Every country has its folk heroes. Many of these, such as Robin Hood, William Tell, and Fong Sai-yuk, were most likely real people, but any facts about them are so buried by history that all we have left is the folklore. Others, such as Paul Bunyan and Beowulf, started life as folktales and have never left us. The origins of Till Eulenspiegel, the hero of the 1972 DEFA film of the same name, is a little more foggy. There may have been a real Till Eulenspiegel, born around 1300, but he could also be just a folktale. The world first learned of him thanks to the writings of a customs clerk named Hermann Bote, a Franciscan monk named Thomas Murner, and a popular chapbook about him that was printed in 1511 by Johannes Grüninger. The story of Till Eulenspiegel started in northern Germany and spread west through the Netherlands, Belgium, northern France, and even England, where he ended up in plays by Ben Jonson and Henry Porter.
Till comes from the grand old tradition of the Trickster—a wiseacre antihero who revels in pulling the wool over the eyes of others, revealing the foibles of mankind by playing the fool. The trickster myth stretches from the Coyote of Native American mythology, through Brer Rabbit, to Bugs Bunny. These characters often specialize in taking advantage of people’s prejudices, assumptions, and greed, and they rarely seemed fazed by even the direst of circumstances. Using their wits, they always prevail, leaving their persecutors with egg on their faces. Till is often portrayed wearing the motley outfit of the court jester, and the humor in the Till Eulenspiegel stores is often bawdy and scatological.
Although it was not the first book about him, one of the most popular versions of the Till Eulenspiegel story comes from the book by Belgian writer Charles De Coster, The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak. Most film versions of the story—including the 1956 East German/French co-production Till Eulenspiegel, der lachende Rebell (Till Eulenspiegel, The Laughing Rebel)—are based on De Coster’s book. Rainer Simon’s film, however, uses a modern retelling of the story by Christa and Gerhard Wolf as its source. The Wolf version of the story shares its Rabelaisian details and contempt for the rich with De Coster’s book, but it is much more playful. The closest counterpart to this Till Eulenspiegel is Guy Grand in Terry Southern’s hilarious book (and Joseph McGrath’s equally funny movie) The Magic Christian. But while Southern’s protagonist is a man on a mission, out to prove that people will do literally anything for money, Till Eulenspiegel is out to take advantage of the foolishness of the rich and the hypocrisies of clergymen. He is a thorn in the side of the status quo. We get a glimpse of this in the opening scene where Till, as a boy is riding with his father on a donkey (a scene taken directly from the oldest accounts of Till). The boy faces the camera and pulls down his pants to reveal the title of the movie written across his bare behind, he then looks directly into the camera and sticks his tongue out at the audience. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie: impertinent, rebellious, and just a little naughty.
As one would expect from a film written by the Wolfs and directed by Rainer Simon, Till Eulenspiegel works on many levels. The Wolfs were clearly taking potshots at western capitalism here, but they also manage to slip in some clever jabs at their own government as well. In one sequence, Till splashes a room with paint and convinces a bunch of aristocrats that only the pious can see the religious imagery in the mess he’s made. This particular episode dates back to earlier telling of the Till Eulenspiegel myth, but it also brings to mind Das Kleid—a Märchenfilm based on The Emperor’s New Clothes that was banned because officials thought it was a criticism of their decision to build the Berlin Wall.
The story in the film takes place during the early part of the sixteenth century and borrows heavily from the imagery of the time, including the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, and even the Tarot. Although it is primarily a comedy, some of the imagery and events are dark and grim. Innocent people are hanged, a horse is stabbed to death, and, in the most disturbing sequence in the film, chickens are beheaded and thrown in front of a religious procession. The only other East German film with this level of shock value is Egon Günther’s Ursula.
In interviews (see Evan Torner’s quote in the footnotes for Jadup and Boel), director Rainer Simon has said that the Stasi used the production of Jadup and Boel as a honeytrap—allowing its production for the express purpose of banning it when it was done. I think it likely that Simon first became a target for the Stasi thanks to Till Eulenspiegel. After all, Till is nothing if not anti-authoritarian. Simon’s next movie, Zünd an, es kommt die Feuerwehr (Set A Fire, The Fire-Brigade Is Coming), about a corrupt fire department in pre-WWI Germany, must have provoked them even further (more on this at a later date). The bad guys in Till Eulenspiegel are the rich, the church officials, and the landowners, but, more importantly, they are also the people in control. Till’s battle is not so much with their ideals, as with their power over others, making the Stasi as much a target of this film as are the western capitalists.
