Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

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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No Cheating, Darling!

In 1975, director/screenwriter Jim Sharman, along with co-author Richard O’Brien, had a huge hit with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In 1981, they decided to try again with Shock Treatment. It had the same writers, same director, and some of the same cast, but it failed miserably. It was like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. The aggregation of actors, songs, and story that worked so well in the first film just wasn’t there the second time around.

This example is just to show how difficult it can be to come up with exactly the right formula for a genre as complex as the musical. Even if you copy what seems like a working formula, it doesn’t always work. That’s what happened with No Cheating, Darling! (Nicht schummeln, Liebling!), DEFA’s follow-up to the hit, Hot Summer. It had the same stars and the same director, the cast is charming, the dance numbers are fun, and the costumes are sensational; but the final result lacks the punch of Hot Summer. While the film did well enough at the box office, it was not the hit that Hot Summer was.

The film’s title appears to be a takeoff on the 1970 West German film, Nicht fummeln, Liebling (No Pawing, Darling—which was also a follow-up to a previous popular film). No Cheating, Darling! is the story of Sonnenthal, a small town with a mayor who is so obsessed with soccer (or football, to readers from places other than North America and Australia) that all the resources of the town are being directed toward helping Sonnenthal come up with a winning team. When Dr. Barbara Schwalbe, the new technical school director, shows up, she finds it impossible to get anything she needs unless it has to do with soccer. Naturally, the mayor and Dr. Barbara are immediately at odds with each other, and she sings an ode to the mayor titled “Ich bring ihn um” (“I’ll kill him”). As is often the case in movies, these two end up romantically involved. Likewise the leaders of the men’s and women’s soccer teams (Frank Schöbel and Chris Doerk) engage in similar love/hate antics.

Schoebel and Doerk

Joachim Hasler directed three films starring Frank Schöbel (for more on Joachim Hasler, see The Story of a Murder). Mr. Schöbel and Mr. Hasler first worked together on Reise ins Ehebett (Journey into the Nuptial Bed) with Anna Prucnal as the romantic interest. Mr. Schöbel also made a film under a different director—Hochzeitsnacht im Regen (Wedding Night in the Rain)—which, like this film, did well enough at the box office, but couldn’t match Hot Summer’s numbers. It wasn’t until the singer was paired with his then wife, Chris Doerk, that Hasler and Schöbel had their first box office smash. Hot Summer remains one of the top-selling East Germany films of all time and was reinvented as musical theater in 2005.

For Reise ins Ehebett and Hot Summer, Mr. Hasler used Gerd Natschinski and his son Thomas to compose the music. For No Cheating Darling!, the music is more of a collective effort with songs by Gerd Natschinski, Frank Schöbel, and Gerhard Siebholz. Mr. Siebholz had composed the music for Hochzeitsnacht im Regen—Frank Schöbel’s feature film that Joachim Hasler did not direct. Mr. Siebholz was a very successful composer who worked often with Mr. Schöbel and Ms. Doerk. He didn’t often write music for movie soundtracks, but he did compose many hit songs for popular East German singers, including Ruth Brandin, Hauff & Henkler, and Britt Kersten. His musical style is more in keeping with the schlager-style of music that is popular with older people in Germany. As a consequence, the songs here don’t have the punch of the Gerd and Thomas Natschinski’s rock-inflected tunes in Hot Summer.

No Cheating, Darling! features Chris Doerk with her best haircut ever, and Mr. Schöbel with his worst. During the late sixties and early seventies, Doerk and Schöbel were two of the most popular singers in East Germany. They won the Schlagerwettbewerb der DDR (an East German song contest) twice, and for most of the late sixties and early seventies they were the darlings of East German television. After they split up, they each continued with successful music careers. Mr. Schöbel was the bigger star in East Germany, but Ms. Doerk was very popular, and was also a big star in Cuba. She later wrote a book about her travels there (La Casita, Geschichten aus Cuba).

Chris Doerk

After the Wende, Frank Schöbel continued to perform, primarily in the eastern half of the country. His Christmas album, Weihnachten in Familie which he sang with his second ex-wife, Spanish singer Aurora Lacasa, was also a hit and continues to sell well at Christmas time every year. Chris Doerk suffered problems with her voice quite performing for a while. She is now singing again, but only intermittently, and she occassionally appears with Mr. Schöbel. Her most recent album, Nur eine Sommerliebe, was released in 2012 on the Buschfunk label.

Playing the headstrong school director is the beautiful Dorit Gäbler. Ms. Gäbler came to films with a background in musical theater. She is a strong singer and a fine actress. She started appearing in TV movies in the late sixties, and made her first feature film appearance in Nebelnacht (Foggy Night) in 1968. She appeared in several TV movies and feature films throughout the seventies and eighties, including a fun bit in Motoring Tales—a daffy movie that combines fairytales and cars. Since the Wende, her on-screen career has been restricted to television. Like many other East German actors, she showed up in a few episodes of the Leipzig hospital drama, In aller Freunschaft. She continues to perform in cabaret programs, and just finished a tour in October of Rote Rosen für Mackie Messer (Red Roses for Mack the Knife), an evening of songs and stories about the criminal underworld in the days of The Three Penny Opera. She also does tribute programs dedicated to the songs of Marlene Dietrich and Hildegard Knef.

