Archive for the ‘Gerhard Klein’ Category

Berlin um die Ecke
In the mid-fifties, director Gerhard Klein and screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase made a trio of films about life in Berlin. The films were inventive, daring, and popular. Both men went on to have successful careers at DEFA, working together and separately to create films of all sorts. In 1965, the two joined forces again with the what was to be the fourth film in their Berlin series, Berlin Around the Corner (Berlin um die Ecke). In fact, it was initially slated to be called Berlin: Chapter IV. Unfortunately, this was the same year that the 11th Plenum occurred. By the time the film was finished in 1966, the 11th Plenum had started their “Kahlschlag” (literally, “clear cutting”), and the film was promptly rejected and shelved. The officials called it “dishonest,” which is an odd thing to say considering it’s one of the most honest films to ever come out of East Germany. They also called it “anti-socialist”—an even more absurd claim since the motivation of the main character is his desire to see equity achieved.

That main character is Olaf, an impetuous young fellow, who is always getting into trouble at the factory where he works. He’s usually accompanied by his buddy Horst, who is even more of a trouble maker than Olaf is. They sometimes break the rules and are not afraid to speak out against the status quo. For Olaf this is due to his sense of fairness. For Horst, on the other hand, it is mostly just rebellion for its own sake. Not surprisingly, Horst spent some time in West Germany. Though not implicitly stated, there is some suggestion that much of Horst’s bad behavior is a result of having lived in the West.

Olaf and Horst go and listen to Karin, singer at a local dance hall. Olaf had met her the night before when she borrowed his coat after jumping off a boat and swimming to the shore where he sat. When she’s not singing, Karin works in the kitchen, and in her spare time, does film and photo shoots. Olaf falls in love with her, but Karin’s in the middle of an ugly divorce and isn’t in any hurry to get into another bad relationship. From where she stands, Olaf looks like nothing but trouble.

Berlin Around the Corner

The young men’s main antagonist is Hütte, who publishes the factory’s newsletter. Hütte is an old-school communist who thinks the young people of East Germany are a bunch of privileged brats who no respect or appreciation for what people like him went through during the war. The person Olaf is closest to at the factory is Paul Krautmann, the old mechanic who has to keep the machinery running, and is always complaining that he isn’t being given the proper parts to do so. Olaf would like Paul to be an ally, but Paul’s attitude is that one must do their work as best he can and keep his head down. Things escalate after Olaf and Horst are criticized in the factory newsletter by an action of theirs that was meant to show the problem of pay inequality at the factory.

Criticizing the shortcomings of the system was always tricky, both before and years after the Plenum. Like Jadup and Boel, the criticism here is aimed at showing the weaknesses in the system in hopes of making it stronger, but the authorities had a great deal of difficulty with that concept. As far as they were concerned, the system was already perfect and any criticism was nothing less than subversion. With the banning of Berlin Around the Corner, the state created a precedent for their approach to all future attempts at constructive criticism. A precedent that set in motion the state’s eventual downfall.

Neither director Gerhard Klein nor screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase should need any introduction on this blog by now. Besides the popular Berlin films of the fifties (Alarm at the Circus, A Berlin Romance, and Berlin – Schönhauser Corner). They also gave us The Gleiwitz Case, one of the grimmest movies ever made. They probably would have gone on to make many more great films, but Klein died while filming Murder Case Zernik, which would have been Klein’s fifth film to explore life and events in Berlin. After that, Kohlhaase continued to work on screenplays for Konrad Wolf, including I Was Nineteen, The Naked Man on the Athletic Field, and Solo Sunny. Since the Wende, he has continued writing screenplays, most notably The Legend of Rita (Die Stille nach dem Schuß) for Volker Schlöndorff, and Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon) for Andreas Dresen, a film that hearkens back to his work for DEFA in its tone and subject matter.

