Egon Günther’s 1965 comedy When You’re Older, Dear Adam (Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam) is a weird movie, made weirder still by the times in which it was made and the technique used to rebuild the film. The film tells the story of a boy who is given a magic flashlight by a swan. That’s not a typo. The boy paid the swan’s fare on the streetcar (also not a typo), and the swan repays the boy by tossing an old flashlight into the boy’s boat a little later on. It’s no ordinary flashlight. It has the ability to identify when people aren’t telling the truth. Liars suddenly find themselves floating in the air. The bigger the lie, the higher they fly. The boy runs around Dresden accompanied by jangly surf guitar, shining the light on people at random and causing havoc everywhere he goes. It’s an fun and mostly innocuous romantic comedy, but the folks in the SED didn’t think so.
As previously discussed here, the 11th Plenum led to the wholesale banning of several films in 1965-66. When You’re Older, Dear Adam had the dubious distinction of being in post-production after the Plenum occurred. Officials didn’t like the idea of a film that says that government officials sometimes lie, and started interfering with the production, eventually banning the film altogether. The screenplay was courting controversy even before it was filmed. In one scene, a group of soldiers taking their oath to defend the GDR suddenly finding themselves hovering in the air. Not surprisingly, this scene was never filmed, but even the scenes that were filmed upset the officials enough to call a halt to the film’s production.
In 1990, when the process of reunification had begun, several of the films banned during the 11th Plenum were taken out of storage, restored, and screened. When the researchers got to Günther’s film, they found that portions of the soundtrack had been destroyed, leaving only the footage. Working from the screenplay, and feeling that the film was too important to simply abandon, they decided to compliment the missing dialog with crudely made intertitles that explain the missing dialog, making an already surreal movie even more bizarre. While watching the film, the viewer is sometimes presented with what looks to all the world like a typed index card explaining what happens next, followed by a scene of complete silence. It is disorienting and only makes sense if you are alerted to the reasons for it before you view the film.
As a nod to the story’s theme of absolute truth, the film begins with a voiceover narration identifying the main actors and the parts they are playing. Adam is played by Stephan Jahnke. As is often the case with young actors, it would be his only role. The rest of the cast primarily consists of veteran DEFA actors, including Manfred Krug, Mathilde Danegger, Christel Bodenstein, Fred Delmare, and Marita Böhme. Adam’s father—whose name is “Sepp Tember”—is played by Gerry Wolff. Wolff usually showed up in character parts and so was more recognized by his face than his name. The Wende had little impact on his career. He continued to appear in films and on television, and has done a fair amount of dubbing as well. His was the German voice for Yoda in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
The one new face in the film, besides Stephan Jahnke, is the Cuban actor Daisy Granados. Starting on the stage in Havana, Granados had been in only one other film (La decisión) when she took the part in When You’re Older, Dear Adam. Granados went to on to star in several widely acclaimed and award-winning films in Cuba, including Retrato de Teresa (Portrait of Teresa), Cecilia, and Un hombre de éxito (A Successful Man). Until his death in 2005, Granados often worked with her husband, Pastor Vega. In 2012, she was scheduled to appear in a play as part of the TEMFest (Teatro en Miami Festival), but local Cuban ex-pats got the performance cancelled after a rumor circulated that Granados said something bad about Juanita Baró, a popular Miami Cuban dancer and wife of exiled Cuban writer Manuel Ballagas. More recently, she appeared alongside Eslinda Núñez, Mirta Ibarra, and the Lizt Alfonso dance company in a performance of the dance musical Amigas as part of the celebrations for the 38th International Latin American Film Festival in Havana.
Director Egon Günther was already no stranger to censorship when this film was made. His first film, The Dress (Das Kleid), which he co-directed with Konrad Petzold, was banned because officials thought that its story of a walled city and a populace that is told to ignore their common sense was an attack on the building of the Wall and the government’s attempts to justify it. In truth, that film began production a year before the Wall was built. Günther barely avoided censorship again in 1968 with Farewell, and received criticism once more in 1972 for the on-screen kiss between two women in Her Third. In 1978, Günther showed he lost none of his feistiness or unfettered creativity over time when his TV-movie Ursula was banned in Switzerland for its surreal approach to the story of the Protestant Reformation movement and the Battle of Kappel.
There is one good thing about the ban: It has allowed us to see a wide-screen, ORWOcolor film from 1965 in pristine condition. The print used for the DVD is scratch and dirt free, with absolutely no fading. Cinematographer Helmut Grewald’s color work here is spectacular, and Günther uses Totalvision (East Germany’s answer to Panavision and Cinemascope) to great effect. It is a prime candidate for a Blu-Ray release (if they can just do something about those terrible intertitles). Credit here must also be given to Alfred Hirschmeier’s spectacular production design, particularly the Tember apartment, and to costume designer Rita Bieler’s sharp looking outfits. Sadly, the fall of the Wall signaled the end of the careers for all three of these people. Hirschmeier worked on a couple TV movies after the Wende, but that was it.
Wilhelm Neef’s score is a lot of fun. Neef scored dozens of films for DEFA before stepping away from the movie business to concentrate exclusively on classical music compositions and performance. Today he is best known for his work on Indianerfilme such as Sons of the Great Bear, Chingachgook, the Great Snake, and Osceola, but he has contributed scores to a wide variety of films in a wide variety of styles, as this film well demonstrates.
Banning When You’re Older, Dear Adam was one of the worst missteps the government in East Germany made, and they made some doozies. Banning a movie with a plot about identifying liars is as good as saying “yes, we’re liars.” It is on a par with Richard Nixon’s “I’m not a crook” statement. If you have to say it, you’ve already lost the war. Plus, it’s generally not a good idea to try and suppress satire anyway. It has a way of returning to haunt its foes. Attempts to suppress satire go all the way back to Aristophanes and his battles with Cleon, and can be seen as recently as 20th Century Fox’s pathetic attempt to bury Mike Judge’s scathing (and depressingly spot-on) attack on American culture, Idiocracy.