Das Blaue Licht
As I’ve discussed on this blog before, East Germany had an above-average track record on female equality and films about women’s issues, yet there were only a few female directors at DEFA. First and foremost among these was Iris Gusner. She wasn’t the first women to direct feature films at DEFA. That honor goes to Bärbl Bergmann, who made several short films for DEFA and the feature film Rüpel in 1963.1 But Gusner was the most prolific with seven DEFA films to her name (Hannelore Unterberg comes in a close second with six DEFA films). From 1961 to 1967, Gusner studied cinematography at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Russia. After that, she worked as an assistant director for Konrad Wolf on Goya before making her first feature film, The Dove on the Roof, which was promptly shelved and remained unscreened until after the Wall came down. The first of her feature films to make it into cinemas was this one, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht).

The Blue Light is loosely based on a Grimms fairytale, although it’s really a complete reboot of the original fairytale. It takes the story and stands it on its head, changing the message and the priorities of the characters to better suit a socialist perspective. Both the original and the film tell the tale of Hans, a young soldier who is discharged from the service without pay because he’s been wounded. In both versions, the young soldier meets a witch who tries to trick him into fetching a blue light from her well and when he won’t cooperate, she leaves him stranded in the well. Feeling despondent, the soldier lights his pipe with the blue light and a “Mannlein” (little man) appears who can grant the soldier anything he wishes.

From here on out, though, the film and the fairytale diverge radically. Hans doesn’t seek the harsh retribution against the witch that she gets in the story, and the soldier’s multiple kidnappings of the princess are reduced to one. In the original story, the soldier eventually marries the princess, but no one would want to marry the princess in this movie, she’s a spoiled child-woman who pouts and sucks her thumb, and is dumb as a bag of hammers. Romantic interest is provided, instead, by Anne, who works at the local inn. This is, after all, an East German film, and being born in a royal family doesn’t make a person better; only more likely to be corrupt.

The Blue Light

Playing Hans is Viktor Semyonov, a Russian actor who primarily works on stage, but has appeared in several films. Semyonov is well-suited to the part. He is dashingly handsome (more handsome than most of the lead actors in East Germany, truth be told) and plays the part well. As was always the case with non-German actors in the lead roles, his voice was dubbed by a German actor—in this case, Jaecki Schwarz, who also appears here as the simple-minded guard Knut.

The lazy, idiot princess is played by Katharina Thalbach in the broadest performance possible—way too broad, honestly. Thalbach is the daughter of Swiss theater director Benno Besson and the Berlin-born actress Sabine Thalbach. Benno and Sabine were working at Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble when they met. From an early age, daughter Katharina starting performing, first on television and later in films. At age fifteen, she made her stage debut , playing a background whore in The Threepenny Opera, eventually working her way up to the lead role of Polly Peachum. In 1976, Thalbach and her husband Thomas Brasch joined the list of people that signed the protest letter against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, and like many of the others, left East Germany shortly thereafter.2 Perhaps because of her age, Thalbach didn’t have the same problems getting work that plagued many of the other East German actors who emigrated to the West. In 1979, she impressed people with her performance in Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum. Since then, she has appeared in dozens of feature films and television movies, including Welcome to Germany, Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg, Silent Night, Strike, and the TV-movie Der Minister, in which she plays a parody of Angela Merkel named “Angela Murkel.”

Playing counterpoint to Thalbach’s princess is Blanche Kommerell as Anne. Like Thalmann, Kommerell is the daughter of a professional actress. Also like Thalbach, she got her start in acting at a young age. Unlike Thalbach, she stayed in East Germany until the fall of the Wall. After that, she did very little acting on either the big screen or on television, but she continued to act in theater productions and to give lectures on acting and diction (I’ll be discussing Kommerell in more detail when I get to Little Red Riding Hood).

Fred Delmare

Most of Iris Gusner’s casting in The Blue Light is surprising. Using a Russian actor as the lead was rarely done; there were so many good East German actors out there. Thalbach and Kommerell weren’t the usual choices either (although, by this time, the usual choices—Christel Bodenstein, Cox Habbema, and Karin Ugowski—were getting too old to play these parts). There was one person, however, who was custom made for his part, and casting anyone else would have made little sense. That was Fred Delmare, East Germany’s most diminutive leading actor, who plays the Little Man (for more on Delmare, see Black Velvet). Delmare has fun in the part and makes an engaging Mannlein.

The music is by Gerhard Rosenfeld, and, if the online reviews are any indication, this is the most controversial aspect of the film. A lot of people didn’t like it. Rather than follow a standard formula for a movie soundtrack, Rosenfeld has composed a soundtrack using Renaissance instruments, primarily, the hurdy-gurdy. It is an odd, slightly subdued soundtrack, perfectly in keeping with the times, but not something you’d usually find in a movie like this. Like Karl-Ernst Sasse, Helmut Nier, Reiner Bredemeyer, and Wilhelm Neef, Rosenfeld was a classically-trained musician. His movie scores include The Rabbit is Me (with Reiner Bredemeyer), The Dove on the Roof, The Banner of Kriwoj Rog (Die Fahne von Kriwoj Rog), Unser stiller Mann (Our Silent Man), Addio, piccola mia, Our Short Life, and Bailing Out.

Hurdy Gurdy

When he wasn’t working on films, he composed orchestral works, chamber music, and music for operas and ballets. After the Wende, he was no longer hired to write feature film soundtracks, but continued to write scores for TV-movies and documentaries. In 1997, his opera Kniefall in Warschau was staged in Dortmund. The Independent went on to call it “one of the most important operas composed in Germany since 1945.” Rosenfeld died in 2003.

Like most of the fairytale films, The Blue Light did well at the box office, and it was well received by critics on both sides of the border. The fact that it states right up front that it is a loose adaptation of the fairytale probably helped avoid the usual cavils about not following the story verbatim. It’s an entertaining film that avoids pandering to children, which makes it an enjoyable film for both kids and adults.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy or stream the film


1. Arguably, Wanda Jakubowska was the first woman to direct a feature film at DEFA with her 1960 film Begegnung im Zwielicht (Encounters in the Dark); but Jakubowska was Polish and the film was a co-production with Film Polski and was in Polish. I hope at some point I can write more about her. She was an interesting woman with an interesting life. If you can, check out The Last Stage (Ostatni etap), the first feature film to portray the holocaust. Based on her own experiences in Auschwitz.

2. If it seems like East Germany was suddenly allowing a lot more people to leave the country, there’s a reason. The Biermann protest was a black-eye for the government in the GDR, and it came less than a year before a Conference on European Security and Cooperation that was slated for October 1977 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the GDR wanted to remove as many talking points as possible from the table by quietly releasing political prisoners and letting them emigrate to West Germany. Likewise, many of the signatories of the Biermann protest letter. They were probably hoping no one would notice, but the New York Times did.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Barge Films
Living on a boat is not easy. You’re in a constant fight against the elements and there’s no end to the maintenance. Boat owners will tell you that, if you want to know what it’s like to own a boat, “stand in the shower and tear up twenty dollar bills.” Yet, the idea of living on a boat is appealing. That combination of the freedom to travel around in a place you call your own is hard to beat. Small wonder that those same boat owners who’ll tell you a boat is a “hole in the ocean you throw money into” continue to own boats and continue to love it, warts and all. There are several movies about life on a boat. The films about sailing are usually adventures (White Squall, All is Lost, Kon Tiki), and the ones with houseboats are usually comedies (Houseboat, The Horse’s Mouth, Sleepless in Seattle). Then there are the barge films (Binnenschifferfilme).

While sailing films are about striking out into the unknown and houseboat films are about living somewhere that just happens to be on the water, barge films fall somewhere in between. They are often aquatic road movies, with the characters slowly traveling from place to place, entering the lives of people then departing. Barge films are exclusively European.1 Films such as L’Atalante, Beauty and the Barge, Unter den Brücken (Under the Bridges), The Hornet’s Nest (which is more of a houseboat film), and Young Adam explore the details of life on a barge. They are often comedies but even the funny ones have moments of drama—barge life is no bed of roses. DEFA made two such films—The Barge of the Happy People (Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute), and Old Barge, Young Love (Alter Kahn und junge Liebe).

