Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category

Silvesterpunsch
As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the East German government had a rocky relationship with musicals. The inherent frivolity of the genre clashed mightily with the government’s philosophy that every film should promote good socialist values. At the same time, musicals were popular with the public in the fifties on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In 1958, DEFA made its first musical, My Wife Wants to Sing, and the film was temporarily shelved due to its apparent lack of a distinct socialist message. When it was released it was a big hit and helped open the doors to the musical form.

In 1959, The Punch Bowl (Maibowle), a light comedy directed by Günter Reisch, was released. The Punch Bowl follows the adventures and misadventures of the Lehmann family after the family patriarch Wilhelm Lehmann is scheduled to receive a Banner der Arbeit (Banner of Labor) medal for his leadership of the Grünefeld Chemical Plant. Director Reisch was careful to make sure that there was a solid socialist message here. The film was approved and was a hit. So director Reisch decided to up the ante slightly with New Year’s Punch (Silvesterpunsch), a sequel that starts in the same comic vein as the first film, and then turns into a full-on musical.

In structure, it is similar to the films of the musicals of the thirties and forties, where people spend most of the movie planning for a big stage show, which is revealed as the finale. The biggest difference here is that the musical numbers here are aimed at promoting the importance of chemistry to the development of the state. Included in the numbers are an ode to Calcium Carbide and the joys of polymerization. Like modern musicals—but very unlike the Hollywood musicals at the time—the singing never spontaneously erupts with an invisible orchestra. If someone sings, there is a reason, and there are musicians present, no matter how illogical that may be. Most of the singing and dancing is saved for the grand finale, which culminates in the celebration of the New Year Eve (which is called Silvester in German, hence the title).

Silvesterpunsch

Heinz Draehn and Christel Bodenstein reprise their roles from The Punch Bowl as Franz and Suse Lehmann, as do Erich Franz and Erika Dunkelmann as the parents. The other Lehmann children form the first film, and there were several, are replaced this time around by Michel, played by Achim Schmidtchen, an aspiring trumpet player. The story takes place at the Grünefeld Chemical Plant of the first film. The work force is evenly divided between fans of the arts and fans of sports. Since both of things were very important to East German culture, it is important (and inevitable, really) that both of these groups eventually learn to get along.

Christel Bodenstein—a dancer before she became an actor—gets to demonstrate her skills here (although I suspect a double was used for the ice skating scenes). At one point, she dances on a narrow, slightly bouncy tabletop en pointe—something I wouldn’t recommend anyone to attempt. Bodenstein is best known for her part as the selfish princess in The Singing, Ringing Tree, but she appeared in many other popular East German films and television shows. After the Wende, her career on television and films essentially ended. Her role in the Mario Adorf mini-series Die Kaltenbach-Papiere (The Kaltenbach Papers) was her last role in front of a camera. Since then, she has devoted her career to the stage.

Karin und Kristel

New Year’s Punch marks the debut of Karin Schröder. Best known for her role in Beloved White Mouse, which starred East German comedian Rolf Herricht. Schröder appears in New Year’s Punch with dark hair and a short, tomboy haircut, but still looks every bit as adorable as she did in the Rolf Herricht comedy. Schröder was originally trained as a certified stenographer, but director Günter Reisch immediately saw her potential and used her often (for more on Reisch, see A Lively Christmas Eve). She appeared in a number of television shows and movies in East Germany, and continued her career after the Wall came down, Most recently, she appeared as a recurring character in the German TV show, Alles Klara.

The cinematographer for New Year’s Punch was Karl Plintzner, whose color work here and elsewhere rivals the work of the great Leon Shamroy. Plintzner got his start as an assistant cameraman shortly before the beginning of WWII. After the war he joined DEFA as a cinematographer, working first on Wolfgang Staudte’s The Adventures of Fridolin (Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B.), and then on Erich Engel’s The Blum Affair. Plintzner showed a special knack for color right off the bat with his work on the Ernst Thälmann films, but it was The Singing, Ringing Tree where he really got to let loose with colors so vivid they’ll make your eyes bleed. For health reasons, he retired in 1965. He died on December 7, 1975 in East Berlin.

Silvesterpunsch

The music for New Year’s Punch was composed by Helmut Nier. Nier was the founder of the Association of Composers and Musicologist in the GDR (Verbandes der Komponisten und Musikwissenschaftler), whose stated purpose was to maintain and develop the musical culture of the GDR, as well as ensure that composers received proper credit and compensation. As a composer, Nier never matched the talent of Karl-Ernst Sasse or Gerd Natchinski. The songs in New Year’s Punch are entertaining enough, but not particularly memorable. Nier was better at serious scores. His soundtracks for Spur in die Nacht (Trace in the Night), The Baldheaded Gang, and Black Velvet are far more compelling than any of his work on comedies and romances. As with many of the East German’s who worked for DEFA, his career in films ended after the Wende. Nier died in 2002.

In terms of musicals, New Year’s Punch comes closer to the Western concept of what a communist musical would look like than the other musicals from DEFA. The politics of socialism and the GDR’s love affairs with sports and culture are never far from the storyline in this film. This doesn’t really distract from the story however, and, as light as this romantic comedy is, it’s a pretty entertaining piece of fluff.

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

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

Tradel skirt-lifting scene

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

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

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

Vergeßt mir meine Traudel nicht

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

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

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

nightclub scene with Fred Delmare

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

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

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

Sing Cowboy Sing
American pop singer Dean Reed’s popularity in East Germany cannot be underestimated. He was not called the “Red Elvis” for nothing. He played to packed houses throughout the Eastern Bloc nations, especially in Russia, where he was a huge star. Although he was born in Denver, Colorado, and under contract to Capitol Records, Reed’s big break came in South America, where his song “Our Summer Romance” was a hit in spite of its lack of airplay in the States. Reed started performing in South America exclusively, where he met and became close friends with Victor Jara, the Chilean singer and political activist who was tortured and killed by Pinochet’s goons after the U.S. orchestrated coup d’etat. Later, in East Germany, Reed would direct and star in a TV movie about his murdered friend, El Cantor.

When things got too hot in South America, Reed went to Europe, where he started appearing in films, primarily spaghetti westerns such as God Made Them… I Kill Them, Twenty Paces to Death, and Adios Sabato. In 1973, he starred in his first DEFA film, Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (The Life of a Ne’er-do-Well), but it was his next film for DEFA, Kit & Co., that brought him real attention. At that point, Reed decided to move to East Germany.

Dean Reed

This was a public relations goldmine for the GDR; up there with Angela Davis’ visit to the country a year earlier. While the U.S. government continued to paint the communist countries as hellish places that no one would want to have anything to do with, here was an American pop star living in East Germany and loving it. As a consequence, Reed was given a great deal more creative freedom than any East German filmmaker was ever allowed. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Sing, Cowboy, Sing, the western comedy that Reed starred in and directed.

Sing, Cowboy, Sing follows the adventures of Joe (Dean Reed) and his pal Beny as they travel across the American West, singing in saloons and performing in Wild West shows. It is a silly affair that would be a kids’ film if not for a few gags involving large breasts. There’s a shootout at the end, but nobody suffers anything worse than an injured hand. Occasionally the action stops so that Joe and Beny can perform a song. There’s some political content here but very little. The bad guy is, of course, a rich American, and the one town he doesn’t control is Liebenthal (literally, “Love Valley”), which was founded by Germans.

