Epic is not a term one often uses with East German movies. As a rule, the films of DEFA keep to a human scale, charting life’s courses for ordinary people. Even the Märchenfilme (fairy tale films), while often dealing with fantastical kingdoms and imaginary worlds, keep the scale down to everyday proportions. But Goya or the Hard Road to Enlightenment (Goya – oder der arge Weg der Erkenntnis) is an epic. Its scale is huge and its sets are opulent. Using the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, Goya is shot in eye-busting color on 70mm film, with over 3,000 costumes, and locations in four different countries. Goya’s artwork was carefully reproduced by master artists, and an actual antique press was found to recreate the production of his Caprichos, right down to the recreation of the copper etching plates and hand-made paper.

From the opening moments of this film you know you are in for something different from any other film that ever came out of the GDR. Over somber chanting, a religious procession moves through a street in Spain. Some of the people in the procession wear white robes and capirotes, looking for all the world like members of the Ku Klux Klan. Others wear the same outfits in black. Men, stripped to the waist, their faces covered in white cloth, flagellate themselves as they walk in the procession, moaning in pain and religious ecstasy. Along the way, people kneel and make the sign of the cross as the statues of Jesus on the cross and the Virgin Mary trundle by in wooden carts.

To cast the film, director Konrad Wolf chose actors from seven countries, from Russia to Spain. Donatas Banionis, who played Goya, hailed from Lithuania, while Olivera Katarina, who played the sexually rapacious Duchess of Alba, came from Yugoslavia; Tatyana Lolova, who played Queen Maria Luisa was from Bulgaria, and Charles IV was played by the popular East German actor, Rolf Hoppe. To ensure the best possible performances from everyone, actors played their parts in their native languages. The set for this film must have sounded like the lobby at the United Nations.

Since the government of Francisco Franco was not exactly on speaking terms with the GDR, Wolf could not film in Spain, so the back streets of Dubrovnik were used instead. To add a more authentic flavor to the film, a film crew made up of West Germans was assembled and sent to Spain. Supposedly, this team was there to make a documentary about bullfighting, but they were really working for DEFA, shooting the movie’s bullfight sequence.

The film is based on Lion Feuchtwanger’s book about Goya, chronicling the years in the painter’s life when he went from a celebrated court painter to an enemy of the church—roughly from 1789 to 1803. At the beginning of the story, Goya is perfectly happy to be a pawn in the game that people in power played with the public. It is only after a series of tragic events that he comes to realize that these people are not worthy of admiration and he begins to evolve as a painter. Lion Feuchtwanger wrote the book in response to the anti-communist trials that were being held by Senator Joseph McCarthy in Washington. Feuchtwanger also revisited the story of Jud Süß. Jud Süß is the second book based on the story of Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, the Jewish financial planner for Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg in Stuttgart. The famous German fairy tale writer, Wilhelm Hauff had written a version of the story back in 1827. Feuchtwanger considered Hauff’s book “naively anti-Semitic” and set about to fix the flaws he saw in Hauff’s version. Feuchtwanger’s version was first published in 1925 and was a huge hit in Germany. So much so that the Nazis felt compelled to ban the book and make a film based on the Wilhelm Hauff book that challenged nearly every detail in the Feuchtwanger book.* In Feuchtwanger’s book, it is Joseph Süß Oppenheimer’s daughter who is raped and killed by the Duke, while in the movie, Oppenheimer is the rapist. Although he lived in the United States, Feuchtwanger was especially popular in East Germany, partly due, no doubt, to his defense of Stalin in his book, Moscow 1937. Feuchtwanger died in 1958 in Southern California and his works were donated to USC create a Feuchtwanger library.

As a director, Konrad Wolf is a hard man to pin down. A quick look at his list of films demonstrates his versatility, but it also makes it impossible for proponents of the auteur school film criticism to pigeonhole him. Some of his films are small and intimate, some are gritty, some are grand. That is, perhaps the point. Wolf was a communist director working in a communist system in a communist way. Nearly everyone involved in making Wolf’s films had a say in the production, giving the cinematographer, composer, actors, screenwriter, and editor nearly as much influence as the director. Fans of the Hollywood’s bloated egomaniacs are not going to find much to like about someone like Wolf, who managed to keep his personal life out of his films (the key exceptions being I Was Nineteen, which is literally about his own experiences during WWII, and Professor Mamlock, which is based on a play by his father). Anyone who thinks they’ve got a pretty good handle on Wolf’s style after watching his first ten movies will be blindsided by Goya. It is like nothing he ever did before and like nothing he did after. It is majestic, intense, and unsentimental.

The film that it is intended as much as a criticism of government repression as it is as a story about eighteenth-century Spain. In an interview that is included on the DVD, the screenwriter, Angel Vagenshtain (author of Stars), admits this, but says that they weren’t as clever as they thought when it came to hiding this intention. As a co-production with Russia, the film was screened in advance in Moscow. The Russian official who screened the film asked that the final lines in the film—where the Inquisitor General of the Spanish Inquisition states that the name of Goya would be forever stricken from the records and forgotten by history—be removed from the film. Having recently made a similar pronouncement about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his work, they weren’t too happy about this inevitable comparison. To his credit, Wolf refused to remove the lines. Had it been any other director, this refusal would have either been ignored, or the film would have ended up on a shelf alongside the films of the 11th Plenum, but Wolf got away with more than most directors in East Germany. This was in part due to the fact that his father was one of the most-well respected playwrights in the world (and especially in Russia where he was exiled during WWII), but was mostly because his brother, with whom he was very close, was the head of the Stasi’s foreign intelligence division. Like J. Edgar Hoover, Markus Wolf was a man of such power that even government officials trod lightly around him (it was long believed that he was the blueprint for John Le Carré’s communist spymaster, Karla, although Le Carré denied this). Considering how often Konrad Wolf pushed the boundaries—most notably with Divided Heaven and Solo Sunny—there is a suggestion of truth to this.

