Several of DEFA’s most well-known actors and directors got their starts making short films for the Das Stacheltier group. Here’s a look at the group, the films, and the people who made them.
If you’ve read more than a couple of the articles on this blog, you’ll have come across the name “Das Stacheltier.” Formed in 1953 as a subgroup of the documentary film group at DEFA, Das Stacheltier made short films intended to play before the main features at East German cinemas. Stacheltier means porcupine in German1, and the name says it all. These are cute little films that jab. Most are comedies on the problems of the modern world, usually with a decidedly East German slant.
The name Das Stacheltier wasn’t original. In the 1920’s there was a humor magazine titled Das Stachelschwein (another name in German for a porcupine) published by satirist Hans Reimann.2 After the War, a cabaret group named themselves Die Stachelschweine in honor of Reimann’s publication, and performed in West Berlin. The extent to which DEFA’s Das Stacheltier was influenced by any of this is hard to say, but they were clearly using the term in a similar sense.3
True to the name, many Das Stacheltier shorts poked the viewer—intellectually rather than literally. For example, in A Free Man (EIN freier MENSCH), a fickle young man abandons his girlfriend during a boat ride, only to discover that the woman he was trying to woo was using him to reach her boyfriend on the opposite shore. In A Love Story ( Liebesgeschichte), a writer tries to placate editors by rewriting his love story into a socialist realist parable, only to have the editors comment on how much they enjoyed seeing to lovers outside their office engaging in a romantic situation that resembled the writer’s original script.
Love came up as a topic from time to time, but two of the most popular topics for Das Stacheltier films were product shortages and the West’s manipulation of the media. In Cheers! (Hoch die Tassen!) a bar patron’s misinterpretation of the barkeep’s refusal to serve a drunk leads the man to think there is an impending liquor shortage; a rumor furthered by a West German radio station. After the man buys all the booze he can find, he learns that there is no such shortage. (This one could be remade today, with toilet paper replacing the liquor.) In Don’t Got That! (Ham wa nich!), a wholesale distributor stocks only those products that provide him with the best profits, leaving the store shelves empty of everything except cleaning products and pacifiers. When the man is injured, he asks for a bandage, only to be told, “Don’t got that! But how about some pacifiers?” This one manages to poke fun at both sides of the Wall. While making decisions based on profitability was certainly a West German concept, shortages were not the issue there that they were in the East.
Product shortages were always a problem in East Germany, so Das Stacheltier shorts that tackled this subject were popular with the public, although they were usually careful not to ruffle the feathers of the authorities, blaming problems, instead, on outside forces (usually capitalism and the GDR’s bête noire, the USA). In Prometheus – Olympic Games with Fire (PROMETHEUS – Olympische Spiele mit dem Feuer), no less than Zeus is called in to respond to complaints about goods shortages. The films were careful not to get too critical. In School of Courtesy (Schule der Höflichkeit), an old woman repeatedly tries to buy an aluminum pot, only to be told they can’t sell anything yet due to a missing invoice. When the lady comes back later, all the pots are gone, but the salesperson has held one back for her. It’s hard to say how the public reacted to this particular short, it’s doubtful that many salespeople would have been this considerate.
The presence and influence of the USA in West Germany was an especially ripe topic for satire. In The Parlor Game (Das Gesellschaftsspiel – eine unglaubliche Geschichte oder?) A gang of thieves manage to steal the valuables of patrons at a charity event by pretending to be American soldiers. In The Night of Horror (Die Nacht des Grauens), a man suffers nightmares after reading crime novels (Krimis) his uncle has brought him from West Germany. In “not yet arrived” (“noch nicht eingetroffen”), morning cleaning women at the Bonn Foreign Office find a statement from U.S. High Commissioner for Germany John J. McCloy stating that “there are no National Socialists in the office in West Germany.” The women agree, saying, “They don’t come into the office until nine.”
Several Das Stacheltier shorts dealt with the foolishness of people who blindly and rigidly follow the rules. Ironic, considering that this was exactly the sort of thing that led to the country’s eventual collapse. In Vigilance According to the Rules (WACHSAMKEIT laut VORSCHRIFT), the security guard for a company allows a thief to abscond with a stolen typewriter because the thief’s case weighs the same as it did when he came in (he had filled it with stones) while detaining two employees for empty bottles.
As mentioned elsewhere, the GDR was way ahead of the West when it came to women’s rights. In Alma and the Men (Alma und die Männer), a woman disguises herself as a man to prove that men are given more consideration than women in the workplace. This film was made in 1957 but its message still rings true.
While many directors started their careers making Das Stacheltier films, the man most closely associated with the group is Richard Groschopp. Along with State Film Committee chairman Sepp Schwab, he was responsible for the group’s existence. Born in 1906 in Cölleda (now Kölleda) Groschopp was one of the original film fanatics. The new medium fascinated him and he devoured everything he could on the subjects of films and filmmaking. Eventually, he bought a 9.5 mm camera (a popular alternative to the 8 mm camera in Europe) and started making his own amateur films. He was a member of the Bund der Filmamateure (Association of Film Amateurs) and won prizes for his short films. One of those films, Eine kleine Königstragödie (A Little King’s Tragedy), was so popular that he was allowed to remake the film in 35 mm to play before the screenings of Veit Harlan’s Der Herrscher (The Master).
Soon, Groschopp’s filmmaking skill came to the attention of Fritz Boehner. Boehner ran a film production company in Dresden that specialized in industrial and advertising films. Groschopp made dozens of films for Boehner during WWII. Groschopp’s skill with a camera kept him from having to fight in WWII. Instead, he helped make short movies for the war effort, often directing, shooting, and editing these films. He also served as one of the camera operators on Leni Riefenstahl’s two-part tribute to the 1936 Olympics, Olympia.
After the War, Groschopp continued working for Boehner until that man’s business was taken over by the Soviets. Boehner went to the West and reestablished his company there, while Groschopp stayed behind and continued to do what he did best: make short films that bolstered whoever was in charge.
The Das Stacheltier group made over 275 films in total, ranging in length from a few minutes to over an hour. The longest film, The Young Englishman (Der junge Engländer), is based on Wilhelm Hauff’s fable Der Affe als Mensch (The Monkey as a Man) and was directed by Gottfried Kolditz, who also made several Das Stacheltier shorts (for more on Kolditz, see Midnight Revue). It’s the only feature length film the group made. Das Stacheltier continued producing short films until 1964. Around that time, cinemas—in the East and the West—abandoned the practice of screening newsreels and shorts before the movies. By the sixties, almost everyone had a television and films of news events were no longer the novelty they had been in the previous decades.
DEFA Stiftung list of Das Stacheltier films.
Stream of Das Stacheltier and other short films from DEFA (watermarked, in German, no subtitles).
1. As is common in German, the name of the porcupine is as literal as possible. It translates to “spiked animal.” For more fun German animal names, check out the flowchart at Babbel+.
2. The name might have been inspired by the “Porcupine’s dilemma” (also known as the Hedgehog’s dilemma) introduced by Arthur Schopenhauer in Parerga and Paralipomena. In that parable, a group of porcupines are huddled together in the winter snow. They can only get so close to each other without getting poked, so they have to find a happy medium between discomfort and freezing to continue living. Schopenhauer saw this as a parable for a functioning society, where individuals have to put up with things they don’t always like to keep a society on track.
3. Perhaps there is an idiom or expression involving Stacheltier that I’m not familiar with but I didn’t find anything in my research.
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