Archive for the ‘Frank Beyer’ Category

Held for Questioning
The backstory of Held for Questioning (Der Aufenthalt) is the story of a film that was made against all odds, by a director that DEFA had, essentially, written off the books. Frank Beyer was one of the best filmmakers in East Germany. He proved this time and again, with movies such as Five Cartridges, Naked Among Wolves, and Star-Crossed Lovers; all of which were critically acclaimed on both sides of the Iron Curtain, He was also responsible for delivering East Germany’s only Oscar-nominated feature (Jakob the Liar); a film so good that Hollywood was quick to remake it (badly) in their own image. Watch Beyer’s films and you’ll see why. Here’s a director who understands the film medium better than most other directors—West and East.

You’d think this would have made him the darling of DEFA, but that was not how the GDR worked. In 1966, he got in trouble after the 11th Plenum, when the authorities decided that his film Trace of Stones was anti-socialist. Beyer was relegated to TV, and wasn’t allowed to make another feature film until 1974, when he made Jakob the Liar. The film was such a hit that he was allowed to return to feature filmmaking once more.

After Jakob the Liar, he made The Hiding Place (Das Versteck), a romantic comedy inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. It starred the always popular Manfred Krug and Jutta Hoffmann and had nothing particularly controversial in it, but right before the film was slated for release, the East German authorities decided it would be a good idea to expatriate Wolf Biermann while the folksinger was on tour in Cologne. Over one hundred writers, actors, directors, poets and other artists signed a letter of protest against the move. Four of those who signed the letter included Manfred Krug and Jutta Hoffmann—the stars of The Hiding Place—as well as the film’s screenwriter Jurek Becker and director Frank Beyer. The film was given an extremely limited release and quickly shelved. All four people were essentially blacklisted, with Krug, Hoffmann, and Becker moving to West Germany to get away from the work restrictions and constant surveillance. Beyer stayed behind, but once again found himself relegated to the world of television. Perhaps as an act of defiance, he went to West Germany and made a film starring Angelica Domröse and her husband Hilmar Thate, who, like Krug and Hoffmann, had signed the Biermann protest letter, and then left East Germany because of the punitive measures taken against all the signatories. At this point, it looked like Beyer would never be allowed to make another feature film in East Germany.

Der Aufenhalt

One night, while talking to screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Beyer mentioned that he would love to make a movie out of Hermann Kant’s semi-autobiographical novel, Der Aufenthalt (literally, The Stay), but he felt that the book’s interweaving stories would be too unwieldy for a film. Kohlhaase had a solution. “Just focus on the story of Mark Niebuhr, the nineteen-year-old German soldier who, at the end of WWII, is mistakenly identified as an SS officer and thrown into prison.” Beyer liked the idea, but DEFA wasn’t ready to let him back into the fold. They only relented after author Hermann Kant gave DEFA the ultimatum that either Beyer directed the film or no one would. And so, Held for Questioning was made.

As you might guess from the subject matter, Held for Questioning is a grim affair. The story starts in a railway yard, when a women identifies Niebuhr as the SS officer responsible for the murder of her daughter at Lublin. Things go quickly downhill for Niebuhr after that. Nobody will tell him what it is he’s supposed to have done. From his perspective, events are playing out like Franz Kafka’s The Trial. At first he is kept in solitary confinement, then released into the main prison with Polish prisoners who hate him. Later he is moved to the cell containing other German officers, and it is here that he learns of the heinous crimes his fellow inmates committed. He begins to understand that, while not guilty of the charge with which he’s accused, he is, at least, guilty of not bothering to pay attention to what was happening around him, and of helping their actions.

A story like this could be easily ruined by a less talented filmmaker, but Wolfgang Kohlhaase and Frank Beyer are far too good at their craft to fall into that trap. As usual, Kohlhaase leaves enough space between events to let you fill in blanks, and Beyer knows just how to direct it. In one scene, two Polish girls flirt with the handsome young Niebuhr, until they learn what he’s accused of. They look on him in horror. It is also the first time Niebuhr hears just what it is he’s charged with.

The Stay

Playing Mark Niebuhr is Sylvester Groth in his first feature film. Groth’s career in East German films was short. He made his last film for DEFA in 1986 (Das Haus am FlußThe House on the River). While visiting Austria as a guest actor, he decided not to return to the GDR, and began his career in the West. With his expressive and striking features, it didn’t take long for him to find work in West Germany, and then later in Hollywood. He has appeared in numerous films, including Inglourious Basterds, The Reader, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Whisky with Vodka (Whisky mit Wodka) and many more. Recently, he’s become familiar to American television viewers as Walter Schweppenstette in the popular TV series Deutschland 83, and for portraying Walter Ahler in NSU: German History X.

