While the rest of the world was undergoing huge cultural upheavals, East Germany’s leaders were busy battening down the hatches, shutting the windows, and stuffing cotton in their collective ears; anything to avoid acknowledging that somewhere between 1965 and 1971 the world had changed completely. The politicians in the GDR got a glimpse of these changes during the first half of the sixties, when the filmmakers at DEFA were pushing the boundaries with imaginative and daring films. Things were changing fast; too fast for the Soviet Union, and as the USSR went, the GDR followed. At the 11th Plenum in December of 1965, the authorities yanked the rug out from under the filmmakers at DEFA. After that, virtually any film that showed the slightest bit of criticism toward the “socialist way of life” was boxed up and shelved. For the most part, films became safer and less controversial. This wasn’t always a bad thing. It did help establish the development of genre pictures such as Chingachgook, The Great Snake and Hot Summer, but it also made it almost impossible for thoughtful, topical films to get produced. If filmmakers wanted to say something about the state of the things in the GDR, they had to do it in subtlest possible way. Some filmmakers took up the challenge. It was during this period that Egon Günther made Abschied (Farewell), a visually-stunning film based on Johannes R. Becher’s 1940 anti-war novel, but that was Egon Günther, a man who spent his entire career at DEFA pushing the boundaries. Few others were as willing to poke the bear.
Into this environment walked Rolf Römer, an actor who had already made a name for himself as Gojko Mitic’s sidekick in the popular Indianerfilme, Sons of the Great Bear, and Chingachgook, The Great Snake. Römer was given the greenlight to write and direct Hey You!, a film about the budding romance between Ellen Volkmann, a sophisticated, idealistic young teacher, and Frank Rothe, the rough-and-tumble foreman of a construction gang; a sort-of Lady and the Tramp story about the love between two people from opposite sides of the tracks.
The problem was that East Germany prided itself on not having these sorts of class divisions. It was written into its constitution. Nonetheless, the distinctions were there. Most people fell into one of three groups: the political elite, the intelligentsia, and the proletariat. Over time, these distinctions became more and more stratified. Everyone knew it, but nobody talked about it; at least not in public. Had Hey You! confronted this issue head on it would have ended up half-finished on a shelf next to Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly) and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam). Instead, by pretending these distinctions aren’t an issue, it emphasizes their existence.
Even this might have provoked the authorities, but Römer keeps the pressure off the GDR by focusing on the injustices elsewhere. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Bahamian-Danish singer Etta Cameron sings “Jungle City USA,” a song about the difficulties of being black in America. Having spent much of her childhood in the U.S., Ms. Cameron certainly was in position to talk about this, but she could probably have said a few things about East Germany as well. She came to that country in 1967 for what was supposed to be a few days of work, but she carelessly threw away her exit visa. As you can imagine, not having your papers in a country that controlled its borders as assiduously as East Germany could be a recipe for disaster. She spent the next five years behind the Iron Curtain. While there, she appeared in two movies (Mit mir nicht Madam! and Hey You!), and sang in another (Osceola). When she finally got out, she headed to Denmark, where she spent the rest of her life. In her later years, she was a judge on Scenen er din, the Danish version of Star Search. She died in 2010.
If Römer was consciously emphasizing the stratification of East German society by pretending it didn’t exist, the message went over the heads of the film critics. The popular East German film reviewer, Renate Holland-Moritz, in her Kino-Eule column in Eulenspiegel magazine, thought that, although the film did touch on important subjects, it shied away from the bigger issues. The Catholic film magazine, Film-dienst, found the film mainly interesting as a time capsule, and there is some truth to this. As a chronicle of the aesthetics of 1970 East Germany it is hard to beat. Anyone interested in design will find in this film a treasure trove of kitchenware, furniture, architecture, clothing, and automobiles. The only other film that comes close is Römer’s 1976 film Hostess. In both films, Römer pegs the story to its point in time with his attention to the details. it is interesting to compare the two films. Only six years apart, and yet their aesthetics are completely different (it doesn’t hurt that one film is in color and the other is in black-and-white).
