Until Death Do Us Part (Bis daß der Tod euch scheidet)1 is the story of a couple whose mad love for each other smashes headlong into the husband’s patriarchal value system. It’s an old story. Throughout history men have been telling women it’s “my way or the highway,” usually with bad results. According to some sources, this film is based on a true story. Unlike the true stories chosen by Hollywood though, this is a story that plays out every day in one form or another: A husband and wife fight and do something they shouldn’t as a result. In truth, it hardly matters whether it is based on a true story or not; it will play out in some form again and again all over the world.
Until Death Do Us Part starts with the marriage of Jens and Sonja, whose passion for each verges on addiction at times (of course the Germans have a word for this: Liebessucht). After the birth of their first child, Sonja starts to pine for a regular job, but Jens takes the old “no wife of mine is going to work” position. When Sonja decides to ignore this, things start to get ugly and the perfect marriage turns into the perfect nightmare.
As discussed elsewhere on this blog, East Germany did a far better job of addressing the inequalities between men and women than West Germany, but director Heiner Carow lets us know in the opening minutes that things still had a long way to go when the marriage officiant requests that the bride acknowledge she will give up her name for that of her husband. Carow also does a good job of providing motivations for all the characters, although there’s no escaping the fact that Jens is a jerk.
Director Carow’s films are some of the most forward-thinking works to come out of East Germany during the seventies and eighties. He is best known for The Legend of Paul and Paula, which was one of the few films to look at social inequalities in the GDR. In 1989, he made Coming Out, which examines the problems faced by a gay man coming to terms with his sexuality in East Germany. In all of his films the message the is clear: Love requires honesty, not just to your partner, but to your own needs as well. He also had an uncanny eye for showing how people behave when they think no one is looking. Watch Katrin Saß’s performance as she is trying to get ready for her husband’s return from work. It is a guileless performance that seems completely unaware of the camera.
Mr. Carow studied filmmaking under Slatan Dudow and Gerhard Klein. As with many DEFA directors, he started with shorts, then moved to feature films. His first feature was Sheriff Teddy, based on Benno Pludra’s children’s book of the same name. He followed this with Sie nannten ihn Amigo (They called him Amigo), another young adult story of a boy who comes into conflict with the Nazis when he harbors a fugitive from a concentration camp. In 1966, his film Die Reise nach Sundevit (The Trip to Sundevit) was one of the few that made it past the 11th Plenum’s clamp down. He was not so lucky with his next film, Die Russen kommen (The Russians are Coming), which was banned outright. Carow used some of the footage from the film to make another movie titled Karriere (Career) with poor results. The film was thought to have been destroyed but it wasn’t. Mr. Carow’s wife and editor extraordinaire, Evelyn Carow, kept a working copy in her files. The film was finally released in 1987.
Mr. Carow chose two unknown actors to star in Until Death Do Us Part: Martin Seifert and Katrin Saß. Using unknown actors in the primary roles is an effective technique for giving a story verisimilitude. A marital drama starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio automatically distances us from the topic at hand, no matter how compelling the story. We are familiar Winslet and Leonardo and we know they are not married, and no matter how well they do their jobs, some part of our brains keep the story in check with this knowledge. With unknown actors the opposite is true. We don‘t know the actors and part of our brains wonder if the story is, in fact, a real one. This is the one aspect of indie films that makes them so compelling. But the effectiveness of this technique rests heavily on the acting chops of the two leads. Fortunately for us, Mr. Seifert and Ms. Saß are up to the task. Both would go to have long and successful acting careers.
Mr. Seifiert has the unenviable task of portraying Jens, whose values are seriously out of whack. That he manages to gives this reprehensible character a shred of sympathy is a testament to his talent. Mr. Seifert followed the usual East German acting career path, working in theater before he moved to film. Mr. Seifert had done some work in television, but this was his first feature film. He went on to appear in several more DEFA films, usually in supporting roles. Like most of the DEFA film community, he found work after the Wende hard to come by, and when it did, it came in the form of television roles, including Andreas Dresen’s gritty and grainy TV-movie Policewoman, in which he and Katrin Saß are paired up as an arguing couple—Dresen’s little in-joke.
Katrin Saß was only twenty-three when she made this movie. The daughter of theater actress Marga Heiden, Ms. Saß had done some stage work before making this film, but this was her first time in front of the camera. She is cute as a pixie and conveys the character with just the right mix of inner strength and vulnerability needed to pull off the role. Ms. Saß went on to appear in several more films for DEFA, and then, after the Wende, kept right on working on stage and in television, most notably appearing as police commissioner Tanja Voigt on the popular East German cop show Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110). By 1998, years of drinking and burning the candle at both ends finally caught up with her. She collapsed and landed in the hospital. At this point she finally came to terms with her alcoholism, joined AA and became a spokesperson for the German branch of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA). In the west, she is best known for playing the mother in Wolfgang Becker’s popular film, Good Bye Lenin! In 2007, Ms. Saß changed the spelling of her name back to its original “Sass.” The use of the ß in her name, she said, was by edict of the East German government, which felt that a name ending in “ss” looked too much like the Schutzstaffel sigil used by the Nazi secret police.
Until Death Do Us Part also features two of East Germany’s best actresses, Angelica Domröse and Renate Krößner. At the time this movie was made, Ms. Domröse was already in trouble with the government for signing the protest against Wolf Biermann’s expatriation, this was making it hard for her to find work at DEFA, but that didn’t stop Mr. Carow from hiring her. She was, after all, the star of The Legend of Paul and Paula, his most successful movie. Ms. Krößner was not as well known yet, but that would change the following year when she starred in Konrad Wolf’s Solo Sunny. Here she plays an interesting character who seems to be as much in love with Sonja and Jens is.
Until Death Do Us Part was not the smash hit that The Legend of Paul and Paula had been, but it did reasonably well at the box office considering its downbeat mood and cynical outlook. This is not a feel-good movie by any stretch (neither is The Legend of Paul and Paula really, but at least that one manages to fool us into thinking it is). It is, at times, bleak and depressing, but it also confronts the subject of leftover male chauvinism in the GDR without blinking or soft-pedaling it. There were times in the history of the German Democratic Republic when this film would have wound up in storage, but let’s face it, it would never get made in the United States at all.
1. I’m using the title of the film as it appears on the English-subtitled version. Being an old-school kind of guy, who likes to look up his pronunciations in Webster’s Second, I would have stuck with the the original wording of the phrase as it appears in the The Book of Common Prayer: “Till Death Us Do Part.”