Held for Questioning was a critical success, and won several prizes. It was scheduled to be shown at the 1983 Berlinale, but it was pulled from the film festival and banned from any international distribution after a Polish military attaché denounced the film as anti-Polish. It was nothing of the kind, of course, but the attaché spoke very little German, and objected to the fact that the Germans made a movie in which the protagonist was imprisoned by Polish soldiers. It didn’t help that the Polish military officers were still wearing the same outfits in 1983 that they wore in 1946. With the recent clashes between the Polish government and the Solidarity movement, the film took on an entirely new subtext that neither Beyer nor Kohlhaase had meant or anticipated. After that, it was only allowed to be shown in the the state-owned theaters in East Germany.

In spite of the Polish objections to it, Held for Questioning was a popular film with audiences and critics, and it helped Beyer get back in DEFA’s good graces. Unfortunately, his return to feature films didn’t last long. Six years later, the end of the GDR also meant the end of the careers of many fine East German filmmakers and technicians. Beyer found himself once again relegated to the world of television, this time thanks to the forces of West German exclusivity rather than East German retribution.

IMDB page for this film.

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Star-Crossed Lovers

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the period between the building of the Berlin Wall and the 11th Plenum was a golden age for film in East Germany. The authorities were determined to prove that building the wall was not intended to repress the population, but was intended as an “anti-fascist protective barrier” (antifaschistischer Schutzwall) that would allow East German filmmakers greater artistic freedom without subversion from the west. Films that would have been deemed too experimental or arty before the Wall were approved now, and DEFA’s directors took full advantage of this change in policy. Small wonder, then, that any list of the best East German films shows a noticeable concentration of films made during this period.1

One of the first to take full advantage of DEFA’s new policy was Frank Beyer, a director on any short list of great East German directors, and the only one from the GDR to have an Oscar nomination (Jakob the Liar). With Star-Crossed Lovers (Königskinder), Mr. Beyer kicks things into high gear with vivid cinematography and an artist’s eye for frame composition. It is a dazzling film from a brief but exceptional time for East German cinema.

Königskinder

Star-Crossed Lovers is the story of three childhood friends—Magdalena, Michael, and Jürgen. Michael and Magdalena are in love, but the fates conspire to keep them apart. Jürgen, a timid conformist, has lusted after Magdalena since childhood, but there is never really any romantic tension here—Magdalena loves Michael, Michael loves her, and poor Jürgen remains the odd man out. When they get older, Michael becomes active in the KPD (the German Communist Party) and Magdalena assists him. Meanwhile, Jürgen takes the path of least resistance and joins the SA. He still loves Magdalena, but, as one might imagine, his employment choice does nothing to improve his standing in her eyes.

The story is told in flashbacks, with the present-day action taking place during the final days of World War II. Magdalena is working with the Russians to provide aid to their troops on the front lines, while Michael is conscripted into the infamous Strafdivision 999 (Penal Battalion 999), Hitler’s remarkably ill-conceived attempt to use prisoners as soldiers. There he meets up with Jürgen, who has been assigned as an officer in the battalion.

The German title for the film comes from the folk song, “Es waren zwei Königskinder” (There Were Two Royal Children), which tells the story of a prince and princess who are kept apart by waters that separate them. Of course, the “waters” in this case Nazism and WWII, but Beyer is a sophisticated filmmaker and he reflects the idea of separation by water several times in several ways. Part of the fun of this film is spotting these references. Things end badly in the song, and the film hints at a similar tragedy, but Beyer leaves things open to interpretation.

Annekathrin Bürger

Playing Magdalena is Annekathrin Bürger. I’ve talked about Ms. Bürger in previous post (see Hostess and Not to Me, Madame!). Ms. Bürger started working films at eighteen after being discovered by Gerhard Klein, but 1962 was a banner year for her. She starred in two of the best films from that year—this one and The Second Track. After marrying Rolf Römer, Ms. Bürger often starred in films he directed. She continues to work in films.

Michael is portrayed by Armin Mueller-Stahl, who was just coming into his own when this film was made. He had appeared in some TV movies during the fifties, but it was his role in Five Cartridges that brought him to the big screen. Star-Crossed Lovers was his second feature film, followed a few months later by And Your Love Too. He starred in several classic DEFA films, including Naked Among Wolves, Her Third, Jakob the Liar and The Flight. In 1976, he joined other popular film stars in a protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. As with the others who signed the protest, he found that job opportunities had dried up, so he did what many of the others on the list did also, and moved to West Germany. For Mr. Mueller-Stahl this proved to be an especially auspicious move. There, he met up with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who cast him in Lola and Veronika Voss; and with Niklaus Schilling, who cast him in Der Westen leuchtet (The Lite Trap). He began to get more work in West Germany, but the big break came when Costa-Gavras cast him as the Grandpa with a secret in The Music Box. Other films followed quickly, including Barry Levinson’s Avalon, Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, and Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka. Mr. Mueller-Stahl is a true renaissance man. Besides being an actor, he paints, writes, and plays a mean fiddle. Of late, he has been concentrating on these other pursuits over acting.

