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.

frau3

Announcement: The Goethe Institut in San Francisco will be screening The Woman and the Stranger on Wednesday, September 3, 2014 at 6:30 pm. This is a rare opportunity to see this film. If you have any interest in East German films, or international films in general, I recommend going. More information here.

The Woman and the Stranger (Die Frau und der Fremde) was released in 1985, less than five years before the Berlin Wall came down. Like many of the late-period DEFA films, it concentrated less on the concerns of the collective than individual needs. It is probably for this reason that the film found an audience in West Germany and went on to win the Golden Bear at the Berlinale—a first for an East German film.

The film is based on Karl und Anna, a 1926 novella by Leonhard Frank, who also wrote Die Jünger Jesu (The disciples of Jesus)—the basis for Joachim Hasler’s excellent noir film, The Story of a Murder. The Woman and the Stranger starts in a Russian P.O.W. camp during the First World War. While incarcerated there, Karl becomes obsessed with fellow prisoner Richard’s wife Anna. Richard talks about her constantly, explaining every detail of their lives together. It is a life Karl wants. After a mix-up, Richard is shipped off to parts unknown and Karl takes advantage of the situation to escape. He goes to Anna, claiming to be her husband. Anna doesn’t buy it for a second, but Karl does seem to know an awful lot about her. He moves in, but what about Richard? A reckoning clearly is at hand.

Die Frau und der Fremde

The story borrows heavily from the 1560 case of Martin Guerre. Perhaps it was Guerre’s last name that inspired Frank to tie the story to World War I. In the original case, a man showed up in Artigat, France, claiming to be the missing husband of of a local woman. The man moved in with the woman and they had two children before he was found out and eventually hanged.

An eternal sticking point in the original Martin Guerre story is the matter of the wife’s complicity. How could she not know that this man wasn’t her husband? Scholars still argue over this. In Leonhard Frank’s story, there is never any doubt that Anna knows Karl isn’t her husband, but his knowledge of every aspect of her life attracts and bewilders her. The desolation, loss, and confusion that World War I brought made it a perfect platform for the story. So perfect, in fact, that a year after Karl und Anna was published, the case of the Collegno amnesiac came to trial in Italy, in which yet another man was charged with pretending to be a woman’s missing husband.

Karl und Anna caught the attention of filmmakers almost immediately. It was made into the movie Heimkehr (Homecoming) in 1928 by Joe May, and then again in 1947 as Desire Me—a fiasco of a movie that nearly killed Greer Garson, had four directors, all refusing to take credit for it, and marked the beginning of the end of Louis B. Mayer’s reign at MGM. In America, the novella was released as a Signet paperback under the title Desire Me, with a typically lurid cover.

Desire Me paperback

The Woman and the Stranger is the third—and best—attempt to turn Frank’s book into a film. It was directed by Rainer Simon, one of DEFA’s best directors. Mr. Simon’s films range from fairytales (Sechse kommen durch die Welt) to comedies (Zünd an, es kommt die Feuerwehr). His style is impressively unconventional. In The Woman and the Stranger, for instance, he employs the use of color and sepia-tone to convey the various portions of the narrative. Normally this technique is used to convey part of a story that take place in the past, but here it is used to convey the internal thoughts and the external action in a most effective and unusual way. [For more on Rainer Simon, see Jadup and Boel.]

Playing Karl is Joachim Lätsch. Mr. Lätsch graduated from the Ernst Busch School for the Dramatic Arts in Berlin and started working film immediately. His first feature film was Roland Gräf’s Fariaho, The Woman and the Stranger was his second feature film. He appeared in several more East German films before the wall fell, including the seldom screened East Germ/Vietnamese coproduction, Dschungelzeit (Jungle Time). Since the Wende, Mr. Lätsch is one of the few East German actors who has appeared in more feature films than television shows.

