Archive for the ‘1960’ Category

Silvesterpunsch
As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the East German government had a rocky relationship with musicals. The inherent frivolity of the genre clashed mightily with the government’s philosophy that every film should promote good socialist values. At the same time, musicals were popular with the public in the fifties on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In 1958, DEFA made its first musical, My Wife Wants to Sing, and the film was temporarily shelved due to its apparent lack of a distinct socialist message. When it was released it was a big hit and helped open the doors to the musical form.

In 1959, The Punch Bowl (Maibowle), a light comedy directed by Günter Reisch, was released. The Punch Bowl follows the adventures and misadventures of the Lehmann family after the family patriarch Wilhelm Lehmann is scheduled to receive a Banner der Arbeit (Banner of Labor) medal for his leadership of the Grünefeld Chemical Plant. Director Reisch was careful to make sure that there was a solid socialist message here. The film was approved and was a hit. So director Reisch decided to up the ante slightly with New Year’s Punch (Silvesterpunsch), a sequel that starts in the same comic vein as the first film, and then turns into a full-on musical.

In structure, it is similar to the films of the musicals of the thirties and forties, where people spend most of the movie planning for a big stage show, which is revealed as the finale. The biggest difference here is that the musical numbers here are aimed at promoting the importance of chemistry to the development of the state. Included in the numbers are an ode to Calcium Carbide and the joys of polymerization. Like modern musicals—but very unlike the Hollywood musicals at the time—the singing never spontaneously erupts with an invisible orchestra. If someone sings, there is a reason, and there are musicians present, no matter how illogical that may be. Most of the singing and dancing is saved for the grand finale, which culminates in the celebration of the New Year Eve (which is called Silvester in German, hence the title).

Silvesterpunsch

Heinz Draehn and Christel Bodenstein reprise their roles from The Punch Bowl as Franz and Suse Lehmann, as do Erich Franz and Erika Dunkelmann as the parents. The other Lehmann children form the first film, and there were several, are replaced this time around by Michel, played by Achim Schmidtchen, an aspiring trumpet player. The story takes place at the Grünefeld Chemical Plant of the first film. The work force is evenly divided between fans of the arts and fans of sports. Since both of things were very important to East German culture, it is important (and inevitable, really) that both of these groups eventually learn to get along.

Christel Bodenstein—a dancer before she became an actor—gets to demonstrate her skills here (although I suspect a double was used for the ice skating scenes). At one point, she dances on a narrow, slightly bouncy tabletop en pointe—something I wouldn’t recommend anyone to attempt. Bodenstein is best known for her part as the selfish princess in The Singing, Ringing Tree, but she appeared in many other popular East German films and television shows. After the Wende, her career on television and films essentially ended. Her role in the Mario Adorf mini-series Die Kaltenbach-Papiere (The Kaltenbach Papers) was her last role in front of a camera. Since then, she has devoted her career to the stage.

Karin und Kristel

New Year’s Punch marks the debut of Karin Schröder. Best known for her role in Beloved White Mouse, which starred East German comedian Rolf Herricht. Schröder appears in New Year’s Punch with dark hair and a short, tomboy haircut, but still looks every bit as adorable as she did in the Rolf Herricht comedy. Schröder was originally trained as a certified stenographer, but director Günter Reisch immediately saw her potential and used her often (for more on Reisch, see A Lively Christmas Eve). She appeared in a number of television shows and movies in East Germany, and continued her career after the Wall came down, Most recently, she appeared as a recurring character in the German TV show, Alles Klara.

The cinematographer for New Year’s Punch was Karl Plintzner, whose color work here and elsewhere rivals the work of the great Leon Shamroy. Plintzner got his start as an assistant cameraman shortly before the beginning of WWII. After the war he joined DEFA as a cinematographer, working first on Wolfgang Staudte’s The Adventures of Fridolin (Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B.), and then on Erich Engel’s The Blum Affair. Plintzner showed a special knack for color right off the bat with his work on the Ernst Thälmann films, but it was The Singing, Ringing Tree where he really got to let loose with colors so vivid they’ll make your eyes bleed. For health reasons, he retired in 1965. He died on December 7, 1975 in East Berlin.