The Barge of Happy People

The Barge of Happy People follows the misadventures of Marianne (Petra Peters), who inherited a barge from her father and is trying to make a go of it in spite of advice to sell it from other barge owners. When Marianne goes to apply for a Befähigungszeugnis (a license needed for different trades in Germany), she is denied because of her age, so she hires her uncle August (Alfred Maack) to captain the ship until she turns twenty-one. The problem is, August has only ever piloted sailing ships and knows nothing about engines. August hires Michel (Fritz Wagner) as the machinist, unaware that Michel has long had a crush on Marianne, but Marianne doesn’t feel the same way. Things get more complicated when a trio of musicians joins the crew and romantic rivalry develops between Michel and musician Hans (Joachim Brennecke).

Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute

The Barge of Happy People is based on a book by Jochen Klepper, a writer best known today for his Christian hymns. Klepper was the son of a Lutheran minister and was studying theology the University of Breslau when he dropped out to become a radio announcer. He lost that job when Hitler came to power because Klepper had made committed the unforgivable sin of marrying a Jewish woman, and a Jewish who already had two daughters to boot. As Hitler’s war effort heated up, Klepper realized the danger his wife and her three daughters were in. He managed to get one of the girls out of the country before Adolf Eichmann refused to grant a visa to the daughter still in Germany. Like the popular actor Joachim Gottschalk (see Marriage in the Shadows), Klepper, his wife and his step-daughter decided that suicide was preferable to what was likely to happen to them next. They turned on the gas and commuted suicide on December 11, 1942. After his death, a selection of entries from his diaries was published under the title In the Shadow of Your Wings (Unter dem Schatten deiner Flügel).

Petra Peters got her start playing the lead in Arthur Maria Rabenalt‘s 1949 DEFA film Christina (Das Mädchen Christine). Rabenalt must have been impressed because he cast her in his next film as well, Anonymous Letters (Anonyme Briefe), this time a West German production (for more on Rabenalt, see Chemistry and Love). She followed this with two more West German films—Girls Behind Bars (Mädchen hinter Gittern) and You Don’t Play Around with Love (Man spielt nicht mit der Liebe)—before returning to DEFA to star in The Barge of Happy People. This would be her last role in an East German film. From here on out, she would appear in West German films until her move to Britain with her husband Albert Lieven. During this time, she stopped acting in movies, working instead as a playwright. After Lieven’s death in 1971, Peters returned to film in smaller roles and appeared in the 1976 Hammer film To The Devil a Daughter. She died in Munich in 2004.

The Barge of Happy People was a hit in both East and West Germany, and remains one of the fifty top box office films from the GDR. Reviews were positive, with the East German newspaper Neue Zeit claiming the film was in the tradition of the “Soviet comedies” (trust me, it wasn’t), presumably because saying it was in the tradition of the Ufa films would have caused no end of trouble for both Heinrich and the folks at DEFA.

As the tensions between East and West grew, DEFA decided that it was time to move away from lighter fare like this and concentrate on films that more obviously endorsed socialism.2 DEFA still made a few light comedies, as well as musicals and fairytale films, but most of the films, once they stopped allowing West Germans to direct, had strong socialist messages—films such as The Council of the Gods, The Axe of Weilbeck, and The Invincibles. If a film was funny, it was funny with a socialist message (The Kaiser’s Lackey), and if a film was romantic, it was romantic with a socialist message (The Story of a Young Couple). This would be the pattern from here on out. It was okay to be a little silly—just make sure the audience knew where you stood politically.

By 1957, DEFA was getting flak for making excessively didactic films. It seemed like every film had some expository dialogue that related the events in the film to Marxist philosophy. This wouldn’t have bothered the powers that be at all, but even in a non-capitalist country such as East Germany, it was important to get butts in seats, and audiences on both sides of the border were avoiding DEFA films in favor of their more frivolous and more entertaining West German counterparts. DEFA decided to tone down the preaching. As it was made clear that capitalism leads to bad decisions and corruption, the filmmakers could do what they liked. This was demonstrated in 1957 with Old Barge, Young Love.

Old Barge, Young Love

Like The Barge of Happy People, Old Barge, Young Love deals with a romantic triangle. This time, the story concerns two barges and a tug that are operating on the Havel river in north-eastern Germany. One barge is owned by Hein (Alfred Maack), who is trying to get the mortgage on his barge paid off so he can turn it over to his son Kalle (Götz George) debt-free. To do this, Hein has taken on a huge shipment of cement that overloads the barge and threatens it with stranding if the channel gets too shallow. It’s easy enough to figure out what’s going to happen then.

Kalle has the hots for Anne (Maria Häussler), the daughter of another barge owner named Hermann Vollbeck (Gustav Püttjer). Anne’s been studying shipbuilding in Berlin and is home for the holidays to help her dad on the barge. Also attracted to Anne is Horst (Horst Naumann), the captain of a tugboat, but Horst is a bit of a cad and full of himself. Anne seems to fluctuate between Kalle and Horst, which pisses off Hein to no end.

Storywise, Old Barge, Young Love is pretty much by the book. There are know real surprises here. We know that Hein’s barge will run aground at some point, we know that Anne will choose the Ernest Kalle over the playboy Horst.

Alter Kahn und junge Liebe

As with The Barge of the Happy People, the cast Old Barge, Young Love had a cast featuring many West German actors. It was Götz George’s third film, but his first starring role. It would be one of his only East German efforts. Horst Naumann, on the other hand got his start at DEFA, but Old Barge, Young Love would be his last feature film for the East German film company. He moved to the West in 1958. Maria Häussler (who spelled her name then with an ß, but whose name is usually spelled now with two esses) This is one of the only films to star her. She mostly worked in theater and voiced several West German radio plays.

Old Barge, Young Love wasn’t the hit that The Barge of Happy People was, but West Germany had become more restrictive about what East German films could play there. It didn’t help that critical response to the film was lackluster, with critics calling the film clumsy and dull. Then in 1973, the West German production company Terra Film made a musical by the same same name that was a hit. Coincidentally, perhaps, Horst Naumann appears in both movies.

Both DEFA films were directed by Hans Heinrich. Heinrich’s films had more in common with the films of West Germany than those made by his fellow directors in East Germany. Like Gerhard Lamprecht, Werner Klingler, Georg C. Klaren, Arthur Maria Rabenalt, Erich Engel, and Paul Verhoeven, who went to East Germany in the early fifties to get their films made, Heinrich’s style was heavily influenced by the old Ufa studios. His films are more romantic and traditional, and aside from the occasional lip service to socialist values and the casting of successful entrepreneurs in a bad light, there’s not much about Heinrich’s films that peg them as products of East Germany.

Heinrich was born in Berlin-Charlottenburg. He started working with film early on when he dropped out of technical school and got a job in a film lab. He started making short films for Hitler’s Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labor Front) and working as a film editor on several feature films until he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. After the war, he was hired by Wolfgang Staudte to work on The Murderers Are Among Us. He must have impressed Staudte, because he was hired to work as an assistant director on Staudte’s next two films, The Adventures of Fridolin (Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B.) and Rotation. Heinrich finally stepped into the director’s shoes with The Barge of the Happy People.

Alter Kahn und junge Liebe

Heinrich made a few more films in East Germany, most notably My Wife Wants to Sing, but Heinrich and DEFA were never a very good fit. He lived in West Berlin and was constantly fighting with the authorities about the lighthearted nature of his films. I imagine the term “formalism” got thrown a bit—a term often used in the Eastern Bloc anytime someone didn’t like something but couldn’t give you a concrete example why. After the problems he encountered getting My Wife Wants to Sing made, Heinrich threw up his hands and left DEFA, resuming his career in the West. He worked on several movies and TV shows in West Germany. Heinrich died in 2003 in Berlin.