Sing, Cowboy, Sing is part of a fine old genre, the comedy western. It harks back to the silent era and includes such classics as Destry Rides Again, Along Came Jones, Cat Ballou, and Blazing Saddles; along with some very silly movies such as Ride ‘Em Cowboy, Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County, and The Apple Dumpling Gang. Sing, Cowboy, Sing falls squarely in the latter category. It is a very light and silly movie, but with touches that show an influence from Reed’s work on spaghetti westerns. Stylistically, it is all over the map. One scene will feature sped up action for comic effect, and the next will be played for high drama with scene that looks like it was shot by Gianfranco Parolini.

Dean Reed as gunfighter

The film uses an international cast, including Czechs, Romanians, and even Dean Reed’s old acting coach and TV director, Paton Price whom Reed had flown to East Germany to help him get through the production. As one might imagine, these actors were all dubbed by Germans. Reed himself was dubbed by Holger Mahlich, an actor often called on for dubbing on both sides of the wall (he left East Germany in 1982). He is often called upon to do the voices for Xander Berkeley and Ed Harris, but he has dubbed everyone from Harvel Keitel to John Candy. His is the voice of John Steed in the German release of The Avengers.

Beny is played by the Czech actor Václav Neckář, who is best known for his first feature film role—that of Milos in Jirí Menzel’s Oscar-winning classic, Closely Watched Trains. Like Reed, Neckář was a successful pop singer, with several hits in his native Czechoslovakia. Some of these songs were originals, while others were Czech cover versions of popular tunes such as “Mrs. Robinson,” “Suzanne,” and “Bungalow Bill.” Unlike Reed, Neckář started as an actor and came to singing later. He had several success singles in the sixties, then joined his brother Jan’s group Bacily (which translates to “The Germs”) in 1971.

In 2000, his named cropped up on a list of informants for the StB—Czechoslovakia’s version of the Stasi. This didn’t help his movie career any. Since the publication of that list, he’s only done one film as a voice in an animated movie, and a small part in the Czech TV show, Gympl. He continues to perform with Bacily, as several videos on YouTube can attest.

Neckar

The lead female love interests of Maria and Susann were played by Violeta Andrei and Elke Martens (née Gierth), respectively. Violeta Andrei is best remembered as the voluptuous cosmonaut Rall who dances with the snake at the party in Gottfried Kolditz’s wild East German science fiction film In the Dust of the Stars, and as Gojko Mitić’s love interest in Severino. She is a Romanian and appeared in several movies in her home country, including The Moment (Clipa) and The Pale Light of Sorrow (Lumina palidă a durerii). She was married to Ștefan Andrei, foreign minister for Nicolae Ceauşescu. She occasionally still appears in Romanian TV shows, but hasn’t done a feature film since the overthrow of Ceauşescu.

Elke Martens, appearing in this film under her maiden name, Gierth, hails from Dresden. Like Reed and Neckář, she is a singer, although she gets no chance to demonstrate it in this movie. She mostly here for cleavage gags. During the seventies and eighties, she performed in the GDR with her band, Megaphone. Occasionally, the band ran afoul of the authorities for its provocative lyrics and faced a year-and-a-half ban in 1980 because of this. More recently, Martens has made a name for herself in Schlagermusik—easily the least provocative music known to man. Martens outed herself as an IM, claiming that she was forced to sign an agreement to provide the Stasi information lest she go to prison. Reed’s original screenplay for this movie was in English. According to one source, it was Martens who created the German script for the film.

The music for the film is by Karel Svoboda, a Czech composer best known for his work on children’s films. Svoboda started out studying to be a dentist, but his love was always music. In 1963, with the burgeoning popularity of bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, he started the group, Mephisto, who later became the house band for the Rococo Theater (Divadlo Rokoko) in Prague. While the songs in Sing, Cowboy, Sing are adequate but forgettable, the score features some excellent set pieces that a clever director will some day repurpose. Along with his scores for several movies, Svoboda also wrote musicals based on popular fiction, including, Dracula, Monte Cristo, and Golem. In 2007, Svoboda committed suicide in the garden of his home in Jevany.

Critics were unkind to Sing, Cowboy, Sing. Renate Holland-Moritz, the resident film critic for East Germany’s humor magazine Eulenspiegel, found Reed’s directing unfocused and felt he was unable to tell the difference between what’s funny and what’s merely absurd, and West Germany’s Cinema magazine called the film amateurish slapstick. As is often the case with intentionally silly films, the general public found the movie more entertaining than the critics did. The film was a hit. As inane as much of the humor is, Reed’s ingratiating personality and his obvious cowboy credentials carry the movie. This would be Dean Reed’s last film for DEFA before his death.

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Anton der Zauberer
Of all the surprises that East German films bring to American viewers, the biggest one—excluding the psychedelia of In the Dust of the Stars, which is guaranteed to make anyone’s head explode—is how dark the humor in their comedies can be. Of course, the target for this kind of comedy is nearly always western-style capitalism and the avariciousness of its followers, but in black humor there is an inherent, if unspoken, acknowledgement that people are the same everywhere: corrupt, easily manipulated and foolish. These films may not point directly at the SED, but, as the saying goes, whenever you point at someone, three fingers point back at you.

Anton the Magician (Anton der Zauberer) has plenty to say about the corrupting effects the pursuit of money can have on a person, but it also says something about the ability of any huckster to game a system, whether it’s communist or capitalist. The film is the picaresque tale of Anton Grubske, a clever mechanic whose love of cars, women, and booze continually get him into to trouble. The story is told as a flashback, starting with Anton’s funeral then jumping back to his birth. We follow Anton’s story through his teenage years, the war, its aftermath, the early years of the GDR, and right through the building of the Wall, which plays an important part in this story.

Anton is portrayed as a sly man with a likable personality and a way with all things automotive. After narrowly escaping emprisonment by the Russians, he joins in a pecuniary—and sometimes sexual—partnership with Sabine, the owner of Zum verwunschenen Ritter (The Enchanted Knight), a bar that is named after its primary attraction: a mummified knight on display in a small chapel next to the bar. The knight figures prominently in the story. Anton returns to it often, and it is even used as part of a local parade. The metaphor isn’t subtle. Anton is the knight, and the adjective—verwunschenen, which can be translated as either “enchanted,” “accursed,” or “haunted”—certainly applies to him as well.

Anton and mummified knight

Anton the Magician is a morality play with the full spectrum of moral viewpoints on display, from the religious piety of Anton’s wife Liesel, to the avaricious amorality of Sabine. It is between these extremes that Anton is buffeted. At first, he sides with Sabine, who helps him create a black market business for tractors built from the remains of old Wehrmacht vehicles. This enterprise makes him so much money that he has to hide it from the state. He and Sabine sneak across the border with the money to deposit it in a West German bank. When the wall is built, Anton finds himself cut off from his funds. To make matters worse, Sabine takes the money out of the bank and runs off to Switzerland. Anton is thrown in prison for his black market business after one of his customers rats him out, not out of civic duty, but because Anton gave the tractor that was suppose to be his to another customer with more money.

