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

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

tractors!

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

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

Landgut

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

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

Our Daily Bread

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

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

IMDB page for the film.

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

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

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

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

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

marion Wiegmann

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

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

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

Johanna Schall

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

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

IMDB page for the film.

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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.

Time of the Storks
In 1971, East Germans started lining up outside the cinemas to see a film called Time of the Storks (Zeit der Störche). It might have been in part because of its story of love affair between two strangers, one of whom was about to get married, but it was more likely because the film also featured the first nude scene in a DEFA film. Nudity had less of a stigma in Europe than it did (or does) in the United States. In fact, U.S.-made films occasionally had nudity added when they went overseas. East Germans, because of their country’s secular philosophy, had even fewer hang-ups about nudity than their West German counterparts. They called it Freikörperkultur (FKK), and it wasn’t uncommon to see people enjoying the beaches along the Baltic Sea in the altogether. In Time of the Storks, the nude scenes are short and presented without prurience.

Teacher Susanne Krug (Heidemarie Wenzel) is taking one last solo vacation before her marriage. Susanne is a straight-arrow woman and a prospective candidate for the SED. For the past two years, she’d been a harmonious if somewhat tame relationship with her boyfriend Wolfgang (Jürgen Hentsch). While on holiday, she meets Christian (Winfried Glatzeder), or, more accurately, Christian stalks her. Christian is the complete opposite of Susanne. He doesn’t take anything seriously, including his relationships, and is more interested in living life to its fullest than being politically and emotionally responsible. We’ve seen this angle in rom-coms a hundred times before, from Ninotchka, The Lady Eve, and Desk Set to Working Girl, and You’ve Got Mail.

Zeit der Störche

The film is based on a book by Herbert Otto, a popular East German fiction writer. Otto had been a member of the Nazi party as a teenager, and was a member of the Wehrmacht when he was captured and sent to a Soviet P.O.W. camp. The camp must have made an impression on the young Otto because after the War he chose to live in the GDR where he became a functionary in the Society for German-Soviet Friendship (Gesellschaft für Deutsch-Sowjetische Freundschaft) and was a member of the Writers’ Association of the GDR (Deutscher Schriftstellerverband der DDR). He wrote several popular books, including Die Lüge (The Lie)—an autobiographical novel about his wartime experiences—and Zum Beispiel Josef (For Example, Joseph) and Der Traum vom Elch (The Dream of the Elk), both of which were also made into movies. After the Wende, like many other East German writers, Otto suddenly found his ability to get things published drop precipitously. None of his books are currently in print. Otto died in 2003.

Time of the Storks is directed by Siegfried Kühn with a script by his wife Regine Kühn. This was the first time the Kühns worked together on a film. They would go on to work together on several more films, even after they divorced. While Siegfried’s career ended with the Wende, Regine went on to write and direct several more features and TV films after reunification (for more on the Kühns, see The Second Life of Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow and The Actress). Siegfried Kühn’s directorial style on Time of the Storks is unusual. Many scenes in Time of the Storks are filmed with objects partially blocking the views of the actors. Sometimes it’s a bedpost, that stands resolutely in the way of Susanne’s conversation with Christian, perhaps indicating Susanne’s internal prison. In other scenes, we look up at them from hiding places behind trees and tall grass, as if we are spying on the couple. The spying aspect is interesting and may have been intentionally referencing the Stasi, but if it was, it’s handled so subtlety that it didn’t appear to raise suspicions.

Heidemarie Wenzel had already appeared in several films and television shows before starring in Time of the Storks. She appeared briefly as a bride in The Lost Angel and was the main love interest in Farewell, but it was Time of the Storks that put her on people’s radar. Born at the end of WWII, Wenzel appeared in children’s theater as a child, and sang in the stage chorus for the German State Opera. From 1963 to 1966 she studied at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin. She scored again as the gold-digging wife of Paul in The Legend of Paul and Paula. However, her next film—The Dove on the Roof—wouldn’t see movie screens until after the Wende, having the dubious distinction of being the first film banned after Honecker took over the top spot in East Germany.

Heidemarie Wenzel

Wenzel appeared in several more films for DEFA, but after a business trip her husband didn’t return from West Germany. She applied for an exit visa to join him, but was refused. After that, she was labeled as politically unreliable and acting opportunities dried up. She continued to apply for an exit visa and worked as a church secretary in the meantime. She was finally allowed to leave the GDR in 1988. Since the Wende, her on-screen appearances have been restricted to television.

Winfried Glatzeder is most famous for his role as Paul in The Legend of Paul and Paula, but he appeared in many other films, including The Man Who Replaced Grandma, Till Eulenspiegel, and The Land beyond the Rainbow. Unlike his leading ladies, Glatzeder’s career continued without pause after the Wende, although he showed up on television more often. In 2017, he appeared as Harry, a former Romeo Agent1 for the Stasi alongside fellow East German actors Henry Hübchen, Antje Traue, and Michael Gwisdek in Robert Thalheim’s comedy Kundschafter des Friedens (Spy for Peace).

Winfried Glatzeder

Coming out, as it did, after Honecker replaced Ulbricht as the top dog in East Germany, Time of the Storks was seen as a sign of the changing times. Although he was even more of a hardliner than Ulbricht was, Honecker was anxious to prove that the government in East Germany was not the ogre it was portrayed as in the western press. Having once said that “if one starts from a strong position of socialism in the field of art and literature, in my opinion there can be no taboos” (“Wenn man von den festen Positionen des Sozialismus ausgeht, kann es meines Erachtens auf dem Gebiet von Kunst und Literatur keine Tabus geben”), he then had to prove this, which led to a slight loosening of the restrictions on what you could and couldn’t show in film.

IMDB page for this film.

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1. A concept invented by Stasi masterspy Markus Wolf, the Romeo Agent was an East German spy tasked with becoming romantically involved with a person from the West and then convincing them to help him (or her) obtain state secrets. The concept was most recently seen in the German television series The Same Sky (available on Netflix).

