Archive for the ‘Cold War’ Category

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.

IMDB page for the film.

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Radio Killer
It’s no secret that the East Germans and the West Germans spied on each other. Like the characters in Antonio Prohías’ Spy vs. Spy cartoon strip, each side continually sought new ways to find out what the other side was up to. The listening post on the Teufelsberg in Berlin is an example of this. This U.S. facility was primarily intended as a first defense, in case radio chatter suggest some sort of mobilization with East German and Soviet troops. Talking to soldiers who worked there, the truth was far more prosaic. Most days were spent listening to discussions about what various SED officials were having for lunch. Teufelsberg was connected to other listening posts, most of which were hidden in forests in East Germany. These were small devices, easily concealed. Occasionally, they were discovered due to either equipment malfunctions or blind luck.

On both sides there was always a suspicion that some of these devices served a double duty that would become apparent in times of war. Radio Killer (Radiokiller) takes this concept and runs with it, creating an interesting and unique films that tells its story in a typically East German, low-key style. The film is a co-production of DEFA and DFF, and first appeared on television in May of 1980. As with most made-for-TV films, the budget was low, and it shows in the production.

radiokiller

The title suggests a film about a homicide—a serial killer that preys on his victims via a radio signals, à la Bela Lugosi’s Murder by Television, but, it’s nothing of the kind. The story starts when a fighter jet and a passenger plane suddenly find their communications channels jammed, and just barely avoid hitting each other. The source of the problem is traced to a signal that blocked all radio communication—the “Radio Killer” of the title. In this case, it wasn’t intentional sabotage, but a faulty circuit that caused the problem. Agents from the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (better known as the Stasi), are unable to locate the signal’s exact location, but they figure that someone from the West will come along and fix the problem. That someone is a man named Vogel, who works for the Bundesnachrichtendienst—West Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (usually abbreviated to BND). Vogel is shown developing a method to fix the delicate electronic underwater without getting them wet. The faulty circuit is located at the bottom of a lake, and the only way to fix it is for Vogel to work on it underwater, lest he be spotted. The rest of the film is a cat-and-mouse game between the Stasi and the BND.

The screenplay was written by East German author Harry Thürk, who, like Harold Robbins, specialized in writing books that were more popular with the general public than the critics. He also wrote the screenplays for the spy film, For Eyes Only and Rendezvous mit unbekannt (Rendezvous with the Unknown), an eleven-part TV series that presented actual stories from the early days of the Stasi. Clearly the man had a soft spot for MfS agents.

Fans of spy movies may find this one a little puzzling. All the intrigue occurs on a mental level, and no guns are drawn, or even appear in the film. The end goal, as far as the East German agents are concerned is to neutralize the threat of the Radio Killer without letting the West Germans know they’ve done so. For anyone raised on James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. this might seem awfully tame, but the film does a good job of keeping the tension high. It probably helps that Radio Killer is a very short film, coming in under 70 minutes.

scope1

Agent Achim Vogel is portrayed by Gojko Mitić, best known as East Germany’s number one Indian in their westerns. It is one of the few times we get to see Mitić as the bad guy (for more on Mitić, see Apaches and The Sons of the Great Bear). Schalker, the lead East German agent, is played by Erik S. Klein, an actor familiar to any fan of East German films. Klein appeared in several classic East German films, including Stars, The Second Track, and Naked Among Wolves. In the East German states, he is best remembered as the harried father in the TV mini-series Aber Vati! (But Dad!). After the Wende, offers to appear in films and TV dried up. Aside from one failed TV series, Klein didn’t show up on television again, even though you could have found him on the small screen in the GDR nearly any night of the week. Like many other actors, he turned to radio productions and to the stage (what a golden time for German theater the nineties must have been). He died in 2002.

Aside from a few films in late sixties, director Wolfgang Luderer worked almost exclusively in television, but was no stranger to the Krimi by the time he made this movie. He began his career directing episodes of Fernsehpitaval—a popular television series that featured reenactments of famous crimes. Although he hadn’t signed the protest letter against Wolf Biermann’s expatriation, and hadn’t suffered the punitive restrictions faced by the likes of Manfred Krug, Jutta Hoffmann, and Angelika Domröse, Luderer decided to leave the GDR in the early eighties. Within a couple years he was working in West German television and probably would have a long career in unified Germany as well if he hadn’t died in a car accident in 1995.

The cinematography is by Helmut Bergmann, and appears to have been shot in 16mm. Perhaps this was to save money, but it also helped match the stock footage of jet planes, and facilitate underwater filming. It also gives the film a documentary feel, which is effective here. While this film is, by no means, a classic, it is an excellent example of the topsy-turvy perspective a viewer from the west encounters when watching East German spy movies.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (Although the cover of the DVD suggests that this film is black-and-while, it is, in fact, in color).

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.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (Note: Rendezvous Aimée not available with English subtitles. It is included as part of a collection of six DEFA crime films).


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).

The Crucible

At first glance, The Crucible (Die Hexen von Salem) doesn’t appear to be an East German film at all. It is directed by a Belgian, it stars French actors, and it has a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre. Additionally, almost all of the technical crew are French. In this respect, it is reminiscent of DEFA productions of the forties and early fifties, such as Razzia and The Heart of Stone, which were, for all intents and purposes, West German films, DEFA in name only. Those films were the result of the fact that West Germany had no film industry at the time, thanks to the U.S. military government (OMGUS), doing as little as possible to encourage West German film production. They preferred, instead, for West Germans to watch Hollywood films, sometimes without even bothering to dub or subtitle them. This gave DEFA a leg up in Germany, at least until West Germany became a sovereign state in 1949 and film production was put back on track.

