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

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

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

How to Marry a King

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

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

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

How to Marry a King

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

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

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

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

Career

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

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

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

Karriere

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

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

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

There is no IMDB page for this film. Its details are listed under The Russians Are Coming.

Buy this film (included with The Russians Are Coming DVD).


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

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

Die Russen kommen
During the final year of World War II, the war in Germany became a war of children. Hitler’s war effort had so depleted the ranks of adult males that teenagers were drafted to fight. Having grown up under the Third Reich, indoctrination for the Fatherland started at an early age, these young men were Hitler’s last stand. Too young to question the reasons for fighting and not old enough to fear death, they fought ferociously and with commitment. A few films have been made on this subject. It figures prominently in Wolfgang Staudte’s Rotation, and in Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge (Die Brücke). The Russians Are Coming (Die Russen kommen) is another example. Unlike the other two films, much of the action in The Russians Are Coming takes place inside the mind of the protagonist. Dead characters return to haunt the living, and thoughts suddenly impose images on the film. In this respect, it resembles a Fellini film—an unusual thing for an East German film to resemble.

The protagonist of the film is Günter, a sixteen-year-old German boy who is proud to fight for the Fatherland. He begins to question his worldview after he helps his squad of Hitler Youths corner a Russian boy and kill him without reason. Günter earns an Iron Cross for helping trap the boy, as does the policeman who shoots the unarmed youth. This incident weighs heavily on Günter’s mind, and the boy—whose name, we find out later, is Igor—keeps appearing in Günter’s fantasies.

The Russians Are Coming

The Russians Are Coming is cited as the reverse side of the coin from Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen, in which a young German man who grew up in Russia is sent to the help the Russian army invade Germany. This is no accident. Wolf acknowledge this himself, and Heiner Carow starts his film with a title card reading “For Konrad Wolf.” It is also compared to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo), and Joachim Kunert’s The Adventures of Werner Holt.

Director Heiner Carow was fifteen when the war ended, which put him in a perfect position to understand what was going on in the mind of his protagonist. Like I Was Nineteen, some of what happens in The Russians Are Coming comes from Carow’s own experiences during wartime. Carow got his start at DEFA working on documentary shorts. His first film was Sheriff Teddy, based on Benno Pludra’s children’s book about a West Berlin gang leader whose parents move to East Berlin. The film was popular, and Carow would later direct two more features based on books by Benno Pludra. Carow followed Sheriff Teddy with They Called Him Amigo (Sie nannten ihn Amigo), about a boy who tries to help an escaped P.O.W. hide from the Nazis, leading to personal tragedy. But it was the 1972 hit The Legend of Paul and Paula that was Carow’s biggest success. It remains one of the most beloved of all East German films.

The Legend of Paul and Paula started Carow on a path of examining human relationships as honestly as possible with films such as Until Death Do Us Part, and Coming Out—one of the first films to explore gay relationships sympathetically. After the Berlin Wall came down, Carow made The Mistake (Verfehlung), the story of a woman exacting revenge for actions the Stasi took against her lover. After the Wende, Carow started working in German television, but died of a stroke in 1997. In 2013 the DEFA Foundation introduced the Heiner-Carow-Prize at the Berlinale. It has been awarded every year since.

The Russians Are Coming

The Russians Are Coming stars Gert Krause-Melzer as Günter. It was Krause-Melzer’s first film role, which is really being thrown into the deep end. He mostly does a good job, although he obviously struggles with the more emotional scenes. This would turn out to be Krause-Melzer’s only film role, but the actor continued to appear on stage. As of this writing, he lives in Potsdam and performs in the one-man cabaret show, Solokabarett Gert Melzer.

By the time he made The Russians Are Coming, Viktor Perevalov—who plays Igor—was already a popular child star in Russia. Like many child stars, he had a fallow period, when he became too old to continue playing teenagers, but was too typecast to be seen as anything else. It took a few years, but he eventually started appearing in films again in adult roles. He died in St. Petersburg in 2010.

Viktor Perevalov

The Russians Are Coming was not well received by the East German review board. They said it was “contaminated with modernism” (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean), and lacked a hero with good, anti-fascist values. Never mind that it was a truthful portrayal of one young man’s existential dilemma at the end of the war. As a result, the film was shelved. Carow ended up using clips from the movie as flashbacks in his next film Career (Karriere). A film that Carow reportedly disliked, but, as we shall see next time, deserves a second look.

