Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

Herzsprung
When the Berlin Wall finally came down, East Germans danced for joy in the streets. No more Stasi, no more food shortages, no more travel restrictions, and no more fiddling with their Trabis to get the damned things started. At the time, most people in East Germany were glad to see the backside of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). This was reflected in the polls when the SED (now rebranded as the Party of Democratic Socialism) was trounced in the East German general election in March of 1990. A few months later, the new Volkskammer voted to approve the reunification of Germany, much to the dismay of Margaret Thatcher, who actively petitioned against it. François Mitterrand wasn’t crazy about reunification either, but quickly saw the inevitability of it. Things were looking up—or so the East Germans thought. Within a year, many East Germans would be regretting their votes. Factories and businesses were taken over by Western conglomerates that immediately started laying off as many people as they could. Young people found it difficult to get work because the West Germans, who were now in control, had low opinions of East Germans, viewing them as problematic because they weren’t willing to work for starvation wages. They preferred to hire foreign workers to do the jobs instead, further exacerbating the mounting tensions in the East.

Without the safety nets provided by the state, the young people in East Germany were in dire straits, and were wondering what happened to their country when the Nazis started arriving from Bavaria and America, ready to provide easy answers for the local youths. Kids on both sides of the border were often woefully ignorant of what happened in Germany during World War II, but none more so than the East Germans, where the attitude was, “We got rid of them, so we don’t really need to talk about it anymore—that’s a West German problem!” While it’s true that several high-ranking Nazis were able to get back into government in West Germany, at least the Nazis were stigmatized in the Bundesrepublik, which certainly helped stem their spread. East German kids were more susceptible to the simplistic, populist claptrap spouted by groups such as the German People’s Union (Deutsche Volksunion, DVU) and the National Democratic Party (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, NPD) of Germany.1

Herzsprung was the first and last East German film to tackle this subject. The first because prior to the fall of the Wall it simply wasn’t an issue—anyone spouting far-right rhetoric in the GDR would have found the Stasi crawling all over them like a bad case of bedbugs. The last because DEFA’s days were numbered. DEFA would only make six more films before closing up shop.

Herzsprung

Herzsprung takes place in a small town of the same name that sits on the A24 highway just south of Wittstock. The proverbial wide spot in the road. The film follows the adventures and misadventures of a woman named Johanna (Claudia Geisler) as she tries to navigate the changes occurring in her village. The film starts with the termination of her job working in a factory kitchen. It looks like a pretty crummy job, but since her husband Jan had lost his job months earlier, thanks to the closing of the agriculture cooperatives, it meant there would be no money coming in. Unable to find work, Jan has sunken into a state of self-pity and alcoholism, and is becoming physically abusive. After Jan commits suicide, Johanna starts to take up with a stranger (Nino Sandow) who recently arrived in town. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy who also happens to be black. As you can imagine, the local Nazi punks aren’t too pleased to see Johanna hanging around with this guy, especially a local called “Soljanka” (Ben Becker), who has a crush on Johanna. In German, Herzsprung also means “heartbreak,” so, as you can probably guess, things don’t end well for anybody.2

Herzsprung is directed by Helke Misselwitz from her own script. Misselwitz is better known for her documentaries, and in particular Winter Adé, a powerful film that looks at the lives and failed dreams of women across East Germany. Misselwitz brings her documentary background to this film, with hand-held cameras and shots of peripheral characters to create a sense of place. Nonetheless, she also recognizes the freedom a feature film gives you to compose scenes, and uses this to create powerful images, such as the scene of Johanna fleeing the burning roadside stand.

