East Germany’s DEFA film production company greenlights a light and happy rom-com with a subtle bit of subversion buried beneath the froth.
Life Together (Leben zu zweit) is a romantic comedy with a plot that sounds like something straight out of Hollywood. Karin Werner (Marita Böhme) is the divorced mother in her mid-thirties, who’s been secretly dating a mathematician named Peter Freund (Alfred Müller). She’s kept the affair secret because she worries how her fifteen-year-old daughter Nora (Evelyn Opoczynski) will react to her mom having a boyfriend. Now Peter wants to get married, but Karin thinks Nora will freak out. Karin and Peter devise a plot for Peter to meet Nora and introduce him to Karin and then they can date overtly and get married. Why Karin thinks Nora will freak out says more about her than her daughter. Meanwhile, Nora is having her own boy trouble. Mark (Jan Bereska) has been in love with her for years, but Nora sees him as only a friend. She’s got the hots for Sascha (Hanns-Michael Schmidt) who’s probably going to turn out to be a cad. This is left open, but he is a musician and is devilishly handsome.
At this point, I doubt that Herrmann Zschoche needs any introduction to the readers of this blog (if you’re new here, you can read about Zschoche in the Karla article). Life Together was Zschoche’s first film after getting in trouble for Karla after the 11th Plenum. Zschoche doesn’t really get as much credit as he deserves for his work, but he really was one of the more daring directors at DEFA and that is still in full evidence here. The film starts with a series of jump cuts and abrupt scene changes that bring us deeply into the center of the story in a matter of minutes. He continues this throughout the movie, using remarkably abrupt cuts that suggest something was cut out where nothing was. It couldn’t have been ineptitude on the part of the editor. Rita Hiller was one of the best in the business (East or West) and was responsible for the editing of several East German classics, including Jakob the Liar. Perhaps that’s what he’s hinting at here. If so, it went over the heads of the censors. Another thing that the censors either missed or overlooked was the scene where Nora is dancing around her room by herself. She’s unmistakably wearing Levi’s 501 jeans. This was a pretty hip item of apparel in East Germany in 1968, but it was also banned at schools and many clubs at that time.1 You couldn’t buy them legally in 1968, so did the daughter of a government official buy black market Levi’s? Again, the censors probably weren’t paying attention, but it was certainly a conscious decision on Zschoche’s part.
Life Together was the first collaboration between writer Gisela Steineckert and director Herrmann Zschoche. They would work together again on Love at 16. For fans of feminist films, Steineckert’s work should hold interest. Several of her screenplays deal specifically with the issue of feminism and what it meant to be a woman in the GDR. These include Stone Age Ballad (Steinzeitballade), Love at 16, Hostess, and Marta, Marta. Steineckert grew up poor as a church mouse. Starting in 1957, she worked as a freelance writer in East Germany, eventually becoming the cultural editor for Eulenspiegel, East Germany’s satire magazine. In 1965, she joined the Deutscher Schriftstellerverband, East Germany’s writer’s association. In 1979, she joined the Komitee für Unterhaltungskunst (Entertainment Arts Committee), acting as its president from 1984 until its dissolution after the Mauerfall.
We first saw Marita Böhme in Ralf Kirsten’s On the Sunny Side, playing opposite Manfred Krug. Like many DEFA actors, she got her training in legitimate theater before moving to films and television. Life Together was made during the period when she was regularly on stage at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin. She worked at the Maxim Gorki Theater from 1966 until 1970, when she started working at the Staatstheater Dresden (State Playhouse Dresden), where she continued to work until 2004. After the Wende, her career in films ended although she continued to appear in various television shows, most notably as a regular on Police Call 110 (Polizeiruf 110), playing opera director Edith Reger.
Alfred Müller starred in dozens of East German films and TV-movies, but is probably best known now for playing Hansen in For Eyes Only – Top Secret, the super spy who manages to thwart the U.S. plans to foment World War III on East German soil. Müller was a Berlin native, born in Wedding, which became part of the French sector after the War. His father was a film nerd and spawned in Alfred his love of acting. In 1952, Müller began studying acting at the Staatliche Schauspielschule Berlin (State Acting School in Berlin, Now the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts). He started his acting career at the theater in Senftenberg, but his big breakthrough came when he started performing at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin in 1959.
By the time she appeared in Life Together, Evelyn Opoczynski had already starred in two movies, even though she was only eighteen at the time. The first, Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry, was banned before it made it to the cinemas, but her second film, My Friend Sybille (Meine Freundin Sybille) was a hit. She continued to appear in films and on television throughout the seventies and eighties, but her career in these media ended with the Wende.
The music for the film was composed by Georg Katzer who is best known for his work in electronic music, but here he engages in the kind of Bach-influenced jazz that made Dave Brubeck famous. Katzer was born in Habelschwerdt, Silesia (now part of Poland). He studied piano with Rudolf Wagner-Régeny and Ruth Zechlin at the Deutsche Hochschule für Musik in Berlin then went on to study under Karel Janeček at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and under the great Hanns Eisler at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. He was Eisler’s last master student. He started composing music for films and TV-movies in 1963. He composed the music for Karla and Berlin Around the Corner, both of which were banned after the 11th Plenum. In the late-seventies, he started teaching and founded the Studio for Experimental Music in affiliation with the music department at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. He continued working in academia after the Wende, but his career as a movie composer ended with the GDR.
Life Together was filmed in black-and-white. With the exceptions of Hot Summer, The Falcon’s Trail, and Captain Florian of the Mill (Hauptmann Florian von der Mühle), all the DEFA films released in 1968 were black-and-white. By contrast, in the West, black-and-white films were already a rarity. Spider Baby and Night of the Living Dead were the only B&W films released in States that year and only the Romero film received any attention at the time (Spider Baby would have to wait until I wrote about it in Incredibly Strange Films before it received any attention).2
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1. It should be noted that even in some American schools, jeans were also banned. This was true mostly on the East Coast. Where I grew up (Tucson, Arizona), jeans were not only acceptable, but even required dress at certain times of the year.
2. Lindsay Anderson’s if… was also released in 1968, which featured both black-and-white and color footage (see also Not to Me, Madam!). The reason for this depends on who’s being interviewed. William Friedkin’s The Birthday Party also used black-and-white footage, but in a more narrative fashion. Combining color and black-and-white in a film wasn’t anything new at this point. We’d already seen it in The Tingler and Blood and Roses.
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