The Russians Are Coming was thought to be lost, until Carow’s wife and well-known film editor Evelyn Carow turned up a copy and helped put it back together. By 1987, the climate in East Germany had changed enough to allow screenings of the movie. The film was hailed as a classic, as older films often are when revived, and it went on to earn Heiner Carow the Best Director award at the GDR National Feature Film Festival. The fact that the film could be shown in East Germany was seen as sign that the GDR had moved away from the restrictive censorship of the past, heralding a new, more progressive future for the country. Restrictions on films were, indeed, loosening up, but in a couple years it wouldn’t matter, because in a couple years there would no longer be an East Germany.

IMDB page for the film.

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Apprehension
One of the goals of DEFA films, stated at the very start of the production company, was to present stories from as objective a viewpoint as possible. When Kurt Maetzig made The Council of the Gods, his intention was to avoid both the romanticism of Hollywood and the socialist realism of Soviet films. He wanted to make a film that, first and foremost, told the truth about how international corporations (most notably Standard Oil) fed and supported Hitler’s war machine. It was still a feature film, but with a higher level of factual accuracy than most of the films at the time.

Over time, DEFA drifted away from this approach, but director Lothar Warneke wanted to return to the idea of documentary fiction and see how far he could push it. In Apprehension (Die Beunruhigung) he pushes it right to edge. Warneke has given us a film that is just barely a feature film in the traditional sense of the word. In nearly every aspect it resembles a documentary. It’s shot in grainy black-and-white with hand-held cameras in the academy standard aspect ratio, which was unusual for a film made in 1981 (for more on the thorny topic of aspect ratios, see The Flying Dutchman). Sometimes people on screen look self-consciously at the camera, as if they weren’t expecting to be filmed, and maybe they weren’t. At times, the cameras seems to be hiding from the subject, peeking out from behind corners to catch the action. Several of the actors weren’t even actors at all. The doctor who performs the breast examination was an actual doctor. He was fed no lines, but simply instructed to tell the lead actress exactly what he would tell a patient in the same situation.

Die Beunruhigung

At the center of the story in the film is Inge Herold, a successful psychologist, who spends her days listening to the problems of others, and spends her nights hopping into the sack with a married man named Joachim. After a doctor’s examination, Inge is told by her doctor that they have found a lump in her breast. She must come in the next day to the hospital, for surgery. If the lump is benign, they’ll simply remove it. If it is malignant, she’ll have to undergo a radical mastectomy. For the rest of the movie, the camera follows Inge as she comes to terms with this possibility. She cries, searches out old friends, confronts people, and eventually comes to terms with things.

Apprehension isn’t the first film to blur the line between reality and fiction. Films such as Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story and Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool had already mixed actual events with fictional stories, while “found footage” horror films such as Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, and Paranormal Activities rely almost entirely on this conceit to deliver their chills, but Apprehension is different. Nothing here feels fake or forced. This could have been a documentary, except that it isn’t. Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City of God comes close to capturing the same spirit, but even here the inherent fiction of the story feels more like storytelling that Warneke’s film (for more on Lothar Warneke, see Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens).

Inge is played by Christine Schorn. Born in Kiel to parents who were also actors, Schorn, appeared many times on television in East Germany before finally appearing in Her Third, her first feature film role. Schorn had a successful career in East Germany, not only on film and in television, but on the stage as well. After the Wende, feature film roles dried up for a while, and she went back to television and the stage, but soon she was appearing in films again, most notably Grill Point (Halbe Treppe), Goodbye Lenin!, and Franziska Meletzky’s According to Plan (Frei nach Plan), for which she one a best actress statuette at the German Film Awards. In that film, Schorn played the mother of fellow East German Dagmar Manzel, even though she is only 14 years older than Manzel.

Christine Schorn

The man behind the camera on Apprehension was a young cinematographer named Thomas Plenert. Trained as a documentary filmmaker, Plenert brought a unique look and feel to the film. Warneke was so impressed with his work, that he had him shoot his next two films as well. Meanwhile, Plenert continue to work primarily in the documentary field, including Helke Misselwitz’s classic Winter Adé, and The Wall (Die Mauer), Jürgen Böttcher’s short documentary on the deconstruction of the Berlin Wall (for more on Jürgen Böttcher, see Born in ’45).