Heinrich’s barge films are not masterpieces. They are light and silly, and Heinrich’s style is so rooted in the old Ufa style that they could have been West German films. The fact that they aren’t has more to do with the times than the films themselves.

IMDB page for the The Barge of Happy People.

IMDB page for Old Barge, Young Love.

Buy Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Barge of Happy People).

Buy Alter Kahn und junge Liebe (Old Barge, Young Love).


1. There has been the occasional U.S. film that features a barge (Moontide comes to mind), but America’s riverways aren’t that conducive to barges. You’re more likely to see a film about life on a raft (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) or a riverboat (Steamboat Bill, Jr., Show Boat) than a barge.

2. This wasn’t a unilateral choice. By 1950, Hollywood was already busy making virulent anti-communist films, and all of the left-leaning talent had been sidelined or neutered thanks to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

When Martin was Fourteen
When Martin Was Fourteen (Als Martin vierzehn war) is the story of a teenage boy who finds himself in the middle of the fighting that followed the “Kapp Putsch” in March of 1920. As with many German movies—East, West, and Unified—the films assumes a level of familiarity with German history that we in America know little about. To truly appreciate this film, a little background is in order.1

World War I officially ended on the 28th of June 1919, but, by then, it was all over but the screaming. The Central Powers (the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria) hadn’t lost as many soldiers as the Allied Powers (too many countries to name, but primarily France, Britain, Belgium, Russia, and, eventually, the United States), but they didn’t have as many to lose. Germany was roundly defeated and reluctantly signed the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty was draconian, blaming the war on Germany, reducing the size of the German state, and forcing that country to make reparations to the victors. People on both sides of the conflict thought the treaty went too far, but none more than the Germans. Especially galling was the clause stating that the war was entirely the fault of Germany. Philipp Scheidemann, the Chancellor in the newly established Weimar Republic, refused to sign it and resigned rather than sign this treaty. President Ebert didn’t see any choice but to sign it, and found a replacement for Scheidemann (Gustav Bauer) who was more willing to do as he was told.

The response to the treaty was immediate. Germans on the left and the right protested the signing. Most vocal were the Freikorps—right-wing groups of ex-soldiers who had put it on themselves to try and restore Germany to the military power it once had been. They saw the signing of the treaty as a vast left-wing conspiracy and blamed the communists and the Jews for Germany’s defeat. The only solution, as far as they were concerned, was to overthrow the Weimar government and rebuild the German Empire.

Als Martin Vierzehn war

Leading this movement was a German general named Walther von Lüttwitz, who fought in World War I, and a journalist named Wolfgang Kapp, who didn’t. Kapp was a journalist who never let facts get in the way of his agenda. He was a strong proponent of the Dolchstoßlegende (stab-in-the-back myth), which maintained that the Germans were winning the war, but were betrayed by leftists and Jews back home. This anti-Semitism wasn’t a new. Even while the war was still raging, the Supreme Army Command (Oberste Heeresleitung) conducted a census (the infamous Judenzählung) to prove that Jews were not on the battlefields during the war, but hiding behind desk jobs. When the survey proved the exact opposite, the Oberste Heeresleitung buried the results. Ignoring all this, Kapp continued to spread the myth and called for former German soldiers to get rid of the new government.

While Kapp was the mouthpiece for this movement, Lüttwitz was the muscle. He was in charge of the Berlin Freikorps—paramilitary groups of former soldiers who had taken it on themselves to police the country in whatever fashion they saw fit. This included breaking up left-wing protests and killing anyone who resisted. They weren’t officially part of the government, but the government did nothing to stop them. On March 13, 1920, Lüttwitz’s troops—many sporting swastikas painted on their helmet, a fact that impressed a youthful coup supporter named Adolf Hitler—took over the Reich Chancellery and Kapp declared himself Chancellor. Reactions were strong and immediate. Workers went on strike all over Germany and the economy shut down. Five days later, the Kapp Putsch was over. Kapp and Lüttwitz fled the country and the Weimar government was back in power, but the damage was done. With the left emboldened by the effectiveness of the strikes, and the right emboldened by the putsch, the two factions continued fighting all over Germany, and the cowardly cut-and-run approach to the crisis by the leaders further deteriorated the already low opinion the public had of its government.

When Martin Was Fourteen takes place during those tumultuous five days. The events in the film appear to be based on the Ruhr uprising that took place in the west of Germany, but they’ve moved the action to rural Mecklenburg, presumably to make the story more East German. The film belongs to a subgenre of war films that follow the misadventures of young people on the cusp of adulthood who are thrown into violent conflicts and forced to grow up too fast. Other films in this subgenre include Ivan’s Childhood, Empire of the Sun, Hope and Glory, and Elem Klimov’s Come and See. While nowhere near as brutal as Klimov’s film, the message is still clear that war can kill a childhood.

When Martin was 14

Fourteen-year-old Martin (Ulrich Balko) is in love with his neighbor’s daughter Kathrin (Elfie Mann). While horsing around with her, he accidentally breaks her doll and promises to repair it. This minor event starts the ball rolling as Martin discovers that a local landowner is supplying arms to putschists. By the end of the film, that doll doesn’t seem so important to either Martin or Kathrin.

When Martin Was Fourteen was directed by Walter Beck, who mainly made films for children. A West German by birth, Beck spent most of his formative years in Berlin. In 1948, he enrolled in DEFA’s film program for young people (DEFA-Nachwuchsstudio) and received a degree in directing. From 1951 until 1958, he worked primarily as an assistant director on documentaries and newsreels. In 1958 he joined DEFA’s list of regular directors. In 1959, he directed his first feature film, Claudia, which set him on his path as a director of films for children. Over the years, he made several more movies for kids, including the popular fairytale films King Thrushbeard, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, The Prince Beyond the Seven Seas (Der Prinz hinter den sieben Meeren), The Bear-Skinned Man (Der Bärenhäuter), and The Frog Prince (Der Froschkönig). Like many other directors, actors and technicians from DEFA, his film career ended with the fall of the Wall,

The young stars of this film did not go on to do much in movies. For Elfie Mann, this was her only film, which is a shame—the girl has a good screen presence. Ulrich Balko appeared in three other films, all directed by Beck, but never did any others. The rest of the cast consisted of DEFA regulars such as Hans Hardt-Hardtloff, Lotte Loebinger, Manfred Heine, and Helmut Schreiber, most of whom found very little film work available after the Wende (not including Hardt-Hardtloff, who died in 1974).

Als Martin Vierzehn war

This was the first film for cinematographer Eberhard Borkmann. Borkmann would go on to film several more well-known feature films and TV-movies. He was a talented cinematographer, whose work includes White Wolves, Fatal Error, and Isabel on the Stairs. Like Beck and the other actors in this film, Like Beck, Borkmann’s film career ended when the Wall came down.

When Martin Was Fourteen is a film worth seeing. Although a subgenre of war movies, the stories of the effects of war and violence on children are stories that need to be told. The film also serves as an interesting if flawed history lesson about the Kapp Putsch and its immediate aftermath.

IMDB page for this film.

Stream movie with English subtitles on Kanopy.


1. For a deeper dive on the subject, check out Versailles 1919: A Centennial Perspective, by Alan Sharp; Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, by Eric D. Weitz; and The Weimar Republic Sourcebook edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Set a Fire, the Fire Brigade Is Coming
What happens to a fire department when the town there in never has any fires? That’s the idea behind the TruTV’s new comedy Tacoma FD. But it isn’t the first time someone thought of this. It’s also the concept behind Set a Fire, the Fire Brigade Is Coming (Zünd an, es kommt die Feuerwehr), the 1979 East German comedy by Rainer Simon.

