The final years of East Germany’s existence saw a relaxing of the restrictions on what could be filmed and what couldn’t. After the Wende, DEFA continued to exist for a few years, and continued to make films using the same stable of technicians and actors, but now they could make films about the one thing that was always taboo in the GDR: The government itself. We saw tentative steps in this direction with The Tango Player, which was also made after reunification, but that was more of a look at a certain time in East Germany’s history rather than an indictment of the system. The Latest from the Da-Da-eR was more acerbic, but Mensching & Wenzel were equal opportunity mockers, so their film was as hard on the West as it was on the East. Leave it to Heiner Carow to come out with both barrels blazing with The Mistake (Verfehlung). There’s no misinterpreting who the bad guy is here—he’s an East German government official who uses the power of his position for his own petty vendetta.
The Mistake follows the adventures and misadventures of Elisabeth Bosch, a tough widow who works as a cleaning lady for the mayor of a dying East German town. The mayor, whose name is Reimelt, is secretly in love with Elisabeth, but never does anything to show it until a West German stranger named Jacob Alain shows up in town. Alain is from Hamburg, and is in the town on business. He first notices Elisabeth while she is playing with her two grandsons in her backyard. The woman and the two kids are naked, and she’s not happy with the sudden attention of a stranger. Later, she runs into him at the mayor’s office, and the couple’s relationship gets off to a rocky start. Eventually, they start to like each other, causing Riemelt to takes steps to prevent the couple from seeing each other, sparking a series of events that turn fatal.
The title of this film is impossible to translate adequately into English. It is translated for the DVD into The Mistake, but Verfehlung can also be translated as Misconduct, Transgression, or even Bad Judgement. Carow plays on all of these meanings, and he does so for all sides of the story. Is the mistake Elisabeth’s? The mayor’s? Or the GDR’s? There are plenty of mistakes to go around. One Verfehlung leads to another in a downward spiral.
The Mistake is based on a novella by Werner Heiduczek. Director Heiner Carow started working on this film as a project before the Wall came down, but Heiduczek also often wrote about the problems encountered by gay people in East German society. Carow thought that a film about the gay scene in Berlin stood a better chance of getting made than one about an evil government official, so he decided to make his next film on that subject instead. The film was Coming Out, which went on to win Silver Bear and Teddy awards at the Berlinale. After the Wende, Carow returned to The Mistake, recognizing a rare opportunity to make this film. The East German government was now a thing of the past, but DEFA was still making movies, usually in association with West German production companies. It was around this time that DEFA was sold to the French conglomerate Compagnie Générale des Eaux (now Vivendi). There were a few more DEFA films in the pipeline, but the valve was shut.
The film stars Angelica Domröse, who is always worth watching. Domröse had left East Germany in 1980, following the Wolf Biermann protest letter incident (see The Story of a Murder for more on Domröse). This was her first DEFA film in twelve years, and she gives it her all. Jacob Alain is portrayed by West German actor Gottfried John, who will be familiar to many filmgoers as one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s regulars, appearing in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, In a Year with 13 Moons, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and other Fassbinder films. The weaselly mayor Riemelt is played by Jörg Gudzuhn, an East German character actor who appeared in many movies and television shows. He is best known in Germany now for his portrayal of Kommissar Joe Hoffer in the popular TV series Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness).
The Mistake would be Heiner Carow’s last film for DEFA, and his last feature film, period. He used much of the same core group of technicians on this film that he used on Coming Out, including his wife Evelyn Carow, one of the best film editors in East Germany, his son Stefan, a talented musician in his own right, and cinematographer Martin Schlesinger. Also here is Dirk Kummer, who worked as both an actor and assistant director in both films.
After this, Heiner Carow would work only in television, mostly on series shows, but he did direct Fähre in den Tod (Ferry to Death)—a TV-movie about the Estonia ferry tragedy, the deadliest peacetime shipwreck in European waters (sadly, not available with English subtitles). That film would be Evelyn Carow’s last movie. Stefan Carow, meanwhile, has moved to Los Angeles where he continues to compose and perform. Martin Schlesinger works primarily in television these days, as does Dirk Kummer, who has mostly continued to work as an assistant director, but recently sat in the director’s chair for the TV movie Zuckersand, which just won the award for best TV movie at the Munich International Film festival (Filmfest München).
The Mistake is sometimes compared to Heiner Carow’s earlier film, The Legend of Paul and Paula. There are some similarities. Both Paula and Elisabeth are part of the East German working class1, and both characters are little too passionate for their own good (although in Paula’s case, that passion hurts only her); but it is more similar to another Angelica Domröse film—Joachim Hasler’s The Story of a Murder. In that film, Domröse also plays a woman who seeks revenge on the man who destroyed her life in much the same way. Since The Story of a Murder takes place in West Germany, the East German authorities had no problems presenting the political official as evil, but The Mistake takes place in East Germany. There’s no way it would have seen the light of day before the Wall came down.
Unfortunately for this film, it came out at a time when no one wanted to hear anything about how things were in the GDR. The film only saw 8,208 paying customers according to one source. Coming, as it did, after reunification, but before Ostalgie, the film died a quick death at the box office and is largely forgotten today. The film certainly deserves more attention and will, hopefully, some day receive it.
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1. East Germany, of course, prided itself on having done away with class structure, but, in fact, one still existed. Those working in menial jobs did not have the same perks as the so-called intelligentsia, or the people in political offices.
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