There is something in human nature that requires a Winter Solstice celebration. It doesn’t matter if you are a Christian, an atheist, a pagan, or a Jew, when the days reach their shortest, we need a festival of light. This is especially true in the northern climes, where the days get dark and frigid. The first Christians tried to get people to stop celebrating Saturnalia at this time of year, but finally gave up and co-opted the holiday, claiming it as their own and calling it Christmas. Whether you call it Christmas, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice, or Weihnacht, something in us needs a festival at this time of year, so even the dyed-in-the-wool communists in East Germany found themselves celebrating the holidays. That, to some extent, is what this movie is about.
A Lively Christmas Eve (Ach, du fröhliche…)1 takes place—as the English title suggests—on Christmas eve, the day when German families traditionally get together to open their presents. As is often the case with families, both in films and real life, Christmas can be the time when family members who have spent most of the year avoiding each other are forced into the same room together and finally blow up. The film follows the adventures of a Christmas eve at the Lörke apartment. Walter Lörke, the family patrician and card-carrying communist, is introduced to Thomas Ostermann, his daughter Anne’s new beau. Thomas has nothing good to say about the state and soon he and Walter are at it with each other. To make matters worse, Anne is pregnant and is planning to keep the baby. What’s a father to do?
The film is based on Vratislav Blažek’s play, Und das am Heiligabend (And on Christmas Eve), which was made into a TV-movie a year earlier. The play was then reworked as Ach, du fröhliche, which was then made into a novelization of the film—also written by Mr. Blažek. Mr. Blažek was a Czechoslovakian playwright who specialized in social satire. As one might imagine, his plays, from time to time, came under fire for their jibes at life in a socialist country. In 1968, Blažek left Czechoslovakia, taking up residence in Munich.
A Lively Christmas Eve was directed by Günter Reisch. Like the former Pope, Mr. Reisch was drafted into the Nazi party as a teenager during the waning years of the Third Reich. Mr. Reisch was captured by the Americans soon thereafter and spent a short time as a prisoner of war before joining one of the anti-fascist schools set up by the Soviets. Mr. Reisch appears to have taken these lessons to heart. He stayed true to the GDR’s core principles until the end.
Günter Reisch enrolled at DEFA’s film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg, and upon graduation was hired as the assistant director to Gerhard Lamprecht on Quartett zu fünft (Fifth Quartet). His next job as assistant director was on Kurt Maetzig’s Council of the Gods. Over the next few years he worked with Mr. Maetzig on several more films, including The Story of a Young Couple and the Ernst Thälmann films. In 1956, he began his career as a director with Junges Gemüse (Small Fries), but it was with his next film, Spur in die Nacht (Track in the Night) that he started to gain attention. This was also the first of his films that he both wrote and directed, a practice he would continue throughout his career. His films often tackle the issue of bourgeois values in a socialist state, although usually in a lighthearted manner (as was the case in the U.S. during the Hayes Code years, it was often easier to get things past the censors if you wrapped them in comedy).
After the Wende, Mr. Reisch’s career as a filmmaker ended. He began teaching film at several universities in Germany and Italy, including the Konrad Wolf Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg. He was an important mentor to Andreas Dresen, who went on to become one of Germany’s most respected filmmakers.
Playing Walter Lörke is Erwin Geschonneck, who needs no introduction to EGC blog readers at this point. He appeared or starred in some of the best films to come out of East Germany, many of which we have already discussed here in depth, including Carbide and Sorrel, The Ax of Wandsbek, Castles and Cottages, and Heart of Stone. Mr. Geschonneck brings his usual gruff charm and impeccable comic timing to the part of the put-upon patriarch of the Lörke family.
Playing the daughter Anne is Karin Schröder. Ms. Schröder was planning to be a stenographer when Günter Reisch discovered her and put her in his film, Silvesterpunsch (New Year’s Punch). An exceptionally attractive young woman, Ms. Schröder was to star in several more film, making her biggest splash as the adorable scooter rider in Beloved White Mouse. In 1987, she emigrated from East Germany to the west, where she continued to appear in films and on television. She was a regular on the popular crime drama Die Wache (The Guard) and has appeared in many other popular German TV shows including Unter Uns, In aller Freundschaft, Tatort, and Alles Klara.
The contrarian Thomas is played by Arno Wyzniewski. Mr. Wyzniewski is well-known to East German audiences. Gaunt-faced and dark-eyed, he was a striking-looking man who appeared in everything from Five Cartridges to The Baldheaded Gang, but it was his appearance as the frail but determined Sepp Gomulka in The Adventures of Werner Holt that caused the public to first sit up and take notice of him. Although he did occasionally play the lead, he was better known as a character actor, appearing as secondary characters in many classic DEFA films. In 1985, he made a big splash playing King Friedrich II in the popular TV miniseries, Sachsens Glanz und Preußens Gloria (Saxony and Prussia’s Blaze of Glory). He reprised the role twice more for the sequels and is, to this day, still remembered as King Friedrich by East Germans of a certain age.
After the Wende, he continued to act, primarily in television. He was last seen in America as Kuk, the unlucky contestant on the wheel of fortune in the “Eating Pattern” episode of Lexx—a strange Canadian/German science fiction co-production about a giant dragonfly-shaped spaceship with a sexy love slave, a robot head, a dead assassin, and feckless security guard on board. This would be one of his last performances. He died a few months after it aired and is buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin.
Worthy of special mention here is Marianne Wünscher, who played the pesky neighbor, Mrs. Klinkhöfer. Ms. Wünscher was a popular character actor in East Germany. She is best known as an uptight poodle owner and the nemesis of Karin Schröder’s character in Beloved White Mouse. Ms. Wünscher was an extremely active performer, appearing in many movies, television shows, and stage productions throughout her career. She also served as a Berlin city council member for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPD) from 1977 to 1981. She died August 9, 1990, after the wall came down, but before the reunification of Germany.
Although it is unquestionably a light comedy, A Lively Christmas Eve has a certain bite to it. Had it been made in 1965 it would have, undoubtedly fallen victim to the 11th Plenum’s attack on the arts. The film’s gentle ribbing of the state would not have been tolerated three years later.
The film was very popular, even though it was released in October, well before the Christmas season. It also has the unusual distinction of spawning a sequel…twenty years later. But that is another story for next time.
This film is not currently available, but can be found on Veoh—a very problematic source of films.
1.The German title for this film, “Ach, du fröhliche,” usually appears as “O, du fröhliche,” and is a very popular Christmas song in Germany. When the song is sung in English, it usually appears as “Oh, How Joyfully,” but is sometimes titled “Oh Ye Joyful People.” More often, the song is played as a Christmas instrumental number under its original title, “O sanctissima.” The DEFA Film Library at UMass lists the name of this movie as A Lively Christmas Eve, so that is what I am using here.