Archive for the ‘Berlin’ Category

Berlin um die Ecke
In the mid-fifties, director Gerhard Klein and screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase made a trio of films about life in Berlin. The films were inventive, daring, and popular. Both men went on to have successful careers at DEFA, working together and separately to create films of all sorts. In 1965, the two joined forces again with the what was to be the fourth film in their Berlin series, Berlin Around the Corner (Berlin um die Ecke). In fact, it was initially slated to be called Berlin: Chapter IV. Unfortunately, this was the same year that the 11th Plenum occurred. By the time the film was finished in 1966, the 11th Plenum had started their “Kahlschlag” (literally, “clear cutting”), and the film was promptly rejected and shelved. The officials called it “dishonest,” which is an odd thing to say considering it’s one of the most honest films to ever come out of East Germany. They also called it “anti-socialist”—an even more absurd claim since the motivation of the main character is his desire to see equity achieved.

That main character is Olaf, an impetuous young fellow, who is always getting into trouble at the factory where he works. He’s usually accompanied by his buddy Horst, who is even more of a trouble maker than Olaf is. They sometimes break the rules and are not afraid to speak out against the status quo. For Olaf this is due to his sense of fairness. For Horst, on the other hand, it is mostly just rebellion for its own sake. Not surprisingly, Horst spent some time in West Germany. Though not implicitly stated, there is some suggestion that much of Horst’s bad behavior is a result of having lived in the West.

Olaf and Horst go and listen to Karin, singer at a local dance hall. Olaf had met her the night before when she borrowed his coat after jumping off a boat and swimming to the shore where he sat. When she’s not singing, Karin works in the kitchen, and in her spare time, does film and photo shoots. Olaf falls in love with her, but Karin’s in the middle of an ugly divorce and isn’t in any hurry to get into another bad relationship. From where she stands, Olaf looks like nothing but trouble.

Berlin Around the Corner

The young men’s main antagonist is Hütte, who publishes the factory’s newsletter. Hütte is an old-school communist who thinks the young people of East Germany are a bunch of privileged brats who no respect or appreciation for what people like him went through during the war. The person Olaf is closest to at the factory is Paul Krautmann, the old mechanic who has to keep the machinery running, and is always complaining that he isn’t being given the proper parts to do so. Olaf would like Paul to be an ally, but Paul’s attitude is that one must do their work as best he can and keep his head down. Things escalate after Olaf and Horst are criticized in the factory newsletter by an action of theirs that was meant to show the problem of pay inequality at the factory.

Criticizing the shortcomings of the system was always tricky, both before and years after the Plenum. Like Jadup and Boel, the criticism here is aimed at showing the weaknesses in the system in hopes of making it stronger, but the authorities had a great deal of difficulty with that concept. As far as they were concerned, the system was already perfect and any criticism was nothing less than subversion. With the banning of Berlin Around the Corner, the state created a precedent for their approach to all future attempts at constructive criticism. A precedent that set in motion the state’s eventual downfall.

Neither director Gerhard Klein nor screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase should need any introduction on this blog by now. Besides the popular Berlin films of the fifties (Alarm at the Circus, A Berlin Romance, and Berlin – Schönhauser Corner). They also gave us The Gleiwitz Case, one of the grimmest movies ever made. They probably would have gone on to make many more great films, but Klein died while filming Murder Case Zernik, which would have been Klein’s fifth film to explore life and events in Berlin. After that, Kohlhaase continued to work on screenplays for Konrad Wolf, including I Was Nineteen, The Naked Man on the Athletic Field, and Solo Sunny. Since the Wende, he has continued writing screenplays, most notably The Legend of Rita (Die Stille nach dem Schuß) for Volker Schlöndorff, and Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon) for Andreas Dresen, a film that hearkens back to his work for DEFA in its tone and subject matter.

Berlin Around the Corner

Playing Olaf is Dieter Mann in his first feature film. Square-jawed and rugged-looking, Mann keeps his character balanced between short-fused reactions and sympathetic understanding. It is a nifty portrait of a young man poised on the edge of true adulthood and Mann pulls it off nicely. Like many other East German actors, he got his start on stage. From 1964 until 2006, he was a corp member of the ensemble at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Berlin Around the Corner was Mann’s first feature film. He went on to have a long and prolific career in East Germany, primarily in supporting roles. After the Wende, Mann suffered usual snub of East German talent, but he was too good an actor to ignore for long. Having worked extensively in television already in East Germany, and used to playing smaller roles, he was soon working again. He is best known to Western audiences for his portrayal of Feldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel in Oliver Hirschbiegel and Bernd Eichinger’s Downfall (Der Untergang).

Horst is played by Kaspar Eichel, another fine actor who got his start on the stage. His first feature film was the lead in The Golden Goose. This was followed by his role in The Adventures of Werner Holt as the ill-fated Fritz Zemtzki. Throughout his career Eichel has divided his time between stage and screen. Until recently he was a regular member of the Kriminal Theater in Berlin. In 2015, he appeared in the documentary Erich Mielke – Meister der Angst (Erich Mielke – Master of Fear) portraying the much-hated head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke. He has also done a lot of dubbing for German releases, providing voices for everyone from Robert Redford to Sid Haig.

