Archive for the ‘Artists’ Category

Ganymed Restaurant


Just off the Schiffbauerdamm, a street that runs along the River Spree on the north side of the river, sits the Berliner Ensemble Theater. It was founded in 1954, after Bertolt Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel left the Deutsches Theater to start their own theater. It was an ambitious project featuring a revolving stage built on the wheels of a Soviet T-34 tank supplied by the Soviet troops in East Berlin. By this time, Brecht was in ill health and died a couple years later but the theater continues to this day.

Next door to the theater sat the Ganymed Restaurant, where the members of the theater troupe and intellectuals of every stripe would go to discuss everything from dialectical materialism to food shortages. After the Wall came down, the restaurant closed. It was in this shuttered restaurant, in early nineties, that director Peter Voigt set his film Dusk: 1950s East Berlin Bohemia (Dämmerung – Ostberliner Boheme der 50er Jahre). Now that the Wall was gone, Voigt assembled old friends and acquaintances to talk about what Berlin was like in the days before the Wall went up.

The film starts with the funeral of Wolf Kaiser, a character actor who appeared in dozens of East German films and television shows. A West German by birth who grew up in Switzerland, Kaiser moved to East Germany after Bertolt Brecht hired him to work at the Deutsches Theater where he became renowned for his portrayal of Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera. Kaiser believed in the values of the GDR. When the Wall fell and the West took over East Germany, broadcasting daily reports on the corruption of the leaders of the SED, and leaving many East Germans unemployed, Kaiser began wondering if it all had been worth it. He answered that question by jumping out a window to his death.

Dusk
Heinz-Dieter Knaup and Stefan Lisewski

Most of the action centers around three venues—the Ganymed, Hajo’s Bar, and the Möwe. Each had its own scene with its own regulars. By far the most interesting was Hajo’s Bar, which catered to artists, oddballs, and political types. You could tell by the responses of the people being interviewed that Hajo’s Bar was the favorite. At least until Hajo got fed up with the Stasi trying to get him to spy on people in the bar and decided to move to the West.

Former East German fashion model Barbara Lübbert, film critic Jutta Voigt, and translator Ingrid Lechner (who was still a student at the time) sit together and discuss what it was like to be a young women on the town in East Berlin during that period. While it’s well documented that East Germany did a better job of offering women equal opportunities than West Germany did, the women interviewed here were largely treated as arm candy. The only other woman interviewed is Brecht and Weigel’s daughter Barbara Brecht-Schall, who didn’t spend her time in the bars and discusses other aspects of pre-Wall life in East Germany.

The memories are both good and bad, creating a complex picture of what life in the fifties in East Berlin. The people interviewed include actors Ekkehard Schall, Rolf Ludwig, and Stefan Lisewski; and artists Rudi Ebeling and Kurt Mühle.

Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler
Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler tickles the ivories.

The most surprising appearance here is Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, the host of the notorious Der schwarze Kanal (The Black Channel), a weekly TV show that looked at the broadcasts coming out of the West from a socialist perspective. Schnitzler comes across as relaxed and congenial here and expresses dismay at the Statsi’s decision to try and bully the owner of Hajo’s Bar into spying on his clientele. In later post-Wende interviews, Schnitzler would get more and more defensive, He was, after all, the man who narrated Look at This City—a 1962 documentary that argues for the importance of the Wall. We get a very different view of Schnitzler in Stasiland, Anna Funder’s book of interviews with former Stasi officials, IMs and supporters of the SED.1

As film historian Claus Löser points out in one of the essays that comes with the Dusk DVD, the German word for dusk—Dämmerung—is the same word for dawn. Presumably, Voigt intended this double meaning. Discussing the days right before the Wall went up at a time immediately after the Wall came down. What Voigt doesn’t answer is which of these is the dawn and which is the dusk.

Peter Voigt was the son of a theater director and went to school to study art. In 1953 he met Bertolt Brecht and became his personal assistant a year later. Still in his early twenties, Voigt, like most personal assistants, was an asshat, full of himself and sure he knew best. When Lotte Lenya came to visit Brecht in 1955, it was Voigt who refused to let her in. Mercifully, time tempered Voigt’s egomania, but not his obsession with Brecht, which continued throughout his life.

