Archive for the ‘fairytale’ Category

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)

Motoring Tales is the title translation used for this film by both the DEFA library at UMass Amherst and Progress Film-Verleih in Germany. The actual title, Automärchen, works better in German. They could have just as easily called it Car Fables, or Auto Stories. If I were a lazy film critic/studio marketing wonk, I would be tempted to describe this movie as “Rumpelstiltskin meets Mad Max,” or “J.G. Ballard meets the Brothers Grimm” It is one odd little film. It is based on a novella by the Czech writer, Jiří Marek, who was better known in East Germany for his Prague-based detective stories. Here, he takes classic fairytale concepts, moves them into the modern world, and puts them on the road.

Motoring Tales is an anthology movie consisting of three main stories. The stories center around a garage visited by the people in the stories. In the first story, a milquetoast in a Trabant gives a ride to a forest fairy with a need for speed. The fairy uses her magic to make the Trabant go like a bat out of hell; a concept that probably caused great mirth among Trabi owners everywhere. Next, a man sells his soul for the gaudiest, most outrageous car imaginable, but—as is always the case—selling one’s soul is never a good idea. And in the final story, the owner of the garage is visited by the personification of automobile accidents who offers to help the garage owner collect spare parts by letting him know when accidents are about to happen. Tying this all together are the daily events at the garage and the relationship between garage owner “Kalle” Sengebusch and his shaggy-haired mechanic, Ali Kuslowski, who has a thing for the garage owner’s daughter. Ali also acts as the narrator of the film, addressing the audience directly between stories.

Jiří Marek, was a member of the Communist Party in Prague, and these stories have strong socialist messages. The characters that pursue western materialism fare worse than those who turn away from things like profit and status. The most pronounced example of this is in the second story, where the man is made penniless by his automobile and is eventually consumed by it. Curiously, a year or two before this film was made, there was a Czechoslovakian film titled Ferat Vampire (Upír z Feratu) about a Škoda sports car that drinks human blood (starring Václav Havel’s wife!). Clearly the Czechs either hold a dim view of the western man’s love affair with the car, or are as obsessed with them as we are (evidence points to the latter).

Motoring Tales was directed by Erwin Stranka, who had a special knack for contemporary fairy tales and the problems of young people growing up in East Germany. With films such as Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality), Sabine Wulff, Insel der Schwäne (Swan Island) and Zwei schräge Vögel (Two Odd Birds), Stranka explored the lives of social misfits in a world that didn’t care much for that concept. Stranka might have continued making films after the wall came down, but a stroke the same year that Germany was reunited effectively ended his career as a director.

The garage owner was played by Kurt Böwe, one of East Germany’s most successful actors. Born in Gülitz-Reetz in 1929, Böwe moved to Berlin after the war and began studying theater at the Humboldt University of Berlin. After finishing his studies, he worked as a teaching assistant at the the university for six years, while acting in the student theater. Horst Schönemann, the director at the theater convinced Böwe to pursue a career, and for the next few years, Böwe appeared in theater productions at various theaters in Berlin. During the sixties, he moved from the stage to the screen, at first appearing in TV movies and later in bit parts in feature films. His first starring role in a feature film came with Konrad Wolf’s Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (The Naked Man on the Athletic Field). Unlike many of his East German compatriots, Böwe’s career did not suffer a work lag after the wall came down. He continued working, primarily in television and is better known today for his role as Kommissar Kurt Groth on the popular crime drama Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110).

The production design is by Paul Lehmann, whose work ranges from science fiction (The Silent Star) to Indianerfilme (The Sons of the Great Bear and Trail of the Falcon). Lehmann got his start as a set builder in the mid-fifties, moving on to art direction with Günter Reisch’s Maibowle (May Punch) and production design on that film’s colorful follow up, Silversterpunsch (New Year’s Punch). His work on Motoring Tales is mostly logical and mundane, with the notable exception of the devil car in the second story. This mauve monstrosity is like nothing you’ll ever see, and is as important a character in the film as any of the actors. Sadly, the credits offer no information as to who actually built the thing (possibly set builders, Regine Fritzsche and Jutta Blume). I can’t help but hope that the car still exists, rusting away on a plot of land in rural Brandenburg.

