A popular format on East German TV was the teleplay. These were videotaped on stage in front of a live audience. In America, you’ll see this most often with sitcoms such as Cheers or I Love Lucy. Similarly, these East German teleplays were mostly comedies, but were unique, one-hour to hour-and-a-half shows rather than series episodes. In form, they were closer to the live theater broadcasts shown on PBS. They called them Fernseh-schwänke. Examples of these shows include Ein Hahn im Korb, Heute Ruhetag, and Nicht kleinzukriegen.
Two good examples of this type of teleplay are Marriage/Female (Heiraten/Weiblich) from 1975 and Trabant for Sale (Trabant zu verkaufen) from 1981. Both were directed by Christa Kulosa, and they are also her first and last productions as an East German television director.
Christa got her start in 1966, working as an assistant director in the entertainment division of DFF (Deutscher Fernsehfunk—East Germany’s state television station). In 1968, she enrolled at the University of Film and Television in Babelsberg (now the Konrad Wolf Film University of Babelsberg), to study directing, receiving her degree in 1972. By this time, the DFF had changed its name to the Fernsehen der DDR (Television of the GDR). As is too often the case, it took the folks at DDR-FS a while to trust a production to a woman.1 At first, she worked as an assistant director next to talented directors such as Wolfgang Luderer, Hans Knötsch, and Günter Stahnke. Stahnke was the most talented of the bunch. In 1965, he made the now-classic Spring Takes Time, but the 11th Plenum banned the film and Stahnke was relegated to directing Fernseh-schwänke for the rest of his career.
Then, in 1975, Christa finally got her chance to direct the comedy Marriage/Female.
All the action in this teleplay takes place in the apartment of three generations of women. The grandmother, Frau Wiedemann (Marianne Kiefer), the mother, Gisela Pohl, and her daughter Hannelore flit in an out of the apartment throughout the show. The teleplay is shot on a stage in what appears to be a traditional theater setting. Frau Wiedemann is being coyly courted by the building’s super Wollenschläger (Gerd E. Schäfer) and the daughter Hannelore has recently started dating a man name Splettstößer (Kaspar Eichel). That leaves mom Gisela without a beau, so the daughter decides to do something about it. She runs an ad in the personals section of the newspaper under the heading “Marriage/Female” and a man named Seidel (Paul Arenkens) shows up almost immediately. What none of the rest of them know is that Gisela’s co-worker Bechstein (Herbert Köfer) has long had a thing for Gisela, but has been too nervous to say anything.
Playing the mother and daughter are the real-life mother and daughter team of Eva-Maria and Nina Hagen. Eva-Maria Hagen was already a big star by this point (see Don’t Forget My Traudel), but Nina was just beginning to make a name for herself. She had appeared in an episode of her mother’s TV show ABC der Liebe (ABCs of Love), but this was her first role of any size. That same year, she would also appear in Today is Friday. Previously, Nina had had a radio hit in East Germany with “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” (“You Forgot the Color Film”), the story of a woman angry at her partner for forgetting to bring some color film on their vacation.2 The song was a big hit, and you can hear an instrumental version of it over the end credits of the film.
While the story centers around the three women, they are, for the most part, “straight men” to the four males. The biggest laughs come from Herbert Köfer’s performance as the nervous Bechstein. Köfer’s physical comedy here is reminiscent of Don Knotts’ wound-too-tight style of physical humor. Köfer got his start working in theater during the War years, but his career was interrupted when he was drafted by the Wehrmacht. He started performing again as a prisoner in a British internment camp.
After the War, he resumed his acting career, appearing at theaters and Kabaretts around East Germany. He made his first feature film appearance in the 1951 film Die Sonnenbrucks (The Sonnenbrucks) and continued to appear in films and television throughout the GDR’s existence, including Naked Among Wolves, Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry, Hands Up, or I’ll Shoot!, The Man Who Replaced Grandma, and The Dove on the Roof.
This is a teleplay that is best enjoyed by native German speakers. There is some humor based on the accents and humor based on puns and popular expressions. Even so, Herbert Köfer’s physical comedy translates into any language and gets the biggest laughs.
Marriage/Female was a success and Christa went on to direct several more television productions, including Antons liebe Gäste (Anton’s Dear Guests), Wen der Hafer sticht (Slaphappy3), Zu zweit (k)ein Problem ((Not) A Problem for Two), Liebling, Du irrst (You’re Wrong, Darling), and Warum gerade Hubert! (Why Hubert, of All People!).
In 1980, Christa applied for permission to emigrate to France. She had married a French/German man and he wanted to return to his family home. She eventually received approval in 1982, but the authorities weren’t pleased. They saw her request as a threat. Had a lesser man been in charge of German television, who probably would have lost her job, but Heinz Adameck—a man Manfred Krug called a “good friend to all viable actors”—stood up for her. Nonetheless, jobs after her application was approved dried up. Trabant for Sale would be her last East German teleplay.
