Rumpelstiltskin
Kunz (Karl-Heinz Rothin) is a lazy miller who prefers to let his assistant Hans (Reinhard Michalke) do all the milling. When Hans can’t keep up and the farmers refuse to pay, the miller falls behind in his payments to the king. Kunz tells the king’s treasurer not to worry, because his daughter Marie (Karin Lesch) can spin straw into gold. The king locks Marie up in the castle and forces her to prove this claim. Faced with the impossible task, the young woman despairs until a little man appears and offers to help her. He just asks for a few things. His requests start small but things escalate when the little man asks for Marie’s first-born child.

As the movie’s title indicates, Rumpelstiltskin is based on the classic fairytale by the Brothers Grimm. A literal translation of the movie’s title from German would “The Little Magic Man” (Das Zaubermännchen) not Rumpelstilzchen—the German title of the story. The name change is not a whim. The film is based on a stage play that takes enough liberties with the original to make it a different story. In the Grimm’s version, Rumpelstiltskin is a nasty piece of work who gets his comeuppance in the end. In some versions of the story he tears himself to pieces, in others he simply runs away.

In DEFA’s version of the little man is the good guy. While Rumpelstiltskin does spin straw into gold, he also cautions Marie that the road to happiness has nothing to do with wealth. When he comes to get Marie’s baby son, he says it is because he doesn’t want the child to grow up surrounded by such greedy people. In the original story, Rumpelstiltskin’s true name is discovered after a friend of the Miller’s daughter has a messenger follow him into the woods and the messenger hears him singing. In this one, it’s more of a community effort, but it’s still Marie’s best friend who finds out the little fellow’s name. When confronted with his name, the little man merely wags his finger, satisfied that everyone has learned his lesson about the dangers of pursuing wealth.

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin was directed by Christoph Engel. Engel is better known as an actor. This film is his only credit as director. Perhaps after this exercise, Engel decided that directing wasn’t really his thing. It is acknowledged that the film’s cinematographer Erwin Anders had a lot to do with getting the film finished. Like most of the better cinematographers at DEFA, Anders got his start working in a photo lab. During the Third Reich years, he oversaw the Zeiss-Ikon facility in Dresden. After the War, he started working as a cinematographer, under the tutelage of master cinematographer Karl Plintzner. Anders was a talented cinematographer who strove for a natural look and avoided the over-saturated colors of Plintzner’s fairytale films. He might have had a longer career in films, but he didn’t start working for DEFA until he was nearly fifty. He died in 1972.

The Miller’s daughter is played by Karin Lesch, who made a few films for DEFA, but primarily worked in theater. Lesch comes from a long line of performers. Her mother was the Mathilde Danegger, who often played kindly grandmothers in DEFA films. Her grandparents and uncles were also actors in Austria. The daughter of Swiss theater and movie director Walter Lesch, Karin grew up in neutral Switzerland, but after the War and her parent’s divorce, Karin and her mother moved to West Germany, but quickly left, repulsed by the West’s capitulation to former Nazi politicos and the demonization of socialism occurring there. Lesch was sixteen at the time. After training as an actress at the Staatliche Schauspielschule Berlin, (now the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts), she started performing at the Potsdam Theater, and appearing in films. She is best known today for her role as the queen in Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella. Lesch retired from films in 1975, but continued to act on stage. After the Wende, she withdrew from public life.

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin is played by Siegfried Seibt. Seibt got his start in theater before WWII working as a set designer. He attended Drama school in Breslau and appeared in several plays before and after the War. He started working for DEFA in 1957, and Rumpelstiltskin was his first major movie role. From here on out he would appear in dozens more features films and TV movies, including a turn as Rumpelstiltskin again in the 1979 TV mini-series Spuk unterm Riesenrad (Spook Under the Ferris Wheel). Seibt died in 1982.

It might seem like a film such as this with an obviously socialistic theme would fare badly in the West. Three years earlier, DEFA’s interpretation of The Brave Little Tailor (Das tapfere Schneiderlein) was roundly criticized for similar socialist messaging, but Rumpelstiltskin was a hit. The film proved popular enough to make it into the top fifty most popular films from the GDR. Attempts were made by the American children’s film producer Ron Merk to get this one distributed in the States, but the plans fell through. The film was eventually in a dubbed version released by Arrow Film Associates in 1974 under the title Rumpelstiltskin and the Golden Secret.

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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.

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The Fiancée
The Fiancée (Die Verlobte) is a grim film that offers very few moments of levity during its hour and forty-five minute running time. It’s a women-in-prison film, but has nothing in common with the likes of Caged Heat, 99 Women, or the dozens of other women-in-prison films of the sixties and seventies. There is nothing salacious here—just the grim reality of life behind bars in Nazi Germany.

The film follows the ten-year imprisonment of Hella Lindau (Jutta Wachowiak), an anti-Nazi resistance fighter who is arrested after a botched attempt to hand money over to the resistance. Hella suffers through solitary confinement and abuse by other inmates as well as the guards, enduring it all for the day she’ll get out and be with her fiancé Hermann Reimers (Regimantas Adomaitis) again. Hermann is playing a dangerous game, getting cozy with Gestapo official Hensch (Hans-Joachim Hegewald) to improve Hella’s living conditions.

The film doesn’t rely on simple caricatures for the people at this prison. The warden has a secret socialist past, and the guard who is the nicest to Hella happily moves up in the Nazi ranks when she has a chance. Through it all, Hella stays resolute and never betrays anyone, but meanwhile, Hensch is keeping an eye on Hermann.

Die Verlobte

The film is based on Haus der schweren Tore (House with Heavy Gates) and Leben, wo gestorben wird (Living Where Death Is), two autobiographical novels by author Eva Lippold. The books were part of intended trilogy that she never completed. Considering that the first two books were published in 1971 and 1974, and that Lippold didn’t die until 1994, its clear that the last volume was proving to be a bit of a problem for her. Lippold was born in Magdeburg in 1909. She started working as a shorthand typist when she was still a teenager, and joined the German Communist Party (KPD) when she turned eighteen. She worked for a while as a typist for the KPD newspaper Tribüne, where she met Hermann Danz, the inspiration for Hermann Reimers. Lippold was arrested in 1934 and sentenced to nine years in prison. She was released in 1943 and assigned to forced labor at an armaments factory. She was arrested again in 1944 for being a member of the Saefkow-Jacob-Bästlein Organization, an underground communist organization in Nazi Germany. After the War, she became highly active in the Soviet sector as a member of the SED. Lippold lived long enough to see the collapse of the DDR and the reunification of Germany. She had been an ardent supporter of the SED, so this must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

The film was co-directed by Günter Reisch and Günther Rücker, which is an odd combination. Reisch was one of the deftest filmmakers to come out of DEFA. He had a light touch and a way of making even the most serious subject bearable. His films about German Communist Party co-founder Karl Liebknecht (As Long as There Is Life in Me and In Spite of Everything!) would have been dull affairs in the hands of almost any other filmmaker, but he keeps things interesting and entertaining. His 1978 film Anton the Magician would have been nominated for a foreign film Academy Award had it come from West Germany. Reisch died on February 24, 2014 and is buried in the French Cemetery (Französischer Friedhof) in Berlin.

