Shown once and then thrown in the Giftschrank (poison cabinet), this TV movie about a marriage in crisis had to wait until after the Wende for most people to see it.
In Frank Beyer’s Private Party (Geschlossene Gesellschaft),1 Robert (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and Ellen (Jutta Hoffmann) are a seemingly happy married couple. Robert is a talented engineer whose work just saved the state a million Marks, and Ellen works for the youth services with disadvantaged teens. They decide to go on holiday with some friends. They invite two other couples to join them at their vacation home just outside of Berlin. After one of the couples cancels and the other is involved in a serious traffic accident on the way there, the two find themselves vacationing alone with their sensitive and frail, five-year-old son Nicki (Andreas Pfaff).
What started as an ideal vacation soon turns into an emotional pressure cooker. Robert admits to an infidelity and Ellen takes it hard. While Nicki, with the help of caretaker Karl (Sigfrit Steiner), grows mentally and physically stronger, Ellen does the opposite. Ellen toys with the idea of paying Robert back in kind by having an affair with Bernd (Walter Plathe), the brother of one of the youths in her case file who lives nearby, but finds herself emotionally confused.
As you can probably tell by the set-up, we’re not talking about the average factory workers here. Ellen and Robert belong to the group we know as the intelligentsia. The GDR didn’t acknowledge any class differences, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. Certain jobs (and especially those associated with the SED) came with perks, just like they do everywhere (for a very different—and politically safer—take on this topic, check out Hey You! by Rolf Römer). Pointing out this fact in a movie about two such people already alarmed some officials. In all likelihood, this production was doomed from the start.
As a rule, the films made for television received greater scrutiny than the feature films at DEFA. This makes a certain amount of sense. You have to go to the cinema and pay for a film, while the TV only requires you to turn it on. To even the most casual observer, it’s apparent that this movie is making a statement on the walled garden that was the GDR. That this film got into production is likely due, in part, to the friendship between the secretary of the SED Central Committee for Agitation and Propaganda Werner Lamberz and director Frank Beyer. Perhaps this production would not have raised much fuss had Lamberz continued his role in the East German government, but history had other plans.
On March 6, 1978—after production started on the film—Lamberz died in a helicopter crash in Libya.2 The man hired to replace him was Joachim Herrmann, the editor-in-chief of Neues Deutschland, the official party newspaper for the SED. Herrmann was a hardliner who was less willing to give filmmakers artistic license and almost certainly wanted to start his job by showing he was doing his job. He came down hard on Private Party. At first, he wanted to shelve it immediately, but eventually agreed to one late night screening with no advertising or promotion. Even then, the film wasn’t screened at the announced time, but an hour later.
The man who received most of the blame for broadcasting Private Party was Hans Bentzien. It wasn’t the first time Bentzien got into hot water with his higher-ups. From 1961 to 1965, he had been the Minister for Culture of the GDR. In that role he locked horns with Paul Fröhlich, one of the more reprehensible members of the SED politburo. Fröhlich agreed with Ulbricht that they should blow up the Johanniskirche tower in Leipzig while Bentzien thought it was a bad idea. It didn’t help that a West German newspaper had outed Bentzien for his membership in the Nazi party as a teenager, a fact he had been careful not to mention when he joined the German Communist Party (KPD) after the War. The SED had been careful to cultivate its image as an anti-fascist organization, and having an ex-Nazi in the ranks wasn’t good for the brand. During the Kahlschlag3 of the 11th Plenum, Bentzien was replaced by Klaus Gysi, a man whose communist credentials were unassailable. In 1977 Bentzien was then made the vice chairman of the State Committee on Television, but the job didn’t last long. After approving the broadcast of Private Party and Ursula, he was dismissed from the job, but continued to work in the DFF’s editorial department. After the Wende, he was made the general manager of the DFF, but this was a bit like being made captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. It did, however, afford him the opportunity to broadcast Private Party one more time. Approaching retirement age, moved to the small spa town Bad Saarow where he lived out his days. He died in 2015.
