In this wild, surreal film, the German poet Novalis reflects on moments in his life as he lays dying.
Novalis: The Blue Flower (Novalis – Die blaue Blume) is recognized as the last film to be released by DEFA before the East Germany film production company closed its doors. The film is told episodically as the poet Novalis lays dying. It’s a kaleidoscopic look at events in the poet’s life, up until—and after—he and his beloved are go through hell and are reunited in heaven. Like many of the many of the DEFA films that came out after the Mauerfall, it is surrealistic, abstruse, and wildly imaginative.1
“Novalis” was the pen name of Friedrich von Hardenberg, an aristocratic young man from Lower Saxony. He never did figure out what he wanted to do but became famous as one of the fathers of the German Romantic movement after he died at the ripe old age of twenty-eight. He wrote poetry under the pen name Novalis. He’s also famous for courting twelve-year-old Sophie von Kühn and getting engaged to her after her thirteenth birthday. His family wasn’t happy about this, but not because she was a minor. They just didn’t think she was aristocratic enough for their son. This question became moot when she died before they could wed, shortly after her 15th birthday. Novalis was devastated and died a few years later as well.
Director Herwig Kipping started his career as a student of mathematics, but decided he liked poetry better, discovering the works of Novalis and Hölderlin. He dropped out of mathematics and began studying dramatic arts, which eventually led him to the Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg, where he studied filmmaking.
Right from the start, it was clear that Kipper and the powers that be were going come to loggerheads. Bahnpostfahrer (Railway Mail Driver), a surrealistic film he made while still in school, was well received by the public, but not so well received by the authorities. His thesis film, Hommage à Hölderlin (Homage to Hölderlin) was a study of the German poet Friedrich Holderlin, and
was less controversial.2 He got a job with East German television but got on the wrong side of the SED over a TV-documentary he directed. Kipping’s brilliant weirdness was a bit much for DEFA and the DFF, and, to be frank, would have had hit as many roadblocks in the US. Kipping was left in limbo, writing scripts with no new projects coming his way.
In 1986, he studied under Heiner Carow (The Legend of Paul and Paula, Coming Out) at the Berlin Art Academy and made a couple video shorts. It wasn’t until the final days of the GDR, after that Kipping was finally allowed to make feature films for DEFA, starting with The Land Beyond the Rainbow and ending with Novalis. Aside from the ability to make films again, the Wende did him no favors. His quirky style and complex visions didn’t translate well to the banalities of pop culture in unified Germany. He continued to work, however, and in 2016, he returned to the subject of Friedrich Holderlin with the well-received Der Obdachlose Hölderlin (The Homeless Hölderlin).
Novalis is played by Christoph Schiller in his first and only film role. I can’t help but think the casting of Schiller in this role was a little in-joke on Kipping’s part, since some historians postulate that Novalis died as a result the tuberculosis he contracted while taking care of German writer (Johann Christoph) Friedrich Schiller. I’m not certain what happened to Christoph Schiller. There is a well-regarded musician of the same name who specializes in playing the Spinet using a number of creative techniques (E-bow, placing objects on the strings, and plucking the strings directly), but attempts to contact him have been for naught.
As with Schiller, Novalis was the French actress Agathe de La Fontaine’s first film. Unlike Schiller, she went on to star in several more films in France and became well-known enough to appear on the French version of Actors Studio. At twenty-years-old, she was considerably older than Sophie von Kühn, but that’s to be expected. In 2000, La Fontaine married soccer star Emmanuel Petit and gave up acting for several years. She return to the screen in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but has not been seen since.
For proof that this film was made after reunification, you have to look no further than the casting of Eva-Marie Hagen as Friedrich’s mother. Hagen had been married to Wolf Biermann, the folk singer who was kicked out of East Germany in 1976 for being critical of Honecker’s regime. Hagen joined him in West Germany (as did Hagen’s daughter Nina). In the film, Ms. Hagen sings a song written by Biermann (“Und wenn ich tot bin“). There are other faces fans of East German films might also recognize, including Eberhard Esche, Arno Wyzniewski, and André Hennicke, as well as Rainer Fassbinder film regular Gottfried John.
Besides the Biermann song sung by Hagen, most of the music for the film consists of classical pieces, most notably Beethoven’s “Glorious Ninth” (as Alex in A Clockwork Orange would put it). The one curious exception is the inclusion of “War Master” by the British death metal band Bolt Thrower. Amazingly, the song does not seem out of place, nestled here between the likes of Beethoven and Strauss. The only other director I can think of who could pull this off is Ken Russell. In fact, the film resembles a Ken Russell film more than a little.
The film didn’t do well at the box office and received mixed reviews. Many critics and audience members found the film nearly indecipherable, but it hardly mattered. By the time this film came out, DEFA was a thing of the past and was probably only released because it was the last film on the shelf. It’s a strange and interesting film that will appeal to fans of oddball movies such as The Land Beyond the Rainbow, Lisztomania, Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?, and The Bed Sitting Room. Those who favor straightforward storytelling with clearly delineated plots would be advised to stay away.
Novalis is not currently available.3
1. Between 1989 and the end of DEFA, East German directors found themselves freer than they’d ever been to get creative. Free of the political restrictions often imposed by the GDR, but not yet forced to serve the marketing dictates of box-office capitalism, directors such as Jörg Foth, Herwig Kipping, Peter Welz, and Helke Misselwitz took full advantage of this rare opportunity.
2. Except that it wasn’t. As F. W. Habel noted in the comments (translated here): “After completing the 90-minute long film (I saw it and thought it was an extraordinary masterpiece), the university forced him to cut the film by almost half, otherwise Kipping would not have received a diploma or his degree. In addition, the cut material was destroyed so that Kipping couldn’t produce a director’s cut later. The fragment preserved gives an impression of the director’s extraordinary artistic power.” [Note: Habel is the author of the Das grosse Lexikon der DEFA-Spielfilme, a book every serious fan of East German films should own.]
3. It does turn up from time to time on YouTube, but is usually shut down by the rights holder, which would be fine if whoever this is would bother to actually make it available.
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