Berlin Around the Corner

Playing Olaf is Dieter Mann in his first feature film. Square-jawed and rugged-looking, Mann keeps his character balanced between short-fused reactions and sympathetic understanding. It is a nifty portrait of a young man poised on the edge of true adulthood and Mann pulls it off nicely. Like many other East German actors, he got his start on stage. From 1964 until 2006, he was a corp member of the ensemble at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Berlin Around the Corner was Mann’s first feature film. He went on to have a long and prolific career in East Germany, primarily in supporting roles. After the Wende, Mann suffered usual snub of East German talent, but he was too good an actor to ignore for long. Having worked extensively in television already in East Germany, and used to playing smaller roles, he was soon working again. He is best known to Western audiences for his portrayal of Feldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel in Oliver Hirschbiegel and Bernd Eichinger’s Downfall (Der Untergang).

Horst is played by Kaspar Eichel, another fine actor who got his start on the stage. His first feature film was the lead in The Golden Goose. This was followed by his role in The Adventures of Werner Holt as the ill-fated Fritz Zemtzki. Throughout his career Eichel has divided his time between stage and screen. Until recently he was a regular member of the Kriminal Theater in Berlin. In 2015, he appeared in the documentary Erich Mielke – Meister der Angst (Erich Mielke – Master of Fear) portraying the much-hated head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke. He has also done a lot of dubbing for German releases, providing voices for everyone from Robert Redford to Sid Haig.

Karin is played by Monika Gabriel. It was Monika Gabriel’s second feature film. Her first, The Robe (Das Kleid), was also banned. The East German public finally got to see her in a feature film in 1967, with The Lord Of Alexanderplatz (Ein Lord am Alexanderplatz). In 1971 Gabriel married the West German actor Wolfgang Kieling, whom she met back in 1969 while working on The Seventh Year (Das siebente Jahr). At that point, Gabriel had already been married twice, first to Polish-born actor Stefan Lisewski, and then to Armin Mueller-Stahl. When Kieling returned to the West, Gabriel obtained an exit visa followed him. She appeared in several West German television productions from 1972 until 1985, but thereafter retired from screen appearances although she continued to work as a voice talent for the German dubs of foreign films. In 1992, she married director Wilfried Dotzel, but he died a year later. She never remarried again and died of cancer in 2007.

Berlin um die Ecke

Playing Paul Krautmann, Erwin Geschonneck is, as always, sensational. Every gesture and expression expertly conveys the character. Anyone interested in acting would do well to watch Geschonneck here. This actor should need no introduction here by this time, having starred in several of the East Germans films ever made, including The Axe of Wandsbek, Castles and Cottages, Carbide and Sorrel, Anton the Magician, and many more. After the Wende, Geschonneck was afforded very few opportunities to demonstrate his talent. The reunification led to a lot of great East German actors—especially the older ones—being essentially kicked to the curb, but the saddest example of this is how little the new Germany took advantage of this man’s talent. He died March 12, 2008 at the ripe old age of 101 (for more on Erwin Geschonneck, see Carbide and Sorrel).

The cranky newsletter editor Hütte is played by Hans Hardt-Hardtloff, an actor who started performing on stage when he was sixteen. Hardt-Hardtloff worked exclusively on stage, usually outside of Germany during the Hitler years. After the war, he was hired as the senior director for Mitteldeutschen Rundfunk (Central German Broadcasting, MDR) in Leipzig. In 1957, he started appearing in films and on television. Most notoriously, he was hired to duplicate the role played by Raimund Schelcher in Castles and Cottages. Schelcher had a serious drinking problem, and there was some real concern that the man wouldn’t be able to finish the movie without falling off the wagon. So Maetzig hired Hardt-Hardtloff to perform each scene a second time. That way, if Schelcher didn’t make it all the way through the shoot, the film would still be salvageable. Maetzig didn’t really plan on using the footage, it was mostly used to remind Schelcher he was replaceable and to keep him on the straight and narrow (it did). The incident was used by Andreas Dressen for the plot of his 2009 film Whiskey with Vodka (Whisky mit Wodka). Coming, as he did, so late in his career to films, he was usually called on to play supporting roles as either government officials or professors, both benign and malicious. Hardt-Hardtloff died in 1974 in Potsdam.

