Whtie Wolves
As discussed in previous articles here, the Western genre, so popular in America, afforded an excellent opportunity for the folks at DEFA to explore the dangers of capitalism without having to shoehorn its politics into an ill-fitting boot. If you ever wanted to see the evils of capitalism at work, you need look no further than the American West, where thousands of people were slaughtered and treated as second-class citizens in the name of “manifest destiny.” Maybe East Germany didn’t have access to many actual Indians, but Hollywood did and that didn’t stop them from hiring the likes of Sal Mineo and Jeff Chandler to play Native Americans. East Germany’s favorite Indian, Gojko Mitić, might have been Serbian, but Hollywood’s favorite, Iron Eyes Cody, was born in Louisiana to Sicilian parents.

White Wolves (Weiße Wölfe) was the fourth DEFA Indianerfilm. It was a sequel to The Falcon’s Trail, and featured many of the same cast members including Holger Mahlich playing the upstanding Pat Patterson, Barbara Brylska as Catherine Emerson, Pat’s love interest, Helmut Schreiber as the Indian-friendly merchant Sam Blake, Fred Delmare as Sam’s pal, Rolf Hoppe as the evil James Bashan, and, of course, Gojko Mitić as the Indian leader Farsighted Falcon.

The story picks up a three years after The Falcon’s Trail, and chronicles an actual event: The massacre of Indians at Fort Robinson on January 22, 1879. The Indians have been driven from their land, and shipped off to a reservation in Oklahoma in 1877. Then in 1878, Little Wolf and 200 other Indians escaped the reservation in a bid to return to Montana. Some of them were captured, and the results were catastrophic. When they attempted to escape, the soldiers opened fire, killing men, women, and children indiscriminately.

Weisse Wölfe

The event was also featured in John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn. It is interesting to look at these films and compare how differently they approach the event. In White Wolves the Indians are simply victims, trying to escape the fort rather than get shipped back to Oklahoma. In Cheyenne Autumn, Ford, who had a long history of slandering the Indians, chooses to focus more on the things the Indians did to spark the event. He doesn’t exactly condone what happened, but he tries to understand it, in much the same way conservatives tried to understand why American police officers so often shoot unarmed black men.

When reports reached the East Coast that the Indians had been denied food while imprisoned at Fort Robinson and placed in buildings without heat in fifteen below temperatures, the public attitude toward the treatment of the Indians began to change. Editorials questioned the actions of the troops, and a congressional committee was created to investigate the matter. Eventually the escaping Indians were allowed to stay on their home turf—as close to a happy ending as the Indians could hope for during this era.

White Wolves starts with Farsighted Falcon and a few friends trying to find a place to live, after evading the troops trying to ship them off to Oklahoma. After Falcon’s wife is killed by Bashaan, Falcon goes on the warpath. As in The Falcon’s Trail, the bad guys are the agents of a mining corporation that uses its power and finesse to stack the local authorities against true justice. The attack on American-style capitalism is not subtle, but it isn’t inaccurate either.

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White Wolves was filmed as a joint production between DEFA and the Yugoslavian production company, Bosna Film. The film’s star is Yugoslavian, but that would have been true in any case, by the time this film was made, the Yugoslavian actor Gojko Mitić had already become DEFA’s number one Indian. Mitić got his start as a stuntman and bit-part player in the West German productions of Karl May’s novels. These films all starred the American muscleman Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand, and french actor Pierre Brice and Winnetou. Beginning with The Sons of Great Bear, Mitić left behind the small roles in West German productions in favor of starring roles on the other side of the Wall. White Wolves was his fourth East German Indianerfilm. He would go on to appear in nine more Westerns in the GDR, along with other films of every sort. Mitić has continued working after the Wall came down, returning to the stories of Karl May as Winnetou—May’s most popular character—in a series of TV movies. Mitic continues to get plenty of television work in Germany. He even played himself in an episode on SOKO Leipzig titled “Der Fall Gojko Mitic” (The Gojko Mitic Case).

White Wolves was co-directed by Konrad Petzold and Boška Bošković. Petzold took a very workmanlike approach to filmmaking. After this film, he went on to become one of the main directors of Indianerfilme at DEFA. Less information is available on Boška Bošković. It doesn’t help that he shares his name with a Slovenian soccer player. White Wolves appears to be the last film he directed. Prior to this, he had directed several shorts and two features for Lovcen Film, a Yugoslavian film company that mostly specialized in short films. He co-directed the DEFA film, Mörder auf Urlaub (The Criminal on Vacation) with Egon Günther, and received an award nomination at the 1961 Moscow International Film Festival for his film adaptation of Đorđa Lebovića’s play, Nebeski odred (Suicide Squad). Bošković died in 2003 in Belgrade, Serbia.

