As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the communist countries were way ahead of the west when it came to women’s rights. At the time of the Wende, over half the judges in East Germany were women, as were at least a third of the doctors. However, there were certain areas where women were decidedly underrepresented. Aside from a few secretaries, the Stasi was almost exclusively made up of men, and the upper echelons of government were still mostly men (and old ones at that). Another area where women lagged shamefully behind their male counterparts was in the ranks of feature film directors at DEFA. Although women were writing scripts and directing documentaries for the film company, there were only three women working as feature film directors: Ingrid Reschke, Evelyn Schmidt, and Iris Gusner. Even here, Ingrid Reschke died in a car crash three years before Evelyn Schmidt started at DEFA, meaning that at any given time there were only two women working behind the lens on DEFA feature films, and only one between 1971 and 1974.
That one was Iris Gusner. Gusner studied filmmaking in Moscow, and made her first movie for DEFA in 1973. Unfortunately for her, that movie, Dove on the Roof came at exactly the wrong time and was shelved until after the Wende. Her next film, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht) was a Märchenfilm. It did not suffer the same fate, and her career was back on track. She made several films for DEFA, but All My Girls (Alle meine Mädchen) is the film for which she is best known.
All My Girls starts with a film school student named Ralf Päschke, who is assigned to make a documentary about a brigade of young women who work at NARVA—East Germany’s state-run lightbulb factory. Soon, he finds himself emotionally and romantically involved with the women and worried about the future of the brigade as the bosses at NARVA threaten to separate the women while they retrofit the factory. Overseeing the brigade is Marie Boltzin, a no-nonsense woman who has seen her share of problems in life. Leading the brigade of women is Susi, an ebullient and shallow young woman with a feathered hairdo identical to the one worn by her American Doppelgängerin Debra Jo Rupp in the American sitcom, That ‘70s Show. Her sidekick, and the person placed officially in charge of the brigade, is Anita, an attractive woman with a pixie cut and a mean streak she uses to hide her emotions. The two others are Gertrud, a shy young woman with a bad case of the hiccups, and Ella, the most grounded woman in the group, and the only one with an actual relationship, albeit with a married man.
Then there is Kerstin. Kerstin is there as part of her probation requirement for petty theft, and is not considered part of the group by the others. Unlike the other women, Kerstin has completed her Abitur (a secondary-school degree required for entry into a university in Germany). For this, she’s treated as an object of scorn and ridicule, primarily by Susi, who seems to be more than a little jealous of Kerstin.
The women in All My Girls are a happy-go-lucky bunch (be forewarned: they giggle a lot), but when they hear news of the brigade being disbanded they attack Ms. Boltzin for keeping this fact from them (she did not), and when Ms. Boltzin shows her notebook cataloging each woman’s tardiness, she is accused of spying on them—an allegation that brings with it the spectre of the Stasi and their Inoffizieller Mitarbeiteren (civilian informers). This is too much for Ms. Boltzin to bear and she withdraws from the factory, eventually suffering a nervous breakdown.
Playing the put-upon Ms. Boltzin is Lissy Tempelhof, a well-known East German actress who starred in several feature films and made-for-TV movies. The Berlin-born actress had just turned sixteen when WWII ended. There, she and her mother worked as Trümmerfrauen—the women who essentially rebuilt the bombed-out German cities after the war and suffered greatly at the hands of the Russian troops. She studied acting at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts (Hochschule für Schauspielkunst “Ernst Busch,” HFS), and worked as a prompter at the theater in Senftenberg. She appeared in many theatrical productions and started appearing in films starting in 1954. Her first major role came in 1961 with her performance as Dr. Inge Ruoff in Konrad Wolf’s film of his father’s play, Professor Mamlock. Wolf used her again in 1964, as the narrator of his next film, Divided Heaven. She was also a regular on East German television and appeared in five episodes of Polizeiruf 110 as five different people. She continues to work in film, television, and stage. Besides acting, she is a talented singer and teaches singing in Berlin.
Susi is played by Madeleine Lierck. Born in West Germany, She is the daughter of Werner Lierck, a comic actor who moved to the GDR in the early fifties and starred in dozens of the short Stacheltier films, which were shown before the main features in East Germany cinemas (more on the Stacheltier films at a later date). Ms. Lierck started working in films in the late sixties. A hyperactive performer, she was soon appearing in several films and TV shows every year. Her first feature role was as Thalia in the popular East German beach-party movie, Hot Summer. For Ms. Lierck, the Wende represented only a momentary hiccup in her career. She was soon working again and has appeared in several films and TV shows since then, including the popular TV mini-series, Wir Sind Volk (U.S. title: The Final Days), about the end of the GDR.
Barbara Schnitzler plays Anita. Although she had appeared in several TV movies prior to All My Girls, Iris Gusner’s movie was her first feature film role. Ms. Schnitzler has the dubious distinction of being the daughter of Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, the much-hated host of Der schwarze Kanal (see Look at This City!). Charges of nepotism might seem inevitable, but Ms. Schnitzler is a fine actress and manages to make her character both sweet and a little mean. In spite of what would seem like a handicap in unified Germany, Ms. Schnitzler has gone on to have a successful career. She has appeared in dozens of post-Wende films, and is part of the acting ensemble for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.
Playing Kerstin is the stunningly beautiful Viola Schweizer. Ms. Schweizer was a familiar face to East German television viewers, having appeared in dozens of TV movies with her breakthrough role coming in 1978 in Über sieben Brücken mußt du geh’n (You Have to Go Over Seven Bridges). After the Wende, Ms. Schweizer appeared in a few films and appeared in the short-lived TV series, Spreewaldfamilie, beside with her All My Girls co-star, Jaecki Schwarz, but, as with many other East German actors, she found film work got harder to come by after the wall came down. In 2001, she officially retired from from film and TV work in Germany, but continued to work in theater productions abroad. More recently, she has retired from the theater as well and lives in a small town near Berlin. Now 58, she is still very beautiful.
Inspiration for All My Girls came from a documentary short by Jürgen Böttcher titled Sterne (Stars—not to be confused with the feature film of the same name). All My Girls struck a chord with the East German public. Like The Legend of Paul and Paula, the film resonated with the average worker for its portrayal of life outside of the rarefied world of the intelligentsia. Screenings were well attended and the reviews were mostly favorable. The film was chosen to open the first East German National Film Festival (Nationale Spielfilmfestival der DDR), where Lissy Tempelhof won awards for best actress and for “the most successful representation of a working personality.” The film is the most recent release by the DEFA Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.