While in prison, Anton starts reading Marx and Engel and is reborn as a loyal citizen. His knowledge of automotives makes him invaluable to the state as he helps the local Volkseigener Betrieb (VEB: publically owned business) reach their tractor quota. Anton goes from shady black entrepreneur to local hero. When Sabine dies in an accident, Anton gets what’s left of the money back, along with her 1964 Chevy Impala, which Anton uses to take out his anger and frustration in a scene that is funny, but slightly horrifying if you’re an old car enthusiast.

Anton the Magician was directed by Günter Reisch, who also gave us Oh How Joyfully…, and Wie die Alten sungen…. He specialized in comedies that were utterly East German, right down to their warp and woof. Much of the humor in his films is invariably lost on those of us in the west and Reisch wouldn’t have it any other way. If reports are correct, he was even a little testy about us Yankees daring to enoy his films. This doesn’t make them any less entertaining, and Reisch’s talent as a filmmaker cannot be denied. Although he is best remembered for his comedies, he could make a drama with the best of them, as proved in his 1980 film Die Verlobte (The Fiancée), which he co-directed with Günther Rücker. Reisch died in February 2014 and is buried at the French Cemetery (Französischer Friedhof) in Berlin (for more on Reisch, see Oh How Joyfully…).

Barbara Dittus

Like Günter Reisch’s other films, Anton the Magician has a dream cast. It stars actor/director Ulrich Thein, who is perfectly cast as the impish Anton. It’s no surprise that he won the best actor awards at the Moscow International Film Festival and Eberswalde Film Festival for his performance in this film, and he probably would have won some West German awards as well if not for the politics of the time (for more on Thein, see Star-Crossed Lovers). On a par with Ulrich Thein is Barbara Dittus, who plays the sexy and avaricious Sabine. Dittus looked like a movie star, and her delivery was the best—especially when playing lusty characters like Sabine in this film and Lucie in Her Third. The always dependable Erwin Geschonneck appears as Anton’s patient father in an unusually small role. Also making a brief appearance as Anton’s lawyer is Reisch’s favorite character actor, Marianne Wünscher, who played the annoying neighbor in Reisch’s Christmas comedies, Oh How Joyfully… and Wie die Alten sungen…, and is well-remembered as the nasty lady with the poodle in Beloved White Mouse.

I’ve discussed all of these actors in previous posts on this blog, so I’ll direct my attention here to the two relative newcomers, Anna Dymna and Marina Krogull. Anna Dymna played Liesel, Anton’s pious wife. Dymna, a Polish actress, had planned on studying psychology, but ended up at the Ludwik Solski Academy for the Dramatic Arts instead. She started appearing films while she was still attending classes at the school. Thanks to a recurring part in the popular Polish TV show, Janosik, and appearances in the comedies, Nie ma mocnych and Kochaj, albo rzuć (Love or Leave), Dymna was already a well-known actress in Poland by the time she did Anton the Magician.

Anna Dymna

Dymna made many movies in Poland, and the transition away from communism had little effect on her career. She has won awards, both for her acting and her humanitarian efforts. In 2003, she founded Mimo Wszystko (Against the Odds) a charity organization geared toward improving the lives of the sick and disabled. Of late, she has been devoting more of her time to her charity work than acting. Her last film was the 2011 drama, Fear of Falling (Lek wysokosci), which was directed by Bartosz Konopka, who gave us the delightful documentary, Rabbit à la Berlin.

Marina Krogull plays Sabine’s daughter Ilie. Although her part in the film is considerably smaller than the other leads, hers is the most psychologically complex character in the film short of Anton himself. Many of the scenes with her show a young woman observing her mother and trying to follow in her footsteps. In this sense, the character of Ilie seems as doomed as Anton.

Krogull started her career as a ballet student, but switched to acting in the mid-seveties, starting her film career in 1975 with Kurt Tetzlaff’s Looping. She continued acting after the Wende, and was, like many other East German actors, a regular on the TV hospital drama, In aller Freundschaft. She has appeared on nearly every popular German TV show at some point or another, for Edel & Starck to Wolffs Revier to Tatort and SOKO Wismar. She is also a very popular voice actress in Germany, and has done the German dubbing for everyone from Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock, to Cynthia Nixon in Sex and the City.

The mummified knight is based on a real corpse. that of Christian Friedrich von Kahlbutz, whose body is on display in the Kampehl district of Neustadt (Dosse), Brandenburg. The knight is notable for the remarkable state of preservation of his body without any mummification process involved. Local legend has it that his unusual state of preservation is due to his false testimony in court while he was being tired for the murder of a local shepherd. Von Kahlbutz supposedly said in court, “If I’m the murderer, then, by God’s will, my body will never decay” (“Wenn ich doch der Mörder bin gewesen, dann wolle Gott, soll mein Leichnam nie verwesen”).

Anton the Magician was a popular film upon release. Its dark humor suited the East German public, and its attitude toward the west suited the film board. Its jibes at capitalism probably didn’t help it get international distribution, which is unfortunate. Of all Reich’s comedies, this one is the most deserving of more attention.

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No Cheating, Darling!

In 1975, director/screenwriter Jim Sharman, along with co-author Richard O’Brien, had a huge hit with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In 1981, they decided to try again with Shock Treatment. It had the same writers, same director, and some of the same cast, but it failed miserably. It was like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. The aggregation of actors, songs, and story that worked so well in the first film just wasn’t there the second time around.

This example is just to show how difficult it can be to come up with exactly the right formula for a genre as complex as the musical. Even if you copy what seems like a working formula, it doesn’t always work. That’s what happened with No Cheating, Darling! (Nicht schummeln, Liebling!), DEFA’s follow-up to the hit, Hot Summer. It had the same stars and the same director, the cast is charming, the dance numbers are fun, and the costumes are sensational; but the final result lacks the punch of Hot Summer. While the film did well enough at the box office, it was not the hit that Hot Summer was.

The film’s title appears to be a takeoff on the 1970 West German film, Nicht fummeln, Liebling (No Pawing, Darling—which was also a follow-up to a previous popular film). No Cheating, Darling! is the story of Sonnenthal, a small town with a mayor who is so obsessed with soccer (or football, to readers from places other than North America and Australia) that all the resources of the town are being directed toward helping Sonnenthal come up with a winning team. When Dr. Barbara Schwalbe, the new technical school director, shows up, she finds it impossible to get anything she needs unless it has to do with soccer. Naturally, the mayor and Dr. Barbara are immediately at odds with each other, and she sings an ode to the mayor titled “Ich bring ihn um” (“I’ll kill him”). As is often the case in movies, these two end up romantically involved. Likewise the leaders of the men’s and women’s soccer teams (Frank Schöbel and Chris Doerk) engage in similar love/hate antics.