Karin is played by Monika Gabriel. It was Monika Gabriel’s second feature film. Her first, The Robe (Das Kleid), was also banned. The East German public finally got to see her in a feature film in 1967, with The Lord Of Alexanderplatz (Ein Lord am Alexanderplatz). In 1971 Gabriel married the West German actor Wolfgang Kieling, whom she met back in 1969 while working on The Seventh Year (Das siebente Jahr). At that point, Gabriel had already been married twice, first to Polish-born actor Stefan Lisewski, and then to Armin Mueller-Stahl. When Kieling returned to the West, Gabriel obtained an exit visa followed him. She appeared in several West German television productions from 1972 until 1985, but thereafter retired from screen appearances although she continued to work as a voice talent for the German dubs of foreign films. In 1992, she married director Wilfried Dotzel, but he died a year later. She never remarried again and died of cancer in 2007.

Berlin um die Ecke

Playing Paul Krautmann, Erwin Geschonneck is, as always, sensational. Every gesture and expression expertly conveys the character. Anyone interested in acting would do well to watch Geschonneck here. This actor should need no introduction here by this time, having starred in several of the East Germans films ever made, including The Axe of Wandsbek, Castles and Cottages, Carbide and Sorrel, Anton the Magician, and many more. After the Wende, Geschonneck was afforded very few opportunities to demonstrate his talent. The reunification led to a lot of great East German actors—especially the older ones—being essentially kicked to the curb, but the saddest example of this is how little the new Germany took advantage of this man’s talent. He died March 12, 2008 at the ripe old age of 101 (for more on Erwin Geschonneck, see Carbide and Sorrel).

The cranky newsletter editor Hütte is played by Hans Hardt-Hardtloff, an actor who started performing on stage when he was sixteen. Hardt-Hardtloff worked exclusively on stage, usually outside of Germany during the Hitler years. After the war, he was hired as the senior director for Mitteldeutschen Rundfunk (Central German Broadcasting, MDR) in Leipzig. In 1957, he started appearing in films and on television. Most notoriously, he was hired to duplicate the role played by Raimund Schelcher in Castles and Cottages. Schelcher had a serious drinking problem, and there was some real concern that the man wouldn’t be able to finish the movie without falling off the wagon. So Maetzig hired Hardt-Hardtloff to perform each scene a second time. That way, if Schelcher didn’t make it all the way through the shoot, the film would still be salvageable. Maetzig didn’t really plan on using the footage, it was mostly used to remind Schelcher he was replaceable and to keep him on the straight and narrow (it did). The incident was used by Andreas Dressen for the plot of his 2009 film Whiskey with Vodka (Whisky mit Wodka). Coming, as he did, so late in his career to films, he was usually called on to play supporting roles as either government officials or professors, both benign and malicious. Hardt-Hardtloff died in 1974 in Potsdam.

The film’s jazzy pop score was by Georg Katzer, a composer better known for his experimental electronic music. When not composing music for films Katzer’s work is more Morton Subotnick than Henry Mancini, but he was a talented enough composer to come up with effective film scores when called upon to do so. He composed solid scores for several films during the sixties, and then again in the last days of the DDR, but he mainly worked in the electronic music field, founding the Studio for Electroacoustic Music at the Academy of Arts in Berlin in 1982. Katzer continues to composes electronic music, but his film score composition ended with the GDR.

Like most of the films banned during the 11th Plenum, Berlin Around the Corner didn’t get an official release until after the wall came down, although it did receive a limited screening in 1987. It officially premiered in 1990 to positive reviews.

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Coded Message for the Boss
Second only to the Indianerfilme, East German spy films offer a view of the world so antipodal to Hollywood’s version that sometimes it feels like you’ve entered (or escaped from) Bizarro World. Russians and East Germans are the good guys trying to protect the world—free and otherwise—from the nuclear threat posed by West Germans and the Americans. The biggest difference is that, unlike the films from the West, the bad guys are shown to be complex, thinking people, whose reasons for championing capitalism are based on their belief in staying loyal to their countries in spite of any misgivings about the morality of government policies. The dangers of this sort of thinking are not lost on the Germans, who know better than most what happens when patriotism is left unchecked.

Coded Message for the Boss (Chiffriert an Chef – Ausfall Nr. 5) is the story of Wolf Brandin, and East German electrical engineering student recruited by the CIA to spy on the East German government. The story starts in 1959, when tensions between the East and the West are at their highest and the border between East and West Berlin is still porous and dangerous—for both sides. Brandin is chosen because of his frequent unauthorized visits to West Berlin. They think this means he prefers West Germany’s capitalism, and they plan to leverage his frequent trespasses but what the folks at the CIA don’t realize is that he’s only doing it to help his father obtain a medicinal ointment that’s not available in the GDR. After he is approached by the CIA, he goes straight to the Stasi, who convince him to play along, putting his life in danger and threatening his marriage when he’s forced to lie to his wife. This allows them to feed disinformation to the Americans, leading to the West being caught with its pants down when East Germany builds the Wall around East Berlin on August 13th in 1961.

The film is based on Günter Karau’s spy novel Go oder Doppelspiel im Untergrund (Go, or Double-Cross in the Underground). In the book, as its title suggests, the game of Go figures prominently in the story. Brandin’s CIA contact is a fan of the game, and arranges meetings at the Go club in West Berlin. Since the story takes place right before the Berlin Wall goes up, Go’s strategies of encircling and capturing opponent territories is a perfect metaphor for what was going on in Germany at the time, but director Helmut Dziuba chose to abandon the Go theme entirely, choosing instead to make the American contact agent Dr. Baum a fan of art museums and aquariums. It’s a weaker premise, but it does help boost the idea of Dr. Baum as a sort of James Bond character; a suave ivy-leaguer who enjoys the finer things in life. As already mentioned, Dr. Baum is not the kind of one-dimensional bad guy you’d find in an American spy film. He is thoughtful and clever, and is as worried about the escalating tensions between East and West as his East German counterpart.