Motoring Tales was made during the final decade of East Germany’s existence Starting in 1978, filmmaking in the GDR took an interesting turn. From 1946 through 1977, the film community in the GDR was subjected to repeated clamp downs on creativity, followed by periods of relative freedom. These restriction relaxations usually ended with the state coming down hard on the filmmakers again. Like a battered wife who has been repeatedly hit and apologized to, filmmakers began to exhibit the odd combination of timidity and rebellion. Things at DEFA got stranger. This was kicked off in 1978 with the release of the psychedelic oddity,  In the Dust of the Stars, and the still shocking TV-movie, Ursula (more on this one at a later date). Films during this period seem less beholding to western aesthetics than those of the previous decades. Some films were still banned (e.g., Jadup und Boel), but other equally challenging films (e.g., Your Unknown Brother) made it to the movie houses. Even Konrad Wolf—who had managed to avoid much of the censorship that his compatriots experienced—pushed things further than ever with his classic Solo Sunny.

Motoring Tales was the perfect film for this era. It manages to be simultaneously bizarre and communistic, and no doubt left the authorities scratching their heads. The word Märchen (fairy tale) in the title probably helped get it onto movie screens—the Märchenfilm was the one genre that the authorities allowed a certain level of frivolity. But in Motoring Tales that fairy-tale frivolity is tempered by a darker view of mankind. Bad things happen, but they are handled so humorously that it they go by almost unnoticed: a woman is blown-up, people die in car accidents, and a man is eaten alive. Alternately dark, clever, didactic, and goofy, Motoring Tales has enough of surprises to keep any fan of oddball cinema entertained.

 

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Most East German films received little if any distribution in the west. If you lived in Poland or Russia, you might see some of them pop up in theaters (particularly the Indianerfilme), but only a handful made it to the movie houses in New York and London. There were a few exceptions and the most of these belonged to that oddest of East German film genres: the Märchenfilm (fairy tale film). Märchenfilme started in East Germany with The Cold Heart (Das kalte Herz), made in 1950 by the West German director Paul Verhoeven. During those early days of DEFA and the two German republics, many West German filmmakers found themselves turning to the east to get their projects realized. The western authorities—and in particular, the United States—were in no hurry to get the German movie industry back on its feet. The Cold Heart was successful on both sides of the border and the East German authorities recognized the potential income that this particular film genre had for the state. With their common themes about the importance of helping others less fortunate than yourself and the humbling of the rich, fairy tales fit nicely within the confines of socialist ideology. Better yet, the west didn’t have a problem with these concepts when they were couched in the world of fantasy.

One of the DEFA films that made it west was The Golden Goose (Die goldene Gans), based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. The film tells the story of a young man who, because of his kindness to an old woman, is given a golden goose. When others lust after the goose’s golden feathers, they become stuck to each other in a long procession behind the young man who is heading to the castle to try and make a sad princess laugh. Lots of singing and general hilarity ensues.

Just as The Singing Ringing Tree had a strong impact on the children of Great Britain, The Golden Goose remains a vivid memory for American children from the same era. This is because the film was purchased for distribution in the U.S. by K. Gordon Murray. Called the “King of the Kiddie Matinee,” Murray was the oddest of exploitation producers. Exploitation film distribution is all about finding a niche that Hollywood is either ignoring or won’t touch, and then making or purchasing films to fill that void. For most producers—people such as David Friedman, Dwain Esper, Kroger Babb, and Louis Sonney—this meant sex, drugs, or both. Murray, on the other hand, sought revenues in European children’s films and Mexican horror movies. His formula was simple: buy a film cheaply, dub it badly, edit it substantially, and distribute it quickly. Most of the fairy tale films that Murray purchased hailed from West Germany, but one exception was DEFA’s The Golden Goose. Later, Murray recycled some of the footage from this film in his 1969 release, Santa’s Fantasy Fair. Eventually, Murray ran afoul of the IRS, and all his films were seized. He was in the process of getting them back when he died of a heart attack. Following Murray’s lead, New York distributor, Barry B. Yellen started Childhood Productions, a company exclusively devoted to kiddie films. Yellin brought more East German films to U.S. movie houses, including The Tinder Box (Das Feuerzeug) and The Brave Little Tailor (Das tapfere Schneiderlein).

The Golden Goose was directed by Siegfried Hartmann, who directed several Märchenfilme for DEFA. He got his start as an assistant director in the early fifties, working on, among other films, The Story of Little Muck. In 1959, he directed The Tinder Box, which was a hit and set him on his career as a Märchenfilm director. All of his fairy tale films are available on DVD through Icestorm Entertainment, although not all have been released in the United States.

The cinematographer was Karl Plintzner, who might be called the Leon Shamroy of East Germany. Had Plintzner lived in the United States, he would have been Frank Tashlin’s favorite cinematographer. His use of color in this film and his others, such as Silvesterpunsch (New Years Eve Punch) and The Singing Ringing Tree, is dazzling; almost to the point of excess. He is helped in this regard by costume designer Ingeborg Wilfert’s brightly colored outfits, and Georg Kranz’s and Hans-Jörg Mirr’s theatrical art direction.

