The story of Sleeping Beauty (Dornröschen) is old enough that it’s origins are a point of debate. The Grimm Brothers felt the story had enough Germanic elements to identify it as German in origin. The French, quite rightfully, would point out that the story was already well-known in France as it appeared in Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passé published in 1697. Meanwhile the Italians will tell you that Perrault got the story from Giambattista Basile’s Sun, Moon, and Talia. The story has been traced back to the 1300s, but is thought to be even older than that. These days, it’s best known in the form of the Walt Disney animated feature. Given the manhandling the original story received over the years from the likes of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Giambattista Basile, one can forgive Walt Disney for tweaking the story to suit his needs.
The basic setup of the story is always the same. After a queen has a daughter, the king holds a banquet and invites all the local fairies to bestow gifts on the infant. Unfortunately, he forgets one fairy who’s not as sociable as the others and, in the classic version, is also evil. After the other fairies bestow their gifts on the child (beauty, charm, virtue, and so forth), the evil fairy curses the child: On her fifteenth birthday, the girl will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. It turns out that one fairy hadn’t given her gift yet, so she deflects the curse slightly, saying the girl will not die but will sleep for one hundred years, when she will be awakened by a prince. In an attempt to prevent the curse from happening, the king orders all the spinning wheels in the kingdom destroyed. Of course, this has no effect. The young princess meets up with the evil fairy pretending to be an old woman working a spinning wheel. She lets the girl try her hand at the spinning wheel with the expected result.
While Disney’s film takes its cues from Perrault’s tale, the DEFA version follows the Brothers Grimm’s version the closest, with thirteen fairies and missing dinnerware as the reason the thirteenth fairy isn’t invited to the baby’s christening. It also does a better job of addressing the inevitable economic problems that would befall a community that was forced to give up its major income source (wool spinning and cloth production). This is Sleeping Beauty as seen through the eyes of Karl Marx.
In a manner similar to DEFA’s version of Rumpelstiltskin, where the evil dwarf becomes a dispenser of socialist instruction, the evil old fairy of the previous versions is now a beautiful young woman. Her angry spell is in reaction to the king’s self-importance and lack of empathy for the common folk. When the last fairy comes forward to temper the death spell, the reason she doesn’t simply lift the curse altogether is because she too feels the king needs to be taught a lesson. In DEFA’s version, the king is the real villain, and he is the one who is ultimately overthrown in favor of a system more equitable to the people. The fairy that curses the baby is known as the fairy of hard work (Fee des Fleißes), and it’s the castle’s industry that suffers.
Like most of the DEFA fairytale films, Sleeping Beauty is a bright and colorful movie, with simplified environments used to represent the various places. Backgrounds are devoid of details, occasionally consisting of featureless, light blue cycloramas. It was directed by Walter Beck, who made a career of fairytale films at DEFA, including King Thrushbeard (König Drosselbart), Pinocchio, The Prince Beyond the Seven Seas (Der Prinz hinter den sieben Meeren), The Bear-Skinned Man (Der Bärenhäuter), and The Frog Prince (Froschkönig). Beck’s career ended with the Fall of the Wall. He was sixty at that point, and the job opportunities for sixty-year-old, East German directors was nearly nil in the new, capitalist Germany.
Sleeping Beauty was a hit. The most popular DEFA fairytale film since Little Red Riding Hood (Rotkäppchen). The modern touches in the music and costume design helped make the film stand out from the previous fairytale films. It did not receive distribution in America, perhaps because of its strong socialist message, or perhaps because the time of the popularity of fairytale films in the U.S. was on the wane in 1971.
The slumbering princess is played by Juliane Korén. With parents who were also actors, Korén was born to perform. Her father, Hans Klering, was one of the founding members of DEFA. Her mother, Elsa Korén, appeared in several DEFA films, but worked more on stage, primarily with the Theater der Freundschaft (Friendship Theater)—now called the Theater an der Parkaue (Parkaue Theater) next to Lichtenberg Park. Aside from a few feature films roles, including In Spite of Everything! and The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow, Juliane Korén primarily appeared on television in the GDR. After the Wende, she moved to stage, working an as a member of the ensembles in Bochum and Stuttgart. She died in Berlin in 2018.
Playing the thirteenth fairy is Vera Oelschlegel. Oelschlegel hails from Leipzig, where her mother was head of the district commission for entertainment art, Oelschlegel studied at the the Film Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg and worked at the theater in Putbus before getting a job at DFF—the GDR’s state-owned television station. She appeared in several films and television in East Germany. In 1961, she married playwright Günther Rücker, they were divorced six years later. Her next husband was Hermann Kant, one of the most important writers to come out of East Germany. The divorced in 1976.
But it was Oelschlegel’s next husband that got tongues wagging. Shortly after divorcing Kant she married Konrad Naumann, an SED politburo member. Some accused her of being a golddigger (or whatever you’d call a golddigger in a socialist country), but Oelschlegel didn’t care, she liked the guy and his cheery simplicity was a welcome change from the dour intellectualism of Kant. Naumann and Oelschlegel divorced in 1987, a couple years earlier, Naumann had been kicked out of the politburo, ostensibly for a speech he gave at the Academy of Social Sciences. In fact, it probably had more to do with Naumann’s efforts to relax trade restrictions with the West, a move that the rapidly dying old Soviet leaders opposed. A Soviet Untertan1 like Honecker wasn’t about to do anything to upset these fossils, so his old buddy Naumann had to be let go.
After the Wende, Oelschlegel—along with her long-time partner, dramaturge Gregor Edelmann, and journalist André Plath—founded the Theater des Ostens, a touring theater troupe that performed throughout the Eastern states of Germany. The troupe ceased operation in 2012.
Sleeping Beauty is good film. In many respects, it’s better than the Disney film and the other movie versions of the fairytale. In some respects, it is better than the original fairytale as well. It scratches below the surface of the original story, then asks and answers the difficult questions that the story poses—something that no other version of the tale ever bothered to do. But the most interesting aspect of the film is the idea of a castle completely surrounded by a wall of thorns. Surely, the comparison to the Berlin Wall was not lost on the authorities at DEFA. In 1961, Konrad Petzold and Egon Günther got into hot water for making The Robe (Das Kleid), a fairytale film about a walled castle simply because the officials thought it mimicked the recent building of the Berlin Wall, even though the film was in the can before the Wall went up. Ten years later, there were no such complaints when the wall of thorns (looking very much like barbed wire) grows around the castle in Sleeping Beauty. What a difference a decade makes.
1. I’ve used the German word Untertan here because there really is no exact English equivalent. For a deeper dive on this subject, check out The Kaiser’s Lackey.
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