Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

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.

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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).

Die Beteiligten
The Persons Involved (Die Beteiligten) came out in June, 1989, and was the last Kriminalfilm DEFA released prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is based on an actual crime that occurred back in the early sixties. The film follows the story of two police inspectors investigating the drowning death of a young woman who apparently strayed too close to the water while picking pussy willows. She was with her boss Willi Stegmeier and his personal secretary Anna Sell at the time, but the older inspector is a well-respected member of the community, and is loathe to even consider that a crime has been committed. He chalks the woman’s death up to suicide, the younger inspector is new to the town and has none of the history that appears to be affecting the older policeman’s conclusion. He begins to investigate, disrupting the status quo in the community and endangering his relationships with comrades and friends.

The film was directed by Horst E. Brandt. Before becoming a director, Brandt was a respected cinematographer, and you can see his work in Black Velvet, A Lively Christmas Eve, the second Ernst Thälmann film, and several Das Stacheltier short films. Brandt had intended for The Persons Involved to be his directorial debut, but coming as it did after the 11th Plenum, the idea of a movie about a corrupt local official was beyond consideration. They banned Hands Up or I’ll Shoot! for less. The treatment was shelved and forgotten about.

Brandt turned to politically safer fare, but he still seemed to favor crime stories. His first film, Irrlicht und Feuer (Wisp and Fire) was a TV movie starring Günther Simon, based on the book by West German writer Max von der Grün. It was co-directed by Heinz Thiel, with whom Brandt shared directing duties on his first few films. He spent the early seventies working on television shows before returning to the big screen with Between Day and Night (Zwischen Nacht und Tag), a film about the communist writer and president of the National Committee for a Free Germany, Erich Weinert.

The Persons Involved

At first glance, The Persons Involved is a contradiction in terms. It is a thriller without any thrills. It is a realistic police procedural where the crime is solved after the detective interviews several people and researches old files. No one is chased along a dark pier at night, no guns are fired, or even drawn for that matter. There is a murder and a suicide, but we see neither as it happens. Only the aftermaths are recorded. It excels at portraying the mundanity of ordinary police life, which is not likely to endear to fans of the crime genre. It fights relentlessly against every convention of a good policier. It is an anti-Krimi.

The two detectives are player by Manfred Gorr and Gunter Schoß. Both men had very successful careers in East Germany and both men continued to work primarily on stage and television, after the Wende. Schoß has become a recognized voice in Germany thanks to his work as a narrator of documentaries, radio plays and audio books. Besides his television work, Gorr often works as an actor and director at various theater venues throughout Germany

It is interesting to compare Gunter Schoß’s role in this film with his role in the earlier film, A Foggy Night (Nebelnacht). In both films Schoß plays a detective partnered with another detective who does a better job of solving things than he does. In A Foggy Night, his failing is that he’s young and inexperienced. In The Persons Involved, his failing is that he’s older and set in his ways. The man can’t win for losing!

Karin KNappe

The Persons Involved marks the last feature film for Katrin Knappe, which is a shame, because Knappe is a talented performer, with one of the most interesting faces in cinema. She belongs in the same group with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, and Giulietta Masina: They may not be classical beauties, but you can’t take your eyes off them when they’re on screen. She probably would have made a bigger splash with her first starring role, that of Boel in Rainer Simon’s Jadup and Boel, but the film was shelved for eight years, and then only released in limited distribution. Since the Wende, Knappe had appeared primarily in plays and current teaches speech and voice training in Berlin.

Special mention must be givin to Karin Gregorek, for her performance as Anna Sell, Stegmeier’s put-upon personal secretary. Gregorek is one of those actresses who rarely gets the attention she deserves, usually relegated to lesser roles in films. As with most DEFA actors, her background is in theater. Her first feature film was a small part in Slatan Dudow’s Christine, but when the film Dudow was killed in a car accident during filming, and the lead actress put into a coma, the film unfinished ended up on a shelf for eleven years. She is one of the more memorable faces in Murder Case Zernik, even though she appears uncredited. The Wende didn’t seem to have any effect on her career, and she continues working in films and television to this day. More recently, she’s become well-known as Sister Felicitas Meier, the frazzled head of a convent in the popular TV series, Um Himmels Willen (For Heaven’s Sake).

