In the early 1970s, the East German authorities made yet another U-turn in their attitude toward the arts. Honecker had replaced Ulbricht as the General Secretary, and he wanted to demonstrate that as long as a film “proceeds from the firm position of socialism, there can be no taboos.” (actual quote: “Wenn man von den festen Positionen des Sozialismus ausgeht, kann es meines Erachtens auf dem Gebiet von Kunst und Literatur keine Tabus geben.”) Artists, writers, and filmmakers took him at his word and for a brief time there blossomed a new creative energy that almost reached the levels of creativity that the GDR had seen before the 11th Plenum pulled the plug.
The west boasted a system that allowed a man to get as rich as he wanted, but that was just it: he had to be a man, and, let’s face it, he had to be white. Women and minorities were still being treated as second-class citizens in the Untied States—a country that prided itself on its individual freedoms. In spite of its civil rights laws, poverty was still rampant in the African-American community, and there were no signs that this was about to change any time soon. At the same time, women were still treated as either sex objects or comic fodder for bad comedians. This was seen as perfectly legitimate. In an episode of Star Trek, for example, a former lover of Captain Kirk complains because women are not allowed to become starship captains, and she’s the villain!
Meanwhile at DEFA, filmmakers were doing all they could to change the perception of women in the workplace by producing films that featured them in positions of authority. In films like Her Third and In the Dust of the Stars, women are the ones in charge. The Legend of Paul and Paula pushed things a little further with its story of a woman who is a powerless blue-collar worker (Mitarbeiterin), but she is still the focal point of the film.
But most of these initial feminist films were still made by men. The one exception is The Dove on the Roof, which was directed by Iris Gusner, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Regine Kuhn. The title comes from the expression, “besser ein Spatz in der Hand als eine Taube auf dem Dach,” which is a German equivalent to the English expression, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The film follows the exploits of Linda Hinrichs, the project foreman on a new apartment complex in Thuringia. Working with her on the project are Hans Böwe, a coarse man in his fifties who is the leader of the work brigade, and Daniel, a impatient young know-it-all who is working at the construction site during his summer break. These two are as different as can be, Böwe is a loyal socialist who has devoted his life to the good of the state. Daniel, on the other hand, sees people like Böwe as dinosaurs, and he dreams of traveling in outer space. Soon Ms. Hinrichs finds herself romantically involved with both of them, and not sure which way to turn.
In some respects, the story in the film pales in comparison to the story of the film. It was made at the tail end of the cycle of a renewed creative freedom in East Germany, but once again, the authorities were getting nervous that these movies were in danger of making people question the state of things. They decided it was time to make an example of a film, and The Dove on the Roof was right there at the wrong time. Claiming that the film didn’t portray the reality of life in East Germany in a favorable enough light, the authorities banned it.
Normally, when a film was banned, DEFA had the foresight to shelve it—literally—keeping the original negatives in case of a future change in policy. But somehow The Dove on the Roof fell through the cracks. The original color negatives were destroyed and the film was thought to be lost forever. After the Wende, cinematographer Roland Gräf found a working copy of the film in a shed, but years of sitting in an environment without climate control had taken their toll on the print. The color layers had de-laminated, making it impossible to strike a decent color print from the copy. A decision was made to create a black-and-white print instead and the film was finally screened in 1990. But almost immediately after the screening, it was lost again, and remained lost for another twenty years, finally turning up a second time in 2010. New black-and-white prints were made and the film was finally released on DVD last summer.
The film’s director, Iris Gusner, was one of the first female directors at DEFA. She was born in 1941 in Trautenau, Germany (now Trutnov, Czech Republic). During the sixties, she went to Moscow to study at the famous All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, the oldest film school in the world (renamed the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in 1986). After graduation, she worked as an assistant director on Konrad Wolf’s Goya.