Trabant for Sale
Trabant for Sale is the story of three women who win a Trabant in a raffle at their workplace. Since none of them has a driver’s license, they decide to sell the car. Brigitte (Ursula Staack) is kind of the group’s leader, and Carola (Angelika Ritter) is her hip friend. Susi (Franziska Troegner) is the chubby comic of the group and the only one of the three who wants to keep the car. Brigitte’s plumber Oskar Zahl (Hans-Joachim Hanisch) is trying to convince her to sell the car to him by promising her cash and new bathroom fixtures, but she is also being wooed by Hyronimus Robbel (Peter Tepper), a dorky bicyclist who actually adores her; Carola wants her opera singing friend Anastasius Vogel (Paul Arenkens) to have it; and Susi wants it for her fiancé, the mild-mannered Ferdinand Kefer (Holm Gärtner).
The story of trying sell a Trabant in East Germany was a subject ripe for comedy. Waiting lists for Trabants were notoriously long, and even the East Germans knew that the car was, er, shall we say, less than perfect. Unfortunately, there was no way to do this justice at the time. A comedy that made fun of the Trabant wasn’t going to fly, and a comedy about how much everyone wanted one was also problematic. The only way to tackle to topic was with subtlety, which means a certain percentage of the audience will always be left behind, taking everything at face value. Sensitive to the reputation of the Trabant and the reported waiting times involved in getting one4, the DDR-FS chose to air the teleplay on channel 2 instead of channel 1.
Trabant for Sale is shot in more of a TV studio setting than Marriage/Female was. The seating is the kind of raked seating that one commonly sees in television talk shows and modern cinemas. As with the previous film, there are plenty of shots of the audience, which is always fun. Some people seem not to care, while others are keenly aware of the cameras. There are even a few people wearing sunglasses, which seems like a very odd thing to do in a theater.
As with theater, everything is played broadly, which seldom translates well to the screen. Nonetheless, the teleplay is well-directed and features a talented cast. The three female leads went on to have long film and television careers in post-Wende Germany. Franziska Troegner, who plays the lovable Susi, is best known to American audiences as the mother of Augustus Gloop in Tim Burton’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The male leads have done very little work in films and television since the Wende, with the exception of Kaspar Eichel (the policeman), who still appears regularly on television. Peter Tepper is working with the Leipziger Funzel Kabarett/Theater, and Hans-Joachim Hanisch works primarily dubbing voice for German film releases. Paul Arenkens died in 2016.
After leaving East Germany, Christa (now Christa Schmidt) worked on a children’s series for Berliner Filmladen and shot 42 PSAs about the environment entitled “Mach mit der Umwelt zu Liebe” (“Love the Environment”). In 1986-87 she shot a TV profile of Eva Maria Hagen for ZDF. Christa didn’t care much for the West German method of film production, which used a factory-like approach to all the jobs outside of the director and cinematographer. At that point, she decided to leave directing and devote more time to her family.
Christa divides her time between Berlin and the South of France. She never lost her love of filmmaking and, three years ago, she started teaching herself to use the latest videography tools. She started making videos for her YouTube channel on whatever strikes her fancy, from a WWII liberation celebration in rural France, to a one-hour documentary about L’auberge de Valbonne—a facility for autistic people in Provence.
Special thanks to Jörg Foth for his diligent work in helping me track down Christa (Kulosa) Schmidt (for more on Jörg Foth, see The Latest from the DaDaeR), and a very special thanks to Christa Schmidt for generously providing her biographical information for this article and for making sure I got my facts straight.
1. At that point, fewer than ten DEFA feature films had been made by women. Iris Gusner’s first film, The Dove on the Roof, was a year away, and even then, the movie was shelved before it was released. Gusner wouldn’t get another chance to direct a feature film until The Blue Light in 1976. Christa Kulosa was the only woman directing Fernseh-schwänke.
2. The song is a commentary on the drab grayness of everything in East Germany and most people got it. Somehow, amazingly, it went over the heads of the censors though. Hagen still performs it in her live shows, although in a very different fashion from the original.
3. The title of this film is a very old idiomatic expression that doesn’t have any exact translation in English. Literally the title means “Whom the Oats stab” and refers to erratic behavior. Since this movie will probably never have an English translation, I get to choose my own English title. This is the best I could come up with.
4. There are numerous jokes about both the Trabant and the long waiting times required to receive one. Probably the best-known example is:
Q. What does the ‘601’ in Trabant 601 stand for?
A. 600 people will order one, but only one will get it delivered.
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