Archive for the ‘11th Plenum’ Category

The Tango Player
Following the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989, events in East Germany started happening fast. Faster than DEFA could keep with. Less than a year after that first batch of East Germans streamed into West Berlin in their Trabants, the GDR ceased to exist. Yet DEFA soldiered on, buffeted mercilessly by the winds of change. During the GDR’s last year of existence, the authorities had loosened their restrictions on what was acceptable in a film and what was not. The Tango Player (Der Tangospieler) was based on Christoph Hein’s 1989 novella about a man imprisoned for playing a tango. The book was controversial, but it was always easier to get books published than films made in the GDR. Filmmaker Roland Gräf saw the potential in the story to make a movie that addressed many of the problems he saw in East German society. He submitted his proposal to DEFA, but he wasn’t really expecting them to okay the project. The film studio had stayed away from controversial topics ever since the 11th Plenum. To his surprise, they said yes, and Gräf began working on the film, unaware—as was everyone else—that the fall of the Wall was a few scant months away.

The story starts when Hans-Peter Dallow is let out of prison after serving 21 months for subversive activity. It is 1968 and Alexander Dubček has just been elected First Secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. Prior to prison, Dallow was a history professor, who sometimes played the piano at a local Kabarett.1 One night, while Dallow subbed for their regular piano player, a comedy troupe performed a particularly pointed political skit. This would have been early in 1966—shortly after the 11th Plenum, when the East German government was cracking down on any movie, performance, or other art that even remotely smacked of criticism against them. The next thing Dallow knew, he was trundled off the prison along with the rest of the performers.

Der Tangospieler

This scene isn’t quite what it seems. The woman has already spent the night with Dallow. Her anguish comes from the something she just heard on the radio, announcing the invasion of Prague by the Warsaw troops.

Now back out in the world, Dallow doesn’t know what to do next. As a history professor, he specialized in Czechoslovakia, but the time in prison has left him indifferent to the unfolding political events there. He’s in no hurry to get back into the classroom, and he certainly doesn’t want to play the piano again, but he’s not sure where to turn next. As if to pour salt in the wound, the skit for which he was imprisoned is now performed openly, and is even attended by the judge who sentenced him. On top of everything else, the Stasi are dropping by regularly, trying to recruit him as an informer (IM).

Dallow isn’t a particularly likeable guy. For one thing, after 21 months in prison he’s horny as hell and behaves atrociously toward women. For another, his self-pity verges on narcissism. He’s mad at the world for what it’s done to him, but he’s not willing to take steps to alleviate the situation. The film stars Michael Gwisdek as Hans-Peter Dallow. Gwisdek was too old for the part, and this works against the character. Some of his actions would be understandable for a young man, but come across as downright creepy in a man old enough to know better. If we are suppose to like or sympathize with Dallow, it doesn’t show. He is a thoroughly disagreeable human being. Nonetheless, Gwisdek is a compelling enough actor to hold our interest.

The film also stars Corinna Harfouch as Elke, the only meaningful relationship he has post-prison. Gwisdek and Harfouch were still an item in 1991, and made several movies together, both before and after the Wall fell. The Tango Player was one of their last. The duo went their separate ways toward the end of the nineties, but didn’t get officially divorced until 2007 (for more on Gwisdek and Harfouch, see The Actress).

Gwisdek and Harfouch

Michael Gwisdek and Corinna Harfouch

Like Joachim Hasler, director Roland Gräf started his career at DEFA as a cinematographer. He was the cinematographer for Born in ‘45 and The Dove on the Roof, which were both banned. It was with Gräf’s help, in fact, that The Dove on the Roof was eventually put back together and screened in 1990. During its final years, Gräf became the de facto keeper of the flame for DEFA. Making movies and acting as chairman of DEFA’s artistic council. When DEFA finally bit the dust, so too did Gräf’s career as a filmmaker. Aside from a couple episodes of the TV crime series Faust, Gräf stopped working as either a director or a cinematographer. Like many East German filmmakers, his ideas weren’t welcome in the new Germany, which skewed heavily in favor of the Western ideology and power. He began teaching at the “Konrad Wolf” film school in Babelsberg. Upon its founding in 1998, Roland Gräf became the Deputy Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the DEFA Foundation, a position he held until 2005. After that, he turned his attention to still pictures. In 2016, a book of his photographs was published in Germany under the title Meine LAST PICTURE SHOW.

As one would expect from a film titled The Tango Player, most of the music is either tango, or tango-inflected. The song that is used in the political skit is Julio César Sanders’ well-known classic Adiós Muchachos. The soundtrack also includes the music of Astor Piazzolla, as well as additional music provided by Günther Fischer. It’s a solid, driving score that suits the action well.

The Tango Player

Dallow’s television shows the Warsaw Pact troops rolling into Prague.

The Tango Player suffered a fate similar to The Architects, where the events of history happened faster than the film could be made. According to Gräf, “The events of the day simply ran over me.” By the time it came out, The Tango Player‘s relevance was seriously diminished. What would have been a remarkably frank portrayal of events a couple years earlier seemed tame now. The film was largely ignored. That’s too bad, because the film is one of the last to give us a glimpse into a world that no longer existed by someone who had actually been there.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.


