Archive for the ‘DEFA’ Category

Verfehlung
The final years of East Germany’s existence saw a relaxing of the restrictions on what could be filmed and what couldn’t. After the Wende, DEFA continued to exist for a few years, and continued to make films using the same stable of technicians and actors, but now they could make films about the one thing that was always taboo in the GDR: The government itself. We saw tentative steps in this direction with The Tango Player, which was also made after reunification, but that was more of a look at a certain time in East Germany’s history rather than an indictment of the system. The Latest from the Da-Da-eR was more acerbic, but Mensching & Wenzel were equal opportunity mockers, so their film was as hard on the West as it was on the East. Leave it to Heiner Carow to come out with both barrels blazing with The Mistake (Verfehlung). There’s no misinterpreting who the bad guy is here—he’s an East German government official who uses the power of his position for his own petty vendetta.

The Mistake follows the adventures and misadventures of Elisabeth Bosch, a tough widow who works as a cleaning lady for the mayor of a dying East German town. The mayor, whose name is Reimelt, is secretly in love with Elisabeth, but never does anything to show it until a West German stranger named Jacob Alain shows up in town. Alain is from Hamburg, and is in the town on business. He first notices Elisabeth while she is playing with her two grandsons in her backyard. The woman and the two kids are naked, and she’s not happy with the sudden attention of a stranger. Later, she runs into him at the mayor’s office, and the couple’s relationship gets off to a rocky start. Eventually, they start to like each other, causing Riemelt to takes steps to prevent the couple from seeing each other, sparking a series of events that turn fatal.

The title of this film is impossible to translate adequately into English. It is translated for the DVD into The Mistake, but Verfehlung can also be translated as Misconduct, Transgression, or even Bad Judgement. Carow plays on all of these meanings, and he does so for all sides of the story. Is the mistake Elisabeth’s? The mayor’s? Or the GDR’s? There are plenty of mistakes to go around. One Verfehlung leads to another in a downward spiral.

The Mistake

The Mistake is based on a novella by Werner Heiduczek. Director Heiner Carow started working on this film as a project before the Wall came down, but Heiduczek also often wrote about the problems encountered by gay people in East German society. Carow thought that a film about the gay scene in Berlin stood a better chance of getting made than one about an evil government official, so he decided to make his next film on that subject instead. The film was Coming Out, which went on to win Silver Bear and Teddy awards at the Berlinale. After the Wende, Carow returned to The Mistake, recognizing a rare opportunity to make this film. The East German government was now a thing of the past, but DEFA was still making movies, usually in association with West German production companies. It was around this time that DEFA was sold to the French conglomerate Compagnie Générale des Eaux (now Vivendi). There were a few more DEFA films in the pipeline, but the valve was shut.

The film stars Angelica Domröse, who is always worth watching. Domröse had left East Germany in 1980, following the Wolf Biermann protest letter incident (see The Story of a Murder for more on Domröse). This was her first DEFA film in twelve years, and she gives it her all. Jacob Alain is portrayed by West German actor Gottfried John, who will be familiar to many filmgoers as one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s regulars, appearing in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, In a Year with 13 Moons, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and other Fassbinder films. The weaselly mayor Riemelt is played by Jörg Gudzuhn, an East German character actor who appeared in many movies and television shows. He is best known in Germany now for his portrayal of Kommissar Joe Hoffer in the popular TV series Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness).

The Mistake would be Heiner Carow’s last film for DEFA, and his last feature film, period. He used much of the same core group of technicians on this film that he used on Coming Out, including his wife Evelyn Carow, one of the best film editors in East Germany, his son Stefan, a talented musician in his own right, and cinematographer Martin Schlesinger. Also here is Dirk Kummer, who worked as both an actor and assistant director in both films.

The Mistake

After this, Heiner Carow would work only in television, mostly on series shows, but he did direct Fähre in den Tod (Ferry to Death)—a TV-movie about the Estonia ferry tragedy, the deadliest peacetime shipwreck in European waters (sadly, not available with English subtitles). That film would be Evelyn Carow’s last movie. Stefan Carow, meanwhile, has moved to Los Angeles where he continues to compose and perform. Martin Schlesinger works primarily in television these days, as does Dirk Kummer, who has mostly continued to work as an assistant director, but recently sat in the director’s chair for the TV movie Zuckersand, which just won the award for best TV movie at the Munich International Film festival (Filmfest München).

The Mistake is sometimes compared to Heiner Carow’s earlier film, The Legend of Paul and Paula. There are some similarities. Both Paula and Elisabeth are part of the East German working class1, and both characters are little too passionate for their own good (although in Paula’s case, that passion hurts only her); but it is more similar to another Angelica Domröse film—Joachim Hasler’s The Story of a Murder. In that film, Domröse also plays a woman who seeks revenge on the man who destroyed her life in much the same way. Since The Story of a Murder takes place in West Germany, the East German authorities had no problems presenting the political official as evil, but The Mistake takes place in East Germany. There’s no way it would have seen the light of day before the Wall came down.

Unfortunately for this film, it came out at a time when no one wanted to hear anything about how things were in the GDR. The film only saw 8,208 paying customers according to one source. Coming, as it did, after reunification, but before Ostalgie, the film died a quick death at the box office and is largely forgotten today. The film certainly deserves more attention and will, hopefully, some day receive it.

IMDB page for the film.

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1. East Germany, of course, prided itself on having done away with class structure, but, in fact, one still existed. Those working in menial jobs did not have the same perks as the so-called intelligentsia, or the people in political offices.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Tango Player
Following the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989, events in East Germany started happening fast. Faster than DEFA could keep with. Less than a year after that first batch of East Germans streamed into West Berlin in their Trabants, the GDR ceased to exist. Yet DEFA soldiered on, buffeted mercilessly by the winds of change. During the GDR’s last year of existence, the authorities had loosened their restrictions on what was acceptable in a film and what was not. The Tango Player (Der Tangospieler) was based on Christoph Hein’s 1989 novella about a man imprisoned for playing a tango. The book was controversial, but it was always easier to get books published than films made in the GDR. Filmmaker Roland Gräf saw the potential in the story to make a movie that addressed many of the problems he saw in East German society. He submitted his proposal to DEFA, but he wasn’t really expecting them to okay the project. The film studio had stayed away from controversial topics ever since the 11th Plenum. To his surprise, they said yes, and Gräf began working on the film, unaware—as was everyone else—that the fall of the Wall was a few scant months away.

The story starts when Hans-Peter Dallow is let out of prison after serving 21 months for subversive activity. It is 1968 and Alexander Dubček has just been elected First Secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. Prior to prison, Dallow was a history professor, who sometimes played the piano at a local Kabarett.1 One night, while Dallow subbed for their regular piano player, a comedy troupe performed a particularly pointed political skit. This would have been early in 1966—shortly after the 11th Plenum, when the East German government was cracking down on any movie, performance, or other art that even remotely smacked of criticism against them. The next thing Dallow knew, he was trundled off the prison along with the rest of the performers.

Der Tangospieler

This scene isn’t quite what it seems. The woman has already spent the night with Dallow. Her anguish comes from the something she just heard on the radio, announcing the invasion of Prague by the Warsaw troops.