Karin Gregorek

Cinematographer Peter Badel does a great job of capturing the extraordinary drabness of police interiors in the GDR. Everything is as beige as a Band-Aid. Badel, who would later go on to specialize in documentaries, gives the film a realistic feel. If the weather is foggy, you feel the dampness, If a person is living a drab existence, you feel that as well. Here some credit must also be given to production designer Georg Wratsch and Art Director Siegfried Hausknecht. Everything in this film looks and feels grimly real.

The script for The Persons Involved stayed on a shelf until the final days of the GDR, when Brandt decided to try once again to get the film made. This time it was accepted. As it turned out, the film that he’d intended to be his first film as a director was his last. A few months later the Wall came down and Brandt, like many other East German film people, found getting work in reunified Germany nearly impossible. As far as the DEFA technicians were concerned it was less a reunification than a takeover. He turned to writing his autobiography Halbnah – Nah – Total (Close, Closer, All the Way), and compiling a reference book on East German cinematographers, Wir, die Bildermacher… (We, the image makers).

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film (part of a six film set).

Spur in die Nacht
In America, we tend to parse out films about crime into specific categories, such as heist films, detective films, film noir, mysteries, and so on. In both East and West Germany, these films are lumped into one big group: Kriminalfilme, or “crime films,” usually referred to as “Krimis.” Many West German Krimis center around a murder, but this is more unusual in East German Krimis. Murder, as an individual crime, is seen as a symptom of capitalism and less likely to occur in the GDR. In West Germany, the criminals are often members of crime organizations run by an evil masterminds, best exemplified by the Dr. Mabuse films. In East Germany, these films often revolve around West Germans and foreigners who are using the disparity between East and West Germany for their own ends. Track in the Night (Spur in die Nacht) falls squarely into this category.1 Its original title was Schmugglerkönig (Smuggler King), which gives some idea of the subject matter, but also clues the audience in to the criminals’ motives early on.

In Track in the Night, we follow the misadventures of a Berlin bricklayer named Ulli, who arrives in a small village on the Czech/German border to visit his girlfriend, Sabine. It’s skiing season, and Sabine is doing seasonal work at the local HO store. When she’s not there to meet him, he goes to the the Fuchsbau Inn where she’s staying, but Sabine isn’t there either. After a brief investigation, the local authorities decide Sabine is a Republikflüchtling—a person who left East Germany illegally—but Ulli doesn’t believe it and neither does Sabine’s friend and co-worker Traudel. Ulli starts his own investigation, and soon finds himself embroiled with a gang of smugglers.

Spur in die Nacht

In some respects, Track in the Night resembles an Alistair MacLean story (The Guns of Navarone, Breakheart Pass), where we find out later that someone we thought was possibly a bad guy turns out to be a good guy, but a good guy in this case means someone who works for the Stasi. In other respects, it resembles the format pioneered by Hitchcock, where an ordinary man is thrown into a situation outside of his usual experiences, and is forced to play the hero.

Track in the Night is the second film from director Günter Reisch. Reisch was one of East Germany’s most interesting and imaginative directors. He is best known for Anton the Magician, as well he should be, for it is a real classic, but his others films are also worth a viewing. Politically, he rarely rocked the boat, but this wasn’t out of timidity. He was resolutely socialist, and often attacked what he saw as a growing tendency toward bourgeois values in East Germany.2 His most unique contributions to cinema are the bookend films, A Lively Christmas Eve and Like Father, Like Son, filmed twenty-five years apart with nearly the same cast, right down to the bit parts.

