Archive for the ‘11th Plenum’ Category

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).

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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

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Hände hoch oder ich schieße

If you want to see a perfect example of the utter lunacy of the 11th Plenum, look no further than Hands Up, or I’ll Shoot! (Hände hoch oder ich schieße). This film is about as innocuous a movie as one could hope for, yet, the SED felt the need to ban it alongside nearly every other film slated for release in 1966. Apparently the idea that a Volkspolizei might be suffer from depression was enough to set them off. In spite of attempts to placate the authorities with cuts and revisions, the film ended up on the shelf, unscreened until after the Wende.

The film tells the story of Holms, a cop in the sleepy East German hamlet of Wolkenheim. Holms had wanted to be a policeman since he was a boy, but the town in which he lives is so crime free that there is little for him to do beyond helping a local couple find their rabbit. He starts having daydreams about catching gangster and soon sees the local doctor for depression.

One of Holm’s best friends is a retired crook named Pinkas. Worried about his buddy’s mental health. Pinkas organizes a gang of retired crooks to steal the statue from the Marketplace, giving Holms a case to solve, but things spiral out of control from there. What follows is a comedy of errors, with Holms and the crooks, crossing each others paths again and again.

The film stars Rolf Herricht as Holms, who is no stranger to the East German Cinema blog. He has appeared in several of the films mentioned here, either in major roles (Beloved White Mouse, Not to Me, Madam!), or smaller parts (On the Sunny Side, For Eyes Only). Although primarily a comic actor, like many other comic actors he proved he was capable of playing it straight as well. On television he regularly appeared with in skits with fellow comedian, Hans Joachim Preil, who appears in this film as the aging gangster, Elster Paule. (For more information on Rolf Herricht, see Beloved White Mouse).

Playing Holms’ well-intentioned but misguided pal Pinkas is the Czech actor, Zdeněk Štěpánek. Grandson of the Czech playwright, Jan Nepomuk Štěpánek, Zdeněk Štěpánek was a well-known and popular actor in Czechoslovakia, first appearing in films in 1922. Throughout the WWII years, he continued to appear in movies in his home country, including Ulicka v ráji (Paradise Road), Bílá nemoc (Skeleton on Horseback), and Cech panen kutnohorských (The Merry Wives). Like his grandfather, he also wrote several successful plays, which he also directed on stage. He died in Prague in 1968. His children have gone on to become successful actors in the Czech Republic.

Herbert Köfer

The rest of the cast is fun to watch. Especially Herbert Köfer, who plays the derby-wearing Heuschnupf das Aas—the de facto leader of the gang while Pinkas is indisposed. Also appearing is Rolf Herricht’s longtime skit partner, Hans-Joachim Preil. The love interest is played by the charming Agnes Kraus, and putting in a brief appearance playing an American buffoon—as he did in Carbide and Sorrel—is Hans-Dieter Schlegel.

The director of Hands Up or I’ll Shoot! was Hans-Joachim Kasprzik, and his is a sad story indeed. Mr. Kasprzik got his start as an assistant director in the fifties, working alongside such pros as Konrad Wolf, Joachim Hasler, and Kurt Maetzig. Starting in 1960, he began directing Stacheltier shorts and made-for-TV movies. In 1964, he had a big hit with the TV miniseries Wolf unter Wölfen, starring Armin Mueller-Stahl. Armed with the success of this series, Mr. Kasprzik directed Hands Up or I’ll Shoot!—his first feature film. Unfortunately for him, this was the worst possible time in the history of the GDR to begin a feature film directing career. Mr. Kasprzik’s movie got caught in the SED’s attack against DEFA’s perceived liberality. Thus, Hands Up or I’ll Shoot! achieved the dubious distinction of being the last film banned during the “Kahlschlag” (literally, clear-cutting) of the 11th Plenum.

For the rest of his career as a director, Mr. Kasprzik was relegated to television, where he had considerable success. His series of TV movies, Sachsens Glanz und Preußens Gloria (Saxony and Prussia’s Blaze of Glory) were extremely popular in East Germany. His career ended with the Wende. His last act as a director was to helm an episode of the popular East German cop show, Polizeiruf 110 a month before the wall opened. Having turned sixty shortly before the Wende, with no feature films to his credit, Mr. Kasprzik found it hard to find work in the newly united Germany. He retired from filmmaking and died in 1997 in Berlin.

In the 1970s, the film was brought up for reconsideration, after the screenplay’s author, Rudi Strahl, turned the story into a successful play, titled Noch mal ein Ding drehn, but the film remained banned. As was the case in the U.S.A. during the Tennessee Williams years, there were some things you could do on the stage that still couldn’t be done on film.

The screenplay’s author, Rudi Strahl, was a successful writer in the GDR. He had written several plays, a few satires, and even a children’s book based on the popular children’s TV-show character, Sandmännchen. At the age of twenty, he became a member of the Volkspolizei, and later the NVA (National People’s Army), where he rose to the rank of lieutenant. In the mid-fifties, he started getting stories published, and attended the Leipzig German Literature Institute (Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig) at the University of Leipzig. Afterward he became an editor at Eulenspiegel, the popular East German satirical magazine. During the sixties he began writing screenplays, starting with Der Reserveheld (The Reserve Hero), which also starred Rolf Herricht. In spite of the reaction of the 11th Plenum to Hands Up or I’ll Shoot!, Strahl continued to write screenplays throughout the sixties and seventies. He is one of the only East German playwrights whose work was also performed in West Germany. He died in Berlin in 1980, but his stories and plays continued to be adapted for television and movies until well after the fall of the wall—a testament to the quality of his work. His play, Ein seltsamer Heiliger (A Strange Saint) was adapted into a made-for-TV movie in 1995, and an episode of the popular West German TV show Berliner Weiße mit Schuß was also based on his work.

The story of Hands Up or I’ll Shoot! is happier than many other banned films from East Germany (see The Dove on the Roof). After the Wende, DEFA-Stiftung and the Bundesarchiv discovered 570 canisters containing material from this film. Using the original screenplay, the film was carefully reconstructed and finally screened in 2009. Included in the found footage were color sequences that were shot, but, sadly, never used for the dream sequences. These are not used in the final print  either, but the original animated title sequence was also found and has been restored.

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On the Sunny Side

On the Sunny Side (Auf der Sonnenseite) is an entertaining little film about a man named Martin Hoff, who goes from working in a steel foundry to taking drama classes, only to be kicked out because of his behavior. It stars Manfred Krug, who, like Hoff, was working as a steelworker when he started taking drama classes at the State Drama School in Berlin (now the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts), and like Hoff was kicked out for his behavior. Krug, however, eventually found his way into Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, and from there into movies. But that is not what this film is about. Most of the plot concerns Martin Hoff’s attempts to woo Ottilie Zinn, the pretty architect who is in charge of a project on which Hoff is working. Zinn’s aloof indifference toward him provokes Hoff to take a bet from his compatriots that he can woo her. It’s an old plot that has been used in films from Guys and Dolls to How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and with similar results.

On the Sunny Side was a popular film that—along with Midnight Revue, released a few months later—helped cement Manfred Krug’s reputation as a singer as well as an actor. Mr. Krug started in films in 1957, usually playing the heavy. He starred in several TV-movies at the start of his career, playing everything from the reprehensible Locky McCormick in the East German made-for-TV version of Johnny Belinda, to Mephisto in a TV adaptation of Faust.