1. As in my article about The Actress, I’ve intentionally used the German word “Kabarett” here rather than “cabaret,” because, for Germans, the word Kabarett has a very different meaning from what we think of as cabaret. Although they both feature lots of singing, dancing and skits, German Kabarett is often punctuated by satirical political skits and comedy monologues of the darkest humor.

When You're Older, Dear Adam
Egon Günther’s 1965 comedy When You’re Older, Dear Adam (Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam) is a weird movie, made weirder still by the times in which it was made and the technique used to rebuild the film. The film tells the story of a boy who is given a magic flashlight by a swan. That’s not a typo. The boy paid the swan’s fare on the streetcar (also not a typo), and the swan repays the boy by tossing an old flashlight into the boy’s boat a little later on. It’s no ordinary flashlight. It has the ability to identify when people aren’t telling the truth. Liars suddenly find themselves floating in the air. The bigger the lie, the higher they fly. The boy runs around Dresden accompanied by jangly surf guitar, shining the light on people at random and causing havoc everywhere he goes. It’s an fun and mostly innocuous romantic comedy, but the folks in the SED didn’t think so.

As previously discussed here, the 11th Plenum led to the wholesale banning of several films in 1965-66. When You’re Older, Dear Adam had the dubious distinction of being in post-production after the Plenum occurred. Officials didn’t like the idea of a film that says that government officials sometimes lie, and started interfering with the production, eventually banning the film altogether. The screenplay was courting controversy even before it was filmed. In one scene, a group of soldiers taking their oath to defend the GDR suddenly finding themselves hovering in the air. Not surprisingly, this scene was never filmed, but even the scenes that were filmed upset the officials enough to call a halt to the film’s production.

Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam

In 1990, when the process of reunification had begun, several of the films banned during the 11th Plenum were taken out of storage, restored, and screened. When the researchers got to Günther’s film, they found that portions of the soundtrack had been destroyed, leaving only the footage. Working from the screenplay, and feeling that the film was too important to simply abandon, they decided to compliment the missing dialog with crudely made intertitles that explain the missing dialog, making an already surreal movie even more bizarre. While watching the film, the viewer is sometimes presented with what looks to all the world like a typed index card explaining what happens next, followed by a scene of complete silence. It is disorienting and only makes sense if you are alerted to the reasons for it before you view the film.

As a nod to the story’s theme of absolute truth, the film begins with a voiceover narration identifying the main actors and the parts they are playing. Adam is played by Stephan Jahnke. As is often the case with young actors, it would be his only role. The rest of the cast primarily consists of veteran DEFA actors, including Manfred Krug, Mathilde Danegger, Christel Bodenstein, Fred Delmare, and Marita Böhme. Adam’s father—whose name is “Sepp Tember”—is played by Gerry Wolff. Wolff usually showed up in character parts and so was more recognized by his face than his name. The Wende had little impact on his career. He continued to appear in films and on television, and has done a fair amount of dubbing as well. His was the German voice for Yoda in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

The one new face in the film, besides Stephan Jahnke, is the Cuban actor Daisy Granados. Starting on the stage in Havana, Granados had been in only one other film (La decisión) when she took the part in When You’re Older, Dear Adam. Granados went to on to star in several widely acclaimed and award-winning films in Cuba, including Retrato de Teresa (Portrait of Teresa), Cecilia, and Un hombre de éxito (A Successful Man). Until his death in 2005, Granados often worked with her husband, Pastor Vega. In 2012, she was scheduled to appear in a play as part of the TEMFest (Teatro en Miami Festival), but local Cuban ex-pats got the performance cancelled after a rumor circulated that Granados said something bad about Juanita Baró, a popular Miami Cuban dancer and wife of exiled Cuban writer Manuel Ballagas. More recently, she appeared alongside Es­linda Núñez, Mirta Ibarra, and the Lizt Alfonso dance company in a performance of the dance musical Amigas as part of the celebrations for the 38th International Latin American Film Festival in Havana.

Daisy Granados

Director Egon Günther was already no stranger to censorship when this film was made. His first film, The Dress (Das Kleid), which he co-directed with Konrad Petzold, was banned because officials thought that its story of a walled city and a populace that is told to ignore their common sense was an attack on the building of the Wall and the government’s attempts to justify it. In truth, that film began production a year before the Wall was built. Günther barely avoided censorship again in 1968 with Farewell, and received criticism once more in 1972 for the on-screen kiss between two women in Her Third. In 1978, Günther showed he lost none of his feistiness or unfettered creativity over time when his TV-movie Ursula was banned in Switzerland for its surreal approach to the story of the Protestant Reformation movement and the Battle of Kappel.

There is one good thing about the ban: It has allowed us to see a wide-screen, ORWOcolor film from 1965 in pristine condition. The print used for the DVD is scratch and dirt free, with absolutely no fading. Cinematographer Helmut Grewald’s color work here is spectacular, and Günther uses Totalvision (East Germany’s answer to Panavision and Cinemascope) to great effect. It is a prime candidate for a Blu-Ray release (if they can just do something about those terrible intertitles). Credit here must also be given to Alfred Hirschmeier’s spectacular production design, particularly the Tember apartment, and to costume designer Rita Bieler’s sharp looking outfits. Sadly, the fall of the Wall signaled the end of the careers for all three of these people. Hirschmeier worked on a couple TV movies after the Wende, but that was it.