Like Misselwitz, Cinematographer Thomas Plenert was part of DEFA’s Nachwuchsgeneration (the baby boomers, essentially), the last generation of filmmakers and technicians in East Germany. Also like Misselwitz, he comes from a documentary background. Here he gets to push the limits of what you can do with a camera, sometimes pushing it over the edge. He’s not afraid to let night scenes stay in inky darkness. The use of color is interesting, especially in the final scene, and in the nightclub scenes, where the use of color approaches the work of Luciano Tovoli in Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

Herzsprung

Claudia Geisler is well-cast as Johanna, endowing the character with a unique combination of fragility and resilience. It seems like life wants to beat Johanna down, but she’s not having it. Geisler, an East German, was only beginning to appear in films when the wall came down. She first appeared on screen in a small part in Interrogating the Witness (Vernehmung der Zeugen), an interesting little crime thriller starring Christine Schorn. While working on Little Thirteen, she met her future husband Thomas Bading. Since 2015, she has been working under the name Claudia Geisler-Bading. She appears in several well known films, including Christian Petzold’s Barbara, Cate Shortland‘s Lore, and George Clooney’s The Monuments Men.

We never do learn the name of Nino Sandow’s black stranger. Sandow was born and raised in East Germany, and studied opera singing at the “Hanns Eisler” School of Music and the “Ernst Busch” Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. Herzsprung was his first feature film, but he has gone on to appear in several movies and television shows, most recently as the New York stage manager in Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous. He also teaches at the “Ernst Busch” Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin.

The music for the film is primarily either well-known classical pieces or songs by the Berlin folk-rock group Poems for Laila. It’s an unusual and effective combination. Poems for Laila still performs, although their line-up has changed considerably over the years. Like other multi-instrumental groups that toy with different ethnic music styles, their music is difficult to categorize—a little like DeVotchKa or 17 Hippies, but definitely its own thing.

Herzsprung bears more than a passing resemblance to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Both films tackle the issue of racism in Germany3, and both films are beautifully shot. Where Fassbinder’s film is shaped by the work of Douglas Sirk, Misselwitz’s film appears to be informed by the DEFA fairytale films. In the opening shot a woman sings a beautiful song while what appears to be snow drifts across the screen. Eventually it becomes clear that it’s not snow at all, but the pinfeathers from a goose that’s being plucked by women in a factory kitchen, and the song comes from one of the women (Eva Maria Hagen, in her first DEFA role since she left East Germany in 1977).

An important difference between Fassbinder’s and Misselwitz’s films is that while Fassbinder’s film is primarily about the racism that no one acknowledges until they are faced with it head on, Misselwitz’s film chronicles an ugly change that was occurring in the East. A change that would eventually lead to the formation of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), and the deaths of several people all over Germany.

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1. In 2011, the DVU and the NPD merged.

2. Although, the name of the town, according to some sources, somes not from the word for heartbreak, but from low middle German meaning deer (or hart) spring (Hertsprink).

3. Although, in a 2009 interview with Hiltrud Schulz of the DEFA Library, Misselwitz said that she was primarily trying to show the growing hostility in East German towns towards outsiders rather than specifically addressing racism.

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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.

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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.

Apprehension
One of the goals of DEFA films, stated at the very start of the production company, was to present stories from as objective a viewpoint as possible. When Kurt Maetzig made The Council of the Gods, his intention was to avoid both the romanticism of Hollywood and the socialist realism of Soviet films. He wanted to make a film that, first and foremost, told the truth about how international corporations (most notably Standard Oil) fed and supported Hitler’s war machine. It was still a feature film, but with a higher level of factual accuracy than most of the films at the time.

Over time, DEFA drifted away from this approach, but director Lothar Warneke wanted to return to the idea of documentary fiction and see how far he could push it. In Apprehension (Die Beunruhigung) he pushes it right to edge. Warneke has given us a film that is just barely a feature film in the traditional sense of the word. In nearly every aspect it resembles a documentary. It’s shot in grainy black-and-white with hand-held cameras in the academy standard aspect ratio, which was unusual for a film made in 1981 (for more on the thorny topic of aspect ratios, see The Flying Dutchman). Sometimes people on screen look self-consciously at the camera, as if they weren’t expecting to be filmed, and maybe they weren’t. At times, the cameras seems to be hiding from the subject, peeking out from behind corners to catch the action. Several of the actors weren’t even actors at all. The doctor who performs the breast examination was an actual doctor. He was fed no lines, but simply instructed to tell the lead actress exactly what he would tell a patient in the same situation.

