Archive for the ‘fairytale’ Category

Das Blaue Licht
As I’ve discussed on this blog before, East Germany had an above-average track record on female equality and films about women’s issues, yet there were only a few female directors at DEFA. First and foremost among these was Iris Gusner. She wasn’t the first women to direct feature films at DEFA. That honor goes to Bärbl Bergmann, who made several short films for DEFA and the feature film Rüpel in 1963.1 But Gusner was the most prolific with seven DEFA films to her name (Hannelore Unterberg comes in a close second with six DEFA films). From 1961 to 1967, Gusner studied cinematography at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Russia. After that, she worked as an assistant director for Konrad Wolf on Goya before making her first feature film, The Dove on the Roof, which was promptly shelved and remained unscreened until after the Wall came down. The first of her feature films to make it into cinemas was this one, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht).

The Blue Light is loosely based on a Grimms fairytale, although it’s really a complete reboot of the original fairytale. It takes the story and stands it on its head, changing the message and the priorities of the characters to better suit a socialist perspective. Both the original and the film tell the tale of Hans, a young soldier who is discharged from the service without pay because he’s been wounded. In both versions, the young soldier meets a witch who tries to trick him into fetching a blue light from her well and when he won’t cooperate, she leaves him stranded in the well. Feeling despondent, the soldier lights his pipe with the blue light and a “Mannlein” (little man) appears who can grant the soldier anything he wishes.

From here on out, though, the film and the fairytale diverge radically. Hans doesn’t seek the harsh retribution against the witch that she gets in the story, and the soldier’s multiple kidnappings of the princess are reduced to one. In the original story, the soldier eventually marries the princess, but no one would want to marry the princess in this movie, she’s a spoiled child-woman who pouts and sucks her thumb, and is dumb as a bag of hammers. Romantic interest is provided, instead, by Anne, who works at the local inn. This is, after all, an East German film, and being born in a royal family doesn’t make a person better; only more likely to be corrupt.

The Blue Light

Playing Hans is Viktor Semyonov, a Russian actor who primarily works on stage, but has appeared in several films. Semyonov is well-suited to the part. He is dashingly handsome (more handsome than most of the lead actors in East Germany, truth be told) and plays the part well. As was always the case with non-German actors in the lead roles, his voice was dubbed by a German actor—in this case, Jaecki Schwarz, who also appears here as the simple-minded guard Knut.

The lazy, idiot princess is played by Katharina Thalbach in the broadest performance possible—way too broad, honestly. Thalbach is the daughter of Swiss theater director Benno Besson and the Berlin-born actress Sabine Thalbach. Benno and Sabine were working at Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble when they met. From an early age, daughter Katharina starting performing, first on television and later in films. At age fifteen, she made her stage debut , playing a background whore in The Threepenny Opera, eventually working her way up to the lead role of Polly Peachum. In 1976, Thalbach and her husband Thomas Brasch joined the list of people that signed the protest letter against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, and like many of the others, left East Germany shortly thereafter.2 Perhaps because of her age, Thalbach didn’t have the same problems getting work that plagued many of the other East German actors who emigrated to the West. In 1979, she impressed people with her performance in Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum. Since then, she has appeared in dozens of feature films and television movies, including Welcome to Germany, Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg, Silent Night, Strike, and the TV-movie Der Minister, in which she plays a parody of Angela Merkel named “Angela Murkel.”

Playing counterpoint to Thalbach’s princess is Blanche Kommerell as Anne. Like Thalmann, Kommerell is the daughter of a professional actress. Also like Thalbach, she got her start in acting at a young age. Unlike Thalbach, she stayed in East Germany until the fall of the Wall. After that, she did very little acting on either the big screen or on television, but she continued to act in theater productions and to give lectures on acting and diction (I’ll be discussing Kommerell in more detail when I get to Little Red Riding Hood).

Fred Delmare

Most of Iris Gusner’s casting in The Blue Light is surprising. Using a Russian actor as the lead was rarely done; there were so many good East German actors out there. Thalbach and Kommerell weren’t the usual choices either (although, by this time, the usual choices—Christel Bodenstein, Cox Habbema, and Karin Ugowski—were getting too old to play these parts). There was one person, however, who was custom made for his part, and casting anyone else would have made little sense. That was Fred Delmare, East Germany’s most diminutive leading actor, who plays the Little Man (for more on Delmare, see Black Velvet). Delmare has fun in the part and makes an engaging Mannlein.

The music is by Gerhard Rosenfeld, and, if the online reviews are any indication, this is the most controversial aspect of the film. A lot of people didn’t like it. Rather than follow a standard formula for a movie soundtrack, Rosenfeld has composed a soundtrack using Renaissance instruments, primarily, the hurdy-gurdy. It is an odd, slightly subdued soundtrack, perfectly in keeping with the times, but not something you’d usually find in a movie like this. Like Karl-Ernst Sasse, Helmut Nier, Reiner Bredemeyer, and Wilhelm Neef, Rosenfeld was a classically-trained musician. His movie scores include The Rabbit is Me (with Reiner Bredemeyer), The Dove on the Roof, The Banner of Kriwoj Rog (Die Fahne von Kriwoj Rog), Unser stiller Mann (Our Silent Man), Addio, piccola mia, Our Short Life, and Bailing Out.

Hurdy Gurdy

When he wasn’t working on films, he composed orchestral works, chamber music, and music for operas and ballets. After the Wende, he was no longer hired to write feature film soundtracks, but continued to write scores for TV-movies and documentaries. In 1997, his opera Kniefall in Warschau was staged in Dortmund. The Independent went on to call it “one of the most important operas composed in Germany since 1945.” Rosenfeld died in 2003.

Like most of the fairytale films, The Blue Light did well at the box office, and it was well received by critics on both sides of the border. The fact that it states right up front that it is a loose adaptation of the fairytale probably helped avoid the usual cavils about not following the story verbatim. It’s an entertaining film that avoids pandering to children, which makes it an enjoyable film for both kids and adults.

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1. Arguably, Wanda Jakubowska was the first woman to direct a feature film at DEFA with her 1960 film Begegnung im Zwielicht (Encounters in the Dark); but Jakubowska was Polish and the film was a co-production with Film Polski and was in Polish. I hope at some point I can write more about her. She was an interesting woman with an interesting life. If you can, check out The Last Stage (Ostatni etap), the first feature film to portray the holocaust. Based on her own experiences in Auschwitz.

2. If it seems like East Germany was suddenly allowing a lot more people to leave the country, there’s a reason. The Biermann protest was a black-eye for the government in the GDR, and it came less than a year before a Conference on European Security and Cooperation that was slated for October 1977 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the GDR wanted to remove as many talking points as possible from the table by quietly releasing political prisoners and letting them emigrate to West Germany. Likewise, many of the signatories of the Biermann protest letter. They were probably hoping no one would notice, but the New York Times did.

© 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.

Sleeping Beauty
The story of Sleeping Beauty (Dornröschen) is old enough that it’s origins are a point of debate. The Grimm Brothers felt the story had enough Germanic elements to identify it as German in origin. The French, quite rightfully, would point out that the story was already well-known in France as it appeared in Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passé published in 1697. Meanwhile the Italians will tell you that Perrault got the story from Giambattista Basile’s Sun, Moon, and Talia. The story has been traced back to the 1300s, but is thought to be even older than that. These days, it’s best known in the form of the Walt Disney animated feature. Given the manhandling the original story received over the years from the likes of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Giambattista Basile, one can forgive Walt Disney for tweaking the story to suit his needs.

The basic setup of the story is always the same. After a queen has a daughter, the king holds a banquet and invites all the local fairies to bestow gifts on the infant. Unfortunately, he forgets one fairy who’s not as sociable as the others and, in the classic version, is also evil. After the other fairies bestow their gifts on the child (beauty, charm, virtue, and so forth), the evil fairy curses the child: On her fifteenth birthday, the girl will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. It turns out that one fairy hadn’t given her gift yet, so she deflects the curse slightly, saying the girl will not die but will sleep for one hundred years, when she will be awakened by a prince. In an attempt to prevent the curse from happening, the king orders all the spinning wheels in the kingdom destroyed. Of course, this has no effect. The young princess meets up with the evil fairy pretending to be an old woman working a spinning wheel. She lets the girl try her hand at the spinning wheel with the expected result.