Although he only composed the music for three feature films (all of them by Siegfried Hartmann), composer Siegfried Bethmann was a successful musician in East Germany who was better known for his march music than his film scores. His “Pauken unf Fanfaren” was a popular military march in East Germany, and, more recently, the Belgian trombone player Marc Meyers recorded Bethmann’s “Schottischer Whisky” (imagine “Scotland the Brave” reinterpreted as the theme for Hogan’s Heroes). Peter Snellinckx, conductor of the Royal Band of the Belgian Navy, also recorded two of Bethmann’s compositions: “Scandanavian Rhapsody” and “Hias.” From the available music, it seems as if Bethmann’s major influences were George Gershwin and Bavarian brass bands, an odd combination to be sure. Perhaps his strangest contribution to the music scene though is “Marsch der Fallschirmsportler,” a rousing paean to the joys of skydiving.

While there are other East German Märchenfilme that older viewers will find more entertaining (most notably The Singing, Ringing Tree), The Golden Goose is an congenial little film well suited to young audiences.

 

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The Singing Ringing Tree
Many Britons of a certain age share a collective memory so firmly etched in their psyches that the very mention of it brings back childhood nightmares. In 1964, BBC television serialized a film about a haughty princess, a prince that turns into a bear, a giant goldfish, and a really, really evil dwarf. So powerful are the memories of this film, that thirty-eight years later BBC Radio 4 did a program on the film’s effect on an entire generation. The film was called The Singing Ringing Tree, and none of those children could have known that they were watching a film that was the product of East Germany.

Originally released in 1957, The Singing Ringing Tree (Das singende, klingende Bäumchen) was the fourth in what would become a long series of fairy tale films (Märchenfilme) made in East Germany. The film is very loosely based on the Brothers Grimm story, “The Singing, Springing Lark” (Das singende springende Löweneckerchen). The film tells the story of a handsome price who wishes to marry a beautiful, but extremely stuck-up, young princess. His gift of a box of pearls doesn’t impress her in the slightest. The only present that will persuade her to marry him is the fabled “singing, ringing tree.” The prince agrees to find it for her and begins to search the four corners of the earth for it. Eventually he comes to a hidden grotto, accessible only by a stone bridge. There, a particularly creepy dwarf claims that he can give the prince the tree, but there are stipulations (the one common characteristic of fairy tales that accurately reflects real life): The tree will only sing and ring if the princess accepts the prince’s love, and if he fails, he will have to return to the grotto at sunset and live there. So sure is the prince that he will win the hand of the princess, he adds the stipulation that if she doesn’t fall in love with him, he’ll turn into a bear. Obviously the prince wasn’t paying very close attention to his first encounter with the young woman.

Das singende, klingende Bäumchen

The prince returns to the kingdom and presents the princess with the tree, but discovers the fatal flaw in his thinking. Since the tree will only sing and ring when she falls in love with him, it appears to the princess as nothing more than a scrawny bush. The prince is sent away, returns to the grotto and, at sunset, he turns into a bear. The princess, still wishing for the tree, has her father go get it for her. When the bear/prince discovers this, he tells the king that he can have the tree if the bear can have the first thing the king meets upon his return to the castle. The king agrees, and, as you can probably guess, the first person to greet the king turns out to be the princess. The bear returns to the castle and abducts the princess, taking her to live with him in the grotto. The princess, used to eating off gold plates and being waited on hand and foot, is none too happy with this arrangement. During an argument with the bear, she defends her behavior, saying that if she was such a horrible person she’d look horrible too, the dwarf, overhearing the conversation, takes her up on it and turns her into a hag. As you can imagine, this does not go over well with the princess, but the dwarf has over-played his hand. Her newly acquired ugliness humbles her, and she becomes a better person. She learns to love the bear, which leads to the climactic showdown with the dwarf.

When the film was shown on the BBC, it was converted to black-and-white. This gave it a dark, film noir appearance that seemed to heighten the drama and downplay the fairy tale aspects. One can only wonder how the children of Great Britain would have reacted had they seen the color version. In its original form, this film isn’t simply colorful—it’s psychedelic. The blues are intensely blue, and the reds are intensely red. Television screens can barely contain the color. Probably the only way to truly appreciate this film is to see a high-quality print of it projected on a movie screen. The film is a vivid endorsement of the richness of the original Agfacolor (later rebranded ORWOColor to deal with copyright issues in the west).