Silvesterpunsch

The music for New Year’s Punch was composed by Helmut Nier. Nier was the founder of the Association of Composers and Musicologist in the GDR (Verbandes der Komponisten und Musikwissenschaftler), whose stated purpose was to maintain and develop the musical culture of the GDR, as well as ensure that composers received proper credit and compensation. As a composer, Nier never matched the talent of Karl-Ernst Sasse or Gerd Natchinski. The songs in New Year’s Punch are entertaining enough, but not particularly memorable. Nier was better at serious scores. His soundtracks for Spur in die Nacht (Trace in the Night), The Baldheaded Gang, and Black Velvet are far more compelling than any of his work on comedies and romances. As with many of the East German’s who worked for DEFA, his career in films ended after the Wende. Nier died in 2002.

In terms of musicals, New Year’s Punch comes closer to the Western concept of what a communist musical would look like than the other musicals from DEFA. The politics of socialism and the GDR’s love affairs with sports and culture are never far from the storyline in this film. This doesn’t really distract from the story however, and, as light as this romantic comedy is, it’s a pretty entertaining piece of fluff.

IMDB page for the film.

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Ach du froeliche

There is something in human nature that requires a Winter Solstice celebration. It doesn’t matter if you are a Christian, an atheist, a pagan, or a Jew, when the days reach their shortest, we need a festival of light. This is especially true in the northern climes, where the days get dark and frigid. The first Christians tried to get people to stop celebrating Saturnalia at this time of year, but finally gave up and co-opted the holiday, claiming it as their own and calling it Christmas. Whether you call it Christmas, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice, or Weihnacht, something in us needs a festival at this time of year, so even the dyed-in-the-wool communists in East Germany found themselves celebrating the holidays. That, to some extent, is what this movie is about.

A Lively Christmas Eve (Ach, du fröhliche…)1 takes place—as the English title suggests—on Christmas eve, the day when German families traditionally get together to open their presents. As is often the case with families, both in films and real life, Christmas can be the time when family members who have spent most of the year avoiding each other are forced into the same room together and finally blow up. The film follows the adventures of a Christmas eve at the Lörke apartment. Walter Lörke, the family patrician and card-carrying communist, is introduced to Thomas Ostermann, his daughter Anne’s new beau. Thomas has nothing good to say about the state and soon he and Walter are at it with each other. To make matters worse, Anne is pregnant and is planning to keep the baby. What’s a father to do?

The film is based on Vratislav Blažek’s play, Und das am Heiligabend (And on Christmas Eve), which was made into a TV-movie a year earlier. The play was then reworked as Ach, du fröhliche, which was then made into a novelization of the film—also written by Mr. Blažek. Mr. Blažek was a Czechoslovakian playwright who specialized in social satire. As one might imagine, his plays, from time to time, came under fire for their jibes at life in a socialist country. In 1968, Blažek left Czechoslovakia, taking up residence in Munich.

A Lively Christmas Eve was directed by Günter Reisch. Like the former Pope, Mr. Reisch was drafted into the Nazi party as a teenager during the waning years of the Third Reich. Mr. Reisch was captured by the Americans soon thereafter and spent a short time as a prisoner of war before joining one of the anti-fascist schools set up by the Soviets. Mr. Reisch appears to have taken these lessons to heart. He stayed true to the GDR’s core principles until the end.

Günter Reisch enrolled at DEFA’s film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg, and upon graduation was hired as the assistant director to Gerhard Lamprecht on Quartett zu fünft (Fifth Quartet). His next job as assistant director was on Kurt Maetzig’s Council of the Gods. Over the next few years he worked with Mr. Maetzig on several more films, including The Story of a Young Couple and the Ernst Thälmann films. In 1956, he began his career as a director with Junges Gemüse (Small Fries), but it was with his next film, Spur in die Nacht (Track in the Night) that he started to gain attention. This was also the first of his films that he both wrote and directed, a practice he would continue throughout his career. His films often tackle the issue of bourgeois values in a socialist state, although usually in a lighthearted manner (as was the case in the U.S. during the Hayes Code years, it was often easier to get things past the censors if you wrapped them in comedy).