Indianderfilm

Character Actor Rolf Hoppe really steals the show in this film as the utterly unscrupulous James Bashaan. Hoppe has played a wide variety of roles in lifetime, from a rabbi (Go for Zucker!) to a king (Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella), but it is his performances as bad guys for which he is best remembered. He is best-known to western audiences as the evil Nazi prime minister (based on Hermann Goering) in István Szabó’s Mephisto. Hoppe is one of the few actors who suffered no decline in work after the Wende, perhaps because, thanks to Mephisto, he was already well-known in the West. Since the fall of the Wall, he has appeared in dozens of films and television shows. These days he usually plays more avuncular characters than he did in his younger days.

Like The Falcon’s Trail before it, White Wolves more strongly resembles the American-style Westerns than most of the other DEFA Indianerfilme. It includes all the elements we have come to expect in a traditional Hollywood Western (cowboys and Indians, gunfights, old locomotives, expansive landscapes), but with the perspective turned on its head. It is also grimmer than the average western, bringing it closer to the Spaghetti Westerns of the late sixties, in particular, Segio Corbucci’s The Great Silence—the grimmest western ever made (and the main inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight). It isn’t as grim as that film, but it isn’t exactly uplifting. This is probably the main reason the film didn’t do as well at the box office as The Falcon’s Trail, but it is still a must-see for fans of the Western genre and anyone interested in East German cinema.

IMDB page for the film.

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Mama, ich lebe
Occasionally, East Germany’s film studio DEFA worked with production companies from other countries. This gave those countries access to the Babelsberg film studios, which were some of the best in Europe, and it allowed DEFA to provide a better variety of films to the East German public. With many of these films, the influence of what we’d call the DEFA style is minimized. The Crucible, for instance, is essentially a French film, and Five Days, Five Nights follows the socialist realist style of Soviet Union cinema more closely than the more objective style popular with East German filmmakers. DEFA partnered with, the USSR on fourteen films, and most of these look and feel like Soviet films. Two notable exceptions are the two directed by Konrad Wolf—Goya, and Mama, I’m Alive (Mama, ich lebe). Perhaps this is because, unlike most of his comrades at DEFA, Wolf spoke Russian at least as well as he spoke German, so he could express exactly what he was after without resorting to intermediaries, or perhaps he was more sure of his artistic vision than most.

Mama, I’m Alive is very much a Konrad Wolf film. It starts with a photograph of four German soldiers dressed in Red Army outfits, which provokes questions about the people in it. Who are they? What are their stories? The film answers these questions as it follows the exploits of the four German soldiers who decide to join the Red Army and are sent back into battle. As they prepare for their new roles, we are shown glimpses of the backstories of each man in flashbacks. Karl Koralewski (Eberhard Kirchberg) is an artist and seems to be the most self-assured. Helmuth Kuschke (Detlef Gieß) is a theology student, which leads to some interesting discussions on religion and socialism. Walter Pankonin (Uwe Zerbe) is a carpenter who is the quietest of the bunch, and a pacifist. When captured by the Soviets, he admits to having never shot at anyone. More than the others, he seems to know what he is and is not willing to do in the name of war. Perhaps this is the reason Red Army soldier Svetlana (Margarita Terekhova) falls in love with him. The fourth soldier is Günther Becker (Peter Prager) is a young pilot, straight out of school who is still trying to figure things out. Becker serves as the focal point for the story.

Mama, I'm Alive

All four men believe in the socialist cause to varying degrees and hate what Hitler is doing in the name of Germany, but when they get to the front, they discover that saying you want to fight for the communist cause, and actually shooting your fellow countrymen are two very different things. Wolf touched on some of these themes in his previous film, I Was Nineteen, but this time it is from the perspective of people who, unlike Gregor Hecker in that film (or Wolf himself), did not leave Germany at a young age. They are not returning to a land that is alien to them, but to their homes. When they look at German soldiers, they see themselves. In one scene, the four men encounter a boxcar filled with German soldiers being shipped off to a prison camp. Koralewski’s attempts to engage them fall on deaf ears. They neither know nor trust him. He runs after the train, trying to toss potatoes to the hungry men in the boxcar, but it is a futile gesture, accomplishing little.

