“Transgressive” is not a word one often uses to describe films from the GDR. With an industry so closely monitored, it was rare for a genuinely shocking film to get past the authorities, but Ursula is just such a film. To make it even more shocking, it was made for television.
Ursula is directed by Egon Günther, and is based on a novella by Gottfried Keller from his Züricher Novellen (Zurich Stories). The story begins in 1523, when Hansli Gyr (often translated as Jackie Geer), a Swiss mercenary, returns from the battlefield to find that Ursula Schnurrenberger, his one true love, is not the woman she used to be. While he was away, the people of his village fell under the sway of Anabaptists (Wiedertäufer), whose doomsday predictions and rejection of traditional values were taking root in the villages near Zurich at that time. Hansli had been away fighting for the papacy in Northern Italy, and is horrified by this change in religious attitudes. He leaves Ursula to try and figure out what to do next when he runs into Huldrych Zwingli, the famous Swiss religious reformer. Hansli joins forces with Zwingli, which puts him at odds with the people of his village, who are being driven mad by their oddball beliefs; especially Ursula, who now thinks Hansli is the Angel Gabriel. The rest of the movie follows the paths the two lovers take, culminating in one of the strangest battle sequences this side of Ken Russell.
To fully appreciate this film, a little history is in order. In 1517, Martin Luther tacked his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Luther wasn’t saying anything people weren’t already thinking. The corruption in the Roman Catholic church had reached such proportions that by the time Luther arrived on the scene, things were ready to explode. Nor was he the only person to rally the crowds against the church and its edicts. In Switzerland, Huldrych Zwingli was preaching his own ideas for change, challenging the concept of transubstantiation and declaring that there was no good reason not to eat meat during lent. In 1522, he demonstrated his commitment to the latter by joining his publisher in a meal of sausages during Lent. This event became known as the “Affair of the Sausages,” and heralded the beginning of the Swiss Reformation movement. Within a year, Switzerland was embroiled in a faith-based battle over the heart, minds, and souls of the Swiss people with Zwingli at the center of the storm.
A challenge to both Zwingli and the Catholic church were the Anabaptists. They preached an apocalyptic version of Christianity that bore many of the earmarks of modern fundamentalism. 1523 was a pivotal year, that saw the Swiss Reformation movement taking hold and the start of the wars between the Catholic church, the Anabaptists, and the Protestants.
Gottfried Keller, the novella’s author, clearly has no sympathy with the Anabaptists. In his opinion, they are a licentious group of people feeding their lusts and engaging in behavior that borders on insane. At one point, the group decides that being holy means to act like children, resulting in an orgy of infantilism. Keller is more gentle with Zwingli, but the film is not. Zwingli as played by Matthias Habich seems almost as mad as the Anabaptists, who, in turn, come across more like medieval hippies. At its core, the film is a treatise on the folly of war and religion. The final battle sequence, chronicling the second war of Kappel, intentionally evokes America’s involvement in Vietnam. That war had been over for a couple years, but it was still a popular target for criticism in the Eastern Bloc countries. Ursula came out a year before the Soviets got involved in their own military debacle in Afghanistan. Had the Soviet War in Afghanistan been raging at the time the film was made, Ursula surely wouldn’t have seen the light of day.
The screenplay was written by Helga Schütz who had also written the screenplays for Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam), Lots Weib (Lot’s Wife), and Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), all of which were also directed by Egon Günther. Schütz was a diligent researcher who specialized in writing and directing documentaries. When Zwingli is speaking from the pulpit, for example, Schütz effectively uses the actual text of his sermons to shock and surprise the audience. After the Wende she became a teacher of screenwriting at the University of Film and Television in Potsdam.
Egon Günther’s film manages the neat trick of being simultaneously faithful to Keller’s novella and wildly interpretive. The scenes of Jesus being chased (or chasing) Death through the forest are taken from the book, but they appear on a tapestry that Hansli buys Ursula, and which she wears over her shoulders like a shawl. The addition of machine guns to the scene, though, is pure Günther. Is it Ursula’s insanity, or the insanity of war? Günther isn’t afraid of anachronisms, and by the end of the film they are flying fast and furiously. He first shows his hand during Zwingli’s sermon. A shot of the audience reveals that the congregation is wearing modern clothing. At first it seems like a blooper, but when one of the Anabaptists straps himself into a hang glider and takes off, you realize that this film is not playing by the rules.
Ursula was a co-production of Swiss and East German television. Throughout the seventies, East Germany had been working to rebuild their ties with the rest of Europe, and a joint film based on the work of one of Switzerland’s most respected authors seemed like a prime opportunity to further this cause. But when the film was finished, the Swiss refused to show it. It played once on East German TV and then was relegated to DEFA’s Giftschrank.* Nor could this film have made it onto U.S. television either. It contains male and female full-frontal nudity, defecation and urination, extreme blasphemy, and some of the bluest language in any German film. No one could push the limits of acceptability this far and not pay a price. The film marked the end of Egon Günther’s career as a filmmaker in the GDR. Thereafter, Günther went west, where he continued to work as a screenwriter and director until 2002.