Playing Ulli is Ulrich Thein, and this is his movie he appears in nearly every scene. He even takes to singing and playing guitar at one point. The song he sings, “Fuchsbau-Boogie,” was composed by Thein; rather quickly from the sounds of it, but it’s supposed to be an impromptu song anyway. Thein was a man of many talents. Although best known as an actor, he also directed films and plays, composed songs, and wrote screenplays. He died in 1995 in Berlin (for more on Thein, see Anton the Magician).

Ulrich Thein

Track in the Night also stars two of East Germany’s most beautiful actresses: Eva-Maria Hagen and Annekathrin Bürger.3 For Hagen, this wasn’t the first film she worked on—that would be Don’t Forget My Little Traudel—but it was the first film featuring her to reach the theaters. Her acting duties here are limited. She doesn’t appear until the last half-hour of the film, and even then only in a few scenes. These two movies arrived in theaters within weeks of each other, kicking Hagen’s career with a roaring start.

Annekathrin Bürger had already made a splash in her previous film, Gerhard Klein’s A Berlin Romance. When Track in the Night was made, Bürger was romantically coupled with her co-star Ulrich Thein. After splitting with Thein, Bürger dated and married fellow actor Rolf Römer. Although Römer is now dead, Bürger is still going strong and regularly performs programs of songs and poetry (for more on Bürger, see Hostess). Bürger’s contribution to the plot is not as limited as Hagen’s but the story doesn’t revolve around her either.

The music is by Helmut Nier, a classical composer, who brings to the score a nice Gershwinesque jazziness. Those who have seen New Year’s Punch, which was also scored by Nier, will recognize certain leitmotifs Nier used again in that film. The cinematography is by Walter Fehdmer, who worked in East Germany until the Wall went up, and thereafter worked in West Germany, suggesting he either chose this time to leave the country or, more likely, found himself cut off from his former employer. He retired from film work in 1970. No death date is listed for him, although, since he was born in 1913, he is either dead, or one of the oldest men in Germany. Fehdmer’s work is adequate, but not on a par with the likes of Rolf Sohre, Günter Ost, Joachim Hasler, or Werner Bergmann.

Track in the Night is not one of the most daring or inventive Krimis to come out of DEFA. Those would come later. But it is entertaining, and has a perspective that is completely at odds with our western way of thinking.The proposition that it’s good to cooperate with the Stasi is not a position that one is likely to see repeated anytime soon. Even at DEFA, this position became less and less common as the Stasi became more and more invasive.

IMDB page for this film.


1. Note: I’ve translated the German word Spur as “Track.” This film could also be called “Trail in the Night” or “Trace in the Night” (the more common translation of Spur), and both would fit. The English word “spoor” comes from the same root, although it has lost much of its meaning in English and now is usually reserved to talk about animal droppings. I’ve chosen “track” in reference to one specific scene in the film, which I believe the title is in reference to.

2. Sadly, I never met the fellow, but reports from friends and associates make him sound like a wonderfully cantankerous old coot. I think I would have liked him.

3. Although most of the time I use the now gender-neutral “actor” in all cases, somehow the phrase “beautiful actors” just doesn’t work for me, so I’ve made this exception.

No Proof for Murder
No Proof for Murder (Für Mord kein Beweis) belongs to the film genre that Germans (East and West) call Krimis. We’d call them “crime films,” although we never do, preferring instead to parse things out as film noir, mysteries, and thrillers. No Proof for Murder is a good example of the East German style of Krimi. These are notably different from their West German counterparts, which, not surprisingly, owe a greater debt to Hollywood. East German Krimis rely less on action sequences, car chases, and gun battles, and more on police procedures. A case is usually resolved thanks to the lead detective’s dogged pursuit of the facts.