Die Beunruhigung

At the center of the story in the film is Inge Herold, a successful psychologist, who spends her days listening to the problems of others, and spends her nights hopping into the sack with a married man named Joachim. After a doctor’s examination, Inge is told by her doctor that they have found a lump in her breast. She must come in the next day to the hospital, for surgery. If the lump is benign, they’ll simply remove it. If it is malignant, she’ll have to undergo a radical mastectomy. For the rest of the movie, the camera follows Inge as she comes to terms with this possibility. She cries, searches out old friends, confronts people, and eventually comes to terms with things.

Apprehension isn’t the first film to blur the line between reality and fiction. Films such as Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story and Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool had already mixed actual events with fictional stories, while “found footage” horror films such as Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, and Paranormal Activities rely almost entirely on this conceit to deliver their chills, but Apprehension is different. Nothing here feels fake or forced. This could have been a documentary, except that it isn’t. Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City of God comes close to capturing the same spirit, but even here the inherent fiction of the story feels more like storytelling that Warneke’s film (for more on Lothar Warneke, see Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens).

Inge is played by Christine Schorn. Born in Kiel to parents who were also actors, Schorn, appeared many times on television in East Germany before finally appearing in Her Third, her first feature film role. Schorn had a successful career in East Germany, not only on film and in television, but on the stage as well. After the Wende, feature film roles dried up for a while, and she went back to television and the stage, but soon she was appearing in films again, most notably Grill Point (Halbe Treppe), Goodbye Lenin!, and Franziska Meletzky’s According to Plan (Frei nach Plan), for which she one a best actress statuette at the German Film Awards. In that film, Schorn played the mother of fellow East German Dagmar Manzel, even though she is only 14 years older than Manzel.

Christine Schorn

The man behind the camera on Apprehension was a young cinematographer named Thomas Plenert. Trained as a documentary filmmaker, Plenert brought a unique look and feel to the film. Warneke was so impressed with his work, that he had him shoot his next two films as well. Meanwhile, Plenert continue to work primarily in the documentary field, including Helke Misselwitz’s classic Winter Adé, and The Wall (Die Mauer), Jürgen Böttcher’s short documentary on the deconstruction of the Berlin Wall (for more on Jürgen Böttcher, see Born in ’45).

Apprehension also falls squarely into that category of films known as Frauenfilme. This translates to “women’s films,” and is a very different creature from the “Chick-Flicks” of Hollywood. Unlike the Chick-Flicks, which are devoted almost exclusively to love and romance told from a female perspective, the Frauenfilme tend to deal more with the social issues that affect women—issues such as sexism in the workplace, pregnancy, and the difficulties involved in balancing a career and a family. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, East Germany was way out in the lead when it came to making this type of movie. Films such as Hey You!, The Legend of Paula and Paula, and Her Third had tackled these issues back in the early seventies, but the term wasn’t coined until The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum in 1975. The GDR continued to make films dealing with women’s issue throughout the seventies and eighties with films such as Solo Sunny, Hostess, Solo Sailor, The Bicycle, Today is Friday, Our Short Life, and All My Girls. In the West, the Frauenfilme were still outliers, primarily the work of female directors such as Margarethe von Trotta, Ula Stöckl, and Helma Sanders-Brahms. In East Germany, Frauenfilme were much more common, and were made by both male (Konrad Wolf, Heiner Carow) and female (Iris Gusner, Evelyn Schmidt) filmmakers.

Nobody expected much from Apprehension, but it hit a chord with the public. It played to full houses, and went on to become the most popular adult-oriented film to come out of DEFA since since The Legend of Paul and Paula. In any history of German film, Apprehension represents an important milestone.

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Winter Adé
The first films made in what would become East Germany after the war (at that point, still the Soviet sector), were short documentary films. Most of these early films were for propaganda purposes, showing how the Soviet Union was helping rebuild Germany after the war. After DEFA was established, documentary films were handled by a specific branch of the production company—the DEFA-Studio für Dokumentarfilme. It was here that Kurt Maetzig started as a director, and where Richard Groschopp returned to the craft. Eventually, the studio for documentary films would start making feature-length documentaries. The most famous, or infamous, as the case may be, is Look at This City!, but there are many more.