Even so, Hollywood had an edge in film production and distribution, not just in Germany, but in the rest of Europe as well. For one thing, many extraordinarily talented film people fled to America to escape the Nazis, and many decided to stay in Hollywood after the war was over.1 For another, most countries were too busy rebuilding their basic infrastructures to worry about things like film production. It was nearly impossible for a film company from any single European country to compete with the production capabilities of Hollywood.

To solve the problem, production companies from different countries would join forces to make movies. Those Steve Reeves sword-and-sandal films so beloved by the gay community, were Spanish-Italian co-productions, and the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood westerns were made with Italian, Spanish and West German money. Italians offer figured figured into things, thanks to Cinecittà, the movie production facilities built by Mussolini to make pro-fascist films.

Die Hexen von Salem

East Germany should have figured into more of these co-productions. They had some of the best facilities for filming in Europe—partly thanks to East Germany’s early lead in European moviemaking, and partly because they inherited Ufa’s Babelsberg studios—but the United States and West Germany were doing everything in their power to marginalize East Germany; going so far as to hire hundreds of former Nazis to help them do the job. In 1955, West Germany took the ultimate step with the Hallstein Doctrine, which threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with any country that recognized the sovereignty of East Germany (excluding, of course, the Soviet Union).

Sweden’s Pandora Film was making films with DEFA, but Pandora was actually a front for Erich Mehl’s West German production company. The French were the only NATO country to engage in co-productions with East Germany. DEFA officials saw these joint productions as a way to thumb their noses at the Hallstein Doctrine, but, as we shall see, it was all for naught.

The Crucible is adapted from the play by Arthur Miller. It is known in France as Les Sorcières de Salem, and in West Germany as Hexenjagd (Witch Hunt). Miller wrote the play in response to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and its attacks on Hollywood writers, directors and actors. Started after the war (or, more aptly, rebooted), HUAC was designed to root out threats to the American way of life. For HUAC, this didn’t mean racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, that were lynching blacks in the South, or the companies that were actively doing everything in their power to stop unionization at their sweatshops; it meant communists. If you were a communist, you had no rights in America, and supporting that ideology could lose your job. Starting in 1947, HUAC began investigating and prosecuting suspected communist spies, but pretty soon it became engulfed in wave of anti-communist hysteria that saw Russian spies hiding behind every bush. Things got really ugly when the committee decided that the biggest nest of communists was Hollywood and started throwing people in jail for believing in the first amendment.

Les Sorcières de Salem

Miller’s play examined this deeply repressive, anti-communist committee by comparing it to the witch trials in seventeenth-century Salem, where a group of hysterical schoolgirls convinced the locals that their town was full of witches. Although today the red-baiting excesses of the fifties are pinned almost entirely on Senator Joseph McCarthy, in truth it started as a team effort by republicans bent on using a committee originally intended to find actual threats, as a way to push forward their conservative agenda and make left of center ideologies virtually illegal in America. McCarthy came late to the game and was just the schmuck who was too stupid to duck when public opinion turned.

The Crucible was first performed in 1953 and is now considered a classic of American theater. The play opened to mixed reviews, some reviewers clearly felt that by writing this play, Miller was catering to the commies, but the New York Times, to its credit, gave the play a glowing review and The Crucible went on to win the Outstanding Play award at the 7th Annual Tony Awards. It is certainly no coincidence that a few years later, Miller had his own confrontation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

In 1954, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret—the Brad and Angelina of France in the fifties—appeared in the stage version of Miller’s play at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt (now Théâtre de la Ville). Talk of turning the play into a movie started almost immediately, but this time with a screenplay by the renowned existentialist writer, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre wrote his screenplay for the film after seeing Montand and Signoret perform on stage. He liked the play, but felt that Marcel Aymé’s translation—an accurate translation of Miller’s original—concentrated too much on the story of one man’s struggle against mass hysteria. Sartre, still a Marxist at this point, saw the story as a cautionary tale about the use of religion to help the rich suppress and steal from the poor. He wanted to make a political statement, but it was one that wasn’t getting much traction in the west, where the U.S. was using its might to clamp down on any pro-communist thinking, sometimes using shockingly repressive techniques to do so. So it was that the producers turned to DEFA to help get the film made.

To direct the film, the Belgian actor-director Raymond Rouleau was chosen. Rouleau studied drama at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels before moving to Paris. He started as an actor, with an auspicious debut in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent. He started directing a few years later and continued to act and direct until his death in Paris in 1981. From 1944 until 1951, he, along with Lucien Beer, headed the Théâtre de l’Œuvre, the theater that premiered Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. While there, Rouleau directed La neige était sale (Dirty Snow), mystery writer Frédéric Dard’s theatrical adaptation of the novel by Rouleau’s countryman, Georges Simenon. As a director, Rouleau was more craftsman than artist. The mise-en-scène in The Crucible is logical and composed to drive the story forward, but does little to project the inner turmoil of the characters. For that, Rouleau relies almost entirely on the skills of his actors. Fortunately, they are up to the task.

Mylène Demongeot

At the center of The Crucible is Mylène Demongeot, who plays the sexy and spiteful Abigail Williams. Historically, Abigail Williams was a fourteen-year-old, but Miller pushed her age up to seventeen to create the adulterous situation the play needed to create the sexual dynamics that interested Miller. Demongeot exudes sexuality from every pore. Although it wasn’t her first film, The Crucible put her on the map and led to several more parts, including the carefree Elsa in Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse, Fandor’s girlfriend, Hélène in the Fantômas trilogy, and the sexy British comedy, Upstairs and Downstairs, which features the tagline: “The babysitter with the French touch! M-M-M-Mylène Demongeot.” She continues to act and is an active participant in several humanitarian causes.

