Archive for the ‘Egon Günther’ Category

When You're Older, Dear Adam
Egon Günther’s 1965 comedy When You’re Older, Dear Adam (Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam) is a weird movie, made weirder still by the times in which it was made and the technique used to rebuild the film. The film tells the story of a boy who is given a magic flashlight by a swan. That’s not a typo. The boy paid the swan’s fare on the streetcar (also not a typo), and the swan repays the boy by tossing an old flashlight into the boy’s boat a little later on. It’s no ordinary flashlight. It has the ability to identify when people aren’t telling the truth. Liars suddenly find themselves floating in the air. The bigger the lie, the higher they fly. The boy runs around Dresden accompanied by jangly surf guitar, shining the light on people at random and causing havoc everywhere he goes. It’s an fun and mostly innocuous romantic comedy, but the folks in the SED didn’t think so.

As previously discussed here, the 11th Plenum led to the wholesale banning of several films in 1965-66. When You’re Older, Dear Adam had the dubious distinction of being in post-production after the Plenum occurred. Officials didn’t like the idea of a film that says that government officials sometimes lie, and started interfering with the production, eventually banning the film altogether. The screenplay was courting controversy even before it was filmed. In one scene, a group of soldiers taking their oath to defend the GDR suddenly finding themselves hovering in the air. Not surprisingly, this scene was never filmed, but even the scenes that were filmed upset the officials enough to call a halt to the film’s production.

Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam

In 1990, when the process of reunification had begun, several of the films banned during the 11th Plenum were taken out of storage, restored, and screened. When the researchers got to Günther’s film, they found that portions of the soundtrack had been destroyed, leaving only the footage. Working from the screenplay, and feeling that the film was too important to simply abandon, they decided to compliment the missing dialog with crudely made intertitles that explain the missing dialog, making an already surreal movie even more bizarre. While watching the film, the viewer is sometimes presented with what looks to all the world like a typed index card explaining what happens next, followed by a scene of complete silence. It is disorienting and only makes sense if you are alerted to the reasons for it before you view the film.

As a nod to the story’s theme of absolute truth, the film begins with a voiceover narration identifying the main actors and the parts they are playing. Adam is played by Stephan Jahnke. As is often the case with young actors, it would be his only role. The rest of the cast primarily consists of veteran DEFA actors, including Manfred Krug, Mathilde Danegger, Christel Bodenstein, Fred Delmare, and Marita Böhme. Adam’s father—whose name is “Sepp Tember”—is played by Gerry Wolff. Wolff usually showed up in character parts and so was more recognized by his face than his name. The Wende had little impact on his career. He continued to appear in films and on television, and has done a fair amount of dubbing as well. His was the German voice for Yoda in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

The one new face in the film, besides Stephan Jahnke, is the Cuban actor Daisy Granados. Starting on the stage in Havana, Granados had been in only one other film (La decisión) when she took the part in When You’re Older, Dear Adam. Granados went to on to star in several widely acclaimed and award-winning films in Cuba, including Retrato de Teresa (Portrait of Teresa), Cecilia, and Un hombre de éxito (A Successful Man). Until his death in 2005, Granados often worked with her husband, Pastor Vega. In 2012, she was scheduled to appear in a play as part of the TEMFest (Teatro en Miami Festival), but local Cuban ex-pats got the performance cancelled after a rumor circulated that Granados said something bad about Juanita Baró, a popular Miami Cuban dancer and wife of exiled Cuban writer Manuel Ballagas. More recently, she appeared alongside Es­linda Núñez, Mirta Ibarra, and the Lizt Alfonso dance company in a performance of the dance musical Amigas as part of the celebrations for the 38th International Latin American Film Festival in Havana.

Daisy Granados

Director Egon Günther was already no stranger to censorship when this film was made. His first film, The Dress (Das Kleid), which he co-directed with Konrad Petzold, was banned because officials thought that its story of a walled city and a populace that is told to ignore their common sense was an attack on the building of the Wall and the government’s attempts to justify it. In truth, that film began production a year before the Wall was built. Günther barely avoided censorship again in 1968 with Farewell, and received criticism once more in 1972 for the on-screen kiss between two women in Her Third. In 1978, Günther showed he lost none of his feistiness or unfettered creativity over time when his TV-movie Ursula was banned in Switzerland for its surreal approach to the story of the Protestant Reformation movement and the Battle of Kappel.

