Rolf Römer is better known as an actor than a director. He played the psychopathic Johle in The Bald-Headed Gang, the restless Al in Born in ‘45, and the noble Deerslayer in Chingachgook, The Great Snake. What is less well known is that he was also a director. He only directed two feature films, but they are both worth watching. He also directed a controversial episode of the popular East German TV show, Polizeiruf 110.
Like most directors-turned-actors, Römer’s focus is on the performances and less on the mise-en-scène. That’s not to say this film is artlessly shot, quite the contrary, but you won’t find the kind of visual poetry you’ll find in the films of Konrad Wolf and Kurt Maetzig. He takes a craftsman-like approach to filmmaking, using medium shots for much of the exposition and editing only to insert flashbacks. Stylistically, the film has more in common with the Indianerfilme (East German westerns) than it does with other contemporary films from DEFA. Nonetheless, his films have some unusual touches, like the breaking of the fourth wall by the lead actress that occurs in both films. She rarely speaks directly to us, but she often stops and looks into the camera. This is not the accidental glance of the untrained actress. It is intentional and effective. Is she acknowledging our existence or our surveillance? It works either way.
Like Römer’s previous film, Hey, You!, Hostess is a vehicle for his wife, Annekathrin Bürger. Römer wouldn’t be the first nor the last director to make a movie specifically for his wife. Jules Dassin did this often for Melina Mercouri and, more recently, Guy Ritchie nearly ended his career with a misguided remake of Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away; made for the sole purpose of showcasing the talent of his wife of the time—Madonna.
Besides a front-and-center performance by Ms. Bürger, the other thing this film shares with Hey You! is a very specific sense of time and place. In the earlier film, everyday appliances take on a special charm and we start noticing things like the classic designs of the coffee sets and furniture. Filmed only six years later, the styles and fashions in Hostess are light years from the googie charm of the earlier film. We’re deep into the seventies at this point and it shows. Music plays a more central role in Hostess with several scenes that function more as music videos than as storytelling devices. This was probably inspired by Heiner Carow’s immensely popular film, The Legend of Paul and Paula. In that film, however, the musical interludes serve to move the story forward. Here they are more for the sheer enjoyment of the songs. Römer enlists some of East Germany’s most talented musicians, including Veronika Fischer, Christiane Ufholz, The Günther Fischer Quintet, and an on-stage performance by a young, pre-punk Nina Hagen.
There is an unsettling subtext to this film. Jetta Wagner—Annekathrin Bürger’s character—is a woman who suddenly finds herself out on her own again at a point in life when most people settle down and stop hanging out in clubs. At 39, she is a bit too old for all this, which gives the whole thing a creepy sadness. I honestly don’t know if this was Römer’s intention or not. Is she supposed to be a sad character, or should this part have been played by a woman ten years younger? Perhaps Römer was just so in love with Ms. Bürger that he couldn’t see she was too old for the part (and she is a beautiful woman), or maybe he was addressing a deeper issue here about the problems a forty-year-old faces when she is forced to return to a situation that she thought she had finished with in her twenties. I like to think that it is the latter, and that Römer knew exactly what he was doing. Whatever the case it makes one of the central questions of the film more complicated: What are you willing to give up for love, and what, in the end, does the word even mean?
Annekathrin Bürger had a long career in East German films. She got her start in films thanks to Gerhard Klein, who cast her in his film, A Berlin Romance. She went on to star in over twenty DEFA films and countless other TV movies and televisions shows. In 2010, she published her autobiography, Der Rest, der bleibt: Erinnerungen an ein unvollkommenes Leben (The residue that remains: Memories of an imperfect life), which was co-written with the journalist Kerstin Decker. Decker also co-wrote Angelica Domröse’s autobiography. That same year saw the publication of Ms. Bürger’s book of short stories, poems, and illustrations, Geliebte Ostsee (Beloved Baltic Sea), which was co-written with Christine Rammelt-Hedelich. More recently Ms. Bürger has been performing live with a small combo, singing and reciting love poems in a program titled Liebe ist das schönste Gift (Love is the prettiest poison).
As mentioned earlier, one wouldn’t look to the films of Rolf Römer for editing that pushes the envelope, but that’s not to say the editing is pedestrian—far from it. This is thanks, mainly, to the fine work of Monika Schindler. Ms. Schindler was recognized as one of the best film editors to come out of DEFA, and that’s saying something. DEFA produced some of the best editors that Germany has ever seen, and most of them are women; women such as Hildegard Conrad, Christa Helwig, Helga Krause, Lena Neumann, Hildegard Tegener, Helga Gentz, Brigitte Krex, Anneliese Hinze-Sokolowa, Rita Hiller, and, of course, Evelyn Carow. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a DEFA film that wasn’t edited by a woman. For many of these women, their careers ended with the Wende. Monika Schindler, however, continued to work, sometimes on the films by fellow Ossis such as Andreas Dresen, Roland Gräf, and Egon Günther, but also on films by many other filmmakers whose careers began after the Wende.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the cars in this film. Jetta’s boyfriend, a child-man auto mechanic named Johannes, drives an absurdly customized Trabi. Johannes’ car figures prominently in the film. It seems at times that Jetta sees it as a rival for her affections. In another scene, we meet a man driving a compact with pretensions of muscle car status. Like their western counterparts, the young men of the GDR in the seventies clearly enjoyed customizing their cars too.
Also deserving special mention is the Berliner Fernsehturm. The TV tower is where Jetta works as a hostess, escorting tourists from other lands around the city (giving Ms. Bürger the opportunity to demonstrate her skills at speaking French, Italian, and English). The west always hated the Fernsehturm. In his famous “Mr. Gorbachev” speech, Reagan claimed that the officials in the GDR had spent thousands trying to remove the reflection from the sphere because it looked like a cross. This was patent nonsense, but was a popular myth in West Germany. After the Wende, some people campaigned to have the tower demolished, seeing it as a symbol of a government they wanted people to forget, but saner heads prevailed. It stand today as an important part of the Berlin skyline, as recognizable as Paris’s Eiffel Tower or San Francisco’s Transamerica Building.
Hostess was badly received by the critics when it came out. It was inevitably compared with The Legend of Paul and Paula and found wanting. But the public liked Hostess, probably for a similar reason—they liked Carow’s film and wanted another music-laden movie about a single woman trying to find love and still remain independent. Box office for the film was good and Römer would have probably made more films for DEFA if he hadn’t decided to sign the petition protesting Wolf Biermann’s expatriation. Like the others who signed the petition—popular stars such as Manfred Krug and Angelica Domröse—work at DEFA became harder to come by. Unlike Krug and Domröse, Römer stayed in the GDR, but would appear in no more movies. He died in 2000 after sustaining severe burns while working on his allotment garden.