Chiffriert an Chef

On IMDB, the title is translated as Code for the Boss: Sorty No. 5, which is not quite the title as it appears on the current English-language DVD release of the film. The second half of the title—Ausfall Nr. 5—is left out the title, which is probably just as well. “Sorty No. 5” is a perfectly acceptable translation, but the German word, Ausfall, also means failure. Since this half of the title isn’t introduced until the end of the movie, I can’t help but think that failure was part of what was meant here.

Dziuba directed the film from a script that Karau and his wife Gisela helped write. Dziuba was part of DEFA’s second generation of directors. These directors were born in the mid-thirties, so they experienced the effects of WWII, but were still too young at the end of the war to serve in the Wehrmacht. This group includes Herrmann Zschoche, Siegfried Kühn, Egon Schlegel, Lothar Warneke, Erwin Stranka, and Roland Oehme. Dziuba studied filmmaking in Russia, where he also worked for Radio Moscow, the Soviet counterpart to the U.S.’s Voice of America. As with most of the second generation DEFA directors, age and anti-Ossi attitudes prevented Dziuba from finding work once the Wall came down. His last film as a director was made for DEFA and released in 1992 (Jan and Jana). Once DEFA was dissolved, his career as a director ended. His last film credit is Die Blindgänger (The Blind Flyers), made in 2004. Dziuba died in 2012.

Brandin is played by Peter Zimmermann. A graduate of the “Ernst Busch” Academy for the Dramatic Arts. Zimmermann first appeared on screen in a secondary role in Heiner Carow’s Until Death Do Us Part. Coded Message for the Boss was his second film and his first starring role. Like most East German actors, there was some lag time between the fall of the Wall and his acceptance into television and movie production in the new Germany. During that time, he taught acting at the Academy of Film and Television in Babelsberg. More recently, he’s been seen playing Dr. Lutz Groth on the German women’s prison TV series, Block B – Unter Arrest.

Coded Message for the Boss

Coded Message for the Boss has an excellent score by Karl-Ernst Sasse. Sasse needs no introduction here, having provided excellent scores for East German films or every type (see Her Third for more information on Sasse). Unlike many soundtrack composers, who develop specific, recognizable styles, Sasse was a bit of chameleon, creating everything from minimal renaissance music (Godfather Death), to trippy psychedelia (In the Dust of the Stars). Here he creates a twangy guitar-drive theme song that suggests a more action-oriented film than Coded Message for the Boss delivers.

As a spy film, Coded Message for the Boss is low key and realistic, much like Radio Killer. Guns are drawn and shots are fired, but only for target practice when Dr. Baum is training Brandin to be a spy. It has more in common with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold than Diamonds are Forever. It is not the best of the East German spy films—that honor goes to For Eyes Only—but it is an engaging film that never relies on fantastic, state-of-the-art gadgets to resolve plot points.

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Don’t Forget, My Little Traudel
Don’t Forget My Little Traudel (Vergesst mir meine Traudel nicht1) is the story of Gertraud (“Traudel”) Gerber, A 17-year-old whose mother died in the Ravensbrück concentration camp eleven years earlier. Since then Traudel has been living as an orphan but still carries around a last letter from her mother, which ends with the sentiment that serves as the title for this movie. The story starts when Traudel escapes from the orphanage and heads for the big city—Berlin, in other words.

Up until this point, the films of Kurt Maetzig had been serious affairs, often focusing on the socialist values that spawned the DDR, but sometimes too didactic for their own good. In this film, he turns away from all that. This is not to say the principles of good socialism aren’t discussed here, but they don’t dictate the story in the same way that they have in most of Maetzig’s previous films. This time he goes for comedy, sometimes rather broadly, and even manages to throw in a parody of Marilyn Monroe’s famous skirt-lifting scene in The Seven Year Itch, when Traudel gets her fancy new shoes stuck in a ventilation grate.

Tradel skirt-lifting scene

After escaping from an orphanage in a remarkably risky-looking escape scene (filmed in one continuous shot, lest there be any doubt that the lead actress actually performed the stunt), Traudel is nearly run over by Wolfgang, a high-strung teacher on a motorcycle. She follows him to Berlin and settles in with him and his roommate, Hannes, a who also happens to be a policeman. After Hannes unwittingly helps Traudel get new identity papers, he finds out who she really is, but by then is in too deep.

Traudel is a bit of train wreck. After years in the orphanage, the world offers too many temptations for the young woman who is apparently lacking a common sense gene. With nothing to hold her back, Traudel goes from one messy situation to another. Hannes does his best to try and keep her below the radar, but that’s not Traudel’s style. This is a comedy, so, of course, everything gets happily resolved in the end.

Playing the impetuous Traudel is Eva-Maria Hagen. Prior to working on this film Hagen had been acting on stage with the Berliner Ensemble. In 1954, she married the screenwriter Hans Oliva-Hagen, best known for his work on Carbide and Sorrel. Together they had one child—Catharina, better known as Nina Hagen. Eva-Maria Hagen jumped right into starring roles in her first year working for DEFA. Although Don’t Forget My Little Traudel was the first film she worked on, it was released a couple weeks after Spur in die Nacht (Trace in the Night). Hagen was an immediate hit with the public and her sexy good-looks led her to become known as the “East German Brigitte Bardot.” Although dark-haired in reality, she often appeared as a blonde in films.

