It would be wrong to assume that every film that came out of the east had a didactic purpose or a communist message, just as it would be wrong to assume that every Hollywood film is intended to promote the joys of capitalism. The primary goal of some movies is to entertain, and that was as true in the east as it was in the west. DEFA was rightly proud of what they had accomplished after the war, taking the old film studios of Babelsberg and turning them back into one of the foremost film production centers in Europe. As long as it didn’t contradict Marxist doctrine, a little something for the children was in order.
The Story of Little Mook (Die Geschichte vom kleinen Muck) was not the first Märchenfilm (fairytale film) to come out of East Germany—that honor belongs to Heart of Stone—but it was the most popular. Perhaps this is due to the fact that 1953 had been a hard year for the GDR. In June, construction workers had taken to the streets to protest the government’s more work for less pay policies. On June 17th, 1953—a day still commemorated in unified Germany—the protests were violently put down by the Soviet forces and the Volkspolizei. It represented a turning point in East German history. Gone was the happy idealism of Karl Marx, replaced with something far darker. From here on out, it would be the state against the people, and everybody in East Germany knew it. By the time Little Mook came out (two days before Christmas), people were in need of some cheery escapism.
Several more Märchenfilme were made at DEFA over the years but Little Mook remained East Germany’s top-earning film until the fall of the wall. Little Mook is based on a short story by Wilhelm Hauff, a popular writer and poet from the Romantic period who died died much too young (age 25), but still manage to leave a remarkably prodigious body of work behind, including a book of fairy tales, from which The Story of Little Mook is taken
Little Mook is told from the perspective of Mook as an old man. Mook is a hunchback, and the children of the town taunt him mercilessly, until one day he traps them the pottery shed and tells them the story of his life. The rest of the film is told in flashbacks. Mook never received a fair shake as a boy, but always kept his spirits up and his wits about him. After his father dies, Little Mook is cast out and begins his search for the Merchant of Luck, hoping this man can change his fortunes. In a series of adventures, Mook meets a witch, tricks a king into hiring him, endears himself to the princess Amarza, and foils the evil Bajazid. The film is told in the form of a road movie, where the protagonist moves across the landscape encountering different people and having different adventures. While there is no overtly communist message to the film, the evil people are all after money and power, and the magician—the closest thing to a spiritual leader in the film—is obviously a fraud, but this is consistent with the same characters in a Hollywood production.
Wolfgang Staudte was already becoming one of the leading lights in the line up of DEFA directors, He was responsible for The Murderers Are Among Us and Rotation, two of the best films to come out of either side of Germany in the first years after the war. He was busy trying to commit Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children to film when the project fell apart and he was assigned The Story of Little Mook instead. Staudte was not happy with the assignment of this light fairytale. He had really wanted to commit Mother Courage to film, but Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel, had their own ideas of how the film should be made, and weren’t ready to give up any control to Staudte. After Little Mook, Staudte made one more film for DEFA (Leuchtfeuer), and then left for the west. Leuchtfeuer was banned due to Staudte’s defection, and wasn’t shown again until 1988. An abbreviated version of Staudte’s Mother Courage was eventually released. Staudte continued to direct movies, primarily for television, right up until his death in 1984.
The screenwriter for Little Mook, Peter Podehl—along with his step-son, Thomas Schmidt, who played Little Mook—also decided to leave the GDR for West Germany. Podehl continued working in the west as a screenwriter, converting popular children’s stories for television and film; and as a director on the popular children’s puppet show, Hallo Spencer. Thomas Schmidt starred in one more film as a child, and worked behind the scenes on television when he was young before deciding to leave the film business in favor of medicine.
Special mention should be given to Erich Zander, whose production design was stunning. Like Willy Schiller, the other great production designer from East Germany (see The Murderers Among Us), Zander got his start during the Weimar years, and continue to work during Hitler’s regime. Also like Schiller, by the time the GDR was formed, he had plenty of experience in both production design and art direction. Working with art director Artur Günther, the duo created an Arabian fantasy land on a par with anything Hollywood might have come up with. It is a bit kitschy, to be sure, but as a fairytale it seems just right.