Archive for the ‘DFF’ Category

Nina Hagen
A popular format on East German TV was the teleplay. These were videotaped on stage in front of a live audience. In America, you’ll see this most often with sitcoms such as Cheers or I Love Lucy. Similarly, these East German teleplays were mostly comedies, but were unique, one-hour to hour-and-a-half shows rather than series episodes. In form, they were closer to the live theater broadcasts shown on PBS. They called them Fernseh-schwänke. Examples of these shows include Ein Hahn im Korb, Heute Ruhetag, and Nicht kleinzukriegen.

Two good examples of this type of teleplay are Marriage/Female (Heiraten/Weiblich) from 1975 and Trabant for Sale (Trabant zu verkaufen) from 1981. Both were directed by Christa Kulosa, and they are also her first and last productions as an East German television director.

Christa got her start in 1966, working as an assistant director in the entertainment division of DFF (Deutscher Fernsehfunk—East Germany’s state television station). In 1968, she enrolled at the University of Film and Television in Babelsberg (now the Konrad Wolf Film University of Babelsberg), to study directing, receiving her degree in 1972. By this time, the DFF had changed its name to the Fernsehen der DDR (Television of the GDR). As is too often the case, it took the folks at DDR-FS a while to trust a production to a woman.1 At first, she worked as an assistant director next to talented directors such as Wolfgang Luderer, Hans Knötsch, and Günter Stahnke. Stahnke was the most talented of the bunch. In 1965, he made the now-classic Spring Takes Time, but the 11th Plenum banned the film and Stahnke was relegated to directing Fernseh-schwänke for the rest of his career.

Then, in 1975, Christa finally got her chance to direct the comedy Marriage/Female.

heiraten/weiblich

Marriage/Female

All the action in this teleplay takes place in the apartment of three generations of women. The grandmother, Frau Wiedemann (Marianne Kiefer), the mother, Gisela Pohl, and her daughter Hannelore flit in an out of the apartment throughout the show. The teleplay is shot on a stage in what appears to be a traditional theater setting. Frau Wiedemann is being coyly courted by the building’s super Wollenschläger (Gerd E. Schäfer) and the daughter Hannelore has recently started dating a man name Splettstößer (Kaspar Eichel). That leaves mom Gisela without a beau, so the daughter decides to do something about it. She runs an ad in the personals section of the newspaper under the heading “Marriage/Female” and a man named Seidel (Paul Arenkens) shows up almost immediately. What none of the rest of them know is that Gisela’s co-worker Bechstein (Herbert Köfer) has long had a thing for Gisela, but has been too nervous to say anything.

Playing the mother and daughter are the real-life mother and daughter team of Eva-Maria and Nina Hagen. Eva-Maria Hagen was already a big star by this point (see Don’t Forget My Traudel), but Nina was just beginning to make a name for herself. She had appeared in an episode of her mother’s TV show ABC der Liebe (ABCs of Love), but this was her first role of any size. That same year, she would also appear in Today is Friday. Previously, Nina had had a radio hit in East Germany with “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” (“You Forgot the Color Film”), the story of a woman angry at her partner for forgetting to bring some color film on their vacation.2 The song was a big hit, and you can hear an instrumental version of it over the end credits of the film.

Nina Hagen and her mom

While the story centers around the three women, they are, for the most part, “straight men” to the four males. The biggest laughs come from Herbert Köfer’s performance as the nervous Bechstein. Köfer’s physical comedy here is reminiscent of Don Knotts’ wound-too-tight style of physical humor. Köfer got his start working in theater during the War years, but his career was interrupted when he was drafted by the Wehrmacht. He started performing again as a prisoner in a British internment camp.

After the War, he resumed his acting career, appearing at theaters and Kabaretts around East Germany. He made his first feature film appearance in the 1951 film Die Sonnenbrucks (The Sonnenbrucks) and continued to appear in films and television throughout the GDR’s existence, including Naked Among Wolves, Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry, Hands Up, or I’ll Shoot!, The Man Who Replaced Grandma, and The Dove on the Roof.

This is a teleplay that is best enjoyed by native German speakers. There is some humor based on the accents and humor based on puns and popular expressions. Even so, Herbert Köfer’s physical comedy translates into any language and gets the biggest laughs.