Royal Children

To play the sad-sack Jürgen, Mr. Beyer cast Ulrich Thein. Mr. Thein, more than any other star in East Germany, was born to be an actor, his father was a theater bandleader. Although his father died when he was only four years old, the young Ulrich continued in his father’s footsteps, studying music and working in theater. In 1951, he joined the world-famous Deutsches Theater Berlin, where he continued to perform until 1963. Ironically, although he played the unloved man in this film, it was he who was in a relationship with Ms. Bürger at the time. During the sixties, Mr. Thein added film director to his list of talents—at first in TV movies, then later in feature films. After the fall of the Wall, he found that most of the films he was offered were lousy. In his words, “I won’t make the shit producers are offering me.” (“Ich will den Scheiß nicht machen, der mir von einigen Produzenten angeboten wird.”). He retired from filmmaking in 1992, and took up teaching.

To shoot the film, Mr. Beyer used his long-time collaborator, Günter Marczinkowsky. Like many of the better cinematographers at DEFA, Mr. Marczinkowsky came from the technical side of film, having work as a photo lab technician and a projectionist before starting at DEFA. He was assistant to the famous Robert Baberske, whose Berlin: Symphonie of a Great City remains a classic example of pure cinema. After Beyer’s Traces of Stones was banned, Mr. Marczinkowsky was relegated to work on TV movies—a common fate for anyone who found their work in the crosshairs of the 11th Plenum. He returned to features films from time to time, most notably with Abschied (Farewell) and Jakob the Liar, but most of his later work was for the small screen. Sadly, his career ended with the collapse of East Germany.

Of the films from East Germany, I would have to categorize this one as the best film that is not available with English subtitles. I suspect this is only temporary. It’s too good a film to go unrecognized for much longer.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (German only, no subtitles).


1. It probably didn’t hurt that during the same period, West Germany’s film industry was gaining a reputation for making lousy movies. So much so that, in February of 1962, a group of young West German filmmakers at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen released the Oberhausen Manifesto, stating that “conventional films are dead,” and calling people to challenge the film industry’s conventions, and free it from the control of commercial interests.

The Central Committee of the SED

The Central Committee of the SED of the GDR

NOTE: Readers of this blog may have noticed how often the term “11th Plenum” crops up in these film reviews. Although I define the term in the glossary, a quick definition can only scratch the surface. For those who want to learn more, I offer this article. It’s more of a history lesson than a film essay, so readers, whose interest in such things is limited, can safely skip this article and simply take it on face value that the 11th Plenum was a bad, bad thing.

There are moments in the history of any country that stand out as turning points, for better or worse, during which times a country, its politics, and its people are all changed irrevocably, and every action taken after that point is measured by the event. Revolutions and attacks are the obvious examples, but some important events take place behind closed doors in meeting rooms and auditoriums. Some attacks occur without a single shot being fired. Well chosen words can do as much damage as a billyclubs and bullets.

In the history of the German Democratic Republic, a few events stand out: the founding of the GDR, the July 17th revolts, the building and destruction of the Berlin Wall, and the 11th Plenum are milestones in the story of East Germany. For the people in the film industry, it was the last event that was the most important. Only the creation of DEFA was more important to the story of filmmaking in the GDR. The 11th Plenum changed everything, and it is often cited as the death knell for creativity in East German films. This isn’t true by a long shot, but it did constitute a major blow to the country’s artistic community, and changed the way the creative community interacted with and responded to the government for the rest of the country’s brief existence.

Ironically, the 11th Plenum—or, the 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, as its official title translates into English—was never meant to be a referendum on the arts in the German Democratic Republic. It was supposed to be about the country’s economic recovery plan, but unexpected events, coupled with an unwillingness to address the real problems the country was facing, threw a spanner in the works. To understand exactly what happened, we have to go back a few years.

Immediately after WWII, it was apparent that the socialist model was working better than the capitalist one in Germany. The Allied sectors of Germany were struggling to get back on their feet while the Soviet Sector was going strong—and this in spite of the fact that the USSR was still busy pilfering the East German resources for its own needs. During the forties, it wasn’t uncommon for people to cross the border to get work in the GDR because the West still had nothing to offer. Some of this was by design. The Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) was in no hurry for Germany to get back on its feet. Prior to the Marshall Plan, OMGUS was working off JCS 1067, a renamed version of the infamous Morgenthau Plan that was designed to drag Germany back to the eighteenth century. Fortunately for West Germany, America’s fear of communism was greater than its fear of Nazis. At the start of the fifties, when it looked like East Germany was in danger of winning the hearts and minds of the German people, OMGUS backed away from Morgenthau’s anti-industrial foolishness and started promoting economic growth in the Bundesrepublik.