© 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.

Karl Liebknecht
In 1954 and 1955, director Kurt Maetzig made two films devoted to the life of communist pioneer Ernst Thälmann. Later, Maetzig would say he was embarrassed by the films and consider them his weakest work. Unlike most of his films, these two were not of his choosing. The authorities simply decided that it was time for DEFA to make films that championed the forefathers of their country. DEFA had planned to follow up the Thälmann films with films about about Karl Liebknecht, who founded the Spartacus League with Rosa Luxemburg, the group that would eventually become the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands—KPD). The old master Slatan Dudow was slated to direct it when he died in a car crash in the summer of 1963 (for more on Dudow, see Destinies of Women). Eventually, Günter Reisch was chosen to make the picture.

Reisch was a logical choice, he had worked as an assistant director on the Thälmann films, and had co-directed The Sailors’ Song in 1958, which also dealt with the formative years of the KPD. Reisch was an excellent director, and, more importantly, he believed in socialism (for more on Reisch see Jakob the Liar). Reisch would make the film, and do a good job of it as well. Of course, it didn’t hurt that in Liebknecht he had a genuinely heroic figure who stood up for what he believed in and wasn’t beholden to Stalin the way Thälmann was.

As Long as There Is Life in Me

For the first film—As Long as There Is Life in Me (Solange Leben in mir ist)—Reisch would be working from a script by Michael Tschesno-Hell, who had also written the screenplays for the Ernst Thälmann films. Tschesno-Hell was more party wonk than writer. It’s not surprising that none of the films that list him as the screenwriter list him alone. He did understand the power of the written word, and it was he who created Verlag Volk und Welt—an important publishing house in East Germany. He has been described by acquaintances as on “old Bolshevik.” Nonetheless, he was paid more money for writing As Long as There is Life in Me than any previous DEFA screenwriter had ever been paid, and he lived in the Berlin-Schönholz district, an area exclusively intended for the East German intelligentsia.

As Long as There Is Life in Me opens up in 1914, after Liebknecht has already been elected to the Reichstag as a Social-Democratic Party (SPD) member. Liebknecht receives papers showing that Germany is secretly getting ready for war. The film follows Liebknecht’s efforts to get Germany out of the war and galvanize the people against the monarchy in favor of a socialist system. As one might imagine, this didn’t go over very well with the fat cats at the top, who did everything in their power to first marginalize and then neutralize Liebknecht. Eventually throwing him in prison, which is where this film’s story ends. The title of the film comes from a quote from Liebknecht: “Solange Leben in mir ist, werde ich gegen den Militarismus kämpfen!” (“As long as there is life in me, I will fight against militarism!”).

Horst Schulze

Liebknecht is played with conviction and believability by Horst Schulze. Schulze got his start as an opera singer; a career that was briefly interrupted by World War II. After the war, he returned to the opera, then started appearing in films in 1958. Over the next three decades, Schulze continued to appear in films and sing in operas. Unlike many DEFA actors, especially older ones like him, Schulze did not suffer the job lag with the fall of the Wall, although his roles after the Wende were primarily on television.

Reisch had a knack for adding subtle sub-texts to his stories, and this one’s no exception. We see how, at the start of World War I, the general populace fell prey to mindless flag-waving and the politicians resorted to jingoism to get their way. Liebknecht and his family was subjected to every type of harassment for challenging the need to go to war and for not toeing the line. Liebknecht was right, of course. History has proven the war was stupid. It brought Germany to ruin, opening the path for Hitler and his thugs to stroll into the Reichstag and take over. In this respect the film is as relevant today as it was in 1965.

Karl liebknecht

The film was popular, coming second only to The Adventures of Werner Holt at the box office that year. Reisch, Schulze, and cameraman Horst E. Brandt were all awarded National Prizes for their work. Nonetheless, it would be six years before DEFA would attempt to finish telling the story the story of Karl Liebknecht.

In Spite of Everything!

In Spite of Everything! (Trotz alledem!) was the follow up to As Long as There Is Life in Me. As with that film, the title comes from a quote by Liebknecht about how the communist cause would eventually succeed “in spite of everything.” This time Michael Tschesno-Hell did not write the screenplay. He only provided the basic scenario. Reisch provided his own screenplay for the second film, with input—some might say meddling—from Günter Karl, who served as the dramaturge.1

The film picks up on October 23, 1918, when Liebknecht is released from prison. Germany, is in a state of upheaval, and the war is almost over. Things don’t look good for the German army, but the leaders are too stubborn to admit it. Then a little over two weeks after Liebknecht was released from prison, the sailors in Kiel mutinied and set into motion the November Revolution, signaling the end of the German Empire (for more on that incident, see The Sailors’ Song). The movie follows Liebknecht’s role in the founding of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), the publishing of the KPD’s party organ Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), ending with his and Rosa Luxemburg’s murders and the funeral that followed.

Karl Liebknecht

Unlike the first film, which focuses exclusively on Liebknecht, In Spite of Everything shifts occasionally away from Liebknecht to observe the turmoil occurring in one working family as they grapple with the changes happening in their country.2 We had been introduced to that family, the Schreiners, in the first film, but this time their story takes up more of the narrative, making the film more relatable and relevant to the average person. As with the first film, Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) leaders Gustav Noske and Friedrich Ebert are portrayed as the bad guys, and attitude that helped clear the path for Hitler, but that fact isn’t remotely broached or hinted at here. This time we have a new villain: Von Preuss, a creepy military man in a fur collar, played with gusto by Rolf Ludwig. We saw this character briefly in the first film, but this time we get to watch him in all his viciousness. Von Preuss is presumably based on right-wing militia leader Waldemar Pabst, the man who freely admitted to ordering the executions of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Why Reisch chose to omit Pabst in favor of a fictional character is hard to say. Maybe because Pabst never saw retribution for his actions, and, in fact, led a pretty full life as a businessman in West Germany, Austria and Switzerland before finally dying in Düsseldorf at the ripe-old age of 89.