Gäbler and Fiala

Playing opposite Ms. Gäbler is Karel Fiala, a Czech singer/actor, who, like Ms. Gäbler, came from a musical theater background. He started his film career playing the title role in the film adaptation of Smetana’s Opera, Dalibor, but he made his biggest splash in the mind-bendingly nutty comedy-western, Lemonade Joe (Limonádový Joe aneb Konská opera). He also put in a  brief appearance in Amadeus as the actor in the title role of Don Giovanni. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Mr. Fiala found it nearly impossible to secure film roles, but continued to perform on stage. In 2013, he received  a lifetime achievement award at the Czech Thalia Awards (Ceny Thálie) for his work in musical theater.

But the real stars of this film are the costumes and the dancing. The costumes were created by Helga Scherff. Ms. Scherff had already proved her talent for pop clothing design in Gottfried Kolditz’s entertaining musical Midnight Revue, and she would prove it again in Hostess. Like Star Trek and I Dream of Jeannie during the sixties, there seems to be a conscious effort here to cover up the navels of the women. You catch glimpses of them early in the film, but they are very fleeting. This is tricky business since several of Ms. Scherff’s outfits feature bare midriffs, In one case, decorative belts are worn that seem to have the sole purpose of hiding the navel. It is such an odd detail, that I can’t help but suspect that these belts were added during production to placate the censors.

Nicht fummeln, Liebling!

The dance numbers are choreographed by Gisela Walther, who did the choreography for Hot Summer and Hochzeitsnacht im Regen. Ms. Walther was the ballet director at the Friedrichstadt-Palastes in Berlin, and won the National Prize of the GDR (Nationalpreis der DDR) in 1977 for her work there. Dancers from the Friedrichstadt-Palastes appear in the film doing the type of synchronized, Rockettes-style dancing for which they are justifiably well-known. Also appearing are the children of Dresden’s Kinderballett Morena in a short but entertaining synchronized rope jumping routine.

No Cheating, Darling! came out a month after The Legend of Paul and Paula, one of the most beloved films to ever play in East Germany. This surely impacted its success. The inevitable comparisons to Hot Summer didn’t help either. Taken on its own, No Cheating, Darling! is an entertaining little comedy, with some great costumes and dance routines. Ironically, its theme about the problem of channeling funds away from education to sports is much more relevant in modern America than it ever was in East Germany.

 

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Street Acquaintances

Films about sexual hygiene and the dangers of promiscuity have a grand old tradition in cinema history, going back at least a century with D. W. Griffith’s 1914 film, The Escape (currently lost). Most of the feature films on the subject—at least in America—were made for the exploitation market. The subject afforded a neat way to get around the strict moral codes of the times by pretending to be intended for educational purposes. Some of these films, such as Because of Eve and Kroger Babb’s infamous Mom and Dad, contain graphic footage, while others, such as No Greater Sin and Dwain Esper’s Sex Madness, are relatively tame. Road agents would travel from town to town with these films stuck in the trunks of their cars, arranging screenings and doing double duty as a medical sex experts selling pamphlets between the films.

While Street Acquaintances1 (Straßenbekanntschaft) certainly is a commercial release, its discussions of the dangers of venereal disease in post-war Berlin are not there to titillate or for exploitation purposes. V.D. was a real problem in Germany at the time, brought on, mainly, by the combination of a sudden liberation from a repressive regime and huge influx of randy, sex-deprived soldiers from both sides. To combat the problem, the military governments regularly rounded up women for testing. Yes, it was sexist, and Street Acquaintances addresses this fact, which is unusual for a film made in 1948. At a time when American films had the “heroes” saying things like: “Don’t worry your pretty little head,” Street Acquaintances was showing just how difficult life in post-war Berlin was for women.

Street Acquaintances stands at an interesting crossroads in German film history. It is categorized as a “rubble” film because it deals with the emotional wreckage of the German psyche after the war, but unlike The Murderers Are Among Us, Somewhere in Berlin, and Germany Year Zero, it happens after the streets have been cleared and the streetcars are running again. Stylistically, it harkens back to the films of Weimar era and the Third Reich, but with touches of the dramatic realism and the themes that would become the hallmark of DEFA films.

Street Acquaintances

The story follows the misadventures of Erika, a young woman who is tired of the privation brought by the war’s end, and is ready to kick off her shoes and have some fun. In terms of plot, there is nothing new here. It’s the same basic concept used in practically every sex education film ever made: X decides to live a little; X has sex; X lives to regret it and learns a valuable lesson (or dies, as the case may be). Intertwined with Erika’s story are the stories of other women in Berlin that show just how tough it was for women after the war. As with Slatan Dudow’s Destinies of Women, and Evelyn Schmidt’s The Bicycle, the sympathies here are with the women. If their choices are sometimes bad, it’s because good choices are so few and far between.

Street Acquaintances is directed by Peter Pewas—a talented filmmaker who has only recently started receiving the attention he deserves. Like Saul Bass, Mr. Pewas’ entry into filmmaking came through the graphic arts. Unlike Mr. Bass, he did not design title sequences, but did create many classic movie posters during his lifetime, and is considered an important innovator in German film poster design.

