Archive for the ‘Berlin’ Category

A Berlin Romance

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

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

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

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

Annekathrin Bürger

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

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

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

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

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

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Schaut auf diese Stadt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scene from Look at This City!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The last episode of Der Schwarze Kanal.

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

In the mid-seventies, Wolfgang Kohlhaase—arguably the GDR’s best screenwriter—became friends with a talented young film reviewer named Jutta Voigt. Ms. Voigt met Kohlhaase at “Die Möwe” (The Seagull)—a popular Künstlerklub (art club), where film people and other artists met—and introduced him to an exotic social misfit named Sanije Torka. Torka was the daughter of Crimean Tatars working in Germany in 1944 (Ostarbeiters). At that time, the Third Reich did not allow Ostarbeiters to have children and Sanije was put up for adoption. Her jet-black hair and dark eyes automatically made her an outsider in Germany. She was a wild and headstrong little girl, and she bounced from foster home to orphanage to juvenile detention, raising Cain at every turn. She occasionally worked as an actress, appearing in bit parts in films. She also worked as a singer, although, by all accounts, she was a better actress than singer. Her headstrong ways often put her at odds with the rest of the world. Kohlhaase became fascinated with Torka, who seemed to defy the very nature of a socialist government, barely scraping by, doing things that were tolerated but not officially sanctioned. He listened carefully to her stories of growing up as an orphan in East Germany and turned her tale into the screenplay for Solo Sunny.

Solo Sunny is the story of Ingrid Sommer, nicknamed “Sunny.” Sunny is a modestly talented singer who tours Germany as part of a low-rent variety show. She is a free spirit, who is not afraid to call it like she sees it, and who sleeps with whomever she wants. When we first meet her, she is the lead singer for “The Tornados,” a jazz-pop band. The band’s saxophone player has the hots for Sunny, no doubt spurred on by her carefree attitude toward sex with strangers; but Sunny has no interest in him which leads, indirectly, to an altercation between the sax player and a bar patron. While his lip heals, the sax player is temporarily replaced by Ralph, a cynical philosopher with a penchant for western culture (which is sometimes code in DEFA films for an amoral person). Sunny falls for Ralph, which proves to be a bad idea, sending her into a self-destructive, downward spiral. After a feeble attempt to tow the line, Sunny comes to the realization that she is who she is, and that’s not going to change.

Around the same time as Kohlhaase was finishing his screenplay, Konrad Wolf was fishing around for a new film project. Deputy Minister of Culture Klaus Höpcke had expressed a desire for more stories that reflected everyday life in the GDR. Höpcke was one of the people responsible for the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, a move that resulted in a substantial talent drain from the ranks of DEFA. Now, in typical GDR fashion, he wanted to show that this move had nothing to do with repression. As long as a story didn’t directly challenge the state, nothing, they claimed, was off limits. When Kohlaase came along with his story of the untameable Sunny, Wolf was not sure at first if he was the man to film it. The film would be a major departure from anything he had done before and he knew it. At first he balked, but during a car ride from Potsdam to Berlin, he figured out what to do. He could not rely on techniques he used in the past. The film had to be new and it had to be different.

While some members of his film crew remained the same as in previous films—most notably, Evelyn Carow, and Alfred Hirschmeier—other old favorites were jettisoned for new blood. The most startling of all was Wolf’s decision not to use Werner Bergmann, the man who had filmed every Konrad Wolf film up to that point. Instead he chose Eberhard Geick, a newcomer at DEFA, whose only work up to that point had been a TV show and some shorts. Wolf felt that Geick—who lived in the Prenzlauer district where much of Solo Sunny was filmed—would have a better feel for the neighborhood. In another first, Wolf shared the directing credit with Kohlhaase.

While Solo Sunny is enjoyable to those who don’t speak German, it’s real treasures belong to those who do. Sunny’s speech is littered with slang and Berlinerisch. Her famous statement upon getting out of bed the morning after a romp with a stranger, “Is’ ohne Frühstück.” can be translated with some accuracy to: “I don’t do breakfast,” but her closing statement defies easy translation: “Ich würde es gern machen. Ich schlafe mit jemandem, wenn es mir Spaß macht. Ich nenne einen Eckenpinkler einen Eckenpinkler. Ich bin die, die bei den Tornados rausgeflogen ist. Ich heiße Sunny.”1 In fact, even on the U.S. DVD, the term Eckenpinkler (literally, “corner pisser”) ends up with two different translations (I went with “pig” in the footnote below, although I find it less than satisfactory).

The irrepressible Sunny was played by Renate Krößner. Krößner had been appearing in films since the mid-sixties, but it was her performance in Hener Carow’s Until Death Do Us Part (Bis daß der Tod euch scheidet) in 1979 that caught Konrad Wolf’s attention. Krößner’s unusual and expressive face was the draw for Wolf, even though Krößner had no training as a singer. Having lived in Berlin for many years, the dialect was no problem for her. In 1985, Krößner was allowed to leave East Germany with her longtime partner, Bernd Stegemann, whom she finally married in 2005. Since leaving the GDR, she has appeared in dozens of movies and television shows. She is best known in the states for playing the club owner in Daniel Levy’s Go for Zucker (Alles auf Zucker!)

