Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

The 100th Post!

Posted: October 18, 2014 in DEFA, Film

East German Blog

I was going to post about yet another film when I suddenly realized that this marks the 100th post on the East German Cinema Blog. When I started this project four years, I had no idea if anyone else in the world was interested in these films. Since then I have discovered a thriving community and growing interest in the movies worldwide. My recent presentations on the subject in San Francisco and Copenhagen were extremely well attended and enthusiastically received. Of course, I couldn’t have done this without help, so I’d like to thank a few people right now. First off, Barton Byg and Seán Allan, who were into these film long before I knew anything about them; Evan Torner, who provides the best subtitles for DEFA films, and has been a font of information; Sebastian Heiduschke, who has become a great friend, and whose book on East German Films should be on everyone’s shelf; Hiltrud Schulz and Sky Arndt Briggs at the DEFA Library, who have helped immeasurably in making this blog as good as it is; Jale Yoldas (San Francisco) and Mia Munck Bruns (Copenhagen) the Goethe Institut for their continued encouragement; and finally Jack Stevenson at the Husets Biograf Theater in Copenhagen and Stephen Parr at Oddball Films in San Francisco for providing venues for my talks. And of course, thanks to all of you, my readers, and those of you who attended the presentations in San Francisco and Copenhagen (and my apologies to anyone who couldn’t get into the San Francisco talk).

After four years, one might think that I’ve already uncovered the best films, but there seems to be no end to it. Every month I come across new gems from the DEFA archives. I studying film has taught me anything, it’s that  no matter how many films you’ve seen, there’s always another one out there waiting to blow your socks off.

And with that, I’ll resume my regularly scheduled programming. Tomorrow I’ll be talking about a film that has the dubious reputation of having the most egregiously mistranslated titled on the Internet.

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By the end of the sixties, it was obvious to all but the most iron-headed autocrats that East Germany was facing a crisis of culture. In spite of every effort to seal the public off from the invidious influences of the west, information was getting through, and the young people of the GDR were becoming more and more dissatisfied with the state of things. At DEFA they decided to try a different tack. If the kids wanted youth-oriented films that could match the likes of the AIP Beach Party movies, then DEFA was going to give them what they wanted, but with a distinctly communist slant. Thus was born the first East German Beach Party film, Hot Summer (Heißer Sommer).

In Hot Summer, a group of boys from Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz) and group of girls from Leipzig that have just finished school and are ready for a summer vacation (like its Hollywood counterparts, everyone in this film is considerably older than the character they play). They meet on their way to the Baltic Sea, with each group trading turns singing about the joys of a hot summer. Unlike the American Beach Party movies, which usually start with the boys and girls getting along at first and then fighting later, the boys and girls of Hot Summer are at each other from the start. The boys are led by Kai, played by the popular East German singer, Frank Schöbel, and the girls are led by Stupsi, played by Chris Doerk, a tomboy with a 100-watt smile and a voice that could have knocked down the wall by itself.

By the time Hot Summer was made, Chris Doerk and Frank Schöbel—a married couple in real life—were already media darlings in East Germany. Both appeared regularly on TV variety shows. Although there is some sexual tension between Kai and Stupsi, it never amounts to much. Aside from a scene where the two of them are singing atop a railroad train and then jump into a haystack (done without stunt doubles, I might add), they never quite connect. Kai has the hots for Stupsi’s pal, Britt, a flirtatious young woman who wants to have it all—in this case, all meaning both Kai and his friend Wolf.

In a Hollywood film, Britt would be the bad girl, who learns the hard way that living for the moment has its consequences (see Yvette Mimieux’s character in Where the Boys Are for the classic example of this). She would be chastised because sex for its own enjoyment is seen as a bad thing. In the east, her behavior is frowned on because it leads to party disunity. The rivalry over Britt threatens to tear the fabric of the community apart and everyone learns that the needs of the collective are more important than the needs of the individual. Britt is played by Regine Albrecht, who exudes a an easy-going, inconsiderate charm. Ms. Albrecht was primarily a stage actress, but she appeared in several films in the GDR. Since the late nineties, she has worked with the Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam, where she lives. She is also well-known for her voice dubbing, and has done the German voices for several popular American television shows and movies, including The Gilmore Girls, and Brokeback Mountain.

