first DEFA film. He died in Berlin in 1993.

Klaren’s Wozzeck was well reviewed and popular, but its message was seen by the West German authorities as more pro-communist than anti-fascist, so the film did not screen in West Germany until 1958, and even then in limited runs. The DEFA film remained the only film version of the play until the sixties, when a strong renewal of interest in the story occurred. Starting in 1962, Woyzeck became a popular subject for TV movies, with seven different versions appearing on TV around the world from 1962 to 1968. Amazingly, the play wasn’t filmed for the movie houses again until 1979, when Werner Herzog did his version of the Büchner’s play (a 1973 Italian version received some theatrical distribution, but it had originally been made for television by RAI). There has never been an American film version of this play, although it seems like ripe territory for someone to bring an American slant to the story. Wozzeck reminds us that there are many ways to oppress a person, and that the effects of this rarely impact the oppressors, but can be fatal to others.

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