Günther Rücker, on the other hand, was better known as a writer with a penchant for the grim. He wrote the scenarios for Until Death Do Us Part and The Gleiwitz Case, two of the grimmest movies to come out of the GDR. Along with screenplays, he also wrote several successful radio plays and novels. Rücker was born in 1927 in Reichenberg (Liberec), Czechoslovakia, a town that was heavily populated by Germans prior to World War II.1 He studied theater at the Theaterhochschule Leipzig and got his start writing plays for the radio. After the Wende, it came out that he had been working as an Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter (informer) for the the Stasi. After that Rücker retired from public view although he continued to write. Rücker died in Meiningen in 2008.

Jutta Wachowiak

In spite of the seeming differences between these two men, Reisch and Rücker worked together throughout their careers, starting with Reisch’s first film, Junges Gemüse (Young Vegetables), right up through The Fiancée.

As Hella Lindau, Jutta Wachowiak turns in the performance of a lifetime. Wachowiak was trained as a stage actress, but has worked in film and on television since 1961, She had a small role in On the Sunny Side and did an uncredited turn as Marianne in The Baldheaded Gang. From there, she went on to appear in several DEFA films but it was The Fiancée that finally gave her the credit she deserved. In 1986, she impressed critics on both sides of the border with her performance as Käthe Kollwitz in the film of the same name. This would be the last time we’d see Wachowiak in the lead role in a feature film. Since the Wende, most of her work has been in television, or in smaller roles in features.

Regimantas Adomaitis

Playing Lindau’s fiancé is Lithuanian actor Regimantas Adomaitis. Adomaitis had worked with Günter Reisch previously on Wolz – Life and Illusion of a German Anarchist. His film career started in the sixties, but made his first big splash in That Sweet Word: Liberty! (Это сладкое слово). In 1988, he helped found Sąjūdis, a political reform group bent on putting Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika in action in Lithuania (East Germany wasn’t alone in trying to ignore the changes going on around them). More recently, Adomaitis appeared in the 2008 Norwegian film Iskyss, a fictionalized account of Gunvor Galtung Haavik, who delivered state secrets to the Soviet Union out of love for a Russian former prisoner of war.

Despite the film’s grimness, The Fiancée did well at the box office and was lauded by critics on both sides of the border.

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1. After the War, nearly all Germans were were either kicked out or killed—at first, by vigilante groups and then as part of a official decrees by President of Czechoslovakia Edvard Beneš. The exact number of Germans killed during Czechoslovakia’s forced expulsions is still debated. Estimates run from 15,000 to 270,000, depending on whose counting.

© 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.

The Arctic Sea Calls
In case you ever wondered what the Little Rascals (Our Gang) would look like as an East German concept, The Arctic Sea Calls (Das Eismeer ruft) answers the question. It’s the story of a band of spunky kids who take upon themselves to hike from Prague to the Bering Strait in an attempt to rescue the crew of a stranded Soviet steamship. The intrepid rescue team consists of Anton (Oliver Karsitz), the leader, Alex (Alexander Rohde), his right-hand man, Rosi (Vivian Schmidt), enlisted as the cook, and little Ferd (Thomas Gutzeit), who’s much too young for this trek, but didn’t want to be left behind. As one might imagine, the quartet doesn’t fully understand the logistics of what they are attempting, but they don’t let that get in their way. The trip involves crossing through Germany—a journey of some peril at that time. It’s 1934, and Hitler has been in power in Germany for over a year at this point, but hasn’t yet invaded Poland or Czechoslovakia.

The part about the ship stranded in the ice is true. On August 2, 1933, the steamship SS Chelyuskin (Челю́скин) set sail from Murmansk on an expedition to find out if there was a way for ships to sail the Northern Maritime Route from Murmansk to Vladivostok without the assistance of icebreakers. The Chelyuskin almost made it, but got stuck in the ice at the entrance to the Bering Strait, where it was crushed by the growing ice. The crew made it to the relative safety of the ice pack, and, using nothing more than a a few shovels and crowbars, managed to fashion an airstrip for rescue planes. After several failed attempts, they all were rescued safely in April of 1934.

The movie is based on the book of the same name by the German children’s book author Alex Wedding. Wedding’s real name was Grete Weiskopf. Like other female authors, she used a male pseudonym to avoid prejudice. Her first children’s book was Ede und Unku, which came out in 1931. It told the story of the friendship between an German and a gypsy, so, of course, the Nazis burned the book as soon as they came to power. As if to pour salt in the wound, the girl who was the model for Unku, later died in Auschwitz.

Das Eismeer ruft

Das Eismeer ruft was Wedding’s second book and was published in London by the same publishing company as her first book (Malik-Verlag). After the War, her husband, Czech author Franz Carl Weiskopf, became a Czechoslovakian diplomat and served in several countries before retiring and moving to the GDR. Wedding died in 1966 and shortly thereafter the Alex Wedding Prize for children’s literature was established, which is awarded every few years on her birthday (May 11).

This was director Jörg Foth’s directorial debut. Foth is a talented and quirky director, whose work is best showcased in The Latest from the Da-Da-eR—as unique a film as ever has been made. Born in 1949, Foth was one of the last new directors to come out of the Film University in Babelsberg (Filmuniversität Babelsberg). After The Arctic Sea Calls, he went to Vietnam to co-direct Time in the Jungle (Dschungelzeit) with Vietnamese director Tran Vu. Like the other members of the Nachwuchsgeneration (East German Baby Boomers), Foth was finding it difficult to get a toehold at DEFA. Young directors, who had spent years learning their craft, were passed over on film projects in favor of the older directors who had already made a name for themselves. To help rectify this situation, he helped create the DEFA Nachwuchsgruppe (Young Filmmakers Group). By the time the group was created (1990) its reason for being was gone, and so were the careers of any young filmmakers in East Germany. After making a few more films for the now foundering DEFA, the young filmmakers of East Germany found themselves back at square one.

The Arctic Sea Calls

Only one member of the young cast—Oliver Karsitz—went to have a career in movies, but not in front of the camera. After the Wende, Karsitz became an editor, primarily working documentaries. As is often the case with child actors, they bring their own raw charm to the parts, and Foth handles this well.

In 2017, thanks to global warming, a Russian tanker finally managed to sail the Northern Maritime Route unaided by icebreakers. Since that time, several more ships have made the journey, with more doing it every year. Without intending it, The Arctic Sea Calls has become a chronicle of the Earth’s past as well as our own.

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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.

whisper & SHOUT
For anyone whose preconceptions about life in East Germany is informed by what was taught in American schools, whisper & SHOUT (flüstern & SCHREIEN) is the film to see. Made in 1988, it follows the exploits of several East German rock bands as they travel from venue to venue. In between, the film stops to interview the locals about their attitudes toward, life, the universe, and everything. Given East Germany’s reputation for being repressive, it is interesting to see how freely the people in the film discuss their lives, their jobs and their opinions. We do catch occasional glimpses of people pausing to assess whether or not they should be talking about these things, but they carry on blithely anyway. These are mostly young people, so this might simply be the East German equivalent of college students posting videos of their Cabo vacations on Facebook. Youth knows no discretion—one of the advantages of an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex.

