Archive for the ‘Gottfried Kolditz’ Category

Snow White
As discussed elsewhere on this blog, fairytale films were the closest thing to a cash cow the East German film industry had to offer. Beloved by East and West Germans alike and often featuring stories in which the poor and generous triumph over the rich and greedy, the fairytale film faced fewer hurdles when they were exported to the West. After all, didn’t Walt Disney—a man who hated socialism with an passion—also make films of these stories? It didn’t hurt that, with a few notable exceptions (Rumpelstiltskin and Sleeping Beauty come to mind) the DEFA film tended to follow the original fairytales much more closely than their Hollywood counterparts.

DEFA’s Snow White (Schneewittchen) is much more faithful to the original Grimms’ fairytale than Disney’s film. Right off the bat, the DEFA film starts the same way as the fairytale: A young queen is shown sewing next to an open window on a snowy day. The woman accidentally pricks her finger, and seeing the red blood on the white snow in the ebony window frame, thinks she would love to have a child with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and, hair as black as ebony. Soon after, Snow White is born, but the the queen dies and the evil stepmother enters the picture.

At this point, both the Disney version of the story and the DEFA version follow the fairytale closely, with the evil queen telling the huntsman to take Snow White into the forest and kill her, the huntsman having pity on the girl, and Snow White discovering the home of the seven dwarfs. Perhaps influenced by Disney, the dwarfs in the DEFA film also have a happy little song they sing whenever they’re marching to and from work. In the DEFA film, as in the original fairytale, it takes the evil queen three tries to kill Snow White. Disney’s evil queen, a model of efficiency, skips the tightening bodice and poisoned comb, and goes straight for the apple. In a way, this change by Disney is an improvement. After all, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; but fool me three times, well, then I’m just an idiot.


In the DEFA version, as in the original story, Snow White revives after the dwarfs stumble with her coffin and the piece of the apple is dislodged from her throat. There is nothing magical about the prince’s kiss. Both films differ significantly from the original story at the end, but that’s understandable. In the Disney version, the evil queen doesn’t even make it off the mountain, falling to her death while being chased by the dwarfs. In the DEFA version the queen comes to the Prince and Snow White’s wedding, and, upon seeing that her stepdaughter has survived, flees the country. In the original story, the queen also comes to the wedding but is met there with a pair of red-hot iron shoes that she is forced to wear and dance in to her death. This gruesome detail is omitted from later editions of the fairytale, so DEFA can be forgiven for also omitting it. Plus, it doesn’t do much to encourage continued sympathy for Snow White and her prince.

Snow White is directed by Gottfried Kolditz, one of East Germany’s foremost directors. If Kolditz’s output is any indication, the man loved genre movies. No other East German director has such a catalog of genre-specific movies. It includes musicals (Midnight Revue, Beloved White Mouse), westerns (The Falcon’s Trail, Apaches), science fiction films (Signals, In the Dust of the Stars), and, of course, fairytales (Mother Holly and Snow White). Kolditz graduated with a doctorate from the University of Music and Theater in Leipzig, which was founded as a music conservatory in 1843 by the composer Felix Mendelssohn. With this school in his background, it’s understandable that Kolditz stared working at DEFA as a music adviser. After directing a few short films for the “Das Stacheltier” group at DEFA, he stepped into the role of director, and quickly demonstrated his talent. Most of his early films were musicals, and nearly all of his films contain musical sequences, even the science fiction films. I spite of his tendency to avoid heavy message films and concentrate on films that, by anyone else, would be considered light fare, Kolditz’s film always carry a strong socialist message about the corrupting influence of power and greed, and the importance of teamwork. Kolditz died in 1982 in Yugoslavia.

