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.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film.

* 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.

Latest from the Da-Da-R

Identifying the beginning of the East German movie industry is easy. It began in 1946 with The Murderers Are  Among Us. That film—started before DEFA even existed—was the first of a long line of excellent films to come out of the GDR before the whole system came crashing down under the weight of its own ossification and blinkered leadership. Pinpointing the end of East German Cinema is a little more complicated. Several films were already “in the can,” so to speak, when the wall came down. Production at DEFA continued after East Germany no longer existed, right up until 1992, when the company was dismantled in the name of capitalism. Novalis – Die blaue Blume is credited with being the last film put out under the old DEFA badge, but philosophically and thematically, if not literally, the last film to come out of East Germany was Latest from the Da-Da-R (Letztes aus der DaDaeR), a satirical look at life in East Germany at the end of its forty-year existence.

The film follows the exploits of two clowns (literally) during the dying days of the GDR, from their release from prison, through a garbage dump, down a river to hell, through the surrealistic landscape of post-Mauerfall East Germany, and into a slaughterhouse, with scenes as shocking as those in Georges Franju’s Le sang des bêtes. The story is not told as a continuous journey, but as a series of skits and musical numbers, each a little darker than the last. Some of the scenes look improvised. The scene at the bonfire protest seems as spontaneous as Haskell Wexler’s footage of the police riots in Medium Cool. There is an improvisational quality to the routines, and certain aspects—such as the use of objects to represent other things—betray the theatrical roots of the routines. The criticism is sharp, but even-handed, attacking the stodgy leadership of East Germany and the callow behavior of West Germans alike. It is not hyperbole to say that one year earlier this film could not have been made. I doubt that it could have been made one year later either, after western interests took over the film studio and profit became the main motivating factor. This film exists as a record of an extremely specific time in German cinema history.

Latest From the Da-Da-R

Filming began after the wall came down, and was made by the newly formed artists’ work group (künstlerische Arbeitsgruppe), “DaDaeR.” The name is a play on “DDR” (the abbreviation for Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and “Dada”. In German, the “Letztes” in the film’s title can be translated as “the last” or “the latest”, giving the title a double punch. The film is filled with such witticisms, several of which are specifically intended for East German audiences only. The mailman with the broken bicycle is Gustav-Adolf Schur, an East German bicyclist as well known in the GDR as Lance Armstrong is in the United States; and the garbageman was played by the popular East German writer Christoph Hein. Much of the humor in the film cannot be fully appreciated by anyone who didn’t live in the GDR, but the film has enough other things going on to keep the rest of us entertained.

Latest from the Da-Da-R stars Steffen Mensching and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel. They also wrote the screenplay. It was the final product of comedy reviews they performed in the eighties, starting with Neues aus der DaDaer (News—or newest—from the Da-Da-R) and followed by Altes aus der DaDaer (Oldest—or Old Newsfrom the Da-Da-R). Mensching and Wenzel joined forces in 1980, when Steffen Mensching joined Wenzel’s theater group, Karls Enkel. Wenzel and Mensching developed the clown characters, Meh and Weh—abbreviations of their last names, but also puns on indifference and woe.

In 1989, Mensching and Wenzel helped draft the “Resolution of Rock Musicians and Songwriters” (Resolution von Rockmusikern und Liedermachern), a protest letter sent to the SED warning that the government’s indifference to the needs of the people was in danger of causing the country’s collapse. The SED’s reaction to the resolution was swift and stupid. Tour dates were cancelled and prohibitions were placed on the signatories. That was September 18, 1989. A little over a year later, the GDR would cease to exist.

After the wall fell, Mr. Mensching and Mr. Wenzel continued to perform together from time to time, but each went on to do other things. Mr. Mensching occasionally performs and directs theater productions, most recently working with the Theater Rudolstadt. Mr. Wenzel continues to perform, primarily as a singer-songwriter (and the songs in Latest from the Da-Da-R are very good). He was invited by Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora to create German versions of her father’s songs, resulting in his 2003 album Ticky Tock, on which Mr. Wenzel sings Guthrie’s songs in German and English.

