Das Land hinter dem Regenbogen
After the Wall came down and West Germany, for all intents and purposes, took over East Germany, there came the inevitable retrospection. What the hell happened? How did we get from there to here? There were plenty of people who still believed in socialism, and thought it could lead to a better world than unbridled capitalism, but nobody was listening in 1991. East German industries were dismantled for salvage and sold to the highest bidders. The Treuhandanstalt was set up to facilitate the privatization with disastrous results. Over half the workforce in East Germany was laid off, plunging the entire eastern half of Germany into poverty without the safety net previously provided by the State. Anger and resentment took hold. Right-wing extremist groups started arriving from Bavaria and the USA to recruit new members from the youths in cities such as Jena and Cottbus. Unfortunately, for these kids, East German schools didn’t spend that much time on the holocaust; preferring to cast the Nazis as primarily anti-communist. This left them particularly susceptible to the simplistic solutions offered by these extrememist groups. By the time the Treuhandanstalt ceased its operations in 1994, the trust agency was $160 billion in debt, and the fascist right had established deep and tenacious roots in former GDR territories.

Maybe the only way to process what happened was with absurdist comedy. If that’s the case, then director Herwig Kipping’s The Land Beyond the Rainbow (Das Land hinter dem Regenbogen) may be the best examination of what went wrong in East Germany. The story takes place in an imaginary town called Stalina. The year is 1953, and Stalin had died a few months earlier, but that doesn’t keep the hardcore Stalinists in the town from revering him. Much of the film, in fact, deals with the issue of what happens when you treat an ideology as a religion, which is what Stalin did, and was what the leaders of the SED did, treating their decisions as proclamations from on high.

As a result, the people in the town have gone slightly mad, trying to be good socialists while butting heads with the various officials who come to town and cause trouble for them. The town’s SED headquarters is an outhouse with a picture of Walter Ulbricht tacked to the wall. The film is narrated by Marie (Stefanie Janke), a local girl, who observes the madness around her and manages to rise above it. The story unfolds across the events of June 17th, 1953, when Soviet troops came into East Germany to help quell the protests that occurred after the government announced pay cuts for workers who couldn’t meet the increasingly impossible quotas (for more on this, see Castles and Cottages)

The Land Beyond the Rainbow

Besides Marie, the town’s residents include Rainbowmaker (Sebastian Reznicek), a young man who searches for the good in things; Hans (Thomas Ewert), a particularly rotten kid who likes death and destruction; Franz-Werner, (Winfried Glatzeder), Rainbowmaker’s father, who, after breaking his arm at the beginning of the film, spends the entire film with his arm in a cast that is propped up in the position of a Nazi salute; Heinrich (Axel Werner), the local dirty old man who can’t keep his pants zipped; and Opa (Franciszek Pieczka), who worships Stalin, and is willing to be crucified in his name. Add to this, local nymphomaniac Liesbeth (Franziska Arnold), an undersized SED official (Fred Delmare, not surprisingly), a pale white wraith, a boa constrictor, and various locals who come in and out of the story.

The Land Beyond the Rainbow belongs to an unusual and essentially undocumented micro-genre of films that take place in stark, burned-out landscapes with people talking at each other more than with each other. These are often surreal allegories about the absurdity of modern life, even when the action take place in a distant past or the far future. They are episodic, and their humor is dark and sardonic. We could call this Cinema of the Absurd, since these films most resemble this form’s theatrical counterpart. Examples of this type of movie would include Richard Lester’s The Bed Sitting Room, Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor, and Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! East German films with similar styles would include Egon Günther’s Ursula, and Jörg Foth’s Latest from the Da-Da-R.

The similarity between Jörg Foth’s film and The Land Beyond the Rainbow is not coincidental. Both films were made by the Da-Da-eR artistic production group (Künstlerischer Arbeitsgruppe), a group that only just managed to get itself established during the final days of the East German republic before the whole thing came crashing down.

The Land Beyond the Rainbow

Born in 1948, Herwig Kipping was part of the Nachwuchsgeneration—a whole raft of talented young people who were only just getting started as directors when the Wall came down. Partly due to the abundance of good directors already working at DEFA, and partly due to the inherently sclerotic nature of everything in the East Germany at that point, these filmmakers weren’t afforded many opportunities to show their talent until the mid-eighties. A few of them, such as Peter Kahane, Karola Hattop, and Peter Welz, continue directing (although, primarily in TV), while others, such as Evelyn Schmidt, Ulrich Weiß, and Kipping, found it much harder to get their projects off the ground, and stopped making films altogether. Kipping has the distinction of having directed the last film released by DEFA: Novalis: The Blue Flower (Novalis – Die blaue Blume), a biographical film about the poet/philosopher Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg.

Playing the father is Winfried Glatzeder in his last role in a DEFA film. Glatzeder had left the GDR in 1982, He had been fed up with the way things were in East Germany for quite some time, and wasn’t afraid to let people know. When he was finally allowed to leave, he was also expatriated, a dishonor the SED reserved for people that really irritated them. In 1991, he returned to DEFA for Jürgen Brauer’s Dancing at the Dump (Tanz auf der Kippe), effectively thumbing his nose at the former East German government. Glatzeder regularly appears in films, on television, and on stage to this day.

The Land Beyond the Rainbow

As it should be, there are several jokes and references intended for stricly East German audiences. When people in the town vote or not a person should be exiled or censured, everyone raises their hand, including the person being censured. It would be more farcical if it wasn’t based on reality. Old school communists put a lot of value in unanimity of opinion. Because of this, votes in the politburo rarely resulted in split decisions. The most famous example of this occurred on October 17, 1989, when the politburo voted to remove Erich Honecker as General Secretary. When the vote came, Honecker also raised his hand along with everybody else. The collective had spoken, so who was he to disagree? In another scene, we finally find out the name of Rainbowmaker’s mother, and it’s an amusing little in-joke on Glatzeder’s most famous movie.

