Archive for the ‘Banned’ Category

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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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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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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jadup und boel

By 1980, the East German authorities had nearly perfected the approval process for feature films. After the debacle of the 11th Plenum in 1965, when a dozen films were rejected either for being too frivolous or not socialist enough, DEFA settled into a safe routine, usually avoiding contemporary subjects, and instead concentrating on historical biographies, Indianerfilme, and the occasional musical. After Honecker took over, the reins again were loosened (but only slightly) and DEFA movies started push the envelope once more. Sometimes a few films went too far for the authorities, such as Iris Gusner’s 1973 film,  The Dove on the Roof, but, by that time, most directors knew the score, and were unlikely to do anything that might get their films banned. Jadup and Boel’s director, Rainer Simon, knew this better than anyone and was more careful than most to avoid controversy. After all, his first attempt at direction ended up on the chopping block during the 11th Plenum. So what happened? How did this film get made and still manage to end up in the Giftschrank?[1]

The film begins on the day of a ceremony to herald the construction on a new store in the town of Wickenhausen in the Altmark region. Here we meet Jadup, perfectly played by Kurt Böwe. Jadup is the mayor of the town. He’s a loyal party member and one of the first people in Wickenhausen to champion the communist cause. Just as Jadup is about to begin his ceremonial speech, a nearby building collapses, presumably from neglect. Snooping around in the wreckage of the house is Herr Gwissen, a stranger in town who has come to purchase antiques. Herr Gwissen finds an old copy of Friedrich Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific that Jadup once gave to a young woman named Boel Martin. Boel arrived in town right after the war with her mother. Her mother is still in town, but Boel is gone, having left Wickenhausen after her rape by someone in the town. Boel refused to say who it was and the people at the time blamed the Russian soldiers[2], but Jadup’s current refusal to discuss what happened is seen by members of the community as a tacit admission of guilt. As the story progresses, we eventually learn the truth.

The story jumps back and forth in time and space between Jadup’s story and Jadup’s son, Max. Max has a crush on Eva, an intensely vapid and vain young lady who is all too ready to spout party doctrine, but without any idea of what that really means. In the opposite corner is the more quirky and interesting Edith Unger, whose alcoholic father has made it his life’s work to write the history of Wickenhausen. It is apparent immediately that Edith is a better match for Max, but will he realize it in time?

The young people in town are given the task (by Jadup) of learning something of their town’s past and the part their parents played in its revival after the war. In flashbacks, we see Jadup as a young man (played by Christian Böwe, Kurt Böwe’s real-life son). The young Jadup lives in the bell tower and develops a camaraderie with the odd and nearly silent Boel. Boel’s hands are covered with warts and the local children run from her because of it. After her rape the warts clear up. Jadup tried to find out who was responsible but all he succeeds in doing is driving Boel from town.

Meanwhile, Edith gets in trouble for posting an essay that is a direct attack on Eva’s typically over-inflated, aggrandizing essay on her parents. Max is given the task of confronting Edith on the subject to get her to bow to peer pressure and apologize, but Edith is made of sterner stuff than that. As the story shifts back and forth in time, Max’s confrontation with Edith is juxtaposed against Jadup’s grilling of Boel. Jadup drives Boel away with his relentless interrogation. Will Max do the same? Jadup brings things to a head in an impassioned speech for the state to return to the principles espoused by Lenin. Otherwise the country will stagnate and die.

As you can probably tell from this brief description, the level of symbolism is very high in this movie, from the collapsing building to the warts on Boel‘s hand. It is no accident that the stranger from out of town is named “Gwissen” (an abbreviation of Gewissen: the German word for conscience). Jadup and Boel seems, at first glance, like a relatively harmless movie, but its unvarnished observations on stagnant bureaucracy in East Germany were bound to rub the officials the wrong way.

The film is based on the novel, Jadup, by Paul Kanut Schäfer. Schäfer was a popular East German author, who wrote everything from crime novels to children’s books. Jadup was published in 1975, but was not a big hit. Rainer Simon hadn’t heard of it when the idea for a movie of it was suggested to him. After reading the book, he recognized that he had a potential hot potato on his hands. He was as surprised as anyone when the authorities approved the project. Recognizing the potential pitfalls he might encounter while trying to get it, made, Simon was careful to follow the script to the letter. In that way he knew he could avoid the common claim that the film was banned because of script changes. In the end, it didn’t matter the film was banned anyway.[3]

Maybe the film would have made it to the cinemas, had it not been for other events in Eastern Europe. The USSR had invaded Afghanistan and tensions between it and the United States were the worst they had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In protest, the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics, which took place in Moscow that year. Meanwhile, things were coming to a head in Poland as well, culminating in the Gdańsk Shipyard strikes led by Lech Wałęsa. As always, whenever the public temperament moved toward calls for change, the leaders of the SED doubled down, increasing surveillance and nipping any perceived criticism of their regime in the bud. Jadup and Boel was an easy target, although, in fairness, had this film been made in the United States during Hollywood’s Hayes Code years, it would have been banned there as well.