The Dove on the Roof was her first feature film. Although it was completed, the film never made it to the theaters. Her next film project Einer trage des anderen Last… (Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens…), was cancelled before it even began shooting.* Fearing she would be stereotyped as the woman who made films that the state didn’t like, her next film, Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light), was based on the fairytale by the Brothers Grimm. It was well received by both the authorities and the public and helped get her career as a director back on track. She followed this with Einer muß die Leiche sein (Someone has to be the corpse), based on the book by Gert Prokop, and scored her biggest hit with Alle meine Mädchen (All My Girls), a film about the tensions between a group of women working at a light bulb factory. In 1983, she directed Kaskade rückwärts (Cascade Backwards), the story of a widowed woman with a child trying to find happiness in the city. It is, along with Her Third and The Bicycle, one of the most important feminist films to come out of DEFA during the final years of the GDR. During the summer of 1989, a few months before the wall came down, Ms. Gusner left East Germany, moving first to Cologne and later to Berlin. She has only directed one film since the reunification: the 1993 TV-movie Sommerliebe (Summer Love).
Linda Hinrichs is played by Heidemarie Wenzel. Ms. Wenzel first came to the public’s attention in her role as Fanny in Egon Günther’s dazzling film, Abschied (Farewell). In 1971, she starred opposite Winfried Glatzeder in Zeit der Störche (Time of the Storks), performing one of the first nude scenes in a DEFA film. Today, she is best known for her role as Ines, the odious wife of Paul (Winfried Glatzeder again) in the East German classic, The Legend of Paul and Paula. After her husband, director Helmut Nitzschke, failed to return from a business trip to West Germany, Ms. Wenzel applied for an exit visa to join him. This effectively brought her acting career in East Germany to an end. For the next few years, she worked as an office assistant at a church. Finally in 1988, she was allowed to immigrate to West Germany. In 1991, she was cast as Sylvia Hagenbeck in the popular TV series, Unsere Hagenbecks, where the death of her character on the show led to public protests. More recently, she has been seen as a regular on In aller Freundschaft, a popular TV hospital drama set in Leipzig. Set as it is in what was formerly GDR territory, many people from the DEFA casts and crews have found work on this series.
The two male leads are as different as can be, and so are their careers. Günter Naumann, who played Böwe was already a well-respected actor in East Germany. He first came to the public’s attention in Frank Beyer’s war film, Five Cartridges (Fünf Patronenhülsen) and went on to appear in several classic DEFA films, including The Gleiwitz Case, On the Sunny Side (Auf der Sonnenseite), Star-Crossed Lovers (Königskinder), and The Adventures of Werner Holt (Die Abenteuer des Werner Holt). He continues to appear often in German television productions.
Andreas Gripp, on the other hand, was a newcomer to film. He had appeared in bit parts in Captain Florian Of The Mill (Hauptmann Florian von der Mühle) and Lützower, but The Dove on the Roof was his first starring role. Primarily a theater actor, after this film was made he reportedly returned to the stage. He died a few years later in a car accident.
The Dove on the Roof is not the first color film to be converted to black-and-white. It is a common technique for saving old films when the original negative or working copy is too faded to produce an adequate color print. How well a film makes the transition to black-and-white depends greatly on the cinematographer’s skill and technique. In the case of The Dove on the Roof, the cameraman was Roland Gräf, one of the best in East Germany. Taking his cues from the Italian neorealists, Gräf specialized in a style that mimicked documentary filmmaking. Gräf’s background in black-and-white photography undoubtedly is one of the reasons that The Dove on the Roof looks so good drained of its color. Still, one can’t help but feel we are missing some visual delights, such as in the scenes inside the Christmas ornament factory in Lauscha.
That this film was rescued, not once, but twice, is one of the great success stories of film preservation. Sadly, many other films (both from the east and the west) are not so lucky. Prior to the 1970s, there were few efforts to save motion pictures. The medium was seen as a disposable form of entertainment,. Hundreds of films were either thrown away or destroyed through overuse and are now gone forever. Thankfully, groups like The International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA) and Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation have been working hard to save the films they can, and to make sure that this never happens again.
* The script for this movie sat on the shelf for over ten years, and was finally made in 1988 by Lothar Warneke.