The protagonists in East German films are frequently women. In movies such as Her Third, He du!, and The Dove on the Roof, the plots center around women who are on an equal (or superior) footing to their male counterparts. Even in genre films such as Signals and In the Dust of the Stars, we see women in positions of power. The terms Mitarbeiter (co-worker) and Kollegen (colleague) were used to avoid designations of class, but class differences were there nonetheless. DEFA was sensitive to this issue and rightfully proud of its track record on the matter of female equality—at least, on the screen. When The Legend of Paul and Paula was released, it faced stiff criticism from the authorities because it presented a working woman who had very little control over her situation. It was only after Erich Honecker gave that film his blessing that it was allowed to be shown. So it’s no surprise that The Bicycle (Das Fahrrad) wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms.
The Bicycle goes much further than Paul and Paula did. Here, the protagonist is Susanne, a single mother who operates a punch press at a factory, doing the same thing all-day long in an oppressive environment. She is thoughtless and louche, lacking the work ethic that made Paula so admirable. Susanne likes to go out drinking and puts paying her bills in second place to having a good time. She is constantly running late and in debt. The father of her child is never mentioned, Judging from her lifestyle, it is likely that the child was a result of a casual relationship. It is apparent that most of her problems are the result of her own irresponsibility.
In spite of all this, Susanne is not without sympathy. She has made some bad choices and she is still making bad choices, but she obviously loves her daughter very much. We can understand it when she finally gets fed up and walks off her job at the factory; it is a terrible place. With no marketable skills, her attempts to find new work prove fruitless, and the fact that she has a daughter also affects her work opportunities. Susanne decides to take the advice of one of her drinking buddies and claim that her bicycle was stolen. Now able to pay off some of her bills, things seem to be looking up for Susanne. It is around this time that Thomas Marlow enters the picture.
Thomas is an idealistic young engineer who worked his way up through the ranks and has just been put in charge of an important project. His colleagues congratulate him and vow to stand behind him. Thomas is flush with success and excited by this new opportunity to show the bosses what he can do. In truth, his colleagues are playing the old game of letting the new guy stick his neck out first. The last time we saw a scenario like this played out on film in East Germany was in Frank Beyer’s The Trace of Stones (Spur der Steine), which was banned for suggesting that such internecine shenanigans went on in the GDR.
Thomas gets Susanne a job in his factory and everything is copacetic until the local policeman catches Susanne riding her supposedly-stolen bike. Thomas tries to help her, but his concern over how the incident will reflect on him causes a rift between them. In the end, Thomas’ undoing has nothing to do with Susanne. Meanwhile, the workers committee at the factory helps her deal with her legal problems. To her surprise, they show her compassion and solidarity, just as they’ve shown compassion for one of her co-workers, a woman in an abusive relationship.
The film takes some pains to show that the collective—at least among the factory workers—behaves the way a collective should: helping those who need help, and allowing everyone to have a voice on the subject. But the idea that the engineers in the GDR would be as duplicitous as westerners did not go over well with the authorities. The fact that the women are doing the mundane work, while the men sit in the front offices was an even stronger challenge to the GDR’s public stance that women were treated as equals. As a result, although the film was allowed to screen in East Germany, it was banned from entry into the international film festivals.
Director Evelyn Schmidt was part of the fourth generation of DEFA directors (Nachwuchsregisseure) that started making films during the final years of East Germany’s existence. This group included Peter Kahane, Jörg Foth, Iris Gusner, Dietmar Hochmuth, Karl-Heinz Lotz, and several others. As I discussed in my post about The Architects, this new group of directors found it difficult to get their films made during the final decade of the GDR. Schmidt’s first feature film, Escapade (Seitensprung), met with good reviews and was shown at the 1980 Berlinale as part of the program for new filmmakers. Her next film, Auf dem Sprung (The Jump), did not fare as well with either the public or the critics. It wasn’t until 1990 that she received a “permanent” position as a director at DEFA, but permanence in that fateful year was a fleeting thing.
After the Wende, Schmidt ran into the same prejudice against East Germans that many others from DEFA faced. The idea that these people were as talented—if not more so—than their free market counterparts was rarely considered. How could anything good come from a system that produced the Berlin Wall and the Stasi? After DEFA was dismantled, Schmidt found that work as a film director became difficult to find so she moved into the realm of legitimate theater. Currently, she teaches film acting classes at the Charlottenburg Drama School in Berlin.
Schmidt often uses hand-held cameras (thankfully without the current tendency toward herky-jerkiness), which helps impart a sense of reality to the movie. The use of music is sparse, usually only playing as part of the natural environment (in the bar, or on the radio). The pacing, in typical DEFA fashion, is slow and methodical. It assumes a certain level of familiarity with the state of affairs in the GDR at that time.
Central to The Bicycle are the characters of Susanne and Thomas, so the effectiveness of this films rises or sinks on the performances of the two leads. Fortunately, both are up to the task. Heidemarie Schneider convincingly plays Susanne, and Roman Kaminski is good, if not always likable, as the self-righteous Thomas. Ms. Schneider had already appeared in a dozen DEFA films and a couple TV appearances before starring in this, her first leading role. Ms. Schmidt must have liked working with her because she cast her again in Auf dem Sprung (The Jump), and Der Hut (The Hat). After the Wende, Ms.Schneider continued to find work as actor, primarily in television productions. Similarly, Roman Kaminski has also continued to work in TV since starring in this film.
For anyone interested in the subject of women’s issues and feminism of film, The Bicycle is an important addition to the topic. It is one of the most honest portrayals of life in East Germany from behind the Iron Curtain, and helps those of us who did not experience it get closer to what living in the GDR must have been like.