The Man from the Cap Arcona

Posted: October 29, 2019 in Uncategorized

Der Mann von der Cap Arcona
In 1982, Erwin Geschonneck starred in the East German television movie The Man from the Cap Arcona (Der Mann von der Cap Arcona). In it, Geschonneck plays a character called Erwin Gregorek, who has returned to Hamburg to appear in a documentary about the sinking of the Cap Arcona, a luxury liner that was being used to transport concentration camp prisoners at the end of World War II. It’s an amazing story, based on Geschonneck’s own experiences, and it’s a shame the film was consigned to television because it deserves more attention.

Geschonneck was the best actor in East Germany. For that matter, he was one of the best German actors period. He ranks up there with Peter Lorre, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Mario Adorf, and Christoph Waltz, yet look at any list of “Top German Actors” and you won’t find him.1 Such is the ignorance of us westerners when it comes to anything to do with East Germany and its films. Mueller-Stahl escaped this fate is because he left East Germany in 1980 and established a successful career in the West well before the Wall came down. Geschonneck, on the other hand, not only didn’t leave East Germany, he continued to support the ideals of Marxism after the Wende. In 1992, Film und Fernsehen magazine ranked Geschonneck as the best East German actor ever, and in 2044 was appointed as an honorary member of the Deutsche Filmakademie.

Geschonneck joined the KPD (German Communist Party) when he was a young man. He started his acting career performing in “agitprop” theater pieces and was an extra on Slatan Dudow’s banned film, Kuhle Wampe or: Who owns the world? (Kuhle Wampe oder: Wem gehört die Welt?). When Hitler took over, Geschonneck fled the country but was captured in Prague. He spent the next six years in concentration camps in Sachsenhausen , Dachau, and Neuengamme.

Der Mann von der Cap Arcona

Near the end of the War, prisoners at the Neuengamme camp were put on old, out-of-service ships in an attempt to hide them from the advancing Russian and Allied armies. Geschonneck was put on board the Cap Arcona—the most famous of the ships used to house prisoners. A former luxury liner, the Cap Arcona had seen better days. It was once the jewel of German luxury liners, but the last time it had been put in service was as a stand-in for the Titanic in the Nazi film of the same name (1942).2 Prisoners were treated as badly on these ships as the they were in the camps; locked below deck without food or water.

Reportedly, the Nazis planned to sink these ships with everyone on board, but the Royal Air Force did the job for them. British intelligence had received word that Heinrich Himmler was going to try and escape to Norway via ship so they decided to blow up every ship in the Baltic to prevent this. Swedish and Swiss Red Cross officials had informed British intelligence the day before that several prison ships were at anchor in Lübeck Bay, but the people responsible for approving the bombing claimed not to have received this information. Some prisoners escaped the sinking ship only to be shot by the SS soldiers on nearby boats or by the RAF planes, which continued to strafe the people in the water. Out of over 4,000 prisoners, only 350 survived. Geschonneck was one of them. When the British Second Army reached Neuengamme, they found the camp empty. Upon reaching the beach at Neustadt, north of Lübeck, the British 5th reconnaissance regiment reported bodies floating in the water and went to assist the few survivors straggling to the shore. This all happened on May 3rd, 1945. Hitler was already dead and what was left of the Nazi high command surrendered the next day at Lüneburg Heath—21 miles (33.7962 km) from Neuengamme.

The Man from Cap Arcona

The Man from the Cap Arcona starts with actor Erwin Gregorek (Geschonneck) arriving in Hamburg to work on a documentary about the singing of the Cap Arcona. There he meets old friends and old enemies and the story of what happened is told in flashback. Playing the younger version of Gregorek/Geschonneck is Jürgen Polzin. He’s a good choice. He resembles a younger Geschonneck enough that they don’t even need to explain which character he is. The Man from the Cap Arcona was Polzin’s first film, but he had already been working on stage at that point. Today, he is best known for portraying Karl May’s “Old Shatterhand” at the Felsenbühne Rathen, and outdoor stage in Rathen. In 2015, he made a few headlines in the Sächsische Zeitung—a Dresden-based regional newspaper—concerning a row he was having with tenants and an architect over a piece of property he owned.

One of the most effective scenes in the film concerns Gregorek/Geschonneck’s visit to the former site of the Neuengamme concentration camps.3 Immediately after the war, the main camp was used as an internment camp for Nazi bigwigs and SS officers. As soon as West Germany regained control of the land, they plowed under all traces of the camps that had been there and built prisons on the site. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Germany government finally acknowledged the crimes committed at Neuengamme and erected the KZ-Gedenkstätte Neuengamme (Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial),

The cinematography was by Werner Bergmann, who is most famous for his work with Konrad Wolf. Bergmann also co-wrote the script (for more on Bergmann, see Professor Mamlock). Parts of the film appear to be shot in Hamburg, presumably with a skeleton crew of people that were unlikely to defect (such as Bergmann and Geschonneck). I suppose it’s possible that DEFA had a large assortment of American and European cars they could use to shoot the street scenes, but I doubt it.

Der Mann von der Cap Arcona

The Man from the Cap Arcona was directed by Lothar Bellag, who got his start in theater before moving into television. Coming of age at the end of WWII, Bellag studied acting at the “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” University of Music and Theatre in Leipzig (then called the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik – Mendelssohn-Akademie). He moved from acting into directing, and in 1960, he was hired by East Germany’s television company, Deutscher Fernsehfunk, to direct a television production of George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses (Die Häuser des Herrn Sartorius). At first, he specialized in making TV-movies based on famous plays such as Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Mandrake (Mandragola), Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Was Ihr wollt), and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (Glasmenagerie).

Geschonneck’s career ended when the wall came down. Geschonneck was a lifelong communist. He was sent to a concentration camp and nearly died for his beliefs, so the “reunification” must have been a bitter pill to swallow. After the Wende, he stopped making movies, and appeared only once—in a TV movie that was directed by his son, which also starred his old DEFA comrade, Fred Delmare.

Geschonneck died in 2008, but his legacy lives on, and The Man from the Cap Arcona is a nice addition to his portfolio.

IMDB page for the film

Buy this film.

Stream this film (German only, no subtitles).


1. Of course, defining what makes an actor German is another matter entirely. Lorre was born in Hungary, Adorf in Switzerland, Mueller-Stahl in what is now part of Russia, and Waltz in Vienna. Still, all of these men are classified as German actors by most sources. Geschonneck, for that matter, was born in East Prussia, which is now part of Poland (although he did grow up in Berlin).

2. The story of the Cap Arcona is as remarkable as Geschonneck’s life. For a history of the ship and what happened to it, see Robert P. Watson’s excellent book The Nazi Titanic: The Incredible Untold Story of a Doomed Ship in World War II.

3. Neuengamme wasn’t one camp, but a network of camps used for different groups and purposes.

© 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.

A Girl of 16½
A popular wall poster for the young people who opposed the Vietnam War read: “War is unhealthy for children and other living things.” After World War II, Germany saw the full effect of this. German fathers were either killed or imprisoned, and the mothers waiting at home fell prey to the Allied bombs. Parents would send their children to the country for their protection, resulting in thousands of orphans at the end of the war. It wasn’t just a German problem and it wasn’t limited to WWII. The problem continues to this day. There are excellent films about war orphans. Some are about the orphans of Nazis (Playing Soldier, Lore) and some are about their victims (Come and See, Forbidden Games); many are about the Jewish orphans (Au Revoir les Enfants, Run Boy, Run, The Island on Bird Street, A Bag of Marbles, Edges of the Lord); and some use fantasy to get the point across (The Tin Drum, The Boy with Green Hair).

The East German film A Girl of 16½ (Ein Mädchen von 16½) is about one such orphan although it doesn’t fit into the usual war orphan film mold. The action takes ten years after the war. Helga Wendler (Nana Osten) lost her parents during the war and was raised by her aunt. At the beginning of the film, we see how Helga ends up in a youth work camp after an attempted border crossing. With most of the action taking place in the work camp, the film is told in flashback form. Tired of the restrictions imposed on her by her aunt, Helga wanders the streets of Berlin at night, looking for a good time. There she meets Egon (Uwe-Jens Pape), a smooth operator with the morals of a tarantula.

Also vying for Helga’s heart is Rolf Krüger (Hartmut Reck), the young man who was caught with her at the border. His is also at the work camp and sees himself as her protector. He’s obviously the good guy, so, of course, Helga is more interested in the dangerous Egon, whose louche, amorality is clearly meant as a reflection of capitalist values. Egon does everything for himself and the idea of working for the “collective” is absurd to him. Helga goes along with him for a while, but eventually realizes that Egon doesn’t care for her any more than he does for anyone else.