The star of Till Eulenspiegel will be readily identifiable to any fans of East German cinema as Paul in The Legend of Paul and Paula. Winfried Glatzeder was an unlikely film idol. He had the face of a boxer, a mouth a mile wide, and he stood a good foot taller than anyone else on the set. He has been referred to as the East German Jean-Paul Belmondo, but that may be pushing it. He’s an unlikely film star, but he’s a good actor, and he makes Till Eulenspiegel a complex and interesting character.
Glatzeder was born on April 26, 1945, in a month that saw the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. His father was a doctor, and died in a Soviet POW camp. His mother worked as a weaver. Glatzeder began a career in mechanical engineering, but started getting bit parts in DEFA films in his early twenties after graduating from the School of Television and Film in Potsdam. After the success of The Legend of Paul and Paula, Glatzeder had no trouble finding work. In 1982 he received an exit visa (Ausreiseantrag) and left the GDR, emigrating to West Berlin. Coming to the west, as he did, before the Wende, he was able to continue his acting career without interruption, primarily in West German television. He played Kommissar Ernst Roiter on one of the most controversial iterations of the popular German crime show Tatort (two episodes, Tod im Jaguar and Krokodilwächter, have been officially banned, and another episode, Ein Hauch in Hollywood was deemed “not suitable for primetime” and had to be screened late on Monday night). He is also one of the only actors to have appeared on both the East German and the post-Wende versions of Polizeiruf 110. More recently, he has been seen as a regular on the popular TV show, Unser Charly. In the 1999 film Sun Alley (Sonnenallee), he reprised his role as Paul in an amusing cameo that had East Germans chuckling and West Germans wondering what they were chuckling about. In 2008, his autobiography, Paul und ich (Paul and I), which was co-written with Manuela Runge, was published.
Starring opposite Glatzeder is the beautiful Dutch actress, Cox Habbema. Habbema made several films in East Germany starting with Rainer Simon’s Wie heiratet man einen König (How to Marry a King), in which she starred opposite her husband, Eberhard Esche (Divided Heaven, The Trace of Stones). She went on to make many more films in East Germany, including the cerebral science fiction film, Eolomea. As a Dutch citizen, she was able to travel more freely than most East Germans and sometimes appeared in Dutch productions during her stay in the GDR. As one of the people who criticized the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, Habbema founds things less friendly in East Germany after that and roles in films became harder to come by. In 1984, she finally left East Germany to return to the Netherlands, working in television and with the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam theater. In 2004, she published her autobiography, Mein Koffer in Berlin oder das Märchen von der Wende (My Suitcase in Berlin, or the Tale of the Wende).
DEFA films often featured inventive musical scores and this one is no exception. Friedrich Goldmann was not primarily a film composer. He only did scores for a few films. At the time that this film was made, he was an up-and-coming composer on the avant-garde music scene. Like Karl-Ernst Sasse’s score for Her Third, and Reiner Bredemeyer’s for Jadup and Boel, Goldmann’s score for Till Eulenspeigel’s challenges the usual expectation for a film score. It is experimental, atonal, and surprising. Before the Wende, Goldmann taught music composition at the Berliner Akademien der Künste in East Berlin. After the Wende, Goldmann was awarded a professorship at the Berlin University of the Arts—one of the few lucky East German professionals to navigate the changeover without a loss in stature.
Assisting Goldmann was Hans Grüß and his group, Capella Fidicinia, an East German musical ensemble that specializes in playing Medieval and Renaissance music on period instruments of exacting detail. This the music we hear during the festivals and street scenes. Grüß continued to lead Capella Fidicinia after the Wende, dying in 2001. Stationed in Leipzig, the group continues to perform under the direction of Grüß’s student, Martin Krumbiegel.
The costumes were by Walter Bergemann. Simon met Bergemann while working as an assistant director on Konrad Wolf’s classic, I Was Nineteen, and he had him make the costumes for his second feature film, Männer ohne Bart (Men Without Beards). Simon worked with Bergemann many times after that, including on Simon’s classics, Jadup and Boel and Das Luftschiff (The Airship). For the costumes in Till Eulenspiegel, Bergemann drew inspiration from the paintings and illustrations of the period. Like the music, the costumes are well researched and well designed. Unlike the costumes used in many of the Märchenfilme, the clothes in Till Eulenspiegel seem like the real thing. Bergemann’s skill as a costume designer ranks with the best on either side of the Iron Curtain.
Reactions to the film were strong and mixed. Renate Holland-Moritz, the film reviewer for the like eponymously-named magazine, Eulenspiegel, found the film tasteless and suggested it might be used for shock treatment at psychiatric hospitals. Some felt that the film strayed too far from its source material, and offered only a sketch of the character. Other found its re-enactment of medieval times to be superior to most films.