His interest in film extended beyond posters however. One of his first attempts to make a documentary about Alexanderplatz in 1934 ended badly when the film was confiscated by the Nazis and Mr. Pewas held on suspicion of treason. In 1938, he attended the Babelsberg Film Academy and started working as an assistant director under Wolfgang Liebeneiner, a director who did as much to promote the Nazi philosophy as Veit Harlan, but got a lot less grief for it. As Liebeneiner’s AD, Mr. Pewas had the dubious distinction of working on I Accuse (Ich klage an), a film that was made to promote Aktion T4—Hitler’s euthanasia program for the disabled.

Street Acquaintances

In 1944, Mr. Pewas was allowed to direct his own feature film, and he once again found himself running afoul of the Nazis. The film, Der verzauberte Tag (The Enchanted Day), was the story of a young woman not dissimilar to Erika, who wanted something more from life and was frustrated with the limitations put on women. Like the neorealists, Pewas wanted to show the lives of ordinary people in a realistic fashion. As one might imagine, Goebbels and his compadres weren’t too keen on this approach and while it was never officially banned the film was not released either.

After the war, Pewas was one of the directors in attendance at the famous Filmaktiv meeting at the Adlon Hotel on November 22, 1945. It was from this meeting that the roots of DEFA took hold, starting with Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are Among Us. Pewas had been trying to expand cinema’s vocabulary with Der verzauberte Tag, so the things discussed at this meeting must have struck a chord with him. He went on to make Wohin Johanna? (Which way Johanna?), a short documentary intended to promote the SED party. As with both Der verzauberte Tag and Street Acquaintances, the story takes a feminist perspective.

Sadly, Mr. Pewas’ affinity for the SED was not long lived. By 1950, he had moved to West Germany. This did little for his career. While his former mentor, Wolfgang Liebeneiner, thrived in West Germany’s Nazi-tolerant environment, Mr. Pewas’ leftist proclivities were less acceptable. Aside from one feature film (Viele kamen vorbeiMany Passed By), Mr. Pewas’ directorial efforts were restricted to a few short films. As it got harder and harder to find work making movies, Mr. Pewas relied primarily on revenue from designing film posters—his one skill that the Nazis also had no problems with. He died penniless in Hamburg; a fate that certainly wouldn’t have befallen him had he stayed in East Germany. Happily (although not for him), his films resurfaced recently in the form of a DVD set, which includes Der verzauberte Tag, Street Acquaintances and Wohin Johanna.

Gisela Trowe

Playing Erika is Gisela Trowe. That same year, she appeared in three more films, including a short but memorable turn as the killer’s girlfriend in The Blum Affair. Her fourth film in 1948 was a West German film, and thereafter she worked in the west. She continued her film career, often appearing in the films of her father-in-law, Erich Engel (director of The Blum Affair). One of her earliest screen appearances in West Germany includes a short but memorable turn as a prostitute in Peter Lorre’s gloomy Die Verlorene (The Lost One). Ms. Trowe died in 2010 (for more on Ms. Trowe, see The Blum Affair).

As was the case with many of the early DEFA films, much of the film crew was made up of actors and technicians who either migrated or returned to West Germany once the heavy restrictions on filmmaking imposed by the U.S. military government (OMGUS) had ended. Composer Michael Jary was already a well-known composer when he wrote the music for this film and his songs, “Davon geht die Welt nicht unter,” “La Paloma,” and “Roter Mohn” were very popular in Germany and regularly crop up in films about World War II. His song, “Wir wollen niemals auseinandergehen” was sung by Heidi Brühl as a possible entry in the 1960 Eurovision Song Contest, it did not make the cut, but has gone on to become a popular tune on with lovers of Schlagermusik. By the time he shot this film, Austrian cinematographer Georg Bruckbauer already had a long career as a cinematographer, stretching back to the Weimar days, but this was his only film for DEFA. Editor Johanna Meisel got her start as an editor during the Third Reich and worked on several films for DEFA during its early years, but she also went west in the 1950s, working on several films there before retiring from films in 1962.

As one might imagine, Street Acquaintances did well at the box office on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Sex always sells, even when the intentions aren’t prurient. This is a remarkable film and possibly the best film for showcasing the changing film styles during the early years at DEFA. It is equal parts UFA and DEFA, and should not be overlooked.

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NOTE: English subtitles are available from several sources, as are AVI files of the film. Some adjustment may be necessary for syncing.


1. This is a literal translation of the title as given by IMDB. The term refers to casual acquaintances. The kind of people you’d say “hi” to on the street but wouldn’t have over for dinner.

Until Death Do Us Part

Until Death Do Us Part (Bis daß der Tod euch scheidet)1 is the story of a couple whose mad love for each other smashes headlong into the husband’s patriarchal value system. It’s an old story. Throughout history men have been telling women it’s “my way or the highway,” usually with bad results. According to some sources, this film is based on a true story. Unlike the true stories chosen by Hollywood though, this is a story that plays out every day in one form or another: A husband and wife fight and do something they shouldn’t as a result. In truth, it hardly matters whether it is based on a true story or not; it will play out in some form again and again all over the world.