A girl of 16 1/2

A Girl of 16½ could also qualify as an early example of an East German juvenile delinquent film. Like Berlin – Schönhauser Corner, this film attributes the problem of juvenile delinquency to the West. Egon prefers the nightlife of West Berlin, and everything that comes with it. His number one concern is making money. His character does not grow or develop. He is reprehensible at the start and only gets more reprehensible as the movie goes on. From the film’s perspective, it is clear that his choice is destroying his soul.

The film was directed by Carl Balhaus (sometimes spelled Ballhaus), who directed several movies for DEFA but was better known as an actor. Prior to Hitler’s takeover, he appeared in dozens of films, including The Blue Angel, M, Spoiling the Game, and Crown of Thorns. His socialist politics kept him from working much during the Third Reich. After the War, he worked at Munich radio, then as a director at various theaters around Germany. After working as an assistant director at DEFA, working on Der Ochse von Kulm and Der Fall Dr. Wagner, he  moved to the director’s chair with his first feature film, The Vicious Circle (Der Teufelskreis). The film was an adaptation of Hedda Zinner’s play about the trial following the 1933 Reichstag Fire. Ballhaus also directed the film adaptation of Zinner’s Nur eine Frau (Only a Woman).

Balhaus brings to the filmmaking process a wealth of knowledge. The scenes of Berlin at night are clearly influenced by the old Ufa style and film noir, while the scenes of happy kids at the work camp come from the Soviet socialist realist school of filmmaking. He understands the importance of editing to build suspense. He is helped considerably by the work of cameraman Götz Neumann and editor Helga Emmrich.1

Ein Mädchen von 16½

From 1956 until 1962, Balhaus directed six movies for DEFA and one for television. He continued to act during that time, but less often than before the War. In 1964, he played Antonio in the DEFA production of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (Viel Lärm um nichts). While Carl Balhaus worked in East Germany, his brother Oskar continued a career as a theater actor in West Germany. Oskar’s son Michael (Carl’s nephew) went on to become one of the most respected cinematographers in the world. Carl Balhaus died in 1968.

Nana Osten was born Renate Schwebs in the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin. She studied acting and ballet, and worked briefly as a dancer in the Circus Barlay (see also, Alarm at the Circus). A Girl of 16½ was her first film and she appears in it under the name Nana Schwebs. That same year, she’d make the West German film Blitzmädels an die Front (Soldier Girls on the Front) and use the name Nana Osten, a name she’d use for the rest of her career. A resident of the British sector of Berlin, Osten moved back and forth between East German and West German television and film productions. She became famous for her role as the title character in the West German film Der Engel, der seine Harfe versetzte (The Angel who Stole her Harp). Osten got into a war of words with SED mouthpiece Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler. He called her a weak actress (exact words: schauspielerisch impotent), and she called him a Stalinist idiot (exact phrase: Idiot von Format). Osten was always torn between the East and the West. While she appreciated the freedoms afforded to her in West Germany, she found the film industry uninspiring. Most of the movies West Germany was making in the fifties were formulaic without much depth. In 1961, she appeared with Manfred Krug in the East German TV movie Bei Anruf Mord (Call for Murder), but the Berlin Wall, built that same year, put an end to her ability to travel back and forth between Berlins. The following year, she appeared in Piero Vivarelli’s East Zone, West Zone (Oggi a Berlino), a film about the tensions between the two Germanys. Although the story takes place in Berlin, it was filmed in Rome. After that, she appeared in one more short film on West Germany television (Das Mädchen aus GuayaquilThe Girl from Guayaquil), then left the business entirely and fell off the face of the map. Where she is living (or if she’s even still alive) is unknown.

A Girl of 16½ has a strong socialist message that doesn’t entirely work, but the performances by Nana Osten and Fred Delmare keep the movie interesting. Carl Balhaus throws everything he’d learned over the years into this film, movie from pre-war Ufa-style expressionism to Soviet-style socialist realism, to generic German Heimatfilm schmaltziness, which keeps it interesting, but doesn’t help the movie project a strong sense of purpose or visual continuity.

IMDB page for the film.

Watch this film (no subtitles).


1. This would be the only time he’d work with these two. Unlike most directors who find one cinematographer and one editor that help them realize their visions, Balhaus never worked with the same technical crew twice. I’m not sure if this meant he was never satisfied, the technical people didn’t like working with him, or he was just at the mercy of the DEFA higher-ups.

© 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.

Liane
At the start of Liane, we see the films namesake applying for a part in a film being shot at the electrical company where she works. Immediately, we see that she’s the type of person who speaks candidly, regardless of the situation. Liane works as a Springer—a job designation that’s only one step above being a temp worker. It isn’t long before she runs afoul of the authorities and is demoted for no good reason. Working along side her at the electrical company is Kalle (Torsten Bauer), a man who seems to land somewhere on the autism spectrum.1 Kalle has a crush on Liane, but Liane only has eyes for Jürgen (Thomas Putensen), an easy-going student whose attitude towards their relationship is less serious than Liane’s.

Liane is based on the radio play Warum ausgerechnet ich? (Why me, of all people?) by Daniela Dahn and was directed by Erwin Stranka. Stranka started directing films for DEFA in the sixties after working as the first assistant director to Gerhard Klein on The Gleiwitz Case. After directing a television movie, he directed his first theatrical feature, Verliebt und vorbestraft (In Love and Previously Convicted) in1963. When Hans Rodenberg, who was the Minister of Film at the time, demanded cuts, Stranka refused. The cuts were made against Stranka’s wishes, and the director found himself unable to get work as a director for the next eight years. During that time he worked as a draftsman, writer, and cartoonist.

Stranka returned to DEFA with the Manfred Krug comedy Husaren in Berlin (Hussars in Berlin). Since the story in the film takes place in 1757, during the Seven Years’ War, the censors had less trouble with this film and the director was allowed back into the fold. Treading cautiously, he followed this with another comedy set in 1757, also starring Krug. While the reviews for these films were tepid, the films did well enough to restart his career. His next film, Susanne and the Magic Ring (Susanne und der Zauberring) was a kids’ fantasy film, which also did well.

Liane

Stranka made several more films for DEFA including For Example, Joseph (Zum Beispiel Josef), Outlaw Morality (Die Moral der Banditen), Sabine Wulff, Motoring Tales, and Two Strange Characters (Zwei schräge Vögel), the last of which quickly became a cult film in East Germany thanks to its many inside jokes.

Stranka’s career as a director ended at the same time as the Wende. He was undergoing heart surgery at the time, and finding work in the new film industry as an East German was not going to be easy. He decided to hang up his director’s hat and retire. He died in 2014, not far from the Potsdam-Babelsberg studios in which he worked.

As Liane, Arianne Borbach brings the right combination of emotional vulnerability and gutsy determination to the role. As with most East German actors, Borbach started on the stage and has continued to act on stage throughout her career. She continued to work in films and television after the Wende but is better known for her work as a voice talent, appearing in radio plays, and dubbing the voices for actresses such as Cate Blanchett, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Diane Lane.

Liane

Playing her suitors, Torsten Bauer and Thomas Putensen were both relatively new to films. Bauer was born on the day the Berlin Wall went up. He appeared in a few DEFA films, including Blond Tango (Blonder Tango), The Dragon Daniel (Der Drache Daniel), and Today, Only Others Die (Heute sterben immer nur die anderen). Since the Wende, he has appeared in a few films and televisions shows, but primarily performs on stage these days. Putensen got his start playing the oafish Ali in Ete and Ali. He appeared in several more DEFA films, including Green Wedding (Grüne Hochzeit), The Dragon Daniel, and The Land Beyond the Rainbow. Since the Wende, he has primarily concentrated on his career as a musician, composing songs, singing, and playing the piano. In 2009, he appeared in Andreas Dresen’s entertaining comedy Whisky mit Wodka.2

The film features an excellent supporting cast, including Christine Schorn, Peter Sodann, Ulrich Thein, and Rolf Hoppe. With the exception of Ulrich Thein, who died in 1995, all of these actors have gone on to successful film and television careers since the Wende.