Vergeßt mir meine Traudel nicht

In 1965, she met the singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann, and the two became an item. By this time, the SED (East Germany’s ruling party) was getting fed up with Biermann’s attacks on their failure to live up to Marxist ideals. After the 11th Plenum, he was denounced for criticizing the SED, and was banned from performing. Later, after the ban was lifted, he was allowed to travel and perform in the West (he was a West German by birth), but it was really a tactic to get him out of the country. After his expatriation, Hagen and her daughter applied for, and received permission to join him in the West.

As was usually the case, Hagen found it difficult at first to get a foothold in the West German film community, but was soon appearing in movies and TV shows, usually in the roles of mothers now. More recently she can be seen playing the role of the grandmother in Cate Shortland’s Lore.

Hannes is played by Horst Kube, who usually played supporting roles. His roommate Wolfgang is played by Günther Haack, who probably would have had a bigger career in East Germany had he not been sentenced to prison for drunk driving and fleeing the scene of an accident the year after this movie was released. He did manage to rebuild his career, but then died as the result of a another traffic accident in 1965 (this time, as a passenger). There are some other fun performances in this film, particularly from Fred Delmare who plays a slimy hipster that engages Traudel in what can only be described as a Judo Apache dance, and Erna Sellmer playing the nosy Frau Palotta in her last East German role. If you look fast, you’ll also spot Manfred Krug playing a hipster at the nightclub.

nightclub scene with Fred Delmare

The screenplay was by Kurt Barthel, using his usual pen name, KuBa. Best known as a poet, this wasn’t his first foray into films. He had co-written the screenplays for Familie Benthin (The Benthin Family), Hexen (Witches), and Cottages and Castles. KuBa got his start writing poetry for Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the German Communist Party’s official newspaper. KuBa’s poetry usually lauded the glories of communism, sometimes tot he point of parody. He is most well-known for his Kantate auf Stalin, a virtual love letter to Stalin (see The Story of a Young Couple). He also wrote a poem castigating the workers who protested duing the workers strikes on June 17th, 1953. Yet even he came under criticism for Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly), which he co-wrote with Christa and Gerhard Wolf—a testament to the sheer lunacy of the 11th Plenum. KuBa died during a performance of Revolution Revue in Frankfurt. Revolution Revue included his 50 Red Carnations piece. KuBa was there by invitation of the August-Bebel-Gesellschaft, a society devoted to the historical preservation of the events surrounding the Eisenacher Congress of 1869 and the development of the Social Democratic Labor Party (see The Invincibles). Things were going fine until members of the Socialist German Student Union decided to stand up and protest KuBa’s work as not being communist enough. As it was phrased in a scathing attack on KuBa in Der Spiegel the following week: “…That of all people the West Germans didn’t find the revolutionary red’s lyrics red enough was too much for KuBa restless struggling heart.” He died on the way to the hospital.

Don’t Forget My Little Traudel was a huge hit with the public. As to be expected, there was some criticism for the authorities, in particular Anton Ackermann, who was the head of the film administration for the Ministry of Culture at the time. Ackermann objected to the Catholic boarding school and the fact that Traudel wore a cross. Maetzig easily countered these objections by pointing out that, in fact, neither of these was in the film. It’s probable that Ackermann didn’t even bother to watch the movie, and got his information from the original working script. In defense of Ackermann, the only reason he was put in charge of the film board was because Walter Ulbricht saw him as a potential political threat in nearly any other position.

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1. This first word in this film’s title is usually rendered as “Vergeßt.” with the eszett (that funny ‘B’-looking thing). However, the title card for the movie spells it “Vergesst,” so I am using that.

Treffpunkt Aimée
In the mid-fifties, things were getting awfully messy in Berlin. With a border that porous, and two politico-economic structures so out of sync with each other, it was inevitable that all sorts of shenanigans would occur, usually to the detriment of East Germany. Goods purchased in East Germany, where the state was subsidizing some of the cost of manufacturing, could be sold for a lot more money in West Germany, where demand for certain production materials was skyrocketing, thanks to the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle). Rendezvous Aimée (Treffpunkt Aimée) is based on an actual case involving one such scheme—the smuggling of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from East Germany for use in West German manufacturing. Yes, you heard me right: Rendezvous Aimée is a movie about smuggling plastic.

The film gets its title from the name of a secret backroom in a West Berlin nightclub that one can only enter with a special pass. It is here that a mysterious underworld figure known only as the “Wasp” meets with his cohorts to coordinate his smuggling operations. The PVC is being smuggled out in the form of powder labeled as gypsum plaster (plaster of Paris), a product with no import/export restrictions.1

While not a film noir in the strictest sense, it is a crime drama, and it does use the trope of two women that represent good and evil. In film noir, the evil woman is normally a femme fatale, luring the unsuspecting hero (or anti-hero) to his fate. In this film, that woman is Erika, a member of the smuggling team who is working for the company that is smuggling the PVC out of East Germany, and she is no femme fatale, nor does she try to be. The good woman is Ursula, who works at the Hauptverwaltung Chemie, the GDR’s oversight committee for all things related to the chemical industries. The film touches upon many of the hot button topics of the era, including the effects of West Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder and the lack of cooperation East Germany was receiving in halting illegal smuggling. It even dares to bring up the Republikflucht (the flight of East Germans to West Germany), which by the time this film was made was becoming a real problem for the GDR.