When You Grow Up Dear Adam

Wilhelm Neef’s score is a lot of fun. Neef scored dozens of films for DEFA before stepping away from the movie business to concentrate exclusively on classical music compositions and performance. Today he is best known for his work on Indianerfilme such as Sons of the Great Bear, Chingachgook, the Great Snake, and Osceola, but he has contributed scores to a wide variety of films in a wide variety of styles, as this film well demonstrates.

Banning When You’re Older, Dear Adam was one of the worst missteps the government in East Germany made, and they made some doozies. Banning a movie with a plot about identifying liars is as good as saying “yes, we’re liars.” It is on a par with Richard Nixon’s “I’m not a crook” statement. If you have to say it, you’ve already lost the war. Plus, it’s generally not a good idea to try and suppress satire anyway. It has a way of returning to haunt its foes. Attempts to suppress satire go all the way back to Aristophanes and his battles with Cleon, and can be seen as recently as 20th Century Fox’s pathetic attempt to bury Mike Judge’s scathing (and depressingly spot-on) attack on American culture, Idiocracy.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

Spring Takes Time
Spring Takes Time (Der Frühling braucht Zeit) was one of the twelve films banned in the wake of the notorious 11th Plenum. Along with The Rabbit is Me, it is one of the only films that actually made it into the theaters before the ax came down. While some of the 11th Plenum bans seemed downright silly (see Hands Up or I’ll Shoot!), the banning of Spring Takes Time is understandable. After all, it’s a movie about how the state’s demanding quota system could lead unscrupulous management to put the lives of the workers in danger and then blame the same workers when things go south. At its heart, the film is an indictment of the very economic system the folks at the 11th Plenum were so loathe to discuss.

At the start of the film, a gas company manager named Heinz Solter is arrested for negligence that resulted in the failure of a pipeline, and the serious injury to a worker. Most of the rest of the film is told in flashbacks, where we learn that Solter is just the fall guy for decisions made by his higher-ups, in particular Chief Operations Officer Erhard Faber, who is determined to meet the state’s quotas come hell or high water.

Spring Takes Time

It doesn’t help Solter’s case that he’s a reticent fellow who refuses to point the finger at anyone else, feeling that everyone in a position of power—including himself—shares some of the responsibility for what happened. It also doesn’t help that he has very short fuse, and isn’t averse to knocking someone through a glass door if he doesn’t like what they’re saying. Besides Solter’s story, much of the film revolves around his doe-eyed daughter Inge, who is dating one of Faber’s lackeys.

The film is directed by Günter Stahnke, an extremely talented director whose frequent run-ins with the authorities led to him being ostracized from DEFA. He was first criticized for his television short, Fetzers Flucht (Fetzer’s Escape), but that one was eventually allowed to be broadcast in 1962. Not so with his next short film, Monolog for a Taxi Driver (included on the Spring Takes Time DVD from the DEFA Library), which was banned outright for its pessimistic, every-man-for-himself look at life in the GDR. That film remained unscreened until the Wall came down. His first feature film, From King Midas (Vom König Midas), was met with some criticism, but made it into the theaters. Spring Takes Time was his next film. After that, Stahnke was essentially banned from DEFA and relegated to television, where he spent the rest of his career directing comedies and kids’ films. One might think the Wende would give Stahnke another chance to spread his wings, but such was not the case. His career as a director effectively ended with the dissolution of East Germany.

The movie is cast against type—perhaps as a way to show how topsy-turvy things had become in East Germany. Rolf Hoppe, who was almost always cast as a villain, appears here as a sympathetic worker in danger of being scapegoated for the failures of the gas line project. Günther Simon, who was usually cast in heroic roles—having first made a splash as East Germany’s number one hero Ernst Thälmann in the Kurt Maetzig films—here plays the devious Faber.

Der Frühling braucht Zeit

Solter is well played by Eberhard Mellies. While Solter is a good guy, he is also short-tempered and reticent. Mellies’ strong features and stern countenance lend themselves to this type of role. Mellies’ career in films started with a small role in Der neue Fimmel (The New Craze), after which he started appearing in various television productions. Spring Takes Time was his next feature film and almost his last. Aside from voiceovers in My Zero Hour (Meine Stunde Null) and Apaches, Mellies didn’t appear in a DEFA feature again until 1978. Like his brother Otto, who is one of the most well-known voiceover actors in Germany, Eberhard does most of his work in front of a microphone these days.

Doris Abeßer plays Solter’s waif-like daughter Inge, who obviously didn’t inherit any of her father’s stoicism. She is played here as a raw nerve, sensitive to every things that happens around her. With her enormous, dark eyes, she appears at times like a Keane kid (one reviewer compared her appearance to mask-wearing Louise (Alida Valli) in Eyes Without a Face, but I think this is pushing it). By the time she made this film, Abeßer had already appeared in nearly a dozen movies and a few TV films. Her performance in Konrad Wolf’s film Professor Mamlock as Mamlock’s daughter Ruth was especially powerful. Abeßer was married to director Stahnke. I could find no date for their marriage, but their son born in 1963, so they were already a couple by the time they made this film together. As with nearly everyone else involved with Spring Takes Time, Abeßer’s career after this film was restricted almost exclusively to television. After the Wende, she did what many East German actors did, moving from film and television to legitimate theater. She started appearing in film and television regularly again 2001, finally retiring in 2012. Abeßer died on January 26, 2016.

