By 1980, the East German authorities had nearly perfected the approval process for feature films. After the debacle of the 11th Plenum in 1965, when a dozen films were rejected either for being too frivolous or not socialist enough, DEFA settled into a safe routine, usually avoiding contemporary subjects, and instead concentrating on historical biographies, Indianerfilme, and the occasional musical. After Honecker took over, the reins again were loosened (but only slightly) and DEFA movies started push the envelope once more. Sometimes a few films went too far for the authorities, such as Iris Gusner’s 1973 film, The Dove on the Roof, but, by that time, most directors knew the score, and were unlikely to do anything that might get their films banned. Jadup and Boel’s director, Rainer Simon, knew this better than anyone and was more careful than most to avoid controversy. After all, his first attempt at direction ended up on the chopping block during the 11th Plenum. So what happened? How did this film get made and still manage to end up in the Giftschrank?
The film begins on the day of a ceremony to herald the construction on a new store in the town of Wickenhausen in the Altmark region. Here we meet Jadup, perfectly played by Kurt Böwe. Jadup is the mayor of the town. He’s a loyal party member and one of the first people in Wickenhausen to champion the communist cause. Just as Jadup is about to begin his ceremonial speech, a nearby building collapses, presumably from neglect. Snooping around in the wreckage of the house is Herr Gwissen, a stranger in town who has come to purchase antiques. Herr Gwissen finds an old copy of Friedrich Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific that Jadup once gave to a young woman named Boel Martin. Boel arrived in town right after the war with her mother. Her mother is still in town, but Boel is gone, having left Wickenhausen after her rape by someone in the town. Boel refused to say who it was and the people at the time blamed the Russian soldiers, but Jadup’s current refusal to discuss what happened is seen by members of the community as a tacit admission of guilt. As the story progresses, we eventually learn the truth.
The story jumps back and forth in time and space between Jadup’s story and Jadup’s son, Max. Max has a crush on Eva, an intensely vapid and vain young lady who is all too ready to spout party doctrine, but without any idea of what that really means. In the opposite corner is the more quirky and interesting Edith Unger, whose alcoholic father has made it his life’s work to write the history of Wickenhausen. It is apparent immediately that Edith is a better match for Max, but will he realize it in time?
The young people in town are given the task (by Jadup) of learning something of their town’s past and the part their parents played in its revival after the war. In flashbacks, we see Jadup as a young man (played by Christian Böwe, Kurt Böwe’s real-life son). The young Jadup lives in the bell tower and develops a camaraderie with the odd and nearly silent Boel. Boel’s hands are covered with warts and the local children run from her because of it. After her rape the warts clear up. Jadup tried to find out who was responsible but all he succeeds in doing is driving Boel from town.
Meanwhile, Edith gets in trouble for posting an essay that is a direct attack on Eva’s typically over-inflated, aggrandizing essay on her parents. Max is given the task of confronting Edith on the subject to get her to bow to peer pressure and apologize, but Edith is made of sterner stuff than that. As the story shifts back and forth in time, Max’s confrontation with Edith is juxtaposed against Jadup’s grilling of Boel. Jadup drives Boel away with his relentless interrogation. Will Max do the same? Jadup brings things to a head in an impassioned speech for the state to return to the principles espoused by Lenin. Otherwise the country will stagnate and die.
As you can probably tell from this brief description, the level of symbolism is very high in this movie, from the collapsing building to the warts on Boel‘s hand. It is no accident that the stranger from out of town is named “Gwissen” (an abbreviation of Gewissen: the German word for conscience). Jadup and Boel seems, at first glance, like a relatively harmless movie, but its unvarnished observations on stagnant bureaucracy in East Germany were bound to rub the officials the wrong way.
The film is based on the novel, Jadup, by Paul Kanut Schäfer. Schäfer was a popular East German author, who wrote everything from crime novels to children’s books. Jadup was published in 1975, but was not a big hit. Rainer Simon hadn’t heard of it when the idea for a movie of it was suggested to him. After reading the book, he recognized that he had a potential hot potato on his hands. He was as surprised as anyone when the authorities approved the project. Recognizing the potential pitfalls he might encounter while trying to get it, made, Simon was careful to follow the script to the letter. In that way he knew he could avoid the common claim that the film was banned because of script changes. In the end, it didn’t matter the film was banned anyway.
Maybe the film would have made it to the cinemas, had it not been for other events in Eastern Europe. The USSR had invaded Afghanistan and tensions between it and the United States were the worst they had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In protest, the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics, which took place in Moscow that year. Meanwhile, things were coming to a head in Poland as well, culminating in the Gdańsk Shipyard strikes led by Lech Wałęsa. As always, whenever the public temperament moved toward calls for change, the leaders of the SED doubled down, increasing surveillance and nipping any perceived criticism of their regime in the bud. Jadup and Boel was an easy target, although, in fairness, had this film been made in the United States during Hollywood’s Hayes Code years, it would have been banned there as well.
When it came to the subject matter of this film—that of party stagnation—director Rainer Simon knew it better than most. A party member of the SED from the age of seventeen, Simon saw first hand the SED’s internal politics at work. He also saw what was happening to it and he didn’t like it. Simon claims that the character of Jadup in the film is not a stand in for himself, but both men continued to believe in socialism and both men were growing weary of the state things in the GDR.