The film covers a broad range of styles from Punk to Glam, to No Wave. Some of the bands are good and some of the bands are dreadful. The best of the lot is Feeling B, whose post-punk style is raucous fun. This isn’t too surprising considering two of the band’s members, Paul Landers and Christian “Flake” Lorenz, are also in Rammstein—one of the best heavy metal bands to come out of Germany. Feeling B’s appearance in the film came about almost by accident. The camera crew intended to film a rock concert scheduled to occur in conjunction with an annual bathtub regatta in Schwerin. They were there to film another band, but when the authorities cancelled the event, only Feeling B was already there, so they set up and played anyway, much to the delight of the kids on the beach.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Chicorée, a band that manages to represent all of the worst aspects of eighties pop. Imagine Kajagoogoo as a Pablo Cruise cover band and you’ll get some idea of what it’s like to watch Chicorée. The band’s leader Dirk Zöllner thinks highly of his skill as a composer and singer, and travels through the film with a cheery lack of self-awareness. At the beginning of the film, we see the band performing at large venues. A few interviews suggest that the band had its fans. As the film progresses, you can see the band members become more and more tired of Zöllner’s ego, so that, by the end of the film, he is singing on stage in a rec hall, with only a recorded backing track and keyboard player André Gensicke while a few bored teenagers look on. No longer Chicorée, Zöllner’s new, two-man band is simply dubbed “Die Zöllner.” It’s both funny and sad, but the situation doesn’t seem to affect Zöllner much. He seems unfazed, swearing that “last night’s audience” was better. It reminds me of nothing so much as This is Spinal Tap. Amazingly, Zöllner is still going, and still performing with Gensicke. No longer the vapid pretty boy his was as a youth, he looks like a well-dressed homeless person, which is an improvement. His singing has matured, giving it more resonance than it had in 1988, and he’s working with a better lyricist (more on this later), but his music stays close to its Yacht Rock roots.

flüstern & SCHREIEN

Between these two extremes is a band called Silly—one of the most popular bands in the GDR. Silly was fronted by Tamara Danz, who looked like Lita Ford and sang like no one else. In appearance, you might be tempted to call the band an East German version of the California new wave band Berlin, but Danz is a gutsier singer than Terry Nunn. Danz’s charisma is palpable and it’s easy to see why the band was popular. Silly is shown in performance a few times, as well as in backstage interviews with the band. Silly continued to have its followers after the Wall came down. While working on the album Paradies, which was recorded in their own studio, Tamara Danz was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died on July 22, 1996 shortly after the album came out. She was 43 years old. The band then went on a ten year hiatus before reforming with guest member Anna Loos as the lead singer.

Until Tamara Danz’s death, most of the lyrics for Silly songs were written by a man named Werner Karma. Although Karma wrote lyrics for other bands, he was best known as Silly’s lyricist, and for penning the phrase that would be forever associated with Silly and the ultimate statement on the fall of the Wall: “Alles wird besser, aber nichts wird gut” (“Everything will be better, but nothing will be good”). After the band reformed with Anna Loos in the top spot, Karma contributed the lyrics to one more album. The album was hit, but Loos decided she would rather sing her own compositions instead. By the third album, Wutfänger (Ragecathcer), most of the songs were written by Loos. The album did very well, but fans of Karma weren’t happy. One of these fans was our old friend Dirk Zöllner. Zöllner says he was so disgusted with Wutfänger that he threw the CD out his car window. Zöllner met up with Karma and discovered that the lyricist had already written an album’s worth of songs that Loos had rejected. Zöllner had a brainstorm and started a crowd-funded campaign to make an album of these songs. The campaign raised the money in no time, and Dirk und das Glück: Zöllner trifft Karma (Dirk and Good Fortune: Zöllner meets Karma) was the result. This album also did well and help revitalize Zöllner’s ever-flagging career. Say what you will about Zöllner, the man knows how to bounce back. Dirk und das Glück also gives Zöllner’s longtime keyboard player André Gensicke a chance to sing lead.

The film spends as much time interviewing the fans as it does focusing on the bands. Coming out as it did in the late eighties, there are a lot of unfortunate outfits and hairstyles in evidence. If you held a drinking game where you had a drink every time you saw a mullet, you’d pass out before the film was over. Some of the fans look like escapees from Human League, while others, especially the fans of Silly adopt the look of the band. We follow the daily routine of one of Silly’s fans as she hangs posters over her bed, prepares for a show, and argues with her stodgy father about the lion-with-a-perm hairstyle Tamara Danz and her young admirers share. The saddest moment in the film occurs when this young woman discusses her upcoming life change as she moves into the workplace. Aware that her days of following Silly’s every move are coming to an end, she speaks frankly about it, but there is a sadness in her voice. You can tell she feels like her life is over.

Whisper & Shout

The most surprising thing to see is the appearance of skinheads, doing that same goofy bounce-kick hop they loved so much in the West, and slamming into each other with abandon. The politics of the skinheads in the film is never overtly stated. One interviewee suggests that many of the skinheads in the GDR were “redskins” (left-wing skinheads). When the skinheads are interviewed, they don’t talk politics, preferring instead to discuss the effectiveness of mosh pits for relieving aggression.

Other bands appear more briefly, including This Pop Generation and André + Die Firma, which features André Greiner-Pol. Greiner-Pol was the leader of Freygang—a notorious East German band that was banned at various times throughout the seventies and eighties due to André’s inflammatory lyrics. Also making an appearance are two members of Sandow, a post-punk band out of Cottbus. Sandow is best known for their song “Born in the GDR”—a take-off on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Like Springsteen’s song, Sandow’s song was intended as criticism but was interpreted by many people as an anthem, much to the band’s dismay. For years, the band refused to play the song at concerts. Later, they added it back to their repertoire, but with modified lyrics to make its point more obvious.

East German teenagers

whisper & SHOUT was made in response to a report by the Zentralinstitut für Jugendforschung (Central Institute for Youth Research). The report found that adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18 listened to three to four hours of rock music daily. Perhaps worried about what this might mean, or simply curious, DEFA OKed the production of this documentary, which is subtitled “Ein Rockreport” (a rock report). The film was shot with handheld cameras by a mostly young crew of cinematographers. The one exception is Christian Lehmann, who was born in 1934. Lehmann had a long career in East Germany, filming dozens of documentaries and documentary shorts. The Wende appears to have had little effect on his career. He continues to film documentaries to this day.

In 1994, the German TV channel MDR broadcast flüstern & SCHREIEN 2, a semi-sequel that follows up with two of the bands from the first film, along with some interviews with their fans. In this documentary, we see Rammstein in its formation phase along with some later concerts by Feeling B. A third part was also filmed as an attempt to examine the East German bands that didn’t make it into the first film. These include Freygang, The Santa Clan, The Blind Passengers , and The Skeptics. Due to various disputes with the bands, this third part has gone through many changes over the years. Neither of these is available for distribution at this time.

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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.

Die Wahlverwandtschaften
Ask the average American who Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is, and you’ll either get: “He was a writer, wasn’t he?” Or: “I don’t know.” A well-read American might be familiar with Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther, but that’s about it. In Germany, on the other hand, Goethe resides deep in the soul. He’s as important to German culture as Shakespeare is to English culture—perhaps even more so. Along with a healthy appreciation of good of beer and a fascination with all things American Indian, the love of Goethe is common to East and West Germans alike. His attitude that logic and reason, rather than tradition and religion, should govern one’s actions helped keep him popular on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

In 1974, East Germany’s film company DEFA had already made a historical fable (Wolz), an operetta (Orpheus in the Underworld), two fairytales (Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella, and Hans Roeckle and the Devil), a contemporary comedy, (The Naked Man on the Sports Field), and an Indian film (Ulzana). It was about time to tackle another costume drama, so why not Goethe? The book that director Siegfried Kühn chose to adapt was Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften), Goethe’s story of 19th Century aristocrats engaging in interpersonal relationships and extramarital affairs. East German television had made a couple TV movies based on his work (Urfaust starring Manfred Krug as Mephisto, and Iphigenie auf Tauris), but Elective Affinities was the first East German feature film based on one of the writer’s books. It was also—as it happens—the first time this book had been made into a film (although not the last).

