If I were going to show somebody their first East German film, it would not be this one. One common misconception among Americans—and all westerners, for that matter—is that East German films are nothing but propaganda, intended to promote the state and nothing more. The misconception doesn’t come from any knowledge of the subject, or even selected examples. It’s more a case of formless and gormless prejudices thoroughly drummed into our brains during the Cold War. The Story of a Young Couple, however, would do nothing to disabuse people of this notion. It really is propaganda. It wears its politics on its sleeve, and its politics are those of Stalin. He is championed as a hero throughout this film, and his portrait hangs in public places. It is one of the sad legacies of East Germany that the leaders hitched their wagons to Stalin’s star instead of returning to the ideals of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. It was certainly inevitable, considering the Soviet Union’s part in the foundation of the GDR—a link going all the way back to Ernst Thälmann—but it meant that future failure was already in the cards before the ink was dry on the country’s constitution.
The film follows the story of Agnes Sailer and Jochen Karsten, two young actors who become involved the theater scene that springs up in Berlin after WWII. They are surrounded by idealistic people who see theater as a way to promote anti-fascist sentiments and ensure that nothing like the Third Reich ever happens again in Germany. Funding their efforts is Dr. Ulrich Plisch, an old-school capitalist who has less interest in politics than doing whatever’s profitable. Surrounding them are other actors and directors who run the political gamut from devoted socialists to amoral golddiggers. As the gulf between east and west becomes wider, Agnes and Jochen find themselves on opposite sides of the chasm. Agnes, a committed socialist, would rather starve than take a part in a play or film she found morally reprehensible, while Jochen starts letting his policies take a backseat to a steady paycheck.
The Story of a Young Couple was made in 1951, and came out in January of the following year. Up until this time there was a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your outlook) infusion of West German filmmakers into the film studios at Babelsberg. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, most of that influx came from the fact that the U.S. military authorities did everything they could to discourage German film production. After West Germany became a sovereign state in May of 1949, the shackles on West German film production were removed and West Germans no longer needed to migrate eastward to make their movies. This made any West German directors who did go to DEFA immediately suspect. The Cold War had heated up and it wasn’t uncommon for the intelligence agencies from both sides of the border to use agents and sympathizers to commit acts of sabotage to erode the other country’s infrastructure. This was a prominent plot point in Castles and Cottages, and was also part of the justification for the building of the Berlin Wall (see Look at This City!).
By 1951, companies such as Real-Film, CCC-Film, and, Constantin-Film were in full swing and West German filmmakers were no longer welcomed with open arms into the DEFA ranks, but rather, were viewed with suspicion. Once the cross-pollination between east and west was effectively stemmed, both sides started to polarize. In the United States, movie such as The Red Menace, I Was Communist for the F.B.I., and Pickup on South Street were effectively pushing the notion that communist agents were everywhere. In East Germany, it meant more films directly attacking the United States, or, more accurately, the large corporations that controlled the U.S. governments agendas (and still do, truth be told).
To its credit, one rarely saw the level of viciousness exhibited in DEFA films that one saw in the Red Scare films from Hollywood, but the role of film as a tool for teaching socialistic values became as important as its entertainment value. Thus began one of the duller periods of filmmaking in the GDR. In charge of DEFA during these doldrums was Hans Rodenberg a talented theater director and occasional actor, but also a hardcore Stalinist. How much input Rodenberg had into this stricter approach is hard to say, but he was a loyal party man, and certainly did nothing to rock the boat. The Story of Young Couple was made before Mr. Rodenberg became the general director at DEFA—and, in fact, features a brief performance by him as the American film director shooting an anti-communist film in West Berlin—but this film is a sign of things to come.
The Story of a Young Couple wasn’t the first DEFA film to promote a socialist agenda, but it was the most strident about it. At least until the Ernst Thälmann films, made a few years later (also directed by Kurt Maetzig). The low point comes when Agnes recites an ode to the newly named Stalinallee and the gloriousness of Stalin by the East German poet, KuBa (Kurt Barthel)—a cinematic moment that would assign the film to the closet after Khrushchev’s 1956 speech, “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” in which Khrushchev denounced Stalin.
At times, the attacks on the west in this film resemble the he said/she said nature of a divorce dispute. In one scene a sad-looking girls choir is forced to perform because they’ve been tricked by West Berlin agents into coming to the west, only to find it wasn’t what they expected. At this time, western media were accusing “East German spies” of kidnapping people off the streets of Berlin and taking them back to the GDR. There are plenty of verified cases of people in West Berlin unwittingly going to the east, only to find themselves arrested and imprisoned—primarily by the Russians (for more on this, see Ursula Rumin’s story in Destinies of Women)—but the idea of people hopping out of cars and dragging people off to the other side of the border was more urban myth than reality, and is used here to take a poke fun at Hollywood’s propaganda machine.