Much of this film’s cinematic value comes from its production design which is as angular and pristine as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The production designer was Georg Kranz, a versatile designer whose work can be seen in Ursula, The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs, and Murder Case Zernik. Spring Takes Time was his first feature film, and is probably the reason the next six productions he worked on were for television. He returned to feature films with the popular Time of the Storks, and worked mainly in feature films after that. After the Wende, when most East German film technicians were effectively shut out of the film industry, Kranz found work as the series production designer for the popular TV series Für alle Fälle Stefanie.

Der Frühling braucht Zeit

Juxtaposed with the film’s stark look is the jangly rock’n’roll score, played by a band called “The Sputniks.” The composer is listed as Gerhard Siebholz, who also did the scores for the musicals No Cheating, Darling!, and Wedding Night in the Rain. Siebholz was a very successful composer in East Germany, penning several hits songs. Unlike much of work, which has a penchant for the schmaltzy Schlagermusik so popular with older Germans, The music for Spring Takes Time sounds very much of its era, but it is also a strangely dissonant and heightens the effect that things are not quite right.

Although the term “Rabbit Films”—named after Kurt Maetzig’s The Rabbit is Me—was given to the films that were banned during the 11th Plenum, I suspect that Spring Takes Time is film that really set off the purge that followed. Especially considering that it premiered a few weeks after the Plenum, and was effectively, albeit accidentally, an indictment of the very behavior that the folks at the Plenum had just demonstrated. How could they not ban it? A look at the film histories of many of the people who worked on this film show that they were more severely punished than the people on most of the other banned films. Stahnke, Mellies, Abeßer, and cinematographer Hans-Jürgen Sasse were all relegated to television after this, with DEFA feature film opportunities for them few and far between, if at all. Günther Simon probably avoided similar treatment because he was, after all, the embodiment of Ernst Thälmann and the West German press would have had a field day if it could be proved that the man who played Thälmann was no longer being cast in films. While the SED could rail against specific aspects of the other banned films, claiming they contained anti-socialist elements, Spring Takes Time was a virtual exposé of their hypocrisy. I can’t help but wonder if some of the films that were banned in the Kahlschlag (a term meaning “clear-cutting,” often used in reference to the films banned during this period) were banned as a smokescreen to hide the fact that Spring Takes Time was the movie they really wanted to be rid of, but to ban it by itself would have called too much attention to the film.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.1


1. The DVD also includes Stahnke’s short film Monolog for a Taxi Driver (1962).

Die Beteiligten
The Persons Involved (Die Beteiligten) came out in June, 1989, and was the last Kriminalfilm DEFA released prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is based on an actual crime that occurred back in the early sixties. The film follows the story of two police inspectors investigating the drowning death of a young woman who apparently strayed too close to the water while picking pussy willows. She was with her boss Willi Stegmeier and his personal secretary Anna Sell at the time, but the older inspector is a well-respected member of the community, and is loathe to even consider that a crime has been committed. He chalks the woman’s death up to suicide, the younger inspector is new to the town and has none of the history that appears to be affecting the older policeman’s conclusion. He begins to investigate, disrupting the status quo in the community and endangering his relationships with comrades and friends.

The film was directed by Horst E. Brandt. Before becoming a director, Brandt was a respected cinematographer, and you can see his work in Black Velvet, A Lively Christmas Eve, the second Ernst Thälmann film, and several Das Stacheltier short films. Brandt had intended for The Persons Involved to be his directorial debut, but coming as it did after the 11th Plenum, the idea of a movie about a corrupt local official was beyond consideration. They banned Hands Up or I’ll Shoot! for less. The treatment was shelved and forgotten about.

Brandt turned to politically safer fare, but he still seemed to favor crime stories. His first film, Irrlicht und Feuer (Wisp and Fire) was a TV movie starring Günther Simon, based on the book by West German writer Max von der Grün. It was co-directed by Heinz Thiel, with whom Brandt shared directing duties on his first few films. He spent the early seventies working on television shows before returning to the big screen with Between Day and Night (Zwischen Nacht und Tag), a film about the communist writer and president of the National Committee for a Free Germany, Erich Weinert.

The Persons Involved

At first glance, The Persons Involved is a contradiction in terms. It is a thriller without any thrills. It is a realistic police procedural where the crime is solved after the detective interviews several people and researches old files. No one is chased along a dark pier at night, no guns are fired, or even drawn for that matter. There is a murder and a suicide, but we see neither as it happens. Only the aftermaths are recorded. It excels at portraying the mundanity of ordinary police life, which is not likely to endear to fans of the crime genre. It fights relentlessly against every convention of a good policier. It is an anti-Krimi.