Elective Affinities gets its title from an old chemistry term intended to explain why certain chemical combinations reacted with each other, while others did not. Goethe was a man of many interests in the arts and the sciences. He wrote poetry, plays, and novels, as well as literary critiques and scientific treatises. He filled books with drawings and thoughts, and corresponded voraciously. He saw relationships between everything from emotions and the color spectrum, to human behavior and chemistry. As far as Goethe was concerned, human relationships exhibited the same seemingly arbitrary attractions as chemical affinities, with people shedding one relationship in favor of another when the right catalyst is added to the mix.

Elective Affinities

The story takes place during the Napoleonic Wars and follows the exploits of Baron Eduard (Hilmar Thate) and his wife Charlotte (Beata Tyszkiewicz). Both are now in their second marriage. The marriage isn’t unhappy, but it isn’t particularly exciting either. To enliven things, Eduard invites his old friend Captain Otto (Gerry Wolff) to stay and Charlotte invites her niece Ottilie (Magda Vásáryová). Eduard and Ottilie are immediately attracted to each other, as are Charlotte and the Captain. As one might expect, things go to hell in a handcart after that.

Elective Affinities is a subtle book and not the most likely Goethe novel to be turned into a movie, (that honor would have to go to Faust, which has been adapted at least twenty-five times). The fact that director Kühn brought it in at less than two hours is impressive; Francis Ford Coppola once toyed with idea of making a ten-hour, 3D version of the story. Kühn strips the story down to its primary elements, and changes a few things for cinematic effect. He tempers the most shocking death in the book in the book by having it occur off-screen, and the maid is removed from the story entirely—presumably for socialist reasons—which also removes an important supernatural-seeming element from the story (whether Goethe meant it to be actually supernatural is a topic for debate).

Goethe considered Elective Affinities to be his best book. If there is a flaw in the book, it’s that Goethe wrote it in the third person; it should have been written from Eduard’s point of view. What we have here is the classic unreliable narrator, on a par with Humbert Humbert in Lolita, but here the unreliable narrator is Goethe. Ottilie comes off as almost too saintly to exist in the real world. No one is that good and pure. So who is the inspiration for the saintly Ottilie? The most likely candidate is Minna Herzlieb, the eighteen-year-old foster daughter of a book publisher in Jena. Goethe was gaga over the teenager and wrote sonnets to her. Several men vied for her attention, but she ended up marrying a law professor and settling into a miserable existence, eventually losing her mind and spending the last years of her life in a mental institution in Görlitz.

Goethe

Siegfried Kühn was one of the most talented directors to come out of Germany, but he didn’t get many opportunities to prove it. His films include Time of the Storks, The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow , and The Actress. In 1981, he began working on Schwarzweiß und Farbe (Black-and-White and Color), a film about a photographer who runs into conflicts between reporting the truth and doing what he’s told. Not surprisingly, the film was scuttled by the authorities before it began shooting. From 1963 until 1980, he was married to screenwriter Regine Kühn, who wrote or co-wrote many of his films. The Wende effectively put an end to his career as a director. His last film was The Liar (Die Lügnerin), which was also one of the last films made at the DEFA studios. Kühn’s wife Regine continued to work in television until 2003, primarily on documentaries.

Beata Tyszkiewicz and Magda Vásáryová play Charlotte and Ottilie respectively. It’s easy to see the attraction the two women hold for the men. Charlotte is a powerful woman, who can match any man in conversation, while Ottilie is less of an intellect, but makes up for it in cheerful beauty. Tyszkiewicz hails from Poland and started her career in films while still a teenager. She appeared in several classic Polish films, including The Sargossa Manuscript, The Ashes, The Doll, and the oddball science fiction comedy Sexmission. From 1967 until 1969 she was married to Polish director Andrzej Wajda, and their daughter Karolina went on to appear in several films but hasn’t been seen on the silver screen in several years. Tyszkiewicz is still active in films, but spends part of her time supporting the charitable organization, Fundacja Dzieciom “Zdążyć z Pomocą”—a children’s aid foundation dedicated to helping children in Poland who are at the most at trick of serious health issues.

Like Beata Tyszkiewicz, Magda Vásáryová started her career as a teenager, but things really took off for her when she starred in title role of František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová—considered by many critics to be the best Czech film ever made. She appeared in several more films, but after the Velvet Revolution, she switched from actress to political activist. She was the ambassador for Czechoslovakia in Austria from 1990 to 1993, and the ambassador for Slovakia in Poland from 2000 to 2005. She ran for the office of President of Slovakia in 1999, but lost. She was the Slovak State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from February 2005 to July 2006.

The voices of the two women are dubbed by Germans. Lissy Tempelhof was the voice for Charlotte, while Katharina Thalbach dubbed Ottilie. This isn’t unusual. Jutta Hoffmann did the voice for Krystyna Stypułkowska in Trace of Stones, and several different people handled the dubbing duties for Gojko Mitić over the years. What is unusual is that the two voice actresses are listed in the main credits right under the names of the stars they dubbed.

Elective Affinities

Hilmar Thate is excellent as Baron Eduard. It’s not an easy part to pull off. After all, Eduard is oblivious to the effects of his shallow, sometimes callous behavior, interested only his own desires. The other three, at least, show a measure of conflict about their feelings. Thate is up to the challenge. He plays Eduard with self-centered perfection, oblivious to how his embarrassing behavior is and that everyone else can see right through him (for more on Hilmar Thate, see Professor Mamlock).

The music is by Karl-Ernst Sasse, who scored dozens of DEFA films (for more information on Sasse, see Her Third). Sasse could adapt to any style, from psychedelic pop (In the Dust of the Stars) to space-age lounge music (Signals), to oddball renaissance folk music (Godfather Death). As a classically trained composer, Elective Affinities probably offered Sasse more enjoyment than many of the scores he wrote. He had a good ear for pop, but his classical scores seem to be made with more care. Elective Affinities takes place in the era of Ludwig van Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber, and Sasse uses this to the score’s advantage, creating an effective and resonant score that feels right for the time.

While some critics complained that Kühn had compressed the story too much to capture the subtleties of Goethe’s novel, most of the reviews were favorable and Elective Affinities did decent box office. It’s an unusual film and there aren’t many East German movies like it. For fans of costume dramas or stories where relationships are tested after new people are added to the mix (which could be called elective affinity films), this movie is worth a viewing.

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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.

Osceola
The shocking history of actions by the United States against Native Americans and blacks was a source of great delight to East Germany’s leaders. Here was a country that boasted about its freedom and opportunities, yet continued to shut out anyone who skin tone drifted too far from Pantone 473. With Osceola, DEFA managed to kill two birds with one stone, combining an Indian uprising with a slave revolt. The story takes place in Florida and represents the first time a DEFA Indian film chronicled the life of a real person, an approach they would follow over the next three Indian films. Osceola was a joint effort by DEFA, Bulgaria’s Kino-Zentrum, and Cuba’s Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industrias Cinematográficos (ICAIC).