In Spite of Everything!

This fudging of the facts dilutes the effectiveness of both films. Liebknecht’s family is reconstructed with the sons Robert and Wilhelm eliminated from the story with only daughter Vera remaining. Perhaps this was to simplify the familial issues, or perhaps it was because Wilhelm and Robert were still around and were doing nothing to support the SED, while Vera had the good graces to die in 1934. Reisch also falls down when it comes to the deaths of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, which were viciously brutal. Both were captured and tortured before they were killed, but you won’t see any of it in this film. Luxemburg’s body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal, while Liebknecht was shot while being forced from a moving car. For screenings of the film outside of the GDR, even the funeral was omitted, the film ending instead with shots of youths carrying pictures of Liebknecht at the 10th Youth World Festival in East Berlin (X. Weltfestspiele 1973).3

Although the government supported the making of this film, their reaction to it was tempered. After all, this film was all about overthrowing the government in charge. Like the Soviets, the East German communists were finding that their rhetoric about revolution was in danger of biting them in the ass. Revolution is fine as long as you’re not the one being revolted against.

Crowd scene

Perhaps in deference to Dudow, Reisch directed the first film in a similar to that director, whose style was heavily influenced by the films that came out of Ufa during the twenties. Not so with the second film. While the first film was black-and-white, this time everything is in color. Where the first film mimicked the style of Ufa films, the second film is pure DEFA, using that objective, almost documentary style for which they are so famous. In both films, Reisch gets to demonstrate his spectacular skill at manage crowd scenes. No one directed a crowd scene better than Reisch.

As is often the case with historical films made in countries where the events occurred, some things in these movies are left unexplained. In Spite of Everything was made for an East German audience and there were things they would have known about that are relatively unfamiliar to us in the West, and especially to those of us in America—like the Paris Commune, the Kiel Mutiny, or the fact that Karl Liebknecht’s father was one of the founders of the SPD. They are given only cursory mentions The audience was expected to know these things already.

As with Ernst Thälmann, history hasn’t been kind to Karl Liebknecht. While he still commands respect for his devotion to his principles, his refusal to compromise—while noble in its intentions—helped open the door for Hitler. If anything can really be learned from history, this is one lesson that would be well heeded.

IMDB page for As Long as There Is Life in Me

IMDB page for In Spite of Everything!

Buy or stream As Long as There Is Life in Me

Buy or Stream In Spite of Everything!


1. The role of the dramaturge in East German films is an interesting one that has no comparable counterpart in Hollywood films. The term is comes from theater and is the title given to the person whose job it is to fact check historical productions and also make sure that each production adheres to the theater company’s mission statement.

2. This isn’t the first DEFA to use this approach. Both The Sailors’ Song and The Invincibles use the technique as well. Other DEFA films such as Rotation, The Council of the Gods, and Professor Mamlock similarly follow the lives of individuals who are not central to the events of the times.

3. There is some irony in this choice of alternate ending. The World Youth Festival was an important annual event, especially—though not exclusively—in the communist countries. For the first time since 1951, the festival was being held in East Berlin in 1973. In an effort to ensure there wouldn’t be any of the unwanted protests seen in Helsinki when the festival was held there, the Stasi made sure anyone they suspected might have cause to disrupt the proceedings was arrested and either thrown in jail or institutionalized. More on this here, and here.

© 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.

Miraculi
Throughout its existence, the DEFA studio in East Germany released films that pushed the boundaries. Some of these, such as Divided Heaven, Farewell, In the Dust of the Stars, and The Airship would make it onto movie screens. A few were shelved, but it was was usually for political reasons rather than the film’s style. It would take the fall of the Wall for stylistic exploration to really open up at DEFA. Freed from the topical restraints imposed by the SED, East German directors briefly found themselves able to make the films they had always wanted to make. From 1990 until the film production company shuttered its doors, directors at DEFA had a freedom to stretch the boundaries of filmmaking in ways that they’d never had before and wouldn’t have again once the profit-before-art philosophy took over. These films didn’t follow the rules and weren’t afraid to challenge the viewer. We saw something similar in the West during the late sixties when Hollywood was no longer sure what would work at the box office and started letting directors push the boundaries; sometimes successfully (The Swimmer, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Bonnie and Clyde), and sometimes, er, interestingly (Skidoo, Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?).

One of the last films to come out of DEFA was Miraculi, but by that time the studio was foundering, and would only release a few more films before closing its doors. Like Latest from the Da-Da-R, and The Land Beyond the Rainbow, Miraculi is an amusing experimental film that shifts through time and space as it follows the misadventures of Sebastian Müller, who starts the film as part of a gang of kids, hanging around in the local pub and goes through some wacky changes, including a stint as a Jesus lookalike, in disguise to catch streetcar fare evaders. The story climaxes on the banks of a lake that has disappeared overnight, leaving a group of jaded party-goers wondering what happened.

The part about the lake is true. As the intertitle at the beginning of the film explains, on June 15, 1978, the Schwarzer See (Black Lake) near Sagsdorf, Germany vanished during the night. Locals reported hearing a rumbling sound, and the next morning the lake was gone. Years later, they figured out that a backhoe piling up gravel on one side of the lake caused the lake’s disappearance. The gravel pile created a displacement of the shaky clay layers under the lake, which then pushed the water in the lake into a nearby swamp, swallowing up the backhoe and beaching a boat. Eventually the lake returned, larger and shallower than before. Now trees eerily rise from under the water, and a road dips into the water, reappearing on the opposite bank.

MIraculi

There’s a natural tendency to compare East German films to well-known films from the West. Such comparisons are, by their nature, facile and inapt, but they do provide a way to quickly categorize films to either entice or repulse potential viewers. Thus we get In the Dust of the Stars compared to Barbarella, and Hot Summer compared to Beach Party. If one were to compare Miraculi to anything, it would have to be Last Year in Marienbad, with its band of decadent party-goers wandering around, talking without listening, all acting as if they are in a dream. As to this last aspect, Miraculi is less circumspect than Last Year in Marienbad.

