For all of the problems inherent in East Germany’s political system, one area where the east decidedly surpassed the west was in its attitude toward women in the workplace. While women in West Germany and America were still relegated—almost forcibly—to the home and kitchen, East Germany and the USSR were allowing women to work alongside men with very few questions. Yes, there were still many cultural issues that hadn’t been resolved (and still haven’t), communist philosophy made a strong case for sexual equality. [That said, it should be noted that the leaders in both countries were still white men right until the end.]
Her Third (Der Dritte), made in 1972, is a movie about one such working woman. With two daughters, Margit Fließer—perfectly played by Jutta Hoffmann—works as a computer technician in a large chemical company. In a series of flashbacks, we are taken through her life; from her impoverished, religion-oriented upbringing, through two marriages, to the wedding day of the third. Her first husband (although it is never made clear that she actually married him) is Bachmann, a school lecturer played by Peter Köhncke. Bachmann is the classic college cad, having an affair with his student and then breaking up with her when things got too serious. The second is a blind man, played by the always impressive Armin Mueller-Stahl. The blind man seems like a better choice than Bachmann, but he is an angry drunk that can go from violin-playing gentleness to name-calling paranoia within a few swigs. When his rage gets to be too much for her, Margit packs her bags and leaves him. The third and, presumably, final man in her life is Hrdlitschka, portrayed by Rolf Ludwig. Hrdlitschka seems like he may be the guy Margit’s been hoping for, and she undertakes a program of discovery to learn as much about him as possible before committing to a relationship. As a woman who worked hard to overcome her past, Margit does not want to be just another feminine cliché. Why, she wonders, does she have to follow the silly romantic protocols of her grandparents? Why can’t she pursue the man she wants and make the first moves?
Margit’s co-conspirator in the quest for Hrdlitschka’s heart is her best friend, Lucie. Lucie stands by her side as she pursues Hrdlitschka, and helps her realize the relationship. Lucie and Margit get along great, so it comes as no surprise when it is revealed that the real love story of the movie is between them. Although it is never explicitly stated, there are some indications that Margit fancies women. In a scene that takes place at a convent during her youth, we see that her relationship with another girl might go beyond the usual bounds. The movie never says this outright; everything is implied. Unlike most Hollywood directors, Günther assumes that his audience has a brain and can read between the lines. This subtlety is a common feature of East German films, due no doubt in part, to the often severe restrictions that filmmakers encountered whenever they tried to push the limits. Is the real third of the film then Lucie, and not Hrdlitschka? Will Margit find happiness married to Hrdlitschka? The audience is left to answer these questions for themselves.
When Her Third was released, East German officials almost banned it due to a short, mildly erotic scene in which Margit and Lucie kiss. Curiously, the kiss seemed to provoke less interest in the west than the fact that Margit was a single, working mother with two children, who held an important technical position in a chemical company. Western audiences found this far more outrageous than the idea that two women might kiss. The fact that Her Third did get released was, in no small part, due to the changes a year before in the GDR’s party leadership.
Walter Ulbricht, the General Secretary of the SED Central Committee, was the man in control of East Germany from 1950 to 1971. Originally a staunch supporter of Stalin, Ulbricht had sense enough to stay on good terms with Khrushchev when he took over in the USSR. Unfortunately for Ulbricht, the ousting of Khrushchev caught him flat-footed, Brezhnev did not get along with Ulbricht, preferring instead the more conservative Erich Honecker, who was at that time, the GDR’s Central Committee Secretary for Security Matters. Once Khrushchev was gone, it was only a matter of time before Ulbricht followed suit. On May 3rd, 1971 Ulbricht was forced to resign, and Honecker took over. Honecker was more of a hard-line, soviet-style communist than Ulbricht and herein lies one of the most interesting paradoxes of the GDR. although Honecker was considered more conservative than Ulbricht, the net result of his taking over the SED was a loosening of the restrictions on the film community. It may have been due to leaders thinking that a more publicly liberal stance on artistic expression would help counterbalance any claims of oppression from the west. Or it may have been Honecker’s way of demonstrating that he wasn’t Ulbricht, who was the man in charge when the 11th Plenum clamped down on the arts.
The chemistry between the two leading ladies in Her Third is strong. No surprise here. Jutta Hoffmann and Barbara Dittus were two of the best actresses to come out of East Germany. Hoffmann has had a rocky career. She was one of many people who had trouble finding work in movies following the film bans handed down by the SED after the 11th Plenum. It probably didn’t help that she worked on four of the twelve banned films. It was three years before she was able to work on movies again. Then, after supporting the exiled songster, Wolf Biermann, she found herself again having trouble getting work and eventually immigrated to the west in 1985, where her film credentials had little value. It wasn’t until the wall came down that she finally started finding work in the west. She has been active in films and television ever since. In contrast, her co-star Barbara Dittus, continued working in the east until the fall of the wall, and became extremely popular in the film and television industry of united Germany as well, starring in six productions in 1998 alone. Sadly, Ms. Dittus died in 2001 at the age of 61. As with many East German actors, both actresses also worked extensively in theater.
Director Egon Günther was one of the more daring directors in East Germany. His use of hand-held cameras in this film to create an immediate, cinéma vérité feel was fairly rare back in the early seventies (and all too common nowadays). Sometimes the camera takes on a life of its own, moving away from the center of the story to focus on something else, reflecting Margit’s own hyperactive mind. Small wonder, then, that he was one of the filmmakers that fell on the wrong side of the ruling SED party during the 11th Plenum with his film, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam. When he was allowed to make a film again, he came back with a bang, directing Farewell (Abschied), considered one of the best films to come out of East Germany.
Special mention should be given here to Karl-Ernst Sasse’s score, which ranges from a jazzy flute and xylophone melody to dissonant percussion. Sasse created scores for over 500 movies and TV shows in the DDR. A former orchestra conductor as well as a composer, he was comfortable writing in a wide variety of styles, creating film scores for every genre from westerns to science fiction. After the wall came down, he also created some interesting scores for classic silent movies such as The Golem and Asphalt. Sasse retired in 1999 and died in 2006 not far from the Babelsberg studios that kept him so busy.