The film explores the beginnings of the Second Seminole War, which took place in Florida and lasted from 1835 to 1842. The heavy in the story (besides the U.S. cavalry) is a plantation owner named William Raynes and his overseer Joe Hammer. Raynes is pissed because his black slaves keep escaping and finding refuge in the Seminole community. As far as Raynes is concerned those slaves are property, and this amounts to theft in his book. Raynes decides to take action against the Seminoles, at first on his own, then later with a little help from the U.S. government. As was often the case with the DEFA Indian films, the story ends on a triumphant note but can’t escape the fact that, in the end, the Seminoles were run out of Florida and forced to live on reservations in Oklahoma. The film tries to spin this with an end credit discussing the number of losses by American troops in that war. There would be one more war with the Seminoles before all was said and done, but it is this second war that is considered to be the main conflict and the most costly both in terms of troops used and human life lost.

Although the film is titled Osceola, that character is absent from much of the action. Most of the film is devoted to Richard Moore, a local sawmill owner who stands against Raynes, hides or employs runaway slaves, and helps the Indians defeat the plantation owner’s plans. The story of the Seminoles doesn’t start kicking in until the final third of the film.

Osceola

Not surprisingly, Gojko Mitić plays the title role. The fact that Mitić isn’t Native American is less important here. The real Osceola was not a pure-blood Indian. His father was Scots-Irish and his mother was a Creek Indian. He wasn’t even a Seminole, although he fought alongside them since the Creek lands had already been taken over by white settlers. Mitić should be well-known by the readers of this blog by now, but you can find out more about him here.

Playing the heroic Richard Moore is the Romanian actor Iurie Darie, who appeared in several DEFA westerns under the name “Jurie Darie.” Darie was a popular actor in Romania and a talented man. He had one degree in art from the Institutul de Arte Plastice (now the National University of Arts in Bucharest) and another in theater from the Artă Teatrală și Cinematografică (now the National University of Theatre and Film “I.L.Caragiale” Bucharest). He got his start in films in 1953 in Nepotii gornistului (The Bugler’s Grandsons) and continued working after the Romanian Revolution. He died in 2012. Two years before his death, Darie caused a scandal when pictures of the, then, 81-year-old Darie and his 64-year-old wife Anca Pandrea appeared nude together in a pictorial spread in which they are pretending to have sex.

The evil Joe Hammer is played by Gerhard Rachold, a character more recognized for his face than his name. Although trained as a stage actor, Rachold appeared in dozens of DEFA films, playing everything from a Nazi to a newspaper reporter. He might have had a career after reunification as well, but shortly after his wife died, Rachold, who had long had a problem with depression, committed suicide by jumping out of a ninth-story window.

Gojko Mitic

ICAIC’s assistance gave DEFA access to some very Floridian environments that would have been harder to duplicate in Bulgaria and Germany. Still, there are a few scenes with suspiciously out-of-place looking palm trees. The story is helped along by Günter Schmidt’s attractive costumes. Schmidt did the costumes for ten of DEFA’s sixteen westerns and usually strove for historical accuracy, although here there are plenty of mistakes in military uniforms, weapons, and Seminole clothing.

The Seminole Wars were one of the most shameful episodes in American history. The Seminoles had signed a treaty to allow them to continue to live in central Florida, but new president Andrew Jackson had other plans, signing the Indian Removal Act, which rendered previous agreements null and void, and led to the deaths of thousands of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears. Some resisted. One of these was Osceola, who did such a good job of evading the U.S. cavalry that General Thomas Jesup eventually resorted to deceit, arranging a meeting with Osceola at Fort Peyton under a flag of truce, then promptly arresting him anyway.

osceola

You’d think that Hollywood stay far away from a story like this, but Budd Boetticher used it as the setting for Seminole with Anthony Quinn playing a sympathetic Osceola and Richard Carlson, who usually played the hero in those days, getting a chance to chew up the scenery as the evil fort commander. Rock Hudson and Barbara Hale received top billing, but the film really belongs to Quinn and Carlson. Considering the American state of mind in 1953, Seminole is surprisingly sympathetic to the Indians. The same can’t be said for Raoul Walsh’s Distant Drums. The Seminoles as portrayed here have more in common with the cannibals in Make Them Die Slowly than any American Indian. Walsh was one of the best filmmakers in Hollywood at the time so the film is entertaining but it’s egregiously bad history. Today Distant Drums is best known for being the first movie to feature the “Wilhelm Scream.”

One more attempt was made in 1957 to tell the “true” story of Osceola by a small, no-budget production company in Florida called Empire Studios. The film was called, rather luridly, Naked in the Sun, but its lack of funds or talent left the film assigned to a footnote in cinema history. Konrad Petzold’s Osceola is far from perfect—he directs the film with less flair usual—but it’s still one of the best films to tell the story and worth a look for anyone interested in America’s past.

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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.

Für die Liebe noch zu mager?
Too Young for Love? (Für die Liebe noch zu mager?) is a portrait of a girl on the cusp of womanhood. At the start of the film, our heroine Susanne (Simone von Zglinicki) is wide-eyed and still wet behind the ears. She works at a textile plant and is a model worker. Susanne has a crush on Lutz, the town hipster, but he stills sees her a little girl. The German title of this film translates literally to “Still Too Skinny for Love.” It appears in IMDB under the title Too Skinny for Love1, but the DEFA Library at Amherst chose to translate the title based on its meaning rather than a literal translation.

From Delmer Daves’ A Summer Place to Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, filmmakers have explored the subject of coming of age for both comedy and drama. In the United States, filmmaker John Hughes practically made it a brand with films such as Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, and Some Kind of Wonderful. In Too Young for Love, Susanne is no longer a teenager, but she’s not quite a woman either. The film follows that journey carefully, step by step. It is never salacious or prurient, and there is, as one might expect from a DEFA film, plenty of interludes where the merits of socialism are discussed.

In a style similar to The Legend of Paul and Paula, the film has some nice musical interludes including the Klaus Renft Combo performing “Als ich wie ein Vogel war” (“When I Was a Bird”). The Klaus Renft Combo, like Wolf Biermann, was a thorn in the side of the East German government. The were banned from the radio in 1962 for their obviously Western-influenced rock music. The ban was eventually lifted in 1967, and the group become extremely popular, but with their songs of social criticism it didn’t take long for them to get on the wrong side of the authorities again, and the band was banned from even existing in 1975. Lyricists Gerulf Pannach and songwriter Christian Kunert were thrown in prison for nine months and then officially “expatriated,” even though both men had been born in East Germany.

Too Young for Love?

Too Young for Love was Bernhard Stephan’s first feature film. Before that he had worked in television, directing an episode of Polizeiruf 110 (Police Emergency Call)2 and the miniseries Täter unbekannt (Offender Unknown). His second feature film, Aus meiner Kindheit (From My Childhood), was the story of the Ernst Thalmann’s youth, recreating pre-WWI Hamburg in Schwerin. Stephan went on to make several more films for DEFA. They usually focused on the lives of ordinary people in the GDR. One notable exception is Jörg Ratgeb, Painter (Jörg Ratgeb, Maler), which explores the life of the Swabian contemporary of Albrecht Dürer at the time of the German Peasants’ War (1524–1525). With the fall of the Wall, feature film opportunities dried up and Stephan returned to television. He has made a name for himself there, primarily for his work on comedies and crime shows.