Miraculi is directed by Ulrich Weiß, who started his career as an industrial photographer. After getting hired as an assistant cameraman for German television in 1964, Weiß went to the Film and Television Academy in Potsdam (Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen Potsdam, now the Filmuniversität Babelsberg). He began making short documentaries, but by the seventies he was making feature films. He scored his first big hit with Blue Bird (Blauvogel), the story of a white boy who is raised by the Indians and then returned to his family seven years later, but it was his film Your Unknown Brother that made the biggest splash. SED authorities weren’t crazy about this film. Ostensibly, it was a film about the Nazis, but with its tale of informants and personal betrayals, the story hit a little too close to home. As the Pogo cartoon strip once said: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The authorities weren’t keen on his next film—Ole Henry (Olle Henry)—either. Although there was nothing in it that specifically attacked either socialism or the East German government, the authorities couldn’t help but feel threatened by this tale of a barmaid and a boxer struggling to get by in post-WWII Germany. Without any formal acknowledgement of it, Weiß was blacklisted by DEFA. Weiß had wanted to make Miraculi before the Wall came down, but like all of his ideas after Ole Henry, the proposal was rejected. With the fall of the Wall, Weiß saw an opportunity to finally make the film and he ran with it. Unfortunately for Weiß, the same thing that gave him the opportunity to make this film also put an end to his career as a feature film director. He made a few short documentaries after the Wende, and taught at the Film and Television Academy in Potsdam, but his directing career was effectively over.

The film’s main character Sebastian Müller is played by Volker Ranisch. Ranisch was born in 1966 in Karl-Mark-Stadt (now Chemnitz). He studied at the Theater Academy in Leipzig and joined a local theater shortly thereafter. His film career began right before the Wall came down, when he played the young policeman Julian in Frank Beyer’s The Break. He appeared on several of the final films put out by DEFA, and started working on formerly West German TV shows such as Tatort and The Old Fox. He continues to work in films and television.

Miraculi

The cast for Miraculi features some of East Germany’s best character actors, including Barbara Dittus, Arno Wyzniewski, and Karin Gregorek. Stefanie Stappenbeck also appears in a small role as a surveyor at the end of the film. Stappenbeck got her start on East German television, but would go on to a highly successful career in German films after the Wende. Also appearing in the film, albeit briefly, is Käthe Reichel. Reichel was best known for her work with Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel at their Berliner Ensemble. She continued to work in theater throughout her life, and became an outspoken critic against the misuses of power that plagued the SED during its later years in control of East Germany. She was one of the organizers of the demonstration for freedom and democracy on November 4, 1989 at Alexanderplatz.

Weiß had finished Miraculi in 1990, but it would be two years before the film found a distributor. Like most of the post-Wende films that came out of DEFA, the public reacted to the film with indifference. Miraculi played for five days before closing. It would be years before this film would receive the attention it deserved. Even today, the film is not nearly as well known as it should be. If your taste in movies runs toward the surreal, odd, and amusing, you’ll want to see this film.

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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 Airship
In The Airship (Das Luftschiff), director Rainer Simon looks at the creative urge, how it drives a person forward, and how it can cloud their vision, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. It is a wildly experimental film with a narrative that jumps back and forth in time and features direct-on-film animation. The film follows the adventures of Chico, a young boy who is trying to find his grandfather Franz Xavier Stannebein, an inventor who had tried to build a new type of aircraft before World War II. Stannebein wasn’t interested in war machines. He wanted to make a kind of flying hotel similar to the old zeppelins, but without the flammability problem. When he tried to get money for his project from Germany, he was duped into building a landing strip in Spain for the Condor Legion—a unit of the German airforce sent to help Francisco Franco win the Spanish Civil War. When Stannebein protested, he was thrown into a lunatic asylum. Chico sets off across the countryside to reunite with his grandfather at the asylum. Throughout the film the story jumps back and forth between Chico’s travels and Stannebein’s monomaniacal efforts to get his airship built. The film reaches its climax when Chico reaches the asylum and finds out what really happened to his grandfather.

The Airship is based on a book by Fritz Rudolf Fries—one of the most talented writers to come out of East Germany. Born in Bilbao, Spain, Fries moved to Leipzig when he was seven. There, he went to school at the Karl Marx University. He was fluent in four languages (German, French, Spanish and English), so he quickly found work as a translator. His first book, Der Weg nach Oobliadooh (The road to Oobliadooh) was denied publication in East Germany, but he was able to get it published in West Germany. The book was an immediate hit, and was translated into several other languages, including English. This didn’t endear him to the powers that be in East Germany. It cost him his job, but they recognized that they had a writer of immense talent whose work didn’t make any obvious statements about GDR politics. The books that followed were all printed in East Germany, including The Airship. The fall of the Wall did nothing to slow down Fries’ output, until 1996, when it was revealed that he had worked as an informer for the Stasi. Interest in his work cooled down rapidly after that, until 2010 with the publication of Last Exit to El Paso, which was well received by critics. Fries died in 2014, at which time, Sebastian Hammelehle wrote for Der Spiegel: “German-language literature not only loses a unique author, but also one whose work has not yet been discovered in its entirety.” (“Die deutschsprachige Literatur verliert mit ihm nicht nur einen einzigartigen Autor, sondern auch einen, dessen Werk in seiner ganzen Größe noch gar nicht entdeckt ist.”).

This was Rainer Simon’s first film since Jadup and Boel. Perhaps the folks at DEFA figured he would toe the line a little better after being slapped down for making that film. They were mistaken. If anything, this film is a stronger indictment of the GDR than Jadup and Boel was, especially given the fact that, like the Nazis in The Airship, the East German government sometimes used the charge of insanity to locked up people who were political nuisances. But because it was set in Germany during the War years, the folks at DEFA either didn’t see the connection, or didn’t want to acknowledge it.