Now back out in the world, Dallow doesn’t know what to do next. As a history professor, he specialized in Czechoslovakia, but the time in prison has left him indifferent to the unfolding political events there. He’s in no hurry to get back into the classroom, and he certainly doesn’t want to play the piano again, but he’s not sure where to turn next. As if to pour salt in the wound, the skit for which he was imprisoned is now performed openly, and is even attended by the judge who sentenced him. On top of everything else, the Stasi are dropping by regularly, trying to recruit him as an informer (IM).

Dallow isn’t a particularly likeable guy. For one thing, after 21 months in prison he’s horny as hell and behaves atrociously toward women. For another, his self-pity verges on narcissism. He’s mad at the world for what it’s done to him, but he’s not willing to take steps to alleviate the situation. The film stars Michael Gwisdek as Hans-Peter Dallow. Gwisdek was too old for the part, and this works against the character. Some of his actions would be understandable for a young man, but come across as downright creepy in a man old enough to know better. If we are suppose to like or sympathize with Dallow, it doesn’t show. He is a thoroughly disagreeable human being. Nonetheless, Gwisdek is a compelling enough actor to hold our interest.

The film also stars Corinna Harfouch as Elke, the only meaningful relationship he has post-prison. Gwisdek and Harfouch were still an item in 1991, and made several movies together, both before and after the Wall fell. The Tango Player was one of their last. The duo went their separate ways toward the end of the nineties, but didn’t get officially divorced until 2007 (for more on Gwisdek and Harfouch, see The Actress).

Gwisdek and Harfouch

Michael Gwisdek and Corinna Harfouch

Like Joachim Hasler, director Roland Gräf started his career at DEFA as a cinematographer. He was the cinematographer for Born in ‘45 and The Dove on the Roof, which were both banned. It was with Gräf’s help, in fact, that The Dove on the Roof was eventually put back together and screened in 1990. During its final years, Gräf became the de facto keeper of the flame for DEFA. Making movies and acting as chairman of DEFA’s artistic council. When DEFA finally bit the dust, so too did Gräf’s career as a filmmaker. Aside from a couple episodes of the TV crime series Faust, Gräf stopped working as either a director or a cinematographer. Like many East German filmmakers, his ideas weren’t welcome in the new Germany, which skewed heavily in favor of the Western ideology and power. He began teaching at the “Konrad Wolf” film school in Babelsberg. Upon its founding in 1998, Roland Gräf became the Deputy Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the DEFA Foundation, a position he held until 2005. After that, he turned his attention to still pictures. In 2016, a book of his photographs was published in Germany under the title Meine LAST PICTURE SHOW.

As one would expect from a film titled The Tango Player, most of the music is either tango, or tango-inflected. The song that is used in the political skit is Julio César Sanders’ well-known classic Adiós Muchachos. The soundtrack also includes the music of Astor Piazzolla, as well as additional music provided by Günther Fischer. It’s a solid, driving score that suits the action well.

The Tango Player

Dallow’s television shows the Warsaw Pact troops rolling into Prague.

The Tango Player suffered a fate similar to The Architects, where the events of history happened faster than the film could be made. According to Gräf, “The events of the day simply ran over me.” By the time it came out, The Tango Player‘s relevance was seriously diminished. What would have been a remarkably frank portrayal of events a couple years earlier seemed tame now. The film was largely ignored. That’s too bad, because the film is one of the last to give us a glimpse into a world that no longer existed by someone who had actually been there.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.


1. As in my article about The Actress, I’ve intentionally used the German word “Kabarett” here rather than “cabaret,” because, for Germans, the word Kabarett has a very different meaning from what we think of as cabaret. Although they both feature lots of singing, dancing and skits, German Kabarett is often punctuated by satirical political skits and comedy monologues of the darkest humor.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Crucible

At first glance, The Crucible (Die Hexen von Salem) doesn’t appear to be an East German film at all. It is directed by a Belgian, it stars French actors, and it has a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre. Additionally, almost all of the technical crew are French. In this respect, it is reminiscent of DEFA productions of the forties and early fifties, such as Razzia and The Heart of Stone, which were, for all intents and purposes, West German films, DEFA in name only. Those films were the result of the fact that West Germany had no film industry at the time, thanks to the U.S. military government (OMGUS), doing as little as possible to encourage West German film production. They preferred, instead, for West Germans to watch Hollywood films, sometimes without even bothering to dub or subtitle them. This gave DEFA a leg up in Germany, at least until West Germany became a sovereign state in 1949 and film production was put back on track.

Even so, Hollywood had an edge in film production and distribution, not just in Germany, but in the rest of Europe as well. For one thing, many extraordinarily talented film people fled to America to escape the Nazis, and many decided to stay in Hollywood after the war was over.1 For another, most countries were too busy rebuilding their basic infrastructures to worry about things like film production. It was nearly impossible for a film company from any single European country to compete with the production capabilities of Hollywood.

To solve the problem, production companies from different countries would join forces to make movies. Those Steve Reeves sword-and-sandal films so beloved by the gay community, were Spanish-Italian co-productions, and the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood westerns were made with Italian, Spanish and West German money. Italians offer figured figured into things, thanks to Cinecittà, the movie production facilities built by Mussolini to make pro-fascist films.

Die Hexen von Salem

East Germany should have figured into more of these co-productions. They had some of the best facilities for filming in Europe—partly thanks to East Germany’s early lead in European moviemaking, and partly because they inherited Ufa’s Babelsberg studios—but the United States and West Germany were doing everything in their power to marginalize East Germany; going so far as to hire hundreds of former Nazis to help them do the job. In 1955, West Germany took the ultimate step with the Hallstein Doctrine, which threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with any country that recognized the sovereignty of East Germany (excluding, of course, the Soviet Union).

Sweden’s Pandora Film was making films with DEFA, but Pandora was actually a front for Erich Mehl’s West German production company. The French were the only NATO country to engage in co-productions with East Germany. DEFA officials saw these joint productions as a way to thumb their noses at the Hallstein Doctrine, but, as we shall see, it was all for naught.

The Crucible is adapted from the play by Arthur Miller. It is known in France as Les Sorcières de Salem, and in West Germany as Hexenjagd (Witch Hunt). Miller wrote the play in response to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and its attacks on Hollywood writers, directors and actors. Started after the war (or, more aptly, rebooted), HUAC was designed to root out threats to the American way of life. For HUAC, this didn’t mean racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, that were lynching blacks in the South, or the companies that were actively doing everything in their power to stop unionization at their sweatshops; it meant communists. If you were a communist, you had no rights in America, and supporting that ideology could lose your job. Starting in 1947, HUAC began investigating and prosecuting suspected communist spies, but pretty soon it became engulfed in wave of anti-communist hysteria that saw Russian spies hiding behind every bush. Things got really ugly when the committee decided that the biggest nest of communists was Hollywood and started throwing people in jail for believing in the first amendment.

Les Sorcières de Salem

Miller’s play examined this deeply repressive, anti-communist committee by comparing it to the witch trials in seventeenth-century Salem, where a group of hysterical schoolgirls convinced the locals that their town was full of witches. Although today the red-baiting excesses of the fifties are pinned almost entirely on Senator Joseph McCarthy, in truth it started as a team effort by republicans bent on using a committee originally intended to find actual threats, as a way to push forward their conservative agenda and make left of center ideologies virtually illegal in America. McCarthy came late to the game and was just the schmuck who was too stupid to duck when public opinion turned.