The screenplay for the film is by Günter Kaltofen, who was just coming off a seven year stint as the chief dramaturge at the DFF (East Germany’s television station). Kaltofen practically made a career out of converting fairytales into screenplays. Along with Snow White, he provided screenplays for Rumpelstiltskin, Mother Holly, The Golden Goose, King Thrushbeard, and several other children’s films. Born in Erfurt in 1927, Kaltofen served in WWII as a Luftwaffenhelfer (a young person enlisted to help German soldiers keep their anti-aircraft guns loaded). He was captured and sent to a P.O.W. camp. After the War, he studied various subjects at schools in Jena and Leipzig, eventually working as dramaturge at theaters in Meisen and Leipzig. At that time, he wrote a few fairytale plays, including the theatrical version of Das Zaubermännchen—a socialist reinterpretation of Rumpelstiltskin—which was later made into a movie by Frank Beyer (and don’t worry, we’ll be discussing that one soon enough). Kaltofen died in 1977 in East Berlin.

seven dwarfs

Snow White stars the stunning Doris Weikow. Weikow began her career as a gymnast, winning the 1957 German Youth Champion in 1957. From there, she went into television as an announcer—a role she continued throughout her life. At the time Snow White was being filmed, she was married to Erwin Geschonneck, and they had one daughter, the journalist and writer Fina Geschonneck. Weikow only appeared in four films (Snow White was her first). She might have had more of a career in films but she chose to continue working as a television announcer instead.

Playing opposite her as the evil queen is Marianne Christina Schilling in what would be her most career-defining role. Schilling mostly appeared in roles as supporting characters. She moved with her husband to Bremen in 1984. Suffering from a particularly severe form of arthritis, she retired from acting and died in 2012.

Marianne Christina Schilling

Schilling came to the role thanks to Albert Wilkening, the head honcho at the Babelsberg Film Studio. Although his name only appeared in the credits for one film, Wilkening’s influence on the film industry in East Germany was monumental. He started working in the film industry after WWII, when he was assigned to be the acting director of Tobis-Filmkunst in Johannisthal. Because of his degree in engineering, and a background in law and patents, he was hired as the technical director at DEFA. Soon he becomes the man in charge of nearly aspect of studio operations, eventually becoming the head of productions at DEFA. In 1954, he helps found the Film School in Potsdam-Babelsberg and is appointed Head of the Faculty of Cinematography. In 1956, Wilkening took over the role of director of feature films at DEFA from Hans Rodenberg, a job he occupied until 1961, when the job is taken over by Jochen Mückenberger with Wilkening’s blessings. Mückenberger was even more interested in art than Wilkening, and under him DEFA flourished. That all came to an end in 1966 with the 11th Plenum decisions. A party wonk named Franz Bruk took over, but Bruk was inept and ill-suited for the job. Eventually Wilkening was asked to return to DEFA, where he worked from 1973 until his retirement in 1976. Wilkening lived just long enough to see the Wall come down, but not longer enough to see Germany reunited. He died on the 24th of July, 1990.

This film has all the things one comes to expect from a DEFA fairytale film: the strange but appealing staginess, the catchy tunes, and eye-bleeding color. The films remains one of the most popular fairytale films to ever come out of East Germany. After Heart of Stone and The Story of Little Mook, Snow White was DEFA’s most successful fairytale film. Those two movies were made and distributed back when the West was more accepting of East German films, but Snow White came out a few months after the Berlin Wall had been built and relations between the two Germanys were at their worst. The fact that the film was so popular is a testament to its quality. It is a good fairytale film, rich in details and beautifully photographed. The songs are catchy (annoyingly so) and there’s nothing here that a West German parent wouldn’t want their kids to watch.

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Beloved White Mouse

The musical comedy is not a genre anyone would associate with East Germany. It was born in Hollywood and reached its acme under Arthur Freed at MGM. Musical comedies are happy affairs, light as meringues  colorful, and carefree—not qualities that immediately spring to mind when one thinks of the GDR. But DEFA made several musicals and most of them are fun. Beloved White Mouse (Geliebte Weiße Maus) is one of the most fun musicals, which is curious considering it began with a PR effort from the Ministry of the Interior to improve the public image of the Volkspolizei.

