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

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

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

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

Isabel auf der Treppe

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

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

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

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

Isabel on the Stairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reise in ehebett

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

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

Journey into the Nuptial Bed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minna von Barnhelm

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

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

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

Minna von Barnhelm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ganymed Restaurant


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

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

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

Dusk
Heinz-Dieter Knaup and Stefan Lisewski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.

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.

IMDB page for the film.

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