The Crucible was first performed in 1953 and is now considered a classic of American theater. The play opened to mixed reviews, some reviewers clearly felt that by writing this play, Miller was catering to the commies, but the New York Times, to its credit, gave the play a glowing review and The Crucible went on to win the Outstanding Play award at the 7th Annual Tony Awards. It is certainly no coincidence that a few years later, Miller had his own confrontation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

In 1954, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret—the Brad and Angelina of France in the fifties—appeared in the stage version of Miller’s play at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt (now Théâtre de la Ville). Talk of turning the play into a movie started almost immediately, but this time with a screenplay by the renowned existentialist writer, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre wrote his screenplay for the film after seeing Montand and Signoret perform on stage. He liked the play, but felt that Marcel Aymé’s translation—an accurate translation of Miller’s original—concentrated too much on the story of one man’s struggle against mass hysteria. Sartre, still a Marxist at this point, saw the story as a cautionary tale about the use of religion to help the rich suppress and steal from the poor. He wanted to make a political statement, but it was one that wasn’t getting much traction in the west, where the U.S. was using its might to clamp down on any pro-communist thinking, sometimes using shockingly repressive techniques to do so. So it was that the producers turned to DEFA to help get the film made.

To direct the film, the Belgian actor-director Raymond Rouleau was chosen. Rouleau studied drama at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels before moving to Paris. He started as an actor, with an auspicious debut in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent. He started directing a few years later and continued to act and direct until his death in Paris in 1981. From 1944 until 1951, he, along with Lucien Beer, headed the Théâtre de l’Œuvre, the theater that premiered Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. While there, Rouleau directed La neige était sale (Dirty Snow), mystery writer Frédéric Dard’s theatrical adaptation of the novel by Rouleau’s countryman, Georges Simenon. As a director, Rouleau was more craftsman than artist. The mise-en-scène in The Crucible is logical and composed to drive the story forward, but does little to project the inner turmoil of the characters. For that, Rouleau relies almost entirely on the skills of his actors. Fortunately, they are up to the task.

Mylène Demongeot

At the center of The Crucible is Mylène Demongeot, who plays the sexy and spiteful Abigail Williams. Historically, Abigail Williams was a fourteen-year-old, but Miller pushed her age up to seventeen to create the adulterous situation the play needed to create the sexual dynamics that interested Miller. Demongeot exudes sexuality from every pore. Although it wasn’t her first film, The Crucible put her on the map and led to several more parts, including the carefree Elsa in Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse, Fandor’s girlfriend, Hélène in the Fantômas trilogy, and the sexy British comedy, Upstairs and Downstairs, which features the tagline: “The babysitter with the French touch! M-M-M-Mylène Demongeot.” She continues to act and is an active participant in several humanitarian causes.

Besides the lead actors, most of the technicians were also French. The cinematographer was Claude Renoir, grandson to the artist and nephew to director Jean Renoir. Much of the film’s unspoken drama comes from Renoir’s moody work. He shot the film in noirish black-and-white that reflects the way the characters view the world. Renoir got his start in films as an assistant cameraman on his uncle’s films, but he is best remembered for his dazzling work on Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, and Blood and Roses.

The most dramatic story behind the making of The Crucible almost goes by unnoticed at the beginning of the film. If you watch a print of the movie intended for western audiences, you’ll see the film’s composer listed as Georges Auric, but if you watch the East German version, you’ll see the composer listed as Hanns Eisler. Yet, the music in both versions is the same, so what gives? Georges Auric was an excellent composer, responsible for the scores to Cocteau’s Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast, Dead of Night, Wages of Fear, and many others, but he did not write the music for The Crucible. The music was by Eisler, and his own story parallels the story in the film in many ways.

Montand et Signoret

Hanns Eisler was born Germany to Austrian parents. His father was a noted philosophy professor who, along with Max Adler, founded the Vienna Sociological Society. The young Hanns, along with his brother Gerhart and his sister Elfriede, grew up in a hotbed of philosophical and sociological discussions. Although the senior Eisler was an atheist, his three children became highly active communists, particularly Elfriede, who took the name Ruth Fischer, and Gerhart. Hanns was more interested in music.

While his brother and sister became leading figures in the German Communist party (KPD), Hanns purused a career in music. He studied under Arnold Schoenberg, and wrote several pieces based on the twelve-tone system, but his communist beliefs turned him away from the intellectual sonic gymnastics of Schoenberg to the music of the oppressed class: jazz. It was around this time that Eisler met Bertolt Brecht. Until then, Brecht had been collaborating with Kurt Weill, but when the two went their separate ways, Brecht started looking for a composer whose political viewpoint would jibe with Brecht’s own. He found that person in Hanns Eisler.

In 1932, Eisler composed the music for Kuhle Wampe oder Wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?), director Slatan Dudow’s film with a script by Bertolt Brecht. Unfortunately, the film came out just as the Nazis were rising to power and the film was promptly banned. Both Brecht and Eisler found themselves on the Nazi Party’s first list of banned artist; both men fled Germany, eventually ending up in the United States; and both were forced to leave the U.S. thanks to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Around the same time, Eisler’s sister Ruth—who had become one of the leaders of the KPD—was constantly butting heads with Stalin. She didn’t care much for his reinterpretation of Marxism, nor the level of control he exerted of Germany’s communists. Ruth wanted a return to values of Lenin, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and a turn away from Stalin’s egocentric brand of communism. After traveling to Russia, she met with Stalin, and let him know exactly how she felt. She returned to Germany to find herself marginalized by the Communist Party, replaced with the very pro-Stalin Ernst Thälmann (for more on Thälmann, see The Ernst Thälmann Films). At that point, Fischer became a virulent anti-Stalinist. To the point where she started working with the U.S. to do everything in her power to end his regime. Going so far as to work for “The Pond”—a top secret precursor to the C.I.A.

Hanns Eisler

After Hitler came to power, all three of the Eisler children eventually ended up in America. Hanns got work composing film scores, and received Oscar nominations for his work on Hangmen Also Die! and None But the Lonely Heart. Gerhart, meanwhile, was working as a spy for Communist International (Comintern) in America. When Ruth was ousted from power in the KPD, Gerhart did not come to her defense. A fact that stuck in her craw. When Gerhart was brought before HUAC for espionage, Ruth was only to happy to against him at the hearing. He was found guilty, but while out of bail he fled the country, making his way to East Germany.

As the hunt for “those dirty reds” widened, Hanns Eisler was caught in the web. Called “the Karl Marx of Music” by HUAC secretary Robert Stripling, Eisler was blacklisted in Hollywood, dragged before the committee and charged with being a communist. As she had with Gerhart, Ruth Fischer testified against Hanns as well, and he was promptly deported. Like his brother, he went to East Germany, where he composed the music for the East German national anthem, “Auferstanden aus Ruinen,” and continued to write melodies for Brecht—who had also taken up residence in the GDR. Eisler continued to write film music, contributing scores to many classic DEFA films, including Our Daily Bread, The Council of the Gods, and Destinies of Women.

