The late 1960s were a time of great changes in German Cinema. Starting with Volker Schlöndorff’s Young Törless (Der junge Törleß), and followed soon after by the almost experimental films of Fassbinder and Herzog, filmmaking in the west was experiencing a creative renaissance. In the GDR, filmmakers were still trying to maintain their artistic freedom, but it was getting harder all the time. The revolutionary ideals that inspired and informed DEFA were now considered a threat to the system. With the banning of Kurt Maetzig’s The Rabbit is Me (Das Kanninchen bin ich), it was apparent that any attempt to push the limits would be met with repression (more on this later).
The East German government was turning DEFA into a relic, completely out of touch with the public. More and more, people turned to the west for entertainment. Some attempts were made to placate people with films like Hot Summer (Heißer Sommer), but even here the filmmakers were treading on thin ice, politically.
Then in 1971, Erich Honecker replaced Walter Ulbricht as the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party. Ulbricht was beginning to make waves with the Russians. He got along fine with the Soviet leader, Nikita Kruschev, but things weren’t so rosy between him and Kruschev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev. Honecker was a hard-liner, whose approach to communism was more in tune with Brezhnev’s. Honniger wanted his leadership to signal a new page in the history of the GDR. It is ironic that it is only after the conservative Honecker came to power that the restrictions on film content in the east began to soften.
One of the first films to challenge the status quo was The Legend of Paul and Paula (Die Legende von Paul und Paula). The film follows the exploits of a blue-collar supermarket worker named Paula and her white-collar neighbor from across the way, an aspiring bureaucrat named Paul. It begins with the demolition of a building—a motif that will recur throughout the film, followed by a catchy little tune by the East German rock band, The Puhdys.
When we first meet Paula (Angelica Domröse), she is flirting with Martin (Jürgen Frohriep), an Afro-headed hippie that runs the caterpillar ride at a carnival. She stares at him longingly until he whispers a suggestion in her ear. This is met with a slap, causing him to back off. We see in Paula’s eyes an immediately regret for her action, and she follows up by waiting after the carnival to meet with him. At the same time, Paula’s neighbor from across the street, Paul (Winfried Glatzeder), is at the shooting gallery, winning cheap prizes, which he promptly gives to Ines (Heidemarie Wenzel), the shooting gallery owner’s daughter.
It is apparent from the start that both Paula and Paul’s choices for mates are bad ones. We sense that Martin will be a louse from the moment we see him, and when Ines smiles, she looks like a snake. Never in the history of cinema has a smile seemed so horrifying. Martin is incapable of commitment, and Ines is only interested in Paul after she learns of his earning potential. Paula soon has a baby boy with the repulsive Martin, who has moved in with her. Meanwhile Paul marries Ines, and also has a baby boy. For Paul, things come to a head when he returns from boot camp to discover another man in bed with Ines. Things are worse for Paula who, upon returning from the hospital with her baby boy, finds Martin in the arms of a teenage girl.
The choice of Angelica Domröse to play Paula was inspired. She exudes sensuality and passion. Her earthy good looks are well-suited to the role of a working class woman who is attractive without ever seeming out of place. Winfried Glatzeder is a little more problematic. When the film came out, the lantern-jawed Winfried Glatzeder was referred to as the East German Jean-Paul Belmondo, but that is stretching things a bit. He a frankly goofy-looking guy. He also has the unenviable task of playing the stodgier half of this relationship.
Paula seems to have no impulse controls. Her choices are not predicated on any kind of logic, or even basic sense. She works entirely from her emotions, and like her emotions, she can change directions on a whim. Paul, on the other hand, is all about control. The parameters of his job are never fully spelled out, but we know he works in the government. Appearances and protocol are important to Paul. In one scene, He takes Paula to an open-air concert. Moved by the music, she starts applauding after the first movement. When Paul tries to stop her, telling her that clapping after the first movement is simply not done, he ignores him and continues to clap.
The overt message of the film is that it is better to feel and hurt, than rationalize yourself into numbness. But there is a subtler message about the limitations of the GDR’s attempts to control human passions that was not lost on the East German public. The film was a big hit and remained popular up until many of the lead actors left for the west in response to the GDR exiling of the popular singer Wolf Biermann. At that point, the film was officially banned, but it was too late. As soon as the wall came down, the film found its way back into the movie houses and is one of the films that signalled the Ostalgie movement of the 1990s. Lake Rummelsburger See, where Paul and Paula go with Saft and Paula’s daughter, has been renamed “Paul and Paula beach”; and the band, The Puhdys, became one of the most popular rock bands in East Germany thanks to this film.