Americans blamed for potato bug invasion

Propaganda booklet claiming the potato beetle invasion was an American plot. (See http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/amikafer.htm)

What happened next was the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle), during which time West Germany’s economy grew so fast that they had to import workers from other countries to keep up with production.1 Suddenly the East German economy started looking anemic. This was compounded by agricultural problems in the form of an invasion of potato bugs that the authorities were quick to blame on the United States. The West German government, under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer, along with West German mayor, Willy Brandt, decided to push things to the limit by introducing the West D-Mark in West Berlin, A move that severely unbalanced the economies between the two halves of the city and started the events that led to the building of the Berlin Wall (for more on this, see Look At This City!).

One of the claims made by the East German authorities after the building of the wall was that by restricting the ability of the west to disrupt East German society, the artistic community would have greater freedom to be creative. To demonstrate this, the movie technicians at DEFA were given greater freedom to push the boundaries of style and content.2 What followed was a burst of imaginative filmmaking. New camera techniques were used and stories became visually and structurally more experimental and interesting. From 1962 to 1966, East German filmmakers made some of the best films to come out of Germany since the Weimar days.

The wall was intended to eliminate the inequities between east and west. But the East German economy continued to deteriorate, Stalin’s Five Year Plan model wasn’t working any better in East Germany that it had in Russia, and the West was making political hay of it. In the USSR, Khrushchev decided to move away from Stalin’s centralized model to a more localized one. A decision that was met with a great deal of grumbling from the hard-liners in the politburo. East Germany’s General Secretary Walter Ulbricht decided to follow Khrushchev’s lead.

Starting in 1963, General Secretary Walter Ulbricht, economic advisor Wolfgang Berger, and Planning Commissioner Erich Apel, came up with the New Economic System (initially dubbed Neuen Ökonomischen System der Planung und Leitung (NÖSPL) , but later shortened to Neues Ökonomisches System (NÖS)). It was a good plan, and history shows that it might have worked, but Ulbricht didn’t count on the conservative groundswell that was rising in the upper echelons of the USSR. Some Russian politicians—particularly the head of the Supreme Soviet, Leonid Brezhnev—felt that Khrushchev was moving their country away from the government’s core principles. While Khrushchev was on vacation in 1964, Brezhnev made his move and Khrushchev returned to Russia to find himself out of a job.

East German Power Play

This left Ulbricht in a sticky position. He had hitched his wagon to Khrushchev’s star, but suddenly that star had fallen from the heavens. To make matters worse, Brezhnev did not like Ulbricht. He felt that the East German leader had been given far too much slack in his dealings with the USSR and had put that country in some awkward situations. The NÖS may have been working, but Brezhnev made it clear that the Soviets did not support it. Ulbricht was hanging on to his job by a thread at this point.

By the time the 11th Plenum was scheduled to take place, no one in the SED’s Central Committee wanted to touch the subject of economic reforms. Never mind that this was the reason for the meeting in the first place. Less than two weeks before he was scheduled to present his report on the NÖS at the 11th Plenum, Erich Apel committed suicide. Suddenly the NÖS wasn’t just a touchy subject, it was toxic. Like all politicians, when they are afraid of addressing real issues, they turned their criticism to the entertainment industry instead. Films were getting too liberal, they complained. Why, some were downright anti-socialist! Presented with this safe target, the pols went to town. They started seeing threats to their way of life behind every movie, and the blossoming film movement in East Germany—which up to that point was making the cinema of West Germany look downright anemic—was nipped in the bud.

Amazingly, the film that was held up as the prime example of this trend was The Rabbit is Me, a film with as strong a socialist pedigree as anyone could ask for. Its director, after all, was Kurt Maetzig—one of the people responsible for the founding of DEFA and the man who gave us The Council of the Gods, the Ernst Thalmann films, and Das Lied der Matrosen (The Song of the Sailors). Accusing Maetzig of being anti-socialist was a bit like accusing Che Guevara of being a capitalist. It was stunning in its absurdity and a horrible warning sign that the SED had lost its bearings. Nonetheless, The Rabbit is Me became the poster child for the films banned by the SED. Thereafter, the films banned during the 11th Plenum became known as “Rabbit Films” (Kannichenfilme). Other names for these films include Kellarfilme (Cellar Films) and Giftschrankfilme (Poison Cabinet Films).

Eleven features films were banned in the wake of the 11th Plenum. Some of these, such as The Rabbit is Me and Trace of Stones, were finished films that had screenings in cinemas, while others, such as Fräulein Schmetterling (Mademoiselle Butterfly) and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam) were scuttled while still in production. Also added to the Giftschrank was Egon Schlegel’s student film, Ritter des Regens (Knights of the Rain). Two more projects were shut down before any filming began—Die Beteiligten (The Parties Involved) and Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality), both of which were later made into movies by DEFA.