When it came to the subject matter of this film—that of party stagnation—director Rainer Simon knew it better than most. A party member of the SED from the age of seventeen, Simon saw first hand the SED’s internal politics at work. He also saw what was happening to it and he didn’t like it. Simon claims that the character of Jadup in the film is not a stand in for himself, but both men continued to believe in socialism and both men were growing weary of the state things in the GDR.

Rainer Simon studied directing at the School of Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg (now named after Konrad Wolf). He started working on short films and was the assistant director on Ralk Kirsten’s Der verlorene Engel (The Lost Angel) and Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. He was slated to direct his first feature in 1966—a film version of Horst Bastian’s novel, Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality)—when the 11th Plenum halted the project (it was eventually made into a film by Erwin Stranka in 1976). He finally got his chance to direct a feature film in 1968 with Wie heiratet man einen König (How do you Marry a King), a Märchenfilm based on the Grimms’ fairytale, “The Peasant’s Clever Daughter.”

In 1979, Simon was to begin work on an East German/Austrian co-production titled, Vorstadtmusikanten (Fringe Musicians), but the film was scuttled before it began. Rainer Simon suspected that the GDR authorities were responsible for stopping the project, worrying as they often did, about defections to the west. Jadup and Boel was Simon’s only film on a contemporary subject. He learned early on that it was a lot safer to film fairy tales and historical biographies. When he was offered this film, he balked at first, recognizing its potential to offend the party bureaucrats, but everyone seemed to be greenlighting the project, so he went forward. He didn’t find out until after the Wende, that the Stasi had people watching the production of this film very carefully (of course, one could argue that the Stasi had people watching nearly everything very carefully).

Simon’s last film to be released prior to the fall of the wall was Die Besteigung des Chimborazo (The Ascent of Chimborazo), about the 1802 ascent of the Ecuadorian volcano by Baron Alexander von Humboldt. At this time, Simon became enamored of Ecuador. After the Wende, he moved to Ecuador, where he continues to make films and teach classes on filmmaking.

Jadup is played by Kurt Böwe with his usual likeable charm. Böwe made his first big splash as the idealistic sculptor in Konrad Wolf’s Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (The Naked Man on the Sports Field), although by that time he had appeared in smaller parts in such films as Gerhard Klein’s Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin Around The Corner) and Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. The Wende had less impact on Kurt Böwe’s career than it did on some of his fellow DEFA actors. He continued working, primarily, but not exclusively, in television, and is best known today for his performance as Kommissar Groth on Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110). Böwe died in Berlin, June 14, 2000.

Katrin Knappe (Boel), on the other hand, stopped working in film and television after the Wende completely. Jadup and Boel was her first feature film. She continued to work in films in East Germany right up until the wall came down, but her primary focus was always theater. She studied acting at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin, where she now serves as a guest lecturer in the puppetry department. For fifteen years, she worked at the Volksbühne on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.

The cinematographer was Roland Dressel. During the seventies, his primary work as lead cinematographer was in television, although he worked on many classic DEFA films before that, including Konrad Wolf’s Einmal ist keinmal, Das Kleid, The Gleiwitz Case, and Hot Summer. He got his start as a still photographer, and he brings some of those skills to bear in this movie, particularly his understanding of how to combine deep shadows and bright images in the same frame, and his use of unusual filter techniques. He was responsible for some of DEFA’s best camerawork during the GDR’s final years. His work during this period, includes The Bicycle, Das Luftschiff (The Airship), The Woman and the Stranger (Die Frau und der Fremde), and Abschied von Agnes (Farewell from Agnes).

The music for the film is composed by Reiner Bredemeyer in his unmistakable style. As with many other film composers—on both sides of the Iron Curtain—Bredemeyer was classically trained. He wrote scores for several films, but is best known today for his avant garde classical compositions. From 1949 to 1953 he studied music composition at the Munich Academy of Music. In 1954, disgusted with the anti-socialist policies of Konrad Adenauer, he moved to the GDR, where he studied under Paul Dessau, another defector from the west. Although he often worked in the twelve-tone scale, his work still shows strong influences from classical composers, most notably, Anton Webern. Bredemeyer uses sparse instrumentation in the film to convey a sense of isolation, from the solo classical guitar at the beginning, to the lonely flute music at the end.

In 1988, the film was finally released in the GDR, but by then the world had changed too much to fully accept this it. Jadup’s impassioned speech for the return to the ideals of Lenin was now seen as a step backwards rather than the radical leap forward it seemed to be in 1980. The film was well received by the critics, but didn’t find its audience until years after the Wende.

IMDB page for this film.

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1. Literally, “poison cabinet,” also referred to as Remota. These are films (or any other documents, for that matter) that are deemed too subversive to allow to be seen by the general public.

2. This is the first time that an East German film addressed the sensitive topic of the rapes that Russian soldier committed in Germany right after the war (see Max Färberböck’s 2008 film, A Woman in Berlin, for an exploration of this topic.