One area where Konrad Wolf never showed much loyalty was in the music department. Unlike many western directors who tie themselves to specific composers (e.g., Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone), Wolf changed his composer with every film (I suspect that this is the main reason fans of the auteur theory have so much trouble pigeonholing his films). This time, the music was provided by Günther Fischer. Fischer got his start in feature films with the Gojko Mitic western Tecumseh, but it was his work on his next film, Eolomea, that really caught people’s attention. While other DEFA composers—most notably Karl-Ernst Sasse—came from the world of classical music, Fischer hailed from the jazz world. In the mid-sixties, he played saxophone and flute with the Klaus Lenz Band, forming his own band in 1968. Fischer was a prolific composer, who wrote the scores for no fewer than ten movies in 1978. Since the fall of the wall, most of his work has been in television. He currently lives in Ireland, and still performs with his band.

Nowhere in the film is Kohlhaase’s inspiration, Sanije Torka, mentioned. In the west, this would have been cause for a lawsuit, but in the east it was for Torka’s own safety. East German society was not noted for its hearty acceptance of non-conformists (unless, like the American singer, Dean Reed, they moved from right to left), and drawing attention to a born troublemaker like Torka in the GDR would have done her no favors. She might have been forgotten altogether if not for filmmaker Alexandra Czok, whose film, Solo für Sanije – Die wahre Geschichte der Solo Sunny (Solo for Sanije – The True Story of Solo Sunny), brings her story to light. The film portrays her as headstrong and individualistic as ever. At the time of filming, Torka was about start a two-year sentence for shoplifting. It is through her reminiscences in this film that we learn the full extent of Torka’s influence on the making of Solo Sunny.

The message of Solo Sunny seems to be that it is more important to stay true to yourself than the system—a message that seems to be in direct conflict with the perceived East German stance. This fact didn’t elude all the officials, but it did get past the important ones. By the time that the authorities decided that the film might actually be subversive, it was too late. It had made it to the west and was entered in the Berlinale, West Germany’s prestigious film festival. There it won the International Film Critics’ Award for best picture, and garnered a best actress honor for Renate Krößner. That same year, it won the Gold Plaque at the Chicago Film Festival. After that, there was nothing to do but let the film play. It went on to become one of the top-grossing films in East Germany; the country’s biggest box office hit since The Legend of Paul and Paula.

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1. Roughly: “I do what I want. I sleep with someone if I feel like it. I call a pig a pig. I’m the one The Tornados fired. I’m called Sunny.”

The East German film studio, DEFA, was founded in May, 1946. During the first few years in post-war Germany, it was, literally, the only game in town. While the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) in the west dragged its feet on film production (mostly at the behest of Hollywood), the east got the old UFA studios in Potsdam and the AGFA film lab in Wolfen back into production almost immediately. Somewhere in Berlin (Irgendwo in Berlin) is the third film made by DEFA, and the second example of a Trümmerfilm, literally, a “rubble film”—that group of films shot immediately after WWII in the wreckage of Berlin (for more on this see The Murderers Are Among Us).

Somewhere in Berlin is the story of a gang of children living and playing amid the rubble of post-war Berlin. Gustav is a congenial little boy who seems to have no qualms about making friends with strangers. Gustav’s father ran a garage in the neighborhood (now a bombed-out ruin). He was taken as a prisoner-of-war, and the family has had no word from him yet. Gustav’s best friend is Willi, whose parents were killed during the war. The adults in the neighborhood are in a state of numb indifference to the destruction that surrounds them. When Gustav’s father, he, like many other soldiers returning from war, is an emotional wreck.

Director Gerhard Lamprecht might be called the first child of the cinema. At the age of twelve, he was working at movie screenings (at that point, the film industry was still in its infancy and most screenings were held in meeting halls and legitimate theaters). At the age of seventeen, he sold his first script to Eiko-Film GmbH, and a few years later he began acting in films. It wasn’t long before he got behind the lens and started to direct, quickly establishing himself as a talented director. Lamprecht continued to make movies during the Third Reich, a fact that got in his way when he went to OMGUS after the war. Many ex-UFA technicians found that working under Goebbels was automatic grounds for rejection in west during the first few years after the war. This combined with the lack of film production in the western sectors made Lamprecht turn to DEFA for employment.

Lamprecht had already proven his ability to work with children with the pre-war UFA classic, Emil and the Detectives (Emil und die Detektive). The children in both films are spunky and prefer taking charge of things without much help from the adult community, and in both movies the kids are capable of rational thinking, even though sometimes their choices leave something to be desired. There is also a similarity between the evil Max Grundeis of Emil and the Detectives, and the slimy Waldemar Hunke in Somewhere in Berlin, although the latter film’s antagonist is bit more charming (but only a bit). The most spectacular scene in the film involves a boy climbing the crumbling ruins of a building that looms over the neighborhood. It certainly looks like he is climbing the building and it is breathtaking.

But Lamprecht’s heart really wasn’t in the east. He made one more feature film for DEFA (Quartett zu fünft), but as soon as it was feasible, he was back in the west where he made a few more films before retiring from the industry. he died in 1974 at the age of 76.

As with other early DEFA productions, many members of the technical crew were UFA alumni. Cinematographer Werner Krien got his start as a feature film cinematographer during the Third Reich. With Konstantin Irmen-Tschet, he had filmed the dazzling Münchhausen (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), regarded as one of the best films to come out of UFA during the war years. But Krien was more opportunist than communist. Somewhere in Berlin would be his only DEFA feature film. Editor Lena Neumann also got her start during the Third Reich, but, unlike Krien, chose to stay with DEFA, editing such classics as Kurt Maetzig’s Story of a Young Couple, Slátan Dudow’s Destinies of Women, and Konrad Wolf’s Lissy.

The music is composed by Erich Einegg and it is his only feature film. Einegg was a talented composer and is best known for his songs sung by the famous lesbian songstress of the 1920’s, Claire Waldoff (whose life was the basis of the East German TV-movie Claire Berolina). Einegg’s music here, however, is strident, march tempo music, similar to that used in U.S. films about the glories of the heroic F.B.I. Later, other composers such as Karl-Ernst Sasse, and Hanns Eisler would handle soundtrack composition with more subtlety.