Until Death Do Us Part starts with the marriage of Jens and Sonja, whose passion for each verges on addiction at times (of course the Germans have a word for this: Liebessucht). After the birth of their first child, Sonja starts to pine for a regular job, but Jens takes the old “no wife of mine is going to work” position. When Sonja decides to ignore this, things start to get ugly and the perfect marriage turns into the perfect nightmare.

As discussed elsewhere on this blog, East Germany did a far better job of addressing the inequalities between men and women than West Germany, but director Heiner Carow lets us know in the opening minutes that things still had a long way to go when the marriage officiant requests that the bride acknowledge she will give up her name for that of her husband. Carow also does a good job of providing motivations for all the characters, although there’s no escaping the fact that Jens is a jerk.

Director Carow’s films are some of the most forward-thinking works to come out of East Germany during the seventies and eighties. He is best known for The Legend of Paul and Paula, which was one of the few films to look at social inequalities in the GDR. In 1989, he made Coming Out, which examines the problems faced by a gay man coming to terms with his sexuality in East Germany. In all of his films the message the is clear: Love requires honesty, not just to your partner, but to your own needs as well. He also had an uncanny eye for showing how people behave when they think no one is looking. Watch Katrin Saß’s performance as she is trying to get ready for her husband’s return from work. It is a guileless performance that seems completely unaware of the camera.

Mr. Carow studied filmmaking under Slatan Dudow and Gerhard Klein. As with many DEFA directors, he started with shorts, then moved to feature films. His first feature was Sheriff Teddy, based on Benno Pludra’s children’s book of the same name. He followed this with Sie nannten ihn Amigo (They called him Amigo), another young adult story of a boy who comes into conflict with the Nazis when he harbors a fugitive from a concentration camp. In 1966, his film Die Reise nach Sundevit (The Trip to Sundevit) was one of the few that made it past the 11th Plenum’s clamp down. He was not so lucky with his next film, Die Russen kommen (The Russians are Coming), which was banned outright. Carow used some of the footage from the film to make another movie titled Karriere (Career) with poor results. The film was thought to have been destroyed but it wasn’t. Mr. Carow’s wife and editor extraordinaire, Evelyn Carow, kept a working copy in her files. The film was finally released in 1987.

Mr. Carow chose two unknown actors to star in Until Death Do Us Part: Martin Seifert and Katrin Saß. Using unknown actors in the primary roles is an effective technique for giving a story verisimilitude. A marital drama starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio automatically distances us from the topic at hand, no matter how compelling the story. We are familiar Winslet and Leonardo and we know they are not married, and no matter how well they do their jobs, some part of our brains keep the story in check with this knowledge. With unknown actors the opposite is true. We don‘t know the actors and part of our brains wonder if the story is, in fact, a real one. This is the one aspect of indie films that makes them so compelling. But the effectiveness of this technique rests heavily on the acting chops of the two leads. Fortunately for us, Mr. Seifert and Ms. Saß are up to the task. Both would go to have long and successful acting careers.

Mr. Seifiert has the unenviable task of portraying Jens, whose values are seriously out of whack. That he manages to gives this reprehensible character a shred of sympathy is a testament to his talent. Mr. Seifert followed the usual East German acting career path, working in theater before he moved to film. Mr. Seifert had done some work in television, but this was his first feature film. He went on to appear in several more DEFA films, usually in supporting roles. Like most of the DEFA film community, he found work after the Wende hard to come by, and when it did, it came in the form of television roles, including Andreas Dresen’s gritty and grainy TV-movie Policewoman, in which he and Katrin Saß are paired up as an arguing couple—Dresen’s little in-joke.

Katrin Sass

Katrin Saß was only twenty-three when she made this movie. The daughter of theater actress Marga Heiden, Ms. Saß had done some stage work before making this film, but this was her first time in front of the camera. She is cute as a pixie and conveys the character with just the right mix of inner strength and vulnerability needed to pull off the role. Ms. Saß went on to appear in several more films for DEFA, and then, after the Wende, kept right on working on stage and in television, most notably appearing as police commissioner Tanja Voigt on the popular East German cop show Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110). By 1998, years of drinking and burning the candle at both ends finally caught up with her. She collapsed and landed in the hospital. At this point she finally came to terms with her alcoholism, joined AA and became a spokesperson for the German branch of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA). In the west, she is best known for playing the mother in Wolfgang Becker’s popular film, Good Bye Lenin! In 2007, Ms. Saß changed the spelling of her name back to its original “Sass.” The use of the ß in her name, she said, was by edict of the East German government, which felt that a name ending in “ss” looked too much like the Schutzstaffel sigil used by the Nazi secret police.

Until Death Do Us Part also features two of East Germany’s best actresses, Angelica Domröse and Renate Krößner. At the time this movie was made, Ms. Domröse was already in trouble with the government for signing the protest against Wolf Biermann’s expatriation, this was making it hard for her to find work at DEFA, but that didn’t stop Mr. Carow from hiring her. She was, after all, the star of The Legend of Paul and Paula, his most successful movie. Ms. Krößner was not as well known yet, but that would change the following year when she starred in Konrad Wolf’s Solo Sunny. Here she plays an interesting character who seems to be as much in love with Sonja and Jens is.