3. It appears that the story of the Production of Jadup and Boel is even more bizarre than I could have possibly imagined. DEFA film expert Evan Torner writes:

“In Ralf Schenk’s interview with Simon (and in my own conversations with Simon in subsequent years), I basically gathered that Jadup and Boel was greenlighted because it was going to be banned. The Stasi watched the production very closely because it was serving as bait, and as a pressure release valve: it let them know how far ordinary GDR filmmakers would go to step out of line (i.e., not that far, all things considered), and as a way to give them all an outlet for their “subversion” without really jeopardizing anything. A state-run studio had to keep its employees working, but it could not stand for content that would ultimately threaten its own revenue streams. Creativity thus became something cultivated by gifting folks a “subversive” project that then may or may not get banned because of the political climate (I’m also thinking of the never-made early 1980s feature Schwarzweiß und Farbe, about a family whose house is in the way of a GDR power plant). The studio got to keep their talent; the state got to keep its legitimacy and even its sense of raw suppressive power.

So Simon was right in thinking that Jadup and Boel sounded like a trap because it was. The great aspect was that he nevertheless made a very thought-provoking piece of cinema as a result. Its resonance beyond the peculiar walled garden circumstances of its origin is open for debate.


© 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.

Little Angel

When we talk of East German films, we are mostly talking about the films of DEFA, the GDR’s state-owned motion picture production company, and, to a lesser extent, the made-for-TV films from DFF. All other feature films shown in East German cinemas came from other countries, with Russia at the top of the list. If you wanted to be a filmmaker, the paths were limited, and if the authorities decided you weren’t filmmaker material, you weren’t likely to get into film school.

But there were people making movies outside of the system, sometimes at great personal peril. These films weren’t shown in movie theaters. They had to rely on state-sanctioned amateur film circles, or limit screenings to immediate friends. Attempts to screen these films outside of such confines were met with stiff resistance in some cases and prosecution in others. An offense might result in an apartment search in Jena, but a fine in East Berlin.

As noted elsewhere on this blog, East Germany was in a constant fight with itself over what was “acceptable” artistic expression. After the Wall went up, the state was eager to show their “Antifaschistischer Schutzwall” (anti-fascist barrier) was meant to help preserve freedom in East Germany and creative types were allowed to make films that really challenged the status quo. Four years later, the authorities came down hard on anything too creative at the notorious 11th Plenum. When Honecker came to power, he wanted to show that he was not Ulbricht and the creative juices were allowed to flow again, albeit not with the the same freedom of expression we saw in the early sixties (see The Dove on the Roof). Then in 1976, the authorities reached yet another of their limits of tolerance. Wolf Biermann was exiled and an ordinance was passed that made it illegal to screen films that weren’t officially sanctioned. It was still okay to show films in the privacy of one’s own home, or within the confines of a film group, but as soon as you tried to show it publicly without permission, you were guilty of sedition.

The man largely held responsible for these policies was Kurt Hager. Hager held many posts in the government, but it was in his roles as the chief ideologue and person in charge of all cultural matters that he had the greatest impact on the creative arts. His writings on dialectical materialism and Marxist-Leninist philosophy were used as guidebooks for the SED, and his name was used as a mantra by club owners not willing to provide performance space for aspiring filmmakers and other creative types. He is probably best known in the west as the man who banned Udo Lindenberg from performing in East Germany.

As with underground films in other countries, the films from East Germany were often quite abstract. Most weren’t overtly political, but they represented a level of anarchy that the authorities frowned upon. Everyone who took this path to make films could be pretty sure they’d wind up with a file dedicated to them in the Stasi headquarters.

The biggest trick in making films in East Germany was obtaining the equipment. Most people were limited to using 8mm and Super-8 cameras. A few lucky souls had 16mm cameras, but only DEFA and the Stasi had anything bigger. A popular choice for the underground filmmakers was the Russian-made Quarz camera, and in particular, the Quarz DS8-3, made by Krasnogorsk Mechanical Works (KMZ) near Moscow. Like all super-8 cameras, the Quarz was intended primarily for home movies, but it had enough features to make it particularly useful to aspiring filmmakers. It had a zoom lens, a trigger grip, variable frame rates—including one frame at a time, for animation—and a solar-powered selenium light meter. As a bonus, if you have a screwdriver handy, you could create in-camera dissolves and double exposures. It used a hand crank so it required no batteries, but this did limit the length of time one could shoot continuously to about twenty seconds.

As one might expect, most of these efforts at creative filmmaking are lost to the sands of time, but a few managed to survive past the Wende and are available on a DVD titled Gegenbilder – DDR-Film im Untergrund (Counter-images – East German Film in the Underground). It is primarily these films that I will be discussing here. Most of the efforts to save the underground films of the GDR are thanks to filmmaker and historian Dr. Claus Löser, the founder of ex.oriente.lux, an archive dedicated to preserving such films. Dr. Löser also wrote the booklet that comes with the DVD. His help also was invaluable in putting this article together.

action, situation

The DVD gets off to an interesting start with Here Comes the Sun (listed on the DVD as action, situation) by Helge Leiberg. In this film, simple shapes of various colors dance across the film, overlaying and sometimes obscuring the images behind them. The filmmaker painstakingly painted kinetic shapes on nearly every frame of film with the help of a magnifying loupe—an impressive task, especially considering he was working with the tiny Super-8 format. Leiberg has continued to explore with other art forms, most notably dance, where he draws pictures over the dancers using an overhead projector.