Worthy of special mention here is Paul Bildt, who played Herr Birke. Bildt had already made a name for himself  as a popular character actor during UFA’s early years. He also  was Gerhard Lamprecht’s acting teacher when the director was trying to break into movies. Bildt continued to work throughout the Third Reich, appearing in Veit Harlan’s Opfergang, and the extravagant Kolberg. At the end of the war he and his daughter attempted to commit suicide when the Russian Army invaded the town where they were staying (an all too common reaction; stories of the Red Army’s brutalities preceded them). Bildt’s daughter died, but he was nursed back to health and continued his acting career in the east. He appeared in several East German films, including Razzia, The Beaver Coat, and Heart of Stone. Most notably, he played the evil Chairman Mauch in Kurt Maetzig’s classic, The Council of the Gods.

Also worth mentioning is Charles Brauer, who played Gustav. After making one more Trümmerfilm for DEFA (Und wieder 48), Brauer moved to West Germany where he has continued his acting career to this day. Today, he is best known for his role as Hauptkommissar Peter Brockmöller on the popular German-TV crime show, Tatort, playing opposite former East German film star, Manfred Krug.

In spite the inherent grimness of Somewhere in Berlin, the film’s tone is positive, suggesting that the future of Germany is in the hands of the children, and that it will survive. It is interesting to compare the Trümmerfilme of DEFA with Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini’s attempt at the genre, Berlin Year Zero. In spite of the grimness of the situation, the urban destruction, and the national disgrace the people of Germany must have felt, both Somewhere in Berlin and Murders are Among Us end on positive notes. Rossellini’s film, on the other hand, remains relentlessly downbeat. Rossellini sees no future for Germany. His ending—remarkably similar in some respects to the Lamprecht film—leaves us without hope. Fortunately for all of us, Rossellini was wrong.

 

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Whether it’s Spielberg exploring the social dynamics of suburban children in E.T., or Paul Verhoeven recreating the horrors of war in Starship Troopers, a director inevitably brings some of his or her own past to a picture. Every so often, a filmmaker makes a movie that is completely personal. These run the gamut, from George Huang’s film à clef, Swimming with Sharks—about his time working as an intern for Joel Silver—to Oliver Stone’s Platoon, in which Charlie Sheen stands in for Stone as a young soldier in Vietnam, to Cameron Crowe’s recreation of his early years as a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine in Almost Famous. One of the best of these comes from East Germany. It is Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen (Ich war neunzehn), which is based on his diaries from World War II.

Born near Stuttgart in 1925, Konrad Wolf’s father, Friedrich Wolf, was a well-known doctor, writer, and playwright. He was a champion of workers’ rights, and founded the Spieltrupp Südwest—a theater troupe that specialized in agitprop plays. He was a member of the Communist Party, and of Jewish descent, so naturally, when the Nazis came to power, the Wolf family had to leave the country to survive. They eventually settled in Russia when Konrad was eight. There, young Konrad came into contact with the film community when his father started working with Soviet filmmakers. The boy became fascinated with the medium and set himself to learning all aspects of film production. At the age of seventeen, he joined the Red Army and soon found himself fighting for Mother Russia against his Fatherland. He was nineteen when the Russians broke through the German line. Suddenly Konrad found himself in the odd position of a German acting as the Russian liaison in Germany.

Using Wolf’s diaries, Wolfgang Kohlhaase wrote the screenplay. Kohlhaase is best known for his Berlin-based stories of modern youths, but his ear for dialog, and the regional differences in Germany, made him a good choice for the job. He knows how people speak, and, more importantly, he knows how people keep silent. Kohlhaase’s script does a good job of framing the strange, almost inenarrable emotions Wolf must have felt arriving as he did as a stranger in his homeland; ashamed of his heritage, but unable to escape it.

The film begins in mid-April, 1945; shortly before the Russians reach the Oder river in their push toward Berlin. The war is virtually over, but nobody has bothered to tell Hitler, who is holed up in the Führerbunker beneath the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Gregor Hecker is a young lieutenant in the Russian army, and has been assigned to travel with the troops in an old VAZ circus truck equipped with a P.A. and a record player. It’s Gregor’s job to act as translator and to broadcast surrender requests to the German soldiers still fighting along the front. In a kind of Red Army road movie, he travels across the German countryside, meeting every type of person, learning new things, and examining what it means to be German as he goes. With him on his travels are Wadim, a Russian teacher-turned-soldier who is a student of all things German; the music-loving Sascha, Hecker’s easy-going superior; and a taciturn Mongolian named Dshingis, who drives the truck. At Bernau, Hecker is made commandant, and has to deal directly for the first time with other Germans. Until now, his oft-broadcast statement that he is a German has no deeper meaning to him. It is simply a statement of fact. As he meets other Germans, his heritage becomes as much a source of shame as an asset. At a May Day feast held by the Russians for a group of freed concentration camp prisoners, Wadim asks one of these men how he is supposed to explain how the Nazis came to power to his students when he gets back to Kiev. “Goethe and Auschwitz. Two German names. Two German names in every language.” But this is an East German film and the answer—that it was the manipulation by industrialists and corporations—seems facile. At the end of the film neither Gregor nor we are any closer to understanding the mindset of the Nazis, but when he again says he is a German, it now means something.