Treffpunkt Aimee

The film features a twist, which I won’t divulge here, but it seems to have been designed to be more of a surprise to West Germans than to East Germans. There are some fun digs at capitalism and Americanism here. Western brands figure prominently a signals for evil intent, and the secret pass required to get into the Rendezvous Aimée prominently features an ad for Coca-Cola.

The film is directed by Horst Reinecke, who, up until this film, had worked as a dramaturge at DEFA, a job normally associated with legitimate theater, but common at DEFA. Reinecke only made one more film for DEFA (Reifender Sommer) in a shoot that proved especially difficult to complete. After that, Reinecke returned to working behind the scenes at DEFA. His eldest son, Hans-Peter Reinicke, went on to have a very successful film career, as did his two daughters, Renate (under the name Renate von Wangenheim) and Ruth.

Günther Simon plays Commissioner Wendt, the hero of the story. Fresh of his stint as Ernst Thälmann, Simon was guaranteed to be the hero here. It would be a while before Simon would be allowed to play anyone less than heroic. He almost lost the lead role in My Wife Wants to Sing for no better reason than the authorities thought casting Simon in a frivolous role would dilute his impact as the legendary “Teddy” Thälmann. While Simon would eventually go on to play less than heroic characters, he never did play a completely evil one.

good and evil

The good Ursula and the bad Erika are played by Renate Küster and Gisela May respectively. Both actresses went on to have successful film careers, although, in a touch of irony, it was the good Ursula, Renate Küster, who joined the Republikflucht and took up residence in the West. Küster had appeared in a couple films before this one, but Rendezvous Aimée was her first starring role. Within a couple years she was working exclusively in the West, appearing in such films as The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, and several TV movies. After 1993, she stopped appearing in movies and television shows and worked primarily as a voice talent. She has dubbed the German dialog for many actresses, including Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Raquel Welch, and Anne Bancroft. She retired in 2002.

Meanwhile, Gisela May continued working in the East, and became well known not just as an actress, but as a singer as well. After the Wende, May experienced the same drop in employment that other East German actors experienced, but soon became well know playing Rosa (“Muddi”) on Adelheid und ihre Mörder. Eventually re-establishing her career as a singer in unified Germany.

The film was well received, even in the West, where even Filmdienst—the Catholic church’s film review magazine in West Germany—had to admit it was a pretty exciting film. Fans of film noir and old crime films in general will want to check this one out.

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There is a certain irony here—no doubt intentional. Gypsum is such a prevalent mineral in the world that there have been no wars fought over it, which is why importing gypsum plaster back and forth across the Berlin border wouldn’t have been such a big deal. There is a saying in German: “Erzähl mir nichts vom Gipskrieg” (“Don’t talk to me about a gypsum war.”). It’s used when a person wants to tell another to stop fretting over something that’s not going to happen.

Alarm im Zirkur
In 1954, a young director named Gerhard Klein teamed up with an even younger screenwriter named Wolfgang Kohlhaase, and the world of East German cinema would never be the same. The duo would go on do several films together over the years, but Alarm at the Circus (Alarm im Zirkus) was their first. At a time when most DEFA films were concentrating on putting forth a strong pro-socialist message, sometimes to the detriment of the story, Klein and Kohlhaase’s film puts the story first. That’s not to say the film is apolitical. It makes a point of showing how a capitalist system’s lack of career opportunities for the underprivileged can lead to crime, but that message never interferes with the action, and helps provide motivation for some of the film’s shadier characters.

The film follows the adventures of Max and Klaus, two poor kids in West Berlin who dream of becoming boxers. To get money to buy boxing gloves, the boys sell things they find, and do odd jobs for Klott, a bar owner in West Berlin who uses the bar as his base of operations for illegal activities. After a trip to the Barlay Circus in East Berlin, the boys stumble on a plot concocted by Klott and a U.S. soldier to steal horses from the Circus. When one of the boys tries to warn the West German police about the plot, they essentially tell him to get lost, so he goes to the Volkspolizei (literally “people’s police”—East Germany’s police force) who spring into action.

This wasn’t the first film from DEFA to examine the criminal underworld in Berlin. That honor belongs to Razzia. But Razzia was made by a West German director (Werner Klingler) who was only working for DEFA because the the U.S. military authority (OMGUS) was still restricting West German film production. In nearly every respect, Razzia is indistinguishable from the dozens of other “Krimi” films that Klingler would go on to make in the West. Alarm at the Circus, on the other hand, is East German right down to its roots. Kohlhaase and Klein were East Germans and proud of it. The heavies in this film are West Germans the and American soldiers who are orchestrating the crime.

Alarm at the Circus

Alarm at the Circus offered the realism that DEFA films demanded, but without the heroics normally associated with socialist realism. It is closer in style to Italian neo-realism, a fact that bothered the authorities at that time and would continue to bother them right up until the 1965, when the 11th Plenum put an end to that particular style of filmmaking at DEFA (truth be told, however, that style had already run its course in Italy years before). The fact that it is based on an actual event probably helped it get made.