Leiberg’s film is followed by Gino Hahnemann’s September, September. Hahnemann’s film is more overtly subversive than Leiberg’s. In it, Hahnemann recites a 25-word poem over a variety of images, from old film clips, to performance art, to Jean-Luc Godard. The poem is repeated several times, each time with a different vocal interpretation, from angry or frightened, whispered and screamed. Given this fascination with words, it is small wonder that much of Hahnemann’s post Wende career was dedicated to writing and translating poetry.

The next filmmaker, Cornelia Schleime, is well-known in the west as a painter. Schleime’s film, Unter weißen Tüchern (Draped in White), is equal parts experimental filmmaking and a chronicle of a performance piece she did involving people tapped like mummies to the wall of an empty room. It is easy enough to interpret the piece as a reflection on the state of personal freedom in the GDR. As the lead singer in the Ostpunk band, Zwitschermaschine, as well as an experimental artist, Schleime was someone the Stasi watched very closely. She found out years later just how close, when it was revealed that her bandmate, Sacha Anderson, was an IM (Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter—a civilian informant for the Stasi). Many of her pieces were confiscated before she left the country in 1984. She has gone on the become a highly successful artist in unified Germany, and is best known for her irreverent paintings of Pope John II and for a series of portraits of suspiciously sexy nuns. Several books by her and about her have been published; some in German and in English.

After three aggressively abstract films, the action shifts to a seemingly more gentle form of storytelling, but don’t be fooled. Cornelia Klauß’s Samuel is every bit as subversive as the previous three, and much more heartbreaking. It is one of the few films on the DVD that has something approaching a storyline. The action takes place on a train platform, where a young boy runs around trying to attract the attention of the adults who stand disconnected from their environment and from one another. The boy is caught and dressed as an adult, and becomes as unresponsive to the world as the adults that surround him. This is the first film in the series that feels like it was made by someone more interested in filmmaking than in art-for-art’s-sake. It’s no surprise, then, that Cornelia Klauß has continued to work in film, primarily documentaries, including a short film about the Super-8 scene in East Germany that is included on this DVD.
[Note: Here is a link to a screening of the film, complete with the sound of the projector and the audience. It’s probably the closest of any the YouTube videos linked here to what it feels like to watch films like this in an actual underground setting.

Via Lewandowsky’s Report brings the DVD back to the abstract with a film that combines a static-filled report of surveillance with old film footage while a woman repeatedly takes her blouse off and massages her breasts. This is interspersed with a mad jumble of disparate images all overlaid with rhythmic, experimental, fuzz-guitar rock reminiscent of early Chrome. Like Cornelia Schleime, Lewandowsky studied art in school in Dresden, is primarily known as a visual artist. Also like Schleime, he has presented work at MoMA’s PS1 space in New York City, but unlike her, he has not restricted his post-Wende artwork to one medium, preferring to combine several media, including sound and visuals in his work.

Film is about images, and some of the most disturbing appear in Thomas Frydetzki’s Little Angel (Engelchen). It starts innocently enough with a kaleidoscope of light and shadows, but soon the film becomes a catalog of grotesqueries as it shifts from a woman reading a forensic pathology book, to a man killing and skinning a rabbit, to a very strange young woman eating a sausage and purchasing a skull. this is an odd little film—like a home movie by David Lynch. It contains equal dollops of humor and horror, and except for the fact that it’s missing the ironic references to American exploitation movies, it would fit comfortably into Nick Zedd’s Cinema of Transgression. Frydetzki brought the same shock tactics to the feature film, Max und Moritz Reloaded, which takes Wilhelm Busch cartoon brats and places them in modern Hamburg. Critics were appalled by the politically incorrect humor in that film (although the original stories aren’t exactly polite), and Frydetzki has not made a feature film since. He continues to work in film, primarily as a writer.

Claus Löser’s film, Nekrolog, begs to be interpreted, with its thread of a story, beginning with a body falling from a building. Is this homicide or suicide? Who is this person? Made in Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz) in 1985, Nekrolog is a moody piece of surrealism featuring a dissonant soundtrack that might described as No Wave Krautrock. Shot in black-and-white, the film is highly cinematic and compelling. As previously mentioned, Löser has been more responsible than anyone for the preservation of the underground films of the GDR. Besides founding the ex.oriente.lux film archives, he is a co-founder of the Brotfabrik (literally, “bread factory”) in Berlin. The Brotfabrik hosts both gallery shows and film screenings.

7×7 Facts About the Life of the Poet Tohm di Roes in Present Climes seems to be intentionally designed to shock and annoy. If that is true, it partially succeeds. The music, in keeping with the visual information is dissonant and aggressive, a cross between seventies jazz-rock, Masonna, and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. The film purports to be about the filmmaker himself, but it more of an exploration of the concept of reinventing oneself outside of the bounds of acceptable society. If the film is any indication, Tohm di Roes—the pen name for Thomas Roesler—clearly wasn’t a good fit with East German society. Small wonder, then, that he immigrated to West Berlin in 1986. As the title implies, the film is a series of vignettes of the filmmaker doing various things in his apartment and on the street. The film starts innocently enough with di Roes staring up at a skull perched atop his head, but as it moves along, the imagery gets more and more shocking. Here’s di Roes, dancing manically, massaging a woman’s breasts, showing his ass in repeated zoom shots, and so on. The film ends, almost logically, with di Roes urinating on food and then eating it. After what came before, it seems like the only thing left to do.