In 1966, he turned in a performance as Hannes Balla in Trace of Stones that would have been a career-defining role for most actors, but the film was quickly pulled from theaters as a result of the idiotic 11th Plenum. While the Plenum was a career ender for several people at DEFA, the banning of Trace of Stones had little effect on Krug’s career. He continued to appear in films and released several albums on the GDR’s Amiga label. He often collaborated with jazz musician and film composer Gunther Fischer, with Fischer writing the music and Krug writing the lyrics under the pseudonym, “Clemens Kerber.”

Then in 1976, he was joined the protest against the expatriation of leftist singer, Wolf Biermann. For most of the DEFA actors, directors and writers who signed this protest, the move proved to be the end of their film careers in East Germany, but Krug didn’t stick around to find out. Born in Duisberg in 1937, Mr. Krug was a West German by birth and was able to use this fact to leave the GDR as soon as it became apparent that the SED was not going to respond to the protest with anything other than repression and surveillance. Mr. Krug quickly established a new career in West Germany, primarily in television, where he made a splash as truck driver Franz Meersdonk in the popular TV series, Auf Achse (On the Axle) and later as the lawyer Robert Liebling on Jurek Becker’s Liebling Kreuzberg. (For more on Manfred Krug, see The Trace of Stones.)

On the Sunny Side was written and directed by Ralf Kirsten. After studying theater at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Kristen went to Prague, where he studied directing at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and joined fellow DEFA directors Konrad Petzold and Frank Beyer to create the short film, Blázni mezi námi (Fools Among Us). On the Sunny Side was Kirsten’s first bona fide hit. He teamed up with Manfred Krug again the following year to make Beschreibung eines Sommers (Description of a Summer), which also was also a hit with the public. He went on to make several more popular films, including Mir nach, Canaillen! (Follow Me, Canaillen!), Frau Venus und ihr Teufel (Venus and her Devil), Die Elixiere des Teufels (The Devil’s Elixir), and Unterm Birnbaum (Under the Pear Tree). After the Wende, Kirsten found it more difficult to find work as director and began teaching at the film school in Babelsberg. He died in 1998 in Berlin.

Playing the independent and lovely Ottilie is Marita Böhme. After training to be a pre-school teacher, Ms. Böhme began studying theater at the State Drama school in Berlin. A gifted singer, she often appeared in musicals and operettas. She appeared in several movies, in roles of varying importance. She appeared the year after On the Sunny Side in Ralf Kirsten’s Beschreibung eines Sommers, although this time not as Manfred Krug’s love interest. She is best remembered for her role in Carbide and Sorrel. After the Wende she became a regular on Polizeiruf 110 as Opera director Edith Reger.

In spite of being released in the middle of winter, On the Sunny Side was a big hit. The public was looking for something cheerful to take their minds off the increasing tensions between east and west and the recent construction of the Berlin Wall, and Kirsten’s film fit the bill. Today it seems like very light fare, but its importance to the times should not be underestimated. It was the right film at the right time.

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Just Don't Think I'll Cry

Ever wonder what it would be like to be James Dean growing up in East Germany? Look no further than Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry (Denk bloß nicht, ich heule), which captures that same inchoate teenage angst, but from an East German perspective. This film could not have been made before 1963. That was the year SED published its Youth Communiqué, which stated that young people should not passively attend school, but should be encouraged to be participate in the educational process. Filmmakers began to explore this topic as a basis for films. Perhaps if Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry had been made in 1964, it might have made it into the movie theaters. Unfortunately it was made in 1965, which put it squarely in the crosshairs of the 11th Plenum. The film didn’t stand a chance. It was shelved and didn’t see the light of a projector until after the Wende.

Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry is the story of a rebellious young man named Peter who has been kicked out of high school for writing an essay critical of the state. He hangs around with a bunch of other Halbstarken (usually translated as “juvenile delinquents,” but translated here as ”punks”), who spend their time carousing and generally behaving badly. Peter meets Anne, the daughter of a man who spent the war in a concentration camp for his communist views. The man runs the local agricultural collective, and, as one might imagine, Peter’s irritation with the state of things doesn’t go over well with him. As with Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause, much of Peter’s rebelliousness stems directly from his relationship with his father, but in Nicholas Ray’s film, it is Jim’s disgust for his father’s weak-will that spurs his behavior. In Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry, Peter’s attitudes toward the GDR are the result of his adulation of his step-father, a bitter drunk who passes on his hatred of the state to Peter.

Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry is directed by Frank Vogel, who got his start as an assistant director on Konrad Wolf’s Genesung (Recovery). He began directing films in 1958 with Klotz am Bein (Ball and Chain), and shook things up in ‘62 with And Your Love Too, which took on the subject of the wall while it was still being built. That film ruffled a few feathers, as did his next movie, Julia lebt (Julia Lives), which looks at the issue of social class in East Germany (a supposedly non-existent thing in the GDR). Both of those films made it into the theaters, but as far as the leadership was concerned, he went too far with Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry. It would be a couple years before he was allowed to direct a film again. Apparently he placated the powers that be. By the seventies, he was back in the directors chair on a regular basis although his later films skated around controversial topics. As with many of the people who worked at DEFA, Vogel’s career ended with the fall of the wall. He never made another film after the Wende and died in Berlin in 1999.

Playing Peter is Peter Reusse, an actor who kept busy both on the stage and in films in East Germany. Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry would have been his first starring role had it not been shelved. When it finally was screened in 1990, the Tageszeitung, a daily newspaper out of West Berlin, rightly dubbed Mr. Reusse the “James Dean of the East.” In spite of the setback caused by the rejection of the film, Mr. Reusse continued to work in movies, and television. He appeared in several episodes of the popular East German crime drama Polizeiruf 110. After the Wende, Mr. Reusse ended his acting career, devoting his time instead to writing and art. He has written at length about his experiences in East Germany, mostly from a negative perspective.

Anne—the Natalie Wood of the film, if we are to continue the Rebel Without a Cause comparison—is played by Anne-Kathrein Kretzschmar. Ms. Kretzschmar studied acting at the Theater Academy in Leipzig and this was her debut role. Her next film was Karla, making it two films in a row that were banned by the authorities; not an auspicious beginning to a budding film career. After that we only saw her in a few television productions and on stage, primarily the Dresden State Theater.

Denk bloß nicht, ich heule

The cinematographer was Günter Ost—the most imaginative cameraman to come out of East Germany. Ost frame compositions are the most interesting you’ll see in any East German film. People are occasionally restricted to the farthest corner of a shot while the landscape behind them takes over the scene. Sometimes Ost uses the frame to show the philosophical gulfs that exist between characters, while other shots seem to suggest that the needs of the country are greater than those of the individual. Unfortunately for Ost, his style became synonymous with the things that the doctrinaires in the SED felt were wrong with DEFA films. After this film and Karla were shelved, Ost never made another film for DEFA again. Fortunately, he did resurface after the Wende to help reconstruct this film to its original version.

The music in the film was by Hans-Dieter Hosalla. He is best-known today for his music from the Märchenfilm, Das hölzerne Kälbchen (The Wooden Calf), and the Indianerfilm, Apaches, but he composed soundtracks for many other excellent East German films, including Professor Mamlock, Divided Heaven, and Murder Case Zernik. The score for Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry is an unusual one that jumps from Nino Rota bop, to Munsters rock, to jittery jazz, to romantic flute music. It is the perfect score for this movie, reflecting the confusion and lack of direction that roils inside the main character. Hosalla was born in Efurt. He worked with Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble during the early fifties, composing music for Brecht’s plays. He started composing film scores in 1958, beginning with Gerhard Klein’s Märchenfilm, Geschichte vom armen Hassan (The Story of Poor Hassan). Hosalla continued to write film scores until the late seventies, at which time he retired from the movies, devoting his time, instead, to the Berliner Ensemble stage productions. He died in 1995 in Berlin.