There is one good thing about the ban: It has allowed us to see a wide-screen, ORWOcolor film from 1965 in pristine condition. The print used for the DVD is scratch and dirt free, with absolutely no fading. Cinematographer Helmut Grewald’s color work here is spectacular, and Günther uses Totalvision (East Germany’s answer to Panavision and Cinemascope) to great effect. It is a prime candidate for a Blu-Ray release (if they can just do something about those terrible intertitles). Credit here must also be given to Alfred Hirschmeier’s spectacular production design, particularly the Tember apartment, and to costume designer Rita Bieler’s sharp looking outfits. Sadly, the fall of the Wall signaled the end of the careers for all three of these people. Hirschmeier worked on a couple TV movies after the Wende, but that was it.

When You Grow Up Dear Adam

Wilhelm Neef’s score is a lot of fun. Neef scored dozens of films for DEFA before stepping away from the movie business to concentrate exclusively on classical music compositions and performance. Today he is best known for his work on Indianerfilme such as Sons of the Great Bear, Chingachgook, the Great Snake, and Osceola, but he has contributed scores to a wide variety of films in a wide variety of styles, as this film well demonstrates.

Banning When You’re Older, Dear Adam was one of the worst missteps the government in East Germany made, and they made some doozies. Banning a movie with a plot about identifying liars is as good as saying “yes, we’re liars.” It is on a par with Richard Nixon’s “I’m not a crook” statement. If you have to say it, you’ve already lost the war. Plus, it’s generally not a good idea to try and suppress satire anyway. It has a way of returning to haunt its foes. Attempts to suppress satire go all the way back to Aristophanes and his battles with Cleon, and can be seen as recently as 20th Century Fox’s pathetic attempt to bury Mike Judge’s scathing (and depressingly spot-on) attack on American culture, Idiocracy.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

Abschied
In the history of East German films, the period between the 11th Plenum and Erich Honecker’s takeover from Walter Ulbricht is considered to be a dark time for DEFA films. That’s not to say there weren’t good, entertaining films made during this time. After all, this period saw the introduction of the Indianerfilm, Hot Summer, and I Was Nineteen. But when when you compare it to the period right before the Plenum, you can see the impact the foolishness at that meeting had on the East German creative output.

Most noticeable, was a decrease in inventive cinematography. Cinematographers often were singled out for attack when their work got too creative. Roland Gräf was accused of imitating the Italians, and Günter Ost’s career as a cinematographer came to an abrupt end thanks to the 11th Plenum. If a film was visually imaginative, it was immediately suspect as far as the film review board was concerned. So it was probably no surprise to director Egon Günther when his 1968 film Farewell (Abschied) came under criticism, for it is a beautiful film indeed. Filmed in Totalvision (East Germany’s wide screen format) in that rich black-and-white film that the Wolfen film factory (the original Agfa factory) was rightly famous for.

Farewell is based on a novel of the same name by Johannes R. Becher, a German poet is best known for writing the lyrics to the East German national anthem. The movie begins in 1914, right after the Battle of Liège, Germany’s opening salvo in WWI. Hans Gastl, a young man of artistic temperament and pacifist beliefs is leaving home. The rest of the story is told in flashbacks that show us how he came to this crossroad in his life. The novel is heavily autobiographical. The character of Fanny is based on his childhood sweetheart, Franziska Fuß, whom he killed in a botched suicide pact. Becher survived, but developed an addiction to morphine due to his injuries.

farewell

Director Egon Günther was, quite possibly, the bravest director in the GDR. He had a special knack for irritating the authorities with films that pushed any parameters they tried to set. He did this right out of the gate with his first film, Das Kleid (The Dress), which he co-directed with Konrad Petzold. Günther and Petzold managed to find the limits at a time when the GDR was boasting that the wall would mean fewer restrictions. And whener the film board moved the boundaries, Günther pushed again. He is also to the only East German director who managed to get a film—and a made-for-TV film at that—banned by the Swiss (see Ursula). It’s not surprising, then, that he was one of the directors chastised by the 11th Plenum for his clever film, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam). It would be three years before he got the opportunity to make another film, and that film was Farewell, a fact that didn’t help him mend fences with the authorities.

As a writer himself, and a prolific one at that, Günther had a better understanding of how to bring the written word to film than most. He realized that the literal translation was sometimes less effective than a more filmic approach. Over the years he adapted the work of classic writers such as Thomas Mann, Goethe, and Gottfried Keller, as well as the work of newer writers, such as Eberhard Panitz and Uwe Timm. His 1999 film, Die Braut (The Bride), which looks at the life of Christiane Vulpius, Goethe’s long-time—and long-suffering—mistress.