The director, Joachim Hasler, who was already a well-respected cinematographer when he made this film. After serving an apprenticeship at the ORWO labs in Wolfen (then still called AGFA), he became an apprentice cameraman at DEFA, working under the famous Bruno Mondi (see Rotation for more information on Mondi). His first screen credit as cinematographer was on Martin Hellberg’s anti-American classic, Das verurteilte Dorf (The Condemned Village). From there he went on to film some of the best DEFA movies of the late fifties and early sixties, including The Silent Star, and Das Lied der Matrosen (The Sailor’s Song). He began directing films in 1957, starting with Gejagt bis zum Morgen (Hunted Until Morning), and he scored a big hit in 1965 with Chronik eines Mordes (The Story of a Murder), which starred Angelica Domröse of The Legend of Paul and Paula fame.

The term auteur is often bandied about in film criticism and suggests that the director is the driving creative force behind a movie. Auteur theory falls to pieces in the east, where that kind of project ownership was actively discouraged. But Hot Summer comes closer to fitting the concept than most DEFA films. Joachim Hasler not only directed the film, but—like Kubrick and Soderberg—he was also the cinematographer and the co-author of the screenplay.

In spite of this seemingly heavy message, Hot Summer is light fun. The cast is as attractive as any western equivalent, and the songs are ridiculously catchy. After a couple listenings, you’ll find yourself humming them for the rest of the day. [Note: in German, they call a song that gets stuck in your head an Ohrwurm—literally, an “ear worm.”] The music was composed by the father and son team of Gerd and Thomas Natschinski. Gerd got his start after WWII as the conductor of the radio orchestra in Leipzig (Große Unterhaltungsorchester des Leipziger Rundfunks). He studied with Hanns Eisler in Berlin and also conducted the Berlin Radio Orchestra (Berliner Rundfunk). He began by scoring short films, and moved to feature films in 1954 with Hexen and Carola Lamberti – Eine vom Zirkus. He composed several theater pieces, including the musical Mein Freund Bunbury (My Friend Bunbury), and a ballet version of The Tales of Hoffmann. He also composed the music for Meine Frau macht Musik (My Wife Wants to Sing), and Revue um Mitternacht (Midnight Revue)—two of DEFA’s most successful musicals.

Gerd knew how to compose classical and stage music but Hot Summer was more pop than anything he had done before. To help him with this, he enlisted the aid of his 21-year-old son Thomas. The younger Natschinski was already a successful rock musician in East Germany, whose band, Team 4, had scored a hit in 1964 with “Mokka-Milch-Eisbar,” an extremely popular (and catchy) song about the joys of an ice cream parlor on East Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee. From there he went on to lead or work with several other groups, including Karat and Veronika Fischer (see DEFA Disko 77). In the late seventies, he started composing music for East German television shows, and continued this after the wall came down with nary a pause. In 2008, he published his biography (co-written with journalist, Christine Dähn), Verdammt, wer hat das Klavier erfunden (Damn it, Who Invented the Piano).

Hot Summer was a hit at the box-office. In the west, this would have led to an immediate sequel or two (in the case of Beach Party, three sequels were made in the following year alone). But the GDR didn’t work that way. It took five years for anything resembling a sequel to this film to make it to the big screen. In 1975, Joachim Hasler got together a second time with Doerk and Schöbel to create Nicht schummeln, Liebling! (No Cheating, Darling!), a film about the battle of the sexes and soccer. The film was not the hit that Hot Summer was. Critics liked the music, but hated the movie. It was Hasler’s last film as a cinematographer, but he continued to direct films for the next few years, including the popular TV-movie, Ein Engel im Taxi (An Angel in a Taxi), and Der Mann mit dem Ring im Ohr (The Man with the Ring in His Ear).

Today, the comparison to the films of Frankie and Annette has faded. More often, the film is compared to Grease, even though Grease came out after Hot Summer (the play in 1971, and the film in 1978). Nonetheless, it is an apt comparison. Both Grease and Hot Summer were dismissed by critics as pop culture kitsch appealing only to the lowest common denominator, yet both were box office hits that transcended the criticism with an infectious exuberance and plenty of catchy songs. Both have experienced revivals, of sorts. While Grease continues to enjoy repertory theater screenings and road shows of its theatrical version (as well as the occasional movie-house sing-along), Hot Summer went the opposite route, starting as a film and migrating to the stage in Rostock and Grünau. It is easy to sniff at a fluffy little film like Hot Summer, but it is far more enjoyable to simply let yourself go with it and accept it for what it was intended to be: a welcome relief from the drab duties of daily life.

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Immediately after the war, West Germany shied away from getting back into the business of filmmaking. The country was still in ruins; Germans were embarrassed by the enormity of  the horrors for which they were culpable; and the Allies didn’t really want to remind the rest of the world of the destruction wrought on the most beautiful country in Europe. It would take a few more years for the west to get back to making movies, and even then, the films tended to be lighthearted comedies, romantic costume dramas, and an endless parade of Heimatfilme—those pictures about the joys of alpine living that only people in the Bavarian regions of the Germany, Austria, and Switzerland can truly appreciate.