Until Death Do Us Part was not the smash hit that The Legend of Paul and Paula had been, but it did reasonably well at the box office considering its downbeat mood and cynical outlook. This is not a feel-good movie by any stretch (neither is The Legend of Paul and Paula really, but at least that one manages to fool us into thinking it is). It is, at times, bleak and depressing, but it also confronts the subject of leftover male chauvinism in the GDR without blinking or soft-pedaling it. There were times in the history of the German Democratic Republic when this film would have wound up in storage, but let’s face it, it would never get made in the United States at all.

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1. I’m using the title of the film as it appears on the English-subtitled version. Being an old-school kind of guy, who likes to look up his pronunciations in Webster’s Second, I would have stuck with the the original wording of the phrase as it appears in the The Book of Common Prayer: “Till Death Us Do Part.”

Heute ist Freitag

By 1989, Nina Hagen was well-known in West Germany, but few people there knew anything about her past. She was the operatic, punk demon lady from the far side of the moon spouting mystic mumbo-jumbo and singing like nobody else. Then the wall came down and we westerners saw a whole other side of her—the pop pixie, singer of novelty songs, adorable and immensely talented. But few of us were ready for Today is Friday (Heute ist Freitag), a TV-movie from 1975 in which we get to see Nina Hagen as we’ve never seen her before.

Long before Hagen reinvented herself as a punk goddess, she was on her way to becoming the most popular singer in East Germany. Her GDR persona was that of a spunky woman-child, a little petulant and coy. Her big breakthrough came in 1974 with “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” (You forgot the color film), a song in which Nina scolds her boyfriend Mischa for forgetting to bring the color film on their vacation. In it, she complains that no one will believe her when she tells them how beautiful everything was, because the pictures are all in black-and-white. The unspoken joke here is that no one believes her because so much of the East German landscape was cast in shades of gray. Hagen recorded the song as the lead singer in a band called Automobil. Later she joined Fritzens Dampferband, where she continued her rise to stardom with the hit “Wir tanzen Tango” (We dance the Tango), and the remarkably silly, “Hatschi Waldera.”

Things were looking up for Hagen, then her step-father, folksinger Wolf Biermann, was expatriated for his outspoken criticisms of the East German bureaucracy. His wife—Nina’s mother—was the popular film star, Eva-Maria Hagen. She applied for permission to join her husband in the west and it was granted. Nina decided to follow suit. At first the SED balked at letting her join her parents, but when she let them know that if she wasn’t allowed to emigrate, she would become the next Wolf Biermann they quickly changed their minds.

Arriving in West Germany, her agent did something very smart. He told her go to London to see what was happening in rock’n’roll. The year was 1976, and punk was in full bloom. Nina met and became friends with many British musicians, most notably Lena Lovich, who was a big influence on Hagen’s style. Hagen returned to West Germany in 1977 with a whole new look and sound, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today is Friday is the story of one important weekend in the life of Jutta, a young woman who thinks she might be pregnant. After going to the doctor, she is informed that because “Today is Friday,” she won’t know the results of her test until next Monday. This gives her a weekend to ruminate on the course she wants to take. What follows is lots of walking and talking in the interminable wait for Monday to come. Should she have an abortion of keep the baby? The film leans toward the latter, but remains as noncommittal as possible.1

Prior to Today is Friday, Hagen had appeared in an episode of the short-lived TV series, ABC der Liebe (ABCs of Love), and in the TV-movie, Heiraten/Weiblich (Married/Female). In both of these she played opposite her mother. Today is Friday was her first solo foray into film. She only appeared in a few DEFA films before heading west, but none of the other films focus on her to the same extent as Today is Friday does. She is the lead character in this film and she carries it all the way.

One of the more remarkable aspects of this film—one might even say shocking—is its lack of glamour. Hagen is presented as an utterly ordinary woman. She wears gingham shirts with butterfly collars, sweater vests, and the ugliest mommie jeans in the history of denim. Half the time she walks around with a knit cap pulled down over her head. This is not Nina the glamorpuss, it’s Nina the schlub. Nonetheless, the camera likes Hagen. The film rarely takes its focus off her and follows her movements as if fixated on her, sometimes, peeking in from other rooms to watch her.

Nina Hagen

It is this camerawork that is the most interesting aspect of the movie. Mostly handheld, the camera follows Hagen around in the cinema verité style popular with Cassavetes and the early French New Wave (whose films also often shared the obsession with their leading ladies). At times it feels like a documentary. Whether this is because of cinematographer Roland Dressel or the director, Klaus Gendries, is hard to say. Dressel was also responsible for the excellent cinematography in Jadup and Boel, and The Bicycle. Before he became a cinematographer, he worked as an assistant cameraman on a variety of East German films, including the classic Hot Summer, and Konrad Wolf’s first film, Einmal ist Keinmal (Once Doesn’t Count). This wide variety of films helped make Dressel an extremely versatile cinematographer, adapting his style to match the story. Unlike some cinematographers whose work is obvious no matter who’s directing (Gordon Willis immediately comes to mind) Dressel has no signature style, although his work in Jadup and Boel stands out for its unique style in the flashback scenes.