Günter Marczinkowsky was the cinematographer, and one of the best East Germany ever produced. Like other East German cinematographers, he got his start in a film laboratory and worked as a projectionist as well. By the time he picked up a movie camera, he knew and understood film stock about as well as anyone could. He started as an assistant to the great Robert Baberske. He started working as the director of photography in 1957. He became Frank Beyer’s favorite cinematographer, until both of them were relegated to television for making The Trace of Stones. Farewell represents Marczinkowsky’s return to the big screen. Later on, he and Beyer would get together again, first on a couple TV mini-series, and later on Jakob the Liar, considered by some to be the best movie to ever come out of East Germany (a viewpoint I don’t share, but it is a good film). Jakob the Liar did not lead to more feature film work, however. Marczinkowsky continued to work in television until he finally left the GDR in 1980. Thereafter, he joined up with Frank Beyer again, who had left the country following the Wolf Biermann affair (see Jakob the Liar). From here on out, all his work would be in television, with the exception of Didi und die Rache der Enterbten, a reworking of Kind Hearts and Coronets with the West German comic actor Dieter Hallervorden playing multiple roles à la Sir Alec Guinness. Marczinkowsky retired from cinematography the same year that The Wall came down. He died right after Christmas 2004 in Hamburg.

farewell5

Playing the older Hans Gastl in his first film appearance is Jan Spitzer, looking very much like a classmate of Malcolm MacDowell’s in If….; a good choice for someone as anti-authoritarian as Hans. Spitzer got his training at then Ernst Busch Academy, which is still a leading school for students of the dramatic arts in Germany today. He appeared in many more films in East Germany in roles of variying size, but his performance as Hans in Farewell remains one of his best-known performances. Like other East German actors, the Wende threw a roadblock into his path. He still perfroms, but most of his work is done in the dubbing studio. If a film stars Chris Cooper, that is probably Jan Spitzer’s voice your hearing in the German-dubbed version. He also dubs the voices for Danny Trejo, Ted Levine, and Ratchet in the Transformer series.

Playing the ill-fated Fanny is Heidemarie Wenzel. Wenzel had appeared in small roles in films prior to this (she was the bride in The Lost Angel), but this was her first starring role and she turns in a sensational performance. Due to the limited distribution of this film, very few people saw her performance. It would be her turn in Zeit der Störche (The Time of Storks) that would finally put her on the map, but it is her performance as Paul’s wife in The Legend of Paul and Paula for which she is most famous. That same year, her next film, The Dove on the Roof, had the dubious distinction of being the first film banned after Honecker took over. Wenzel was a popular actress throughout the first half of the seventies. Then the state decided to stop putting up with any criticism, starting withn the expatriation of Wolf Biermann and the sidelining of everyone who signed the letter against this action. Wenzel didn’t sign this letter, but she was still considered “politically unreliable,” so her career ended along with Manfred Krug’s, Angelica Domröse’s, and the others who actually did sign the letter. She applied for an exit visa in 1986 and was finally allowed to do so in 1988. In 1991, she joined the cast of the popular German family drama, Unsere Hagenbecks (Our Hagenbecks), but her character was killed off in a car accident after the first season, to the outrage of many viewers (apparently the character she played was pregnant at the time). Like many other East German actors, she shows up from time to time on the Leipzig hospital drama, In aller Freundschaft, playing Eva Globisch, the mother of one of the main characters in the show.

Farewell

All the way down the line, Farewell features an outstanding cast. Even in relatively minor roles we have the likes of Rolf Römer, Annekathrin Bürger, Fred Delmare, and Mathilde Danegger. Manfred Krug turns in an especially fun performance as an aging revolutionary who hangs out at the Café Größenwahn where Hans recites his poetry.1 Annekathrin Bürger has a fun, if brief, turn as the café’s resident chanteuse.

A film this visually inventive was bound to provoke the authorities, and it did. At the 8th plenary meeting of the SED’s Central Committee, the film was roundly criticized, essentially for no better reason that it was too interesting to look at. At a ceremony to honor the author, Johannes R. Becher, Walter Ulbricht got up and made sure everyone saw that he left the event just before the film was about to screen. Still in charge in 1968, this demonstration carried some weight. The film was pulled from the normal distribution channels and was only screened on special occasions.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film.


1. Café Größenwahn was the nickname for the Café Stefanie in Vienna where Johannes R. Becher hung out as a young man. “Größenwahn” can be translated as either “egomania” or “delusions of grandeur.”