Director Konrad Wolf shows his usual skill here, keeping the rhythm of the film moving forward with a mix of close-ups and long shots. Partly this is thanks to his cinematographer, Walter Bergmann. Wolf had used Bergmann on every film he made up to that point, but this would be their last film together. Bergmann continued to work and even directed from time to time. Bergmann had lost his right arm to shrapnel during World War II, which makes his success as a cameraman all the more impressive. He also taught at the film school in Babelsberg and was one of the creators of Greif zur Kamera, Kumpel! (Grab Your Camera, Buddy!), an East German TV show intended to encourage amateur photography and moviemaking.

train from Mama, ich lebe

The screenplay is by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who is certainly no stranger to this blog, having written screenplays for such classics as Berlin Schönhauser Corner, The Gleiwitz Case, I Was Nineteen, and Solo Sunny. The film is based on Fragen an ein Foto (Questions About a Photo), a radio play by Kohlhaase that aired in 1969. As with most of Kohlhaase’s work, there is a focus on the subtleties of language, and their effects on our ability to communicate with each other. This time he moves outside of his usual Berlin sphere to tackle the problems of communicating across two different languages and the effects the ways cultural differences can impede the exchange of ideas. This was Kohlhaase’s third film working with Konrad Wolf, but it wouldn’t be his last. The duo would work together again on Solo Sunny, possibly their best effort as a team.

The four soldiers, Becker, Pankonin, Koralewski, and Kuschke are played by Peter Prager, Uwe Zerbe, Eberhard Kirchberg, and Detlef Gieß respectively. It was the first film for all four men and all four went on to successful careers in film and television. Prager and Kirchberg have appeared in dozens of films and television shows since the Wende, while Zerbe and Gieß have concentrated on stage acting.

Margarita Terechowa

Playing Pankonin’s love interest Svetlana is the popular Russian actor Margarita Terechowa. Two years before this film was made, Terechowa made an international splash in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. A year later, she starred with Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, and many other A-list Hollywood movie stars in George Cukor’s The Blue Bird, the only joint U.S. and Soviet film production, and a film so misbegotten that it ranks in the annals of cinema as one of the worst movies ever made.

The film was submitted to the Berlinale, and was nominated for Golden Bear. It didn’t win (the great Russian film, The Ascent won), but it did win a special mention with the Interfilm Award.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (no subtitles).

Silvesterpunsch
As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the East German government had a rocky relationship with musicals. The inherent frivolity of the genre clashed mightily with the government’s philosophy that every film should promote good socialist values. At the same time, musicals were popular with the public in the fifties on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In 1958, DEFA made its first musical, My Wife Wants to Sing, and the film was temporarily shelved due to its apparent lack of a distinct socialist message. When it was released it was a big hit and helped open the doors to the musical form.

In 1959, The Punch Bowl (Maibowle), a light comedy directed by Günter Reisch, was released. The Punch Bowl follows the adventures and misadventures of the Lehmann family after the family patriarch Wilhelm Lehmann is scheduled to receive a Banner der Arbeit (Banner of Labor) medal for his leadership of the Grünefeld Chemical Plant. Director Reisch was careful to make sure that there was a solid socialist message here. The film was approved and was a hit. So director Reisch decided to up the ante slightly with New Year’s Punch (Silvesterpunsch), a sequel that starts in the same comic vein as the first film, and then turns into a full-on musical.

In structure, it is similar to the films of the musicals of the thirties and forties, where people spend most of the movie planning for a big stage show, which is revealed as the finale. The biggest difference here is that the musical numbers here are aimed at promoting the importance of chemistry to the development of the state. Included in the numbers are an ode to Calcium Carbide and the joys of polymerization. Like modern musicals—but very unlike the Hollywood musicals at the time—the singing never spontaneously erupts with an invisible orchestra. If someone sings, there is a reason, and there are musicians present, no matter how illogical that may be. Most of the singing and dancing is saved for the grand finale, which culminates in the celebration of the New Year Eve (which is called Silvester in German, hence the title).

Silvesterpunsch

Heinz Draehn and Christel Bodenstein reprise their roles from The Punch Bowl as Franz and Suse Lehmann, as do Erich Franz and Erika Dunkelmann as the parents. The other Lehmann children form the first film, and there were several, are replaced this time around by Michel, played by Achim Schmidtchen, an aspiring trumpet player. The story takes place at the Grünefeld Chemical Plant of the first film. The work force is evenly divided between fans of the arts and fans of sports. Since both of things were very important to East German culture, it is important (and inevitable, really) that both of these groups eventually learn to get along.

Christel Bodenstein—a dancer before she became an actor—gets to demonstrate her skills here (although I suspect a double was used for the ice skating scenes). At one point, she dances on a narrow, slightly bouncy tabletop en pointe—something I wouldn’t recommend anyone to attempt. Bodenstein is best known for her part as the selfish princess in The Singing, Ringing Tree, but she appeared in many other popular East German films and television shows. After the Wende, her career on television and films essentially ended. Her role in the Mario Adorf mini-series Die Kaltenbach-Papiere (The Kaltenbach Papers) was her last role in front of a camera. Since then, she has devoted her career to the stage.

