Kleinow und Treff
The Invincibles (Die Unbesiegbaren) was originally intended as the second of three films. The first was to chronicle the introduction of the Communist Manifesto, and the last was to follow Karl Liebknecht’s story up to the development of the Spartacus League, forerunner to the German Communist Party (KPD). The Invincibles was the only one of the three that got made. Its story takes place in 1889—one year after the “Year of the Three Kaisers” (Dreikaiserjahr) and toward the end of the period when the government’s anti-socialism laws (Sozialistengesetze) were in force.

The action in the film centers around the Schulz family. Mr. Schulz works as a train mechanic during the day, and uses his spare time to help workers organize. Schulz’s daughter Gertrud spends her evenings helping her friend Franz distribute socialist literature. Things come to a head when an informer breaks into the Schulz home and locates the socialist pamphlets. Mr. Schulz is sent to prison, but is released less than a year later when this silly law is finally repealed and Otto von Bismarck, the law’s main proponent, is sent packing.

Die Unbesiegbaren

DEFA films from this period are often extremely didactic, and this one’s no exception. In truth, DEFA was just following Hollywood’s lead. Since Hollywood had come under attack as a hotbed of communist revolutionaries, film producers were bending over backwards to demonstrate their patriotism. As a consequence, there was hardly an American film made during that period that didn’t trot out anti-communist sentiments somewhere along the line. One could argue that DEFA was simply following suit. This approach led to a lot of mediocre Hollywood films, and a perception in the West that all East German films were nothing but propaganda. A perception that, sadly, still persists.

The screenplay was written by the film’s director Artur Pohl and DEFA official Heino Brandes. Alongside Wolfgang Staudte and Kurt Maetzig, Pohl was one of DEFA’s go-to guys during its early years (for more on Pohl, see The Bridge). Brandes was hired to oversee DEFA’s short film department, then later moved to the science film section. He worked closely with stage director Hans Rodenberg, who was in charge of DEFA’s feature film unit during the early fifties, and the two of them wrote a treatise on socialist realism in theater and film together.

The cast features some of the best actors from the early years at DEFA. Playing Frau Schulz is Alice Treff, who already had a thriving career in Nazi Germany. She made a few films for DEFA, but primarily worked in West Germany after the war, both as an actress and as a popular voice dubber for American films. As a West German, Treff received flak for portraying the good socialist housewife Mrs. Schulz. Perhaps this is the reason for her strangely uncomfortable demeanor in the final scene at the rally where the socialists celebrate the end of the anti-socialism laws. While everyone else seems happy, Treff’s character looks oddly ill at ease. Or perhaps this was just the filmmaker’s way of letting us know that the battle wasn’t over yet. Treff managed to get past this mini-scandal and continued working in films in West Germany into her nineties. She died in 2003 at the age of 96.

Kleinow und Treff

Playing her husband is Willy A. Kleinau, so memorable as “Mr. Lawson” in The Council of the Gods. Unlike Treff, Kleinau stayed in East Germany, although he did appear in West German productions as well, most notably, The Captain from Köpenick, starring Heinz Rühmann (a popular star in West Germany and during the Third Reich). Kleinau continued to perform in films and on stage until his death following an auto accident in 1957.

Werner Peters—who turned in a spectacular performance in The Kaiser’s Lackey—plays the police informer Köppke. Most of Peters’ early films were from DEFA, although his first time in front of the camera was in the West German Rubble Film, Zwischen gestern und morgen (Between Today and Tomorrow). In 1955, Peters left East Germany, settling at first in Düsseldorf, then later in Berlin. Besides his work at DEFA, Peters also starred in some of the better West German films of the fifties, including The Devil Strikes at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam), Rosemary (Das Mädchen Rosemarie), and Roses for the Prosecutor (Rosen für den Staatsanwalt). He regularly shows up in West Germany Krimis (crime films), and made regular appearances in the Dr. Mabuse and Edgar Wallace films so beloved by West Germans. He also appears in a few U.S. productions, usually as either a Nazi or an evil doctor. You can also spot him doing a turn as an antiques dealer in Dario Argento’s classic Giallo film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo).