Apprehension also falls squarely into that category of films known as Frauenfilme. This translates to “women’s films,” and is a very different creature from the “Chick-Flicks” of Hollywood. Unlike the Chick-Flicks, which are devoted almost exclusively to love and romance told from a female perspective, the Frauenfilme tend to deal more with the social issues that affect women—issues such as sexism in the workplace, pregnancy, and the difficulties involved in balancing a career and a family. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, East Germany was way out in the lead when it came to making this type of movie. Films such as Hey You!, The Legend of Paula and Paula, and Her Third had tackled these issues back in the early seventies, but the term wasn’t coined until The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum in 1975. The GDR continued to make films dealing with women’s issue throughout the seventies and eighties with films such as Solo Sunny, Hostess, Solo Sailor, The Bicycle, Today is Friday, Our Short Life, and All My Girls. In the West, the Frauenfilme were still outliers, primarily the work of female directors such as Margarethe von Trotta, Ula Stöckl, and Helma Sanders-Brahms. In East Germany, Frauenfilme were much more common, and were made by both male (Konrad Wolf, Heiner Carow) and female (Iris Gusner, Evelyn Schmidt) filmmakers.

Nobody expected much from Apprehension, but it hit a chord with the public. It played to full houses, and went on to become the most popular adult-oriented film to come out of DEFA since since The Legend of Paul and Paula. In any history of German film, Apprehension represents an important milestone.

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Das Lied der Matrosen
The Sailors’ Song (Das Lied der Matrosen) is a dramatic retelling of the Kiel Mutiny, a revolt by sailors in 1918. The event helped end World War I; it virutallly ended the reign of Wilhelm II; and, at least in this DEFA account of the story, sowed the seeds for the establishment of the Germany Communist Party (KPD). The film starts in the Fall of 1917 with the execution of Max Reichpietsch and Albin Köbis, two sailors who led a revolt aboard the SMS Prinzregent Luitpold, protesting bad conditions and lousy food. Max and Albin were labeled “Marxist agitators” and sentenced to be shot by a firing squad. When sailors refused to shoot two of their own, the convicted men are transported to Cologne, where they are executed by soldiers instead. By this point, the Germans had lost the war, but they weren’t ready to admit it. The treatment of the sailors aboard the battleships remained bad, and by September of 1918, things had reached a boiling point. When the admiralty tried to implement a suicide attack against the Royal Navy, the sailors of the SMS Frederick the Great and others finally declare they’ve had enough and marched on the naval headquarters in Kiel.

The film is set up in dramatic fashion, with heroes who support the Russian revolution, and are trying to end the imperial oppression in Germany; and bad guys fighting for their beloved German Empire. In the middle is Jupp, a sailor who is recruited by the Navy to spy on his shipmates. At first, he is on the side of the military, but eventually comes to understand the viewpoints of his fellow sailors. Things come to a head after Jupp sees his mother shot during a protest march. It’s stirring stuff that even critics of the film’s politics had to admit was powerfully handled.

Determined to finish the film in time for the Kiel mutiny’s 40th anniversary, DEFA hired two directors to make the movie: Kurt Maetzig and Günter Reisch. Both Maetzig and Reisch believed in the ideals of the GDR, and both were superb craftsmen. Beyond that, their styles are as different as chalk and cheese. Reportedly Maetzig handled the scenes with the military officers and admirals in this film, while Reisch shot the scenes involving the sailors. It doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does.

Das Lied der Matrosen

The main heroes of the film are Henne Lobke and August Lenz, played by Ulrich Thein and Raimund Schelcher respectively. Ulrich Thein, a man of immense talent, was a West German by birth, but moved to the GDR to work at the famous Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Later on, he’d start directing as well (for more on Thein, see Anton the Magician). Craggy-faced Raimund Schelcher was one of the best actors in East Germany, but his drinking caused enough problems with productions that it became the stuff of legends. Born in German East Africa, Schelcher came to Germany after German East Africa was divvied up by the Treaty of Versailles He started working at various theaters in Germany during the Weimar years, and was arrested by the Gestapo and put into one of the probation battalions—Hitler’s weird policy of putting convicted criminals into their own battalions (for more on Schelcher, see Castles and Cottages).

The main villain of the movie is the naval officer Eberhard Schuckert, who is played with gusto by Ekkehard Schall. Schall is best known for his work with Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel at the Berliner Ensemble. He was mentored by Brecht and became keeper of the flame along with Weigel after the playwright’s death. Like Weigel, Schall saw Brecht’s work as set in stone and resisted any attempts to modify the performances with modern interpretations. He even married Brecht’s daughter Barbara. On film, he is best remembered for his role as a juvenile delinquent in Berlin–Schönhauser Corner, and the bizarre “Chief” in Gottfried Kolditz’s In the Dust of the Stars. Not surprisingly, Schall was considered a master interpreter of Brecht, and continued to perform the playwright’s works throughout his life. He was also one of the speakers at the Alexanderplatz demonstration a few days before the Wall was opened, supporting socialism, but calling for changes. After the Wende, Schall restricted his performances almost exclusively to theater, appearing in only one film (Der Auftrag). He died in 2005.

