Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

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.

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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.

The Airship
In The Airship (Das Luftschiff), director Rainer Simon looks at the creative urge, how it drives a person forward, and how it can cloud their vision, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. It is a wildly experimental film with a narrative that jumps back and forth in time and features direct-on-film animation. The film follows the adventures of Chico, a young boy who is trying to find his grandfather Franz Xavier Stannebein, an inventor who had tried to build a new type of aircraft before World War II. Stannebein wasn’t interested in war machines. He wanted to make a kind of flying hotel similar to the old zeppelins, but without the flammability problem. When he tried to get money for his project from Germany, he was duped into building a landing strip in Spain for the Condor Legion—a unit of the German airforce sent to help Francisco Franco win the Spanish Civil War. When Stannebein protested, he was thrown into a lunatic asylum. Chico sets off across the countryside to reunite with his grandfather at the asylum. Throughout the film the story jumps back and forth between Chico’s travels and Stannebein’s monomaniacal efforts to get his airship built. The film reaches its climax when Chico reaches the asylum and finds out what really happened to his grandfather.

The Airship is based on a book by Fritz Rudolf Fries—one of the most talented writers to come out of East Germany. Born in Bilbao, Spain, Fries moved to Leipzig when he was seven. There, he went to school at the Karl Marx University. He was fluent in four languages (German, French, Spanish and English), so he quickly found work as a translator. His first book, Der Weg nach Oobliadooh (The road to Oobliadooh) was denied publication in East Germany, but he was able to get it published in West Germany. The book was an immediate hit, and was translated into several other languages, including English. This didn’t endear him to the powers that be in East Germany. It cost him his job, but they recognized that they had a writer of immense talent whose work didn’t make any obvious statements about GDR politics. The books that followed were all printed in East Germany, including The Airship. The fall of the Wall did nothing to slow down Fries’ output, until 1996, when it was revealed that he had worked as an informer for the Stasi. Interest in his work cooled down rapidly after that, until 2010 with the publication of Last Exit to El Paso, which was well received by critics. Fries died in 2014, at which time, Sebastian Hammelehle wrote for Der Spiegel: “German-language literature not only loses a unique author, but also one whose work has not yet been discovered in its entirety.” (“Die deutschsprachige Literatur verliert mit ihm nicht nur einen einzigartigen Autor, sondern auch einen, dessen Werk in seiner ganzen Größe noch gar nicht entdeckt ist.”).

This was Rainer Simon’s first film since Jadup and Boel. Perhaps the folks at DEFA figured he would toe the line a little better after being slapped down for making that film. They were mistaken. If anything, this film is a stronger indictment of the GDR than Jadup and Boel was, especially given the fact that, like the Nazis in The Airship, the East German government sometimes used the charge of insanity to locked up people who were political nuisances. But because it was set in Germany during the War years, the folks at DEFA either didn’t see the connection, or didn’t want to acknowledge it.

Das Luftshiff

The film features a strong cast that includes Katrin Knappe, Kurt Böwe, Timo Jakob, and Gudrun Ritter, all of whom had appeared in Jadup and Boel as well. Additionally, the cast includes Johanna Schall, Arno Wyzniewski, and Hermann Beyer—some of the best actors who hadn’t left East Germany yet. The boy who plays Chico (Daniel Roth) made one for film with Rainer Simon (The Woman and the Stranger), but appears to have dropped out of acting after that.

In Der Freitag, film critic Heinz Kersten called The Airship, “The first full-length experimental film made by DEFA.” Technically, this isn’t completely true. Farewell is also experimental—especially given that it was made shortly after the 11th Plenum—and other films such as The Robe, The Gleiwitz Case, and Divided Heaven have strong experimental aspects in them as well. But it is the first to be made with the assistance of an actual experimental film artist: Lutz Dammbeck. At that time, Dammbeck was making a name for himself with his animations in which he scratched images directly onto the film à la Norman McLaren or Stan Brakhage. Born in Leipzig in 1948, Dammbeck trained as typesetter and studied graphic design at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig. He has created art in several disciplines including, film, painting, collage, and multimedia. He began creating direct-to-film animations in the early seventies, painstakingly scratching animations onto individual frames of film.