After the Wende, Mr. Reisch’s career as a filmmaker ended. He began teaching film at several universities in Germany and Italy, including the Konrad Wolf Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg. He was an important mentor to Andreas Dresen, who went on to become one of Germany’s most respected filmmakers.

Playing Walter Lörke is Erwin Geschonneck, who needs no introduction to EGC blog readers at this point. He appeared or starred in some of the best films to come out of East Germany, many of which we have already discussed here in depth, including Carbide and Sorrel, The Ax of Wandsbek, Castles and Cottages, and Heart of Stone. Mr. Geschonneck brings his usual gruff charm and impeccable comic timing to the part of the put-upon patriarch of the Lörke family.

Playing the daughter Anne is Karin Schröder. Ms. Schröder was planning to be a stenographer when Günter Reisch discovered her and put her in his film, Silvesterpunsch (New Year’s Punch). An exceptionally attractive young woman, Ms. Schröder was to star in several more film, making her biggest splash as the adorable scooter rider in Beloved White Mouse. In 1987, she emigrated from East Germany to the west, where she continued to appear in films and on television. She was a regular on the popular crime drama Die Wache (The Guard) and has appeared in many other popular German TV shows including Unter Uns, In aller Freundschaft, Tatort, and Alles Klara.

The contrarian Thomas is played by Arno Wyzniewski. Mr. Wyzniewski is well-known to East German audiences. Gaunt-faced and dark-eyed, he was a striking-looking man who appeared in everything from Five Cartridges to The Baldheaded Gang, but it was his appearance as the frail but determined Sepp Gomulka in The Adventures of Werner Holt that caused the public to first sit up and take notice of him. Although he did occasionally play the lead, he was better known as a character actor, appearing as secondary characters in many classic DEFA films. In 1985, he made a big splash playing King Friedrich II in the popular TV miniseries, Sachsens Glanz und Preußens Gloria (Saxony and Prussia’s Blaze of Glory). He reprised the role twice more for the sequels and is, to this day, still remembered as King Friedrich by East Germans of a certain age.

After the Wende, he continued to act, primarily in television. He was last seen in America as Kuk, the unlucky contestant on the wheel of fortune in the “Eating Pattern” episode of Lexx—a strange Canadian/German science fiction co-production about a giant dragonfly-shaped spaceship with a sexy love slave, a robot head, a dead assassin, and feckless security guard on board. This would be one of his last performances. He died a few months after it aired and is buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin.

Worthy of special mention here is Marianne Wünscher, who played the pesky neighbor, Mrs. Klinkhöfer. Ms. Wünscher was a popular character actor in East Germany. She is best known as an uptight poodle owner and the nemesis of Karin Schröder’s character in Beloved White Mouse. Ms. Wünscher was an extremely active performer, appearing in many movies, television shows, and stage productions throughout her career. She also served as a Berlin city council member for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPD) from 1977 to 1981. She died August 9, 1990, after the wall came down, but before the reunification of Germany.

Although it is unquestionably a light comedy, A Lively Christmas Eve has a certain bite to it. Had it been made in 1965 it would have, undoubtedly fallen victim to the 11th Plenum’s attack on the arts. The film’s gentle ribbing of the state would not have been tolerated three years later.

The film was very popular, even though it was released in October, well before the Christmas season. It also has the unusual distinction of spawning a sequel…twenty years later. But that is another story for next time.

IMDB page for this film.

This film is not currently available, but can be found on Veoh—a very problematic source of films.


1.The German title for this film, “Ach, du fröhliche,” usually appears as “O, du fröhliche,” and is a very popular Christmas song in Germany. When the song is sung in English, it usually appears as “Oh, How Joyfully,” but is sometimes titled “Oh Ye Joyful People.” More often, the song is played as a Christmas instrumental number under its original title, “O sanctissima.” The DEFA Film Library at UMass lists the name of this movie as A Lively Christmas Eve, so that is what I am using here.

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.

IMDB page for this film.

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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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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.