Originally, Katharina Thalbach was slated to appear in the role of Susanne, but when she became pregnant, the role was turned over to Simone von Zglinicki, who was still a student at the theater school in Leipzig at the time. Von Zglinicki was a good replacement. Both women are excellent actresses, and both have faces that are particularly good at expressing wide-eyed wonder. Von Zglinicki went on to appear in several more East German films, including Hans Roeckle and the Devil (Hans Röckle und der Teufel), Love at 16, (Liebe mit 16), The Flight, and Sabine Kleist, Age 7. Thanks to her relative youth, the Wende had less impact on her career than it did on most of the older East German actors. She has gone on to appear in numerous films and television shows since that time.

Playing the self-absorbed and irresponsible Lutz is Christian Steyer. Steyer practically made a career in East Germany out of playing irresponsible jerks. A year earlier, he had made a splash in The Legend of Paul and Paula playing just such a character. He’s a little more sympathetic here, but still not exactly a role model. He is also a talented composer, creating the music for several movies including Jan on the Barge (Jan auf der Zille), Sabine Kleist, Age 7, Forbidden Love (Verbotene Liebe), and Jana and Jan (for more on Christian Steyer, see Sabine Kleist, Age 7).

Christian Steyer

The film takes some gentle jabs at East German socialism and its restrictions on goods and travel, but the one that resonated the most was the line, “Mensch Opa, das sind echte Levi′s!” (“Man, Grandpa, those are real Levi’s!”). Until the early seventies, blue jeans were frowned upon by the establishment on both sides of the Berlin Wall. In the West, they weren’t allowed in most workplaces, and in the GDR they were seen as a symbol of the invidious influence of western culture and part of the subculture of juvenile delinquency and rock’n’roll. As a result, East German teens coveted jeans, and in particular, Levi’s. Levi’s figure prominently in both the play and novel of Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. (The New Sorrows of Young Werther) by In Ulrich Plentzdorf with one character saying that jeans were the finest trousers in the world (“Jeans sind die edelsten Hosen der Welt”). The East German government railed for years against the garment, but, like so many of the SED’s decisions, it was a lost cause. By 1970, most young people in the West were wearing jeans on a regular basis, including those pro-communist revolutionaries that were causing trouble for the U.S. government. Eventually, East German garment factories started making jeans, they called “Doppelkappnahthose” under names such as “Goldfuchs,” “Wisent,” and “Boxer.” At first, they were brown corduroy knock-offs. The state-owned factories wouldn’t get around to making actual denim jeans until 1978. The East German jeans really didn’t measure up as far as teens were concerned. They wanted Levi’s, not Doppelkappnahthose.

In 1978, the Levi Strauss & Company made a deal with the East German government to ship 800,000 pairs of the popular jeans to the GDR. In spite of the steep price—costing more than twice the price of the East German jeans—and the limit of one pair per person, people lined up to buy them and they sold out quickly. Of course, owning a pair of real Levi’s brought its own perils. It pegged you as a potential troublemaker, which could lead to a Stasi file on you.

The film did well, thanks to its realistic portrayal of everyday life in East Germany. It is worth noting that on IMDB, the film rates much higher with women than it does with men, which, I suppose, would make it qualify as a “chick flick” or a “Frauenfilm.” It is a well-made film with some exceptional performances from its leads.

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1. The German word mager means lean, and comes from the Latin macer; the same root as our words “meager” and “emaciated.”

2. Later episodes of this series are being shown on MHZ under the title Bukow and König, which is a bit like renaming Law & Order “Lupo and Bernard.” Bukow and König have only appeared in 18 of the Polizeiruf 110 episodes. Compared to other characters such as Leutnant Vera Arndt (48 episodes), Hauptkommissar Herbert Schneider (58 episodes), and Hauptmann Fuchs (85 episodes!) this is a drop in the bucket.

© 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.

Snow White
As discussed elsewhere on this blog, fairytale films were the closest thing to a cash cow the East German film industry had to offer. Beloved by East and West Germans alike and often featuring stories in which the poor and generous triumph over the rich and greedy, the fairytale film faced fewer hurdles when they were exported to the West. After all, didn’t Walt Disney—a man who hated socialism with an passion—also make films of these stories? It didn’t hurt that, with a few notable exceptions (Rumpelstiltskin and Sleeping Beauty come to mind) the DEFA film tended to follow the original fairytales much more closely than their Hollywood counterparts.

DEFA’s Snow White (Schneewittchen) is much more faithful to the original Grimms’ fairytale than Disney’s film. Right off the bat, the DEFA film starts the same way as the fairytale: A young queen is shown sewing next to an open window on a snowy day. The woman accidentally pricks her finger, and seeing the red blood on the white snow in the ebony window frame, thinks she would love to have a child with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and, hair as black as ebony. Soon after, Snow White is born, but the the queen dies and the evil stepmother enters the picture.

At this point, both the Disney version of the story and the DEFA version follow the fairytale closely, with the evil queen telling the huntsman to take Snow White into the forest and kill her, the huntsman having pity on the girl, and Snow White discovering the home of the seven dwarfs. Perhaps influenced by Disney, the dwarfs in the DEFA film also have a happy little song they sing whenever they’re marching to and from work. In the DEFA film, as in the original fairytale, it takes the evil queen three tries to kill Snow White. Disney’s evil queen, a model of efficiency, skips the tightening bodice and poisoned comb, and goes straight for the apple. In a way, this change by Disney is an improvement. After all, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; but fool me three times, well, then I’m just an idiot.

Schneewittchen

In the DEFA version, as in the original story, Snow White revives after the dwarfs stumble with her coffin and the piece of the apple is dislodged from her throat. There is nothing magical about the prince’s kiss. Both films differ significantly from the original story at the end, but that’s understandable. In the Disney version, the evil queen doesn’t even make it off the mountain, falling to her death while being chased by the dwarfs. In the DEFA version the queen comes to the Prince and Snow White’s wedding, and, upon seeing that her stepdaughter has survived, flees the country. In the original story, the queen also comes to the wedding but is met there with a pair of red-hot iron shoes that she is forced to wear and dance in to her death. This gruesome detail is omitted from later editions of the fairytale, so DEFA can be forgiven for also omitting it. Plus, it doesn’t do much to encourage continued sympathy for Snow White and her prince.

Snow White is directed by Gottfried Kolditz, one of East Germany’s foremost directors. If Kolditz’s output is any indication, the man loved genre movies. No other East German director has such a catalog of genre-specific movies. It includes musicals (Midnight Revue, Beloved White Mouse), westerns (The Falcon’s Trail, Apaches), science fiction films (Signals, In the Dust of the Stars), and, of course, fairytales (Mother Holly and Snow White). Kolditz graduated with a doctorate from the University of Music and Theater in Leipzig, which was founded as a music conservatory in 1843 by the composer Felix Mendelssohn. With this school in his background, it’s understandable that Kolditz stared working at DEFA as a music adviser. After directing a few short films for the “Das Stacheltier” group at DEFA, he stepped into the role of director, and quickly demonstrated his talent. Most of his early films were musicals, and nearly all of his films contain musical sequences, even the science fiction films. I spite of his tendency to avoid heavy message films and concentrate on films that, by anyone else, would be considered light fare, Kolditz’s film always carry a strong socialist message about the corrupting influence of power and greed, and the importance of teamwork. Kolditz died in 1982 in Yugoslavia.

