The Crucible

At first glance, The Crucible (Die Hexen von Salem) doesn’t appear to be an East German film at all. It is directed by a Belgian, it stars French actors, and it has a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre. Additionally, almost all of the technical crew are French. In this respect, it is reminiscent of DEFA productions of the forties and early fifties, such as Razzia and The Heart of Stone, which were, for all intents and purposes, West German films, DEFA in name only. Those films were the result of the fact that West Germany had no film industry at the time, thanks to the U.S. military government (OMGUS), doing as little as possible to encourage West German film production. They preferred, instead, for West Germans to watch Hollywood films, sometimes without even bothering to dub or subtitle them. This gave DEFA a leg up in Germany, at least until West Germany became a sovereign state in 1949 and film production was put back on track.

Even so, Hollywood had an edge in film production and distribution, not just in Germany, but in the rest of Europe as well. For one thing, many extraordinarily talented film people fled to America to escape the Nazis, and many decided to stay in Hollywood after the war was over.1 For another, most countries were too busy rebuilding their basic infrastructures to worry about things like film production. It was nearly impossible for a film company from any single European country to compete with the production capabilities of Hollywood.

To solve the problem, production companies from different countries would join forces to make movies. Those Steve Reeves sword-and-sandal films so beloved by the gay community, were Spanish-Italian co-productions, and the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood westerns were made with Italian, Spanish and West German money. Italians offer figured figured into things, thanks to Cinecittà, the movie production facilities built by Mussolini to make pro-fascist films.

Die Hexen von Salem

East Germany should have figured into more of these co-productions. They had some of the best facilities for filming in Europe—partly thanks to East Germany’s early lead in European moviemaking, and partly because they inherited Ufa’s Babelsberg studios—but the United States and West Germany were doing everything in their power to marginalize East Germany; going so far as to hire hundreds of former Nazis to help them do the job. In 1955, West Germany took the ultimate step with the Hallstein Doctrine, which threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with any country that recognized the sovereignty of East Germany (excluding, of course, the Soviet Union).

Sweden’s Pandora Film was making films with DEFA, but Pandora was actually a front for Erich Mehl’s West German production company. The French were the only NATO country to engage in co-productions with East Germany. DEFA officials saw these joint productions as a way to thumb their noses at the Hallstein Doctrine, but, as we shall see, it was all for naught.

The Crucible is adapted from the play by Arthur Miller. It is known in France as Les Sorcières de Salem, and in West Germany as Hexenjagd (Witch Hunt). Miller wrote the play in response to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and its attacks on Hollywood writers, directors and actors. Started after the war (or, more aptly, rebooted), HUAC was designed to root out threats to the American way of life. For HUAC, this didn’t mean racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, that were lynching blacks in the South, or the companies that were actively doing everything in their power to stop unionization at their sweatshops; it meant communists. If you were a communist, you had no rights in America, and supporting that ideology could lose your job. Starting in 1947, HUAC began investigating and prosecuting suspected communist spies, but pretty soon it became engulfed in wave of anti-communist hysteria that saw Russian spies hiding behind every bush. Things got really ugly when the committee decided that the biggest nest of communists was Hollywood and started throwing people in jail for believing in the first amendment.

Les Sorcières de Salem

Miller’s play examined this deeply repressive, anti-communist committee by comparing it to the witch trials in seventeenth-century Salem, where a group of hysterical schoolgirls convinced the locals that their town was full of witches. Although today the red-baiting excesses of the fifties are pinned almost entirely on Senator Joseph McCarthy, in truth it started as a team effort by republicans bent on using a committee originally intended to find actual threats, as a way to push forward their conservative agenda and make left of center ideologies virtually illegal in America. McCarthy came late to the game and was just the schmuck to stupid to duck when public opinion turned.

The Crucible was first performed in 1953 and is now considered a classic of American theater. The play opened to mixed reviews, some reviewers clearly felt that by writing this play, Miller was catering to the commies, but the New York Times, to its credit, gave the play a glowing review and The Crucible went on to win the Outstanding Play award at the 7th Annual Tony Awards. It is certainly no coincidence that a few years later, Miller had his own confrontation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

In 1954, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret—the Brad and Angelina of France in the fifties—appeared in the stage version of Miller’s play at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt (now Théâtre de la Ville). Talk of turning the play into a movie started almost immediately, but this time with a screenplay by the renowned existentialist writer, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre wrote his screenplay for the film after seeing Montand and Signoret perform on stage. He liked the play, but felt that Marcel Aymé’s translation—an accurate translation of Miller’s original—concentrated too much on the story of one man’s struggle against mass hysteria. Sartre, still a Marxist at this point, saw the story as a cautionary tale about the use of religion to help the rich suppress and steal from the poor. He wanted to make a political statement, but it was one that wasn’t getting much traction in the west, where the U.S. was using its might to clamp down on any pro-communist thinking, sometimes using shockingly repressive techniques to do so. So it was that the producers turned to DEFA to help get the film made.

To direct the film, the Belgian actor-director Raymond Rouleau was chosen. Rouleau studied drama at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels before moving to Paris. He started as an actor, with an auspicious debut in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent. He started directing a few years later and continued to act and direct until his death in Paris in 1981. From 1944 until 1951, he, along with Lucien Beer, headed the Théâtre de l’Œuvre, the theater the premiered Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. While there, Rouleau directed La neige était sale (Dirty Snow), mystery writer Frédéric Dard’s theatrical adaptation of the novel by Rouleau’s countryman, Georges Simenon. As a director, Rouleau was more craftsman than artist. The mise-en-scène in The Crucible is logical and composed to drive the story forward, but does little to project the inner turmoil of the characters. For that, Rouleau relies almost entirely on the skills of his actors. Fortunately, they are up to the task.

Mylène Demongeot

At the center of The Crucible is Mylène Demongeot, who plays the sexy and spiteful Abigail Williams. Historically, Abigail Williams was a fourteen-year-old, but Miller pushed her age up to seventeen to create the adulterous situation the play needed to create the sexual dynamics that interested Miller. Demongeot exudes sexuality from every pore. Although it wasn’t her first film, The Crucible put her on the map and led to several more parts, including the carefree Elsa in Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse, Fandor’s girlfriend, Hélène in the Fantômas trilogy, and the sexy British comedy, Upstairs and Downstairs, which features the tagline: “The babysitter with the French touch! M-M-M-Mylène Demongeot.” She continues to act and is an active participant in several humanitarian causes.