Set a Fire (which is what I’m going to call it for the rest of this article to save typing) takes place around 1900 in the town of Siebenthal in the foothills of the Ore Mountains along the Czech border. One of the firemen, a man named Zetsche (Kurt Böwe) also owns the local inn, which is danger of collapsing. The fountain that his wife (Gudrun Ritter) had installed in the courtyard is siphoning off water from under the structure, leaving it on shaky ground. A plan is hatched to burn down Zetsche’s inn, which would serve the dual purpose of eliminating the rickety building before it collapses and giving the fire department something to do. Of course, things never go to plan in stories like this. Most of the action centers around fireman Franz (Winfried Glatzeder). Franz is betrothed to the pretty but dull Marie (Katrin Martin), but he is in love with a local prostitute name Lene (Renate Krößner) and she loves him as well. Everything comes to a head after a local celebration to mark a visit to the town by the writer Karl May (Hannes Fischer).

Using firemen for comedy isn’t new Charlie Chaplin did it (The Fireman), so did the Little Rascals (Hook and Ladder), and the Three Stooges returned to the idea more than once (Flat Foot Stooges, False Alarms, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World); but Set a Fire is a long ways from the humor of these slapstick comedies. Its humor is closer to the British comedies of the fifties and sixties. It’s broad and a little bawdy.

Zund an

This could have been just another light comedy, but it was directed by Rainer Simon. Simon also wrote the script with some help from Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who helped polish the dialogue. Although it takes place at the turn of the last century, it does a good job of lampooning the idiocy of unscrupulous leaders and government cover-ups. Although no official complaints against the film were made, it is clear that the authorities saw subversion in it. A film about the shenanigans of public officials during Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign still had bite in 1979, and it probably didn’t help that the young lovers in the film resolve their difficulties by moving to America. Why else would they have bothered to set the honey trap they did with Simon’s next film, Jadup and Boel?

The original scenario was by Manfred Wolter, a successful writer in East Germany who also worked as a dramaturge and script doctor. Wolter co-wrote or polished the scripts for several DEFA films, including Fire Below Deck and Next Year at Lake Balaton, and served as the dramaturge for Simon’s Till Eulenspiegel. His last work for DEFA was in 1990, when he wrote the scenario for I Can Also Run Backwards (Rückwärtslaufen kann ich auch), a film about children with disabilities. Wolter’s own daughter was disabled and Wolter and his daughter appear briefly in the film. After the Wende, Wolter wrote and directed a couple documentaries (Von der Normandie in den Bundestag and Aktion Ungeziefer). He died in 1999 in Woltersdorf. Also worth noting is that Wolter is listed as appearing in the film as the Kunstpfeifer, which is just a fancy way of saying the guy can really whistle.

Renate Krößner had already appeared in several TV-movies and a few movies in smaller roles by the time she made this film, but this was the first film to really show what she could do. Although her signature role in Solo Sunny was still a two years away, it’s apparent here that she would be a star. She enlivens this movie up every time she appears on screen. Winfried Glatzeder was a known quantity by this point, having starred in Time of the Storks, The Legend of Paul and Paula, and Till Eulenspiegel. The film also features the reliable talents of Kurt Böwe and Gudrun Ritter, as well as the lovely Katrin Martin, who, only a few years earlier in The Man Who Replaced Grandma, played not Glatzeder’s love interest but a teenager under his care. Of the actors in this film, Renate Krößner has had the most active post-Wende career and is probably as well known today for her post-reunification movies (e.g., Go for Zucker, Vergiss dein Ende, and the TV-movie Küss mich, Genosse!) as she is for those made in the GDR (Solo Sunny, notwithstanding).

Renate

The cinematography is by Roland Dressel, which is to say, it’s very good. DEFA had some exceptionally talented cinematographers, including Günter Haubold, Werner Bergmann, Günter Marczinkowsky, and Erich Gusko. Dressel wasn’t afraid of experimenting with the image, which occasionally got him into trouble. His work on The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow was criticized for this reason. On Jadup and Boel, he took things even further, with its blurred-edged flashback sequences. It was this willingness to experiment that endeared him to Rainer Simon and why Simon continue to use him for the rest of his DEFA films. Since the Wende, Dressel has continued to work on various films and TV shows on a freelance basis.

Set a Fire receive mixed reviews. Renate Holland-Moritz of the satire magazine Eulenspiegel liked it, but Fred Gehler in the weekly magazine Sonntag found the film too episodic for its own good. It’s a fun little film, but is not currently available with English subtitles.1

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1. As those of you who know me know, my interest in movies extends well past the East German films. Something I see occurring in other film fan communities is the phenomenon of fan-made subtitles. If you like Hong Kong action films or Italian gialli, you can find sites that offer subtitles to dozens of films that never received English language releases. Sadly, the same can’t be said for East German movies. Apparently, they lack the DNA needed to encourage that sort of fanboy overdrive (sex and violence, I suspect).

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sleeping Beauty
The story of Sleeping Beauty (Dornröschen) is old enough that it’s origins are a point of debate. The Grimm Brothers felt the story had enough Germanic elements to identify it as German in origin. The French, quite rightfully, would point out that the story was already well-known in France as it appeared in Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passé published in 1697. Meanwhile the Italians will tell you that Perrault got the story from Giambattista Basile’s Sun, Moon, and Talia. The story has been traced back to the 1300s, but is thought to be even older than that. These days, it’s best known in the form of the Walt Disney animated feature. Given the manhandling the original story received over the years from the likes of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Giambattista Basile, one can forgive Walt Disney for tweaking the story to suit his needs.

The basic setup of the story is always the same. After a queen has a daughter, the king holds a banquet and invites all the local fairies to bestow gifts on the infant. Unfortunately, he forgets one fairy who’s not as sociable as the others and, in the classic version, is also evil. After the other fairies bestow their gifts on the child (beauty, charm, virtue, and so forth), the evil fairy curses the child: On her fifteenth birthday, the girl will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. It turns out that one fairy hadn’t given her gift yet, so she deflects the curse slightly, saying the girl will not die but will sleep for one hundred years, when she will be awakened by a prince. In an attempt to prevent the curse from happening, the king orders all the spinning wheels in the kingdom destroyed. Of course, this has no effect. The young princess meets up with the evil fairy pretending to be an old woman working a spinning wheel. She lets the girl try her hand at the spinning wheel with the expected result.

While Disney’s film takes its cues from Perrault’s tale, the DEFA version follows the Brothers Grimm’s version the closest, with thirteen fairies and missing dinnerware as the reason the thirteenth fairy isn’t invited to the baby’s christening. It also does a better job of addressing the inevitable economic problems that would befall a community that was forced to give up its major income source (wool spinning and cloth production). This is Sleeping Beauty as seen through the eyes of Karl Marx.

Sleeping Beauty

In a manner similar to DEFA’s version of Rumpelstiltskin, where the evil dwarf becomes a dispenser of socialist instruction, the evil old fairy of the previous versions is now a beautiful young woman. Her angry spell is in reaction to the king’s self-importance and lack of empathy for the common folk. When the last fairy comes forward to temper the death spell, the reason she doesn’t simply lift the curse altogether is because she too feels the king needs to be taught a lesson. In DEFA’s version, the king is the real villain, and he is the one who is ultimately overthrown in favor of a system more equitable to the people. The fairy that curses the baby is known as the fairy of hard work (Fee des Fleißes), and it’s the castle’s industry that suffers.

Like most of the DEFA fairytale films, Sleeping Beauty is a bright and colorful movie, with simplified environments used to represent the various places. Backgrounds are devoid of details, occasionally consisting of featureless, light blue cycloramas. It was directed by Walter Beck, who made a career of fairytale films at DEFA, including King Thrushbeard (König Drosselbart), Pinocchio, The Prince Beyond the Seven Seas (Der Prinz hinter den sieben Meeren), The Bear-Skinned Man (Der Bärenhäuter), and The Frog Prince (Froschkönig). Beck’s career ended with the Fall of the Wall. He was sixty at that point, and the job opportunities for sixty-year-old, East German directors was nearly nil in the new, capitalist Germany.

Sleeping Beauty was a hit. The most popular DEFA fairytale film since Little Red Riding Hood (Rotkäppchen). The modern touches in the music and costume design helped make the film stand out from the previous fairytale films. It did not receive distribution in America, perhaps because of its strong socialist message, or perhaps because the time of the popularity of fairytale films in the U.S. was on the wane in 1971.

