Miss Butterfly

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

– Michael Corleone, Godfather Part III

[NOTE: I had planned to be finished adding new movies to this blog, but little did I realize that the long-lost experimental film Miss Butterfly (Fräulein Schmetterling) was about to be released with English subtitles by the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst. So here we go comrades, once more into the void.]

As I’ve discussed on this blog and in Movies Behind the Wall, the period between the building of the Berlin Wall and the 11th Plenum was a golden era for East German films. It’s roughly akin to what happened in Hollywood between Easy Rider and Jaws, when filmmakers were given an unusual level of creative control, allowing them to come up with provocative stories and fresh approaches to filmmaking without the usual interference from producers (for more on the Hollywood version, check out Peter Biskind’s excellent Easy Riders Raging Bulls). Anxious to prove that building the Wall wouldn’t stifle artistic freedom in any way, DEFA’s writers and directors were allowed to make movies that would have been verboten a few years earlier. Films such as The Gleiwitz Case, Divided Heaven, Star-Crossed Lovers, The Second Track, The Flying Dutchman, and Chronicle of a Murder represented some of the most effective and original filmmaking in Europe at the time.1

This all ended with with the 11th Plenum in December of 1965,2 when the country’s leaders—too cowardly to discuss the economic problems facing the GDR (ostensibly the reason for the Plenum in the first place)—decided to blame any problems the country was having on the arts. Why was the economy failing? The arts! Artists were given too much license and were making movies that eroded the public’s respect in the government. Yeah, that’s the problem! Their solution: Ban any movie that presented life in the GDR as anything other than perfect. Only films that promoted “further perfectioning” (weitere Perfektionierung) would be allowed. In all, eleven films ended up on the shelf in the wake of the Central Committee’s cowardice.

Of all the films banned after the 11th Plenum. Miss Butterfly (Fräulein Schmetterling) is the most infamous. Unlike The Rabbit is Me and Trace of Stones, which actually managed to make it into the cinemas before they were banned, or Berlin Around the Corner and Hands Up or I’ll Shoot, which at least had nearly complete working prints, Miss Butterfly was banned before the footage was even assembled. It was shot and in the can, but the authorities decided from the existing footage alone that it represented ideas that were dangerous to the health of the State. A montage of scenes from the movie was screened in 2005, and, at that time, it was thought that there was no way to adequately reconstruct the film. But no one wanted to leave a film this interesting in pieces.

Finally, in 2019, the DEFA Foundation made a concerted effort to reconstruct the film, largely thanks to the efforts of Ralk Schenk at DEFA-Stiftung.3 They had the script, the original composer, Peter Rabenalt, was willing to help, as were some of the main actors in the films who redubbed their voices where necessary. Other voices were dubbed anew. The result is a fully-realized movie, without gaps or intertitles for missing scenes (see When You’re Older, Dear Adam).

The story in Miss Butterfly is a simple one. 17-year-old Helene Raupe (Melania Jakubisková) lives with her six-year-old sister Asta (Christa Heiser) and her father, who runs a tobacco shop. When the father dies, Helene has to find employment to prevent the state from separating the two girls. A bit of a daydreamer, Helene has trouble finding work in the real world. Her first job, working at a fish market, proves to be a disaster and she’s quickly fired. She dreams of becoming a model or a flight attendant, but the closest she can get to these daydreams is working in a lingerie shop and as a conductor on the bus. Meanwhile, the state isn’t happy with her inability to hold down a job and threatens to take Asta away. The story moves back and forth between the harsh realities of real life and Helene’s fantasies where she’s a success at every turn. It is similar to John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar, the story of a ne’er-do-well in Yorkshire who constantly daydreams about a better life, but Billy Liar is far more critical of Billy than Miss Butterfly is of Helene. There’s also a bit of A Thousand Clowns in the story and therein lies a clue to its rejection by the authorities. This is a not a film that champions toeing the line, working hard, and following orders. We’re on Helene’s side throughout, even though we know that things will, in the end, be tough on her.

The screenplay was written by the writing team of Gerhard and Christa Wolf. Christa Wolf is one of the most well-known writers to have come out of East Germany. Unlike fellow East German writer Hermann Kant, who defended the government throughout his career, or Monika Maron, who ended up moving to West Germany to get her anti-SED book Flight of Ashes (Flugasche) published, Christa Wolf never her lost her belief in the ideas behind the GDR, but wasn’t afraid to stand up against when necessary.4 While the careers of many East German writers collapsed with the Wall, Wolf continued to spark interest and received several awards, including the Heinrich Mann Prize, which she and Gerhard Wolf were awarded in 1994. Her book Der geteilte Himmel, which was first published in 1963, was published after her death in translation in the United States under the title They Divided the Sky. Christa died in 2011.

Miss Butterfly was directed by Kurt Barthel. Barthel started his adult life as a car mechanic, but decided to go back to school and learn to do something else.5 He graduated from the film school in Babelsberg in 1961, and worked as an assistant director on Joachim Hasler’s Fog (Nebel) and Konrad Wolf’s Divided Heaven. It was while working on the Wolf film that he met the writer Christa Wolf and her husband Gerhard. Together the three of them started working on the script for Miss Butterfly. It was to be his first film as a director, but after the film was shelved he was assigned to direct Die Nacht im Grenzwald (The Night in the Border Forest), a children’s film that Barthel described as “pure gruntwork” (“eine reine Brotarbeit”). After that, he was given the choice between returning to his old job as an assistant director or working as a director at DEFA studio for short films (DEFA-Studio für Kurzfilme). He chose the latter. He made dozens of short films over the years, with catchy titles like Die Kriminalpolizei informiert – Nachschlüsseldiebstähle in Wohnungen (The criminal police informed – duplicate key thefts in apartments) and Das geht alle an – Ursache Trunkenheit (It’s everybody’s business – the cause of drunkenness). Barthel died in Potsdam-Babelsberg in 2014.

Melania Jakubisková was not an actress, but a pantomime artist from Czechoslovakia. In this film, we get to see her perform pantomime with fellow Czechoslovakian mime Milan Sládek. Miss Butterfly is the only film listed on her IMDb page. The same holds true for Christa Heiser, who never made another film. The rest of the cast was largely made up of respected character actors from the DEFA studios, including Rolf Hoppe, Lissy Tempelhof, Irene Korb, and Carmen-Maja Antoni.

IMDB page for the film.

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1. The Gleiwitz Case was filmed before the Wall was built and received a premiere screening in April 1961 before being put on a shelf. Two weeks after the Wall was built, the film was released nationally, perhaps as a way of demonstrating the creative freedom that the Wall would provide. West Germany was less favorable toward The Gleiwitz Case and only allowed it to be screened by film clubs. One can’t help but wonder if this film was part of the impetus for the Oberhausen Manifesto, a declaration by young filmmakers in West Germany complaining about the films that were being made in the BRD.

2. The term “11th Plenum” is shorthand for “The 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany” (Das 11. Plenum des ZK der SED). There were dozens of Plenums held by different groups throughout the history of East Germany. This particular one just happens to be the most infamous.

3. Ralf Schenk’s importance to the preservation of the films of DEFA cannot be overestimated. He was the studio’s savior, making films available that either hadn’t been seen in years, and or hadn’t been seen at all. Sadly, he died August 17, 2022, but lived long enough to see the release of the completed Miss Butterfly.

4. All three of these writers did, at some point in their careers, work as informants (IMs) for the Stasi. Of the three, Wolf provided the least useful information to the Stasi and Kant was the most active.

5. It should be noted that IMDb lists his career as beginning as a writer using the pseudonym “KuBa.” This is a different person.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2022. 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.

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