Rainer Simon studied directing at the School of Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg (now named after Konrad Wolf). He started working on short films and was the assistant director on Ralk Kirsten’s Der verlorene Engel (The Lost Angel) and Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. He was slated to direct his first feature in 1966—a film version of Horst Bastian’s novel, Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality)—when the 11th Plenum halted the project (it was eventually made into a film by Erwin Stranka in 1976). He finally got his chance to direct a feature film in 1968 with Wie heiratet man einen König (How do you Marry a King), a Märchenfilm based on the Grimms’ fairytale, “The Peasant’s Clever Daughter.”
In 1979, Simon was to begin work on an East German/Austrian co-production titled, Vorstadtmusikanten (Fringe Musicians), but the film was scuttled before it began. Rainer Simon suspected that the GDR authorities were responsible for stopping the project, worrying as they often did, about defections to the west. Jadup and Boel was Simon’s only film on a contemporary subject. He learned early on that it was a lot safer to film fairy tales and historical biographies. When he was offered this film, he balked at first, recognizing its potential to offend the party bureaucrats, but everyone seemed to be greenlighting the project, so he went forward. He didn’t find out until after the Wende, that the Stasi had people watching the production of this film very carefully (of course, one could argue that the Stasi had people watching nearly everything very carefully).
Simon’s last film to be released prior to the fall of the wall was Die Besteigung des Chimborazo (The Ascent of Chimborazo), about the 1802 ascent of the Ecuadorian volcano by Baron Alexander von Humboldt. At this time, Simon became enamored of Ecuador. After the Wende, he moved to Ecuador, where he continues to make films and teach classes on filmmaking.
Jadup is played by Kurt Böwe with his usual likeable charm. Böwe made his first big splash as the idealistic sculptor in Konrad Wolf’s Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (The Naked Man on the Athletic Field), although by that time he had appeared in smaller parts in such films as Gerhard Klein’s Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin Around The Corner) and Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. The Wende had less impact on Kurt Böwe’s career than it did on some of his fellow DEFA actors. He continued working, primarily, but not exclusively, in television, and is best known today for his performance as Kommissar Groth on Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110). Böwe died in Berlin, June 14, 2000.
Katrin Knappe (Boel), on the other hand, stopped working in film and television after the Wende completely. Jadup and Boel was her first feature film. She continued to work in films in East Germany right up until the wall came down, but her primary focus was always theater. She studied acting at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin, where she now serves as a guest lecturer in the puppetry department. For fifteen years, she worked at the Volksbühne on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.
The cinematographer was Roland Dressel. During the seventies, his primary work as lead cinematographer was in television, although he worked on many classic DEFA films before that, including Konrad Wolf’s Einmal ist keinmal, Das Kleid, The Gleiwitz Case, and Hot Summer. He got his start as a still photographer, and he brings some of those skills to bear in this movie, particularly his understanding of how to combine deep shadows and bright images in the same frame, and his use of unusual filter techniques. He was responsible for some of DEFA’s best camerawork during the GDR’s final years. His work during this period, includes The Bicycle, Das Luftschiff (The Airship), The Woman and the Stranger (Die Frau und der Fremde), and Abschied von Agnes (Farewell from Agnes).
The music for the film is composed by Reiner Bredemeyer in his unmistakable style. As with many other film composers—on both sides of the Iron Curtain—Bredemeyer was classically trained. He wrote scores for several films, but is best known today for his avant garde classical compositions. From 1949 to 1953 he studied music composition at the Munich Academy of Music. In 1954, disgusted with the anti-socialist policies of Konrad Adenauer, he moved to the GDR, where he studied under Paul Dessau, another defector from the west. Although he often worked in the twelve-tone scale, his work still shows strong influences from classical composers, most notably, Anton Webern. Bredemeyer uses sparse instrumentation in the film to convey a sense of isolation, from the solo classical guitar at the beginning, to the lonely flute music at the end.
In 1988, the film was finally released in the GDR, but by then the world had changed too much to fully accept this it. Jadup’s impassioned speech for the return to the ideals of Lenin was now seen as a step backwards rather than the radical leap forward it seemed to be in 1980. The film was well received by the critics, but didn’t find its audience until years after the Wende.
1. Literally, “poison cabinet,” also referred to as Remota. These are films (or any other documents, for that matter) that are deemed too subversive to allow to be seen by the general public.
2. This is the first time that an East German film addressed the sensitive topic of the rapes that Russian soldier committed in Germany right after the war (see Max Färberböck’s 2008 film, A Woman in Berlin, for an exploration of this topic.
3. It appears that the story of the Production of Jadup and Boel is even more bizarre than I could have possibly imagined. DEFA film expert Evan Torner writes:
“In Ralf Schenk’s interview with Simon (and in my own conversations with Simon in subsequent years), I basically gathered that Jadup and Boel was greenlighted because it was going to be banned. The Stasi watched the production very closely because it was serving as bait, and as a pressure release valve: it let them know how far ordinary GDR filmmakers would go to step out of line (i.e., not that far, all things considered), and as a way to give them all an outlet for their “subversion” without really jeopardizing anything. A state-run studio had to keep its employees working, but it could not stand for content that would ultimately threaten its own revenue streams. Creativity thus became something cultivated by gifting folks a “subversive” project that then may or may not get banned because of the political climate (I’m also thinking of the never-made early 1980s feature Schwarzweiß und Farbe, about a family whose house is in the way of a GDR power plant). The studio got to keep their talent; the state got to keep its legitimacy and even its sense of raw suppressive power.
So Simon was right in thinking that Jadup and Boel sounded like a trap because it was. The great aspect was that he nevertheless made a very thought-provoking piece of cinema as a result. Its resonance beyond the peculiar walled garden circumstances of its origin is open for debate.