For Eyes Only

Right off the bat, For Eyes Only – Top Secret lets you know that this is not going to be a James Bond, sex and martinis fantasy. A title card appears after the credits, stating that, while the film’s plot is fictional, “similarities to actual events and real people are intended.” The events and people they are referring to are DECO II—a plan by the United States and West Germany to reunite Germany by fomenting uprisings in East Germany and then bringing in western troops—and the exploits of Horst Hesse, a Stasi agent who infiltrated the U.S. Military Intelligence Division (MID) and came back across the border with two safes filled with information on every MID agent working in East Germany as well as an emergency plan called Schweigefunker, that was to be activated in case of war. As a result of Hesse’s spy work, 521 MID agents were exposed, and 137 secret agents in working in East Germany were arrested. The U.S. Military, embarrassed and caught with their pants down, sentenced Hesse to death in absentia. After the wall fell, apparently the threat was forgotten. The emergency invasion plan turned out to be a smokescreen by GDR officials to help justify the building of the wall. This fact was kept from both the public and Horst Hesse himself, who only found out the truth after the wall fell. Hesse lived unmolested to the ripe old age of 84, and died in the town of Schwedt, across the border from Poland.

For Eyes Only is set in June of 1961, a little over a month before the Berlin Wall went up. The border is still relatively porous, and secret agents cross into each others countries with relative ease. Although it is never said outright, it is obvious that one of the subtexts of the film is that the U.S. was constantly engaged in intentional sabotage in East Germany and that the wall put an end to this (for more on this, see Look at This City!). For Eyes Only is an effective thriller with good performances and an exciting conclusion. It ranks as one of the best spy films of the sixties.

Several of the main characters in the film are Americans and speak English during their meetings. Rather than subtitle these scenes, the film uses the technique of overdubbing a translator’s voice in the fashion used by NPR and European news broadcasts. This serves two purposes: It eliminates the need for distracting subtitles, and effectively masks any obvious English dubbing, or giveaway accents. It also gives the film a slight documentary feel absent from other spy film of the period. Not all of the Americans in the film are German, however. Canadian folksinger Perry Friedman, American journalist Victor Grossman, and British journalist John Peet all appear in the movie without credit.

The hero of the film is Hansen, an East German spy who supposedly joined the Republikflucht to escape the GDR, but who, in fact, is a double agent named Lorenz. As one might expect, the Americans are portrayed as hedonistic louts, who drive too fast, and whose radio stations seem to play nothing but jazzy versions of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” To the film’s credit, though, they are not portrayed as bumbling idiots. It takes a great deal of guile for Hansen to outwit Major Collins, even if the man does have trouble keeping his pants zipped. It is these high stakes that keep the film exciting. Hansen may be one step ahead of the Americans, but only one step, and sometimes that is barely enough.

At times it seems like everyone in the film—not just Hansen—is leading a double life, from Major Collins and his evening peccadilloes, to pretty Peggy (Eva-Maria Hagen), the American secretary who keeps a set of falsies in her desk to wear on dates. The only person without secrets is Gisela (Renate Geißler, in her first film role), the attractive gas station attendant who dates the conflicted Czech chauffeur, František. She is also the one person with enough sense to walk away from the situation when she realizes she has been lied to.

Hansen is portrayed by Alfred Müller, an actor who, up to that point, had primarily worked in theater. His portrayal of Hansen here was so popular that he became known as the “James Bond of the East.” He probably would have made an even bigger splash as the morally conflicted judge in The Rabbit is Me if that  film hadn’t been shelved as a result of the 11th Plenum. Happily, neither the 11th Plenum, nor the Wende had much impact on his career. He continued to work in films throughout his life, retiring in 2007 and dying in 2010 from pancreatic cancer.

The randy Major Collins is played by Helmut Schreiber, one of the hardest working men in East German cinema. Schreiber appeared in dozens of films and television shows, He was often cast as a villain, especially in the Märchenfilmen and Indianerfilmen. Like most character actors, his face was better known than his name. He was reaching retirement age when the wall fell, and did not appear in any more films after the Wende.

