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.

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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.

IMDB page for this film.

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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.

IMDB page for the film.

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DVD
Blu-Ray
Czech with English subtitles.

Stream film on Veoh (German version).

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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Verfehlung
The final years of East Germany’s existence saw a relaxing of the restrictions on what could be filmed and what couldn’t. After the Wende, DEFA continued to exist for a few years, and continued to make films using the same stable of technicians and actors, but now they could make films about the one thing that was always taboo in the GDR: The government itself. We saw tentative steps in this direction with The Tango Player, which was also made after reunification, but that was more of a look at a certain time in East Germany’s history rather than an indictment of the system. The Latest from the Da-Da-eR was more acerbic, but Mensching & Wenzel were equal opportunity mockers, so their film was as hard on the West as it was on the East. Leave it to Heiner Carow to come out with both barrels blazing with The Mistake (Verfehlung). There’s no misinterpreting who the bad guy is here—he’s an East German government official who uses the power of his position for his own petty vendetta.

The Mistake follows the adventures and misadventures of Elisabeth Bosch, a tough widow who works as a cleaning lady for the mayor of a dying East German town. The mayor, whose name is Reimelt, is secretly in love with Elisabeth, but never does anything to show it until a West German stranger named Jacob Alain shows up in town. Alain is from Hamburg, and is in the town on business. He first notices Elisabeth while she is playing with her two grandsons in her backyard. The woman and the two kids are naked, and she’s not happy with the sudden attention of a stranger. Later, she runs into him at the mayor’s office, and the couple’s relationship gets off to a rocky start. Eventually, they start to like each other, causing Riemelt to takes steps to prevent the couple from seeing each other, sparking a series of events that turn fatal.

The title of this film is impossible to translate adequately into English. It is translated for the DVD into The Mistake, but Verfehlung can also be translated as Misconduct, Transgression, or even Bad Judgement. Carow plays on all of these meanings, and he does so for all sides of the story. Is the mistake Elisabeth’s? The mayor’s? Or the GDR’s? There are plenty of mistakes to go around. One Verfehlung leads to another in a downward spiral.

The Mistake

The Mistake is based on a novella by Werner Heiduczek. Director Heiner Carow started working on this film as a project before the Wall came down, but Heiduczek also often wrote about the problems encountered by gay people in East German society. Carow thought that a film about the gay scene in Berlin stood a better chance of getting made than one about an evil government official, so he decided to make his next film on that subject instead. The film was Coming Out, which went on to win Silver Bear and Teddy awards at the Berlinale. After the Wende, Carow returned to The Mistake, recognizing a rare opportunity to make this film. The East German government was now a thing of the past, but DEFA was still making movies, usually in association with West German production companies. It was around this time that DEFA was sold to the French conglomerate Compagnie Générale des Eaux (now Vivendi). There were a few more DEFA films in the pipeline, but the valve was shut.

The film stars Angelica Domröse, who is always worth watching. Domröse had left East Germany in 1980, following the Wolf Biermann protest letter incident (see The Story of a Murder for more on Domröse). This was her first DEFA film in twelve years, and she gives it her all. Jacob Alain is portrayed by West German actor Gottfried John, who will be familiar to many filmgoers as one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s regulars, appearing in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, In a Year with 13 Moons, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and other Fassbinder films. The weaselly mayor Riemelt is played by Jörg Gudzuhn, an East German character actor who appeared in many movies and television shows. He is best known in Germany now for his portrayal of Kommissar Joe Hoffer in the popular TV series Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness).

The Mistake would be Heiner Carow’s last film for DEFA, and his last feature film, period. He used much of the same core group of technicians on this film that he used on Coming Out, including his wife Evelyn Carow, one of the best film editors in East Germany, his son Stefan, a talented musician in his own right, and cinematographer Martin Schlesinger. Also here is Dirk Kummer, who worked as both an actor and assistant director in both films.

The Mistake

After this, Heiner Carow would work only in television, mostly on series shows, but he did direct Fähre in den Tod (Ferry to Death)—a TV-movie about the Estonia ferry tragedy, the deadliest peacetime shipwreck in European waters (sadly, not available with English subtitles). That film would be Evelyn Carow’s last movie. Stefan Carow, meanwhile, has moved to Los Angeles where he continues to compose and perform. Martin Schlesinger works primarily in television these days, as does Dirk Kummer, who has mostly continued to work as an assistant director, but recently sat in the director’s chair for the TV movie Zuckersand, which just won the award for best TV movie at the Munich International Film festival (Filmfest München).

The Mistake is sometimes compared to Heiner Carow’s earlier film, The Legend of Paul and Paula. There are some similarities. Both Paula and Elisabeth are part of the East German working class1, and both characters are little too passionate for their own good (although in Paula’s case, that passion hurts only her); but it is more similar to another Angelica Domröse film—Joachim Hasler’s The Story of a Murder. In that film, Domröse also plays a woman who seeks revenge on the man who destroyed her life in much the same way. Since The Story of a Murder takes place in West Germany, the East German authorities had no problems presenting the political official as evil, but The Mistake takes place in East Germany. There’s no way it would have seen the light of day before the Wall came down.