Karin und Kristel

New Year’s Punch marks the debut of Karin Schröder. Best known for her role in Beloved White Mouse, which starred East German comedian Rolf Herricht. Schröder appears in New Year’s Punch with dark hair and a short, tomboy haircut, but still looks every bit as adorable as she did in the Rolf Herricht comedy. Schröder was originally trained as a certified stenographer, but director Günter Reisch immediately saw her potential and used her often (for more on Reisch, see A Lively Christmas Eve). She appeared in a number of television shows and movies in East Germany, and continued her career after the Wall came down, Most recently, she appeared as a recurring character in the German TV show, Alles Klara.

The cinematographer for New Year’s Punch was Karl Plintzner, whose color work here and elsewhere rivals the work of the great Leon Shamroy. Plintzner got his start as an assistant cameraman shortly before the beginning of WWII. After the war he joined DEFA as a cinematographer, working first on Wolfgang Staudte’s The Adventures of Fridolin (Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B.), and then on Erich Engel’s The Blum Affair. Plintzner showed a special knack for color right off the bat with his work on the Ernst Thälmann films, but it was The Singing, Ringing Tree where he really got to let loose with colors so vivid they’ll make your eyes bleed. For health reasons, he retired in 1965. He died on December 7, 1975 in East Berlin.

Silvesterpunsch

The music for New Year’s Punch was composed by Helmut Nier. Nier was the founder of the Association of Composers and Musicologist in the GDR (Verbandes der Komponisten und Musikwissenschaftler), whose stated purpose was to maintain and develop the musical culture of the GDR, as well as ensure that composers received proper credit and compensation. As a composer, Nier never matched the talent of Karl-Ernst Sasse or Gerd Natchinski. The songs in New Year’s Punch are entertaining enough, but not particularly memorable. Nier was better at serious scores. His soundtracks for Spur in die Nacht (Trace in the Night), The Baldheaded Gang, and Black Velvet are far more compelling than any of his work on comedies and romances. As with many of the East German’s who worked for DEFA, his career in films ended after the Wende. Nier died in 2002.

In terms of musicals, New Year’s Punch comes closer to the Western concept of what a communist musical would look like than the other musicals from DEFA. The politics of socialism and the GDR’s love affairs with sports and culture are never far from the storyline in this film. This doesn’t really distract from the story however, and, as light as this romantic comedy is, it’s a pretty entertaining piece of fluff.

IMDB page for the film.

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No Proof for Murder
No Proof for Murder (Für Mord kein Beweis) belongs to the film genre that Germans (East and West) call Krimis. We’d call them “crime films,” although we never do, preferring instead to parse things out as film noir, mysteries, and thrillers. No Proof for Murder is a good example of the East German style of Krimi. These are notably different from their West German counterparts, which, not surprisingly, owe a greater debt to Hollywood. East German Krimis rely less on action sequences, car chases, and gun battles, and more on police procedures. A case is usually resolved thanks to the lead detective’s dogged pursuit of the facts.

No Proof for Murder is about the investigation of a woman who turns up dead after leaving the hairdresser. It appears to have been murder, but, as the title suggests, there is no evidence to prove it. The only clues are a broken fingernail and a few cotton threads. Suspicion naturally falls on the husband, a research scientist who prefers the company of lab rats over that of people, but his alibi seems airtight. And there’s the stranger who watches the woman’s funeral from a distance, but runs away when the police approach. How does he fit into things?

corpse in the water

The lead detective, Captain Lohm, is not willing to let the case go, and has an almost Hercule Poirot-like knack for tying disparate facts together to form a complete picture. Lohm manages to uncover motives extending all the way back to WWII. This is a remarkably sedate Krimi. No murders are shown (although their aftermaths are), and even the flashbacks, which held some potential for shocking scenes, are restricted to recent events. The actual murder is only ever glimpsed at as part of a strange dream montage, and even the most important argument in the film is only heard in muffled tones through the wall. There are reasons for all of this, but it makes for weirdly action-free thriller.

The film is based on the book Der Mann, der über Hügel steigt (The Man Who Climbs Over the Hill) by Rudolf Bartsch. Bartsch was a freelance writer in East Germany, who wrote several novels and television scripts. His scripts for the TV movie Die Sprengung (The Demolition) is one of the forgotten casualties of the 11th Plenum, banned for being politically “renitent,” a term that doesn’t translate easily here, but essentially means the authorities didn’t like it but couldn’t say exactly why. The film was shelved and remained in obscurity until 2012, when Die Sprengung was finally rediscovered at the German Broadcasting Archive, and screened at the Kino Babylon in Berlin.

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If director Konrad Petzold were from the West, he would have been classified with people such as Terence Young, Budd Boetticher, Don Siegel, Mark Robson, and Jacques Tourneur—less interested in creating great art than turning in efficient genre films on time and on budget, but who, nonetheless, showed a special talent for filmmaking. He is best known for his westerns and fairytale films, such as White Wolves (Weiße Wölfe), Kit & Co, and The Story of the Goose Princess and Her Faithful Horse Falada (Die Geschichte von der Gänseprinzessin und ihrem treuen Pferd Falada).