Criticism has been leveled at the film for its soft-pedaling of the touchy subject of the thousands—perhaps millions—of rapes committed by Russian soldiers at the end of the war. With the atrocities committed against their families by the German soldiers still fresh in their minds, the Soviets wanted the German civilians—who not only seemed oblivious to what the German army did in Russia, but actively denied that it happened at all—to experience the same pain. Women and children were repeatedly raped, men were beaten and killed, homes were trashed, and belongings were stolen as the Red Army cut a swath of destruction and terror through eastern Germany that made Sherman’s March to the Sea look like an afternoon stroll. [Note: For a more thorough treatment of the subject, see Max Färberböck’s A Woman in Berlin (Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin), starring Nina Hoss.]

Wolf was no dummy, though. He recognized that only way he would get this movie made was if he avoided talking too candidly about this subject. Two years earlier, the government had scrapped a years worth of movies because they didn’t like what they said, so Wolf treads carefully through this minefield. When a young German woman (Jenny Gröllmann) seeks asylum with Gregor, we understand that it’s because she feels safer with him, a German, than with the Russian invaders. And when he is shipped out, we see the fear in her eyes as he leaves. This was as close as Wolf could get to tackling the subject in a film that was made with a great deal of help from the USSR—and on the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution to boot. One should never underestimate an East German audience’s ability to read between the lines. You can bet they understood what he was tip-toeing around.

Wolf often shifts his visual style to match whatever story he is telling. It is one of the reasons that, although he considered by many to be the best director to come out of East Germany, he is rarely discussed in auteur terms. In I Was Nineteen, he moves away from the dazzling camerawork that punctuated Divided Heaven to a more natural style. Still, there are many scenes that betray a skilled and controlling hand behind the camera. In the opening moments of the film, while Gregor speaks via loudspeaker to the Germans along the Oder, we see a raft drift by. On it, a gallows is constructed, and on the gallows a hangs a man with a sign around his neck that reads: “Deserter! I am a Russian lackey” (“DESERTEUR Ich bin ein russen knecht,” the last part liberally translated in the First Run Features edition of the film as “I licked Russian boots.”). In another scene, as Gregor’s truck pulls away from Bernau, the camera keeps its lens trained on Jenny Gröllmann’s character until she disappears when the truck turns, reappearing a moment later, further away now, and eventually fading into the mist.

When the troops reach Sachsenhausen, the film suddenly includes scenes from an actual documentary in which a former guard at the death camp explains how the poison gas was administered. This footage is interspersed with scenes of Hecker taking a shower. The juxtaposition is simultaneously jarring and logical; the gas chamber showers and the real shower. The impression is that Hecker is trying to wash away what he has seen, perhaps even his own German identity. In the next scene, we see Gregor and his pals interviewing a German intellectual who brings Hecker back to his German roots with one sentence. Here the film seems to mimic the documentary footage’s look. We know we are watching a dramatic recreation of events, but the effect is disorienting.

To play the lead, Wolf chose Jaecki Schwarz, a young actor fresh out of drama school. It was an inspired choice. Thrust so suddenly into a starring role, the young Mr. Schwarz could easily identify with the confused state of Gregor when he is handed responsibility for an entire town.
after I was Nineteen, Schwarz went on to appear in several more films. He has continued working since the Wende, primarily in television, playing Hauptkommissar Herbert Schmücke on the popular crime show, Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110), and the comic relief character Sputnik in Ein starkes Team (A Strong Team). He is an ardent supporter of gay rights, and is a member of the board of trustees for the German branch of Queer Nation.

The technical crew for this movie reads like a DEFA dream team. Besides scriptwriter Kohlhaase, Werner Bergmann, Konrad Wolf’s longtime collaborator, handled the cinematography. Bergmann had worked as a war correspondent and cameraman for the German war effort on various fronts. During the war, he lost an arm, but didn’t let this stop him from pursuing a career as a cinematographer. He made fourteen films with Wolf, and received several awards for his work. The editing was by Evelyn Carow, who would eventually become the best-known editor in East Germany, cutting such classics as The Legend of Paul and Paula, Solo Sunny, and Coming Out. This was the first film she did with Wolf, but it wouldn’t be the last.

The production design was by Alfred Hirschmeier whose importance to the development of art direction and production design in East Germany is impossible to over-estimate. Hirschmeier’s work was flawless and rarely repetitious. He was the inventor of the optisches Drehbuch (visual screenplay), a type of storyboard in script form that he used to create a film’s look and settings. A list of the films he worked on includes some of the best films to come out of the GDR, including, Five Cartridges, The Silent Star, Naked Among Wolves, Divided Heaven, Jakob the Liar, and Solo Sunny.

In 1977, Wolf would return to the subject of World War II one more time. In the film Mama, I’m Alive. Here, Wolf follows the exploits of four German P.O.W.s who decide to join the Red Army and fight against Hitler’s war machine. He assembled essentially the same technical crew as I was Nineteen (Kohlhaase, Bergmann, Carow, and Hirschmeier). It would be his last film about the war. Wolf would only make one more feature film (Solo Sunny, 1980). In 1982, he died while working on a documentary about Ernst Busch, the communist singer-songwriter.

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On the night of November 9, 1989, all hell broke loose in East Germany. Politburo member Günter Schabowski, while preparing for a press conference, was handed a memo on the new travel regulations for East German citizens. The memo stated that East Germans would now be allowed to travel abroad. What the memo did not say was that this new regulation was not suppose to take effect for twenty-four hours; giving the police enough time to implement new procedures for this. When asked when the regulation would take effect, Schabowski uttered the sentence that changed the world: “As far as I know, it’s effectively immediately.” (“Das tritt nach meiner Kenntnis… ist das sofort, unverzüglich.”), and by the end of the evening the borders of East Berlin were swarming with people trying to visit the west. The border guards frantically called every official they could find but the people who could actually make a decision seemed to be in short supply that night. According to folklore, the reason none of these officials could be found that night is because they were all at a screening of Heiner Carow’s controversial new movie, Coming Out, which just happened to be premiering the same night that the wall fell.