The Land Beyond the Rainbow wasn’t a box office smash, but it wasn’t intended to be one either. This is a film for people with an understanding of history, and who like their humor sardonic. Fans of unusual and transgressive cinema will definitely want to check this film out. It was an official selection at the 1992 Berlinale, although it did not win.1 It did win the Deutscher Filmpreis that year, however. I consider it a “must-see.” Since I know a few of my readers are squeamish about scenes depicting animal death, I’ll warn you that there are couple scenes involving the skinning of a rabbit (dead) and the beheading of a chicken (which also looks like its already dead).

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1. There’s no shame in this. Several excellent films were up for nomination , including Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous, and Alison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging. The film that won Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, a film that has not stood the test of time.

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Next Year at Lake Balaton
Road movies are common enough to warrant their own category. Whether the characters in a film are trying to get from point A to point B (The Straight Story, Vanishing Point), or simply enjoying the passing parade of life on the road (Easy Rider, Il Sorpasso), road movies have a special appeal. Although sometimes they end in tragedy, road movies are often about the experiential learning a journey can bring. They tend to be episodic, with the main characters encountering different people with different beliefs and values during their journeys.

Road movies are especially popular in United States, where miles and miles of highways allow a story to spool out over several weeks and in different environments. For East Germans, the idea of the road movie was a little more complicated. You could travel, but it was usually restricted to communist bloc countries, and your papers better be in order or you might not make it over the border, or even back home for that matter.

Next Year at Lake Balaton (Und nächstes Jahr am Balaton) takes a humorous look at the problems an East German tourist might encounter when traveling. The film centers around Jonas and Ines, young lovers who plan to spend their summer vacation camping on the Baltic Coast. Ines’s parents, however, have other plans, and decide that the two kids should join them on a trip to the Black Sea. Once aboard the train, it becomes clear that the parents are already thinking about marriage, which freaks out Jonas. He decides hop off the train and finish the journey alone by hitchhiking to Bulgaria. After Ines’s mom misses the train while buying a magazine, Ines’s father gets pulled off the train at the border crossing for suspicious luggage leaving Ines to complete the train journey alone. From here on out, the movie jumps between the separated travelers to show their progress toward the vacation destination.

Und nächstes Jahr am Balaton

Most of the story centers around Jonas, who hooks up with Shireen, a hippie-dippie Dutch woman on her way to India. Being an appropriately cynical East German, Jonas doesn’t have much use for Shireen’s mystical mumbo-jumbo, but he finds her attractive. Meanwhile, Ines’ mother, Irene Moldenschütt, has gotten a ride from a very peculiar old man, played by the always dependable Fred Delmare (see Black Velvet).

Jonas is played by René Rudolph, who looks like the perfect stereotype of an East German hipster: long, blond hair, parted in the middle, unkempt mustache, round glasses, a cheap denim jacket, and flared jeans. It’s a look that went out of fashion in America in 1972, but was apparently still going strong in East Germany eight years later. Shireen is played by Kareen Schröter, who is also decked out in appropriately hippie fashion when she’s wearing anything at all. Both of these actors got their starts in director Herrmann Zschoche’s coming-of-age love story Seven Freckles, and both actors quit films before the Berlin Wall came down. Schröter appeared in a couple more films before giving it all up to study psychology. Rudolph appeared uncredited in one more of Zschoche’s films (Swan Island), but that was it.

Odette Bereska

Playing Ines is Odette Bereska, who looks a bit like Anna Brüggemann here. Bereska was primarily a stage actress. She had appeared in an episode of the popular East German courtroom series Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort (The Prosecutor Has the Floor) before this, but Next Year at Lake Balaton was her first feature film. She made a few more films with DEFA prior to the Wende, but since reunification, she’s worked almost exclusively in theater, both on stage and behind the curtains. From 1991-2005 she was the chief dramaturge at the Carousel Theater at the Parkaue (now known as Theater an der Parkaue. In 2006, she starred in the short film …es wird jemand kommen, der ja zu mir sagt (English title: Ruth).

Next Year at Lake Balaton is based on the book Ich bin nun mal kein Yogi (But Then, I’m No Yogi) by Joachim Walther. Born in 1943 in Chemnitz, Walther is a prolific writer of books, short stories, essays and radio plays. He grew up in Chemnitz, which was renamed Karl Marx City (Karl-Marx-Stadt) in 1953 (it returned to its original name after the Wende). In 2001, he and fellow East German Ines Geipel created the Archiv unterdrückter Literatur in der DDR (Archive of Suppressed Literature in the GDR). Geipel began her writing career after the Wende. Born in Dresden, Geipel had been an athlete and was a victim of East Germany’s Staatsplanthema 14.25 (State Plan 14.25.)—a covert plan to feed around 12,000 athletes stimulants, hormones, and anabolic steroids to improve sports results. Both Geipel and Walther were honored in 2011 with the Antiquaria-Preis (Antiquaria Prize) awarded every year in Ludwigsburg.

The film wasn’t the hit that Seven Freckles was, but it was popular, and won the youth magazine Neues Leben’s prize for the best DEFA film that year.1

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1. It wasn’t the best DEFA film of 1980. That honor would have to go to Solo Sunny, but 1980 was a good year, with films such as All My Girls, The Fiancée (Die Verlobte), and Godfather Death being released.