Marriage/Female was a success and Christa went on to direct several more television productions, including Antons liebe Gäste (Anton’s Dear Guests), Wen der Hafer sticht (Slaphappy3), Zu zweit (k)ein Problem ((Not) A Problem for Two), Liebling, Du irrst (You’re Wrong, Darling), and Warum gerade Hubert! (Why Hubert, of All People!).

In 1980, Christa applied for permission to emigrate to France. She had married a French/German man and he wanted to return to his family home. She eventually received approval in 1982, but the authorities weren’t pleased. They saw her request as a threat. Had a lesser man been in charge of German television, who probably would have lost her job, but Heinz Adameck—a man Manfred Krug called a “good friend to all viable actors”—stood up for her. Nonetheless, jobs after her application was approved dried up. Trabant for Sale would be her last East German teleplay.

Trabant zu verkaufen

Trabant for Sale

Trabant for Sale is the story of three women who win a Trabant in a raffle at their workplace. Since none of them has a driver’s license, they decide to sell the car. Brigitte (Ursula Staack) is kind of the group’s leader, and Carola (Angelika Ritter) is her hip friend. Susi (Franziska Troegner) is the chubby comic of the group and the only one of the three who wants to keep the car. Brigitte’s plumber Oskar Zahl (Hans-Joachim Hanisch) is trying to convince her to sell the car to him by promising her cash and new bathroom fixtures, but she is also being wooed by Hyronimus Robbel (Peter Tepper), a dorky bicyclist who actually adores her; Carola wants her opera singing friend Anastasius Vogel (Paul Arenkens) to have it; and Susi wants it for her fiancé, the mild-mannered Ferdinand Kefer (Holm Gärtner).

The story of trying sell a Trabant in East Germany was a subject ripe for comedy. Waiting lists for Trabants were notoriously long, and even the East Germans knew that the car was, er, shall we say, less than perfect. Unfortunately, there was no way to do this justice at the time. A comedy that made fun of the Trabant wasn’t going to fly, and a comedy about how much everyone wanted one was also problematic. The only way to tackle to topic was with subtlety, which means a certain percentage of the audience will always be left behind, taking everything at face value. Sensitive to the reputation of the Trabant and the reported waiting times involved in getting one4, the DDR-FS chose to air the teleplay on channel 2 instead of channel 1.

free toilet

Trabant for Sale is shot in more of a TV studio setting than Marriage/Female was. The seating is the kind of raked seating that one commonly sees in television talk shows and modern cinemas. As with the previous film, there are plenty of shots of the audience, which is always fun. Some people seem not to care, while others are keenly aware of the cameras. There are even a few people wearing sunglasses, which seems like a very odd thing to do in a theater.

As with theater, everything is played broadly, which seldom translates well to the screen. Nonetheless, the teleplay is well-directed and features a talented cast. The three female leads went on to have long film and television careers in post-Wende Germany. Franziska Troegner, who plays the lovable Susi, is best known to American audiences as the mother of Augustus Gloop in Tim Burton’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The male leads have done very little work in films and television since the Wende, with the exception of Kaspar Eichel (the policeman), who still appears regularly on television. Peter Tepper is working with the Leipziger Funzel Kabarett/Theater, and Hans-Joachim Hanisch works primarily dubbing voice for German film releases. Paul Arenkens died in 2016.

After leaving East Germany, Christa (now Christa Schmidt) worked on a children’s series for Berliner Filmladen and shot 42 PSAs about the environment entitled “Mach mit der Umwelt zu Liebe” (“Love the Environment”). In 1986-87 she shot a TV profile of Eva Maria Hagen for ZDF. Christa didn’t care much for the West German method of film production, which used a factory-like approach to all the jobs outside of the director and cinematographer. At that point, she decided to leave directing and devote more time to her family.

Christa divides her time between Berlin and the South of France. She never lost her love of filmmaking and, three years ago, she started teaching herself to use the latest videography tools. She started making videos for her YouTube channel on whatever strikes her fancy, from a WWII liberation celebration in rural France, to a one-hour documentary about L’auberge de Valbonne—a facility for autistic people in Provence.

Special thanks to Jörg Foth for his diligent work in helping me track down Christa (Kulosa) Schmidt (for more on Jörg Foth, see The Latest from the DaDaeR), and a very special thanks to Christa Schmidt for generously providing her biographical information for this article and for making sure I got my facts straight.

IMDB page for Heiraten/Weiblich.

IMDB page for Trabant zu verkaufen.

Buy Heiraten/Weiblich.

Buy Trabant zu verkaufen.