Besides the lead actors, most of the technicians were also French. The cinematographer was Claude Renoir, grandson to the artist and nephew to director Jean Renoir. Much of the film’s unspoken drama comes from Renoir’s moody work. He shot the film in noirish black-and-white that reflects the way the characters view the world. Renoir got his start in films as an assistant cameraman on his uncle’s films, but he is best remembered for his dazzling work on Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, and Blood and Roses.

The most dramatic story behind the making of The Crucible almost goes by unnoticed at the beginning of the film. If you watch a print of the movie intended for western audiences, you’ll see the film’s composer listed as Georges Auric, but if you watch the East German version, you’ll see the composer listed as Hanns Eisler. Yet, the music in both versions is the same, so what gives? Georges Auric was an excellent composer, responsible for the scores to Cocteau’s Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast, Dead of Night, Wages of Fear, and many others, but he did not write the music for The Crucible. The music was by Eisler, and his own story parallels the story in the film in many ways.

Montand et Signoret

Hanns Eisler was born Germany to Austrian parents. His father was a noted philosophy professor who, along with Max Adler, founded the Vienna Sociological Society. The young Hanns, along with his brother Gerhart and his sister Elfriede, grew up in a hotbed of philosophical and sociological discussions. Although the senior Eisler was an atheist, his three children became highly active communists, particularly Elfriede, who took the name Ruth Fischer, and Gerhart. Hanns was more interested in music.

While his brother and sister became leading figures in the German Communist party (KPD), Hanns purused a career in music. He studied under Arnold Schoenberg, and wrote several pieces based on the twelve-tone system, but his communist beliefs turned him away from the intellectual sonic gymnastics of Schoenberg to the music of the oppressed class: jazz. It was around this time that Eisler met Bertolt Brecht. Until then, Brecht had been collaborating with Kurt Weill, but when the two went their separate ways, Brecht started looking for a composer whose political viewpoint would jibe with Brecht’s own. He found that person in Hanns Eisler.

In 1932, Eisler composed the music for Kuhle Wampe oder Wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?), director Slatan Dudow’s film with a script by Bertolt Brecht. Unfortunately, the film came out just as the Nazis were rising to power and the film was promptly banned. Both Brecht and Eisler found themselves on the Nazi Party’s first list of banned artist; both men fled Germany, eventually ending up in the United States; and both were forced to leave the U.S. thanks to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Around the same time, Eisler’s sister Ruth—who had become one of the leaders of the KPD—was constantly butting heads with Stalin. She didn’t care much for his reinterpretation of Marxism, nor the level of control he exerted of Germany’s communists. Ruth wanted a return to values of Lenin, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and a turn away from Stalin’s egocentric brand of communism. After traveling to Russia, she met with Stalin, and let him know exactly how she felt. She returned to Germany to find herself marginalized by the Communist Party, replaced with the very pro-Stalin Ernst Thälmann (for more on Thälmann, see The Ernst Thälmann Films). At that point, Fischer became a virulent anti-Stalinist. To the point where she started working with the U.S. to do everything in her power to end his regime. Going so far as to work for “The Pond”—a top secret precursor to the C.I.A.

Hanns Eisler

After Hitler came to power, all three of the Eisler children eventually ended up in America. Hanns got work composing film scores, and received Oscar nominations for his work on Hangmen Also Die! and None But the Lonely Heart. Gerhart, meanwhile, was working as a spy for Communist International (Comintern) in America. When Ruth was ousted from power in the KPD, Gerhart did not come to her defense. A fact that stuck in her craw. When Gerhart was brought before HUAC for espionage, Ruth was only to happy to against him at the hearing. He was found guilty, but while out of bail he fled the country, making his way to East Germany.

As the hunt for “those dirty reds” widened, Hanns Eisler was caught in the web. Called “the Karl Marx of Music” by HUAC secretary Robert Stripling, Eisler was blacklisted in Hollywood, dragged before the committee and charged with being a communist. As she had with Gerhart, Ruth Fischer testified against Hanns as well, and he was promptly deported. Like his brother, he went to East Germany, where he composed the music for the East German national anthem, “Auferstanden aus Ruinen,” and continued to write melodies for Brecht—who had also taken up residence in the GDR. Eisler continued to write film music, contributing scores to many classic DEFA films, including Our Daily Bread, The Council of the Gods, and Destinies of Women.

When The Crucible was prepared for release in the west, the producers decided that the film would have a better chance of U.S. distribution if the credits didn’t include a man who was forcibly removed from the States. The decision to list Auric as the composer was one that Eisler approved of. He and Auric were friends, and, presumably, he felt that if another composer must get credit, at least it was someone he liked and whose work he admired. When the head of the East German copyrights department asked Eisler if he wanted them to help him get the credit he deserved, Eisler responded “No, everything is perfectly arranged.”2

The Crucible

The film opened to generally favorable reviews, and won Simone Signoret the BAFTA award for best actress. Released in the States just months before Room at the Top, The Crucible undoubtedly helped Signoret win the Academy Award for that film.

While Arthur Miller wasn’t crazy about some of Sartre’s changes to his play, in a 1972 interview for Audience magazine, Miller said he was glad that the film was out there at a time when Hollywood refused to touch it. He would change his tune when Hollywood finally got around to making Miller’s version of the play with a screenplay by Miller himself. DEFA’s version of The Crucible was pulled out of circulation, reportedly thanks to Miller himself. The Hollywood version failed to perform well at the box office, but the end result of this is that the East German/French film is still out of distribution, although the folks at DEFA-Stiftung are working on correcting this situation. Meanwhile, VHS copies of the film are fetching high prices on eBay.

The expected benefits of co-producing films with the French didn’t pan out for DEFA. When the films were released in the west, DEFA’s name was removed from the credits. Worse, France did nothing to challenge West Germany’s absurd Hallstein Doctrine. After four films French/East German co-productions, East Germany abandoned these efforts, restricting co-productions to the Eastern Bloc and other communist countries. They wouldn’t engage in a co-production with a western nation again until 1978, when the Swiss/East German made-for-TV movie Ursula manage to offend nearly everybody on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Ironically, the first DEFA co-production with a western nation would be made with West Germany (FrühlingssinfonieSpring Symphony).

Special thanks to Sebastian Heiduschke, Hiltrud Schulz, Mariana Ivanova, and Peter Deeg for their help with this article.

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Buy this film: Currently, this film is not available. There is a rather poor copy on sections on YouTube.