When The Crucible was prepared for release in the west, the producers decided that the film would have a better chance of U.S. distribution if the credits didn’t include a man who was forcibly removed from the States. The decision to list Auric as the composer was one that Eisler approved of. He and Auric were friends, and, presumably, he felt that if another composer must get credit, at least it was someone he liked and whose work he admired. When the head of the East German copyrights department asked Eisler if he wanted them to help him get the credit he deserved, Eisler responded “No, everything is perfectly arranged.”2

The Crucible

The film opened to generally favorable reviews, and won Simone Signoret the BAFTA award for best actress. Released in the States just months before Room at the Top, The Crucible undoubtedly helped Signoret win the Academy Award for that film.

While Arthur Miller wasn’t crazy about some of Sartre’s changes to his play, in a 1972 interview for Audience magazine, Miller said he was glad that the film was out there at a time when Hollywood refused to touch it. He would change his tune when Hollywood finally got around to making Miller’s version of the play with a screenplay by Miller himself. DEFA’s version of The Crucible was pulled out of circulation, reportedly thanks to Miller himself. The Hollywood version failed to perform well at the box office, but the end result of this is that the East German/French film is still out of distribution, although the folks at DEFA-Stiftung are working on correcting this situation. Meanwhile, VHS copies of the film are fetching high prices on eBay.

The expected benefits of co-producing films with the French didn’t pan out for DEFA. When the films were released in the west, DEFA’s name was removed from the credits. Worse, France did nothing to challenge West Germany’s absurd Hallstein Doctrine. After four films French/East German co-productions, East Germany abandoned these efforts, restricting co-productions to the Eastern Bloc and other communist countries. They wouldn’t engage in a co-production with a western nation again until 1978, when the Swiss/East German made-for-TV movie Ursula manage to offend nearly everybody on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Ironically, the first DEFA co-production with a western nation would be made with West Germany (FrühlingssinfonieSpring Symphony).

Special thanks to Sebastian Heiduschke, Hiltrud Schulz, Mariana Ivanova, and Peter Deeg for their help with this article.

IMDB page for this film

Buy this film: Currently, this film is not available. There is a rather poor copy on sections on YouTube.


1. Lorre did return to West Germany to direct a film, The Lost One (Der Verlorene), but the experience didn’t encourage him to stay in his homeland. He quickly returned to Hollywood for the rest of his career. Wilder returned to Berlin to make his antic comedy One Two Three! But the film comes across as a thumbing of his nose to both halves of Germany. Two Hollywood refugees who did return to Germany to make films were Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang (technically, an Austrian).

2. Special thanks here to Peter Deeg at the International Hanns Eisler Society.

Five Days, Five Nights
At the end of World War II, Russian soldiers went on a plunderfest across eastern Germany. Think Sherman’s March to the Sea, but with dividends. Houses were stripped of their valuables, stores were looted, and machinery was taken. Much of this looting was done on a personal level—soldiers helping themselves to the contents of the houses they invaded—and some of this was done as part of the Soviet Union’s campaign to get the maximum financial benefit out of the war. They certainly needed it. Hitler’s ill-advised attack on Russia hurt Germany, but it devastated Russia.

On a more organized level, specialized American, British, and Soviet troops were tasked with finding specific things, the best-known example of this is the race between Soviet Union and the United States to procure German scientists and their materials related to rockets and atomic research. On the Soviet side there were also trophy brigades, whose job was to find as many works of art and antiquities as they could. While most of the art looting by American troops was done by individuals looking to bring home souvenirs, Soviet troops had a mission: Find the art and bring it back to Russia.1

A logical place to start was Dresden. Dresden had been the art capital of Germany. The museums there were outstanding. As the war escalated, museum officials decided to move many of the most valuable paintings to safer locations in case the city was attacked. This turned out to be a very good idea indeed. Dresden wasn’t just bombed, it was nearly erased from the face of the Earth. U.S.and British bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of bombs and incendiaries on the city. The resulting firestorm was so intense that many people hiding in their air raid shelters died not of burns, but of asphyxiation when the firestorm sucked all the oxygen out of the area. The results of the firebombing are still visible today in the blackened facades of the buildings along the Elbe, and the calico churches built from the rubble left after the war.2

Fünf Tage - Fünf Nächte

When the Russians started arriving in Dresden, claiming they were there to save the artwork, the locals were, understandably, suspicious. Especially after these soldiers announced that they would have to take the artwork back to Moscow to protect it from the further deterioration due to mold and the elements. The Russians assured the locals that they were doing this for the benefit of the art, and they would return the artwork as soon as things had stabilized. No one in Dresden believed this for a minute, and they were probably right not to—Josef Stalin was not exactly the poster boy for trustworthiness. In truth, the collecting of the art of Germany was just what it looked like: an attempt at payback for the devastation and destruction that Germany rained down on the U.S.S.R.

But as the cold war heated up, the Soviets were looking for any ways they could to demonstrate they weren’t the ogre that the United States made them out to be. The subject of the Dresden paintings came up again. What better way to demonstrate their integrity than to show that the vow they made to the Dresdeners at the end of WWII was not just hot air? So it was that 750 of paintings were returned to Dresden in 1955. This wasn’t all of the artwork that was purloined, but it was a lot of it, and certainly enough to make for good press.

Five Days, Five Nights (Fünf Tage – Fünf Nächte) is the story of the Russian art recovery effort at the end of the war. The films was the first of several joint productions between East Germany and the Soviet Union. DEFA often joined forces with production companies from other countries to make movies. During the fifties, they made movies in conjunction with Swedish and French production companies, but after the border tightened up and relationships with western countries became strained, most of the co-productions were made with Eastern Bloc nations, primarily Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Whether or not these co-productions looked and felt like DEFA movies was largely dependent on the director and which film company wielded the most control over the production. Stars was made in cooperation with Bulgaria’s Boyana Film, but the film is pure DEFA, thanks to Konrad Wolf’s sure hand at the helm. On the other hand, the French/East German co-production Die Hexen von Salem (The Crucible) is, for all intents and purposes, a French film, having been directed by a Belgian from a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre, and starring Simone Signoret and Yves Montand.

Russian soldiers

Five Days, Five Nights, is very much a Russian film. It forgoes the usual, cool DEFA objectivity in favor of socialist realism (which, let’s face it, isn’t very realistic at all). People are either filmed at chest level, making everyone, even the children, look heroic, or from above looking up to the sky in triumphant bliss. The effect is further enhanced by a powerful score, written for the film by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Along with Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky, Shostakovich is one of the great Russian composers of the twentieth century. Unlike western classical composers, such as Erich Korngold and Max Steiner, the fact that he wrote scores for movies did not assign him to the film ghetto, or reduce his standing as a classical composer. He could write a score for a film one year, and compose an opera the next. This was largely due to the Soviet Union’s attitude toward film. Unlike the west, where film was was viewed as a form of mindless entertainment for the masses, the Soviets already saw the power of film to galvanize public opinion back in 1925 with Battleship Potemkin. So it was that Shostakovich was hired to write the score for October: Ten Days That Shook the World, a film about the October Revolution of 1917.

Shostakovich had a rocky career under the Soviets, thanks mostly to Stalin’s tin ear and lack of musical sophistication. Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда) was initially a hit, but later came under attack as “coarse, primitive and vulgar.” When Stalin attended a performance of the opera in 1936, he behaved boorishly, laughing and grimacing throughout, leaving poor Shostakovich sweating bullets in the back. This was around the time Stalin started his Great Purge. Having him as your enemy was a good way to wind up freezing to death in a Siberian prison.