When the film was screened for party officials, they weren’t happy with the results and requested several cuts and reshoots. Vogel complied, but nothing he could do—or could have done, really—would placate them. The film ended up on the shelf alongside the other “Rabbit Films,” and wouldn’t appear on movie screens until 1990, when it was screened at the Berlinale Film Festival.

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A Berlin Romance

A Berlin Romance (Eine Berliner Romanze) is the second of three films sometimes referred to as the “Berlin Trilogy.” These three features represent the first movies by the team of Gerhard Klein and Wolfgang Kohlhasse. They have very little in common except that they all take place in Berlin. The first of the three, Alarm at the Circus, is a thriller. and the third, Berlin – Schönhauser Corner, is a juvenile delinquent film.

A Berlin Romance is, as the name suggests, a romance. It follows the adventures of Uschi, a young woman from the eastern side of the city who falls in love with a poor young man on the western side. Uschi works as a model at a large department store in East Berlin, where she models clothing for customers. In the evening, she likes to visit West Berlin and window shop. There she meets, Lord, a shady young hipster who wears a noisy transistor radio around his neck like a rapper’s gold chain. Lord proceeds to woo Uschi, but his efforts are thwarted by Hans, a young schlemiel who is lovestruck by Uschi the moment he sees her. At first, Hans’ efforts to impress Uschi have the opposite effect, and it looks like their romance won’t get off the ground, but Hans is nothing if not persistent, and he ready to help Uschi with her dream of attending modeling school in West Berlin.

A Berlin Romance is a sharply drawn portrait of life in Berlin during the mid-fifties. This was the time of the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle), when American money poured into the country to help rebuild its economy and infrastructure. Told from the East German perspective, this influx of cash only benefited the rich, who were as indifferent to the problems of the working class as ever. People in need of work were exploited in dangerous situations to help keep the wealthy living in the luxury to which they had grown accustomed. Job security was not an option, and people lost their jobs at the drop of a hat.

Part of the fun of this film is in its use of details—the way the transistor radio acts as both a lure and an irritant, the obnoxious American soldier at the bar, and the names of films at the cinema. In one scene, as Uschi, Hans, and Lord enter the cinema to see a film called Lockende Sünde (literally “alluring sin,” but translated in the subtitles as Temptation), and in another the camera pauses briefly on a poster for a movie titled Die kleine Stadt will schlafen geh’n—the city wants to sleep. Unlike Lockende Sünde, this is a real movie that gets its name from a song that was popular during the Third Reich, but Klein uses it nicely to take a dig at West Germany and the way it seemed to be ignoring the Nazi pasts of some government officials.  All of the Klein/Kohlhasse films are filled with these small details and benefit from repeated viewing to catch them. Some things seem to be intended exclusively for the amusement of Berliners, both East and West.

Annekathrin Bürger

Uschi is played by Annekathrin Bürger. It was her first feature film and the start of a long career. Putting the weight of an entire film on a nineteen-year-old novice actor was a risky proposition. Fortunately, Ms. Bürger is as talented as she is beautiful. She went on to star in dozens more DEFA films, including Star-Crossed Lovers, The Second Track, Hey You! and Hostess. Ms. Bürger continues to work in films, most recently appearing alongside fellow East German actor, Katrin Saß, in Kilian Riedhof’s Sein letztes Rennen (His Last Race).

Playing opposite her was Ulrich Thein. Mr. Thein had appeared in several films already, including Gerhard Klein’s Alarm im Zirkus and Hotelboy Ed Martin—an East German retelling of Albert Maltz’s popular play, Merry Go Round. He went on to appear in many DEFA classics, including Castles and Cottages, Five Cartridges, Star-Crossed Lovers, The Baldheaded Gang, and Anton the Magician. Like many DEFA actors, Mr. Thein’s background was in the theater. The son of an orchestra leader, he was an accomplished musician who also composed songs for several movies. In 1983, he starred in a miniseries about Martin Luther, then took on J.S. Bach in another miniseries a couple years later. As was too often the case after the Wende, Mr. Thein found it difficult to find work, He died in 1995.

Director Gerhard Klein came to DEFA with strong communist credentials. As a young man in Nazi Germany, he was a member of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany), and got himself arrested for this. After the war, he started working at DEFA as a screenwriter and helped start the children’s films unit of the studio. After making a few shorts and taking some assigned films, Klein finally got the opportunity to make the films he wanted to make. He was a fan of the Italian neo-realists and wanted to make films that reflected real lifer in East Germany without any pretenses. To do this, he needed a screenwriter with a keen ear for the way people actually talked. He found such a man in Wolfgang Kohlhasse, who was—and still is—the best writer of Berliner  dialog.

Any regular reader of this blog is already familiar with the screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase. He is the writer behind several DEFA classics, including The Second Track, I Was Nineteen, and Solo Sunny. Kohlhasse is an acute observer of human nature, and not afraid to explore the moral and logical conflicts and ambiguities that come with being alive on this planet. While many other East German screenwriters found it hard to find work in that field after the Wende, Kohlhasse never stopped working. Now in his eighties, he continues to spin tales for filmmakers. His work since the wall fell includes Volker Schlöndorff’s The Legend of Rita (Die Stille nach dem Schuß), and Andreas Dresen’s popular romantic comedy, Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon).

Gerhard Klein made three more films with Wolfgang Kohlhaase—The Gleiwitz Case, Sonntagsfahrer (Sunday Driver), and Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin Around the Corner). As its name suggests, Berlin um die Ecke was a return to the city they loved, but the film ended up on a shelf, banned after the 11th Plenum. In 1970, they started working on Murder Case Zernik, but Klein died ten days into filming. He was fifty years old. After sitting on a shelf for two years, Murder Case Zernik was eventually completed by Klein’s assistant, Helmut Nitzschke.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

The Central Committee of the SED

The Central Committee of the SED of the GDR

NOTE: Readers of this blog may have noticed how often the term “11th Plenum” crops up in these film reviews. Although I define the term in the glossary, a quick definition can only scratch the surface. For those who want to learn more, I offer this article. It’s more of a history lesson than a film essay, so readers, whose interest in such things is limited, can safely skip this article and simply take it on face value that the 11th Plenum was a bad, bad thing.

There are moments in the history of any country that stand out as turning points, for better or worse, during which times a country, its politics, and its people are all changed irrevocably, and every action taken after that point is measured by the event. Revolutions and attacks are the obvious examples, but some important events take place behind closed doors in meeting rooms and auditoriums. Some attacks occur without a single shot being fired. Well chosen words can do as much damage as a billyclubs and bullets.

In the history of the German Democratic Republic, a few events stand out: the founding of the GDR, the July 17th revolts, the building and destruction of the Berlin Wall, and the 11th Plenum are milestones in the story of East Germany. For the people in the film industry, it was the last event that was the most important. Only the creation of DEFA was more important to the story of filmmaking in the GDR. The 11th Plenum changed everything, and it is often cited as the death knell for creativity in East German films. This isn’t true by a long shot, but it did constitute a major blow to the country’s artistic community, and changed the way the creative community interacted with and responded to the government for the rest of the country’s brief existence.

Ironically, the 11th Plenum—or, the 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, as its official title translates into English—was never meant to be a referendum on the arts in the German Democratic Republic. It was supposed to be about the country’s economic recovery plan, but unexpected events, coupled with an unwillingness to address the real problems the country was facing, threw a spanner in the works. To understand exactly what happened, we have to go back a few years.