Liane

Had this film been made a few years earlier, it might have been shelved. Its examination of work dissatisfaction would have rankled the authorities. But by the time this movie was released, Gorbachev was executing his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform) in the USSR, and Reagan had given his “tear this Wall down” speech.2 Honecker wasn’t happy about the changes happening all around him. He told Gorbachev that they had no need for openness and reform since they had already accomplished these things. This wasn’t even close to the truth, of course, but Erich Honecker—like Ulbricht before him, and America’s current president—was never one to let facts get in the way of the narrative he wanted to promote. While not a radical challenge to the status quo, Liane is a look at one aspect of the daily grind in the GDR and is a nice snapshot of a lost time, performed by an exceptional cast.

IMDB page for the film.

Not currently available on DVD, but you can stream it here.


1. With its inherent inability to relate to others or comfortably adapt to a social structures, autism seems like a socialist’s nightmare. I haven’t found any studies on it, but I think an examination of the GDR’s responses to autistic individuals would make for an interesting read.

2. Dresen’s film was based on a rumor about the actor Raimund Schelcher. Schelcher was a notorious drunk and, during the filming of Castles and Cottages, director Kurt Maetzig reportedly hired another actor to duplicate Schelcher’s parts in case the actor fell off the wagon. Dresen wasn’t that interested in the veracity of the story, but saw it as a good concept for a comedy.

3. Reagan’s speech is filled with disinformation, misinformation, and downright nonsense, such as the claim that the East German government had spent millions to try and keep the Fernsehtun’s reflection from looking like a cross (not true). It was written by Reagan’s speechwriter Peter Robinson and, regardless of one’s political beliefs, it’s unquestionably a masterful piece of propaganda. It’s only failing is that anyone reading it will quickly realize that Ronald Reagan could not have written it.

© 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.

Nina Hagen
A popular format on East German TV was the teleplay. These were videotaped on stage in front of a live audience. In America, you’ll see this most often with sitcoms such as Cheers or I Love Lucy. Similarly, these East German teleplays were mostly comedies, but were unique, one-hour to hour-and-a-half shows rather than series episodes. In form, they were closer to the live theater broadcasts shown on PBS. They called them Fernseh-schwänke. Examples of these shows include Ein Hahn im Korb, Heute Ruhetag, and Nicht kleinzukriegen.

Two good examples of this type of teleplay are Marriage/Female (Heiraten/Weiblich) from 1975 and Trabant for Sale (Trabant zu verkaufen) from 1981. Both were directed by Christa Kulosa, and they are also her first and last productions as an East German television director.

Christa got her start in 1966, working as an assistant director in the entertainment division of DFF (Deutscher Fernsehfunk—East Germany’s state television station). In 1968, she enrolled at the University of Film and Television in Babelsberg (now the Konrad Wolf Film University of Babelsberg), to study directing, receiving her degree in 1972. By this time, the DFF had changed its name to the Fernsehen der DDR (Television of the GDR). As is too often the case, it took the folks at DDR-FS a while to trust a production to a woman.1 At first, she worked as an assistant director next to talented directors such as Wolfgang Luderer, Hans Knötsch, and Günter Stahnke. Stahnke was the most talented of the bunch. In 1965, he made the now-classic Spring Takes Time, but the 11th Plenum banned the film and Stahnke was relegated to directing Fernseh-schwänke for the rest of his career.

Then, in 1975, Christa finally got her chance to direct the comedy Marriage/Female.

heiraten/weiblich

Marriage/Female

All the action in this teleplay takes place in the apartment of three generations of women. The grandmother, Frau Wiedemann (Marianne Kiefer), the mother, Gisela Pohl, and her daughter Hannelore flit in an out of the apartment throughout the show. The teleplay is shot on a stage in what appears to be a traditional theater setting. Frau Wiedemann is being coyly courted by the building’s super Wollenschläger (Gerd E. Schäfer) and the daughter Hannelore has recently started dating a man name Splettstößer (Kaspar Eichel). That leaves mom Gisela without a beau, so the daughter decides to do something about it. She runs an ad in the personals section of the newspaper under the heading “Marriage/Female” and a man named Seidel (Paul Arenkens) shows up almost immediately. What none of the rest of them know is that Gisela’s co-worker Bechstein (Herbert Köfer) has long had a thing for Gisela, but has been too nervous to say anything.

Playing the mother and daughter are the real-life mother and daughter team of Eva-Maria and Nina Hagen. Eva-Maria Hagen was already a big star by this point (see Don’t Forget My Traudel), but Nina was just beginning to make a name for herself. She had appeared in an episode of her mother’s TV show ABC der Liebe (ABCs of Love), but this was her first role of any size. That same year, she would also appear in Today is Friday. Previously, Nina had had a radio hit in East Germany with “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” (“You Forgot the Color Film”), the story of a woman angry at her partner for forgetting to bring some color film on their vacation.2 The song was a big hit, and you can hear an instrumental version of it over the end credits of the film.

Nina Hagen and her mom

While the story centers around the three women, they are, for the most part, “straight men” to the four males. The biggest laughs come from Herbert Köfer’s performance as the nervous Bechstein. Köfer’s physical comedy here is reminiscent of Don Knotts’ wound-too-tight style of physical humor. Köfer got his start working in theater during the War years, but his career was interrupted when he was drafted by the Wehrmacht. He started performing again as a prisoner in a British internment camp.

After the War, he resumed his acting career, appearing at theaters and Kabaretts around East Germany. He made his first feature film appearance in the 1951 film Die Sonnenbrucks (The Sonnenbrucks) and continued to appear in films and television throughout the GDR’s existence, including Naked Among Wolves, Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry, Hands Up, or I’ll Shoot!, The Man Who Replaced Grandma, and The Dove on the Roof.

This is a teleplay that is best enjoyed by native German speakers. There is some humor based on the accents and humor based on puns and popular expressions. Even so, Herbert Köfer’s physical comedy translates into any language and gets the biggest laughs.

Marriage/Female was a success and Christa went on to direct several more television productions, including Antons liebe Gäste (Anton’s Dear Guests), Wen der Hafer sticht (Slaphappy3), Zu zweit (k)ein Problem ((Not) A Problem for Two), Liebling, Du irrst (You’re Wrong, Darling), and Warum gerade Hubert! (Why Hubert, of All People!).

In 1980, Christa applied for permission to emigrate to France. She had married a French/German man and he wanted to return to his family home. She eventually received approval in 1982, but the authorities weren’t pleased. They saw her request as a threat. Had a lesser man been in charge of German television, who probably would have lost her job, but Heinz Adameck—a man Manfred Krug called a “good friend to all viable actors”—stood up for her. Nonetheless, jobs after her application was approved dried up. Trabant for Sale would be her last East German teleplay.

Trabant zu verkaufen

Trabant for Sale

Trabant for Sale is the story of three women who win a Trabant in a raffle at their workplace. Since none of them has a driver’s license, they decide to sell the car. Brigitte (Ursula Staack) is kind of the group’s leader, and Carola (Angelika Ritter) is her hip friend. Susi (Franziska Troegner) is the chubby comic of the group and the only one of the three who wants to keep the car. Brigitte’s plumber Oskar Zahl (Hans-Joachim Hanisch) is trying to convince her to sell the car to him by promising her cash and new bathroom fixtures, but she is also being wooed by Hyronimus Robbel (Peter Tepper), a dorky bicyclist who actually adores her; Carola wants her opera singing friend Anastasius Vogel (Paul Arenkens) to have it; and Susi wants it for her fiancé, the mild-mannered Ferdinand Kefer (Holm Gärtner).

The story of trying sell a Trabant in East Germany was a subject ripe for comedy. Waiting lists for Trabants were notoriously long, and even the East Germans knew that the car was, er, shall we say, less than perfect. Unfortunately, there was no way to do this justice at the time. A comedy that made fun of the Trabant wasn’t going to fly, and a comedy about how much everyone wanted one was also problematic. The only way to tackle to topic was with subtlety, which means a certain percentage of the audience will always be left behind, taking everything at face value. Sensitive to the reputation of the Trabant and the reported waiting times involved in getting one4, the DDR-FS chose to air the teleplay on channel 2 instead of channel 1.

free toilet

Trabant for Sale is shot in more of a TV studio setting than Marriage/Female was. The seating is the kind of raked seating that one commonly sees in television talk shows and modern cinemas. As with the previous film, there are plenty of shots of the audience, which is always fun. Some people seem not to care, while others are keenly aware of the cameras. There are even a few people wearing sunglasses, which seems like a very odd thing to do in a theater.