Interrogating the Witnesses
At first, Interrogating the Witnesses (Vernehmung der Zeugen) looks like it’s going to be a murder mystery, or a police procedural. A boy named Rainer (Mario Gericke) has been stabbed to death, and the doctor investigating the scene believes her son Max (René Steinke) is the killer. It turns out she’s right, and the the rest of the movie is devoted to the testimonies of various witnesses as they go back through the events of the previous months to try and answer the question: How did this bright young man come to stab to death his former friend and classmate? The film prefaces each flashback with the testimony of a different person, as the people in the town try to come to terms with the murder. For some, that means looking at the killing with complete honesty, and recognizing how their own actions helped set the stage for the tragedy that followed. For others it means staying in a state of denial, unable to comprehend how it could have ever happened and not willing to acknowledge their own role in what happened.

Most of the story revolves around Max, Rainer, and the girl they both loved, Viola (Anne Kasprik). Max is new in town, pulled out of school in Berlin by his mother Beate (Christine Schorn). In Berlin, Max spent his free time sailing on the Müggelsee, but that isn’t an option in the tiny town of Wulkersdorf. Max’s mother hasn’t been around for most of his life. She was too busy pursuing her career goals, so she left Max in the care of her mother. Now that she’s in charge of the out-patient clinic in the town and is seeing a successful businessman named Gunnar (Franz Viehmann), she’s ready to play the mother role. The only thing is, Max isn’t sure he wants to be part of her new life. He had grown up with his grandmother, and would prefer to stay with her in Berlin.

Rainer is the alpha male at the school and feels threatened by Max’s presence. The two get off to a rocky start, but Max tries to smooth things over by inviting Rainer to come sailing in Berlin. They bring along Viola, who is attracted to both men and whose coy romantic games have life-changing consequences, both for her and the boys.

Interrogation of the Witness

Interrogating the Witnesses is René Steinke’s first film. Playing Max would have been a hard role for even the most experienced of actors, but to throw a newcomer into the deep water at the beginning of his career is always a dangerous proposition. Using newcomers was a favorite technique of Herrmann Zschoche (see Seven Freckles), who felt that these actors often gave fresher, more compelling performances, but Zschoche specialized in films that were slices of life, where the actors were doing what they would have been doing anyway. Steinke has no such luxury. He does a passable job here, but he’s not playing to his strengths and it shows. Nonetheless, Steinke would get better, and go on to have a highly successful television career in unified Germany. He is best known for his performance as Tom Kranich in the popular series, Alarm für Cobra 11 – Die Autobahnpolizei (Alarm for Cobra 11 – The Highway Patrol).

It was also the first film for Anne Kasprik and Mario Gericke. Both actors turn in believable performances, especially Gericke as Rainer, playing a part here that would, almost certainly, star Frederick Lau if it were cast today. Since the Wende, Anne Kasprik has gone on to a long and successful career in German television, while Mario Gericke moved into theater and and songwriting. He is currently the head of Lunanox Produktion, and the author of Laroranja, a medieval fantasy stage play that’s kind of a cross between Lord of the Rings and Cirque de Soleil.

Interrogation of the Witness

As Beate, Christine Schorn is good as always (for more on Schorn, see Apprehension), but it is Franz Viehmann as her mentally fragile signifcant other Gunnar Strach who shines. While Beate blames her mother and anyone but herself for what Max did, Gunnar feels personally responsible, having given the boy the murder weapon as a gift. During the interrogation scenes the two are often filmed together, and it is in these scenes that things finally come to a head. Franz Viehmann was already a well-established actor in East Germany by the time he took this role, appearing in films since 1963. Like Schorn, Viehmann was a graduate of the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts, and like Schorn he worked extensively in television both before and after the Wall came down. At the time of the Wende, Viehmann had been working with Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble theater, but was fired, along with 15 other East Germans, after the company was turned into a private enterprise. He appeared in a few television shows after that. Like many East German actors, he found plenty of work as a voice talent, doing radio programs and dubbing foreign films. Viehmann died in Berlin in 2016.

Director Gunther Scholz is primarily a documentary filmmaker, which probably had something to do with his choice to cast relatively untested actors in the lead roles, and the use of interviews where the people talk directly into the camera. I suspect he was going to for a cinéma vérité style that would give the film the immediacy and realism of a documentary. While this works in some places, it mostly doesn’t. Scholz’s choice to use static medium shots, sucks much of life out of the story. Perhaps Scholz was going for some sort of experimental objectivity here. If so, he can safely file this one away under “failed experiments.” The film is still worth seeing, and is one East German film that could stand an updated remake.

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English subtitles that match YouTube file.1


1. These subtitles were created by me from German subtitles. I took a few liberties to try and make the dialog sound more like actual speech, and I changed a few things that didn’t match what was actually said. A few things are so GDR specific that they don’t really translate well. If you find any errors, please let me know, and I will fix them as soon as a I can.

Wolf Biermann
One of the most important events in the story of East German cinema was the expatriation of folksinger Wolf Biermann. It had more impact on filmmaking in the GDR than any other event short of the 11th Plenum. So how did this relatively insignificant political misstep play such havoc with the East German film industry? This time on the East German Cinema blog, we’ll take a look at Biermann’s expatriation and its effect on the East German film community.

Wolf Biermann was a West German. He was born in Hamburg, the son of two devoted and highly active members of the German Communist Party (KPD). His father, Dagobert Biermann, was a dockworker who also happened to be Jewish. During the Third Reich, Dagobert Biermann joined the resistance and started working to overthrow Hitler by feeding information to the exiled KPD. He was arrested and charged with sabotaging ships. Being Jewish, he was soon sent to Auschwitz where he was killed.