No Proof for Murder is about the investigation of a woman who turns up dead after leaving the hairdresser. It appears to have been murder, but, as the title suggests, there is no evidence to prove it. The only clues are a broken fingernail and a few cotton threads. Suspicion naturally falls on the husband, a research scientist who prefers the company of lab rats over that of people, but his alibi seems airtight. And there’s the stranger who watches the woman’s funeral from a distance, but runs away when the police approach. How does he fit into things?

corpse in the water

The lead detective, Captain Lohm, is not willing to let the case go, and has an almost Hercule Poirot-like knack for tying disparate facts together to form a complete picture. Lohm manages to uncover motives extending all the way back to WWII. This is a remarkably sedate Krimi. No murders are shown (although their aftermaths are), and even the flashbacks, which held some potential for shocking scenes, are restricted to recent events. The actual murder is only ever glimpsed at as part of a strange dream montage, and even the most important argument in the film is only heard in muffled tones through the wall. There are reasons for all of this, but it makes for weirdly action-free thriller.

The film is based on the book Der Mann, der über Hügel steigt (The Man Who Climbs Over the Hill) by Rudolf Bartsch. Bartsch was a freelance writer in East Germany, who wrote several novels and television scripts. His scripts for the TV movie Die Sprengung (The Demolition) is one of the forgotten casualties of the 11th Plenum, banned for being politically “renitent,” a term that doesn’t translate easily here, but essentially means the authorities didn’t like it but couldn’t say exactly why. The film was shelved and remained in obscurity until 2012, when Die Sprengung was finally rediscovered at the German Broadcasting Archive, and screened at the Kino Babylon in Berlin.

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If director Konrad Petzold were from the West, he would have been classified with people such as Terence Young, Budd Boetticher, Don Siegel, Mark Robson, and Jacques Tourneur—less interested in creating great art than turning in efficient genre films on time and on budget, but who, nonetheless, showed a special talent for filmmaking. He is best known for his westerns and fairytale films, such as White Wolves (Weiße Wölfe), Kit & Co, and The Story of the Goose Princess and Her Faithful Horse Falada (Die Geschichte von der Gänseprinzessin und ihrem treuen Pferd Falada).

Although he generally chose genres that were safely family friendly, he still managed to get into trouble with the authorities on a couple occasions. The first was The Dress (Das Kleid), which was banned outright due to the uneasy comparisons between the behavior of the SED and the walled city in the story, which accidentally coincided with the building of the Berlin Wall. The second was Alfons Wobblecheek (Alfons Zitterbacke), which wasn’t banned outright, but received enough edits to provoke Petzold into asking that his name be removed from the film. In spite of these incidences, Petzold had a long career in East Germany, and had no trouble finding work—at least until the Wall came down, which effectively ended his career. He died in 1999.

No Proof for Murder stars Winfried Glatzeder, who is best known as Paul in The Legend of Paul and Paula. He was sometimes referred as the Jean-Paul Belmondo of the East,” although that comparison requires more imagination than I have. Glatzeder was born in the tumultuous year of 1945 just a few weeks before it all ended. His mother, who was of Jewish descent, had managed to make it through the war alive; his father did not. At the end of the war, his mother was sent to a hospital. By that time she had developed a bad case of tuberculosis, and would not reunited with her son until he was ten years old.

Winfried Glatzeder

In 1981, fed up with the constant surveillance and the deteriorating state of things in East Germany, Glatzeder decided to join his fellow actors in the West. He filed for exit visas several times, until he was finally awarded one in 1982. Like Manfred Krug, he hit the ground running in West Germany, starring almost immediately in a the TV-movie Der Kunstfehler (The Malpractice), and following with many more parts on TV and in the movies. From 1996 until 1998, he was a regular on the long-running TV series, Tatort. In 1999, he made an amusing cameo appearance in Sun Alley (Sonnenallee) as Miriam’s neighbor Paul, wearing the puffy shirt he wore in The Legend of Paula and Paula. He continues to perform on stage and appear in movies, most recently in Der letzte Sommer der Reichen (The Last Summer of the Rich).