Besides the lead actors, most of the technicians were also French. The cinematographer was Claude Renoir, grandson to the artist and nephew to director Jean Renoir. Much of the film’s unspoken drama comes from Renoir’s moody work. He shot the film in noirish black-and-white that reflects the way the characters view the world. Renoir got his start in films as an assistant cameraman on his uncle’s films, but he is best remembered for his dazzling work on Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, and Blood and Roses.

The most dramatic story behind the making of The Crucible almost goes by unnoticed at the beginning of the film. If you watch a print of the movie intended for western audiences, you’ll see the film’s composer listed as Georges Auric, but if you watch the East German version, you’ll see the composer listed as Hanns Eisler. Yet, the music in both versions is the same, so what gives? Georges Auric was an excellent composer, responsible for the scores to Cocteau’s Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast, Dead of Night, Wages of Fear, and many others, but he did not write the music for The Crucible. The music was by Eisler, and his own story parallels the story in the film in many ways.

Montand et Signoret

Hanns Eisler was born Germany to Austrian parents. His father was a noted philosophy professor who, along with Max Adler, founded the Vienna Sociological Society. The young Hanns, along with his brother Gerhart and his sister Elfriede, grew up in a hotbed of philosophical and sociological discussions. Although the senior Eisler was an atheist, his three children became highly active communists, particularly Elfriede, who took the name Ruth Fischer, and Gerhart. Hanns was more interested in music.

While his brother and sister became leading figures in the German Communist party (KPD), Hanns purused a career in music. He studied under Arnold Schoenberg, and wrote several pieces based on the twelve-tone system, but his communist beliefs turned him away from the intellectual sonic gymnastics of Schoenberg to the music of the oppressed class: jazz. It was around this time that Eisler met Bertolt Brecht. Until then, Brecht had been collaborating with Kurt Weill, but when the two went their separate ways, Brecht started looking for a composer whose political viewpoint would jibe with Brecht’s own. He found that person in Hanns Eisler.

In 1932, Eisler composed the music for Kuhle Wampe oder Wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?), director Slatan Dudow’s film with a script by Bertolt Brecht. Unfortunately, the film came out just as the Nazis were rising to power and the film was promptly banned. Both Brecht and Eisler found themselves on the Nazi Party’s first list of banned artist; both men fled Germany, eventually ending up in the United States; and both were forced to leave the U.S. thanks to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Around the same time, Eisler’s sister Ruth—who had become one of the leaders of the KPD—was constantly butting heads with Stalin. She didn’t care much for his reinterpretation of Marxism, nor the level of control he exerted of Germany’s communists. Ruth wanted a return to values of Lenin, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and a turn away from Stalin’s egocentric brand of communism. After traveling to Russia, she met with Stalin, and let him know exactly how she felt. She returned to Germany to find herself marginalized by the Communist Party, replaced with the very pro-Stalin Ernst Thälmann (for more on Thälmann, see The Ernst Thälmann Films). At that point, Fischer became a virulent anti-Stalinist. To the point where she started working with the U.S. to do everything in her power to end his regime. Going so far as to work for “The Pond”—a top secret precursor to the C.I.A.

Hanns Eisler

After Hitler came to power, all three of the Eisler children eventually ended up in America. Hanns got work composing film scores, and received Oscar nominations for his work on Hangmen Also Die! and None But the Lonely Heart. Gerhart, meanwhile, was working as a spy for Communist International (Comintern) in America. When Ruth was ousted from power in the KPD, Gerhart did not come to her defense. A fact that stuck in her craw. When Gerhart was brought before HUAC for espionage, Ruth was only to happy to against him at the hearing. He was found guilty, but while out of bail he fled the country, making his way to East Germany.

As the hunt for “those dirty reds” widened, Hanns Eisler was caught in the web. Called “the Karl Marx of Music” by HUAC secretary Robert Stripling, Eisler was blacklisted in Hollywood, dragged before the committee and charged with being a communist. As she had with Gerhart, Ruth Fischer testified against Hanns as well, and he was promptly deported. Like his brother, he went to East Germany, where he composed the music for the East German national anthem, “Auferstanden aus Ruinen,” and continued to write melodies for Brecht—who had also taken up residence in the GDR. Eisler continued to write film music, contributing scores to many classic DEFA films, including Our Daily Bread, The Council of the Gods, and Destinies of Women.

When The Crucible was prepared for release in the west, the producers decided that the film would have a better chance of U.S. distribution if the credits didn’t include a man who was forcibly removed from the States. The decision to list Auric as the composer was one that Eisler approved of. He and Auric were friends, and, presumably, he felt that if another composer must get credit, at least it was someone he liked and whose work he admired. When the head of the East German copyrights department asked Eisler if he wanted them to help him get the credit he deserved, Eisler responded “No, everything is perfectly arranged.”2

The Crucible

The film opened to generally favorable reviews, and won Simone Signoret the BAFTA award for best actress. Released in the States just months before Room at the Top, The Crucible undoubtedly helped Signoret win the Academy Award for that film.

While Arthur Miller wasn’t crazy about some of Sartre’s changes to his play, in a 1972 interview for Audience magazine, Miller said he was glad that the film was out there at a time when Hollywood refused to touch it. He would change his tune when Hollywood finally got around to making Miller’s version of the play with a screenplay by Miller himself. DEFA’s version of The Crucible was pulled out of circulation, reportedly thanks to Miller himself. The Hollywood version failed to perform well at the box office, but the end result of this is that the East German/French film is still out of distribution, although the folks at DEFA-Stiftung are working on correcting this situation. Meanwhile, VHS copies of the film are fetching high prices on eBay.