Although he generally chose genres that were safely family friendly, he still managed to get into trouble with the authorities on a couple occasions. The first was The Dress (Das Kleid), which was banned outright due to the uneasy comparisons between the behavior of the SED and the walled city in the story, which accidentally coincided with the building of the Berlin Wall. The second was Alfons Wobblecheek (Alfons Zitterbacke), which wasn’t banned outright, but received enough edits to provoke Petzold into asking that his name be removed from the film. In spite of these incidences, Petzold had a long career in East Germany, and had no trouble finding work—at least until the Wall came down, which effectively ended his career. He died in 1999.

No Proof for Murder stars Winfried Glatzeder, who is best known as Paul in The Legend of Paul and Paula. He was sometimes referred as the Jean-Paul Belmondo of the East,” although that comparison requires more imagination than I have. Glatzeder was born in the tumultuous year of 1945 just a few weeks before it all ended. His mother, who was of Jewish descent, had managed to make it through the war alive; his father did not. At the end of the war, his mother was sent to a hospital. By that time she had developed a bad case of tuberculosis, and would not reunited with her son until he was ten years old.

Winfried Glatzeder

In 1981, fed up with the constant surveillance and the deteriorating state of things in East Germany, Glatzeder decided to join his fellow actors in the West. He filed for exit visas several times, until he was finally awarded one in 1982. Like Manfred Krug, he hit the ground running in West Germany, starring almost immediately in a the TV-movie Der Kunstfehler (The Malpractice), and following with many more parts on TV and in the movies. From 1996 until 1998, he was a regular on the long-running TV series, Tatort. In 1999, he made an amusing cameo appearance in Sun Alley (Sonnenallee) as Miriam’s neighbor Paul, wearing the puffy shirt he wore in The Legend of Paula and Paula. He continues to perform on stage and appear in movies, most recently in Der letzte Sommer der Reichen (The Last Summer of the Rich).

Like Rolf Römer’s films, one of the things this movie excels at is showing the styles and fashions of life in East Germany. In fact, the film starts with what looks like home movies of people on the streets of East Berlin, shopping, talking, and going about their daily business. The film ends with the same shots, as if to say, “life goes on.” The music for these scenes is so generic and carefree that it almost makes you wonder if you are watching the right movie, then it suddenly turns ominous. The film’s composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse, was, by this time, no stranger to film music, having composed hundreds of scores for the movies of DEFA. Sasse was responsible for some of the best soundtracks for East German films, including Signals, Her Third, In the Dust of the Stars, and Ursula. After the Wall fell, he continued to work, primarily scoring silent classics from the UFA period, including The Golem, The Last Laugh, and Asphalt. He died in 2006 in Babelsberg.

interrogation scene

It is also one of the few films I’ve seen that shows us the inside of a modern police interrogation facility. With its beige walls and rows of doors, the facility reminded me strongly of George and Daniel Fuchs’ Stasi Secret Rooms photo exhibit (currently at the Panoptikon in Stockholm). In one interrogation scene, a typist immediately taps out every word that is said. The effect is jarring and little creepy.

No Proof for Murder did well at the box office, and was well received by most critics Some felt it should have followed the book more closely, but Petzold’s avoidance of the usual crime film clichés was praised. It is currently available as part of a 3 DVD six-pack of East German crime films.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (included as part of the DDR-Krimis set).

Feuer unter Deck
Fire Below Deck (Feuer unter Deck) was first screened in theaters in 1982, and then only very briefly, but it had been scheduled to be released in 1977. This happened from time to time in East Germany when a film touched on some hot-button topic that either upset the authorities, or discussed something that was sensitive at the time (see Sun Seekers). In the the case of Fire Below Deck it wasn’t the subject matter, it was the star: Manfred Krug.

Initial filming of the movie was completed in 1976. While the film was in post-production, the popular communist folk singer, Wolf Biermann, a West Berliner by birth, was expatriated for “gross violation of civic duties,” which is to say, he wasn’t willing to toe the SED line. In protest, a group of actors, poets, and writers signed a letter of protest against the action. In the following days, more artists joined the protest until there were over 150 signatures in all. Rather than listen to the complaint, the SED came down hard on the protesters, marginalizing them in any way the could, and, where possible, eliminating their sources of income. Several applied for exit visas immediately and moved to the west. One of these was Manfred Krug. By the time Fire Below Deck was ready to screen, Krug had obtained his exit visa and would soon be moving to West Berlin. The authorities ordered the film shelved, but that didn’t help them with all the other films starring fellow protesters that were already appearing on television. Eventually the film was shown on television in 1979, and then, finally, released to theaters in 1982.