Letztes aus der DaDaeR

Latest from the Da-Da-R was directed by Jörg Foth. Mr. Foth was part of the “Nachwuchsgeneration” (next generation)—a group of young filmmakers who trained as filmmakers, only to find that opportunities to practice their craft were blocked by the clogged infrastructure that was endemic to East Germany in the eighties. Mr. Foth took a roundabout route to his eventually career as a director. He graduated from high school with a certificate as a cook, but then joined the Volksmarine as a radio operator. Upon leaving the Volksmarine, Mr. Foth started working as a volunteer at the East German television company, which eventually led to a diploma in film studies from the film school in Babelsberg.

He worked as as an assistant director on several films, including Blauvogel (Blue Bird), Die Verlobte (The Fiancee), and Die Kolonie (The Colony), eventually getting a chance to direct in 1984, with the children’s film Das Eismeer ruft (The Arctic Sea Calls).  In spite of good reviews, further jobs directing feature films were not forthcoming. He made a few more short films and documentaries, and co-directed the Vietnamese/East German joint production Dschungelzeit (Jungle Time), but it wasn’t until the wall fell that he was finally given a permanent position as a director at DEFA. Of course, “permanent” is a qualified term, even in the best of times, but during those tumultuous times, it meant less than a year.

Since the Wende, Mr. Foth has had very few opportunities to demonstrate his talent. He has worked on a few TV shows and made a few short films, but Latest from the Da Da R was his last feature film.

Irm Hermann

Playing Meh and Weh’s jailer—identified only as “She”—is Irm Hermann. Anyone familiar with the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder will recognize her immediately. She appeared in most of his films, sometimes in small roles, and other times as one of the leads. She was a founding members of Fassbinder’s antiteater (anti-theater) and appeared in Fassbinder’s early short films as well as his early features. She was as much a muse to Fassbinder as Hannah Schygulla.  Like Schygulla, she parted ways with Fassbinder after Lili Marleen, but continued acting, appearing in dozens of films since then.

Director Foth could have had his pick from any number of excellent East German actresses to play this part. The fact that he chose a West German certainly is no accident. It addresses the feeling that—no matter what Honecker and friends would have one believe—it was the West Germans that were calling the shots. She is the one who lets them out of prison, and feeds them, and watches over them throughout, but she also the one keeping  them in prison. In one scene she is shown removing bullets from their shells. A reference to disarmament, certainly, but whose ammo is she dismantling?*

As you can no doubt tell, there is a lot going on in this film. It is impossible to catch it all in one viewing. To help with this, the DEFA Library has included essays and an interview with the director as PDF files on the American DVD. If, like me, you have an inversion to clowns and mimes, you may approach this film with some trepidation, but don’t let the white facepaint put you off. This is an exceptional film.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

* Perhaps a reader with better knowledge of such things than I can provide better information on this.

The Bridge 1949

The Bridge (Die Brücke) was a 1949 film made by DEFA about displaced persons at the end of WWII. It has little in common with Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 well-known film of the same name except its relative time frame. In this film, a group of evacuees in a resettlement encampment encounter hostility from the people in a nearby town; not because they are Jewish, or black, or even from another country, but because they are from a different town. The prejudice here is not racial or anti-semitic, but parochial—roughly analogous to a group of Californians tyring to restettle in Mississippi. Thrown into the mix is a relatively formulaic love triangle between the Mayor’s nephew, a girl from the resettlement camp, and a scheming pub owner who smokes way too much for her own good. The bridge of the title is a wooden footbridge between the resettlement camp and the village. After the bridge is sabotaged, resulting in the death of one of the camp’s leading figures, the two groups are cut off from each other. It will take an even greater calamity to bring them together again.

As with Street Acquaintances, this film exists in that transitional space between old-school melodrama and the socialist realism promoted by the Russians. Visually, it harkens back to the Ufa films from the Third Reich years, but the film’s message of tolerance is strictly post-war thinking. The screenplay is by Arthur Pohl, who also wrote the screenplay for Street Acquaintances, but this time he also directed the film. It was his first time directing a feature film, although he had already directed several stage productions.