More than any other film on the DVD, this one is hard for someone from the west to fully appreciate. Had it been made in the west, it would have been yet another forgettable example of an art student trying to shock us, but considering when and where it was made, it’s a brave film, and almost certainly left the audiences in East Germany aghast. In Cornelia Klauß’s documentary included on the disc, di Roes cites a Stasi report which describes people screaming and fainting at the screening.

After di Roes’s ode to shock, Thomas Werner’s send-up of German culture, Hallo Berlin! is a welcome change of pace. Werner combines home movie visuals with German lessons and organ music à la The Three Suns or Joe Vento. This is very much a product of the eighties, with its ironic visuals of sexual aggression overlaid with bland German 101 lessons. Werner was a highly active figure on the underground scene in the eighties, From 1987 to 1989, he published Koma Kino, a magazine of essays about the Super-8 underground in East Germany. He is trained as a silkscreen painter, but often works in various other media including photography and film and lives and works in Berlin.

Konrad! Sprach di Frau Mama

The DVD saves the best for last, with Ramona Köppel-Welsh’s powerful film, Konrad! The Mother Said… (Konrad! Sprach di Frau Mama…). The film is helped immensely by Art Zoyd’s dramatic “Les Portes Du Futur.” Amazingly, of all the films on this DVD, this was the one that caused the Stasi the most consternation. It  includes brief glimpses of the Berlin Wall, which was strictly forbidden, and it’s scenes of people running seemed to suggest (at least to the authorities) that action is better than reaction.

Ramona Köppel-Welsh was an active figure on the art scene in east Germany. She was a member of Medea, an underground theater group that performed plays combining music and film. She started making films when she asked a friend in the West to send her a camera. She meant a still camera, but her friend sent her a Super-8 camera. Konrad! The Mother Said… was her first film. It was edited using scissors and clear tape because she didn’t have a editing table.

Like many of the other filmmakers featured here, Köppel-Welsh eventually decided it was time to leave the GDR, and ended up in the West a week before the wall came down. From 1994, until 1997, she—along with her fellow East German, Pamela Homann, and the West German filmmaker, Dagie Brundert—ran Frei Berlin Ischen, a group that promoted public screenings of Super-8 underground films in Berlin.

An interesting aspect of this collection is how many of the filmmakers were involved in other art forms. Claus Löser, Helge Leiberg, Tohm di Roes, and Cornelia Schleime all were members of bands at some point. Most were mixed media artists as well. This was no accident. Your odds of getting a film made were substantially improved if you had some bona fides as an actual artist. A filmmaker who was only a filmmaker and wanted to make films that challenged the state was doomed from the get-go. This is not to say that these filmmakers were only dabbling in these other art forms, however; many have gone on to become successful artists in unified Germany.

As mentioned earlier, Cornelia Klauß’s short documentary, The Subversive Camera (Die Subversiv Kamera), is included on the DVD. While the documentary does contain interviews with some of the filmmakers presented here, the primary source for information in it comes from Thomas Frick, whose work does not appear on this DVD. Scenes from Frick’s films Der Ausflug ins Gebirge (Excursion into the Mountains), Massaker (Massacre), and Rotkäppchen (Little Red Riding Hood) show a filmmaker who, while definitely experimental, was working from a more structured approach than most of his contemporaries. Small wonder, then, that Frick continues to work in film and television, and sees Hollywood as a worthy goal. It is Frick who gives us the classic example of the Stasi’s astoundingly pervasive use of IMs, when he tells of opening his Stasi file after the Wende to discover that his girlfriend was the person they enlisted to spy on him.

Also appearing in the documentary, but not in the collection, is Mario Achsnick, along with scenes from his films Kino (Cinema), Ein braves Pferd stirbt in den Sielen (A Good Horse Dies in the Ditch), Ein Motorrad stürtzt plärrend seinen Lichtfleck nach (A Motorcycle Roars Toward its Speck of Light), and Was sagt Cho-Ba-Kov? (What’s Cho-Ba-Kov Saying?). As with the other filmmakers on this DVD, Achsnick avoids overtly political statements, but still manages to sneak some interesting things into his movies. The scene in Ein braves Pferd featuring a woman reacting to the realization that she is being filmed brings to mind the issue of state surveillance, and I have to wonder how the authorities interpreted the scene in Ein Motorrad stürtzt of the couple snogging and drinking Coca-Cola at the same time.

A third filmmaker who also appears in the documentary but not in the collection of films on the DVD is Christine Schlegel, Her films, Zustande – Mikado (Condition – Mikado), Treibhaus (Hothouse), and Ein Abendmahl (An Evening Meal) are shown in excerpts. Of the filmmakers interviewed here, Ms. Schlegel has the most interesting things to say about the perceptual differences between the East German and western audiences. Her film Ein Abendmahl, features a scene in which a woman gives birth to a cabbage. The afterbirth is a piece of red cloth that a man pulls out and waves above the exhausted woman’s head. In the west, this scene was interpreted in feminist terms, as menstrual blood. Schlegel, on the other hand, was thinking in terms of communism.