The Central Committee of the SED

The Central Committee of the SED of the GDR

NOTE: Readers of this blog may have noticed how often the term “11th Plenum” crops up in these film reviews. Although I define the term in the glossary, a quick definition can only scratch the surface. For those who want to learn more, I offer this article. It’s more of a history lesson than a film essay, so readers, whose interest in such things is limited, can safely skip this article and simply take it on face value that the 11th Plenum was a bad, bad thing.

There are moments in the history of any country that stand out as turning points, for better or worse, during which times a country, its politics, and its people are all changed irrevocably, and every action taken after that point is measured by the event. Revolutions and attacks are the obvious examples, but some important events take place behind closed doors in meeting rooms and auditoriums. Some attacks occur without a single shot being fired. Well chosen words can do as much damage as a billyclubs and bullets.

In the history of the German Democratic Republic, a few events stand out: the founding of the GDR, the July 17th revolts, the building and destruction of the Berlin Wall, and the 11th Plenum are milestones in the story of East Germany. For the people in the film industry, it was the last event that was the most important. Only the creation of DEFA was more important to the story of filmmaking in the GDR. The 11th Plenum changed everything, and it is often cited as the death knell for creativity in East German films. This isn’t true by a long shot, but it did constitute a major blow to the country’s artistic community, and changed the way the creative community interacted with and responded to the government for the rest of the country’s brief existence.

Ironically, the 11th Plenum—or, the 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, as its official title translates into English—was never meant to be a referendum on the arts in the German Democratic Republic. It was supposed to be about the country’s economic recovery plan, but unexpected events, coupled with an unwillingness to address the real problems the country was facing, threw a spanner in the works. To understand exactly what happened, we have to go back a few years.

Immediately after WWII, it was apparent that the socialist model was working better than the capitalist one in Germany. The Allied sectors of Germany were struggling to get back on their feet while the Soviet Sector was going strong—and this in spite of the fact that the USSR was still busy pilfering the East German resources for its own needs. During the forties, it wasn’t uncommon for people to cross the border to get work in the GDR because the West still had nothing to offer. Some of this was by design. The Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) was in no hurry for Germany to get back on its feet. Prior to the Marshall Plan, OMGUS was working off JCS 1067, a renamed version of the infamous Morgenthau Plan that was designed to drag Germany back to the eighteenth century. Fortunately for West Germany, America’s fear of communism was greater than its fear of Nazis. At the start of the fifties, when it looked like East Germany was in danger of winning the hearts and minds of the German people, OMGUS backed away from Morgenthau’s anti-industrial foolishness and started promoting economic growth in the Bundesrepublik.

Americans blamed for potato bug invasion

Propaganda booklet claiming the potato beetle invasion was an American plot. (See http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/amikafer.htm)

What happened next was the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle), during which time West Germany’s economy grew so fast that they had to import workers from other countries to keep up with production.1 Suddenly the East German economy started looking anemic. This was compounded by agricultural problems in the form of an invasion of potato bugs that the authorities were quick to blame on the United States. The West German government, under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer, along with West German mayor, Willy Brandt, decided to push things to the limit by introducing the West D-Mark in West Berlin, A move that severely unbalanced the economies between the two halves of the city and started the events that led to the building of the Berlin Wall (for more on this, see Look At This City!).

One of the claims made by the East German authorities after the building of the wall was that by restricting the ability of the west to disrupt East German society, the artistic community would have greater freedom to be creative. To demonstrate this, the movie technicians at DEFA were given greater freedom to push the boundaries of style and content.2 What followed was a burst of imaginative filmmaking. New camera techniques were used and stories became visually and structurally more experimental and interesting. From 1962 to 1966, East German filmmakers made some of the best films to come out of Germany since the Weimar days.

The wall was intended to eliminate the inequities between east and west. But the East German economy continued to deteriorate, Stalin’s Five Year Plan model wasn’t working any better in East Germany that it had in Russia, and the West was making political hay of it. In the USSR, Khrushchev decided to move away from Stalin’s centralized model to a more localized one. A decision that was met with a great deal of grumbling from the hard-liners in the politburo. East Germany’s General Secretary Walter Ulbricht decided to follow Khrushchev’s lead.

Starting in 1963, General Secretary Walter Ulbricht, economic advisor Wolfgang Berger, and Planning Commissioner Erich Apel, came up with the New Economic System (initially dubbed Neuen Ökonomischen System der Planung und Leitung (NÖSPL) , but later shortened to Neues Ökonomisches System (NÖS)). It was a good plan, and history shows that it might have worked, but Ulbricht didn’t count on the conservative groundswell that was rising in the upper echelons of the USSR. Some Russian politicians—particularly the head of the Supreme Soviet, Leonid Brezhnev—felt that Khrushchev was moving their country away from the government’s core principles. While Khrushchev was on vacation in 1964, Brezhnev made his move and Khrushchev returned to Russia to find himself out of a job.