Winter Adé gets its title from a popular German children’s song. It means “goodbye winter,” and is a celebration of the coming of spring. Director Helke Misselwitz choice of title was both remarkably prescient and terribly ironic. Less than a year after the release of the film, the Berlin Wall would come down and a year after that Germany would be reunited.

The film uses as its structure, a train trip that covers the length of East Germany from top to bottom. It starts in Planitz, a town just west of Meissen where the filmmaker was born, then begins a train trip from Zwickau, near the Czech border, to Sassnitz, a resort town on the Baltic coast. Along the way, the film crew interviews women and girls about their lives and aspirations. The women come from all walks of life and all ages. Some are eternal optimists, and some have just given up. We meet, among others, a perky ballroom dance instructor in Altenburg, two no-future punky runaways in Berlin, and, in Groß-Fredenwalde, Margarete Busse, an 83-year-old woman celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary who delivers the real stomach punch in the film. Not all the interviews are with women, but all of them are about women or the perception of women in the GDR. Occasionally the camera crew stops to take in the local sights, most notably, a doll hospital in Delitzsch.

Winter Adé

Helke Misselwitz was part of the so-called Nachwuchsgeneration—the baby boomers who were just starting to make films for DEFA before the wall came down. She was working in the documentary film section at DEFA and noticed a lack of women working at DEFA (see All My Girls). This situation that didn’t make sense to her given the GDR’s claims of sexual equality. An equality, they were quick to point out, that did not exist in the West. She decided to make a documentary examining the role of women in East German society. What she found was complex and, at times, contradictory. Not really surprising considering the inherently complex and contradictory nature of the East German state. While some women were working in fields that were previously the exclusive domain of men, many others found themselves stuck in mundane jobs with no realistic hopes or dreams for the future. It must be said, however, that the few men interviewed in the films, also seem to have given up on their dreams. It is a fairly bleak picture of life in the GDR and is filmed, appropriately enough, in black-and-white.

After the Wende, Ms. Misselwitz founded the first privately-owned East German film company. She continued to make many documentaries as well as two feature films—Herzsprung, and the award-winning Englechen (Little Angel). Since 1997 she has taught directing at the “Konrad Wolf” Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

Margarete Busse

Like the film’s director, cinematographer Thomas Plenert works primarily on documentaries. He got his start with Jürgen Böttcher—the director of Born in ‘45—filming several documentary shorts for him. He also worked on three of the DEFA feature films that Lothar Warneke directed (although not on Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens). He first worked with Helke Misselwitz on the documentary, Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann (Who’s Afraid of the Bogeyman), and continued to work with her on several more documentaries as well as her two feature films. He is also the cameraman that documentary filmmaker Volker Koepp most often chooses to shoot his films. Mr. Plenert didn’t experience the transition difficulties that faced many of the other technicians from DEFA. He continued working on documentaries and shot several episodes of popular German television shows, including many episodes of the post-Wende version Polizeiruf 110. In 1996, he won the German Film Award for best cinematography for his work on Volker Koepp’s documentary, Kalte Heimat (Cold Homeland).

Many directors maintain that “editing is everything.” If this is the case, then special credit must be given to Gudrun Steinbrück, who, like her husband, Thomas Plenert, has worked on most of Helke Misselwitz’s films. She also edited Jürgen Böttcher’s Die Mauer (The Wall), a film about the deconstruction of the Berlin Wall that relies almost entirely on its editing to give it its power. With the exceptions of the Helke Misselwitz’s feature films and a few others, she works exclusively in the documentary film realm.

Winter Adé

Winter Adé was well-enough received on both sides of the Wall to give Ms. Misselwitz a more secure position in DEFA’s documentary division. Unfortunately, more secure, in this case, only meant a couple years as DEFA was dismantled shortly after the Wende. On November 9, 1989, Ms. Misselwitz had the rather unique experience—for an East German at that time—of being in America when the wall came down, a situation she recounts in an essay that is included on the DEFA Film Library’s release of Winter Adé, which is also available here.

The film premiered at the 1988 Leipzig International Documentary Film Festival and caused a sensation. During the following year, Leipzig would be home to the Monday Peace Demonstrations, which helped bring down the wall. It is powerful documentary that should be seen by anyone interested in the role of women in society, whether that means the GDR or the USA.