Wolf Biermann was very much his father’s son, not afraid to speak his mind even when it didn’t conform to the party line. Prior to Hitler’s takeover of the German government, Dagobert Biermann raised some hackles by suggesting that the KPD and the Social Democrats (SPD) should join forces to prevent the Nazis from gaining a foothold in the government. Ernst Thälmann—exhibiting a brickheaded, “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude toward compromise that Tea Party members would envy—refused to countenance such an idea. We all know what happened next.

After the War, Wolf Biermann joined the Free German Youth (FDJ) and represented West Germany in the FDJ’s first national meeting. It wasn’t long, though, before West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer—who had lobbied prior to WWII for the Nazis to have a bigger voice in the German government—had the organization banned. Seeing all around him how the Adenauer government was suppressing socialist organizations while promoting ex-Nazis, Biermann decided to immigrate to East Germany, where he hoped things would be better.

In 1959, Biermann started working at the Berliner Ensemble—the theater company founded by Bertolt Brecht, who had died a year earlier. Through the Berliner Ensemble, Biermann met Hanns Eisler, who fled to East Germany to escape persecution by the House on Un-American Activities in the United States (for more on Eisler see, The Crucible). Eisler became a mentor to Biermann, and helped promote his budding career as a songwriter. In 1961, Biermann formed the Berliner Arbeiter-Theater (Berlin Workers’ Theater). He wrote a play, Berliner Brautgang (Berlin Bridal Walk), about the building of the Berlin Wall, but the play was banned before Biermann ever got a chance to see it performed. Biermann was banned from performing for six months. It was a punitive slap on the wrist. Perhaps the SED figured this would be enough to get Biermann back in line, but they didn’t know Biermann.

In 1965, his book of poetry, Die Drahtharfe (The Wire Harp), was published in West Germany, which immediately led the SED to brand him as a “class-traitor”—a term they liked to throw around when anyone had the temerity to suggest that maybe the SED wasn’t absolutely correct in their interpretation of Marx. Biermann was put on a blacklist, and not allowed to perform in East Germany or use the available recording facilities. To get around this, Biermann recorded his album Chausseestraße 131 (his actual address) using a recorder and microphone that a friend had smuggled into the country.

wolf biermann

The SED’s attempt to silence him failed miserably, as did their attempts to discredit him. Things came to a head during the World Festival of Youth and Students, when he was visited and defended by Joan Baez,and Karsten Voigt—the chairman of Jusos, an SPD youth group for budding social democrats. Even more than the Berlin Wall, the blacklisting of Biermann served to alienate the SED from the political left in the West, the one group of people in the West that still showed some support for the GDR.

Embarrassed by the negative press in both right- and left-wing media, the SED dropped the ban on Biermann He began to perform again and was allowed to travel to West Germany for concert dates. Perhaps they thought Biermann would soften his criticism after that, but he was outspoken as ever. The folks in the government were getting tired of this Wessi pointing out their flaws, and decided to do something about it.

So it was that, while performing at a concert in Cologne in 1976, Biermann was expatriated for “gross violation of civic duties,” which is to say, he wasn’t willing to toe the SED party line. In a reaction to this, 41 actors, poets, and writers signed a letter of protest against the action. In the following days, more people joined the protest until there were over 150 signatures. This wasn’t an assortment of malcontents and intellectuals either: popular movie stars, directors, writers and musicians also joined the protest.

This could have been an important moment for East Germany, signifying a turn toward a truer socialist democracy, where the voice of the people still mattered, but it would have required less of a Stalinist in power than Erich Honecker. As they had with every previous historical turning point, the SED went in the wrong direction. Rather than listen to the protest, the government came down hard on the signatories, marginalizing them in any way they could, and, in some cases, eliminating their sources of income.

As a result, several well-known and popular films stars applied for exit visas immediately and moved to West Germany. One of the first was, naturally enough, Biermann’s wife Eva-Maria Hagen, followed soon after by his step-daughter Nina Hagen. Nina Hagen had already become a pop star in East Germany with silly songs about having a cold, or forgetting to buy color film, but upon arriving in the West, her image would undergo a complete transformation, becoming the punk goddess she is known as today (for more on Nina Hagen, see Today is Friday).

open letter of protest

Those asking for exit visas weren’t second-tier stars either. Top names such as Manfred Krug, Katharina Thalbach, Angelica Domröse, Hilmar Thate, Cox Habbema, and Armin Mueller-Stahl decided to take their chances in the West, rather than put up with the hassles and constant surveillance that occurred after they signed the protest letter. Those who stayed found fewer opportunities to work, but things weren’t exactly a bed of roses for those who left either. Krug, Thalbach, and Mueller-Stahl landed on their feet with successful careers in West Germany. Cox Habbema was Dutch anyway, so leaving the country was a less of a big deal for her. Domröse and Thate found it harder to find work in films in West Germany, and turn, instead, to the theater.

DEFA continued to make movies, and some very good movies at that, but much of its luster was gone. Worse, the Biermann incident convinced the SED that they needed to step up their surveillance. The use of informants (IMs) increased dramatically at that time, peaking out at 203,000 in 1977. Far from bolstering their authority, the SED was setting themselves up for a fall, but by the time they realized this, it was too late.