East Germany, on the other hand, was anxious to start making films again. This was partly thanks to the influence of the Russians, who considered cinema was one of the most powerful media for enlightening people to the benefits of communism, but it was also due to the fact that the heralded UFA Studios in Babelsberg were now in the Russian-controlled sector. In 1946, the first film of the GDR started filming before DEFA was fully established. That film, The Murderers Are Among Us (Die Mörder sind unter uns), still stands as one of the greatest films to come out of East Germany.

The Murderers Are Among Us is the first of what became known as Trümmerfilme (literally “rubble films”). These are films that were shot in and among the ruins and debris of post-war Germany. They do not shy away from the severe destruction that was left after WWII, and often show the characters wandering amid piles of bricks and twisted metal. But the Trümmerfilme (and the ensuing Trümmerliteratur movement) were also about the effects of this destruction on the German psyche. The people in these films are often dissolute and apathetic; the destruction on the streets mirrored in their eyes.

The Murderers Are Among Us takes place in Berlin right after the war. Susan Wallner (Hildegard Knef), an attractive young woman is returning from a concentration camp where she was imprisoned for reasons that we never fully discover. She returns home to find that a strange, surly man named Hans Mertens (W. Borchert)  has taken up residence in her apartment. All her attempts to placate or succor him are met with hostility. Clearly we are dealing with someone with a past. As the story progresses, we learn that Mertens was once a surgeon, but something he witnessed during the war has rendered him unable to stand the sight of blood or the sounds of human suffering. Just when it looks like he is starting to get over it, Ferdinand Brückner (Arno Paulsen), the man responsible for his nightmares, comes back into his life.

In some respects, The Murderers Are Among Us is a fairly run-of-the-mill film. It uses many of the tropes that were standard Hollywood issue at the time (an absurdly beautiful concentration camp refugee, and cliched use of music) It also features many of the signatures of expressionism that made the earlier German films so interesting, but were, by 1946—thanks to heavy influx of the best of Germany’s craftspeople—fairly common in Hollywood film noir, (the use of reflected and diffracted images to represent the psyche, chiaroscuro, and unusual focus shifts). Nonetheless, the film remains powerful; in part due to the inescapable truth of the situation. Germany was in tatters, and any melodrama inherent in the story was tempered by the fact that, indeed, things really were this bad, or worse. Director Wolfgang Staudte uses extreme close-ups to keep us off-guard and uncomfortable. He also has a flair for the cynical. In one scene the camera pans up from a newspaper headline reading, “2 Million Were Gassed,” to Brückner eating his breakfast. In another scene, while Brückner is protesting his innocence to the world, the scene around him transmogrifies from a building hallway to the inside of a jail cell.

In its original version, Mertens kills the evil Brückner. While this was and emotionally satisfying way to end the story, there was a problem with it. The trials were in progress in Nuremberg and it was already apparent that not everyone was going to pay for their crimes. Examples were being made, but some of the people responsible for the deaths of thousands were walking away with little more than a slap on the wrist (see The Council of the Gods). Putting out a movie that promoted the vigilante killing of these people was seen as a bad way to get the new Germany off the ground. The Allies appealed to the filmmakers to change the ending. In the final version of the film, the fate of Brückner is left up to the courts. This resolution feels forced and rings hollow, like some of the films from Hollywood under the Hays Code.

Hildegard Knef’s performance in The Murderers Are Among Us made such an impact on David O. Selznick that he offered her a contract, but only if she changed her name to Gilda Christian and told people that she was Austrian instead of German (one of life’s little ironies was that Americans didn’t like Germans because  they thought that Adolph Hitler—an Austrian by birth—was a German). Knef refused but still found some success in Hollywood under the name Hildegard Neff, which was how Americans insisted on pronouncing her last name anyway. Both of her co-stars, Ernst Wilhelm Borchert and Arno Paulsen, also eventually ended up in the west before the wall went up.

Perhaps because it was made so soon after the war, or perhaps because the story didn’t require it, there is very little of the proselytizing found in later DEFA films. We suspect that Susan Wallner’s imprisonment and her willingness to share her space with a stranger have something to do with communism, but it is never explicitly stated. The bad guy is clearly a capitalist of the worst sort, selling pots made from the helmets of dead soldiers, but even here, he is evil because of his war-time activities; the connection between capitalism and his inhumanity is tacitly acknowledged, but never pounded home. The Murderers Are Among Us sets important precedents that will help shape the course of DEFA up until the state was abolished in 1990. There is an honesty and a commitment to artistic expression that the west wouldn’t rediscover for a decade. Later on, these same characteristics would put many East German filmmakers in direct confrontation with the GDR officials. It was a bold start to the beginning of a new order.