Immediately after WWII, it was apparent that the socialist model was working better than the capitalist one in Germany. The Allied sectors of Germany were struggling to get back on their feet while the Soviet Sector was going strong—and this in spite of the fact that the USSR was still busy pilfering the East German resources for its own needs. During the forties, it wasn’t uncommon for people to cross the border to get work in the GDR because the West still had nothing to offer. Some of this was by design. The Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) was in no hurry for Germany to get back on its feet. Prior to the Marshall Plan, OMGUS was working off JCS 1067, a renamed version of the infamous Morgenthau Plan that was designed to drag Germany back to the eighteenth century. Fortunately for West Germany, America’s fear of communism was greater than its fear of Nazis. At the start of the fifties, when it looked like East Germany was in danger of winning the hearts and minds of the German people, OMGUS backed away from Morgenthau’s anti-industrial foolishness and started promoting economic growth in the Bundesrepublik.

Americans blamed for potato bug invasion

Propaganda booklet claiming the potato beetle invasion was an American plot. (See http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/amikafer.htm)

What happened next was the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle), during which time West Germany’s economy grew so fast that they had to import workers from other countries to keep up with production.1 Suddenly the East German economy started looking anemic. This was compounded by agricultural problems in the form of an invasion of potato bugs that the authorities were quick to blame on the United States. The West German government, under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer, along with West German mayor, Willy Brandt, decided to push things to the limit by introducing the West D-Mark in West Berlin, A move that severely unbalanced the economies between the two halves of the city and started the events that led to the building of the Berlin Wall (for more on this, see Look At This City!).

One of the claims made by the East German authorities after the building of the wall was that by restricting the ability of the west to disrupt East German society, the artistic community would have greater freedom to be creative. To demonstrate this, the movie technicians at DEFA were given greater freedom to push the boundaries of style and content.2 What followed was a burst of imaginative filmmaking. New camera techniques were used and stories became visually and structurally more experimental and interesting. From 1962 to 1966, East German filmmakers made some of the best films to come out of Germany since the Weimar days.

The wall was intended to eliminate the inequities between east and west. But the East German economy continued to deteriorate, Stalin’s Five Year Plan model wasn’t working any better in East Germany that it had in Russia, and the West was making political hay of it. In the USSR, Khrushchev decided to move away from Stalin’s centralized model to a more localized one. A decision that was met with a great deal of grumbling from the hard-liners in the politburo. East Germany’s General Secretary Walter Ulbricht decided to follow Khrushchev’s lead.

Starting in 1963, General Secretary Walter Ulbricht, economic advisor Wolfgang Berger, and Planning Commissioner Erich Apel, came up with the New Economic System (initially dubbed Neuen Ökonomischen System der Planung und Leitung (NÖSPL) , but later shortened to Neues Ökonomisches System (NÖS)). It was a good plan, and history shows that it might have worked, but Ulbricht didn’t count on the conservative groundswell that was rising in the upper echelons of the USSR. Some Russian politicians—particularly the head of the Supreme Soviet, Leonid Brezhnev—felt that Khrushchev was moving their country away from the government’s core principles. While Khrushchev was on vacation in 1964, Brezhnev made his move and Khrushchev returned to Russia to find himself out of a job.

East German Power Play

This left Ulbricht in a sticky position. He had hitched his wagon to Khrushchev’s star, but suddenly that star had fallen from the heavens. To make matters worse, Brezhnev did not like Ulbricht. He felt that the East German leader had been given far too much slack in his dealings with the USSR and had put that country in some awkward situations. The NÖS may have been working, but Brezhnev made it clear that the Soviets did not support it. Ulbricht was hanging on to his job by a thread at this point.

By the time the 11th Plenum was scheduled to take place, no one in the SED’s Central Committee wanted to touch the subject of economic reforms. Never mind that this was the reason for the meeting in the first place. Less than two weeks before he was scheduled to present his report on the NÖS at the 11th Plenum, Erich Apel committed suicide. Suddenly the NÖS wasn’t just a touchy subject, it was toxic. Like all politicians, when they are afraid of addressing real issues, they turned their criticism to the entertainment industry instead. Films were getting too liberal, they complained. Why, some were downright anti-socialist! Presented with this safe target, the pols went to town. They started seeing threats to their way of life behind every movie, and the blossoming film movement in East Germany—which up to that point was making the cinema of West Germany look downright anemic—was nipped in the bud.

Amazingly, the film that was held up as the prime example of this trend was The Rabbit is Me, a film with as strong a socialist pedigree as anyone could ask for. Its director, after all, was Kurt Maetzig—one of the people responsible for the founding of DEFA and the man who gave us The Council of the Gods, the Ernst Thalmann films, and Das Lied der Matrosen (The Song of the Sailors). Accusing Maetzig of being anti-socialist was a bit like accusing Che Guevara of being a capitalist. It was stunning in its absurdity and a horrible warning sign that the SED had lost its bearings. Nonetheless, The Rabbit is Me became the poster child for the films banned by the SED. Thereafter, the films banned during the 11th Plenum became known as “Rabbit Films” (Kannichenfilme). Other names for these films include Kellarfilme (Cellar Films) and Giftschrankfilme (Poison Cabinet Films).

Eleven features films were banned in the wake of the 11th Plenum. Some of these, such as The Rabbit is Me and Trace of Stones, were finished films that had screenings in cinemas, while others, such as Fräulein Schmetterling (Mademoiselle Butterfly) and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam) were scuttled while still in production. Also added to the Giftschrank was Egon Schlegel’s student film, Ritter des Regens (Knights of the Rain). Two more projects were shut down before any filming began—Die Beteiligten (The Parties Involved) and Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality), both of which were later made into movies by DEFA.

The Rabbit is Me

A scene from Kurt Maetzig’s The Rabbit is Me.

Most of the films on the list were banned for promoting viewpoints that the SED considered contrary to the socialist perspective, but some films were banned for no better reason that that were frivolous. Producers, dramaturges, directors and technicians who were seen as the major “disruptive” forces at DEFA were either sent to work in television, or banned from films entirely. Günter Ost, one of the most talented and imaginative cameramen DEFA ever produced, never made another movie after the Plenum. Egon Schlegel, who was about to start a promising career as a feature film director was forced to spend the next few years working behind the scenes, eventually making a name for himself as a director children’s films (see The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs). Günter Stahnke never made another feature film, but spent the rest of his career making movies for television; a slightly ironic development considering that he first got in trouble with the authorities for a short television film titled Monolog für einen Taxifahrer (Monologue for a Taxi Driver). Some people, such as screenwriter Ulrich Plenzdorf and director Frank Beyer, eventually got back in DEFA’s good graces, but were walking on eggshells for the rest of their careers. Others, such as Jürgen Böttcher (Born in ’45), were never given the opportunity to make another feature film, relegated, instead, to the world of documentary shorts.

Eventually, the writers and filmmakers recovered, and started pushing the boundaries again, but there was always a sense of foreboding afterwards. In 1968, things appeared to be loosening up slightly. Egon Günther’s imaginative Abschied (Farewell) made it into theaters, although, just barely, and the unabashedly frivolous Hot Summer was big hit in the fall of 1968 (although it did include a message of the importance of comradeship under its beach antics).

Hot Summer

A scene from Joachim Hasler’s Hot Summer.

