In 1977, disco fever swept the world. The Bee Gees—formerly a Beatles-influenced band—had reinvented themselves as the kings of the nightlife, John Travolta was teaching people how to dance, and skin-tight polyester shirts were flying off the shelves. In West Berlin, an Italian music producer named Giorgio Moroder met an American singer named Donna Summer and reinvented the disco sound with the hypnotic classic “I Feel Love.” Meanwhile, in East Germany, that same year saw the release of DEFA Disko 77, but don’t let the title fool you, this film has more in common with Godspell than Saturday Night Fever.
The premise was simple: popular East German musicians meet up at the DEFA studios and sing their songs. Each number starts with a black-and-white sequence that shows the various musicians wandering through the backlots of DEFA, or preparing for the numbers they are about to sing. In the first sequence, for example, the popular East German singer, Veronika Fischer, is seen being made up before the video while one of her bandmates tries unsuccessfully to start their tour bus. This is followed by her song, “Und wer bist du (Ich bin die Fischer …)” (“And who are you? (I am the Fisher)”), The singer and her band are shown taking a horse-drawn carriage to their destination, but during the video, the camera pulls back, revealing that the band is not really doing any of the things they are shown doing, but rather performing in a music video. This recursive breaking of the fourth wall occurs throughout the film as if to say, “We are lying to you, and you know we are lying to you; but we know that you know that we are lying to you, so let it be.”
In between the musical numbers comedy skits, à la Laugh-In are performed on minimal sets with black backgrounds. About halfway through the film, the songs are interrupted by a longer comedy routine starring Rolf Herricht and Hans Joachim Preil. Herricht and Preil, both successful actors in the GDR, also were one of East Germany’s best-loved comedy duos and here they get to show their stuff in a slightly risque little number about a newly-married man and his randy friend. It is silly, and similar in tone and style to something you might see on an American TV show in the seventies such as The Love Boat or Love, American Style.
One of the more interesting musical numbers occurs shortly before the Herricht and Preil sketch. It is the comedy folk-singer and lyricist, Kurt Demmler singing his song, “Verse auf sex Beinen” (loosely translated: “A few lines about sex”). Scenes of Demmler sitting on a stool and strumming a guitar are interspersed with scenes of a marionette performing a striptease and very quickly edited (and artfully photographed) shots of a naked woman.
Demmler had made a name for himself writing lyrics for nearly every major group or singer in East Germany, including those in this movie. He is reported to have written the lyrics for over 10,000 songs. To his credit, he was one of the people who signed the protest note against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, but unlike most of the people who signed it, he wasn’t blacklisted for doing so; perhaps because by that time, banning any song that Kurt Demmler had a hand in writing would have left the country virtually silent. Later, in September of 1989, he was also one of the many musicians in the GDR to sign the Rock Musician and Songwriter Resolution (Resolution von Rockmusikern und Liedermachern), a petition calling for changes in the East German government.
It is a little ironic that Demmler is singing in this film about sex, since it was sex that proved to be his downfall. In 2009, Demmler was charged with the sexual molestation of six young girls who had auditioned with him for a group he was reportedly putting together. The indictment further charged him with 212 cases of sexual molestation of girls between the ages of 10 and 14. This wasn’t the first time that Demmler had been charged with sexual molestation. In 2002, he was fined 1,800 Euros in a similar case. While awaiting trial on the charges, Demmler hanged himself in his jail cell.
Many of the musical sequences in DEFA Disko 77 are remarkably—perhaps even aggressively—ill-designed. Putting a tomboy like Chris Doerk in a frilly outfit from the late 1800s just doesn’t work. Shots of her singing her song, “Käfertango” (“Beetle Tango”) are intercut with shots of (what else?) Beetles. Equally ill-conceived is the Reinhard Lakomy video of his song, “Liebe im Wald” (“Love in the Forest”). Lakomy, with his denim outfit, Prell-girl hair, oval shades, and droopy moustache was the perfect East German hipster circa 1977. His appearance was so readily identifiable that Nina Hagen once parodied him on East German television. In the video we see Lakomy, in his usual garb, trying to seduce a woman dressed like Marie Antoinette. Why she is dressed like this is never explained. The action in the video follows the song lyrics and is amusing, but it’s not one of Lakomy’s better tunes.
The most curious aspect of DEFA Disko 77 is how aggressively cluttered and ill-composed each musical sequence is. Scenes are filled with gantries, light poles, desks, and stagehands. In the video for the rock group Karat’s song, “Charlie,” a complex dance number is made nearly unwatchable by the camera’s constant movement around the perimeter of room. As the camera circles, dozens of people working at desks obscure the view. The end result looks like it was shot from the perspective of a small child trying to catch a glimpse of a parade between the legs of the adults. To make matters worse, the band performs on a balcony three floors up while the camera stays at ground level, constantly circling around the building, as if trying to figure out where the music is coming from. Still, this is the only video in which a couple is actually dressed as if they are going to a disco. Everyone else on the dance floor, however, is dressed in a crazy variety of outfits, including some that look suspiciously like the spacesuits from In the Dust of the Stars.