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By the spring of 1950, tensions between the west and the east were worse than ever. On Easter Sunday of the previous year, the USA had successfully broken the Soviet blockade of Berlin, and both sides had reverted back to the mistrust that characterized their relationship prior to World War II. Public opinion in America, with prodding by certain congressmen, was once again turning hard against communism. By the mid-fifties, calling someone a “red” was no longer just mild epithet: it could end a career. Films like The Red Danube, I Married a Communist, and, My Son John reflected this. Throughout the fifties, both Hollywood and DEFA would ramp up their propaganda machines, with films becoming more strident and proselytizing as the decade wore on.

But even in propaganda, there are truths to be discovered. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in DEFA’s film from 1950, The Council of the Gods (Der Rat der Götter). In this film we follow the story of IG Farben, Germany’s largest chemical manufacture, from its pre-war chemical advances, through its production of poison gases for the Nazis during World War II, to the resulting war crimes trial in Nuremberg. Primarily, the film follows the events in the lives Dr. Hans Scholz (Fritz Tillmann)—the idealistic and brilliant, but naive scientist who thinks his work at IG Farben will lead to a better world, and Chairman Mauch (Paul Bildt), the head of IG Farben, and a man without any apparent scruples. While Hans works diligently to try and discover new and useful chemicals derived from hydrazine, Chairman Mauch plots with Standard Oil and other western corporations to finance Hitler’s war machine. The main heavy is Mr. Lawson (Willy A. Kleinau), a ruthless capitalist who will back any horse that helps him see a profit. Before the war, we see him hobnobbing with Chairman Mauch on a regular basis, attending fancy dress parties and meeting during South American vacations. After the war, he is shown manipulating the Nuremberg trial to ensure that his friends at IG Farben do not receive much more than a slap on the wrist. When it looks like the American prosecutor is going to play hardball with the defendants from IG Farben, Lawson uses his pull to get the prosecutor replaced with someone more sympathetic to the cause.

It surprises most Americans to find out the extent to which Standard Oil colluded with IG Farben throughout the war. In truth, the Carl Krauch, the man on whom Chairman Mauch is based, did not get off quite as lightly as the DEFA film suggests, although his six-year sentence seemed inadequate to the survivors from Auschwitz. Also missing from this film is the fact that IG Farben was dismantled after the war, splitting the conglomerate back into the individual companies it had swallowed years earlier (Bayer, AGFA, Hoechst, and BASF, among others).

Paul Bildt plays Chairman Mauch with the right amount of congeniality and menace. Fritz Tillmann is a bit less believable as the gullible scientist who doesn’t figure out that IG Farben is making poison gas until, quite literally, the rest of Europe knows it. Willy A. Kleinau doesn’t even try for believability as the Machiavellian American businessman, Mr. Lawson. He chews up the scenery with gusto. It probably doesn’t help that, to western eyes, he looks like the stereotype of a Russian bureaucrat (one reviewer even commented on his resemblance to Boris Badenov, the evil cartoon spy on Rocky and his Friends).

The most remarkable performance in The Council of the Gods comes from Eva Pflug, who plays the very American daughter of Mr. Lawson. Her imitation of an American speaking German is so good that one reviewer wrote: “[Eva Plug] must be heard to be believed. German is obviously not her mother tongue…” Actually, Eva Pflug is very much a German, born and raised in Leipzig. The Council of the Gods was her first and last film for DEFA. Soon afterwards, she moved to West Germany where she continued appearing in movies and on television until her death in 2008.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this film is the production design by Willy Schiller. The movie called for enormous chemical plant and attached rail yard, but no such site was available to the filmmakers. In the north soundstage of the DEFA studios in Babelsberg, Schiller built a 25th scale replica of a vast chemical plant, with railroad tracks, trains, and the surrounding buildings. The effect is nearly perfect. When the script called for a Swiss chalet, the Schiller had miniature Alps built. These were then placed in front of the background and cut out to fit around a rustic house in the Hartz Mountains, using the forced perspective to create the illusions of distance and size.

In spite of the hollow calls for workers to unite, The Council of the Gods stands as a testament to the nature of greed and the dangers of corporate conglomerates like IG Farben. As Kurt Maetzig pointed out in an interview that is included in the extras on the Icestorm DVD, all the information about what IG Farben and Standard Oil did during World War II came from the testimony at the trials which were held by the Americans, and from the book, IG Farben, by Richard Sasuly, who was working as a chief financial officer in the US Military during the Nuremberg trials. Furthermore, all the documentary footage shown in the film was taken by the Americans.