Appearing as the police captain, is Arno Paulsen, first seen by audiences as the evil Brückner in The Murderers are Among Us. Like Peters, Paulsen starred in several early DEFA productions, but eventually settled in the West. Paulsen worked with Peters again on the West German classic, Rosemary, both playing corrupt, fat-cat capitalists. He became the voice of Oliver Hardy for the German releases of the Laurel and Hardy alongside Walter Bluhm, who had been doing Stan Laurel’s voice since Hollywood stopped attempting to have the duo redo their routines in other languages.*

Youg rebels

Portraying the feisty young Gertrud is Tamara Osske. Primarily a stage actress, Osske only has three film credits to her name. Since her name shows up as part of the cast for a 1980 production of Peer Gynt at the Saarländisches Landestheater, I have to assume she left the GDR at some point after 1960. Also here, playing Wilhelm Liebknecht, is Erwin Geschonneck.

The same year that this film came out, West Germany formed the Interministerial Committee on East-West film questions (Interministerieller Ausschuß für Ost-West-Filmfragen), created for the purpose of banning films that promoted socialism, but pushed their mandate to include any films that attacked colonialism, imperialism, and, sadly, even Nazism in some cases. The Invincibles was one of the first films they banned, along with other DEFA classics, such as The Council for the Gods and The Kaiser’s Lackey. The irony of banning a film about Germany’s repressive anti-socialism law because of its socialist content makes it impossible to satirize.

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* A little-known fact about the early sound films. Back during the silent days, it was easy enough to distribute a film internationally. All you needed was to switch the intertitles to the language of choice. With the advent of sound, that was no longer an option. At first, movie producers tried to solve the problem by having the lead actors redo each scene in other languages. The best known example of this is The Blue Angel, which was first made in German, and then in English a year later. For some actors, speaking both English and German wasn’t a problem. Having grown up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Romania, Edward G. Robinson’s spoke excellent German, as did his co-star in A Lady to Love, Vilma Bánky, so the two of then reprised their roles in the German version (Die Sehnsucht jeder Frau), while most of the rest of the case was replaced. Laurel and Hardy’s German, on the other hand, was atrocious, but there was no way to replace them. They were already famous as “Dick und Doof” in Germany from their silent shorts. Rather than have the two comedians memorize their lines, the duo read the words spelled phonetically on cue cards, reenacting the same scenes in up to four different languages. Producers quickly realized that this approach was not going to work, and so dubbing was born.

Hart am Wind
Close to the Wind (Hart am Wind) is one of those films that came out between the clamp down of the 11th Plenum and the loosening of the restrictions when Honecker took over. Most of the films of this period are careful to not rock the boat. They often have a message along the lines of “be a good socialist, work for the collective, and don’t let you ego interfere with the greater good.” An admirable message, but the era suffers from a surplus of films with exactly this message. Sometimes the message doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the film, such as with Hot Summer, in which the flirtatious Brit threatens the cohesion of the group. Sometimes the message seems more important than the story itself.

Such is the case with Close to the Wind. The film was made in close cooperation with East Germany’s navy (Volksmarine), so you know it’s not going to explore anything too controversial. In this respect, it resembles those Hollywood films that rely on the military to provide access to their planes, ships and even soldiers as long as they carefully avoid anything that makes the military look bad. Some classic examples of this are Sands of Iwo Jima, Strategic Air Command, The D.I., The Green Berets, and, of course, Top Gun.

Close to the Wind

A comparison between Top Gun and Close to the Wind is particularly apt. In Close to the Wind, a young, hot-shot electrician named Peter joins the Navy, where he gets knocked down a few pegs and almost loses his girlfriend before regaining his footing. In Top Gun, a young, hot-shot fighter pilot named Peter (nicknamed “Maverick”) is sent to the Navy’s elite Fighter Weapons School, where gets knocked down a few pegs and almost loses his girlfriend before regaining his footing. This is an old movie trope based on the hero’s journey, but it’s the differences between the two films that are the most telling. In Close to the Wind, Peter’s cocksure, anything-to-win approach creates a situation where he fails, which leads to his ostracism from the group. In Top Gun, Maverick’s cocksure, anything-to-win approach contributes to a situation where he fails, which leads to self-doubt. In the end, the protagonist of the East German film works to regain his respect among the collective. In Top Gun, he works to regain his self-respect as an individual. Both men learn important lessons about working as part of a team, but in the East German film he gets their by putting his trust in the team, while in the American movie, he gets there by putting his trust in himself.

