Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

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.

IMDB page for the film.

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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.

IMDB page for the film.

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1. Literally, “poison cabinet,” but also used to indicate the place where films deemed “toxic” were stored.

Street Acquaintances

Films about sexual hygiene and the dangers of promiscuity have a grand old tradition in cinema history, going back at least a century with D. W. Griffith’s 1914 film, The Escape (currently lost). Most of the feature films on the subject—at least in America—were made for the exploitation market. The subject afforded a neat way to get around the strict moral codes of the times by pretending to be intended for educational purposes. Some of these films, such as Because of Eve and Kroger Babb’s infamous Mom and Dad, contain graphic footage, while others, such as No Greater Sin and Dwain Esper’s Sex Madness, are relatively tame. Road agents would travel from town to town with these films stuck in the trunks of their cars, arranging screenings and doing double duty as a medical sex experts selling pamphlets between the films.

While Street Acquaintances1 (Straßenbekanntschaft) certainly is a commercial release, its discussions of the dangers of venereal disease in post-war Berlin are not there to titillate or for exploitation purposes. V.D. was a real problem in Germany at the time, brought on, mainly, by the combination of a sudden liberation from a repressive regime and huge influx of randy, sex-deprived soldiers from both sides. To combat the problem, the military governments regularly rounded up women for testing. Yes, it was sexist, and Street Acquaintances addresses this fact, which is unusual for a film made in 1948. At a time when American films had the “heroes” saying things like: “Don’t worry your pretty little head,” Street Acquaintances was showing just how difficult life in post-war Berlin was for women.

Street Acquaintances stands at an interesting crossroads in German film history. It is categorized as a “rubble” film because it deals with the emotional wreckage of the German psyche after the war, but unlike The Murderers Are Among Us, Somewhere in Berlin, and Germany Year Zero, it happens after the streets have been cleared and the streetcars are running again. Stylistically, it harkens back to the films of Weimar era and the Third Reich, but with touches of the dramatic realism and the themes that would become the hallmark of DEFA films.

Street Acquaintances

The story follows the misadventures of Erika, a young woman who is tired of the privation brought by the war’s end, and is ready to kick off her shoes and have some fun. In terms of plot, there is nothing new here. It’s the same basic concept used in practically every sex education film ever made: X decides to live a little; X has sex; X lives to regret it and learns a valuable lesson (or dies, as the case may be). Intertwined with Erika’s story are the stories of other women in Berlin that show just how tough it was for women after the war. As with Slatan Dudow’s Destinies of Women, and Evelyn Schmidt’s The Bicycle, the sympathies here are with the women. If their choices are sometimes bad, it’s because good choices are so few and far between.

Street Acquaintances is directed by Peter Pewas—a talented filmmaker who has only recently started receiving the attention he deserves. Like Saul Bass, Mr. Pewas’ entry into filmmaking came through the graphic arts. Unlike Mr. Bass, he did not design title sequences, but did create many classic movie posters during his lifetime, and is considered an important innovator in German film poster design.

His interest in film extended beyond posters however. One of his first attempts to make a documentary about Alexanderplatz in 1934 ended badly when the film was confiscated by the Nazis and Mr. Pewas held on suspicion of treason. In 1938, he attended the Babelsberg Film Academy and started working as an assistant director under Wolfgang Liebeneiner, a director who did as much to promote the Nazi philosophy as Veit Harlan, but got a lot less grief for it. As Liebeneiner’s AD, Mr. Pewas had the dubious distinction of working on I Accuse (Ich klage an), a film that was made to promote Aktion T4—Hitler’s euthanasia program for the disabled.

Street Acquaintances

In 1944, Mr. Pewas was allowed to direct his own feature film, and he once again found himself running afoul of the Nazis. The film, Der verzauberte Tag (The Enchanted Day), was the story of a young woman not dissimilar to Erika, who wanted something more from life and was frustrated with the limitations put on women. Like the neorealists, Pewas wanted to show the lives of ordinary people in a realistic fashion. As one might imagine, Goebbels and his compadres weren’t too keen on this approach and while it was never officially banned the film was not released either.

After the war, Pewas was one of the directors in attendance at the famous Filmaktiv meeting at the Adlon Hotel on November 22, 1945. It was from this meeting that the roots of DEFA took hold, starting with Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are Among Us. Pewas had been trying to expand cinema’s vocabulary with Der verzauberte Tag, so the things discussed at this meeting must have struck a chord with him. He went on to make Wohin Johanna? (Which way Johanna?), a short documentary intended to promote the SED party. As with both Der verzauberte Tag and Street Acquaintances, the story takes a feminist perspective.

Sadly, Mr. Pewas’ affinity for the SED was not long lived. By 1950, he had moved to West Germany. This did little for his career. While his former mentor, Wolfgang Liebeneiner, thrived in West Germany’s Nazi-tolerant environment, Mr. Pewas’ leftist proclivities were less acceptable. Aside from one feature film (Viele kamen vorbeiMany Passed By), Mr. Pewas’ directorial efforts were restricted to a few short films. As it got harder and harder to find work making movies, Mr. Pewas relied primarily on revenue from designing film posters—his one skill that the Nazis also had no problems with. He died penniless in Hamburg; a fate that certainly wouldn’t have befallen him had he stayed in East Germany. Happily (although not for him), his films resurfaced recently in the form of a DVD set, which includes Der verzauberte Tag, Street Acquaintances and Wohin Johanna.