The slumbering princess is played by Juliane Korén. With parents who were also actors, Korén was born to perform. Her father, Hans Klering, was one of the founding members of DEFA. Her mother, Elsa Korén, appeared in several DEFA films, but worked more on stage, primarily with the Theater der Freundschaft (Friendship Theater)—now called the Theater an der Parkaue (Parkaue Theater) next to Lichtenberg Park. Aside from a few feature films roles, including In Spite of Everything! and The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow, Juliane Korén primarily appeared on television in the GDR. After the Wende, she moved to stage, working an as a member of the ensembles in Bochum and Stuttgart. She died in Berlin in 2018.

Dornröschen

Playing the thirteenth fairy is Vera Oelschlegel. Oelschlegel hails from Leipzig, where her mother was head of the district commission for entertainment art, Oelschlegel studied at the the Film Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg and worked at the theater in Putbus before getting a job at DFF—the GDR’s state-owned television station. She appeared in several films and television in East Germany. In 1961, she married playwright Günther Rücker, they were divorced six years later. Her next husband was Hermann Kant, one of the most important writers to come out of East Germany. The divorced in 1976.

But it was Oelschlegel’s next husband that got tongues wagging. Shortly after divorcing Kant she married Konrad Naumann, an SED politburo member. Some accused her of being a golddigger (or whatever you’d call a golddigger in a socialist country), but Oelschlegel didn’t care, she liked the guy and his cheery simplicity was a welcome change from the dour intellectualism of Kant. Naumann and Oelschlegel divorced in 1987, a couple years earlier, Naumann had been kicked out of the politburo, ostensibly for a speech he gave at the Academy of Social Sciences. In fact, it probably had more to do with Naumann’s efforts to relax trade restrictions with the West, a move that the rapidly dying old Soviet leaders opposed. A Soviet Untertan1 like Honecker wasn’t about to do anything to upset these fossils, so his old buddy Naumann had to be let go.

After the Wende, Oelschlegel—along with her long-time partner, dramaturge Gregor Edelmann, and journalist André Plath—founded the Theater des Ostens, a touring theater troupe that performed throughout the Eastern states of Germany. The troupe ceased operation in 2012.

Sleeping Beauty is good film. In many respects, it’s better than the Disney film and the other movie versions of the fairytale. In some respects, it is better than the original fairytale as well. It scratches below the surface of the original story, then asks and answers the difficult questions that the story poses—something that no other version of the tale ever bothered to do. But the most interesting aspect of the film is the idea of a castle completely surrounded by a wall of thorns. Surely, the comparison to the Berlin Wall was not lost on the authorities at DEFA. In 1961, Konrad Petzold and Egon Günther got into hot water for making The Robe (Das Kleid), a fairytale film about a walled castle simply because the officials thought it mimicked the recent building of the Berlin Wall, even though the film was in the can before the Wall went up. Ten years later, there were no such complaints when the wall of thorns (looking very much like barbed wire) grows around the castle in Sleeping Beauty. What a difference a decade makes.

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1. I’ve used the German word Untertan here because there really is no exact English equivalent. For a deeper dive on this subject, check out The Kaiser’s Lackey.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Held for Questioning
The backstory of Held for Questioning (Der Aufenthalt) is the story of a film that was made against all odds, by a director that DEFA had, essentially, written off the books. Frank Beyer was one of the best filmmakers in East Germany. He proved this time and again, with movies such as Five Cartridges, Naked Among Wolves, and Star-Crossed Lovers; all of which were critically acclaimed on both sides of the Iron Curtain, He was also responsible for delivering East Germany’s only Oscar-nominated feature (Jakob the Liar); a film so good that Hollywood was quick to remake it (badly) in their own image. Watch Beyer’s films and you’ll see why. Here’s a director who understands the film medium better than most other directors—West and East.

You’d think this would have made him the darling of DEFA, but that was not how the GDR worked. In 1966, he got in trouble after the 11th Plenum, when the authorities decided that his film Trace of Stones was anti-socialist. Beyer was relegated to TV, and wasn’t allowed to make another feature film until 1974, when he made Jakob the Liar. The film was such a hit that he was allowed to return to feature filmmaking once more.

After Jakob the Liar, he made The Hiding Place (Das Versteck), a romantic comedy inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. It starred the always popular Manfred Krug and Jutta Hoffmann and had nothing particularly controversial in it, but right before the film was slated for release, the East German authorities decided it would be a good idea to expatriate Wolf Biermann while the folksinger was on tour in Cologne. Over one hundred writers, actors, directors, poets and other artists signed a letter of protest against the move. Four of those who signed the letter included Manfred Krug and Jutta Hoffmann—the stars of The Hiding Place—as well as the film’s screenwriter Jurek Becker and director Frank Beyer. The film was given an extremely limited release and quickly shelved. All four people were essentially blacklisted, with Krug, Hoffmann, and Becker moving to West Germany to get away from the work restrictions and constant surveillance. Beyer stayed behind, but once again found himself relegated to the world of television. Perhaps as an act of defiance, he went to West Germany and made a film starring Angelica Domröse and her husband Hilmar Thate, who, like Krug and Hoffmann, had signed the Biermann protest letter, and then left East Germany because of the punitive measures taken against all the signatories. At this point, it looked like Beyer would never be allowed to make another feature film in East Germany.

Der Aufenhalt

One night, while talking to screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Beyer mentioned that he would love to make a movie out of Hermann Kant’s semi-autobiographical novel, Der Aufenthalt (literally, The Stay), but he felt that the book’s interweaving stories would be too unwieldy for a film. Kohlhaase had a solution. “Just focus on the story of Mark Niebuhr, the nineteen-year-old German soldier who, at the end of WWII, is mistakenly identified as an SS officer and thrown into prison.” Beyer liked the idea, but DEFA wasn’t ready to let him back into the fold. They only relented after author Hermann Kant gave DEFA the ultimatum that either Beyer directed the film or no one would. And so, Held for Questioning was made.

As you might guess from the subject matter, Held for Questioning is a grim affair. The story starts in a railway yard, when a women identifies Niebuhr as the SS officer responsible for the murder of her daughter at Lublin. Things go quickly downhill for Niebuhr after that. Nobody will tell him what it is he’s supposed to have done. From his perspective, events are playing out like Franz Kafka’s The Trial. At first he is kept in solitary confinement, then released into the main prison with Polish prisoners who hate him. Later he is moved to the cell containing other German officers, and it is here that he learns of the heinous crimes his fellow inmates committed. He begins to understand that, while not guilty of the charge with which he’s accused, he is, at least, guilty of not bothering to pay attention to what was happening around him, and of helping their actions.

A story like this could be easily ruined by a less talented filmmaker, but Wolfgang Kohlhaase and Frank Beyer are far too good at their craft to fall into that trap. As usual, Kohlhaase leaves enough space between events to let you fill in blanks, and Beyer knows just how to direct it. In one scene, two Polish girls flirt with the handsome young Niebuhr, until they learn what he’s accused of. They look on him in horror. It is also the first time Niebuhr hears just what it is he’s charged with.

The Stay

Playing Mark Niebuhr is Sylvester Groth in his first feature film. Groth’s career in East German films was short. He made his last film for DEFA in 1986 (Das Haus am FlußThe House on the River). While visiting Austria as a guest actor, he decided not to return to the GDR, and began his career in the West. With his expressive and striking features, it didn’t take long for him to find work in West Germany, and then later in Hollywood. He has appeared in numerous films, including Inglourious Basterds, The Reader, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Whisky with Vodka (Whisky mit Wodka) and many more. Recently, he’s become familiar to American television viewers as Walter Schweppenstette in the popular TV series Deutschland 83, and for portraying Walter Ahler in NSU: German History X.