1. Lorre did return to West Germany to direct a film, The Lost One (Der Verlorene), but the experience didn’t encourage him to stay in his homeland. He quickly returned to Hollywood for the rest of his career. Wilder returned to Berlin to make his antic comedy One Two Three! But the film comes across as a thumbing of his nose to both halves of Germany. Two Hollywood refugees who did return to Germany to make films were Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang (technically, an Austrian).

2. Special thanks here to Peter Deeg at the International Hanns Eisler Society.

Five Days, Five Nights
At the end of World War II, Russian soldiers went on a plunderfest across eastern Germany. Think Sherman’s March to the Sea, but with dividends. Houses were stripped of their valuables, stores were looted, and machinery was taken. Much of this looting was done on a personal level—soldiers helping themselves to the contents of the houses they invaded—and some of this was done as part of the Soviet Union’s campaign to get the maximum financial benefit out of the war. They certainly needed it. Hitler’s ill-advised attack on Russia hurt Germany, but it devastated Russia.

On a more organized level, specialized American, British, and Soviet troops were tasked with finding specific things, the best-known example of this is the race between Soviet Union and the United States to procure German scientists and their materials related to rockets and atomic research. On the Soviet side there were also trophy brigades, whose job was to find as many works of art and antiquities as they could. While most of the art looting by American troops was done by individuals looking to bring home souvenirs, Soviet troops had a mission: Find the art and bring it back to Russia.1

A logical place to start was Dresden. Dresden had been the art capital of Germany. The museums there were outstanding. As the war escalated, museum officials decided to move many of the most valuable paintings to safer locations in case the city was attacked. This turned out to be a very good idea indeed. Dresden wasn’t just bombed, it was nearly erased from the face of the Earth. U.S.and British bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of bombs and incendiaries on the city. The resulting firestorm was so intense that many people hiding in their air raid shelters died not of burns, but of asphyxiation when the firestorm sucked all the oxygen out of the area. The results of the firebombing are still visible today in the blackened facades of the buildings along the Elbe, and the calico churches built from the rubble left after the war.2

Fünf Tage - Fünf Nächte

When the Russians started arriving in Dresden, claiming they were there to save the artwork, the locals were, understandably, suspicious. Especially after these soldiers announced that they would have to take the artwork back to Moscow to protect it from the further deterioration due to mold and the elements. The Russians assured the locals that they were doing this for the benefit of the art, and they would return the artwork as soon as things had stabilized. No one in Dresden believed this for a minute, and they were probably right not to—Josef Stalin was not exactly the poster boy for trustworthiness. In truth, the collecting of the art of Germany was just what it looked like: an attempt at payback for the devastation and destruction that Germany rained down on the U.S.S.R.

But as the cold war heated up, the Soviets were looking for any ways they could to demonstrate they weren’t the ogre that the United States made them out to be. The subject of the Dresden paintings came up again. What better way to demonstrate their integrity than to show that the vow they made to the Dresdeners at the end of WWII was not just hot air? So it was that 750 of paintings were returned to Dresden in 1955. This wasn’t all of the artwork that was purloined, but it was a lot of it, and certainly enough to make for good press.

Five Days, Five Nights (Fünf Tage – Fünf Nächte) is the story of the Russian art recovery effort at the end of the war. The films was the first of several joint productions between East Germany and the Soviet Union. DEFA often joined forces with production companies from other countries to make movies. During the fifties, they made movies in conjunction with Swedish and French production companies, but after the border tightened up and relationships with western countries became strained, most of the co-productions were made with Eastern Bloc nations, primarily Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Whether or not these co-productions looked and felt like DEFA movies was largely dependent on the director and which film company wielded the most control over the production. Stars was made in cooperation with Bulgaria’s Boyana Film, but the film is pure DEFA, thanks to Konrad Wolf’s sure hand at the helm. On the other hand, the French/East German co-production Die Hexen von Salem (The Crucible) is, for all intents and purposes, a French film, having been directed by a Belgian from a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre, and starring Simone Signoret and Yves Montand.

Russian soldiers

Five Days, Five Nights, is very much a Russian film. It forgoes the usual, cool DEFA objectivity in favor of socialist realism (which, let’s face it, isn’t very realistic at all). People are either filmed at chest level, making everyone, even the children, look heroic, or from above looking up to the sky in triumphant bliss. The effect is further enhanced by a powerful score, written for the film by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Along with Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky, Shostakovich is one of the great Russian composers of the twentieth century. Unlike western classical composers, such as Erich Korngold and Max Steiner, the fact that he wrote scores for movies did not assign him to the film ghetto, or reduce his standing as a classical composer. He could write a score for a film one year, and compose an opera the next. This was largely due to the Soviet Union’s attitude toward film. Unlike the west, where film was was viewed as a form of mindless entertainment for the masses, the Soviets already saw the power of film to galvanize public opinion back in 1925 with Battleship Potemkin. So it was that Shostakovich was hired to write the score for October: Ten Days That Shook the World, a film about the October Revolution of 1917.

Shostakovich had a rocky career under the Soviets, thanks mostly to Stalin’s tin ear and lack of musical sophistication. Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда) was initially a hit, but later came under attack as “coarse, primitive and vulgar.” When Stalin attended a performance of the opera in 1936, he behaved boorishly, laughing and grimacing throughout, leaving poor Shostakovich sweating bullets in the back. This was around the time Stalin started his Great Purge. Having him as your enemy was a good way to wind up freezing to death in a Siberian prison.

To keep on Stalin’s good side, Shostakovich cancelled performances of his musically challenging fourth symphony and restricted much of his composing to film music, knowing Stalin was rather fond of films. With the release of his crowd-pleasing fifth symphony, Shostakovich got back in the good graces of Stalin and the public, at least until 1948, when he was once again attacked by Central Committee secretary Andrei Zhdanov, who accused his music of being “formalist”—a term that was thrown around a lot, and appears to have no more meaning to Soviet critics than “I don’t like it.”

After Stalin died, Shostakovich started receiving the attention he deserved. His work came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein in New York, who became a strong advocate for Shostakovich, and played his compositions in concerts on a regular basis. Eventually, Shostakovich joined the Communist Party in 1960, mostly as a formality so that the government could appoint him as the General Secretary of the Composers’ Union. This seems to have given him both clout and courage. He protested against the incarceration of the poet Joseph Brodsky, and was one of the signatories on a an appeal to Brezhnev not to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation. In both cases his causes were triumphant.

During the late sixties and early seventies, Shostakovich’s already bad health got worse. He had lost the use of his right hand to polio in the fifties, then broke both legs, causing him to remark in a letter to a friend: “All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order.” He died August 9, 1975, but his music continues to be a popular addition to movie soundtracks.