Alarm at the Circus was the first of a trio of films—along with A Berlin Romance and Berlin Schönhauser Corner—that is usually referred to as the Berlin trilogy. In truth, it is part of a continuum. Klein and Kohlhaase’s later film, Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin Around the Corner), certainly fits in with the first three films the pair made, and would have made it a tetralogy had it not been banned after the 11th Plenum. Since Klein died in 1970 (see A Berlin Romance for more on Klein), we never got a chance to see more Berlin films by the duo, but Kohlhaase continued his explorations of the lives of the less privileged in Berlin with other directors, including Konrad Wolf (Solo Sunny) and Andreas Dresen (Summer in BerlinSommer vorm Balkon).

Wolfgang Kohlhaase was only twenty-two when he started writing scripts for DEFA. He wrote a few for the “Das Stacheltier” group that made short films to accompany the features, and a script for the children’s film Die Störenfriede (The Troublemakers). The following year, he joined forces with Gerhard Klein. Klein was a born and bred Berliner and was looking to make a film that reflected the reality of life in the city. He wanted to capture the rhythms and cadences of Berlin speech and actions. He found the perfect partner in Kohlhasse. Kohlhasse’s ear for Berlinerisch—that peculiar style of German used in Berlin—is especially acute, and he used it often (to best effect in Solo Sunny). Kohlhasse continues to write screenplays, most recently for Andreas Dresen’s As We Were Dreaming (Als wir träumten), based on Clemens Meyer’s controversial novel.

Max and Klaus

The actors who played Max and Klaus, were not picked from the usual acting roster, but chosen from a home for troubled youths. Klein gets remarkably good performances out of these novice actors. For Hans Winter, who played Klaus, this would be his only film, but Ernst-Georg Schwill, who played Max, decided that he liked working in the movies, and began training as a cameraman, later returning to acting and appearing in all three of Klein’s Berlin trilogy films, as well as roles in Five Cartridges, Close to the Wind, Motoring Tales, and many others. After the Wende, he experienced less neglect than some other East German actors. Film and television companies were always looking for people to play supporting roles, and Schwill was quick to admit that he was character actor, not a star. It wasn’t long before he was busy acting again, appearing on TV and in films regularly, most recently in Andreas Schap’s Das letzte Abteil (The Last Department).

The Barlay Circus (Zirkus Barlay) was a real circus, located at Friedrichstraße 107, the current site of the Friedrichstadt Palast. The circus was founded in 1935, when Reinhold Kwasnik, who used the stage name Harry Barlay, bought a bankrupt circus and made it his own. When Kwasnik fled to West Germany, the circus was taken over by the state. After a couple name changes, it was eventually consolidated with other East German circuses as the Staatszirkus der DDR (State Circus of the GDR). With reunification of Germany, the State Circus was broken up, and the circus that was once the Barlay Circus ended life the same way it began: with bankruptcy.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film (German, no subtitles).

Black Velvet

Black Velvet (Schwarzer Samt) is a crime film involving the manufacturer of fake passports and the attempted sabotage of a state-of-the-art loading crane at the Leipzig Trade Fair. The “Black Velvet” in the title refers to a vial of acid intended for us in the sabotage. The reason for this strange code name becomes clear in the final scene of the film. This is one of the more unusual films to come out of East Germany. It is a spoof without ever being overtly comical, a send up of the Stasi by a director who is usually viewed (incorrectly, as we shall see) as a “safe” director who never rocked the boat and made films that the dramaturges and SED officials were pleased with.

Black Velvet stars Fred Delmare, an actor who will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has seen more than three DEFA films. With his short stature and a face that resembled George W. Bush, he was nearly always cast in secondary roles as weaklings, villains, or both. Sometimes his appearances were easy to miss—he’s the taxi driver in Oh How Joyfully, and a hospital attendant in Wie die Altern sungen—but with well over 150 appearances in East German films alone, it is hard to see many DEFA movies without encountering him at some point. This is not to say all of his appearances were bit parts. In Naked Among Wolves, he plays the camp inmate Pippig, and, most famously, in The Legend of Paul and Paula, he was “Reifen-Saft,” the tire dealer in love with Paula.

Born Werner Vorndran in Leipzig, Mr. Delmare began working in local theater as a teenager, but World War II got in the way. He joined the German Navy, where an injury sent him to the hospital for the remainder of the war. After the war, he studied acting in Leipzig, then moved to West Berlin to perform at the Hebbel Theater, one of the few theaters in Berlin that survived the bombings. When pressure from the American authorities led to shift away from works by the Brecht and other German playwrights to plays from America, Mr. Delmare joined the Leipzig Theater, where he continued to perform until 1970.

Schwarzer Samt

After the Wende, Mr. Delmare saw his greatest success as the Grandpa Steinbach in the popular TV series, In aller Freundschaft—a show that consistently provided work for many East German actors. It was during this period that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and retired from acting. He died in 2009, and it is a testament to his popularity that virutally every major German newspaper ran an obituary for him.

Casting Mr. Delmare as the lead in Black Velvet was an interesting choice. At 5’ 3” (1.6 m), he makes Michael J. Fox and Daniel Radcliffe look tall. He spends much of the movie looking up at everyone, women included. To add to the topsy-turvy nature of the fim, one of the villains of the film is played by Gunther Simon, a man nearly always chosen to play the hero, and the man who played East Germany’s greatest hero, communist pioneer Ernst Thälmann. Partly, this odd casting is intended as a jab at the James Bond films, but the end effect is an effective jab at the Stasi as well. While sometimes East German directors were left to the mercy of DEFA when it came to casting, the choices here seem too cleverly made to be the luck of the draw. In this case, the director must have had the final say.