Unfortunately for this film, it came out at a time when no one wanted to hear anything about how things were in the GDR. The film only saw 8,208 paying customers according to one source. Coming, as it did, after reunification, but before Ostalgie, the film died a quick death at the box office and is largely forgotten today. The film certainly deserves more attention and will, hopefully, some day receive it.

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1. East Germany, of course, prided itself on having done away with class structure, but, in fact, one still existed. Those working in menial jobs did not have the same perks as the so-called intelligentsia, or the people in political offices.

How to Marry a King
Right from the opening credits, How to Marry a King (Wie heiratet man einen König?) lets us know that this is not going to be like any DEFA fairytale film that came before it. It starts in the real outdoors, not a film set, with long shots of a woman being kicked out of her house by her father. This is overlaid by credits that go on to list not only the stars of the film, but every animal that appears in it, right down earthworms and a beetle. A few of the animals are even listed by name.

The film is based on the Grimm Brothers fairytale, The Peasant’s Clever Daughter (Die kluge Bauerntochter). Both the film and the story tell of a farmer’s daughter who manages to outwit the local king, a man who prides himself on his cleverness. The king marries the woman, but then discovers she uses her cleverness to countermand his edicts. He banishes her from his castle and tells her she can only take one thing with her, but the woman has one more trick up her sleeve.

How to Marry a King is a tricky story to pull off. On one hand, the king has to be arrogant and full of himself, but he also has to be likable enough to make it believable and understandable that the farmer’s daughter would fall in love with him. That’s a tall order. It works here thanks to the film’s slapstick comedy and Eberhard Esche’s entertaining performance. He is not really a bad person; just a bit full of himself. It’s still a little mystifying as to why she would love him, but considering her environment, I’d say it was partly a case of slim pickings.

How to Marry a King

Looking for all the world like Françoise Hardy here is Cox Habbema playing the Farmer’s Daughter. A Dutch actress, Habbema started her university life as a law student, but then decided to become an actress. She went to East Berlin to perform in a play at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin where she met and fell in love with her co-star, Eberhard Esche. How to Marry a King was Esche and Habbema’s first film together, but it wouldn’t be their last. Esche and Habbema made five more movies together. In 1976, the duo was preparing to make another fairytale film, this time for television, but the plans were scuttled after Ecke and Habbema signed the letter protesting the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. Perhaps because of her law background, Habbema decided to sue DFF and won. She worked on a few more films in East Germany, but like several other of the stars who signed the protest letter, she got tired of the constant surveillance and greylisting and decided to move back to the Netherlands.

How to Marry a King was Rainer Simon’s first feature film, and this is one of the reasons that it looks so different from the previous DEFA Märchenfilme. Simon threw out the rule book on how to film a fairytale. Gone are the flat, under-adorned sets of films such as Frau Holle and King Thrushbeard. Gone are the stage-bound sets of The Singing, Ringing Tree and Little Red Riding Hood. In this film, if something happens outdoors, it’s filmed outdoors. Aside from a few indoor scenes, everything takes place in real environments. Also missing is the every-hair-in-place quality of the previous films. The characters here are messy and ugly. Their clothes are rumpled and look worn in. Some of the people look like they came straight from the paintings of Bosch and Bruegel.

Born in Saxony near the end of World War II, Rainer Simon’s parents were divorced when he was still young, and Simon grew up with his mother. He joined the SED party at seventeen, and went to the film school in Babelsberg in the early sixties. After graduating, Simon worked as an assistant director on Ralf Kirsten’s The Lost Angel and Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. His first film proposal to DEFA was to make a film of Horst Bastian’s novel Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality). Unfortunately, his proposal came right after the 11th Plenum, when anything even a little bit daring was considered taboo. His proposal was nixed (although a film of Outlaw Morality would eventually be made by Erwin Stranka in 1976). Simon went on to make several memorable films for DEFA, including How Six Made Their Way in the World, Till Eulenspiegel, and Jadup and Boel, the last of which was banned for seven years in East Germany. His film The Woman and the Stranger won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and introduced him to an international audience. After the Wende, Simon made one more film for DEFA (Der Fall Ö.) before the film company was dissolved. After that, Simon went to Ecuador, where he had previously made the historical drama The Ascent of Chimborazo (Die Besteigung des Chimborazo). There, he made a trilogy of films about the native people in that country. For many years, he was a guest professor at the film school in Babelsberg, and continues to live in the area.

How to Marry a King

Not surprisingly, the East German film review board was not particularly happy with this film. They accused it “formalism”—an essentially meaningless term used when somebody doesn’t like a movie, but doesn’t have a well-reasoned explanation for it. They also felt that the film was not entirely suitable for children. This argument carries a little more weight. It’s quite possibly the only children’s film that features an adult woman swimming in the nude, and the wedding scene is both prolonged and Felliniesque, with a boy urinating in a fountain and a nun getting drunk.