As with theater, everything is played broadly, which seldom translates well to the screen. Nonetheless, the teleplay is well-directed and features a talented cast. The three female leads went on to have long film and television careers in post-Wende Germany. Franziska Troegner, who plays the lovable Susi, is best known to American audiences as the mother of Augustus Gloop in Tim Burton’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The male leads have done very little work in films and television since the Wende, with the exception of Kaspar Eichel (the policeman), who still appears regularly on television. Peter Tepper is working with the Leipziger Funzel Kabarett/Theater, and Hans-Joachim Hanisch works primarily dubbing voice for German film releases. Paul Arenkens died in 2016.

After leaving East Germany, Christa (now Christa Schmidt) worked on a children’s series for Berliner Filmladen and shot 42 PSAs about the environment entitled “Mach mit der Umwelt zu Liebe” (“Love the Environment”). In 1986-87 she shot a TV profile of Eva Maria Hagen for ZDF. Christa didn’t care much for the West German method of film production, which used a factory-like approach to all the jobs outside of the director and cinematographer. At that point, she decided to leave directing and devote more time to her family.

Christa divides her time between Berlin and the South of France. She never lost her love of filmmaking and, three years ago, she started teaching herself to use the latest videography tools. She started making videos for her YouTube channel on whatever strikes her fancy, from a WWII liberation celebration in rural France, to a one-hour documentary about L’auberge de Valbonne—a facility for autistic people in Provence.

Special thanks to Jörg Foth for his diligent work in helping me track down Christa (Kulosa) Schmidt (for more on Jörg Foth, see The Latest from the DaDaeR), and a very special thanks to Christa Schmidt for generously providing her biographical information for this article and for making sure I got my facts straight.

IMDB page for Heiraten/Weiblich.

IMDB page for Trabant zu verkaufen.

Buy Heiraten/Weiblich.

Buy Trabant zu verkaufen.

YouTube stream of Heiraten/Weiblich.

YouTube stream of Trabant zu verkaufen.


1. At that point, fewer than ten DEFA feature films had been made by women. Iris Gusner’s first film, The Dove on the Roof, was a year away, and even then, the movie was shelved before it was released. Gusner wouldn’t get another chance to direct a feature film until The Blue Light in 1976. Christa Kulosa was the only woman directing Fernseh-schwänke.

2. The song is a commentary on the drab grayness of everything in East Germany and most people got it. Somehow, amazingly, it went over the heads of the censors though. Hagen still performs it in her live shows, although in a very different fashion from the original.

3. The title of this film is a very old idiomatic expression that doesn’t have any exact translation in English. Literally the title means “Whom the Oats stab” and refers to erratic behavior. Since this movie will probably never have an English translation, I get to choose my own English title. This is the best I could come up with.

4. There are numerous jokes about both the Trabant and the long waiting times required to receive one. Probably the best-known example is:

Q. What does the ‘601’ in Trabant 601 stand for?

A. 600 people will order one, but only one will get it delivered.

© 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.

My next article on the East Germany Cinema Blog is going to take at least another week of work, so, in the meantime, here’s a listicle to keep things moving. These are five (plus one bonus film) of the best post-Wende films on the subject of life in East Germany that I have seen. I’ve only included the ones I could find with English subtitles, but there are others worth checking out. I suspect that most of my readers have already seen these films, but if you missed any they are all worth a viewing.

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

The Lives of Others
If you ask most people what their favorite film about East Germany is, more often than not it will be this film—that is, if you ask people who did not grow up in East Germany. This story of a Stasi officer who is so moved by a piece of music that he decides to help a playwright who is being hounded by the Stasi was a big hit and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. People from the west loved it. People from East Germany were less enthusiastic. Some felt it didn’t reflect the average East Germans daily life, while others found the concept of a Stasi officer capable of being emotionally moved by music absurd to the point of fantasy. Not surprisingly, it was made by a West German (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck).1
Available for streaming on Netflix

Sun Alley (Sonnenallee)

Sun Alley
So what’s a film that East Germans like? One answer is this one. Sun Alley is a light comedy about being a teenager in East Germany. It doesn’t deny the problems inherent in living in East Germany, but it shows that teens are still teens, no matter where they are from. It’s a funny movie that is definitely worth seeing. Also, if you are capable of making the leap (no pun intended), you might see the end as secretly very grim. Made by an East German director (Leander Haußmann).
Available on DVD

Good Bye Lenin!

Good Bye Lenin!
Ask people what their second favorite film about the GDR is, and the answer is usually Good Bye Lenin! It’s much more lighthearted than The Lives of Others, but still has the earmarks of a film made by a West German. It tells the story of a man’s mother, who goes into a coma before the Wall comes down and doesn’t wake up until the country is reunified. Doctors tell the man that sudden shocks might kill her, so he does everything in his power to make her think that East Germany is still going strong, in spite of the enormous Coca-Cola sign going up outside her window. It’s a funny film, with some subtle use of CGI.
Available for streaming on various service.

Barbara

Barbara
Striking a balance between the oppression of The Lives of Others and the lightheartedness of Sun Alley, Barbara is the story of a female doctor in East Germany who is planning to leave the country. The problem is there’s a Stasi agent on her tail who knows what she’s up to. Directed by Christian Petzold and starring his favorite actress, Nina Hoss. All the films these two made together are worth seeing. Although Christian Petzold is a West German, his film has a more nuanced look at East Germany than those of other West German filmmakers.
Available for streaming on Kanopy

The Legend of Rita (Die Stille nach dem Schuß)

The Legend of Rita

Not so much about life in East Germany as the life of one member of the Red Army Faction after she escapes to the GDR. Directed by Volker Schlöndorff, it’s a clever film about the differences between East and West, and the realities of both. Another grim one that’s obviously made by a West German.
Available on DVD

Special Mention: Go, Trabi, Go

Go, Trabbi, Go
The film that singlehandedly started the Ostalgie craze of the 1990s, Go, Trabi, Go tells the story of an East German family who decides to drive to Italy in their Trabant. It’s filled with “Trabi” jokes but also a grudging respect for East Germany’s “little cardboard car.” Made by an East German who knows his subject. I don’t know if Go, Trabi, Go is commercially available with English subtitles, but you can find it on YouTube with them. The quality leaves something to be desired, but there’s a better copy available without subtitles. If you know how, you can download the better copy and the subtitles srt file, then marry them with the DVD burning program of your choice or watch the movie using an app such as VLC Media Player. See my article on Subtitling for more information on this process.

So that’s it. Let me know what you think. There are other films worth mentioning, such as Kleinruppin forever, Berlin is in Germany, and Beloved Berlin Wall, but they are not currently available with English subtitles.


1. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck takes things a step further with his next movie Never Look Away. This time he postulates an SS doctor hiding his identity in East Germany after the war. If you needed any more proof that von Donnersmarck was a West German, this is it. This movie is based on Gerhard Richter’s life. In reality, the former SS doctor was actually Gerhard Richter’s father-in-law and lived, of course, in West Germany. Remember that many of the higher-ups in East Germany had spent most of WWII imprisoned or exiled for their communist beliefs. They were far less likely to turn a blind eye to former Nazis than the FRG. Western audiences loved this film. Gerhard Richter wasn’t too crazy about it.

© 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.

Das Blaue Licht
As I’ve discussed on this blog before, East Germany had an above-average track record on female equality and films about women’s issues, yet there were only a few female directors at DEFA. First and foremost among these was Iris Gusner. She wasn’t the first women to direct feature films at DEFA. That honor goes to Bärbl Bergmann, who made several short films for DEFA and the feature film Rüpel in 1963.1 But Gusner was the most prolific with seven DEFA films to her name (Hannelore Unterberg comes in a close second with six DEFA films). From 1961 to 1967, Gusner studied cinematography at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Russia. After that, she worked as an assistant director for Konrad Wolf on Goya before making her first feature film, The Dove on the Roof, which was promptly shelved and remained unscreened until after the Wall came down. The first of her feature films to make it into cinemas was this one, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht).

The Blue Light is loosely based on a Grimms fairytale, although it’s really a complete reboot of the original fairytale. It takes the story and stands it on its head, changing the message and the priorities of the characters to better suit a socialist perspective. Both the original and the film tell the tale of Hans, a young soldier who is discharged from the service without pay because he’s been wounded. In both versions, the young soldier meets a witch who tries to trick him into fetching a blue light from her well and when he won’t cooperate, she leaves him stranded in the well. Feeling despondent, the soldier lights his pipe with the blue light and a “Mannlein” (little man) appears who can grant the soldier anything he wishes.

