Communist musicals are in a class by themselves. So much so that in 1997, filmmaker Dana Ranga made them the subject of her fascinating documentary East Side Story—required viewing for anyone interested in the films of the GDR or other Eastern Bloc countries. In a world as grim and gray as East Germany could be, the colorful happiness and tuneful joy of the musicals exploded like psychedelic bombs on the movie screens of the former republic. Small wonder that they tended to pack people in. Right from the get-go the authorities didn’t think much of these happy, lighthearted features, but they made money, and even in an aggressively anti-capitalistic place like the GDR, money talked.
For a long time, DEFA had no intention of producing anything as frivolous as a musical, but the immense popularity of the DEFA Märchenfilme (fairytale films), which were made for East German children, but went on to become popular all over the world, helped pave the way for opera films (e.g., Zar und Zimmermann), which, in turn, opened the door for the modern musical.
In 1958, DEFA finally decided to give musicals a chance after a report showed that people in East Berlin would often cross the border to see the musicals playing in the western sector. Hollywood extravaganzas and their West German counterparts (most notably, the films of Marika Rökk) were filling West Berlin’s cinemas. DEFA decided to fight fire with fire. It was decided that as long as it didn’t contravene socialist values, a musical might be okay.
West Berliner Hans Heinrich—who had already directed the popular DEFA barge films, Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Happy Barge Crew) and Alter Kahn und junge Liebe (Old Barge, Young Love)—submitted a proposal for a musical to DEFA and it was accepted. The film My Wife Wants to Sing was promptly shelved, but the popularity of the music, which was released as an LP, led the authorities to rethink this plan, eventually releasing the film, although changing some of the music (more on this in a future post).
But throughout the fifties, the DEFA authorities remained wary of the musical genre. As a rule, song-and-dance numbers had to be incorporated in a semi-realistic fashion into the stories. For this reason, two of the more popular films from this period were Maibowle (The Punch Bowl) and its even more popular sequel, New Year’s Eve Punch, in which the musical numbers are parts of shows put on by the workers at a chemical plant. Never mind that, like their American counterparts, these musical numbers defied the realistic limitations of stage production.
After the Berlin Wall went up, the East German government was anxious to show that, if anything, the newly constructed “Anti-fascist Protection Barrier” (Antifaschistischer Schutzwall) would lead to greater creative freedom in the GDR. They started to greenlight movies that only a year earlier would not have gotten past the proposal stage. Films became more experimental and daring. This was the golden age of East German cinema—at least until the 11th Plenum in 1965 brought the renaissance to a screeching halt.
Into this new climate walked Gottfried Kolditz; one of the best directors to come out of East Germany. After studying at the University of Music and Theatre in Leipzig, Kolditz came to DEFA as a musical consultant for the films Mazurka der Liebe (Mazurka of Love), and Zar und Zimmermann (Tzar and Carpenter). He began his directing career as a member of the Stacheltier Group, which specialized in creating short films to play before the features. The Stacheltier Group created only one feature-length movie, Der junge Engländer (The Young Englishman) and it was directed by Kolditz. From there, Kolditz started directing features, mostly Märchenfilme. Over the years, Kolditz became DEFA’s go-to guy for genre films, directing musicals (Midnight Revue and Beloved White Mouse), Indianerfilme (Apaches and Ulzana), and science fiction (Signals and In the Dust of the Stars). With the exception of the Indianerfilme, Kolditz usually managed to get insert a musical number or two into his movies. The man clearly loved music.
Midnight Revue wastes no time letting us know that we are watching a musical. It starts with the smoky-voiced French chanteuse, Nicole Felix, singing about the “shadows of the past” (Das ist die Schatten der Vergangenheit) while suspiciously clandestine activities are going on in the next room. Activities that, as the song suggests, really were shadows of the past, when the cold war was raging across the porous border. Within the first half-hour of the film, we’ve been treated to a can-can, a hula dance (with East German women painted brown with what looks like shoe polish), and a Busby Berkeley-style number that includes women tap-dancing on pianos and playing accordions in tutus. Even if you don’t speak a word of German, the first half hour will keep you entertained.