East German Power Play

This left Ulbricht in a sticky position. He had hitched his wagon to Khrushchev’s star, but suddenly that star had fallen from the heavens. To make matters worse, Brezhnev did not like Ulbricht. He felt that the East German leader had been given far too much slack in his dealings with the USSR and had put that country in some awkward situations. The NÖS may have been working, but Brezhnev made it clear that the Soviets did not support it. Ulbricht was hanging on to his job by a thread at this point.

By the time the 11th Plenum was scheduled to take place, no one in the SED’s Central Committee wanted to touch the subject of economic reforms. Never mind that this was the reason for the meeting in the first place. Less than two weeks before he was scheduled to present his report on the NÖS at the 11th Plenum, Erich Apel committed suicide. Suddenly the NÖS wasn’t just a touchy subject, it was toxic. Like all politicians, when they are afraid of addressing real issues, they turned their criticism to the entertainment industry instead. Films were getting too liberal, they complained. Why, some were downright anti-socialist! Presented with this safe target, the pols went to town. They started seeing threats to their way of life behind every movie, and the blossoming film movement in East Germany—which up to that point was making the cinema of West Germany look downright anemic—was nipped in the bud.

Amazingly, the film that was held up as the prime example of this trend was The Rabbit is Me, a film with as strong a socialist pedigree as anyone could ask for. Its director, after all, was Kurt Maetzig—one of the people responsible for the founding of DEFA and the man who gave us The Council of the Gods, the Ernst Thalmann films, and Das Lied der Matrosen (The Song of the Sailors). Accusing Maetzig of being anti-socialist was a bit like accusing Che Guevara of being a capitalist. It was stunning in its absurdity and a horrible warning sign that the SED had lost its bearings. Nonetheless, The Rabbit is Me became the poster child for the films banned by the SED. Thereafter, the films banned during the 11th Plenum became known as “Rabbit Films” (Kannichenfilme). Other names for these films include Kellarfilme (Cellar Films) and Giftschrankfilme (Poison Cabinet Films).

Eleven features films were banned in the wake of the 11th Plenum. Some of these, such as The Rabbit is Me and Trace of Stones, were finished films that had screenings in cinemas, while others, such as Fräulein Schmetterling (Mademoiselle Butterfly) and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam) were scuttled while still in production. Also added to the Giftschrank was Egon Schlegel’s student film, Ritter des Regens (Knights of the Rain). Two more projects were shut down before any filming began—Die Beteiligten (The Parties Involved) and Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality), both of which were later made into movies by DEFA.

The Rabbit is Me

A scene from Kurt Maetzig’s The Rabbit is Me.

Most of the films on the list were banned for promoting viewpoints that the SED considered contrary to the socialist perspective, but some films were banned for no better reason that that were frivolous. Producers, dramaturges, directors and technicians who were seen as the major “disruptive” forces at DEFA were either sent to work in television, or banned from films entirely. Günter Ost, one of the most talented and imaginative cameramen DEFA ever produced, never made another movie after the Plenum. Egon Schlegel, who was about to start a promising career as a feature film director was forced to spend the next few years working behind the scenes, eventually making a name for himself as a director children’s films (see The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs). Günter Stahnke never made another feature film, but spent the rest of his career making movies for television; a slightly ironic development considering that he first got in trouble with the authorities for a short television film titled Monolog für einen Taxifahrer (Monologue for a Taxi Driver). Some people, such as screenwriter Ulrich Plenzdorf and director Frank Beyer, eventually got back in DEFA’s good graces, but were walking on eggshells for the rest of their careers. Others, such as Jürgen Böttcher (Born in ’45), were never given the opportunity to make another feature film, relegated, instead, to the world of documentary shorts.

Eventually, the writers and filmmakers recovered, and started pushing the boundaries again, but there was always a sense of foreboding afterwards. In 1968, things appeared to be loosening up slightly. Egon Günther’s imaginative Abschied (Farewell) made it into theaters, although, just barely, and the unabashedly frivolous Hot Summer was big hit in the fall of 1968 (although it did include a message of the importance of comradeship under its beach antics).

Hot Summer

A scene from Joachim Hasler’s Hot Summer.