Schoebel and Doerk

Joachim Hasler directed three films starring Frank Schöbel (for more on Joachim Hasler, see The Story of a Murder). Mr. Schöbel and Mr. Hasler first worked together on Reise ins Ehebett (Journey into the Nuptial Bed) with Anna Prucnal as the romantic interest. Mr. Schöbel also made a film under a different director—Hochzeitsnacht im Regen (Wedding Night in the Rain)—which, like this film, did well enough at the box office, but couldn’t match Hot Summer’s numbers. It wasn’t until the singer was paired with his then wife, Chris Doerk, that Hasler and Schöbel had their first box office smash. Hot Summer remains one of the top-selling East Germany films of all time and was reinvented as musical theater in 2005.

For Reise ins Ehebett and Hot Summer, Mr. Hasler used Gerd Natschinski and his son Thomas to compose the music. For No Cheating Darling!, the music is more of a collective effort with songs by Gerd Natschinski, Frank Schöbel, and Gerhard Siebholz. Mr. Siebholz had composed the music for Hochzeitsnacht im Regen—Frank Schöbel’s feature film that Joachim Hasler did not direct. Mr. Siebholz was a very successful composer who worked often with Mr. Schöbel and Ms. Doerk. He didn’t often write music for movie soundtracks, but he did compose many hit songs for popular East German singers, including Ruth Brandin, Hauff & Henkler, and Britt Kersten. His musical style is more in keeping with the schlager-style of music that is popular with older people in Germany. As a consequence, the songs here don’t have the punch of the Gerd and Thomas Natschinski’s rock-inflected tunes in Hot Summer.

No Cheating, Darling! features Chris Doerk with her best haircut ever, and Mr. Schöbel with his worst. During the late sixties and early seventies, Doerk and Schöbel were two of the most popular singers in East Germany. They won the Schlagerwettbewerb der DDR (an East German song contest) twice, and for most of the late sixties and early seventies they were the darlings of East German television. After they split up, they each continued with successful music careers. Mr. Schöbel was the bigger star in East Germany, but Ms. Doerk was very popular, and was also a big star in Cuba. She later wrote a book about her travels there (La Casita, Geschichten aus Cuba).

Chris Doerk

After the Wende, Frank Schöbel continued to perform, primarily in the eastern half of the country. His Christmas album, Weihnachten in Familie which he sang with his second ex-wife, Spanish singer Aurora Lacasa, was also a hit and continues to sell well at Christmas time every year. Chris Doerk suffered problems with her voice quite performing for a while. She is now singing again, but only intermittently, and she occassionally appears with Mr. Schöbel. Her most recent album, Nur eine Sommerliebe, was released in 2012 on the Buschfunk label.

Playing the headstrong school director is the beautiful Dorit Gäbler. Ms. Gäbler came to films with a background in musical theater. She is a strong singer and a fine actress. She started appearing in TV movies in the late sixties, and made her first feature film appearance in Nebelnacht (Foggy Night) in 1968. She appeared in several TV movies and feature films throughout the seventies and eighties, including a fun bit in Motoring Tales—a daffy movie that combines fairytales and cars. Since the Wende, her on-screen career has been restricted to television. Like many other East German actors, she showed up in a few episodes of the Leipzig hospital drama, In aller Freunschaft. She continues to perform in cabaret programs, and just finished a tour in October of Rote Rosen für Mackie Messer (Red Roses for Mack the Knife), an evening of songs and stories about the criminal underworld in the days of The Three Penny Opera. She also does tribute programs dedicated to the songs of Marlene Dietrich and Hildegard Knef.

Gäbler and Fiala

Playing opposite Ms. Gäbler is Karel Fiala, a Czech singer/actor, who, like Ms. Gäbler, came from a musical theater background. He started his film career playing the title role in the film adaptation of Smetana’s Opera, Dalibor, but he made his biggest splash in the mind-bendingly nutty comedy-western, Lemonade Joe (Limonádový Joe aneb Konská opera). He also put in a  brief appearance in Amadeus as the actor in the title role of Don Giovanni. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Mr. Fiala found it nearly impossible to secure film roles, but continued to perform on stage. In 2013, he received  a lifetime achievement award at the Czech Thalia Awards (Ceny Thálie) for his work in musical theater.

But the real stars of this film are the costumes and the dancing. The costumes were created by Helga Scherff. Ms. Scherff had already proved her talent for pop clothing design in Gottfried Kolditz’s entertaining musical Midnight Revue, and she would prove it again in Hostess. Like Star Trek and I Dream of Jeannie during the sixties, there seems to be a conscious effort here to cover up the navels of the women. You catch glimpses of them early in the film, but they are very fleeting. This is tricky business since several of Ms. Scherff’s outfits feature bare midriffs, In one case, decorative belts are worn that seem to have the sole purpose of hiding the navel. It is such an odd detail, that I can’t help but suspect that these belts were added during production to placate the censors.

Nicht fummeln, Liebling!

The dance numbers are choreographed by Gisela Walther, who did the choreography for Hot Summer and Hochzeitsnacht im Regen. Ms. Walther was the ballet director at the Friedrichstadt-Palastes in Berlin, and won the National Prize of the GDR (Nationalpreis der DDR) in 1977 for her work there. Dancers from the Friedrichstadt-Palastes appear in the film doing the type of synchronized, Rockettes-style dancing for which they are justifiably well-known. Also appearing are the children of Dresden’s Kinderballett Morena in a short but entertaining synchronized rope jumping routine.

No Cheating, Darling! came out a month after The Legend of Paul and Paula, one of the most beloved films to ever play in East Germany. This surely impacted its success. The inevitable comparisons to Hot Summer didn’t help either. Taken on its own, No Cheating, Darling! is an entertaining little comedy, with some great costumes and dance routines. Ironically, its theme about the problem of channeling funds away from education to sports is much more relevant in modern America than it ever was in East Germany.

 

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Latest from the Da-Da-R

Identifying the beginning of the East German movie industry is easy. It began in 1946 with The Murderers Are  Among Us. That film—started before DEFA even existed—was the first of a long line of excellent films to come out of the GDR before the whole system came crashing down under the weight of its own ossification and blinkered leadership. Pinpointing the end of East German Cinema is a little more complicated. Several films were already “in the can,” so to speak, when the wall came down. Production at DEFA continued after East Germany no longer existed, right up until 1992, when the company was dismantled in the name of capitalism. Novalis – Die blaue Blume is credited with being the last film put out under the old DEFA badge, but philosophically and thematically, if not literally, the last film to come out of East Germany was Latest from the Da-Da-R (Letztes aus der DaDaeR), a satirical look at life in East Germany at the end of its forty-year existence.

The film follows the exploits of two clowns (literally) during the dying days of the GDR, from their release from prison, through a garbage dump, down a river to hell, through the surrealistic landscape of post-Mauerfall East Germany, and into a slaughterhouse, with scenes as shocking as those in Georges Franju’s Le sang des bêtes. The story is not told as a continuous journey, but as a series of skits and musical numbers, each a little darker than the last. Some of the scenes look improvised. The scene at the bonfire protest seems as spontaneous as Haskell Wexler’s footage of the police riots in Medium Cool. There is an improvisational quality to the routines, and certain aspects—such as the use of objects to represent other things—betray the theatrical roots of the routines. The criticism is sharp, but even-handed, attacking the stodgy leadership of East Germany and the callow behavior of West Germans alike. It is not hyperbole to say that one year earlier this film could not have been made. I doubt that it could have been made one year later either, after western interests took over the film studio and profit became the main motivating factor. This film exists as a record of an extremely specific time in German cinema history.