Anna is played by Kathrin Waligura. The films marks Ms. Waligura’s first feature film appearance. In fact, she was still in drama school when she starred in this film. Mr. Simon was so impressed with her, that he cast her in two more of his films. As with many other East German actors, most of her post-Wende work has been on TV. Today, she is best known for her role as Stefanie Engel in the popular hospital series, Für alle Fälle Stefanie (For All Cases Stephanie). Most recently, she starred in Nico Sommer’s Familienfieber (Family Fever).

Kathrin Waligura

Playing Richard is Peter Zimmermann, another graduate of the Ernst Busch School for the Dramatic Arts in Berlin. Mr. Zimmermann started his film career in 1979 with two memorable films: Until Death Do Us Part, and Coded Message for the Boss (Chiffriert an Chef – Ausfall Nr. 5). Mr. Zimmermann continues to act, primarily in television roles, since 1994 he has taught at the film school in Babelsberg. He is married to Heike Jonca, and their daughter, Nele, has gone on to become a successful actress in her own right.

Also seen briefly in smaller roles here are Ulrich Mühe, Hans-Uwe Bauer, and Christine Schorn, all of whom have gone on to have successful feature film careers in unified Germany. Sadly missing from this roll call is Katrin Knappe, who was so memorable as the simple Boel in Mr. Simon’s previous film, Jadup and Boel. With her dark brown eyes and unique looks, we should have seen more from this actress, but after the Wende, she appeared in no more films. She continued to act, but switched to giving lectures on elocution.

As mentioned earlier, The Woman and the Stranger was the only East German film to ever win the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. This isn’t to say it was the first East German film to deserve this award—one can cite several instances where the films coming out of East Germany were better than anything coming from West Germans at the same time—but it does signal the beginning of a shift in the relationship between east and west. A shift that would come to a head on November 9th, 1989, when the border opened up for good.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

Star-Crossed Lovers

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the period between the building of the Berlin Wall and the 11th Plenum was a golden age for film in East Germany. The authorities were determined to prove that building the wall was not intended to repress the population, but was intended as an “anti-fascist protective barrier” (antifaschistischer Schutzwall) that would allow East German filmmakers greater artistic freedom without subversion from the west. Films that would have been deemed too experimental or arty before the Wall were approved now, and DEFA’s directors took full advantage of this change in policy. Small wonder, then, that any list of the best East German films shows a noticeable concentration of films made during this period.*

One of the first to take full advantage of DEFA’s new policy was Frank Beyer, a director on any short list of great East German directors, and the only one from the GDR to have an Oscar nomination (Jakob the Liar). With Star-Crossed Lovers (Königskinder), Mr. Beyer kicks things into high gear with vivid cinematography and an artist’s eye for frame composition. It is a dazzling film from a brief but exceptional time for East German cinema.

Königskinder

Star-Crossed Lovers is the story of three childhood friends—Magdalena, Michael, and Jürgen. Michael and Magdalena are in love, but the fates conspire to keep them apart. Jürgen, a timid conformist, has lusted after Magdalena since childhood, but there is never really any romantic tension here—Magdalena loves Michael, Michael loves her, and poor Jürgen remains the odd man out. When they get older, Michael becomes active in the KPD (the German Communist Party) and Magdalena assists him. Meanwhile, Jürgen takes the path of least resistance and joins the SA. He still loves Magdalena, but, as one might imagine, his employment choice does nothing to improve his standing in her eyes.

The story is told in flashbacks, with the present-day action taking place during the final days of World War II. Magdalena is working with the Russians to provide aid to their troops on the front lines, while Michael is conscripted into the infamous Strafdivision 999 (Penal Battalion 999), Hitler’s remarkably ill-conceived attempt to use prisoners as soldiers. There he meets up with Jürgen, who has been assigned as an officer in the battalion.