Then, in 1971, that sword of Damocles that had been hanging over Ulbricht’s head finally fell. Ulbricht was ousted from power and replaced with Erich Honecker, a conservative East German politician who had been in charge of the building of the Berlin Wall. Ironically, the hardline Honecker was the one who loosened thing up again for the DEFA filmmakers, declaring that “as long as a film proceeds from the strong position of socialism,” anything goes (actual quote: “Wenn man von den festen Positionen des Sozialismus ausgeht, kann es meines Erachtens auf dem Gebiet von Kunst und Literatur keine Tabus geben.”). Films became more imaginative and adventurous, but the spectre of the 11th Plenum never completely went away. Occasionally films were still banned, but the state never repeated the wholesale shelving of films that occurred after the 11th Plenum. Filmmakers became more wary of what the state censors might do and were often guilty of pre-emptively censoring their own ideas (Egon Günther notwithstanding, who managed to keep pricking the sensibilities of East German blue-stockings right up until the end).

Looking back on the event from an historical perspective, the 11th Plenum seems like the point at which the soul of the GDR died. Up until that point, even the most controversial decisions, such as the building of the wall or the use of the Soviet army to put down the June 17th revolts, could be argued as harsh but necessary moves to give socialist state’s a chance to reach its full potential. With the 11th Plenum, those dreams were dashed. The state went from its infancy to sclerosis in one fell swoop. Even after Honecker softened up the restrictions, and started to recognize the need to incorporate consumer requirements into the socialist model, this didn’t change. He was still part of the problem. The GDR was a young and growing country run by a rapidly aging panel of fossils. No new blood was being incorporated into the upper ranks, and the old men running the country had no concept of what was going on in the world around them.

For many of the films banned as a consequence of the 11th Plenum, their first screenings didn’t occur until the 1990 series at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Some, such as Fräulein Schmetterling and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam, had to be constructed from the unedited reels that were still on the shelves at DEFA headquarters in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

IMDB pages for the films banned by the 11th Plenum:
The Rabbit is Me
Spring Takes Time
Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry
Berlin Around the Corner
When You Grow Up, Dear Adam
Mademoiselle Butterfly
Trace of Stones
The Lost Angel
Karla
Born in ‘45
Hands Up or I’ll Shoot!

Where to buy (films listed with English names are available with English subtitles):
The Rabbit is Me
Spring Takes Time
Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry
Berlin Around the Corner
When You Grow Up, Dear Adam
Fräulein Schmetterling: Not currently available
Trace of Stones
The Lost Angel
Karla
Born in ‘45
Hände hoch oder ich schieße

Further reading:
DEFA: East German Cinema 1946-1992 [Paperback]
John Sandfordand Seán Allan (Editors)

East German Cinema: DEFA and Film History [Paperback]
Sebastian Heiduschke (Available October 2113)

Spur der Filme. Zeitzeugen über die DEFA [Paperback – in German]
Ingrid Possand and Peter Warnecke

Das zweite Leben der Filmstadt Babelsberg. DEFA- Spielfilme 1946 – 1992 [Hardcover – in German]
Christiane Mückenberger and Ralf Schenk

Special thanks to Seán Allan, Barton Byg, and Sebastian Heiduschke for their help with this blog post.
Archive photos are from Das Bundesarchive.


1. These were the famous Gastarbeiter that you’ll hear some Germans (mostly racist Germans) complain about even today. The idea was for these workers to come and work for a few years and then leave—only many didn’t leave, which is the reason you’ll find such strong foreign communities (especially Turkish, but not exclusively) living in Germany today. The GDR instituted a similar program for communist countries, such as Vietnam and Mozambique.

2. This is not to say that there were no longer restrictions. Konrad Petzold and Egon Günther managed to get in hot water with their film Das Kleid (The Dress), an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Insel der Schwäne
As is often the case, even in so-called free countries, restrictions on what one can describe in print is less restrictive than what one can show on film. Films such as Naked Lunch and Last Exit to Brooklyn seem bowdlerized when compared to their original texts. In East Germany, there are some perfect examples of this. Manfred Bieler’s Maria Morzeck oder Das Kaninchen bin ich was a popular book that didn’t meet any resistance until Kurt Maetzig turned it into a movie (The Rabbit is Me), and Horst Bastian’s Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality) was a successful novel, but was rejected as a movie premise when Rainer Simon presented the idea to DEFA back in the sixties. It would take another ten years before it was put on film. Likewise, Paul Kanut Schäfer’s Jadup did not merit much scrutiny as a book, but was immediately banned when the story was put on film as Jadup und Boel.

Benno Pludra’s Insel der Schwäne (Island of the Swans) was a popular teen novel in East Germany, and was often assigned as reading in schools. But when director Herrmann Zschoche went to film it, he immediately ran into problems. The story was seen as an attack on the way the people in charge were handling the needs and requests of the children in the housing complex, and by proxy, the needs and requests of the general public. Zschoche had to rewrite several scenes and inserts a few others to keep the film board happy. The resultant film is still strong, but varies in many key areas from both the book and the original screenplay.

Swan Island is the story of a young man who moves from an idyllic location beside a rural lake to one of the new Plattenbauen that were being built in the Berlin suburb of Marzahn in the early eighties. These Plattenbauen were intended to represent pinnacles of socialist community planning and forward thinking, but, as was so often the case in the later years in East Germany, the system’s ever-growing bureaucracy became its own worst enemy. Compromises to the ideas of the Marzahn communities were made every day until the final result was a pale shadow of the ideas and ideals of the original planners (for a great examination of this process see Peter Kahane’s The Architects).

The story centers around the teens living in the housing complex and their attempts to have some influence over the features of the complex’s playground. In this respect, the film is slightly reminiscent of Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge, in which teens in a U.S. planned community go on a rampage because of the lack of recreational facilities available to them. That film is based on actual events in Foster City, California. Clearly, adults not listening to the needs of children is, by no means, exclusive to any one country.

Swan Island is directed by Herrmann Zschoche. Zschoche had already demonstrated his knack for working with teens in his classic Seven Freckles, but while that film dealt with the simple dynamics of young love, Swan Island has bigger fish to fry. For this film, Zschoche turned to his old screenwriting partner, Ulrich Plenzdorf. Zschoche and Plenzdorf first worked together on Karla, one of the DEFA films that was infamously banned after the 11th Plenum. It would be a few years before Plenzdorf was invited back to work at DEFA after that, eventually scoring a big hit with his work on The Legend of Paul and Paula. Likewise, Zschoche found his career momentarily stalled after the Plenum, returning to the director’s chair in 1968 with Leben zu zweit, a safely inoffensive comedy. Zschoche joined forces with Plenzdorf again in 1974 with Liebe mit 16.

The main character, Stefan, is, to put it bluntly, a bit of a pill. He spends most the film with a glum expression, longing for his previous existence at his grandmother’s house at Swan Island. Not even the perky enthusiasm and budding sexuality of Rita and Anja, two girls in his class, can do much to lighten his gloomy demeanor. Besides his desire to see a good playground built at the construction site, the only other subject he shows any enthusiasm for is the defense of Hubert, a nerdy sad sack who is constantly under attack by a bullying older boy referred to only as “Windjacke,” so named for the windbreaker he always wears, which features an embroidered dragon on the back.

Ritter, Tod und Teufel

Like Seven Freckles, the film also explores psychological conflicts of coming-of-age that rage inside pubescent brain. As a metaphor for this turmoil the film uses a costumed jazz-rock trio called “Knight, Death and Devil” (Ritter, Tod und Teufel) that appears whenever Stefan is confronted with conflict or, in some cases, budding sexuality. Their music is manic and jazzy, reminiscent of Goblin’s Roller LP.1

Most of the kids in this film did not go on to have careers as film actors. Axel Bunke, who plays Stefan, went on to become a successful sound engineer at Deutschlandradio, and now goes by the name Axel Sommerfeld, having taken the unusual step of adopting his wife’s last name when he married. Mathias Müller had appeared in two TV movies prior to Swan Island, but this film appears to have been his last. Similarly, Britt Baumann, who plays the sultry Rita did one TV movie after Zschoche’s film, but nothing further, and Kerstin Reiseck, who plays the perky Anja did not pursue a career in film.

