As is often the case, even in so-called free countries, restrictions on what one can describe in print is less restrictive than what one can show on film. Films such as Naked Lunch and Last Exit to Brooklyn seem bowdlerized when compared to their original texts. In East Germany, there are some perfect examples of this. Manfred Bieler’s Maria Morzeck oder Das Kaninchen bin ich was a popular book that didn’t meet any resistance until Kurt Maetzig turned it into a movie (The Rabbit is Me), and Horst Bastian’s Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality) was a successful novel, but was rejected as a movie premise when Rainer Simon presented the idea to DEFA back in the sixties. It would take another ten years before it was put on film. Likewise, Paul Kanut Schäfer’s Jadup did not merit much scrutiny as a book, but was immediately banned when the story was put on film as Jadup und Boel.
Benno Pludra’s Insel der Schwäne (Island of the Swans) was a popular teen novel in East Germany, and was often assigned as reading in schools. But when director Herrmann Zschoche went to film it, he immediately ran into problems. The story was seen as an attack on the way the people in charge were handling the needs and requests of the children in the housing complex, and by proxy, the needs and requests of the general public. Zschoche had to rewrite several scenes and inserts a few others to keep the film board happy. The resultant film is still strong, but varies in many key areas from both the book and the original screenplay.
Swan Island is the story of a young man who moves from an idyllic location beside a rural lake to one of the new Plattenbauen that were being built in the Berlin suburb of Marzahn in the early eighties. These Plattenbauen were intended to represent pinnacles of socialist community planning and forward thinking, but, as was so often the case in the later years in East Germany, the system’s ever-growing bureaucracy became its own worst enemy. Compromises to the ideas of the Marzahn communities were made every day until the final result was a pale shadow of the ideas and ideals of the original planners (for a great examination of this process see Peter Kahane’s The Architects).
The story centers around the teens living in the housing complex and their attempts to have some influence over the features of the complex’s playground. In this respect, the film is slightly reminiscent of Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge, in which teens in a U.S. planned community go on a rampage because of the lack of recreational facilities available to them. That film is based on actual events in Foster City, California. Clearly, adults not listening to the needs of children is, by no means, exclusive to any one country.
Swan Island is directed by Herrmann Zschoche. Zschoche had already demonstrated his knack for working with teens in his classic Seven Freckles, but while that film dealt with the simple dynamics of young love, Swan Island has bigger fish to fry. For this film, Zschoche turned to his old screenwriting partner, Ulrich Plenzdorf. Zschoche and Plenzdorf first worked together on Karla, one of the DEFA films that was infamously banned after the 11th Plenum. It would be a few years before Plenzdorf was invited back to work at DEFA after that, eventually scoring a big hit with his work on The Legend of Paul and Paula. Likewise, Zschoche found his career momentarily stalled after the Plenum, returning to the director’s chair in 1968 with Leben zu zweit, a safely inoffensive comedy. Zschoche joined forces with Plenzdorf again in 1974 with Liebe mit 16.
The main character, Stefan, is, to put it bluntly, a bit of a pill. He spends most the film with a glum expression, longing for his previous existence at his grandmother’s house at Swan Island. Not even the perky enthusiasm and budding sexuality of Rita and Anja, two girls in his class, can do much to lighten his gloomy demeanor. Besides his desire to see a good playground built at the construction site, the only other subject he shows any enthusiasm for is the defense of Hubert, a nerdy sad sack who is constantly under attack by a bullying older boy referred to only as “Windjacke,” so named for the windbreaker he always wears, which features an embroidered dragon on the back.
Like Seven Freckles, the film also explores psychological conflicts of coming-of-age that rage inside pubescent brain. As a metaphor for this turmoil the film uses a costumed jazz-rock trio called “Knight, Death and Devil” (Ritter, Tod und Teufel) that appears whenever Stefan is confronted with conflict or, in some cases, budding sexuality. Their music is manic and jazzy, reminiscent of Goblin’s Roller LP.1
Most of the kids in this film did not go on to have careers as film actors. Axel Bunke, who plays Stefan, went on to become a successful sound engineer at Deutschlandradio, and now goes by the name Axel Sommerfeld, having taken the unusual step of adopting his wife’s last name when he married. Mathias Müller had appeared in two TV movies prior to Swan Island, but this film appears to have been his last. Similarly, Britt Baumann, who plays the sultry Rita did one TV movie after Zschoche’s film, but nothing further, and Kerstin Reiseck, who plays the perky Anja did not pursue a career in film.
The notable exception is Sven Martinek, who plays Windjacke. Martinek continues to appear in films and television shows to this day. He is best known for starring in the popular TV spy show, Der Clown (The Clown), in which he played a vigilante who wore a cheap plastic clown mask when he attacked the bad guys. He has appeared in nearly every popular series on German TV, from Tatort to Der letzte Bulle (The Last Cop). He is one of the hardest working men in German television. He currently appears as a recurring character on Tierärztin Dr. Mertens (Zoo Doctor: My Mom the Vet) and stars in the Heiter bis tödlich series, Morden im Norden (Murders in the North).2
Swan Island was met with criticism from the establishment and mainstream critics. One of the film’s biggest opponents was film critic, Horst Knietzsch, who railed against the film as an unfair portrayal of Marzahn as a concrete wasteland. Others felt that the compromises made to the novel, like the compromises made by the adults in the film, ruined the story.
After the Wende, Marzahn gained a reputation as a place to be avoided, filled with neo-Nazis and thugs. In fact, Marzahn’s demographics still skew more to the left than most of Berlin’s other districts, and the buildings, in spite of all the compromises have certain beauty to them that combines the aesthetics of Modernism and Russian Constructivism. The picture I use for this blog’s logo is of the old Soyuz cinema in Marzahn.
1. My attempts to find out more about this band yielded no results and nothing shows up in the Amiga catalog. If anyone has information about this group, please either contact me or add a comment to this post.
2. Heiter bis tödlich is similar to Tatort, CSI and Law and Order franchises, where the different shows takes place in different cities or different departments. The term Heiter bis tödlich isn’t easily translated, It is a play on the meteorological phrase “Heiter bis Wolkig” (fair to cloudy), with the word “cloudy” being replaced by “deadly.”