Close to the Wind was directed by Heinz Thiel, who was a clever enough director to keep the film interesting (see Black Velvet article for more on Thiel). It was to be his last feature film for several years. Thiel joined the “defa futurum” group to produce short films about a character named Tobias Bremser. He only made one more feature—DEFA Disko ‘77—before moving on to other things. He died in Potsdam in 2003.

Peter is played by Frank Obermann, a tall, ruggedly handsome man who started as a railroad mechanic before turning to acting. Besides this film, Obermann also appeared in two more productions in 1970—Rolf Römer’s Hey You! and a TV-movie titled Der Sonne Glut (The Sun Glow). At the time Close to the Wind was made, Obermann was married to his leading lady in the film, Regina Beyer. Beyer was primarily known for her TV work. In 1972, their daughter was born. Obermann died in Dortmund in 1995. He was only fifty years old. Beyer continues to work—primarily in television—and is in a long-term relationship with fellow, former East German—television actor Volkmar Kleinert.

Regina Beyer

The music is by Gerd Natchinski, who gave us the catchy score for Hot Summer. Here, the score seems to be comprised entirely of one song—”Es gibt so viel Schönes im Leben”—which sounds like a leftover from Hot Summer. It is played over the titles, then lip-synched by the lead character—it was actually sung by Hot Summer star Frank Schoebel—then played again and again throughout the movie in various forms. It’s not a bad song, if you like the music of Hot Summer; Frank Schoebel had a hit with it, but the score certainly could have used more of Natchinski’s music.

As one might imagine, western critics were not kind to this film. They saw it as little more than a propaganda piece for the Volksmarine. Even so, as propaganda goes, it is a pretty innocuous little film. It apparently did help promote Volksmarine enlistment because DEFA followed a year later with another military co-production, Anflug Alpha I (Approaching Alpha I).

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

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

Dean Reed

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

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

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

Dean Reed as gunfighter

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

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

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

Neckar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wozzeck shaving scene

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

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

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

Wozzeck whipping scene

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

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

Wozzeck

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

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

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Anton der Zauberer
Of all the surprises that East German films bring to American viewers, the biggest one—excluding the psychedelia of In the Dust of the Stars, which is guaranteed to make anyone’s head explode—is how dark the humor in their comedies can be. Of course, the target for this kind of comedy is nearly always western-style capitalism and the avariciousness of its followers, but in black humor there is an inherent, if unspoken, acknowledgement that people are the same everywhere: corrupt, easily manipulated and foolish. These films may not point directly at the SED, but, as the saying goes, whenever you point at someone, three fingers point back at you.

Anton the Magician (Anton der Zauberer) has plenty to say about the corrupting effects the pursuit of money can have on a person, but it also says something about the ability of any huckster to game a system, whether it’s communist or capitalist. The film is the picaresque tale of Anton Grubske, a clever mechanic whose love of cars, women, and booze continually get him into to trouble. The story is told as a flashback, starting with Anton’s funeral then jumping back to his birth. We follow Anton’s story through his teenage years, the war, its aftermath, the early years of the GDR, and right through the building of the Wall, which plays an important part in this story.

Anton is portrayed as a sly man with a likable personality and a way with all things automotive. After narrowly escaping emprisonment by the Russians, he joins in a pecuniary—and sometimes sexual—partnership with Sabine, the owner of Zum verwunschenen Ritter (The Enchanted Knight), a bar that is named after its primary attraction: a mummified knight on display in a small chapel next to the bar. The knight figures prominently in the story. Anton returns to it often, and it is even used as part of a local parade. The metaphor isn’t subtle. Anton is the knight, and the adjective—verwunschenen, which can be translated as either “enchanted,” “accursed,” or “haunted”—certainly applies to him as well.

Anton and mummified knight

Anton the Magician is a morality play with the full spectrum of moral viewpoints on display, from the religious piety of Anton’s wife Liesel, to the avaricious amorality of Sabine. It is between these extremes that Anton is buffeted. At first, he sides with Sabine, who helps him create a black market business for tractors built from the remains of old Wehrmacht vehicles. This enterprise makes him so much money that he has to hide it from the state. He and Sabine sneak across the border with the money to deposit it in a West German bank. When the wall is built, Anton finds himself cut off from his funds. To make matters worse, Sabine takes the money out of the bank and runs off to Switzerland. Anton is thrown in prison for his black market business after one of his customers rats him out, not out of civic duty, but because Anton gave the tractor that was suppose to be his to another customer with more money.