The Airship - Das Luftschiff

For the flashback scenes, cinematographer Roland Dressel uses the same technique he used in Jadup and Boel, blurring the edges of the image, as if the memory of events is starting to fade; but because that film wasn’t released in the GDR until 1988, The Airship was the first time audiences saw this effect. Dressel was trained as a photographer, and spent fifteen years as an assistant cameraman with the likes of Jan Čuřík, Werner Bergmann, Joachim Hasler, and Erich Gusko before stepping into the role of DP. He started in television, but he quickly gained a name for himself and became Rainer Simon’s cinematographer of choice. His work on The Airship garnered him the award for best cinematography at the 1984 Eberswalde Film Festival. Dressel continued to work on films, and won the Gold Prize for cinematography in 1994 for Michael Gwisdek’s Abschied von Agnes (Farewell to Agnes). After the Wende—like virtually ever other East German cinematographer—Dressel found it hard to find feature film jobs and returned to television, but he was too good to stay there for long as was soon making feature films again. He retired in 2000.

The Airship is a unique film, and although it may not be the first experimental DEFA film, it did signal a trend in that direction. A trend that would crest shortly after the Wall came down with films such as Latest from the Da-Da-R, Miraculi, and The Land Beyond the Rainbow.

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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?”

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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.

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.

How to Marry a King
Right from the opening credits, How to Marry a King (Wie heiratet man einen König?) lets us know that this is not going to be like any DEFA fairytale film that came before it. It starts in the real outdoors, not a film set, with long shots of a woman being kicked out of her house by her father. This is overlaid by credits that go on to list not only the stars of the film, but every animal that appears in it, right down earthworms and a beetle. A few of the animals are even listed by name.

The film is based on the Grimm Brothers fairytale, The Peasant’s Clever Daughter (Die kluge Bauerntochter). Both the film and the story tell of a farmer’s daughter who manages to outwit the local king, a man who prides himself on his cleverness. The king marries the woman, but then discovers she uses her cleverness to countermand his edicts. He banishes her from his castle and tells her she can only take one thing with her, but the woman has one more trick up her sleeve.

How to Marry a King is a tricky story to pull off. On one hand, the king has to be arrogant and full of himself, but he also has to be likable enough to make it believable and understandable that the farmer’s daughter would fall in love with him. That’s a tall order. It works here thanks to the film’s slapstick comedy and Eberhard Esche’s entertaining performance. He is not really a bad person; just a bit full of himself. It’s still a little mystifying as to why she would love him, but considering her environment, I’d say it was partly a case of slim pickings.

How to Marry a King

Looking for all the world like Françoise Hardy here is Cox Habbema playing the Farmer’s Daughter. A Dutch actress, Habbema started her university life as a law student, but then decided to become an actress. She went to East Berlin to perform in a play at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin where she met and fell in love with her co-star, Eberhard Esche. How to Marry a King was Esche and Habbema’s first film together, but it wouldn’t be their last. Esche and Habbema made five more movies together. In 1976, the duo was preparing to make another fairytale film, this time for television, but the plans were scuttled after Ecke and Habbema signed the letter protesting the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. Perhaps because of her law background, Habbema decided to sue DFF and won. She worked on a few more films in East Germany, but like several other of the stars who signed the protest letter, she got tired of the constant surveillance and greylisting and decided to move back to the Netherlands.

How to Marry a King was Rainer Simon’s first feature film, and this is one of the reasons that it looks so different from the previous DEFA Märchenfilme. Simon threw out the rule book on how to film a fairytale. Gone are the flat, under-adorned sets of films such as Frau Holle and King Thrushbeard. Gone are the stage-bound sets of The Singing, Ringing Tree and Little Red Riding Hood. In this film, if something happens outdoors, it’s filmed outdoors. Aside from a few indoor scenes, everything takes place in real environments. Also missing is the every-hair-in-place quality of the previous films. The characters here are messy and ugly. Their clothes are rumpled and look worn in. Some of the people look like they came straight from the paintings of Bosch and Bruegel.

Born in Saxony near the end of World War II, Rainer Simon’s parents were divorced when he was still young, and Simon grew up with his mother. He joined the SED party at seventeen, and went to the film school in Babelsberg in the early sixties. After graduating, Simon worked as an assistant director on Ralf Kirsten’s The Lost Angel and Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. His first film proposal to DEFA was to make a film of Horst Bastian’s novel Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality). Unfortunately, his proposal came right after the 11th Plenum, when anything even a little bit daring was considered taboo. His proposal was nixed (although a film of Outlaw Morality would eventually be made by Erwin Stranka in 1976). Simon went on to make several memorable films for DEFA, including How Six Made Their Way in the World, Till Eulenspiegel, and Jadup and Boel, the last of which was banned for seven years in East Germany. His film The Woman and the Stranger won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and introduced him to an international audience. After the Wende, Simon made one more film for DEFA (Der Fall Ö.) before the film company was dissolved. After that, Simon went to Ecuador, where he had previously made the historical drama The Ascent of Chimborazo (Die Besteigung des Chimborazo). There, he made a trilogy of films about the native people in that country. For many years, he was a guest professor at the film school in Babelsberg, and continues to live in the area.