Gisela Trowe

Playing Erika is Gisela Trowe. That same year, she appeared in three more films, including a short but memorable turn as the killer’s girlfriend in The Blum Affair. Her fourth film in 1948 was a West German film, and thereafter she worked in the west. She continued her film career, often appearing in the films of her father-in-law, Erich Engel (director of The Blum Affair). One of her earliest screen appearances in West Germany includes a short but memorable turn as a prostitute in Peter Lorre’s gloomy Die Verlorene (The Lost One). Ms. Trowe died in 2010 (for more on Ms. Trowe, see The Blum Affair).

As was the case with many of the early DEFA films, much of the film crew was made up of actors and technicians who either migrated or returned to West Germany once the heavy restrictions on filmmaking imposed by the U.S. military government (OMGUS) had ended. Composer Michael Jary was already a well-known composer when he wrote the music for this film and his songs, “Davon geht die Welt nicht unter,” “La Paloma,” and “Roter Mohn” were very popular in Germany and regularly crop up in films about World War II. His song, “Wir wollen niemals auseinandergehen” was sung by Heidi Brühl as a possible entry in the 1960 Eurovision Song Contest, it did not make the cut, but has gone on to become a popular tune on with lovers of Schlagermusik. By the time he shot this film, Austrian cinematographer Georg Bruckbauer already had a long career as a cinematographer, stretching back to the Weimar days, but this was his only film for DEFA. Editor Johanna Meisel got her start as an editor during the Third Reich and worked on several films for DEFA during its early years, but she also went west in the 1950s, working on several films there before retiring from films in 1962.

As one might imagine, Street Acquaintances did well at the box office on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Sex always sells, even when the intentions aren’t prurient. This is a remarkable film and possibly the best film for showcasing the changing film styles during the early years at DEFA. It is equal parts UFA and DEFA, and should not be overlooked.

IMDB page for film.

Buy this film (part of DVD set).

NOTE: English subtitles are available from several sources, as are AVI files of the film. Some adjustment may be necessary for syncing.


1. This is a literal translation of the title as given by IMDB. The term refers to casual acquaintances. The kind of people you’d say “hi” to on the street but wouldn’t have over for dinner.

Leichensache Zernik

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

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

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

Leichensache Zernik

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

Leichensache Zernik

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

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

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

Leichensache Zernik

 

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

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

Leichensache Zernik

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

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

IMDB page for the film.

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

The Blum Affair

The Blum Affair is based on a famous court case that took place in Germany during the Weimar Republic years. After the Second World War, people realized that this case presaged the rise of the Nazis in ominous ways. The actual events took place in the Magdeburg area in 1925, and involved a prominent Jewish businessman named Rudolf Haas. Haas was arrested for the murder of an accountant named Helling who had worked for Haas. After Haas fired Helling, the accountant reportedly claimed that he had proof Haas was cooking his books. For the investigating judge, Johannes Kölling, that was proof enough that Haas was the man responsible for Helling’s death—that, and the fact that Haas was Jewish.

Even after an independent investigator found Helling’s body buried in the basement of the residence of a young, right-winged ne’er-do-well named Richard Schröder, Justice Kölling continue to pursue Haas as the murderer. Eventually the district president, Otto Hörsing, stepped in the put an end to Kölling’s kangaroo court antics. But Hörsing was a left-wing politician and Kölling was from the far right—the perfect storm as far as the newspapers were concerned—and the whole affair turned into a national debate on the culpability of the Jews and the socialists for the economic problems the Weimar Republic was facing. Eventually, over Kölling’s protests, the charges against Haas were dropped and Schröder was found guilty of the murder.

The names have been changed for the movie, but not much else. Most of the important particulars of the story are presented as they occurred in the actual case. Blum is portrayed as innocent of any financial shenanigans, which was an unusual stance for a DEFA film. Normally, rich industrialists are portrayed as the bad guys. Doing so in this case, however, would have only obfuscated the already complicated story. The Blum Affair was met with critical praise on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It was nominated as best foreign film by the New York Film Critics (it came in second behind Vittorio De Sica’s classic The Bicycle Thief).

As with many early DEFA films, such as Heart of Stone, Razzia, and Kein Platz für Liebe (No Place for Love), this film was directed by a West German. Often this pairing produced a film that—while made by DEFA—did not have the look and feel of a DEFA product. If anything, they usually ended up looking like the UFA films during the Third Reich. Unlike most West German directors, however, Erich Engel was not working at DEFA out of necessity. He considered himself “Marxist to the core” and was a long-time friend of Bertolt Brecht’s. Furthermore, unlike most of the other films made by West Germans for DEFA, this film feels like a DEFA film (a subjective call, I admit).

Before becoming a film director, Engel worked in theater as everything from a stagehand to the dramaturg. In 1924, he started working with Brecht. His direction of Threepenny Opera in 1928 was met with rave reviews and Engel became known as the foremost interpreter of Brecht’s work in Germany. Although he did work on films during the twenties—mostly notably on comedian Karl Valentin’s Mysterien eines Frisiersalons (The Mysteries of a Hairdresser’s Shop), which he co-directed with Brecht—his career as a filmmaker began in earnest in 1931 with Wer nimmt die Liebe ernst… (Who Takes Love Seriously?). During the Nazi regime, Engel managed to keep out of trouble in spite of his politics by concentrating on light comedies, occasionally slipping in anti-fascist messages below the radar when he could.