From here on out, though, the film and the fairytale diverge radically. Hans doesn’t seek the harsh retribution against the witch that she gets in the story, and the soldier’s multiple kidnappings of the princess are reduced to one. In the original story, the soldier eventually marries the princess, but no one would want to marry the princess in this movie, she’s a spoiled child-woman who pouts and sucks her thumb, and is dumb as a bag of hammers. Romantic interest is provided, instead, by Anne, who works at the local inn. This is, after all, an East German film, and being born in a royal family doesn’t make a person better; only more likely to be corrupt.

The Blue Light

Playing Hans is Viktor Semyonov, a Russian actor who primarily works on stage, but has appeared in several films. Semyonov is well-suited to the part. He is dashingly handsome (more handsome than most of the lead actors in East Germany, truth be told) and plays the part well. As was always the case with non-German actors in the lead roles, his voice was dubbed by a German actor—in this case, Jaecki Schwarz, who also appears here as the simple-minded guard Knut.

The lazy, idiot princess is played by Katharina Thalbach in the broadest performance possible—way too broad, honestly. Thalbach is the daughter of Swiss theater director Benno Besson and the Berlin-born actress Sabine Thalbach. Benno and Sabine were working at Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble when they met. From an early age, daughter Katharina starting performing, first on television and later in films. At age fifteen, she made her stage debut , playing a background whore in The Threepenny Opera, eventually working her way up to the lead role of Polly Peachum. In 1976, Thalbach and her husband Thomas Brasch joined the list of people that signed the protest letter against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, and like many of the others, left East Germany shortly thereafter.2 Perhaps because of her age, Thalbach didn’t have the same problems getting work that plagued many of the other East German actors who emigrated to the West. In 1979, she impressed people with her performance in Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum. Since then, she has appeared in dozens of feature films and television movies, including Welcome to Germany, Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg, Silent Night, Strike, and the TV-movie Der Minister, in which she plays a parody of Angela Merkel named “Angela Murkel.”

Playing counterpoint to Thalbach’s princess is Blanche Kommerell as Anne. Like Thalmann, Kommerell is the daughter of a professional actress. Also like Thalbach, she got her start in acting at a young age. Unlike Thalbach, she stayed in East Germany until the fall of the Wall. After that, she did very little acting on either the big screen or on television, but she continued to act in theater productions and to give lectures on acting and diction (I’ll be discussing Kommerell in more detail when I get to Little Red Riding Hood).

Fred Delmare

Most of Iris Gusner’s casting in The Blue Light is surprising. Using a Russian actor as the lead was rarely done; there were so many good East German actors out there. Thalbach and Kommerell weren’t the usual choices either (although, by this time, the usual choices—Christel Bodenstein, Cox Habbema, and Karin Ugowski—were getting too old to play these parts). There was one person, however, who was custom made for his part, and casting anyone else would have made little sense. That was Fred Delmare, East Germany’s most diminutive leading actor, who plays the Little Man (for more on Delmare, see Black Velvet). Delmare has fun in the part and makes an engaging Mannlein.

The music is by Gerhard Rosenfeld, and, if the online reviews are any indication, this is the most controversial aspect of the film. A lot of people didn’t like it. Rather than follow a standard formula for a movie soundtrack, Rosenfeld has composed a soundtrack using Renaissance instruments, primarily, the hurdy-gurdy. It is an odd, slightly subdued soundtrack, perfectly in keeping with the times, but not something you’d usually find in a movie like this. Like Karl-Ernst Sasse, Helmut Nier, Reiner Bredemeyer, and Wilhelm Neef, Rosenfeld was a classically-trained musician. His movie scores include The Rabbit is Me (with Reiner Bredemeyer), The Dove on the Roof, The Banner of Kriwoj Rog (Die Fahne von Kriwoj Rog), Unser stiller Mann (Our Silent Man), Addio, piccola mia, Our Short Life, and Bailing Out.

Hurdy Gurdy

When he wasn’t working on films, he composed orchestral works, chamber music, and music for operas and ballets. After the Wende, he was no longer hired to write feature film soundtracks, but continued to write scores for TV-movies and documentaries. In 1997, his opera Kniefall in Warschau was staged in Dortmund. The Independent went on to call it “one of the most important operas composed in Germany since 1945.” Rosenfeld died in 2003.

Like most of the fairytale films, The Blue Light did well at the box office, and it was well received by critics on both sides of the border. The fact that it states right up front that it is a loose adaptation of the fairytale probably helped avoid the usual cavils about not following the story verbatim. It’s an entertaining film that avoids pandering to children, which makes it an enjoyable film for both kids and adults.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy or stream the film


1. Arguably, Wanda Jakubowska was the first woman to direct a feature film at DEFA with her 1960 film Begegnung im Zwielicht (Encounters in the Dark); but Jakubowska was Polish and the film was a co-production with Film Polski and was in Polish. I hope at some point I can write more about her. She was an interesting woman with an interesting life. If you can, check out The Last Stage (Ostatni etap), the first feature film to portray the holocaust. Based on her own experiences in Auschwitz.

2. If it seems like East Germany was suddenly allowing a lot more people to leave the country, there’s a reason. The Biermann protest was a black-eye for the government in the GDR, and it came less than a year before a Conference on European Security and Cooperation that was slated for October 1977 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the GDR wanted to remove as many talking points as possible from the table by quietly releasing political prisoners and letting them emigrate to West Germany. Likewise, many of the signatories of the Biermann protest letter. They were probably hoping no one would notice, but the New York Times did.

© 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.

Barge Films
Living on a boat is not easy. You’re in a constant fight against the elements and there’s no end to the maintenance. Boat owners will tell you that, if you want to know what it’s like to own a boat, “stand in the shower and tear up twenty dollar bills.” Yet, the idea of living on a boat is appealing. That combination of the freedom to travel around in a place you call your own is hard to beat. Small wonder that those same boat owners who’ll tell you a boat is a “hole in the ocean you throw money into” continue to own boats and continue to love it, warts and all. There are several movies about life on a boat. The films about sailing are usually adventures (White Squall, All is Lost, Kon Tiki), and the ones with houseboats are usually comedies (Houseboat, The Horse’s Mouth, Sleepless in Seattle). Then there are the barge films (Binnenschifferfilme).

While sailing films are about striking out into the unknown and houseboat films are about living somewhere that just happens to be on the water, barge films fall somewhere in between. They are often aquatic road movies, with the characters slowly traveling from place to place, entering the lives of people then departing. Barge films are exclusively European.1 Films such as L’Atalante, Beauty and the Barge, Unter den Brücken (Under the Bridges), The Hornet’s Nest (which is more of a houseboat film), and Young Adam explore the details of life on a barge. They are often comedies but even the funny ones have moments of drama—barge life is no bed of roses. DEFA made two such films—The Barge of the Happy People (Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute), and Old Barge, Young Love (Alter Kahn und junge Liebe).

The Barge of Happy People

The Barge of Happy People follows the misadventures of Marianne (Petra Peters), who inherited a barge from her father and is trying to make a go of it in spite of advice to sell it from other barge owners. When Marianne goes to apply for a Befähigungszeugnis (a license needed for different trades in Germany), she is denied because of her age, so she hires her uncle August (Alfred Maack) to captain the ship until she turns twenty-one. The problem is, August has only ever piloted sailing ships and knows nothing about engines. August hires Michel (Fritz Wagner) as the machinist, unaware that Michel has long had a crush on Marianne, but Marianne doesn’t feel the same way. Things get more complicated when a trio of musicians joins the crew and romantic rivalry develops between Michel and musician Hans (Joachim Brennecke).

Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute

The Barge of Happy People is based on a book by Jochen Klepper, a writer best known today for his Christian hymns. Klepper was the son of a Lutheran minister and was studying theology the University of Breslau when he dropped out to become a radio announcer. He lost that job when Hitler came to power because Klepper had made committed the unforgivable sin of marrying a Jewish woman, and a Jewish who already had two daughters to boot. As Hitler’s war effort heated up, Klepper realized the danger his wife and her three daughters were in. He managed to get one of the girls out of the country before Adolf Eichmann refused to grant a visa to the daughter still in Germany. Like the popular actor Joachim Gottschalk (see Marriage in the Shadows), Klepper, his wife and his step-daughter decided that suicide was preferable to what was likely to happen to them next. They turned on the gas and commuted suicide on December 11, 1942. After his death, a selection of entries from his diaries was published under the title In the Shadow of Your Wings (Unter dem Schatten deiner Flügel).