The film’s jazzy pop score was by Georg Katzer, a composer better known for his experimental electronic music. When not composing music for films Katzer’s work is more Morton Subotnick than Henry Mancini, but he was a talented enough composer to come up with effective film scores when called upon to do so. He composed solid scores for several films during the sixties, and then again in the last days of the DDR, but he mainly worked in the electronic music field, founding the Studio for Electroacoustic Music at the Academy of Arts in Berlin in 1982. Katzer continues to composes electronic music, but his film score composition ended with the GDR.

Like most of the films banned during the 11th Plenum, Berlin Around the Corner didn’t get an official release until after the wall came down, although it did receive a limited screening in 1987. It officially premiered in 1990 to positive reviews.

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© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Alarm im Zirkur
In 1954, a young director named Gerhard Klein teamed up with an even younger screenwriter named Wolfgang Kohlhaase, and the world of East German cinema would never be the same. The duo would go on do several films together over the years, but Alarm at the Circus (Alarm im Zirkus) was their first. At a time when most DEFA films were concentrating on putting forth a strong pro-socialist message, sometimes to the detriment of the story, Klein and Kohlhaase’s film puts the story first. That’s not to say the film is apolitical. It makes a point of showing how a capitalist system’s lack of career opportunities for the underprivileged can lead to crime, but that message never interferes with the action, and helps provide motivation for some of the film’s shadier characters.

The film follows the adventures of Max and Klaus, two poor kids in West Berlin who dream of becoming boxers. To get money to buy boxing gloves, the boys sell things they find, and do odd jobs for Klott, a bar owner in West Berlin who uses the bar as his base of operations for illegal activities. After a trip to the Barlay Circus in East Berlin, the boys stumble on a plot concocted by Klott and a U.S. soldier to steal horses from the Circus. When one of the boys tries to warn the West German police about the plot, they essentially tell him to get lost, so he goes to the Volkspolizei (literally “people’s police”—East Germany’s police force) who spring into action.

This wasn’t the first film from DEFA to examine the criminal underworld in Berlin. That honor belongs to Razzia. But Razzia was made by a West German director (Werner Klingler) who was only working for DEFA because the the U.S. military authority (OMGUS) was still restricting West German film production. In nearly every respect, Razzia is indistinguishable from the dozens of other “Krimi” films that Klingler would go on to make in the West. Alarm at the Circus, on the other hand, is East German right down to its roots. Kohlhaase and Klein were East Germans and proud of it. The heavies in this film are West Germans the and American soldiers who are orchestrating the crime.

Alarm at the Circus

Alarm at the Circus offered the realism that DEFA films demanded, but without the heroics normally associated with socialist realism. It is closer in style to Italian neo-realism, a fact that bothered the authorities at that time and would continue to bother them right up until the 1965, when the 11th Plenum put an end to that particular style of filmmaking at DEFA (truth be told, however, that style had already run its course in Italy years before). The fact that it is based on an actual event probably helped it get made.

Alarm at the Circus was the first of a trio of films—along with A Berlin Romance and Berlin Schönhauser Corner—that is usually referred to as the Berlin trilogy. In truth, it is part of a continuum. Klein and Kohlhaase’s later film, Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin Around the Corner), certainly fits in with the first three films the pair made, and would have made it a tetralogy had it not been banned after the 11th Plenum. Since Klein died in 1970 (see A Berlin Romance for more on Klein), we never got a chance to see more Berlin films by the duo, but Kohlhaase continued his explorations of the lives of the less privileged in Berlin with other directors, including Konrad Wolf (Solo Sunny) and Andreas Dresen (Summer in BerlinSommer vorm Balkon).

Wolfgang Kohlhaase was only twenty-two when he started writing scripts for DEFA. He wrote a few for the “Das Stacheltier” group that made short films to accompany the features, and a script for the children’s film Die Störenfriede (The Troublemakers). The following year, he joined forces with Gerhard Klein. Klein was a born and bred Berliner and was looking to make a film that reflected the reality of life in the city. He wanted to capture the rhythms and cadences of Berlin speech and actions. He found the perfect partner in Kohlhasse. Kohlhasse’s ear for Berlinerisch—that peculiar style of German used in Berlin—is especially acute, and he used it often (to best effect in Solo Sunny). Kohlhasse continues to write screenplays, most recently for Andreas Dresen’s As We Were Dreaming (Als wir träumten), based on Clemens Meyer’s controversial novel.