While Disney’s film takes its cues from Perrault’s tale, the DEFA version follows the Brothers Grimm’s version the closest, with thirteen fairies and missing dinnerware as the reason the thirteenth fairy isn’t invited to the baby’s christening. It also does a better job of addressing the inevitable economic problems that would befall a community that was forced to give up its major income source (wool spinning and cloth production). This is Sleeping Beauty as seen through the eyes of Karl Marx.

Sleeping Beauty

In a manner similar to DEFA’s version of Rumpelstiltskin, where the evil dwarf becomes a dispenser of socialist instruction, the evil old fairy of the previous versions is now a beautiful young woman. Her angry spell is in reaction to the king’s self-importance and lack of empathy for the common folk. When the last fairy comes forward to temper the death spell, the reason she doesn’t simply lift the curse altogether is because she too feels the king needs to be taught a lesson. In DEFA’s version, the king is the real villain, and he is the one who is ultimately overthrown in favor of a system more equitable to the people. The fairy that curses the baby is known as the fairy of hard work (Fee des Fleißes), and it’s the castle’s industry that suffers.

Like most of the DEFA fairytale films, Sleeping Beauty is a bright and colorful movie, with simplified environments used to represent the various places. Backgrounds are devoid of details, occasionally consisting of featureless, light blue cycloramas. It was directed by Walter Beck, who made a career of fairytale films at DEFA, including King Thrushbeard (König Drosselbart), Pinocchio, The Prince Beyond the Seven Seas (Der Prinz hinter den sieben Meeren), The Bear-Skinned Man (Der Bärenhäuter), and The Frog Prince (Froschkönig). Beck’s career ended with the Fall of the Wall. He was sixty at that point, and the job opportunities for sixty-year-old, East German directors was nearly nil in the new, capitalist Germany.

Sleeping Beauty was a hit. The most popular DEFA fairytale film since Little Red Riding Hood (Rotkäppchen). The modern touches in the music and costume design helped make the film stand out from the previous fairytale films. It did not receive distribution in America, perhaps because of its strong socialist message, or perhaps because the time of the popularity of fairytale films in the U.S. was on the wane in 1971.

The slumbering princess is played by Juliane Korén. With parents who were also actors, Korén was born to perform. Her father, Hans Klering, was one of the founding members of DEFA. Her mother, Elsa Korén, appeared in several DEFA films, but worked more on stage, primarily with the Theater der Freundschaft (Friendship Theater)—now called the Theater an der Parkaue (Parkaue Theater) next to Lichtenberg Park. Aside from a few feature films roles, including In Spite of Everything! and The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow, Juliane Korén primarily appeared on television in the GDR. After the Wende, she moved to stage, working an as a member of the ensembles in Bochum and Stuttgart. She died in Berlin in 2018.

Dornröschen

Playing the thirteenth fairy is Vera Oelschlegel. Oelschlegel hails from Leipzig, where her mother was head of the district commission for entertainment art, Oelschlegel studied at the the Film Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg and worked at the theater in Putbus before getting a job at DFF—the GDR’s state-owned television station. She appeared in several films and television in East Germany. In 1961, she married playwright Günther Rücker, they were divorced six years later. Her next husband was Hermann Kant, one of the most important writers to come out of East Germany. The divorced in 1976.

But it was Oelschlegel’s next husband that got tongues wagging. Shortly after divorcing Kant she married Konrad Naumann, an SED politburo member. Some accused her of being a golddigger (or whatever you’d call a golddigger in a socialist country), but Oelschlegel didn’t care, she liked the guy and his cheery simplicity was a welcome change from the dour intellectualism of Kant. Naumann and Oelschlegel divorced in 1987, a couple years earlier, Naumann had been kicked out of the politburo, ostensibly for a speech he gave at the Academy of Social Sciences. In fact, it probably had more to do with Naumann’s efforts to relax trade restrictions with the West, a move that the rapidly dying old Soviet leaders opposed. A Soviet Untertan1 like Honecker wasn’t about to do anything to upset these fossils, so his old buddy Naumann had to be let go.

After the Wende, Oelschlegel—along with her long-time partner, dramaturge Gregor Edelmann, and journalist André Plath—founded the Theater des Ostens, a touring theater troupe that performed throughout the Eastern states of Germany. The troupe ceased operation in 2012.

Sleeping Beauty is good film. In many respects, it’s better than the Disney film and the other movie versions of the fairytale. In some respects, it is better than the original fairytale as well. It scratches below the surface of the original story, then asks and answers the difficult questions that the story poses—something that no other version of the tale ever bothered to do. But the most interesting aspect of the film is the idea of a castle completely surrounded by a wall of thorns. Surely, the comparison to the Berlin Wall was not lost on the authorities at DEFA. In 1961, Konrad Petzold and Egon Günther got into hot water for making The Robe (Das Kleid), a fairytale film about a walled castle simply because the officials thought it mimicked the recent building of the Berlin Wall, even though the film was in the can before the Wall went up. Ten years later, there were no such complaints when the wall of thorns (looking very much like barbed wire) grows around the castle in Sleeping Beauty. What a difference a decade makes.

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1. I’ve used the German word Untertan here because there really is no exact English equivalent. For a deeper dive on this subject, check out The Kaiser’s Lackey.

© 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.

Rumpelstiltskin
Kunz (Karl-Heinz Rothin) is a lazy miller who prefers to let his assistant Hans (Reinhard Michalke) do all the milling. When Hans can’t keep up and the farmers refuse to pay, the miller falls behind in his payments to the king. Kunz tells the king’s treasurer not to worry, because his daughter Marie (Karin Lesch) can spin straw into gold. The king locks Marie up in the castle and forces her to prove this claim. Faced with the impossible task, the young woman despairs until a little man appears and offers to help her. He just asks for a few things. His requests start small but things escalate when the little man asks for Marie’s first-born child.

As the movie’s title indicates, Rumpelstiltskin is based on the classic fairytale by the Brothers Grimm. A literal translation of the movie’s title from German would “The Little Magic Man” (Das Zaubermännchen) not Rumpelstilzchen—the German title of the story. The name change is not a whim. The film is based on a stage play that takes enough liberties with the original to make it a different story. In the Grimm’s version, Rumpelstiltskin is a nasty piece of work who gets his comeuppance in the end. In some versions of the story he tears himself to pieces, in others he simply runs away.

In DEFA’s version of the little man is the good guy. While Rumpelstiltskin does spin straw into gold, he also cautions Marie that the road to happiness has nothing to do with wealth. When he comes to get Marie’s baby son, he says it is because he doesn’t want the child to grow up surrounded by such greedy people. In the original story, Rumpelstiltskin’s true name is discovered after a friend of the Miller’s daughter has a messenger follow him into the woods and the messenger hears him singing. In this one, it’s more of a community effort, but it’s still Marie’s best friend who finds out the little fellow’s name. When confronted with his name, the little man merely wags his finger, satisfied that everyone has learned his lesson about the dangers of pursuing wealth.

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin was directed by Christoph Engel. Engel is better known as an actor. This film is his only credit as director. Perhaps after this exercise, Engel decided that directing wasn’t really his thing. It is acknowledged that the film’s cinematographer Erwin Anders had a lot to do with getting the film finished. Like most of the better cinematographers at DEFA, Anders got his start working in a photo lab. During the Third Reich years, he oversaw the Zeiss-Ikon facility in Dresden. After the War, he started working as a cinematographer, under the tutelage of master cinematographer Karl Plintzner. Anders was a talented cinematographer who strove for a natural look and avoided the over-saturated colors of Plintzner’s fairytale films. He might have had a longer career in films, but he didn’t start working for DEFA until he was nearly fifty. He died in 1972.