The expected benefits of co-producing films with the French didn’t pan out for DEFA. When the films were released in the west, DEFA’s name was removed from the credits. Worse, France did nothing to challenge West Germany’s absurd Hallstein Doctrine. After four films French/East German co-productions, East Germany abandoned these efforts, restricting co-productions to the Eastern Bloc and other communist countries. They wouldn’t engage in a co-production with a western nation again until 1978, when the Swiss/East German made-for-TV movie Ursula manage to offend nearly everybody on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Ironically, the first DEFA co-production with a western nation would be made with West Germany (FrühlingssinfonieSpring Symphony).

Special thanks to Sebastian Heiduschke, Hiltrud Schulz, Mariana Ivanova, and Peter Deeg for their help with this article.

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1. Lorre did return to West Germany to direct a film, The Lost One (Der Verlorene), but the experience didn’t encourage him to stay in his homeland. He quickly returned to Hollywood for the rest of his career. Wilder returned to Berlin to make his antic comedy One Two Three! But the film comes across as a thumbing of his nose to both halves of Germany. Two Hollywood refugees who did return to Germany to make films were Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang (technically, an Austrian).

2. Special thanks here to Peter Deeg at the International Hanns Eisler Society.

Five Days, Five Nights
At the end of World War II, Russian soldiers went on a plunderfest across eastern Germany. Think Sherman’s March to the Sea, but with dividends. Houses were stripped of their valuables, stores were looted, and machinery was taken. Much of this looting was done on a personal level—soldiers helping themselves to the contents of the houses they invaded—and some of this was done as part of the Soviet Union’s campaign to get the maximum financial benefit out of the war. They certainly needed it. Hitler’s ill-advised attack on Russia hurt Germany, but it devastated Russia.

On a more organized level, specialized American, British, and Soviet troops were tasked with finding specific things, the best-known example of this is the race between Soviet Union and the United States to procure German scientists and their materials related to rockets and atomic research. On the Soviet side there were also trophy brigades, whose job was to find as many works of art and antiquities as they could. While most of the art looting by American troops was done by individuals looking to bring home souvenirs, Soviet troops had a mission: Find the art and bring it back to Russia.1

A logical place to start was Dresden. Dresden had been the art capital of Germany. The museums there were outstanding. As the war escalated, museum officials decided to move many of the most valuable paintings to safer locations in case the city was attacked. This turned out to be a very good idea indeed. Dresden wasn’t just bombed, it was nearly erased from the face of the Earth. U.S.and British bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of bombs and incendiaries on the city. The resulting firestorm was so intense that many people hiding in their air raid shelters died not of burns, but of asphyxiation when the firestorm sucked all the oxygen out of the area. The results of the firebombing are still visible today in the blackened facades of the buildings along the Elbe, and the calico churches built from the rubble left after the war.2

Fünf Tage - Fünf Nächte

When the Russians started arriving in Dresden, claiming they were there to save the artwork, the locals were, understandably, suspicious. Especially after these soldiers announced that they would have to take the artwork back to Moscow to protect it from the further deterioration due to mold and the elements. The Russians assured the locals that they were doing this for the benefit of the art, and they would return the artwork as soon as things had stabilized. No one in Dresden believed this for a minute, and they were probably right not to—Josef Stalin was not exactly the poster boy for trustworthiness. In truth, the collecting of the art of Germany was just what it looked like: an attempt at payback for the devastation and destruction that Germany rained down on the U.S.S.R.

But as the cold war heated up, the Soviets were looking for any ways they could to demonstrate they weren’t the ogre that the United States made them out to be. The subject of the Dresden paintings came up again. What better way to demonstrate their integrity than to show that the vow they made to the Dresdeners at the end of WWII was not just hot air? So it was that 750 of paintings were returned to Dresden in 1955. This wasn’t all of the artwork that was purloined, but it was a lot of it, and certainly enough to make for good press.

Five Days, Five Nights (Fünf Tage – Fünf Nächte) is the story of the Russian art recovery effort at the end of the war. The films was the first of several joint productions between East Germany and the Soviet Union. DEFA often joined forces with production companies from other countries to make movies. During the fifties, they made movies in conjunction with Swedish and French production companies, but after the border tightened up and relationships with western countries became strained, most of the co-productions were made with Eastern Bloc nations, primarily Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Whether or not these co-productions looked and felt like DEFA movies was largely dependent on the director and which film company wielded the most control over the production. Stars was made in cooperation with Bulgaria’s Boyana Film, but the film is pure DEFA, thanks to Konrad Wolf’s sure hand at the helm. On the other hand, the French/East German co-production Die Hexen von Salem (The Crucible) is, for all intents and purposes, a French film, having been directed by a Belgian from a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre, and starring Simone Signoret and Yves Montand.

Russian soldiers

Five Days, Five Nights, is very much a Russian film. It forgoes the usual, cool DEFA objectivity in favor of socialist realism (which, let’s face it, isn’t very realistic at all). People are either filmed at chest level, making everyone, even the children, look heroic, or from above looking up to the sky in triumphant bliss. The effect is further enhanced by a powerful score, written for the film by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Along with Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky, Shostakovich is one of the great Russian composers of the twentieth century. Unlike western classical composers, such as Erich Korngold and Max Steiner, the fact that he wrote scores for movies did not assign him to the film ghetto, or reduce his standing as a classical composer. He could write a score for a film one year, and compose an opera the next. This was largely due to the Soviet Union’s attitude toward film. Unlike the west, where film was was viewed as a form of mindless entertainment for the masses, the Soviets already saw the power of film to galvanize public opinion back in 1925 with Battleship Potemkin. So it was that Shostakovich was hired to write the score for October: Ten Days That Shook the World, a film about the October Revolution of 1917.