Das Luftshiff

The film features a strong cast that includes Katrin Knappe, Kurt Böwe, Timo Jakob, and Gudrun Ritter, all of whom had appeared in Jadup and Boel as well. Additionally, the cast includes Johanna Schall, Arno Wyzniewski, and Hermann Beyer—some of the best actors who hadn’t left East Germany yet. The boy who plays Chico (Daniel Roth) made one for film with Rainer Simon (The Woman and the Stranger), but appears to have dropped out of acting after that.

In Der Freitag, film critic Heinz Kersten called The Airship, “The first full-length experimental film made by DEFA.” Technically, this isn’t completely true. Farewell is also experimental—especially given that it was made shortly after the 11th Plenum—and other films such as The Robe, The Gleiwitz Case, and Divided Heaven have strong experimental aspects in them as well. But it is the first to be made with the assistance of an actual experimental film artist: Lutz Dammbeck. At that time, Dammbeck was making a name for himself with his animations in which he scratched images directly onto the film à la Norman McLaren or Stan Brakhage. Born in Leipzig in 1948, Dammbeck trained as typesetter and studied graphic design at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig. He has created art in several disciplines including, film, painting, collage, and multimedia. He began creating direct-to-film animations in the early seventies, painstakingly scratching animations onto individual frames of film.

The Airship - Das Luftschiff

For the flashback scenes, cinematographer Roland Dressel uses the same technique he used in Jadup and Boel, blurring the edges of the image, as if the memory of events is starting to fade; but because that film wasn’t released in the GDR until 1988, The Airship was the first time audiences saw this effect. Dressel was trained as a photographer, and spent fifteen years as an assistant cameraman with the likes of Jan Čuřík, Werner Bergmann, Joachim Hasler, and Erich Gusko before stepping into the role of DP. He started in television, but he quickly gained a name for himself and became Rainer Simon’s cinematographer of choice. His work on The Airship garnered him the award for best cinematography at the 1984 Eberswalde Film Festival. Dressel continued to work on films, and won the Gold Prize for cinematography in 1994 for Michael Gwisdek’s Abschied von Agnes (Farewell to Agnes). After the Wende—like virtually ever other East German cinematographer—Dressel found it hard to find feature film jobs and returned to television, but he was too good to stay there for long as was soon making feature films again. He retired in 2000.

The Airship is a unique film, and although it may not be the first experimental DEFA film, it did signal a trend in that direction. A trend that would crest shortly after the Wall came down with films such as Latest from the Da-Da-R, Miraculi, and The Land Beyond the Rainbow.

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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.


In November of 1957, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory was released in West Germany. It would appear in American cinemas a month later. When it did, film critics were rightly impressed and singled out one scene as a proof of Kubrick’s genius. It was the scene of the court martial, where the soldiers are shot from an elevated angle so you can see the chessboard pattern that the floor tiles create. The thing is, though, Konrad Wolf had already shot a similar scene for a film called Lissy that had been released in East Germany the previous May. So had Kubrick seen that film? He was in West Germany at the time, just getting started on Paths of Glory. At that point, he would have had to visit East Germany to see Lissy, It wasn’t released in the West until the following January. There is no record of him having done so, but back in 1957, visiting East Berlin from West Berlin was a simple matter. There was no Wall to get in the way.

Lissy follows the misadventures of a young woman as she goes from optimistic and cheerful shopgirl to a disillusioned wife of a Nazi soldier. At the beginning of the film, we see her working at a popular store, selling cigarettes and making small talk with the customers. Meanwhile, outside, a solitary Nazi brownshirt goes unheeded, asking for donations. Lissy has a steady beau named Alfred with a good job and everything seems copacetic. But this is Berlin during the Weimar years, just before the banks failed and the economy tanked. Soon, people would start blaming the Weimar government for the problem, and looking to a new guy named Adolf Hitler who claimed he could get them out of this mess.

Lissy

At the start of the film Lissy is passively left-wing. Her father is a socialist and union activist, and her best friends Max and Toni are highly active in communist politics, but Lissy would rather not bother with such things. She and Alfred both have good jobs. Then Lissy’s boss finds out she’s pregnant and she loses her job. Meanwhile, Alfred (Horst Drinda) isn’t too thrilled about having to raise a kid. He even visits an abortion doctor but the man has been arrested., Alfred and Lissy get married, then things get worse. He loses his job due to the growing economic woes, and tries to earn money as a salesman, but nobody’s buying anything. For Alfred, the populist rhetoric of Adolf Hitler starts sounding good. After all, weren’t his previous bosses Jewish? He starts hanging around with Nazis and things begin to improve financially for him and Lissy. Enjoying her newfound affluence, Lissy doesn’t make much fuss over Alfred’s politics. Or course, things eventually come to a head, and Lissy realizes that looking the other way isn’t the answer.

The story of Lissy is a variation on a story that has been told many times in movies and books. The 1940 Hollywood film, The Man I Married, treads similar territory when a wife (Joan Bennet) eventually realizes that her German husband Eric (Francis Lederer) is a Nazi and that this is not a good thing. Lissy is also similar to Wolf’s later film Professor Mamlock, in that Lissy’s silence and attempts to ignore the growing threat of Nazism helped Hitler come to power. Several times in the movie, we see Lissy and her husband staring at their reflections in mirrors and shop windows. Sometimes this is as a metaphor for the philosophical split between what they know is right and the Nazis they are supporting, and sometimes it seems as if they are looking in the mirrors to check for visible signs of their own guilt.

Lissy

Lissy is based on a book by Franz Carl Weiskopf. Prior to WWII, he lived in Prague, but once the Nazis marched in, Weiskopf marched out, eventually ending up in New York. After the war, he worked for the Czechoslovakian government as a diplomat in Washington, Stockholm, and Beijing. In 1953, he moved to East Germany, where he remained until his death in 1955.