Dusk
(l. to r.) Jutta Voigt, Barbara Lübbert, and Ingrid Lechner

Since much of the film consists of people sitting and talking, with occasional inserts of photographs and street scenes, Voigt tries to keep things visually interesting by shifting the locations, backgrounds, and the camera’s distances from the speakers. There’s little use handheld cameras here. Most of the time, the camera is locked down for the duration of a shot. Sometimes the interviewees sit at a piano, sometimes they stand, and sometimes they sit at the bar. Occasionally, Voigt lets the screen go black for a couple seconds, as if to suggest the natural gaps in memories of forty-year-old events, but it could also be interpreted as a nod to the ever-present danger of censorship.

Like many of the films about East Germany that came out right after the Wende, the film went largely ignored. West Germans weren’t interested and East Germans weren’t ready to talk about it. It was only later that the film was recognized as a important testament to the time in East Berlin right before the Wall went up. The DEFA Library at UMass at Amherst has released the film on DVD. Included on the disk is The Favorite, a short film about Peter Voigt by Alexandra Czok. Since the movie was filmed, the Ganymed restaurant has reopened and rechristened itself a “Brasserie,” catering to high-end diners.


1. Of course, with a title like Stasiland, it’s clear that Anna Funder came to the table with a specific perspective already in place. Nonetheless, the book is required reading for anyone interested in East Germany and its history.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Die Wahlverwandtschaften
Ask the average American who Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is, and you’ll either get: “He was a writer, wasn’t he?” Or: “I don’t know.” A well-read American might be familiar with Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther, but that’s about it. In Germany, on the other hand, Goethe resides deep in the soul. He’s as important to German culture as Shakespeare is to English culture—perhaps even more so. Along with a healthy appreciation of good of beer and a fascination with all things American Indian, the love of Goethe is common to East and West Germans alike. His attitude that logic and reason, rather than tradition and religion, should govern one’s actions helped keep him popular on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

In 1974, East Germany’s film company DEFA had already made a historical fable (Wolz), an operetta (Orpheus in the Underworld), two fairytales (Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella, and Hans Roeckle and the Devil), a contemporary comedy, (The Naked Man on the Sports Field), and an Indian film (Ulzana). It was about time to tackle another costume drama, so why not Goethe? The book that director Siegfried Kühn chose to adapt was Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften), Goethe’s story of 19th Century aristocrats engaging in interpersonal relationships and extramarital affairs. East German television had made a couple TV movies based on his work (Urfaust starring Manfred Krug as Mephisto, and Iphigenie auf Tauris), but Elective Affinities was the first East German feature film based on one of the writer’s books. It was also—as it happens—the first time this book had been made into a film (although not the last).

Elective Affinities gets its title from an old chemistry term intended to explain why certain chemical combinations reacted with each other, while others did not. Goethe was a man of many interests in the arts and the sciences. He wrote poetry, plays, and novels, as well as literary critiques and scientific treatises. He filled books with drawings and thoughts, and corresponded voraciously. He saw relationships between everything from emotions and the color spectrum, to human behavior and chemistry. As far as Goethe was concerned, human relationships exhibited the same seemingly arbitrary attractions as chemical affinities, with people shedding one relationship in favor of another when the right catalyst is added to the mix.

Elective Affinities

The story takes place during the Napoleonic Wars and follows the exploits of Baron Eduard (Hilmar Thate) and his wife Charlotte (Beata Tyszkiewicz). Both are now in their second marriage. The marriage isn’t unhappy, but it isn’t particularly exciting either. To enliven things, Eduard invites his old friend Captain Otto (Gerry Wolff) to stay and Charlotte invites her niece Ottilie (Magda Vásáryová). Eduard and Ottilie are immediately attracted to each other, as are Charlotte and the Captain. As one might expect, things go to hell in a handcart after that.

Elective Affinities is a subtle book and not the most likely Goethe novel to be turned into a movie, (that honor would have to go to Faust, which has been adapted at least twenty-five times). The fact that director Kühn brought it in at less than two hours is impressive; Francis Ford Coppola once toyed with idea of making a ten-hour, 3D version of the story. Kühn strips the story down to its primary elements, and changes a few things for cinematic effect. He tempers the most shocking death in the book in the book by having it occur off-screen, and the maid is removed from the story entirely—presumably for socialist reasons—which also removes an important supernatural-seeming element from the story (whether Goethe meant it to be actually supernatural is a topic for debate).