Likewise, Gendries seemed less concerned with branding himself as an auteur than getting good performances out of his actors. This isn’t surprising since Gendries got his start at DEFA as an actor, appearing in films such as The Baldheaded Gang and The Second Track. In the GDR, directors were mostly assigned to work at either DEFA or its television equivalent, DFF (Deutscher Fernsehfunk). Klaus Gendries was one of those assigned to DFF, so most of his work appears in the form of made-for-TV movies. He started directing in theater in the fifties, and moved to television in 1963 with the TV-movie version of Guy de Maupassant’s, Der Morin – Das Schwein (That Pig of a Morin). He scored a big hit with Florentiner 73, a comedy about a young pregnant woman dealing with her a living situation and quirky neighbors. Florentiner 73 starred his wife, Edda Dentges. The TV-movie was so popular that it spawned a sequel, Neues aus der Florentiner 73 (News from Florentiner 73). He also helmed the popular TV mini-series, Aber Vati! (But Dad!).

Gendries work in television served him well after the Wende. Unlike many of his DEFA counterparts he made the transition from East German television to unified German television. He hasn’t had as many opportunities to make TV movies, but he has worked on many popular television series, including Der Bergdoktor, Für alle Fälle Stefanie, and In aller Freundschaft. He retired from filmmaking in 2000, but continues to direct stage productions.

Ironically, the theme song for Today is Friday is not sung by Nina Hagen, but by Veronika Fischer. Veronika Fischer was the most popular female rock singer in East Germany. She had several hits in East Germany and appeared in the film, DEFA-Disko 77. Like Hagen before her, Veronika Fischer immigrated to West Berlin before the wall came down. Unlike Hagen, however, she did not take advantage of the situation to reinvent herself and found little success in the west. It was only after the Wende, when she could return to the former East German states that her career was revived. She is still popular in the eastern states and continues to release albums.

The theme song was written by Michael Heubach, who wrote the music for “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” and other songs that Nina Hagen made popular. Heubach was a founding member of Hagen’s first band, Automobil. When she decided to move on, Heubach disbanded Automobil and joined Lift, one of East Germany’s few art rock bands. Heubach had several hits in the GDR, but none since reunification. He continues to write music and work as a music producer.

Today is Friday is charming enough, but the fact it is black-and-white and consists mostly of people discussing the pregnancy issue make it an unlikely candidate for subtitling anytime soon. Nonetheless, any fan of Nina Hagen is going to want to add this film to their collection.

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1. Abortion was legal in East Germany, but, as in the west, it was still controversial. East Germany’s version of Roe v. Wade (Gesetz über die Unterbrechung der Schwangerschaft) was passed in 1972, giving women the right to choose abortion without requiring a medical reason. The passing of this law was the only time that that the People’s Chamber (Volkskammer) did not vote unanimously on a law’s passage (the only other time they split their vote was the election Egon Krenz as the GDR’s leader right before the Wall came down). West Germany wouldn’t follow suit for another four years, and even then only after two years of court challenges and legal wrangling.

Meine Frau macht Musik

Excessive seriousness has never been a problem for Hollywood. Designed for the sole purpose of making money, Hollywood films only give us something to think about when it looks like that approach will improve the bottom line. In stark contrast, DEFA was all about making thoughtful serious films. An approach that led to some criticism, such as the scene in The Trace of Stones when construction foreman Balla attempts to woo the new technician by telling her that he would “even go to a DEFA film” with her if she liked. When filmmakers tried to aim for entertainment at DEFA, unless it was a Märchenfilm, they usually ran into a host of obstacles. Never mind that every time they did release a comedy or a musical, it sold well; getting these films made was like pulling teeth.

The perfect example of this is DEFA’s first musical, My Wife Wants to Sing (Meine Frau macht Musik). The film met with with criticism at every step of the way, and was shelved immediately after it was finished. For a while, it looked as if the film would never see the light of day, but the music was released on a LP, which proved to be very popular and eventually led DEFA to release the film, but not without some major changes, as we shall see.

My Wife Wants to Sing belongs to a genre particularly popular in both East and West Germany called a Revuefilm; what we would call a backstage musical. The story follows Gerda and Gustl Wagner. Gustl works in the music section of a large department store. His wife Gerda is a talented singer who gave up a career to become a  housewife. When the aspiring, but talentless, daughter of a friend of Gustl’s is unable to meet her commitment to sing for Fabiani—an Italian popstar who is in town for a concert—Gerda agrees to take her place. Gerda is a hit, and Gustl finds himself upset by his wife’s decision to appear as part of an upcoming Variety show, and jealous of the suave Fabiani, who seems to be making moves on his wife. As with any Revuefilm, the story occasionally takes a backseat to the on-stage performances by various song and dance groups.