The Miller’s daughter is played by Karin Lesch, who made a few films for DEFA, but primarily worked in theater. Lesch comes from a long line of performers. Her mother was the Mathilde Danegger, who often played kindly grandmothers in DEFA films. Her grandparents and uncles were also actors in Austria. The daughter of Swiss theater and movie director Walter Lesch, Karin grew up in neutral Switzerland, but after the War and her parent’s divorce, Karin and her mother moved to West Germany, but quickly left, repulsed by the West’s capitulation to former Nazi politicos and the demonization of socialism occurring there. Lesch was sixteen at the time. After training as an actress at the Staatliche Schauspielschule Berlin, (now the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts), she started performing at the Potsdam Theater, and appearing in films. She is best known today for her role as the queen in Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella. Lesch retired from films in 1975, but continued to act on stage. After the Wende, she withdrew from public life.

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin is played by Siegfried Seibt. Seibt got his start in theater before WWII working as a set designer. He attended Drama school in Breslau and appeared in several plays before and after the War. He started working for DEFA in 1957, and Rumpelstiltskin was his first major movie role. From here on out he would appear in dozens more features films and TV movies, including a turn as Rumpelstiltskin again in the 1979 TV mini-series Spuk unterm Riesenrad (Spook Under the Ferris Wheel). Seibt died in 1982.

It might seem like a film such as this with an obviously socialistic theme would fare badly in the West. Three years earlier, DEFA’s interpretation of The Brave Little Tailor (Das tapfere Schneiderlein) was roundly criticized for similar socialist messaging, but Rumpelstiltskin was a hit. The film proved popular enough to make it into the top fifty most popular films from the GDR. Attempts were made by the American children’s film producer Ron Merk to get this one distributed in the States, but the plans fell through. The film was eventually in a dubbed version released by Arrow Film Associates in 1974 under the title Rumpelstiltskin and the Golden Secret.

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© 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.

Snow White
As discussed elsewhere on this blog, fairytale films were the closest thing to a cash cow the East German film industry had to offer. Beloved by East and West Germans alike and often featuring stories in which the poor and generous triumph over the rich and greedy, the fairytale film faced fewer hurdles when they were exported to the West. After all, didn’t Walt Disney—a man who hated socialism with an passion—also make films of these stories? It didn’t hurt that, with a few notable exceptions (Rumpelstiltskin and Sleeping Beauty come to mind) the DEFA film tended to follow the original fairytales much more closely than their Hollywood counterparts.

DEFA’s Snow White (Schneewittchen) is much more faithful to the original Grimms’ fairytale than Disney’s film. Right off the bat, the DEFA film starts the same way as the fairytale: A young queen is shown sewing next to an open window on a snowy day. The woman accidentally pricks her finger, and seeing the red blood on the white snow in the ebony window frame, thinks she would love to have a child with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and, hair as black as ebony. Soon after, Snow White is born, but the the queen dies and the evil stepmother enters the picture.

At this point, both the Disney version of the story and the DEFA version follow the fairytale closely, with the evil queen telling the huntsman to take Snow White into the forest and kill her, the huntsman having pity on the girl, and Snow White discovering the home of the seven dwarfs. Perhaps influenced by Disney, the dwarfs in the DEFA film also have a happy little song they sing whenever they’re marching to and from work. In the DEFA film, as in the original fairytale, it takes the evil queen three tries to kill Snow White. Disney’s evil queen, a model of efficiency, skips the tightening bodice and poisoned comb, and goes straight for the apple. In a way, this change by Disney is an improvement. After all, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; but fool me three times, well, then I’m just an idiot.

Schneewittchen

In the DEFA version, as in the original story, Snow White revives after the dwarfs stumble with her coffin and the piece of the apple is dislodged from her throat. There is nothing magical about the prince’s kiss. Both films differ significantly from the original story at the end, but that’s understandable. In the Disney version, the evil queen doesn’t even make it off the mountain, falling to her death while being chased by the dwarfs. In the DEFA version the queen comes to the Prince and Snow White’s wedding, and, upon seeing that her stepdaughter has survived, flees the country. In the original story, the queen also comes to the wedding but is met there with a pair of red-hot iron shoes that she is forced to wear and dance in to her death. This gruesome detail is omitted from later editions of the fairytale, so DEFA can be forgiven for also omitting it. Plus, it doesn’t do much to encourage continued sympathy for Snow White and her prince.

Snow White is directed by Gottfried Kolditz, one of East Germany’s foremost directors. If Kolditz’s output is any indication, the man loved genre movies. No other East German director has such a catalog of genre-specific movies. It includes musicals (Midnight Revue, Beloved White Mouse), westerns (The Falcon’s Trail, Apaches), science fiction films (Signals, In the Dust of the Stars), and, of course, fairytales (Mother Holly and Snow White). Kolditz graduated with a doctorate from the University of Music and Theater in Leipzig, which was founded as a music conservatory in 1843 by the composer Felix Mendelssohn. With this school in his background, it’s understandable that Kolditz stared working at DEFA as a music adviser. After directing a few short films for the “Das Stacheltier” group at DEFA, he stepped into the role of director, and quickly demonstrated his talent. Most of his early films were musicals, and nearly all of his films contain musical sequences, even the science fiction films. I spite of his tendency to avoid heavy message films and concentrate on films that, by anyone else, would be considered light fare, Kolditz’s film always carry a strong socialist message about the corrupting influence of power and greed, and the importance of teamwork. Kolditz died in 1982 in Yugoslavia.

The screenplay for the film is by Günter Kaltofen, who was just coming off a seven year stint as the chief dramaturge at the DFF (East Germany’s television station). Kaltofen practically made a career out of converting fairytales into screenplays. Along with Snow White, he provided screenplays for Rumpelstiltskin, Mother Holly, The Golden Goose, King Thrushbeard, and several other children’s films. Born in Erfurt in 1927, Kaltofen served in WWII as a Luftwaffenhelfer (a young person enlisted to help German soldiers keep their anti-aircraft guns loaded). He was captured and sent to a P.O.W. camp. After the War, he studied various subjects at schools in Jena and Leipzig, eventually working as dramaturge at theaters in Meisen and Leipzig. At that time, he wrote a few fairytale plays, including the theatrical version of Das Zaubermännchen—a socialist reinterpretation of Rumpelstiltskin—which was later made into a movie by Frank Beyer (and don’t worry, we’ll be discussing that one soon enough). Kaltofen died in 1977 in East Berlin.

seven dwarfs

Snow White stars the stunning Doris Weikow. Weikow began her career as a gymnast, winning the 1957 German Youth Champion in 1957. From there, she went into television as an announcer—a role she continued throughout her life. At the time Snow White was being filmed, she was married to Erwin Geschonneck, and they had one daughter, the journalist and writer Fina Geschonneck. Weikow only appeared in four films (Snow White was her first). She might have had more of a career in films but she chose to continue working as a television announcer instead.

Playing opposite her as the evil queen is Marianne Christina Schilling in what would be her most career-defining role. Schilling mostly appeared in roles as supporting characters. She moved with her husband to Bremen in 1984. Suffering from a particularly severe form of arthritis, she retired from acting and died in 2012.

Marianne Christina Schilling

Schilling came to the role thanks to Albert Wilkening, the head honcho at the Babelsberg Film Studio. Although his name only appeared in the credits for one film, Wilkening’s influence on the film industry in East Germany was monumental. He started working in the film industry after WWII, when he was assigned to be the acting director of Tobis-Filmkunst in Johannisthal. Because of his degree in engineering, and a background in law and patents, he was hired as the technical director at DEFA. Soon he becomes the man in charge of nearly aspect of studio operations, eventually becoming the head of productions at DEFA. In 1954, he helps found the Film School in Potsdam-Babelsberg and is appointed Head of the Faculty of Cinematography. In 1956, Wilkening took over the role of director of feature films at DEFA from Hans Rodenberg, a job he occupied until 1961, when the job is taken over by Jochen Mückenberger with Wilkening’s blessings. Mückenberger was even more interested in art than Wilkening, and under him DEFA flourished. That all came to an end in 1966 with the 11th Plenum decisions. A party wonk named Franz Bruk took over, but Bruk was inept and ill-suited for the job. Eventually Wilkening was asked to return to DEFA, where he worked from 1973 until his retirement in 1976. Wilkening lived just long enough to see the Wall come down, but not longer enough to see Germany reunited. He died on the 24th of July, 1990.