Römer got his start in movies as a character actor in the late fifties. He was slated for his big break with a starring role the 1965 film Born in ‘45, but the film was shelved after the 11th Plenum. Römer was a revolutionary at heart, and a socialist one at that. In a September 1965 interview for Junge Welt, the newspaper of the FDJ (East Germany’s government sponsored youth group), he said he was proud of his group at DEFA for their fight against “lazy mediocrity, cowardice, stupidity, the politically inflexible” (“gegen jedes faule Mittelmaß, gegen Feigheit, Dummheit, gegen das ewig Gestrige und ,dürfen wir das”). Two months later, the doors closed on this kind of thinking, but Römer kept the faith, subtly examining East German society in a series of comedies and seemingly lighthearted films.
As one of the people who protested the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, Römer didn’t make any friends in the government, but it was his script for the popular East German cop show, Polizeiruf 110 that brought his career to a standstill. After that, he did some voiceover work and eventually started appearing in TV movies, but his career was effectively over.
After the Wende, Römer found it impossible to get his scripts produced. His benevolent socialism was no longer the flavor of the month. As with other East German actors, he eventually started getting work in German television. He had a recurring role in the fourth season of Unser Lehrer Doktor Specht (coincidentally, Specht is Römer’s original last name). His last performance was in the popular cop show, Balko, but before the episode had aired, Römer died from injuries he sustained in an accident while tending to his garden plot in Berlin.
Hey You! stars the beautiful Annekathrin Bürger, Rolf Römer’s wife. Römer clearly loved this woman. The camera dwells often and lovingly on her face, as if it can’t get enough of her. He wasn’t the first, though. Ms. Bürger’s expressive face was well suited to movie close-ups. Frank Beyer also used it to good effect in Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers). Before becoming an actress, Ms. Bürger was working as a propmaster and an extra at the Stadttheater in Bernburg. There, director Gerhard Klein discovered her and cast her in A Berlin Romance (Eine Berliner Romanze), the second film in his Berlin trilogy. From then on, Ms. Bürger never stopped working, appearing in over twenty DEFA feature films, and even more TV movies. After the Wende, she continued to work, primarily in television. She was a regular on the Leipzig version of the popular German crime drama, Tatort, and on Die Stein, where she portrayed the lead character’s mother.
The song that Etta Cameron sings was written by Klaus Lenz, one of East Germany’s most respected jazz musicians. Lenz was closer to the cutting edge in jazz than any other performer in the GDR. He drew inspiration from several western sources, with a sound that mixed Hugh Masekela and the Modern Jazz Quartet during the sixties, and later the jazz-funk of Miles Davis and Weather Report. In 1977, after several successful performances on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Lenz moved to West Germany, but found it difficult to make a living as a musician in the west. He retired from music for several years, eventually returning to the stage in 2010.
A credit that you will see on every DEFA film is “Dramaturg.” On IMDB, this is often translated as “script editor,” but the job hews closer to the the theatrical meaning of dramaturge: the person who makes sure that the plays that are presented are in sync with the philosophy and perspective of the theater company. In East Germany, it was the Dramaturg’s job to make sure that the scripts didn’t contravene party politics; that it represented a truly East German perspective. Even this job could be dangerous. After the 11th Plenum, Chefdramaturg Klaus Wischenski was relieved of his duties thanks to the sudden shift in political climate. The Dramaturg on Hey You! was Wolfgang Ebeling. Ebeling also wrote or co-wrote many scripts for DEFA. He worked often with Römer, editing or co-writing the scripts for several movies that Römer either directed or starred in, including Chingachgook, The Great Snake, Mit mir nicht Madam!, Tecumseh, and Hostess. Although Ebeling got his start working on films during the fifties, but there is a gap in his work at DEFA. After working as the Dramaturg on Richard Groschopp’s 1962 political thriller, Freispruch mangels Beweises (Aquittal for Lack of Evidence), he didn’t work at DEFA again until 1967, when he came on-board as a screenwriter for Chingachgook. From then on he worked regularly on the films and television of East Germany, most often as a screenwriter. After the Wende, as with many other DEFA people, he worked infrequently, retiring from films after the 1991 crime comedy, Lord Hansi.
Hey You! is not the most daring of films, and it has that lack of focus that is common to the first efforts of many filmmakers. Nonetheless, it deserves watching. It is nicely photographed and well-acted. Above all, it is a perfect time capsule for the GDR in 1970. While watching it, you feel like you are there. You can almost smell the Rondo.