A fifteen-year-old girl decides that the adults in her community aren’t taking environmental issues seriously enough, so she starts a campaign to keep them from destroying the environment. Sound familiar? This film was made fourteen years before Greta Thunberg was born.
In 1989, the government in the GDR had begun to relax its restrictions on artistic expression, allowing films to explore topics that would have been taboo a few years earlier. It was too little too late. The whole edifice came crashing down in spectacular fashion on November 9th, 1989. The few films that were already “in the can” at that time were released the following year to low attendance numbers and general indifference. Ostalgie was still a few years away, and the East Germans had yet to discover that that greener grass in the West was mostly AstroTurf.
Such was the fate of Biology! (Biologie!), director Jörg Foth’s film about kids trying to protect a local nature reserve. Foth finished shooting the film on October 31, 1989 (his birthday, by coincidence), and began editing it on the 7th of November. Two days later, the Wall opened. After a couple festival and classroom screenings, the film had its official (well, semi-official) premier on December 15th, 1990 at the Babylon Cinema in Berlin, but it never received much distribution. That’s too bad because Biology! is an interesting movie that looks hard at environmental issues at a time when very few people were actually talking about them.
Biology! follows the exploits of Ulla (Stefanie Stappenbeck), a fifteen-year-old girl who cares passionately for the environment. She also cares for Winfried (Cornelius Schulz), the son of the General Director of a large company in the town where she lives. After a field trip to the country, Ulla is horrified to discover that someone is building weekend homes and a trout farm in an area marked as a nature preserve. Things escalate when she discovers that the man responsible for the new construction site is none other than Winfried’s father (Horst Rehberg). This leads to a Romeo and Juliet situation between Ulla and Winfried, although Winfried is certainly no Romeo.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how candidly it shows the difference between the haves and the have-nots in East Germany. The subject had been breached before (The Legend of Paul and Paula, The Bicycle), but only in the most circumspect ways possible. The GDR was supposed to be a classless society. A film demonstrating that this wasn’t true had little chance of being released, or being made at all for that matter. Winfried’s family is clearly upper middle class, living in a new apartment and building a country home, while Ulla’s family is blue collar, and lives in a place that rivals a New York tenement. Winfried owns a personal computer and rides a motorbike while the rest of the kids are on bicycles. He sports a very contemporary hairstyle that would be right at home in any club in West Berlin.
The film is based on Die Wasseramsel (The European Dipper) by Wolf Spillner. Besides being a writer, Spillner was also a nature photographer and ornithologist. When he was a teenager, he lived in a small village in the Lüneburg Heath area, a large nature reserve south of Hamburg. When his mother sold the house in the Lüneburg Heath, she bought her son a 35mm camera. Not happy with the rearmament of West Germany. Spillner moved to the GDR where he almost immediately got in trouble with the authorities for selling his camera to buy a new one using the imbalance in the exchange rate between the West German and East German money. Afterward, he worked in construction and started taking nature pictures. His pictures of gray herons led to the first prize in a picture competition by Der Falke, a birdwatchers magazine. For this, he was noticed by Heinrich Dathe, who was a renowned zoologist and the director of the Tierpark Berlin for 34 years. Dathe sent Spillner to Deutsches Landwirtschaftsverlag, a publisher that specializes in nature and agriculture books. Today, he has published 29 books, mostly on the subject of birds and nature, with many aimed at a younger audience. His children’s book Taube Klara, won the Deutschen Jugendliteraturpreis (German Youth Literature Prize) in 1991.
Jörg Foth started at DEFA as an assistant director, working on films such as Bluebird (Blauvogel), The Fiancée, The Colony (Die Kolonie). His first DEFA film as a director was The Arctic Sea Calls, followed by work as assistant director on The Green Stone Variant (Die Grünstein-Variante) an East/West coproduction directed by Bernhard Wicki from a script by Wolfgang Kohlhaase. He got bogged down in an East German/Vietnamese co-production titled Time in the Jungle (Dschungelzeit), which he co-directed with Vietnamese director Tran Vu. After that, he worked for a while in theater until he was contacted by DEFA dramaturg Erika Richter about making Biology!1 It seems DEFA’s General Director Hans Dieter Mäde wasn’t keen on this story being turned into a film. While Mäde was on sick leave, Richter contacted Foth and got the film started.
Foth directs the film with unusual framing and interesting camera shots. He’s also not afraid to turn things on their head. When he was required by the government to include the Luftbildgenehmigungsnummer (aerial photo permit number) in the film, he leaned into it, printing the number slowly on the screen during a flyover over the forest, demonstrating the absurdity of the requirement. He made some changes to the story, most notably, he removed the bird. In the book, the dipper is seen. It is real. Here, the bird is mostly Ulla’s excuse for trying to stop Winfried’s father from building his cabin and trout farm near the nature preserve. This creates an interesting tension in the story and raises the question: Is lying justified to promote a worthy cause? If the bird exists, then Ulla’s position is unequivocal, but Foth doesn’t want easy answers. While a few peripheral characters are presented as tropes, the main characters on both sides of the argument are fully developed. Winfried and his parents aren’t two-dimensional bad guys. We see—and even sympathize with—their viewpoints; but our sympathies remain with Ulla, thanks, in part, to Stefanie Stappenbeck’s performance.
Biology! was one of Stefanie Stappenbeck’s first films and she is utterly charming here. The daughter of a sociologist and theologian, Stappenbeck grew up in Berlin with her two younger sisters. At the age of eleven, she was discovered by talent scouts from Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DFF—East Germany’s television station) and was cast in Der Elterntauschladen (Parents Exchange Store). After the Wende, she worked primarily in television, but she has appeared in a number of films, including Rosenkavalier (AKA Sisters from Hell), September, Jena Paradies, Komm näher (Happy as One), Pizza und Marmelade, and Die Hochzeit (The Wedding). She has also appeared in several made-for-TV movies and co-starred in the popular crime series Ein starkes Team (A Strong Team).
The GDR had a schizophrenic relationship with environmental causes. On one hand, the government was quicker than most other countries at acknowledging the importance of environmentalism. They formed their Ministerium für Umweltschutz und Wasserwirtschaft (Ministry for Environmental Protection and Water Management) well before most other countries had even started discussing the problem. On the other hand, the country relied heavily on brown coal—a particularly dirty source of energy. As a result, in spite of East Germany’s lip service to environmental protection, the country was named in a 1984 UN report as the most polluted in Europe. By 1989, the situation had gotten so bad that, according to Greenpeace, more than 100 tons of waste was pouring into the Elbe River every day from East Germany.
If Biology! was simply about a young woman who stands up to the powers-that-be in defense of the environment. It would be a remarkably prescient film, but the film takes the story a step further, asking how far are you willing to go to protect the environment; and how far is too far? Thanks to the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst, you can now see this movie, either through your school (if you’re a student) or at participating local libraries.
1. Foth was part of the so-called Nachswuchsgeneration—the filmmakers at DEFA who were born after the War. These directors were all old enough to start shooting films by the time the eighties rolled around, but DEFA, like the GDR itself, had become sclerotically resistant to change. Thus, it took a while for these directors to get opportunities to make feature films. Unfortunately, this moment arrived just as the country was collapsing, so few of them had many opportunities after the Wende. Some continued to direct (primarily for television), others moved into theater, while others simply gave up and left movie making altogether.
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