This film has all the things one comes to expect from a DEFA fairytale film: the strange but appealing staginess, the catchy tunes, and eye-bleeding color. The films remains one of the most popular fairytale films to ever come out of East Germany. After Heart of Stone and The Story of Little Mook, Snow White was DEFA’s most successful fairytale film. Those two movies were made and distributed back when the West was more accepting of East German films, but Snow White came out a few months after the Berlin Wall had been built and relations between the two Germanys were at their worst. The fact that the film was so popular is a testament to its quality. It is a good fairytale film, rich in details and beautifully photographed. The songs are catchy (annoyingly so) and there’s nothing here that a West German parent wouldn’t want their kids to watch.

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© 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.

Pinocchio
While DEFA was far better at interpreting famous fairytales on film than Hollywood ever was, the fact is, many of the classics are so grotesque that any movie that did them justice would not be considered suitable for children. One such example is Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (Le avventure di Pinocchio). The story started life as a newspaper serial, and eventually was turned into a book. In the original newspaper serial, the story ends after Pinocchio is hanged, but the serial proved to be so popular, that Collodi granted the wooden boy a reprieve via the Blue Fairy, and went on the add more chapters to the story, culminating in the Blue Fairy granting Pinocchio’s wish to be a real boy. In the book, the talking cricket (“Jiminy” in the Disney version) is crushed by Pinocchio early on, the wooden boy has his feet burned off at one point, the Fox and the Cat attempt to force Pinocchio to spit his gold coins out his mouth by hanging him, and when that doesn’t work, the cat tries to pry the coins out of the puppet’s mouth, only to have his paw bitten off. The book is filled with this sort of mayhem. I read this book when I was in the seventh grade and it astounded me. When my classmates made fun of me for reading a “kid’s book” I told them, “You don’t understand. This book is not what you think!”

The most famous film version of Collodi’s story is, of course, Walt Disney’s version. It is considered by many to be the best animated film that Disney ever created. Disney follows the original story better than most of his fairytale adaptations, but he still omits the gorier details. No paws are bitten off, and the cricket not only survives the film, he goes on to have a long career of his own in educational films.

Pinocchio

The East German version—which, for some inexplicable reason, was renamed Turlis Abenteur (Turli’s Adventure)—stays truer to the story, but also omits some of the gorier aspects of the book. Like the book, the film follows the adventures of a wooden boy carved from a magical piece of wood by puppetmaker Geppetto (called “Kasimir” in the East German version). Geppetto dresses the wooden boy up, names him “Pinocchio” (“Turli” in the German version—short for “Arturo”), and has him go to school. On the way to school, he encounters the Fox and the Cat, who convince him to sell them his textbooks so he can go see a traveling puppet show that is in town. Little does he realize that the Fox and Cat are buying textbooks to give to Stromboli (called “Muriel” in the German version) so he can burn them. Stromboli has a thriving business in taking kids who’d rather play and eat candy, and turning the into donkeys to perform in his circus. It isn’t long before Pinocchio and his friends are enticed by Stromboli’s playland and are transmogrified into donkeys. After Pinocchio escapes from Stromboli’s circus, he goes after Geppetto, who has been eaten by a giant fish. Pinocchio helps Geppetto get out of the fish and, for his bravery, the puppet is granted his wish to become a real boy.

Unlike the Disney version, this Pinocchio is a live action film. Making a live action film where humans interact with a puppet is no small task. Credit must be given to puppeteers Radko Haken and Klara Hakenová, who came from the Spejbl and Hurvinek Theater in Czechoslovakia. What these two do with the puppets is uncanny. Getting a marionette to walk across the room is one thing, and takes skill on its own, but they take it a step further with hand gestures and body postures that bring Pinocchio to life.

Different mouths were used to change Pinocchio’s expression, which required cutting away each time the puppet needed to change its expression. Director Walter Beck handles this spectacularly well, but some credit must be given to film editor Margrit Brusendorf, who was working on her first feature film. Brusendorf went on to have a long and successful career, but like many of the other East German film editors, the transition after the Wende proved to be impossible. She made one film after DEFA closed its doors, Alien in Germany (Fremdsein in Deutschland), for Cut Out Filmproduktion, a short-lived company created and staffed by East Germans.

Donkey Pinocchio

Walter Beck was born in Mannheim, but grew up in Berlin. He got his start at DEFA working in dubbing and assisting on documentary films. Eventually he moved into the feature film department and by the end of the fifties was directing his own feature films. He quickly became established as the director of films for children and young people. Some of these were fairytale films—including King Thrushbeard (König Drosselbart), The Frog Prince (Froschkönig), and Sleeping Beauty (Dornröschen)—and some were stories based on historical events told from the viewpoints of children, including Käuzchenkuhle (Owl’s Hole), Trini, and Des Henkers Bruder (The Hangman’s Brother). Beck was sixty when the Wende occurred, so he probably would have retired soon anyway, but the end of East Germany, and the shunting off of that countries best talent into the television arena likely helped force an early retirement on him. He currently lives in Blankenfelde near Berlin.

Pinocchio was one of the first DEFA films to be picked up by and American film distributor, Independent producer/director Ron Merk. Merk was the first person to recognize the potential value of the East German fairytale films on the U.S. market. He contacted DEFA through their U.S. sales representative Jerry Rappaport’s International Film Exchange and asked to see any children’s animated short films that were available for the US market. They did better than that—they shipped him a print of a feature film that turned out to be Pinocchio. Merk purchased the rights from Rappoport, then with his wife, Ellen, wrote an English adaptation and had it dubbed using New York stage actors who did a far better job on this film than the dubbing teams responsible for the spaghetti westerns and kung fu features at the time. The film was distributed through Barry Yellen’s Childhood Productions, a rival distributor to K. Gordon Murray. The film opened during a blizzard in the middle of one of the coldest Winters New York City had seen in a while. In spite of this, the film did gangbuster business and helped raise the profile of the East German fairytales on the American market.

Pinocchio

Unlike fellow children’s film distributor K. Gordon Murray, who also adapted and distributed DEFA films, but tended to take a meat cleaver to them, Merk leaves the original DEFA film mostly intact, changing only the songs, and removing one scene involving drunk children. The songs in the original film were very German sounding. Merk didn’t think they’d fly with the American audience, so he created new ones.

The success of the film convinced Merk to follow it up with more Pinocchio films featuring Pinocchio getting into various scrapes and having new adventures. Merk chose to follow the same puppet design as the East German film’s Czech-designed one, giving him a slightly different head of hair and adding a movable jaw to eliminate the time-consuming mouth replacements. The theme song from the first film (“A Boy Named Pinocchio”) was popular with children, so Merk used it in his three additional Pinocchio films. As Hiltrud Schulz from the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst noted, “Who knew, in the late 1960s, that this famous “American” Pinocchio was born in East Germany and had Czech parents?”

IMDB page for this film.

Watch on YouTube (in English, in eight parts).

Buy this video (in German).

© 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.

Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella
Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella (Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel) was a co-production between East Germany and Czechoslovakia. DEFA made twelve films in co-production with the ČSSR’s Barrandov Film Studios. Some of these movies look like East German films, while others seem very Czechoslovakian. Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella falls squarely in the latter category thanks to the strong aesthetic influence of director Václav Vorlícek. As soon as it starts, you know you’re not watching a DEFA fairytale film. Gone are the bright reds and blues, replaced with shades of brown and white; the leads have brown eyes instead of blue; and the music is more orchestral than most other DEFA fairytale films.