After the war, Engel continued his work in the theater with Brecht and started making films for DEFA—still the only game in town at that point. During the early fifties, after the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) was dismantled and West Germany got back into the moviemaking business, Engel started working primarily in the west, churning out light comedies like the ones he made for the Nazis. He returned to East Germany in 1958 to make Geschwader Fledermaus (Bat Squadron), one of the few films at the time to cast a critical eye at France’s colonial war in Vietnam.1 It was his last film. He retired from filmmaking at that point, but continued to work in theater. He died in 1966 and is buried in the Dorotheenstädtischer Cemetery, not far from his friend, Bertolt Brecht.

Most of the cast of The Blum Affair hails from the west. Some of them, Such as Paul Bildt and Arno Paulsen, starred in several DEFA films, but by the mid-fifties were working exclusively in West Germany. The Blum Affair was the first film for Hans Christian Blech, who played the reprehensible Karlheinz Gabler (the Richard Schröder character). Mr. Blech went on to a highly successful career in West Germany. He was one of the “go-to” guys when Hollywood needed and evil Nazi, but he also played a concentration camp victim in Armand Gatti’s L’enclos (Enclosure) and a resistance fighter in Morituri. He died in 1993 in Munich.

Blech and Trowe

Playing Gabler’s long-suffering girlfriend, Christina, is Gisela Trowe. Ms. Trowe had a banner year in 1948, appearing in four films, three for DEFA and one for the short-lived Camera-Filmproduktion. She was the daughter-in-law of Erich Engel, but if her casting here was nepotistic, it’s a moot point—her performance is very good, and is, in some respects, the most important one in the film. Ms. Trowe appeared in several movies on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the fifties. Once she decided to settle in the west, her roles were restricted primarily to television. With her sultry voice, she became one of the leading voice actors in Germany, often dubbing the voices for sexy women such as Melina Mercouri, Gina Lollobrigida, Rita Hayworth, and Simone Signoret.

The Blum Affair is based on a book by Robert A. Stemmle, who also wrote the screenplay. Having grown up in Magdeburg, the Haas case probably had special meaning to Stemmle. By 1948, when The Blum Affair was released, Stemmle was a successful film director in his own right. He made several movies for UFA during the Third Reich years, including Jungens (Boys)—one of the so-called Vorbehaltsfilme, (films banned in Germany from regular public screenings due to pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic content). In spite of this, he did not receive the level of criticism that befell Leni Riefenstahl and Veit Harlan. He wrote two screenplays for Engel—The Blum Affair and Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat)—but he did not stay in the east. In 1952, he wrote and directed Toxi, the first film to address the problem of mixed-race orphans in post-war Germany. During the fifties and sixties, he became well-known for his adaptations of Edgar Wallace and Karl May stories. He died of a heart attack in 1974,

The film ends on an ominous and unsettled note. Blum’s wife remarks that justice prevailed because, after all, they lived in Germany, which was a law-abiding country. Blum looks less sure of this. In fact, after the Nazi takeover of Germany, Haas and his wife committed suicide, while the offending judge, Johannes Kölling, was praised as a pioneer of National Socialism and rose rapidly through the ranks. Otto Hörsing, the district president who saw that justice was served, was stripped of his pension and died penniless.

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1. Some others from this period include Jump into Hell, China Gate, Five Gates to Hell, and Shock Patrol (Patrouille de Choc), but these are all told from the perspective of the colonialist invaders.

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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The Story of a Murder

The Story of a Murder (Chronik eines Mordes) begins during an event in Würzburg, where an attractive young woman meets with the newly-elected mayor and promptly shoots him. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that the woman is named Ruth Bodenheim and that she is Jewish. The man she shoots, named Zwischenzahl, was responsible for the murder and internment of her family during the Third Reich, and her forced prostitution at a brothel in Poland. After the war, the American military throws Zwischenzahl in prison, thanks, in part, to Ruth’s testimony. The American captain is sympathetic to Ruth, and it looks like justice will be served, but the captain’s higher ups and local businessmen have different plans for Zwischenzahl, and he is released from custody. Ruth wants to kill him, but discovers that he has gone to America. She decides to put it all behind her and marries. She seems to be having a happy life, until one day downtown she comes upon row after row of posters promoting Zwischenzahl’s campaign for mayor. At that point she decides that the only way justice will ever be survived is if she takes matter into her own hands. She knows she will be arrested and she wants the opportunity to have her day in court, but there are still those who want to bury the story.

The Story of a Murder is a powerful film with excellent performances and exceptional black-and-white cinematography. It is based on a story in Leonhard Frank’s book, Die Jünger Jesu (The disciples of Jesus). The book and the film were met with harsh criticism in West Germany, mostly due to the fact that the basic premise—that ex-Nazis were allowed to weasel their way back into positions of power in West Germany—was inescapably correct.1 Angel Wagenstein was enlisted to write the screenplay. Wagenstein was a Bulgarian Jew who fought with the resistance during World War II, He studied screenwriting in Moscow and made his mark with Stars—one of the most powerful fiction films on the holocaust, and the first DEFA film to win a prize at Cannes. He was unquestionably the best choice for this material. He brings all his knowledge of the subject and his anger to bear on the story. Like Stars, it is an unflinching portrait of the evil that men do.

The story takes place in the west, which gives us an interesting, and sometimes amusing window into the East German perspective on western culture. The west is a place where neon signs flash outside of every window, and politicians conduct business in seedy nightclubs; a film noir world of light and shadows, where people in power use their influence to thwart justice, and American soldiers roam everywhere, listening incessantly to Glenn Miller’s “American Patrol.”

