As I’ve discussed on this blog before, East Germany had an above-average track record on female equality and films about women’s issues, yet there were only a few female directors at DEFA. First and foremost among these was Iris Gusner. She wasn’t the first women to direct feature films at DEFA. That honor goes to Bärbl Bergmann, who made several short films for DEFA and the feature film Rüpel in 1963.1 But Gusner was the most prolific with seven DEFA films to her name (Hannelore Unterberg comes in a close second with six DEFA films). From 1961 to 1967, Gusner studied cinematography at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Russia. After that, she worked as an assistant director for Konrad Wolf on Goya before making her first feature film, The Dove on the Roof, which was promptly shelved and remained unscreened until after the Wall came down. The first of her feature films to make it into cinemas was this one, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht).
The Blue Light is loosely based on a Grimms fairytale, although it’s really a complete reboot of the original fairytale. It takes the story and stands it on its head, changing the message and the priorities of the characters to better suit a socialist perspective. Both the original and the film tell the tale of Hans, a young soldier who is discharged from the service without pay because he’s been wounded. In both versions, the young soldier meets a witch who tries to trick him into fetching a blue light from her well and when he won’t cooperate, she leaves him stranded in the well. Feeling despondent, the soldier lights his pipe with the blue light and a “Mannlein” (little man) appears who can grant the soldier anything he wishes.
From here on out, though, the film and the fairytale diverge radically. Hans doesn’t seek the harsh retribution against the witch that she gets in the story, and the soldier’s multiple kidnappings of the princess are reduced to one. In the original story, the soldier eventually marries the princess, but no one would want to marry the princess in this movie, she’s a spoiled child-woman who pouts and sucks her thumb, and is dumb as a bag of hammers. Romantic interest is provided, instead, by Anne, who works at the local inn. This is, after all, an East German film, and being born in a royal family doesn’t make a person better; only more likely to be corrupt.
Playing Hans is Viktor Semyonov, a Russian actor who primarily works on stage, but has appeared in several films. Semyonov is well-suited to the part. He is dashingly handsome (more handsome than most of the lead actors in East Germany, truth be told) and plays the part well. As was always the case with non-German actors in the lead roles, his voice was dubbed by a German actor—in this case, Jaecki Schwarz, who also appears here as the simple-minded guard Knut.
The lazy, idiot princess is played by Katharina Thalbach in the broadest performance possible—way too broad, honestly. Thalbach is the daughter of Swiss theater director Benno Besson and the Berlin-born actress Sabine Thalbach. Benno and Sabine were working at Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble when they met. From an early age, daughter Katharina starting performing, first on television and later in films. At age fifteen, she made her stage debut , playing a background whore in The Threepenny Opera, eventually working her way up to the lead role of Polly Peachum. In 1976, Thalbach and her husband Thomas Brasch joined the list of people that signed the protest letter against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, and like many of the others, left East Germany shortly thereafter.2 Perhaps because of her age, Thalbach didn’t have the same problems getting work that plagued many of the other East German actors who emigrated to the West. In 1979, she impressed people with her performance in Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum. Since then, she has appeared in dozens of feature films and television movies, including Welcome to Germany, Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg, Silent Night, Strike, and the TV-movie Der Minister, in which she plays a parody of Angela Merkel named “Angela Murkel.”
Playing counterpoint to Thalbach’s princess is Blanche Kommerell as Anne. Like Thalmann, Kommerell is the daughter of a professional actress. Also like Thalbach, she got her start in acting at a young age. Unlike Thalbach, she stayed in East Germany until the fall of the Wall. After that, she did very little acting on either the big screen or on television, but she continued to act in theater productions and to give lectures on acting and diction (I’ll be discussing Kommerell in more detail when I get to Little Red Riding Hood).
Most of Iris Gusner’s casting in The Blue Light is surprising. Using a Russian actor as the lead was rarely done; there were so many good East German actors out there. Thalbach and Kommerell weren’t the usual choices either (although, by this time, the usual choices—Christel Bodenstein, Cox Habbema, and Karin Ugowski—were getting too old to play these parts). There was one person, however, who was custom made for his part, and casting anyone else would have made little sense. That was Fred Delmare, East Germany’s most diminutive leading actor, who plays the Little Man (for more on Delmare, see Black Velvet). Delmare has fun in the part and makes an engaging Mannlein.
The music is by Gerhard Rosenfeld, and, if the online reviews are any indication, this is the most controversial aspect of the film. A lot of people didn’t like it. Rather than follow a standard formula for a movie soundtrack, Rosenfeld has composed a soundtrack using Renaissance instruments, primarily, the hurdy-gurdy. It is an odd, slightly subdued soundtrack, perfectly in keeping with the times, but not something you’d usually find in a movie like this. Like Karl-Ernst Sasse, Helmut Nier, Reiner Bredemeyer, and Wilhelm Neef, Rosenfeld was a classically-trained musician. His movie scores include The Rabbit is Me (with Reiner Bredemeyer), The Dove on the Roof, The Banner of Kriwoj Rog (Die Fahne von Kriwoj Rog), Unser stiller Mann (Our Silent Man), Addio, piccola mia, Our Short Life, and Bailing Out.
When he wasn’t working on films, he composed orchestral works, chamber music, and music for operas and ballets. After the Wende, he was no longer hired to write feature film soundtracks, but continued to write scores for TV-movies and documentaries. In 1997, his opera Kniefall in Warschau was staged in Dortmund. The Independent went on to call it “one of the most important operas composed in Germany since 1945.” Rosenfeld died in 2003.
Like most of the fairytale films, The Blue Light did well at the box office, and it was well received by critics on both sides of the border. The fact that it states right up front that it is a loose adaptation of the fairytale probably helped avoid the usual cavils about not following the story verbatim. It’s an entertaining film that avoids pandering to children, which makes it an enjoyable film for both kids and adults.
1. Arguably, Wanda Jakubowska was the first woman to direct a feature film at DEFA with her 1960 film Begegnung im Zwielicht (Encounters in the Dark); but Jakubowska was Polish and the film was a co-production with Film Polski and was in Polish. I hope at some point I can write more about her. She was an interesting woman with an interesting life. If you can, check out The Last Stage (Ostatni etap), the first feature film to portray the holocaust. Based on her own experiences in Auschwitz.
2. If it seems like East Germany was suddenly allowing a lot more people to leave the country, there’s a reason. The Biermann protest was a black-eye for the government in the GDR, and it came less than a year before a Conference on European Security and Cooperation that was slated for October 1977 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the GDR wanted to remove as many talking points as possible from the table by quietly releasing political prisoners and letting them emigrate to West Germany. Likewise, many of the signatories of the Biermann protest letter. They were probably hoping no one would notice, but the New York Times did.
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