How to Marry a King

Not surprisingly, the East German film review board was not particularly happy with this film. They accused it “formalism”—an essentially meaningless term used when somebody doesn’t like a movie, but doesn’t have a well-reasoned explanation for it. They also felt that the film was not entirely suitable for children. This argument carries a little more weight. It’s quite possibly the only children’s film that features an adult woman swimming in the nude, and the wedding scene is both prolonged and Felliniesque, with a boy urinating in a fountain and a nun getting drunk.

The film managed to squeak by the review board after some positive test screenings. It did well where it played, and probably would have done even better if DEFA had done more to promote it. The film was never shown in the West until after the Wende and has never received American distribution. How to Marry a King sits in a strange place in the world of movies. It is not exactly a kids film, and it is not exactly an adult film either. It is unique and entertaining, and for those reasons alone it should be seen by more people.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the DVD.

Watch on YouTube.

© 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.

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

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

Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam

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

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

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

Daisy Granados

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

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

When You Grow Up Dear Adam

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

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

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2016. 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).

The Flying Dutchman

There is no other film quite like The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegende Holländer). Part opera, part experimental sound collage, and part avant-garde cinema, it is a surrealistic take on Wagner’s opera that pushed the boundaries of filmmaking at the time. Although there were silent films that used Wagner’s operas and music, and a 1947 Italian film that presented a heavily abbreviated version of Lohengrin, DEFA’s The Flying Dutchman is considered the first attempt to film a Wagner opera in its entirety, although, in point of fact, it too reworks the story to suit both the cinematic medium and the political viewpoint of the GDR. It was directed by opera director, Joachim Herz, who, perhaps because it was his first (and only) film, opted to experiment with state-of-the-art sound and film techniques.

Director Herz dramatically changes Wagner’s opera from one about a ghostly event to the reveries of a young woman named Senta who is infatuated with the story of the Flying Dutchman. To separate reality from Senta’s imagination, Mr. Herz uses two different film aspect ratios—a technique most recently seen in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (although Anderson used three). Whenever we are watching Anna in the real world, the aspect ratio is the 1.667:1 an aspect ratio common to European films since the late fifties.1 When the film shifts to Senta’s dream world, the screen slowly opens up to the 2.35:1 dimensions of DEFA’s Totalvision (the same as Cinemascope). In other films that use multiple aspect ratios, the change in screen aspect is handled as edits, but Herz wanted these switches in perspective to flow like the film’s lush score. To do this required sophisticated in-camera techniques involving animation frames and an American Mitchell camera that accepted double reels (described in detail in one of the PDF files included with the film). This process meant that everything had to be shot with the larger format while the animation frame was simultaneously running through the camera. That this worked at all is a testament to cinematographer Erich Gusko’s skill with a camera.

Mr. Gusko got his start working on documentaries, where he quickly made a name for himself. He became an integral part of the Statcheltier film team (the short, satirical films made to screen before the main features). Working with Richard Groschopp and Joachim Hasler, he honed his craft, shooting 27 of the Statcheltier films and, in the process, becoming one the best and most sought-after cinematographers in the GDR. This fact worked against him in 1965, when he was chosen by Kurt Maetzig to film his classic, The Rabbit is Me. When the film was banned after the 11th Plenum, and singled out as the poster child for everything that was wrong with DEFA filmmaking in 1966, Gusko’s career stalled. The next film he worked on, Kurt Maetzig’s Das Mädchen auf dem Brett (The Girl on the Board), was intended for theaters, but ended up screening on television instead, as did his next two films. He was finally allowed back into feature film production with Siegfried Kühn’s Zeit der Störche (Time of the Storks). The next film he worked on, Her Third, raised some eyebrows, but managed to make it past the censors anyway. Mr Gusko continued to work throughout the seventies and eighties, but with the fall of the wall in 1989, his career ended. He made one for film for DEFA after Germany’s reunification, but reunification marked the end of his career as a cameraman.

The Flying Dutchman

As if its trailblazing cinematography weren’t enough, the decision was made to use four-channel magnetic sound instead of the optical, mono soundtrack common to films at the time. 4-track mag had been introduced at the same time as CinemaScope, but only a few DEFA had used it so far, mostly notably, The Silent Star. There were few films more deserving of the full four-channel magnetic sound treatment that The Flying Dutchman. After all, the music was by Richard Wagner, who spent most of career pushing the limits of opera and the human voice. He would have loved the idea that his work was still pushing boundaries in 1963.