After the wall was built, East Germany endured a great deal of bad press. In spite of their argument that the wall was not an instrument of oppression, but one of protection (see Look at This City!), the wall helped promote the image of East Germany as one of a drab, 1984-style land, devoid of happiness and love. This was especially true of the Volkspolizei, who were often enlisted to help with situations that were really under the purview of the military. When faced with protests, the VoPo resorted to the same tactics used by cops all over the world in these situations: hit first, arrest for resistance, and ask questions later. As a consequence, by 1962, Stasi reports were showing a dangerously large-scale discontentment with the People’s Police.

The Ministry of the Interior turned to DEFA to help change this image and change it they did. DEFA’s solution was a light comedy about one of the most innocuous members of the Volkspolizei—the lowly traffic cop. Traffic police were fixtures of Germany during the fifties and sixties—both east and west—and were often seen in the middle of intersections directing traffic. They wore white uniforms to make them more visible, which led to the nickname “White Mice” (Weiße Mäuse). Beloved White Mouse is the story of one such traffic cop named Fritz Bachmann. Fritz directs traffic at a busy intersection in Dresden’s Loschwitz borough. Everyday, he sees the same people walk and drive by, in particular, a doe-eyed waif named Helene who rides a “Troll” motor scooter to work. Helene also notices Fritz and decides it’s time to meet him. Fritz has another admirer, a zaftig woman named Frau Messmer, who walks her poodle past Fritz’s station and has a nasty habit of losing control of her poodle at the intersection. When the interests of these three collide—not literally, but almost—the story begins.

Like any good musical, reality here is pliable. People start singing directly to the movie audience, and at one point Fritz and Helene sail over Dresden, carried aloft by a beach umbrella. It’s a fun sequence, and the camera is careful not to venture too close to the parts of the city that were still in ruins from the WWII firebombing by Allied troops. After all, this is a comedy, not a documentary.

Beloved White Mouse was directed by Gottfried Kolditz, and stars Rolf Herricht. Kolditz hardly needs an introduction here. Some of his films have already been featured on this blog, including Midnight Review, Apaches, and the psychedelic masterpiece, In the Dust of the Stars. Playing Fritz is Rolf Herricht. one of East Germany’s most popular comic actors. Herricht was best known as half of the comedy duo, Herricht and Preil, who were staples of East German television. An example of their work together can be seen in the film DEFA Disko 77. Herricht appeared in several films, including Not To Me, Madam!, Hauptmann Florian von der Mühle (Captain Florian of the Mill), and the banned film, Hands Up, or I’ll Shoot. Herricht died in 1981 of a heart attack on stage during a performance of Kiss Me Kate at the Berlin Metropol Theater.

Karin Schröder, who plays Helene, is possibly the most adorable actress to come out East Germany. Her large brown eyes and blonde hair here make her look like a living Keane painting. She got her start playing the sporty Ruth in the popular DEFA musical New Year’s Eve Punch, and demonstrated a knack for comedy that Kolditz put to good use in Beloved White Mouse. In 1976, she proved she was equally adept at drama, winning the best actress award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for her performance in Kurt Maetzig’s Mann gegen mann (Man Against Man). Most of her work in East Germany was in television, where she appeared in over thirty TV movies and several of the most popular shows. She appeared nine times on the East German TV series Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort (The D.A. Has the Floor), although never in the same role twice. In 1987, she moved to West Germany. As with other actors that moved prior to the Wende, she was able to continue her career without the sorts of problems that those who stayed in East Germany until the bitter end experienced. She has gone on the appear in several popular TV shows since then, including a turn as the Kriminaloberrätin Marianne Stockhausen on Die Wache and as Sophie Himmel-Eiler on the long running soap opera Unter Uns.

Playing the unlovable Frau Messmer is Marianne Wünscher, an important character actor in the DEFA line-up. She appeared in dozens of East German TV-movies and several of the Stacheltier shorts that played before the main features at East German cinemas. She also made a brief appearance in Hot Summer as the director of the Volkseigenes Gut (farm collective). Too chubby for lead roles, she made a career out of playing the parts of nosy neighbors, officious secretaries, or lovable older women. She also appeared on stage, and had a knack for comedy. Ms. Wünscher died in 1990 in the middle of the Wende—after the wall fell, but before the reunification. She is buried in the Friedhof Pankow III cemetery in Berlin’s Pankow-Schönhausen district.

