There’s a tinge of irony in the fact that one of the movies that gave people in Germany a little joy amidst the rubble of World War II has a name that now reminds us of darker times. 1-2-3 Corona might be the most happy-go-lucky a film that DEFA ever made.
The story takes place in the Summer of 1945. Gangs of orphaned kids wander the rubble left after the War and engage in black market profiteering, selling cigarettes to the adults. Gerhard (Lutz Moik) and Dietrich (Piet Clausen) are rivals on the street and soon become rivals in love when they both fall for Corona (Eva-Ingeborg Scholz), a perky young performer in a low-budget circus that has come to town. A prank by the boys leaves Corona seriously injured and the boys take it on themselves to nurse her back to health. Abandoned by the circus, Corona starts teaching the boys how to be circus performers. Soon, they are all practicing acrobatics instead of selling black market cigarettes, much to the dismay of the nicotine-addicted adults who relied on them as a source for tobacco. It’s a formula as old as movies (or talkies at least), and was the basis of several films starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland: Let’s put together a show!
Of course, in spite of a cast and crew heavily skewed toward West Germans, this was still a DEFA film, so some lip service is given to the importance of teamwork, people working as a group, and the corrupting influence of free market capitalism. These morals are delivered without much force though. The movie’s main goal is entertainment.
You know you’re in for a comedy at the very start of the film. A boy stands next to the opening credits, reading each one and occasionally commenting on them. It is the inverse of Otto Preminger’s wonderful car wreck of a movie Skidoo which features Harry Nilsson singing all the end credits.
The film was directed by Hans Müller. As with many of the directors working at DEFA during its early years, Müller was a West German. Unlike most other Wessis, however, he didn’t abandon DEFA once West German production companies were back up and running. Throughout the fifties, he continued to work on both sides of the border turning in films for DEFA and various West German productions until the end of the decade. His biggest hit came in 1956 with the film adaptation of Albert Lortzing’s comic opera Tsar and Carpenter (Zar und Zimmermann). His other DEFA films include Mayor Anna (Bürgermeister Anna), Carola Lamberti (Carola Lamberti – Eine vom Zirkus), and Love’s Mazurka (Mazurka der Liebe). After the Wall went up, he shifted his efforts to West German television. He returned briefly to DEFA in 1974 to direct episodes of DDR-Magazin (GDR Magazine), a series of documentaries on various aspects of life in East Germany. Müller died in 1977 and is buried in his hometown of Lüdenscheid.
As Corona, Eva Ingeborg Scholz is adorable. Perhaps, too adorable. She makes Pollyanna seem like a sourpuss. 1-2-3 Corona was Scholz’s first film.1 She was only twenty at the time. She was a West Berliner, and, like most West German actors, her work for East Germany’s DEFA ended as soon as West German film companies were back up and running. She has appeared in many films, including Peter Lorre’s sole directing effort Der Verlorene, and in The Devil’s General (Des Teufels General), which was also directed by Helmut Käutner. She has appeared often on television in various series and won the Deutscher Schauspielerpreis (German Acting Prize) in 2018 for her appearance in an episode of the popular German crime show Tatort.
As Corona’s two suitors, Gerhard and Dietrich, actors Lutz Moik and Piet Clausen are well matched. They are both handsome, intense, and have good chemistry; maybe too good—at times the romantic center of the story seems to be between these two rather than Corona. The climax of the movie really comes after Gerhard and Dietrich settle their differences. Both actors were West Germans and spent most of their careers making West German films. For Clausen, 1-2-3- Corona would be his only DEFA film. He made a few more films in the West, including Robert A. Stemmle’s You Can No Longer Remain Silent (Du darfst nicht länger schweigen) and The Cornet (Der Cornet – Die Weise von Liebe und Tod), but his film career was short-lived. Lutz Moik made a few more films for DEFA and scored the biggest hit of his career with East Germany’s first fairytale film, Heart of Stone.
The cinematography in the film is excellent, but that should come as no surprise. It was shot by Robert Baberske, who got his start on films such as Metropolis, M, and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. 1-2-3 Corona was his first DEFA film but he would go on to make several more for the production company, including The Axe of Wandsbek, Destinies of Women, and The Story of Little Mook.
Like some of the other early DEFA films directed by West Germans, the movie more closely resembles the romanticized visions of the films of Third Reich and post-war West German films than it does the objective style of DEFA filmmakers such as Kurt Maetzig and Konrad Wolf. It’s that rarest of animals: a cheerful Rubble Film. The movie’s more maudlin aspects are furthered by the music score, composed by Hans-Otto Borgmann, who was a favorite composer of Veit Harlan and Gerhard Lamprecht, and whose music for Hitlerjunge Quex became an anthem for the Hitler Youth.2 This film will be popular with those who of you who enjoy the light comedies that came out of West Germany in the fifties, but most fans of East German cinema will find this one a bit schmaltzy.
1. One source cites her first role as a bit part in No Place for Love (Kein Platz für Liebe), released the year before 1-2-3 Corona, but the name listed for that film is “Eva Maria Scholz,” which may or may not be the same person.
2. Borgmann’s schmaltzy style wasn’t well suited to East German films, so it’s no surprise that most of his work after the War was in West Germany. Ironically, in his later years he started to experiment more with atonal music—a far cry from the kinds of scores he gave in the forties and fifties.