Of course, Wagner’s notorious and undeniable antisemitism was a topic of much discussion after WWII, especially in East Germany where they were less inclined than the west to forgive anything that smacked of National Socialism. His music was undeniably beautiful, and brides all over the world still walk down the aisle to the Bridal Chorus from Lohegrin, but, let’s face it, as a person, he was a nasty piece of work (entertainingly captured by Richard Burton in the 1983 mini-series). But Wagner’s music was greater than the man who made it. The power and beauty of the music trumped Wagner’s misguided philosophy. As a political thinker, he was a bit of a nitwit, but he sure could bang out a good tune. Nonetheless, there are still musicians who refuse to play his music.

By framing the story as a dream, Joachim deftly leaps over DEFA’s aversion to supernatural elements in films. Horror is the one genre that the East Germans never tackled. There are horror films from Communist Poland (Lokis: Rekopis profesora Wittembacha, Diabel, and Wilczyca), and from Czechoslovakia (Vlci bouda, Prazske noci, and Ferat Vampire—about a car that drinks blood, starring Václav Havel’s wife), there is even one from Soviet Russia (Viy), but there are none from the GDR. One could argue that some of the Märchenfilme qualify as horror movies (The Singing, Ringing Tree certainly comes close), but The Flying Dutchman is the first, and only East German film to present zombies that look like extras from Night of the Living Dead. The scene occurs after the townspeople, full of ale and good cheer, go down to the Flying Dutchman and try to rouse the crew to come join them. This proves to be a mistake since the crew is dead. Soon the townspeople find themselves trapped in the inn, surrounded by rotting corpses. This scene, in particular makes good use of the four-channel sound, enveloping the audience in the sounds of the crowd.

The Flying Dutchman zombies

Playing Senta is Anna Prucnal, a Polish actress who was starting to make a name for herself in her home country. She didn’t speak any German, but that hardly mattered since her only mouth movements involved lip-synching to a pre-recorded opera score (sung by Gerda Hannemann). Since much of the singing occurs only in her head, Ms. Prucnal’s character spends a lot of screen time simply staring longingly into the distance. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why Mr. Herz chose Ms. Prucnal. With her striking features and enormous dark eyes, she is a good choice to play the wistful Senta. In spite of her lack of German language skills, she went on to star in a few more East German films including Reise ins Ehebett (Trip to the Nuptial Bed), Unterwegs zu Lenin (On the Way to Lenin), and Jede Stunde meines Lebens (Every Hour of My Life).

In 1970, finding that roles in Polish and East German films were diminishing, Ms. Prucnal moved to France, where she started working in theater, performing in the plays of Bertolt Brecht and other avant garde playwrights. In 1972, she made her biggest splash as Anna Planeta in Dusan Makavejev’s outrageous Sweet Movie. Even after forty years, this film still manages to shock audiences with its sexually over-the-top, two-pronged attack on both capitalism and communism. The Polish authorities were not amused and had Ms. Prucnal’s passport revoked, effectively exiling her from her homeland.

While in France, Ms. Prucnal developed her career as a singer. She has released several albums, primarily in French, and she is now better known as a singer than as an actress. She rarely appears in films these days, but continues to release records and occasionally work on stage, most recently at the Vingtième Théâtre in Paris, where she recited works by Jean Cocteau.

The Flying Dutchman

Also worth mentioning here is the film’s choreographer, Ruth Berghaus. By the time this film was made, Ms. Berghaus was already well-known for her choreography and made a big splash the same year the film came out with her choreography of the battle scenes in Brecht’s adaptation of Corialanus. She would eventually go on to become better known for her opera and theater direction than Mr. Herz. Like Mr. Herz, Ms. Berghaus grew up in Dresden, where she studied modern dance under Wolfgang Langhoff. In 1951, she started working as a director at Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, where some of her productions are still being used. She was married to composer Paul Dessau whom she met while working on the stage adaptation of Brecht’s radio play, The Trial of Lucullus, for which Dessau had written the music. As choreographer, Ms. Berghaus’ work involved not just the people in the scenes, but the choreography of the crew as well—all part of Joachim Herz’s vision for the movie. In short, everything about the film had to flow and move seamlessly.

At the premiere screening of the film, everything that could go wrong did. The sound system at the theater broke down, leading to either no sound, or screeching. As good as 4-track mag sounded, it was also more prone to playback problems and issues inherent in magnetic sound, such as hiss. Whether because of the sound problems that occurred with the initial screenings, or the entire process of filmmaking, Joachim Herz never made another movie, preferring instead to do his directing on the opera stage. Too bad, because if this film is any indication, Joachim Herz would have been a major force in experimental cinema.

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1. Interviews with the cinematographer and the director, and other essays about this film cite the smaller aspect as Academy standard, which is 1.37:1. My tests found this not to be the case.