The film is based on a Czech version of the Cinderella story written by Božena Němcová. Němcová was an interesting character who hung out with the Bohemians (the original Bohemians), smoked cigars, and had several lovers. She was an important figure in the Czech National Revival movement of the early nineteenth century, a movement that sought the re-invigoration of the Czech language, which, at the time, was in danger of being abandoned in favor of German. The Czech writer Milan Kundera called her “the mother of Czech prose.” Like the Brothers Grimm in Germany, Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark, and Charles Perrault in France, Nemcová is a national treasure whose books of fairytales have inspired generations of Czech children.

Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella was released in the States under the title Three Wishes for Cinderella, and later shown on television as Three Nuts for Cinderella.1 The story follows the familiar pattern of the other versions of Cinderella (called “Popelka” in Czech), with Cinderella suffering under the yoke of an evil step-mother, and finally meeting and marrying the prince. There’s only one step-daughter here, and no fairy godmother. The glass slipper is replaced with an ordinary pump, and nothing special happens at midnight. Cinderella leaves the ball because, well, because. This Cinderella has a lot more spunk than Disney’s blonde-haired maiden. Although she it still oppressed by the step-mother, she never bends. She is her own woman, equal to and in most ways superior to the prince she marries. The most magical element in the film comes by way of a twig holding the three hazelnuts in the title. Each hazelnut provides a different costume, which keeps the prince confused as to whom he’s dealing with. One major difference from the original story is that in Nemcová’s story, the father is still alive, he just a craven coward who won’t stand up up to his new wife. He seems to care as little about Cinderella as the stepmother does.

Cinderella

The movie was originally slated to be filmed in the Summer, but the DEFA crew was already busy working on other projects, so production was pushed back to the Winter. This meant filming had to be done in deep snow and freezing temperatures. It did make for some beautiful settings, though. Later on, when the production moved to Moritzburg Castle, the snow was gone, so the crew had to find a realistic looking artificial snow. They settled on pounds and pounds of fish meal, which, according to those who were there, stank to high heaven.

Director Václav Vorlíček was already a well-known director in Czechoslovakia. His first big hit was in 1966 with Who Wants to Kill Jessie?—an odd film that parodies comic book superheroes in a manner similar to the Batman television series of the same year. His 1972 fantasy film The Girl on the Broomstick (Dívka na koštěti) was also popular and led to him directing the DEFA/Barrandov co-production. After that, Vorlíček became known for his comedies and fantasy films. He often worked with fellow Czech director Miloš Macourek, who wrote the scripts for several of Vorlíček’s movies. In 1979, he and Macourek created Arabela, a half-hour kid’s show about a fairytale princess who escapes into the real world, predating shows such as Once Upon a Time and Grimm.

In casting Cinderella, director Vorlíček went above and beyond the call of duty, looking at over 2,000 potential applicants. Eventually the Czech actress Libuše Šafránková was chosen for the part, and it’s easy to see why—a better Cinderella is hard to imagine. Šafránková had appeared in a few television shows and films prior to this film, but in minor roles. Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella put her on the map and she went on to have a successful career on stage and screen, up through and after the Velvet Revolution. She retired in 2015 after being diagnosed with lung cancer and having part of her lungs removed.

As was often the case with the DEFA films that featured cast members from different countries, the actors spoke their parts in their own languages, and were then dubbed into each language as needed (see Goya). The one exception was Pavel Trávníček, who played the prince. It was only his second film role and he still spoke with a thick, Moravian accent, so he was dubbed in both Czech and German. Since then, however, he has apparently mastered the subtleties of the Czech language because he is often called upon to dub Hollywood films, giving voice to actors such as Terence Stamp, Alain Delon, and Alan Alda. Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella was the first time Trávníček played a prince, but it wouldn’t be the last. He went on to play a prince in several more movies, including the DEFA film, Snow White and Rose Red (Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot).

Cinderella

In the credits at the beginning of the film, the screenplay is credited to Bohumila Zelenková. The real author was František Pavlíček. Pavlíček was a superb screenwriter, best known for the classic Marketa Lazarová, but he had been highly active in the Velvet Revolution, which made him something of a persona non gratis, especially in the Soviet-loving GDR. Bohumila Zelenková was a competent screenwriter, whose work includes a Dark Shadows-like TV movie based on Sheridan LeFanu’s short story The Room in the Dragon Volant (Hostinec U létavého draka), but she didn’t write Cinderella.

The music for the film was composed by Czech composer Karel Svoboda. Svoboda was on track to become a dentist when he was young, but, according to him, “My parents made a huge mistake—they bought me a piano.” He joined a rock band, and soon was composing songs for others. In the sixties he worked with the Laterna magika in Prague. This brought him to attention of Pavel Juráček, who hired Svoboda to write music for his first film, Kazdy mlady muz (Every Young Man). But it would be five more years before Svoboda’s career as a film composer really got started. In 1973, Svoboda starting working with Václav Vorlíček, and the two went on to make several films together.

The soundtrack for Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella was performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra and was released on LPs in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. The German version of the soundtrack is instrumental, while the Czech version features songs sung by Karel Gott, who was known as the “The Golden Voice from Prague.” Svoboda also wrote several songs for Gott, including the popular theme song from the German version of the Japanese children’s show Maya the Bee.

Although successful as a composer, Svoboda’s personal life was fraught with sorrows. His first wife of 24 years died of cancer. Svoboda remarried, and had a daughter. Four-and-a-half years later, the daughter died of leukemia. In debt and getting sick, Svoboda finally decided to end things. In January of 2007, he went into his garden and shot himself.

The Barrandov Studios continues to function. Like the DEFA Studios in Babelsberg, they have become popular with American directors looking for grittier locations than Hollywood can provide. Moritzburg Castle has also gained fame from the film and is a popular destination for couples looking to get married. Artifacts from the film are on display in the castle, including Cinderella’s wedding dress, which was stolen in 2014, and then returned anonymously a few months later.

The film has gone on to become a classic in Germany and the Czech Republic, and is shown every year at Christmastime on television in those countries. This year, it is also being shown with a live orchestra at various venues around Germany.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film:
DVD
Blu-Ray
Czech with English subtitles.

Stream film on Veoh (German version).

English subtitles (these subtitles are taken from Czech version, so there are some discrepancies between the German dialog and the subtitles).


1. The film is not, as of this writing, available in America with English subtitles, although the DVD and Blu-Ray disk sold by Icestorm does have German subtitles. It’s easy to find the film online. Veoh has a German-language version of the film, and Subsmax.com has English language subtitles that sync well with the Veoh copy. You can download the video and subtitles, and then either watch the film with a program such as VLC Player, which lets you use subtitles from a separate file, or burn the film and subtitles together onto a DVD. If you are interested, you’ll find more information on my How to Make Your Own Subtitled DVDs page. If you don’t mind voiceover narration, the Three Gifts for Cinderella version is available on YouTube, although the first ten minutes is missing.

© 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.

Godfather Death
[Note: I received a request to do a review of this film from a reader. If there is any East German film out there that you think I should take a look at, feel free to let me know and if I can find a copy I’ll check it out.]

Godfather Death (Gevatter Tod) is based on one of the most interesting fairytales the Brothers Grimm ever transcribed. Unlike most of their stories, the magical elements are kept to a minimum here. People don’t turn into other creatures, no one flies, and aside from appearances by God, the Devil and the Grim Reaper, most of the story deals with human foibles. At the beginning of the film, we see a man scurrying down the road, clutching a baby in his arms, his thirteenth child. The man is looking for someone who is willing to take on the role of the child’s godfather. He first encounters God, who offers himself, but the man doesn’t want to have anything to do with a supreme being that allows wars and pestilence to exist. Next he meets the Devil, who also offers, having a special fondness for the number thirteen. The man rejects the Devil’s offer owing to the Devil’s inherent deceitfulness, not to mention the character’s squirrelly behavior. Finally, he meets Death, who, unlike the other two, treats everyone as equals. It doesn’t matter to the Grim Reaper if you’re rich or poor, Death is the same for everyone. The man likes this attitude and decides that the Grim Reaper should be godfather to his son. When the boy, christened as Jörg, grows up, Death comes back into his life and shows him when to cure people who are sick and when to let them die. It isn’t long before Jörg decides to trick Death and save the life of someone who is slated to die. After he saves the life of Barbara, the young and beautiful daughter of the mayor, he is shown that her candle is almost extinguished and he would have to make a choice: the life of another for the life of Barbara.

