It was just a lighthearted fairytale, but it hit a little too close to home for the East German authorities.
It’s said that timing is everything. This is certainly true when it comes to movies. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole was one of his best films, and had it been released in the early forties, it might have been a hit, but by 1951, people had no use for Wilder’s cynicism. It’s no coincidence that the film that won the Academy Award for that year’s films was American in Paris. Likewise, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was met with stony silence when it was released. Two months after President Kennedy was assassinated probably wasn’t the best time to release a movie that portrayed the president as a buffoon. People at that point didn’t want satire, they wanted light entertainment. The top box office films that year were My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins.
Sometimes, however, it’s not about the Zeitgeist, but specific events. The Casablanca Conference certainly helped boost the box office for Casablanca, and The China Syndrome’s ticket sales shot up dramatically when, twelve days after its release, there was a partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. In the West, current events usually meant better box office, but in East Germany, it could result in a film being shelved. Such was the case with The Robe (Das Kleid).
The story is set in a walled city. Outsiders were actively kept out of the city. The heroes of the film, two itinerant weavers named Hans (Horst Drinda) and Kumpan (Werner Lierck), have to sneak in on the underside of a cart to get past the guards. Once inside the Wall, Hans and Kumpan strike up a friendship with Katrin (Eva-Maria Hagen), an attractive young woman who helps the men get into the castle by hiding in the basket that’s supposed to contain food. Inside the castle, the self-important King (Wolf Kaiser) is fussing over his wardrobe, bored with everything that his Minister of Clothing (Lore Frisch) has to offer. When the basket containing our heroes is opened, the king is not happy with its contents and sentences the men to death. But when the Minister of Clothing finds out they’re weavers, she gives them a chance to redeem themselves by creating a new cloth for the king. Something so dazzling and special that no one has ever seen anything like it. Realizing the impossibility of the task, the men decide to double down on the challenge by claiming that the cloth is so special that stupid people couldn’t see it. The cloth, they said, was visible only to intelligent people. Not wishing to be thought of as an idiot (which he was), the king pretended he could see the cloth. As with the original story, the king parades through the city in his new “clothing” until a child starts to laugh at the naked king.
Production on The Robe started in May of 1961. At that point, the Cold War was hotter than it had ever been. A month earlier, the Soviets won the Space Race with Yuri Gagarin and the U.S. had failed to overthrow Castro at the Bay of Pigs. The West still refused to acknowledge that the GDR even existed and West Germany was doing everything it could to destabilize the East Germany economy. This didn’t seem that important to Konrad Petzold and Egon Günther, who were about to start work on yet another DEFA fairytale film (Märchenfilm). Although it’s based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes1, the story was liberally adapted to reflect the times. Fairytale films were seen as a “safe” genre, but The Robe had a plot point that would prove its undoing. Petzold and Günther, they submitted The Robe for approval on August 15th, 1961. Two days earlier, Berliners were awakened in the early morning hours to the sounds of construction as East German soldiers set up a barricade around West Berlin, no longer allowing free access to the eastern half of the city in either direction. As one might imagine, the concept of a fairytale about an idiot king who builds a wall to keep out others didn’t exactly thrill the East German authorities. It probably didn’t help that the film included men wearing trench coats, fedoras, and sunglasses, popping up unexpectedly to interrogate the city populace. The film was immediately shelved.
The credits list Konrad Petzold as the director and Egon Günther as the screenwriter, although the two shared directing duties. Petzold spent the first half of his career making children’s films such as (Die Fahrt nach Bamsdorf) and Alfons Zitterbacke, and the second half making Indianerfilme, including White Wolves, Osceola, and Kit & Co (for more on Petzold see Fatal Error). The Wende effectively put an end to his career.
Egon Günther, on the other hand, had a long career after the Wende, partly because of his reputation as a director that was often at odds with the East German authorities, and partly because he was, first and foremost, a writer, and it was easier to get a gig writing than directing. Günther’s work has cropped up several times on this blog, thanks to excellent films such as When Your Older, Dear Adam, Farewell, Her Third, and, of course, Ursula.
The music was composed by Günter Hauk. Like Karl-Ernst Sasse, Hauk was a classically trained musician, although he was nowhere near as prolific as Sasse (for more on Sasse, see Her Third and Signals). In 1957, Hauk became the musical director at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin. Later that same year, he was hired to compose music for the TV-movie A Day for Me (Ein Tag für mich). In 1960, he was hired by Konrad Petzold to score his film The Dog in the Moors (Der Moorhound). After that, he went on to compose the music for several more films, including For Eyes Only, Frozen Flashes (Die gefrorenen Blitze), and The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs. His last movie score was for the TV-movie Nachtasyl (The Lower Depths), a 1980 television adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s 1902 play. He died before the movie aired.
The Robe had a solid cast all around. Horst Drinda, who played Hans, had a long career at DEFA. He continued to work after the Wende and became a familiar character actor on television. Werner Lierck died before the Mauerfall, but had already appeared in dozens of movies and television shows before his death in 1985. Eva-Maria Hagen (Don’t Forget My Little Traudel) and Günther Simon (the Ernst Thälmann films) were well-known stars by this point but appear here in smaller roles. Lore Frisch, who co-starred with Simon in My Wife Wants to Sing, also appears here in a smaller role. Wolf Kaiser plays the king well. He was one of the most remarkable looking people on the planet, which led to many roles, although rarely as the lead actor, unless the lead role called for someone unusual looking. His career effectively ended with the Wende. Unable to find work and recovering from a long illness, he committed suicide by jumping out a window in 1992. He was 76.
After the Mauerfall, The Robe was dug out of the archives along with the films banned after the 11th Plenum. Unfortunately, most of the movie’s soundtrack was gone, so the film had to be redubbed. To achieve this, as many of the original actors as they could round up were hired to revoice their parts. Werner Lierck had died in 1985, so his part was dubbed by Detlef Gieß. Likewise, Günther Simon, who played the lovestruck butcher, had died in 1972, so his part was dubbed by Erik Veldre. The film was finally screened on February 9, 1991 to favorable reviews.
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1. Which, in turn, was adapted from Don Juan Manuel’s Tales of Count Lucanor (Libro de los ejemplos del conde Lucanor y de Patronio).
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