Nightclub scene

With its film noir sensibility, jazz becomes an important component of the film. Composer Gerd Natschinski uses it so effectively that, as with many good movies, the music becomes a character in the film. His haunting theme threads its way throughout the movie, tying the numerous flashbacks within flashbacks together to help form a coherent whole. Natschinski wrote several fine film scores, including My Wife Wants to Sing, Midnight Revue, and Hot Summer. A serious composer at heart, he scaled back on his film score composition during the seventies to devote more time to his efforts at classical composition and conducting. From 1978 to 1981 he was the director of the Berliner Metropol-Theater. His son, Thomas Natschinski, went on to become a successful composer and singer in his own right, scoring a hit with his band Team 4 with the kitsch-pop classic “Mokka-Milch-Eisbar.”

Although I am not a big fan of the auteur theory, the films that come the closest to living up to this concept are the ones that are both shot and directed by the same person. The Story of a Murder is one such film, having been both filmed and directed by Joachim Hasler. Mr. Hasler got his start as assistant camera after meeting Bruno Mondi while working at the Agfa film lab in Wolfen (for more on Bruno Mondi, see Rotation). Mondi suggested that he come work as an assistant cameraman with him on Heart of Stone. Hasler quickly moved through the ranks, filming such DEFA classics as Kurt Maetzig’s The Silent Star and The Song of the Sailors (Das Lied der Matrosen).

He got his start as a director almost by accident. While filming Spielbank-Affäre (Casino Affair), the director, Arthur Pohl, became ill and Hasler took over the reins. Although he did not receive a director’s credit for this, it did give him a foot in the door to start directing films. Most of Hasler’s early films are serious political thrillers that tackle subjects like war crimes and environmental pollution, but he is best known as the director of the light-hearted East German beach party movie, Hot Summer, for which he also served as cinematographer. During the seventies, probably as a result of his success with Hot Summer, Hasler moved toward lighter fare, making several comedies, including the poorly received sequel to Hot Summer, No Cheating, Darling! In 1984, he stopped making films to work for DEFA in other capacities. This all came to an end with the Mauerfall, but Hasler opted for retirement rather than a return to filmmaking. He died in 1995 in Berlin.

Angelica Domröse

The Story of a Murder stars Angelica Domröse, an exotic-looking beauty, and one of the finest actresses to come out of the GDR—and that’s saying something. Several of the best actresses currently working in Germany got their start at DEFA, including Katrin Saß, Dagmar Manzel, Corinna Harfouch, Kirsten Block, and Christine Schorn. No film gives Ms. Domröse a better opportunity than this one to show off her acting ability as she believably goes from schoolgirl, to war-weary prostitute, to sophisticated older woman. It’s a remarkable performance.

Ms. Domröse was discovered by Slátan Dudow (see The Destinies of Women), who cast her in his final film, Love’s Confusion. She continued to appear in feature films and TV-movies throughout the sixties, but it was her performance in The Legend of Paul and Paula that made her a star. A few years later, she found her career sidelined after signing the protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. Like Manfred Krug, Katharina Thalbach, and others who signed the protest, she decided to leave the GDR for West Germany, where she continued her career, primarily in television. In 2004, she stopped appearing in films to work in theater, but recently returned to films, starring in Bernd Böhlich’s comedy, Bis zum Horizont, dann links! (Fly Away).

In a way, the beginning of The Story of a Murder reflects the original ending of Murderers Are Among Us, except at that time, DEFA, as part of the Soviet sector, was still trying to play nice with the west and changed the ending, eliminating the assassination for fear that it might inspire individuals to follow suit. By 1965, no such niceties were necessary. This film does not pull its punches. It is unfortunate that it is not available with English subtitles. It is a classic DEFA film and, along with The Second Track one of the few examples of East German film noir.

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1. The most glaring case of this was Hans Globke, a co-author of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws and one of the jurors who helped formulate the supposed “emergency” legislation that led to Hitler’s takeover of the German government. This man was a nasty piece of work. He was also West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s right-hand man.

Police Raid

DEFA, East Germany’s state-owned film production company, was formed in 1946—three years before post-war Germany’s Soviet sector would become its own country. Immediately after the war, the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) was doing everything it could to hobble German film production in the western sectors, largely at the behest of the Hollywood studios. The Soviets, on the other hand, had been champions of film since the early days of their revolution. and they were willing to let the filmmakers in their sector get back to work immediately. Thus, if you were a director or film technician in post-war Germany, DEFA was the only game in town.

As a result, many West German directors, who had no particular enthusiasm for the socialist ideals, went to the Soviet Sector to get their films made. People such as Hans Deppe, Paul Verhoeven, and the Austrian filmmaker Arthur Maria Rabenalt made films for DEFA, but unlike directors such as Kurt Maetzig and Wolfgang Staudte, they weren’t socialists and had no interest in creating a new form of cinema. They just wanted to continue making films—the same types of films they had made during the Third Reich. When West German film production finally got up to speed in the 1950s, these same men would scurry back to the west to make their Edgar Wallace potboilers and Heimatfilme, and produce films so safe and unchallenging that West Germany’s young filmmakers would eventually rise up against them and deliver the Oberhausen Manifesto.