Herzsprung
When the Berlin Wall finally came down, East Germans danced for joy in the streets. No more Stasi, no more food shortages, no more travel restrictions, and no more fiddling with their Trabis to get the damned things started. At the time, most people in East Germany were glad to see the backside of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). This was reflected in the polls when the SED (now rebranded as the Party of Democratic Socialism) was trounced in the East German general election in March of 1990. A few months later, the new Volkskammer voted to approve the reunification of Germany, much to the dismay of Margaret Thatcher, who actively petitioned against it. François Mitterrand wasn’t crazy about reunification either, but quickly saw the inevitability of it. Things were looking up—or so the East Germans thought. Within a year, many East Germans would be regretting their votes. Factories and businesses were taken over by Western conglomerates that immediately started laying off as many people as they could. Young people found it difficult to get work because the West Germans, who were now in control, had low opinions of East Germans, viewing them as problematic because they weren’t willing to work for starvation wages. They preferred to hire foreign workers to do the jobs instead, further exacerbating the mounting tensions in the East.

Without the safety nets provided by the state, the young people in East Germany were in dire straits, and were wondering what happened to their country when the Nazis started arriving from Bavaria and America, ready to provide easy answers for the local youths. Kids on both sides of the border were often woefully ignorant of what happened in Germany during World War II, but none more so than the East Germans, where the attitude was, “We got rid of them, so we don’t really need to talk about it anymore—that’s a West German problem!” While it’s true that several high-ranking Nazis were able to get back into government in West Germany, at least the Nazis were stigmatized in the Bundesrepublik, which certainly helped stem their spread. East German kids were more susceptible to the simplistic, populist claptrap spouted by groups such as the German People’s Union (Deutsche Volksunion, DVU) and the National Democratic Party (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, NPD) of Germany.1

Herzsprung was the first and last East German film to tackle this subject. The first because prior to the fall of the Wall it simply wasn’t an issue—anyone spouting far-right rhetoric in the GDR would have found the Stasi crawling all over them like a bad case of bedbugs. The last because DEFA’s days were numbered. DEFA would only make six more films before closing up shop.

Herzsprung

Herzsprung takes place in a small town of the same name that sits on the A24 highway just south of Wittstock. The proverbial wide spot in the road. The film follows the adventures and misadventures of a woman named Johanna (Claudia Geisler) as she tries to navigate the changes occurring in her village. The film starts with the termination of her job working in a factory kitchen. It looks like a pretty crummy job, but since her husband Jan had lost his job months earlier, thanks to the closing of the agriculture cooperatives, it meant there would be no money coming in. Unable to find work, Jan has sunken into a state of self-pity and alcoholism, and is becoming physically abusive. After Jan commits suicide, Johanna starts to take up with a stranger (Nino Sandow) who recently arrived in town. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy who also happens to be black. As you can imagine, the local Nazi punks aren’t too pleased to see Johanna hanging around with this guy, especially a local called “Soljanka” (Ben Becker), who has a crush on Johanna. In German, Herzsprung also means “heartbreak,” so, as you can probably guess, things don’t end well for anybody.2

Herzsprung is directed by Helke Misselwitz from her own script. Misselwitz is better known for her documentaries, and in particular Winter Adé, a powerful film that looks at the lives and failed dreams of women across East Germany. Misselwitz brings her documentary background to this film, with hand-held cameras and shots of peripheral characters to create a sense of place. Nonetheless, she also recognizes the freedom a feature film gives you to compose scenes, and uses this to create powerful images, such as the scene of Johanna fleeing the burning roadside stand.

Like Misselwitz, Cinematographer Thomas Plenert was part of DEFA’s Nachwuchsgeneration (the baby boomers, essentially), the last generation of filmmakers and technicians in East Germany. Also like Misselwitz, he comes from a documentary background. Here he gets to push the limits of what you can do with a camera, sometimes pushing it over the edge. He’s not afraid to let night scenes stay in inky darkness. The use of color is interesting, especially in the final scene, and in the nightclub scenes, where the use of color approaches the work of Luciano Tovoli in Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

Herzsprung

Claudia Geisler is well-cast as Johanna, endowing the character with a unique combination of fragility and resilience. It seems like life wants to beat Johanna down, but she’s not having it. Geisler, an East German, was only beginning to appear in films when the wall came down. She first appeared on screen in a small part in Interrogating the Witness (Vernehmung der Zeugen), an interesting little crime thriller starring Christine Schorn. While working on Little Thirteen, she met her future husband Thomas Bading. Since 2015, she has been working under the name Claudia Geisler-Bading. She appears in several well known films, including Christian Petzold’s Barbara, Cate Shortland‘s Lore, and George Clooney’s The Monuments Men.

We never do learn the name of Nino Sandow’s black stranger. Sandow was born and raised in East Germany, and studied opera singing at the “Hanns Eisler” School of Music and the “Ernst Busch” Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. Herzsprung was his first feature film, but he has gone on to appear in several movies and television shows, most recently as the New York stage manager in Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous. He also teaches at the “Ernst Busch” Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin.

The music for the film is primarily either well-known classical pieces or songs by the Berlin folk-rock group Poems for Laila. It’s an unusual and effective combination. Poems for Laila still performs, although their line-up has changed considerably over the years. Like other multi-instrumental groups that toy with different ethnic music styles, their music is difficult to categorize—a little like DeVotchKa or 17 Hippies, but definitely its own thing.

Herzsprung bears more than a passing resemblance to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Both films tackle the issue of racism in Germany3, and both films are beautifully shot. Where Fassbinder’s film is shaped by the work of Douglas Sirk, Misselwitz’s film appears to be informed by the DEFA fairytale films. In the opening shot a woman sings a beautiful song while what appears to be snow drifts across the screen. Eventually it becomes clear that it’s not snow at all, but the pinfeathers from a goose that’s being plucked by women in a factory kitchen, and the song comes from one of the women (Eva Maria Hagen, in her first DEFA role since she left East Germany in 1977).

