Archive for the ‘Dean Reed’ Category

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

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

Dean Reed

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

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

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

Dean Reed as gunfighter

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

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

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

Neckar

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

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

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

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

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Dean Reed and Renate Blume

From time to time, East German filmmakers looked to America for source material. Bellboy Ed Martin was based on Albert Maltz’s play, Merry-Go-Round, and Chingachgook, the Great Snake took most of its story from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking book, The Deerslayer. Jack London was a natural choice for DEFA. He was an ardent socialist, writing often about the struggles of the working class and the problems they faced in a capitalist society. London’s writing style is well suited to cinematic interpretation. It started in 1908 with some short films by D.W. Griffith and went on from there. Nearly everything he wrote has been made into a movie somewhere in the world. The Iron Heel—with its indictment of the way corporations help a select few scoop up all the money while the rest of the world struggles to get by—seems like a natural for film interpretation in the Communist Bloc, but it was only made twice, first as a silent film in Russia, and then again in Russia in 1999 (I’m not including the Ben Turpin and Paddy McGuire comedy reel, The Iron Mitt, which IMDB claims is also based on the book).

Kit & Co is based on several of Jack London’s “Kit Bellew” stories, first published in Cosmopolitan magazine, and later compiled into book form under the title Smoke Bellew. Many of the stories hark back to the folklore tradition of the trickster that we’ve seen before in the form of Till Eulenspiegel. Other stories are flat-out adventure tales. The film concentrates primarily on the trickster tales, and it follows these stories remarkably well. Kit’s first encounters with Joy Gastell are taken nearly verbatim from the book. Likewise, the roulette wheel caper, the egg grift and the dogsled race are presented here virtually intact.

You could hardly ask for a better cast. Manfred Krug, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Rolf Hoppe were all popular stars by the time this film was made, but, of course the real draw was Dean Reed. Here was an American—ein echter Amerikaner—starring in an East German movie. Reed was the perfect choice to play Bellew. His combination of boyish charm and rugged good looks suited the part to a tee.

Kit & Co was Dean Reed’s first East German film, but it wouldn’t be his last. The film was a major hit and ensured a highly successful career in the GDR for the American pop star. Reed went on to star in four East German films, directing the last two himself. His popularity extended past the borders of East German to the USSR as well. He was equally popular in Russia and was nicknamed “The Red Elvis.” The moniker was used for the title of a 2007 documentary about Reed. [See also, El Cantor and Blood Brothers.]

In 1986, Reed was interviewed by Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes. Reed saw this as an opportunity to bridge the gap between the east and the west, and get back to making films in America, but years of living in East Germany had deprived Reed of the perspective he needed to conduct a successful interview with the likes of Wallace. When the episode aired, Americans were appalled by Reed’s defense of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and his comparison of Ronald Reagan to Stalin. Hate mail flooded in and angry right-wing DJs derided him on the radio. Shocked and desolate, Reed committed suicide at Zeuthener Lake near his home in East Berlin. He left a note apologizing for his suicide, but the Stasi hid the note from the public, preferring to let the public to think that his death was part of conspiracy rather than the cold hard truth that Reed killed himself.

Monika Woytowicz, Manfred Krug and Renate Blume

Joy Gastell is played by Renate Blume. Blume’s career got off to a roaring start with Konrad Wolf’s spectacular film, Divided Heaven, but after that her star dimmed a bit. She was married to director Frank Beyer for five years, and lived with Indianerfilm star Gojko Mitic for two years after that. For most of her time in East Germany, she primarily appeared in TV shows and stage plays. In 1984, she married Dean Reed, and they remained married until his death. After the Wende, she continued this career path, acting on stage and appearing occasionally on television. She has appeared in several popular TV shows, including Edel & Starck, In aller Freundschaft, and, Tatort, and Polizeiruf 110—both before and after the Wende.

Kit’s pal Shorty is played by the popular East German actor, Rolf Hoppe. Hoppe was one of the most popular character actors in East German. He appeared in dozens of films and TV-movies. He had a special knack for villains, and was often seen as the bad guy in the Indianerfilme. He received international acclaim in 1981 for his portrayal of the  Göring-like Tábornagy in the classic Hungarian film, Mephisto. In Kit & Co, Hoppe gets to engage in a different western stereotype: the sourdough—that grizzled prospector of the California and Klondike Gold Rushes. He has fun in the role and makes the character as engaging as he is on the page. Hoppe still appears in films from time to time, and he resides in Dresden’s Weißig section.