For this reason, several of the early DEFA films are DEFA in name only. They could have been made ten years earlier under auspices of Joseph Goebbels or ten years later by Constantin Films. That’s not to say they are bad films, they are not, but there is nothing uniquely East German about them, or, for that matter, uniquely West German either. They are standard movie fare, meant purely for entertainment.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than with Razzia (AKA Police Raid), DEFA’s first thriller (Krimi). Its expressionistic lighting, diffusion filter close-ups, and musical interludes would have fit comfortably in any Hollywood production. Most of the technical crew, including the director and screenwriter, had worked for German production companies under the Nazis and most would end up working in West Germany once its film industry was back up and running. They were at DEFA for no better reason than a paycheck, and had no sympathy for the socialist cause.

Nonetheless, these men did have the skill sets needed to make movies on time and on budget, and they understood the craft. Maybe the people in charge of DEFA thought that they would help expand the talent pool at the film studio (they did not), or maybe the simply wanted to get as many films out there as quickly as possible to demonstrate their superior film production capabilities to the rest of Germany (that they did). Most of these directors brought their own production teams with them, and they left East Germany with them as well. It would take people like Maetzig, Konrad Wolf, Egon Gunther, and Gerhard Klein to develop a new style—the DEFA style.

Razzia takes place in post-war Berlin, where black marketeers sell contraband American cigarettes in the streets and children play hide-and-seek amid the corroding debris of the war machine. The screenplay is by Harald G. Petersson, who started writing screenplays in 1934 after his novella, Herz ist Trumpf was turned into a movie. Petersson had a knack for writing the kind of engaging, tension-filled scenes that cinema thrives on. In Razzia, Petersson takes the tropes of the Rubble Films—the hollow man returning from the war and the rubble-strewn streets—and crosses them with the popular characteristics of film noir: the femme fatale, charming criminals, and good people caught in bad situations. Most of the time, the story follows a typical Hollywood-style structure, but Petersson manages to pull a few surprises out of his hat. Just when it looks like the film is going to follow one character throughout, it takes a sharp right turn into new territory.

The film is directed by Werner Klingler, who started his career as an actor during the Weimar Republic and then became a director during the Third Reich. He made several popular films at this time, but is most famous for taking over the directing of Titanic after its director, Herbert Selpin, was arrested for saying some unfavorable things about Hitler’s regime (Selpin was later found hanged in his cell—reportedly a suicide). Klinger is a craftsman director. The kind of director that film production companies thrived on for most of film’s first fifty years. He knows how to tell a story in pictures, but he never tries to push the limits of style. The most striking scenes in the film are the ones that take place on the streets, but this is more reflective of the situation in Berlin than Klingler’s flair as a director. He is highly skilled at his craft, but never transcends it.

Playing police commissioner Naumann is Paul Bildt. Bildt’s career in films reads like history of the first fifty years of German cinema. Originally a stage actor, Bildt started appearing in films in 1910. He was one of the busiest actors in Germany, appearing in as many as eleven films a year. Goebbels thought so highly of Bildt that he added him to his Gottbegnadeten list—a list of musicians, artists, authors and actors that Goebbels felt were the Reich couldn’t exist without. This fact is even more amazing when you consider that he his wife, who died of cancer in 1945, was Jewish. When the war ended, Bildt was living in a small town east of Berlin. Rather than face the wrath of the oncoming Russian troops, Bildt and his daughter attempted to commit suicide by overdosing on Barbital. His daughter died but he was found in time and rushed to the hospital. After several days in a coma, Bildt made a full recovery. For a time, he appeared on stage, primarily at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, before going to DEFA to make movies. He appeared in several of DEFA’s most well-known early films, including Somewhere in Berlin, The Blum Affair, and Council of the Gods. In 1949, he was awarded the GDR’s National Prize for his work in films, but it wasn’t enough to keep him in East Germany. In the early fifties, he went to the west, where he continued his career until his death in 1957.

Nina Kosta

Making her first and only film appearance is singer Nina Konsta who plays the club singer Yvonne. Konsta was a popular singer in Germany during the late forties, but her star has since been eclipsed by other, more famous singers. She had a beautiful voice, and was known as “The Greek Nightingale.” While not an actress, she plays the role of the femme fatale well enough, and she has the looks to pull it off. She was a talented woman, and it is a shame she is nearly forgotten today.

Razzia was the first post-war krimi made in Germany for the German audience, and response to it was positive in all sectors. So much so that the Allied sectors saw the film as a threat; especially after Nicola Napoli’s communist film distribution company, Artkino Productions, started distributing it in South America. After it played in Chile, an editorial in the New York Times decried the efforts of Hollywood to hobble western sector film production, but it wouldn’t be until after West Germany was declared a country and allowed some autonomy over its film production that they would catch up with the east. The film was also the first DEFA production to make it to these shores, playing in New York City in 1948.

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Frauenschicksale

Feminism, as a common topic of conversation, didn’t take off in the United States until the late sixties, so it may come as a surprise to some that DEFA tackled the subject in 1952, with the film, Destinies of Women (Frauenschicksale). Communists were early adopters of the principle that everyone should have the same rights, be they male or female, black, white, or brown. International Women’s Day, after all, came from the socialist movement. Throughout its history, DEFA made a point of making films that showed women in positions of power (e.g., Her Third, In the Dust of the Stars, Trace of Stones, The Dove on the Roof). Of course, as with every other major country at the time, all the top officials were still white males, but at least the topic was neither suppressed or intentionally subverted the way it was in America in the early fifties. Hollywood films from this period are egregiously offensive in their sexism. Women were ditzy, too emotional, and couldn’t drive, the public was told. It is better for everyone if men take over the reins again and let the women stay home and make the babies.