In Fire Below Deck, Krug plays Otto Scheidel, the captain of the last coal-powered paddle-wheel riverboat on the Elbe. His girlfriend, Carola, nicknamed “Caramba,” is fed up with playing second fiddle to his boat and finally calls it quits. When the old riverboat is taken out of commission and turned into a floating restaurant—run by Caramba, just to add to the complications—Otto finds himself cast adrift in a world that doesn’t suit him. After witnessing two barges get stuck in the sand at a low tide crossing, and seeing that no other boats can come to their rescue, Otto has an idea: With its shallow draft, his old riverboat could get closer to the stranded boats than any others, and pull them to deeper waters, but first he has to get rid of all those pesky diners filling the boat.

Fire Below Deck

The basic plot structure of this story and the romantic interaction between Otto and Caramba hearken back to the films of Howard Hawks. There’s more than a little Grant/Hepburn and Wayne/Dickenson in these characters.1 Caramba does everything she can to keep Otto from destroying her new restaurant, Otto is just as determined to get the boat back in action. What follows is a war of wills between the single-minded Otto, and Caramba, who just wants to save her restaurant from destruction.

Fire Below Deck is directed by Herrmann Zschoche, who seems to be channeling Gottfried Kolditz (the director of Midnight Review and Beloved White Mouse). This film is much more antic than Zschoche’s introspective Seven Freckles, Swan Island, and Solo Sailor. Fortunately, the controversy over Fire Below Deck didn’t harm Zschoche’s career. He went on to direct Seven Freckles—the film for which he is best remembered—the following year.

Star Manfred Krug needs no introduction here. He was one of the most popular actors and singers in East Germany. While most others East German actors who immigrated to the West suffered a fallow period without work. Krug hit the ground running. Producer Georg Feil was casting for a new TV series about long-distance truckers called Auf Achse (On the Road). Feil wanted actors who could actually handle a big rig, and Manfred Krug, with his blue-collar, East German background, was custom made for the part. The series was a huge hit and made Krug as familiar to the West German audience as he was to East Germans. He later made splash as the lawyer Robert Liebling in the TV show Liebling Kreuzberg, and as chief detective Paul Stoever in the ever-popular crime drama Tatort.

Renate Krößner

Had it been released when it was scheduled to, Fire Below Deck would have been Renate Krößner’s first starring role in a feature film. Krößner had appeared in a few movies and TV shows prior to this, but usually in smaller roles. After a memorable turn in a secondary part in Until Death Do You Part, it was Konrad Wolf’s Solo Sunny that finally put her in the spotlight. For that performance, she won the Silver Bear at the 1980 Berlinale Film Festival. Not particularly happy with the way things were going in East Germany, Krößner and her long-time partner Bernd Stegemann applied for exit visas repeatedly, which they were finally granted in 1985. She has appeared in many movies and television shows since the Wende, most notably in Go for Zucker (Alles auf Zucker!) in which she plays the role of Zucker’s partner-in-deception, Linda. In 1998, she was reunited with Fire Below Deck co-stars Manfred Krug and Fred Delmare for an episode of Liebling Kreuzberg, and with Krug again on Tatort.

Originally, the film was intended to open the 1977 Sommerfilmtage (Summer Film Days)—a sort of mini-festival of DEFA films that screened in towns all over East Germany—but by the time summer rolled around Krug was no longer a citizen of the GDR, so the film was pulled. It first screened on East German television in 1979. The television schedule was already packed with films featuring Krug and the many others who were now no longer welcome at DEFA, so one more Krug film mattered less here. It eventually got its theater premiere on August 16, 1982, but then only very briefly. It showed up on West German TV in 1988. The film received good reviews, especially for Krug’s and Krößner’s performances.

IMDB page for the film.

DEFA Library page for the film.

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1. For a in-depth look at male/female relationships in the films of Howard Hawks, check out Molly Haskell’s Masculine/Feminine essay in Film Comment.

Our Short Life
As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, East Germany was way ahead of the West when it came to feminist issues. Back when American women were still expected to stay in the kitchen and be good housewives, East Germany had women in nearly every profession. By the seventies over half the judges in the GDR were women. They were also better at bringing feminist issues to the big screen with films such as The Destinies of Women and Her Third. Even so, East German was as guilty as everyone else when it came to offering women the opportunities to make movies. This started to change in the seventies (but only slightly), with the introduction of directors such as Evelyn Schmidt and Iris Gusner, and writers such as Anne Pfeuffer, Gabriele Herzog, and Regine Kühn. Still, when it came time to make the very feminist film, Our Short Life (Unser kurzes Leben), the duties were handed over to a man. Whether the film loses anything for this choice is hard to say. It is filmed with a keen eye and great sensitivity, and certainly gets its message across.

