1966 was a rough year for film in East Germany. The 11th Plenum of the previous December pulled the rug out from under some of the most intelligent and creative film talent to come out of any country at any time. East German cinema was on the verge of matching the French New Wave in creativity while their colleagues in West Germany were still making schmaltzy Heimatfilme and Edgar Wallace Krimis.
Karla (unnecessarily retitled Carla for the U.S. release) was based on a news report about a teacher that screenwriter Ulrich Plenzdorf read. He contacted the teacher, and from there the story evolved. Karla is a young, idealistic teacher, fresh out of school in Berlin. Her first teaching assignment takes her to a small town near the Baltic Sea. She believes that one must be honest above all else, and she hopes to put this into practice in her classroom. As one might imagine, the real world has a lesson in store for her.
An idealistic teacher running up against the harsh realities of the world isn’t a new idea. We’ve seen it before and since, in everything from Blackboard Jungle to The Forest for the Trees (Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen). Karla of the title is closer to Eva Lobau’s starry-eyed fish-out-of-water in the latter film than Glenn Ford’s man on the cusp of a societal quantum shift in the first, but Karla has her finger on the pulse of the nation, which makes her dangerous to her superiors, Unfortunately it also made the film dangerous to Walter Ulbricht and his cronies. Before the movie ever saw the light of day, it was shelved and wouldn’t arrive in theaters until 1990.
The film starts with Karla’s graduation ceremony in Berlin and follows her exploits through her first year of teaching. As with other films of this sub-genre, there is the problem kid in class, although in Karla he is portrayed more sympathetically than usual for this type of story. He, like Karla, values truth and honesty above all else. True to its characters, the film confronts controversial subjects head on. When a student questions the honesty of East German television reports about the space race, Principal Alfred Hirte uses peer pressure to negate the students concerns. A tactic Karla finds reprehensible. But even Principal Hirte is portrayed sympathetically. He, too, is an idealist, but one who understands better than Karla and her charges how the world works.
Karla stars Jutta Hoffmann, one of East Germany’s most talented actors and a woman who had a remarkable knack for choosing controversial material. She appeared in or worked on five of the twelve films banned by the 11th Plenum (Karla, The Rabbit is Me, Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam, and The Trace of Stones), another film that was almost banned (Her Third), and an East German TV movie that managed to get itself banned in Switzerland (Ursula). In 1978, Ms. Hoffmann was one of the many DEFA stars and technicians that signed the petition protesting the expatriation of singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann. Everyone who signed the petition found it much harder to get work, and many of them eventually emigrated to the west, including Ms. Hoffmann, who moved to West Berlin in 1982. She continued to act in movies and television, and taught acting at the Hamburg School of Music and Theater from 1993 to 2006.
Acting as sort of Greek chorus, the film cuts from time to time to the conversations between the school district’s administrator and the principal, played by Inge Keller and Hans Hardt-Hardtloff respectively. Inge Keller was a popular actress who was described by Deutsches Theater director Thomas Langhoff as the “only vamp in the GDR.” During the early fifties, she was married to the infamous host of Der schwarze Kanal, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler. Their daughter, Barbara Schnitzler, went on to become a successful actor in her own right (see All My Girls). After the Wende, she continued to work on stage and in film, and notably played the older Lilly Wust in Max Färberböck’s excellent film, Aimee & Jaguar. Hans Hardt-Hardtloff got his start in acting much earlier than Ms. Keller. He left home at the age of sixteen to join the theater. He studied acting at the Volkstheater Millowitsch in Cologne, and spent the Nazi years performing in plays outside of Germany. He appeared in several DEFA films and even more TV productions. A character actor, he appears in small roles in several classic East German films, including, Divided Heaven, The Rabbit is Me, Sons of the Great Bear, and The Legend of Paul and Paula. He died in 1974.