Petra Peters got her start playing the lead in Arthur Maria Rabenalt‘s 1949 DEFA film Christina (Das Mädchen Christine). Rabenalt must have been impressed because he cast her in his next film as well, Anonymous Letters (Anonyme Briefe), this time a West German production (for more on Rabenalt, see Chemistry and Love). She followed this with two more West German films—Girls Behind Bars (Mädchen hinter Gittern) and You Don’t Play Around with Love (Man spielt nicht mit der Liebe)—before returning to DEFA to star in The Barge of Happy People. This would be her last role in an East German film. From here on out, she would appear in West German films until her move to Britain with her husband Albert Lieven. During this time, she stopped acting in movies, working instead as a playwright. After Lieven’s death in 1971, Peters returned to film in smaller roles and appeared in the 1976 Hammer film To The Devil a Daughter. She died in Munich in 2004.

The Barge of Happy People was a hit in both East and West Germany, and remains one of the fifty top box office films from the GDR. Reviews were positive, with the East German newspaper Neue Zeit claiming the film was in the tradition of the “Soviet comedies” (trust me, it wasn’t), presumably because saying it was in the tradition of the Ufa films would have caused no end of trouble for both Heinrich and the folks at DEFA.

As the tensions between East and West grew, DEFA decided that it was time to move away from lighter fare like this and concentrate on films that more obviously endorsed socialism.2 DEFA still made a few light comedies, as well as musicals and fairytale films, but most of the films, once they stopped allowing West Germans to direct, had strong socialist messages—films such as The Council of the Gods, The Axe of Weilbeck, and The Invincibles. If a film was funny, it was funny with a socialist message (The Kaiser’s Lackey), and if a film was romantic, it was romantic with a socialist message (The Story of a Young Couple). This would be the pattern from here on out. It was okay to be a little silly—just make sure the audience knew where you stood politically.

By 1957, DEFA was getting flak for making excessively didactic films. It seemed like every film had some expository dialogue that related the events in the film to Marxist philosophy. This wouldn’t have bothered the powers that be at all, but even in a non-capitalist country such as East Germany, it was important to get butts in seats, and audiences on both sides of the border were avoiding DEFA films in favor of their more frivolous and more entertaining West German counterparts. DEFA decided to tone down the preaching. As it was made clear that capitalism leads to bad decisions and corruption, the filmmakers could do what they liked. This was demonstrated in 1957 with Old Barge, Young Love.

Old Barge, Young Love

Like The Barge of Happy People, Old Barge, Young Love deals with a romantic triangle. This time, the story concerns two barges and a tug that are operating on the Havel river in north-eastern Germany. One barge is owned by Hein (Alfred Maack), who is trying to get the mortgage on his barge paid off so he can turn it over to his son Kalle (Götz George) debt-free. To do this, Hein has taken on a huge shipment of cement that overloads the barge and threatens it with stranding if the channel gets too shallow. It’s easy enough to figure out what’s going to happen then.

Kalle has the hots for Anne (Maria Häussler), the daughter of another barge owner named Hermann Vollbeck (Gustav Püttjer). Anne’s been studying shipbuilding in Berlin and is home for the holidays to help her dad on the barge. Also attracted to Anne is Horst (Horst Naumann), the captain of a tugboat, but Horst is a bit of a cad and full of himself. Anne seems to fluctuate between Kalle and Horst, which pisses off Hein to no end.

Storywise, Old Barge, Young Love is pretty much by the book. There are know real surprises here. We know that Hein’s barge will run aground at some point, we know that Anne will choose the Ernest Kalle over the playboy Horst.

Alter Kahn und junge Liebe

As with The Barge of the Happy People, the cast Old Barge, Young Love had a cast featuring many West German actors. It was Götz George’s third film, but his first starring role. It would be one of his only East German efforts. Horst Naumann, on the other hand got his start at DEFA, but Old Barge, Young Love would be his last feature film for the East German film company. He moved to the West in 1958. Maria Häussler (who spelled her name then with an ß, but whose name is usually spelled now with two esses) This is one of the only films to star her. She mostly worked in theater and voiced several West German radio plays.

Old Barge, Young Love wasn’t the hit that The Barge of Happy People was, but West Germany had become more restrictive about what East German films could play there. It didn’t help that critical response to the film was lackluster, with critics calling the film clumsy and dull. Then in 1973, the West German production company Terra Film made a musical by the same same name that was a hit. Coincidentally, perhaps, Horst Naumann appears in both movies.

Both DEFA films were directed by Hans Heinrich. Heinrich’s films had more in common with the films of West Germany than those made by his fellow directors in East Germany. Like Gerhard Lamprecht, Werner Klingler, Georg C. Klaren, Arthur Maria Rabenalt, Erich Engel, and Paul Verhoeven, who went to East Germany in the early fifties to get their films made, Heinrich’s style was heavily influenced by the old Ufa studios. His films are more romantic and traditional, and aside from the occasional lip service to socialist values and the casting of successful entrepreneurs in a bad light, there’s not much about Heinrich’s films that peg them as products of East Germany.

Heinrich was born in Berlin-Charlottenburg. He started working with film early on when he dropped out of technical school and got a job in a film lab. He started making short films for Hitler’s Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labor Front) and working as a film editor on several feature films until he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. After the war, he was hired by Wolfgang Staudte to work on The Murderers Are Among Us. He must have impressed Staudte, because he was hired to work as an assistant director on Staudte’s next two films, The Adventures of Fridolin (Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B.) and Rotation. Heinrich finally stepped into the director’s shoes with The Barge of the Happy People.

Alter Kahn und junge Liebe

Heinrich made a few more films in East Germany, most notably My Wife Wants to Sing, but Heinrich and DEFA were never a very good fit. He lived in West Berlin and was constantly fighting with the authorities about the lighthearted nature of his films. I imagine the term “formalism” got thrown a bit—a term often used in the Eastern Bloc anytime someone didn’t like something but couldn’t give you a concrete example why. After the problems he encountered getting My Wife Wants to Sing made, Heinrich threw up his hands and left DEFA, resuming his career in the West. He worked on several movies and TV shows in West Germany. Heinrich died in 2003 in Berlin.

Heinrich’s barge films are not masterpieces. They are light and silly, and Heinrich’s style is so rooted in the old Ufa style that they could have been West German films. The fact that they aren’t has more to do with the times than the films themselves.

IMDB page for the The Barge of Happy People.

IMDB page for Old Barge, Young Love.

Buy Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Barge of Happy People).

Buy Alter Kahn und junge Liebe (Old Barge, Young Love).


1. There has been the occasional U.S. film that features a barge (Moontide comes to mind), but America’s riverways aren’t that conducive to barges. You’re more likely to see a film about life on a raft (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) or a riverboat (Steamboat Bill, Jr., Show Boat) than a barge.

2. This wasn’t a unilateral choice. By 1950, Hollywood was already busy making virulent anti-communist films, and all of the left-leaning talent had been sidelined or neutered thanks to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

© 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.

When Martin was Fourteen
When Martin Was Fourteen (Als Martin vierzehn war) is the story of a teenage boy who finds himself in the middle of the fighting that followed the “Kapp Putsch” in March of 1920. As with many German movies—East, West, and Unified—the films assumes a level of familiarity with German history that we in America know little about. To truly appreciate this film, a little background is in order.1

World War I officially ended on the 28th of June 1919, but, by then, it was all over but the screaming. The Central Powers (the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria) hadn’t lost as many soldiers as the Allied Powers (too many countries to name, but primarily France, Britain, Belgium, Russia, and, eventually, the United States), but they didn’t have as many to lose. Germany was roundly defeated and reluctantly signed the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty was draconian, blaming the war on Germany, reducing the size of the German state, and forcing that country to make reparations to the victors. People on both sides of the conflict thought the treaty went too far, but none more than the Germans. Especially galling was the clause stating that the war was entirely the fault of Germany. Philipp Scheidemann, the Chancellor in the newly established Weimar Republic, refused to sign it and resigned rather than sign this treaty. President Ebert didn’t see any choice but to sign it, and found a replacement for Scheidemann (Gustav Bauer) who was more willing to do as he was told.

The response to the treaty was immediate. Germans on the left and the right protested the signing. Most vocal were the Freikorps—right-wing groups of ex-soldiers who had put it on themselves to try and restore Germany to the military power it once had been. They saw the signing of the treaty as a vast left-wing conspiracy and blamed the communists and the Jews for Germany’s defeat. The only solution, as far as they were concerned, was to overthrow the Weimar government and rebuild the German Empire.

