A: Because you had to wait twelve years for the getaway car.
So goes the joke, poking fun at the rather astounding wait times for purchasing automobiles in the GDR. In East Germany, you basically had two choices when it came to purchasing a car: The Wartburg and the Trabant. The Trabant was the cheaper of the two, and were made in greater quantities. Both cars were pretty awful. The Wartburg had three cylinders to the Trabbi’s two, making it—potentially—the more powerful of the two, but it was also heavier, having a metal body instead of the cotton and resin Duroplast of the Trabants. Both were two-strokes, meaning you had to mix the oil and gas, and the pollution was awful. You could get a car from one of the other Eastern Bloc nations, such as a Lada from Russia or Skoda from Czechoslovakia, but this could take even longer, and was viewed with some derision.1 Making a film that mines the long wait times involved in getting Wartburgs for comedy would have been vetoed by the film review board in earlier times, but things were beginning to loosen up again at DEFA.
Driving School (Fahrschule) is the story of Horst Steinköhler, a die-hard pedestrian who would rather walk where he needs to go than drive a car. Horst’s friend Lothar is getting a divorce. Lothar wants Horst to buy his car from him to help him through the divorce, telling Horst he will buy it back later when he gets back on solid footing. Horst is reluctant, but eventually agrees. Meanwhile, Horst’s wife Gisela has received the news that she is next in line to purchase a new Wartburg. Gisela had put in her name on the waiting list to buy the car when their daughter—now a teenager—was born. Horst and Gisela plan to surprise each other with their purchases. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, they both end up with the same driving instructor. Soon, Horst starts to suspect that something’s going on between Gisela and the driving instructor. Throughout the film we hear the music of Così fan tutte—Mozart’s comic opera on infidelity.
The film is based on a radio play by Bernd Schirmer. Schirmer did several radio plays along with some legitimate theater in East Germany. From 1969 to 1972, he taught German studies at the University of Algiers. After that, he returned to Germany where he worked as a dramaturge for DFF, the state-owned East German television station. Schirmer continues to write novels, plays, teleplays, and theater pieces.
Coming as it did from a radio play, much of the humor is in the dialog, but director Bernhard Stephan has done a good job of “opening up” the radio play with purely visual humor. Stephan is a part of a group of East German filmmakers commonly referred to as the “Nachwuchsgeneration”—Baby Boomers essentially. This was the first generation that grew up with little or no personal experience of World War II. The country they grew up in was the GDR. Hitler was, as far they were concerned, an aberration of the past. For the most part, they learned their craft at the film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg, and started working for DEFA in intern capacities with the promise of someday getting to make their own films for the production company. There was just one catch: DEFA’s director ranks were already filled with talented directors and new positions rarely opened up.
Born in 1943, Stephan was a little older than most of the other new generation of East German filmmakers, which probably put him in a better position to get started at DEFA than those born a few years later. He had began directing TV shows in 1972, and moved on to films from there. While some of the younger filmmakers found it hard to get traction in reunited Germany, owing to the anti-Ossi prejudice of the West Germans, Stephan did better than most. He hit the ground running with the 1991 ZDF TV-movie Tandem, and went on to direct many television shows, most notably, Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness), which starred Ulrich Mühe (The Lives of Others).
Horst Steinköhler is played by Jörg Gudzuhn, a slightly nerdy-looking character actor who usually played supporting roles. He primarily worked in television, so the unification of Germany had less impact on his career than those who had been used to starring roles in feature films. He continues to work in television, and was a regular on Bernhard Stephan’s The Last Witness. Gisela is played by the beautiful Hungarian actress Kata Kánya. Kánya starred in several films throughout the seventies. After the fall of communism, Kánya became a became a well-known television personality, and romance counselor. Today in Hungary, she is better known in this capacity than as an actor.
It was difficult to find anything out about Peggy Röder, who played the daughter Carola. She appears to have been a singer, first and foremost. As near as I can tell, this was her only film appearance, but because her last name is often spelled “Roeder” to accommodate systems that can’t handle umlauts, her statistics are included on IMDB under those for the American actress Peggy Roeder. They are not the same person.
Like that other film about vehicles and romance, Beloved White Mouse, Driving School was filmed in and around Dresden. We do get a few shots of Dresden street life, including the Semperoper and downtown areas of the Innere Altstadt. Although it is never stated, Horst appears to work at the German Hygiene Museum (Deutsches Hygiene-Museum) off of Blüherstraße. The film received positive reviews and garnered Jörg Gudzuhn a best leading actor award at the Eberswalde Film Festival.
The film does not appear to be available on DVD at this time, but you can watch it here.
1. There is even a comedy on this subject—Einfach Blumen aufs Dach (Just Put Flowers on the Roof), which examines of the misadventures a man encounters after he purchases an old Russian limousine.
© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.