Karla’s author, Ulrich Plenzdorf, was one of the most well-respected and successful screenwriters in East Germany, but he was also its most controversial. The son of communists, Plenzdorf was a believer in the cause of the GDR, and thought that the building of the wall would help stem the economic problems intentionally provoked by the Bundesrepublik (see Look at This City!). Like folksinger Wolf Biermann, his strongly pro-communist views counted for little with the devolving SED leadership. After the 11th Plenum, Plenzdorf’s work was not welcome at DEFA again until 1969, when he rejoined Karla’s director, Herrmann Zschoche, to make Weite Straßen – stille Liebe (Wide Streets – Silent Love). In 1973, he co-wrote the screenplay with director Heiner Carow for The Legend of Paul and Paula as well as the lyrics to the hit songs from the film, “Geh zu ihr,” and “Wenn ein Mensch lebt.” When his screenplay titled The New Sorrows of Young W. (Die neuen Leiden des jungen W), was rejected by DEFA, he turned it into a novel and then into a play. The play was a huge hit on both sides of the Iron Curtain and was made into a movie in West Germany. A fact that did not endear him to the East German powers that be. Today, the book is recognized as a classic of modern German literature. After the Wende, Plenzdorf continued to write screenplays, and joined Jurek Becker (Jacob the Liar) to help write screenplays for the fourth season of the popular law series, Liebling Kreuzberg, which starred his friend Manfred Krug. He also wrote the screenplay for Abgehauen (Ran Off), which is based on Krug’s account of his final days in East Germany. Plenzdorf died in 2007 after a protracted illness.
Herrmann Zschoche is best known in the Eastern Bloc countries for directing the 1978 coming-of-age movie, Seven Freckles, and in the west for his languorous and kitschy science-fiction film, Eolomea. Zschoche got his start as a cameraman on the East German news program, Aktuelle Kamera. He studied filmmaking at the Babelsberg film school and worked as an assistant director on Frank Beyer’s classic, Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers). He made his directorial debut in 1961 with the kid’s film, Das Märchenschloß (The Fairytale Castle). Over the next few years, he would make more movies, but with the 11th Plenum’s ruling on Karla, he suddenly found himself effectively blacklisted and had to rebuild his career. It would be three years before he would get to make another movie, starting with Leben zu zweit in 1968. From there he proceeded more cautiously, but controversy still managed to find him. His 1977 film, Feuer unter Deck (Fire Below Deck), was prevented from being shown in theaters for no better reason than it starred Manfred Krug, who had decided to defect to the west right before the film was to be released. In 1983, he ran up against the authorities again with Insel der Schwäne (Island of the Swans), which was also scripted by Ulrich Plenzdorf. Zschoche was forced to cut several scenes, insert a scene where the protagonist talks about the advantages of the new apartment buildings, and—like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner from the previous year—replace the ambiguous open ending with a more positive one. After the Wende, Zschoche made one more DEFA film (Das Mädchen aus dem Fahrstuhl), but otherwise worked exclusively in television. He directed episodes of the popular West Germany TV shows, Drei Damen vom Grill, Tatort, and others. He retired from directing in 1997.
The film is scored by the ubiquitous Karl-Ernst Sasse. Here he gets to demonstrate his classical chops, taking his cues from Mozart with one of the loveliest themes from any East German film ever made. Some films are driven by their scores, while others use music as a form of punctuation. Karla falls firmly into the latter category. Music is used to segue between scenes and does not follow the characters around. Nonetheless, the theme has managed to show up on a few compilations of film themes although, shockingly, it is sometimes listed as “Serenade Für Klara” (sic).
The man who suffered the most at the hands of the 11th Plenum had to be cinematographer, Günter Ost. Ost was responsible for the innovative and striking cinematography on And Your Love Too, but even here he was stirring up controversy for his imaginative work. He first worked with Herrmann Zschoche on Engel im Fegefeuer (Angel in Purgatory). The two made a good team. Zschoche’s use of the wide-screen aspect ratio and Ost’s combinations and deep and shallow focus created some interesting scenes. When Karla is called into the principal’s office for a supposed indiscretion with a student, Karla is seated to the left in focus, with the school administrator slightly out of focus in the background and the back of the blurry nape of the principal’s neck in the foreground. In other scenes we see Karla lingering right at the edge of the frame. At the time this film was made, only Sergio Leone was making better use of the widescreen format (Leone, it must be said, would have managed to keep all three of these elements in focus, but he had the advantage of newer equipment).
Having been the cinematographer for some of the most visually imaginative films to come out of DEFA during the early sixties, Ost was an easy target for the people crying about the so-called “Rabbit films” (named after The Rabbit is Me, the shining example of the kind of films the folks at the 11th Plenum detested). Ost’s career at DEFA was over. Ost continued to work with film, but his name does not show up on anymore films from the East German film studio.
It was Ost who, after the film reels were recovered from DEFA’s archives, reconstructed the film. After its screening in 1990, Karla was given its proper place as one of the best films to come out of the DDR and demonstrated to everyone the real damage to the East German film industry caused by the 11th Plenum.