Coming Out is the story of a young teacher named Philipp Klarmann (Matthias Freihof) and his journey to sexual awareness. It is apparent from the moment we see him standing in front of his class that he is gay. No “gay-dar” needed. Shortly after this, he literally runs into Tanja (Dagmar Manzel), who has had a crush on him since school. The two of them hook up, and they seem happy, but all is not well. Things come to a head when Philipp stumbles into a gay bar and meets Mathias (Dirk Kummer), a handsome young man that we first saw in a grueling hospital scene at the beginning of the movie. Mathias and Philipp are soon in bed together, which makes Mathias very happy, but Philipp is still conflicted about his sexuality. After an encounter at the opera, Tanja finally catches on and leaves Philipp. Philipp tries to deny his sexuality, but all he ends up doing is losing Mathias, his one true love. He realizes his mistake too late, but finally comes to terms with who he is.

Coming Out

The sex in Coming Out is handled with candor and honesty. The film makes a point of showing the many sides of gay life in East Germany, from the old to the young, both happy and sad. The two leading men are attractive and make a believable couple. The gay bar scene is reminiscent of what the scene must have been like in the west before it became respectable. John Waters would be right at home here (although Matthias in mime facepaint with a tutu around his neck might cause him to run screaming from the place).

This was Matthias Freihof’s first starring role. Perhaps thanks to the timing, Coming Out helped propel Freihof into a very successful career in unified Germany not only as an actor, but also as a singer. He has appeared on various televisions shows and movies, and has released several albums of songs. Similarly Dagmar Manzel and Dirk Kummer both have gone on to have a successful careers since the wall fell. Like Freihof, Manzel has made a name for herself as both a singer and an actress and often appears in musical theater when she is not working on films. For Dirk Kummer, Coming Out was not only his start as an actor, but also the beginning of his career behind the camera. Although he acted in a few more movies, most of his work has been as an assistant director. Since 2003, he has worked primarily as a director of TV movies, including Charlotte und ihre Männer, and Geschlecht weiblich—for which Ulrike Krumbiegel won a best actress award at the 2003 German Television awards.

Coming Out

Early in his career, Director Heiner Carow made a name for himself as the director of the popular children’s films Sheriff Teddy and Sie nannten ihn Amigo (They Call Him Amigo). In 1971, he got in some hot water with the officials who objected to his film The Russians are Coming (Die Russen kommen—not to be confused with the similarly titled Norman Jewison film) but he made his biggest splash with the DEFA classic, The Legend of Paul and Paula. He followed that up with Until Death Do Us Part, which took a much darker look at human relationships (although, when you come right down to it, The Legend of Paul and Paula is pretty tragic in spite of its uptempo theme song).

After the Wende, Carow continued working, mainly in television, until his death in 1997 (he was 67). Sadly, the same cannot be said for his wife, Evelyn Carow, possibly the greatest film editor in East Germany. When DEFA ended, so did Ms. Carow’s career. In 1993, she edited Inge, April und Mai, one of the last DEFA films, and then stepped away from the editing bench. Not only was Germany changing, but movie editing was changing. That same year saw Avid entering the market as a publicly traded company. The days of physical film editing had come to an end.

With the fall of the wall, gays in East Germany suddenly were faced with an interesting dilemma. Being gay was still met with some antagonism and resistance on both sides of the wall, but now they found themselves part of a new minority: the Ossis; and that came with as many problems as being gay once had. In Jefferey Peck’s 1991 interview with Jürgen Lemke, the author of Gay Voices from East Germany,  Lemke said that there was greater solidarity among gays in East Germany before the Wende, and that he felt more secure as a member of a minority in the GDR than he does in the same situation in unified Germany. “I see myself, of course, more vulnerable than before,  especially when it concerns physical aggression,” said Lemke. (New German Critique, No. 52)

After all these years, Coming Out still holds up as one of the most moving and honest films on gay love. This is because Heiner Carow understood the most fundamental point: all relationships, whether gay or straight, are, first and foremost, human relationships.

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The Baldheaded Gang (Die Glatzkopfbande) is East Germany’s only biker film, and a possible precursor to the skinhead movement. Made in 1963—a full three years before Roger Corman kick-started the biker genre with The Wild Angels—the film follows the story of a gang of bikers who cause trouble at a vacation spot on the Baltic Sea. In this respect, it resembles Laslo Benedek’s classic The Wild One. Like The Wild One, it is based on an actual event; and also like The Wild One, the true story is far different than the one portrayed on screen.

The film was made shortly after the wall went up and was intended to demonstrate how the wall would protect the citizens of East Germany from West German carpetbaggers. This was a common theme in DEFA films at that time. The villain in the movie is a man called “King,” an ex-foreign legionnaire who hails from West Berlin (of course). King leads a motorcycle gang whose shoddy work at a construction site was responsible for the deaths of two people. A police lieutenant named Lothar Czernik is called onto the case. Czernik is an odd bird. He seems to have a strange three-way relationship with his pretty next door neighbor, Marianne, and his dog: an enormous German Shepherd that often steals the show. The dog hangs around with the woman during the day, and then returns home to Czernik for dinner. Rather than simply cross the yard to visit her, Czernik likes to call Marianne on the phone and stare at her through the window. He also likes to let the dog bark at her over the phone. This is one of those movie relationships that aims for cute but achieves disturbing instead.