Responsibility for this film’s maddeningly anti-aesthetic appearance has to be laid at the feet of Werner W. Wallroth, the same director who gave us, the Gojko Mitic/Dean Reed Indianerfilm, Blood Brothers. Wallroth, by 1977, had made a dozen movies for cinema and television, so we can assume that he was intentionally avoiding traditional aesthetics, perhaps in an attempt to create a more spontaneous look and feel. Whether he succeeds or not is up to the viewer, but he is clearly throwing out a lot of the rules of traditional filmmaking. Nearly every musical number in this film is approached from a contrarian’s perspective. Angelika Mann’s song “Bei den sieben Zwergen” (“With the Seven Dwarves”), for instance, takes the Snow White story of the Brothers Grimm and inverts it with Snow White substantially shorter than any of the so-called dwarves.
Conspicuous by their absence from the film are Nina Hagen and the rock band, Renft. Nina Hagen had left the country a few months before the film was released. A year earlier, her step-father, Wolf Biermann, was singing at a concert in Cologne when the GDR officials let it be known that he was not welcome back into the GDR (Biermann had been born in Hamburg, so he was, by birth, a West German). Although very much a socialist, his songs attacking the stagnation occurring in the upper ranks of the SED were seen as a threat to the authorities. Biermann’s wife, the popular East German actress, Eva-Marie Hagen, and her daughter Nina petitioned to be allowed to join Biermann in the west. Nina let it be know that if not allowed to join him, she would replace him as the voice of protest in the GDR. After some hemming and hawing, the authorities finally agreed to let the two woman leave the country. By 1977, the young Nina was already one of the GDR’s most successful singers. Back then, she was cute as a button and tended to sing novelty songs about sneezing and tango dancing. Her most famous song from this period was “Du has dein Farbfilm vergessen” (“You forgot the color film”), sung from the perspective of a woman who is really, really pissed at her boyfriend (husband?) for using black-and-white film during their vacation.
Renft, on the other hand, had been banned before the Biermann debacle. The band, led by singer/bass guitarist Klaus Renft, was one of the better rock bands in the GDR, but their lyrics, mostly penned by singer Gerulf Pannach, often ran afoul of the authorities with their challenges to the status quo. Finally, in 1975, the government decided to solve the problem by erasing all evidence that the band ever existed. Renft LPs were removed from stores and from playlists, both past and present. Two of the members were imprisoned for nine months at the infamous Stasi prison in Alt-Hohenschönhausen. This tactic did succeed in breaking up the band (temporarily), but did little to diminish interest in them. If anything, it turned them into icons of change and challenge, and gave them a cult underground following. The verboten Renft LPs became highly sought after items on the East German black market. After the Wende, the band got back together. Since that time, several of the original members (including Klaus Renft) have died, but the band continues to perform.
But the biggest star missing from the DEFA Disko 77 line-up is Frank Schöbel. Schöbel was on top of the pops in 1977, but for whatever reason (perhaps some reader can enlighten me) he does not appear in this film. His ex-wife, Chris Doerk, is here, along with Dorit Gäbler, who appeared with Doerk and Schöbel in Nicht schummeln, Liebling: the follow-up to Hot Summer, and their last feature film together. This was around the time that Schöbel and Doerk broke up, so perhaps that was a factor in his absence from this film.
In a way, DEFA Disko 77 works as a metaphor for the state of East Germany in 1977. The film starts with punchy rock numbers that, while not really disco, come closer to fulfilling the film’s title than the later numbers. By the final sequence, the film has drifted so far from the stated goal that it must have left audiences confused. The introductory black-and-white sequences are often shot with hand-held cameras from behind balcony railings, and around corners. These scenes, reminiscent of surveillance videos, make it look like the camera is spying on the performers and can’t help but make one think of the Stasi, who undoubtedly were busy making similar videos of everyone involved with this film at that time. It is hard to believe that this is unintentional, but it is handled so innocuously that it got by the censors.
The final number is the most telling of all. To close out things, the filmmakers chose a song by Dorit Gäbler and Wolfgang Wallroth titled “Es wird bald Frühling sein” (“It will be spring soon”). Musically, this is a fairly standard German schlager, so why was this song chosen to close the movie? The fact that Wolfgang Wallroth was the director’s brother might have had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, it leaves the movie in a strange place. Finishing things in a downward arc that takes us from an experimental beginning to traditional German music at the end, as if to say, this is the path we’re taking as we march forward into the past. The song talks about how things are about to get better, but the visual information belies this sentiment. The duo sings in a house where all the snow is falling on the inside, trapping them in a wintry world. Later, we see the same duo, now hobos, walking along the train tracks, still chipper, but poorer. Interspersed throughout the video is scene in a junkyard that is slowly being covered with vinyl stick-on flowers. No matter how many flowers are added to the landscape, we never escape the fact that it is still a junkyard. Was the director trying to tell us something? Unfortunately, we may ever know. Werner W. Wallroth died a few months ago (August 9, 2011) in Erfurt.
Two months after DEFA Disko 77 played in the East German movie houses, The TV show Disco ‘77 aired in the United States. Disco ‘77 was the first nationally syndicated show devoted to disco music and was hosted by Randy Jones, better known as the cowboy from The Village People. Any similarity between the East German film and the American TV show, though, is not merely coincidental—it is non-existent.
DEFA Disko 77 is not currently available in the United States.