In the original fairytale, it is Jörg’s candle that is extinguished to save the woman, but the DEFA version is even grimmer. An innocent child is sacrificed to save the princess and Jörg must live with the guilt of his decision. Unlike a Disney version of a fairytale, no one in this story lives happily ever after. Death is the only one that doesn’t have a problem accepting the way things are, seeing everything as having a season. It’s a remarkable way to end a fairytale.

Godfather Death is a made-for-TV film that was first shown shortly after Christmas in 1980. Although made for television, the film was produced at the DEFA studios and it shows. Production designer Werner Pieske’s sets look good and Lydia Fiege’s costumes are excellent. It also features a remarkable score by Karl-Ernst Sasse, East Germany’s greatest film composer (for more on Karl-Ernst Sasse, see Her Third). Parts of the score consist of a trio of drums, violin and Jew’s harp. Sasse seems to have a special fondness for the Jew’s harp. He also used it in the score for Blood Brothers. As with most of his scores, much of the music takes its cues from the period in which the story occurs—in this case, the middle ages.

Gevatter Tod

The film was directed by Wolfgang Hübner, who got his start as an actor at DEFA in the early fifties, but switched to directing in 1972 with the TV-adaptation of Radij Pogodin’s play Nur ein Spaß (Just a Joke). Most of his work, both before and after the Wende, has been in legitimate theater and television. He has contributed work to several popular television shows, including Alle meine Töchter (All My Daughters), Jenny & Co., and Um Himmels Willen (For Heaven’s Sake).

Death is played by Dieter Franke, an actor best known for comedy. The son of a stage designer, working as a props man and an extra in the theater in Greiz. He started working in films and television after he came to Berlin in 1963. Over the years, he played everything from an SS man in The Adventures of Werner Holt to the Devil in The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs. He was scheduled to play the car accident spirit in Motoring Tales, but died in 1982 at the age of 48.
Jörg is played by Jan Spitzer. Spitzer’s first film, Farewell, should have been a bigger hit, but it barely made it past the censors, and received only limited distribution. In spite of this, Spitzer went on to have a successful career at DEFA. Since the Wende, he has gone on to become one of the leading voice actors in Germany, often dubbing the voices of Chris Cooper and Danny Trejo.

Barbara is played by Janina Hartwig, who is best known these days as Sister Hanna on Um Himmels Willen. Her first film was Disko mit Einlage (Disco Interlude), followed by several more made-for-TV movies (including this one). She first appeared on the big screen in Der Bärenhäuter (The Bear Skin), another Grimms’ fairytale. Still young at the time of the Wende, and already mostly working in television, reunification had less impact on her career than it did for some of the others at DEFA. She continued working television and has appeared in dozens of TV shows.

Gevatter Tod

Inevitably, with the perspective of history, we can see parallels to the tale here and the fate of the GDR. With its efforts to keep the republic in the hands of the SED, the government had essentially snuffed the life out of its socialist ideals, creating a country that continued to exist after the joy of existence was gone. As it was originally shown on television, there are no box office figures for the film, but it was well received by the critics. As an example of an East German fairytale film, though, it is a bit of an anomaly. It lacks to eye-bleeding colors and over-the-top set designs of the earlier fairytale films. For that reason, it might be overlooked, but it is still worth checking out.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

YouTube link.

The Tinderbox
Of all the films made in East Germany, the Märchenfilme (fairytale films) fared the best when it came to western distribution. Thanks to kid film friendly companies such as K. Gordon Murray and Childhood Productions, these films were some of the very few that received U.S. distribution. East-West borders seemed to melt away with the Märchenfilme. Fairytales offered a nice neutral territory for both sides. Sure the rich are often the bad guys in the East German films, but they are in the original fairytales too. DEFA’s production standards didn’t hurt either. The films are colorful, imaginative, and well produced.

The Tinderbox (Das Feuerzeug) is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s oddly amoral fairytale of the same name. The story relates the adventures of a poor soldier who helps an old woman retrieve from a secret chamber her magic tinderbox (a lighter, when you come down to it, but “The Lighter” just doesn’t have the same ring). The soldiers decides to keep the tinderbox and later discovers its magic powers just in the nick of time.

The film follows the original closely, but takes a few liberties, sometimes for the better. In the fairytale, the soldier kills the old woman for no reason other than she wouldn’t tell him why she wanted the tinderbox. In the film, she turns into a giant snake and is about to attack him before he kills her, thus betraying her deceit and converting her into a real threat.

Das Feuerzeug

Other things aren’t quite as effective in the films as they are in the original story. In the fairytale, three chests full of coins are guarded by gigantic dogs, with each dog bigger than the last. To accomplish this in the movie, the filmmakers start with a dock-tailed Rotweiler with bat-wing ears pasted on him and projected in split screen to make him look enormous. To create the effect of the dog having “eyes as big as dinner plates” as described in story, large white rings are drawn around the dog’s eyes, and a sparkler effect is added to the eyes optically to make it look more threatening. The end result is more humorous than scary, but, it must be said, this doesn’t interfere with the film’s entertainment value at all.

The Tinderbox is directed by Siegfried Hartmann, who was one of the first directors to come out of DEFA’s Nachwuchsstudio program, intended to teach young directors their craft. He served as an assistant director on The Story of Little Mook, one of DEFA’s first Märchenfilme, and still the holder of the top box office spot for East German films. The Tinderbox was Hartmann’s second film. It was a hit and would affect the course of Hartmann’s career. Although he made films in other genres, he is still best known for his Märchenfilme.

Playing the young soldier is Rolf Ludwig, one of the most popular and charming actors in East Germany. Ludwig got his start in acting during the war. He had joined the German airforce, where he served as a fighter pilot, and was captured by the British. While incarcerated he performed in the camp’s theater group, and was bitten by the stage bug. After the war he started performing in various theater productions. At one audition, he demonstrated his enthusiasm for a role by jumping out a first floor window. Unfortunately for him, the first floor in Germany is what we call the second floor, so he ended up breaking his arm. This act so impressed the producer that he shouted from the window, “You’re hired!”

The Tinderbox

Like fellow DEFA actor, Raimund Schelcher (see Castles and Cottages), Ludwig had trouble with alcohol, admitting at one point, “I’m not a drinker, but a drunk.” Like Shane McGowan of the The Pogues, the quality of his stage performances rose and fell according to the level of alchohol in his bloodstream. Sometimes performances had to be cancelled due to his intoxication. Other times, he went out drunk, and it showed. His autobiography was aptly titled Nüchtern betrachtet (Sobriety considered). Ludwig died in Berlin in 1999.

The special effects for the film were by Ernst Kunstmann and his daughter, Vera. Ernst Kunstmann, as I’ve discussed in previous articles on this blog, is one of the grand masters of cinema effects. His work appears in some of the all-time classics of German cinema, including Metropolis, The Last Laugh, Triumph of the Will, and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. After the war, he settled in the east and contributed effects to many of DEFA films, including Chemistry and Love, the Ernst Thälmann films, The Silent Star, and all of the early fairytale films. His daughter began working with him in 1957, starting with The Singing, Ringing Tree, but left the field after working on Leute mit Flügeln. Ernst Kuntsmann retired in 1963 after doing the optical effects for Günter Stahnke’s Vom König Midas. He died in 1995.

The Tinderbox comes in at number 16 on the GDR top-grossing film list and it’s easy to see why. It is a fun film that, unlike too many children’s films, is as much fun for adults as it is for kids.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (part of a double DVD set with The Singing, Ringing Tree).