Our Short Life (Unser kurzes Leben) tells the story of Franziska, a young architect who is looking for meaningful connections in a world where few exist. She wants to make sure that her new buildings are an integral part of the community, and not mere Plattenbauen—those featureless high-rises common to East Germany that were erected to house workers as economically as possible. After hours, she hangs out at the local pub with its proprietress Frau Helwig, and tries to makes friends with the women in her rooming house, but finds it difficult due to the status and cultural differences that the state supposedly eliminated.

Our Short Life is based on Franziska Linkerhand, a heavily autobiographical book by Brigitte Reimann. During the late fifties, Riemann was the darling of the East German literary scene, lauded by no less than Walter Ulbricht as one of the leading lights of the Bitterfelder Weg (Bitterfelder Way), a movement sponsored by the East German government to encourage socialist thinking in the arts. As time went on, however, Riemann followed same arc as many other East German creative people, growing increasingly disillusioned with the government’s betrayal of basic socialist principles in favor of an intractable band of authoritarians who brooked no dissent. Riemann died of cancer in 1973, and the book was published posthumously. After the Wende, it was found that some parts of the book, in particular its references to the Stasi, had been removed before publication. A restored version was published in 1998.

Unser kurzes Leben

Playing Franziska is Simone Frost, whose height at just over 5’ (1.53m) suggests that the film’s title has an additional meaning. The size difference between her and the rest of the cast is emphasized throughout the film, giving her battles against the powers that be a certain Jack the Giant Killer quality. Before the Wende, much of Frost’s non-theatrical work was on television, and the same held true after the Wende. Most notably, she was a regular on the long-running kids’ show, Schloss Einstein (Castle Einstein) on the KiKa channel (similar to Nickelodeon). Shortly before the Wall fell, she and her husband Hans-Joachim Frank, created Theater 89 as a place to put on plays that the state wouldn’t touch. The theater is still going strong today. Tragicallly, Frost died of cancer at the age of 51 in 2009.

The rest of the cast is equally exceptional. Playing the level-headed Frau Helwig is Barbara Dittus, who is always a joy to watch. Franziska’s boss, Schafheutlin, is played by Hermann Beyer, brother to the East German film director, Frank Beyer. Franziska’s caddish love interest, Trojanowicz, is played by Gottfried Richter, who has done very little on screen since the Wende, preferring to work on stage (and who has the distinction of being one of the few East German actors who has not appeared on In aller Freundschaft). Playing Franziska’s office partner is Christian Steyer, who is best remembered as Paula’s caddish lover in The Legend of Paul and Paula. In a small role, playing Schafheutlin’s secretary is Christine Schorn, who has gone on to have a very successful career in unified Germany, and is best known to Western audiences for her turn as Frau Schäfer in Goodbye Lenin!

Barbara Dittus and Simone Front

Director Lothar Warneke’s road to becoming a director was more circuitous than most. He initially studied theology at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig, changing pursuits after the local vicar resigned. He got his first chance to direct as part of a team on Not to Me, Madam!, sharing directorial duties (but apparently not film stock) with Roland Oehme. Warneke achieved his greatest success for his 1987 film Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens. Two years later, the Wall came down and Warneke found it hard to get work after French and West German entrepreneurs dismantled DEFA and its film community. He then became a teacher at the film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

The original screen treatment for this film was by Regine Kühn. Her career got off to a strong start with Time of the Storks (Zeit der Störche). Directed by her husband, Siegfried Kühn. Time of Storks was a big hit and brought Heidemarie Wenzel and Winfried Glatzeder together for the first time. That film was a hit, but Kühn’s next screenplay, The Dove on the Roof, directed by Iris Gusner, was met with resistance by the film authorities and was quickly shelved. After that, she only wrote one more script during the seventies—Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities) for her husband. Most of her subsequent dramatic scripts were for films by her husband, including The Actress and Die Lügnerin (The Liar). Our Short Life, was one of the few screenplays she wrote for someone else. Reportedly, she found the whole affair disagreeable and could never watch the movie.1

Later, Kühn started writing and directing her own films, primarily documentaries. In 1994, she won the Deutscher Drehbuchpreis—a prize given for unproduced screenplays of merit—for Zarah L., her screenplay about the infamous Third Reich era singer, Zarah Leander. To date this film has yet to be produced.

Our Short Life did well at the box office and garnered a few awards and nominations. It was also a hit with the East German critics, who were always happy to see a film that could discuss sensitive topics without getting shelved. If they thought this signaled a relaxation of the restrictions on sensitive film topics, they would have been wrong. It was only a few months later, the film review board would come down hard on Jadup and Boel.