My Wife Wants to Sing was directed by Hans Heinrich. During the war years, Heinrich worked as a film editor until, like nearly every other able-bodied man in the Third Reich, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. After the war, he joined DEFA, working as assistant director and editor for Wolfgang Staudte on the classic DEFA film, Murderers Are Among Us. He made a few short films for the German Labor Front during the late thirties, but his first feature film was made for DEFA in 1950. That film, Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Barge of the Happy People), belongs to the barge film genre , a uniquely European film genre without an equivalent in the States. The film was such a hit that he followed it up with Alter Kahn und junge Liebe (Old Barge and Young Love) in 1957.

Like his mentor, Wolfgang Staudte, Heinrich’s politics were more in line with East Germany than West Germany, but East German authorities, in their rush to re-enact George Orwell’s Animal Farm, were making it harder and harder on any idealistic socialists who didn’t cleave to the SED party line. By the end of the fifties, both Staudte and Heinrich had left the country. Heinrich, at first, tried to regain a foothold as a director in Mexico, but when that didn’t pan out, he returned to West Germany, where he worked primarily in television, and is probably better known today as the primary director for the popular West German comedy series, Drei Damen vom Grill (Three Ladies from the Grill). He died in 2003 in his home town, Berlin.

To play Gustl, Heinrich cast Günther Simon, a decision that caused some hand-wringing at DEFA. Simon was the well-known star of Kurt Maetzig’s epic Ernst Thälmann films. He had made a few movies since then, but nothing quite so frivolous. It was worried that his turn in this film would dilute the power of his performances in the Thälmann films. Eventually, he was given the okay, which undoubtedly helped him move onto roles in other classic DEFA films, including, Sun Seekers, The Silent Star, and When You’re Older, Dear Adam. Simon died in 1972 and is buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin.

Playing Gerda, the wife of the film’s title, is Lore Frisch, a talented actress who got her start in West Germany. Born in Bavaria, Frisch was a ballet student until the war intervened. She worked as a nurse until after the war, at which time she joined a theater company in East Frisia, first as a backstage assistant, and eventually as an actress. She appeared in a few West German comedies and Heimatfilme before moving to East Germany, where she almost immediately attracted attention for her performance in Der Ochse von Kulm (The Ox of Kulm), a kind of East German send-up of the Heimatfilm genre. Unfortunately, for all her talent, Frisch suffered from some demons and a problem with painkillers. She committed suicide in 1962.

My Wife Wants to Sing

One of the odder aspects of the film is Evelyn Künneke’s appearance as Daisy, an attractive barfly/singer who flirts with Gustl between performances. Künneke was already a popular singer in Germany, and her work is still available on several CDs and as MP3 downloads. She agreed to appear in the film if she could sing two songs by Siegfried Wegener. After the film was in the can, but still not released, an article appeared in Junge Welt—the newspaper for the East German youth group, Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ)—that took the film to task for using songs by Wegener, who, at that time, was in charge of programming dance music for RIAS, the U.S.-controlled radio station and arch-nemesis of the East German government (for more on this subject, see Look at This City! and  Castles and Cottages). As a result, most of the footage of Evelyn Künneke’s singing ended up on the cutting room floor. What was left was redubbed with a different song composed by Gerd Natschinski, who later wrote the music for Midnight Revue. Natschinski carefully wrote his song to match Künneke’s mouth movements as closely as possible, but it mattered little. We only catch glimpses of Künneke singing.

Reviews for the film were divided along state lines. The East German commentator, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, found the film entertaining, but made  it known that he thought the genre was a form of silly fluff. West German reviewers were less kind, essentially saying that the very structure of East German government and society made it impossible for a film like this to work. In fact, the real problem with this film isn’t its East German origin, but its West German sensibilities. There is very little here that makes this film stand out  as a product of DEFA. Nonetheless, it is a moderately enjoyable little musical that captures aspects of fifties style in East Germany better than many films.

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Alle meine Mädchen

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the communist countries were way ahead of the west when it came to women’s rights. At the time of the Wende, over half the judges in East Germany were women, as were at least a third of the doctors. However, there were certain areas where women were decidedly underrepresented. Aside from a few secretaries, the Stasi was almost exclusively made up of men, and the upper echelons of government were still mostly men (and old ones at that). Another area where women lagged shamefully behind their male counterparts was in the ranks of feature film directors at DEFA. Although women were writing scripts and directing documentaries for the film company, there were only three women working as feature film directors: Ingrid Reschke, Evelyn Schmidt, and Iris Gusner. Even here, Ingrid Reschke died in a car crash three years before Evelyn Schmidt started at DEFA, meaning that at any given time there were only two women working behind the lens on DEFA feature films, and only one between 1971 and 1974.

That one was Iris Gusner. Gusner studied filmmaking in Moscow, and made her first movie for DEFA in 1973. Unfortunately for her, that movie, Dove on the Roof came at exactly the wrong time and was shelved until after the Wende. Her next film, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht) was a Märchenfilm. It did not suffer the same fate, and her career was back on track. She made several films for DEFA, but All My Girls (Alle meine Mädchen) is the film for which she is best known.