Like Rolf Römer’s films, one of the things this movie excels at is showing the styles and fashions of life in East Germany. In fact, the film starts with what looks like home movies of people on the streets of East Berlin, shopping, talking, and going about their daily business. The film ends with the same shots, as if to say, “life goes on.” The music for these scenes is so generic and carefree that it almost makes you wonder if you are watching the right movie, then it suddenly turns ominous. The film’s composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse, was, by this time, no stranger to film music, having composed hundreds of scores for the movies of DEFA. Sasse was responsible for some of the best soundtracks for East German films, including Signals, Her Third, In the Dust of the Stars, and Ursula. After the Wall fell, he continued to work, primarily scoring silent classics from the UFA period, including The Golem, The Last Laugh, and Asphalt. He died in 2006 in Babelsberg.

interrogation scene

It is also one of the few films I’ve seen that shows us the inside of a modern police interrogation facility. With its beige walls and rows of doors, the facility reminded me strongly of George and Daniel Fuchs’ Stasi Secret Rooms photo exhibit (currently at the Panoptikon in Stockholm). In one interrogation scene, a typist immediately taps out every word that is said. The effect is jarring and little creepy.

No Proof for Murder did well at the box office, and was well received by most critics Some felt it should have followed the book more closely, but Petzold’s avoidance of the usual crime film clichés was praised. It is currently available as part of a 3 DVD six-pack of East German crime films.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (included as part of the DDR-Krimis set).

Hotelboy Ed Martin
Although Bellboy Ed Martin (Hotelboy Ed Martin) is considered a minor film in the DEFA catalog, there is no other DEFA film with quite as interesting a back story. It stretches from the great depression to the McCarthy era, with all sorts of intrigue and tragedy along the way. It comes with a script that helped plant the seeds of film noir, and is an excellent chronicle of an important American play that is nearly forgotten today. It’s a long and complicated story, but it deserves telling, and if I don’t tell it, who will?

Bellboy Ed Martin tells the story of a bellhop at an upscale hotel who has the misfortune of being on the scene when a gangster is shot and killed by one of his rivals. The dead man, it turns out, was carrying incriminating evidence against leading figures in the city government. In an attempt to save their skins, these men frame the bellhop for the murder, then try to cover their tracks when that plan goes south, concocting an even more evil solution to their problems. The film is based on Merry-Go-Round, a play by Albert Maltz and George Sklar. Maltz and Sklar wrote the play while attending the drama school at Yale. Both men were communists and helped organize the Theater Union in New York City. Both men were talented writers with several plays and stories to their names. Maltz in particular had a special knack for portraying the injustices in the world in both his plays and his short stories.

The play opened in April 1932 at the Provincetown Playhouse on Broadway. It played there a few weeks before moving to the Avon Theatre, which was immediately shut down by the License Commisioner James F. Geraghty—a move seen as primarily a political tactic to prevent it from opening. After some hue and cry, and pressure from the press, the commissioner changed his tune and the play was allowed to open. The ensuing publicity surely didn’t hurt the box office. A few months later, the play was made into a movie. The title was changed to Afraid to Talk to avoid confusion with another film titled Merry Go Round. On stage, the beleaguered bellhop Ed Martin was played by Elisha Cook Jr., well known to film noir fans for his roles in The Maltese Falcon, Phantom Lady, The Big Sleep, and many, many others. At this point though, Cook had no Hollywood credentials, and the part was given to the considerably more handsome (and less interesting) Eric Linden. Actually, most of the Broadway cast was replaced, except for Ian McClaren, who had been singled out by the New York Times play reviewer for his lousy performance. On the plus side, Edward Arnold was enlisted to play the evil Jig Skelli (Zelli in the original play), and he is sensational.

Hotelboy Ed Martin

The play is an uncompromising attack on government corruption in America, showing the futility of fighting against a system that rewards evil. There was no way Hollywood was ever going to present such a depressing concept to the hoi polloi, so the ending was rejiggered to allow for a happier outcome, while still retaining just a hint of the cynicism found in the original play. Afraid to Talk was was shot by the Karl Freund, one of the all-time great cinematographers. That same year, Freund would also step out from behind the camera and direct The Mummy. The director of Afraid to Talk was Edward L. Cahn, a talented director who treated directing as a job rather than an art. Cahn would go on to fame in the fifties for his ability to churn out dozens of horror and science fiction quickies for drive-in fodder. Among these films were the now classic B movies, Creature with the Atom Brain (immortalized by Roky Erickson in a song of the same name), It the Terror from Beyond Space (largely credited as the inspiration for Alien), and Invisible Invaders (reportedly the inpiration for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead). That may sound like a slam on him, but it is not. Cahn’s directing in Afraid to Talk is lean and efficient.