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Der Mann, der nach der Oma kam
The Man Who Replaced Grandma (Der Mann, der nach der Oma kam) belongs to the comedy of errors genre—specifically the sub-genre that finds comedy in the mistaken belief that someone is being unfaithful.1 Some classic Hollywood films have mined this vein for comedy, most notably Preston Sturges in his hilarious 1948 film, Unfaithfully Yours, and many of Doris Day’s comedies. This film has a more feminist perspective than those films, and doesn’t make quite as much of a romp out of the subject as a Hollywood film would. Made shortly after Erich Honecker took over control of the DDR from Walter Ulbricht, The Man Who Replaced Grandma is slightly racy and a more daring film than would have been allowed a few years earlier, but manages to avoid too much controversy.

The film is based on the story Graffunda räumt auf (Graffunda Cleans Up) by Renate Holland-Moritz. Holland-Moritz was sort of the Pauline Kael of East Germany. As well as writing multiple books, she was also the film critic for Eulenspiegel, East Germany’s satire magazine. As a critic, she was remarkably candid in her criticism. If a DEFA film sucked, she wasn’t afraid to say so. The Man Who Replaced Grandma tells the story of the Piesold family. Mom is an opera singer and dad is a TV emcee, and between them, there is little time left to spend with the family. It’s never been a problem because Oma (grandma) always took care of everything, but when Oma suddenly announces that she’s getting remarried, the family starts looking for a replacement and finds that it’s not that easy. They finally settle on a man named Erwin Graffunda, who doesn’t seem to mind the amount of work involved, is very energetic, and doesn’t want much money for the job. The problem is that, being a handsome young man, the neighbors immediately suspect some hanky-panky is going on between him and Mrs. Piesold.

This film is one of those cases where much of the humor is contingent on the German language, and subtitles won’t help. Graffunda’s last name, for instance, becomes a joke when people refer to him as “Graf Funda.” “Graf” is usually translated to “Count” in English, which effectively destroys the joke. In another scene, after Graffunda discover that the Piesold’s young son has put his teddy bear in the washing machine, Graffunda makes a joke about the bear not being a “Waschbär” (“Das ist doch kein Waschbär!“). Waschbär—pronounced “wash bear”—is the German word for Racoon.2 An English subtitle of “He is a not a racoon” would make no sense in this context, and “wash bear” has no meaning in English. Short of adding a parenthetical notes, I see no way to translate this film’s dialog. Even the title of the original story—Graffunda räumt auf—has the added meaning not only of cleaning up, but of dispelling something, such as a myth.

The Man Who Replaced Grandma

Playing Erwin Graffunda is Winifried Glatzeder, best known as Paul in The Legend of Paul and Paula. Glatzeder had been working in films for a few years, when he got his first starring role in Siegfried Kühn’s 1971 film Time of the Storks (Zeit der Störche), the film was popular and people began to take notice of Glatzeder. The Man Who Replaced Grandma was his second starring role and helped further his reputation as a charming and unique-looking leading man, but it was his role in The Legend of Paul and Paula that put him on the map. So much so that he does a cameo as Paul in the 1999 comedy Sonnenallee (usually translated as Sun Alley, although, strictly speaking, an Allee is definitely not an alley).

Playing Mr. and Mrs. Piesold are Rolf Herricht and Marita Böhme respectively. Herricht was already a well-known comic actor by the time he made this film, appearing often on television and in the DEFA classic Beloved White Mouse. Böhme had starred opposite Herricht once before in Hero of the Reserve (Der Reserveheld), and had proven to have a talent for comedy in films such as On the Sunny Side and Carbide and Sorrel. Also appearing in the film are the fine comic actors Marianne Wünscher and Fred Delmare.

Special mention must be given to Katrin Martin, who plays the Piesold daughter Gaby. In her first film role, Martin maintains a perfect balance of a teenager who is sexually aware, but not really ready to know what to do with it. Martin was a graduate of the Rostock drama school, and has appeared in many stage productions. She is best known for her portrayal of Rose Red in the DEFA Märchenfilm Snow White and Rose Red (Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot). After the Wende, film roles became scarcer, so she turned to audio, producing radio plays for children. She currently lives in Berlin.