As is always the case, the primary reasons for this were economic. During the war, women had taken over many of the factory jobs, but now the men were home again and they wanted those jobs back. A lot of women discovered that they liked working better than housekeeping and they weren’t crazy about this turn of events. Instead of supporting this new attitude and working with it (as the Soviets did), the media used appalling tactics to get women out of those positions and back into the kitchen. Women, Americans were told, were ditzy, emotional, and terrible drivers. They were so much better at raising children, isn’t that what they should be doing? This message was reinforced again and again in films and television. Jokes about the impracticality of women became the common currency for comedians on variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show, broadcast to millions every Sunday night. The tactic was effective. By the mid-fifties, the working woman was seen as a slightly pathetic figure, either incapable of finding a husband to take care of them, or, in hushed tones, one of the them. [As a child growing up in the fifties, I always wondered what this meant. Was there some secret club I didn’t know about? It sounded interesting; it sounded fun.]

Of course, economic factors were at work in the Soviet sector as well, but the USSR fared far worse during the war than the United States ever did, and they needed Germany to get back on its feet as soon as possible and the fact that half the workers were women had no bearing on things. If anything, this helped boost the workforce, which had been decimated by the war.

Destinies of Women takes place in Berlin, a city divided, but without the wall to keep people on one side or the other. The action centers around a man called “Conny,” a black marketeer and playboy who likes to seduce women and then abandon them. He’s done this with dozens of women, but the story centers around four in particular. Barbara Berg is an East German law student who is about to start a promising career as a judge. After Conny breaks up with her, she walks dazedly into traffic and is nearly killed. Anni Neumann lives in West Berlin and is aspiring to be a fashion designer. After a fling with Conny leaves her pregnant, she loses her job and finds the attitudes in West Germany intensely unfriendly to an unmarried woman in need of work. Eventually, she crosses over into East Berlin, where the state-run companies not only don’t judge her for being a single mother, but also offer daycare for the kids at the factories—a relatively recent innovation in the west. Renate Ludwig is a frivolous young woman who lives in East Berlin but is enamored by the glitz and glitter of the western materialism. When Conny dumps her, she is convinced that it’s because she didn’t have that beautiful blue dress in the window a West Berlin department store. Her desire for the dress leads to the most disastrous consequences of all. The fourth woman (girl really) is Ursel, a member of the FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend—East Germany’s communist youth group), and an ardent communist. Ursel’s parents died during the war, and she is at odds with her grandparents, who don’t understand her devotion to the cause. As one might imagine, Conny’s attempts to charm her with his materialism and flattery fare far worse with Ursel than it did with the others.

Tying all these story together is Hertha Scholz, who interacts with all four women in different ways. Frau Scholz is a longtime communist, who spent most of the war in a concentration camp for her beliefs. She is the moral center of the film, dispensing good advice and making the hard decisions when necessary.  In some respects, this movie resembles the Rubble Films of the previous decade. Several of the characters here are deeply affected by the events of WWII and are only starting to get their lives back together. It is Frau Scholz who is both the most affected by the ravages of war, and the best at rising above it.

As with the films coming out of Hollywood at this time, this movie wears its politics on its sleeve. The west is shown as an uncaring environment devoted to profit and material pleasure. The people in power in West Germany (who are, for purposes of this film also mostly women) are shown to be callous and uncaring. Nightlife in the west is shown as either desperate or decadent. A motif that runs through the film is dancing. When Conny takes Anni to a dance in the west, we notice that many of the couple dancing together are women, while other women sit alone at tables. Where are the men? Unemployed, perhaps, and unable to afford the dance? Later, when Conny goes with Renate to a dance in the east, the loneliness of the early scene is missing. Everyone is paired off and happy. The capper comes when Conny woos the Baroness Isa von Traudel. Conny presumably sees the Baroness as a meal ticket, unaware that she is as broke as he is. The two go out dancing at what looks like a modern a discotheque. In this scene, western decadence is on full display. Aging women dance with stoned young hipsters to hyperkinetic jazz. Everyone is overdressed and desperately trying to have fun. Punctuating the scene are zoom shots of the framed illustrations of gorillas dressed as capitalist fat cats that lines the walls of the disco. “Yeah!” a man screams every time one of these drawings is shown. The end result looks like Dante’s Second Circle of Hell filtered through Saturday Night Fever.

In 1952, when the film was made, West Germany had yet to recover from the war. The Allied forces—still in control at that point—were in no hurry to see Germany get back on its feet after what happened during the Weimar days. Some western politicos, most notably Henry Morgenthau Jr., recommended dismantling all manufacturing in Germany and force the country to return to a pre-industrial state. While one could argue that this basic sentiment was no less true for the Soviets, they, at least, got the factories back up and running much faster than West Germany. In 1952, the idea of people crossing to the east to find work was far more likely. One need only look at the number of West Germans working at DEFA during its early years to see this. It was only after East Germany, under the communists, pulled out ahead of the western sectors in development that the allies finally abandoned their plans to keep Germany in the Middle Ages, quietly ignoring the Nazi credentials of some businessmen to help in this effort. Being a Nazi was bad, but, as far as the United States was concerned, it was better than being a communist.