While in prison, Anton starts reading Marx and Engel and is reborn as a loyal citizen. His knowledge of automotives makes him invaluable to the state as he helps the local Volkseigener Betrieb (VEB: publically owned business) reach their tractor quota. Anton goes from shady black entrepreneur to local hero. When Sabine dies in an accident, Anton gets what’s left of the money back, along with her 1964 Chevy Impala, which Anton uses to take out his anger and frustration in a scene that is funny, but slightly horrifying if you’re an old car enthusiast.

Anton the Magician was directed by Günter Reisch, who also gave us Oh How Joyfully…, and Wie die Alten sungen…. He specialized in comedies that were utterly East German, right down to their warp and woof. Much of the humor in his films is invariably lost on those of us in the west and Reisch wouldn’t have it any other way. If reports are correct, he was even a little testy about us Yankees daring to enoy his films. This doesn’t make them any less entertaining, and Reisch’s talent as a filmmaker cannot be denied. Although he is best remembered for his comedies, he could make a drama with the best of them, as proved in his 1980 film Die Verlobte (The Fiancée), which he co-directed with Günther Rücker. Reisch died in February 2014 and is buried at the French Cemetery (Französischer Friedhof) in Berlin (for more on Reisch, see Oh How Joyfully…).

Barbara Dittus

Like Günter Reisch’s other films, Anton the Magician has a dream cast. It stars actor/director Ulrich Thein, who is perfectly cast as the impish Anton. It’s no surprise that he won the best actor awards at the Moscow International Film Festival and Eberswalde Film Festival for his performance in this film, and he probably would have won some West German awards as well if not for the politics of the time (for more on Thein, see Star-Crossed Lovers). On a par with Ulrich Thein is Barbara Dittus, who plays the sexy and avaricious Sabine. Dittus looked like a movie star, and her delivery was the best—especially when playing lusty characters like Sabine in this film and Lucie in Her Third. The always dependable Erwin Geschonneck appears as Anton’s patient father in an unusually small role. Also making a brief appearance as Anton’s lawyer is Reisch’s favorite character actor, Marianne Wünscher, who played the annoying neighbor in Reisch’s Christmas comedies, Oh How Joyfully… and Wie die Alten sungen…, and is well-remembered as the nasty lady with the poodle in Beloved White Mouse.

I’ve discussed all of these actors in previous posts on this blog, so I’ll direct my attention here to the two relative newcomers, Anna Dymna and Marina Krogull. Anna Dymna played Liesel, Anton’s pious wife. Dymna, a Polish actress, had planned on studying psychology, but ended up at the Ludwik Solski Academy for the Dramatic Arts instead. She started appearing films while she was still attending classes at the school. Thanks to a recurring part in the popular Polish TV show, Janosik, and appearances in the comedies, Nie ma mocnych and Kochaj, albo rzuć (Love or Leave), Dymna was already a well-known actress in Poland by the time she did Anton the Magician.

Anna Dymna

Dymna made many movies in Poland, and the transition away from communism had little effect on her career. She has won awards, both for her acting and her humanitarian efforts. In 2003, she founded Mimo Wszystko (Against the Odds) a charity organization geared toward improving the lives of the sick and disabled. Of late, she has been devoting more of her time to her charity work than acting. Her last film was the 2011 drama, Fear of Falling (Lek wysokosci), which was directed by Bartosz Konopka, who gave us the delightful documentary, Rabbit à la Berlin.

Marina Krogull plays Sabine’s daughter Ilie. Although her part in the film is considerably smaller than the other leads, hers is the most psychologically complex character in the film short of Anton himself. Many of the scenes with her show a young woman observing her mother and trying to follow in her footsteps. In this sense, the character of Ilie seems as doomed as Anton.