Lissy was Konrad Wolf’s third film, and his first true classic (for more on Wolf, see I Was Nineteen). Here we see Wolf’s skill as a director in full bloom. Some scenes in this film as so perfectly composed, they could stand alone as photographs. Partly this is thanks to Wolf’s longtime cameraman, Werner Bergmann, who shot all of Wolf’s films until Solo Sunny. Bergmann’s background as a photographer certainly helped here (for more on Bergmann, see Professor Mamlock).

Lissy is played to perfection by Sonja Sutter. Sutter lived in West Germany, but appeared in films on both sides of the border. She was trained in the theater, and would return to the stage many times throughout her career. Her movie career started when she played the lead in Slatan Dudow’s Destinies of Women, but it was with Lissy that East German audiences really started to notice her. Her East German film career ended with the construction of the Berlin Wall. She later moved to Vienna, working at the famous Burgtheater for over forty years. After the Wall was built, she only appeared in a few movies, and was seen more often on television. Her last film appearance was in Hans W. Geissendörfer’s 1976 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. Sutter died on June 2, 2017 in Baden, Austria. Her daughter Carolin Fink has on to become a successful actress, appearing in several television shows.

Lissy

Horst Drinda had starred in Wolf’s first film, Once Does Not Count, a comedy about a put-upon composer who arrives in a small town for some R&R, only to find himself harried by the town locals that want him to compose songs for them. In Lissy, he’s a much less sympathetic character. Drinda occasionally played good guys, but his looks were always better suited to bad guys. He appeared in many DEFA films, including Love’s Confusion, Love and the Co-Pilot, and The Robe. During the seventies, he started appearing more often on television than in films. By the time the Wall fell, Drinda was appearing exclusively on TV, so the Wende had less effect on him than some of the bigger stars. He continued working on television, with only one post-Wende movie appearance (Jailbirds). In 2003, he suffered two strokes, and died in 2005.

As one might expect from the West German critics, Some attacked Lissy for being too pro-communist, but even the harshest of critics had to admit that Wolf was a talented director. The Hamburg Post gave the film a glowing review saying “Here we have a film that has been made in the masterful grip of a young director” (“Hier haben wir einen Film, der im meisterhaften Griff eines jungen Regisseurs”). A couple years later, Wolf would impress even his most virulent critics with one of the first German films to address the holocaust: Stars.1

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1. Technically, the first German film to address the holocaust is the 1949 film Lang ist der Weg (Long is the Road), but that film was produced by the United States Army Information Control Division, as part of the “de-Nazification” program the U.S. was undertaking in Germany. In terms of release date, Morituri was the first, since it was released in 1948; although Lang ist der Weg was made in 1947. Morituri was produced by Artur Brauner, an actual concentration camp survivor.

© 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.

Sabine Kleist
Sabine Kleist, Age 7 (Sabine Kleist, 7 Jahre…) falls into a sub-category of films that could be collectively labeled “Children’s Escapade” films. The are stories that start with a child who, either by their own choice or accidental circumstances, is left to wander around alone in the city. While the adults search for the kid (or are unaware they are missing), the kid enjoys various adventures and meets interesting people. These films are usually labeled as children’s films, but they are really intended more for adults than kids. Examples include Little Fugitive, Escapade in Japan, the Home Alone films, and, in some respects, The Florida Project. It is an interesting sub-genre because even the most comedic versions of this story have an underlying sadness, while the more serious ones have a playful quality about them.

The film starts with black-and-white still shots of a car accident. The two adults in the car, a man and woman, are both killed, and only their daughter Sabine (Petra Lämmel ) survives and is sent to an orphanage. The film then flashes forward to a ceremony where the orphanage is saying goodbye to a teacher named Edith (Simone von Zglinicki). Edith is about the give birth to her first child, and seems conflicted about leaving the children, especially Sabine, who has formed a strong attachment to Edith. After Edith leaves, Sabine sneaks out of the school to look for her. She wanders around Berlin, enjoying various adventures and meeting people from every walk of life. It becomes clear that, more than anything, Sabine wants to be part of a family. This unrequited longing weighs heavily on the film adding sorrow to an otherwise light film about a child’s adventures in Berlin.

Sabine Klest is directed by Helmut Dziuba. Dziuba was best known for his work on his films for children and young adults although he did occasionally work in other genres (Coded Message for the Boss, for instance). Unlike many other children’s film directors, Dziuba’s films have a darkness that reflects the fears of childhood. His “proletarian trilogy” (Rotschlipse, Als Unku Edes Freundin war, and Jan auf der Zille) examined the lives of young people during the Weimar and Nazi periods. His frankness sometimes rubbed the authorities the wrong way, and his last film Jana and Jan, could only have been made after the Wall came down (for more on Dziuba, see Jana and Jan).

sabine kleist

The film stars Petra Lämmel in her only film role, and she is sensational. Director Dziuba noticed Lämmel, and thought she’d be perfect as Sabine Kleist. He wasn’t wrong. Lämmel was praised for her remarkably nuanced performance in Sabine Kleist. She was chosen as the best child actress at the 1983 International Film Festival in Moscow. Apparently, however, acting didn’t agree with Lämmel. Sabine Kleist was the only film Lämmel appeared in, and when Dziuba went to see if she wanted to be in his 1990 film, Forbidden Love (Verbotene Liebe), Lämmel turned him down. Today, she is a mother and works as a dental technician in Berlin.

Simone von Zglinicki, who plays Edith, on the other hand, has had a long career in films, theater, and television. Von Zglinicki has a tough job here, playing a woman who has kept her emotions in check for so long, that she is no longer sure how she feels about anything. It required the normally expressive von Zglinicki to remain stone faced throughout most of the movie. Von Zglinicki first appeared on screen in Bernhard Stephan’s Too Young to Love?, the story of a girl’s transition into womanhood. It was an auspicious beginning. She went on to appear in dozens of East German films and television shows, while, at the same time, continuing to pursue her first passion: theater. With her extensive television experience and her youth, the Wende had less effect on her career than some of her fellow East German actors. She has continued to appear in several television shows, and as made the occasional movie, all the while continuing her career in theater.