Ten years after the play had opened in New York, both Albert Maltz and George Sklar went to Hollywood to work. Maltz, in particular, was building himself a stellar reputation with screenplays for such classics as This Gun for Hire and The Naked City. All of that would come crashing down in the late forties, when the House on Un-American Activites Committee (HUAC), began conducting investigations intended to purge Hollywood of anyone left of center. Especially under attack were the screenwriters since they were the ones putting the words into people’s mouths. Nearly everyone of consequence in Hollywood was called before the committee at some point and asked to answer the question, “Are you, or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?” Many pleaded the fifth (such as Dashiell Hammett) and were charged with contempt of court and sent to prison. Others (such as Elia Kazan), named names and were able to continue their careers without regard to the destroyed lives in their wake.1

Hotelboy Ed Martin

One of the first screenwriters they called upon was Maltz, who refused to testify and challenged the legality of the entire proceeding, calling it a travesty of justice and a rampant disregard for the first amendment. Maltz was a communist, but telling the committee this would do nothing for his career. Of course, not admitting this did nothing for it either. In the end, nine other men joined Maltz in standing up against the committee. These men became known as the “Hollywood Ten.” As a result of their courage, they were sent to prison, fined $1,000 each, and denied their chosen professions thanks to Hollywood’s blacklist. Some of them (such as Alvah Bessie), never worked in Hollywood again, while others (such as Ring Lardner, Jr.) continued to write scripts for movies, but were forced to do so under pseudonyms, submitting scripts using “fronts.” A practice chronicled in Martin Ritt’s The Front, which was based on screenwriter Walter Bernstein’s personal experiences with blacklisting.

Like Bernstein, Lardner, and others, Maltz continued to write screenplays using fronts and pseudonyms. His screenplay for Delmer Davis’ Broken Arrow (using the front Michael Blankfort) was one of the first Hollywood films to treat American Indians as real human beings. He also co-wrote the script for The Robe. For both of these film, Maltz received no credit. When James Cagney decided to remake This Gun for Hire as the Short Cut to Hell (a very entertaining remake, by the way), the original screenplay was attributed to W. R. Burnett alone, with no mention of Maltz. Maltz would not receive credit for another Hollywood film until 1970, when he wrote the screenplay for Don Siegel’s Two Mules for Sister Sara. He remained a vocal advocate for communism up until his death in Los Angeles in 1985.

Meanwhile, in 1953, Merry Go Round was performed on stage in East Germany under the title Hotelboy Ed Martin. Somewhere along the line, George Sklar’s credit for the play was lost, so that when the film was made, only Albert Maltz is credited. Hotelboy Ed Martin stays very close to the original play. Two years later, the play was turned into a film, co-directed by Ernst Kahler and Karl-Heinz Bieber. How much each of these men contributed to the final result is hard to say, but Kahler was already familiar with the play, having directed it on stage. Primarily a stage director, Kahler nonetheless directed several feature films, shorts, and TV-movies in East Germany. He died in Berlin in 1993.

Karl-Heinz Bieber, on the other hand, came from a film background, and was probably there to deal with the cinematic issues. It was Karl-Heinz Bieber’s first feature film as director for DEFA; it was also his last. Bieber made three more films, all TV movies, before joining the Republikflucht. It would be another seven years before he got a chance to direct a film again, starting with the West German TV-movie, Der gelbe Pullover (The Yellow Sweater). He went on to make several more TV movies. In 1978, he moved back to feature film making with disastrous results. That film, Der Tiefstapler (a slang term for a person who understates their abilities), was such a disaster that Bieber had his name removed from the credits, letting his assistant directors take the blame for it. Critics trashed the film, calling it one of the worst German films ever made. It would be Bieber’s final effort behind the camera. At that point he switched to writing as the co-author of the Stormy series of books for children.