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Arthur Pohl began his career as a set painter at the Staatstheater in Darmstadt. Later on, he moved into directing plays as well. In the 1930s, he began working in films as a screenwriter, co-writing the screenplays for Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur) and Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb), which were based on a book by Thea von Harbou (of Metropolis fame). In 1941, Mr. Pohl’s career in films came to an abrupt end when he was drafted and later captured by the Allied forces. After he was released from a P.O.W. camp at the end of the war, he moved to West Berlin. In spite of living in an allied sector, he got a job with DEFA; at first as a scriptwriter, then later as a director. After The Bridge, He went on to write and direct several more films for DEFA, including Corinna Schmidt, Die Unbesiegbaren (The Invincible), and Pole Poppenspäler.

In 1957, he wrote and directed Spielbank-Affäre (Casino Affair), based on Hans von Oettingen’s book of the same name. It would be Mr. Pohl’s last feature film. It was made as joint project between DEFA and Sweden’s short-lived Pandora-Films. The film told the story of counterfeiting and intrigue around a casino. While Pohl may have intended the film as a statement about capitalism and its deleterious effects on the human psyche, the authorities at DEFA felt that the film—which was DEFA’s first wide-screen production and was shot in gorgeous Agfacolor—made West German decadence look too appealing. In one of the weirder decisions to come out of DEFA, the film was screened in black-and-white in East Germany, while the color version was shown in West Germany under the title Parkplatz zur großen Sehnsucht (Parking Lot for Desire). As one might imagine, the western press had a great time making fun of this decision.

The foofaraw over the film led to a parting of ways between DEFA and Mr. Pohl. He started looking for work in the west, but, unfortunately for him, his long association with DEFA didn’t make this any easier. He made a few TV-movies in the early sixties, but by 1963 his career as a director was essentially over. Maybe he would have gone back to DEFA, but by that time the border was well sealed and working in the east while residing in the west was no longer an option. He died in 1970 in Berlin.

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If the film at times has the look of the Weimar Republic era Ufa films, there’s a good reason. The cinematographer was Fritz Arno Wagner—one of the most well-respected cinematographers in the business. He started working as a newsreel cameraman in 1913 and a feature film cameraman in 1919. A list of the films he worked on during the silent years is impressive. It includes Nosferatu, M, Diary of a Lost Girl, and both of Fritz Lang’s silent Dr. Mabuse films. Unlike his compatriot Karl Freund, Mr. Wagner chose not to go to Hollywood. He  stayed in Germany, filming unmemorable programmers and Nazi propaganda during the Third Reich years. Although Das kleine Hofkonzert (Palace Scandal), which Mr. Wagner filmed, was released by DEFA, The Bridge is the only film Wagner wprked on that was actually made by DEFA. He started working in the west as soon as possible. In 1958, Mr. Wagner died when he fell from a camera car while filming Ohne Mutter geht es nicht (It Doesn’t Work Without a Mother).

The evil, chain-smoking pub owner Therese is played by Ilse Steppat, who, two years earlier, was much more sympathetic as the persecuted Jewish wife in Kurt Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows. After the restrictions on filmmaking in West Germany were removed in 1950, Ms. Steppat, a West German by birth, spent the rest of her career working in the west. She is best known to English-speaking audiences as the evil Irma Bunt in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Two days after that film premiered in Germany, Ms. Steppat died of a heart attack in West Berlin.

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Arno Paulsen, who plays the town’s mayor will be immediately recognizable to any fan of early DEFA films. The rotund actor got his start as an opera singer. While working at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, he met Wolfgang Staudte, who cast him as the profiteering villain in The Murderers Are Among Us. From there he went on to appear in eleven DEFA films between 1946 and 1950, including Razzia, Chemistry and Love, Street Acquaintances, and Die Buntkarierten. Due to his short and portly appearance, he was often cast as either the villain or the buffoon in films on both sides of the Iron Curtain. His last film for DEFA was Bürgermeister Anna (Mayor Anna), a comedy based on a play by Friedrich Wolf. After that he appeared exclusively in West German films and is well remembered for his role in Das Mädchen Rosemarie (Rosemary)—one of the better films to come out of West Germany during the fifties.