As with many of the better films from DEFA, the music for this film was by Karl-Ernst Sasse. Sasse, a classically-trained composer, normally followed a classicists approach to his scores, using lots of strings and full orchestration. Sasse felt, however, that this wouldn’t work well in a film like Kit & Co. Instead, he created a score that imitated the music of the period, with minimal orchestration. Some songs consist of nothing more than a bass viol, trap set, and a banjo. Other tunes add horns to mix with a sound reminiscent of a Salvation Army band. [For more examples of Sasse’s work, and further information on the composer, click on his name at the top of this post.]

Critics were divided on Kit & Co, but the audiences weren’t—they loved it. The Soviet Union made their own version the Smoke Bellew stories the following year (Smok i malysh) and DFF, the East German television company, made two more movies based on Jack London’s works (Alaska-Kids großer Coup and Der Mexikaner Felipe Rivera). Most recently, Bellew and Shorty returned to the small screen in the French mini-series, Chercheurs d’or. Considering the enduring popularity of Jack London’s work, we’re certain to see more films based on the exploits of Kit and Shorty. Kit & Co remains one of the best.

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The Singer

Communists loved Dean Reed. Coming, as he did from America, but rejecting his home country’s imperialistic meddling in the affairs of others, he was the perfect poster boy for the superiority of socialism over capitalism. Reed, after all, had been performing in concerts all over South America, and saw first hand how the CIA helped Onganía and Pinochet take over the governments in Argentina and Chile. Reed had been living in Buenos Aires, where he moved when he discovered that his records were more popular in South America than in the States. After the military coup in 1966, he found himself persona non grata in his adopted land. He went to Italy, where he starred in several spaghetti westerns, but Reed’s affable, good-looking anti-heroes never caught the public’s fancy the way that Clint Eastwood’s gruff and silent “Man With No Name” did.

In 1973, he went to East Germany to work on the film Kit & Co., based on Jack London’s Kit Bellew stories. The film was a hit and Dean Reed became the new darling of the Eastern Bloc. He sang like Elvis, looked so darned American, and was making movies in East Germany! He was a dream come true. Although on paper, the GDR wasn’t keen on the idea of matinee idols, they made a few exceptions when people proved to be good box office. Reed was one of those people. He took full advantage of his popularity and the perks that came with it, co-writing the screenplay for his next film (Blood Brothers), which was also a hit, and then directing El Cantor, a TV-movie based on the life of his good friend, Victor Jara.

Jara was a popular singer, theater director, and political activist in Chile. While Reed  was singing at a concert there, he met Jara, and the Chilean communist had a big impact on the young man from Colorado. Reed saw first hand the extent to which the rich were walking on the backs of the poor people in South America, and he became outraged. He started appearing at protest movements and giving free concerts in poor neighborhoods all over South America.

Victor Jara was a strong supporter of Chile’s socialist candidate for president, Salvador Allende. When Allende was elected , the CIA backed the military coup on September 11, 1973, led by General Augusto Pinochet. One of the first things Pinochet did was round up anyone who publicly supported Allende, and that included Victor Jara. The next day, Jara and the other prisoners were taken to the Estadio Chile, where they were held for several days. When a soldier,  jokingly referred to as “The Prince,” recognized Jara while the singer was moving to another part of the stadium, he shouted “What is this bastard doing here? Don’t let him move from here. This one is reserved for me!”* Jara was taken to the basement where he was repeatedly kicked and beaten. His hands were smashed with the butt of a rifle, and he was told, with venomous sarcasm, to try and play guitar. He responded by singing “Venceremos” (We Will Win). Enraged by his defiance, his tormentors set upon him once again, pummeling him and finally shooting him 44 times. His body was dragged into the street and left next to a graveyard on the outskirts of Santiago.

Dean was already in East Germany when he heard what happened to his friend. He convinced the DFF (East Germany’s state-owned television company) to let him make a movie about the Chilean singer-activist starring Reed himself. He would also direct the film from a screenplay he wrote. It was the perfect socialist story: peace-loving Marxist is brutally murdered in a coup financed by the United States. Who could ask for anything more? Working with Wolfgang Ebeling, who also co-wrote the Blood Brothers script, Reed created a mostly factual retelling of the life and death of Victor Jara and the troubles he encountered in his fatal battle for social equality in Chile.