Thein and Matz

Ed Martin is played by Ulrich Thein, one of East Germany’s best actors. Thein really needs no introduction here, having appeared in several of the films I’ve already written about (see Star-Crossed Lovers). As usual, his performance here is solid and heartbreaking. playing his wife Peggy is Katharina Matz in her first leading role. Matz would make a few more films for DEFA before moving to West Germany. Also in his first leading role was Hubert Suschka, who played the evil Jig Zelli. He also joined the Republikflucht, leaving East Germany in 1959 and continuing his career in the West.

In terms of visual style and structure, Bellboy Ed Martin is not that remarkable. In most respects, it resembles a Hollywood film from the 1930s. Unlike Afraid to Talk, it makes no attempts to “open up” the play, restricting all the action to a few rooms and relying on dialog rather than action. Nonetheless, it is a powerful movie and a better chronicle of Maltz’s and Sklar’s play than the Hollywood film. It seems like a natural choice for subtitling, given the fact that almost all of the dialog started life in English. If one doesn’t understand German, one could, of course, simply watch the movie with a copy of the play in hand, but the play, it turns out, is scarcer than hen’s teeth. After extensive searching across eBay, Amazon, ABEBooks, and library web sites, I only came up with one copy, housed at the Yale Library (Sklar’s and Maltz’s old school), and it’s not for lending. It was actually easier to find copies of the Hotelboy Ed Martin script for sale (available on amazon.de). Given Maltz’s importance to the history of film, and his treatment at the the hands of the American congress, this is unfortunate. The play deserves to be better known. Happily, a collection of his short stories has been recently published in book form. Perhaps this will help raise the profile for a man whose importance to American film and theater history has been overlooked for too long.

IMDB page for the film.

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1. Kazan actually went one step further, making On the Waterfront, a film that posits a situation where the union is the corrupt force, not the rich owners of the shipyards. It is a powerful film, but helped promote the idea in the minds of the public that unions were bad and that unfettered capitalism offered greater opportunities.

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

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

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

Treffpunkt Aimee

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

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

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

good and evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alarm at the Circus

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

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

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

Max and Klaus

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

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

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WozzeckWozzeck is an adaptation of Georg Büchner’s play, Woyzeck. The play has been performed on stage since 1913. It was the basis for Alban Berg’s popular 1922 opera and Manfred Gurlitt’s less popular one from a few years later. The Nazis banned both of these operas, but not the play. Gurlitt went on to make amends with the Nazis, which hasn’t helped his legacy (Berg died in 1935, so it never became an issue). The spelling of “Wozzeck” came from a misreading of the title due to the poor condition of Büchner’s manuscript, which was almost indecipherable due to fading.

The story of Wozzeck is well-known and based on an actual event. It is about a young soldier, so tormented and abused by his superiors that his mind finally snaps and he kills his wife. Georg Büchner never finished the play. It is believed that he had intended to end it with a courtroom scene that would tie everything together. As it stands, there’s a lot of room for interpretation, but the basic point never changes: You can’t treat people as inferior beings without consequences.

The DEFA film was the first film to be made based on the play. Since then, it has gone on to be the most often filmed of Georg Büchner’s works. There have been versions in Iranian, French, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, and Portuguese; Werner Herzog did a faithful adaptation of the play, while János Szász updated the story and filmed it in noirish black-and-white; and there are over a dozen made-for-TV versions, including a 2013 German one starring Tom Schilling that adds modern German/Turkish issues to the mix.

Wozzeck shaving scene

For the DEFA version, director Georg C. Klaren, who also wrote the screenplay, uses the conceit of setting the surrounding story in an operating theater where the body of Wozzeck is being discussed by a doctor and his students. The doctor had been using Wozzeck for absurd experiments, such as restricting his diet to peas, ar forcing him to avoid urinating. Now that Wozzeck was dead, the doctor blamed Wozzeck’s homicidal behavior on his genes. In attendance at the operating theater is a young Georg Büchner, still a student at this point. Büchner rejects the doctor’s supposition that Wozzeck was doomed from birth to be a killer and uses the moment to defend the soldier and show the part of the doctor’s part in the man’s eventual descent into homicide.