Egon Günther settled into a career as a writer after a parade of jobs as a draftsman, soldier, teacher, and publisher. While working as a publisher, he began writing plays, stories, and novels. He started working at DEFA during the fifties, at first as a script doctor, and then later as a director. His career as a director got off to a rocky start with Das Kleid (The Dress), which he co-directed with Konrad Petzold. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes, the film was seen as a direct attack on the authorities in East Germany with its story of an easily duped tyrant and his walled-in kingdom. His next film, Lots Weib (Lot’s Wife), had no such problems, and was a big hit. He intended to follow this with the fantasy film, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam), but the 11th Plenum put a halt to the production and the film had to wait until after reunification to be shown. It looked as if Günther’s career at DEFA might be over, but his next film, Abschied (Farewell), based on Johannes R. Becher’s anti-war novel, was a hit and Günther was back on track, writing and directing several more films over the next few years. In 1972, his film, Her Third (Der Dritte), almost ended up on the shelf with his other banned films, but it managed to squeak by the censors, in large part due to Erich Honecker’s desire to show that his regime would be different from that of Walter Ulbricht’s. Günther became known as the master of the film adaptation, which no doubt had something to do with why he was chosen to direct Ursula.
Playing the star-crossed lovers are the Swiss actors, Suzanne Stoll and Jörg Reichlin. Ursula was Ms. Stoll’s first film and her only starring role. Of the six films and TV movies she appeared in, five were directed by Egon Günther. Reichlin, on the other hand, has continued to appear in films and on television, most recently in Alex E. Kleinberger’s Nachtexpress (Night Express). also appearing in a minor role is the great East German actress, Jutta Hoffmann (see Her Third for more on Ms. Hoffmann).
Huldrych Zwingli is played with ferocious intensity by Matthias Habich. Habich is best known in America for his roles in Enemy at the Gates, The Reader, and Downfall (Der Untergang). He’s had a long career, making films all over Europe starting with some television work in the late sixties. His first big role came in 1973, when he played the lead character in the six-part TV mini-series, Die merkwürdige Lebensgeschichte des Friedrich Freiherrn von der Trenck (The remarkable life story of Friedrich Freiherr von der Trenck). As with many excellent German actors, he doesn’t shun television and has turned up in several excellent (and not-so-excellent) made-for-TV movies, as well as the occasional episode of the popular German cop show, Tatort. In 2002, he won the Deutsche Filmpreis as best supporting actor for his role in Caroline Link’s Oscar-winning film, Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika). He currently divides his time between Paris and Zurich.
Costume design is by Christiane Dorst, who became Egon Günther’s go-to designer for all of his DEFA films starting with Her Third. When Günther left for the west, Dorst stayed behind and continued to contribute costumes to DEFA films such as Motoring Tales and The Architects. After the Wende, Dorst continued to find work, primarily with former East German directors such as Frank Beyer and Roland Gräf. The costumes in Ursula are some of her best work. Certain scenes look like recreations of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Her attention to the details in period costumes is unmatched. Check out the footwraps worn by Hansli under his boots, for instance. After the Wende, Ms. Dorst reunited with Egon Günther on Stein and, her last film, Die Braut (The Bride).
While the costumes certainly helped recreate the times, the rich and dark medieval look of the film is due to Peter Brand’s cinematography. Brand primarily worked in television, but was also responsible for the look of films such as Frank Vogel’s Julia lebt (Julia Lives), and Erwin Stranka’s evocative Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality). By the 1989, he had moved away from television and was working exclusively on feature films, but the Wende saw him return to the small screen. As with Christiane Dorst, Egon Günther’s Die Braut (The Bride) was his last film.
The music is this film is as quirky as the visual information, so it should come as no surprise to longtime readers of this blog that it was done by Karl-Ernst Sasse (for more on Sasse see Her Third). Sasse contributes a score that takes Renaissance folk music and twists it into something bizarre. His use of a solo Jew’s Harp early in the film is reminiscent of the work of Ennio Morricone. The music seems to be saying: “This is going to be a very odd movie.” Like the movie itself, the score contains surprises that pull it back-and-forth between the present and the past.
Because of its subsequent ban, the film achieved legendary status in East Germany. Not every film that has received this accolade deserves it, but Ursula most certainly does. After all these years, it still manages to shock. Recently it was released by ARD Video as part of their Grosse Geschichten series, but, unfortunately, without English subtitles. Hopefully that will change soon; Ursula deserves a wider audience.
As a footnote to the story, the teachings of the Anabaptists found their greatest success across the Atlantic. Attacked by both the Protestants and the Catholics in Europe, they fled in droves to the United States, where their beliefs were the foundations of the Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, and Brethren in Christ—a far cry from the wanton lunatics portrayed in this film.
* Another of those wonderful German expressions that doesn’t translate well into English. This one literally means “poison cupboard,” and refers to a cabinet in which poisons and dangerous pharmaceuticals are stored. It is often used in reference to the banned films of East Germany, but is by no means exclusive to communist culture.