The notable exception is Sven Martinek, who plays Windjacke. Martinek continues to appear in films and television shows to this day. He is best known for starring in the popular TV spy show, Der Clown (The Clown), in which he played a vigilante who wore a cheap plastic clown mask when he attacked the bad guys. He has appeared in nearly every popular series on German TV, from Tatort to Der letzte Bulle (The Last Cop). He is one of the hardest working men in German television. He currently appears as a recurring character on Tierärztin Dr. Mertens (Zoo Doctor: My Mom the Vet) and stars in the Heiter bis tödlich series, Morden im Norden (Murders in the North).2

Swan Island was met with criticism from the establishment and mainstream critics. One of the film’s biggest opponents was film critic, Horst Knietzsch, who railed against the film as an unfair portrayal of Marzahn as a concrete wasteland. Others felt that the compromises made to the novel, like the compromises made by the adults in the film, ruined the story.

After the Wende, Marzahn gained a reputation as a place to be avoided, filled with neo-Nazis and thugs. In fact, Marzahn’s demographics still skew more to the left than most of Berlin’s other districts, and the buildings, in spite of all the compromises have certain beauty to them that combines the aesthetics of Modernism and Russian Constructivism. The picture I use for this blog’s logo is of the old Soyuz cinema in Marzahn.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


1.  My attempts to find out more about this band yielded no results and nothing shows up in the Amiga catalog. If anyone has information about this group, please either contact me or add a comment to this post.

2. Heiter bis tödlich is similar to Tatort, CSI and Law and Order franchises, where the different shows takes place in different cities or different departments. The term Heiter bis tödlich isn’t easily translated, It is a play on the meteorological phrase “Heiter bis Wolkig” (fair to cloudy), with the word “cloudy” being replaced by “deadly.”

Karla

1966 was a rough year for film in East Germany. The 11th Plenum of the previous December pulled the rug out from under some of the most intelligent and creative film talent to come out of any country at any time. East German cinema was on the verge of matching the French New Wave in creativity while their colleagues in West Germany were still making schmaltzy Heimatfilme and Edgar Wallace Krimis.

Karla (unnecessarily retitled Carla for the U.S. release) was based on a news report about a teacher that screenwriter Ulrich Plenzdorf read. He contacted the teacher, and from there the story evolved. Karla is a young, idealistic teacher, fresh out of school in Berlin. Her first teaching assignment takes her to a small town near the Baltic Sea. She believes that one must be honest above all else, and she hopes to put this into practice in her classroom. As one might imagine, the real world has a lesson in store for her.

An idealistic teacher running up against the harsh realities of the world isn’t a new idea. We’ve seen it before and since, in everything from Blackboard Jungle to The Forest for the Trees (Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen). Karla of the title is closer to Eva Lobau’s starry-eyed fish-out-of-water in the latter film than Glenn Ford’s man on the cusp of a societal quantum shift in the first, but Karla has her finger on the pulse of the nation, which makes her dangerous to her superiors, Unfortunately it also made the film dangerous to Walter Ulbricht and his cronies. Before the movie ever saw the light of day, it was shelved and wouldn’t arrive in theaters until 1990.

The film starts with Karla’s graduation ceremony in Berlin and follows her exploits through her first year of teaching. As with other films of this sub-genre, there is the problem kid in class, although in Karla he is portrayed more sympathetically than usual for this type of story. He, like Karla, values truth and honesty above all else. True to its characters, the film confronts controversial subjects head on. When a student questions the honesty of East German television reports about the space race, Principal Alfred Hirte uses peer pressure to negate the students concerns. A tactic Karla finds reprehensible. But even Principal Hirte is portrayed sympathetically. He, too, is an idealist, but one who understands better than Karla and her charges how the world works.

Karla stars Jutta Hoffmann, one of East Germany’s most talented actors and a woman who had a remarkable knack for choosing controversial material. She appeared in or worked on five of the twelve films banned by the 11th Plenum (Karla, The Rabbit is MeJust Don’t Think I’ll Cry, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam, and The Trace of Stones), another film that was almost banned (Her Third), and an East German TV movie that managed to get itself banned in Switzerland (Ursula). In 1978, Ms. Hoffmann was one of the many DEFA stars and technicians that signed the petition protesting the expatriation of singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann. Everyone who signed the petition found it much harder to get work, and many of them eventually emigrated to the west, including Ms. Hoffmann, who moved to West Berlin in 1982. She continued to act in movies and television, and taught acting at the Hamburg School of Music and Theater from 1993 to 2006.

Acting as sort of Greek chorus, the film cuts from time to time to the conversations between the school district’s administrator and the principal, played by Inge Keller and Hans Hardt-Hardtloff respectively. Inge Keller was a popular actress who was described by Deutsches Theater director Thomas Langhoff as the “only vamp in the GDR.” During the early fifties, she was married to the infamous host of Der schwarze Kanal, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler. Their daughter, Barbara Schnitzler, went on to become a successful actor in her own right (see All My Girls). After the Wende, she continued to work on stage and in film, and notably played the older Lilly Wust in Max Färberböck’s excellent film, Aimee & Jaguar. Hans Hardt-Hardtloff got his start in acting much earlier than Ms. Keller. He left home at the age of sixteen to join the theater. He studied acting at the Volkstheater Millowitsch in Cologne, and spent the Nazi years performing in plays outside of Germany. He appeared in several DEFA films and even more TV productions. A character actor, he appears in small roles in several classic East German films, including, Divided Heaven, The Rabbit is Me, Sons of the Great Bear, and The Legend of Paul and Paula. He died in 1974.

Karla’s author, Ulrich Plenzdorf, was one of the most well-respected and successful screenwriters in East Germany, but he was also its most controversial. The son of communists, Plenzdorf was a believer in the cause of the GDR, and thought that the building of the wall would help stem the economic problems intentionally provoked by the Bundesrepublik (see Look at This City!). Like folksinger Wolf Biermann, his strongly pro-communist views counted for little with the devolving SED leadership. After the 11th Plenum, Plenzdorf’s work was not welcome at DEFA again until 1969, when he rejoined Karla’s director, Herrmann Zschoche, to make Weite Straßen – stille Liebe (Wide Streets – Silent Love). In 1973, he co-wrote the screenplay with director Heiner Carow for The Legend of Paul and Paula as well as the lyrics to the hit songs from the film, “Geh zu ihr,” and “Wenn ein Mensch lebt.” When his screenplay titled The New Sorrows of Young W. (Die neuen Leiden des jungen W), was rejected by DEFA, he turned it into a novel and then into a play. The play was a huge hit on both sides of the Iron Curtain and was made into a movie in West Germany. A fact that did not endear him to the East German powers that be. Today, the book is recognized as a classic of modern German literature. After the Wende, Plenzdorf continued to write screenplays, and joined Jurek Becker (Jacob the Liar) to help write screenplays for the fourth season of the popular law series, Liebling Kreuzberg, which starred his friend Manfred Krug. He also wrote the screenplay for Abgehauen (Ran Off), which is based on Krug’s account of his final days in East Germany. Plenzdorf died in 2007 after a protracted illness.