To keep on Stalin’s good side, Shostakovich cancelled performances of his musically challenging fourth symphony and restricted much of his composing to film music, knowing Stalin was rather fond of films. With the release of his crowd-pleasing fifth symphony, Shostakovich got back in the good graces of Stalin and the public, at least until 1948, when he was once again attacked by Central Committee secretary Andrei Zhdanov, who accused his music of being “formalist”—a term that was thrown around a lot, and appears to have no more meaning to Soviet critics than “I don’t like it.”

After Stalin died, Shostakovich started receiving the attention he deserved. His work came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein in New York, who became a strong advocate for Shostakovich, and played his compositions in concerts on a regular basis. Eventually, Shostakovich joined the Communist Party in 1960, mostly as a formality so that the government could appoint him as the General Secretary of the Composers’ Union. This seems to have given him both clout and courage. He protested against the incarceration of the poet Joseph Brodsky, and was one of the signatories on a an appeal to Brezhnev not to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation. In both cases his causes were triumphant.

During the late sixties and early seventies, Shostakovich’s already bad health got worse. He had lost the use of his right hand to polio in the fifties, then broke both legs, causing him to remark in a letter to a friend: “All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order.” He died August 9, 1975, but his music continues to be a popular addition to movie soundtracks.

Five Days, Five Nights

With most films, the job of directing is assigned to one person and the resulting movie is attributed them as the auteur. The whole auteur concept falls apart when talking about the films from the East Bloc nations, where the contributions of everyone involved are given greater weight than in the west and the choice of cast and crew are not always left to the director.3 Five Days, Five Nights features three directors. The German language scenes were directed by Heinz Thiel, who directed Black Velvet, recently discussed on this blog; some of the Russian scenes were directed by Anatoli Golowanow, who probably would have receive a second unit or first assistant director credit in a Hollywood film; and the whole affair was overseen by the Russian director Lev Arnshtam, who is listed as the film’s head director.

Unlike DEFA directors such as Kurt Maetzig and Joachim Hasler, who came to filmmaking via the film labs, or Jürgen Böttcher, Arthur Pohl, and Peter Pewas, entered the field through graphic arts, Lev Arnshtam came to films via music. He studied piano at the Leningrad Music Conservatory and, for a while, was the music department head at Vsevolod Meyerhold’s theater. There, he met people in the film industry, and soon started working as a sound director and later a screenwriter. He directed his first film, Подруги (Girlfriends, originally released in U.S. as Three Women) in 1936. Mr. Arnshtam’s style is heavily influenced by the work of Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, whom he met while working at the Meyerhold Theater. Their influence is on full display here. After Five Days, Five Nights, he directed only one more film—Софья Перовская (Sofiya Perovskaya), a film based on the life of the Russian revolutionary, Sophia Perovskaya, who was hanged for her part in the assassination of Alexander II. Mr. Arnshtam died in 1979.

Dresden

Perhaps the most striking thing about this film, aside from Shostakovich’s majestic score, is the representation of Dresden after the firebombing. By 1960, when this film was made, much of Dresden had been rebuilt. To recreate the destroyed city, miniatures were used to remarkably good effect. Much of the credit for this must go to production designer Herbert Nitzschke. Mr. Nitzschke got his start as a set painter for German film productions. He first worked as a production designer on L’Entraîneuse (Nightclub Hostess), a French/German co-production from 1939. Several more films followed. At the end of WWII, his career as a production designer went on hiatus until 1955, when he was hired as the production designer for Hotelboy Ed Martin, a film adaptation of Albert Maltz’s play, Merry Go Round.

Mr. Nitzschke’s career in film was starting to take off again, and his miniature work in Five Days, Five Nights is spectacular—helped greatly by Ernst Kunstmann, a master of filming miniatures, whose work includes Metropolis, Triumph of the Will, The Singing, Ringing Tree, and First Spaceship on Venus. Unfortunately, Herbert Nitzschke lived in West Berlin, and his career at DEFA came to an abrupt halt on the 13th of August, 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up. His last credit as production designer was on Five Days, Five Nights co-director Heinz Thiel’s Tanz am Sonnabend (Dancing on Saturday).

Also worth mentioning is Walter Schulze-Mittendorff, who designed the costumes for this film. A sculptor by training, it was Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff who designed the Maria Robot for Metropolis. At that point, Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff was still billed as a sculptor. With Amphitryon, he got his first billing as a costume designer and showed a real knack for it. After the war, he started working for DEFA, and often found himself on the same projects as his old Metropolis co-worker, Ernst Kunstmann. Like Herbert Nitzschke, Mr. Kunstmann lived in West Berlin and found his career at DEFA stopped cold with the building of the wall. He worked on a few West German productions, most notably, The Castle (Das Schloß), then retired in 1968.

The story of wartime art theft is not a new one, nor a dead subject. Jewish families are still wrangling for the return of artwork stolen by Nazis, and in November 2014, the son of an East German art collector—from Dresden, coincidentally—filed to recover artwork that was stolen from his father by the Stasi.

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1. The allies did have a team of people searching out art, but it was a much smaller effort. These people mostly worked alone (although the film The Monuments Men would have you believe otherwise), and their primary goal was to identify historic sites. The search for stolen artwork arose as a by-product of that effort, and a reaction to the Soviet Army’s art recovery efforts.

2. It’s probably worth pointing out here, that, as bad as the firebombing of Dresden was, it couldn’t hold a candle to Berlin, which saw nine-and-a-half times as many bombs dropped on it.

3. There are a few Hollywood exceptions to this: Tora! Tora! Tora! featured Japanese sequences by Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda, while The Longest Day featured a host of directors from different countries, all under the watchful eye of producer Darryl Zanuck.

Die Buntkarierten

In the years after World War II, there was a lot of soul-searching in East German films. At first, this took the form of the Rubble Films, which used the destruction of Germany as a metaphor for the German soul—blown to pieces and ready for reconstruction. Rubble Films usually focused on a few people and took place over relatively short spans of time. At a certain point, the films moved away from this introspection, and started to look at the bigger picture in an attempt to answer the question: How did we get to this point? Films such as Rotation, The Kaiser’s Lackey, and The Council of the Gods take a broader perspective on German history, involve several people and groups, and cover many years. Girls in Gingham (Die Buntkarierten) is one of these films.1 It starts during the Wilhelmina period at the end of the nineteenth century, and ends right after World War II. It is based on a radio play by Berta Waterstradt, and its intro keeps the radio practice of introducing the characters by name along with the names of the actors playing them.

The story follows Guste, the illegitimate daughter of a maid who dies in childbirth. Guste is a headstrong young girl who has no intention of following in her mother’s footsteps, but history is stronger than will. Guste grows up, becomes a maid herself, marries, has two children, and suffers through two world wars. Along the way, observations are made on the inherently evil nature of a society where 1% of the population controls nearly all the wealth, and the way corporations use wars as an excuse to make money.

girls in gingham

Girls in Gingham was the second feature film directed by Kurt Maetzig, one of the most well-respected directors in East Germany, and no stranger to this blog. He directed such classic DEFA films as The Council of the Gods, The Silent Star, and the banned masterpiece, The Rabbit is Me. Mr. Maetzig, along with Gerhard Lamprecht , Peter Pewas, Wolfgang Staudte and others, was one of the filmmakers who helped found DEFA.