For Eyes Only was directed by János Veiczi, a Hungarian director who had a hard-scrabble life, working at forced labor in a munitions factory during World War II, and doing whatever jobs he could to support his ailing wife after the war. Responding to an ad in 1949 for people to work at DEFA, Veiczi became an assistant director, working with several talented directors, including Gerhard Klein and Carl Ballhaus. In 1956, he began directing his own features, starting with Zwischenfall in Benderath (Incident in Benderath). With the success of For Eyes Only, Veiczi was given carte blanche to make another spy movie. That film, Die gefrorenen Blitze, (Frozen Flashes), was the most expensive DEFA made up to that point. While not a flop, it did not match For Eyes Only at the box office. Veiczi moved to television at that point with the 11-part mini-series, Rendezvous mit Unbekannt (Rendezvous with the Unknown), a collection of stories taken from actual Stasi files.

For Eyes Only grabs you right from the opening titles thanks to a nice pop-jazz score by Günter Hauk. Hauk was a classically trained musician, who got his start as musical director at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater. His stage compositions include, among others, the music for the stage version of Around the World in 80 Days, which is reportedly where János Veiczi saw Alfred Müller, and decided to cast him as Hansen. Hauk became Veiczi’s go-to composer for his spy films, writing the scores for Die gefrorenen Blitze and Rendezvous mit Unbekannt. Besides For Eyes Only, he is best known for the score for The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs. Hauk died in 1979.

For Eyes Only opened in July of 1963, nine-and-a-half months after Dr. No premiered in London. At the time, some thought the East German film was a response to the British film’s glamorous portrayal of the life of a secret agent, but DEFA had been preparing the film for at least two years before its release. Actually, the two films are as different as chalk and cheese. The British wouldn’t follow suit with anything this realistic until The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1965. The DEFA film was extremely popular in East Germany. In spite of its Anti-American stance—or perhaps, because of it—the film was also well received in West Germany, where NATO’s plan to pepper their country with nuclear weapons (MC 96) was not particularly popular.

For Eyes Only is the latest DVD to be released in the United States by the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst. The DVD includes an East German documentary short in which Horst Hesse is interviewed based on the film, plus two PDF files containing an interview with the film’s dramaturg, and an essay by the University of Potsdam professor Bernd Stöver about the film’s veracity.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film.

Schaut auf diese Stadt

On Sunday morning, August 13, 1961, the citizens of Berlin woke up to a remarkable event. While they were sleeping, East German soldiers had constructed a barbed wire fence around the entire city of West Berlin. Workers were already beginning to tear up the roads between the east and the west, and armed soldiers stood at various points along the fence, making sure no one got through unless authorized. Some people found themselves faced with a dilemma. If you were a West German, but lived in the east, you were given a choice: become a citizen of the GDR or get the hell out. For East Germans working in the west the choice was little more severe: stay, live, and work here. East Germans who, for whatever reason, found themselves in the western sector that night, the choice was the hardest of all. They could stay in West Berlin, but it would mean giving up everything they owned. In some cases, it meant leaving behind entire families.

So how did this happen? Only a few months earlier, Walter Ulbricht had assured everyone that East Germany had no intention of building a wall (“Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten!”). Now, suddenly, here it was. Within a few weeks, the barbed wire barricade turned into a fence, and, eventually into the wall with its swath of raked earth, tank traps, nail beds, and 24-hour hyperlighting. Buildings along the border were torn down and East German border guards were given orders to shoot to kill anyone trying to cross the border illegally.

The GDR always insisted that the wall was never meant to keep people in, but to stop the pernicious influences capitalism, and the intentionally disruptive tactics of the United States and West Germany, both of which were hell-bent on destroying the GDR (true enough). For them the wall was an anti-fascist protection barricade (Antifaschistischer Schutzwall). To explain and defend the building of the wall, the documentary film branch of DEFA made Look at This City! (Schaut auf Diese Stadt), a film exploring the forces at work against the GDR, and what led to the barrier’s eventual construction.

And what a film it is! Director Karl Gass has created a lively piece of cinema that, whether you agree with any of it or not, will keep you entertained. The film gets off to a rip-roaring start with U.S. military troops marching in formation set to the sounds of The Coasters singing “Yakety-Yak.” This is followed by more scenes of U.S. military personnel overlaid with various American big band tunes. This isn’t a radio station from America, the narrator tells us, but one from West Berlin. The film follows this basic structure throughout, with the American forces shown to pop tunes and big band numbers, and the scenes of factories and people in East Germany shown to the strains of Beethoven and other German composers. It is hard to say if the filmmaker thought that the western music would appear coarse and vulgar to the German audiences. The narration seems to suggest that this was the intent, but it is this very juxtaposition between western pop culture and German classicism that makes this film so much fun to watch. In one scene, clueless American soldiers take snapshots in front of the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park. This is followed by scenes of WWII war footage showing the attacks on Berlin. The message of the film is stated at the beginning and at the end: the GDR wanted peaceful coexistence; it’s the west that provoked the building of the wall.