Shostakovich had a rocky career under the Soviets, thanks mostly to Stalin’s tin ear and lack of musical sophistication. Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда) was initially a hit, but later came under attack as “coarse, primitive and vulgar.” When Stalin attended a performance of the opera in 1936, he behaved boorishly, laughing and grimacing throughout, leaving poor Shostakovich sweating bullets in the back. This was around the time Stalin started his Great Purge. Having him as your enemy was a good way to wind up freezing to death in a Siberian prison.

To keep on Stalin’s good side, Shostakovich cancelled performances of his musically challenging fourth symphony and restricted much of his composing to film music, knowing Stalin was rather fond of films. With the release of his crowd-pleasing fifth symphony, Shostakovich got back in the good graces of Stalin and the public, at least until 1948, when he was once again attacked by Central Committee secretary Andrei Zhdanov, who accused his music of being “formalist”—a term that was thrown around a lot, and appears to have no more meaning to Soviet critics than “I don’t like it.”

After Stalin died, Shostakovich started receiving the attention he deserved. His work came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein in New York, who became a strong advocate for Shostakovich, and played his compositions in concerts on a regular basis. Eventually, Shostakovich joined the Communist Party in 1960, mostly as a formality so that the government could appoint him as the General Secretary of the Composers’ Union. This seems to have given him both clout and courage. He protested against the incarceration of the poet Joseph Brodsky, and was one of the signatories on a an appeal to Brezhnev not to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation. In both cases his causes were triumphant.

During the late sixties and early seventies, Shostakovich’s already bad health got worse. He had lost the use of his right hand to polio in the fifties, then broke both legs, causing him to remark in a letter to a friend: “All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order.” He died August 9, 1975, but his music continues to be a popular addition to movie soundtracks.

Five Days, Five Nights

With most films, the job of directing is assigned to one person and the resulting movie is attributed them as the auteur. The whole auteur concept falls apart when talking about the films from the East Bloc nations, where the contributions of everyone involved are given greater weight than in the west and the choice of cast and crew are not always left to the director.3 Five Days, Five Nights features three directors. The German language scenes were directed by Heinz Thiel, who directed Black Velvet, recently discussed on this blog; some of the Russian scenes were directed by Anatoli Golowanow, who probably would have receive a second unit or first assistant director credit in a Hollywood film; and the whole affair was overseen by the Russian director Lev Arnshtam, who is listed as the film’s head director.

Unlike DEFA directors such as Kurt Maetzig and Joachim Hasler, who came to filmmaking via the film labs, or Jürgen Böttcher, Arthur Pohl, and Peter Pewas, entered the field through graphic arts, Lev Arnshtam came to films via music. He studied piano at the Leningrad Music Conservatory and, for a while, was the music department head at Vsevolod Meyerhold’s theater. There, he met people in the film industry, and soon started working as a sound director and later a screenwriter. He directed his first film, Подруги (Girlfriends, originally released in U.S. as Three Women) in 1936. Mr. Arnshtam’s style is heavily influenced by the work of Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, whom he met while working at the Meyerhold Theater. Their influence is on full display here. After Five Days, Five Nights, he directed only one more film—Софья Перовская (Sofiya Perovskaya), a film based on the life of the Russian revolutionary, Sophia Perovskaya, who was hanged for her part in the assassination of Alexander II. Mr. Arnshtam died in 1979.

Dresden

Perhaps the most striking thing about this film, aside from Shostakovich’s majestic score, is the representation of Dresden after the firebombing. By 1960, when this film was made, much of Dresden had been rebuilt. To recreate the destroyed city, miniatures were used to remarkably good effect. Much of the credit for this must go to production designer Herbert Nitzschke. Mr. Nitzschke got his start as a set painter for German film productions. He first worked as a production designer on L’Entraîneuse (Nightclub Hostess), a French/German co-production from 1939. Several more films followed. At the end of WWII, his career as a production designer went on hiatus until 1955, when he was hired as the production designer for Hotelboy Ed Martin, a film adaptation of Albert Maltz’s play, Merry Go Round.

Mr. Nitzschke’s career in film was starting to take off again, and his miniature work in Five Days, Five Nights is spectacular—helped greatly by Ernst Kunstmann, a master of filming miniatures, whose work includes Metropolis, Triumph of the Will, The Singing, Ringing Tree, and First Spaceship on Venus. Unfortunately, Herbert Nitzschke lived in West Berlin, and his career at DEFA came to an abrupt halt on the 13th of August, 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up. His last credit as production designer was on Five Days, Five Nights co-director Heinz Thiel’s Tanz am Sonnabend (Dancing on Saturday).

Also worth mentioning is Walter Schulze-Mittendorff, who designed the costumes for this film. A sculptor by training, it was Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff who designed the Maria Robot for Metropolis. At that point, Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff was still billed as a sculptor. With Amphitryon, he got his first billing as a costume designer and showed a real knack for it. After the war, he started working for DEFA, and often found himself on the same projects as his old Metropolis co-worker, Ernst Kunstmann. Like Herbert Nitzschke, Mr. Kunstmann lived in West Berlin and found his career at DEFA stopped cold with the building of the wall. He worked on a few West German productions, most notably, The Castle (Das Schloß), then retired in 1968.

The story of wartime art theft is not a new one, nor a dead subject. Jewish families are still wrangling for the return of artwork stolen by Nazis, and in November 2014, the son of an East German art collector—from Dresden, coincidentally—filed to recover artwork that was stolen from his father by the Stasi.

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1. The allies did have a team of people searching out art, but it was a much smaller effort. These people mostly worked alone (although the film The Monuments Men would have you believe otherwise), and their primary goal was to identify historic sites. The search for stolen artwork arose as a by-product of that effort, and a reaction to the Soviet Army’s art recovery efforts.