Als Martin Vierzehn war

Leading this movement was a German general named Walther von Lüttwitz, who fought in World War I, and a journalist named Wolfgang Kapp, who didn’t. Kapp was a journalist who never let facts get in the way of his agenda. He was a strong proponent of the Dolchstoßlegende (stab-in-the-back myth), which maintained that the Germans were winning the war, but were betrayed by leftists and Jews back home. This anti-Semitism wasn’t a new. Even while the war was still raging, the Supreme Army Command (Oberste Heeresleitung) conducted a census (the infamous Judenzählung) to prove that Jews were not on the battlefields during the war, but hiding behind desk jobs. When the survey proved the exact opposite, the Oberste Heeresleitung buried the results. Ignoring all this, Kapp continued to spread the myth and called for former German soldiers to get rid of the new government.

While Kapp was the mouthpiece for this movement, Lüttwitz was the muscle. He was in charge of the Berlin Freikorps—paramilitary groups of former soldiers who had taken it on themselves to police the country in whatever fashion they saw fit. This included breaking up left-wing protests and killing anyone who resisted. They weren’t officially part of the government, but the government did nothing to stop them. On March 13, 1920, Lüttwitz’s troops—many sporting swastikas painted on their helmet, a fact that impressed a youthful coup supporter named Adolf Hitler—took over the Reich Chancellery and Kapp declared himself Chancellor. Reactions were strong and immediate. Workers went on strike all over Germany and the economy shut down. Five days later, the Kapp Putsch was over. Kapp and Lüttwitz fled the country and the Weimar government was back in power, but the damage was done. With the left emboldened by the effectiveness of the strikes, and the right emboldened by the putsch, the two factions continued fighting all over Germany, and the cowardly cut-and-run approach to the crisis by the leaders further deteriorated the already low opinion the public had of its government.

When Martin Was Fourteen takes place during those tumultuous five days. The events in the film appear to be based on the Ruhr uprising that took place in the west of Germany, but they’ve moved the action to rural Mecklenburg, presumably to make the story more East German. The film belongs to a subgenre of war films that follow the misadventures of young people on the cusp of adulthood who are thrown into violent conflicts and forced to grow up too fast. Other films in this subgenre include Ivan’s Childhood, Empire of the Sun, Hope and Glory, and Elem Klimov’s Come and See. While nowhere near as brutal as Klimov’s film, the message is still clear that war can kill a childhood.

When Martin was 14

Fourteen-year-old Martin (Ulrich Balko) is in love with his neighbor’s daughter Kathrin (Elfie Mann). While horsing around with her, he accidentally breaks her doll and promises to repair it. This minor event starts the ball rolling as Martin discovers that a local landowner is supplying arms to putschists. By the end of the film, that doll doesn’t seem so important to either Martin or Kathrin.

When Martin Was Fourteen was directed by Walter Beck, who mainly made films for children. A West German by birth, Beck spent most of his formative years in Berlin. In 1948, he enrolled in DEFA’s film program for young people (DEFA-Nachwuchsstudio) and received a degree in directing. From 1951 until 1958, he worked primarily as an assistant director on documentaries and newsreels. In 1958 he joined DEFA’s list of regular directors. In 1959, he directed his first feature film, Claudia, which set him on his path as a director of films for children. Over the years, he made several more movies for kids, including the popular fairytale films King Thrushbeard, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, The Prince Beyond the Seven Seas (Der Prinz hinter den sieben Meeren), The Bear-Skinned Man (Der Bärenhäuter), and The Frog Prince (Der Froschkönig). Like many other directors, actors and technicians from DEFA, his film career ended with the fall of the Wall,

The young stars of this film did not go on to do much in movies. For Elfie Mann, this was her only film, which is a shame—the girl has a good screen presence. Ulrich Balko appeared in three other films, all directed by Beck, but never did any others. The rest of the cast consisted of DEFA regulars such as Hans Hardt-Hardtloff, Lotte Loebinger, Manfred Heine, and Helmut Schreiber, most of whom found very little film work available after the Wende (not including Hardt-Hardtloff, who died in 1974).

Als Martin Vierzehn war

This was the first film for cinematographer Eberhard Borkmann. Borkmann would go on to film several more well-known feature films and TV-movies. He was a talented cinematographer, whose work includes White Wolves, Fatal Error, and Isabel on the Stairs. Like Beck and the other actors in this film, Like Beck, Borkmann’s film career ended when the Wall came down.

When Martin Was Fourteen is a film worth seeing. Although a subgenre of war movies, the stories of the effects of war and violence on children are stories that need to be told. The film also serves as an interesting if flawed history lesson about the Kapp Putsch and its immediate aftermath.

IMDB page for this film.

Stream movie with English subtitles on Kanopy.


1. For a deeper dive on the subject, check out Versailles 1919: A Centennial Perspective, by Alan Sharp; Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, by Eric D. Weitz; and The Weimar Republic Sourcebook edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg.

© 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.

Set a Fire, the Fire Brigade Is Coming
What happens to a fire department when the town there in never has any fires? That’s the idea behind the TruTV’s new comedy Tacoma FD. But it isn’t the first time someone thought of this. It’s also the concept behind Set a Fire, the Fire Brigade Is Coming (Zünd an, es kommt die Feuerwehr), the 1979 East German comedy by Rainer Simon.

Set a Fire (which is what I’m going to call it for the rest of this article to save typing) takes place around 1900 in the town of Siebenthal in the foothills of the Ore Mountains along the Czech border. One of the firemen, a man named Zetsche (Kurt Böwe) also owns the local inn, which is danger of collapsing. The fountain that his wife (Gudrun Ritter) had installed in the courtyard is siphoning off water from under the structure, leaving it on shaky ground. A plan is hatched to burn down Zetsche’s inn, which would serve the dual purpose of eliminating the rickety building before it collapses and giving the fire department something to do. Of course, things never go to plan in stories like this. Most of the action centers around fireman Franz (Winfried Glatzeder). Franz is betrothed to the pretty but dull Marie (Katrin Martin), but he is in love with a local prostitute name Lene (Renate Krößner) and she loves him as well. Everything comes to a head after a local celebration to mark a visit to the town by the writer Karl May (Hannes Fischer).

Using firemen for comedy isn’t new Charlie Chaplin did it (The Fireman), so did the Little Rascals (Hook and Ladder), and the Three Stooges returned to the idea more than once (Flat Foot Stooges, False Alarms, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World); but Set a Fire is a long ways from the humor of these slapstick comedies. Its humor is closer to the British comedies of the fifties and sixties. It’s broad and a little bawdy.

Zund an

This could have been just another light comedy, but it was directed by Rainer Simon. Simon also wrote the script with some help from Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who helped polish the dialogue. Although it takes place at the turn of the last century, it does a good job of lampooning the idiocy of unscrupulous leaders and government cover-ups. Although no official complaints against the film were made, it is clear that the authorities saw subversion in it. A film about the shenanigans of public officials during Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign still had bite in 1979, and it probably didn’t help that the young lovers in the film resolve their difficulties by moving to America. Why else would they have bothered to set the honey trap they did with Simon’s next film, Jadup and Boel?

The original scenario was by Manfred Wolter, a successful writer in East Germany who also worked as a dramaturge and script doctor. Wolter co-wrote or polished the scripts for several DEFA films, including Fire Below Deck and Next Year at Lake Balaton, and served as the dramaturge for Simon’s Till Eulenspiegel. His last work for DEFA was in 1990, when he wrote the scenario for I Can Also Run Backwards (Rückwärtslaufen kann ich auch), a film about children with disabilities. Wolter’s own daughter was disabled and Wolter and his daughter appear briefly in the film. After the Wende, Wolter wrote and directed a couple documentaries (Von der Normandie in den Bundestag and Aktion Ungeziefer). He died in 1999 in Woltersdorf. Also worth noting is that Wolter is listed as appearing in the film as the Kunstpfeifer, which is just a fancy way of saying the guy can really whistle.