The film makes some valid points. The western powers did renege on many of the agreements made during the Potsdam Conference, not least of which was the way it turned a blind eye to the reinstatement of several ex-Nazis to prominent positions, most notably, Chancellery Chief of Staff Hans Globke, who had helped Adolf Eichmann draft the Third Reich’s race laws, and NATO Commander Hans Speidel, who had served as a General in the Wehrmacht under Hitler. The West’s approach to Denazification seemed to be, “Well, we’re going to let you go back to work, but we’re going to wag a finger at you every once in a while.”

There is also evidence that many of the decisions made by West Germany were intentionally designed to play hob with the East German economy. This was done largely at the behest of the United States, which had become rabidly anti-communist during the fifties. Nowadays, people point to Joseph McCarthy as some sort of anomaly, but, in truth, the prevailing sentiment in the U.S. was “better dead than red.” McCarthy was just the most visible proponent of this philosophy. The U.S.-sponsored radio station RIAS (Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor) was actively, even aggressively at times, using its broadcasts to spread dissent in the east. As the film points out, Stalin made overtures to help create a united Germany, free of both Soviet and American troops (this was also one of the tenets of the Potsdam Accord), but Adenauer dismissed the offer as a ploy. Public sentiment was in favor of Stalin’s proposal, but that counted for little. The Americans were still calling the shots and their anti-communist fervor made it impossible for Germany to reunite.

But the film also overstates its claims, blaming all of East Germany’s economic problems on the west. In truth, many of its problems came from Ulbricht’s refusal to adopt any meaningful reforms lest he cede one iota of his authority to others. In the previous post (Destinies of Women), I talked about the fact that, from 1946 until the early fifties, people were going to East Germany to find work because the Soviets were doing a much better job of getting German industries up and running again. Now the tables had turned. People started to leave East Germany in favor of opportunities in the west. The borders between the two countries were closed, but the agreement to keep Berlin open as a jointly controlled city made it the perfect place to cross over. The Republikflucht could have been stopped, but Walter Ulbricht wasn’t the man to do it. After the protests of June 17th, 1953, the Soviets agreed to help quell the protests providing that Ulbricht enact meaningful reforms. Ulbricht took the Soviet’s help, but instead of implementing changes, the GDR leader dug in his heels, pointing to the events in Poland and Hungary as justification for his position. As thing deteriorated further, Ulbricht asked the Soviets for more and more financial aid, but they had problems of their own dealing with the new U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, who, by Krushschev’s account was “not very clever,” citing the Bay of Pigs debacle as evidence of this.

Scene from Look at This City!

Things came to a head when West Berlin—in spite of multilateral agreements to the contrary—started using the Western Deutsche Mark. This created a serious economic imbalance between the eastern and the western sectors of the city. Since many things were state-subsidized in the GDR, East Berliners could make more money by working in the west while paying the cheaper rents in the east. West Berliners took advantage of the lower food prices in the east, getting their East German helpers and co-workers to bring them supplies. A black market sprang up in West Berlin to take advantage of the disparity between the western and eastern currencies. In the end, the utter intransigence on both sides of the border led inexorably to the wall. Although they made political hay of it at the time, the west was perfectly happy with this solution. “Better a wall than a war,” JFK is reported to have said when he learned of the new barrier, but that didn’t stop him from traveling to Berlin and announcing that he was a donut.*

As with the United States, you were more likely to lose your job in West Germany during the fifties for being a member of the Communist Party than for being a former Nazi. No one knew this better than the film’s narrator, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, who lost his job at Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk in Hamburg, for his leftist leanings. Mention von Schnitzler, even today, to anyone who grew up in East Germany, and you’ll get an immediate reaction; usually a look of disgust. Not even Stasi chief Erich Mielke or Honecker’s hated wife Margot prompt such strong reactions from people. In his song, “Ballade von den verdorbenen Männern” (“Ballad of Corrupt Men”), Wolf Biermann referred to him as “Sudelede,” a nickname that stuck. In her grim, but highly readable book, Stasiland, Anna Funder reports that he was also known as “von Schni–,” because that’s how long it took people to get up and change the channel when he appeared on TV.