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1. Spur der Filme by Ingrid Poss, Peter Warnecke; Christoph Verlag (May 1, 2006)

Spur des Falken
When it came to telling the truth about the American West, the East Germans had it all over Hollywood. While Hollywood was still portraying Indians as brutal savages, DEFA’s Indianerfilme gave a much more accurate picture of the events, showing that most of the wrongs were committed by the whites who felt that they had a right to the land just because of their skin color and religion. When Hollywood did finally get around to addressing the plight of the Indians in Cheyenne Autumn, they hired John Ford to direct, a man who did more to defame the reputation of the Indians than any other filmmaker. As one might imagine, the resulting film was a limp effort, redeemed mainly by William H. Clothier’s spectacular cinematography. It wouldn’t be until the seventies, with films such as Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, that American movies would finally take a good hard look at the actions of the United States during the 1800s.

After the box office success of The Sons of the Great Bear and Chingachgook, the Great Snake, DEFA decided to continue to tackle the subject of the American Indians. While those first two films were based on books, The Falcon’s Trail (Spur des Falken) is an original story for the movies. It is also more of a traditional Hollywood western in many respects. It has Cowboys and Indians, the U.S. cavalry, the pretty young miss visiting the West for the first time, a honky-tonk, a journey on a steam train, and music score right out of The Big Valley, but the perspective is turned on its head. When the Indians attack the railroad train, we see it from the Indians perspective and root for them. When the cavalry comes charging to the rescue, it is not a good thing. The film is a dizzying experience for those of us who were raised in fifties, when the only good Indian was Tonto.

The Trail of the Falcon

As it would be with several of the DEFA Indian films, the story is based on actual events that occurred in 1876. In 1868, the United States signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, exempting the Black Hills from all white settlement forever. Four years later gold was discovered there, and prospectors descended on the area. Instead of enforcing the treaty, the government reneged on it, taking the land back and turning it over to the settlers. It is one of history’s cruelest jokes that the popular expression for someone taking back something they gave a person was “Indian giver.”1

As one might imagine, the Indians were not amused. What followed was the Great Sioux War. An exact date of the events in the movies are not given, but the story appears to have taken place shortly after the Battle of Little Bighorn, but before the war was over. Much of what is shown here is factual. It is true that the Indians were kicked out of the lands that had been previously allotted to them because white settlers found gold there, and it is true that buffallo were killed by the millions for the specific intent of robbing the Indians of their primary source of food. In the end, the United States took back almost all the land they had promised to the Sioux Nation, and arguments over this continue to this day.

Playing Farsighted Falcon, the leader of the Indian renegades is Gojko Mitić. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, Mitic was DEFA’s number one Indian. Mitić, born in Serbian Yugoslavia, got his start as a stuntman in westerns made by various European production companies. With his black hair and good looks, it was only a matter of time before a director noticed him and gave him a speaking role. In The Falcon’s Trail, Mitić gets to take full advantage of his stuntman background, running along the top of a moving train, scrambling up rocky hillsides, and riding bareback. As usual, Mitić’s voice is dubbed. Mitić speaks very good German, but with a slight Serbian accent, so he is usually dubbed for the Indianerfilme. Here, he is dubbed by Karl Sturm. Likewise, Polish actress Barbara Brylska, who plays the young Miss Emerson, is dubbed by Annekathrin Bürger. Also worthy of mention is the supporting cast, with Hannjo Hasse and Rolf Hoppe playing a couple particularly nasty villains, and Helmut Schreiber and Fred Delmare as good guy counterparts.

Gojko Mitic

Standing in for the American West is the Caucasus of Georgia, and standing in for a Union Pacific train was a specially prepared train and locomotive made by the “Karl Marx” Locomotive company in Babelsberg (Lokomotivbau Karl Marx). Those knowledgeable about trains and the black hills area of South Dakota will spot the differences, but they act as passable stand-ins here.

Costumes are by Günter Schmidt, who, having already done the costumes for The Sons of the Great Bear and Chingachgook, was well on his way to becoming the go-to designer for nearly all of the Indianerfilme. The music is listed as being composed by Wolfgang Meyer and Karl-Ernst Sasse. I’ve discussed Sasse at length elsewhere on this blog (see Her Third), but Wolfgang Meyer is a new name. In fact, The Falcon’s Trail shows up as his only feature film score. There are some noticeable differences between the music in this film and the music from the other westerns in the DEFA catalog. Of all of them, this one sounds the most like an American western, which may be one of the reasons why Meyer didn’t contribute to more films. DEFA was occasionally (depending on the period) relentless in its avoidance of Hollywood clichés.

Like the previous two Indianerfilme, The Falcon’s Trail was a hit at the box office, and was the first of the East German westerns to spawn an actual sequel—White Wolves (Weiße Wölfe), which was released a year later. On an amusing side note, the title of this film is the same as the German title for one of the best-known films of all time: The Maltese Falcon.

IMDB page for the film.

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1. The expression has finally fallen out of fashion, but it still lingers. for an in-depth examination of the term, see NPR’s report on the subject.