In 1774, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther took Germany by storm.1 Goethe would go on to become the most important writer in Germany and it started with this book. The book is told from the perspective of a young man, pining over his unrequited love for a woman named Lotte. He wrote the book in Wetzlar, but moved to Weimar shortly thereafter. The inspiration for Lotte was said to be Charlotte Buff, a young woman that Goethe lusted after. Although Buff was fond of Goethe, she decided to marry Johann Christian Kestner, who, at that point, was a much better bet for a husband than young Goethe. The twentieth century author Thomas Mann decided to take this story and expand on it, postulating how Lotte, later in life, might have felt about Goethe’s portrayal of her and the fame that followed. In 1975, East German director Egon Günther made the film of Mann’s book, starring Lilli Palmer as Lotte and Martin Hellberg as Goethe. The movie follows the book closely, right down to the locations and the accents of some of the people described in the book.
Director Egon Günther should need no introduction here. His films include When You’re Older, Dear Adam, Farewell, Her Third, and Ursula—an East German/Swiss co-production that the both the Swiss and East German authorities quickly denounced. Fed up with the restrictions imposed on him at DEFA, Günther moved to West Germany, where he worked in film and television for several years. He returned to DEFA with the film Stein in 1990, right before the Deutsche Wiedervereinigung (German reunification) took effect. His final movie, The Bride (Die Braut), came out in 1999. In this film, Günther returns to the story of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, this time in regards to his complicated relationship with Christiane Vulpius (played in this film by Veronica Ferres).
By the time Lotte in Weimar was filmed, Lilli Palmer was one of the best known actors in the world. She first appeared on film in a small role in Rivaux de la piste (Track Rivals), a French remake of Strich durch die Rechnung (Spoiling the Game). But Hitler was gaining ground around that time and Palmer’s father was Jewish. She moved to England and started appearing in British films such as Crime Unlimited, Secret Agent, The Door with Seven Locks (U.S. title: Chamber of Horrors), and The Rake’s Progress (U.S. title: Notorious Gentleman), The latter film starred Rex Harrison, whom she married. She and Harrison then moved to Hollywood, where she starred in several more films, including Body and Soul, The Four Poster—in which she starred opposite her husband—and But Not for Me, which earned her an Academy Award nomination. During the fifties, she appeared on several television shows, and even had her own short-lived show in 1951. After divorcing Harrison, she moved back to Germany, starring in Fireworks (Feuerwerk) opposite a young Romy Schneider. She and Schneider appeared together again in Géza von Radványi’s excellent remake of Mädchen in Uniform. For the rest of her life, Palmer bounced back and forth between Europe and the States, appearing in assorted thrillers (Operation Crossbow, The Holcroft Convention, Boys From Brazil), horror movies (The House The Screamed, Murders in the Rue Morgue), and exploitation films (De Sade, What the Peeper Saw). Palmer died in 1986 of stomach cancer.
Palmer was an accomplished stage actress and that stage training shows here. It’s apparent from her performance that she isn’t just reciting her lines. She’s done a deep dive into the character of Lotte, learning what makes her tick. Even when she’s listening, we see the thoughts of the character sweep across her face, like she’s thinking about everything that’s being said not as Lilli Palmer, but as Lotte Kestner. Palmer could have carried this film by herself, but the film has an excellent supporting cast, particularly Jutta Hoffman, playing Adele Schopenhauer. The scenes between the two of them are the best in the movie and some of the best in cinema, full stop (for more on Jutta Hoffmann, see Her Third and Karla).
The cinematographer was Erich Gusko. Whether working in color or black-and-white, Gusko brought a visual perfection to the screen that few could match. His films include Midnight Revue, Mother Holly, The Flying Dutchman, The Rabbit is Me, and Her Third. Gusko got his start at DEFA working on the Stacheltier shorts. He shot at least ten of these short films, working with directors such as Richard Groschopp, Frank Beyer, and Gottfried Kolditz. His career as a cinematographer ended with the Wende, but he continued to teach the trade at the film school in Babelsberg.
Lotte in Weimar was the first DEFA film to be entered into the competition at the Cannes Film Festival as an East German film. Stars had won the Jury Prize at Cannes back in 1959, but it was entered as a Bulgarian film thanks to the wrongheaded Hallstein Doctrine, a policy that dictated that any country that viewed East Germany as an actual state would be considered an enemy of West Germany (the Soviet Union, was excluded from this doctrine for obvious reasons). It didn’t win, but the very act of being nominated at Cannes was a breakthrough, and paved the way for Jakob the Liar to be nominated in the “Best Foreign Film” category at the 49th Academy Awards a couple years later.
1. That’s almost a pun. Goethe became associated with the literary movement referred to as Sturm und Drang (usually translated as “Storm and Stress”).
© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.