Made, as it was, for East German television, El Cantor suffers from a few problems. The first, and the biggest one is Dean Reed himself. Reed was great at playing likable American knuckleheads, and he gives his portrayal of Jara his all, but Reed neither looks like nor sings like the dark-eyed and unmistakably Latino Jara. It is always a risky proposition for an actor/director to portray a famous person. Reed was one of the first people to engage in this one-two combination, Ed Harris did it in Pollock, but he didn’t have to sing. Closer to the mark, Kevin Spacey did it in Beyond the Sea, portraying Bobby Darin. Spacey, like Reed, is a good singer, and he also co-wrote his script.

The second problem with the El Cantor is the budget. Expensive location filming wasn’t an option, so East Germany has to stand-in for Chile, sometimes to the film’s detriment. This is, undoubtedly, one of the reasons there are very few wide-shots or scenes that convey the magnitude of the story. When the people are rounded up and herded into Santiago’s National Stadium (renamed for Victor Jara in 2003), we only see a small group. In truth, the stadium was filled with hundreds people held in inhumane conditions. In Joan Jara’s account of the morgue where she identified her husband’s body, the scene far a far more gruesome scene that the movie suggests:

“We go down a dark passageway and emerge into a large hall. My new friend puts his hand on my elbow to steady me as I look at rows and rows of naked bodies covering the floor, stacked up into heaps in the corners, most with gaping wounds, some with their hands still tied behind their backs … there are young and old … there are hundreds of bodies … most of them look like working people … hundreds of bodies, being sorted out, being dragged by the feet and put into one pile or another, by the people who work in the morgue, strange silent figures with masks across their faces to protect them from the smell of decay.”*

Another problem for the film comes, inevitably, from its timeliness. Pinochet was still in control in 1978 when the movie was made. Many of the facts about what happened to Jara only came out after the dictator was ousted from power. Reed has to rely on third-hand accounts and best guesses to fill in the story. Given that, he does a pretty good job with the information that was available at the time. The soldiers remain anonymous in the film. Since that time, some have been identified and charged, while another, Edwin Dimter, reportedly the infamous “Prince,” recently had his office invaded by protesters.

Starring opposite Reed as his wife (named Janet in the movie) is Friederike Aust, a dark-haired beauty who acted primarily in East German made-for-TV movies, and in popular television shows, such as Polizeiruf 110 and  Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort. Ms. Aust is an attractive woman and a good actress who deserves more attention that she’s received. After the Wende, She moved into the field of voice dubbing, replacing the voices on popular American TV shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Santa Barbara, and Six Feet Under.

The cinematographer for El Cantor is Hans Heinrich, not to be confused with the director of the same name. Heinrich first worked with Reed on Blood Brothers, and Heinrich’s work on that film is spectacular, with scenes that Hollywood only matched after the invention of the Steadicam. His work in El Cantor is more restrained but no less effective. The colors are less vivid, but that is probably a conscious choice, based on the fact that the film was intended for television. Those old CRT set were very bad at handling vivid colors, especially bright reds, so Heinrich works here from a softer palette of grays and greens.

El Cantor is a valiant effort to bring the story of South America’s most charismatic and idealistic martyr to a wider audience. It is a story that certainly deserves to be—no, needs to be—told. But the definitive movie on Victor Jara remains to be made. It is a gut-wrenching and shameful story that everyone, especially we Americans, should know.

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* An unfinished song: The life of Victor Jara, by Joan Jara

Divided Heaven

Posted: December 4, 2011 in 11th Plenum, Dean Reed, Feminism, Konrad Wolf
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East Germany’s history is surprising, paradoxical, and weird. Just when you thought things were going to to lapse into a bleak recreation of 1984, the government would make a U-turn on some policy and relax the rules. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film community, where periods of creative freedom were followed by vicious clamp downs, and vice versa. The most pronounced example of this shift happened right after the Berlin Wall was erected. Touted as an “anti-fascist protective barrier,” authorities in the GDR were eager to demonstrate that the wall would help their country blossom by keeping out the insidious influences of American capitalists and West German Altnazis. Filmmakers and writers were granted a level of freedom of expression they had not seen before. It was during the first few years after the wall went up that some of the best books and films that the GDR had to offer were made. Meanwhile on the other side of the wall, West German films had gotten so banal that a group of young filmmakers at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen delivered their famous Oberhausen Manifesto, declaring that the “Old film is dead. We believe in the new” (Der alte Film ist tot. Wir glauben an den neuen).