The Rabbit is Me

A scene from Kurt Maetzig’s The Rabbit is Me.

Most of the films on the list were banned for promoting viewpoints that the SED considered contrary to the socialist perspective, but some films were banned for no better reason that that were frivolous. Producers, dramaturges, directors and technicians who were seen as the major “disruptive” forces at DEFA were either sent to work in television, or banned from films entirely. Günter Ost, one of the most talented and imaginative cameramen DEFA ever produced, never made another movie after the Plenum. Egon Schlegel, who was about to start a promising career as a feature film director was forced to spend the next few years working behind the scenes, eventually making a name for himself as a director children’s films (see The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs). Günter Stahnke never made another feature film, but spent the rest of his career making movies for television; a slightly ironic development considering that he first got in trouble with the authorities for a short television film titled Monolog für einen Taxifahrer (Monologue for a Taxi Driver). Some people, such as screenwriter Ulrich Plenzdorf and director Frank Beyer, eventually got back in DEFA’s good graces, but were walking on eggshells for the rest of their careers. Others, such as Jürgen Böttcher (Born in ’45), were never given the opportunity to make another feature film, relegated, instead, to the world of documentary shorts.

Eventually, the writers and filmmakers recovered, and started pushing the boundaries again, but there was always a sense of foreboding afterwards. In 1968, things appeared to be loosening up slightly. Egon Günther’s imaginative Abschied (Farewell) made it into theaters, although, just barely, and the unabashedly frivolous Hot Summer was big hit in the fall of 1968 (although it did include a message of the importance of comradeship under its beach antics).

Hot Summer

A scene from Joachim Hasler’s Hot Summer.

Then, in 1971, that sword of Damocles that had been hanging over Ulbricht’s head finally fell. Ulbricht was ousted from power and replaced with Erich Honecker, a conservative East German politician who had been in charge of the building of the Berlin Wall. Ironically, the hardline Honecker was the one who loosened thing up again for the DEFA filmmakers, declaring that “as long as a film proceeds from the strong position of socialism,” anything goes (actual quote: “Wenn man von den festen Positionen des Sozialismus ausgeht, kann es meines Erachtens auf dem Gebiet von Kunst und Literatur keine Tabus geben.”). Films became more imaginative and adventurous, but the spectre of the 11th Plenum never completely went away. Occasionally films were still banned, but the state never repeated the wholesale shelving of films that occurred after the 11th Plenum. Filmmakers became more wary of what the state censors might do and were often guilty of pre-emptively censoring their own ideas (Egon Günther notwithstanding, who managed to keep pricking the sensibilities of East German blue-stockings right up until the end).

Looking back on the event from an historical perspective, the 11th Plenum seems like the point at which the soul of the GDR died. Up until that point, even the most controversial decisions, such as the building of the wall or the use of the Soviet army to put down the June 17th revolts, could be argued as harsh but necessary moves to give socialist state’s a chance to reach its full potential. With the 11th Plenum, those dreams were dashed. The state went from its infancy to sclerosis in one fell swoop. Even after Honecker softened up the restrictions, and started to recognize the need to incorporate consumer requirements into the socialist model, this didn’t change. He was still part of the problem. The GDR was a young and growing country run by a rapidly aging panel of fossils. No new blood was being incorporated into the upper ranks, and the old men running the country had no concept of what was going on in the world around them.

For many of the films banned as a consequence of the 11th Plenum, their first screenings didn’t occur until the 1990 series at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Some, such as Fräulein Schmetterling and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam, had to be constructed from the unedited reels that were still on the shelves at DEFA headquarters in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

IMDB pages for the films banned by the 11th Plenum:
The Rabbit is Me
Spring Takes Time
Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry
Berlin Around the Corner
When You Grow Up, Dear Adam
Mademoiselle Butterfly
Trace of Stones
The Lost Angel
Karla
Born in ‘45
Hands Up or I’ll Shoot!

Where to buy (films listed with English names are available with English subtitles):
The Rabbit is Me
Spring Takes Time
Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry
Berlin Around the Corner
When You Grow Up, Dear Adam
Fräulein Schmetterling: Not currently available
Trace of Stones
The Lost Angel
Karla
Born in ‘45
Hände hoch oder ich schieße

Further reading:
DEFA: East German Cinema 1946-1992 [Paperback]
John Sandfordand Seán Allan (Editors)

East German Cinema: DEFA and Film History [Paperback]
Sebastian Heiduschke (Available October 2113)

Spur der Filme. Zeitzeugen über die DEFA [Paperback – in German]
Ingrid Possand and Peter Warnecke

Das zweite Leben der Filmstadt Babelsberg. DEFA- Spielfilme 1946 – 1992 [Hardcover – in German]
Christiane Mückenberger and Ralf Schenk

Special thanks to Seán Allan, Barton Byg, and Sebastian Heiduschke for their help with this blog post.
Archive photos are from Das Bundesarchive.