The screenplay for the film is by Günter Kaltofen, who was just coming off a seven year stint as the chief dramaturge at the DFF (East Germany’s television station). Kaltofen practically made a career out of converting fairytales into screenplays. Along with Snow White, he provided screenplays for Rumpelstiltskin, Mother Holly, The Golden Goose, King Thrushbeard, and several other children’s films. Born in Erfurt in 1927, Kaltofen served in WWII as a Luftwaffenhelfer (a young person enlisted to help German soldiers keep their anti-aircraft guns loaded). He was captured and sent to a P.O.W. camp. After the War, he studied various subjects at schools in Jena and Leipzig, eventually working as dramaturge at theaters in Meisen and Leipzig. At that time, he wrote a few fairytale plays, including the theatrical version of Das Zaubermännchen—a socialist reinterpretation of Rumpelstiltskin—which was later made into a movie by Frank Beyer (and don’t worry, we’ll be discussing that one soon enough). Kaltofen died in 1977 in East Berlin.

seven dwarfs

Snow White stars the stunning Doris Weikow. Weikow began her career as a gymnast, winning the 1957 German Youth Champion in 1957. From there, she went into television as an announcer—a role she continued throughout her life. At the time Snow White was being filmed, she was married to Erwin Geschonneck, and they had one daughter, the journalist and writer Fina Geschonneck. Weikow only appeared in four films (Snow White was her first). She might have had more of a career in films but she chose to continue working as a television announcer instead.

Playing opposite her as the evil queen is Marianne Christina Schilling in what would be her most career-defining role. Schilling mostly appeared in roles as supporting characters. She moved with her husband to Bremen in 1984. Suffering from a particularly severe form of arthritis, she retired from acting and died in 2012.

Marianne Christina Schilling

Schilling came to the role thanks to Albert Wilkening, the head honcho at the Babelsberg Film Studio. Although his name only appeared in the credits for one film, Wilkening’s influence on the film industry in East Germany was monumental. He started working in the film industry after WWII, when he was assigned to be the acting director of Tobis-Filmkunst in Johannisthal. Because of his degree in engineering, and a background in law and patents, he was hired as the technical director at DEFA. Soon he becomes the man in charge of nearly aspect of studio operations, eventually becoming the head of productions at DEFA. In 1954, he helps found the Film School in Potsdam-Babelsberg and is appointed Head of the Faculty of Cinematography. In 1956, Wilkening took over the role of director of feature films at DEFA from Hans Rodenberg, a job he occupied until 1961, when the job is taken over by Jochen Mückenberger with Wilkening’s blessings. Mückenberger was even more interested in art than Wilkening, and under him DEFA flourished. That all came to an end in 1966 with the 11th Plenum decisions. A party wonk named Franz Bruk took over, but Bruk was inept and ill-suited for the job. Eventually Wilkening was asked to return to DEFA, where he worked from 1973 until his retirement in 1976. Wilkening lived just long enough to see the Wall come down, but not longer enough to see Germany reunited. He died on the 24th of July, 1990.

This film has all the things one comes to expect from a DEFA fairytale film: the strange but appealing staginess, the catchy tunes, and eye-bleeding color. The films remains one of the most popular fairytale films to ever come out of East Germany. After Heart of Stone and The Story of Little Mook, Snow White was DEFA’s most successful fairytale film. Those two movies were made and distributed back when the West was more accepting of East German films, but Snow White came out a few months after the Berlin Wall had been built and relations between the two Germanys were at their worst. The fact that the film was so popular is a testament to its quality. It is a good fairytale film, rich in details and beautifully photographed. The songs are catchy (annoyingly so) and there’s nothing here that a West German parent wouldn’t want their kids to watch.

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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.

Our Daily Bread
There is a stereotype in the West about the films from communist countries: That they’re all about the struggles of the working class against oppression; that they’re shot in the style of socialist realism popularized by Russian directors; that they’re full of hokum about the importance of agriculture and tractors. Any regular reader of this blog knows that nothing could be further from the truth, but if you wanted to show one film that reinforced this stereotype, Our Daily Bread (Unser täglich Brot) would be the one to show. It is the perfect example of the communist film, right down to the parade of tractors at the end. That’s not to say it’s a bad film—director Slatan Dudow knows his craft—but it isn’t a valid representation of the films of East Germany, or the later films of Dudow for that matter. It’s an odd man out, made at a time when the GDR’s autonomy as a state was tenuous at best. The country was only a month old at that point.

Before East Germany ever became a country, the director Slatan Dudow was a hero of socialist cinema. His 1932 film Kuhle Wampe, oder Wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?) looked at the effects of the great depression on the average German, and championed the rights of workers. With its strong pro-socialist message (written by Bertolt Brecht) the film earned the enmity of the Nazis, who promptly banned it and arrested Dudow when they came to power. The film ends with a rousing rendition of “Solidaritätslied” (“Solidarity Song”)—written by Brecht with music by Hanns Eisler—which went on to become a popular song during the Spanish Civil War.

tractors!

Our Daily Bread is very much in the same vein as Kuhle Wampe, and might even be viewed as a sequel. It tells the story of the struggles of the Webers family to make ends meet after World War II. Father Karl (Paul Bildt) worked as a treasurer for the Renner & Co. Machine Works, and continues to put his faith in the capitalist system. His Ernst (Harry Hindemith), on the other hand, is a commited socialist is trying to help the workers rebuild Renner’s closed machine factory. Karl’s other son Harry (Paul Edwin Roth) wants to have nothing to do socialism, and prefers to make money by participating in the Black Market that thrived in Berlin after the War. Meanwhile, daughter Inge (Inge Landgut) tries to hold down a job, but keeps finding her honesty and compassion getting in the way. Like an English morality play, the people who make sacrifices and work hard are rewarded, while the ones looking for a life of ease are doomed to tragedy.

Our Daily Bread was Slatan Dudow’s first feature film since Kuhle Wampe, but it wouldn’t be his last. He made six more films for DEFA, and probably would have made more if he hadn’t died in a car accident while filming his last movie, Christine. Dudow’s DEFA films include Destinies of Women, The Captain of Cologne (Der Hauptmann von Köln), and Love’s Confusion. Watching his films in sequence,you can see Dudow’s shift away from the old stylized aesthetics of Ufa and Mosfilm to DEFA’s more objective style of filmmaking.

Landgut

Amusingly, most of the stars of this, the most socialist of East German films, are West Germans. There was still no West German film industry to speak of at that point so West German actors and directors sought work across the border. Paul Bildt and Siegmar Schneider made a few films for DEFA, but for Paul Edwin Roth and Inge Landgut, this was their only East German movie. Inge Landgut started appearing in films when she was three years old. She’s the girl we see threatened by Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M. She also played Pony in the 1931 version of Emil und die Detektive.1 Viktoria von Ballasko hailed from Vienna. A leading lady during the thirties, by the fifties, she was playing mothers, with one of her last film roles playing Horst Buchholz’s mother in Die Halbstraken (released in the U.S. under the much better title Teenage Wolfpack). Schneider, Roth, Landgut, and von Ballasko all found work in the West dubbing American movies into German.

