Märchenfilme, or fairy tale films, were an important staple of the DEFA library. They were usually less susceptible to political interpretation, which made them palatable to western audiences as well as the people of East Germany, which, in turn, meant money from the west. The Märchenfilme allowed the GDR to take advantage of the free market without actually supporting it; the best of all possible worlds. DEFA made over thirty Märchenfilme during its existence.
The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs (Wer reißt denn gleich vorm Teufel aus) is based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. The fairy tale shares the same name as the English title for the film, but it is worth noting that the original East German title is different, translating to something along the lines of “He who pulls them out is equal to the Devil.” As the change in the title suggests, this is a very loose adaptation of the original fairy tale. In the original story, a boy is prophesied to marry the princess and, in spite of the king’s best efforts to stop it, the prophecy comes true. In the movie, the marriage to the princess is mostly the result of a prank played by a group of robbers who dislike the king more than the boy. In his ensuing encounter with the Devil, the young man in the film plays a more active role in obtaining the three golden hairs than he does in the fairy tale.
As a rule, the Märchenfilme avoid political statements. The rich are often portrayed as avaricious and inherently evil because of it, but you won’t hear anyone rallying the peasants to overthrow the system. Many stories, in fact, end with the hero marrying the princess, which presumably changes his attitude toward wealth. This film follows that rule, although there is a subtly profound statement on the nature of security spending slipped into the story. At the beginning of the film, we see the peasants in a local community grumbling about being taxed for protection against robbers. No one has ever seen any robbers, but the king’s tax collector continues to warn them that if they don’t pay the tax, there could be robbers. The solution for some members of the community is to become robbers to take advantage of the situation. This raises an interesting question about military build ups, and the extent to which the money spent on “protection” is responsible for the situation is it is there to prevent. But this is a fairy tale, after all, and the film doesn’t spend too much time pondering the bigger questions; its got a story to tell
The protagonist in this film belongs to the bumbling hero category. These heroes succeed at their goals, but not before wrecking nearly everything in sight. The bumbling hero has a rich history in film, stretching from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to the Blues Brothers and Inspector Clouseau, he’s even made his way into role-playing games. Unlike the classic hero, most of the time, the bumbling hero prefers to avoid conflict. He is not brave, but he does brave things, usually out of ignorance. He always triumphs, but, more often than not, it is the result of an accident or his own buffoonery.
The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs was the second film from director Egon Schlegel. Schlegel’s career at DEFA got off to a rocky start. He had the dubious distinction of graduating in 1966, right after the 11th Plenum. As with many of the DEFA feature productions, student films also received harsh treatment. Schlegel’s graduation film was consigned to the cellar alongside The Trace of Stones and The Rabbit is Me. For the next few years, Schlegel worked without pay and without credit as an assistant director and occasionally as an actor. He finally got his chance to direct a feature film with the East German/Czechoslovakian co-production Abenteuer mit Blasius (Adventures with Blasius). He went on to direct five more films before leaving DEFA in 1983.
Jakob, the young hero of the film, is played by Hans-Joachim Frank, a talented actor and director who started acting at the age of eight and was one of the youngest people to graduate from the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts. He appeared in a few feature films and several TV movies, but his first love was always theater. In May of 1989, just months before the wall came down, he founded the Theater 89, without any official support from the East German government. Theater 89 went on to become a successful theater with Hans-Joachim Frank as its creative director. It continues to this day and has become one of the most successful theaters in Berlin’s Mitte district.
The Devil is played by Dieter Franke, a popular character actor in East Germany and a logical choice to play this role. An accomplished stage actor, Franke had already impressed people with his performance as Mephisto in the Deutsches Theater’s production of Faust. But the Devil here lacks the wit of Mephisto. He is an even bigger buffoon than Jakob. In 1980, Franke returned in a shadowy role as the title character in the TV movie, Gevatter Tod (The Grim Reaper). He was scheduled to play the lead in Erwin Stranka’s odd take on on Märchenfilme, Motoring Tales, but a prolonged illness forced him to bow out of that production. He died shortly thereafter in 1982.
Playing the princess is Katrin Martin. As with most other DEFA stars, she trained as a stage actress and appeared in several productions on the stage at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. We first saw Ms. Martin in the Rolf Herricht comedy, The Man Who Replaced Grandma. She went on to star in several DEFA films and is best remembered for her turn as Rose Red in Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot (Snow White and Rose Red). After the Wende, she moved into radio, producing children’s programs.
Production design was by Georg Kranz, one of DEFA’s best. Especially notable is his wild set for Hell, which seems to have taken some of its inspiration from Alfred Hirschmeier’s planet Venus in The Silent Star. The floor bubbles with multi-colored goop, and the Devil arrives via a Rube Goldberg contraption that delivers him automatically to his bed. In one corner sits an enormous pipe organ with a weird puppet head atop each pipe, which open its mouth when that note is played.
The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs was a popular film and like many other DEFA Märchenfilme, it made its way west. It did not have the success of The Singing, Ringing Tree, but it did help continue the western impression that East German Märchenfilme were entertaining, imaginative, and weird as hell.