With the notable exception of horror movies, the East German film industry (that is to say, DEFA) made films of nearly every genre from westerns to science fiction; from thrillers to romantic comedies. If it were a Hollywood film, Jana and Jan (Jana und Jan) would be categorized as a women-in-prison film, but without the usual salaciousness and exploitation attached to that genre. It has the usual tropes for these films: the prison social hierarchy, girl fights, and shower scenes, but nothing is Jana and Jan is played for leers or laughs. It is a grim and gray film, with cinematography to match.
The film starts in 1989, when 15-year-old Jan (René Guß) is brought to a juvenile detention center after getting caught trying to flee to West Germany. There he meets Jana (Kristin Scheffer), a tough 17-year-old who sleeps with Jan on a dare. Jana gets pregnant, and then decides at the last minute to have the child. During their incarceration, the Wall opens, and the teens at the detention center are optimistic that this will improve things for them. Jana’s emotionally fragile prisonmate Julia (Julia Brendler) dreams of being reunited with the mother in the West. Jan and Jana decide to strike out on their own in search of a better place to live, but the future for them doesn’t look any better now than it did before the Wall came down.
Director Helmut Dziuba had started working on the script for this film before the Wall came down, but the events at the time led him to rewrite the story to include the Wende, making the narrative even bleaker. He seems to be saying here that when the Wall was up, at least there was a promise of a better life on the other side of the border, but now there is nothing to look forward to except bleakness and death. Not exactly feel-good material.
It is questionable that the script would have seen the light of day before the Wall fell. Even in the final days of the foundering republic, discussion of the topic of trying to cross the border was a touchy one. The Flight managed to get away with it because it showed the fatal futility of trying to do so, and the evil avariciousness of the gangs that arrange these escape efforts.1
Director Helmut Dziuba hails from Dresden and got started as a high-voltage electrician before moving to Moscow to study film at the Moscow Film Academy (VGIK). He worked in radio and television in Moscow before returning to East Germany and joining DEFA. He served as an assistant director to Frank Beyer and Günter Reisch before taking on his own film productions. Like Herrmann Zschoche, Dziuba is known for his clear-eyed films about young people, but while Zschoche continued his career in television, Jana and Jan was Dziuba’s last film as a director. He did continue to write, and his script for Bernd Sahling’s Die Blindgänger (The Blind Flyers) won several awards around the world. Dziuba died in 2012.
It was also the last film for cinematographer Helmut Bergmann. Bergmann’s older brother was Werner Bergmann, who helped Helmut get his first job as a cameraman at DEFA back in the fifties. Helmut didn’t disappoint. Unlike some cinematographers who have a specific style, Bergmann could make the look fit the subject matter, whether it was the vivid colors of Love’s Confusion, or the drabness of Jana and Jan. In Bergmann’s case, the end of career had less to do with the fall of the Wall than it did with his age. He was already 66 when Jana and Jan came out. He died in 1998 in Potsdam. Bergmann was married to Bärbl Bergmann, DEFA’s first female director.
Also like Herrmann Zschoche (see Seven Freckles), Helmut Dziuba liked to use untested young people in lead roles. Kristin Scheffer and René Guß were both new to acting, and they never made another film. Jana and Jan wasn’t the first film for Julia Brendler, though, or even her first Helmut Dziuba film. She had starred in his previous film Forbidden Love, in which Brendler plays a 13-year-old girl who is in love with an 18-year-old boy. Brendler is a strong screen presence, and the only thing wrong with that is that it threatens to pull attention away from the main characters. Unlike the two leads in the film, Brendler has gone on to have a highly successful career in films and television in unified Germany. Nor was Jana and Jan the first film for Karin Gregorek, who plays one of the prison administrators. Gregorek started in films in 1963, and continued acting after the Wende, primarily in television. With her unique looks and acting talent, I have no doubt she would have been part of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s troupe of regulars had she been born in the West.
Jana and Jan went on to win the Special Youth Award at the San Remo Film Festival, with Dziuba winning the Bavarian Film Award for Best Director in 1993. It’s an excellent film, but it’s gray-green color palette and unrelenting pessimism make it a difficult film to watch, and not one that will be everybody’s—or even most people’s—taste.
1. I should point out here that no East German official would ever categorize the attempts to leave East Germany as “escaping.” Escape attempts were characterized as desertions and border violations, and the people who helped others escape were “human traffickers” (Menschenhändleren).
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