Krogull started her career as a ballet student, but switched to acting in the mid-seveties, starting her film career in 1975 with Kurt Tetzlaff’s Looping. She continued acting after the Wende, and was, like many other East German actors, a regular on the TV hospital drama, In aller Freundschaft. She has appeared on nearly every popular German TV show at some point or another, for Edel & Starck to Wolffs Revier to Tatort and SOKO Wismar. She is also a very popular voice actress in Germany, and has done the German dubbing for everyone from Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock, to Cynthia Nixon in Sex and the City.

The mummified knight is based on a real corpse. that of Christian Friedrich von Kahlbutz, whose body is on display in the Kampehl district of Neustadt (Dosse), Brandenburg. The knight is notable for the remarkable state of preservation of his body without any mummification process involved. Local legend has it that his unusual state of preservation is due to his false testimony in court while he was being tired for the murder of a local shepherd. Von Kahlbutz supposedly said in court, “If I’m the murderer, then, by God’s will, my body will never decay” (“Wenn ich doch der Mörder bin gewesen, dann wolle Gott, soll mein Leichnam nie verwesen”).

Anton the Magician was a popular film upon release. Its dark humor suited the East German public, and its attitude toward the west suited the film board. Its jibes at capitalism probably didn’t help it get international distribution, which is unfortunate. Of all Reich’s comedies, this one is the most deserving of more attention.

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Corinna Harfouch
One might think that, by now, there would be no stone left unturned when it comes to Nazi-era Germany in the movies. We’ve had films about the Holocaust, the resistance, the start of the war, the end of the war, and the daily lives of soldiers and ordinary people on both sides; we’ve had science fiction films, romances, mysteries and even a few comedies on the subject; so it comes as a surprise that The Actress (Die Schauspielerin) manages to uncover a subject that has been so ignored by filmmakers that most people don’t even of its existence—the Jüdischer Kulturbund.

Founded in 1933, the Jüdischer Kulturbund was a cultural organization designed to provide creative outlets for Germany’s Jewish artists who were no longer allowed to work in non-Jewish venues in Germany. This included musicians, singers, actors, and any other entertainers and writers looking for work. The group was originally called the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden (Cultural Federation of German Jews), but the Nazis made them change the name because they didn’t like to be reminded that these Jews were, in fact, real Germans. The Jüdischer Kulturbund was under very strict rules about what they could perform, and only Jews were allowed to see the performances. The Jüdischer Kulturbund was mostly a PR stunt, designed to demonstrate that the Nazis weren’t persecuting Jews. This pretense could not last, but the Jüdischer Kulturbund did manage to stay in existence for eleven years of Nazi rule.

The Actress (Die Schauspielerin) follows the adventures of Maria Rheine, a young German actress who is becoming a star of the stage in Germany during the waning days of the Weimar Republic. Rheine is in love with Mark Löwenthal, an equally talented actor who just happens to have a Jewish mother. While she becomes more and more famous, her lover is forced to out of the mainstream theaters and into the Jüdischer Kulturbund. Eventually, Rheine decides to give up her successful career and follow the man she loves, faking suicide and reinventing herself as a Manya Löwenthal, Mark’s Polish wife.

Maria becomes Manya

In some respects, the film mirrors the earlier DEFA film, Marriage in the Shadows, which is based on the true story of Joachim Gottschalk and Meta Wolff. Unlike that film, there is no suicide pact in The Actress. The book upon which the film is based, Arrangement with Death, follows the woman’s story through a concentration camp to her life afterward in East Germany. The movie wisely ends before that, allowing the viewer to see all the possible outcomes awaiting Manya/Maria and Mark..

The book upon which the film is based is by Hedda Zinner, a woman of many talents. Before the war, she wrote poems, social criticism, and satire for the various communist newspapers in Europe, including Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (Workers Illustrated Newspaper), and Der Weg der Frau (The Way of the Woman—an early feminist communist woman’s magazine). She also performed in theater revues and Kabarett.*

After the Nazis came to power, Zinner found things in Germany too hot for her, and left the country, eventually settling in Russia, where she wrote radio plays for Radio Moscow. Upon returning to the Soviet sector of Germany after the war, she became the general manager at Haus des Rundfunks (House of Broadcasting). Zinner was a prodigious writer, penning several plays, novels and books of poems. After the Wende, she received the usual treatment of creative people from East Germany, which is to say, she was largely ignored. Sadly, none of her work is in print today, not even in ebook form, not even in Germany. Zinner died in 1994 in Berlin.