Harry Hindemith, like his character, was devoted to the socialist cause and had no intention of leaving East Germany. He had been a member of the German Communist party (KPD) before Hitler took over. Although he joined the Nazi Party during World War II, this was mostly a move to ensure he could continue to perform on stage. After the War he rejoined the KPD, and then East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party (SED). He often appeared in supporting roles in DEFA films and East German television shows as well as performing on stage and in radio plays. He died in East Berlin in 1973.

Our Daily Bread

The score for the film is by Hanns Eisler, who’d been kicked out of the United States a year earlier by the nitwits on the House Un-American Activities Committee. Upon arriving in East Germany, he composed the country’s national anthem “Auferstanden aus Ruinen” (“Risen from the Ruins”), a better anthem than the one used by West Germany: Hitler’s beloved “Deutschlandlied” (better known to Americans as “Deutschland über alles”—the music that is played whenever a Nazi arrives in a movie). While in Hollywood, Eisler had written the scores for a few movies, most notably Hangmen Also Die, None But the Lonely Heart, and Deadline at Dawn. In East Germany, Eisler went on to write the scores for several movies, including The Council of the Gods, Destinies of Women, and The Crucible. Eisler had written the music for several of Bertolt Brecht’s plays and two men were close. They both left Germany and worked in Hollywood, and they were both drummed out of America by the HUAC (although Eisler, was forcibly ejected, while Brecht chose to leave). Then they moved to East Germany with high hopes for that republic. Brecht died in 1956, when many good socialists were still rooting for the GDR. Eisler died in 1962. By then it was clear that the socialist republic Brecht and Eisler had striven for was inexorably headed toward failure. Without his pal Brecht, Eisler found very few people with whom he could commiserate. He grew more sullen, and withdrew from the public, dying of a heart attack in 1962.

Our Daily Bread is a good movie in the same way that Herbert J. Biberman’s Salt of the Earth is a good movie. Both films promote ideas that were being intentionally suppressed in the United States and both films wear their politics on their sleeves. Both films are intended to rouse the people against the exploitation of the labor force by the rich, but are a bit too earnest for their own good. The lesson in Our Daily Bread is a good one, but the GDR’s failure to live up to its own rhetoric helped capitalists such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher neutralize the message and bury the ideals.

IMDB page for the film.

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1. Based on the popular children’s book by Erich Kästner, Emil and the Detectives was directed by Gerhard Lamprecht, who

© 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.

Kaskade Ruckwarts
The title of Bailing Out (Kaskade rückwärts) refers to a particularly tricky equestrian move where the rider, rather than performing an emergency dismount by a normal method, does a backwards somersault off the rear of the horse. The move is ably demonstrated in the film and is impressive, but it’s really a stunt move that no horse rider is likely to use unless they like to show off and don’t mind a few broken bones in the learning process. In the context of the film, the move also refers to the sudden decision of a dispatcher named Maja (Marion Wiegmann) to “bail out” of her placid small town existence and start things anew in the city. Her husband had died and Maja is having trouble moving on, much to the consternation of her teenage daughter, who sees her mother settling into a rut. Maja eventually decides to go for it. She moves to the city and starts learning to become a train conductor. Teaching her the ropes is Gerd (Siegfried Höchst), a crusty, lifelong bachelor who manages, somehow, to be both stodgy and eccentric. Playing matchmaker for Maja is Carola (Johanna Schall), a frustrated wife who is living the single life vicariously through Maja.

While DEFA prided itself (with some justification) on films told from a female perspective, the fact is, most of these films were made by men. It is interesting to compare this film, which was directed by Iris Gusner—the only female film director working at DEFA at the time—with Egon Günther’s Her Third, which covers similar territory, but was written and directed by men. Curiously, Her Third is harsher in its criticism of male behavior than Gusner’s film. Bailing Out offers a more nuanced picture of things. The men here are still problematic, but not simply because they are pigs. Some are just oddballs who probably will never meet a woman—or any other person, for that matter—that they can relate to; and the women have their own problems. For a while, it looks like Maja might start a relationship with the music teacher Toni (Jaecki Schwarz), who praises her singing, but who is more interested in her voice than being a boyfriend. We know where this film is heading, and it eventually gets there in its sweet, oddball way.

Iris Gusner’s film credentials are impressive. She studied under Mikhail Romm at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK, now known as the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography), and worked as assistant director to Konrad Wolf on Goya. Her first feature film, The Dove on the Roof, was banned, so she did what most directors faced with this situation chose to do: she played it safe next time by making a fairytale film (The Blue Light). She scored her biggest hit with All My Girls. A few months before the Wall came down, Gusner moved to Cologne, where she worked in television. In 2009, Fantasie und Arbeit: Biografische Zwiesprache (Fantasy and Work: A Biographical Dialog) was published; a book she co-wrote with West German filmmaker Helke Sander.

marion Wiegmann

Maja is played by Marion Wiegmann, a theater actress who worked primarily at the Brandenburger Theater. Bailing Out was her only feature film, but it was enough to garner her the award for Best Actress at the 1984 National Feature Film Festival of the GDR (Nationales Spielfilmfestival der DDR). In 2014, she received an award from the Brandenburger Theater for her work there.

Like Wiegmann, co-star Siegfried Höchst was also a theater actor. Unlike Wiegmann, however, Höchst never recovered from the fall of the Wall. Born into an impoverished situation, Höchst was an ardent believer in the ideals of communism and worked to support the SED. He was an excellent actor and appeared in several films and TV movies as well as appearing on stage. Unfortunately, he was also a heavy drinker, a problem that got progressively worse during the seventies. Coming out of rehab in the early eighties, he started to work again, and even managed to direct a couple TV movies before the Wall came down. But when the republic began to falter, Höchst returned to the bottle. After the Wende, Höchst withdrew from public appearances, preferring to stay home and drink. His exact date of death is unknown. His body was found on December 13, 1991, but he had apparently been dead a few days already at that point.

The real star of the film is Johanna Schall. Whenever she’s on the screen, it’s hard to watch anyone else. Schall comes as close to royalty as the GDR had to offer. Her father was Ekkehard Schall, one of the foremost interpreters of the works of Bertolt Brecht, and her mother was Barbara Brecht-Schall, the daughter of Helene Weigel and Bertolt Brecht. After reunification, Schall worked as a director for various theaters across Germany, while, at the same time, appearing in television shows and giving guest lectures. In 1992, she starred in Apfelbäume (Apple Trees), which was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. These days, she prefers to work behind the scenes as a theater director. She also writes on a number of topics on her blog (in German, of course).

Johanna Schall

At the start of Bailing Out, we hear Maja sing a song over the dispatch radio to one of the truckers. The song was written by Christian Kožik, a composer living in Potsdam. The lyrics are based on Ballade de la belle heaumière aux filles de joie (Ballad of the beautiful helmetmaker’s wife to the ladies of the night) by François Villon. Villon’s poem is a warning to pretty young women that someday their beauty would fade, so they’d better get all they can while men are still putty in the their hands. The poem was also the inspiration for Auguste Rodin’s La Belle qui fut heaulmière, a sculpture of a withered old woman, sitting on a rock.

Bailing Out is an odd film with middle-aged leads, quirky behavior, and unusual career choices. Perhaps this was too odd for the East German audience because the film didn’t stay in theaters long and actually got better reviews in West Germany than in the GDR. For anyone interested in the East German Frauenfilme (Women’s films), this is a good follow-up to Gusner’s All My Girls, which also looks at working women, but at a different point in their careers.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy or stream the film.

© 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.