Reportedly, Mr. Maetzig’s decision to make Girls in Gingham was based on Bertholt Brecht’s criticism of Maetzig’s first film, Marriage in the Shadows. Never mind that it remains one of the most successful movies DEFA ever released, Brecht found the film kitschy. Girls in Gingham was Mr. Maetzig’s attempt to make a film more in line with Brecht’s aesthetics. One can see hints of Mother Courage in Guste’s character, but Mr. Maetzig has more faith in personal heroism than the cynical Brecht, which is probably why he was tapped to make the Ernst Thälmann films.

In 1976, Mr. Maetzig retired from filmmaking, but maintained a lively presence in the film community and was always there to offer advice younger filmmakers and impart his extensive knowledge of the history of DEFA. He died in 2012 at the age of 101 and is buried in the Dorotheenstädtischen Cemetery in Berlin.

Camilla Spira

Guste is played by Camilla Spira in a tour de force role that sees her go from a bright-eyed young woman to a war-weary old lady. Acting was in the blood for Ms. Spira. Both her parents, Fritz and Lotte, were successful actors on stage and screen, so it seemed natural for her to follow in their footsteps. She got her start in silent films during the Weimar Republic, only to see her career cut short by the Nazis. Unfortunately, the fact that her father was Jewish got in the way. Fritz and Camilla were send off to concentration camps, where Fritz Spira died in 1943. Camilla’s mother, who was not Jewish, divorced Fritz in 1934 under pressure from the Nazis. This allowed her to continued to acting in films, but after 29 years of marriage, the cost was too high. She died shortly after hearing about her ex-husband’s death.

Girls in Gingham was Camilla Spira’s first feature film appearance after the war, and she won the East German National Prize for her performance. She appeared in a few more DEFA films, but started working in West Germany in the early fifties. Among the West German films she appeared in were: Des Teufels General (The Devil’s General), Emil und die Detektive, and Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (Roses for the Prosecutor)—one of the few West German films to address the issue of lingering Nazism in West Germany, albeit in a comedic fashion. Her sister, Steffie Spira, stayed in East Germany and continued to appear in films until after the Wende. Camilla Spira died in 1997.

Considering how important it is to this film, it is remarkable that no credit is given for the make-up artist. Most DEFA movies at the time listed this information. Given the film’s production year, it is possible that the make-up artist was one of the technicians that went to West Germany to work. West Germany had just declared itself an independent state and was starting to wriggle out from under the anti-film-production policies of the United States Millitary authority (OMGUS). Directors, actors, and cinematographers who had previously been able to find work only in East Germany were now getting jobs in the BRD. In a year or two, the GDR would officially take a stand against this and stop using West German technicians, but this was a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has run off. A technician that made it public ally known that they were switching to western productions might well have found their name stricken from the credits on a DEFA film. If that is the case, my money would be on Jette Arlt, who did the make-up for Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows, but started working in the west in 1950. This is pure speculation, however. Whoever it was, they did a remarkable job of aging Camilla Spira and Werner Hinz and deserve more credit (and if anyone had more information on this mystery, please let me know in the comments).

Girls in Gingham was a hit both in East and West Germany and is one of the all-time, top-selling DEFA films. It’s anti-capitalist sentiments might have rankled the authorities in West Germany, but it still resonated with those who lived though the war. More importantly, it didn’t blame the people for Hitler’s actions, placing most of the blame, instead, on the Krupp family, which built a 400-year dynasty by providing armaments for all the major wars in Europe. This is a theme we’ve seen often in East German films from this period, where the primary blame for WWII is placed at the feet of corporations such as Standard Oil, Krupp, and IG Farben (see also, Council of the Gods).

IMDB page for this film.

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1. Due to an error made somewhere along the line in translation, you will often see this film listed under the title The Beaverskin. This weird error probably got it’s start with the English subtitles on the German DVD. There is a DEFA film titled The Beaverskin (in German: Der Biberpelz) that came out the same year as Girls in Gingham, and perhaps that has something to to do with the error. This mistake is so prevalent that even Wikipedia repeated it (although hopefully by the time you read this, I, or someone else, will have fixed that). Such is the power of the Internet.

The 100th Post!

Posted: October 18, 2014 in DEFA, Film

East German Blog

I was going to post about yet another film when I suddenly realized that this marks the 100th post on the East German Cinema Blog. When I started this project four years, I had no idea if anyone else in the world was interested in these films. Since then I have discovered a thriving community and growing interest in the movies worldwide. My recent presentations on the subject in San Francisco and Copenhagen were extremely well attended and enthusiastically received. Of course, I couldn’t have done this without help, so I’d like to thank a few people right now. First off, Barton Byg and Seán Allan, who were into these film long before I knew anything about them; Evan Torner, who provides the best subtitles for DEFA films, and has been a font of information; Sebastian Heiduschke, who has become a great friend, and whose book on East German Films should be on everyone’s shelf; Hiltrud Schulz and Sky Arndt Briggs at the DEFA Library, who have helped immeasurably in making this blog as good as it is; Jale Yoldas (San Francisco) and Mia Munck Bruns (Copenhagen) the Goethe Institut for their continued encouragement; and finally Jack Stevenson at the Husets Biograf Theater in Copenhagen and Stephen Parr at Oddball Films in San Francisco for providing venues for my talks. And of course, thanks to all of you, my readers, and those of you who attended the presentations in San Francisco and Copenhagen (and my apologies to anyone who couldn’t get into the San Francisco talk).

After four years, one might think that I’ve already uncovered the best films, but there seems to be no end to it. Every month I come across new gems from the DEFA archives. I studying film has taught me anything, it’s that  no matter how many films you’ve seen, there’s always another one out there waiting to blow your socks off.

And with that, I’ll resume my regularly scheduled programming. Tomorrow I’ll be talking about a film that has the dubious reputation of having the most egregiously mistranslated titled on the Internet.

Latest from the Da-Da-R

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

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

Latest From the Da-Da-R

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

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

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

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

Letztes aus der DaDaeR

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

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

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

Irm Hermann

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

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

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

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

The Bridge 1949

The Bridge (Die Brücke) was a 1949 film made by DEFA about displaced persons at the end of WWII. It has little in common with Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 well-known film of the same name except its relative time frame. In this film, a group of evacuees in a resettlement encampment encounter hostility from the people in a nearby town; not because they are Jewish, or black, or even from another country, but because they are from a different town. The prejudice here is not racial or anti-Semitic, but parochial—roughly analogous to a group of Californians trying to resettle in Mississippi. Thrown into the mix is a relatively formulaic love triangle between the Mayor’s nephew, a girl from the resettlement camp, and a scheming pub owner who smokes way too much for her own good. The bridge of the title is a wooden footbridge between the resettlement camp and the village. After the bridge is sabotaged, resulting in the death of one of the camp’s leading figures, the two groups are cut off from each other. It will take an even greater calamity to bring them together again.