Heart of Stone
On December 8, 1950, DEFA, East Germany’s state-run movie studio, released its first color film. The film was shot in Agfacolor, which was developed for the Nazis to compete with Technicolor. After the war, there was enough color film stock at the AGFA plant in Wolfen to make a few movies, but the Soviets claimed it as compensation for the war. They took it Russia where it was used to make the first Russian color film, The Stone Flower (Каменный цветок). Meanwhile, back in Germany, the folks at DEFA were stuck with in a black-and-white world. Black-and-white worked great for the bleak, almost noir Rubble Films, but not so well for musicals and kids’ films, where they had to compete with the likes of Hollywood. Eventually, the Soviets were able to produce their own version of Agfacolor film (Sovcolor) and DEFA again had access to color stock.

In the west, the Allies—and especially the United States—continued to throw up roadblocks to keep the West Germans from making movies. Films were such an important part of Hitler’s war machine, they argued, that it was better if the Germans were just not allowed to make any more movies at all. Instead, Hollywood films were imported for screening in German cinemas, sometimes without subtitles. This lined the pockets of the Hollywood producers, but only served to infuriate the German public, many of whom spoke no English at all back then.

The Soviets had a very different take on the subject. They had already seen the power of film as a tool for proselytizing with movies such Battleship Potemkin and Mother. Rather than block film production in the Soviet sector, they encouraged it, and helped found DEFA. As a result, before the dust had settled from the war, DEFA was up and running, producing its first film in 1946 (The Murderers Are Among Us).

Because of the U.S. resistance to film production, ambitious German filmmakers in the Allied sectors headed east to get their movies made. This was, of course, a great publicity coup for the Soviets, but it also meant that some of the films made during this period were DEFA in name only. They looked and felt like West German films. In fact, some of them looked and felt like Third Reich-era UFA films—minus the anti-Semitism, of course.

A perfect example of this is Heart of Stone (Das kalte Herz). Anyone watching this film for the first time would logically assume that it was made in West Germany. It has all the characteristics we have come to expect of West German films—the handsome, über-blond hero, the affinity for traditional folk festivals and clothing, the scenes of nature accompanied by gushingly romantic music. It’s all there. A quick rundown of the cast shows that nearly everyone who worked on this film came from West Germany. A few worked on other DEFA films during the early years, but most did not. Nonetheless, it’s an important film in the history of East German cinema. It is not only the first color film made in the GDR, it is also the first in what would become a long line of East German Märchenfilme (fairytale films).

Heart of Stone tells the story of Peter, a young man who works as a collier—a meager existence if ever there was one. Fed up with his lot in life, and wishing to impress the beautiful Lisbeth, he goes into the forest to make a deal with the Glassman (Glasmännlein) a leprechaun-like character that can grant wishes for any children born on Sunday. There, Peter meets Dutch Michael (Holländer-Michel), an ominous giant who tells Peter that he can make him a rich man if Peter is willing to give up his heart. Dutch Michael keeps the hearts of local rich men pinned to a wall like a butterfly collection. He tells Peter he will replace his heart with one made of stone. At first, Peter balks at this suggestion, preferring instead to continue looking for the Glassman. He eventually meets the Glassman and gets his three wishes, but the frivolity of his wishes come back to bite him, so Peter rethinks his strategy and goes looking for the evil Dutchman to broker a new deal.

This film is based on a fairytale by Wilhelm Hauff. Hauff wrote three books of fairytales, and this story appeared in two parts in the last of these books. It was translated into English and published under its literal title translation—The Cold Heart—as the second of two stories, along with The Marvellous History of the Shadowless Man by Louis Adelbert von Chamisso. This edition is now available at the Project Gutenberg website as a free download. The movie follows the story the fairytale closely, although in the fairytale, Lisbeth does not show up until late in the story, and the scene where Peter uses a glass cross to stop Dutch Michael is removed entirely from the film—no real surprise there, considering Marxist philosophy’s antipathy toward religion.

Hauff’s stories are still popular in Germany and many have been turned into feature films and cartoons. Heart of Stone has been filmed at least three times; two of his other fairy tales, The Story of Little Mook and Zwerg Nase (Little Longnose), have been filmed five times each. Hauff also wrote the notorious Jud Süß, which was the basis of the virulently anti-Semitic film made by Veit Harlan for the Nazis, although, it must be said, the Nazis took many liberties with Hauff’s story, with the most notable one being the fact that Hauff’s character discovers he is not a Jew at all.

Director Paul Verhoeven was already an established actor and director when he came to DEFA to film this project. He got his start in films during the Third Reich, when he both acted and starred in several motion pictures. After the war he managed the Bavarian State Theater until 1948, when he returned to cinema to film his play, Das kleine Hofkonzert (Palace Scandal). Thereafter he continued his career as an actor/director until the early seventies.

Oddly, Paul Verhoeven died of heart failure while giving a eulogy on the stage at the Munich Kammerspiele during a tribute for the famous Munich actress Therese Giehse (best known to U.S. audiences as the headmistress in Mädchen in Uniform). Verhoeven stood up, began the obituary, and keeled over dead.

Verhoeven’s son, Michael Verhoeven became a filmmaker in his own right, directing the excellent films, The Nasty Girl and The White Rose. Michael is married to the beautiful Senta Berger. Paul Verhoeven’s daughter, Lis Verhoeven, became an actress and has appeared in many German films. She was briefly married to the great German actor, Mario Adorf, and their daughter, Stella Adorf is now also an actress. Paul Verhoeven is not related to the Dutch director of the same name.

Lutz Moik

Lutz Moik plays Peter the collier. He does an admirable—if somewhat melodramatic—job of portraying the young man and the changes he goes through. His transformation from the naive, warm-hearted proletarian to the greedy, cold-hearted capitalist is a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance. He doesn’t even look like the same person. Mr. Moik was born in Berlin, and began his acting career during the waning days of the Third Reich, working at first on radio, and later appearing in movies. He was in a few early DEFA films including Und wenn’s nur einer wär’… (And If Only…) and 1-2-3- Corona. Eventually, he settled on the western side of the wall where he continued work as an actor and a dubber for many years. He died in 2002 in his hometown of Berlin.

Playing Lisbeth,was the lovely Munich-based actress, Hanna Rucker. Ms. Rucker began her career as a theater actress, appearing in several productions in the Munich Kammerspiele. A year before appearing in Heart of Stone, she made her film debut in the West German Rubble Film, Wohin die Züge fahren (Wherever the Trains Travel). Throughout the fifties, she starred in several West German films, including Unter den tausend Laternen (Under a Thousand Lanterns), San Salvatore, and Heiße Ernte (literally, Hot Harvest). She retired from films in 1956 at the age of 33, when she married producer Mo Rothman and moved to England with him. Although they later divorced, Ms. Rucker stayed in England until the end of her life and never made another motion picture.

The two spirits of the woodlands—the Glassman and Dutch Michael—are played by Paul Bildt and Erwin Geschonneck respectively. Paul Bildt was already a well-respected actor by the time this film came out. He had been acting in films since 1910, and also appeared in a few DEFA films during the forties. But Heart of Stone was his last film for DEFA. After this, he moved to West Germany, where he continued to appear in movies until shortly before his death in 1957 (for more on Paul Bildt, see Razzia). Erwin Geschonneck, on the other hand, was a relative newcomer in 1950, but he steals every scene he’s in. By the end of the GDR’s existence, Geschonneck had become the most beloved actor in East Germany (for more on Erwin Geschonneck, see Carbide and Sorrel).