The German title for the film comes from the folk song, “Es waren zwei Königskinder” (There Were Two Royal Children), which tells the story of a prince and princess who are kept apart by waters that separate them. Of course, the “waters” in this case Nazism and WWII, but Beyer is a sophisticated filmmaker and he reflects the idea of separation by water several times in several ways. Part of the fun of this film is spotting these references. Things end badly in the song, and the film hints at a similar tragedy, but Beyer leaves things open to interpretation.

Annekathrin Bürger

Playing Magdalena is Annekathrin Bürger. I’ve talked about Ms. Bürger in previous post (see Hostess and Not to Me, Madame!). Ms. Bürger started working films at eighteen after being discovered by Gerhard Klein, but 1962 was a banner year for her. She starred in two of the best films from that year—this one and The Second Track. After marrying Rolf Römer, Ms. Bürger often starred in films he directed. She continues to work in films.

Michael is portrayed by Armin Mueller-Stahl, who was just coming into his own when this film was made. He had appeared in some TV movies during the fifties, but it was his role in Five Cartridges that brought him to the big screen. Star-Crossed Lovers was his second feature film, followed a few months later by And Your Love Too. He starred in several classic DEFA films, including Naked Among Wolves, Her Third, Jakob the Liar and The Flight. In 1976, he joined other popular film stars in a protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. As with the others who signed the protest, he found that job opportunities had dried up, so he did what many of the others on the list did also, and moved to West Germany. For Mr. Mueller-Stahl this proved to be an especially auspicious move. There, he met up with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who cast him in Lola and Veronika Voss; and with Niklaus Schilling, who cast him in Der Westen leuchtet (The Lite Trap). He began to get more work in West Germany, but the big break came when Costa-Gavras cast him as the Grandpa with a secret in The Music Box. Other films followed quickly, including Barry Levinson’s Avalon, Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, and Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka. Mr. Mueller-Stahl is a true renaissance man. Besides being an actor, he paints, writes, and plays a mean fiddle. Of late, he has been concentrating on these other pursuits over acting.

Royal Children

To play the sad-sack Jürgen, Mr. Beyer cast Ulrich Thein. Mr. Thein, more than any other star in East Germany, was born to be an actor, his father was a theater bandleader. Although his father died when he was only four years old, the young Ulrich continued in his father’s footsteps, studying music and working in theater. In 1951, he joined the world-famous Deutsches Theater Berlin, where he continued to perform until 1963. Ironically, although he played the unloved man in this film, it was he who was in a relationship with Ms. Bürger at the time. During the sixties, Mr. Thein added film director to his list of talents—at first in TV movies, then later in feature films. After the fall of the Wall, he found that most of the films he was offered were lousy. In his words, “I won’t make the shit producers are offering me.” (“Ich will den Scheiß nicht machen, der mir von einigen Produzenten angeboten wird.”). He retired from filmmaking in 1992, and took up teaching.

To shoot the film, Mr. Beyer used his long-time collaborator, Günter Marczinkowsky. Like many of the better cinematographers at DEFA, Mr. Marczinkowsky came from the technical side of film, having work as a photo lab technician and a projectionist before starting at DEFA. He was assistant to the famous Robert Baberske, whose Berlin: Symphonie of a Great City remains a classic example of pure cinema. After Beyer’s Traces of Stones was banned, Mr. Marczinkowsky was relegated to work on TV movies—a common fate for anyone who found their work in the crosshairs of the 11th Plenum. He returned to features films from time to time, most notably with Abschied (Farewell) and Jakob the Liar, but most of his later work was for the small screen. Sadly, his career ended with the collapse of East Germany.

Of the films from East Germany, I would have to categorize this one as the best film that is not available with English subtitles. I suspect this is only temporary. It’s too good a film to go unrecognized for much longer.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (German only, no subtitles).

* It probably didn’t hurt that during the same period, West Germany’s film industry was gaining a reputation for making lousy movies. So much so that, in February of 1962, a group of young West German filmmakers at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen released the Oberhausen Manifesto, stating that “conventional films are dead,” and calling people to challenge the film industry’s conventions, and free it from the control of commercial interests.