At first glance, von Schnitzler looks like an unlikely candidate for the communist cause. His father was a well-respected German diplomat and heir to a German banking dynasty. Karl-Eduard was cousin to Georg von Schnitzler, a member of the IG Farben board of directors and one of the people convicted of war crimes during the Nuremberg Trials (see Council of the Gods). He was also reportedly the illegitimate great-grandson to Frederick III, whose reign lasted a mere 99 days.

As a member of the bourgeoisie, Karl-Eduard had a privileged upbringing, but that didn’t stop him from joining the communist party while still in school. During the war, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht, but was captured by the British. Shortly after that, he started working for the German-language branch of BBC radio. After losing his job in Hamburg, he moved to East Germany, where he became well known as the host of Der schwarze Kanal (The Black Channel), a weekly television show that examined, reinterpreted, and ridiculed West German news reports. Von Schnitzler’s stock in trade was sarcasm, which he delivered as if he was merely stating the facts. He had been doing this on Der schwarze Kanal for couple years before he made this movie, so he was well-prepared for the job of narrating this film

After the Wende, von Schnitzler became the target of a great deal of public criticism He never wavered from his position that the Wall was a good thing and that the state had every right to shoot people trying to climb over it. His appearances on television talk shows were often rowdy affairs with people constantly interrupting him whenever he tried to defend his position.

The new world order took its toll on von Schnitzler. It’s not easy being the most loathed person in your own country. Talk show appearances after the Wende show a man who continued to try and defend his position in the face of catcalls from the audience. He died of pneumonia September 20, 2001 in Zeuthen, a small municipality south of Berlin.

Look at This City! was directed by Karl Gass. A West German by birth, Gass was working in radio in Cologne after the war when—like von Schnitzler—he came under fire for his defense of the German Communist Party (KPD). In 1948, he moved to East Germany, where he continued writing radio scripts and began studying film production. During the fifties, he started making Der Augenzeuge (Eyewitness) newsreels, which were screened before the main features in East German cinemas. Look at This City! was his first attempt at a feature film, and it is apparent that the years for study paid off. The film, with its combination of new and old footage with new and old music, still stands as a classic example of documentary filmmaking. Gass’s biggest success as a director came in 1985 with Das Jahr 1945 (The Year 1945), a look at the last 128 days of the Third Reich. Gass continued making documentaries right up until the Wende. His last film, Nationalität: Deutsch (Nationality: German) is a look at the life of a small-town teacher from the Weimar Republic, through the Third Reich, to the GDR. With the fall of the wall, no one so closely associated with the socialist aspects of East Germany really stood a chance of getting films made in unified Germany. He spent his final years writing non-fiction, primarily on the history of Prussia. He died in 2009.

Predictably, reactions to the film divided along political lines, with critics in the west calling it propaganda and critics in the east defending its message. Reviewers both east and west acknowledged that it was a well-made film. The film drew large audiences, especially in Berlin, where people were still trying to wrap their minds around this new border that divided their city. Today, the film is recognized as both a classic documentary and a unique chronicle of the events that led to the Berlin Wall.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

The last episode of Der Schwarze Kanal.

* Much has been made of JFK’s infamous “Ich bin ein Berliner,” statement. The correct wording would have been, “Ich bin Berliner.” By adding the definite article ein, as many have pointed out, he was using the correct form to say that he was a “Berliner,” which is a kind of filled donut popular in Germany. Others have defended him, saying that the definite article could also be used to stress that he was with the people of Berlin (although, I think that untranslatable little bit of German grammar, doch would have been the logical choice for that). The statement has been used, from time to time as a running joke in German movies, and was even used as the name of a film about a con man who claimed to be the illegitimate son of JFK. Nonetheless, I think everyone listening to his speech that day understood what he was trying to say.