YouTube stream of Heiraten/Weiblich.

YouTube stream of Trabant zu verkaufen.


1. At that point, fewer than ten DEFA feature films had been made by women. Iris Gusner’s first film, The Dove on the Roof, was a year away, and even then, the movie was shelved before it was released. Gusner wouldn’t get another chance to direct a feature film until The Blue Light in 1976. Christa Kulosa was the only woman directing Fernseh-schwänke.

2. The song is a commentary on the drab grayness of everything in East Germany and most people got it. Somehow, amazingly, it went over the heads of the censors though. Hagen still performs it in her live shows, although in a very different fashion from the original.

3. The title of this film is a very old idiomatic expression that doesn’t have any exact translation in English. Literally the title means “Whom the Oats stab” and refers to erratic behavior. Since this movie will probably never have an English translation, I get to choose my own English title. This is the best I could come up with.

4. There are numerous jokes about both the Trabant and the long waiting times required to receive one. Probably the best-known example is:

Q. What does the ‘601’ in Trabant 601 stand for?

A. 600 people will order one, but only one will get it delivered.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. 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.

Radio Killer
It’s no secret that the East Germans and the West Germans spied on each other. Like the characters in Antonio Prohías’ Spy vs. Spy cartoon strip, each side continually sought new ways to find out what the other side was up to. The listening post on the Teufelsberg in Berlin is an example of this. This U.S. facility was primarily intended as a first defense, in case radio chatter suggest some sort of mobilization with East German and Soviet troops. Talking to soldiers who worked there, the truth was far more prosaic. Most days were spent listening to discussions about what various SED officials were having for lunch. Teufelsberg was connected to other listening posts, most of which were hidden in forests in East Germany. These were small devices, easily concealed. Occasionally, they were discovered due to either equipment malfunctions or blind luck.

On both sides there was always a suspicion that some of these devices served a double duty that would become apparent in times of war. Radio Killer (Radiokiller) takes this concept and runs with it, creating an interesting and unique films that tells its story in a typically East German, low-key style. The film is a co-production of DEFA and DFF, and first appeared on television in May of 1980. As with most made-for-TV films, the budget was low, and it shows in the production.

radiokiller

The title suggests a film about a homicide—a serial killer that preys on his victims via a radio signals, à la Bela Lugosi’s Murder by Television, but, it’s nothing of the kind. The story starts when a fighter jet and a passenger plane suddenly find their communications channels jammed, and just barely avoid hitting each other. The source of the problem is traced to a signal that blocked all radio communication—the “Radio Killer” of the title. In this case, it wasn’t intentional sabotage, but a faulty circuit that caused the problem. Agents from the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (better known as the Stasi), are unable to locate the signal’s exact location, but they figure that someone from the West will come along and fix the problem. That someone is a man named Vogel, who works for the Bundesnachrichtendienst—West Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (usually abbreviated to BND). Vogel is shown developing a method to fix the delicate electronic underwater without getting them wet. The faulty circuit is located at the bottom of a lake, and the only way to fix it is for Vogel to work on it underwater, lest he be spotted. The rest of the film is a cat-and-mouse game between the Stasi and the BND.

The screenplay was written by East German author Harry Thürk, who, like Harold Robbins, specialized in writing books that were more popular with the general public than the critics. He also wrote the screenplays for the spy film, For Eyes Only and Rendezvous mit unbekannt (Rendezvous with the Unknown), an eleven-part TV series that presented actual stories from the early days of the Stasi. Clearly the man had a soft spot for MfS agents.

Fans of spy movies may find this one a little puzzling. All the intrigue occurs on a mental level, and no guns are drawn, or even appear in the film. The end goal, as far as the East German agents are concerned is to neutralize the threat of the Radio Killer without letting the West Germans know they’ve done so. For anyone raised on James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. this might seem awfully tame, but the film does a good job of keeping the tension high. It probably helps that Radio Killer is a very short film, coming in under 70 minutes.

scope1

Agent Achim Vogel is portrayed by Gojko Mitić, best known as East Germany’s number one Indian in their westerns. It is one of the few times we get to see Mitić as the bad guy (for more on Mitić, see Apaches and The Sons of the Great Bear). Schalker, the lead East German agent, is played by Erik S. Klein, an actor familiar to any fan of East German films. Klein appeared in several classic East German films, including Stars, The Second Track, and Naked Among Wolves. In the East German states, he is best remembered as the harried father in the TV mini-series Aber Vati! (But Dad!). After the Wende, offers to appear in films and TV dried up. Aside from one failed TV series, Klein didn’t show up on television again, even though you could have found him on the small screen in the GDR nearly any night of the week. Like many other actors, he turned to radio productions and to the stage (what a golden time for German theater the nineties must have been). He died in 2002.