An important difference between Fassbinder’s and Misselwitz’s films is that while Fassbinder’s film is primarily about the racism that no one acknowledges until they are faced with it head on, Misselwitz’s film chronicles an ugly change that was occurring in the East. A change that would eventually lead to the formation of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), and the deaths of several people all over Germany.

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1. In 2011, the DVU and the NPD merged.

2. Although, the name of the town, according to some sources, somes not from the word for heartbreak, but from low middle German meaning deer (or hart) spring (Hertsprink).

3. Although, in a 2009 interview with Hiltrud Schulz of the DEFA Library, Misselwitz said that she was primarily trying to show the growing hostility in East German towns towards outsiders rather than specifically addressing racism.

Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella
Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella (Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel) was a co-production between East Germany and Czechoslovakia. DEFA made twelve films in co-production with the ČSSR’s Barrandov Film Studios. Some of these movies look like East German films, while others seem very Czechoslovakian. Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella falls squarely in the latter category thanks to the strong aesthetic influence of director Václav Vorlícek. As soon as it starts, you know you’re not watching a DEFA fairytale film. Gone are the bright reds and blues, replaced with shades of brown and white; the leads have brown eyes instead of blue; and the music is more orchestral than most other DEFA fairytale films.

The film is based on a Czech version of the Cinderella story written by Božena Němcová. Němcová was an interesting character who hung out with the Bohemians (the original Bohemians), smoked cigars, and had several lovers. She was an important figure in the Czech National Revival movement of the early nineteenth century, a movement that sought the re-invigoration of the Czech language, which, at the time, was in danger of being abandoned in favor of German. The Czech writer Milan Kundera called her “the mother of Czech prose.” Like the Brothers Grimm in Germany, Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark, and Charles Perrault in France, Nemcová is a national treasure whose books of fairytales have inspired generations of Czech children.

Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella was released in the States under the title Three Wishes for Cinderella, and later shown on television as Three Nuts for Cinderella.1 The story follows the familiar pattern of the other versions of Cinderella (called “Popelka” in Czech), with Cinderella suffering under the yoke of an evil step-mother, and finally meeting and marrying the prince. There’s only one step-daughter here, and no fairy godmother. The glass slipper is replaced with an ordinary pump, and nothing special happens at midnight. Cinderella leaves the ball because, well, because. This Cinderella has a lot more spunk than Disney’s blonde-haired maiden. Although she it still oppressed by the step-mother, she never bends. She is her own woman, equal to and in most ways superior to the prince she marries. The most magical element in the film comes by way of a twig holding the three hazelnuts in the title. Each hazelnut provides a different costume, which keeps the prince confused as to whom he’s dealing with. One major difference from the original story is that in Nemcová’s story, the father is still alive, he just a craven coward who won’t stand up up to his new wife. He seems to care as little about Cinderella as the stepmother does.

Cinderella

The movie was originally slated to be filmed in the Summer, but the DEFA crew was already busy working on other projects, so production was pushed back to the Winter. This meant filming had to be done in deep snow and freezing temperatures. It did make for some beautiful settings, though. Later on, when the production moved to Moritzburg Castle, the snow was gone, so the crew had to find a realistic looking artificial snow. They settled on pounds and pounds of fish meal, which, according to those who were there, stank to high heaven.

Director Václav Vorlíček was already a well-known director in Czechoslovakia. His first big hit was in 1966 with Who Wants to Kill Jessie?—an odd film that parodies comic book superheroes in a manner similar to the Batman television series of the same year. His 1972 fantasy film The Girl on the Broomstick (Dívka na koštěti) was also popular and led to him directing the DEFA/Barrandov co-production. After that, Vorlíček became known for his comedies and fantasy films. He often worked with fellow Czech director Miloš Macourek, who wrote the scripts for several of Vorlíček’s movies. In 1979, he and Macourek created Arabela, a half-hour kid’s show about a fairytale princess who escapes into the real world, predating shows such as Once Upon a Time and Grimm.

In casting Cinderella, director Vorlíček went above and beyond the call of duty, looking at over 2,000 potential applicants. Eventually the Czech actress Libuše Šafránková was chosen for the part, and it’s easy to see why—a better Cinderella is hard to imagine. Šafránková had appeared in a few television shows and films prior to this film, but in minor roles. Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella put her on the map and she went on to have a successful career on stage and screen, up through and after the Velvet Revolution. She retired in 2015 after being diagnosed with lung cancer and having part of her lungs removed.

As was often the case with the DEFA films that featured cast members from different countries, the actors spoke their parts in their own languages, and were then dubbed into each language as needed (see Goya). The one exception was Pavel Trávníček, who played the prince. It was only his second film role and he still spoke with a thick, Moravian accent, so he was dubbed in both Czech and German. Since then, however, he has apparently mastered the subtleties of the Czech language because he is often called upon to dub Hollywood films, giving voice to actors such as Terence Stamp, Alain Delon, and Alan Alda. Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella was the first time Trávníček played a prince, but it wouldn’t be the last. He went on to play a prince in several more movies, including the DEFA film, Snow White and Rose Red (Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot).

Cinderella

In the credits at the beginning of the film, the screenplay is credited to Bohumila Zelenková. The real author was František Pavlíček. Pavlíček was a superb screenwriter, best known for the classic Marketa Lazarová, but he had been highly active in the Velvet Revolution, which made him something of a persona non gratis, especially in the Soviet-loving GDR. Bohumila Zelenková was a competent screenwriter, whose work includes a Dark Shadows-like TV movie based on Sheridan LeFanu’s short story The Room in the Dragon Volant (Hostinec U létavého draka), but she didn’t write Cinderella.