1. These were the famous Gastarbeiter that you’ll hear some Germans (mostly racist Germans) complain about even today. The idea was for these workers to come and work for a few years and then leave—only many didn’t leave, which is the reason you’ll find such strong foreign communities (especially Turkish, but not exclusively) living in Germany today. The GDR instituted a similar program for communist countries, such as Vietnam and Mozambique.

2. This is not to say that there were no longer restrictions. Konrad Petzold and Egon Günther managed to get in hot water with their film Das Kleid (The Dress), an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

There are a few East German films that, in spite of the political differences, are acknowledged as classics on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Stars, The Murderers Are Among Us, and The Rabbit is Me have all entered that exclusive group, but—with the exception of Stars—these films did not receive much attention until after the wall fell. Jakob the Liar (Jakob, der Lügner), on the other hand, was immediately recognized as a classic. So much so that it was nominated, against all odds, for an Academy Award, and Hollywood felt the need to create its own heavy-handed version starring Robin Williams.

Jakob the Liar is the story of people living in a Jewish ghetto, near the end of WWII. They are always in imminent danger of being shipped off to the concentration camps, and the question that’s on everyone’s mind is: Will the Russians get there before its too late? When a man named Jakob Heym overhears that the Russian troops aren’t far away, he tells everyone that he heard it on his secret radio. In fact, he heard it while he was waiting to be chastised at the local military headquarters. As time goes by, the lie gets bigger and everyone in the ghetto turns to him for hope. We know nothing good can come of this scenario, but the film manages to maintain a fine balance between hope and tragedy. This is thanks largely to the deftly written screenplay by Jurek Becker.

Becker first wrote the story as a film script in 1968, but DEFA—still under the influence of the 11th Plenum’s rules against anything even remotely provocative—nixed the idea. Becker turned his screenplay into a book, and the book proved to be popular on both sides of the wall. After Erich Honecker took over the reins of government from Walter Ulbricht, the restrictions against films were relaxed a bit. Becker’s screenplay was dusted off, and the film was greenlighted for production.

Jurek Becker was born in Łódź, Poland, probably in 1937 (his actual birthdate is something of a mystery). Being Jewish, he and his family were moved into the Łódź Ghetto in 1939, and later shipped out to concentration camps. He and his mother ended up first in Ravensbruck, then in Sachsenhausen at the Königs Wusterhausen sub-camp, where his mother died of malnutrition shortly after the camp was liberated. His father was sent to Auchschwitz, and miraculously survived. Jurek was reunited with his father after the war and the two of them moved to the Soviet Sector because his father felt that the Russians were doing a better job of curbing anti-Semitism than the western allies.

At first, the young man fit well with East German society, but while still at school studying philosophy, he got in trouble for his contrary views and was expelled. Becker spent the next few years working as a freelance writer, writing articles and screenplays. Jakob the Liar was his first novel, but was followed by many others, including The Boxer (Der Boxer), Sleepless Days (Schlaflose Tage), and Bronstein’s Children (Bronsteins Kinder), all of which have been made into movies (primarily for German television).

Frank Beyer directed Jakob the Liar. Beyer was well-respected for his WWII films, Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers), a politically-charged love triangle during WWII; Carbide and Sorrel, a comedy set in the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden; and  Naked Among Wolves, the first DEFA film to examine life inside a concentration camp. In the wake of the 11th Plenum, Beyer’s film, The Trace of Stones, became the biggest bugbear of the East German government and Beyer spent the next ten years working at the Dresden State Theater, and later  in television. Jakob the Liar was also originally intended for television, but its popularity led to theater distribution.

Jakob the Liar shows the sure hand of a director who, through earlier experimentation and a variety of different film projects, has mastered his craft. Every scene is composed to tell the story as economically as possible. The experimental camera angles and scene compositions of his earlier work—most notably Königskinder—have been toned down in favor of straight-forward storytelling. The cinematographer was Günter Marczinkowsky, who had shot every Beyer film since Eine alte Liebe (An Old Love) in 1959. Here, he and costume designer Joachim Dittrich work from a palette of grays, browns and olive drabs that create an appropriately oppressive atmosphere. In 1980, Marczinkowsky left East Germany to work in the west, where he continued in television production until 1989.

After success of Jakob the Liar, Becker teamed up with Beyer a second time to create The Hiding Place (Das Versteck), starring Manfred Krug and Jutta Hoffmann. It was during the production of this film that Wolf Biermann was forcibly expatriated. Several popular East German film people signed a letter of protest about this. Among the signatories were Beyer, Becker, Hoffmann and Krug. The SED, running scared by this time, ended up driving most of these people—along with Angelica Dömrose, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and several other of East Germany’s brightest talents—out of the country.

