In The Airship (Das Luftschiff), director Rainer Simon looks at the creative urge, how it drives a person forward, and how it can cloud their vision, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. It is a wildly experimental film with a narrative that jumps back and forth in time and features direct-on-film animation. The film follows the adventures of Chico, a young boy who is trying to find his grandfather Franz Xavier Stannebein, an inventor who had tried to build a new type of aircraft before World War II. Stannebein wasn’t interested in war machines. He wanted to make a kind of flying hotel similar to the old zeppelins, but without the flammability problem. When he tried to get money for his project from Germany, he was duped into building a landing strip in Spain for the Condor Legion—a unit of the German airforce sent to help Francisco Franco win the Spanish Civil War. When Stannebein protested, he was thrown into a lunatic asylum. Chico sets off across the countryside to reunite with his grandfather at the asylum. Throughout the film the story jumps back and forth between Chico’s travels and Stannebein’s monomaniacal efforts to get his airship built. The film reaches its climax when Chico reaches the asylum and finds out what really happened to his grandfather.
The Airship is based on a book by Fritz Rudolf Fries—one of the most talented writers to come out of East Germany. Born in Bilbao, Spain, Fries moved to Leipzig when he was seven. There, he went to school at the Karl Marx University. He was fluent in four languages (German, French, Spanish and English), so he quickly found work as a translator. His first book, Der Weg nach Oobliadooh (The road to Oobliadooh) was denied publication in East Germany, but he was able to get it published in West Germany. The book was an immediate hit, and was translated into several other languages, including English. This didn’t endear him to the powers that be in East Germany. It cost him his job, but they recognized that they had a writer of immense talent whose work didn’t make any obvious statements about GDR politics. The books that followed were all printed in East Germany, including The Airship. The fall of the Wall did nothing to slow down Fries’ output, until 1996, when it was revealed that he had worked as an informer for the Stasi. Interest in his work cooled down rapidly after that, until 2010 with the publication of Last Exit to El Paso, which was well received by critics. Fries died in 2014, at which time, Sebastian Hammelehle wrote for Der Spiegel: “German-language literature not only loses a unique author, but also one whose work has not yet been discovered in its entirety.” (“Die deutschsprachige Literatur verliert mit ihm nicht nur einen einzigartigen Autor, sondern auch einen, dessen Werk in seiner ganzen Größe noch gar nicht entdeckt ist.”).
This was Rainer Simon’s first film since Jadup and Boel. Perhaps the folks at DEFA figured he would toe the line a little better after being slapped down for making that film. They were mistaken. If anything, this film is a stronger indictment of the GDR than Jadup and Boel was, especially given the fact that, like the Nazis in The Airship, the East German government sometimes used the charge of insanity to locked up people who were political nuisances. But because it was set in Germany during the War years, the folks at DEFA either didn’t see the connection, or didn’t want to acknowledge it.
The film features a strong cast that includes Katrin Knappe, Kurt Böwe, Timo Jakob, and Gudrun Ritter, all of whom had appeared in Jadup and Boel as well. Additionally, the cast includes Johanna Schall, Arno Wyzniewski, and Hermann Beyer—some of the best actors who hadn’t left East Germany yet. The boy who plays Chico (Daniel Roth) made one for film with Rainer Simon (The Woman and the Stranger), but appears to have dropped out of acting after that.
In Der Freitag, film critic Heinz Kersten called The Airship, “The first full-length experimental film made by DEFA.” Technically, this isn’t completely true. Farewell is also experimental—especially given that it was made shortly after the 11th Plenum—and other films such as The Robe, The Gleiwitz Case, and Divided Heaven have strong experimental aspects in them as well. But it is the first to be made with the assistance of an actual experimental film artist: Lutz Dammbeck. At that time, Dammbeck was making a name for himself with his animations in which he scratched images directly onto the film à la Norman McLaren or Stan Brakhage. Born in Leipzig in 1948, Dammbeck trained as typesetter and studied graphic design at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig. He has created art in several disciplines including, film, painting, collage, and multimedia. He began creating direct-to-film animations in the early seventies, painstakingly scratching animations onto individual frames of film.
For the flashback scenes, cinematographer Roland Dressel uses the same technique he used in Jadup and Boel, blurring the edges of the image, as if the memory of events is starting to fade; but because that film wasn’t released in the GDR until 1988, The Airship was the first time audiences saw this effect. Dressel was trained as a photographer, and spent fifteen years as an assistant cameraman with the likes of Jan Čuřík, Werner Bergmann, Joachim Hasler, and Erich Gusko before stepping into the role of DP. He started in television, but he quickly gained a name for himself and became Rainer Simon’s cinematographer of choice. His work on The Airship garnered him the award for best cinematography at the 1984 Eberswalde Film Festival. Dressel continued to work on films, and won the Gold Prize for cinematography in 1994 for Michael Gwisdek’s Abschied von Agnes (Farewell to Agnes). After the Wende—like virtually ever other East German cinematographer—Dressel found it hard to find feature film jobs and returned to television, but he was too good to stay there for long as was soon making feature films again. He retired in 2000.
The Airship is a unique film, and although it may not be the first experimental DEFA film, it did signal a trend in that direction. A trend that would crest shortly after the Wall came down with films such as Latest from the Da-Da-R, Miraculi, and The Land Beyond the Rainbow.
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