Five Days, Five Nights

With most films, the job of directing is assigned to one person and the resulting movie is attributed them as the auteur. The whole auteur concept falls apart when talking about the films from the East Bloc nations, where the contributions of everyone involved are given greater weight than in the west and the choice of cast and crew are not always left to the director.3 Five Days, Five Nights features three directors. The German language scenes were directed by Heinz Thiel, who directed Black Velvet, recently discussed on this blog; some of the Russian scenes were directed by Anatoli Golowanow, who probably would have receive a second unit or first assistant director credit in a Hollywood film; and the whole affair was overseen by the Russian director Lev Arnshtam, who is listed as the film’s head director.

Unlike DEFA directors such as Kurt Maetzig and Joachim Hasler, who came to filmmaking via the film labs, or Jürgen Böttcher, Arthur Pohl, and Peter Pewas, entered the field through graphic arts, Lev Arnshtam came to films via music. He studied piano at the Leningrad Music Conservatory and, for a while, was the music department head at Vsevolod Meyerhold’s theater. There, he met people in the film industry, and soon started working as a sound director and later a screenwriter. He directed his first film, Подруги (Girlfriends, originally released in U.S. as Three Women) in 1936. Mr. Arnshtam’s style is heavily influenced by the work of Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, whom he met while working at the Meyerhold Theater. Their influence is on full display here. After Five Days, Five Nights, he directed only one more film—Софья Перовская (Sofiya Perovskaya), a film based on the life of the Russian revolutionary, Sophia Perovskaya, who was hanged for her part in the assassination of Alexander II. Mr. Arnshtam died in 1979.

Dresden

Perhaps the most striking thing about this film, aside from Shostakovich’s majestic score, is the representation of Dresden after the firebombing. By 1960, when this film was made, much of Dresden had been rebuilt. To recreate the destroyed city, miniatures were used to remarkably good effect. Much of the credit for this must go to production designer Herbert Nitzschke. Mr. Nitzschke got his start as a set painter for German film productions. He first worked as a production designer on L’Entraîneuse (Nightclub Hostess), a French/German co-production from 1939. Several more films followed. At the end of WWII, his career as a production designer went on hiatus until 1955, when he was hired as the production designer for Hotelboy Ed Martin, a film adaptation of Albert Maltz’s play, Merry Go Round.

Mr. Nitzschke’s career in film was starting to take off again, and his miniature work in Five Days, Five Nights is spectacular—helped greatly by Ernst Kunstmann, a master of filming miniatures, whose work includes Metropolis, Triumph of the Will, The Singing, Ringing Tree, and First Spaceship on Venus. Unfortunately, Herbert Nitzschke lived in West Berlin, and his career at DEFA came to an abrupt halt on the 13th of August, 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up. His last credit as production designer was on Five Days, Five Nights co-director Heinz Thiel’s Tanz am Sonnabend (Dancing on Saturday).

Also worth mentioning is Walter Schulze-Mittendorff, who designed the costumes for this film. A sculptor by training, it was Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff who designed the Maria Robot for Metropolis. At that point, Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff was still billed as a sculptor. With Amphitryon, he got his first billing as a costume designer and showed a real knack for it. After the war, he started working for DEFA, and often found himself on the same projects as his old Metropolis co-worker, Ernst Kunstmann. Like Herbert Nitzschke, Mr. Kunstmann lived in West Berlin and found his career at DEFA stopped cold with the building of the wall. He worked on a few West German productions, most notably, The Castle (Das Schloß), then retired in 1968.

The story of wartime art theft is not a new one, nor a dead subject. Jewish families are still wrangling for the return of artwork stolen by Nazis, and in November 2014, the son of an East German art collector—from Dresden, coincidentally—filed to recover artwork that was stolen from his father by the Stasi.

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1. The allies did have a team of people searching out art, but it was a much smaller effort. These people mostly worked alone (although the film The Monuments Men would have you believe otherwise), and their primary goal was to identify historic sites. The search for stolen artwork arose as a by-product of that effort, and a reaction to the Soviet Army’s art recovery efforts.

2. It’s probably worth pointing out here, that, as bad as the firebombing of Dresden was, it couldn’t hold a candle to Berlin, which saw nine-and-a-half times as many bombs dropped on it.

3. There are a few Hollywood exceptions to this: Tora! Tora! Tora! featured Japanese sequences by Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda, while The Longest Day featured a host of directors from different countries, all under the watchful eye of producer Darryl Zanuck.

Der verlorene Engel

Ernst Barlach was a German artist well-known for his plays, paintings, and particularly his sculptures. which powerfully expressed his feelings against war and the suffering it brings. Barlach wasn’t always against war. Prior to the First World War, he, like most Europeans, saw war as a noble endeavor, fighting to uphold and protect the values of one’s native land. He enlisted in the infantry and soon discovered that was not such a patriotic endavor after all. War is an ugly affair, fought by the powerless to protect the goals (or wealth) of a priveged few who never set foot on a battlefield. War brings misery, hardship, and death and he used his sculptures to make this point clear.

After WWI, Ernst Barlach championed pacifism in his plays and sculptures, and, for a while, the public went along with him. He received several awards for his work, and was a member of the Prussian and Munich art academies. Of course, all that changed when Hitler came to power. Barlach’s visions of pacifism did not jibe with the reborn war-mongering promoted by the Nazis. Although some Nazis, most notably Goebbels, thought highly of his work, a decision was made that, his work was yet another example of “degenerate art,” and was put of display at the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937 (Die Ausstellung „Entartete Kunst“), alongside the work of Marc Chagall, Georg Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and many others.

Fred Düren

The Lost Angel (Der verlorene Engel) is the story of one day in the life of Ernst Barlach. The angel of the title is his sculpture, Der Schwebende (usually translated as The Hovering Angel, but also as The Floating Angel), which was taken from the cathedral in Güstrow in the early hours of August 24th, 1937, and was destroyed by the Nazis. The action in the film takes place on the same day, after Barlach learns about the theft of his sculpture. He spends the rest of the morning observing the indifference of the public to the theft, remembering past events, and regretting his indifference to the increasing political power of the NSDAP.