Becker was given a two-year visa, which he used to move to the United States and teach for six-months. After that he moved to West Berlin and continued writing, although his books were no longer published in the GDR. Beyer found himself in the doghouse once more, but, remarkably, he was given a work permit to make films for West German television. Nonetheless, he did not give up his East German citizenship and continued working on both sides of the border, making a few more feature films for DEFA before the wall came down. After the Wende, Beyer worked primarily in television. He has since retired. His last film was the TV-movie, Abgehauen (roughly translated: Beat It), based on Manfred Krug’s autobiographical account of the events that led to that actor’s expulsion from the GDR.

Jakob the Liar’s minimal but haunting score was by Joachim Werzlau. Beyer and Werzlau had worked together many times before, starting with Beyer’s first feature film for DEFA, Zwei Mütter. Zwerlau was born to make music. His father was an orchestra musician who taught him to play piano and violin, and the boy was already trying his hand at classical composition at the age of twelve. At first he did not study music, but began working at the Blüthner piano factory. later he was accepted at the Leipzig Conservatory of Music, but was kicked out because of his left-leaning associations. After the war he was a member of the Cultural Alliance for Democratic Renewal of Germany and composed “Weil Wir Jung Sind, Ist Die Welt So Schön” (“Because We Are Young, The World Is So Beautiful”), a song frequently sung at FDJ meetings (Freie Deutsche Jugend, or Free German Youth, the official socialist youth movement of the SED).

Jakob the Liar was Zwerlau’s last film score. Like Simeon Pironkov’s score for Stars, its inspiration comes from Jewish folk tunes and is hauntingly melancholy. After this film, Werzlau concentrated on his classical compositions, in particular, his opera, Meister Röckle, based on the book by Ilse and Vilmos Korn that was adapted from a version of a old fairy tale that Karl Marx had re-interpreted.

No examination of Jakob the Liar would be complete without mentioning the film’s exceptional cast. To play the lead, Beyer cast Vlastimil Brodský, a Czech actor whose sad-sack expression was perfect for the part. The Czech spoke German very badly, so his voice was dubbed. Scenes of dialog between Brodský and other actors were reportedly very difficult for all involved. Sadly, Brodský committed suicide in 2002.

Playing Jakob’s best friend, Kowalski, is Erwin Geschonneck, arguably the best actor in East Germany. Geschonneck had wanted to play Jakob, but Beyer convinced him that a smaller, more inconspicuous man was needed. [For more information on Erwin Geschonneck, see the article on Carbide and Sorrel.]

Most of the leading actors in the film went on the have successful careers in unified Germany. Among them, Henry Hübchen and Blanche Kommerell, who played the young lovers, Mischa and Rosa, and, of course, Armin Mueller-Stahl, who has the singular distinction of appearing in both film versions of the story. Worthy of special mention is the charming performance by Manuela Simon as the young girl, Lina, who serves as the last symbol and childhood innocence in the ghetto. It is her only film performance, and it is a heartbreaker.

Although the film did not win the Academy Award (that honor went to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Black and White in Color), Frank Beyer won the Interfilm Award for his directing, and Vlastimil Brodský won the Silver Bear for best actor at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1975. The Holllywood version of the story went unnominated by the Motion Picture Academy, but Robin Williams did garner a Golden Raspberry award nomination for worst actor (he lost to Adam Sandler in Big Daddy).

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In December of 1965, The 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the SED left East Germany’s film industry in ruins. Some films (most notably, The Rabbit is Me) were shelved after playing briefly in theaters, while others (e.g., Born in ‘45, Carla, and When You Grow Up, Dear Adam) didn’t reach the theaters until after the wall came down. One film that managed to squeak through the initial purge was The Trace of Stones (Spur der Steine)—partly because it was still being worked on when the Plenum occurred, and partly because it was based on one of the most popular books in East Germany. But it was doomed. After all, it was a film about a party leader who cheats on his wife and a likable anti-hero who flouts authority at every turn. Never mind that the book concludes with the anti-hero embracing the party philosophy, any story that dared to come near the touchy subject of SED politics after the 11th Plenum was treading on dangerous ground.

The Trace of Stones is the story of two competing work projects in the fictional towns of Schkona und Leupau (thinly disguised versions of Schkopau and Leuna: two industrial areas near Halle). At one of the sites, a man named Hannes Balla runs things his own way. He is not averse to cheating and bribery if it keeps his crew in work. As building materials become more scarce, Balla and his gang finds ways to get what they need to keep their project on track. The party officials are not completely happy with this, but Balla gets the work done, so they look the other way. Into this scenario come two idealists: Werner Horrath, a by-the-book party leader, and Kati Klee, a young female Engineer. Soon a romantic triangle develops between Horrath, Klee, and Balla, which sends the delicate equilibrium of the community tilting out of control.