Then, in 1971, that sword of Damocles that had been hanging over Ulbricht’s head finally fell. Ulbricht was ousted from power and replaced with Erich Honecker, a conservative East German politician who had been in charge of the building of the Berlin Wall. Ironically, the hardline Honecker was the one who loosened thing up again for the DEFA filmmakers, declaring that “as long as a film proceeds from the strong position of socialism,” anything goes (actual quote: “Wenn man von den festen Positionen des Sozialismus ausgeht, kann es meines Erachtens auf dem Gebiet von Kunst und Literatur keine Tabus geben.”). Films became more imaginative and adventurous, but the spectre of the 11th Plenum never completely went away. Occasionally films were still banned, but the state never repeated the wholesale shelving of films that occurred after the 11th Plenum. Filmmakers became more wary of what the state censors might do and were often guilty of pre-emptively censoring their own ideas (Egon Günther notwithstanding, who managed to keep pricking the sensibilities of East German blue-stockings right up until the end).

Looking back on the event from an historical perspective, the 11th Plenum seems like the point at which the soul of the GDR died. Up until that point, even the most controversial decisions, such as the building of the wall or the use of the Soviet army to put down the June 17th revolts, could be argued as harsh but necessary moves to give socialist state’s a chance to reach its full potential. With the 11th Plenum, those dreams were dashed. The state went from its infancy to sclerosis in one fell swoop. Even after Honecker softened up the restrictions, and started to recognize the need to incorporate consumer requirements into the socialist model, this didn’t change. He was still part of the problem. The GDR was a young and growing country run by a rapidly aging panel of fossils. No new blood was being incorporated into the upper ranks, and the old men running the country had no concept of what was going on in the world around them.

For many of the films banned as a consequence of the 11th Plenum, their first screenings didn’t occur until the 1990 series at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Some, such as Fräulein Schmetterling and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam, had to be constructed from the unedited reels that were still on the shelves at DEFA headquarters in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

IMDB pages for the films banned by the 11th Plenum:
The Rabbit is Me
Spring Takes Time
Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry
Berlin Around the Corner
When You Grow Up, Dear Adam
Mademoiselle Butterfly
Trace of Stones
The Lost Angel
Karla
Born in ‘45
Hands Up or I’ll Shoot!

Where to buy (films listed with English names are available with English subtitles):
The Rabbit is Me
Spring Takes Time
Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry
Berlin Around the Corner
When You Grow Up, Dear Adam
Fräulein Schmetterling: Not currently available
Trace of Stones
The Lost Angel
Karla
Born in ‘45
Hände hoch oder ich schieße

Further reading:
DEFA: East German Cinema 1946-1992 [Paperback]
John Sandfordand Seán Allan (Editors)

East German Cinema: DEFA and Film History [Paperback]
Sebastian Heiduschke (Available October 2113)

Spur der Filme. Zeitzeugen über die DEFA [Paperback – in German]
Ingrid Possand and Peter Warnecke

Das zweite Leben der Filmstadt Babelsberg. DEFA- Spielfilme 1946 – 1992 [Hardcover – in German]
Christiane Mückenberger and Ralf Schenk

Special thanks to Seán Allan, Barton Byg, and Sebastian Heiduschke for their help with this blog post.
Archive photos are from Das Bundesarchive.


1. These were the famous Gastarbeiter that you’ll hear some Germans (mostly racist Germans) complain about even today. The idea was for these workers to come and work for a few years and then leave—only many didn’t leave, which is the reason you’ll find such strong foreign communities (especially Turkish, but not exclusively) living in Germany today. The GDR instituted a similar program for communist countries, such as Vietnam and Mozambique.

2. This is not to say that there were no longer restrictions. Konrad Petzold and Egon Günther managed to get in hot water with their film Das Kleid (The Dress), an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Suzanne Stoll

“Transgressive” is not a word one often uses to describe films from the GDR. With an industry so closely monitored, it was rare for a genuinely shocking film to get past the authorities, but Ursula is just such a film. To make it even more shocking, it was made for television.

Ursula is directed by Egon Günther, and is based on a novella by Gottfried Keller from his Züricher Novellen (Zurich Stories). The story begins in 1523, when Hansli Gyr (often translated as Jackie Geer), a Swiss mercenary, returns from the battlefield to find that Ursula Schnurrenberger, his one true love, is not the woman she used to be. While he was away, the people of his village fell under the sway of Anabaptists (Wiedertäufer), whose doomsday predictions and rejection of traditional values were taking root in the villages near Zurich at that time. Hansli had been away fighting for the papacy in Northern Italy, and is horrified by this change in religious attitudes. He leaves Ursula to try and figure out what to do next when he runs into Huldrych Zwingli, the famous Swiss religious reformer. Hansli joins forces with Zwingli, which puts him at odds with the people of his village, who are being driven mad by their oddball beliefs; especially Ursula, who now thinks Hansli is the Angel Gabriel. The rest of the movie follows the paths the two lovers take, culminating in one of the strangest battle sequences this side of Ken Russell.