Reportedly, The Story of a Young Couple was made as a response to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, Les Mains sales (Dirty Hands).1 Sartre was a Marxist, and had even defended Stalin from time to time, but he had little use for the political repression being carried out in the name of communism. As far as he could tell, it was the situation of “meet the new boss; same as the old boss,” Les Mains sales was his response. Fellow Marxists were not happy with Sartre. In East Germany, it hit a little too close to home. In the film, the play is mentioned by name and attacked by Agnes after she is given a copy to see about performing in it.
One of the more entertaining aspects of this film is that it is a roman à clef (or film à clef if you prefer). Many of the characters in the film are based on real people and are only thinly disguised. According to the German Wikipedia page for this movie, Möbius is based on Wolfgang Langhoff, and Burmeister is based on Boleslaw Barlog. From what I know of these men, I suspect that this is exactly backwards. Like Barlog, Möbius is a wild-haired theater director, while Burmeister, like Langhoff, is clean-cut and shows more support for the GDR. The thinnest disguise of all is that of the Nazi-sympathizing director Hartmann, who is unmistakably Veit Harlan—the man who directed Kolberg and Jud Süß. Although they changed the name of the director, they discuss his films under their actual titles. Alwin Lippisch’s performance as Hartmann is a wicked parody of Harlan, who never did acknowledge any culpability for what happened in Germany during the Third Reich, and was later allowed to start making films again in West Germany (for more on Veit Harlan, see Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss).
What elevates The Story of a Young Couple above mere propaganda is the skill of its director, Kurt Maetzig. Maetzig was born with film in his blood. Maetzig’s father ran a company that made copies of films, and young Kurt would hang around and learn everything he could about the technical side of film production and development. Later, he studied chemistry and engineering at the Technical University of Munich, where he graduated with a doctorate degree with a dissertation titled “Das Rechnungswesen einer Film-Kopieranstalt” (“Accountancy of a film printing lab”). After college, returned to his father’s company for more hands-on work in the film industry. While there, he began making his own short films, cartoons, and movie title sequences.
As mentioned in the article on Marriage in the Shadows, Kurt Maetzig’s mother was Jewish, which made Maetzig an undesirable person. During the war, he joined the KPD (the German Communist Party), which, at that point, was essentially an underground organization. After the war, Mr. Maetzig saw an opportunity to rebuild the German film industry and return it to its pre-Hitler glory. He met with a group of like-minded filmmakers—including Boleslaw Barlog—at the Adlon Hotel and founded Filmaktiv, which spawned DEFA.
Maetzig was still a young director at this point. In The Story of a Young Couple, we see him experimenting with different techniques of editing, frame composition, camera angles, and the use of music. It doesn’t hurt that his cinematographer here is Karl Plintzner. Plintzner would go on to become the absolute master of vivid Agfacolor/Orwocolor films (see The Golden Goose), but here he shows that the he is no slouch when it comes to black-and-white filming either.
Playing the noble and unwavering Agnes Sailer, is Yvonne Merin, a striking actress who might have been one of the leading lights at DEFA, had she the stomach for it. At the time of this movie, she was married to Kurt Maetzig. She was discovered by Gerald Lamprecht and cast to star in Quartett zu fünft (From Quartet to Five). She caught the eye of Kurt Maetzig, who immediately cast her in his next two films, Girls in Gingham and The Council of the Gods. They were soon married, but by the time they made The Story of a Young Couple, the marriage was ending. Like the couple in the film, they were going in different directions. Ms. Merin was finding that acting wasn’t really her passion, and Mr. Maetzig already knew that filmmaking was his. They divorced and Ms. Merin dropped out of the film community, appearing only occasionally in films (she appeared briefly as the “lady with the dog” in A Lively Christmas Eve). She continued to work in theater, but found that her interesting in acting wasn’t as intense as the fire one needed to do a good job. She became an apprentice gardener at the Karl Foerster Garden in the Bornum borough of Potsdam. Although she continued to garden, the job paid poorly and she returned to DEFA as a dramaturge and occasional scriptwriter—primarily for educational films. It was during this time that she met Armin Georgi, a script editor at DEFA and also directed short films and documentaries for them. They were married and stayed married until her death in 2012. Kurt Maetzig died a month later.
You may recognize Willy A. Kleinau, who plays the opportunistic Dr. Plisch. He is one of the more memorable characters in The Council of the Gods. In that he played Mr. Lawson, the representative from Standard Oil who helps the Nazis fund their war effort. Mr. Kleinau seems custom-made to play capitalist pigs and he does it well. He manages to make Mr. Pitsch simultaneously reprehensible and likable, which is no small feat. He appeared in both West German and East German films, right up until his death in a car accident in 1957.
As one might expect, The Story of a Young Couple was thoroughly drubbed by the western press when it came out, but East German critics found it a bit too much to take. Like the overwrought dramatic style of the silent era, or the garish fashions off the seventies, this film’s main value today is as an historical document and a kitschy eyewitness to a different time. It is a testament to Maetzig’s talent as a director that it is still enjoyable and engaging almost sixty-five years later.
1. Die anderen deutsch-französischen Beziehungen. Die DDR und Frankreich 1949 – 1990, Ulrich Pfeil, Böhlau, January 2004.