Katrin Martin

The film is directed by Roland Oehme. Oehme got his start in films by working as an intern under Ralk Kirsten on the Manfred Krug comedy, Follow Me, Rascals! (Mir nach, Canaillen!), Shortly after graduating, Oehme refused to take on a project because he didn’t like the script. As a consequence, he spent a few years working in the DEFA documentary film department before being allowed to start directing his own films. He finally got a chance to direct alongside fellow newcomer, Lothar Warneke with the Rolf Römer comedy, Not to Me, Madam! The Man Who Replaced Grandma was the first film that he both wrote and directed. He continued to have a successful career in film and television in the DDR. After the Wende, he turned to stage directing, working for several years with the Störtebeker Festival in Ralswiek on Rügen. From 2006 to 2013 he worked in the spa town of Waren (Müritz), writing a cycle of plays called The Muritz Saga, a new one of which is performed every year.

The Man Who Replaced Grandma was a popular film and did well at the box office. It is not a classic, but it is an entertaining little film with a likable cast. As with any comedy that mines its gold from puns and double entendres, it is best appreciated by those at least moderately familiar with the German language.

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1. Of course, German, being the Lego language that it is when it comes to building words, it is possible to construct a word that specifically addresses this sub-genre: Eifersuchtsverwechslungskomödie.

2. One of the more entertaining aspects of the German language is how it seems, at times, like the duties of naming animals was given to a five-year-old. A bat is a “flying mouse” (Fledermaus), a skunk is a “stink animal” (Stinktier), a groundhog is a “mumbling animal” (Murmeltier), and—my personal favorite—a slug is a naked snail (Nacktschnecke).

Our Short Life
As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, East Germany was way ahead of the West when it came to feminist issues. Back when American women were still expected to stay in the kitchen and be good housewives, East Germany had women in nearly every profession. By the seventies over half the judges in the GDR were women. They were also better at bringing feminist issues to the big screen with films such as The Destinies of Women and Her Third. Even so, East German was as guilty as everyone else when it came to offering women the opportunities to make movies. This started to change in the seventies (but only slightly), with the introduction of directors such as Evelyn Schmidt and Iris Gusner, and writers such as Anne Pfeuffer, Gabriele Herzog, and Regine Kühn. Still, when it came time to make the very feminist film, Our Short Life (Unser kurzes Leben), the duties were handed over to a man. Whether the film loses anything for this choice is hard to say. It is filmed with a keen eye and great sensitivity, and certainly gets its message across.

Our Short Life (Unser kurzes Leben) tells the story of Franziska, a young architect who is looking for meaningful connections in a world where few exist. She wants to make sure that her new buildings are an integral part of the community, and not mere Plattenbauen—those featureless high-rises common to East Germany that were erected to house workers as economically as possible. After hours, she hangs out at the local pub with its proprietress Frau Helwig, and tries to makes friends with the women in her rooming house, but finds it difficult due to the status and cultural differences that the state supposedly eliminated.

Our Short Life is based on Franziska Linkerhand, a heavily autobiographical book by Brigitte Reimann. During the late fifties, Riemann was the darling of the East German literary scene, lauded by no less than Walter Ulbricht as one of the leading lights of the Bitterfelder Weg (Bitterfelder Way), a movement sponsored by the East German government to encourage socialist thinking in the arts. As time went on, however, Riemann followed same arc as many other East German creative people, growing increasingly disillusioned with the government’s betrayal of basic socialist principles in favor of an intractable band of authoritarians who brooked no dissent. Riemann died of cancer in 1973, and the book was published posthumously. After the Wende, it was found that some parts of the book, in particular its references to the Stasi, had been removed before publication. A restored version was published in 1998.