To fully appreciate this film, a little history is in order. In 1517, Martin Luther tacked his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Luther wasn’t saying anything people weren’t already thinking. The corruption in the Roman Catholic church had reached such proportions that by the time Luther arrived on the scene, things were ready to explode. Nor was he the only person to rally the crowds against the church and its edicts. In Switzerland, Huldrych Zwingli was preaching his own ideas for change, challenging the concept of transubstantiation and declaring that there was no good reason not to eat meat during lent. In 1522, he demonstrated his commitment to the latter by joining his publisher in a meal of sausages during Lent. This event  became known as the “Affair of the Sausages,” and heralded the beginning of the Swiss Reformation movement. Within a year, Switzerland was embroiled in a faith-based battle over the heart, minds, and souls of the Swiss people with Zwingli at the center of the storm.

A challenge to both Zwingli and the Catholic church were the Anabaptists. They preached an apocalyptic version of Christianity that bore many of the earmarks of modern fundamentalism. 1523 was a pivotal year, that saw the Swiss Reformation movement taking hold and the start of the wars between the Catholic church, the Anabaptists, and the Protestants.

Gottfried Keller, the novella’s author, clearly has no sympathy with the Anabaptists. In his opinion, they are a licentious group of people feeding their lusts and engaging in behavior that borders on insane. At one point, the group decides that being holy means to act like children, resulting in an orgy of infantilism. Keller is more gentle with Zwingli, but the film is not. Zwingli as played by Matthias Habich seems almost as mad as the Anabaptists, who, in turn, come across more like medieval hippies. At its core, the film is a treatise on the folly of war and religion. The final battle sequence, chronicling  the second war of Kappel, intentionally evokes America’s involvement  in Vietnam. That war had been over for a couple years, but it was still a popular target for criticism in the Eastern Bloc countries. Ursula came out a year before the Soviets got involved in their own military debacle in Afghanistan. Had the Soviet War in Afghanistan been raging at the time the film was made, Ursula surely wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

The screenplay was written by Helga Schütz who had also written the screenplays for Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam),  Lots Weib (Lot’s Wife), and Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), all of which were also directed by Egon Günther. Schütz was a diligent researcher who specialized in writing and directing documentaries. When Zwingli is speaking from the pulpit, for example, Schütz effectively uses the actual text of his sermons to shock and surprise the audience. After the Wende she became a teacher of screenwriting at the University of Film and Television in Potsdam.

Scene from Ursula
Egon Günther’s film manages the neat trick of being simultaneously faithful to Keller’s novella and wildly interpretive. The scenes of Jesus being chased (or chasing) Death through the forest are taken from the book, but they appear on a tapestry that Hansli buys Ursula, and which she wears over her shoulders like a shawl. The addition of machine guns to the scene, though, is pure Günther. Is it Ursula’s insanity, or the insanity of war? Günther isn’t afraid of anachronisms, and by the end of the film they are flying fast and furiously. He first shows his hand during Zwingli’s sermon. A shot of the audience reveals that the congregation is wearing modern clothing. At first it seems like a blooper, but when one of the Anabaptists straps himself into a hang glider and takes off, you realize that this film is not playing by the rules.

Ursula was a co-production of Swiss and East German television. Throughout the seventies, East Germany had been working to rebuild their ties with the rest of Europe, and a joint film based on the work of one of Switzerland’s most respected authors seemed like a prime opportunity to further this cause. But when the film was finished, the Swiss refused to show it. It played once on East German TV and then was relegated to DEFA’s Giftschrank.* Nor could this film have made it onto U.S. television either. It contains male and female full-frontal nudity, defecation and urination, extreme blasphemy, and some of the bluest language in any German film. No one could push the limits of acceptability this far and not pay a price. The film marked the end of Egon Günther’s career as a filmmaker in the GDR. Thereafter, Günther went west, where he continued to work as a screenwriter and director until 2002.