One of the most usual things about Sabine Kleist is its soundtrack, which has aspects of everything from Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota, to Bebe and Louis Barron. Composer Christian Steyer had been playing the piano since he was a kid. He attended the University of Music and Theater Leipzig and studied music for several years with Amadeus Webersinke. In the seventies he started acting and was soon both appearing in films, and writing soundtracks. With his bushy head of hair and wild beard, he became DEFA’s resident hippie, appearing in films such as The Legend of Paul and Paula, Too Young for Love?, The Dove on the Roof, and Godfather Death. With two skills to rely on, the Wende had less effect on Steyer’s career than it had on the careers of many other East German actors and composers. Today, he is probably best known in the West for his portrayal of Tannhaus in the German-language Netflix show Dark.

sabine kleist

Sabine Kleist was popular at film festivals. When it was shown on television the following year, the still shots of the accident at the beginning were cut out because the TV station felt that the public would find them too disturbing and might tune out. Critical opinions of the film were mixed. Some felt it was too sweet, but the finale hardly qualifies as sweet. At its core, it is a deeply sad film and is worth seeing.

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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.

Pinocchio
While DEFA was far better at interpreting famous fairytales on film than Hollywood ever was, the fact is, many of the classics are so grotesque that any movie that did them justice would not be considered suitable for children. One such example is Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (Le avventure di Pinocchio). The story started life as a newspaper serial, and eventually was turned into a book. In the original newspaper serial, the story ends after Pinocchio is hanged, but the serial proved to be so popular, that Collodi granted the wooden boy a reprieve via the Blue Fairy, and went on the add more chapters to the story, culminating in the Blue Fairy granting Pinocchio’s wish to be a real boy. In the book, the talking cricket (“Jiminy” in the Disney version) is crushed by Pinocchio early on, the wooden boy has his feet burned off at one point, the Fox and the Cat attempt to force Pinocchio to spit his gold coins out his mouth by hanging him, and when that doesn’t work, the cat tries to pry the coins out of the puppet’s mouth, only to have his paw bitten off. The book is filled with this sort of mayhem. I read this book when I was in the seventh grade and it astounded me. When my classmates made fun of me for reading a “kid’s book” I told them, “You don’t understand. This book is not what you think!”

The most famous film version of Collodi’s story is, of course, Walt Disney’s version. It is considered by many to be the best animated film that Disney ever created. Disney follows the original story better than most of his fairytale adaptations, but he still omits the gorier details. No paws are bitten off, and the cricket not only survives the film, he goes on to have a long career of his own in educational films.

Pinocchio

The East German version—which, for some inexplicable reason, was renamed Turlis Abenteur (Turli’s Adventure)—stays truer to the story, but also omits some of the gorier aspects of the book. Like the book, the film follows the adventures of a wooden boy carved from a magical piece of wood by puppetmaker Geppetto (called “Kasimir” in the East German version). Geppetto dresses the wooden boy up, names him “Pinocchio” (“Turli” in the German version—short for “Arturo”), and has him go to school. On the way to school, he encounters the Fox and the Cat, who convince him to sell them his textbooks so he can go see a traveling puppet show that is in town. Little does he realize that the Fox and Cat are buying textbooks to give to Stromboli (called “Muriel” in the German version) so he can burn them. Stromboli has a thriving business in taking kids who’d rather play and eat candy, and turning the into donkeys to perform in his circus. It isn’t long before Pinocchio and his friends are enticed by Stromboli’s playland and are transmogrified into donkeys. After Pinocchio escapes from Stromboli’s circus, he goes after Geppetto, who has been eaten by a giant fish. Pinocchio helps Geppetto get out of the fish and, for his bravery, the puppet is granted his wish to become a real boy.

Unlike the Disney version, this Pinocchio is a live action film. Making a live action film where humans interact with a puppet is no small task. Credit must be given to puppeteers Radko Haken and Klara Hakenová, who came from the Spejbl and Hurvinek Theater in Czechoslovakia. What these two do with the puppets is uncanny. Getting a marionette to walk across the room is one thing, and takes skill on its own, but they take it a step further with hand gestures and body postures that bring Pinocchio to life.

Different mouths were used to change Pinocchio’s expression, which required cutting away each time the puppet needed to change its expression. Director Walter Beck handles this spectacularly well, but some credit must be given to film editor Margrit Brusendorf, who was working on her first feature film. Brusendorf went on to have a long and successful career, but like many of the other East German film editors, the transition after the Wende proved to be impossible. She made one film after DEFA closed its doors, Alien in Germany (Fremdsein in Deutschland), for Cut Out Filmproduktion, a short-lived company created and staffed by East Germans.

Donkey Pinocchio

Walter Beck was born in Mannheim, but grew up in Berlin. He got his start at DEFA working in dubbing and assisting on documentary films. Eventually he moved into the feature film department and by the end of the fifties was directing his own feature films. He quickly became established as the director of films for children and young people. Some of these were fairytale films—including King Thrushbeard (König Drosselbart), The Frog Prince (Froschkönig), and Sleeping Beauty (Dornröschen)—and some were stories based on historical events told from the viewpoints of children, including Käuzchenkuhle (Owl’s Hole), Trini, and Des Henkers Bruder (The Hangman’s Brother). Beck was sixty when the Wende occurred, so he probably would have retired soon anyway, but the end of East Germany, and the shunting off of that countries best talent into the television arena likely helped force an early retirement on him. He currently lives in Blankenfelde near Berlin.