Naturally, many of the filmmakers featured on this DVD also appear in Ms. Klauß’s documentary, including Helge Leiberg, Tohm di Roes, Claus Löser, Cornelia Schleime, and Ramona Köppel-Welsh. The documentary also includes clips from other films by these filmmakers, including scenes from Cornelia Schleime’s 1983 film, Das Nierenbett (The Kidney Bean), which uses an editing style similar to Brion Gysin’s cup-up technique; and Helge Leiberg’s exploration of African imagery, Ferne Gegenden (Faraway Places). In fact, the documentary contains enough new material to provide a convincing argument for the release of a second DVD.

[Note: Lutz Dammbeck’s Hommage à La Sarraz, which appeared on the VHS version of this compilation, was removed by the artist’s request. It is, as of this writing, available for viewing on YouTube.]

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Claus Löser’s essay on underground films (in German).

In the early 1970s, the East German authorities made yet another U-turn in their attitude toward the arts. Honecker had replaced Ulbricht as the General Secretary, and he wanted to demonstrate that as long as a film “proceeds from the firm position of socialism, there can be no taboos.” (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.”)  Artists, writers, and filmmakers took him at his word and for a brief time there blossomed a new creative energy that almost reached the levels of creativity that the GDR had seen before the 11th Plenum pulled the plug.

The west boasted a system that allowed a man to get as rich as he wanted, but that was just it: he had to be a man, and, let’s face it, he had to be white. Women and minorities were still being treated as second-class citizens in the Untied States—a country that prided itself on its individual freedoms. In spite of its civil rights laws, poverty was still rampant in the African-American community, and there were no signs that this was about to change any time soon. At the same time, women were still treated as either sex objects or comic fodder for bad comedians. This was seen as perfectly legitimate. In an episode of Star Trek, for example, a former lover of Captain Kirk complains because women are not allowed to become starship captains, and she’s the villain!

Meanwhile at DEFA, filmmakers were doing all they could to change the perception of women in the workplace by producing films that featured them in positions of authority. In films like Her Third and In the Dust of the Stars, women are the ones in charge. The Legend of Paul and Paula pushed things a little further with its story of a woman who is a powerless blue-collar worker (Mitarbeiterin), but she is still the focal point of the film.

But most of these initial feminist films were still made by men. The one exception is The Dove on the Roof, which was directed by Iris Gusner, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Regine Kuhn. The title comes from the expression, “besser ein Spatz in der Hand als eine Taube auf dem Dach,” which is a German equivalent to the English expression, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The film follows the exploits of Linda Hinrichs, the project foreman on a new apartment complex in Thuringia. Working with her on the project are Hans Böwe, a coarse man in his fifties who is the leader of the work brigade, and Daniel, a impatient young know-it-all who is working at the construction site during his summer break. These two are as different as can be, Böwe is a loyal socialist who has devoted his life to the good of the state. Daniel, on the other hand, sees people like Böwe as dinosaurs, and he dreams of traveling in outer space. Soon Ms. Hinrichs finds herself romantically involved with both of them, and not sure which way to turn.

In some respects, the story in the film pales in comparison to the story of the film. It was made at the tail end of the cycle of a renewed creative freedom in East Germany, but once again, the authorities were getting nervous that these movies were in danger of making people question the state of things. They decided it was time to make an example of a film, and The Dove on the Roof was right there at the wrong time. Claiming that the film didn’t portray the reality of life in East Germany in a favorable enough light, the authorities banned it.

Normally, when a film was banned, DEFA had the foresight to shelve it—literally—keeping the original negatives in case of a future change in policy. But somehow The Dove on the Roof fell through the cracks. The original color negatives were destroyed and the film was thought to be lost forever. After the Wende, cinematographer Roland Gräf found a working copy of the film in a shed, but years of sitting in an environment without climate control had taken their toll on the print. The color layers had de-laminated, making it impossible to strike a decent color print from the copy. A decision was made to create a black-and-white print instead and the film was finally screened in 1990. But almost immediately after the screening, it was lost again, and remained lost for another twenty years, finally turning up a second time in 2010. New black-and-white prints were made and the film was finally released on DVD last summer.

The film’s director, Iris Gusner, was one of the first female directors at DEFA. She was born in 1941 in Trautenau, Germany (now Trutnov, Czech Republic). During the sixties, she went to Moscow to study at the famous All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, the oldest film school in the world  (renamed the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in 1986). After graduation, she worked as an assistant director on Konrad Wolf’s Goya.