Carla

Herrmann Zschoche is best known in the Eastern Bloc countries for directing the 1978 coming-of-age movie, Seven Freckles, and in the west for his languorous and kitschy science-fiction film, Eolomea. Zschoche got his start as a cameraman on the East German news program, Aktuelle Kamera. He studied filmmaking at the Babelsberg film school and worked as an assistant director on Frank Beyer’s classic, Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers). He made his directorial debut in 1961 with the kid’s film, Das Märchenschloß (The Fairytale Castle). Over the next few years, he would make more movies, but with the 11th Plenum’s ruling on Karla, he suddenly found himself effectively blacklisted and had to rebuild his career. It would be three years before he would get to make another movie, starting with Leben zu zweit in 1968. From there he proceeded more cautiously, but controversy still managed to find him. His 1977 film, Feuer unter Deck (Fire Below Deck), was prevented from being shown in theaters for no better reason than it starred Manfred Krug, who had decided to defect to the west right before the film was to be released. In 1983, he ran up against the authorities again with Insel der Schwäne (Island of the Swans), which was also scripted by Ulrich Plenzdorf. Zschoche was forced to cut several scenes, insert a scene where the protagonist talks about the advantages of the new apartment buildings, and—like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner from the previous year—replace the ambiguous open ending with a more positive one. After the Wende, Zschoche made one more DEFA film (Das Mädchen aus dem Fahrstuhl), but otherwise worked exclusively in television. He directed episodes of the popular West Germany TV shows, Drei Damen vom Grill, Tatort, and others. He retired from directing in 1997.

The film is scored by the ubiquitous Karl-Ernst Sasse. Here he gets to demonstrate his classical chops, taking his cues from Mozart with one of the loveliest themes from any East German film ever made. Some films are driven by their scores, while others use music as a form of punctuation. Karla falls firmly into the latter category. Music is used to segue between scenes and does not follow the characters around. Nonetheless, the theme has managed to show up on a few compilations of film themes although, shockingly, it is sometimes listed as “Serenade Für Klara” (sic).

The man who suffered the most at the hands of the 11th Plenum had to be cinematographer, Günter Ost. Ost was responsible for the innovative and striking cinematography on And Your Love Too, but even here he was stirring up controversy for his imaginative work. He first worked with Herrmann Zschoche on Engel im Fegefeuer (Angel in Purgatory). The two made a good team. Zschoche’s use of the wide-screen aspect ratio and Ost’s combinations and deep and shallow focus created some interesting scenes. When Karla is called into the principal’s office for a supposed indiscretion with a student, Karla is seated to the left in focus, with the school administrator slightly out of focus in the background and the back of the blurry nape of the principal’s neck in the foreground. In other scenes we see Karla lingering right at the edge of the frame. At the time this film was made, only Sergio Leone was making better use of the widescreen format (Leone, it must be said, would have managed to keep all three of these elements in focus, but he had the advantage of newer equipment).

Having been the cinematographer for some of the most visually imaginative films to come out of DEFA during the early sixties, Ost was an easy target for the people crying about the so-called “Rabbit films” (named after The Rabbit is Me, the shining example of the kind of films the folks at the 11th Plenum detested). Ost’s career at DEFA was over. Ost continued to work with film, but his name does not show up on anymore films from the East German film studio.

It was Ost who, after the film reels were recovered from DEFA’s archives, reconstructed the film. After its screening in 1990, Karla was given its proper place as one of the best films to come out of the DDR and demonstrated to everyone the real damage to the East German film industry caused by the 11th Plenum.

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...und deine Liebe auch

By the summer of 1961, the political situation in East Germany had reached a tipping point. The Bundesrepublik’s decision to start using the West German Deutsche Mark in West Berlin, in spite of agreements to the contrary, had created an unsustainable imbalance between the two halves of the divided city. Many East Berliners found it far more profitable to work in the west, creating exactly the scenario that East Germany was trying to eliminate—a class structure based on individual capital. Director Frank Vogel and screenwriter Paul Wien got together that summer to create a movie on the subject. They had the idea for a story about two brothers; one committed to the communist cause, and the other a Grenzgänger (border crosser) obsessed with money and self gratification. Vogel and Wien had started working on the project when a remarkable thing happened: the wall was built. Like everyone else, Vogel and Wien woke up Sunday morning August 13, 1961 to find that the two halves of the city had been cut off from each other. They immediately recognized the dramatic potential of the situation. It gave their story the decisive moment it had been lacking. They rewrote the screenplay and Vogel quickly got his film crews out to capture the moment. The end result is And Your Love Too (…und deine Liebe auch), one of the most important films in DEFA’s catalog.

The film follows Ullrich Settich and Klaus Husemann, two brothers separated by more than different last names. Ullrich is an avid ham radio enthusiast and an ardent communist. He lost his parents during the war and was adopted by Klaus’s mother, to whom he became a devoted son. Ullrich is a bit of a boffin, more interested in communicating with people in other countries via ham radio than building relationships with the people around him. If he were around today, he’d be working in an IT Department.

Klaus, on the other hand, has no interest in either politics or gadgetry. He likes money and the luxuries it can buy. He works as a taxicab driver in West Berlin, where his tips push his income well past what the average East Berliner was making at the time. Like his adopted brother, he’s not great at building relationships, but in Klaus’s case it is not because he doesn’t have the social skills, but because he simply doesn’t care that much about anyone else. It is obvious that Klaus bears some animosity toward the nerdy Ullrich. He doesn’t hate him, but he’s not exactly fond of him either. It becomes apparent that he never completely accepted the idea that Ullrich was his brother. When the two run into each other while visiting their mother’s gravesite, Klaus invites Ullrich to join him on a date with Eva, a dark-eyed mail carrier that he met earlier that day. Ullrich joins him and the trio go out on a date together, first to a nightclub, where Klaus flaunts his wealth, and then to Ullrich’s apartment for drinks afterward. Like Ullrich, Eva believes in the communist cause. She thinks Klaus is a bit of a buffoon, but she is physically attracted to him nonetheless. In truth, she finds Ullrich more to her liking, but events keep getting in their way.

That same night, while the trio is sitting around Ullrich’s apartment, Ullrich is called away by a late-night visitor. He tells Klaus and Eva that he has to take care of an emergency at the factory where he works, but really he is part of the brigade that puts up the initial barbed wire fence separating East and West Berlin. Suddenly, Klaus finds himself cut off from his source of easy income and he’s not happy about it. It doesn’t help that his brother his one of the people responsible for his sudden change of fortune.

Filming the events happening along the wall turned out to be a stroke of genius on Vogel’s part. Almost immediately, the East German government made it illegal to film the Berlin Wall, making this one of the only documents of the time told from the East German perspective. The film also includes shots of West Germans reacting to the wall and letting the film crew know exactly how they felt about it. These scenes make this film both an effectively realistic film, and a document of the times. In this respect, it is slightly reminiscent of Haskell Wexler’s classic, Medium Cool, which follows a newsman reporting on the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and in which the actual film crew found itself trapped in the middle of the infamous police riots. But the film it more closely resembles is John Cassavetes’ Shadows, with its black-and-white photography, its candid shots of people dancing at a club and talking intimately, and its raw, emotional style.

Although there are other people in the film, And Your Love Too is essentially a three-person movie. Everyone else in it plays a bit part. Playing Ullrich is Armin Mueller-Stahl in one of his first starring roles (for more information about Mueller-Stahl, see The Flight). Like Erwin Geschonneck, Manfred Krug, and Erik S. Klein, Armin Mueller-Stahl was one of those DEFA actors that could be counted on to deliver an outstanding performance every time. When And Your Love Too was made, Mueller-Stahl had already started to gain attention in East Germany for his performance in Frank Beyer’s Five Cartridges (Fünf Patronenhülsen), but 1962 was his year. That year, he appeared in two classic DEFA films—And Your Love Too and Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers), released early the same year. He also starred in the TV-movie, Die letzte Chance (The Last Chance), about a Jewish pianist who comes face to face with the man responsible for his internment at Dachau during the war.[1] Mueller-Stahl makes Ulli both sympathetic and nerdy, not an easy feat considering the fact that he also spends part of the movie as a border guard. The weakest scenes are his interludes with a fellow ham radio enthusiast from Cuba named Alfredo, but they are worth noting for the fact that Alfredo is played by the Mexican actor/director Alfonso Arau, who has appeared in many Hollywood films and directed the popular Mexican film, Like Water for Chocolate.

