While DEFA was far better at interpreting famous fairytales on film than Hollywood ever was, the fact is, many of the classics are so grotesque that any movie that did them justice would not be considered suitable for children. One such example is Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (Le avventure di Pinocchio). The story started life as a newspaper serial, and eventually was turned into a book. In the original newspaper serial, the story ends after Pinocchio is hanged, but the serial proved to be so popular, that Collodi granted the wooden boy a reprieve via the Blue Fairy, and went on the add more chapters to the story, culminating in the Blue Fairy granting Pinocchio’s wish to be a real boy. In the book, the talking cricket (“Jiminy” in the Disney version) is crushed by Pinocchio early on, the wooden boy has his feet burned off at one point, the Fox and the Cat attempt to force Pinocchio to spit his gold coins out his mouth by hanging him, and when that doesn’t work, the cat tries to pry the coins out of the puppet’s mouth, only to have his paw bitten off. The book is filled with this sort of mayhem. I read this book when I was in the seventh grade and it astounded me. When my classmates made fun of me for reading a “kid’s book” I told them, “You don’t understand. This book is not what you think!”
The most famous film version of Collodi’s story is, of course, Walt Disney’s version. It is considered by many to be the best animated film that Disney ever created. Disney follows the original story better than most of his fairytale adaptations, but he still omits the gorier details. No paws are bitten off, and the cricket not only survives the film, he goes on to have a long career of his own in educational films.
The East German version—which, for some inexplicable reason, was renamed Turlis Abenteur (Turli’s Adventure)—stays truer to the story, but also omits some of the gorier aspects of the book. Like the book, the film follows the adventures of a wooden boy carved from a magical piece of wood by puppetmaker Geppetto (called “Kasimir” in the East German version). Geppetto dresses the wooden boy up, names him “Pinocchio” (“Turli” in the German version—short for “Arturo”), and has him go to school. On the way to school, he encounters the Fox and the Cat, who convince him to sell them his textbooks so he can go see a traveling puppet show that is in town. Little does he realize that the Fox and Cat are buying textbooks to give to Stromboli (called “Muriel” in the German version) so he can burn them. Stromboli has a thriving business in taking kids who’d rather play and eat candy, and turning the into donkeys to perform in his circus. It isn’t long before Pinocchio and his friends are enticed by Stromboli’s playland and are transmogrified into donkeys. After Pinocchio escapes from Stromboli’s circus, he goes after Geppetto, who has been eaten by a giant fish. Pinocchio helps Geppetto get out of the fish and, for his bravery, the puppet is granted his wish to become a real boy.
Unlike the Disney version, this Pinocchio is a live action film. Making a live action film where humans interact with a puppet is no small task. Credit must be given to puppeteers Radko Haken and Klara Hakenová, who came from the Spejbl and Hurvinek Theater in Czechoslovakia. What these two do with the puppets is uncanny. Getting a marionette to walk across the room is one thing, and takes skill on its own, but they take it a step further with hand gestures and body postures that bring Pinocchio to life.
Different mouths were used to change Pinocchio’s expression, which required cutting away each time the puppet needed to change its expression. Director Walter Beck handles this spectacularly well, but some credit must be given to film editor Margrit Brusendorf, who was working on her first feature film. Brusendorf went on to have a long and successful career, but like many of the other East German film editors, the transition after the Wende proved to be impossible. She made one film after DEFA closed its doors, Alien in Germany (Fremdsein in Deutschland), for Cut Out Filmproduktion, a short-lived company created and staffed by East Germans.
Walter Beck was born in Mannheim, but grew up in Berlin. He got his start at DEFA working in dubbing and assisting on documentary films. Eventually he moved into the feature film department and by the end of the fifties was directing his own feature films. He quickly became established as the director of films for children and young people. Some of these were fairytale films—including King Thrushbeard (König Drosselbart), The Frog Prince (Froschkönig), and Sleeping Beauty (Dornröschen)—and some were stories based on historical events told from the viewpoints of children, including Käuzchenkuhle (Owl’s Hole), Trini, and Des Henkers Bruder (The Hangman’s Brother). Beck was sixty when the Wende occurred, so he probably would have retired soon anyway, but the end of East Germany, and the shunting off of that countries best talent into the television arena likely helped force an early retirement on him. He currently lives in Blankenfelde near Berlin.
Pinocchio was one of the first DEFA films to be picked up by and American film distributor, Independent producer/director Ron Merk. Merk was the first person to recognize the potential value of the East German fairytale films on the U.S. market. He contacted DEFA through their U.S. sales representative Jerry Rappaport’s International Film Exchange and asked to see any children’s animated short films that were available for the US market. They did better than that—they shipped him a print of a feature film that turned out to be Pinocchio. Merk purchased the rights from Rappoport, then with his wife, Ellen, wrote an English adaptation and had it dubbed using New York stage actors who did a far better job on this film than the dubbing teams responsible for the spaghetti westerns and kung fu features at the time. The film was distributed through Barry Yellen’s Childhood Productions, a rival distributor to K. Gordon Murray. The film opened during a blizzard in the middle of one of the coldest Winters New York City had seen in a while. In spite of this, the film did gangbuster business and helped raise the profile of the East German fairytales on the American market.
Unlike fellow children’s film distributor K. Gordon Murray, who also adapted and distributed DEFA films, but tended to take a meat cleaver to them, Merk leaves the original DEFA film mostly intact, changing only the songs, and removing one scene involving drunk children. The songs in the original film were very German sounding. Merk didn’t think they’d fly with the American audience, so he created new ones.
The success of the film convinced Merk to follow it up with more Pinocchio films featuring Pinocchio getting into various scrapes and having new adventures. Merk chose to follow the same puppet design as the East German film’s Czech-designed one, giving him a slightly different head of hair and adding a movable jaw to eliminate the time-consuming mouth replacements. The theme song from the first film (“A Boy Named Pinocchio”) was popular with children, so Merk used it in his three additional Pinocchio films. As Hiltrud Schulz from the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst noted, “Who knew, in the late 1960s, that this famous “American” Pinocchio was born in East Germany and had Czech parents?”
Watch on YouTube (in English, in eight parts).
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