One person who would take full advantage of this renaissance was a talented writer named Christa Wolf. Ms. Wolf’s first book, The Divided Heaven (Der geteilte Himmel) was an immediate hit on both sides of the Wall. Shortly after its publication, filmmaker Konrad Wolf (no relation) decided to make a movie of it. Ms. Wolf and her husband Gerhard were hired to write the screenplay, along with Kurt Barthel, a poet and author who had already demonstrated a talent for screenwriting with the scripts for Kurt Maetzig’s Castles and Cottages and Don’t Forget My Little Traudel under his pseudonym, KuBa.

The film follows the book closely. A young woman named Rita Seidel is shown staggering along the train tracks in a railroad car factory in Halle when she suddenly collapses. The rest of the film is told in flashback, relating the story of her love affair with Manfred Herrfurth, an ambitious young chemist. Manfred is a cynical young man whose personal ambition is in direct odds with socialist ideology. Rita, on the other hand, remains positive, and wants her work to benefit the community, not just her own ego. Most of the action takes place in the months prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall. Disgusted with the initial rejection of his new chemical process, Manfred moves to West Berlin. Rita goes to join him but finds the rampant consumerism, endless street noise, and the interpersonal alienation too much to bear. Accepting that she and Manfred live in different worlds, she returns to Halle where she collapses on the job (in the book, her collapse is due to an attempted suicide, in the movie, it seems to be simply her sadness overwhelming her nervous system).

What makes this film (and the book) so unique is the even-handed way in which it deals with both sides of the divided country. While its heart is admittedly closer to the socialist side of the things, the film does a good job of making us understand Manfred’s frustration with a system that is sometimes its own worst enemy. The portrayal of the work brigade in this film is similar to that in Frank Beyer’s film, Trace of Stones, which came out after the 11th Plenum and faced heavy criticism in spite of the fact that the book it was based on was already a best seller in East Germany.

As with some other Konrad Wolf films (e.g., Stars, Sun Seekers, Solo Sunny), the lead is played by a relatively unknown actress. Here it is Renate Blume, who was still in drama school when she got the part. After graduating in 1965, she started working primarily in theater and later as part of the East German television (DFF) ensemble. From 1965 to 1974, she was married to director Frank Beyer, but worked with him on only one project: the TV mini-series, Die sieben Affären der Doña Juanita (The Seven Affairs of Doña Juanita). After divorcing Beyer, she lived with the popular Indianerfilme actor, Gojko Mitic, whom she met while working on Apaches. In 1976, while working on Kit & Co, she met the American actor, Dean Reed, and fell in love. The were married in 1981, and Ms. Blume stayed with Reed until his death by suicide in 1986 (for more about Dean Reed, see Blood Brothers). As with many other East German actors, she found it hard at first to get film work in the newly unified Germany and began teaching classes in acting and appearing on stage. After a few guest roles on popular German TV shows (e.g., Tatort, Edel & Starck), she was hired to play Ingrid Lindbergh on the series, Fünf Sterne (Five Stars). which ran from 2005 to 2008 on NDF.

The cinematographer was Werner Bergmann, whom Wolf used for all but his last two films. As with other DEFA films from this period, the camerawork is stunning. Armed with the newer lighter cameras, and inspired by the work of the French New Wave, the filmmakers in East Germany were pushing the boundaries of filmmaking with each new project. One of the most startlingly photographed scenes occurs when a group of scientists are sitting around a coffee table, chatting. The camera continuously circles them while they speak. Ten years later, West German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus would be lauded for inventing this same sort of shot in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s TV-movie, Martha. From the very first time we see Rita and Manfred together, we notice that there is often a dividing element occupying the space between them. Sometimes it is a lamp pole, and other times it is a window frame or a railing. These act as subtle clues to the division facing the lovers, at first, ideological and after the wall, physical.

Helga Krause’s editing in this film is flawless. It seems to be intentionally following the jazzy rhythms of Hans-Dieter Hosalla’s score. The counterpoint between these two elements is exhilarating. Scenes jump from melancholy music to voice-overs to complete silence in startling and imaginative ways.