At first glance, Mr. Thiel seems like an unlikely candidate for intentional subversiveness. In the East German film studies community, his name doesn’t come up very often. Look at his films once and they seem to be promotional films for the GDR. One of them, in fact—Hart am Wind (Close to the Wind)—was made with the cooperation of the Volksmarine and was intended to spur enlistment in the army. But look at his films more closely and you’ll see a very clever director who may just be winking at the audience after all. In DEFA Disko 77, for example, each musical number is proceeded by a short clip of the musician being observed getting ready for his or her performance. These clips look, for all the world, like surveillance videos. Surely this is no accident, but they are so underplayed that I doubt anyone paid much attention to them at the time.

Fred Delmare

Curiously, Mr. Thiel got his start as a Nazi journalist. As an officer in Hitler’s Propagandakompanie, it was his job to write glowing reports on the Third Reich’s successful battles in Russia—a difficult task, to be sure, and one that undoubtedly honed his fine sense of the absurd. After the war, his politics moved to the left. He started working as a dramaturge in Dessau and founded the Theater der Jungen Garde (now the Thalia Theater) in Halle. In 1954, he started working at DEFA, at first as an assistant director, then as the director of “Stacheltier” shorts—the short, often satirical films shown before the main features in East Germany. In 1959, he directed his first feature film, Im Sonderauftrag (By Special Order), a cold war spy film that takes place on the Baltic. This film helped set his future at DEFA as their director of choice for spy thrillers.

If there was any doubt to Mr. Thiel’s deadpan subversion in this and his other films, he finally showed his hand in 1996, with the book, The nackte DEVA (The Naked DEVA). The title of this book is a send up of DEFA (in German, both words are pronounced the same), and the book is collection of thinly-veiled anecdotes and stories about Mr. Theil’s years at DEFA. It is illustrated by Harald Kretzschmar, an East German cartoonist who drew illustrations for the East German satire magazine Eulenspiegel. Mr. Thiel died in Potsdam in 2003.

Part of the fun of Black Velvet belongs to its jazzy score, written by Helmut Nier. Mr. Nier is the man who also gave us the equally enjoyable score for The Baldheaded Gang. Like Karl-Ernst Sasse, Reiner Bredemeyer, and some of the other composers at DEFA, Mr. Nier came from a classical background. For many years he worked as an orchestral musician in Radebeul near Dresden. His career as a film composer began in 1957 with Spur in die Nacht (Track in the Night), in which he first demonstrated his knack for writing crime film scores. During the sixties, quite by coincidence, Mr. Nier was DEFA’s composer of choice for any film that started with the adjective “black” (schwarz). Besides Black Velvet, he also scored Schwarze Panther (Black Panther), and the TV mini-series Der schwarze Reiter (The Black Rider). After the Wende, he worked free-lance as a composer and died in 2002 after a long illness.

Reviews for the film were tepid, due in part, no doubt, to the way this film never fully betrays its humorous intent. The fact that the film came out in 1964 is probably also a factor in its release. A couple years later and it would have come under the heavy scrutiny and criticism that films received after the 11th Plenum. Considering that the utterly innocuous Hands Up, Or I’ll Shoot! was banned, I have no doubt that this film would have ended up in the Giftschrank1 as well.

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1. Literally, “poison cabinet,” but also used to indicate the place where films deemed “toxic” were stored.

Street Acquaintances

Films about sexual hygiene and the dangers of promiscuity have a grand old tradition in cinema history, going back at least a century with D. W. Griffith’s 1914 film, The Escape (currently lost). Most of the feature films on the subject—at least in America—were made for the exploitation market. The subject afforded a neat way to get around the strict moral codes of the times by pretending to be intended for educational purposes. Some of these films, such as Because of Eve and Kroger Babb’s infamous Mom and Dad, contain graphic footage, while others, such as No Greater Sin and Dwain Esper’s Sex Madness, are relatively tame. Road agents would travel from town to town with these films stuck in the trunks of their cars, arranging screenings and doing double duty as a medical sex experts selling pamphlets between the films.

While Street Acquaintances1 (Straßenbekanntschaft) certainly is a commercial release, its discussions of the dangers of venereal disease in post-war Berlin are not there to titillate or for exploitation purposes. V.D. was a real problem in Germany at the time, brought on, mainly, by the combination of a sudden liberation from a repressive regime and huge influx of randy, sex-deprived soldiers from both sides. To combat the problem, the military governments regularly rounded up women for testing. Yes, it was sexist, and Street Acquaintances addresses this fact, which is unusual for a film made in 1948. At a time when American films had the “heroes” saying things like: “Don’t worry your pretty little head,” Street Acquaintances was showing just how difficult life in post-war Berlin was for women.

Street Acquaintances stands at an interesting crossroads in German film history. It is categorized as a “rubble” film because it deals with the emotional wreckage of the German psyche after the war, but unlike The Murderers Are Among Us, Somewhere in Berlin, and Germany Year Zero, it happens after the streets have been cleared and the streetcars are running again. Stylistically, it harkens back to the films of Weimar era and the Third Reich, but with touches of the dramatic realism and the themes that would become the hallmark of DEFA films.