Kati Székely in ...und diene Liebe auch.

Kati Székely plays Eva, the female component of the romantic triangle. With her dark eyes and black hair, Ms. Székely didn’t look like your average German. Her father, Hans Székely was a writer, who often worked in film, earning an Oscar with Benjamin Glazer for Arise My Love’s original story. Hans Székely also contributed scripts to several UFA films, including Joe May’s classic, Asphalt. In 1934, Ernst Lubitsch asked him to write some scripts for him in Hollywood. Hans eventually emigrated to the United States and applied for citizenship, and Kati was born in New York City in 1941. After Senator Joseph McCarthy started his anti-communism crusade, Hans again found himself in hostile territory and moved once more, this time to East Germany, where he continued writing plays and scripts. Kati became an actress and made a huge splash on the stage as Anne Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank; a role she later reprised for an East German TV-movie. Besides the role of Eva in And Your Love Too, Ms. Székely is best known for her portrayal of Vinonah in The Sons of the Great Bear. After her turn as Vinonah, Kati stopped working as an actress and went to school to study psychology. After the Wende, she and her husband, the popular East German actor, Jürgen Frohriep (Stars), divorced and she moved to Switzerland.. She currently works as a psychotherapist in Walenstadt, Switzerland.

Klaus is played by Ulrich Thein, a talented actor, who also directed several TV movies, wrote plays and film scripts, and composed music. Thein’s father was a bandleader for a theater in the West German town of Braunschweig, and Thein was an avid harpist and piano player. He studied music and acting, and started working at the Staatstheater Braunschweig after graduation. In 1951, he moved to the GDR to work at the Deutsches Theater, a rare coup for someone so young. During the fifties, Thein appeared in several DEFA films, including Gerhard Klein’s Alarm im Zirkus (Alarm at the Circus) and A Berlin Romance (Eine Berliner Romanze), and in Kurt Maetzig’s Castles and Cottages (Schlösser und Katen). He also reprised his stage role as the title character for the film version of Hotelboy Ed Martin, the German translation of the blacklisted, American playwright Albert Maltz’s play, Merry-Go-Round. Like his co-star, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Thein was a talented musician. He wrote and sang the song, “Fuchsbau-Boogie” for his role in Günter Reisch’s Spur in die Nacht (Track in the Night), and contributed music to Mensch, mein Papa…! (Man, My Dad…!), which he also wrote and directed.

After the Wende, Thein found himself in a difficult position. Coming as he did from West Germany, without ever denouncing the GDR, he found it even harder than most other DEFA actors to get good acting jobs in films, and they all found it hard. He did some television work but complained that most of what he was asked to do was “shit” (“… ich will den Scheiß nicht machen, der mir von einigen Produzenten angeboten wird”). Thein died in Berlin in 1995.

But the real star of this film is the cinematography. Sometimes believably candid and at other times carefully composed and stunning, the cinematography flows through this film like a symphony, always surprising and compelling. Bird’s-eye views of cobblestoned streets are intermingled with handheld street shots, intense close-ups, and long shots. The man behind the lens was Günter Ost. Ost recognized that the film was exploring new territory for cinema, calling it a documentary “Spielfilm”—a term normally reserved for non-documentary features. Ost was a young cameraman (only 25 when filming began) with no shortage of ideas. His work on this film was so startling, that some officials in the SED weren’t too sure the film should be released at all, and it was only after SED president Walter Ulbricht’s wife Lotte intervened that the film was given the green light. Ost’s style became associated with a new kind of filmmaking that the old guard wasn’t too keen on, so it was no surprise that after the 11th Plenum, Ost and the films he worked on, were singled out for criticism. Ost career as a feature film cinematographer effectively ended with the 11th Plenum. After the Wende, he was called upon to help restore Karla, which he shot for Herrmann Zschoche. Along with Werner Bergmann and Günter Marczinkowsky, Ost is one of the best cinematographers to come out of East Germany and it’s a shame he wasn’t given more opportunities to demonstrate his talent.

Director Frank Vogel was also affected by the 11th Plenum. Vogel had studied film in Moscow and worked as an assistant to Konrad Wolf—one of East Germany’s best directors. With And Your Love Too, he helped relax the creative restrictions on filmmaking by creating a film that is both imaginative and strongly supportive of the SED’s wall-building efforts. He followed this with Julia Lebt (Julia Lives) and Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry (Denk bloß nicht, ich heule), which was banned after the 11th Plenum. The Plenum put an end to DEFA’s creative boom during the early sixties (see The Rabbit is Me). Although he continued to make movies, his later films don’t have the energy and enthusiasm of his earlier efforts. His last film for DEFA, Die Gänse von Bützow (The Geese of Bützow), suffered criticism for its uncertain handling of Wilhelm Raabe’s historical satire, but one can hardly blame him for approaching this project with caution.

The screenplay for And Your Love Too was written by Paul Wiens, an East German poet and translator who famously threatened Günter Grass with physical violence during a joint meeting between Gruppe 47 and the East Germany’s Writers’ Union. Grass made the statement that all the good East German writers had already fled to the west and a heated argument with Wiens ensued, culminating in Wiens’ threat. Wiens was an ardent communist who—it was learned after the Wende—worked for many years as an informant for the Stasi. Wiens was born in Königsberg (Kaliningrad), but grew up in Berlin. His mother was Jewish, so when things got too hot in Germany, they fled to Switzerland. After the war, he returned to the Soviet sector of Germany where he worked as an editor and translator for the Aufbau publishing company.

During the fifties, Wiens wrote screenplays for some of Konrad Wolf’s first films, including, Einmal ist keinmal (Once Doesn’t Count) and Genesung (Recovery), Leute mit Flügeln (People with Wings), and Sun Seekers. And Your Love Too was Wiens’ last screenplay. During the sixties he devoted his time to his administration roles in the Kulturbund der DDR and the Berlin district of the East German Writers’ Union. Toward the end of his life, he worked as the editor-in-chief of Sinn und Form (Meaning and Form), an influential East German intellectual magazine. Wiens died in 1982 and is buried in Friedrichsfelde Central Cemetery in Berlin (Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde). None of his books are currently in print.

And Your Love Too didn’t do very well at the box office. The film required an audience that shared the politics of the film’s protagonists, and not everyone did. The hundreds of people who had been earning a living by working in West Berlin undoubtedly could identify more readily with Klaus than Ulli and Eva. Even other communist countries couldn’t quite tell what the film was trying to say. It probably didn’t help that the romantic angles in the story are handled with the same conflicted perspective as the building of the wall. Everyone knows what they want, but what they get is not always the same thing. The film also requires its audience to connect the dots in a way that film-goers (at least in the west) are not accustomed to doing. Nonetheless, the film is one of the most important films in the history of cinema, and that is not hyperbole. Regardless of your political perspective, you should see this film.

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1. Die letzte Chance is based on a short story by East German writer Herbert Ziergiebel, who is best known for his science fiction novels. We’d see this same scenario revisited in a different form in Joachim Hasler’s Chronik eines Mordes (The Story of a Murder), starring Angelica Domröse, based on Leonhard Frank’s controversial novel, Die Jünger Jesu, published in 1947.