Latest From the Da-Da-R

Filming began after the wall came down, and was made by the newly formed artists’ work group (künstlerische Arbeitsgruppe), “DaDaeR.” The name is a play on “DDR” (the abbreviation for Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and “Dada”. In German, the “Letztes” in the film’s title can be translated as “the last” or “the latest”, giving the title a double punch. The film is filled with such witticisms, several of which are specifically intended for East German audiences only. The mailman with the broken bicycle is Gustav-Adolf Schur, an East German bicyclist as well known in the GDR as Lance Armstrong is in the United States; and the garbageman was played by the popular East German writer Christoph Hein. Much of the humor in the film cannot be fully appreciated by anyone who didn’t live in the GDR, but the film has enough other things going on to keep the rest of us entertained.

Latest from the Da-Da-R stars Steffen Mensching and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel. They also wrote the screenplay. It was the final product of comedy reviews they performed in the eighties, starting with Neues aus der DaDaer (News—or newest—from the Da-Da-R) and followed by Altes aus der DaDaer (Oldest—or Old Newsfrom the Da-Da-R). Mensching and Wenzel joined forces in 1980, when Steffen Mensching joined Wenzel’s theater group, Karls Enkel. Wenzel and Mensching developed the clown characters, Meh and Weh—abbreviations of their last names, but also puns on indifference and woe.

In 1989, Mensching and Wenzel helped draft the “Resolution of Rock Musicians and Songwriters” (Resolution von Rockmusikern und Liedermachern), a protest letter sent to the SED warning that the government’s indifference to the needs of the people was in danger of causing the country’s collapse. The SED’s reaction to the resolution was swift and stupid. Tour dates were cancelled and prohibitions were placed on the signatories. That was September 18, 1989. A little over a year later, the GDR would cease to exist.

After the wall fell, Mr. Mensching and Mr. Wenzel continued to perform together from time to time, but each went on to do other things. Mr. Mensching occasionally performs and directs theater productions, most recently working with the Theater Rudolstadt. Mr. Wenzel continues to perform, primarily as a singer-songwriter (and the songs in Latest from the Da-Da-R are very good). He was invited by Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora to create German versions of her father’s songs, resulting in his 2003 album Ticky Tock, on which Mr. Wenzel sings Guthrie’s songs in German and English.

Letztes aus der DaDaeR

Latest from the Da-Da-R was directed by Jörg Foth. Mr. Foth was part of the “Nachwuchsgeneration” (next generation)—a group of young filmmakers who trained as filmmakers, only to find that opportunities to practice their craft were blocked by the clogged infrastructure that was endemic to East Germany in the eighties. Mr. Foth took a roundabout route to his eventually career as a director. He graduated from high school with a certificate as a cook, but then joined the Volksmarine as a radio operator. Upon leaving the Volksmarine, Mr. Foth started working as a volunteer at the East German television company, which eventually led to a diploma in film studies from the film school in Babelsberg.

He worked as as an assistant director on several films, including Blauvogel (Blue Bird), Die Verlobte (The Fiancee), and Die Kolonie (The Colony), eventually getting a chance to direct in 1984, with the children’s film Das Eismeer ruft (The Arctic Sea Calls).  In spite of good reviews, further jobs directing feature films were not forthcoming. He made a few more short films and documentaries, and co-directed the Vietnamese/East German joint production Dschungelzeit (Jungle Time), but it wasn’t until the wall fell that he was finally given a permanent position as a director at DEFA. Of course, “permanent” is a qualified term, even in the best of times, but during those tumultuous times, it meant less than a year.

Since the Wende, Mr. Foth has had very few opportunities to demonstrate his talent. He has worked on a few TV shows and made a few short films, but Latest from the Da Da R was his last feature film.

Irm Hermann

Playing Meh and Weh’s jailer—identified only as “She”—is Irm Hermann. Anyone familiar with the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder will recognize her immediately. She appeared in most of his films, sometimes in small roles, and other times as one of the leads. She was a founding members of Fassbinder’s antiteater (anti-theater) and appeared in Fassbinder’s early short films as well as his early features. She was as much a muse to Fassbinder as Hannah Schygulla.  Like Schygulla, she parted ways with Fassbinder after Lili Marleen, but continued acting, appearing in dozens of films since then.

Director Foth could have had his pick from any number of excellent East German actresses to play this part. The fact that he chose a West German certainly is no accident. It addresses the feeling that—no matter what Honecker and friends would have one believe—it was the West Germans that were calling the shots. She is the one who lets them out of prison, and feeds them, and watches over them throughout, but she also the one keeping  them in prison. In one scene she is shown removing bullets from their shells. A reference to disarmament, certainly, but whose ammo is she dismantling?1

As you can no doubt tell, there is a lot going on in this film. It is impossible to catch it all in one viewing. To help with this, the DEFA Library has included essays and an interview with the director as PDF files on the American DVD. If, like me, you have an aversion to clowns and mimes, you may approach this film with some trepidation, but don’t let the white facepaint put you off. This is an exceptional film.

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1. Perhaps a reader with better knowledge of such things than I can provide better information on this.

Wie die Alten sungen

Since the early days of cinema, there have been sequels. Thomas Dixon Jr.—the man who wrote the book upon which The Birth of a Nation was based—attempted one when he directed his own script of The Fall of a Nation (it bombed). Universal Pictures made an industry out of sequels during the thirties and forties with films such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Dracula, and The Mummy’s Ghost. Movie sequels tapered off with the introduction of television. Why wait for a sequel to the latest Francis the Talking Mule movie, when you could have Mr. Ed once a week? During the seventies, sequels came back with a vengeance as Hollywood, bereft of ideas, found it more profitable to keep remaking its successful movies rather than take chances on new ideas.

While sequels often indicate creative timidity, this certainly doesn’t apply to Like Father, Like Son. This is as unique a movie as you are likely to see. It was made in 1986, which doesn’t mean much until you take into account that the film it follows was made in 1962. Even that wouldn’t count for much if not for the fact that the film featured the same director and virtually the same cast as the original film. The only major omissions are Walter Jupé (who played Herr Klinkhöfer) and Herwart Grosse (who played Thomas’ father), and they are only missing because both men were dead by the time the second film was made, and in the sequel, Mrs. Klinkhöfer is now a widow. Even minor characters come back with the same actors: The drunken ex-butcher is still in the pub lamenting the state of things, Walter’s date Peggy is now his wife, and the ubiquitous Fred Delmare, who played the taxi driver in the first film, shows up here as as an attendant at the hospital.