As with Street Acquaintances, this film exists in that transitional space between old-school melodrama and the socialist realism promoted by the Russians. Visually, it hearkens back to the Ufa films from the Third Reich years, but the film’s message of tolerance is strictly post-war thinking. The screenplay is by Arthur Pohl, who also wrote the screenplay for Street Acquaintances, but this time he also directed the film. It was his first time directing a feature film, although he had already directed several stage productions.

bridge7

Arthur Pohl began his career as a set painter at the Staatstheater in Darmstadt. Later on, he moved into directing plays as well. In the 1930s, he began working in films as a screenwriter, co-writing the screenplays for Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur) and Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb), which were based on a book by Thea von Harbou (of Metropolis fame). In 1941, Mr. Pohl’s career in films came to an abrupt end when he was drafted and later captured by the Allied forces. After he was released from a P.O.W. camp at the end of the war, he moved to West Berlin. In spite of living in an allied sector, he got a job with DEFA; at first as a scriptwriter, then later as a director. After The Bridge, He went on to write and direct several more films for DEFA, including Corinna Schmidt, Die Unbesiegbaren (The Invincible), and Pole Poppenspäler.

In 1957, he wrote and directed Spielbank-Affäre (Casino Affair), based on Hans von Oettingen’s book of the same name. It would be Mr. Pohl’s last feature film. It was made as joint project between DEFA and Sweden’s short-lived Pandora-Films. The film told the story of counterfeiting and intrigue around a casino. While Pohl may have intended the film as a statement about capitalism and its deleterious effects on the human psyche, the authorities at DEFA felt that the film—which was DEFA’s first wide-screen production and was shot in gorgeous Agfacolor—made West German decadence look too appealing. In one of the weirder decisions to come out of DEFA, the film was screened in black-and-white in East Germany, while the color version was shown in West Germany under the title Parkplatz zur großen Sehnsucht (Parking Lot for Desire). As one might imagine, the western press had a great time making fun of this decision.

The foofaraw over the film led to a parting of ways between DEFA and Mr. Pohl. He started looking for work in the west, but, unfortunately for him, his long association with DEFA didn’t make this any easier. He made a few TV-movies in the early sixties, but by 1963 his career as a director was essentially over. Maybe he would have gone back to DEFA, but by that time the border was well sealed and working in the east while residing in the west was no longer an option. He died in 1970 in Berlin.

steppat5

If the film at times has the look of the Weimar Republic era Ufa films, there’s a good reason. The cinematographer was Fritz Arno Wagner—one of the most well-respected cinematographers in the business. He started working as a newsreel cameraman in 1913 and a feature film cameraman in 1919. A list of the films he worked on during the silent years is impressive. It includes Nosferatu, M, Diary of a Lost Girl, and both of Fritz Lang’s silent Dr. Mabuse films. Unlike his compatriot Karl Freund, Mr. Wagner chose not to go to Hollywood. He  stayed in Germany, filming unmemorable programmers and Nazi propaganda during the Third Reich years. Although Das kleine Hofkonzert (Palace Scandal), which Mr. Wagner filmed, was released by DEFA, The Bridge is the only film Wagner worked on that was actually made by DEFA. He started working in the west as soon as possible. In 1958, Mr. Wagner died when he fell from a camera car while filming Ohne Mutter geht es nicht (It Doesn’t Work Without a Mother).

The evil, chain-smoking pub owner Therese is played by Ilse Steppat, who, two years earlier, was much more sympathetic as the persecuted Jewish wife in Kurt Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows. After the restrictions on filmmaking in West Germany were removed in 1950, Ms. Steppat, a West German by birth, spent the rest of her career working in the west. She is best known to English-speaking audiences as the evil Irma Bunt in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Two days after that film premiered in Germany, Ms. Steppat died of a heart attack in West Berlin.

bridge1

Arno Paulsen, who plays the town’s mayor will be immediately recognizable to any fan of early DEFA films. The rotund actor got his start as an opera singer. While working at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, he met Wolfgang Staudte, who cast him as the profiteering villain in The Murderers Are Among Us. From there he went on to appear in eleven DEFA films between 1946 and 1950, including Razzia, Chemistry and Love, Street Acquaintances, and Girls in Gingham. Due to his short and portly appearance, he was often cast as either the villain or the buffoon in films on both sides of the Iron Curtain. His last film for DEFA was Bürgermeister Anna (Mayor Anna), a comedy based on a play by Friedrich Wolf. After that he appeared exclusively in West German films and is well remembered for his role in Das Mädchen Rosemarie (Rosemary)—one of the better films to come out of West Germany during the fifties.

To a modern audience, the film’s socialist heroics will probably seem over the top. Like the man who uses his body to channel the irrigation water in King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, modern audiences laugh that anyone would do anything that selfless. It is impossible today to reflect on this film’s message about the importance of eliminating borders between German factions without thinking about the events of August 13, 1961. In The Bridge, people bravely cross a river to help people on the other side, creating unity between the two factions. Replace the river with a wall and the film takes on a whole different meaning.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (German only; no subtitles).

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.

The Story of a Young Couple

If I were going to show somebody their first East German film, it would not be this one. One common misconception among Americans—and all westerners, for that matter—is that East German films are nothing but propaganda, intended to promote the state and nothing more. The misconception doesn’t come from any knowledge of the subject, or even selected examples. It’s more a case of formless and gormless prejudices thoroughly drummed into our brains during the Cold War. The Story of a Young Couple, however, would do nothing to disabuse people of this notion. It really is propaganda. It wears its politics on its sleeve, and its politics are those of Stalin. He is championed as a hero throughout this film, and his portrait hangs in public places. It is one of the sad legacies of East Germany that the leaders hitched their wagons to Stalin’s star instead of returning to the ideals of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. It was certainly inevitable, considering the Soviet Union’s part in the foundation of the GDR—a link going all the way back to Ernst Thälmann—but it meant that future failure was already in the cards before the ink was dry on the country’s constitution.

The film follows the story of Agnes Sailer and Jochen Karsten, two young actors who become involved the theater scene that springs up in Berlin after WWII. They are surrounded by idealistic people who see theater as a way to promote anti-fascist sentiments and ensure that nothing like the Third Reich ever happens again in Germany. Funding their efforts is Dr. Ulrich Plisch, an old-school capitalist who has less interest in politics than doing whatever’s profitable. Surrounding them are other actors and directors who run the political gamut from devoted socialists to amoral golddiggers. As the gulf between east and west becomes wider, Agnes and Jochen find themselves on opposite sides of the chasm. Agnes, a committed socialist, would rather starve than take a part in a play or film she found morally reprehensible, while Jochen starts letting his policies take a backseat to a steady paycheck.

The Story of a Young Couple was made in 1951, and came out in January of the following year. Up until this time there was a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your outlook) infusion of West German filmmakers into the film studios at Babelsberg. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, most of that influx came from the fact that the U.S. military authorities did everything they could to discourage German film production. After West Germany became a sovereign state in May of 1949, the shackles on West German film production were removed and West Germans no longer needed to migrate eastward to make their movies. This made any West German directors who did go to DEFA immediately suspect. The Cold War had heated up and it wasn’t uncommon for the intelligence agencies from both sides of the border to use agents and sympathizers to commit acts of sabotage to erode the other country’s infrastructure. This was a prominent plot point in Castles and Cottages, and was also part of the justification for the building of the Berlin Wall (see Look at This City!).

By 1951, companies such as Real-Film, CCC-Film, and, Constantin-Film were in full swing and West German filmmakers were no longer welcomed with open arms into the DEFA ranks, but rather, were viewed with suspicion. Once the cross-pollination between east and west was effectively stemmed, both sides started to polarize. In the United States, movie such as The Red Menace, I Was Communist for the F.B.I., and Pickup on South Street were effectively pushing the notion that communist agents were everywhere. In East Germany, it meant more films directly attacking the United States, or, more accurately, the large corporations that controlled the U.S. governments agendas (and still do, truth be told).