The music for Beloved White Mouse was by Carlernst Ortwein, a Leipzig-born pianist who used the pseudonym Conny Odd for his film work. Most of his film scores were made for the short films of Lothar Barke and others. In 1967 he moved away from film work to concentrate on his serious music, He appears briefly in the film playing piano in the dance orchestra. Conny Odd didn’t have an avant garde bone in this body, so the songs here, while enjoyable, could have come from a musical made ten years earlier. You won’t be singing them upon leaving the theater like you might with Hot Summer. A particularly entertaining number, though, is “Der Mann von Titelblatt,” which features a beauty parlor full of people singing about Fritz’s appearance on the cover of a magazine. It’s the kind of surreal nuttiness that makes this and other musicals so much fun to watch.

No examination of Beloved White Mouse would be complete without mentioning the work of its cinematographer, Günter Haubold. A comedy musical requires a bright and happy palette of colors and Haubold’s work here fits the bill perfectly (helped considerably by Babett Koplowitz’s colorful costume design). Everything is bright and airy, and seems like it was filmed in the sunlight–even the indoor scenes. There are no shadows in this film. Haubold got his start assisting Wolf Göthe on Gerhard Klein’s A Berlin Romance. He worked on several DEFA classics, including Konrad Petzold’s Das Lied vom Trompeter (The Trumpeter’s Song), Horst E. Brandt’s Zwischen Nacht und Tag (Between Night and Day), Günter Reisch’s Anton the Magician, and Iris Gusner’s All My Girls. In most respects, Beloved White Mouse was an anomaly in his body of work. He is best known for a semi-documentary style and some of the best black-and-white cinematography committed to film. He reached retirement age just as the wall came down. He ended his career with the dissolution of DEFA and DFF, but continued to work privately and to teach cinematography. He died in 1999.

As one might expect, Beloved White Mouse was a hit in East Germany. After the 11th Plenum, lighthearted comedy musicals like this one were taken off the schedule. Several of the films relegated to the “Poison Cabinet” during the 11th Plenum were banned for no better reason than that they were frivolous fun. But people need their fun, and it wasn’t long before comedies and musicals started showing up again, most notably with the classic East German Beach Party movie, Hot Summer.

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Revue um MItternacht

Communist musicals are in a class by themselves. So much so that in 1997, filmmaker Dana Ranga made them the subject of her fascinating documentary East Side Story—required viewing for anyone interested in the films of the GDR or other Eastern Bloc countries. In a world as grim and gray as East Germany could be, the colorful happiness and tuneful joy of the musicals exploded like psychedelic bombs on the movie screens of the former republic. Small wonder that they tended to pack people in. Right from the get-go the authorities didn’t think much of these happy, lighthearted features, but they made money, and even in an aggressively anti-capitalistic place like the GDR, money talked.

For a long time, DEFA had no intention of producing anything as frivolous as a musical, but the immense popularity of the DEFA Märchenfilme (fairytale films), which were made for East German children, but went on to become popular all over the world, helped pave the way for opera films (e.g., Zar und Zimmermann), which, in turn, opened the door for the modern musical.

In 1958, DEFA finally decided to give musicals a chance after a report showed that people in East Berlin would often cross the border to see the musicals playing in the western sector. Hollywood extravaganzas and their West German counterparts (most notably, the films of Marika Rökk) were filling West Berlin’s cinemas. DEFA decided to fight fire with fire. It was decided that as long as it didn’t contravene socialist values, a musical might be okay.

West Berliner Hans Heinrich—who had already directed the popular DEFA barge films, Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Happy Barge Crew) and Alter Kahn und junge Liebe (Old Barge, Young Love)—submitted a proposal for a musical to DEFA and it was accepted. The film My Wife Wants to Sing was promptly shelved, but the popularity of the music, which was released as an LP, led the authorities to rethink this plan, eventually releasing the film, although changing some of the music (more on this in a future post).