To any fan of East German films, the thing that is most striking about Destinies of Women is how little like a DEFA film it looks. If anything, it resembles the classic styles of UFA and Hollywood. This isn’t that uncommon in the early days of DEFA. Filmmakers such as Konrad Wolf, Frank Beyer, and Wolfgang Staudte had yet to reshape and redefine what filmmaking meant in East Germany. As previously mentioned, several of the early films were made by West Germans, whose style didn’t vary that greatly from the overblown heroics and romanticism of the Third Reich (see any Heimatfilm for an example). Director Slatan Dudow wasn’t one of these people, but his style was almost certainly shaped by his early years at UFA. He started making films in the 1930s, but Hitler’s rise to power put an end to this. Dudow’s last pre-war film—Kuhle Wampe oder wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?), which was co-written by Bertolt Brecht, was banned by the Nazis for its communist ideology. Dudow was arrested by the Nazis for being a communist. Born in Bulgaria, he was slated for deportation when he fled first to France and later to Switzerland, where he continued to work in theater. After the war, he returned to the Eastern Sector of Germany and was one of the co-founders of DEFA. Ironically, his first effort at filmmaking—a screen adaptation of his play, Der Weltuntergang (The Apocalypse), was rejected for being too formalist. His first film for DEFA was Unser täglich Brot (Our Daily Bread), which follows the fate of a family after WWII as they eventually come to realize the advantages of socialism. Dudow continued making films in East Germany until 1963, when he was killed in a car accident. At the time, he was making a film titled Christine that, like Destinies of Women, tackled the issue of feminism in the GDR, but with a far less idealistic stance. An attempt was made to finish the film from the existing footage, but by all accounts, the results were unsatisfactory and it was screened only once.

Carnival ride

Destinies of Women was only the second feature films that DEFA made in color and the first by master cinematographer Robert Baberske. Baberske pulled out all the stops for this film. The color is spectacularly vibrant and uses a palette that the world hasn’t seen since the early fifties. The only film that comes close to this in its use of color is the 1945 Hollywood classic Leave Her to Heaven, for which cinematographer Leon Shamroy won an oscar. Baberske is clearly enjoying this new technology, and several scenes have the rhythmic fascination with movement that characterized his work on the 1927 visual tone poem, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (for more information on Robert Baberske, see The Ax of Wandsbek). In one scene in particular, the camera follows three women as they explore the rides at a carnival. Wherever they go, the camera follows, spinning on a Tilt-a-Whirl or soaring aloft on a swing ride. It is exhilarating footage.

The help write the screenplay, Dudow enlisted two young writers of considerable talent, Gerhard Bengsch and Ursula Rumin. Gerhard Bengsch went on to have a long and fruitful career at DEFA. Using pseudonyms, he also managed to get teleplays produced by ARD in West Germany shortly before reunification. This, no doubt, helped him continue his career after the Wende. Bengsch continued working in television until 1993, retiring from writing for the small screen at that point to concentrate on his novels and short stories. He died in 2004 and is buried in Kleinmachow.

Ursula Rumin’s life took a very different path from those of her co-writers. Rumin lived in the western sector of Berlin and had very little interest in politics. Shortly after Destinies of Women was made, Ms. Rumin was asked to come to DEFA to sign a contract for further work, but instead of taking her to the film studio, the limousine that picked her up took her to the Soviet secret service headquarters where she was accused of espionage and collaboration with the enemy (a charge she has always denied). She was sentenced to 15 years hard labor at Vorkuta, the northernmost outpost of the infamous Siberian Gulags. She was released in 1954 as part of an amnesty, and moved to Cologne, where she worked for many years for Deutsche Welle. She wrote about her experiences at Vorkuta in her book, Im Frauen-GULag am Eismeer (In the women’s Gulag on the Arctic Ocean).

No discussion of Destinies of Women would be complete without mentioning the spectacular costumes designed by Vera Mügge. The fashion trends of the early fifties are on full display here in every form, from the practical business suits of Barbara Berg, to the outrageous, costume-like outfits worn by the West German decadents, to Renate Ludwig’s simple day dress. Ms. Mügge takes full advantage of the film’s Agfacolor with a pallet of colors that firmly pins this film to its time. Unlike many costume designers in Germany at that point, Ms. Mügge was no stranger to color film costume design. She also worked in wardrobe on the very first Agfacolor film ever made, Frauen sind doch bessere Diplomaten (Women are Better Diplomats). Undoubtedly she learned a thing or two about the process during that problem plagued production, which often suffered from color mismatching due to the natural shifts in light that occur throughout the day. She got her start as a costume designer during the Third Reich, working on, among other things, the infamously anti-Semitic film, The Rothschilds. After the war, she immediately started working at DEFA, producing costumes for the classics Council of the Gods, and Das verurteilte Dorf (The Condemned Village); but it is her work on Opernfilme (opera films) and Märchenfilme during this period for which she is best remembered. In 1958 she moved to the west, where she continued working for many years, primarily for CCC-Films. She retired in 1974.

Although the film was an attempt to show a more feminist perspective, it was roundly criticized by party officials and women’s worker organizations for its depictions of women. Nonetheless, the film was popular with audiences and is now recognized for its attempts to address the issue of women’s rights at a time when few people (Simone de Beauvoir notwithstanding) were willing to discuss the subject at all.

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When DEFA started making westerns (Indianerfilme), they first looked to literature for stories. The only writer who was definitely off limits was Karl May, the most popular writer of western fiction in Germany. The fact that he was Adolph Hitler’s favorite author is usually cited as the reason for the GDR’s rejection of his books. This attitude toward May was largely provoked by Klaus Mann’s famous essay, “Cowboy Mentor of the Fuhrer.” In fact, Albert Einstein was also a fan of May’s books. Probably a bigger factor in the East German ban on May was the fact that by the time the GDR got around to making their Indianerfilme, West Germany had already turned several May’s books into movies (Apache Gold, Shatterhand, Frontier Hellcat, and many others).1 The East Germans looked to other sources for inspiration. For their first effort, The Sons of the Great Bear (Die Söhne der großen Bärin) by the East German author Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich was chosen. Although Ms. Welskopf-Henrich was not happy with the film—feeling that they took too many liberties with the facts—the film did very well at the box office, and helped define the direction that DEFA would take when it came to making these films The good guys were always the Indians, and the U.S. and British Armies (or the miners and cattle barons) were the bad guys. They also placed a stronger emphasis than Hollywood and the other western countries ever did on the accuracy of the costumes and tribal rituals.