In the first film, Walter Lörke’s daughter Anne shows up to let him know that she is pregnant and planning to marry a man whose loyalty to the ideals of the state are somewhat questionable. In the second film, Anne’s daughter, Maria, nicknamed Twini, is now a 17-year-old and shows up at Walter Lörke’s apartment on Christmas to let him know that—like her mother before her—Twini too is pregnant (strictly speaking, Twini should be 24 at this point, but movie time is more elastic than real time). In the sequel, the point of conflict is not one of politics but of socio-sexual mores. Twini is indifferent to marriage and she is currently living with two men she’s had sex with. As the story progresses, the film moves seamlessly between the events in the 1962 black-and-white film and the 1986 color film. That this was possible is due, in no small part, to the fact that director Günter Reisch is also the screenwriter, but props also must be given to his film editor, Monika Schindler, whose work on this film would have garnered her an Academy Award nomination had this been a Hollywood production.

Ms. Schindler was not the editor on the first film. Her career was just getting started back in 1962. At that time, she was still working on the short “Stacheltier” films that were shown before the main features. One of her first feature films, When you Grow Up Dear Adam, had the misfortune of being banned during the 11th Plenum. This certainly didn’t help her career any, but she continued to find work and soon was one of the most sought after editors at DEFA. She is also one of the few who successfully made the jump from DEFA to the film studios of unified Germany. This alone is proof of her skill since, at the time, the western studios demonstrated a strong prejudice against the technicians from the east. She has won several awards and in 2013 was recognized by the DEFA Foundations for outstanding achievements in the film arts. She continues to work, most recently on Stephan Lacant’s Freier Fall (Free Fall).

Like Father, Like Son was the last feature film directed by Günter Reisch. Unlike Monika Schindler, Mr. Reisch would find no directing jobs in the new Germany. We discussed Günter Reisch and the main actors in the previous post, so let’s take a look at the rest of the cast this time, both new and old.

Andrea Lüdke

Playing Twini is the beautiful Andrea Lüdke. Ms. Lüdke got her start as a stage technician at the Theater der Altmark in Stendal. She first appeared on stage as a stand-in when an actress either flaked out or couldn’t cut it. This experience led her into acting, at first on stage and eventually in films. Like Father, Like Son was her first feature film and she holds her own against the veterans here. In July of 1989, months before the wall finally fell, Ms. Lüdke left East Germany and moved to Hamburg, where she still resides. After the Wende, Ms. Lüdke had more success than many other DEFA actors in finding acting work. She became familiar as Tanja König on four seasons Großstadtrevier, a long-running cop show about crime in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district.

The clueless but well-intentioned “King” is played by another newcomer, Karsten Speck. Mr. Speck was a member of the comedy ensemble at Die Distel, an East Berlin Cabaret. Before the wall fell, he was one of the hosts for the Saturday night variety extravaganza, Ein Kessel Buntes (The Colorful Kettle). After the Wende, the show was taken over by ARD and Speck became the permanent host. The show ended in 1992. After that, Speck continued his career as an actor on TV in several popular TV shows, most notably, Hallo Robbie! and Barfuß ins Bett (Barefoot in Bed). In 2010 he was convicted of real estate fraud and sentenced to five years in Hakenfelde Prison in Berlin. The same prison that housed the East German officials Egon Krenz, Günter Schabowski, and Heinz Keßler after reunification.

The most amazing performance in Like Father, Like Son belongs to Mathilde Danegger, the grandmother in the first film and a great-grandmother in the second. She was already retirement age when the first movie was made, and pushing ninety during the second. Ms. Danegger was born in 1903 in Austria. She is the daughter of the well-known actor, Josef Danegger, and got her start in films in Michael Curtiz’s Labyrinth des Grauens (Labyrinth of Horror) in 1921. A dedicated communist, Ms. Danegger left Austria and emigrated to East Germany after the war. Wie die Alten sungen… was her last motion picture.

By itself, Like Father, Like Son is not a particularly original story. Most of the situations in this films had already occurred in dozens of films before it. But as a cinematic construct, there is no other film quite like it. It treads close to conceptual art in its execution, and it’s doubtful that we will see another feature film using this technique. DEFA’s uniquely insular community made it possible for all these actors to stay in the same film circles nearly thirty years later. Hollywood with its fifteen minute approach to stardom does not create the same opportunities. Kurosawa did something similar with his frequent use of Toshiro Mifune and Isao Kimura, but the screenplays rarely overlapped. Bollywood has been known to make sequels twenty years later (Aashiqui and Aashiqui 2, for example), but not with exactly the same cast and director. As a piece of cinema, Like Father , Like Son stands alone.

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Ach du froeliche

There is something in human nature that requires a Winter Solstice celebration. It doesn’t matter if you are a Christian, an atheist, a pagan, or a Jew, when the days reach their shortest, we need a festival of light. This is especially true in the northern climes, where the days get dark and frigid. The first Christians tried to get people to stop celebrating Saturnalia at this time of year, but finally gave up and co-opted the holiday, claiming it as their own and calling it Christmas. Whether you call it Christmas, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice, or Weihnacht, something in us needs a festival at this time of year, so even the dyed-in-the-wool communists in East Germany found themselves celebrating the holidays. That, to some extent, is what this movie is about.

A Lively Christmas Eve (Ach, du fröhliche…)1 takes place—as the English title suggests—on Christmas eve, the day when German families traditionally get together to open their presents. As is often the case with families, both in films and real life, Christmas can be the time when family members who have spent most of the year avoiding each other are forced into the same room together and finally blow up. The film follows the adventures of a Christmas eve at the Lörke apartment. Walter Lörke, the family patrician and card-carrying communist, is introduced to Thomas Ostermann, his daughter Anne’s new beau. Thomas has nothing good to say about the state and soon he and Walter are at it with each other. To make matters worse, Anne is pregnant and is planning to keep the baby. What’s a father to do?

The film is based on Vratislav Blažek’s play, Und das am Heiligabend (And on Christmas Eve), which was made into a TV-movie a year earlier. The play was then reworked as Ach, du fröhliche, which was then made into a novelization of the film—also written by Mr. Blažek. Mr. Blažek was a Czechoslovakian playwright who specialized in social satire. As one might imagine, his plays, from time to time, came under fire for their jibes at life in a socialist country. In 1968, Blažek left Czechoslovakia, taking up residence in Munich.

A Lively Christmas Eve was directed by Günter Reisch. Like the former Pope, Mr. Reisch was drafted into the Nazi party as a teenager during the waning years of the Third Reich. Mr. Reisch was captured by the Americans soon thereafter and spent a short time as a prisoner of war before joining one of the anti-fascist schools set up by the Soviets. Mr. Reisch appears to have taken these lessons to heart. He stayed true to the GDR’s core principles until the end.

Günter Reisch enrolled at DEFA’s film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg, and upon graduation was hired as the assistant director to Gerhard Lamprecht on Quartett zu fünft (Fifth Quartet). His next job as assistant director was on Kurt Maetzig’s Council of the Gods. Over the next few years he worked with Mr. Maetzig on several more films, including The Story of a Young Couple and the Ernst Thälmann films. In 1956, he began his career as a director with Junges Gemüse (Small Fries), but it was with his next film, Spur in die Nacht (Track in the Night) that he started to gain attention. This was also the first of his films that he both wrote and directed, a practice he would continue throughout his career. His films often tackle the issue of bourgeois values in a socialist state, although usually in a lighthearted manner (as was the case in the U.S. during the Hayes Code years, it was often easier to get things past the censors if you wrapped them in comedy).