2. It’s probably worth pointing out here, that, as bad as the firebombing of Dresden was, it couldn’t hold a candle to Berlin, which saw nine-and-a-half times as many bombs dropped on it.

3. There are a few Hollywood exceptions to this: Tora! Tora! Tora! featured Japanese sequences by Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda, while The Longest Day featured a host of directors from different countries, all under the watchful eye of producer Darryl Zanuck.

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.

Leichensache Zernik

Like Fritz Lang’s M and Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam), Murder Case Zernik continues the fine tradition of German films about serial killers. This one adds a uniquely East German twist to the concept: The killer’s motives aren’t based on the usual psycho-sexual impulses but on capitalist greed. He kills for profit not lust. We know right from the start who the killer is, We are there when he strangles Katharina Zernik, then pours acid on her face to hamper identification. The question is whether the police will be able to bring him to justice and how.

This is a police procedural with a difference. As the police investigate the murder, they find their progress on the case continually stymied by the authorities in the Allied sectors (the Americans in particular, not surprisingly). Access to information is blocked, and false information is published to make the East German police look bad. Neverless, criminal investigator Stügner and his upstanding if somewhat undernourished assistant, Horst Kramm, work hard to figure out who killed Katharina Zernik.

The story takes place in 1948, which serves as an important plot point. The summer of 1948 was a tumultuous time in Berlin. On June 21st of that year, a new Deutschmark was introduced to the western sectors, followed a couple days later by the “B-mark”—a version of the currency specifically intended for use in the western sectors of Berlin. Not happy with this (particularly since it went directly against the agreement that the Allies and the Soviets had signed), the Berlin blockade began. Then in August, while West Berlin’s provisional governor, Louise Schroeder, was being treated for health problems, her stand-in, Christian Democrat Ferdinand Friedenburg, canned the chief of police, Paul Markgraf, because he was a member of East Germany’s SED party. From here on out there would be no cooperation between East and West Berlin. All of this plays into the movie’s plot as the killer bounces back forth across the border with impunity. The film uses historical footage to add to the drama.

Leichensache Zernik

The film’s production got off to a rocky start when director Gerhard Klein fell ill and died. The film sat on a shelf while Mr. Klein’s assistant director Helmut Nitzschke wrangled for permission to finish the movie. Mr. Nitzschke eventually was granted permission and the film was completed two years later. Mr. Nitzschke is an able craftsman, and the finished film is a good, uniquely East German Krimi. It didn’t hurt that it was written by the always reliable Wolfgang Kohlhaase. It is reportedly based on the personal recollections of people who worked as police at the time—more, I suspect, as a jumping off point than any kind of dramatization of actual events.

Leichensache Zernik

Director Helmut Nitzschke had some big shoes to fill when he took over from Gerhard Klein. Mr. Klein, after all, is the man who gave us such classics as A Berlin Romance, The Gleiwitz Case, and Berlin Schönhauser Corner. Gerhard Klein had a style like no other; both gritty and cinematic. Mr. Nitzschke had worked with Gerhard Klein before. This proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Mr. Nitzschke was assistant director on Klein’s Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin, Around the Corner), which was one of the films banned after the 11th Plenum.

It would be a few years before Mr. Nitzschke had a chance to demonstrate his talent at DEFA again, starting in 1969 with Nebelnacht (Foggy Night), a Krimi based on Heiner Rank’s crime fiction of the same name. After Murder Case Zernik, Mr. Nitzschke made Das Licht auf dem Galgen (The Light on the Gallows), an historical drama based on the novel by Anna Seghers. In spite of good reviews and and an endorsement from Ms. Seghers, the film bombed at the the box office. After that, he wrote and directed a couple episodes of the popular cop show, Polizeiruf 110, but little else. Some of this may be due his highly active participation in the Christian church. More recently, he has been a strong advocate for Quan-Yin, a method of meditation created by Suma Ching Hai, the Vietnamese/Chinese spiritual leader who popped up in the news after her followers donated $600,000 to President Clinton’s legal defense fund during the Lewinski case. Mr. Nitzschke is married to Heidemarie Wenzel, star of The Dove on the Roof and The Legend of Paul and Paula.

Playing the rookie detective Kramm is Alexander Lang. As with many other East German actors, Mr. Lang got his start in theater, working at first as a stagehand and eventually moving onto the boards. He is best known to western audiences as Ralph, Sunny’s cavalier love interest in Solo Sunny and as Latte in Frank Vogel’s Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry. During the eighties, he directed a couple of TV movies for DFF, but he primarily concentrated on directing plays as the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. After the Wende, Mr. Lang continued his career as a theater director, as well as an occasional appearance in front of the footlights, but he has appeared in no more films since the fall of the wall.

Leichensache Zernik

 

The killer, Erwin Retzmann, is played by Gert Gütschow, whose work was usually restricted to secondary roles. To and fan of East German cinema, his face is immediately recognizable, having appeared in such films as Till Eulenspiegel, Jadup and Boel, and Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens. After the Wende, he appeared in a few films and TV movies, and a recurring role as Dr. Keller on the popular TV hospital drama In aller Freundschaft. He continues to appear on stage, and often works in radio and as a voice talent for dubbing.

Kurt Böwe plays Inspector Stügner—a role he could do in his sleep. Whenever a DEFA film called for a kind but firm police official, you can bet Kurt Böwe’s name was near the top of the list of possible choices. Mr. Böwe came from the stage and began his on-screen acting with television in the sixties. He appeared in smaller roles in various feature films during this period, but it was his role as the idealistic sculptor Herbert Kemmel in Konrad Wolf’s Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (The Naked Man in the Stadium) that brought him to the public’s attention. From then on he appeared in several more feature films, most notably, Jadup and Boel. Having already been active in television during the GDR years, the Wende had little effect on him. He continued working in television playing Kommissar Kurt Groth on the popular police series Polizeiruf 110. He died in Berlin in 2000. His daughters, Susanne and Winnie have gone on to become successful actors in their own right.