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The only East German film to receive wide circulation in the US during the early sixties is a science fiction film titled The Silent Star (Der schweigende Stern). It is based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, The Astronauts, and was the first science fiction film to be made at the DEFA studios as a co-production with Zespoły Filmowe. The Silent Star tells the story of a multi-national team of astronauts that goes to Venus to investigate the possible existence of intelligent life there. [Note: this was before later space probes proved that Venus is actually an extremely inhospitable environment for nearly any form of life, except for some sulphuric acid-loving microbes.]

The film was picked up by Crown International Pictures (CIP), a company that specialized in cheaply-made exploitation films for the American drive-in market. Like that other drive-in movie distributor, American International Pictures, Crown International often supplemented their catalog of low-budget, American-made movies with heavily-edited foreign films. CIP bought the distribution rights to The Silent Star, dubbed it (badly), and chopped fifteen minutes out of it, rendering the already complicated story nearly incomprehensible. They then released it under the title, First Spaceship on Venus. Small wonder, then, that it ended up as a target for ridicule by the snarky film mockers at Mystery Science Theater 3000. In spite of the poor dubbing, choppy editing, and relegation to the grindhouse circuit, the movie still made a strong impression on those of us who saw it in 1962 (in my case, at the Lyric Theatre in Tucson, Arizona).

On of the most memorable things about the movie—at least to kids—is Omega (pronounced “OH-mee-ga”), a tiny tank-like robot that may well have served as the inspiration for R2D2. Radio-controlled devices were still fairly new at the time. The Nazis had used radio-controlled rockets and bombs during WWII, but these were heavy devices with large batteries and vacuum tubes. The advent of transistors made it possible to include these controls in smaller, lighter devices, leading to the model airplane craze of the late fifties. When the film first played in East Germany, Omega must have seemed like a pretty impressive piece of technology. By the time the film made it to the United States most people were familiar with radio-controlled toys, but that didn’t make Omega any less endearing.

The Silent Star starts with the discovery of a mysterious spool found in the Gobi Desert. It is made from an unknown substance and a group of scientists from around the world is brought together to examine it. The scientists discover that the source of the spool is Venus. They build a rocketship to go to Venus and investigate. On board the ship are an American nuclear physicist, a German pilot, a Polish chief engineer, a female Japanese doctor, a Soviet astronaut (the term cosmonaut had not been coined when Lem wrote his book), an Indian mathematician, a Chinese linguist, and an African technician. What they find is a civilization that accidentally destroyed itself while building a weapon intended to destroy our planet. The crew—as least the ones that survive—come back to Earth and convince everyone on this planet should live in harmony. The film ends with all the different crews holding hands. All that’s missing is Kumbaya.

It is worth noting that while people give Star Trek credit for using a multi-ethnic cast at a time when TV in American was almost exclusively the domain of white males, The Silent Star had done this six years earlier. More importantly, the film played in the United States in late 1962, shortly before Gene Roddenberry started working on the Star Trek pilot. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but the film did receive wide distribution, and was seen by many fans of science fiction.

Stanislaw Lem was never very happy with either his book or the movie. It was his first book, and he felt he was forced to bend some of the ideas to fit a specifically communist perspective. This is truer still of the movie, but the proselytizing is mild compared to many other films of the time (both east and west). It is no small irony that this tale of brotherly love and international friendship was made a year before the wall was built, sealing off East Berlin from the west for the next twenty-eight years.

The technical crew for this film consisted of the best that DEFA had to offer. The special effects supervisor was Ernst Kunstmann, who had done special effects for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The cinematographer was Joachim Hasler, who would later go on to become a successful director in his own right, mostly famously for the East German “Beach Party” movie, Hot Summer. And the editing was by Lena Neumann, who had gotten her start as an editor during the Third Reich and was, at that point, the most experienced editor in East Germany,

The director, Kurt Maetzig, had already made a name for himself with films such as Council of the Gods, Marriage in the Shadows, Die Buntkarierten, and the Ernst Thälmann films. At that point, he was the most respected filmmaker in East Germany. Maetzig got his start as a film technician during the Third Reich, but lost his work privileges after the Nuremberg Laws were enacted (his mother was Jewish). During WWII, he joined the banned Communist Party, and didn’t return to Berlin until after the war. In October of 1945, he co-founded Filmaktiv—a group dedicated to reinventing and reviving the German film industry. This eventually led to the founding of DEFA. Maetzig retired from filmmaking in 1976. He turned 100 in January of 2011.

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