The Baldheaded Gang gets off to a rollicking start with Helmut Nier’s percussive jazz score over artfully jagged titles, followed by a gang of motorcyclists tearing down a country road. Contrary to many descriptions of this film, the gang members are not riding mopeds, but their little bikes aren’t exactly Harleys either. At the beginning of the film, the gang members are hirsute, but later shave their heads in imitation of King’s personal hero, Yul Brynner.

At the seaside resort of Bansin on Usedom, an island in the Baltic Sea, the gang proceeds to piss off everyone in sight, kicking over children’s sand castles, interfering with various games, and generally acting like your standard biker bad boys. During an evening affair at the local rec hall, the gang’s behavior leads to a fracas that quickly gets out of hand. Later that evening, after assaulting two vacationers who have been dogging them since the beginning of the movie, the gang learns what happened at the construction site and tries to get out of the country, only to find the way blocked thanks to the valiant efforts of the GDR to protect their borders.

The film was a hit when it was released, and went on to become one of the most popular films in DEFA’s history. To the dismay of the authorities, some teens seemed to miss the cautionary point of the tale and identified with the troublemakers. As a result, the film was eventually pulled from theaters in spite of its popularity. Whether or not any young rebels were inspired by the film to shave their heads and act up is not documented, but could it be that this minor spate of GDR rebelliousness trickled through the underground, surfacing in England in the late sixties as the skinhead movement? It certainly seems plausible.

Although you can make a strong case for this film being the precursor to the entire biker genre, in style it is closer to the juvenile delinquent films of the fifties. For one thing, it is black-and-white with a bebop jazz score. It would take Roger Corman with Dave Allen and the Arrows to add electric guitars to the sounds of motorcycles. For another, the perspective is that of the authorities. Very little is done to build sympathy for the gang members. Only the spineless Piepel arouses any sympathy for he has paid the highest price of all.

As the evil “King,” Thomas Weisgerber is effectively menacing. Particularly interesting is Rolf Römer, playing Johle—one of the odder, more aggressive members of the gang. With hair, Rolf Römer resembles Cash Flagg (Ray Dennis Steckler) of Incredibly Strange Creatures fame, but without hair he looks like Michael Berryman in The Hills Have Eyes. Also worthy of note is Irene Fischer, who plays the peroxide blonde, Jackie to slatternly perfection. She would be right at home in any juvenile delinquent film from the United States.

Although the movie is based on an actual event, the true story is far different from the one portrayed on the screen. In reality, the event took place a few days before the wall was built. Seven young men were arrested for playing rock’n’roll, which was seen by the authorities as a threat to civilization (the word Unkultur gets bandied about here, but it doesn’t translate well). Five of the young men had shaved heads, but they did not know each other. After their arrest, the people at the Bansin campground marched to the police headquarters. Some were there to protest the arrest of the men, but most were there to complain about the lack of amenities. The authorities over-reacted (as authorities often do) and the men were charged with an attempted putsch—a word laden with sinister overtones thanks to Adolph Hitler. The fact that five of the men had shaved heads attracted the media’s attention and they become known as die Glatzkopfbande. The court was hard on them, sentencing them to 27 years altogether, with eight years for the main defendant. After being released from prison, some of the men did exactly what their characters in the film were trying to do: they went west.

In 1965, Richard Groschopp followed up the film with Entlassen auf Bewährung (Released on Probation), which continues with the story of Conny Schenk, a peripheral character in The Baldheaded Gang, who initially abets the gang but then later helps the police run them in. In 2001, the 45-minute documentary film about the actual incident—»Revolte« am Ostseestrand (“Revolt” at a Baltic Sea Beach) by Jürgen Ast and Inge Bennewitz—was shown on German television. In 2004, Vorpommern Theater produced Glatzkopfbande. Erinnerung an Rock ’n’ Roll (The Baldheaded Gang, a Memento of Rock’n’Roll), a theater piece based on the story.

By the time DEFA was founded, Richard Groschopp had already made a name for himself filming documentaries and training films for the Third Reich. As a cameraman, he worked with Leni Riefenstahl on her classic, Olympia. After the war, he started with DEFA by making short films. During the fifties he helped create the “Das Stacheltier” group, which specialized in producing short, humorous films that were shown along with newsreels before the main features at cinemas. Groschopp began directing feature films in the late fifties and had a big hit with the romantic comedy, Die Liebe und der Co-Pilot (Love and the Co-Pilot). But his biggest hit came in 1967 with the Indianer classic, Chingachgook, the Great Snake. This would be his last feature film. After a few TV movies, Groschopp retired in 1971 at the age of 65. He died in 1996.

Whether there are any plans to release this film in the United States, I do not know, but I certainly hope so. This film has been missing from the biker film narrative for too long.

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How a film fares at the box office is highly dependent on when it is released. A movie that will one day be recognized as a cinematic treasure might bomb miserably upon release simply because it wasn’t what people wanted to see at that time. A classic example of this is Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival). The cynical humor that had served Wilder so well just a year earlier in Sunset Boulevard was suddenly passé. It was the 1950s and people wanted to be happy and optimistic and anti-communist. There was no room in the Space Age for naysayers and curmudgeons. So it was too for Peter Kahane’s film, The Architects (Die Architekten), which had the dubious distinction of screening in May of 1990, seven months after the fall of the wall made the problems that this film addressed relics of the past.