Goethe considered Elective Affinities to be his best book. If there is a flaw in the book, it’s that Goethe wrote it in the third person; it should have been written from Eduard’s point of view. What we have here is the classic unreliable narrator, on a par with Humbert Humbert in Lolita, but here the unreliable narrator is Goethe. Ottilie comes off as almost too saintly to exist in the real world. No one is that good and pure. So who is the inspiration for the saintly Ottilie? The most likely candidate is Minna Herzlieb, the eighteen-year-old foster daughter of a book publisher in Jena. Goethe was gaga over the teenager and wrote sonnets to her. Several men vied for her attention, but she ended up marrying a law professor and settling into a miserable existence, eventually losing her mind and spending the last years of her life in a mental institution in Görlitz.

Goethe

Siegfried Kühn was one of the most talented directors to come out of Germany, but he didn’t get many opportunities to prove it. His films include Time of the Storks, The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow , and The Actress. In 1981, he began working on Schwarzweiß und Farbe (Black-and-White and Color), a film about a photographer who runs into conflicts between reporting the truth and doing what he’s told. Not surprisingly, the film was scuttled by the authorities before it began shooting. From 1963 until 1980, he was married to screenwriter Regine Kühn, who wrote or co-wrote many of his films. The Wende effectively put an end to his career as a director. His last film was The Liar (Die Lügnerin), which was also one of the last films made at the DEFA studios. Kühn’s wife Regine continued to work in television until 2003, primarily on documentaries.

Beata Tyszkiewicz and Magda Vásáryová play Charlotte and Ottilie respectively. It’s easy to see the attraction the two women hold for the men. Charlotte is a powerful woman, who can match any man in conversation, while Ottilie is less of an intellect, but makes up for it in cheerful beauty. Tyszkiewicz hails from Poland and started her career in films while still a teenager. She appeared in several classic Polish films, including The Sargossa Manuscript, The Ashes, The Doll, and the oddball science fiction comedy Sexmission. From 1967 until 1969 she was married to Polish director Andrzej Wajda, and their daughter Karolina went on to appear in several films but hasn’t been seen on the silver screen in several years. Tyszkiewicz is still active in films, but spends part of her time supporting the charitable organization, Fundacja Dzieciom “Zdążyć z Pomocą”—a children’s aid foundation dedicated to helping children in Poland who are at the most at trick of serious health issues.

Like Beata Tyszkiewicz, Magda Vásáryová started her career as a teenager, but things really took off for her when she starred in title role of František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová—considered by many critics to be the best Czech film ever made. She appeared in several more films, but after the Velvet Revolution, she switched from actress to political activist. She was the ambassador for Czechoslovakia in Austria from 1990 to 1993, and the ambassador for Slovakia in Poland from 2000 to 2005. She ran for the office of President of Slovakia in 1999, but lost. She was the Slovak State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from February 2005 to July 2006.

The voices of the two women are dubbed by Germans. Lissy Tempelhof was the voice for Charlotte, while Katharina Thalbach dubbed Ottilie. This isn’t unusual. Jutta Hoffmann did the voice for Krystyna Stypułkowska in Trace of Stones, and several different people handled the dubbing duties for Gojko Mitić over the years. What is unusual is that the two voice actresses are listed in the main credits right under the names of the stars they dubbed.

Elective Affinities

Hilmar Thate is excellent as Baron Eduard. It’s not an easy part to pull off. After all, Eduard is oblivious to the effects of his shallow, sometimes callous behavior, interested only his own desires. The other three, at least, show a measure of conflict about their feelings. Thate is up to the challenge. He plays Eduard with self-centered perfection, oblivious to how his embarrassing behavior is and that everyone else can see right through him (for more on Hilmar Thate, see Professor Mamlock).

The music is by Karl-Ernst Sasse, who scored dozens of DEFA films (for more information on Sasse, see Her Third). Sasse could adapt to any style, from psychedelic pop (In the Dust of the Stars) to space-age lounge music (Signals), to oddball renaissance folk music (Godfather Death). As a classically trained composer, Elective Affinities probably offered Sasse more enjoyment than many of the scores he wrote. He had a good ear for pop, but his classical scores seem to be made with more care. Elective Affinities takes place in the era of Ludwig van Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber, and Sasse uses this to the score’s advantage, creating an effective and resonant score that feels right for the time.