There is more than a hint of the Nazi in Wozzeck’s persecutors, from the doctor’s absurd experiments and his belief that you can tell the quality of a man by his appearance, to the outfits worn by the officers, which resemble those of the Gestapo.

Like many of the best filmmakers (Preston Sturges, Sam Peckinpah, Ingmar Berman and Federico Fellini, just to name a few), Klaren got his start as a scriptwriter. Besides creating his own scripts, he was also hired to write the German versions for films imported from England and Hollywood. He wrote and directed his first film in 1931 from his own novel, Kinder vor Gericht (Children in Court). Klaren had wanted to make a film of Wozzeck for many years, but couldn’t get any traction on it while Goebbels was in charge. Klaren’s left-leaning political views essentially kept him out of the directing business, but didn’t stop them from hiring him to write scripts for some of their propaganda films. He made a few films for DEFA, before returning to his home country of Austria where he made his last film, Die Regimentstochter (Daughter of the Regiment). He died in 1962 while visiting England.

Wozzeck whipping scene

Wozzeck is played by Kurt Meisel. Meisel’s Wozzeck isn’t as inherently psychotic as Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s version, nor as grubby as Lajos Kovács in János Szász’s version. Meisel’s portrayal evokes much more sympathy than most. He is an upstanding, likeable fellow, who tries to do the best he can, but has the deck stacked against him. There is some suggestion that he is already schizophrenic, but his murderous insanity grows under his mistreatment at the hands of those with more power.

Like Klaren, Meisel was an Austrian. He started working in films in 1934, playing Tip in the 1934 German adaptation of Little Dorrit and appeared in films throughout the Third Reich years. He appeared in the lavish and way over-budget Kolberg, a film sometimes credited with helping bring down the Nazi regime. Wozzeck is his only East German film. After that, he started directing his own films in West Germany and Austria. He is best known to American audiences as Alfred Oster, the man who teaches Jon Voight’s character to infiltrate the secret SS group, in the disappointing adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s excellent book, The Odessa File. Meisel continued to act both on stage and screen throughout his life and died in his hometown of Vienna in 1994.

Wozzeck

The cinematographer on Wozzeck is Bruno Mondi. Mondi was one of the leading cinematographers in Third Reich Germany, and was employed often during the early years at DEFA. Today he is best known for his colorful work on the Sissi films (see The Heart of Stone for more about Mondi). The editing was by Lena Neumann, one of the foremost editors during the early years of DEFA. The soundtrack was by Herbert Trantow, who, like Mondi, worked at DEFA until the West German film industry was back up and running, and then restricted his work to West German films. Trantow got his start in films with Wolfgang Staudte’s 1944 film, Der Mann, dem man den Namen stahl (The Man Who Stole My Name), which was banned by the Nazis and wasn’t put back together and re-released until 1996. Wozzeck was Trantow’s first DEFA film. He died in Berlin in 1993.

Klaren’s Wozzeck was well reviewed and popular, but its message was seen by the West German authorities as more pro-communist than anti-fascist, so the film did not screen in West Germany until 1958, and even then in limited runs. The DEFA film remained the only film version of the play until the sixties, when a strong renewal of interest in the story occurred. Starting in 1962, Woyzeck became a popular subject for TV movies, with seven different versions appearing on TV around the world from 1962 to 1968. Amazingly, the play wasn’t filmed for the movie houses again until 1979, when Werner Herzog did his version of the Büchner’s play (a 1973 Italian version received some theatrical distribution, but it had originally been made for television by RAI). There has never been an American film version of this play, although it seems like ripe territory for someone to bring an American slant to the story. Wozzeck reminds us that there are many ways to oppress a person, and that the effects of this rarely impact the oppressors, but can be fatal to others.

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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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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.