Spies from the West are planning to get a jet pilot in MiG to defect to West Germany and it’s up to the clever Stasi agents to stop them. The first of trilogy of films features the Stasi agent Major Sander.
The sixties were the decade of spy films. That’s not to say there weren’t spy films before and after that decade. Spy films go all the way back to the silent era with films such as The General (1926), and Spione (1928), and Hitchcock put the genre to good use throughout his career (The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Topaz, and many others). But during the sixties they became a fad, both on television—with shows such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, and Mission Impossible—and in the movies with characters such as James Bond, Matt Helm, and Harry Palmer.
Being situated on the front edge of the intelligence efforts of both the United States and the Soviet Union, East Germany was more keenly aware of the antics of the various intelligence agencies than most other countries. There were plenty of spy movies coming out of DEFA, most notably, Track in the Night, For Eyes Only, and Coded Message for the Boss. There were spies on television as well, with mini-series such as Rendezvous mit Unbekannt (Rendezvous with the Unknown), and Das unsichtbare Visier (The Invisible Sight), and TV-movies such as Radio Killer and The Night on the Autobahn. One such TV movie was The Man from Canada (Der Mann aus Kanada). About the efforts of the CIA and the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst—West Germany’s intelligence agency), to force an East German MiG pilot to fly his plane to West Germany.
The movie starts promisingly enough on a dark street, where a woman says goodbye to a man in front of her building. Nearby, two men watch from a car. It’s midnight and one of them is wearing sunglasses at midnight, so we know immediately that these are bad guys. As soon as the woman leaves the scene, the man is attacked by the men from the car and killed. They remove his wallet and ID to impede identifying him. Later that same a woman, shows up at the police station, claiming to be the wife of the dead man. In reality, her name is Margit Steiner (Annekathrin Bürger), an agent from West Germany. The dead man is Herbert Riedmüller (Horst Schön), whose sister Inge (Kati Székely) is married to Horst (Alfred Struwe), the pilot that the West wants to pressure into defecting. The investigation into this espionage is the responsibility of Stasi agents Major Seidel (Rudolf Ulrich), Major Sander (Jürgen Frohriep), Hauptmann Kranz (Herbert Köfer), Oberleutnant Kämpf (Ezard Haußmann), and Leutnant Schütz (Heinz Behrens). All of these characters and the actors who played them would appear in two more films—Treffpunkt Genf (Rendezvous Geneva) and Projekt Aqua (Project Aqua)—which were also directed by Rudi Kurz. The trio of films is known as the Major Sander trilogy, even though Sander is only one of the agents.
The film’s director was Rudi Kurz. Kurz is one of those directors like Paul Wendkos, Walter Grauman, or Bernie Kowalski, who never got the credit they deserved because they worked primarily in television. Like any good TV director, he learned how to shoot his films quickly without breaking the bank. Aspiring filmmakers would do well to learn more about Kurz and his techniques. He shot his films at the DEFA studios, using a 16mm camera equipped with a zoom lens. He shot fast and shot lots. According to director Jörg Foth (see The Latest from the Da-Da-eR), “Rudi Kurz holds the [DEFA] record for the amount of film used/number of shooting days. …He called instructions for his editor into the running recordings that could be heard while watching the footage on the editing tables.”1 Kurz starts things off slowly, with long, undisturbed takes, only resorting to quick cuts and Dutch angles when the action starts to ramp up. There are few places where Kurz uses musical stings when zooming in that don’t make much sense. Perhaps Kurz felt that crash zooms should always be accompanied by musical stings.
Kurz studied acting in Mannheim and started working in theater in various roles, including five years as a director at the Kammerspiele and Schauspielhaus theaters in Leipzig. He got his start in film directing shorts for DEFA’s Stacheltier group, but made only one feature film, Die aus der 12b (The Ones From 12b). Unlike some of the directors at DEFA, Kurz believed in the principles of the SED and continued to support them until his death. He was one of the regular contributors to RotFuchs, a post-Wende magazine dedicated to the principles of Marxism.
Annekathrin Bürger probably needs no introduction here. She was one of the most popular and beautiful actresses to come out of East Germany. The daughter of a respected illustrator, Bürger went to school to study graphic arts and stage design. Soon, she was appearing on stage in small roles. She applied to the State Drama School in Berlin but didn’t get in, but she didn’t let that stop her. She continued to act on stage until she was spotted by director Gerhard Klein, who cast her as the lead in his film A Berlin Romance. After that, she studied acting at the Film Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg. During that time, she continued to act in movies, including Günter Reisch’s Track in the Night, and Slatan Dudow’s Love’s Confusion, which proved to be her breakthrough hit. Over the years she starred in dozens of East German films, including Star-Crossed Lovers, The Second Track, Farewell, Not to Me, Madam, Tecumseh, and Hostess. Today, she is best known for her roles as Frederike on Tatort, and Christa König on Die Stein.
Playing opposite her in most scenes is Kati Székely, and American-born actress whose father Hans Székely was a successful Hollywood screenwriter, winning the Academy Award for one of his stories (Arise My Love) before being chased out of the country by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). With her dark good looks, Kati Székely was a natural choice to play Vinonah in The Sons of Great Bear, and would have undoubtedly ended up playing a lot more of those roles had she not decided to give up acting and study psychology instead. Around the time that The Man from Canada was filmed, Székely married her co-star Jürgen Frohriep. They stayed together until after the Wende, when Frohriep’s inability to find work led him to drinking heavily, a condition to which he was, undoubtedly, already predisposed. The two broke up in 1990 and Frohriep died in 1993.
The music for The Man from Canada was composed by Wolfgang Hohensee. Like DEFA’s favorite composer Karl-Ernst Sasse, Hohensee was classically trained and could compose music in nearly any style called for. In this film, the music is jazzy and propulsive. Hohensee studied musicology with Walther Vetter and composition with Hanns Eisler. When he wasn’t busy exploring the possibilities of twelve-tone scales and aleatoric music (chance-based composition), he was writing music for movies and television shows. His best-known work appears in Love’s Confusion. Hohensee was close to retirement age when the Wall came down, and he hadn’t been composing music for films and TV since 1980, focusing instead on his classical work. He died March 25, 2018 in Berlin and is buried in the Karlshorster and New Friedrichsfelder cemetery near the Tierpark zoo.
According to the credits, the movie is based on a true story. If so, we’re not privy to all the facts. The idea that the CIA and the BND would engage in such an elaborate scheme for the sole purpose of embarrassing the GDR just doesn’t hold water. A few months before the movie came out, a Soviet pilot did fly his MiG-17 from East Germany to West Germany. Ironically, the day before, an American army Major had defected to Cuba by flying a small Cessna to that country. A likely inspiration for the movie was the West German series Die fünfte Kolonne (The Fifth Column), which was on the air from 1963 to 1968. Each episode of this show dealt with cases of the Western intelligence agencies defeating the efforts of Eastern Bloc spies to interfere with West Germany’s government. Like The Man from Canada, the stories were reportedly true and unquestionably, politically biased.
1. Original German text: Rudi Kurz hält alle Rekorde Filmmeter/Drehtag. …Anweisungen für seine Schnittmeisterin rief er in die laufenden Aufnahmen hinein, so daß sie am Schneidetisch für die Cutterin zu hören waren.
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