Leichensache Zernik

It didn’t hurt that the technical crew for this film included cinematographer Claus Neumann, Composer Hans-Dieter Hosalla, and editor, Evelyn Carow—three of DEFA’s most talented technicians in their respective fields. Nor did it hurt that the supporting cast included the talents of Rolf Hoppe, Lissy Tempelhof, Käthe Reichel, and Agnes Kraus.

Krimis are always popular with the public and this film is no exception. It is too bad that Helmut Nitzschke’s output is so meager. Had he made more films, perhaps the followers of the auteur approach to film studies might have had something to hang their hat on. Instead he is ignored and is one of the few directors on the German Wikipedia list of DEFA films who has no page of his own. I hope this doesn’t translate into Murder Case Zernik being overlooked. It is an interesting and unusual thriller that deserves more attention.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the films (part of a German-only set that includes Razzia and four other films).

The Story of a Young Couple

If I were going to show somebody their first East German film, it would not be this one. One common misconception among Americans—and all westerners, for that matter—is that East German films are nothing but propaganda, intended to promote the state and nothing more. The misconception doesn’t come from any knowledge of the subject, or even selected examples. It’s more a case of formless and gormless prejudices thoroughly drummed into our brains during the Cold War. The Story of a Young Couple, however, would do nothing to disabuse people of this notion. It really is propaganda. It wears its politics on its sleeve, and its politics are those of Stalin. He is championed as a hero throughout this film, and his portrait hangs in public places. It is one of the sad legacies of East Germany that the leaders hitched their wagons to Stalin’s star instead of returning to the ideals of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. It was certainly inevitable, considering the Soviet Union’s part in the foundation of the GDR—a link going all the way back to Ernst Thälmann—but it meant that future failure was already in the cards before the ink was dry on the country’s constitution.

The film follows the story of Agnes Sailer and Jochen Karsten, two young actors who become involved the theater scene that springs up in Berlin after WWII. They are surrounded by idealistic people who see theater as a way to promote anti-fascist sentiments and ensure that nothing like the Third Reich ever happens again in Germany. Funding their efforts is Dr. Ulrich Plisch, an old-school capitalist who has less interest in politics than doing whatever’s profitable. Surrounding them are other actors and directors who run the political gamut from devoted socialists to amoral golddiggers. As the gulf between east and west becomes wider, Agnes and Jochen find themselves on opposite sides of the chasm. Agnes, a committed socialist, would rather starve than take a part in a play or film she found morally reprehensible, while Jochen starts letting his policies take a backseat to a steady paycheck.

The Story of a Young Couple was made in 1951, and came out in January of the following year. Up until this time there was a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your outlook) infusion of West German filmmakers into the film studios at Babelsberg. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, most of that influx came from the fact that the U.S. military authorities did everything they could to discourage German film production. After West Germany became a sovereign state in May of 1949, the shackles on West German film production were removed and West Germans no longer needed to migrate eastward to make their movies. This made any West German directors who did go to DEFA immediately suspect. The Cold War had heated up and it wasn’t uncommon for the intelligence agencies from both sides of the border to use agents and sympathizers to commit acts of sabotage to erode the other country’s infrastructure. This was a prominent plot point in Castles and Cottages, and was also part of the justification for the building of the Berlin Wall (see Look at This City!).

By 1951, companies such as Real-Film, CCC-Film, and, Constantin-Film were in full swing and West German filmmakers were no longer welcomed with open arms into the DEFA ranks, but rather, were viewed with suspicion. Once the cross-pollination between east and west was effectively stemmed, both sides started to polarize. In the United States, movie such as The Red Menace, I Was Communist for the F.B.I., and Pickup on South Street were effectively pushing the notion that communist agents were everywhere. In East Germany, it meant more films directly attacking the United States, or, more accurately, the large corporations that controlled the U.S. governments agendas (and still do, truth be told).

To its credit, one rarely saw the level of viciousness exhibited in DEFA films that one saw in the Red Scare films from Hollywood, but the role of film as a tool for teaching socialistic values became as important as its entertainment value. Thus began one of the duller periods of filmmaking in the GDR. In charge of DEFA during these doldrums was Hans Rodenberg a talented theater director and occasional actor, but also a hardcore Stalinist. How much input Rodenberg had into this stricter approach is hard to say, but he was a loyal party man, and certainly did nothing to rock the boat. The Story of Young Couple was made before Mr. Rodenberg became the general director at DEFA—and, in fact, features a brief performance by him as the American film director shooting an anti-communist film in West Berlin—but this film is a sign of things to come.

The Story of a Young Couple wasn’t the first DEFA film to promote a socialist agenda, but it was the most strident about it. At least until the Ernst Thälmann films, made a few years later (also directed by Kurt Maetzig). The low point comes when Agnes recites an ode to the newly named Stalinallee and the gloriousness of Stalin by the East German poet, KuBa (Kurt Barthel)—a cinematic moment that would assign the film to the closet after Khrushchev’s 1956 speech, “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” in which Khrushchev denounced Stalin.