The Dove on the Roof was her first feature film. Although it was completed, the film never made it to the theaters. Her next film project Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens, was cancelled before it even began shooting.1 Fearing she would be stereotyped as the woman who made films that the state didn’t like, her next film, Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light), was based on the fairytale by the Brothers Grimm. It was well received by both the authorities and the public and helped get her career as a director back on track. She followed this with Einer muß die Leiche sein (Someone has to be the corpse), based on the book by Gert Prokop, and scored her biggest hit with All My Girls, a film about the tensions between a group of women working at a light bulb factory. In 1983, she directed Kaskade rückwärts (Cascade Backwards), the story of a widowed woman with a child trying to find happiness in the city. It is, along with Her Third and The Bicycle, one of the most important feminist films to come out of DEFA during the final years of the GDR. During the summer of 1989, a few months before the wall came down, Ms. Gusner left East Germany, moving first to Cologne and later to Berlin. She has only directed one film since the reunification: the 1993 TV-movie Sommerliebe (Summer Love).

Linda Hinrichs is played by Heidemarie Wenzel. Ms. Wenzel first came to the public’s attention in her role as Fanny in Egon Günther’s dazzling film, Farewell. In 1971, she starred opposite Winfried Glatzeder in Zeit der Störche (Time of the Storks), performing one of the first nude scenes in a DEFA film. Today, she is best known for her role as Ines, the odious wife of Paul (Winfried Glatzeder again) in the East German classic, The Legend of Paul and Paula. After her husband, director Helmut Nitzschke, failed to return from a business trip to West Germany, Ms. Wenzel applied for an exit visa to join him. This effectively brought her acting career in East Germany to an end. For the next few years, she worked as an office assistant at a church. Finally in 1988, she was allowed to immigrate to West Germany. In 1991, she was cast as Sylvia Hagenbeck in the popular TV series, Unsere Hagenbecks, where the death of her character on the show led to public protests. More recently, she has been seen as a regular on In aller Freundschaft, a popular TV hospital drama set in Leipzig. Set as it is in what was formerly GDR territory, many people from the DEFA casts and crews have found work on this series.

The two male leads are as different as can be, and so are their careers. Günter Naumann, who played Böwe was already a well-respected actor in East Germany. He first came to the public’s attention in Frank Beyer’s war film, Five Cartridges and went on to appear in several classic DEFA films, including The Gleiwitz Case, On the Sunny Side, Star-Crossed Lovers, and The Adventures of Werner Holt. He continues to appear often in German television productions.

Andreas Gripp, on the other hand, was a newcomer to film. He had appeared in bit parts in Captain Florian Of The Mill (Hauptmann Florian von der Mühle) and Lützower, but The Dove on the Roof was his first starring role. Primarily a theater actor, after this film was made he reportedly returned to the stage. He died a few years later in a car accident.

The Dove on the Roof is not the first color film to be converted to black-and-white. It is a common technique for saving old films when the original negative or working copy is too faded to produce an adequate color print. How well a film makes the transition to black-and-white depends greatly on the cinematographer’s skill and technique. In the case of The Dove on the Roof, the cameraman was Roland Gräf, one of the best in East Germany. Taking his cues from the Italian neorealists, Gräf specialized in a style that mimicked documentary filmmaking. Gräf’s background in black-and-white photography undoubtedly is one of the reasons that The Dove on the Roof looks so good drained of its color. Still, one can’t help but feel we are missing some visual delights, such as in the scenes inside the Christmas ornament factory in Lauscha.

That this film was rescued, not once, but twice, is one of the great success stories of film preservation. Sadly, many other films (both from the east and the west) are not so lucky. Prior to the 1970s, there were few efforts to save motion pictures. The medium was seen as a disposable form of entertainment,. Hundreds of films were either thrown away or destroyed through overuse and are now gone forever. Thankfully, groups like The International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA) and Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation have been working hard to save the films they can, and to make sure that this never happens again.

IMDB page for this film.

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1. The script for this movie sat on the shelf for over ten years, and was finally made in 1988 by Lothar Warneke.

In 1947, the Soviets began mining operations in the Schlema Valley in the southeastern region of Saxony. They called their mining company “Wismut,” the German word for bismuth, because they didn’t want the U.S. to know what they were really mining: uranium. After what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Russians wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t suffer the same fate as the Japanese and they stepped up their efforts to develop a bomb of their own. Whether the fact that the Soviets had the bomb deterred its use or increased its threat is still a matter of debate. At the time, the Americans went collectively insane over the idea that anyone else would have this weapon and cheerfully executed Julius Rosenberg for the crime of sharing the technology with the Russians. For good measure, they executed his wife Ethel too, even though it appears she did little more than type up her husband’s notes.

The choice of the name Wismut for the mining company is indicative of the level of paranoia that existed on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It’s doubtful that anyone was fooled by this ruse though. The spa at Oberschlema was already well know by then to be sitting on top of a vast lode of radioactive material. During the 1920s the place was a popular destination for people looking to bask in the radium springs and drink its radioactive water.

By the early fifties, the Soviets had changed the once verdant Schlema valley into a muddy, barren mess that looked more like a concentration camp than a mining company. Security at the mine was tight. People working there were essentially cordoned off from the rest of society, existing in a cocoon of their own. They had their own community, and communication with the outside world was carefully monitored. Geiger counters were installed at the gates to make sure that no one walked out with any of the ore lest they sell it to the Yanks. Health problems, as one can imagine, were legion and still linger today. The size of the mine was immense. By the time it shut down in 1990, it comprised 54 mine shafts spaced 30 meters apart.