But throughout the fifties, the DEFA authorities remained wary of the musical genre. As a rule, song-and-dance numbers had to be incorporated in a semi-realistic fashion into the stories. For this reason, two of the more popular films from this period were Maibowle (The Punch Bowl) and its even more popular sequel, New Year’s Eve Punch, in which the musical numbers are parts of shows put on by the workers at a chemical plant. Never mind that, like their American counterparts, these musical numbers defied the realistic limitations of stage production.

After the Berlin Wall went up, the East German government was anxious to show that, if anything, the newly constructed “Anti-fascist Protection Barrier” (Antifaschistischer Schutzwall) would lead to greater creative freedom in the GDR. They started to greenlight movies that only a year earlier would not have gotten past the proposal stage. Films became more experimental and daring. This was the golden age of East German cinema—at least until the 11th Plenum in 1965 brought the renaissance to a screeching halt.

Into this new climate walked Gottfried Kolditz; one of the best directors to come out of East Germany. After studying at the University of Music and Theatre in Leipzig, Kolditz came to DEFA as a musical consultant for the films Mazurka der Liebe (Mazurka of Love), and Zar und Zimmermann (Tzar and Carpenter). He began his directing career as a member of the Stacheltier Group, which specialized in creating short films to play before the features. The Stacheltier Group created only one feature-length movie, Der junge Engländer (The Young Englishman) and it was directed by Kolditz. From there, Kolditz started directing features, mostly Märchenfilme. Over the years, Kolditz became DEFA’s go-to guy for genre films, directing musicals (Midnight Revue and Beloved White Mouse), Indianerfilme (Apaches and Ulzana), and science fiction (Signals and In the Dust of the Stars). With the exception of the Indianerfilme, Kolditz usually managed to get insert a musical number or two into his movies. The man clearly loved music.

Midnight Revue wastes no time letting us know that we are watching a musical. It starts with the smoky-voiced French chanteuse, Nicole Felix, singing about the “shadows of the past” (Das ist die Schatten der Vergangenheit) while suspiciously clandestine activities are going on in the next room. Activities that, as the song suggests, really were shadows of the past, when the cold war was raging across the porous border. Within the first half-hour of the film, we’ve been treated to a can-can, a hula dance (with East German women painted brown with what looks like shoe polish), and a Busby Berkeley-style number that includes women tap-dancing on pianos and playing accordions in tutus. Even if you don’t speak a word of German, the first half hour will keep you entertained.

The plot of the film involves the kidnapping of three prominent men in the film industry: an art director, a composer, and a dramaturge (a very important job at DEFA; see the Glossary for more information). It turns out that they are kidnapped by producer Otto Kruse, who wants to make a socialist musical; a kind of cavalcade of musical styles—in other words, the very film we are watching. The idea is to hold these men hostage and convince them to work on the film. Their response to this demand is that making such a film would be too difficult, too expensive, and too politically risky. “Too hot,” they sing (Zu Heiß). Associate producer Theo, and Kruse’s assistant, Claudia Glück, try to convince the men that a revue film is a great idea by conceptualizing various scenarios, which then come to life in the room, but to no avail. The men refuse to budge.

A fourth man—writer Paul Bielack—was also supposed to be kidnapped, but, unlike the other three, he knew of Kruse’s plan and sent his friend, an aspiring singer-songwriter named Alexander Ritter, in his place. Ritter is the only one of the four kidnapped men who thinks a revue film is a great idea, and immediately contributes his own ideas to the project. What no one knows is that Ritter had been lusting after Claudia Glück already. Immediately, sparks start to fly between Ritter and Glück. Ms. Glück thinks Ritter is arrogant and childish. He is, in her words, a halbfertiger Mensch (“half-finished man”). This comment really seems to upset Mr. Ritter (like most Germans, he doesn’t like anything half-finished). At this point, anyone who has seen more than one romantic comedy will realize that the these two will eventually get together, but not before a few more kidnappings, deceptions, and misunderstandings.