At times, the attacks on the west in this film resemble the he said/she said nature of a divorce dispute. In one scene a sad-looking girls choir is forced to perform because they’ve been tricked by West Berlin agents into coming to the west, only to find it wasn’t what they expected. At this time, western media were accusing “East German spies” of kidnapping people off the streets of Berlin and taking them back to the GDR. There are plenty of verified cases of people in West Berlin unwittingly going to the east, only to find themselves arrested and imprisoned—primarily by the Russians (for more on this, see Ursula Rumin’s story in Destinies of Women)—but the idea of people hopping out of cars and dragging people off to the other side of the border was more urban myth than reality, and is used here to take a poke fun at Hollywood’s propaganda machine.

Reportedly, The Story of a Young Couple was made as a response to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, Les Mains sales (Dirty Hands).1 Sartre was a Marxist, and had even defended Stalin from time to time, but he had little use for the political repression being carried out in the name of communism. As far as he could tell, it was the situation of “meet the new boss; same as the old boss,” Les Mains sales was his response. Fellow Marxists were not happy with Sartre. In East Germany, it hit a little too close to home. In the film, the play is mentioned by name and attacked by Agnes after she is given a copy to see about performing in it.

One of the more entertaining aspects of this film is that it is a roman à clef (or film à clef if you prefer). Many of the characters in the film are based on real people and are only thinly disguised. According to the German Wikipedia page for this movie, Möbius is based on Wolfgang Langhoff, and Burmeister is based on Boleslaw Barlog. From what I know of these men, I suspect that this is exactly backwards. Like Barlog, Möbius is a wild-haired theater director, while Burmeister, like Langhoff, is clean-cut and shows more support for the GDR. The thinnest disguise of all is that of the Nazi-sympathizing director Hartmann, who is unmistakably Veit Harlan—the man who directed Kolberg and Jud Süß. Although they changed the name of the director, they discuss his films under their actual titles. Alwin Lippisch’s performance as Hartmann is a wicked parody of Harlan, who never did acknowledge any culpability for what happened in Germany during the Third Reich, and was later allowed to start making films again in West Germany (for more on Veit Harlan, see Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss).

What elevates The Story of a Young Couple above mere propaganda is the skill of its director, Kurt Maetzig. Maetzig was born with film in his blood. Maetzig’s father ran a company that made copies of films, and young Kurt would hang around and learn everything he could about the technical side of film production and development. Later, he studied chemistry and engineering at the Technical University of Munich, where he graduated with a doctorate degree with a dissertation titled “Das Rechnungswesen einer Film-Kopieranstalt” (“Accountancy of a film printing lab”). After college, returned to his father’s company for more hands-on work in the film industry. While there, he began making his own short films, cartoons, and movie title sequences.

As mentioned in the article on Marriage in the Shadows, Kurt Maetzig’s mother was Jewish, which made Maetzig an undesirable person. During the war, he joined the KPD (the German Communist Party), which, at that point, was essentially an underground organization. After the war, Mr. Maetzig saw an opportunity to rebuild the German film industry and return it to its pre-Hitler glory. He met with a group of like-minded filmmakers—including Boleslaw Barlog—at the Adlon Hotel and founded Filmaktiv, which spawned DEFA.

Maetzig was still a young director at this point. In The Story of a Young Couple, we see him experimenting with different techniques of editing, frame composition, camera angles, and the use of music. It doesn’t hurt that his cinematographer here is Karl Plintzner. Plintzner would go on to become the absolute master of vivid Agfacolor/Orwocolor films (see The Golden Goose), but here he shows that the he is no slouch when it comes to black-and-white filming either.

Yvonne Merin

Playing the noble and unwavering Agnes Sailer, is Yvonne Merin, a striking actress who might have been one of the leading lights at DEFA, had she the stomach for it. At the time of this movie, she was married to Kurt Maetzig. She was discovered by Gerald Lamprecht and cast to star in Quartett zu fünft (From Quartet to Five). She caught the eye of Kurt Maetzig, who immediately cast her in his next two films, Girls in Gingham and The Council of the Gods. They were soon married, but by the time they made The Story of a Young Couple, the marriage was ending. Like the couple in the film, they were going in different directions. Ms. Merin was finding that acting wasn’t really her passion, and Mr. Maetzig already knew that filmmaking was his. They divorced and Ms. Merin dropped out of the film community, appearing only occasionally in films (she appeared briefly as the “lady with the dog” in A Lively Christmas Eve). She continued to work in theater, but found that her interesting in acting wasn’t as intense as the fire one needed to do a good job. She became an apprentice gardener at the Karl Foerster Garden in the Bornum borough of Potsdam. Although she continued to garden, the job paid poorly and she returned to DEFA as a dramaturge and occasional scriptwriter—primarily for educational films. It was during this time that she met Armin Georgi, a script editor at DEFA and also directed short films and documentaries for them. They were married and stayed married until her death in 2012. Kurt Maetzig died a month later.

You may recognize Willy A. Kleinau, who plays the opportunistic Dr. Plisch. He is one of the more memorable characters in The Council of the Gods. In that he played Mr. Lawson, the representative from Standard Oil who helps the Nazis fund their war effort. Mr. Kleinau seems custom-made to play capitalist pigs and he does it well. He manages to make Mr. Pitsch simultaneously reprehensible and likable, which is no small feat. He appeared in both West German and East German films, right up until his death in a car accident in 1957.

As one might expect, The Story of a Young Couple was thoroughly drubbed by the western press when it came out, but East German critics found it a bit too much to take. Like the overwrought dramatic style of the silent era, or the garish fashions off the seventies, this film’s main value today is as an historical document and a kitschy eyewitness to a different time. It is a testament to Maetzig’s talent as a director that it is still enjoyable and engaging almost sixty-five years later.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


1. Die anderen deutsch-französischen Beziehungen. Die DDR und Frankreich 1949 – 1990, Ulrich Pfeil, Böhlau, January 2004.

For Eyes Only

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMDB page for the film.

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