Held for Questioning was a critical success, and won several prizes. It was scheduled to be shown at the 1983 Berlinale, but it was pulled from the film festival and banned from any international distribution after a Polish military attaché denounced the film as anti-Polish. It was nothing of the kind, of course, but the attaché spoke very little German, and objected to the fact that the Germans made a movie in which the protagonist was imprisoned by Polish soldiers. It didn’t help that the Polish military officers were still wearing the same outfits in 1983 that they wore in 1946. With the recent clashes between the Polish government and the Solidarity movement, the film took on an entirely new subtext that neither Beyer nor Kohlhaase had meant or anticipated. After that, it was only allowed to be shown in the the state-owned theaters in East Germany.

In spite of the Polish objections to it, Held for Questioning was a popular film with audiences and critics, and it helped Beyer get back in DEFA’s good graces. Unfortunately, his return to feature films didn’t last long. Six years later, the end of the GDR also meant the end of the careers of many fine East German filmmakers and technicians. Beyer found himself once again relegated to the world of television, this time thanks to the forces of West German exclusivity rather than East German retribution.

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© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Isabel on the Stairs
In 1970, Chile—the most democratic of South American nations—held a presidential election that would change the course of things in that country for the next twenty years and still affects it to this day. The election was a close one. No candidate achieved a majority, but one candidate came out slightly ahead of the others in the popular vote: Salvadore Allende. Allende was a passionate man who believed strongly in socialism and wanted to prove that a country could be both socialist and free. Unfortunately for him, there was one global power that wanted to prove above all else that this was not possible and it would do everything in its power to make sure that this was true. That country was the United States. Even before he was finally elected, the CIA spent millions backing Allende’s opponents in earlier campaigns. When Allende did become president, the U.S. began to systematically disrupt the Argentinian economy. Although that campaign was successful, the rejection of Allende wasn’t forthcoming, so the boys at the CIA helped back a coup to take over Chile and turn that former democracy into a military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. Nice work Uncle Sam.

Once Pinochet started eradicating everyone who disagreed with him, political activists began fleeing the country. Many countries accepted these refugees, including countries that would usually have sided with the U.S. but not this time. Given the fascist nature of Pinochet’s regime and the fact that it was backed by the U.S., it’s not hard to figure out which side the GDR supported. The East German government accepted hundreds of refugees from Chile.1 Isabel on the Stairs (Isabel auf der Treppe) is the story of one of those families and the inevitable culture shock that one faces when exiled in a foreign land.

The film follows the story of Isabel (Irina Gallardo), the daughter of a singer named Rosita Pérez (Teresa Polle). Perez was a famous political singer back in her homeland, but here she’s just another immigrant. She’s as Chilean as can be, and finds it very hard to adapt to life in Germany. When she is asked to perform at a local school, the affair ends badly because the audience of pubescent teens has trouble sitting quietly while listening to a woman sing songs in a language they don’t understand. The songs are deeply emotional and meaningful for Perez, but to the kids they’re just music, and not even the kind of pop they prefer. It’s an honest portrayal of a realistic situation.

Isabel isn’t faring much better. She sits on the stairs every day waiting for a letter from her father back in Chile. We usually see her staring through the metal balustrade, which looks like a jail from that perspective, watching the postal worker slowly climb the stairs to deliver letters to each floor. But is the jail of her own making? The movie leaves that up to the viewer to decide.

Isabel auf der Treppe

Isabel does have one friend though: Philipp (Mario Krüger), the son of the Kunze’s, the family that sponsored Isabel and her mother. When the two families first met, everyone was excited and happy, but over time the Kunze’s and Mrs. Pérez have become virtual strangers. The Kunzes are good people, but their initial joy at meeting Rosa and Isabel has faded. The two cultures are so different that long term friendships require more effort than anyone is willing to put into the relationship. Mrs. Pérez shuts herself off from the outside world and waits to hear from her husband. Knowing what we know about the Pinochet regime, we already know that the odds of him surviving are slim.

Isabel on the Stairs is directed by Hannelore Unterberg, who, along with Ingrid Reschke, Iris Gusner, Evelyn Schmidt, and—towards the end of the GDR’s existence—Helke Misselwitz was one of the few women actively working as a director at DEFA. As discussed previously, although East Germany was better than the West about addressing women’s issues on film, they were still primarily a boys’ club when it came to hiring directors. During its final years, Unterberg was the most active of the female directors. She studied cinematography at the Film University in Babelsberg (Filmuniversität Babelsberg) and worked throughout the seventies as an assistant director. Most of her films at DEFA were aimed at children, with titles such as Concert for Frying Pan and Orchestra (Konzert für Bratpfanne und Orchester), The Boy with the Big Black Dog (Der Junge mit dem großen schwarzen Hund), and Darn Misfortune! (Verflixtes Mißgeschick!). With the Fall of the Wall, Unterberg’s career hit the usual West German roadblocks. Most of her work since then has been for television.

The script for the film was written by Waldtraut Lewin, who worked as a dramaturge at operas and in theater before becoming a successful writer. She specialized in books for young people that both promoted tolerance and were historically accurate. Isabel on the Stairs was originally a radio play and won a Golden Sparrow (Goldener Spatz) award at the annual German Children’s Media Festival in Gera. After the Wende, she continued to write. Many of her books, especially after the Wende, are historical tales about the struggles of Jews throughout history. Lewin died in Berlin in 2017 at the age of eighty.

The cinematography was handled by Eberhard Geick, whose career received a big boost when Konrad Wolf chose him as the cinematographer for Solo Sunny, marking the first time Wolf used a cinematographer other than Werner Bergmann to shoot a film. Wolf chose Geick because of his eye for the tenements of Berlin, an eye he gets to demonstrate again here. He also worked on Held for Questioning and Miraculi. During the GDR’s final years, Geick was one of the few who was able to work on both sides of the Wall. Perhaps for this reason, after the Wende, Geick was able to continue working on films, although, like most other East German talent, he mostly worked in television after this.

Isabel on the Stairs

For most of the Chilean actors in the film, Isabel on the Stairs is the only feature film in which they appeared. Irina Gallardo made no more films for DEFA and moved back to Chile as soon as it was safe to do so. She continues to perform, but has made no more movies. Teresa Polle, who played Rosita Pérez appeared in smaller roles in a few more German TV films and shows. In the 2016 film Películas Escondidas (Hidden Films), some of the Chilean actors who worked on films for DEFA and the DFF are interviewed. Most remember their time in East Germany favorably, finding the GDR more secure and attentive to their needs than Chile.

The German actors in the film included Jenny Gröllmann, Jaecki Schwarz, and Barbara Dittus. Only Schwarz is still alive, and is better known these days for playing the former East German Volkspolizei turned hustler “Sputnik” on the crime show Ein starkes Team (which translates to “A Strong Team”—here’s a show that will definitely need a new name if it ever comes to the States). In an inverse of what happened to most East German actors after the Wall came down, Mario Krüger’s career as actor didn’t really take off until after 2001, when he started to appear on several popular television shows.

Given the current climate surrounding immigration, and the recent events in Venezuela, Isabel on the Stairs is as timely today as it was in 1984. It does a good job of showing the difficulties involved in being an immigrant without candy-coating it or making excuses. It also serves as a reminder of what can happen when the United States backs coup d’états.

Special thanks are in order here to Dr. Claudia Sandberg for her invaluable help with this article. Dr. Sandberg teaches at the University of Melbourne and is one of the world’s foremost authorities on German, Chilean and Argentine cinema and in transnational cinematic relations between Europe and Latin America. She was the co-director with Alejandro Areal Vélez of the 2016 documentary Películas Escondidas (Hidden Films), an investigation into German-Chilean visual material produced in East Germany in the seventies and eighties in collaboration with Chilean emigre artists.

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1. Exact figures were hard to find, but the number was probably in the thousands. One of these refugees was Michelle Bachelet, who later returned to Chile and went on to become the first female President of Chile. When asked about her time in East Germany, she speaks of it fondly of it and says “the time I spent in Potsdam and Leipzig was a very happy part of my life.”