To its credit, one rarely saw the level of viciousness exhibited in DEFA films that one saw in the Red Scare films from Hollywood, but the role of film as a tool for teaching socialistic values became as important as its entertainment value. Thus began one of the duller periods of filmmaking in the GDR. In charge of DEFA during these doldrums was Hans Rodenberg a talented theater director and occasional actor, but also a hardcore Stalinist. How much input Rodenberg had into this stricter approach is hard to say, but he was a loyal party man, and certainly did nothing to rock the boat. The Story of Young Couple was made before Mr. Rodenberg became the general director at DEFA—and, in fact, features a brief performance by him as the American film director shooting an anti-communist film in West Berlin—but this film is a sign of things to come.

The Story of a Young Couple wasn’t the first DEFA film to promote a socialist agenda, but it was the most strident about it. At least until the Ernst Thälmann films, made a few years later (also directed by Kurt Maetzig). The low point comes when Agnes recites an ode to the newly named Stalinallee and the gloriousness of Stalin by the East German poet, KuBa (Kurt Barthel)—a cinematic moment that would assign the film to the closet after Khrushchev’s 1956 speech, “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” in which Khrushchev denounced Stalin.

At times, the attacks on the west in this film resemble the he said/she said nature of a divorce dispute. In one scene a sad-looking girls choir is forced to perform because they’ve been tricked by West Berlin agents into coming to the west, only to find it wasn’t what they expected. At this time, western media were accusing “East German spies” of kidnapping people off the streets of Berlin and taking them back to the GDR. There are plenty of verified cases of people in West Berlin unwittingly going to the east, only to find themselves arrested and imprisoned—primarily by the Russians (for more on this, see Ursula Rumin’s story in Destinies of Women)—but the idea of people hopping out of cars and dragging people off to the other side of the border was more urban myth than reality, and is used here to take a poke fun at Hollywood’s propaganda machine.

Reportedly, The Story of a Young Couple was made as a response to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, Les Mains sales (Dirty Hands).1 Sartre was a Marxist, and had even defended Stalin from time to time, but he had little use for the political repression being carried out in the name of communism. As far as he could tell, it was the situation of “meet the new boss; same as the old boss,” Les Mains sales was his response. Fellow Marxists were not happy with Sartre. In East Germany, it hit a little too close to home. In the film, the play is mentioned by name and attacked by Agnes after she is given a copy to see about performing in it.

One of the more entertaining aspects of this film is that it is a roman à clef (or film à clef if you prefer). Many of the characters in the film are based on real people and are only thinly disguised. According to the German Wikipedia page for this movie, Möbius is based on Wolfgang Langhoff, and Burmeister is based on Boleslaw Barlog. From what I know of these men, I suspect that this is exactly backwards. Like Barlog, Möbius is a wild-haired theater director, while Burmeister, like Langhoff, is clean-cut and shows more support for the GDR. The thinnest disguise of all is that of the Nazi-sympathizing director Hartmann, who is unmistakably Veit Harlan—the man who directed Kolberg and Jud Süß. Although they changed the name of the director, they discuss his films under their actual titles. Alwin Lippisch’s performance as Hartmann is a wicked parody of Harlan, who never did acknowledge any culpability for what happened in Germany during the Third Reich, and was later allowed to start making films again in West Germany (for more on Veit Harlan, see Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss).

What elevates The Story of a Young Couple above mere propaganda is the skill of its director, Kurt Maetzig. Maetzig was born with film in his blood. Maetzig’s father ran a company that made copies of films, and young Kurt would hang around and learn everything he could about the technical side of film production and development. Later, he studied chemistry and engineering at the Technical University of Munich, where he graduated with a doctorate degree with a dissertation titled “Das Rechnungswesen einer Film-Kopieranstalt” (“Accountancy of a film printing lab”). After college, returned to his father’s company for more hands-on work in the film industry. While there, he began making his own short films, cartoons, and movie title sequences.

As mentioned in the article on Marriage in the Shadows, Kurt Maetzig’s mother was Jewish, which made Maetzig an undesirable person. During the war, he joined the KPD (the German Communist Party), which, at that point, was essentially an underground organization. After the war, Mr. Maetzig saw an opportunity to rebuild the German film industry and return it to its pre-Hitler glory. He met with a group of like-minded filmmakers—including Boleslaw Barlog—at the Adlon Hotel and founded Filmaktiv, which spawned DEFA.

Maetzig was still a young director at this point. In The Story of a Young Couple, we see him experimenting with different techniques of editing, frame composition, camera angles, and the use of music. It doesn’t hurt that his cinematographer here is Karl Plintzner. Plintzner would go on to become the absolute master of vivid Agfacolor/Orwocolor films (see The Golden Goose), but here he shows that the he is no slouch when it comes to black-and-white filming either.

Yvonne Merin

Playing the noble and unwavering Agnes Sailer, is Yvonne Merin, a striking actress who might have been one of the leading lights at DEFA, had she the stomach for it. At the time of this movie, she was married to Kurt Maetzig. She was discovered by Gerald Lamprecht and cast to star in Quartett zu fünft (From Quartet to Five). She caught the eye of Kurt Maetzig, who immediately cast her in his next two films, Girls in Gingham and The Council of the Gods. They were soon married, but by the time they made The Story of a Young Couple, the marriage was ending. Like the couple in the film, they were going in different directions. Ms. Merin was finding that acting wasn’t really her passion, and Mr. Maetzig already knew that filmmaking was his. They divorced and Ms. Merin dropped out of the film community, appearing only occasionally in films (she appeared briefly as the “lady with the dog” in A Lively Christmas Eve). She continued to work in theater, but found that her interesting in acting wasn’t as intense as the fire one needed to do a good job. She became an apprentice gardener at the Karl Foerster Garden in the Bornum borough of Potsdam. Although she continued to garden, the job paid poorly and she returned to DEFA as a dramaturge and occasional scriptwriter—primarily for educational films. It was during this time that she met Armin Georgi, a script editor at DEFA and also directed short films and documentaries for them. They were married and stayed married until her death in 2012. Kurt Maetzig died a month later.

You may recognize Willy A. Kleinau, who plays the opportunistic Dr. Plisch. He is one of the more memorable characters in The Council of the Gods. In that he played Mr. Lawson, the representative from Standard Oil who helps the Nazis fund their war effort. Mr. Kleinau seems custom-made to play capitalist pigs and he does it well. He manages to make Mr. Pitsch simultaneously reprehensible and likable, which is no small feat. He appeared in both West German and East German films, right up until his death in a car accident in 1957.

As one might expect, The Story of a Young Couple was thoroughly drubbed by the western press when it came out, but East German critics found it a bit too much to take. Like the overwrought dramatic style of the silent era, or the garish fashions off the seventies, this film’s main value today is as an historical document and a kitschy eyewitness to a different time. It is a testament to Maetzig’s talent as a director that it is still enjoyable and engaging almost sixty-five years later.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


1. Die anderen deutsch-französischen Beziehungen. Die DDR und Frankreich 1949 – 1990, Ulrich Pfeil, Böhlau, January 2004.