Max and Klaus

The actors who played Max and Klaus, were not picked from the usual acting roster, but chosen from a home for troubled youths. Klein gets remarkably good performances out of these novice actors. For Hans Winter, who played Klaus, this would be his only film, but Ernst-Georg Schwill, who played Max, decided that he liked working in the movies, and began training as a cameraman, later returning to acting and appearing in all three of Klein’s Berlin trilogy films, as well as roles in Five Cartridges, Close to the Wind, Motoring Tales, and many others. After the Wende, he experienced less neglect than some other East German actors. Film and television companies were always looking for people to play supporting roles, and Schwill was quick to admit that he was character actor, not a star. It wasn’t long before he was busy acting again, appearing on TV and in films regularly, most recently in Andreas Schap’s Das letzte Abteil (The Last Department).

The Barlay Circus (Zirkus Barlay) was a real circus, located at Friedrichstraße 107, the current site of the Friedrichstadt Palast. The circus was founded in 1935, when Reinhold Kwasnik, who used the stage name Harry Barlay, bought a bankrupt circus and made it his own. When Kwasnik fled to West Germany, the circus was taken over by the state. After a couple name changes, it was eventually consolidated with other East German circuses as the Staatszirkus der DDR (State Circus of the GDR). With reunification of Germany, the State Circus was broken up, and the circus that was once the Barlay Circus ended life the same way it began: with bankruptcy.

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Leichensache Zernik

Like Fritz Lang’s M and Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam), Murder Case Zernik continues the fine tradition of German films about serial killers. This one adds a uniquely East German twist to the concept: The killer’s motives aren’t based on the usual psycho-sexual impulses but on capitalist greed. He kills for profit not lust. We know right from the start who the killer is, We are there when he strangles Katharina Zernik, then pours acid on her face to hamper identification. The question is whether the police will be able to bring him to justice and how.

This is a police procedural with a difference. As the police investigate the murder, they find their progress on the case continually stymied by the authorities in the Allied sectors (the Americans in particular, not surprisingly). Access to information is blocked, and false information is published to make the East German police look bad. Neverless, criminal investigator Stügner and his upstanding if somewhat undernourished assistant, Horst Kramm, work hard to figure out who killed Katharina Zernik.

The story takes place in 1948, which serves as an important plot point. The summer of 1948 was a tumultuous time in Berlin. On June 21st of that year, a new Deutschmark was introduced to the western sectors, followed a couple days later by the “B-mark”—a version of the currency specifically intended for use in the western sectors of Berlin. Not happy with this (particularly since it went directly against the agreement that the Allies and the Soviets had signed), the Berlin blockade began. Then in August, while West Berlin’s provisional governor, Louise Schroeder, was being treated for health problems, her stand-in, Christian Democrat Ferdinand Friedenburg, canned the chief of police, Paul Markgraf, because he was a member of East Germany’s SED party. From here on out there would be no cooperation between East and West Berlin. All of this plays into the movie’s plot as the killer bounces back forth across the border with impunity. The film uses historical footage to add to the drama.

Leichensache Zernik

The film’s production got off to a rocky start when director Gerhard Klein fell ill and died. The film sat on a shelf while Mr. Klein’s assistant director Helmut Nitzschke wrangled for permission to finish the movie. Mr. Nitzschke eventually was granted permission and the film was completed two years later. Mr. Nitzschke is an able craftsman, and the finished film is a good, uniquely East German Krimi. It didn’t hurt that it was written by the always reliable Wolfgang Kohlhaase. It is reportedly based on the personal recollections of people who worked as police at the time—more, I suspect, as a jumping off point than any kind of dramatization of actual events.

Leichensache Zernik

Director Helmut Nitzschke had some big shoes to fill when he took over from Gerhard Klein. Mr. Klein, after all, is the man who gave us such classics as A Berlin Romance, The Gleiwitz Case, and Berlin Schönhauser Corner. Gerhard Klein had a style like no other; both gritty and cinematic. Mr. Nitzschke had worked with Gerhard Klein before. This proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Mr. Nitzschke was assistant director on Klein’s Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin, Around the Corner), which was one of the films banned after the 11th Plenum.