Das singende, klingende Bäumchen

Director Francesco Stefani was a West German director who had already had some success with two West German Märchenfilme—Wilhelm Hauff’s Zwerg Nase (Little Longnose), and Wilhelm Busch’s Max und Moritz—when DEFA invited him to make a film at their studios. It was the fourth Märchenfilm made by DEFA and the success of this film along with the success of The Story of Little Mook, helped convince DEFA to ramp up the production of fairy tale films during the next few years.

The art direction for the film was by Erich Zander, who had done the production design on The Story of Little Mook. Zander had gotten his start at the Ufa studios in the 1920s as an assistant to the Paul Leni (The Cat and the Canary, The Man Who Laughs). When Leni was wooed to Hollywood by Carl Laemmle, Zander took over his art direction duties. During the Third Reich, Zander continued his career as art director, usually in partnership with Karl Machus. After the war, although he lived in the western district, Zander often found work on DEFA films. He was the art director on The Axe of Wandsbek, and the production designer on The Kaiser’s Lackey. His career with DEFA came to an abrupt end on October 13, 1961, when the newly-built Berlin wall sealed him off from his employer. After working a few months in West German television, he retired and moved to Regenstauf, where he died in 1965. Zander’s art direction for The Singing, Ringing Tree is colorful and simple. The walls of the castle are free from excess ornamentation, and the sky is usually a flat blue, giving the film the appearance of a stage play crossed with an animated cartoon. The cave and waterfall in the dwarf’s grotto look like exactly what they are: papier-mâché props, but this is not a bad thing here. It enhances the inherent wrongness of the environment.

The Singing Ringing Tree

The music is by Heinz-Friedel Heddenhausen, and is as memorable to the kids of Great Britain as the dwarf. It starts with a gentle rambling pattern that reflects the slow steady gait of the prince’s horse, but gets dissonant and strange when the prince reaches the grotto. Suddenly the score shifts away from the bright flutes and horns of the earlier themes, to eerie and dissonant sounds made on an organ. It is an abrupt and slightly disturbing shift that enhances the creepiness of the dwarf’s grotto.

The evil dwarf is played by Richard Krüger. Sadly, there is little information available on Krüger. Only three films featuring him are listed in IMDB, all of them Marchenfilme from the fifties. It is possible that he also made some television appearances during this time, but nothing is recorded. He is obviously an adult in The Singing, Ringing Tree, which means that he was old enough to have experienced the Third Reich. How the Nazis responded to little people was often unpredictable. The regime had the policy to exterminate anyone that deviated from the acceptable physical or genetic norms, but dwarves and little people were popular objects of study for Dr. Mengele, most notable the seven members of the Ovitz family. There was also reported to be a combat battalion called the Kampfgruppen Pilzmenschen made up of little people whose job it was to get behind enemy lines by pretending to be children. The Singing, Ringing Tree is Krüger’s last listed performance (unless you count the Grand Theft Auto voice-over, which is obviously a mistake). While his performance is not exactly politically correct, it is certainly unforgettable. Like the director and leading actor (Eckart Dux), Krüger was West German.

The Singing Ringing Tree

The princess is played by Christel Bodenstein. Ms. Bodenstein was born in Munich, but moved to Leipzig at the age of eleven. There she studied ballet, later taking classes at the National Ballet School of Berlin (Staatliche Ballettschule Berlin). After a chance meeting with Kurt Maetzig at a Baltic beach, she got a screen test and studied acting at the College of Film and Television at Potsdam. Ms. Bodenstein  got to demonstrate her dancing skills a few times on film, most notably in New Year’s Eve Punch, and Midnight Revue where she starred opposite Manfred Krug. In 1960, she married Konrad Wolf, divorcing him in 1978. She is currently married to actor/playwright Hasso von Lenski, who, rather ironically, played a character named Richard Krüger in an episode of Polizeiruf 110. After the Wende, she has worked as assistant director and director at the Friedrichstadt Palast in Berlin, and starred in the TV mini-series, Die Kaltenbach-Papiere (The Kaltenbach Papers). She currently creates small sculptures, which are shown in various galleries.

The movie is also the inspiration for Mike Tonkin’s and Anna Liu’s three-meter high sound sculpture overlooking Burnley, Lancashire. If you only ever see one East German Märchenfilm, make it this one.

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Mike Pickavance’s Hilarious essay on his fear of the film at Den of Geek

thechestnut.com section detailing the plot of the film (lots of pictures)


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