The plot of the film involves the kidnapping of three prominent men in the film industry: an art director, a composer, and a dramaturge (a very important job at DEFA; see the Glossary for more information). It turns out that they are kidnapped by producer Otto Kruse, who wants to make a socialist musical; a kind of cavalcade of musical styles—in other words, the very film we are watching. The idea is to hold these men hostage and convince them to work on the film. Their response to this demand is that making such a film would be too difficult, too expensive, and too politically risky. “Too hot,” they sing (Zu Heiß). Associate producer Theo, and Kruse’s assistant, Claudia Glück, try to convince the men that a revue film is a great idea by conceptualizing various scenarios, which then come to life in the room, but to no avail. The men refuse to budge.
A fourth man—writer Paul Bielack—was also supposed to be kidnapped, but, unlike the other three, he knew of Kruse’s plan and sent his friend, an aspiring singer-songwriter named Alexander Ritter, in his place. Ritter is the only one of the four kidnapped men who thinks a revue film is a great idea, and immediately contributes his own ideas to the project. What no one knows is that Ritter had been lusting after Claudia Glück already. Immediately, sparks start to fly between Ritter and Glück. Ms. Glück thinks Ritter is arrogant and childish. He is, in her words, a halbfertiger Mensch (“half-finished man”). This comment really seems to upset Mr. Ritter (like most Germans, he doesn’t like anything half-finished). At this point, anyone who has seen more than one romantic comedy will realize that the these two will eventually get together, but not before a few more kidnappings, deceptions, and misunderstandings.
Playing Alexander Ritter is Manfred Krug, one of East Germany’s most multi-talented actors (see The Trace of Stones for more on Krug). Krug had already made a name for himself as an actor in the popular films Five Cartridges, Professor Mamlock, and Star-Crossed Lovers, but he first showed his talent as both a singer and an actor in On the Sunny Side, a film that parallels his own life in many ways. With Midnight Revue, he gets to unleash everything in his arsenal, except maybe his ability to play several different people in one movie. That would have to wait for Not To Me, Madam!, in which he portrays nine different people.
Playing opposite Krug as production assistant Claudia Glück is Christel Bodenstein. The public first saw Ms. Bodenstein as Traute in the Märchenfilm, Das tapfere Schneiderlein (The Valiant Tailor), but it was her turn as the arrogant princess in The Singing, Ringing Tree that she really caught people’s attention. A West German by birth, Ms. Bodenstein moved to Leipzig with her mother in 1949, where she enrolled in the Leipzig Opera ballet school. When she was 17, a chance meeting with director Kurt Maetzig at a Baltic resort led to a screen test for DEFA. She then moved from Leipzig and began studying acting at the Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam. Shortly afterward, she was cast in Slatan Dudow’s Der Hauptmann von Köln (The Captain from Cologne). From 1960 until 1978, she was married to director Konrad Wolf. As with many other East German actors, she did very little in film and television after the Wende, turning her attentions instead to theater. Over the past few years, she has been working as a sculptor, with her work appearing in galleries in the Berlin area. In 2016, she made a cameo appearance in the made-for-TV remake of The Singing, Ringing Tree.
Although Krug and Bodenstein had appeared once before in the same film (Bevor der Blitz einschlägt), this was the first time they were paired as a romantic couple and it seemed to work. They were paired up twice more within a year (Minna von Barnhelm and Beschreibung eines Sommers). Christel Bodenstein is the classic example of the “triple-threat”—that rare individual who can act, sing, and dance. And while Krug isn’t the hoofer that Ms. Bodenstein is, he can hold his own against her in the other two categories.
The music for the film is by Gerd Natschinski, who had worked with Gottfried Kolditz before on Mazurka der Liebe. Along with Gunther Fischer and Karl-Ernst Sasse (who is credited in Midnight Revue as the conductor of the DEFA Symphony Orchestra), Natschinski is one of East Germany’s most prolific composers. He wrote much of the music for Meine Frau Macht Musik, but is best remembered for the relentlessly infectious songs in Hot Summer. After Midnight Revue, Natschinski turned to the stage, writing the music for Mein Freund Bunbury (My Friend Bunbury), East Germany’s first theatrical musical. He could also turn in a good dramatic score, as he did for Joachim Hasler’s excellent The Story of a Murder.