While some critics complained that Kühn had compressed the story too much to capture the subtleties of Goethe’s novel, most of the reviews were favorable and Elective Affinities did decent box office. It’s an unusual film and there aren’t many East German movies like it. For fans of costume dramas or stories where relationships are tested after new people are added to the mix (which could be called elective affinity films), this movie is worth a viewing.

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© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Käthe Kollwitz – Images of a Life
In 1966, director Ralf Kirsten made The Lost Angel, a film about a day in the life of sculptor Ernst Barlach. That film centers around Barlach’s sculpture Der schwebende, which was destroyed by the Nazis for being “degenerate art.” The sculpture was inspired by Barlach’s fellow artist Käthe Kollwitz. So much so that the face on the sculpture is Kollwitz’s. Coming out, as it did, in 1966, the film fell directly into the path of the 11th Plenum’s Kahlschlag (literally: clear-cutting) and was promptly banned. The film was eventually screened in a highly edited form, but Kirsten clearly wasn’t through with the subject of German pacifist artists and their run ins with the Nazis, because in 1987, he released Käthe Kollwitz – Images of a Life (Käthe Kollwitz – Bilder eines Lebens).

Käthe Kollwitz is as different from The Lost Angel as apples from acorns. The earlier film is shot in black-and-white and follows the artist for a single day as he ruminates on how to respond to the Nazis. Käthe Kollwitz is in vivid color and charts the artist Kollwitz’s life from right before World War I until her death in 1945. The first film starts with the removal of Barlach’s sculpture from the Güstrow cathedral, while the second film starts with the actress Jutta Wachowiak, getting made up to play Käthe Kollwitz. Throughout the film, the story is interrupted with scenes of Wachowiak visiting various sites to learn more about the woman she was portraying. These interludes act as sort of a Greek chorus, filling in historical details where the narrative cannot. Since Kollwitz spent most of this time living with her husband in a large apartment in Berlin, the story is also interspersed with scenes of street life in her neighborhood and the changes it goes through during this time. Particularly poignant are the scenes involving an older couple that go from carefree to despondent as the movie progresses.

Kollwitz came from a middle-class background where socialism and religion were both important. Her talent was undeniable, and in spite of the inherent misogyny of the time, she managed to rise in the ranks of German artists, eventually being asked to join the prestigious Prussian Academy of Arts. After losing her son in World War I, Kollwitz became even more resolutely pacifist than she had been before the War, and eventually joined the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers Council for Art). Inspired by the woodcuts of fellow artist Ernst Barlach, Kollwitz applied her hand to this medium, creating the popular In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht (Gedenkblatt für Karl Liebknecht).

Kollwitz

Jutta Wachowiak is considerably prettier than Kollwitz, but then, nobody looked quite like Käthe Kollwitz. In her early films, Wachowiak was often used as a character actress, cast in smaller roles. During this time, she was also appearing on stage and receiving acclaim for her performances there as well. In 1980, she scored her biggest success for her role in Günter Reisch’s The Fiancée (Die Verlobte). She continues to appear in movies and on television.

Fred Düren, who played Barlach in the earlier movie, returns here to play Käthe Kollwitz’s husband Karl. Düren got his start in theater, joining Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin Ensemble in the early 1950s, and performing with the Deutsches Theater Berlin from 1958 to 1988. Then Düren found religion; Judaism to be exact. He learned Hebrew, moved to Israel and became a rabbi (he certainly looked the part). Although he did a few TV movies after Käthe Kollwitz, his career as a film actor essentially ended with this film. Düren died in Israel in 2015.

Käthe Kollwitz was Ralf Kirsten’s last film. With his stubbornly idealistic streak, Kirsten may have found it hard to find work in communist East Germany, but it became completely impossible in unified Germany. With the fall of the Wall, he took up teaching at the Konrad Wolf Film and Television Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg. Kirsten died in 1998.

Modern interlude

This wasn’t the last film shot by cinematographer Otto Hanisch, but his career also ended with the Wende. In his case, this probably had more to do with his age (he was 64 when his last film came out) than East/West politics. While the cinematography in Käthe Kollwitz does not have the stunning impact of Claus Neumann’s rich, black-and-white photography in The Lost Angel, it is sharply-focused and richly in color, signature features of Hanisch’s work.

Reviews were mixed on the film. While everyone admired Jutta Wachowiak’s and Fred Düren’s performances, but some felt that the modern-day interludes took the viewer out of the experience and created a distancing effect, lessening the impact of the story’s tragic elements.

IMDB page for the film.

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© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.