To a modern audience, the film’s socialist heroics will probably seem over the top. Like the man who uses his body to channel the irrigation water in King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, modern audiences laugh that anyone would do anything that selfless. It is impossible today to reflect on this film’s message about the importance of eliminating borders between German factions without thinking about the events of August 13, 1961. In The Bridge, people bravely cross a river to help people on the other side, creating unity between the two factions. Replace the river with a wall and the film takes on a whole different meaning.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (German only; no subtitles).

Street Acquaintances

Films about sexual hygiene and the dangers of promiscuity have a grand old tradition in cinema history, going back at least a century with D. W. Griffith’s 1914 film, The Escape (currently lost). Most of the feature films on the subject—at least in America—were made for the exploitation market. The subject afforded a neat way to get around the strict moral codes of the times by pretending to be intended for educational purposes. Some of these films, such as Because of Eve and Kroger Babb’s infamous Mom and Dad, contain graphic footage, while others, such as No Greater Sin and Dwain Esper’s Sex Madness, are relatively tame. Road agents would travel from town to town with these films stuck in the trunks of their cars, arranging screenings and doing double duty as a medical sex experts selling pamphlets between the films.

While Street Acquaintances* (Straßenbekanntschaft) certainly is a commercial release, its discussions of the dangers of venereal disease in post-war Berlin are not there to titillate or for exploitation purposes. V.D. was a real problem in Germany at the time, brought on, mainly, by the combination of a sudden liberation from a repressive regime and huge influx of randy, sex-deprived soldiers from both sides. To combat the problem, the military governments regularly rounded up women for testing. Yes, it was sexist, and Street Acquaintances addresses this fact, which is unusual for a film made in 1948. At a time when American films had the “heroes” saying things like: “Don’t worry your pretty little head,” Street Acquaintances was showing just how difficult life in post-war Berlin was for women.

Street Acquaintances stands at an interesting crossroads in German film history. It is categorized as a “rubble” film because it deals with the emotional wreckage of the German psyche after the war, but unlike The Murderers Are Among Us, Somewhere in Berlin, and Germany Year Zero, it happens after the streets have been cleared and the streetcars are running again. Stylistically, it harkens back to the films of Weimar era and the Third Reich, but with touches of the dramatic realism and the themes that would become the hallmark of DEFA films.

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The story follows the misadventures of Erika, a young woman who is tired of the privation brought by the war’s end, and is ready to kick off her shoes and have some fun. In terms of plot, there is nothing new here. It’s the same basic concept used in practically every sex education film ever made: X decides to live a little; X has sex; X lives to regret it and learns a valuable lesson (or dies, as the case may be). Intertwined with Erika’s story are the stories of other women in Berlin that show just how tough it was for women after the war. As with Slatan Dudow’s Destinies of Women, and Evelyn Schmidt’s The Bicycle, the sympathies here are with the women. If their choices are sometimes bad, it’s because good choices are so few and far between.

Street Acquaintances is directed by Peter Pewas—a talented filmmaker who has only recently started receiving the attention he deserves. Like Saul Bass, Mr. Pewas’ entry into filmmaking came through the graphic arts. Unlike Mr. Bass, he did not design title sequences, but did create many classic movie posters during his lifetime, and is considered an important innovator in German film poster design.

His interest in film extended beyond posters however. One of his first attempts to make a documentary about Alexanderplatz in 1934 ended badly when the film was confiscated by the Nazis and Mr. Pewas held on suspicion of treason. In 1938, he attended the Babelsberg Film Academy and started working as an assistant director under Wolfgang Liebeneiner, a director who did as much to promote the Nazi philosophy as Veit Harlan, but got a lot less grief for it. As Liebeneiner’s AD, Mr. Pewas had the dubious distinction of working on I Accuse (Ich klage an), a film that was made to promote Aktion T4—Hitler’s euthanasia program for the disabled.