The Sailors' Song

The morally conflicted Jupp is portrayed by Stefan Lisewski in his first feature film. Handsome and gaunt, Lisewski appeared as a leading man in such films as Love’s Confusion, May Wine (Maibowle), The Story of a Murder, and Approach Alpha 1 (Anflug Alpha 1). Like Eberhard Schuckert, Lisewski is strongly associated with the plays of Bertolt Brecht. He is reported to have played Mack the Knife no less than 500 times. During the seventies, and after the Wende, he concentrated more on theater than film. He died in Berlin in 2016.

You wouldn’t be out of order to call Kurt Maetzig the father of East German cinema. He was there on November 22, 1945 at the Hotel Adlon, helping to form the Filmaktiv, a group designed to revitalize filmmaking in Germany, and from which DEFA eventually sprang. When DEFA was officially launched the following May, he was put in charge of the group that made Der Augenzeuge (The Eyewitness) films—short newsreels that screened before the main movies. Although he retired from filmmaking in 1976, he outlasted DEFA by many years. In fact, he outlasted almost everybody, finally dying in 2012 at the age of 101. Maetzig’s films are often the ones that are held up as examples by those wishing to portray the films from East Germany as exercises in Soviet propaganda. Some of his films, especially his earlier films, wear their politics on their sleeves. His style borrowed heavily from documentary filmmaking, but he never forgot the importance of the human story in his films.

Reisch came to DEFA a few years later and soon started working with Maetzig as an assistant director. You can see his work in Council of the Gods and the Ernst Thälmann films. He got his first chance to direct with Young Vegetables (Junges Gemüse) and then in Track in the Night. He is also responsible for the most high concept pair of films to come out of DEFA: A Lively Christmas Eve and Like Father, Like Son. Both featuring essentially the same actors in the same parts, filmed twenty-five years apart.

protest scene from Das Lied der Matrosen

The protest march at the end is spectacular, involving 15,000 extras. Today it would be done with CGI. How the director managed to keep track of Ulrich Thein in that crowd is beyond me. It’s a spectacular piece of controlled crowd filming. Whether this was Maetzig of Reisch, I can’t say (all signs point to Reisch), but it’s a stunning piece of work.

If you are new to the films of East Germany, The Sailor’s Song is probably not the place to start. It very much fits the mold of what most Westerners think East German films are like. It is didactic and filled with the socialist heroics. That’s not to say it’s a bad film; it’s an amazing film. Just don’t assume that it represents the average East German film. That would be like using Strategic Air Command as a representative example of Hollywood movies.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (in German, no subtitles).

The Tango Player
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.

Der Tangospieler

This scene isn’t quite what it seems. The woman has already spent the night with Dallow. Her anguish comes from the something she just heard on the radio, announcing the invasion of Prague by the Warsaw troops.

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).

Gwisdek and Harfouch

Michael Gwisdek and Corinna Harfouch

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

Dallow’s television shows the Warsaw Pact troops rolling into Prague.

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.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.


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.

Fatal Error
With the protests at Standing Rock, and recent plans to privatize Indian lands for their oil deposits, this is an excellent time to take a look at Fatal Error (Tödlicher Irrtum), a 1970 western from DEFA. It’s a shame this film isn’t available with English subtitles, because this is a movie for the times if ever there was one.

Like many of the DEFA westerns, Fatal Error is based on historical events. The story takes place in 1898. At the time the American West was still the Wild West of myth, but things were changing rapidly. The promises of riches that had started the westward expansion a few decades earlier was being replaced with a new kind of gold—black gold. As it turned out, many of the best oil deposits were on Indian land. So what did the oil companies do? They did what they’ve always done: lie, cheat, steal, and kill to get at that oil.

The story starts with an Indian named Shave Head riding into the newly formed town of Wind River City, Wyoming and announcing excitedly that they’ve found oil on the local reservation. This would be the last time Shave Head would be happy about the discovery. After this intro, the story advances a few years when we see Wind River City overrun with white men bent on taking advantage of the local Indians in every way possible. For some, this means grossly overcharging them for goods. For others, it means murdering them and stealing the money and land deeds which the Indians insisted on carrying around on their persons because they didn’t trust the banks.