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reise ins Ehebett
East Germany had a difficult relationship with musicals. As with western audiences, the East German public enjoyed musicals and paid to go see them. The box office was good for nearly all the musicals DEFA made but the art form is so inherently frivolous that it drove the more stodgy politicians crazy. Making fairytale films for children was one thing, but making happy fantasies for adults, that was bourgeois formalism!1

Nonetheless—and in spite of the East German government’s claims to the contrary—money could still dictate which films got made and musicals were a good investment. So it was that in 1965, director Joachim Hasler was hired to make Journey into the Nuptial Bed (Reise ins Ehebett), as formulaic a musical as East Germany would ever produce. The film is the story of a handsome young boatswain on a merchant marine ship (Claus Jurichs) who has a habit of bedding a different woman in every port, causing no end of troubles for the captain and affecting the morale of the rest of the crew. In classic movie musical fashion, the ship’s captain (Günther Simon) devises a plan to get the boatswain to fall in love, thus ending his romantic dalliances. To help him with this plan, he enlists Eva (Anna Prucnal) an attractive polish journalist who agrees to seduce the boatswain and then drop him. Secretly, the captain is hoping the two actually fall in love with each other, thus ending his problems. But fate has something else in store. When Mary Lou (Eva-Maria Hagen), a sexy redhead who sings at the Shark Bar, sneaks onto the ship in pursuit of the boatswain, things get complicated.

Reise in ehebett

The film is directed by Joachim Hasler, who got his start as a cinematographer, working on such classic DEFA films as The Invincibles, The Sailors’ Song, and The Silent Star. Hasler got his first taste of directing when Arthur Pohl was severely injured while working on Spielbank-Affäre (Casino Affair) and couldn’t finish the movie. Hasler took over and found he had a knack for directing. He went on to direct several more films for DEFA, sometimes acting as both cinematographer and director. He scored his biggest hit in 1968 with Hot Summer. This led to a long career as a director of light comedy, but his 1964 film Story of a Murder proved that he was just as adept at drama. His career ended with the Fall of the Wall. He died in 1995.

Claus Jurichs as the handsome boatswain bears a strong resemblance to Jean-Claude Van Damme. Jurichs is unique among German actors at the time. He lived in West Berlin and continued to work on East German films after the Wall was built. He was better known in the GDR, where he appeared in lead roles in several TV-movies. In the FRG he mostly worked in TV and dubbing. He worked in various capacities on several German sexploitation films, including Females for Hire (voice only), Swingin’ Swappers, The Sinful Bed, Reflections from a Brass Bed, and Caged Women (voice only). He also worked extensively dubbing American TV shows into German. He was the voice of McGarrett on the original Hawaii Five-O series and the voice of Cliff Barnes on Dallas. Jurichs died in 2005.

Journey into the Nuptial Bed

Günther Simon, Anna Prucnal, and Eva-Maria Hagen—the other three members of the romantic quartet—have been discussed at length here in previous posts (Günther Simon in The Ernst Thälmann Films, Anna Prucnal in The Flying Dutchman, and Eva-Maria Hagen in Don’t Forget My Little Traudel). Playing the fifth wheel in this story of romantic coupling, is singer Frank Schöbel. Although Schöbel was already a well-known figure on East German television, his ability to act was untested. He pulled it off and Journey into the Nuptial Bed helped launch his career in movies. He appeared two years later in Wedding Night in the Rain (Hochzeitsnacht im Regen) and the year after that in the classic Hot Summer. Like many other East German stars, the Wende wasn’t kind to him but he eventually reconnected with his audience and now appears regularly on television, especially at Christmas time.

Journey into the Nuptial Bed did well at the box office, but it was 1966, the year that the 11th Plenum was responsible for shelving or cancelling most of the good films DEFA produced, Aside from a some children’s films and formulaic crime films, the only other film from the East Germany production company that made into theaters that year was their first Indianerfilm The Sons of the Great Bear.

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1. Formalism was a common complaint against films in East Germany. Politburo types threw the term around so often that it eventually lost any meaning. The term was often used to attack any movie whose entertainment value was greater than its social relevance.

Minna von Barnhelm
Not surprisingly, most of the films that came out of the DEFA studios in East Germany were concerned with the twentieth century, that being the century when old orders were overthrown in favor of various versions of Marxist philosophy. A few films went back as far as the late-nineteenth century, but concluded with the Second World War. Films that went further back than that were almost always fairytale films and operas but there were a few exceptions. One was Minna von Barnhelm, or the Soldier’s Fortune (Minna von Barnhelm, oder das Soldatenglück), which takes place in 1763, a few months after the Treaty of Hubertusburg put an end to the conflict between Prussia and Austria and drew to the Seven Years’ War to a close.

The film follows the misadventures of Major von Tellheim (Otto Mellies), who used his estate to help finance the war and now finds that the king won’t honor that debt, leaving him in serious debt. He was planning to marry Minna von Barnhelm of the play’s title (Marita Böhme), but now feels he cannot. Tellheim has been staying at a local inn, but loses his room to a lady and her chambermaid because he can’t pay the rent. The lady turns out to be Minna, who soon discovers that her beloved had sold his ring to help pay his debts. Tellheim does not want to marry Minna in poverty, and his pride won’t allow him to accept help from anyone. In an attempt to level the playing field, Minna pretends to be penniless too. The deceptions on both sides are helped along by Tellheim’s faithful friend and war buddy Sergeant-Major Werner (Manfred Krug), and Minna’s Chambermaid Franziska (Christel Bodenstein). Pretty soon, romance starts budding between the two accomplices.

The film is based on Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s play of the same name. The play was immensely popular in Germany and has been filmed several times (usually for television). In Germany, it continues to be performed to this day. Goethe even performed in a production of it when he was young. Playwright Lessing was born in Kamenz, near Dresden. He was the son of Lutheran minister and he went at the University of Leipzig where he studied theology, medicine, philosophy, and philology, which is a helluva course-load. There he met Friederike Caroline Neuber, an actress of renown in Germany. Neuber enlisted Lessing to translate French plays into German for her. Lessing became fascinated with the form and soon was writing his own plays. Along with Minna von Barnhelm, many of these plays are still performed today, including Emilia Galotti, Nathan the Wise, and Miss Sara Sampson.

Minna von Barnhelm

Almost all of the films Martin Hellberg directed were costume pieces, so it’s not surprising that Hellberg got his start in theater. Born in Dresden, Hellberg worked as a machinist until 1924, when he was hired by the Sächische Staatstheater in Dresden. He kept the job as general manager there until 1933, when Hitler came to power. Lessing was fired because he was a member of the German Communist Party. Thereafter, he held several jobs, often losing them because of his political beliefs. Like nearly every other able-bodied man in Germany, he was eventually drafted into the war effort. After the war, Hellberg went back to the theater. In 1952, he moved into films, directing The Condemned Village (Das verurteilte Dorf), a film about a town’s protest against a forced eviction in West Germany by the American military.1 Hellberg went on to direct several more films, including The Story of a Young Couple, The Ox of Kulm (Der Ochse von Kulm), The Judge of Zalamea (Der Richter von Zalamea), Emilia Galotti, and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (Viel Lärm um nichts). After the Shakespeare film, Hellberg decided to hang up his director’s hat and work exclusively as an actor. His roles included Arturo in Pinocchio, Goethe in Lotte in Weimar, and the old professor in Mephisto. Hellberg was still working when the Wall came down, but he was already well into his eighties by that point. He died in 1999.

Playing the excessively proud Major Tellheim is Otto Mellies. Born in 1931, Mellies attend the drama school in Schwerin from 1947 until 1949 and began appearing in on stage soon thereafter. He became a regular member on the company at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, and remained a member of the company for fifty years. Mellies got his first movie role in 1955 in Sommerliebe (Summer Love), a minor East German rom-com. His first major role was in Martin Hellberg’s film adaptation of Schilller’s Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love). The Wende had less effect on Mellies’ career than many of his fellow DEFA actors. Since 1989, he continued to appear films and TV-movies, as well as providing the voice for the German dubs of everyone from Paul Newman to Christopher Lee.2

Manfred Krug turns in an entertaining performance as Tellheim’s trusty sidekick Werner (for more on Krug, see his Obituary). The character of Werner is based on Paul von Werner, a Prussian officer who gained fame for his bravery in the Seven Years War and later went on to become the commander of Naugarten in Brandenburg. He died in 1785 and is buried in Toszek—now part of Poland.