Renate Krößner had already appeared in several TV-movies and a few movies in smaller roles by the time she made this film, but this was the first film to really show what she could do. Although her signature role in Solo Sunny was still a two years away, it’s apparent here that she would be a star. She enlivens this movie up every time she appears on screen. Winfried Glatzeder was a known quantity by this point, having starred in Time of the Storks, The Legend of Paul and Paula, and Till Eulenspiegel. The film also features the reliable talents of Kurt Böwe and Gudrun Ritter, as well as the lovely Katrin Martin, who, only a few years earlier in The Man Who Replaced Grandma, played not Glatzeder’s love interest but a teenager under his care. Of the actors in this film, Renate Krößner has had the most active post-Wende career and is probably as well known today for her post-reunification movies (e.g., Go for Zucker, Vergiss dein Ende, and the TV-movie Küss mich, Genosse!) as she is for those made in the GDR (Solo Sunny, notwithstanding).

Renate

The cinematography is by Roland Dressel, which is to say, it’s very good. DEFA had some exceptionally talented cinematographers, including Günter Haubold, Werner Bergmann, Günter Marczinkowsky, and Erich Gusko. Dressel wasn’t afraid of experimenting with the image, which occasionally got him into trouble. His work on The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow was criticized for this reason. On Jadup and Boel, he took things even further, with its blurred-edged flashback sequences. It was this willingness to experiment that endeared him to Rainer Simon and why Simon continue to use him for the rest of his DEFA films. Since the Wende, Dressel has continued to work on various films and TV shows on a freelance basis.

Set a Fire receive mixed reviews. Renate Holland-Moritz of the satire magazine Eulenspiegel liked it, but Fred Gehler in the weekly magazine Sonntag found the film too episodic for its own good. It’s a fun little film, but is not currently available with English subtitles.1

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this movie.


1. As those of you who know me know, my interest in movies extends well past the East German films. Something I see occurring in other film fan communities is the phenomenon of fan-made subtitles. If you like Hong Kong action films or Italian gialli, you can find sites that offer subtitles to dozens of films that never received English language releases. Sadly, the same can’t be said for East German movies. Apparently, they lack the DNA needed to encourage that sort of fanboy overdrive (sex and violence, I suspect).

© 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.

Sleeping Beauty
The story of Sleeping Beauty (Dornröschen) is old enough that it’s origins are a point of debate. The Grimm Brothers felt the story had enough Germanic elements to identify it as German in origin. The French, quite rightfully, would point out that the story was already well-known in France as it appeared in Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passé published in 1697. Meanwhile the Italians will tell you that Perrault got the story from Giambattista Basile’s Sun, Moon, and Talia. The story has been traced back to the 1300s, but is thought to be even older than that. These days, it’s best known in the form of the Walt Disney animated feature. Given the manhandling the original story received over the years from the likes of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Giambattista Basile, one can forgive Walt Disney for tweaking the story to suit his needs.

The basic setup of the story is always the same. After a queen has a daughter, the king holds a banquet and invites all the local fairies to bestow gifts on the infant. Unfortunately, he forgets one fairy who’s not as sociable as the others and, in the classic version, is also evil. After the other fairies bestow their gifts on the child (beauty, charm, virtue, and so forth), the evil fairy curses the child: On her fifteenth birthday, the girl will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. It turns out that one fairy hadn’t given her gift yet, so she deflects the curse slightly, saying the girl will not die but will sleep for one hundred years, when she will be awakened by a prince. In an attempt to prevent the curse from happening, the king orders all the spinning wheels in the kingdom destroyed. Of course, this has no effect. The young princess meets up with the evil fairy pretending to be an old woman working a spinning wheel. She lets the girl try her hand at the spinning wheel with the expected result.

While Disney’s film takes its cues from Perrault’s tale, the DEFA version follows the Brothers Grimm’s version the closest, with thirteen fairies and missing dinnerware as the reason the thirteenth fairy isn’t invited to the baby’s christening. It also does a better job of addressing the inevitable economic problems that would befall a community that was forced to give up its major income source (wool spinning and cloth production). This is Sleeping Beauty as seen through the eyes of Karl Marx.

Sleeping Beauty

In a manner similar to DEFA’s version of Rumpelstiltskin, where the evil dwarf becomes a dispenser of socialist instruction, the evil old fairy of the previous versions is now a beautiful young woman. Her angry spell is in reaction to the king’s self-importance and lack of empathy for the common folk. When the last fairy comes forward to temper the death spell, the reason she doesn’t simply lift the curse altogether is because she too feels the king needs to be taught a lesson. In DEFA’s version, the king is the real villain, and he is the one who is ultimately overthrown in favor of a system more equitable to the people. The fairy that curses the baby is known as the fairy of hard work (Fee des Fleißes), and it’s the castle’s industry that suffers.

Like most of the DEFA fairytale films, Sleeping Beauty is a bright and colorful movie, with simplified environments used to represent the various places. Backgrounds are devoid of details, occasionally consisting of featureless, light blue cycloramas. It was directed by Walter Beck, who made a career of fairytale films at DEFA, including King Thrushbeard (König Drosselbart), Pinocchio, The Prince Beyond the Seven Seas (Der Prinz hinter den sieben Meeren), The Bear-Skinned Man (Der Bärenhäuter), and The Frog Prince (Froschkönig). Beck’s career ended with the Fall of the Wall. He was sixty at that point, and the job opportunities for sixty-year-old, East German directors was nearly nil in the new, capitalist Germany.

Sleeping Beauty was a hit. The most popular DEFA fairytale film since Little Red Riding Hood (Rotkäppchen). The modern touches in the music and costume design helped make the film stand out from the previous fairytale films. It did not receive distribution in America, perhaps because of its strong socialist message, or perhaps because the time of the popularity of fairytale films in the U.S. was on the wane in 1971.

The slumbering princess is played by Juliane Korén. With parents who were also actors, Korén was born to perform. Her father, Hans Klering, was one of the founding members of DEFA. Her mother, Elsa Korén, appeared in several DEFA films, but worked more on stage, primarily with the Theater der Freundschaft (Friendship Theater)—now called the Theater an der Parkaue (Parkaue Theater) next to Lichtenberg Park. Aside from a few feature films roles, including In Spite of Everything! and The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow, Juliane Korén primarily appeared on television in the GDR. After the Wende, she moved to stage, working an as a member of the ensembles in Bochum and Stuttgart. She died in Berlin in 2018.

Dornröschen

Playing the thirteenth fairy is Vera Oelschlegel. Oelschlegel hails from Leipzig, where her mother was head of the district commission for entertainment art, Oelschlegel studied at the the Film Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg and worked at the theater in Putbus before getting a job at DFF—the GDR’s state-owned television station. She appeared in several films and television in East Germany. In 1961, she married playwright Günther Rücker, they were divorced six years later. Her next husband was Hermann Kant, one of the most important writers to come out of East Germany. The divorced in 1976.

But it was Oelschlegel’s next husband that got tongues wagging. Shortly after divorcing Kant she married Konrad Naumann, an SED politburo member. Some accused her of being a golddigger (or whatever you’d call a golddigger in a socialist country), but Oelschlegel didn’t care, she liked the guy and his cheery simplicity was a welcome change from the dour intellectualism of Kant. Naumann and Oelschlegel divorced in 1987, a couple years earlier, Naumann had been kicked out of the politburo, ostensibly for a speech he gave at the Academy of Social Sciences. In fact, it probably had more to do with Naumann’s efforts to relax trade restrictions with the West, a move that the rapidly dying old Soviet leaders opposed. A Soviet Untertan1 like Honecker wasn’t about to do anything to upset these fossils, so his old buddy Naumann had to be let go.

After the Wende, Oelschlegel—along with her long-time partner, dramaturge Gregor Edelmann, and journalist André Plath—founded the Theater des Ostens, a touring theater troupe that performed throughout the Eastern states of Germany. The troupe ceased operation in 2012.

Sleeping Beauty is good film. In many respects, it’s better than the Disney film and the other movie versions of the fairytale. In some respects, it is better than the original fairytale as well. It scratches below the surface of the original story, then asks and answers the difficult questions that the story poses—something that no other version of the tale ever bothered to do. But the most interesting aspect of the film is the idea of a castle completely surrounded by a wall of thorns. Surely, the comparison to the Berlin Wall was not lost on the authorities at DEFA. In 1961, Konrad Petzold and Egon Günther got into hot water for making The Robe (Das Kleid), a fairytale film about a walled castle simply because the officials thought it mimicked the recent building of the Berlin Wall, even though the film was in the can before the Wall went up. Ten years later, there were no such complaints when the wall of thorns (looking very much like barbed wire) grows around the castle in Sleeping Beauty. What a difference a decade makes.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy or stream this movie.


1. I’ve used the German word Untertan here because there really is no exact English equivalent. For a deeper dive on this subject, check out The Kaiser’s Lackey.

© 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.