The two detectives are player by Manfred Gorr and Gunter Schoß. Both men had very successful careers in East Germany and both men continued to work primarily on stage and television, after the Wende. Schoß has become a recognized voice in Germany thanks to his work as a narrator of documentaries, radio plays and audio books. Besides his television work, Gorr often works as an actor and director at various theater venues throughout Germany

It is interesting to compare Gunter Schoß’s role in this film with his role in the earlier film, A Foggy Night (Nebelnacht). In both films Schoß plays a detective partnered with another detective who does a better job of solving things than he does. In A Foggy Night, his failing is that he’s young and inexperienced. In The Persons Involved, his failing is that he’s older and set in his ways. The man can’t win for losing!

Karin KNappe

The Persons Involved marks the last feature film for Katrin Knappe, which is a shame, because Knappe is a talented performer, with one of the most interesting faces in cinema. She belongs in the same group with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, and Giulietta Masina: They may not be classical beauties, but you can’t take your eyes off them when they’re on screen. She probably would have made a bigger splash with her first starring role, that of Boel in Rainer Simon’s Jadup and Boel, but the film was shelved for eight years, and then only released in limited distribution. Since the Wende, Knappe had appeared primarily in plays and current teaches speech and voice training in Berlin.

Special mention must be givin to Karin Gregorek, for her performance as Anna Sell, Stegmeier’s put-upon personal secretary. Gregorek is one of those actresses who rarely gets the attention she deserves, usually relegated to lesser roles in films. As with most DEFA actors, her background is in theater. Her first feature film was a small part in Slatan Dudow’s Christine, but when the film Dudow was killed in a car accident during filming, and the lead actress put into a coma, the film unfinished ended up on a shelf for eleven years. She is one of the more memorable faces in Murder Case Zernik, even though she appears uncredited. The Wende didn’t seem to have any effect on her career, and she continues working in films and television to this day. More recently, she’s become well-known as Sister Felicitas Meier, the frazzled head of a convent in the popular TV series, Um Himmels Willen (For Heaven’s Sake).

Karin Gregorek

Cinematographer Peter Badel does a great job of capturing the extraordinary drabness of police interiors in the GDR. Everything is as beige as a Band-Aid. Badel, who would later go on to specialize in documentaries, gives the film a realistic feel. If the weather is foggy, you feel the dampness, If a person is living a drab existence, you feel that as well. Here some credit must also be given to production designer Georg Wratsch and Art Director Siegfried Hausknecht. Everything in this film looks and feels grimly real.

The script for The Persons Involved stayed on a shelf until the final days of the GDR, when Brandt decided to try once again to get the film made. This time it was accepted. As it turned out, the film that he’d intended to be his first film as a director was his last. A few months later the Wall came down and Brandt, like many other East German film people, found getting work in reunified Germany nearly impossible. As far as the DEFA technicians were concerned it was less a reunification than a takeover. He turned to writing his autobiography Halbnah – Nah – Total (Close, Closer, All the Way), and compiling a reference book on East German cinematographers, Wir, die Bildermacher… (We, the image makers).

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film (part of a six film set).

Abschied
In the history of East German films, the period between the 11th Plenum and Erich Honecker’s takeover from Walter Ulbricht is considered to be a dark time for DEFA films. That’s not to say there weren’t good, entertaining films made during this time. After all, this period saw the introduction of the Indianerfilm, Hot Summer, and I Was Nineteen. But when when you compare it to the period right before the Plenum, you can see the impact the foolishness at that meeting had on the East German creative output.

Most noticeable, was a decrease in inventive cinematography. Cinematographers often were singled out for attack when their work got too creative. Roland Gräf was accused of imitating the Italians, and Günter Ost’s career as a cinematographer came to an abrupt end thanks to the 11th Plenum. If a film was visually imaginative, it was immediately suspect as far as the film review board was concerned. So it was probably no surprise to director Egon Günther when his 1968 film Farewell (Abschied) came under criticism, for it is a beautiful film indeed. Filmed in Totalvision (East Germany’s wide screen format) in that rich black-and-white film that the Wolfen film factory (the original Agfa factory) was rightly famous for.

Farewell is based on a novel of the same name by Johannes R. Becher, a German poet is best known for writing the lyrics to the East German national anthem. The movie begins in 1914, right after the Battle of Liège, Germany’s opening salvo in WWI. Hans Gastl, a young man of artistic temperament and pacifist beliefs is leaving home. The rest of the story is told in flashbacks that show us how he came to this crossroad in his life. The novel is heavily autobiographical. The character of Fanny is based on his childhood sweetheart, Franziska Fuß, whom he killed in a botched suicide pact. Becher survived, but developed an addiction to morphine due to his injuries.

farewell

Director Egon Günther was, quite possibly, the bravest director in the GDR. He had a special knack for irritating the authorities with films that pushed any parameters they tried to set. He did this right out of the gate with his first film, Das Kleid (The Dress), which he co-directed with Konrad Petzold. Günther and Petzold managed to find the limits at a time when the GDR was boasting that the wall would mean fewer restrictions. And whener the film board moved the boundaries, Günther pushed again. He is also to the only East German director who managed to get a film—and a made-for-TV film at that—banned by the Swiss (see Ursula). It’s not surprising, then, that he was one of the directors chastised by the 11th Plenum for his clever film, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam). It would be three years before he got the opportunity to make another film, and that film was Farewell, a fact that didn’t help him mend fences with the authorities.