The Architects follows the fate of Daniel Brenner, a young architect who finds that the rigidity of the East German system is not allowing him to realize his goals. Rather than designing the buildings of the future, he is stuck designing bus stops and grocery stores  in a sweatshop-like government office. Upon meeting his former college professor at a party, he is introduced to an official who can approve his building ideas. Brenner assembles a team from his former schoolmates. Some of them have become cynical and don’t think the state will allow Brenner to complete his project, while others have maintained their enthusiasm and are looking forward to working on something meaningful. It looks like he will finally have the opportunity to make the buildings he wants, but, of course, bureaucracy gets in the way. All of the more innovative aspects of the architects’ design are nixed as impractical. Brenner’s obsession with the project eventually does in his marriage when his wife files for divorce and immigrates to Switzerland with their daughter. At the center of the project, a sculpture titled “Family in Stress” (reflecting Brenner’s own problems) is rejected for not sending the right message. “Family in Socialism,” the authorities decide, is a much better idea. In the end, Brenner gets his opportunity to create new buildings, but the cost proves to be too high.

The film is based on a story by screenwriter Thomas Knauf about the experiences of his friend, Michael Kny. In the late seventies, Kny and 17 other architects were asked to design the cultural centers and restaurants for the vast new complex of plattenbauen in Marzahn. By the end of the project, most of the architects had become so disgusted with the process that they quit the field altogether. Michael Kny soldiered on, and continues to work as an architect as one half of Kny & Weber Architects in Berlin.

The story had more than a little relevance to Peter Kahane. Born in 1949—the same year that East Germany was founded—Kahane and his contemporaries spent most of the seventies working as assistants. On the rare occasions when they were afforded an opportunity to make a film, it was usually for television only. Attempts to address the authorities at DEFA and the Ministry of Culture about this situation were either ignored or repressed. This was largely due to the two men in charge of these institutions: Horst Pehnert and Hans Dieter Mäde.

Horst Pehnert was the Head of Film Division of the Ministry of Culture and Hans Dieter Mäde was the general director of DEFA. From 1978 until 1988,  they had the last word on what films got made and who made them. It became clear that neither man—but Mäde especially—had any interest in promoting young filmmakers. Year after year, film-school graduates tried to show what they could do, but opportunities rarely came. Filmmakers had to submit “debut films” for review before they could be awarded a directing contract. A bad debut film, and a filmmaker might be denied another chance for several years. At the time of the Mauerfall, some of these young filmmakers had already submitted five debut films. During Mäde’s reign, he only awarded two directing contracts to young filmmakers. One of these was to Peter Kahane.

Peter Kahane first approached DEFA with the idea for this movie in December 1988. At that time, the wall was a formidable as ever. and the East German press was scrupulously avoiding any mention of the protests that were occurring in various parts of the country. Approval was given to make The Architects in December of 1988. Nonetheless, DEFA continually postponed the start of production throughout most of the following year. Filming finally began on October 2, 1989.

By this time, things had heated up considerably in East Germany. Two months earlier, Hungary had opened its border and thousands of East Germans fled the country through this passage. In Prague and Warsaw, still more sought extradition through the West German embassies, and were eventually granted it, they boarded a train for the west which went through East German. People lined up to see the train and a few brave souls attempted to jump on. Meanwhile starting on Monday, September 4 at the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, attendees began staging peaceful protests after their prayer meetings. By October 9—two days after the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic—over 70,000 people attended the march. The following week, over 120,000 people showed up The week after that, the number increased to 320,000; and this in a city with a population of 500,000 people! Some of the officials in East Germany were still hoping against hope that the Russians would come and fix this mess, like they did in 1953, but this time the Russians weren’t having any of it. In a feeble attempt to stave off further protests, the politburo ousted Honecker (claiming it was for health reasons) and replaced him with Egon Krenz, an ineffectual apparatchik who had spent his entire career avoiding rocking the boat. But by now, the boat wasn’t just rocking: it was foundering, The East German state was leaking worse than a Louisiana levee, and on November 9, 1989, the levee broke.

Shortly before what was supposed to be a run-of-the-mill press conference, politburo member, Günter Schabowski, was handed a memo stating that East Germans would be allowed to travel abroad. The ruling was supposed to take place the following day, giving the officials time to set new procedures in place; but nobody had bothered to inform Schabowski of this. When asked when the ruling would take effect, he replied, “As far as I know, it’s effectively immediately.” (“Das tritt nach meiner Kenntnis… ist das sofort, unverzüglich.”) At first, people blinked and wondered what Schabowski was talking about, and then the realization of what he said sank in. People thronged to the border crossings requesting to visit the west, but the guards had heard nothing of Schabowski’s statement. They frantically called for instructions on what to do, but party officials were in short supply that night (I’ll talk more about this in my next post). At first, they were told to let people through, but to mark their passports so that they couldn’t come back into the country. This was rescinded a few hours later and everyone was allowed to cross freely back and forth across the border. That night was an all-night party in the west, with East Germans thronging the city buying all those things they couldn’t get in the GDR. Within hours every store in West Berlin was sold out of fruit, candy, and porn.

Meanwhile, Kahane kept filming. Like the film’s protagonist, he was single-minded in his goal, and what was happening in East Germany at the time was just background noise. On the night of Schabowski’s press conference, Kahane and his crew were filming on at the Electrical Industry building on Alexanderplatz. An American press team came up to them and asked what they would do now that they were free. “We thought the Americans had lost their marbles,” Kahane said. “The wall was an immutable certainty. Nothing was as certain as death and the Wall.”

The film received an obligatory screening in May of 1990, but the East Germans weren’t interested in reliving the recent past and the West Germans were never much interested in anything that the GDR had to offer. The film tanked at the box office and wasn’t shown again in Germany for several years (it played in the states in 1993).

