Throughout its existence, the DEFA studio in East Germany released films that pushed the boundaries. Some of these, such as Divided Heaven, Farewell, In the Dust of the Stars, and The Airship would make it onto movie screens. A few were shelved, but it was was usually for political reasons rather than the film’s style. It would take the fall of the Wall for stylistic exploration to really open up at DEFA. Freed from the topical restraints imposed by the SED, East German directors briefly found themselves able to make the films they had always wanted to make. From 1990 until the film production company shuttered its doors, directors at DEFA had a freedom to stretch the boundaries of filmmaking in ways that they’d never had before and wouldn’t have again once the profit-before-art philosophy took over. These films didn’t follow the rules and weren’t afraid to challenge the viewer. We saw something similar in the West during the late sixties when Hollywood was no longer sure what would work at the box office and started letting directors push the boundaries; sometimes successfully (The Swimmer, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Bonnie and Clyde), and sometimes, er, interestingly (Skidoo, Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?).
One of the last films to come out of DEFA was Miraculi, but by that time the studio was foundering, and would only release a few more films before closing its doors. Like Latest from the Da-Da-R, and The Land Beyond the Rainbow, Miraculi is an amusing experimental film that shifts through time and space as it follows the misadventures of Sebastian Müller, who starts the film as part of a gang of kids, hanging around in the local pub and goes through some wacky changes, including a stint as a Jesus lookalike, in disguise to catch streetcar fare evaders. The story climaxes on the banks of a lake that has disappeared overnight, leaving a group of jaded party-goers wondering what happened.
The part about the lake is true. As the intertitle at the beginning of the film explains, on June 15, 1978, the Schwarzer See (Black Lake) near Sagsdorf, Germany vanished during the night. Locals reported hearing a rumbling sound, and the next morning the lake was gone. Years later, they figured out that a backhoe piling up gravel on one side of the lake caused the lake’s disappearance. The gravel pile created a displacement of the shaky clay layers under the lake, which then pushed the water in the lake into a nearby swamp, swallowing up the backhoe and beaching a boat. Eventually the lake returned, larger and shallower than before. Now trees eerily rise from under the water, and a road dips into the water, reappearing on the opposite bank.
There’s a natural tendency to compare East German films to well-known films from the West. Such comparisons are, by their nature, facile and inapt, but they do provide a way to quickly categorize films to either entice or repulse potential viewers. Thus we get In the Dust of the Stars compared to Barbarella, and Hot Summer compared to Beach Party. If one were to compare Miraculi to anything, it would have to be Last Year in Marienbad, with its band of decadent party-goers wandering around, talking without listening, all acting as if they are in a dream. As to this last aspect, Miraculi is less circumspect than Last Year in Marienbad.
Miraculi is directed by Ulrich Weiß, who started his career as an industrial photographer. After getting hired as an assistant cameraman for German television in 1964, Weiß went to the Film and Television Academy in Potsdam (Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen Potsdam, now the Filmuniversität Babelsberg). He began making short documentaries, but by the seventies he was making feature films. He scored his first big hit with Blue Bird (Blauvogel), the story of a white boy who is raised by the Indians and then returned to his family seven years later, but it was his film Your Unknown Brother that made the biggest splash. SED authorities weren’t crazy about this film. Ostensibly, it was a film about the Nazis, but with its tale of informants and personal betrayals, the story hit a little too close to home. As the Pogo cartoon strip once said: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The authorities weren’t keen on his next film—Ole Henry (Olle Henry)—either. Although there was nothing in it that specifically attacked either socialism or the East German government, the authorities couldn’t help but feel threatened by this tale of a barmaid and a boxer struggling to get by in post-WWII Germany. Without any formal acknowledgement of it, Weiß was blacklisted by DEFA. Weiß had wanted to make Miraculi before the Wall came down, but like all of his ideas after Ole Henry, the proposal was rejected. With the fall of the Wall, Weiß saw an opportunity to finally make the film and he ran with it. Unfortunately for Weiß, the same thing that gave him the opportunity to make this film also put an end to his career as a feature film director. He made a few short documentaries after the Wende, and taught at the Film and Television Academy in Potsdam, but his directing career was effectively over.
The film’s main character Sebastian Müller is played by Volker Ranisch. Ranisch was born in 1966 in Karl-Mark-Stadt (now Chemnitz). He studied at the Theater Academy in Leipzig and joined a local theater shortly thereafter. His film career began right before the Wall came down, when he played the young policeman Julian in Frank Beyer’s The Break. He appeared on several of the final films put out by DEFA, and started working on formerly West German TV shows such as Tatort and The Old Fox. He continues to work in films and television.
The cast for Miraculi features some of East Germany’s best character actors, including Barbara Dittus, Arno Wyzniewski, and Karin Gregorek. Stefanie Stappenbeck also appears in a small role as a surveyor at the end of the film. Stappenbeck got her start on East German television, but would go on to a highly successful career in German films after the Wende. Also appearing in the film, albeit briefly, is Käthe Reichel. Reichel was best known for her work with Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel at their Berliner Ensemble. She continued to work in theater throughout her life, and became an outspoken critic against the misuses of power that plagued the SED during its later years in control of East Germany. She was one of the organizers of the demonstration for freedom and democracy on November 4, 1989 at Alexanderplatz.
Weiß had finished Miraculi in 1990, but it would be two years before the film found a distributor. Like most of the post-Wende films that came out of DEFA, the public reacted to the film with indifference. Miraculi played for five days before closing. It would be years before this film would receive the attention it deserved. Even today, the film is not nearly as well known as it should be. If your taste in movies runs toward the surreal, odd, and amusing, you’ll want to see this film.
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