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In 1944, Mr. Pewas was allowed to direct his own feature film, and he once again found himself running afoul of the Nazis. The film, Der verzauberte Tag (The Enchanted Day), was the story of a young woman not dissimilar to Erika, who wanted something more from life and was frustrated with the limitations put on women. Like the neorealists, Pewas wanted to show the lives of ordinary people in a realistic fashion. As one might imagine, Goebbels and his compadres weren’t too keen on this approach and while it was never officially banned the film was not released either.

After the war, Pewas was one of the directors in attendance at the famous Filmaktiv meeting at the Adlon Hotel on November 22, 1945. It was from this meeting that the roots of DEFA took hold, starting with Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are Among Us. Pewas had been trying to expand cinema’s vocabulary with Der verzauberte Tag, so the things discussed at this meeting must have struck a chord with him. He went on to make Wohin Johanna? (Which way Johanna?), a short documentary intended to promote the SED party. As with both Der verzauberte Tag and Street Acquaintances, the story takes a feminist perspective.

Sadly, Mr. Pewas’ affinity for the SED was not long lived. By 1950, he had moved to West Germany. This did little for his career. While his former mentor, Wolfgang Liebeneiner, thrived in West Germany’s Nazi-tolerant environment, Mr. Pewas’ leftist proclivities were less acceptable. Aside from one feature film (Viele kamen vorbeiMany Passed By), Mr. Pewas’ directorial efforts were restricted to a few short films. As it got harder and harder to find work making movies, Mr. Pewas relied primarily on revenue from designing film posters—his one skill that the Nazis also had no problems with. He died penniless in Hamburg; a fate that certainly wouldn’t have befallen him had he stayed in East Germany. Happily (although not for him), his films resurfaced recently in the form of a DVD set, which includes Der verzauberte Tag, Street Acquaintances and Wohin Johanna.

Gisela Trowe

Playing Erika is Gisela Trowe. That same year, she appeared in three more films, including a short but memorable turn as the killer’s girlfriend in The Blum Affair. Her fourth film in 1948 was a West German film, and thereafter she worked in the west. She continued her film career, often appearing in the films of her father-in-law, Erich Engel (director of The Blum Affair). One of her earliest screen appearances in West Germany includes a short but memorable turn as a prostitute in Peter Lorre’s gloomy Die Verlorene (The Lost One). Ms. Trowe died in 2010 (for more on Ms. Trowe, see The Blum Affair).

As was the case with many of the early DEFA films, much of the film crew was made up of actors and technicians who either migrated or returned to West Germany once the heavy restrictions on filmmaking imposed by the U.S. military government (OMGUS) had ended. Composer Michael Jary was already a well-known composer when he wrote the music for this film and his songs, “Davon geht die Welt nicht unter,” “La Paloma,” and “Roter Mohn” were very popular in Germany and regularly crop up in films about World War II. His song, “Wir wollen niemals auseinandergehen” was sung by Heidi Brühl as a possible entry in the 1960 Eurovision Song Contest, it did not make the cut, but has gone on to become a popular tune on with lovers of Schlagermusik. By the time he shot this film, Austrian cinematographer Georg Bruckbauer already had a long career as a cinematographer, stretching back to the Weimar days, but this was his only film for DEFA. Editor Johanna Meisel got her start as an editor during the Third Reich and worked on several films for DEFA during its early years, but she also went west in the 1950s, working on several films there before retiring from films in 1962.

As one might imagine, Street Acquaintances did well at the box office on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Sex always sells, even when the intentions aren’t prurient. This is a remarkable film and possibly the best film for showcasing the changing film styles during the early years at DEFA. It is equal parts UFA and DEFA, and should not be overlooked.

IMDB page for film.

Buy this film (part of DVD set).

NOTE: English subtitles are available from several sources, as are AVI files of the film. Some adjustment may be necessary for syncing.

* This is a literal translation of the title as given by IMDB. The term refers to casual acquaintances. The kind of people you’d say “hi” to on the street but wouldn’t have over for dinner.