As a writer himself, and a prolific one at that, Günther had a better understanding of how to bring the written word to film than most. He realized that the literal translation was sometimes less effective than a more filmic approach. Over the years he adapted the work of classic writers such as Thomas Mann, Goethe, and Gottfried Keller, as well as the work of newer writers, such as Eberhard Panitz and Uwe Timm. His 1999 film, Die Braut (The Bride), which looks at the life of Christiane Vulpius, Goethe’s long-time—and long-suffering—mistress.

Günter Marczinkowsky was the cinematographer, and one of the best East Germany ever produced. Like other East German cinematographers, he got his start in a film laboratory and worked as a projectionist as well. By the time he picked up a movie camera, he knew and understood film stock about as well as anyone could. He started as an assistant to the great Robert Baberske. He started working as the director of photography in 1957. He became Frank Beyer’s favorite cinematographer, until both of them were relegated to television for making The Trace of Stones. Farewell represents Marczinkowsky’s return to the big screen. Later on, he and Beyer would get together again, first on a couple TV mini-series, and later on Jakob the Liar, considered by some to be the best movie to ever come out of East Germany (a viewpoint I don’t share, but it is a good film). Jakob the Liar did not lead to more feature film work, however. Marczinkowsky continued to work in television until he finally left the GDR in 1980. Thereafter, he joined up with Frank Beyer again, who had left the country following the Wolf Biermann affair (see Jakob the Liar). From here on out, all his work would be in television, with the exception of Didi und die Rache der Enterbten, a reworking of Kind Hearts and Coronets with the West German comic actor Dieter Hallervorden playing multiple roles à la Sir Alec Guinness. Marczinkowsky retired from cinematography the same year that The Wall came down. He died right after Christmas 2004 in Hamburg.

farewell5

Playing the older Hans Gastl in his first film appearance is Jan Spitzer, looking very much like a classmate of Malcolm MacDowell’s in If….; a good choice for someone as anti-authoritarian as Hans. Spitzer got his training at then Ernst Busch Academy, which is still a leading school for students of the dramatic arts in Germany today. He appeared in many more films in East Germany in roles of variying size, but his performance as Hans in Farewell remains one of his best-known performances. Like other East German actors, the Wende threw a roadblock into his path. He still perfroms, but most of his work is done in the dubbing studio. If a film stars Chris Cooper, that is probably Jan Spitzer’s voice your hearing in the German-dubbed version. He also dubs the voices for Danny Trejo, Ted Levine, and Ratchet in the Transformer series.

Playing the ill-fated Fanny is Heidemarie Wenzel. Wenzel had appeared in small roles in films prior to this (she was the bride in The Lost Angel), but this was her first starring role and she turns in a sensational performance. Due to the limited distribution of this film, very few people saw her performance. It would be her turn in Zeit der Störche (The Time of Storks) that would finally put her on the map, but it is her performance as Paul’s wife in The Legend of Paul and Paula for which she is most famous. That same year, her next film, The Dove on the Roof, had the dubious distinction of being the first film banned after Honecker took over. Wenzel was a popular actor throughout the first half of the seventies. Then the state decided to stop putting up with any criticism, starting withn the expatriation of Wolf Biermann and the sidelining of everyone who signed the letter against this action. Wenzel didn’t sign this letter, but she was still considered “politically unreliable,” so her career ended along with Manfred Krug’s, Angelica Domröse’s, and the others who actually did sign the letter. She applied for an exit visa in 1986 and was finally allowed to do so in 1988. In 1991, she joined the cast of the popular German family drama, Unsere Hagenbecks (Our Hagenbecks), but her character was killed off in a car accident after the first season, to the outrage of many viewers (apparently the character she played was pregnant at the time). Like many other East German actors, she shows up from time to time on the Leipzig hospital drama, In aller Freundschaft, playing Eva Globisch, the mother of one of the main characters in the show.

Farewell

All the way down the line, Farewell features an outstanding cast. Even in relatively minor roles we have the likes of Rolf Römer, Annekathrin Bürger, Fred Delmare, and Mathilde Danegger. Manfred Krug turns in an especially fun performance as an aging revolutionary who hangs out at the Café Größenwahn where Hans recites his poetry.1 Annekathrin Bürger has a fun, if brief, turn as the café’s resident chanteuse.

A film this visually inventive was bound to provoke the authorities, and it did. At the 8th plenary meeting of the SED’s Central Committee, the film was roundly criticized, essentially for no better reason that it was too interesting to look at. At a ceremony to honor the author, Johannes R. Becher, Walter Ulbricht got up and made sure everyone saw that he left the event just before the film was about to screen. Still in charge in 1968, this demonstration carried some weight. The film was pulled from the normal distribution channels and was only screened on special occasions.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film.


1. Café Größenwahn was the nickname for the Café Stefanie in Vienna where Johannes R. Becher hung out as a young man. “Größenwahn” can be translated as either “egomania” or “delusions of grandeur.”

Hart am Wind
Close to the Wind (Hart am Wind) is one of those films that came out between the clamp down of the 11th Plenum and the loosening of the restrictions when Honecker took over. Most of the films of this period are careful to not rock the boat. They often have a message along the lines of “be a good socialist, work for the collective, and don’t let you ego interfere with the greater good.” An admirable message, but the era suffers from a surplus of films with exactly this message. Sometimes the message doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the film, such as with Hot Summer, in which the flirtatious Brit threatens the cohesion of the group. Sometimes the message seems more important than the story itself.