Aside from a few films in late sixties, director Wolfgang Luderer worked almost exclusively in television, but was no stranger to the Krimi by the time he made this movie. He began his career directing episodes of Fernsehpitaval—a popular television series that featured reenactments of famous crimes. Although he hadn’t signed the protest letter against Wolf Biermann’s expatriation, and hadn’t suffered the punitive restrictions faced by the likes of Manfred Krug, Jutta Hoffmann, and Angelika Domröse, Luderer decided to leave the GDR in the early eighties. Within a couple years he was working in West German television and probably would have a long career in unified Germany as well if he hadn’t died in a car accident in 1995.

The cinematography is by Helmut Bergmann, and appears to have been shot in 16mm. Perhaps this was to save money, but it also helped match the stock footage of jet planes, and facilitate underwater filming. It also gives the film a documentary feel, which is effective here. While this film is, by no means, a classic, it is an excellent example of the topsy-turvy perspective a viewer from the west encounters when watching East German spy movies.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (Although the cover of the DVD suggests that this film is black-and-while, it is, in fact, in color).

Heute ist Freitag

By 1989, Nina Hagen was well-known in West Germany, but few people there knew anything about her past. She was the operatic, punk demon lady from the far side of the moon spouting mystic mumbo-jumbo and singing like nobody else. Then the wall came down and we westerners saw a whole other side of her—the pop pixie, singer of novelty songs, adorable and immensely talented. But few of us were ready for Today is Friday (Heute ist Freitag), a TV-movie from 1975 in which we get to see Nina Hagen as we’ve never seen her before.

Long before Hagen reinvented herself as a punk goddess, she was on her way to becoming the most popular singer in East Germany. Her GDR persona was that of a spunky woman-child, a little petulant and coy. Her big breakthrough came in 1974 with “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” (You forgot the color film), a song in which Nina scolds her boyfriend Mischa for forgetting to bring the color film on their vacation. In it, she complains that no one will believe her when she tells them how beautiful everything was, because the pictures are all in black-and-white. The unspoken joke here is that no one believes her because so much of the East German landscape was cast in shades of gray. Hagen recorded the song as the lead singer in a band called Automobil. Later she joined Fritzens Dampferband, where she continued her rise to stardom with the hit “Wir tanzen Tango” (We dance the Tango), and the remarkably silly, “Hatschi Waldera.”

Things were looking up for Hagen, then her step-father, folksinger Wolf Biermann, was expatriated for his outspoken criticisms of the East German bureaucracy. His wife—Nina’s mother—was the popular film star, Eva-Maria Hagen. She applied for permission to join her husband in the west and it was granted. Nina decided to follow suit. At first the SED balked at letting her join her parents, but when she let them know that if she wasn’t allowed to emigrate, she would become the next Wolf Biermann they quickly changed their minds.

Arriving in West Germany, her agent did something very smart. He told her go to London to see what was happening in rock’n’roll. The year was 1976, and punk was in full bloom. Nina met and became friends with many British musicians, most notably Lena Lovich, who was a big influence on Hagen’s style. Hagen returned to West Germany in 1977 with a whole new look and sound, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today is Friday is the story of one important weekend in the life of Jutta, a young woman who thinks she might be pregnant. After going to the doctor, she is informed that because “Today is Friday,” she won’t know the results of her test until next Monday. This gives her a weekend to ruminate on the course she wants to take. What follows is lots of walking and talking in the interminable wait for Monday to come. Should she have an abortion of keep the baby? The film leans toward the latter, but remains as noncommittal as possible.1

Prior to Today is Friday, Hagen had appeared in an episode of the short-lived TV series, ABC der Liebe (ABCs of Love), and in the TV-movie, Heiraten/Weiblich (Married/Female). In both of these she played opposite her mother. Today is Friday was her first solo foray into film. She only appeared in a few DEFA films before heading west, but none of the other films focus on her to the same extent as Today is Friday does. She is the lead character in this film and she carries it all the way.