The film was one of the film banned in the wake of the 11th Plenum. It was shelved for not delivering a clear Marxist message. It probably would have stayed there until after the Mauerfall, but the 100th anniversary of Ernst Barlach’s birth was coming up, and word of the banned film reached interested parties in Germany and Russia. With help from director Konrad Wolf, the film was eventually pulled out of storage in conjunction with the Barlach exhibition at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The censors only agreed to screenings of the film after heavy edits, removing twenty minutes from the final cut. This left the film in limbo between a full-length film and a long short (as oxymoronic as that sounds). The film received a few screenings, but only a few before it was shelved again. After the Wende, the film was resurrected, but the 20 minutes of footage edited out of the film in 1970 has yet to resurface and appears to be lost for good.

The film is based on Das schlimme Jahr, a novella by Franz Fühmann. Mr. Fühmann was a popular author in East Germany, best known for his children’s books and reinterpretations of folklore and myths. During WWII. he was a supporter of the Nazi regime, contributing news pieces on the war effort to German newspapers and writing poems for the Nazi weekly, Das Reich. After the war, he attended the Antifa-Schule in Noginsk—one of several camps set up to teach German soldiers the error of their ways. Apparently the lessons at the Antifa-Schule stuck, because Mr. Fühmann became a champion of of socialist ideals. At first he was supportive of the East German government, but as it became more restrictive and arbitrarily punitive, Mr. Fühmann became disillusioned. After the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, he was one of the first people to sign the protest letter against it. As with the others who signed the letter, he found himself blacklisted from many projects and under greater scrutiny by the Stasi, yet he remained defiant. In his will he wrote: “The bitterest thing is to have failed in literature and the hope of a society we all once dreamed about.” (“Der bitterste ist der, gescheitert zu sein: In der Literatur und in der Hoffnung auf eine Gesellschaft, wie wir sie alle einmal erträumten.”). As one final act of protest before dying of cancer, he asked that he be buried in Märkisch Buchholz, and not in “unloved” Berlin.

The Lost Angel

Ralf Kirsten directed the film. After studying at the film school in Prague, Kirsten began his career in television before moving to feature films. He had his first hit with On the Sunny Side, starring Manfred Krug. Mr. Kirsten and Mr. Krug had worked together on the TV movie, Hoffnung auf Kredit (Hope on Credit), and would work together on four more films. After the Wende, Mr. Kirsten started teaching at the Film and Television school in Potsdam (Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen Potsdam). His last film for DEFA before the Wall fell was a picture about Käthe Kollwitz (Käthe Kollwitz – Bilder eines Lebens), a colleague of Barlach’s and whose face adorns the Floating Angel.

Ernst Barlach is played by Fred Düren. Mr. Düren appeared in many DEFA films, including Five Cartridges, The Flying Dutchman, and Solo Sunny. He also made an appearance in Ralf Kirsten’s 1986 follow-up to this film, Käthe Kollwitz – Bilder eines Lebens, in which he played Käthe Kollwitz’s husband. Primarily working in theater, Mr. Düren was an actor’s actor. His portrayal of Faust in Goethe’s play is considered one of the best theatrical interpretations of a Goethe character, second only to Gustaf Gründgens’ performance as Mephistopheles. One need only compare his performance in The Lost Angel with the one in The Flying Dutchman—made only two years earlier—to see his versatility.

After the Wende, Mr. Düren’s life path took a very different turn from most of his colleagues. He converted to the Judaism, moved to Israel, and is now a rabbi. He only made one movie after reunification—a TV movie in which he played Albert Einstein.

Der Schwebende

Der Schwebende is a striking sculpture that is at once modern looking in its lines, and classical in its emotional effect. The film does a good job of expressing what a powerful piece of art Der Schwebende is. This is largely thanks to Claus Neumann’s fantastic cinematography. Nearly every frame in this film could stand alone as a photograph, from the opening shots of the angel, to the wedding scene, to the shots of the fields around Güstrow. Claus Neumann got his start at DEFA making documentary shorts. Unfortunately for him, the first two feature films he worked on for DEFA (Fräulein Schmetterling and this film) were both victims of the 11th Plenum. On the other hand, he was also fortunate because, unlike the work of his fellow cinematographer Roland Gräf, his work as the cinematographer did not also come under scrutiny. Mr. Neumann continued to work at DEFA until the end of its existence, contributing his camerawork to such films as Leichensache Zernik, Till Eulenspiegel, and The Flight. After the Wende he continued to work, primarily in television and for producer director, Rudolf Steiner. He retired from filmmaking in 1999.

Some movies are so beautifully filmed that, upon watching them on DVD, you find yourself wishing you could see them in a theater on a big screen. The Lost Angel is just such a movie. While it is unlikely that this film—or many other East German films, for that matter—will get repertory cinema screenings, the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst has done a superb job of translating this movie to disc. The scenes is which the statue is stolen from the church are so powerfully filmed, directed, and edited, that the incident stops being about the theft of an inanimate object and becomes a metaphor for the forced evacuation of millions of the innocent people during WWII.

NOTE: The Chicago Goethe Institut showed this film recently as part of their series. They will also be showing the next film I’ll be reviewing (Five Days, Five Nights). More information here: http://www.goethe.de/ins/us/chi/ver/enindex.htm

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No Cheating, Darling!

In 1975, director/screenwriter Jim Sharman, along with co-author Richard O’Brien, had a huge hit with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In 1981, they decided to try again with Shock Treatment. It had the same writers, same director, and some of the same cast, but it failed miserably. It was like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. The aggregation of actors, songs, and story that worked so well in the first film just wasn’t there the second time around.

This example is just to show how difficult it can be to come up with exactly the right formula for a genre as complex as the musical. Even if you copy what seems like a working formula, it doesn’t always work. That’s what happened with No Cheating, Darling! (Nicht schummeln, Liebling!), DEFA’s follow-up to the hit, Hot Summer. It had the same stars and the same director, the cast is charming, the dance numbers are fun, and the costumes are sensational; but the final result lacks the punch of Hot Summer. While the film did well enough at the box office, it was not the hit that Hot Summer was.

The film’s title appears to be a takeoff on the 1970 West German film, Nicht fummeln, Liebling (No Pawing, Darling—which was also a follow-up to a previous popular film). No Cheating, Darling! is the story of Sonnenthal, a small town with a mayor who is so obsessed with soccer (or football, to readers from places other than North America and Australia) that all the resources of the town are being directed toward helping Sonnenthal come up with a winning team. When Dr. Barbara Schwalbe, the new technical school director, shows up, she finds it impossible to get anything she needs unless it has to do with soccer. Naturally, the mayor and Dr. Barbara are immediately at odds with each other, and she sings an ode to the mayor titled “Ich bring ihn um” (“I’ll kill him”). As is often the case in movies, these two end up romantically involved. Likewise the leaders of the men’s and women’s soccer teams (Frank Schöbel and Chris Doerk) engage in similar love/hate antics.