Some critics have compared The Trace of Stones to an American western. Manfred Krug as Hannes Balla certainly has a swagger and an imposing presence similar to John Wayne’s in the John Ford and Howard Hawks films, and some of the scenes with the Balla Brigade have a kind of Magnificent Seven quality about them; but, as an American friend of German literature professor, Dr. Frank Höernick pointed out, “John Wayne would shoot; not stand around chatting.”

If anything, it resembles that other American classic, The Scarlet Letter. Like Hester Prynne, Kati Klee bears up under the community’s disapproval with quiet dignity. And like the errant Reverend Dimmesdale, Werner Horrath is basically a good man who keeps his adultery a secret until he can no longer stand the hypocrisy. That’s as far as the comparison goes, however, because the third party in this triangle, Hannes Balla is nothing like Hester’s sneaky reptile of a husband, Roger Chillingworth. Balla—in spite of his love for anti-authoritarian antics—is a man of strong principles. He believes in the goals of the party, and even when he does things that break the rules his reasons are sound. At the beginning of the movie, he seems like the most amoral one in the lot, but by the end, he seems like the most righteous.

After squeaking by the authorities with a few minor cuts, the film opened in theaters, but party officials decided they had made a mistake. In a feeble attempt to rectify the situation, they sent people to the theater to sit in the audience and boo and shout. The film ran only three days. It was then was classified as “hostile to the SED,” and was not shown again until 1990. This decision by the party officials shows just how confused and wrong-headed they had become in the wake of the eleventh plenum. At its core, the film is about a renegade scofflaw who realizes the importance of governing laws. Throughout the film, Balla examines the East German way of life, and comes to the conclusion that, whatever its faults, it is better than the west. If anything, The Trace of Stones is a defense of the system, but there was no explaining this to the party officials in 1966.

After it was banned, Frank Beyer’s career as a director came to an abrupt halt. He was sent to work in theater until 1971, when, thanks to the loosening of a restriction on DEFA after Honecker took over, he was allowed to make a couple in TV movies. In 1975, he returned to feature films with a bang: Jakob the Liar—his first feature film since The Trace of Stones—was the first and only East German film to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Kati Klee is played by Krystyna Stypulkowska, a Polish actress who had impressed the international film community with her performance as Pelagia in Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje). At the time, Ms. Stypulkowska spoke no German, so her voice was provided by the popular East German film star, Jutta Hoffmann. In an interview, Ms. Stypulkowska said she thought that Hoffmann’s voice worked well for her character because it made her sound more like a party member.

To play Hannes Balla, Manfred Krug was chosen. At that point, Krug was best known to East German audiences as a singer. He had done dramatic films already (e.g., Five Cartridges and Professor Mamlock), but it was his performance in Midnight Revue that captured the public’s fancy. He appeared regularly on East German television, and his albums sold well in the GDR. As one of the many people in the East German film community to protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann in 1976, Krug found himself blacklisted. He asked to be allowed to move to the FRG, and his request was granted in 1977. After moving to West Berlin, he starred in several TV shows, including Auf Achse (On the Axle), a popular show about German truckers, and the ever-popular crime drama, Tatort (Crime Scene), in which he played Head Commissioner Paul Stoever, who was not averse to bursting into song. In 1996, he wrote Abgehauen (Scram), an autobiographical account of his time in the GDR. The book was a big hit in Germany, and was made into a TV movie by his old friend, The Trace of Stones director Frank Beyer. Krug has gone on to publish four more books in Germany. He lives in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin, where he has resided since he left East Germany.

Werner Horrath, the adulterous Communist party secretary is played by Eberhard Esche. In some ways, Esche has the most difficult role. In western literature, the adulterer usually comes off as a complete cad, never intending to tell the wife about his lover or to marry his mistress. Horrath is not exactly a cad, but we are never sure if he is going to do the right thing. This creates an interesting tension in the character. At times we like him, and at other times we want to slap some sense into him. In terms of strength of character, he is no match for Balla. Esche was a popular theater actor in East Germany and was, for a time, married to the Dutch actress, Cox Habbema (Eolomea), with whom he co-starred in the Märchenfilm, Wie heiratet man einen König (How to Marry a King). He died of cancer in 2006 and is buried in the Französische Friedhof (French Cemetery) in Berlin.

The Trace of Stones is also notable for one of the most amusingly self-deprecating lines in East German cinema. Shortly after Kati Klee arrives at the worksite, Balla stops by her room and asks if she wants to go out on a date. “I wanted to ask you to the movies,” he says. “I’d even watch a DEFA film with you.” Maybe this is really why the banned it.

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