After the Wende, Mr. Reisch’s career as a filmmaker ended. He began teaching film at several universities in Germany and Italy, including the Konrad Wolf Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg. He was an important mentor to Andreas Dresen, who went on to become one of Germany’s most respected filmmakers.

Playing Walter Lörke is Erwin Geschonneck, who needs no introduction to EGC blog readers at this point. He appeared or starred in some of the best films to come out of East Germany, many of which we have already discussed here in depth, including Carbide and Sorrel, The Ax of Wandsbek, Castles and Cottages, and Heart of Stone. Mr. Geschonneck brings his usual gruff charm and impeccable comic timing to the part of the put-upon patriarch of the Lörke family.

Playing the daughter Anne is Karin Schröder. Ms. Schröder was planning to be a stenographer when Günter Reisch discovered her and put her in his film, Silvesterpunsch (New Year’s Punch). An exceptionally attractive young woman, Ms. Schröder was to star in several more film, making her biggest splash as the adorable scooter rider in Beloved White Mouse. In 1987, she emigrated from East Germany to the west, where she continued to appear in films and on television. She was a regular on the popular crime drama Die Wache (The Guard) and has appeared in many other popular German TV shows including Unter Uns, In aller Freundschaft, Tatort, and Alles Klara.

The contrarian Thomas is played by Arno Wyzniewski. Mr. Wyzniewski is well-known to East German audiences. Gaunt-faced and dark-eyed, he was a striking-looking man who appeared in everything from Five Cartridges to The Baldheaded Gang, but it was his appearance as the frail but determined Sepp Gomulka in The Adventures of Werner Holt that caused the public to first sit up and take notice of him. Although he did occasionally play the lead, he was better known as a character actor, appearing as secondary characters in many classic DEFA films. In 1985, he made a big splash playing King Friedrich II in the popular TV miniseries, Sachsens Glanz und Preußens Gloria (Saxony and Prussia’s Blaze of Glory). He reprised the role twice more for the sequels and is, to this day, still remembered as King Friedrich by East Germans of a certain age.

After the Wende, he continued to act, primarily in television. He was last seen in America as Kuk, the unlucky contestant on the wheel of fortune in the “Eating Pattern” episode of Lexx—a strange Canadian/German science fiction co-production about a giant dragonfly-shaped spaceship with a sexy love slave, a robot head, a dead assassin, and feckless security guard on board. This would be one of his last performances. He died a few months after it aired and is buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin.

Worthy of special mention here is Marianne Wünscher, who played the pesky neighbor, Mrs. Klinkhöfer. Ms. Wünscher was a popular character actor in East Germany. She is best known as an uptight poodle owner and the nemesis of Karin Schröder’s character in Beloved White Mouse. Ms. Wünscher was an extremely active performer, appearing in many movies, television shows, and stage productions throughout her career. She also served as a Berlin city council member for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPD) from 1977 to 1981. She died August 9, 1990, after the wall came down, but before the reunification of Germany.

Although it is unquestionably a light comedy, A Lively Christmas Eve has a certain bite to it. Had it been made in 1965 it would have, undoubtedly fallen victim to the 11th Plenum’s attack on the arts. The film’s gentle ribbing of the state would not have been tolerated three years later.

The film was very popular, even though it was released in October, well before the Christmas season. It also has the unusual distinction of spawning a sequel…twenty years later. But that is another story for next time.

IMDB page for this film.

This film is not currently available, but can be found on Veoh—a very problematic source of films.


1.The German title for this film, “Ach, du fröhliche,” usually appears as “O, du fröhliche,” and is a very popular Christmas song in Germany. When the song is sung in English, it usually appears as “Oh, How Joyfully,” but is sometimes titled “Oh Ye Joyful People.” More often, the song is played as a Christmas instrumental number under its original title, “O sanctissima.” The DEFA Film Library at UMass lists the name of this movie as A Lively Christmas Eve, so that is what I am using here.

Hände hoch oder ich schieße

If you want to see a perfect example of the utter lunacy of the 11th Plenum, look no further than Hands Up, or I’ll Shoot! (Hände hoch oder ich schieße). This film is about as innocuous a movie as one could hope for, yet, the SED felt the need to ban it alongside nearly every other film slated for release in 1966. Apparently the idea that a Volkspolizei might be suffer from depression was enough to set them off. In spite of attempts to placate the authorities with cuts and revisions, the film ended up on the shelf, unscreened until after the Wende.

The film tells the story of Holms, a cop in the sleepy East German hamlet of Wolkenheim. Holms had wanted to be a policeman since he was a boy, but the town in which he lives is so crime free that there is little for him to do beyond helping a local couple find their rabbit. He starts having daydreams about catching gangster and soon sees the local doctor for depression.

One of Holm’s best friends is a retired crook named Pinkas. Worried about his buddy’s mental health. Pinkas organizes a gang of retired crooks to steal the statue from the Marketplace, giving Holms a case to solve, but things spiral out of control from there. What follows is a comedy of errors, with Holms and the crooks, crossing each others paths again and again.

The film stars Rolf Herricht as Holms, who is no stranger to the East German Cinema blog. He has appeared in several of the films mentioned here, either in major roles (Beloved White Mouse, Not to Me, Madam!), or smaller parts (On the Sunny Side, For Eyes Only). Although primarily a comic actor, like many other comic actors he proved he was capable of playing it straight as well. On television he regularly appeared with in skits with fellow comedian, Hans Joachim Preil, who appears in this film as the aging gangster, Elster Paule. (For more information on Rolf Herricht, see Beloved White Mouse).

Playing Holms’ well-intentioned but misguided pal Pinkas is the Czech actor, Zdeněk Štěpánek. Grandson of the Czech playwright, Jan Nepomuk Štěpánek, Zdeněk Štěpánek was a well-known and popular actor in Czechoslovakia, first appearing in films in 1922. Throughout the WWII years, he continued to appear in movies in his home country, including Ulicka v ráji (Paradise Road), Bílá nemoc (Skeleton on Horseback), and Cech panen kutnohorských (The Merry Wives). Like his grandfather, he also wrote several successful plays, which he also directed on stage. He died in Prague in 1968. His children have gone on to become successful actors in the Czech Republic.

Herbert Köfer

The rest of the cast is fun to watch. Especially Herbert Köfer, who plays the derby-wearing Heuschnupf das Aas—the de facto leader of the gang while Pinkas is indisposed. Also appearing is Rolf Herricht’s longtime skit partner, Hans-Joachim Preil. The love interest is played by the charming Agnes Kraus, and putting in a brief appearance playing an American buffoon—as he did in Carbide and Sorrel—is Hans-Dieter Schlegel.

