A Berlin Romance (Eine Berliner Romanze) is the second of three films sometimes referred to as the “Berlin Trilogy.” These three features represent the first movies by the team of Gerhard Klein and Wolfgang Kohlhasse. They have very little in common except that they all take place in Berlin. The first of the three, Alarm at the Circus, is a thriller. and the third, Berlin – Schönhauser Corner, is a juvenile delinquent film.
A Berlin Romance is, as the name suggests, a romance. It follows the adventures of Uschi, a young woman from the eastern side of the city who falls in love with a poor young man on the western side. Uschi works as a model at a large department store in East Berlin, where she models clothing for customers. In the evening, she likes to visit West Berlin and window shop. There she meets, Lord, a shady young hipster who wears a noisy transistor radio around his neck like a rapper’s gold chain. Lord proceeds to woo Uschi, but his efforts are thwarted by Hans, a young schlemiel who is lovestruck by Uschi the moment he sees her. At first, Hans’ efforts to impress Uschi have the opposite effect, and it looks like their romance won’t get off the ground, but Hans is nothing if not persistent, and he ready to help Uschi with her dream of attending modeling school in West Berlin.
A Berlin Romance is a sharply drawn portrait of life in Berlin during the mid-fifties. This was the time of the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle), when American money poured into the country to help rebuild its economy and infrastructure. Told from the East German perspective, this influx of cash only benefited the rich, who were as indifferent to the problems of the working class as ever. People in need of work were exploited in dangerous situations to help keep the wealthy living in the luxury to which they had grown accustomed. Job security was not an option, and people lost their jobs at the drop of a hat.
Part of the fun of this film is in its use of details—the way the transistor radio acts as both a lure and an irritant, the obnoxious American soldier at the bar, and the names of films at the cinema. In one scene, as Uschi, Hans, and Lord enter the cinema to see a film called Lockende Sünde (literally “alluring sin,” but translated in the subtitles as Temptation), and in another the camera pauses briefly on a poster for a movie titled Die kleine Stadt will schlafen geh’n—the city wants to sleep. Unlike Lockende Sünde, this is a real movie that gets its name from a song that was popular during the Third Reich, but Klein uses it nicely to take a dig at West Germany and the way it seemed to be ignoring the Nazi pasts of some government officials. All of the Klein/Kohlhasse films are filled with these small details and benefit from repeated viewing to catch them. Some things seem to be intended exclusively for the amusement of Berliners, both East and West.
Uschi is played by Annekathrin Bürger. It was her first feature film and the start of a long career. Putting the weight of an entire film on a nineteen-year-old novice actor was a risky proposition. Fortunately, Ms. Bürger is as talented as she is beautiful. She went on to star in dozens more DEFA films, including Star-Crossed Lovers, The Second Track, Hey You! and Hostess. Ms. Bürger continues to work in films, most recently appearing alongside fellow East German actor, Katrin Saß, in Kilian Riedhof’s Sein letztes Rennen (His Last Race).
Playing opposite her was Ulrich Thein. Mr. Thein had appeared in several films already, including Gerhard Klein’s Alarm im Zirkus and Hotelboy Ed Martin—an East German retelling of Albert Maltz’s popular play, Merry Go Round. He went on to appear in many DEFA classics, including Castles and Cottages, Five Cartridges, Star-Crossed Lovers, The Baldheaded Gang, and Anton the Magician. Like many DEFA actors, Mr. Thein’s background was in the theater. The son of an orchestra leader, he was an accomplished musician who also composed songs for several movies. In 1983, he starred in a miniseries about Martin Luther, then took on J.S. Bach in another miniseries a couple years later. As was too often the case after the Wende, Mr. Thein found it difficult to find work, He died in 1995.
Director Gerhard Klein came to DEFA with strong communist credentials. As a young man in Nazi Germany, he was a member of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany), and got himself arrested for this. After the war, he started working at DEFA as a screenwriter and helped start the children’s films unit of the studio. After making a few shorts and taking some assigned films, Klein finally got the opportunity to make the films he wanted to make. He was a fan of the Italian neo-realists and wanted to make films that reflected real lifer in East Germany without any pretenses. To do this, he needed a screenwriter with a keen ear for the way people actually talked. He found such a man in Wolfgang Kohlhasse, who was—and still is—the best writer of Berliner dialog.
Any regular reader of this blog is already familiar with the screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase. He is the writer behind several DEFA classics, including The Second Track, I Was Nineteen, and Solo Sunny. Kohlhasse is an acute observer of human nature, and not afraid to explore the moral and logical conflicts and ambiguities that come with being alive on this planet. While many other East German screenwriters found it hard to find work in that field after the Wende, Kohlhasse never stopped working. Now in his eighties, he continues to spin tales for filmmakers. His work since the wall fell includes Volker Schlöndorff’s The Legend of Rita (Die Stille nach dem Schuß), and Andreas Dresen’s popular romantic comedy, Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon).
Gerhard Klein made three more films with Wolfgang Kohlhaase—The Gleiwitz Case, Sonntagsfahrer (Sunday Driver), and Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin Around the Corner). As its name suggests, Berlin um die Ecke was a return to the city they loved, but the film ended up on a shelf, banned after the 11th Plenum. In 1970, they started working on Murder Case Zernik, but Klein died ten days into filming. He was fifty years old. After sitting on a shelf for two years, Murder Case Zernik was eventually completed by Klein’s assistant, Helmut Nitzschke.