East German television looks at the issue of abortion in a teleplay that tackles the issue head on.
Abortion as a hot button topic is nothing new. Witness the German playwright Friedrich Wolf’s play Cyanide (Cyankali). It debuted in 1929 and made into a movie the following year. The play was first performed at the Lessing Theater and became the biggest hit of the theater’s season. When it was made into a movie the following year by Austrian director Hans Tintner, the story was cut to ribbons, resulting in a watered-down adaptation. Then, in 1977, the play was adapted for television by the DFF (called Fernsehen der DDR at that time), this time without damaging the basic premise. Wolf wrote the play in reaction to section 218, of the German Criminal Code, which made it a crime for a woman to have an abortion.1 As the play amply demonstrates, the financial constraints put on people under capitalism can leave people in hopeless situations where having children will consign the entire family to starvation.
The movie tells the story of Paul (Hermann Beyer) and Hete (Renate Krößner), a couple who are deeply in love. At the beginning of the play, Hete tells Paul she’s pregnant and they don’t seem too worried about it, but this is Germany in 1929, and the economy is in free fall. Paul gets into trouble with the people running the factory and has to take it on the lam. Hete isn’t working either and the place she lives is already filled with children that they can barely support. Seeking an abortion, she goes to the local doctor (Heinz Behrens) who recites the penal code regarding abortion, never mind having just helped a rich woman with the same problem. She goes to a woman who performs abortions on the sly (wonderfully played by Marianne Wünscher), but Hete’s previous attempt to abort herself causes the woman to throw her out. Things go from bad to worse until the police show up—with the doctor who refused to help her earlier—full of righteous indignation, indifferent to the ramifications of their position. It’s a dark, dark play that still resonates.
As noted in the Profesor Mamlock post, Friedrich Wolf was considered one of Germany’s best playwrights. While this version of Cyanide stays closer to its source material than did the 1930 film, it’s not a word-for-word adaptation. The teleplay was written by Jürgen Leskien and he takes liberties with Wolf’s script, presumably, in part to make it better suited to the live teleplay format and partly to make it match the East German Weltanschauung. Leskien was pilot in the East German Air Force (Luftstreitkräfte der Nationalen Volksarmee) and worked as a civil engineer in air traffic control before trying his hand at writing a novel. After he left the military service, he studied at the Leipzig Theater Academy and got a job as a dramaturge with East German television. Leskien’s changes, while understandable, remove some of the poetry of Wolf’s street language. For instance, the opening line of the play, in which a woman is asked if she’s cooking a street cat or an old horse (“Dachhase oder Hottehü?”), is replaced with the statement that the main character is late (hasn’t had her period). It gets us right into the story, but at what cost? Also missing is the character Cuckoo’s colorful, if sometimes confusing, nicknames for everything.
Director Jurij Kramer was born in Russia to parents who, like many German communists, fled to Russia to avoid being thrown into prison or killed by Hitler. His father was a railway engineer who, later became the Minister for Transport of the GDR and General Director of the Deutsche Reichsbahn. His mother had been a dancer and Jurij seems to have taken after his mother ‘s side of the family.
The cast of Cyanide is exceptionally good. It includes Marianne Wünscher (Beloved White Mouse), Rolf Römer, and Annekathrin Bürger intentionally looking more dowdy than she ever had in any previous movie (for more on Rolf Römer and Annekathrin Bürger, see Hostess). But the star of the film, in every respect, is Renate Krößner. Krößner was still an unknown when she made Cyanide. This teleplay put her on the map. She had already co-starred in Fire Below Deck with Manfred Krug, but by the time that film was finished, Krug had signed the open letter to Erich Honecker protesting Wolf Biermann’s expatriation, so the film was shelved for a few years. Cyanide very likely brought her to the attention of Konrad Wolf (Friedrich Wolf was, after, Konrad’s father). Wolf cast her in the lead in Solo Sunny, which brought her even greater fame.
By the time the teleplay was made, East Germany had passed the Gesetz über die Unterbrechung der Schwangerschaft (Pregnancy Abortion Law), which gave women the right to choose. It also contains provisions for free birth control. Meanwhile, West Germany was still under section 218, although the law had been amended to make it less draconian. Nonetheless, after the reunification, most provisions of the the East German abortion laws were thrown out in favor of the country’s one-hundred-year-old provisions.
Cyanide was shot on a soundstage, rather than filmed on location. This gives the movie the look and feel of a daytime soap opera or one of those old Playhouse 90 episodes. This is too bad, because it deserves better. It has an outstanding cast and a classic story; it’s well-scripted and subject matter that (sadly) is as relevant today as it was when Wolf wrote it. Since the film wasn’t available with English subtitles, I decided to fix that situations best as I could by uploading the movie with my own English subtitles. You’ll find the link below.
Watch this film on YouTube (English subtitles).
Buy the 1930 version (with English subtitles).
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1. § 218. (1) A pregnant woman who intentionally aborts her fetus or kills it in the womb shall be punished with imprisonment for up to five years. (2) If mitigating circumstances exist, imprisonment shall not be less than six months. (3) The same penal provisions apply to anyone who, with the consent of the pregnant woman, has used or taught her the means of aborting or killing her.
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