Pinocchio was one of the first DEFA films to be picked up by and American film distributor, Independent producer/director Ron Merk. Merk was the first person to recognize the potential value of the East German fairytale films on the U.S. market. He contacted DEFA through their U.S. sales representative Jerry Rappaport’s International Film Exchange and asked to see any children’s animated short films that were available for the US market. They did better than that—they shipped him a print of a feature film that turned out to be Pinocchio. Merk purchased the rights from Rappoport, then with his wife, Ellen, wrote an English adaptation and had it dubbed using New York stage actors who did a far better job on this film than the dubbing teams responsible for the spaghetti westerns and kung fu features at the time. The film was distributed through Barry Yellen’s Childhood Productions, a rival distributor to K. Gordon Murray. The film opened during a blizzard in the middle of one of the coldest Winters New York City had seen in a while. In spite of this, the film did gangbuster business and helped raise the profile of the East German fairytales on the American market.

Pinocchio

Unlike fellow children’s film distributor K. Gordon Murray, who also adapted and distributed DEFA films, but tended to take a meat cleaver to them, Merk leaves the original DEFA film mostly intact, changing only the songs, and removing one scene involving drunk children. The songs in the original film were very German sounding. Merk didn’t think they’d fly with the American audience, so he created new ones.

The success of the film convinced Merk to follow it up with more Pinocchio films featuring Pinocchio getting into various scrapes and having new adventures. Merk chose to follow the same puppet design as the East German film’s Czech-designed one, giving him a slightly different head of hair and adding a movable jaw to eliminate the time-consuming mouth replacements. The theme song from the first film (“A Boy Named Pinocchio”) was popular with children, so Merk used it in his three additional Pinocchio films. As Hiltrud Schulz from the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst noted, “Who knew, in the late 1960s, that this famous “American” Pinocchio was born in East Germany and had Czech parents?”

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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.

Käthe Kollwitz – Images of a Life
In 1966, director Ralf Kirsten made The Lost Angel, a film about a day in the life of sculptor Ernst Barlach. That film centers around Barlach’s sculpture Der schwebende, which was destroyed by the Nazis for being “degenerate art.” The sculpture was inspired by Barlach’s fellow artist Käthe Kollwitz. So much so that the face on the sculpture is Kollwitz’s. Coming out, as it did, in 1966, the film fell directly into the path of the 11th Plenum’s Kahlschlag (literally: clear-cutting) and was promptly banned. The film was eventually screened in a highly edited form, but Kirsten clearly wasn’t through with the subject of German pacifist artists and their run ins with the Nazis, because in 1987, he released Käthe Kollwitz – Images of a Life (Käthe Kollwitz – Bilder eines Lebens).

Käthe Kollwitz is as different from The Lost Angel as apples from acorns. The earlier film is shot in black-and-white and follows the artist for a single day as he ruminates on how to respond to the Nazis. Käthe Kollwitz is in vivid color and charts the artist Kollwitz’s life from right before World War I until her death in 1945. The first film starts with the removal of Barlach’s sculpture from the Güstrow cathedral, while the second film starts with the actress Jutta Wachowiak, getting made up to play Käthe Kollwitz. Throughout the film, the story is interrupted with scenes of Wachowiak visiting various sites to learn more about the woman she was portraying. These interludes act as sort of a Greek chorus, filling in historical details where the narrative cannot. Since Kollwitz spent most of this time living with her husband in a large apartment in Berlin, the story is also interspersed with scenes of street life in her neighborhood and the changes it goes through during this time. Particularly poignant are the scenes involving an older couple that go from carefree to despondent as the movie progresses.

Kollwitz came from a middle-class background where socialism and religion were both important. Her talent was undeniable, and in spite of the inherent misogyny of the time, she managed to rise in the ranks of German artists, eventually being asked to join the prestigious Prussian Academy of Arts. After losing her son in World War I, Kollwitz became even more resolutely pacifist than she had been before the War, and eventually joined the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers Council for Art). Inspired by the woodcuts of fellow artist Ernst Barlach, Kollwitz applied her hand to this medium, creating the popular In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht (Gedenkblatt für Karl Liebknecht).

Kollwitz

Jutta Wachowiak is considerably prettier than Kollwitz, but then, nobody looked quite like Käthe Kollwitz. In her early films, Wachowiak was often used as a character actress, cast in smaller roles. During this time, she was also appearing on stage and receiving acclaim for her performances there as well. In 1980, she scored her biggest success for her role in Günter Reisch’s The Fiancée (Die Verlobte). She continues to appear in movies and on television.

Fred Düren, who played Barlach in the earlier movie, returns here to play Käthe Kollwitz’s husband Karl. Düren got his start in theater, joining Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin Ensemble in the early 1950s, and performing with the Deutsches Theater Berlin from 1958 to 1988. Then Düren found religion; Judaism to be exact. He learned Hebrew, moved to Israel and became a rabbi (he certainly looked the part). Although he did a few TV movies after Käthe Kollwitz, his career as a film actor essentially ended with this film. Düren died in Israel in 2015.

Käthe Kollwitz was Ralf Kirsten’s last film. With his stubbornly idealistic streak, Kirsten may have found it hard to find work in communist East Germany, but it became completely impossible in unified Germany. With the fall of the Wall, he took up teaching at the Konrad Wolf Film and Television Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg. Kirsten died in 1998.

Modern interlude

This wasn’t the last film shot by cinematographer Otto Hanisch, but his career also ended with the Wende. In his case, this probably had more to do with his age (he was 64 when his last film came out) than East/West politics. While the cinematography in Käthe Kollwitz does not have the stunning impact of Claus Neumann’s rich, black-and-white photography in The Lost Angel, it is sharply-focused and richly in color, signature features of Hanisch’s work.

Reviews were mixed on the film. While everyone admired Jutta Wachowiak’s and Fred Düren’s performances, but some felt that the modern-day interludes took the viewer out of the experience and created a distancing effect, lessening the impact of the story’s tragic elements.

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© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. 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.