So it was that Chingachgook, The Great Snake (Chingachgook, die grosse Schlange)—the second Indianerfilm—came to be based on The Deerslayer, by the American author, James Fenimore Cooper. It was an interesting choice. Cooper bore many similarities to May. Like May, his knowledge of the west was mostly anecdotal, having grown up in Cooperstown, New York and spending much of his adult writing career in England (although it should be noted, that the Cooperstown of his youth was very much a frontier town). Also, like May, he was enamored of the concept of the noble savage, and always included both good and evil Indians and white people in his books. But unlike May, the GDR authorities were okay with his work. Why this was so, given the fact that he was an American author, is hard to answer. Mostly it seems to be because he wasn’t May.

The years between the 11th Plenum and Honecker’s rise to power were strange ones for DEFA. Overnight, the neo-realism, so beloved by DEFA directors before the Plenum, was now shunned in favor of styles and genres that we usually associate with Hollywood. Frivolous fun like Hot Summer would have had difficulty getting past the authorities prior to the Plenum, but was now just what the doctor ordered. And the concept of the star system, inherently antithetical to socialistic ideals, was now endorsed in the form of Gojko Mitic, the hunky Yugoslavian actor who starred in nearly all the DEFA westerns.

Normally, DEFA took greater pains to follow books as closely as possible (or, at least, more closely than Hollywood), but they did take liberties with Cooper’s book. In the book, Natty Bumppo—the “Deerslayer” of the title—is the hero of the story, and Chingachgook is his Indian sidekick. For the film, the focus is shifted almost entirely to Chingachgook and many of the Deerslayer’s feats of derring-do (such as catching the tomahawk and throwing it back at the attacker)  are attributed to Chingachgook. The character of Hetty, the sweeter but simpler of Tom Hutter’s two daughters, is eliminated completely.

The book was the last of Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales,” but is the first story chronologically. At the start of the film, we see Chingachgook preparing to marry Wah-ta-Wah, the pretty daughter of a Delaware chief when suddenly she is kidnapped by Hurons. While Chingachgook paddles after his beloved in his canoe, Deerslayer and his traveling companion, Harry Hurry, take a different path in search of the girl.

For this second Indianerfilm, DEFA once again called on Gojko Mitic to play the lead. Originally a stunt man in West German/Yugoslavian co-productions, Mitic’s good looks and dark features made him an ideal choice to play a variety of Native American superheroes, from Chingachgook to Ulzana. Although he speaks excellent German, his voice was dubbed for most of his DEFA films to eliminate his Serbian accent. Also back for a second time in an Indianerfilm was Rolf Römer; this time, thankfully, not playing an Indian this time, but the Deerslayer himself.

In a role as different as possible from the one he played in Stars, Jürgen Frohriep plays Harry Hurry, one of the film’s main villains. In Stars, Frohriep  played Walter, the young German soldier who tries to save the life of the Jewish woman he has fallen in love with. In Chingachgook, his character is far less sympathetic; a rank opportunist who is not above scalping women and children for the money. Frohriep made his biggest splash in East Germany playing Kriminaloberkommissar Jürgen Hübner on the popular TV crime drama, Polizeiruf 110. He played the character more than sixty times from 1972 until the Wende. After Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DFF)—the television equivalent of DEFA—was dismantled. Frohriep found getting work difficult in the new Germany and started drinking heavily, which eventually led to the dissolution of his long-time marriage to the American-born actress, Kati Székely. Frohriep died in Berlin in 1993.

Chingachgook featured the music of Wilhelm Neef, who also did the music for The Sons of the Great Bear, and other DEFA Indianerfilme. A Cologne-born composer, Neef settled in the east after the war. Like his fellow composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse, he was primarily a classical musician, but unlike Sasse, he rarely ventured outside of the traditional classical instrumentation in his film scores. In 1972, he stopped composing for films to work on his classical pieces, penning his moving Violin Concerto (Violinkonzert) and Piano Concerto #2 (Klavierkonzert Nr. 2), which were released in 1973 on Nova records—VEB Deutsche Schallplatten’s label for “serious” contemporary music (traditional classical music appeared on the Eterna label, and pop tunes on Amiga).

Chingachgook was directed by Richard Groschopp, whose previous films, Die Liebe und der Co-Pilot (Love and the Co-pilot) and The Baldheaded Gang had been box-office hits. Chingachgook followed suit and was the most popular DEFA film in the GDR in 1967. It was also Richard Grosschopp’s swan song as a feature film director. After working on the popular TV mini-series, Geheimkommando Ciupaga, Groschopp wrote and directed two more TV movies and then retired. He died in 1996. [For more information on Richard Groschopp, see The Baldheaded Gang.]

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1. The GDR would eventually abandon this anti-May position with the back-to-back filming of Präriejäger in Mexiko: Benito Juarez and Präriejäger in Mexiko: Geierschnabel in 1988, based on Karl May’s Waldröschen.