Die Schauspielerin

The film is directed by Siegfried Kühn, who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Regine Kühn. Siegfried Kühn had been slated to become a mining engineer, but decided to study film directing instead. His first feature film, Oni ne proydut (They Shall Not Pass), wasn’t made for DEFA, but for the Soviet film company, Mosfilm. Coming to DEFA, as he did, after the 11th Plenum, Kühn faced the occasional bureaucratic run-ins. His film, Das zweite Leben des Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow (The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow) was withheld from release for three years, and only saw limited runs in spite of critical praise.

Kühn divorced Regine in 1980, but the two continued to write screenplays together right up until the end of DEFA. In 1991 Siegfried married to Katrin Saß of Goodbye Lenin! fame (for more on Katrin Saß, see Until Death Do Us Part). That marriage lasted until 2007. After the Wende, Kühn’s career as a film director came to a halt. He made no more movies. Ex-wife Regine, on the other hand had a thriving career in German television as a screenwriter.

The actress of the title is played by Corinna Harfouch. Harfouch was already an up-and-coming star in East Germany when she made this film, but The Actress sealed her reputation. Harfouch started appearing on the small screen in 1980 with an episode of Polizeiruf 110 and the TV-movie Die lange Ankunft des Alois Fingerlein (The Long Arrival of Alois Fingerlein). Her first feature film was the anthology film, Verzeihung, sehen Sie Fußball? (Sorry, You’re Watching the Game?). For her part in The Actress, she won the Best Actress award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and the Eberswalde Film Festival. A year later she was nominated again at Eberswalde for her performance in Treffen in Travers (Meeting in Travers).

Corinna Harfouch

Born Corinna Meffert, the actress worked as a nurse while studying acting in Berlin. She married young to a Syrian computer scientist named Nabil Harfouch and took his name. When The Actress was filmed, Harfouch was married to Michael Gwisdek, who plays Mario, Maria Rheine’s devoted agent and confidant. Although she and Gwisdek parted ways in the 1990s, they did not officially divorce until 2007, most likely so that Gwisdek could remarry, which he did shortly thereafter.

Perhaps thanks to her talent and relative youth, Harfouch had an easier time than most East German actors transitioning to a unified Germany after the Wende. She continued to appear in movies and on TV, and played Eva Blond in the popular comedy-drama police series, Blond: Eva Blond! She is best known in the west for her chilling portrayal of Magda Goebbels in Downfall (Der Untergang). In 2007, she teamed up with fellow East German actors, Kristen Block, Dagmar Manzel, and Christine Schorn in Franziska Meletzky’s oddball comedy-drama Frei Nach Plan (According to the Plan); and in 2011—in one of the more unusual turn of events in human relationships—she co-starred with her ex, Michael Gwisdek, in the TV-movie Schmidt & Schwarz, which was written by Gwisdek’s current wife Gabriela.

Playing the part of Mark Löwenthal is André Hennicke. Hennicke studied acting at the Academy of Film and Television in Babelsberg. He got his start in in films in 1984 with Iris Gusner’s Kaskade rückwärts (Cascade Backwards), and has never stopped working since. Like Corinna Harfouch, the Wende had little impact on his career. He has appeared in several popular German films, including Jerichow, Antibodies, Downfall, and a nasty portrayal as the rabidly Nazi judge Roland Freisler in Sophie Scholl: The Final Days—a portrayal that may seem over-the-top until you see old footage of the actual man. Hennicke also pops up regularly on German television, appearing in everything from Tatort to Edel & Starck, and also made an appearance on Harfouch’s show Blond: Eva Blond! His appearances in English-language films include Pandorum, and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method.

The Actress brings the curtain down before the real horror begins. In this respect, it has more in common with Jakob the Liar than it does with Marriage in the Shadows or Stars, both of which also address the issue of Jewish-Gentile relationships. The film did well at the box office and is listed as one the top fifty most successful films of East Germany,

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* I’ve intentionally used the German word “Kabarett” here rather than “cabaret,” because, for Germans, the word Kabarett has a very different meaning from what we think of as cabaret. Although they both feature lots of singing, dancing and skits, German Kabarett is often punctuated by satirical political skits and comedy monologues of the darkest humor.