Such is the case with Close to the Wind. The film was made in close cooperation with East Germany’s navy (Volksmarine), so you know it’s not going to explore anything too controversial. In this respect, it resembles those Hollywood films that rely on the military to provide access to their planes, ships and even soldiers as long as they carefully avoid anything that makes the military look bad. Some classic examples of this are Sands of Iwo Jima, Strategic Air Command, The D.I., The Green Berets, and, of course, Top Gun.

Close to the Wind

A comparison between Top Gun and Close to the Wind is particularly apt. In Close to the Wind, a young, hot-shot electrician named Peter joins the Navy, where he gets knocked down a few pegs and almost loses his girlfriend before regaining his footing. In Top Gun, a young, hot-shot fighter pilot named Peter (nicknamed “Maverick”) is sent to the Navy’s elite Fighter Weapons School, where gets knocked down a few pegs and almost loses his girlfriend before regaining his footing. This is an old movie trope based on the hero’s journey, but it’s the differences between the two films that are the most telling. In Close to the Wind, Peter’s cocksure, anything-to-win approach creates a situation where he fails, which leads to his ostracism from the group. In Top Gun, Maverick’s cocksure, anything-to-win approach contributes to a situation where he fails, which leads to self-doubt. In the end, the protagonist of the East German film works to regain his respect among the collective. In Top Gun, he works to regain his self-respect as an individual. Both men learn important lessons about working as part of a team, but in the East German film he gets their by putting his trust in the team, while in the American movie, he gets there by putting his trust in himself.

Close to the Wind was directed by Heinz Thiel, who was a clever enough director to keep the film interesting (see Black Velvet article for more on Thiel). It was to be his last feature film for several years. Thiel joined the “defa futurum” group to produce short films about a character named Tobias Bremser. He only made one more feature—DEFA Disko ‘77—before moving on to other things. He died in Potsdam in 2003.

Peter is played by Frank Obermann, a tall, ruggedly handsome man who started as a railroad mechanic before turning to acting. Besides this film, Obermann also appeared in two more productions in 1970—Rolf Römer’s Hey You! and a TV-movie titled Der Sonne Glut (The Sun Glow). At the time Close to the Wind was made, Obermann was married to his leading lady in the film, Regina Beyer. Beyer was primarily known for her TV work. In 1972, their daughter was born. Obermann died in Dortmund in 1995. He was only fifty years old. Beyer continues to work—primarily in television—and is in a long-term relationship with fellow, former East German—television actor Volkmar Kleinert.

Regina Beyer

The music is by Gerd Natchinski, who gave us the catchy score for Hot Summer. Here, the score seems to be comprised entirely of one song—”Es gibt so viel Schönes im Leben”—which sounds like a leftover from Hot Summer. It is played over the titles, then lip-synched by the lead character—it was actually sung by Hot Summer star Frank Schoebel—then played again and again throughout the movie in various forms. It’s not a bad song, if you like the music of Hot Summer; Frank Schoebel had a hit with it, but the score certainly could have used more of Natchinski’s music.

As one might imagine, western critics were not kind to this film. They saw it as little more than a propaganda piece for the Volksmarine. Even so, as propaganda goes, it is a pretty innocuous little film. It apparently did help promote Volksmarine enlistment because DEFA followed a year later with another military co-production, Anflug Alpha I (Approaching Alpha I).

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

Der verlorene Engel

Ernst Barlach was a German artist well-known for his plays, paintings, and particularly his sculptures. which powerfully expressed his feelings against war and the suffering it brings. Barlach wasn’t always against war. Prior to the First World War, he, like most Europeans, saw war as a noble endeavor, fighting to uphold and protect the values of one’s native land. He enlisted in the infantry and soon discovered that was not such a patriotic endavor after all. War is an ugly affair, fought by the powerless to protect the goals (or wealth) of a priveged few who never set foot on a battlefield. War brings misery, hardship, and death and he used his sculptures to make this point clear.

After WWI, Ernst Barlach championed pacifism in his plays and sculptures, and, for a while, the public went along with him. He received several awards for his work, and was a member of the Prussian and Munich art academies. Of course, all that changed when Hitler came to power. Barlach’s visions of pacifism did not jibe with the reborn war-mongering promoted by the Nazis. Although some Nazis, most notably Goebbels, thought highly of his work, a decision was made that, his work was yet another example of “degenerate art,” and was put of display at the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937 (Die Ausstellung „Entartete Kunst“), alongside the work of Marc Chagall, Georg Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and many others.

Fred Düren

The Lost Angel (Der verlorene Engel) is the story of one day in the life of Ernst Barlach. The angel of the title is his sculpture, Der Schwebende (usually translated as The Hovering Angel, but also as The Floating Angel), which was taken from the cathedral in Güstrow in the early hours of August 24th, 1937, and was destroyed by the Nazis. The action in the film takes place on the same day, after Barlach learns about the theft of his sculpture. He spends the rest of the morning observing the indifference of the public to the theft, remembering past events, and regretting his indifference to the increasing political power of the NSDAP.

