Following the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989, events in East Germany started happening fast. Faster than DEFA could keep with. Less than a year after that first batch of East Germans streamed into West Berlin in their Trabants, the GDR ceased to exist. Yet DEFA soldiered on, buffeted mercilessly by the winds of change. During the GDR’s last year of existence, the authorities had loosened their restrictions on what was acceptable in a film and what was not. The Tango Player (Der Tangospieler) was based on Christoph Hein’s 1989 novella about a man imprisoned for playing a tango. The book was controversial, but it was always easier to get books published than films made in the GDR. Filmmaker Roland Gräf saw the potential in the story to make a movie that addressed many of the problems he saw in East German society. He submitted his proposal to DEFA, but he wasn’t really expecting them to okay the project. The film studio had stayed away from controversial topics ever since the 11th Plenum. To his surprise, they said yes, and Gräf began working on the film, unaware—as was everyone else—that the fall of the Wall was a few scant months away.
The story starts when Hans-Peter Dallow is let out of prison after serving 21 months for subversive activity. It is 1968 and Alexander Dubček has just been elected First Secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. Prior to prison, Dallow was a history professor, who sometimes played the piano at a local Kabarett.1 One night, while Dallow subbed for their regular piano player, a comedy troupe performed a particularly pointed political skit. This would have been early in 1966—shortly after the 11th Plenum, when the East German government was cracking down on any movie, performance, or other art that even remotely smacked of criticism against them. The next thing Dallow knew, he was trundled off the prison along with the rest of the performers.
Now back out in the world, Dallow doesn’t know what to do next. As a history professor, he specialized in Czechoslovakia, but the time in prison has left him indifferent to the unfolding political events there. He’s in no hurry to get back into the classroom, and he certainly doesn’t want to play the piano again, but he’s not sure where to turn next. As if to pour salt in the wound, the skit for which he was imprisoned is now performed openly, and is even attended by the judge who sentenced him. On top of everything else, the Stasi are dropping by regularly, trying to recruit him as an informer (IM).
Dallow isn’t a particularly likeable guy. For one thing, after 21 months in prison he’s horny as hell and behaves atrociously toward women. For another, his self-pity verges on narcissism. He’s mad at the world for what it’s done to him, but he’s not willing to take steps to alleviate the situation. The film stars Michael Gwisdek as Hans-Peter Dallow. Gwisdek was too old for the part, and this works against the character. Some of his actions would be understandable for a young man, but come across as downright creepy in a man old enough to know better. If we are suppose to like or sympathize with Dallow, it doesn’t show. He is a thoroughly disagreeable human being. Nonetheless, Gwisdek is a compelling enough actor to hold our interest.
The film also stars Corinna Harfouch as Elke, the only meaningful relationship he has post-prison. Gwisdek and Harfouch were still an item in 1991, and made several movies together, both before and after the Wall fell. The Tango Player was one of their last. The duo went their separate ways toward the end of the nineties, but didn’t get officially divorced until 2007 (for more on Gwisdek and Harfouch, see The Actress).
Like Joachim Hasler, director Roland Gräf started his career at DEFA as a cinematographer. He was the cinematographer for Born in ‘45 and The Dove on the Roof, which were both banned. It was with Gräf’s help, in fact, that The Dove on the Roof was eventually put back together and screened in 1990. During its final years, Gräf became the de facto keeper of the flame for DEFA. Making movies and acting as chairman of DEFA’s artistic council. When DEFA finally bit the dust, so too did Gräf’s career as a filmmaker. Aside from a couple episodes of the TV crime series Faust, Gräf stopped working as either a director or a cinematographer. Like many East German filmmakers, his ideas weren’t welcome in the new Germany, which skewed heavily in favor of the Western ideology and power. He began teaching at the “Konrad Wolf” film school in Babelsberg. Upon its founding in 1998, Roland Gräf became the Deputy Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the DEFA Foundation, a position he held until 2005. After that, he turned his attention to still pictures. In 2016, a book of his photographs was published in Germany under the title Meine LAST PICTURE SHOW.
As one would expect from a film titled The Tango Player, most of the music is either tango, or tango-inflected. The song that is used in the political skit is Julio César Sanders’ well-known classic Adiós Muchachos. The soundtrack also includes the music of Astor Piazzolla, as well as additional music provided by Günther Fischer. It’s a solid, driving score that suits the action well.
The Tango Player suffered a fate similar to The Architects, where the events of history happened faster than the film could be made. According to Gräf, “The events of the day simply ran over me.” By the time it came out, The Tango Player‘s relevance was seriously diminished. What would have been a remarkably frank portrayal of events a couple years earlier seemed tame now. The film was largely ignored. That’s too bad, because the film is one of the last to give us a glimpse into a world that no longer existed by someone who had actually been there.
1. As in my article about The Actress, I’ve intentionally used the German word “Kabarett” here rather than “cabaret,” because, for Germans, the word Kabarett has a very different meaning from what we think of as cabaret. Although they both feature lots of singing, dancing and skits, German Kabarett is often punctuated by satirical political skits and comedy monologues of the darkest humor.