The music for the film was composed by Czech composer Karel Svoboda. Svoboda was on track to become a dentist when he was young, but, according to him, “My parents made a huge mistake—they bought me a piano.” He joined a rock band, and soon was composing songs for others. In the sixties he worked with the Laterna magika in Prague. This brought him to attention of Pavel Juráček, who hired Svoboda to write music for his first film, Kazdy mlady muz (Every Young Man). But it would be five more years before Svoboda’s career as a film composer really got started. In 1973, Svoboda starting working with Václav Vorlíček, and the two went on to make several films together.

The soundtrack for Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella was performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra and was released on LPs in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. The German version of the soundtrack is instrumental, while the Czech version features songs sung by Karel Gott, who was known as the “The Golden Voice from Prague.” Svoboda also wrote several songs for Gott, including the popular theme song from the German version of the Japanese children’s show Maya the Bee.

Although successful as a composer, Svoboda’s personal life was fraught with sorrows. His first wife of 24 years died of cancer. Svoboda remarried, and had a daughter. Four-and-a-half years later, the daughter died of leukemia. In debt and getting sick, Svoboda finally decided to end things. In January of 2007, he went into his garden and shot himself.

The Barrandov Studios continues to function. Like the DEFA Studios in Babelsberg, they have become popular with American directors looking for grittier locations than Hollywood can provide. Moritzburg Castle has also gained fame from the film and is a popular destination for couples looking to get married. Artifacts from the film are on display in the castle, including Cinderella’s wedding dress, which was stolen in 2014, and then returned anonymously a few months later.

The film has gone on to become a classic in Germany and the Czech Republic, and is shown every year at Christmastime on television in those countries. This year, it is also being shown with a live orchestra at various venues around Germany.

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Czech with English subtitles.

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English subtitles (these subtitles are taken from Czech version, so there are some discrepancies between the German dialog and the subtitles).


1. The film is not, as of this writing, available in America with English subtitles, although the DVD and Blu-Ray disk sold by Icestorm does have German subtitles. It’s easy to find the film online. Veoh has a German-language version of the film, and Subsmax.com has English language subtitles that sync well with the Veoh copy. You can download the video and subtitles, and then either watch the film with a program such as VLC Player, which lets you use subtitles from a separate file, or burn the film and subtitles together onto a DVD. If you are interested, you’ll find more information on my How to Make Your Own Subtitled DVDs page. If you don’t mind voiceover narration, the Three Gifts for Cinderella version is available on YouTube, although the first ten minutes is missing.

Berlin um die Ecke
In the mid-fifties, director Gerhard Klein and screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase made a trio of films about life in Berlin. The films were inventive, daring, and popular. Both men went on to have successful careers at DEFA, working together and separately to create films of all sorts. In 1965, the two joined forces again with the what was to be the fourth film in their Berlin series, Berlin Around the Corner (Berlin um die Ecke). In fact, it was initially slated to be called Berlin: Chapter IV. Unfortunately, this was the same year that the 11th Plenum occurred. By the time the film was finished in 1966, the 11th Plenum had started their “Kahlschlag” (literally, “clear cutting”), and the film was promptly rejected and shelved. The officials called it “dishonest,” which is an odd thing to say considering it’s one of the most honest films to ever come out of East Germany. They also called it “anti-socialist”—an even more absurd claim since the motivation of the main character is his desire to see equity achieved.

That main character is Olaf, an impetuous young fellow, who is always getting into trouble at the factory where he works. He’s usually accompanied by his buddy Horst, who is even more of a trouble maker than Olaf is. They sometimes break the rules and are not afraid to speak out against the status quo. For Olaf this is due to his sense of fairness. For Horst, on the other hand, it is mostly just rebellion for its own sake. Not surprisingly, Horst spent some time in West Germany. Though not implicitly stated, there is some suggestion that much of Horst’s bad behavior is a result of having lived in the West.

Olaf and Horst go and listen to Karin, singer at a local dance hall. Olaf had met her the night before when she borrowed his coat after jumping off a boat and swimming to the shore where he sat. When she’s not singing, Karin works in the kitchen, and in her spare time, does film and photo shoots. Olaf falls in love with her, but Karin’s in the middle of an ugly divorce and isn’t in any hurry to get into another bad relationship. From where she stands, Olaf looks like nothing but trouble.

Berlin Around the Corner

The young men’s main antagonist is Hütte, who publishes the factory’s newsletter. Hütte is an old-school communist who thinks the young people of East Germany are a bunch of privileged brats who no respect or appreciation for what people like him went through during the war. The person Olaf is closest to at the factory is Paul Krautmann, the old mechanic who has to keep the machinery running, and is always complaining that he isn’t being given the proper parts to do so. Olaf would like Paul to be an ally, but Paul’s attitude is that one must do their work as best he can and keep his head down. Things escalate after Olaf and Horst are criticized in the factory newsletter by an action of theirs that was meant to show the problem of pay inequality at the factory.

Criticizing the shortcomings of the system was always tricky, both before and years after the Plenum. Like Jadup and Boel, the criticism here is aimed at showing the weaknesses in the system in hopes of making it stronger, but the authorities had a great deal of difficulty with that concept. As far as they were concerned, the system was already perfect and any criticism was nothing less than subversion. With the banning of Berlin Around the Corner, the state created a precedent for their approach to all future attempts at constructive criticism. A precedent that set in motion the state’s eventual downfall.