It would be a few years before Mr. Nitzschke had a chance to demonstrate his talent at DEFA again, starting in 1969 with Nebelnacht (Foggy Night), a Krimi based on Heiner Rank’s crime fiction of the same name. After Murder Case Zernik, Mr. Nitzschke made Das Licht auf dem Galgen (The Light on the Gallows), an historical drama based on the novel by Anna Seghers. In spite of good reviews and and an endorsement from Ms. Seghers, the film bombed at the the box office. After that, he wrote and directed a couple episodes of the popular cop show, Polizeiruf 110, but little else. Some of this may be due his highly active participation in the Christian church. More recently, he has been a strong advocate for Quan-Yin, a method of meditation created by Suma Ching Hai, the Vietnamese/Chinese spiritual leader who popped up in the news after her followers donated $600,000 to President Clinton’s legal defense fund during the Lewinski case. Mr. Nitzschke is married to Heidemarie Wenzel, star of The Dove on the Roof and The Legend of Paul and Paula.

Playing the rookie detective Kramm is Alexander Lang. As with many other East German actors, Mr. Lang got his start in theater, working at first as a stagehand and eventually moving onto the boards. He is best known to western audiences as Ralph, Sunny’s cavalier love interest in Solo Sunny and as Latte in Frank Vogel’s Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry. During the eighties, he directed a couple of TV movies for DFF, but he primarily concentrated on directing plays as the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. After the Wende, Mr. Lang continued his career as a theater director, as well as an occasional appearance in front of the footlights, but he has appeared in no more films since the fall of the wall.

Leichensache Zernik

 

The killer, Erwin Retzmann, is played by Gert Gütschow, whose work was usually restricted to secondary roles. To and fan of East German cinema, his face is immediately recognizable, having appeared in such films as Till Eulenspiegel, Jadup and Boel, and Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens. After the Wende, he appeared in a few films and TV movies, and a recurring role as Dr. Keller on the popular TV hospital drama In aller Freundschaft. He continues to appear on stage, and often works in radio and as a voice talent for dubbing.

Kurt Böwe plays Inspector Stügner—a role he could do in his sleep. Whenever a DEFA film called for a kind but firm police official, you can bet Kurt Böwe’s name was near the top of the list of possible choices. Mr. Böwe came from the stage and began his on-screen acting with television in the sixties. He appeared in smaller roles in various feature films during this period, but it was his role as the idealistic sculptor Herbert Kemmel in Konrad Wolf’s Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (The Naked Man in the Stadium) that brought him to the public’s attention. From then on he appeared in several more feature films, most notably, Jadup and Boel. Having already been active in television during the GDR years, the Wende had little effect on him. He continued working in television playing Kommissar Kurt Groth on the popular police series Polizeiruf 110. He died in Berlin in 2000. His daughters, Susanne and Winnie have gone on to become successful actors in their own right.

Leichensache Zernik

It didn’t hurt that the technical crew for this film included cinematographer Claus Neumann, Composer Hans-Dieter Hosalla, and editor, Evelyn Carow—three of DEFA’s most talented technicians in their respective fields. Nor did it hurt that the supporting cast included the talents of Rolf Hoppe, Lissy Tempelhof, Käthe Reichel, and Agnes Kraus.

Krimis are always popular with the public and this film is no exception. It is too bad that Helmut Nitzschke’s output is so meager. Had he made more films, perhaps the followers of the auteur approach to film studies might have had something to hang their hat on. Instead he is ignored and is one of the few directors on the German Wikipedia list of DEFA films who has no page of his own. I hope this doesn’t translate into Murder Case Zernik being overlooked. It is an interesting and unusual thriller that deserves more attention.

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A Berlin Romance

A Berlin Romance (Eine Berliner Romanze) is the second of three films sometimes referred to as the “Berlin Trilogy.” These three features represent the first movies by the team of Gerhard Klein and Wolfgang Kohlhasse. They have very little in common except that they all take place in Berlin. The first of the three, Alarm at the Circus, is a thriller. and the third, Berlin – Schönhauser Corner, is a juvenile delinquent film.