In 1958, director Konrad Wolf, along with writers Karl-Georg Egel and Paul Wiens, created Sun Seekers (Sonnensucher), a paean to the workers of the Wismut mine. The story takes place in 1947, and follows the exploits of Lotte Lutz, an attractive young woman who had lost her mother during the war. Tired of the sexual abuse on the farm where she was living, she flees to Berlin where she hooks up with her aunt Emmi, a boisterous woman who looks like Rosemary Clooney and acts like Joan Blondell. After a barroom brawl, Emmi and Lotte are sent by the soviet authorities to work at the Wismut mine. Although it is never explicitly stated, there is a suggestion here that the reason the women are sent to this mine is because they had been fraternizing with the Wismut miners and the authorities were still trying to contain knowledge of the mine’s existence. At the mine we see that the peace between the Russians and the Germans is still on tenuous ground. The Russians are in charge, and are still smarting from what the German army did to their country during WWII. The Germans are trying to prove their loyalty to the communist way of life, although some are obviously not on board.

In many respects, Sun Seekers resembles the Rubble Films of the late-forties. Lotte is a burned-out husk of a woman,, who has come to distrust all men, and is incapable of smiling. Likewise, the one-armed Beier, who had been a German soldier on the Russian Front is filled with remorse and self-loathing for what he had seen and done. Together, these two wounded birds eventually find, if not happiness, then at least some small comfort together. As the emotionally crippled Lutz, Ulrike Germer effectively conveys the frailty masked by frigidity and the artless sensuality of the character. Likewise, Günther Simon, best known for his portrayal of the German Communist Party leader Ernst Thälmann, is better used here as Beier, the one-armed German with a secret past, who wants to find whatever happiness might be left in Lutz’s soul.

Unfortunately for this film, it was made at exactly the wrong time. In August of 1957, the United States announced a two-year suspension on nuclear testing (although they would renege on this plan exactly one year later), and in September of the same year, a huge explosion at the Mayak nuclear facility in Russia released tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere (although this was carefully hushed up by the authorities at the time). After years of fear-mongering and forcing children hide under their school desks, people—in both the east and the west—were growing weary of atomic fear-mongering. The Soviets wanted to show that they too were worried about the potential dangers of atomic weapons and were willing to slow down the arms race. The idea of a film that championed the Soviet efforts to mine the vast uranium deposits in the Schlema Valley was deemed too provocative to release at that time, and the movie was shelved until 1972. Of course, a old black-and-white propaganda movie on the importance of uranium mining to the communist way of life went over rather badly in 1972 and the film did not do well at the box office.

Director Konrad Wolf was as close to royalty was one could get in a communist country. His father, Friedrich Wolf, was a well-respected doctor, playwright, and communist provocateur. In 1932, Friedrich Wolf founded the Southwest Theater Troop (Spieltrupp Südwest) in Stuttgart, and began writing plays that championed the communist cause. Two of his plays, Professor Mamlock and Cyankali, were made twice into films. During WWII, Friedrich Wolf also worked as a doctor in Spain and was briefly interred in a concentration camp in France before being allowed to emigrate to Russia. Konrad’s brother, Markus, was the head of the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA), East Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, and is now considered one of the greatest spymasters that ever lived. It is widely believed that the character of Karla in John Le Carré’s Karla Trilogy is based on Markus Wolf, although Le Carré always denied this (a closer match is the character of Fiedler in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). Konrad Wolf himself fought with the Soviet Army during World War II, and his story was made into the movie, I Was Nineteen in 1968, which he also directed.

As a director, Wolf had a powerful, if sometimes melodramatic, style. Shots in his films are carefully framed, and he isn’t afraid of using unusual angles and novelty wipes when the scene calls for it. For most of his early career, Wolf seemed content to tow the party line. His early films are didactic and very pro-communist. Later in his career, he began to push the envelope with films like Goya, The Naked Man on the Athletic Field, and Solo Sunny.

Erwin Geschonneck shines here as the ex-circus strongman turned ardent Bolshevik, Jupp König. Geschonneck would later go on to become the most popular actor in East Germany, but in the fifties, two of his most important roles—that of Jupp König in this film and Teetjen the butcher in The Axe of Wandsbek—were suppressed, postponing his fame (see Carbide and Sorrel).

Manja Behrens as Emmi also deserves special mention here. She, along with Geschonneck, give this movie its vitality. Behrens started her career in Dresden prior to WWII. During the war, she made two films for the Third Reich before running afoul of Joseph Goebbels. After the war, she moved from Dresden to Berlin to continue her career in theater. There she began working in films and quickly became a popular character actress. In the 1960s, British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper uncovered the fact that Behrens had been the mistress of Martin Bormann during the war. Upon this revelation, she was blacklisted, appearing only occasionally on television in small roles after that. Throughout her life, she continued to appear on stage both before and after the reunification of Germany. Ms. Behrens died in Berlin in 2003.

Today, the Schlema Valley is home to the rebuilt Bad Schlema health spa. You can go there once again to soak in the radon springs. Parts of the mine are left intact as part of the Saxon-Thuringian Uranium Mining Museum, but the muddy landscape of the fifties is gone.

IMDB page for film
Bad Schlema website

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