Fatal Error

The chief villain of the piece is Mike Allison, a local robber baron who’s behind many of the murders. Allison is busy trying to consolidate all the oil land under his name. If this means an occasional murder, then so be it. Things come to a head after Shave Head’s half-brother Clint Howard takes the job of assistant sheriff and starts investigating the deaths.

Fatal Error is the fifth Indianerfilm to come out of the DEFA studios.1 It is also the fifth one to star Yugoslavian stuntman-turned-actor Gojko Mitić. As discussed here previously, Mitić was DEFA’s go-to guy when they needed someone to play a Native American. As Shave Head, Mitić bring his usual dignity and strength to the role.

Playing Shave Head’s half-brother Chris Howard is Armin Mueller-Stahl, who needs no introduction here. Mueller-Stahl is one of the few East German film stars who also managed to become an international film star. To a lesser extent, the same can be said for Rolf Hoppe, who plays the villainous Mike Allison. Just as Gojko Mitić was DEFA’s Indian, Hoppe often showed up as the villain in these films. Hoppe made himself known internationally for his powerful portrayal of Tábornagy in István Szabó’s Mephisto. Since then, he has gone on the appear in films of every type, demonstrating that he’s not simply a good villain, but also capable of comedy. Also appearing is Annekathrin Bürger in a minor role.

Annekathrin Bürger

The film is directed by Konrad Petzold, a talented director who was mainly consigned to making children’s films and westerns. Born in 1930, Petzold was still a kid when the Nazis took over. After the war, he first studied to be a mechanic. Like his older brothers and sisters, he became involved in a local political theater group in his hometown of Radebeul. In 1949, he went to Berlin to study at the DEFA film school for young directors. He, along with co-director Egon Günther, got into trouble with the powers-that-be for their 1961 film The Dress (Das Kleid), a film version of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Since the story takes place in a city with a wall around it, the authorities thought they were talking about Berlin, even though Perzold and Günther had started shooting the film before the Wall was built.

In 1969, Petzold directed White Wolves, a sequel to the previous year’s The Falcon’s Trail. It was his first foray into the field of Indian films, and it was a hit. After that film, Petzold became DEFA’s number one choice for filming their westerns, including Osceola, Kit & Co, and The Scout. Petzold is one of the many directors who found himself cast adrift after the Wall came down. His last film, The Story of the Goose Princess and Her Faithful Horse Falada (Die Geschichte von der Gänseprinzessin und ihrem treuen Pferd Falada), was released in January of 1989. In later years, Petzold suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and died in 1999.

Gojko Mitic

The Wind River Indian Reservation is real, but the Wyoming Oil Company is not. Nor are any of the characters. Although it isn’t specifically cited, the most-likely basis for the film’s story were the Osage Indian murders of the 1920s, which occurred in Oklahoma. Oil was discovered on Osage land in 1897, leading to a boom in the Osage economy that saw many Indians suddenly becoming wealthy. This led to an influx of fortune seeking interlopers.

One of these interlopers was a man named William Hale—as nasty a piece of work as this country has ever produced. Hale concocted a plan whereby his nephews would marry local Indian women and then have them killed, thus obtaining the rights to the oil profits. This plan came about thanks to an incredibly racist law that was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1921, whereby the Osage Indians were required to have white guardians take care of their affairs until they demonstrated “competency.” Since this evaluation of competency was left in the hands of the very people who stood to benefit from taking over guardianships, very few people passed the test.

Hale murdered his way into wealth, and when the authorities started to investigate, he resorted to killing potential witnesses against him and even threatening the local law enforcement. It finally took the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation to step in and put an end to his reign of terror. Hale was eventually convicted in 1929, but for only one of the murders. He spent eighteen years in jail before being paroled—less time than some people have spent in jail in Oklahoma for marijuana possession. After the events in Osage County, the law regarding guardianship for the Osage Indians was revised, allowing only full-blood Osage Indians to inherit the mineral rights.

As for the real Wind River Reservation, in 2014, a writer for the New York Times called it the most crime-ridden Indian reservation in America. The article provoked angry responses from the locals, including a well-written response from a local student that the NY Times published.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film.


1. Indianerfilm (plural: Indianerfilme): Literally “Indian film.” DEFA preferred this term over “western” for obvious reasons. Most academics avoid the use of the term “western” when writing about these films. I have used both terms interchangeably here. As a genre definition, they are unquestionably westerns, whether DEFA liked to admit or not.