A Berlin Romance is, as the name suggests, a romance. It follows the adventures of Uschi, a young woman from the eastern side of the city who falls in love with a poor young man on the western side. Uschi works as a model at a large department store in East Berlin, where she models clothing for customers. In the evening, she likes to visit West Berlin and window shop. There she meets, Lord, a shady young hipster who wears a noisy transistor radio around his neck like a rapper’s gold chain. Lord proceeds to woo Uschi, but his efforts are thwarted by Hans, a young schlemiel who is lovestruck by Uschi the moment he sees her. At first, Hans’ efforts to impress Uschi have the opposite effect, and it looks like their romance won’t get off the ground, but Hans is nothing if not persistent, and he ready to help Uschi with her dream of attending modeling school in West Berlin.

A Berlin Romance is a sharply drawn portrait of life in Berlin during the mid-fifties. This was the time of the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle), when American money poured into the country to help rebuild its economy and infrastructure. Told from the East German perspective, this influx of cash only benefited the rich, who were as indifferent to the problems of the working class as ever. People in need of work were exploited in dangerous situations to help keep the wealthy living in the luxury to which they had grown accustomed. Job security was not an option, and people lost their jobs at the drop of a hat.

Part of the fun of this film is in its use of details—the way the transistor radio acts as both a lure and an irritant, the obnoxious American soldier at the bar, and the names of films at the cinema. In one scene, as Uschi, Hans, and Lord enter the cinema to see a film called Lockende Sünde (literally “alluring sin,” but translated in the subtitles as Temptation), and in another the camera pauses briefly on a poster for a movie titled Die kleine Stadt will schlafen geh’n—the city wants to sleep. Unlike Lockende Sünde, this is a real movie that gets its name from a song that was popular during the Third Reich, but Klein uses it nicely to take a dig at West Germany and the way it seemed to be ignoring the Nazi pasts of some government officials.  All of the Klein/Kohlhasse films are filled with these small details and benefit from repeated viewing to catch them. Some things seem to be intended exclusively for the amusement of Berliners, both East and West.

Annekathrin Bürger

Uschi is played by Annekathrin Bürger. It was her first feature film and the start of a long career. Putting the weight of an entire film on a nineteen-year-old novice actor was a risky proposition. Fortunately, Ms. Bürger is as talented as she is beautiful. She went on to star in dozens more DEFA films, including Star-Crossed Lovers, The Second Track, Hey You! and Hostess. Ms. Bürger continues to work in films, most recently appearing alongside fellow East German actor, Katrin Saß, in Kilian Riedhof’s Sein letztes Rennen (His Last Race).

Playing opposite her was Ulrich Thein. Mr. Thein had appeared in several films already, including Gerhard Klein’s Alarm im Zirkus and Hotelboy Ed Martin—an East German retelling of Albert Maltz’s popular play, Merry Go Round. He went on to appear in many DEFA classics, including Castles and Cottages, Five Cartridges, Star-Crossed Lovers, The Baldheaded Gang, and Anton the Magician. Like many DEFA actors, Mr. Thein’s background was in the theater. The son of an orchestra leader, he was an accomplished musician who also composed songs for several movies. In 1983, he starred in a miniseries about Martin Luther, then took on J.S. Bach in another miniseries a couple years later. As was too often the case after the Wende, Mr. Thein found it difficult to find work, He died in 1995.

Director Gerhard Klein came to DEFA with strong communist credentials. As a young man in Nazi Germany, he was a member of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany), and got himself arrested for this. After the war, he started working at DEFA as a screenwriter and helped start the children’s films unit of the studio. After making a few shorts and taking some assigned films, Klein finally got the opportunity to make the films he wanted to make. He was a fan of the Italian neo-realists and wanted to make films that reflected real lifer in East Germany without any pretenses. To do this, he needed a screenwriter with a keen ear for the way people actually talked. He found such a man in Wolfgang Kohlhasse, who was—and still is—the best writer of Berliner  dialog.

