What happens to a fire department when the town there in never has any fires? That’s the idea behind the TruTV’s new comedy Tacoma FD. But it isn’t the first time someone thought of this. It’s also the concept behind Set a Fire, the Fire Brigade Is Coming (Zünd an, es kommt die Feuerwehr), the 1979 East German comedy by Rainer Simon.
Set a Fire (which is what I’m going to call it for the rest of this article to save typing) takes place around 1900 in the town of Siebenthal in the foothills of the Ore Mountains along the Czech border. One of the firemen, a man named Zetsche (Kurt Böwe) also owns the local inn, which is danger of collapsing. The fountain that his wife (Gudrun Ritter) had installed in the courtyard is siphoning off water from under the structure, leaving it on shaky ground. A plan is hatched to burn down Zetsche’s inn, which would serve the dual purpose of eliminating the rickety building before it collapses and giving the fire department something to do. Of course, things never go to plan in stories like this. Most of the action centers around fireman Franz (Winfried Glatzeder). Franz is betrothed to the pretty but dull Marie (Katrin Martin), but he is in love with a local prostitute name Lene (Renate Krößner) and she loves him as well. Everything comes to a head after a local celebration to mark a visit to the town by the writer Karl May (Hannes Fischer).
Using firemen for comedy isn’t new Charlie Chaplin did it (The Fireman), so did the Little Rascals (Hook and Ladder), and the Three Stooges returned to the idea more than once (Flat Foot Stooges, False Alarms, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World); but Set a Fire is a long ways from the humor of these slapstick comedies. Its humor is closer to the British comedies of the fifties and sixties. It’s broad and a little bawdy.
This could have been just another light comedy, but it was directed by Rainer Simon. Simon also wrote the script with some help from Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who helped polish the dialogue. Although it takes place at the turn of the last century, it does a good job of lampooning the idiocy of unscrupulous leaders and government cover-ups. Although no official complaints against the film were made, it is clear that the authorities saw subversion in it. A film about the shenanigans of public officials during Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign still had bite in 1979, and it probably didn’t help that the young lovers in the film resolve their difficulties by moving to America. Why else would they have bothered to set the honey trap they did with Simon’s next film, Jadup and Boel?
The original scenario was by Manfred Wolter, a successful writer in East Germany who also worked as a dramaturge and script doctor. Wolter co-wrote or polished the scripts for several DEFA films, including Fire Below Deck and Next Year at Lake Balaton, and served as the dramaturge for Simon’s Till Eulenspiegel. His last work for DEFA was in 1990, when he wrote the scenario for I Can Also Run Backwards (Rückwärtslaufen kann ich auch), a film about children with disabilities. Wolter’s own daughter was disabled and Wolter and his daughter appear briefly in the film. After the Wende, Wolter wrote and directed a couple documentaries (Von der Normandie in den Bundestag and Aktion Ungeziefer). He died in 1999 in Woltersdorf. Also worth noting is that Wolter is listed as appearing in the film as the Kunstpfeifer, which is just a fancy way of saying the guy can really whistle.
Renate Krößner had already appeared in several TV-movies and a few movies in smaller roles by the time she made this film, but this was the first film to really show what she could do. Although her signature role in Solo Sunny was still a two years away, it’s apparent here that she would be a star. She enlivens this movie up every time she appears on screen. Winfried Glatzeder was a known quantity by this point, having starred in Time of the Storks, The Legend of Paul and Paula, and Till Eulenspiegel. The film also features the reliable talents of Kurt Böwe and Gudrun Ritter, as well as the lovely Katrin Martin, who, only a few years earlier in The Man Who Replaced Grandma, played not Glatzeder’s love interest but a teenager under his care. Of the actors in this film, Renate Krößner has had the most active post-Wende career and is probably as well known today for her post-reunification movies (e.g., Go for Zucker, Vergiss dein Ende, and the TV-movie Küss mich, Genosse!) as she is for those made in the GDR (Solo Sunny, notwithstanding).
The cinematography is by Roland Dressel, which is to say, it’s very good. DEFA had some exceptionally talented cinematographers, including Günter Haubold, Werner Bergmann, Günter Marczinkowsky, and Erich Gusko. Dressel wasn’t afraid of experimenting with the image, which occasionally got him into trouble. His work on The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow was criticized for this reason. On Jadup and Boel, he took things even further, with its blurred-edged flashback sequences. It was this willingness to experiment that endeared him to Rainer Simon and why Simon continue to use him for the rest of his DEFA films. Since the Wende, Dressel has continued to work on various films and TV shows on a freelance basis.
Set a Fire receive mixed reviews. Renate Holland-Moritz of the satire magazine Eulenspiegel liked it, but Fred Gehler in the weekly magazine Sonntag found the film too episodic for its own good. It’s a fun little film, but is not currently available with English subtitles.1
1. As those of you who know me know, my interest in movies extends well past the East German films. Something I see occurring in other film fan communities is the phenomenon of fan-made subtitles. If you like Hong Kong action films or Italian gialli, you can find sites that offer subtitles to dozens of films that never received English language releases. Sadly, the same can’t be said for East German movies. Apparently, they lack the DNA needed to encourage that sort of fanboy overdrive (sex and violence, I suspect).
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