Also worth of mention is Konrad Walle’s sound work. Since film is primarily a visual medium, it is all to easy to overlook the sound mixing, but sound in this film, is as important as the images. At times it is remarkably subtle, such as the muted whir if a tape recorder rewinding in the background, or the dissonant banging on an organ that is meant to imitate car horns. Sometimes it is in your face, like the recreated broadcasts of Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space.

Christa Wolf is now regarded as one of Germany’s foremost authors. Her novel, Cassandra, is considered a classic of feminist literature and has been translated into nearly every major language. After her Stasi files were released to the public, it was revealed that Ms. Wolf had worked briefly an informer for the Stasi in 1959, but her benign reports led them to believe that she wasn’t really cooperating with them and they let her go, choosing instead to spy on her for the next thirty years. In 1976, she was one of the many signatories to the letter of protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. An action that got her banned from the East German Writers’ Union (Deutscher Schriftstellerverband). Sadly, Ms. Wolf died December 1, 2011 in Berlin while I was writing this blog entry.

Divided Heaven was one of the last films to take full advantage of the new creative freedom the wall afforded. A year after its release, the 11th Plenum of the SED would put and end to this brief but shining period in East German film history, blaming the media for the country’s economic problems and banning wholesale an entire years worth of films. After that, any film with even the slightest criticism of the way things were was seen as a threat to the system. Christa Wolf’s next film project was made with Kurt Barthel, whom she met while working on Divided Heaven. That film, Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly), was banned before it was finished and relegated to the storage facility at DEFA. After the Wende, nearly all the footage was found, but much of the soundtrack was missing. Although it already had been shown on both sides of the wall, Divided Heaven also found itself banned from time to time throughout the rest of the GDR’s existence, but remains as one of the best films that DEFA ever made.

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In 1990, actor/director Kevin Costner made a film called Dances With Wolves. The film told the story of a U.S. Army soldier stationed out west who learns the ways of the local Indian tribe and eventually finds himself at odds with the white people invading the west. The film was hailed as revolutionary for its pro-Native American stance, and went on to win seven Academy Awards. One tiny little fact got lost in the shuffle: the film had already been made in East Germany fifteen years earlier.

That film was Blood Brothers (Blutsbrüder), and, as with most other East German Indianerfilme, it starred Gojko Mitic, the Yugoslavian actor who specialized in playing Native Americans for DEFA. This was Mitic’s tenth exploration of the American West for DEFA. It is interesting to compare his performance in this film with some of his previous films, such as Chingachgook, the Great Snake, or Apaches. In those, he is presented as a nearly super-human force, capable of feats that strain credulity. In Blood Brothers, he puts on a more human face. He is vulnerable, occasionally bested, and more relaxed. It is one of his most engaging performances and shows an actor who has grown comfortable with his persona.

This may have been, in part, because he was working opposite Dean Reed who brought a goofy affability to most of the roles he played. Dean Reed was an American pop singer who had been one of the dozens of handsome young men groomed for stardom by the major record companies in the wake of Elvis. He had a few modest hits in the states, but in South America, his song, “Our Summer Romance” was a bona fide blockbuster. Taking advantage of the situation, Reed travelled to South America, where he played to packed venues all over the continent, and eventually moved to Argentina. While there, he became outraged by the disparity between the rich and the poor. He visited Chile, where he met the political folksinger Victor Jara and learned that music can make a difference. His politics shifted to the left and he began singing protest songs; he appeared at free concerts for the poor and protested U.S. politics. After the Argentine Revolution, the new fascist government there decided that Reed was persona non grata, and sent him packing.

At first, he went to Rome, where he began acting in spaghetti westerns, most notably, Adios Sabata, where he played second bill to Yul Brynner. In 1973, Reed, who by now considered himself a Marxist, decided to move to East Germany where he continued to appear in films.. While there, he recorded several albums for the state-owned record label, Amiga. He became wildly popular in all the Soviet bloc countries and was known as der Rote Elvis (the Red Elvis).