The cinematography was by two of the best technicians working in East Germany at the time—Ernst Kunstmann and Bruno Mondi. Mr. Kunstmann was primarily known for his special effects, and was most likely the man behind the camera in the scenes the featured Dutch Michael. Like Paul Bildt, Mr. Kunstmann’s career stretches back to the silent days, where he worked with special effects pioneer Eugen Schüfftan on Metropolis to help create the ground-breaking special effects for that film. During the thirties Mr. Kunstmann worked with Leni Riefenstahl on Triumph of the Will and Josef von Báky on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. After the war, he decided to settle in East Germany, where he contributed special effects for many classic DEFA films, including Chemistry and Love, The Story of Little Mook, The Singing, Ringing Tree, and The Silent Star.

Bruno Mondi also got his start during the silent era, beginning with Fritz Lang’s Destiny. He worked on many films during the Third Reich years, including Veit Harlan’s notorious Jud Süß. He was the man in charge of the color photography on Kolberg—Veit Harlan’s hugely over-budget spectacle, which cost the Nazis dearly. After the war, Mondi worked on a few East German films, but he was a West German at heart. Heart of Stone would be his last East German film. He found his calling in the mid-fifties with the über-schmaltzy Sissi films, which virtually defined the Heilmatfilm.

Heart of Stone was one of the last of the West German-led DEFA productions. A little over a year earlier, both the east and the west declared themselves as to be sovereign states. This is what finally ended the U.S. resistance to West German filmmaking. Prior to that, American film moguls had already been protesting the distribution of DEFA films overseas and were trying to get them to stop. But once the Allied sectors and the Soviet sector became separate and opposing states, any potential negotiations over whether DEFA had the right to distribute its film in South America were off the table. By this time, America was so rabidly anti-communist that the very mention of the word could make some senators start foaming at the mouth. The U.S., they argued, had to do everything it could to make sure that the Bundesrepublik outperformed the GDR.

The U.S. dropped its restrictions and did everything it could to promote economic growth in every sector of the West German economy. The result was the Wirtschaftswunder—a period of economic growth that pulled West Germany out of the rubble and back into the twentieth century. West Germany began to thrive while the enforced stagnation of the SED began to takes its toll on East Germany.

While Heart of Stone certainly falls into the category of DEFA in name only, its importance to film production in the GDR cannot be underestimated. It was released right before Christmas and was huge hit on both sides of the borders. DEFA had, quite by accident, stumbled on the perfect genre for making films that the west wouldn’t find objectionable, but still had a socialist moral to them, and were suitable for the whole family—the Märchenfilme. After all, the rich were usually the bad guys in fairy tales, while the poor were often the heroes. Before the Wall fell, East Germany made dozens of these Märchenfilme, which were distributed throughout the world and translated into many other languages, including some in English for the British and American markets (see The Singing, Ringing Tree and The Golden Goose).

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

YouTube version of the film.

Separate English subtitles.1


1. Whenever possible, I try to provide those readers who don’t speak German with links to subtitled versions of the films. The main source for these in America is, of course, the DEFA Library at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Sadly, Heart of Stone is not one of the films that is currently available. In the meantime,I have created subtitles for this film that are currently only available here. For more information on how to use these subtitles to enjoy the film, visit Pop Void.

The Devil's Three Golden Hairs

Märchenfilme, or fairy tale films, were an important staple of the DEFA library. They were usually less susceptible to political interpretation, which made them palatable to western audiences as well as the people of East Germany, which, in turn, meant money from the west. The Märchenfilme allowed the GDR to take advantage of the free market without actually supporting it; the best of all possible worlds. DEFA made over thirty Märchenfilme during its existence.

The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs (Wer reißt denn gleich vorm Teufel aus) is based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. The fairy tale shares the same name as the English title for the film, but it is worth noting that the original East German title is different, translating to something along the lines of  “He who pulls them out is equal to the Devil.” As the change in the title suggests, this is a very loose adaptation of the original fairy tale. In the original story, a boy is prophesied to marry the princess and, in spite of the king’s best efforts to stop it, the prophecy comes true. In the movie, the marriage to the princess is mostly the result of a prank played by a group of robbers who dislike the king more than the boy. In his ensuing encounter with the Devil, the young man in the film plays a more active role in obtaining the three golden hairs than he does in the fairy tale.

As a rule, the Märchenfilme avoid political statements. The rich are often portrayed as avaricious and inherently evil because of it, but you won’t hear anyone rallying the peasants to overthrow the system. Many stories, in fact, end with the hero marrying the princess, which presumably changes his attitude toward wealth. This film follows that rule, although there is a subtly profound statement on the nature of security spending slipped into the story. At the beginning of the film, we see the peasants in a local community grumbling about being taxed for protection against robbers. No one has ever seen any robbers, but the king’s tax collector continues to warn them that if they don’t pay the tax, there could be robbers. The solution for some members of the community is to become robbers to take advantage of the situation. This raises an interesting question about military build ups, and the extent to which the money spent on “protection” is responsible for the situation is it is there to prevent. But this is a fairy tale, after all, and the film doesn’t spend too much time pondering the bigger questions; its got a story to tell

The protagonist in this film belongs to the bumbling hero category. These heroes succeed at their goals, but not before wrecking nearly everything in sight. The bumbling hero has a rich history in film, stretching from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to the Blues Brothers and Inspector Clouseau, he’s even made his way into role-playing games. Unlike the classic hero, most of the time, the bumbling hero prefers to avoid conflict. He is not brave, but he does brave things, usually out of ignorance. He always triumphs, but, more often than not, it is the result of an accident or his own buffoonery.

The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs was the second film from director Egon Schlegel. Schlegel’s career at DEFA got off to a rocky start. He had the dubious distinction of graduating in 1966, right after the 11th Plenum. As with many of the DEFA feature productions, student films also received harsh treatment. Schlegel’s graduation film was consigned to the cellar alongside The Trace of Stones and The Rabbit is Me. For the next few years, Schlegel worked without pay and without credit as an assistant director and occasionally as an actor. He finally got his chance to direct a feature film with the East German/Czechoslovakian co-production Abenteuer mit Blasius (Adventures with Blasius). He went on to direct five more films before leaving DEFA in 1983.

Jakob, the young hero of the film, is played by Hans-Joachim Frank, a talented actor and director who started acting at the age of eight and was one of the youngest people to graduate from the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts. He appeared in a few feature films and several TV movies, but his first love was always theater. In May of 1989, just months before the wall came down, he founded the Theater 89, without any official support from the East German government. Theater 89 went on to become a successful theater with Hans-Joachim Frank as its creative director. It continues to this day and has become one of the most successful theaters in Berlin’s Mitte district.

The Devil is played by Dieter Franke, a popular character actor in East Germany and a logical choice to play this role. An accomplished stage actor, Franke had already impressed people with his performance as Mephisto in the Deutsches Theater’s production of Faust. But the Devil here lacks the wit of Mephisto. He is an even bigger buffoon than Jakob. In 1980, Franke returned in a shadowy role as the title character in the TV movie, Gevatter Tod (The Grim Reaper). He was scheduled to play the lead in Erwin Stranka’s odd take on on Märchenfilme, Motoring Tales, but a prolonged illness forced him to bow out of that production. He died shortly thereafter in 1982.

Playing the princess is Katrin Martin. As with most other DEFA stars, she trained as a stage actress and appeared in several productions on the stage at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. We first saw Ms. Martin in the Rolf Herricht comedy, The Man Who Replaced Grandma. She went on to star in several DEFA films and is best remembered for her turn as Rose Red in Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot (Snow White and Rose Red). After the Wende, she moved into radio, producing children’s programs.

Production design was by Georg Kranz, one of DEFA’s best. Especially notable is his wild set for Hell, which seems to have taken some of its inspiration from Alfred Hirschmeier’s planet Venus in The Silent Star. The floor bubbles with multi-colored goop, and the Devil arrives via a Rube Goldberg contraption that delivers him automatically to his bed. In one corner sits an enormous pipe organ with a weird puppet head atop each pipe, which open its mouth when that note is played.

The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs was a popular film and like many other DEFA Märchenfilme, it made its way west. It did not have the success of The Singing, Ringing Tree, but it did help continue the western impression that East German Märchenfilme were entertaining, imaginative, and weird as hell.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (dubbed, no subtitles)