Minna von Barnhelm

As Werner’s love interest Franziska, Christel Bodenstein is, if anything too pretty. She takes over the screen every time she appears. This isn’t a knock against Marita Böhme, but Böhme’s beauty is thoroughly modern and she looks out of place in eighteenth century garb, whereas Bodenstein seems right at home here, perhaps thanks to her previous forays into fairytale films (see Midnight Revue for more on Christel Bodenstein). Interestingly, Böhme and Bodenstein each played the love interest for Manfred Krug twice in 1962. Böhme as his love interest in On the Sunny Side (her first movie) and Knock-Out (Der Kinnhaken—literally: “The Sock in the Jaw”), and Bodenstein in Minna von Bernhelm and Midnight Revue.

One of the most remarkable things about Minna von Barnhelm is its cinematography and lighting. The images are sharp and colorful. So sharp, in fact, that I began to think that the motion smoothing feature on my TV had somehow turned itself back on (it hadn’t).3 The camera chases the actors around, following them from room to room, and occasionally engaging in dizzying POV shots. It’s not surprising, then, that the cinematographer in charge was Karl Plintzner, one of the very best cinematographers at DEFA. He was also responsible for the colorful cinematography of The Singing, Ringing Tree, New Year’s Eve Punch, and The Golden Goose. It’s also not surprising that around this time more portable Mitchell cameras (or Soviet knock-offs) were becoming available to the cinematographers at DEFA.

Reviews of Hellberg’s film were positive, with critics feeling he did justice to the play without tacking socialist dialectics onto it. In some respects, this play seems like just the type of romantic comedy that Hollywood would have been all over in the fifties. Likewise, it’s surprising that the BBC hasn’t turned this play into TV-movie.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy or stream this movie.


1. Ironically, while the film was still playing in cinemas, virtually the same scenario was playing out in the East German town of Streufdorf where troops were enlisted to quell a protest against the forced eviction of residents.

2. It should be noted that Christopher Lee actually speaks very good German, but he does have an accent, which is the reason for the dubbing.

3. Motion smoothing, or motion interpolation is a feature of HDTVs that is useful for getting a clear, blur-free picture when you’re watching football, but plays hob with the quality of a motion picture image. It is sometimes referred to as the “soap opera effect” because of its impact on an image. Movie people hate it. So much so that Tom Cruise recently appeared in a video with Mission Impossible – Fallout director Chris McQuarrie to tell people to turn it off when watching movies.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Ganymed Restaurant


Just off the Schiffbauerdamm, a street that runs along the River Spree on the north side of the river, sits the Berliner Ensemble Theater. It was founded in 1954, after Bertolt Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel left the Deutsches Theater to start their own theater. It was an ambitious project featuring a revolving stage built on the wheels of a Soviet T-34 tank supplied by the Soviet troops in East Berlin. By this time, Brecht was in ill health and died a couple years later but the theater continues to this day.

Next door to the theater sat the Ganymed Restaurant, where the members of the theater troupe and intellectuals of every stripe would go to discuss everything from dialectical materialism to food shortages. After the Wall came down, the restaurant closed. It was in this shuttered restaurant, in early nineties, that director Peter Voigt set his film Dusk: 1950s East Berlin Bohemia (Dämmerung – Ostberliner Boheme der 50er Jahre). Now that the Wall was gone, Voigt assembled old friends and acquaintances to talk about what Berlin was like in the days before the Wall went up.

The film starts with the funeral of Wolf Kaiser, a character actor who appeared in dozens of East German films and television shows. A West German by birth who grew up in Switzerland, Kaiser moved to East Germany after Bertolt Brecht hired him to work at the Deutsches Theater where he became renowned for his portrayal of Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera. Kaiser believed in the values of the GDR. When the Wall fell and the West took over East Germany, broadcasting daily reports on the corruption of the leaders of the SED, and leaving many East Germans unemployed, Kaiser began wondering if it all had been worth it. He answered that question by jumping out a window to his death.

Dusk
Heinz-Dieter Knaup and Stefan Lisewski

Most of the action centers around three venues—the Ganymed, Hajo’s Bar, and the Möwe. Each had its own scene with its own regulars. By far the most interesting was Hajo’s Bar, which catered to artists, oddballs, and political types. You could tell by the responses of the people being interviewed that Hajo’s Bar was the favorite. At least until Hajo got fed up with the Stasi trying to get him to spy on people in the bar and decided to move to the West.

Former East German fashion model Barbara Lübbert, film critic Jutta Voigt, and translator Ingrid Lechner (who was still a student at the time) sit together and discuss what it was like to be a young women on the town in East Berlin during that period. While it’s well documented that East Germany did a better job of offering women equal opportunities than West Germany did, the women interviewed here were largely treated as arm candy. The only other woman interviewed is Brecht and Weigel’s daughter Barbara Brecht-Schall, who didn’t spend her time in the bars and discusses other aspects of pre-Wall life in East Germany.

The memories are both good and bad, creating a complex picture of what life in the fifties in East Berlin. The people interviewed include actors Ekkehard Schall, Rolf Ludwig, and Stefan Lisewski; and artists Rudi Ebeling and Kurt Mühle.

Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler
Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler tickles the ivories.

The most surprising appearance here is Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, the host of the notorious Der schwarze Kanal (The Black Channel), a weekly TV show that looked at the broadcasts coming out of the West from a socialist perspective. Schnitzler comes across as relaxed and congenial here and expresses dismay at the Statsi’s decision to try and bully the owner of Hajo’s Bar into spying on his clientele. In later post-Wende interviews, Schnitzler would get more and more defensive, He was, after all, the man who narrated Look at This City—a 1962 documentary that argues for the importance of the Wall. We get a very different view of Schnitzler in Stasiland, Anna Funder’s book of interviews with former Stasi officials, IMs and supporters of the SED.1

As film historian Claus Löser points out in one of the essays that comes with the Dusk DVD, the German word for dusk—Dämmerung—is the same word for dawn. Presumably, Voigt intended this double meaning. Discussing the days right before the Wall went up at a time immediately after the Wall came down. What Voigt doesn’t answer is which of these is the dawn and which is the dusk.

Peter Voigt was the son of a theater director and went to school to study art. In 1953 he met Bertolt Brecht and became his personal assistant a year later. Still in his early twenties, Voigt, like most personal assistants, was an asshat, full of himself and sure he knew best. When Lotte Lenya came to visit Brecht in 1955, it was Voigt who refused to let her in. Mercifully, time tempered Voigt’s egomania, but not his obsession with Brecht, which continued throughout his life.

Dusk
(l. to r.) Jutta Voigt, Barbara Lübbert, and Ingrid Lechner

Since much of the film consists of people sitting and talking, with occasional inserts of photographs and street scenes, Voigt tries to keep things visually interesting by shifting the locations, backgrounds, and the camera’s distances from the speakers. There’s little use handheld cameras here. Most of the time, the camera is locked down for the duration of a shot. Sometimes the interviewees sit at a piano, sometimes they stand, and sometimes they sit at the bar. Occasionally, Voigt lets the screen go black for a couple seconds, as if to suggest the natural gaps in memories of forty-year-old events, but it could also be interpreted as a nod to the ever-present danger of censorship.

Like many of the films about East Germany that came out right after the Wende, the film went largely ignored. West Germans weren’t interested and East Germans weren’t ready to talk about it. It was only later that the film was recognized as a important testament to the time in East Berlin right before the Wall went up. The DEFA Library at UMass at Amherst has released the film on DVD. Included on the disk is The Favorite, a short film about Peter Voigt by Alexandra Czok. Since the movie was filmed, the Ganymed restaurant has reopened and rechristened itself a “Brasserie,” catering to high-end diners.


1. Of course, with a title like Stasiland, it’s clear that Anna Funder came to the table with a specific perspective already in place. Nonetheless, the book is required reading for anyone interested in East Germany and its history.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.