Schoebel and Doerk

Joachim Hasler directed three films starring Frank Schöbel (for more on Joachim Hasler, see The Story of a Murder). Mr. Schöbel and Mr. Hasler first worked together on Reise ins Ehebett (Journey into the Nuptial Bed) with Anna Prucnal as the romantic interest. Mr. Schöbel also made a film under a different director—Hochzeitsnacht im Regen (Wedding Night in the Rain)—which, like this film, did well enough at the box office, but couldn’t match Hot Summer’s numbers. It wasn’t until the singer was paired with his then wife, Chris Doerk, that Hasler and Schöbel had their first box office smash. Hot Summer remains one of the top-selling East Germany films of all time and was reinvented as musical theater in 2005.

For Reise ins Ehebett and Hot Summer, Mr. Hasler used Gerd Natschinski and his son Thomas to compose the music. For No Cheating Darling!, the music is more of a collective effort with songs by Gerd Natschinski, Frank Schöbel, and Gerhard Siebholz. Mr. Siebholz had composed the music for Hochzeitsnacht im Regen—Frank Schöbel’s feature film that Joachim Hasler did not direct. Mr. Siebholz was a very successful composer who worked often with Mr. Schöbel and Ms. Doerk. He didn’t often write music for movie soundtracks, but he did compose many hit songs for popular East German singers, including Ruth Brandin, Hauff & Henkler, and Britt Kersten. His musical style is more in keeping with the schlager-style of music that is popular with older people in Germany. As a consequence, the songs here don’t have the punch of the Gerd and Thomas Natschinski’s rock-inflected tunes in Hot Summer.

No Cheating, Darling! features Chris Doerk with her best haircut ever, and Mr. Schöbel with his worst. During the late sixties and early seventies, Doerk and Schöbel were two of the most popular singers in East Germany. They won the Schlagerwettbewerb der DDR (an East German song contest) twice, and for most of the late sixties and early seventies they were the darlings of East German television. After they split up, they each continued with successful music careers. Mr. Schöbel was the bigger star in East Germany, but Ms. Doerk was very popular, and was also a big star in Cuba. She later wrote a book about her travels there (La Casita, Geschichten aus Cuba).

Chris Doerk

After the Wende, Frank Schöbel continued to perform, primarily in the eastern half of the country. His Christmas album, Weihnachten in Familie which he sang with his second ex-wife, Spanish singer Aurora Lacasa, was also a hit and continues to sell well at Christmas time every year. Chris Doerk suffered problems with her voice quite performing for a while. She is now singing again, but only intermittently, and she occassionally appears with Mr. Schöbel. Her most recent album, Nur eine Sommerliebe, was released in 2012 on the Buschfunk label.

Playing the headstrong school director is the beautiful Dorit Gäbler. Ms. Gäbler came to films with a background in musical theater. She is a strong singer and a fine actress. She started appearing in TV movies in the late sixties, and made her first feature film appearance in Nebelnacht (Foggy Night) in 1968. She appeared in several TV movies and feature films throughout the seventies and eighties, including a fun bit in Motoring Tales—a daffy movie that combines fairytales and cars. Since the Wende, her on-screen career has been restricted to television. Like many other East German actors, she showed up in a few episodes of the Leipzig hospital drama, In aller Freunschaft. She continues to perform in cabaret programs, and just finished a tour in October of Rote Rosen für Mackie Messer (Red Roses for Mack the Knife), an evening of songs and stories about the criminal underworld in the days of The Three Penny Opera. She also does tribute programs dedicated to the songs of Marlene Dietrich and Hildegard Knef.

Gäbler and Fiala

Playing opposite Ms. Gäbler is Karel Fiala, a Czech singer/actor, who, like Ms. Gäbler, came from a musical theater background. He started his film career playing the title role in the film adaptation of Smetana’s Opera, Dalibor, but he made his biggest splash in the mind-bendingly nutty comedy-western, Lemonade Joe (Limonádový Joe aneb Konská opera). He also put in a  brief appearance in Amadeus as the actor in the title role of Don Giovanni. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Mr. Fiala found it nearly impossible to secure film roles, but continued to perform on stage. In 2013, he received  a lifetime achievement award at the Czech Thalia Awards (Ceny Thálie) for his work in musical theater.

But the real stars of this film are the costumes and the dancing. The costumes were created by Helga Scherff. Ms. Scherff had already proved her talent for pop clothing design in Gottfried Kolditz’s entertaining musical Midnight Revue, and she would prove it again in Hostess. Like Star Trek and I Dream of Jeannie during the sixties, there seems to be a conscious effort here to cover up the navels of the women. You catch glimpses of them early in the film, but they are very fleeting. This is tricky business since several of Ms. Scherff’s outfits feature bare midriffs, In one case, decorative belts are worn that seem to have the sole purpose of hiding the navel. It is such an odd detail, that I can’t help but suspect that these belts were added during production to placate the censors.

Nicht fummeln, Liebling!

The dance numbers are choreographed by Gisela Walther, who did the choreography for Hot Summer and Hochzeitsnacht im Regen. Ms. Walther was the ballet director at the Friedrichstadt-Palastes in Berlin, and won the National Prize of the GDR (Nationalpreis der DDR) in 1977 for her work there. Dancers from the Friedrichstadt-Palastes appear in the film doing the type of synchronized, Rockettes-style dancing for which they are justifiably well-known. Also appearing are the children of Dresden’s Kinderballett Morena in a short but entertaining synchronized rope jumping routine.

No Cheating, Darling! came out a month after The Legend of Paul and Paula, one of the most beloved films to ever play in East Germany. This surely impacted its success. The inevitable comparisons to Hot Summer didn’t help either. Taken on its own, No Cheating, Darling! is an entertaining little comedy, with some great costumes and dance routines. Ironically, its theme about the problem of channeling funds away from education to sports is much more relevant in modern America than it ever was in East Germany.

 

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Die Buntkarierten

In the years after World War II, there was a lot of soul-searching in East German films. At first, this took the form of the Rubble Films, which used the destruction of Germany as a metaphor for the German soul—blown to pieces and ready for reconstruction. Rubble Films usually focussed on a few people and took place over relatively short spans of time. At a certain point, the films moved away from this introspection, and started to look at the bigger picture in an attempt to answer the question: How did we get to this point? Films such as Rotation, The Kaiser’s Lackey, and The Council of the Gods take a broader perspective on German history, involve several people and groups, and cover many years. Girls in Gingham (Die Buntkarierten) is one of these films.* It starts during the Wilhelmina period at the end of the nineteenth century, and ends right after World War II. It is based on a radio play by Berta Waterstradt, and its intro keeps the radio practice of introducing the characters by name along with the names of the actors playing them.