Street Acquaintances

The story follows the misadventures of Erika, a young woman who is tired of the privation brought by the war’s end, and is ready to kick off her shoes and have some fun. In terms of plot, there is nothing new here. It’s the same basic concept used in practically every sex education film ever made: X decides to live a little; X has sex; X lives to regret it and learns a valuable lesson (or dies, as the case may be). Intertwined with Erika’s story are the stories of other women in Berlin that show just how tough it was for women after the war. As with Slatan Dudow’s Destinies of Women, and Evelyn Schmidt’s The Bicycle, the sympathies here are with the women. If their choices are sometimes bad, it’s because good choices are so few and far between.

Street Acquaintances is directed by Peter Pewas—a talented filmmaker who has only recently started receiving the attention he deserves. Like Saul Bass, Mr. Pewas’ entry into filmmaking came through the graphic arts. Unlike Mr. Bass, he did not design title sequences, but did create many classic movie posters during his lifetime, and is considered an important innovator in German film poster design.

His interest in film extended beyond posters however. One of his first attempts to make a documentary about Alexanderplatz in 1934 ended badly when the film was confiscated by the Nazis and Mr. Pewas held on suspicion of treason. In 1938, he attended the Babelsberg Film Academy and started working as an assistant director under Wolfgang Liebeneiner, a director who did as much to promote the Nazi philosophy as Veit Harlan, but got a lot less grief for it. As Liebeneiner’s AD, Mr. Pewas had the dubious distinction of working on I Accuse (Ich klage an), a film that was made to promote Aktion T4—Hitler’s euthanasia program for the disabled.

Street Acquaintances

In 1944, Mr. Pewas was allowed to direct his own feature film, and he once again found himself running afoul of the Nazis. The film, Der verzauberte Tag (The Enchanted Day), was the story of a young woman not dissimilar to Erika, who wanted something more from life and was frustrated with the limitations put on women. Like the neorealists, Pewas wanted to show the lives of ordinary people in a realistic fashion. As one might imagine, Goebbels and his compadres weren’t too keen on this approach and while it was never officially banned the film was not released either.

After the war, Pewas was one of the directors in attendance at the famous Filmaktiv meeting at the Adlon Hotel on November 22, 1945. It was from this meeting that the roots of DEFA took hold, starting with Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are Among Us. Pewas had been trying to expand cinema’s vocabulary with Der verzauberte Tag, so the things discussed at this meeting must have struck a chord with him. He went on to make Wohin Johanna? (Which way Johanna?), a short documentary intended to promote the SED party. As with both Der verzauberte Tag and Street Acquaintances, the story takes a feminist perspective.

Sadly, Mr. Pewas’ affinity for the SED was not long lived. By 1950, he had moved to West Germany. This did little for his career. While his former mentor, Wolfgang Liebeneiner, thrived in West Germany’s Nazi-tolerant environment, Mr. Pewas’ leftist proclivities were less acceptable. Aside from one feature film (Viele kamen vorbeiMany Passed By), Mr. Pewas’ directorial efforts were restricted to a few short films. As it got harder and harder to find work making movies, Mr. Pewas relied primarily on revenue from designing film posters—his one skill that the Nazis also had no problems with. He died penniless in Hamburg; a fate that certainly wouldn’t have befallen him had he stayed in East Germany. Happily (although not for him), his films resurfaced recently in the form of a DVD set, which includes Der verzauberte Tag, Street Acquaintances and Wohin Johanna.

Gisela Trowe

Playing Erika is Gisela Trowe. That same year, she appeared in three more films, including a short but memorable turn as the killer’s girlfriend in The Blum Affair. Her fourth film in 1948 was a West German film, and thereafter she worked in the west. She continued her film career, often appearing in the films of her father-in-law, Erich Engel (director of The Blum Affair). One of her earliest screen appearances in West Germany includes a short but memorable turn as a prostitute in Peter Lorre’s gloomy Die Verlorene (The Lost One). Ms. Trowe died in 2010 (for more on Ms. Trowe, see The Blum Affair).

As was the case with many of the early DEFA films, much of the film crew was made up of actors and technicians who either migrated or returned to West Germany once the heavy restrictions on filmmaking imposed by the U.S. military government (OMGUS) had ended. Composer Michael Jary was already a well-known composer when he wrote the music for this film and his songs, “Davon geht die Welt nicht unter,” “La Paloma,” and “Roter Mohn” were very popular in Germany and regularly crop up in films about World War II. His song, “Wir wollen niemals auseinandergehen” was sung by Heidi Brühl as a possible entry in the 1960 Eurovision Song Contest, it did not make the cut, but has gone on to become a popular tune on with lovers of Schlagermusik. By the time he shot this film, Austrian cinematographer Georg Bruckbauer already had a long career as a cinematographer, stretching back to the Weimar days, but this was his only film for DEFA. Editor Johanna Meisel got her start as an editor during the Third Reich and worked on several films for DEFA during its early years, but she also went west in the 1950s, working on several films there before retiring from films in 1962.

As one might imagine, Street Acquaintances did well at the box office on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Sex always sells, even when the intentions aren’t prurient. This is a remarkable film and possibly the best film for showcasing the changing film styles during the early years at DEFA. It is equal parts UFA and DEFA, and should not be overlooked.

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Buy this film (part of DVD set).

NOTE: English subtitles are available from several sources, as are AVI files of the film. Some adjustment may be necessary for syncing.


1. This is a literal translation of the title as given by IMDB. The term refers to casual acquaintances. The kind of people you’d say “hi” to on the street but wouldn’t have over for dinner.