Lithuanian actor, Donatas Banionis, was already known in the eastern bloc countries for his work in films such as, Watch Out for the Automobile (Beregis avtomobilya) and a Lithuanian version of The Little Prince (Malenkiy prints). He first achieved a measure of international recognition when he appeared in The Red Tent (Krasnaya palatka), the last film made by the brilliant Russian director, Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes are Flying, I Am Cuba). But Banionis would become best known to western audiences as Kris Kelvin in Tarkovsky’s classic, Solaris. Also, it is reported that it was his portrayal of a spy in The Dead Season (Myortvyy sezon) that convinced Vladimer Putin to join the KGB. Banionis would return to DEFA to play yet another deaf genius in Horst Seemann’s Beethoven: Tage aus einem Leben (Beethoven: Days in a Life), and he would work again with Konrad Wolf in Mama, ich lebe  (Mama, I’m Alive). One of his most unusual roles was in the Russian TV-movie, Poka ya ne umer (Before I Die), in which he portrays the corpulent New York detective, Nero Wolfe. Banionas makes a good Goya, passionate and confused, quixotic and vain, yet still sympathetic.

But it was lead actress, Olivera Katarina, who was best known to western audiences at the time. She had appeared a year earlier in the West German horror film, Mark of the Devil (Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält) under the name Olivera Vučo. Mark of the Devil was a big hit with the grindhouse crowd in America, in part because of its explicit scenes of torture, but mostly thanks to its exploitation advertising campaign which included barf bags handed out with each ticket in case an audience member couldn’t take the gore. Ms. Katarina was already an extremely popular singer and actress in Yugoslavia She starred in in the Aleksandar Petrovic’s Skupljaci perja (I Even Met Happy Gypsies), which featured both her singing and her acting. She sang songs in a variety of languages, including many gypsy tunes, and the Serbian folk songs of her native land. In 1984, when the relationships between the various states in Yugoslavia started to heat up, the Yugoslavian government decided that her songs were too nationalistic, she was quietly blacklisted and made no further albums until 1999. Today, a remarkable number of her songs are available in video form on YouTube. She continues to perform, and has her own website.

Although Goya contains no songs by Ms. Katarina, it does contain a couple wonderful numbers by Carmen Herold, who plays the folksinger, Maria Rosario Gomez. Ms. Herold sings in Spanish, and in the few scenes where she speaks, she seems to be speaking Spanish, but there is very little information available on this wonderful singer. Goya appears to be her only film, and her name does not turn up in any sources I could find outside of references to this movie. She has a remarkable face and a powerful singing voice, and she deserves more fame than she has received.

The music for the film was composed by the Azerbaijani composers Kara Karayev and his son, Faradsh. The Karayevs were trained as classical musicians, and Goya has an outstanding score. It could be played by an orchestra without any reference to the film and it would impress people. It is richly textured and classically structured, while at the same time experimental with many unexpected touches, such as the frenetic solo organ piece used to reflect Goya’s inner turmoil. The elder Karayev wrote over 100 pieces of music, including ballets, symphonies, and chamber pieces. Today, his work is still performed around the world and an annual festival in his honor is held every April in Baku, Azerbaijan. Goya was one of his last film scores. He died in 1982. Faradsh Karayev has gone on to become a well-respected composer in his own right, having composed almost as many pieces as his father at this point.

As with most of Konrad Wolf’s films—at least until Solo Sunny—the cinematographer was Werner Bergmann. This time, however, he was assisted by the Russian cinematographer, Konstantin Ryzhov. These two men have very different styles of filming. Bergmann often used a freer, hand-held technique. This was especially impressive considering he had lost one arm during the war. To compensate, Bergmann devised a special sling mount for his camera. Ryzhov, on the other had, seemed to prefer the more traditional, tripod-mounted approach, which was particularly well-suited to convey the opulence of the ballroom scenes. It is fun to watch the film with this in mind and try and guess which cinematographer handled which scenes.

Cinematography was not the only technical aspect handled by a tag team. Costume design, production design, and many of the other tech credits appear to be split almost evenly between East Germans and Russians. This wouldn’t have been a problem for Wolf. Having spent his formative years in exile in Russia, he spoke that language better than his native German. One credit that did not have shared billing was the editor. As always, Wolf used a woman editor, but this time it was Russian film editor, Aleksandra Borovskaya. It is the only time he worked with Ms. Borovskaya. On his previous film, I Was Nineteen, Wolf used the talented editor Evelyn Carow, and returned to her after Goya for all his subsequent films. How well or badly he meshed with Ms. Borovskaya, is not known, but he obviously was not predisposed to work with her again.

As an example of Wolf’s directing, of a DEFA film, or any other yardstick you care to use, Goya stands apart from the other films in the DEFA library. It is powerful and grand, and does a good job of portraying the turbulent times in which Goya lived. Its attention to detail is remarkable, with an accuracy that Hollywood seldom attempts.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

* Feuchtwanger was on the Nazi’s enemy list even before they came to power because of his book Erfolg (Success), a fictional account of the rise and fall of a dictator who very much resembled Adolph Hitler. Within a year after Hitler was elected Chancellor, the first of many lists was published announcing the expatriation of undesirable German citizens. He was included on the first list of 33 citizens, alongside Heinrich Mann (author of The Kaiser’s Lackey), and future president of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck.

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