Egon Günther settled into a career as a writer after a parade of jobs as a draftsman, soldier, teacher, and publisher. While working as a publisher, he began writing plays, stories, and novels. He started working at DEFA during the fifties, at first as a script doctor, and then later as a director. His career as a director got off to a rocky start with Das Kleid (The Dress), which he co-directed with Konrad Petzold. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes, the film was seen as a direct attack on the authorities in East Germany with its story of an easily duped tyrant and his walled-in kingdom. His next film, Lots Weib (Lot’s Wife), had no such problems, and was a big hit. He intended to follow this with the fantasy film, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam), but the 11th Plenum put a halt to the production and the film had to wait until after reunification to be shown. It looked as if Günther’s career at DEFA might be over, but his next film, Abschied (Farewell), based on Johannes R. Becher’s anti-war novel, was a hit and Günther was back on track, writing and directing several more films over the next few years. In 1972, his film, Her Third (Der Dritte), almost ended up on the shelf with his other banned films, but it managed to squeak by the censors, in large part due to Erich Honecker’s desire to show that his regime would be different from that of Walter Ulbricht’s. Günther became known as the master of the film adaptation, which no doubt had something to do with why he was chosen to direct Ursula.

Playing the star-crossed lovers are the Swiss actors, Suzanne Stoll and Jörg Reichlin. Ursula was Ms. Stoll’s first film and her only starring role. Of the six films and TV movies she appeared in, five were directed by Egon Günther. Reichlin, on the other hand, has continued to appear in films and on television, most recently in Alex E. Kleinberger’s Nachtexpress (Night Express). also appearing in a minor role is the great East German actress, Jutta Hoffmann (see Her Third for more on Ms. Hoffmann).

Huldrych Zwingli is played with ferocious intensity by Matthias Habich. Habich is best known in America for his roles in Enemy at the Gates, The Reader, and Downfall (Der Untergang). He’s had a long career, making films all over Europe starting with some television work in the late sixties. His first big role came in 1973, when he played the lead character in the six-part TV mini-series, Die merkwürdige Lebensgeschichte des Friedrich Freiherrn von der Trenck (The remarkable life story of Friedrich Freiherr von der Trenck). As with many excellent German actors, he doesn’t shun television and has turned up in several excellent (and not-so-excellent) made-for-TV movies, as well as the occasional episode of the popular German cop show, Tatort. In 2002, he won the Deutsche Filmpreis as best supporting actor for his role in Caroline Link’s Oscar-winning film, Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika). He currently divides his time between Paris and Zurich.

Costume design is by Christiane Dorst, who became Egon Günther’s go-to designer for all of his DEFA films starting with Her Third. When Günther left for the west, Dorst stayed behind and continued to contribute costumes to DEFA films such as Motoring Tales and The Architects. After the Wende, Dorst continued to find work, primarily with former East German directors such as Frank Beyer and Roland Gräf. The costumes in Ursula are some of her best work. Certain scenes look like recreations of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Her attention to the details in period costumes is unmatched. Check out the footwraps worn by Hansli under his boots, for instance. After the Wende, Ms. Dorst reunited with Egon Günther on Stein and, her last film, Die Braut (The Bride).

While the costumes certainly helped recreate the times, the rich and dark medieval look of the film is due to Peter Brand’s cinematography. Brand primarily worked in television, but was also responsible for the look of films such as Frank Vogel’s Julia lebt (Julia Lives), and Erwin Stranka’s evocative Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality). By the 1989, he had moved away from television and was working exclusively on feature films, but the Wende saw him return to the small screen. As with Christiane Dorst, Egon Günther’s Die Braut (The Bride) was his last film.

The music is this film is as quirky as the visual information, so it should come as no surprise to longtime readers of this blog that it was done by Karl-Ernst Sasse (for more on Sasse see Her Third). Sasse contributes a score that takes Renaissance folk music and twists it into something bizarre. His use of a solo Jew’s Harp early in the film is reminiscent of the work of Ennio Morricone. The music seems to be saying: “This is going to be a very odd movie.” Like the movie itself, the score contains surprises that pull it back-and-forth between the present and the past.

Because of its subsequent ban, the film achieved legendary status in East Germany. Not every film that has received this accolade deserves it, but Ursula most certainly does. After all these years, it still manages to shock. Recently it was released by ARD Video as part of their Grosse Geschichten series, but, unfortunately, without English subtitles. Hopefully that will change soon; Ursula deserves a wider audience.

As a footnote to the story, the teachings of the Anabaptists found their greatest success across the Atlantic. Attacked by both the Protestants and the Catholics in Europe, they fled in droves to the United States, where their beliefs were the foundations of the Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, and Brethren in Christ—a far cry from the wanton lunatics portrayed in this film.

IMDB page for the film.

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* Another of those wonderful German expressions that doesn’t translate well into English. This one literally means “poison cupboard,” and refers to a cabinet in which poisons and dangerous pharmaceuticals are stored. It is often used in reference to the banned films of East Germany, but is by no means exclusive to communist culture.