Motoring Tales is the title translation used for this film by both the DEFA library at UMass Amherst and Progress Film-Verleih in Germany. The actual title, Automärchen, works better in German. They could have just as easily called it Car Fables, or Auto Stories. If I were a lazy film critic/studio marketing wonk, I would be tempted to describe this movie as “Rumpelstiltskin meets Mad Max,” or “J.G. Ballard meets the Brothers Grimm” It is one odd little film. It is based on a novella by the Czech writer, Jiří Marek, who was better known in East Germany for his Prague-based detective stories. Here, he takes classic fairytale concepts, moves them into the modern world, and puts them on the road.
Motoring Tales is an anthology movie consisting of three main stories. The stories center around a garage visited by the people in the stories. In the first story, a milquetoast in a Trabant gives a ride to a forest fairy with a need for speed. The fairy uses her magic to make the Trabant go like a bat out of hell; a concept that probably caused great mirth among Trabi owners everywhere. Next, a man sells his soul for the gaudiest, most outrageous car imaginable, but—as is always the case—selling one’s soul is never a good idea. And in the final story, the owner of the garage is visited by the personification of automobile accidents who offers to help the garage owner collect spare parts by letting him know when accidents are about to happen. Tying this all together are the daily events at the garage and the relationship between garage owner “Kalle” Sengebusch and his shaggy-haired mechanic, Ali Kuslowski, who has a thing for the garage owner’s daughter. Ali also acts as the narrator of the film, addressing the audience directly between stories.
Jiří Marek, was a member of the Communist Party in Prague, and these stories have strong socialist messages. The characters that pursue western materialism fare worse than those who turn away from things like profit and status. The most pronounced example of this is in the second story, where the man is made penniless by his automobile and is eventually consumed by it. Curiously, a year or two before this film was made, there was a Czechoslovakian film titled Ferat Vampire (Upír z Feratu) about a Škoda sports car that drinks human blood (starring Václav Havel’s wife!). Clearly the Czechs either hold a dim view of the western man’s love affair with the car, or are as obsessed with them as we are (evidence points to the latter).
Motoring Tales was directed by Erwin Stranka, who had a special knack for contemporary fairy tales and the problems of young people growing up in East Germany. With films such as Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality), Sabine Wulff, Insel der Schwäne (Swan Island) and Zwei schräge Vögel (Two Odd Birds), Stranka explored the lives of social misfits in a world that didn’t care much for that concept. Stranka might have continued making films after the wall came down, but a stroke the same year that Germany was reunited effectively ended his career as a director.
The garage owner was played by Kurt Böwe, one of East Germany’s most successful actors. Born in Gülitz-Reetz in 1929, Böwe moved to Berlin after the war and began studying theater at the Humboldt University of Berlin. After finishing his studies, he worked as a teaching assistant at the the university for six years, while acting in the student theater. Horst Schönemann, the director at the theater convinced Böwe to pursue a career, and for the next few years, Böwe appeared in theater productions at various theaters in Berlin. During the sixties, he moved from the stage to the screen, at first appearing in TV movies and later in bit parts in feature films. His first starring role in a feature film came with Konrad Wolf’s Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (The Naked Man on the Athletic Field). Unlike many of his East German compatriots, Böwe’s career did not suffer a work lag after the wall came down. He continued working, primarily in television and is better known today for his role as Kommissar Kurt Groth on the popular crime drama Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110).
The production design is by Paul Lehmann, whose work ranges from science fiction (The Silent Star) to Indianerfilme (The Sons of the Great Bear and Trail of the Falcon). Lehmann got his start as a set builder in the mid-fifties, moving on to art direction with Günter Reisch’s Maibowle (May Punch) and production design on that film’s colorful follow up, Silversterpunsch (New Year’s Punch). His work on Motoring Tales is mostly logical and mundane, with the notable exception of the devil car in the second story. This mauve monstrosity is like nothing you’ll ever see, and is as important a character in the film as any of the actors. Sadly, the credits offer no information as to who actually built the thing (possibly set builders, Regine Fritzsche and Jutta Blume). I can’t help but hope that the car still exists, rusting away on a plot of land in rural Brandenburg.
Motoring Tales was made during the final decade of East Germany’s existence Starting in 1978, filmmaking in the GDR took an interesting turn. From 1946 through 1977, the film community in the GDR was subjected to repeated clamp downs on creativity, followed by periods of relative freedom. These restriction relaxations usually ended with the state coming down hard on the filmmakers again. Like a battered wife who has been repeatedly hit and apologized to, filmmakers began to exhibit the odd combination of timidity and rebellion. Things at DEFA got stranger. This was kicked off in 1978 with the release of the psychedelic oddity, In the Dust of the Stars, and the still shocking TV-movie, Ursula (more on this one at a later date). Films during this period seem less beholding to western aesthetics than those of the previous decades. Some films were still banned (e.g., Jadup und Boel), but other equally challenging films (e.g., Your Unknown Brother) made it to the movie houses. Even Konrad Wolf—who had managed to avoid much of the censorship that his compatriots experienced—pushed things further than ever with his classic Solo Sunny.
Motoring Tales was the perfect film for this era. It manages to be simultaneously bizarre and communistic, and no doubt left the authorities scratching their heads. The word Märchen (fairy tale) in the title probably helped get it onto movie screens—the Märchenfilm was the one genre that the authorities allowed a certain level of frivolity. But in Motoring Tales that fairy-tale frivolity is tempered by a darker view of mankind. Bad things happen, but they are handled so humorously that it they go by almost unnoticed: a woman is blown-up, people die in car accidents, and a man is eaten alive. Alternately dark, clever, didactic, and goofy, Motoring Tales has enough of surprises to keep any fan of oddball cinema entertained.
This film is not currently for sale in the United States.