Unser kurzes Leben

Playing Franziska is Simone Frost, whose height at just over 5’ (1.53m) suggests that the film’s title has an additional meaning. The size difference between her and the rest of the cast is emphasized throughout the film, giving her battles against the powers that be a certain Jack the Giant Killer quality. Before the Wende, much of Frost’s non-theatrical work was on television, and the same held true after the Wende. Most notably, she was a regular on the long-running kids’ show, Schloss Einstein (Castle Einstein) on the KiKa channel (similar to Nickelodeon). Shortly before the Wall fell, she and her husband Hans-Joachim Frank, created Theater 89 as a place to put on plays that the state wouldn’t touch. The theater is still going strong today. Tragicallly, Frost died of cancer at the age of 51 in 2009.

The rest of the cast is equally exceptional. Playing the level-headed Frau Helwig is Barbara Dittus, who is always a joy to watch. Franziska’s boss, Schafheutlin, is played by Hermann Beyer, brother to the East German film director, Frank Beyer. Franziska’s caddish love interest, Trojanowicz, is played by Gottfried Richter, who has done very little on screen since the Wende, preferring to work on stage (and who has the distinction of being one of the few East German actors who has not appeared on In aller Freundschaft). Playing Franziska’s office partner is Christian Steyer, who is best remembered as Paula’s caddish lover in The Legend of Paul and Paula. In a small role, playing Schafheutlin’s secretary is Christine Schorn, who has gone on to have a very successful career in unified Germany, and is best known to Western audiences for her turn as Frau Schäfer in Goodbye Lenin!

Barbara Dittus and Simone Front

Director Lothar Warneke’s road to becoming a director was more circuitous than most. He initially studied theology at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig, changing pursuits after the local vicar resigned. He got his first chance to direct as part of a team on Not to Me, Madam!, sharing directorial duties (but apparently not film stock) with Roland Oehme. Warneke achieved his greatest success for his 1987 film Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens. Two years later, the Wall came down and Warneke found it hard to get work after French and West German entrepreneurs dismantled DEFA and its film community. He then became a teacher at the film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

The original screen treatment for this film was by Regine Kühn. Her career got off to a strong start with Time of the Storks (Zeit der Störche). Directed by her husband, Siegfried Kühn. Time of Storks was a big hit and brought Heidemarie Wenzel and Winfried Glatzeder together for the first time. That film was a hit, but Kühn’s next screenplay, The Dove on the Roof, directed by Iris Gusner, was met with resistance by the film authorities and was quickly shelved. After that, she only wrote one more script during the seventies—Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities) for her husband. Most of her subsequent dramatic scripts were for films by her husband, including The Actress and Die Lügnerin (The Liar). Our Short Life, was one of the few screenplays she wrote for someone else. Reportedly, she found the whole affair disagreeable and could never watch the movie.1

Later, Kühn started writing and directing her own films, primarily documentaries. In 1994, she won the Deutscher Drehbuchpreis—a prize given for unproduced screenplays of merit—for Zarah L., her screenplay about the infamous Third Reich era singer, Zarah Leander. To date this film has yet to be produced.

Our Short Life did well at the box office and garnered a few awards and nominations. It was also a hit with the East German critics, who were always happy to see a film that could discuss sensitive topics without getting shelved. If they thought this signaled a relaxation of the restrictions on sensitive film topics, they would have been wrong. It was only a few months later, the film review board would come down hard on Jadup and Boel.

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1. Spur der Filme by Ingrid Poss, Peter Warnecke; Christoph Verlag (May 1, 2006)

Solo Sailor
There is a saying among boat owners that a boat is a “hole in the ocean you throw money into.” Suffice it to say, boat owning can be an expensive proposition. In The Solo Sailor (Die Alleinseglerin), a young woman named Christine learns first-hand the joys and sorrows of owning a boat. She has just been given the opportunity to submit her doctoral dissertation, when her estranged father suddenly dies, leaving her his sailboat in his will. At first, all she wants to do is sell the boat and be done with it, but she is unsatisfied with the offers. When it looks as if she might be able to sell it for more money in the spring, she dry docks the boat for the Winter, but quickly learns that boats can’t just be left alone. They require constant work and attention. Pretty soon she is spending all her free time working on the boat, and soon is in danger of losing everything and everyone in her life to the project.

