In the mid-seventies, Wolfgang Kohlhaase—arguably the GDR’s best screenwriter—became friends with a talented young film reviewer named Jutta Voigt. Ms. Voigt met Kohlhaase at “Die Möwe” (The Seagull)—a popular Künstlerklub (art club), where film people and other artists met—and introduced him to an exotic social misfit named Sanije Torka. Torka was the daughter of Crimean Tatars working in Germany in 1944 (Ostarbeiters). At that time, the Third Reich did not allow Ostarbeiters to have children and Sanije was put up for adoption. Her jet-black hair and dark eyes automatically made her an outsider in Germany. She was a wild and headstrong little girl, and she bounced from foster home to orphanage to juvenile detention, raising Cain at every turn. She occasionally worked as an actress, appearing in bit parts in films. She also worked as a singer, although, by all accounts, she was a better actress than singer. Her headstrong ways often put her at odds with the rest of the world. Kohlhaase became fascinated with Torka, who seemed to defy the very nature of a socialist government, barely scraping by, doing things that were tolerated but not officially sanctioned. He listened carefully to her stories of growing up as an orphan in East Germany and turned her tale into the screenplay for Solo Sunny.
Solo Sunny is the story of Ingrid Sommer, nicknamed “Sunny.” Sunny is a modestly talented singer who tours Germany as part of a low-rent variety show. She is a free spirit, who is not afraid to call it like she sees it, and who sleeps with whomever she wants. When we first meet her, she is the lead singer for “The Tornados,” a jazz-pop band. The band’s saxophone player has the hots for Sunny, no doubt spurred on by her carefree attitude toward sex with strangers; but Sunny has no interest in him which leads, indirectly, to an altercation between the sax player and a bar patron. While his lip heals, the sax player is temporarily replaced by Ralph, a cynical philosopher with a penchant for western culture (which is sometimes code in DEFA films for an amoral person). Sunny falls for Ralph, which proves to be a bad idea, sending her into a self-destructive, downward spiral. After a feeble attempt to tow the line, Sunny comes to the realization that she is who she is, and that’s not going to change.
Around the same time as Kohlhaase was finishing his screenplay, Konrad Wolf was fishing around for a new film project. Deputy Minister of Culture Klaus Höpcke had expressed a desire for more stories that reflected everyday life in the GDR. Höpcke was one of the people responsible for the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, a move that resulted in a substantial talent drain from the ranks of DEFA. Now, in typical GDR fashion, he wanted to show that this move had nothing to do with repression. As long as a story didn’t directly challenge the state, nothing, they claimed, was off limits. When Kohlaase came along with his story of the untameable Sunny, Wolf was not sure at first if he was the man to film it. The film would be a major departure from anything he had done before and he knew it. At first he balked, but during a car ride from Potsdam to Berlin, he figured out what to do. He could not rely on techniques he used in the past. The film had to be new and it had to be different.
While some members of his film crew remained the same as in previous films—most notably, Evelyn Carow, and Alfred Hirschmeier—other old favorites were jettisoned for new blood. The most startling of all was Wolf’s decision not to use Werner Bergmann, the man who had filmed every Konrad Wolf film up to that point. Instead he chose Eberhard Geick, a newcomer at DEFA, whose only work up to that point had been a TV show and some shorts. Wolf felt that Geick—who lived in the Prenzlauer district where much of Solo Sunny was filmed—would have a better feel for the neighborhood. In another first, Wolf shared the directing credit with Kohlhaase.
While Solo Sunny is enjoyable to those who don’t speak German, it’s real treasures belong to those who do. Sunny’s speech is littered with slang and Berlinerisch. Her famous statement upon getting out of bed the morning after a romp with a stranger, “Is’ ohne Frühstück.” can be translated with some accuracy to: “I don’t do breakfast,” but her closing statement defies easy translation: “Ich würde es gern machen. Ich schlafe mit jemandem, wenn es mir Spaß macht. Ich nenne einen Eckenpinkler einen Eckenpinkler. Ich bin die, die bei den Tornados rausgeflogen ist. Ich heiße Sunny.”1 In fact, even on the U.S. DVD, the term Eckenpinkler (literally, “corner pisser”) ends up with two different translations (I went with “pig” in the footnote below, although I find it less than satisfactory).
The irrepressible Sunny was played by Renate Krößner. Krößner had been appearing in films since the mid-sixties, but it was her performance in Hener Carow’s Until Death Do Us Part (Bis daß der Tod euch scheidet) in 1979 that caught Konrad Wolf’s attention. Krößner’s unusual and expressive face was the draw for Wolf, even though Krößner had no training as a singer. Having lived in Berlin for many years, the dialect was no problem for her. In 1985, Krößner was allowed to leave East Germany with her longtime partner, Bernd Stegemann, whom she finally married in 2005. Since leaving the GDR, she has appeared in dozens of movies and television shows. She is best known in the states for playing the club owner in Daniel Levy’s Go for Zucker (Alles auf Zucker!)
One area where Konrad Wolf never showed much loyalty was in the music department. Unlike many western directors who tie themselves to specific composers (e.g., Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone), Wolf changed his composer with every film (I suspect that this is the main reason fans of the auteur theory have so much trouble pigeonholing his films). This time, the music was provided by Günther Fischer. Fischer got his start in feature films with the Gojko Mitic western Tecumseh, but it was his work on his next film, Eolomea, that really caught people’s attention. While other DEFA composers—most notably Karl-Ernst Sasse—came from the world of classical music, Fischer hailed from the jazz world. In the mid-sixties, he played saxophone and flute with the Klaus Lenz Band, forming his own band in 1968. Fischer was a prolific composer, who wrote the scores for no fewer than ten movies in 1978. Since the fall of the wall, most of his work has been in television. He currently lives in Ireland, and still performs with his band.
Nowhere in the film is Kohlhaase’s inspiration, Sanije Torka, mentioned. In the west, this would have been cause for a lawsuit, but in the east it was for Torka’s own safety. East German society was not noted for its hearty acceptance of non-conformists (unless, like the American singer, Dean Reed, they moved from right to left), and drawing attention to a born troublemaker like Torka in the GDR would have done her no favors. She might have been forgotten altogether if not for filmmaker Alexandra Czok, whose film, Solo für Sanije – Die wahre Geschichte der Solo Sunny (Solo for Sanije – The True Story of Solo Sunny), brings her story to light. The film portrays her as headstrong and individualistic as ever. At the time of filming, Torka was about start a two-year sentence for shoplifting. It is through her reminiscences in this film that we learn the full extent of Torka’s influence on the making of Solo Sunny.
The message of Solo Sunny seems to be that it is more important to stay true to yourself than the system—a message that seems to be in direct conflict with the perceived East German stance. This fact didn’t elude all the officials, but it did get past the important ones. By the time that the authorities decided that the film might actually be subversive, it was too late. It had made it to the west and was entered in the Berlinale, West Germany’s prestigious film festival. There it won the International Film Critics’ Award for best picture, and garnered a best actress honor for Renate Krößner. That same year, it won the Gold Plaque at the Chicago Film Festival. After that, there was nothing to do but let the film play. It went on to become one of the top-grossing films in East Germany; the country’s biggest box office hit since The Legend of Paul and Paula.
1. Roughly: “I do what I want. I sleep with someone if I feel like it. I call a pig a pig. I’m the one The Tornados fired. I’m called Sunny.”