The film managed to squeak by the review board after some positive test screenings. It did well where it played, and probably would have done even better if DEFA had done more to promote it. The film was never shown in the West until after the Wende and has never received American distribution. How to Marry a King sits in a strange place in the world of movies. It is not exactly a kids film, and it is not exactly an adult film either. It is unique and entertaining, and for those reasons alone it should be seen by more people.

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Karriere
Director Heiner Carow hated Career. He only made it to salvage his footage from The Russians are Coming after that film was banned by the East German authorities. Along with footage from his own film, Carow adds newsreel footage from other sources1 to fashion a film about a businessman in West Germany named Günter Walcher who tries to stay politically neutral, but finds his morals challenged by the decisions of others. Walcher is being pressured by his higher-ups to fire a man because of his left-leaning politics. To make matters worse, Walcher’s son has joined the National Democratic Party of Germany (NDP), an ultra-right-wing political party that treads dangerously close to Nazism. Through the use of flashbacks (the footage from The Russians Are Coming) we learn that Walcher’s reticence to fire the employee comes from an incident in his youth, where his actions led to the death of a Russian boy.

The film features folk songs by West German satirist Dietrich Kittner. Whether by accident or intentionally, the use of Kittner’s songs make one think of another folksinger who could have provided songs for this film: Wolf Biermann. Both were politically to the left, and both men were good at composing sarcastic songs about the hypocrisy and elitism of the people in charge. But in 1970, when this film was made, Biermann was being blacklisted by the East German government. Unlike Kittner, who restricted his attacks to the West, Biermann was an equal opportunity mocker, allergic to pompousness regardless of his target’s position on the political spectrum. That’s not to say Kittner didn’t have run-ins with the authorities. He was kicked out of the SPD because of his politics, and he protested vociferously against the German Emergency Acts (Notstandsgesetze) that were passed in 1968, legislation that was seen by some as an attempt to reinstate some of the laws that helped Hitler comes to power.

Career

Career is laced with newsreel footage of people demonstrating against the German Emergency Acts, giving the strong impression that the laws were passed thanks to the ex-Nazis that were allowed to return to political offices in West Germany. West Germans cried foul, saying the film did not paint a true representation of things in the West, but a 2016 study found that 77% of senior ministry officials in 1957 were former members of the Nazi party. “We didn’t expect the figure to be this high,” said Christoph Safferling, a law professor at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg. Safferling’s statement betrays his West German roots—no East German would be surprised by this number at all.

Because Career was made for a German audience, it assumes a knowledge of the events in Germany at that time, and some familiarity with people such as Franz Josef Strauss and Georg Ziegler.2 Made in 1971, the film came at the tail-end of the German student movement protests that swept West Germany in the late sixties—the so-called 68er-Bewegung movement that led the way to the development of the Red Army Faction. Much of the newsreel footage is shown without explanation. This assumption that the viewers know about the student protests movements of 1968, or the rise of the NPD party keeps the plot moving forward, but might leave young viewers and audiences from other countries slightly confused about some of the comments and actions in the film.

The older Walcher is played by Horst Hiemer, a popular character actor in East Germany. Trained as a theater actor (as were most of the better DEFA actors), he worked for many years at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. On film, Hiemer tended to play honest officials and workers when he was younger, and dishonest officials and policeman as he got older. He was one of the many actors who signed the protest letter against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. For some, signing this letter spelled the end of their careers, but the only effect it seemed to have on Hiemer was he tended to play bad guys more often after that. Hiemer continued to perform at the Deutsches Theater until 2001, and continued to appear in films and on television until 2005.

Karriere

Career was the first film for Rüdiger Joswig, who played Walcher’s son. Unlike some East German actors, Joswig’s career as an actor continued after the Wende with barley a hiccup. He continued to appear in dozens of television shows. More recently, he’s been doing readings with his wife and fellow actor Claudia Wenzel.

Besides the songs of Dietrich Kittner, Career also features a score by Peter Gotthardt, who is best known for writing the music for The Legend of Paula and Paula. Unlike the pop tunes in that film, here he seems to be channeling Ennio Morricone, with soaring trumpet melodies backed by a full orchestra. Since reunification, Gotthardt has worked freelance, founding his own music publishing house, and providing music for everything from feature films to educational reels.

A director brings their own baggage to every project. For Carow, Career was a dilution of a story he wanted to tell. It doesn’t help that most of the new footage consists of Walcher simply staring into space while a voiceover narration lets us know his inner thoughts, or two shots of people arguing. Nonetheless—and regardless of Carow’s opinion—Career is a remarkable film; equal to, and in some respects superior to The Russians Are Coming. It deserves more attention, but it has been largely ignored. IMDB, for instance, treats the film as the second half of The Russians Are Coming, and does not even list the film on their site. As one might expect, West Germans didn’t care much for the film, calling it a gross exaggeration of life in West Germany—a criticism now leveled by East Germans at films such as The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin!

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1. Most of the footage is taken from the East German documentary Absolution, and the Soviet documentary Triumph Over Violence (Обыкновенный фашизм).

2. This tendency to assume knowledge of the news and historical events in a film’s country of origin is true everywhere, but the Germans take it to another level. This is not unique to the films of DEFA.