The film was directed by Frank Beyer, one of the best filmmakers at DEFA, his films include Five Cartridges, Star-Crossed Lovers, Naked Among Wolves, and Carbide and Sorrel. Beyer was no stranger to controversy. His 1966 film, Trace of Stones was banned in the wake of the 11th Plenum, and he was relegated to television. He didn’t get a chance to make another feature film for DEFA until Jakob the Liar, which proved to be such a big hit that he was welcomed back into the ranks of feature film makers—but only for a little while. His next film, The Hiding Place (Das Versteck) wasn’t that controversial, but it was made around the time that Wolf Biermann was kicked out of the country and Beyer, along with screenwriter Jurek Becker, and stars Manfred Krug and Jutta Hoffmann, all signed the letter protesting this decision. Back in the world of television, his next movie was Private Party.
Beyer wouldn’t make another feature film until 1982, when he directed Held for Questioning for DEFA. There was some controversy over the film in Poland, but it seemed to have less effect than the previous films on his career. He continued to make feature films in East Germany until the Wende, when, like most other East German filmmakers, he found it necessary to return to television to get any work. Even then, he continued to court controversy. During the production of Anniversaries (Jahrestage), a miniseries based on Uwe Johnson’s four-volume series, Beyer butted heads with the producers, who wanted to replace lead actress Julia Jäger and Beyer’s assistant director Irene Weigel. The project was taken from Beyer and given to Margarethe von Trotta. This event appears to have signaled the end of Beyer’s career as a filmmaker. His last film was the made-for-TV movie Abgehauen (Getting Out), based on Manfred Krug’s memoirs of his final days in the GDR.
The script was written by Klaus Poche. In 1966, Jürgen Böttcher’s Born in ‘45, with a script by Klaus Poche, was banned after the 11th Plenum. Then, in 1973, Roland Gräf’s attempt to make a film from Poche’s script for The Second Skin (Die zweite Haut) was shut down before it started. Like Beyer, Poche had joined the protest against Biermann’s expatriation. Poche tried to continue working in East Germany. It didn’t help that talented actors such as Manfred Krug, Angelica Domröse, Hilmar Thate, and Eva-Marie Hagen—all of whom had signed the Letter protesting the expatriation of Wolf Biermann—felt compelled to leave the country. After he was kicked out of the Writers’ Association for having the temerity to criticize it, he’d had enough and he joined the exodus from the GDR.
Private Party was Armin Mueller-Stahl‘s last East German film. He had made some classics for DEFA, including Five Cartridges, And Your Love Too, Naked Among Wolves, Her Third, and Jakob the Liar. After moving to West Germany, he starred in the TV-movie Die längste Sekunde (The Longest Second) which brought him to the attention of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Fassbinder cast him in Lola and his career in the West was off and running. After appearing in some successful American films, he moved to Southern California but frequently returns to Germany. He is a talented violist and painter.
Jutta Hoffmann had also signed the Biermann letter. She undoubtedly received some grief for this, but she continued to work in East Germany for several years after, primarily in television and on stage. After the Wende, she appeared from 1999 to 2002 as Kommissarin Wanda Rosenbaum on the popular crime show Polizeiruf 110, one of the few television shows from East Germany that successfully made the transition to unified Germany.
Private Party is a talky film. It seems more like a play than a movie. There are no subtitles available so if you don’t speak much German (or your German is as bad as mine is) you’ll find it hard going at times. It’s mostly worth watching for the performances, Jutta Hoffmann especially. This is very much her movie and she turns in one of her best performances since Her Third.
1. Geschlossene Gesellschaft is also the German title for Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huit Clos, which is usually translated into English as No Exit. Geschlossene Gesellschaft comes a little closer to the meaning of the French title, which has the meaning of in camera or a meeting that is closed to the public. In the context of Private Party, the title can also be translated as “Closed Society.” A fact that certainly wasn’t lost on Joachim Herrmann.
2. The crash remains suspicious. It was attributed to a faulty rotor, but some believe the rotor had been tampered with by the CIA in an attempt to kill Ghadaffi without making it look like an assassination. The body of Werner Lamberz was never found.
3. Literally, “clear-cutting.”
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