The story follows Guste, the illigitimate daughter of a maid who dies in childbirth. Guste is a headstrong young girl who has no intention of following in her mother’s footsteps, but history is stronger than will. Guste grows up, becomes a maid herself, marries, has two children, and suffers through two world wars. Along the way, observations are made on the inherently evil nature of a society where 1% of the population controls nearly all the wealth, and the way corporations use wars as an excuse to make money.

girls in gingham

Girls in Gingham was the second feature film directed by Kurt Maetzig, one of the most well-respected directors in East Germany, and no stranger to this blog. He directed such classic DEFA films as The Council of the Gods, The Silent Star, and the banned masterpiece, The Rabbit is Me. Mr. Maetzig, along with Gerhard Lamprecht , Peter Pewas, Wolfgang Staudte and others, was one of the filmmakers who helped found DEFA.

Reportedly, Mr. Maetzig’s decision to make Girls in Gingham was based on Bertholt Brecht’s criticism of Maetzig’s first film, Marriage in the Shadows. Never mind that it remains one of the most successful movies DEFA ever released, Brecht found the film kitschy. Girls in Gingham was Mr. Maetzig’s attempt to make a film more in line with Brecht’s aestheitcs. One can see hints of Mother Courage in Guste’s character, but Mr. Maetzig has more faith in personal heroism than the cynical Brecht, which is probably why he was tapped to make the Ernst Thälmann films.

In 1976, Mr. Maetzig retired from filmmaking, but maintained a lively presence in the film community and was always there to offer advice younger filmmakers and impart his extensive knowledge of the history of DEFA. He died in 2012 at the age of 101 and is buried in the Dorotheenstädtischen Cemetery in Berlin.

Camilla Spira

Guste is played by Camilla Spira in a tour de force role that sees her go from a bright-eyed young woman to a war-weary old lady. Acting was in the blood for Ms. Spira. Both her parents, Fritz and Lotte, were successful actors on stage and screen, so it seemed natural for her to follow in their footsteps. She got her start in silent films during the Weimar Republic, only to see her career cut short by the Nazis. Unfortunately, the fact that her father was Jewish got in the way. Fritz and Camilla were send off to concentration camps, where Fritz Spira died in 1943. Camilla’s mother, who was not Jewish, divorced Fritz in 1934 under pressure from the Nazis. This allowed her to continued to acting in films, but after 29 years of marriage, the cost was too high. She died shortly after hearing about her ex-husband’s death.

Girls in Gingham was Camilla Spira’s first feature film appearance after the war, and she the East German National Prize for her performance. She appreaed in a few more DEFA films, but started working in West Germany in the early fifties. Among the West German films she appeared in were: Des Teufels General (The Devil’s General), Emil und die Detektive, and Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (Roses for the Prosecutor)—one of the few West German films to address the issue of lingering Nazism in West Germany, albeit in a comedic fashion. Her sister, Steffie Spira, stayed in East Germany and continued to appear in films until after the Wende. Camilla Spira died in 1997.

Considering how important it is to this film, it is remarkable that no credit is given for the make-up artist. Most DEFA movies at the time listed this information. Given the film’s production year, it is possible that the make-up artist was one of the technicians that went to West Germany to work. West Germany had just declared itself an independent state and was starting to wriggle out from under the anti-film-production policies of the United States Millitary authority (OMGUS). Directors, actors, and cinematographers who had previously been able to find work only in East Germany were now getting jobs in the BRD. In a year or two, the GDR would officially take a stand against this and stop using West German technicians, but this was a bit like closing the barn door ofter the horse has run off. A technician that made it publically known that they were switching to western productions might well have found their name stricken from the credits on a DEFA film. If that is the case, my money would be on Jette Arlt, who did the make-up for Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows, but started working in the west in 1950. This is pure speculation, however. Whoever it was, they did a remarkable job of aging Camilla Spira and Werner Hinz and deserve more credit (and if anyone had more information on this mystery, please let me know in the comments).

Girls in Gingham was a hit both in East and West Germany and is one of the all-time, top-selling DEFA films. It’s anti-capitalist sentiments might have rankled the authorities in West Germany, but it still resonated with those who lived though the war. More importantly, it didn’t blame the people for Hitler’s actions, placing most of the blame, instead, on the Krupp family, which built a 400-year dynasty by providing armaments for all the major wars in Europe. This is a theme we’ve seen often in East German films from this period, where the primary blame for WWII is placed at the feet of corporations such as Standard Oil, Krupp, and IG Farben (see also, Council of the Gods).

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* Due to an error made somewhere along the line in translation, you will often see this film listed under the title The Beaverskin. This weird error probably got it’s start with the English subtitles on the German DVD. There is a DEFA film titled The Beaverskin (in German: Der Biberpelz) that came out the same year as Girls in Gingham, and perhaps that has something to to do with the error. This mistake is so prevalent that even Wikipedia repeated it (although hopefully by the time you read this, I, or someone else, will have fixed that). Such is the power of the Internet.

The 100th Post!

Posted: October 18, 2014 in DEFA, Film

East German Blog

I was going to post about yet another film when I suddenly realized that this marks the 100th post on the East German Cinema Blog. When I started this project four years, I had no idea if anyone else in the world was interested in these films. Since then I have discovered a thriving community and growing interest in the movies worldwide. My recent presentations on the subject in San Francisco and Copenhagen were extremely well attended and enthusiastically received. Of course, I couldn’t have done this without help, so I’d like to thank a few people right now. First off, Barton Byg and Seán Allan, who were into these film long before I knew anything about them; Evan Torner, who provides the best subtitles for DEFA films, and has been a font of information; Sebastian Heiduschke, who has become a great friend, and whose book on East German Films should be on everyone’s shelf; Hiltrud Schulz and Sky Arndt Briggs at the DEFA Library, who have helped immeasurably in making this blog as good as it is; Jale Yoldas (San Francisco) and Mia Munck Bruns (Copenhagen) the Goethe Institut for their continued encouragement; and finally Jack Stevenson at the Husets Biograf Theater in Copenhagen and Stephen Parr at Oddball Films in San Francisco for providing venues for my talks. And of course, thanks to all of you, my readers, and those of you who attended the presentations in San Francisco and Copenhagen (and my apologies to anyone who couldn’t get into the San Francisco talk).