Any regular reader of this blog is already familiar with the screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase. He is the writer behind several DEFA classics, including The Second Track, I Was Nineteen, and Solo Sunny. Kohlhasse is an acute observer of human nature, and not afraid to explore the moral and logical conflicts and ambiguities that come with being alive on this planet. While many other East German screenwriters found it hard to find work in that field after the Wende, Kohlhasse never stopped working. Now in his eighties, he continues to spin tales for filmmakers. His work since the wall fell includes Volker Schlöndorff’s The Legend of Rita (Die Stille nach dem Schuß), and Andreas Dresen’s popular romantic comedy, Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon).

Gerhard Klein made three more films with Wolfgang Kohlhaase—The Gleiwitz Case, Sonntagsfahrer (Sunday Driver), and Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin Around the Corner). As its name suggests, Berlin um die Ecke was a return to the city they loved, but the film ended up on a shelf, banned after the 11th Plenum. In 1970, they started working on Murder Case Zernik, but Klein died ten days into filming. He was fifty years old. After sitting on a shelf for two years, Murder Case Zernik was eventually completed by Klein’s assistant, Helmut Nitzschke.

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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.

The Gleiwitz Case (Der Fall Gleiwitz) is director Gerhard Klein’s 1961 film about an event in southern Poland that was used by Hitler to start World War II. Hitler knew he couldn’t start a war without provocation, and since none was forthcoming, he did what any good tyrant would do: he created one. After all, it’s much easier to get the public behind efforts to gear up the war machine after a country’s been attacked. It was called the “Gleiwitz Incident” and it took place on August 31, 1939. The conspiracy came to light during the Nuremberg Trials, when an SS-Sturmbannführer named Alfred Naujocks spilled the beans. Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller entrusted Naujocks with the task of faking an attack on a German radio station in Gleiwitz (Gliwice), Poland. The attack was supposed to look like the work of the Polish resistance. Müller, along with his boss, Reinhard Heydrich, planned the fake attack down to the last detail, including a resistance fighter shot at the scene. For the unlucky martyr, the Gestapo dragooned a political prisoner, who was taken to Gleiwitz and shot. Klein’s movie recounts the events meticulously, from the moment the plan is put into action until its horrifying conclusion.

Clocking in at just under seventy minutes, The Gleiwitz Case is one of the shorter DEFA features, but, like any good story, it’s exactly as long as it needs to be to tell the tale. Klein mostly follows the facts, but that doesn’t stop him from creating an astounding film. He takes the expressionism of Weimar-Ufa and combines it with French New Wave and underground filmmaking to create a dizzying display of cinematic imagination. The camera takes on a life of its own, occasionally moving along at floor level like a rat, then swinging and spinning, as if the events on screen are too much for it take in. Equally audacious is Evelyn Carow’s editing, which treats the sound and the visuals as separate but equal aspects of the movie. In one scene, while a car is waiting at a railroad crossing for a troop train to pass, the singing of the soldiers on board the train turns into a rhythmic chant that mimics the sound of the passing train. The meaning is clear; the war machine is in motion and nothing can stop it.

When the film was shown to the GDR authorities, not everyone approved. Some thought it glorified Nazism and one person remarked: “Veit Harlan (director of the notorious Jud Süß) could have made this movie.” This infuriated Klein, who had worked with the communist resistance during WWII. The reaction of the authorities is understandable though. Most people come to a movie with the automatic assumption that there will be a protagonist who will prevail against all odds, but The Gleiwitz Case offers no such comforts. Klein knew the Gleiwitz Incident was the single most important event in the history of WWII, and any attempts to get on one’s high horse would detract from the story. Thus he presents it without the socialist proselytizing sometimes found in DEFA films.

The Gleiwitz Case script was written by Wolfgang Kohlhaase and Günther Rücker. Wolfgang Kohlhaase and director Klein had already made names for themselves with their “Berlin Trilogy”—three films that examined modern life in the divided city (Alarm at the Circus, A Berlin Romance, Berlin – Schönhauser Corner). This was Kohlhaase’s first foray into the world of WWII storytelling, but not his last. He returned to the subject in 1968 with Konrad Wolf’s autobiographical film I Was Nineteen. Unlike many of the DEFA talents, the Wende had little effect on his career. he continues to write scripts; primarily for fellow Ossi, Andreas Dressen.