Neither director Gerhard Klein nor screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase should need any introduction on this blog by now. Besides the popular Berlin films of the fifties (Alarm at the Circus, A Berlin Romance, and Berlin – Schönhauser Corner). They also gave us The Gleiwitz Case, one of the grimmest movies ever made. They probably would have gone on to make many more great films, but Klein died while filming Murder Case Zernik, which would have been Klein’s fifth film to explore life and events in Berlin. After that, Kohlhaase continued to work on screenplays for Konrad Wolf, including I Was Nineteen, The Naked Man on the Athletic Field, and Solo Sunny. Since the Wende, he has continued writing screenplays, most notably The Legend of Rita (Die Stille nach dem Schuß) for Volker Schlöndorff, and Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon) for Andreas Dresen, a film that hearkens back to his work for DEFA in its tone and subject matter.

Berlin Around the Corner

Playing Olaf is Dieter Mann in his first feature film. Square-jawed and rugged-looking, Mann keeps his character balanced between short-fused reactions and sympathetic understanding. It is a nifty portrait of a young man poised on the edge of true adulthood and Mann pulls it off nicely. Like many other East German actors, he got his start on stage. From 1964 until 2006, he was a corp member of the ensemble at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Berlin Around the Corner was Mann’s first feature film. He went on to have a long and prolific career in East Germany, primarily in supporting roles. After the Wende, Mann suffered usual snub of East German talent, but he was too good an actor to ignore for long. Having worked extensively in television already in East Germany, and used to playing smaller roles, he was soon working again. He is best known to Western audiences for his portrayal of Feldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel in Oliver Hirschbiegel and Bernd Eichinger’s Downfall (Der Untergang).

Horst is played by Kaspar Eichel, another fine actor who got his start on the stage. His first feature film was the lead in The Golden Goose. This was followed by his role in The Adventures of Werner Holt as the ill-fated Fritz Zemtzki. Throughout his career Eichel has divided his time between stage and screen. Until recently he was a regular member of the Kriminal Theater in Berlin. In 2015, he appeared in the documentary Erich Mielke – Meister der Angst (Erich Mielke – Master of Fear) portraying the much-hated head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke. He has also done a lot of dubbing for German releases, providing voices for everyone from Robert Redford to Sid Haig.

Karin is played by Monika Gabriel. It was Monika Gabriel’s second feature film. Her first, The Robe (Das Kleid), was also banned. The East German public finally got to see her in a feature film in 1967, with The Lord Of Alexanderplatz (Ein Lord am Alexanderplatz). In 1971 Gabriel married the West German actor Wolfgang Kieling, whom she met back in 1969 while working on The Seventh Year (Das siebente Jahr). At that point, Gabriel had already been married twice, first to Polish-born actor Stefan Lisewski, and then to Armin Mueller-Stahl. When Kieling returned to the West, Gabriel obtained an exit visa followed him. She appeared in several West German television productions from 1972 until 1985, but thereafter retired from screen appearances although she continued to work as a voice talent for the German dubs of foreign films. In 1992, she married director Wilfried Dotzel, but he died a year later. She never remarried again and died of cancer in 2007.

Berlin um die Ecke

Playing Paul Krautmann, Erwin Geschonneck is, as always, sensational. Every gesture and expression expertly conveys the character. Anyone interested in acting would do well to watch Geschonneck here. This actor should need no introduction here by this time, having starred in several of the East Germans films ever made, including The Axe of Wandsbek, Castles and Cottages, Carbide and Sorrel, Anton the Magician, and many more. After the Wende, Geschonneck was afforded very few opportunities to demonstrate his talent. The reunification led to a lot of great East German actors—especially the older ones—being essentially kicked to the curb, but the saddest example of this is how little the new Germany took advantage of this man’s talent. He died March 12, 2008 at the ripe old age of 101 (for more on Erwin Geschonneck, see Carbide and Sorrel).

The cranky newsletter editor Hütte is played by Hans Hardt-Hardtloff, an actor who started performing on stage when he was sixteen. Hardt-Hardtloff worked exclusively on stage, usually outside of Germany during the Hitler years. After the war, he was hired as the senior director for Mitteldeutschen Rundfunk (Central German Broadcasting, MDR) in Leipzig. In 1957, he started appearing in films and on television. Most notoriously, he was hired to duplicate the role played by Raimund Schelcher in Castles and Cottages. Schelcher had a serious drinking problem, and there was some real concern that the man wouldn’t be able to finish the movie without falling off the wagon. So Maetzig hired Hardt-Hardtloff to perform each scene a second time. That way, if Schelcher didn’t make it all the way through the shoot, the film would still be salvageable. Maetzig didn’t really plan on using the footage, it was mostly used to remind Schelcher he was replaceable and to keep him on the straight and narrow (it did). The incident was used by Andreas Dressen for the plot of his 2009 film Whiskey with Vodka (Whisky mit Wodka). Coming, as he did, so late in his career to films, he was usually called on to play supporting roles as either government officials or professors, both benign and malicious. Hardt-Hardtloff died in 1974 in Potsdam.

The film’s jazzy pop score was by Georg Katzer, a composer better known for his experimental electronic music. When not composing music for films Katzer’s work is more Morton Subotnick than Henry Mancini, but he was a talented enough composer to come up with effective film scores when called upon to do so. He composed solid scores for several films during the sixties, and then again in the last days of the DDR, but he mainly worked in the electronic music field, founding the Studio for Electroacoustic Music at the Academy of Arts in Berlin in 1982. Katzer continues to composes electronic music, but his film score composition ended with the GDR.

Like most of the films banned during the 11th Plenum, Berlin Around the Corner didn’t get an official release until after the wall came down, although it did receive a limited screening in 1987. It officially premiered in 1990 to positive reviews.

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