The Tinderbox
Of all the films made in East Germany, the Märchenfilme (fairytale films) fared the best when it came to western distribution. Thanks to kid film friendly companies such as K. Gordon Murray and Childhood Productions, these films were some of the very few that received U.S. distribution. East-West borders seemed to melt away with the Märchenfilme. Fairytales offered a nice neutral territory for both sides. Sure the rich are often the bad guys in the East German films, but they are in the original fairytales too. DEFA’s production standards didn’t hurt either. The films are colorful, imaginative, and well produced.

The Tinderbox (Das Feuerzeug) is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s oddly amoral fairytale of the same name. The story relates the adventures of a poor soldier who helps an old woman retrieve from a secret chamber her magic tinderbox (a lighter, when you come down to it, but “The Lighter” just doesn’t have the same ring). The soldiers decides to keep the tinderbox and later discovers its magic powers just in the nick of time.

The film follows the original closely, but takes a few liberties, sometimes for the better. In the fairytale, the soldier kills the old woman for no reason other than she wouldn’t tell him why she wanted the tinderbox. In the film, she turns into a giant snake and is about to attack him before he kills her, thus betraying her deceit and converting her into a real threat.

Das Feuerzeug

Other things aren’t quite as effective in the films as they are in the original story. In the fairytale, three chests full of coins are guarded by gigantic dogs, with each dog bigger than the last. To accomplish this in the movie, the filmmakers start with a dock-tailed Rotweiler with bat-wing ears pasted on him and projected in split screen to make him look enormous. To create the effect of the dog having “eyes as big as dinner plates” as described in story, large white rings are drawn around the dog’s eyes, and a sparkler effect is added to the eyes optically to make it look more threatening. The end result is more humorous than scary, but, it must be said, this doesn’t interfere with the film’s entertainment value at all.

The Tinderbox is directed by Siegfried Hartmann, who was one of the first directors to come out of DEFA’s Nachwuchsstudio program, intended to teach young directors their craft. He served as an assistant director on The Story of Little Mook, one of DEFA’s first Märchenfilme, and still the holder of the top box office spot for East German films. The Tinderbox was Hartmann’s second film. It was a hit and would affect the course of Hartmann’s career. Although he made films in other genres, he is still best known for his Märchenfilme.

Playing the young soldier is Rolf Ludwig, one of the most popular and charming actors in East Germany. Ludwig got his start in acting during the war. He had joined the German airforce, where he served as a fighter pilot, and was captured by the British. While incarcerated he performed in the camp’s theater group, and was bitten by the stage bug. After the war he started performing in various theater productions. At one audition, he demonstrated his enthusiasm for a role by jumping out a first floor window. Unfortunately for him, the first floor in Germany is what we call the second floor, so he ended up breaking his arm. This act so impressed the producer that he shouted from the window, “You’re hired!”

The Tinderbox

Like fellow DEFA actor, Raimund Schelcher (see Castles and Cottages), Ludwig had trouble with alcohol, admitting at one point, “I’m not a drinker, but a drunk.” Like Shane McGowan of the The Pogues, the quality of his stage performances rose and fell according to the level of alchohol in his bloodstream. Sometimes performances had to be cancelled due to his intoxication. Other times, he went out drunk, and it showed. His autobiography was aptly titled Nüchtern betrachtet (Sobriety considered). Ludwig died in Berlin in 1999.

The special effects for the film were by Ernst Kunstmann and his daughter, Vera. Ernst Kunstmann, as I’ve discussed in previous articles on this blog, is one of the grand masters of cinema effects. His work appears in some of the all-time classics of German cinema, including Metropolis, The Last Laugh, Triumph of the Will, and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. After the war, he settled in the east and contributed effects to many of DEFA films, including Chemistry and Love, the Ernst Thälmann films, The Silent Star, and all of the early fairytale films. His daughter began working with him in 1957, starting with The Singing, Ringing Tree, but left the field after working on Leute mit Flügeln. Ernst Kuntsmann retired in 1963 after doing the optical effects for Günter Stahnke’s Vom König Midas. He died in 1995.

The Tinderbox comes in at number 16 on the GDR top-grossing film list and it’s easy to see why. It is a fun film that, unlike too many children’s films, is as much fun for adults as it is for kids.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (part of a double DVD set with The Singing, Ringing Tree).