One of the more remarkable aspects of this film—one might even say shocking—is its lack of glamour. Hagen is presented as an utterly ordinary woman. She wears gingham shirts with butterfly collars, sweater vests, and the ugliest mommie jeans in the history of denim. Half the time she walks around with a knit cap pulled down over her head. This is not Nina the glamorpuss, it’s Nina the schlub. Nonetheless, the camera likes Hagen. The film rarely takes its focus off her and follows her movements as if fixated on her, sometimes, peeking in from other rooms to watch her.

Nina Hagen

It is this camerawork that is the most interesting aspect of the movie. Mostly handheld, the camera follows Hagen around in the cinema verité style popular with Cassavetes and the early French New Wave (whose films also often shared the obsession with their leading ladies). At times it feels like a documentary. Whether this is because of cinematographer Roland Dressel or the director, Klaus Gendries, is hard to say. Dressel was also responsible for the excellent cinematography in Jadup and Boel, and The Bicycle. Before he became a cinematographer, he worked as an assistant cameraman on a variety of East German films, including the classic Hot Summer, and Konrad Wolf’s first film, Einmal ist Keinmal (Once Doesn’t Count). This wide variety of films helped make Dressel an extremely versatile cinematographer, adapting his style to match the story. Unlike some cinematographers whose work is obvious no matter who’s directing (Gordon Willis immediately comes to mind) Dressel has no signature style, although his work in Jadup and Boel stands out for its unique style in the flashback scenes.

Likewise, Gendries seemed less concerned with branding himself as an auteur than getting good performances out of his actors. This isn’t surprising since Gendries got his start at DEFA as an actor, appearing in films such as The Baldheaded Gang and The Second Track. In the GDR, directors were mostly assigned to work at either DEFA or its television equivalent, DFF (Deutscher Fernsehfunk). Klaus Gendries was one of those assigned to DFF, so most of his work appears in the form of made-for-TV movies. He started directing in theater in the fifties, and moved to television in 1963 with the TV-movie version of Guy de Maupassant’s, Der Morin – Das Schwein (That Pig of a Morin). He scored a big hit with Florentiner 73, a comedy about a young pregnant woman dealing with her a living situation and quirky neighbors. Florentiner 73 starred his wife, Edda Dentges. The TV-movie was so popular that it spawned a sequel, Neues aus der Florentiner 73 (News from Florentiner 73). He also helmed the popular TV mini-series, Aber Vati! (But Dad!).

Gendries work in television served him well after the Wende. Unlike many of his DEFA counterparts he made the transition from East German television to unified German television. He hasn’t had as many opportunities to make TV movies, but he has worked on many popular television series, including Der Bergdoktor, Für alle Fälle Stefanie, and In aller Freundschaft. He retired from filmmaking in 2000, but continues to direct stage productions.

Ironically, the theme song for Today is Friday is not sung by Nina Hagen, but by Veronika Fischer. Veronika Fischer was the most popular female rock singer in East Germany. She had several hits in East Germany and appeared in the film, DEFA-Disko 77. Like Hagen before her, Veronika Fischer immigrated to West Berlin before the wall came down. Unlike Hagen, however, she did not take advantage of the situation to reinvent herself and found little success in the west. It was only after the Wende, when she could return to the former East German states that her career was revived. She is still popular in the eastern states and continues to release albums.

The theme song was written by Michael Heubach, who wrote the music for “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” and other songs that Nina Hagen made popular. Heubach was a founding member of Hagen’s first band, Automobil. When she decided to move on, Heubach disbanded Automobil and joined Lift, one of East Germany’s few art rock bands. Heubach had several hits in the GDR, but none since reunification. He continues to write music and work as a music producer.

Today is Friday is charming enough, but the fact it is black-and-white and consists mostly of people discussing the pregnancy issue make it an unlikely candidate for subtitling anytime soon. Nonetheless, any fan of Nina Hagen is going to want to add this film to their collection.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


1. Abortion was legal in East Germany, but, as in the west, it was still controversial. East Germany’s version of Roe v. Wade (Gesetz über die Unterbrechung der Schwangerschaft) was passed in 1972, giving women the right to choose abortion without requiring a medical reason. The passing of this law was the only time that that the People’s Chamber (Volkskammer) did not vote unanimously on a law’s passage (the only other time they split their vote was the election Egon Krenz as the GDR’s leader right before the Wall came down). West Germany wouldn’t follow suit for another four years, and even then only after two years of court challenges and legal wrangling.