The film was one of the film banned in the wake of the 11th Plenum. It was shelved for not delivering a clear Marxist message. It probably would have stayed there until after the Mauerfall, but the 100th anniversary of Ernst Barlach’s birth was coming up, and word of the banned film reached interested parties in Germany and Russia. With help from director Konrad Wolf, the film was eventually pulled out of storage in conjunction with the Barlach exhibition at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The censors only agreed to screenings of the film after heavy edits, removing twenty minutes from the final cut. This left the film in limbo between a full-length film and a long short (as oxymoronic as that sounds). The film received a few screenings, but only a few before it was shelved again. After the Wende, the film was resurrected, but the 20 minutes of footage edited out of the film in 1970 has yet to resurface and appears to be lost for good.

The film is based on Das schlimme Jahr, a novella by Franz Fühmann. Mr. Fühmann was a popular author in East Germany, best known for his children’s books and reinterpretations of folklore and myths. During WWII. he was a supporter of the Nazi regime, contributing news pieces on the war effort to German newspapers and writing poems for the Nazi weekly, Das Reich. After the war, he attended the Antifa-Schule in Noginsk—one of several camps set up to teach German soldiers the error of their ways. Apparently the lessons at the Antifa-Schule stuck, because Mr. Fühmann became a champion of of socialist ideals. At first he was supportive of the East German government, but as it became more restrictive and arbitrarily punitive, Mr. Fühmann became disillusioned. After the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, he was one of the first people to sign the protest letter against it. As with the others who signed the letter, he found himself blacklisted from many projects and under greater scrutiny by the Stasi, yet he remained defiant. In his will he wrote: “The bitterest thing is to have failed in literature and the hope of a society we all once dreamed about.” (“Der bitterste ist der, gescheitert zu sein: In der Literatur und in der Hoffnung auf eine Gesellschaft, wie wir sie alle einmal erträumten.”). As one final act of protest before dying of cancer, he asked that he be buried in Märkisch Buchholz, and not in “unloved” Berlin.

The Lost Angel

Ralf Kirsten directed the film. After studying at the film school in Prague, Kirsten began his career in television before moving to feature films. He had his first hit with On the Sunny Side, starring Manfred Krug. Mr. Kirsten and Mr. Krug had worked together on the TV movie, Hoffnung auf Kredit (Hope on Credit), and would work together on four more films. After the Wende, Mr. Kirsten started teaching at the Film and Television school in Potsdam (Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen Potsdam). His last film for DEFA before the Wall fell was a picture about Käthe Kollwitz (Käthe Kollwitz – Bilder eines Lebens), a colleague of Barlach’s and whose face adorns the Floating Angel.

Ernst Barlach is played by Fred Düren. Mr. Düren appeared in many DEFA films, including Five Cartridges, The Flying Dutchman, and Solo Sunny. He also made an appearance in Ralf Kirsten’s 1986 follow-up to this film, Käthe Kollwitz – Bilder eines Lebens, in which he played Käthe Kollwitz’s husband. Primarily working in theater, Mr. Düren was an actor’s actor. His portrayal of Faust in Goethe’s play is considered one of the best theatrical interpretations of a Goethe character, second only to Gustaf Gründgens’ performance as Mephistopheles. One need only compare his performance in The Lost Angel with the one in The Flying Dutchman—made only two years earlier—to see his versatility.

After the Wende, Mr. Düren’s life path took a very different turn from most of his colleagues. He converted to the Judaism, moved to Israel, and is now a rabbi. He only made one movie after reunification—a TV movie in which he played Albert Einstein.

Der Schwebende

Der Schwebende is a striking sculpture that is at once modern looking in its lines, and classical in its emotional effect. The film does a good job of expressing what a powerful piece of art Der Schwebende is. This is largely thanks to Claus Neumann’s fantastic cinematography. Nearly every frame in this film could stand alone as a photograph, from the opening shots of the angel, to the wedding scene, to the shots of the fields around Güstrow. Claus Neumann got his start at DEFA making documentary shorts. Unfortunately for him, the first two feature films he worked on for DEFA (Fräulein Schmetterling and this film) were both victims of the 11th Plenum. On the other hand, he was also fortunate because, unlike the work of his fellow cinematographer Roland Gräf, his work as the cinematographer did not also come under scrutiny. Mr. Neumann continued to work at DEFA until the end of its existence, contributing his camerawork to such films as Leichensache Zernik, Till Eulenspiegel, and The Flight. After the Wende he continued to work, primarily in television and for producer director, Rudolf Steiner. He retired from filmmaking in 1999.

Some movies are so beautifully filmed that, upon watching them on DVD, you find yourself wishing you could see them in a theater on a big screen. The Lost Angel is just such a movie. While it is unlikely that this film—or many other East German films, for that matter—will get repertory cinema screenings, the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst has done a superb job of translating this movie to disc. The scenes is which the statue is stolen from the church are so powerfully filmed, directed, and edited, that the incident stops being about the theft of an inanimate object and becomes a metaphor for the forced evacuation of millions of the innocent people during WWII.

NOTE: The Chicago Goethe Institut showed this film recently as part of their series. They will also be showing the next film I’ll be reviewing (Five Days, Five Nights). More information here: http://www.goethe.de/ins/us/chi/ver/enindex.htm

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.