Günther Rücker was a talented and well-respected writer, whose work included plays, novels, short stories, and radio programs. He was a keen observer of women and the problems they faced in East Germany. His screenplays for Her Third, Until Death Do Us Part, Die Verlobte  (The Fiancée), and Hilde, das Dienstmädchen (Housemaid Hilde) all feature female protagonists from various walks of life. From 1974 to 1982, he was in charge of the Poetry and Linguistics department (Dichtkunst und Sprachpflege) at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. He won the National Prize of the GDR several times, and the Prix Italia for his radio play, Die Grünstein-Variante (The Greenstone Variation), which, coincidentally, was based on Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s theatrical adaptation of the stories of Ludwig Tureck.1 Rücker also directed a few films for DEFA. After the Wende, he made no further movies, and died in 2008.

The cinematographer  for The Gleiwitz Case was Jan Curik from Czechoslovakia (Czech Republic). Curik is best known in the west for his dazzling color work on Jaromil Jires’s psychedelic masterpiece, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (the inspiration for Neil Jordan’s coming-of-age fantasy, The Company of Wolves), and his equally striking black-and-white photography in Jires’s The Joke (Zerk). He was also the cinematographer on Frantisek Vlácil’s The White Dove  (Holubice). Some frames in The Gleiwitz Case are so perfect they could stand alone as still photographs: a man sitting at a radio console, a car on the autobahn, hands chained to a wall. In the scene where Naujocks addresses his stormtroopers, the combination of lighting and photography creates the effect of accentuating the skull beneath Naujocks skin, giving him the sinister appearance of a grim reaper. It is amazing to note that in spite of his important contributions to the history of world cinema, Jan Curik remains largely ignored. As of this writing, there is no biography of him on any version of Wikipedia, including the Czech version; and yet every critique of a film that Curik shot contains references to the outstanding photography. Curik died in 1996 at the age of 72.

Alongside the visual beauty of this film, its use of music stands out. The film opens in darkness with a frenetic piece of carnival music reminiscent of The Three Penny Opera. Not coincidentally, the composer, Kurt Schwaen, worked extensively with Brecht during the fifties and Brecht’s influence stayed with him throughout his career. Schwaen composed music for only a few soundtracks, preferring to concentrate on his serious compositions. In 1965, he became the head of the music department at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. He would go on to compose over 620 compositions; everything from orchestral works and operas to solo piano pieces. In scenes at the radio station, Schwaen’s soundtrack is replaced with the popular music being broadcast. When we first see the giant wooden radio tower in Gleiwitz, for instance, we hear the strains of Heinrich Berger’s orchestral version of “Aloha Oe” playing (we’ll hear this song again in I Was Nineteen). Later in the film, as the station is being attacked, choral music plays behind the chaos. This juxtaposition of light music with serious scenes is an ironic technique that was still relatively unknown in 1961 outside of the work of underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger. It would take Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in 1964 to bring this technique to American mainstream cinema, and filmmakers like John Waters and Quentin Tarantino to turn it into a trope.

Making a film without a likable lead character or a happy ending is always a risky proposition. Audiences seldom respond well to that sort of thing. So it’s no surprise that the film did poorly at the box office and quickly disappeared from theaters. Nonetheless, critics on both sides of the Iron Curtain were impressed with the film. The film critic for the West Berlin newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel cited it as the most visually striking film from the GDR since Konrad Wolf’s Stars. A few years after it played in the east, the film started showing up at film clubs in West Berlin. Some have complained that The Gleiwitz Case distorts certain facts (there is no evidence, for instance, that Naujocks fired the fatal shot). Nonetheless, the film stands as an exceptional example of what the DEFA directors were capable of when the authorities allowed it .

IMDB page for the film.

Günther Rücker’s obituary in Der Freitag (in German).

Buy this film.


1. In 1985, a West German version of the story was filmed by actor/director Berhard Wicki, with a screenplay by Wicki and Kohlhaase.