The director of Hands Up or I’ll Shoot! was Hans-Joachim Kasprzik, and his is a sad story indeed. Mr. Kasprzik got his start as an assistant director in the fifties, working alongside such pros as Konrad Wolf, Joachim Hasler, and Kurt Maetzig. Starting in 1960, he began directing Stacheltier shorts and made-for-TV movies. In 1964, he had a big hit with the TV miniseries Wolf unter Wölfen, starring Armin Mueller-Stahl. Armed with the success of this series, Mr. Kasprzik directed Hands Up or I’ll Shoot!—his first feature film. Unfortunately for him, this was the worst possible time in the history of the GDR to begin a feature film directing career. Mr. Kasprzik’s movie got caught in the SED’s attack against DEFA’s perceived liberality. Thus, Hands Up or I’ll Shoot! achieved the dubious distinction of being the last film banned during the “Kahlschlag” (literally, clear-cutting) of the 11th Plenum.

For the rest of his career as a director, Mr. Kasprzik was relegated to television, where he had considerable success. His series of TV movies, Sachsens Glanz und Preußens Gloria (Saxony and Prussia’s Blaze of Glory) were extremely popular in East Germany. His career ended with the Wende. His last act as a director was to helm an episode of the popular East German cop show, Polizeiruf 110 a month before the wall opened. Having turned sixty shortly before the Wende, with no feature films to his credit, Mr. Kasprzik found it hard to find work in the newly united Germany. He retired from filmmaking and died in 1997 in Berlin.

In the 1970s, the film was brought up for reconsideration, after the screenplay’s author, Rudi Strahl, turned the story into a successful play, titled Noch mal ein Ding drehn, but the film remained banned. As was the case in the U.S.A. during the Tennessee Williams years, there were some things you could do on the stage that still couldn’t be done on film.

The screenplay’s author, Rudi Strahl, was a successful writer in the GDR. He had written several plays, a few satires, and even a children’s book based on the popular children’s TV-show character, Sandmännchen. At the age of twenty, he became a member of the Volkspolizei, and later the NVA (National People’s Army), where he rose to the rank of lieutenant. In the mid-fifties, he started getting stories published, and attended the Leipzig German Literature Institute (Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig) at the University of Leipzig. Afterward he became an editor at Eulenspiegel, the popular East German satirical magazine. During the sixties he began writing screenplays, starting with Der Reserveheld (The Reserve Hero), which also starred Rolf Herricht. In spite of the reaction of the 11th Plenum to Hands Up or I’ll Shoot!, Strahl continued to write screenplays throughout the sixties and seventies. He is one of the only East German playwrights whose work was also performed in West Germany. He died in Berlin in 1980, but his stories and plays continued to be adapted for television and movies until well after the fall of the wall—a testament to the quality of his work. His play, Ein seltsamer Heiliger (A Strange Saint) was adapted into a made-for-TV movie in 1995, and an episode of the popular West German TV show Berliner Weiße mit Schuß was also based on his work.

The story of Hands Up or I’ll Shoot! is happier than many other banned films from East Germany (see The Dove on the Roof). After the Wende, DEFA-Stiftung and the Bundesarchiv discovered 570 canisters containing material from this film. Using the original screenplay, the film was carefully reconstructed and finally screened in 2009. Included in the found footage were color sequences that were shot, but, sadly, never used for the dream sequences. These are not used in the final print  either, but the original animated title sequence was also found and has been restored.

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On the Sunny Side

On the Sunny Side (Auf der Sonnenseite) is an entertaining little film about a man named Martin Hoff, who goes from working in a steel foundry to taking drama classes, only to be kicked out because of his behavior. It stars Manfred Krug, who, like Hoff, was working as a steelworker when he started taking drama classes at the State Drama School in Berlin (now the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts), and like Hoff was kicked out for his behavior. Krug, however, eventually found his way into Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, and from there into movies. But that is not what this film is about. Most of the plot concerns Martin Hoff’s attempts to woo Ottilie Zinn, the pretty architect who is in charge of a project on which Hoff is working. Zinn’s aloof indifference toward him provokes Hoff to take a bet from his compatriots that he can woo her. It’s an old plot that has been used in films from Guys and Dolls to How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and with similar results.

On the Sunny Side was a popular film that—along with Midnight Revue, released a few months later—helped cement Manfred Krug’s reputation as a singer as well as an actor. Mr. Krug started in films in 1957, usually playing the heavy. He starred in several TV-movies at the start of his career, playing everything from the reprehensible Locky McCormick in the East German made-for-TV version of Johnny Belinda, to Mephisto in a TV adaptation of Faust.

In 1966, he turned in a performance as Hannes Balla in Trace of Stones that would have been a career-defining role for most actors, but the film was quickly pulled from theaters as a result of the idiotic 11th Plenum. While the Plenum was a career ender for several people at DEFA, the banning of Trace of Stones had little effect on Krug’s career. He continued to appear in films and released several albums on the GDR’s Amiga label. He often collaborated with jazz musician and film composer Gunther Fischer, with Fischer writing the music and Krug writing the lyrics under the pseudonym, “Clemens Kerber.”

Then in 1976, he was joined the protest against the expatriation of leftist singer, Wolf Biermann. For most of the DEFA actors, directors and writers who signed this protest, the move proved to be the end of their film careers in East Germany, but Krug didn’t stick around to find out. Born in Duisberg in 1937, Mr. Krug was a West German by birth and was able to use this fact to leave the GDR as soon as it became apparent that the SED was not going to respond to the protest with anything other than repression and surveillance. Mr. Krug quickly established a new career in West Germany, primarily in television, where he made a splash as truck driver Franz Meersdonk in the popular TV series, Auf Achse (On the Axle) and later as the lawyer Robert Liebling on Jurek Becker’s Liebling Kreuzberg. (For more on Manfred Krug, see The Trace of Stones.)

On the Sunny Side was written and directed by Ralf Kirsten. After studying theater at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Kristen went to Prague, where he studied directing at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and joined fellow DEFA directors Konrad Petzold and Frank Beyer to create the short film, Blázni mezi námi (Fools Among Us). On the Sunny Side was Kirsten’s first bona fide hit. He teamed up with Manfred Krug again the following year to make Beschreibung eines Sommers (Description of a Summer), which also was also a hit with the public. He went on to make several more popular films, including Mir nach, Canaillen! (Follow Me, Canaillen!), Frau Venus und ihr Teufel (Venus and her Devil), Die Elixiere des Teufels (The Devil’s Elixir), and Unterm Birnbaum (Under the Pear Tree). After the Wende, Kirsten found it more difficult to find work as director and began teaching at the film school in Babelsberg. He died in 1998 in Berlin.

Playing the independent and lovely Ottilie is Marita Böhme. After training to be a pre-school teacher, Ms. Böhme began studying theater at the State Drama school in Berlin. A gifted singer, she often appeared in musicals and operettas. She appeared in several movies, in roles of varying importance. She appeared the year after On the Sunny Side in Ralf Kirsten’s Beschreibung eines Sommers, although this time not as Manfred Krug’s love interest. She is best remembered for her role in Carbide and Sorrel. After the Wende she became a regular on Polizeiruf 110 as Opera director Edith Reger.

In spite of being released in the middle of winter, On the Sunny Side was a big hit. The public was looking for something cheerful to take their minds off the increasing tensions between east and west and the recent construction of the Berlin Wall, and Kirsten’s film fit the bill. Today it seems like very light fare, but its importance to the times should not be underestimated. It was the right film at the right time.

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