After four years, one might think that I’ve already uncovered the best films, but there seems to be no end to it. Every month I come across new gems from the DEFA archives. I studying film has taught me anything, it’s that  no matter how many films you’ve seen, there’s always another one out there waiting to blow your socks off.

And with that, I’ll resume my regularly scheduled programming. Tomorrow I’ll be talking about a film that has the dubious reputation of having the most egregiously mistranslated titled on the Internet.

Black Velvet

Black Velvet (Schwarzer Samt) is a crime film involving the manufacturer of fake passports and the attempted sabotage of a state-of-the-art loading crane at the Leipzig Trade Fair. The “Black Velvet” in the title refers to a vial of acid intended for us in the sabotage. The reason for this strange code name becomes clear in the final scene of the film. This is one of the more unusual films to come out of East Germany. It is a spoof without ever being overtly comical, a send up of the Stasi by a director who is usually viewed (incorrectly, as we shall see) as a “safe” director who never rocked the boat and made films that the dramaturges and SED officials were pleased with.

Black Velvet stars Fred Delmare, an actor who will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has seen more than three DEFA films. With his short stature and a face that resembled George W. Bush, he was nearly always cast in secondary roles as weaklings, villains, or both. Sometimes his appearances were easy to miss—he’s the taxi driver in Oh How Joyfully, and a hospital attendant in Wie die Altern sungen—but with well over 150 appearances in East German films alone, it is hard to see many DEFA movies without encountering him at some point. This is not to say all of his appearances were bit parts. In Naked Among Wolves, he plays the camp inmate Pippig, and, most famously, in The Legend of Paul and Paula, he was “Reifen-Saft,” the tire dealer in love with Paula.

Born Werner Vorndran in Leipzig, Mr. Delmare began working in local theater as a teenager, but World War II got in the way. He joined the German Navy, where an injury sent him to the hospital for the remainder of the war. After the war, he studied acting in Leipzig, then moved to West Berlin to perform at the Hebbel Theater, one of the few theaters in Berlin that survived the bombings. When pressure from the American authorities led to shift away from works by the Brecht and other German playwrights to plays from America, Mr. Delmare joined the Leipzig Theater, where he continued to perform until 1970.

Schwarzer Samt

After the Wende, Mr. Delmare saw his greatest success as the Grandpa Steinbach in the popular TV series, In aller Freundschaft—a show that consistently provided work for many East German actors. It was during this period that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and retired from acting. He died in 2009, and it is a testament to his popularity that virutally every major German newspaper ran an obituary for him.

Casting Mr. Delmare as the lead in Black Velvet was an interesting choice. At 5’ 3” (1.6 m), he makes Michael J. Fox and Daniel Radcliffe look tall. He spends much of the movie looking up at everyone, women included. To add to the topsy-turvy nature of the fim, one of the villains of the film is played by Gunther Simon, a man nearly always chosen to play the hero, and the man who played East Germany’s greatest hero, communist pioneer Ernst Thälmann. Partly, this odd casting is intended as a jab at the James Bond films, but the end effect is an effective jab at the Stasi as well. While sometimes East German directors were left to the mercy of DEFA when it came to casting, the choices here seem too cleverly made to be the luck of the draw. In this case, the director must have had the final say.

At first glance, Mr. Thiel seems like an unlikely candidate for intentional subversiveness. In the East German film studies community, his name doesn’t come up very often. Look at his films once and they seem to be promotional films for the GDR. One of them, in fact—Hart am Wind (Close to the Wind)—was made with the cooperation of the Volksmarine and was intended to spur enlistment in the army. But look at his films more closely and you’ll see a very clever director who may just be winking at the audience after all. In DEFA Disko 77, for example, each musical number is proceeded by a short clip of the musician being observed getting ready for his or her performance. These clips look, for all the world, like surveillance videos. Surely this is no accident, but they are so underplayed that I doubt anyone paid much attention to them at the time.

Fred Delmare

Curiously, Mr. Thiel got his start as a Nazi journalist. As an officer in Hitler’s Propagandakompanie, it was his job to write glowing reports on the Third Reich’s successful battles in Russia—a difficult task, to be sure, and one that undoubtedly honed his fine sense of the absurd. After the war, his politics moved to the left. He started working as a dramaturge in Dessau and founded the Theater der Jungen Garde (now the Thalia Theater) in Halle. In 1954, he started working at DEFA, at first as an assistant director, then as the director of “Stacheltier” shorts—the short, often satirical films shown before the main features in East Germany. In 1959, he directed his first feature film, Im Sonderauftrag (By Special Order), a cold war spy film that takes place on the Baltic. This film helped set his future at DEFA as their director of choice for spy thrillers.

If there was any doubt to Mr. Thiel’s deadpan subversion in this and his other films, he finally showed his hand in 1996, with the book, The nackte DEVA (The Naked DEVA). The title of this book is a send up of DEFA (in German, both words are pronounced the same), and the book is collection of thinly-veiled anecdotes and stories about Mr. Theil’s years at DEFA. It is illustrated by Harald Kretzschmar, an East German cartoonist who drew illustrations for the East German satire magazine Eulenspiegel. Mr. Thiel died in Potsdam in 2003.

Part of the fun of Black Velvet belongs to its jazzy score, written by Helmut Nier. Mr. Nier is the man who also gave us the equally enjoyable score for The Baldheaded Gang. Like Karl-Ernst Sasse, Reiner Bredemeyer, and some of the other composers at DEFA, Mr. Nier came from a classical background. For many years he worked as an orchestral musician in Radebeul near Dresden. His career as a film composer began in 1957 with Spur in die Nacht (Track in the Night), in which he first demonstrated his knack for writing crime film scores. During the sixties, quite by coincidence, Mr. Nier was DEFA’s composer of choice for any film that started with the adjective “black” (schwarz). Besides Black Velvet, he also scored Schwarze Panther (Black Panther), and the TV mini-series Der schwarze Reiter (The Black Rider). After the Wende, he worked free-lance as a composer and died in 2002 after a long illness.

Reviews for the film were tepid, due in part, no doubt, to the way this film never fully betrays its humorous intent. The fact that the film came out in 1964 is probably also a factor in its release. A couple years later and it would have come under the heavy scrutiny and criticism that films received after the 11th Plenum. Considering that the utterly innocuous Hands Up, Or I’ll Shoot! was banned, I have no doubt that this film would have ended up in the Giftschrank* as well.

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* Literally, “poison cabinet,” but also used to indicate the place where films deemed “toxic” were stored.