No discussion Midnight Revue would be complete without mentioning the colorful camerawork of its cinematographer, Erich Gusko. Along with Werner Bergmann, Joachim Hasler, and Günter Marczinkowsky, Gusko was one of DEFA’s most respected cinematographers. He got his start in 1955, working alongside Joachim Hasler on Richard Groschopp’s 52 Wochen sind ein Jahr (52 Weeks Make a Year). Over the years, he worked on many excellent DEFA movies, including The Rabbit is Me, Lotte in Weimar, and Her Third. His work in various Märchenfilme and in Midnight Revue are especially vivid, taking full advantage of the eye-bleeding colors available to East Germany’s Agfacolor (later renamed ORWOcolor because of a copyright dispute with West Germany).
Also deserving of mention are Hans Kieselbach and Helga Scherff, who created the costumes for the film. Although Kieselbach did his first costume design in 1940, for the film Traummusik (Dream Music), that was his only effort under the Third Reich. His career began in earnest in 1948 with DEFA’s first science fiction film, Chemistry and Love. Midnight Revue was his last film. Helga Scherff, on the other hand, was in the middle of her career with this film. She was the costume designer for Konrad Wolf’s first film Einmal ist keinmal (Once Doesn’t Count), the first of Gerhad Klein’s Berlin trilogy, Alarm at the Circus, Frank Beyer’s Carbide and Sorrel, and Kurt Barthel’s ill-fated Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly). The costumes in Midnight Revue cover the gamut. The clothing worn by the characters is stylish and modern, and the outfits worn by the dancers are as outrageously colorful as they should be. Between the costumes and the cinematography, the film matches the visual overload of The Red Shoes and The Girl Can’t Help It (probably the only time in history these two movies end up in the same sentence).
Finally, no discussion of this film would be complete without talking about its production designer, Alfred Tolle. Tolle’s career at DEFA began with Heart of Stone, the first East German Märchenfilm. From there he went on to do the production design/art direction for several more Märchenfilme, as well as a few classics from the DEFA catalog, including Einmal ist Keinmal, On the Sunny Side, and The Story of a Murder. His last film was Joachim Hasler’s Hot Summer. Always imaginative, Tolle gets to explore his inner Busby Berkeley in Midnight Revue with a giant piano keyboard, a three-story cupboard filled with women playing musical instruments, and a stylized blueprint come to life. Working with him as a set builder on the film was Werner Pieske, who went on to become a successful production designer in his own right. Pieske got his start as a feature film production designer with Gottfried Kolditz on Frau Holle (Mrs. Holly) and Beloved White Mouse. He was one of the people responsible for the look of Herrmann Zschoche’s oddball space opera, Eolomea. Toward the latter half of the seventies until the Wende, he worked primarily in television. He was also the production designer for Gottfried Kolditz’s last film, the heavily criticized Das Ding im Schloß (The Thing in the Castle). His career ended with the Wende. He died in 1992.
Beginning a movie with the kidnapping of three people is startling even today, but back then—after several reported incidences of East German spies snatching people off the streets of West Berlin before the wall went up—it must have hit close to home. Follow these scenes with one in which three experts tell us exactly why the very film we are watching can never be made. The public must have been as amused as the authorities were nonplussed. Like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges—who discovered that through comedy you could skirt the Hayes Code—Kolditz uses humor to go places that no other East German filmmaker dared. As a document of its time, Midnight Revue is unique. It shows an East Germany that is moving toward the future with with hope and enthusiasm. Within a couple years, there would be no way this film could have been made. It broke every rule in the socialist book. Even after Erich Honecker relaxed the restrictions on film imposed by the SED at the 11th Plenum, it would be years before DEFA got back to this level of imagination and style, and even then, the buoyant vivacity of this film and Kolditiz’s other pre-Plenum musical, Beloved White Mouse, would never be matched.