The Solo Sailor is based on a book by Christine Wolter. It is clearly autobiographical. Besides sharing a first name, the main character also works toward a PhD in literature (in Wolter’s case, it was Romance Studies). Wolter’s father was Hanns Hopp, a modernist architect who helped reconstruct Große Frankfurter Straße as Stalinallee (rechristened as Karl-Marx-Allee after “De-Stalinization”). From 1962 to 1976 she worked as an editor at Aufbau-Verlag, East Germany’s largest publisher. Fluent in Italian, she also created German translations of books by Leonardo Sciascia, Alberto Savinio, and others. She left Aufbau-Verlag in 1976, and moved to Milan with her architect husband in 1978.

The film is directed by Herrmann Zschoche, who also gave us Seven Freckles and Island of the Swans. Zschoche is one of the more sensitive East German directors, and has a special knack for showing the alienation teenagers feel. Here, he moves into the adult world, but the alienation is still there. While the film is primarily from Christine’s perspective, Zschoche does a particularly good job here of showing everyone’s point of view. The film has a strong feminist message without turning the men in it into stereotypical boors. When men leave her, we understand why, but when she’s excluded from the camaraderie of the other (all male) boat owners, we feel her isolation.

Tina Powileit

To play Christine, Zschoche hired Christina Powileit in her only feature film role. At the time, Powileit was better known as the drummer for the East German, new-wave band, Mona Lise, which started out as East Germany’s first all-female rock band, but later added men to the line up. She is cited as the “first female drummer in the GDR.” With her wild mane of blonde hair, huge eyes, and expressive face, Powileit turns in a remarkably good performance for a first-timer, but Zschoche has always had a knack for that sort of thing. The lead actors in Island of the Swans and Seven Freckles were also first-timers. Powileit enjoyed the movie-making experience, but found that the early hours of film production were in direct conflict with her late hours as a drummer in a band, and she was, first and foremost, a drummer.

Shortly before the Wende, Mona Lise disbanded. After playing in a few intermediate groups, Powileit eventually joined singer-songwriter Gerhard Gundermann on tour until his untimely death in 1998. More recently, she’s appeared with Christian Haase, who joined her at the Torgau Kulturbastion on Valentine’s day 2015 with Die Seilschaft, Gundermann’s old band, which still perform his songs. She also played drums from time to time with Hollys Bluesband until the death of the band’s leader, Günter Holwas, in 2014.

There is a very nice turn here by Fred Delmare as a cantankerous little boat owner who shows Christine the ropes. It’s one of his best performances (for more on Delmare, see Black Velvet). He gets to play a wide range of emotions here, and adds a nice touch to the film.

Fred Delmare

The score for the movie is by Günther Fischer, who first worked with Zschoche on the weird space-opera Eolomea, and then again on Und nächstes Jahr am Balaton (And Next Year in Balaton) and Grüne Hochzeit (Green Wedding). Fischer was one of the better film composers in East Germany, contributing memorable scores to Hostess, The Flight, Fariaho, and others. He is best remembered for his score to the Konrad Wolf classic, Solo Sunny. He performed with many of the best musicians in East Germany, including Klaus Lenz, Reinhard Lakomy, and even Armin Mueller-Stahl (who is an accomplished violinist). In 1993, Der Spiegel magazine, “outed” Fischer’s role as an informer for the Stasi, turning in reports on Manfred Krug, Jurek Becker, and Armin Mueller-Stahl. While his primary instrument is the piano, he is just as adept at the saxophone, flute, and clarinet. A jazz pianist, first and foremost, Fischer keeps most of the music in The Solo Sailor stripped down to a piano trio, and it works well, particularly in the scenes of the boat on the water. He currently lives in Ireland, but still returns Germany for concerts with his daughter, Laura’s band. They still perform the theme song from Solo Sunny.

Like Hostess, and Hey You!, the film is also an excellent document of daily life in East Germany. There is a nice, although brief glimpse of Berlin street life, including East German punks and a gay couple.

The Solo Sailor did well on both sides of the Wall, and is good example of DEFA’s long-standing willingness to tackle feminist issues (see Destinies of Women). I wasn’t expecting much from this film, and I was pleasantly surprised by it. By all means, check it out.

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