Ask the average American who Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is, and you’ll either get: “He was a writer, wasn’t he?” Or: “I don’t know.” A well-read American might be familiar with Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther, but that’s about it. In Germany, on the other hand, Goethe resides deep in the soul. He’s as important to German culture as Shakespeare is to English culture—perhaps even more so. Along with a healthy appreciation of good of beer and a fascination with all things American Indian, the love of Goethe is common to East and West Germans alike. His attitude that logic and reason, rather than tradition and religion, should govern one’s actions helped keep him popular on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
In 1974, East Germany’s film company DEFA had already made a historical fable (Wolz), an operetta (Orpheus in the Underworld), two fairytales (Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella, and Hans Roeckle and the Devil), a contemporary comedy, (The Naked Man on the Sports Field), and an Indian film (Ulzana). It was about time to tackle another costume drama, so why not Goethe? The book that director Siegfried Kühn chose to adapt was Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften), Goethe’s story of 19th Century aristocrats engaging in interpersonal relationships and extramarital affairs. East German television had made a couple TV movies based on his work (Urfaust starring Manfred Krug as Mephisto, and Iphigenie auf Tauris), but Elective Affinities was the first East German feature film based on one of the writer’s books. It was also—as it happens—the first time this book had been made into a film (although not the last).
Elective Affinities gets its title from an old chemistry term intended to explain why certain chemical combinations reacted with each other, while others did not. Goethe was a man of many interests in the arts and the sciences. He wrote poetry, plays, and novels, as well as literary critiques and scientific treatises. He filled books with drawings and thoughts, and corresponded voraciously. He saw relationships between everything from emotions and the color spectrum, to human behavior and chemistry. As far as Goethe was concerned, human relationships exhibited the same seemingly arbitrary attractions as chemical affinities, with people shedding one relationship in favor of another when the right catalyst is added to the mix.
The story takes place during the Napoleonic Wars and follows the exploits of Baron Eduard (Hilmar Thate) and his wife Charlotte (Beata Tyszkiewicz). Both are now in their second marriage. The marriage isn’t unhappy, but it isn’t particularly exciting either. To enliven things, Eduard invites his old friend Captain Otto (Gerry Wolff) to stay and Charlotte invites her niece Ottilie (Magda Vásáryová). Eduard and Ottilie are immediately attracted to each other, as are Charlotte and the Captain. As one might expect, things go to hell in a handcart after that.
Elective Affinities is a subtle book and not the most likely Goethe novel to be turned into a movie, (that honor would have to go to Faust, which has been adapted at least twenty-five times). The fact that director Kühn brought it in at less than two hours is impressive; Francis Ford Coppola once toyed with idea of making a ten-hour, 3D version of the story. Kühn strips the story down to its primary elements, and changes a few things for cinematic effect. He tempers the most shocking death in the book in the book by having it occur off-screen, and the maid is removed from the story entirely—presumably for socialist reasons—which also removes an important supernatural-seeming element from the story (whether Goethe meant it to be actually supernatural is a topic for debate).
Goethe considered Elective Affinities to be his best book. If there is a flaw in the book, it’s that Goethe wrote it in the third person; it should have been written from Eduard’s point of view. What we have here is the classic unreliable narrator, on a par with Humbert Humbert in Lolita, but here the unreliable narrator is Goethe. Ottilie comes off as almost too saintly to exist in the real world. No one is that good and pure. So who is the inspiration for the saintly Ottilie? The most likely candidate is Minna Herzlieb, the eighteen-year-old foster daughter of a book publisher in Jena. Goethe was gaga over the teenager and wrote sonnets to her. Several men vied for her attention, but she ended up marrying a law professor and settling into a miserable existence, eventually losing her mind and spending the last years of her life in a mental institution in Görlitz.
Siegfried Kühn was one of the most talented directors to come out of Germany, but he didn’t get many opportunities to prove it. His films include Time of the Storks, The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow , and The Actress. In 1981, he began working on Schwarzweiß und Farbe (Black-and-White and Color), a film about a photographer who runs into conflicts between reporting the truth and doing what he’s told. Not surprisingly, the film was scuttled by the authorities before it began shooting. From 1963 until 1980, he was married to screenwriter Regine Kühn, who wrote or co-wrote many of his films. The Wende effectively put an end to his career as a director. His last film was The Liar (Die Lügnerin), which was also one of the last films made at the DEFA studios. Kühn’s wife Regine continued to work in television until 2003, primarily on documentaries.
Beata Tyszkiewicz and Magda Vásáryová play Charlotte and Ottilie respectively. It’s easy to see the attraction the two women hold for the men. Charlotte is a powerful woman, who can match any man in conversation, while Ottilie is less of an intellect, but makes up for it in cheerful beauty. Tyszkiewicz hails from Poland and started her career in films while still a teenager. She appeared in several classic Polish films, including The Sargossa Manuscript, The Ashes, The Doll, and the oddball science fiction comedy Sexmission. From 1967 until 1969 she was married to Polish director Andrzej Wajda, and their daughter Karolina went on to appear in several films but hasn’t been seen on the silver screen in several years. Tyszkiewicz is still active in films, but spends part of her time supporting the charitable organization, Fundacja Dzieciom “Zdążyć z Pomocą”—a children’s aid foundation dedicated to helping children in Poland who are at the most at trick of serious health issues.
Like Beata Tyszkiewicz, Magda Vásáryová started her career as a teenager, but things really took off for her when she starred in title role of František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová—considered by many critics to be the best Czech film ever made. She appeared in several more films, but after the Velvet Revolution, she switched from actress to political activist. She was the ambassador for Czechoslovakia in Austria from 1990 to 1993, and the ambassador for Slovakia in Poland from 2000 to 2005. She ran for the office of President of Slovakia in 1999, but lost. She was the Slovak State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from February 2005 to July 2006.
The voices of the two women are dubbed by Germans. Lissy Tempelhof was the voice for Charlotte, while Katharina Thalbach dubbed Ottilie. This isn’t unusual. Jutta Hoffmann did the voice for Krystyna Stypułkowska in Trace of Stones, and several different people handled the dubbing duties for Gojko Mitić over the years. What is unusual is that the two voice actresses are listed in the main credits right under the names of the stars they dubbed.
Hilmar Thate is excellent as Baron Eduard. It’s not an easy part to pull off. After all, Eduard is oblivious to the effects of his shallow, sometimes callous behavior, interested only his own desires. The other three, at least, show a measure of conflict about their feelings. Thate is up to the challenge. He plays Eduard with self-centered perfection, oblivious to how his embarrassing behavior is and that everyone else can see right through him (for more on Hilmar Thate, see Professor Mamlock).
The music is by Karl-Ernst Sasse, who scored dozens of DEFA films (for more information on Sasse, see Her Third). Sasse could adapt to any style, from psychedelic pop (In the Dust of the Stars) to space-age lounge music (Signals), to oddball renaissance folk music (Godfather Death). As a classically trained composer, Elective Affinities probably offered Sasse more enjoyment than many of the scores he wrote. He had a good ear for pop, but his classical scores seem to be made with more care. Elective Affinities takes place in the era of Ludwig van Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber, and Sasse uses this to the score’s advantage, creating an effective and resonant score that feels right for the time.
While some critics complained that Kühn had compressed the story too much to capture the subtleties of Goethe’s novel, most of the reviews were favorable and Elective Affinities did decent box office. It’s an unusual film and there aren’t many East German movies like it. For fans of costume dramas or stories where relationships are tested after new people are added to the mix (which could be called elective affinity films), this movie is worth a viewing.
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