In spite of his politics, Reed never joined the SED and continued to file his income with the IRS until the end of his life. In 1986, Reed appeared on the popular American TV news program, 60 Minutes, where he defended the building of the Berlin Wall, and compared Reagan to Stalin. Reportedly, Reed was interested in returning to the United States, but years abroad had left him without a clue as to how far to the right the average American was politically. Reactions to the interview were vitriolic and left Reed despondent and confused. Six weeks after that show, he committed suicide. The authorities covered up the suicide, fearing that it would reflect badly on the state. This led to years of speculation as to whether he was murdered or committed suicide. The question was finally answered after the Wende, when his Stasi files were opened by author Chuck Laszewski while he was researching his book, Rock ‘n’ Roll Radical: The Life & Mysterious Death of Dean Reed. There, Laszewski found a suicide note and an apology to SED General Secretary Erich Honecker.

While it is tempting to make a full-on comparison between Blood Brothers and Dances with Wolves, there are some important differences. The biggest one is that of perspective. The Hollywood film follows the age-old formula of the righteous white man learning the ways of the oppressed minority and coming to their aid as the heroic savior. We’ve seen it many times before, from Lawrence of Arabia to Avatar. Blood Brothers inverts the formula. By himself, Reed’s character (known as Harmonika for his musical instrument of choice) is incapable of salvation. If anything, it is the Indians who save him; first from the wilderness and then from his own dissipation. The hero here is, as is often the case in the Indianerfilme, Gojko Mitic’s character (given the improbable name of “Harter Felsen,” which translates into something roughly along the lines of “hard ground,” or the rather redundant, “hard rock”). Unlike Dean Reed’s well-meaning, but confused renegade, Mitic’s character never loses his center, and eventually helps Harmonika get back on track. Of course, this being an East German film, getting back on the right track means killing American soldiers.

Blood Brothers was directed by Werner W. Wallroth. Wallroth normally specialized in lighter fare. He was part of the generation that was still in its teenage years when the war ended. His most successful film was Hauptmann Florian von der Mühle (Captain Florian of the Mill), a lowbrow farce starring Manfred Krug. His last feature film for DEFA was Der Doppelgänger a romantic comedy starring Klaus-Dieter Klebsch. After the Wende, he retired from filmmaking, but continued to work in theater. Wallroth is also a talented lyricist, writing songs for various East German artists, including Chris Doerk (of Hot Summer fame), and Nina Hagen (he penned her popular song, “Wir tanzen Tango”). He died on August 9th of this in Potsdam at the age of 81.

The cinematographer was by Hans Heinrich. Although IMDB lists him as the same man who directed the first DEFA musical, My Wife Wants to Sing, he is not. That director was a West Berliner (born November 2, 1911), whose career in the east was capped  by that musical in 1957. That same year, the cinematographer Heinrich (born March 19, 1929) was still working in the “Das Stacheltier” group at DEFA. Das Stacheltier made short films that played before the feature films at East German cinemas. Sometimes these were documentaries, and sometimes they were short films, usually comedies. In 1961, he started working on feature films regularly. His work includes the Manfred Krug comedies, On the Sunny Side, and Frau Venus und ihr Teufel (Lady Venus and Her Devil). During the seventies, he was one of the most popular cinematographers of Indianerfilme, and he filmed many of Dean Reed’s GDR films, including the two that Reed directed (El Cantor and Sing, Cowboy, Sing).

In spite of Wallroth’s rather lackadaisical approach to mise-en-scène, Heinrich’s work in Blood Brothers is spectacular. In one of the most memorable scenes, after an attack on the Indian camp by the whites, the camera rapidly tracks through the wreckage of the camp, gliding over hills and through the still-standing tentpoles of a destroyed tepee. It looks like it was shot with a Steadicam, but the Steadicam wouldn’t turn up in films for another year, starting with Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (for which cinematographer Haskell Wexler won an Academy Award). How an East German film came up with a Steadicam-style shot a full year before the process was introduced deserves further investigation.

The music is by Karl-Ernst Sasse, and is one of his odder scores. In places, it is remarkably imaginative, using jaw harps for percussive effects, but a minute later, it suddenly devolves into the kind of cliches that one could find on any U.S. TV western in the fifties. [For more on Sasse, see Her Third and Signals.] As an musical lagniappe, Dean Reed appears at the beginning of the film and sings his song, “Love Your Brother.”

Blood Brothers was one of the last Indianerfilme made by DEFA. The public was beginning to lose its enthusiasm for the genre. Nonetheless, the film did very well at the box office and helped enhance Reed’s reputation behind the Iron Curtain.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (German only, no subtitles).