But only part of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of the Zeitgeist. The Architects is a hard film to love. For one thing, its protagonist—like the main character in Your Unknown Brother—spends most of his time in a deep funk. But unlike Your Unknown Brother, there are no scenes of Kafkaesque peculiarity to break things up. Instead, Kahane uses shots of the stark plattenbauen of Marzahn for the interstitial scenes. Kahane infuses the film with very little humor, and when he does it is usually mordant. Most of the time people are either expressing their pessimism or having their hopes shot down. In this respect, the film accurately reflects the feelings of many East Germans prior to the Wende, but that doesn’t necessarily make for fun viewing.

In one of the final scenes, we see Brenner standing on the far side of the Brandenburg Gate, trying to spot his daughter on the distant platform that Wessis used to gawk and jeer at the Ossis (we’ll see this platform used for humorous effect in the 1999 comedy, Sonnenallee). Like everything else in his life, Brenner’s attempt to see his daughter is a study in futility; the platform is too far away and there are too many people on it. When this scene was shot, the border was already open and the wall was in immediate danger of being torn down. Kahane had to position the cameras carefully to avoid showing the lighting platforms that the western news media were using to broadcast events. Perhaps, had Kahane incorporated the Wende into his script, the film would have fared better at the box office. It would have, at least, added a note of optimism to an otherwise bleak story. But as a document to the frustrations that creative people faced in the GDR, it is unparalleled.

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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.

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When the noted East German director/cinematographer, Werner Bergmann, left the preview screening of Born in ‘45 (Jahrgang 45), he turned to Roland Gräf, the film’s cinematographer, and spat: “Eastern Bloc Italians!” He may have meant it as an insult, but Gräf took it as a compliment. Born in ‘45 was a conscious attempt to duplicate the feel and appearance of the Italian neorealist films, which Roberto Rosselini once famously described as “the artistic form of the truth.” Director Jürgen Böttcher, and Gräf were happy to acknowledge this debt to the Italians in this film.

Born in ‘45 is a desultory look at the life of Al, a young man who married too young, and is feeling like he’s missing something in life. His wife, Li, can feel him slipping away, but doesn’t know how to stop it. Al hangs around with his buddies, flirts with other women (successfully and unsuccessfully), works on his motorcycle, and argues with his co-workers about duties and responsibilities. As with its Italian counterparts, Born in ‘45 doesn’t bother with the rigid three act structure so beloved by Hollywood filmmakers. It has a beginning, middle and an end, but the characters come to no great revelations, nor does it feel like things will be change much after the filming stops. So ist das Leben.

The action takes place in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin. During the GDR years, Prenzlauer Berg wasn’t the hip neighborhood it is today. It was a run-down area that housed many young and working class families. The buildings were old and the district was popular with filmmakers such as Gerhard Klein and Jürgen Böttcher, who wanted to show the lives of ordinary people. The film is shot in black-and-white. Unlike film noir, which uses the same medium to show the struggle between good and evil by enhancing the contrast between light and shadows, Born in ‘45 is about all the grays that lie in-between. It is, perhaps, for this reason that the film was banned in the wake of the 11th Plenum. Unlike The Traces of Stones (Spur der Steine), or The Rabbit is Me (Das Kaninchen bin ich), it doesn’t deal with the corruption of officials, but it does show life as ultimately meaningless and more than a little depressing. For this reason, the film was deemed “indifferent and insignificant,” and was not publicly shown until after the wall came down.

Director Jürgen Böttcher began his career as a painter in Dresden. He moved to Potsdam in 1955, where he studied filmmaking, and began working on documentary shorts a couple years later. His documentary background is obvious in Born in ‘45. The film looks and feels like real life. Because of the ban on this film, Böttcher returned to documentaries and never made another dramatic film. He continued making documentaries for DEFA right up until the Wende, and then, most famously, made Die Mauer, a chronicle of the deconstruction of the wall told without narration. Die Mauer won the International Film Critics Award at the 1991 Berlinale, at which time, Böttcher announced that he would retire from filmmaking to concentrate on painting. In 2001, he created one more film, A Place in Berlin (Konzert im Freien), primarily made from existing footage that he shot of the Marx-Engels-Forum in the Mitte District. Today he works as a painter under the pseudonym “Strawalde.”

In documentary filmmaking, the relationship between the director and the cinematographer is crucial. The same is true here. Using new, lighter cameras that could be carried on a shoulder, and eschewing dramatic lighting , Roland Gräf gives the film the look and feel of a documentary. At times the line blurs. When a bus load of sightseers disembarks at Gendarmenmarkt, where a trio of characters from the movie are hanging out, the tourists seem genuinely surprised; as if they were not expecting to be in a film. Although scorned by some and banned by the authorities at the 11th Plenum, the film’s influence can be seen in many later productions. In the 1970s, Gräf moved from cinematography to directing. He continued making films after the wall fell, although much more sporadically. One of the films, Der Tangospieler (The Tango Player) had started filming before the wall came down, but wasn’t finished until two years later.

The star of the film, Rolf Römer, had made a few films before Born in ‘45, but was relatively unknown. In 1966, he became a star when he co-starred with Gojko Mitic in The Sons of the Great Bear, the first East German western (Indianerfilm). He went on to co-star with Mitić in several of these so-called “Easterns,” usually playing the sole white man sympathetic to the plight of the Indians. In 1978, he wrote, directed, and starred in an episode of the popular East German police series Polizeiruf 110. The episode, Schuldig (Guilty), was seen by the authorities as an attack on them. Römer was blacklisted after that, and was not allowed to work in films in East Germany. Eventually he ended up in the west, where he worked on a few productions, but never had the fame and acceptance that he had acquired in the GDR.

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