All My Girls starts with a film school student named Ralf Päschke, who is assigned to make a documentary about a brigade of young women who work at NARVA—East Germany’s state-run lightbulb factory. Soon, he finds himself emotionally and romantically involved with the women and worried about the future of the brigade as the bosses at NARVA threaten to separate the women while they retrofit the factory. Overseeing the brigade is Marie Boltzin, a no-nonsense woman who has seen her share of problems in life. Leading the brigade of women is Susi, an ebullient and shallow young woman with a feathered hairdo identical to the one worn by her American Doppelgängerin Debra Jo Rupp in the American sitcom, That ‘70s Show. Her sidekick, and the person placed officially in charge of the brigade, is Anita, an attractive woman with a pixie cut and a mean streak she uses to hide her emotions. The two others are Gertrud, a shy young woman with a bad case of the hiccups, and Ella, the most grounded woman in the group, and the only one with an actual relationship, albeit with a married man.

Then there is Kerstin. Kerstin is there as part of her probation requirement for petty theft, and is not considered part of the group by the others. Unlike the other women, Kerstin has completed her Abitur (a secondary-school degree required for entry into a university in Germany). For this, she’s treated as an object of scorn and ridicule, primarily by Susi, who seems to be more than a little jealous of Kerstin.

The women in All My Girls are a happy-go-lucky bunch (be forewarned: they giggle a lot), but when they hear news of the brigade being disbanded they attack Ms. Boltzin for keeping this fact from them (she did not), and when Ms. Boltzin shows her notebook cataloging each woman’s tardiness, she is accused of spying on them—an allegation that brings with it the spectre of the Stasi and their Inoffizieller Mitarbeiteren (civilian informers). This is too much for Ms. Boltzin to bear and she withdraws from the factory, eventually suffering a nervous breakdown.

Playing the put-upon Ms. Boltzin is Lissy Tempelhof, a well-known East German actress who starred in several feature films and made-for-TV movies. The Berlin-born actress had just turned sixteen when WWII ended. There, she and her mother worked as Trümmerfrauen—the women who essentially rebuilt the bombed-out German cities after the war and suffered greatly at the hands of the Russian troops. She studied acting at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts (Hochschule für Schauspielkunst “Ernst Busch,” HFS), and worked as a prompter at the theater in Senftenberg. She appeared in many theatrical productions and started appearing in films starting in 1954. Her first major role came in 1961 with her performance as Dr. Inge Ruoff in Konrad Wolf’s film of his father’s play, Professor Mamlock. Wolf used her again in 1964, as the narrator of his next film, Divided Heaven. She was also a regular on East German television and appeared in five episodes of Polizeiruf 110 as five different people. She continues to work in film, television, and stage. Besides acting, she is a talented singer and teaches singing in Berlin.

Susi is played by Madeleine Lierck. Born in West Germany, She is the daughter of Werner Lierck, a comic actor who moved to the GDR in the early fifties and starred in dozens of the short Stacheltier films, which were shown before the main features in East Germany cinemas (more on the Stacheltier films at a later date). Ms. Lierck started working in films in the late sixties. A hyperactive performer, she was soon appearing in several films and TV shows every year. Her first feature role was as Thalia in the popular East German beach-party movie, Hot Summer. For Ms. Lierck, the Wende represented only a momentary hiccup in her career. She was soon working again and has appeared in several films and TV shows since then, including the popular TV mini-series, Wir Sind Volk (U.S. title: The Final Days), about the end of the GDR.

Barbara Schnitzler dancing

Barbara Schnitzler plays Anita. Although she had appeared in several TV movies prior to All My Girls, Iris Gusner’s movie was her first feature film role. Ms. Schnitzler has the dubious distinction of being the daughter of Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, the much-hated host of Der schwarze Kanal (see Look at This City!). Charges of nepotism might seem inevitable, but Ms. Schnitzler is a fine actress and manages to make her character both sweet and a little mean. In spite of what would seem like a handicap in unified Germany, Ms. Schnitzler has gone on to have a successful career. She has appeared in dozens of post-Wende films, and is part of the acting ensemble for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.

Playing Kerstin is the stunningly beautiful Viola Schweizer. Ms. Schweizer was a familiar face to East German television viewers, having appeared in dozens of TV movies with her breakthrough role coming in 1978 in Über sieben Brücken mußt du geh’n (You Have to Go Over Seven Bridges). After the Wende, Ms. Schweizer appeared in a few films and appeared in the short-lived TV series, Spreewaldfamilie, beside with her All My Girls co-star, Jaecki Schwarz, but, as with many other East German actors, she found film work got harder to come by after the wall came down. In 2001, she officially retired from from film and TV work in Germany, but continued to work in theater productions abroad. More recently, she has retired from the theater as well and lives in a small town near Berlin. Now 58, she is still very beautiful.

Inspiration for All My Girls came from a  documentary short by Jürgen Böttcher titled Sterne (Stars—not to be confused with the feature film of the same name). All My Girls struck a chord with the East German public. Like The Legend of Paul and Paula, the film resonated with the average worker for its portrayal of life outside of the rarefied world of the intelligentsia. Screenings were well attended and the reviews were mostly favorable. The film was chosen to open the first East German National Film Festival (Nationale Spielfilmfestival der DDR), where Lissy Tempelhof won awards for best actress and for “the most successful representation of a working personality.”

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