Playing Alexander Ritter is Manfred Krug, one of East Germany’s most multi-talented actors (see The Trace of Stones for more on Krug). Krug had already made a name for himself as an actor in the popular films Five Cartridges, Professor Mamlock, and Star-Crossed Lovers, but he first showed his talent as both a singer and an actor in On the Sunny Side, a film that parallels his own life in many ways. With Midnight Revue, he gets to unleash everything in his arsenal, except maybe his ability to play several different people in one movie. That would have to wait for Not To Me, Madam!, in which he portrays nine different people.

Playing opposite Krug as production assistant Claudia Glück is Christel Bodenstein. The public first saw Ms. Bodenstein as Traute in the Märchenfilm, Das tapfere Schneiderlein (The Valiant Tailor), but it was her turn as the arrogant princess in The Singing, Ringing Tree that she really caught people’s attention. A West German by birth, Ms. Bodenstein moved to Leipzig with her mother in 1949, where she enrolled in the Leipzig Opera ballet school. When she was 17, a chance meeting with director Kurt Maetzig at a Baltic resort led to a screen test for DEFA. She then moved from Leipzig and began studying acting at the Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam. Shortly afterward, she was cast in Slatan Dudow’s Der Hauptmann von Köln (The Captain from Cologne). From 1960 until 1978, she was married to director Konrad Wolf. As with many other East German actors, she did very little in film and television after the Wende, turning her attentions instead to theater. Over the past few years, she has been working as a sculptor, with her work appearing in galleries in the Berlin area. In 2016, she made a cameo appearance in the made-for-TV remake of The Singing, Ringing Tree.

Although Krug and Bodenstein had appeared once before in the same film (Bevor der Blitz einschlägt), this was the first time they were paired as a romantic couple and it seemed to work. They were paired up twice more within a year (Minna von Barnhelm and Beschreibung eines Sommers). Christel Bodenstein is the classic example of the “triple-threat”—that rare individual who can act, sing, and dance. And while Krug isn’t the hoofer that Ms. Bodenstein is, he can hold his own against her in the other two categories.

The music for the film is by Gerd Natschinski, who had worked with Gottfried Kolditz before on Mazurka der Liebe. Along with Gunther Fischer and Karl-Ernst Sasse (who is credited in Midnight Revue as the conductor of the DEFA Symphony Orchestra), Natschinski is one of East Germany’s most prolific composers. He wrote much of the music for Meine Frau Macht Musik, but is best remembered for the relentlessly infectious songs in Hot Summer. After Midnight Revue, Natschinski turned to the stage, writing the music for Mein Freund Bunbury (My Friend Bunbury), East Germany’s first theatrical musical. He could also turn in a good dramatic score, as he did for Joachim Hasler’s excellent The Story of a Murder.

No discussion Midnight Revue would be complete without mentioning the colorful camerawork of its cinematographer, Erich Gusko. Along with Werner Bergmann, Joachim Hasler, and Günter Marczinkowsky, Gusko was one of DEFA’s most respected cinematographers. He got his start in 1955, working alongside Joachim Hasler on Richard Groschopp’s 52 Wochen sind ein Jahr (52 Weeks Make a Year). Over the  years, he worked on many excellent DEFA movies, including The Rabbit is Me, Lotte in Weimar, and Her Third. His work in various Märchenfilme and in Midnight Revue are especially vivid, taking full advantage of the eye-bleeding colors available to East Germany’s Agfacolor (later renamed ORWOcolor because of a copyright dispute with West Germany).

Also deserving of mention are Hans Kieselbach and Helga Scherff, who created the costumes for the film. Although Kieselbach did his first costume design in 1940, for the film Traummusik (Dream Music), that was his only effort under the Third Reich. His career began in earnest in 1948 with DEFA’s first science fiction film, Chemistry and Love. Midnight Revue was his last film. Helga Scherff, on the other hand, was in the middle of her career with this film. She was the costume designer for Konrad Wolf’s first film Einmal ist keinmal (Once Doesn’t Count), the first of Gerhad Klein’s Berlin trilogy, Alarm at the Circus, Frank Beyer’s Carbide and Sorrel, and Kurt Barthel’s ill-fated Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly). The costumes in Midnight Revue cover the gamut. The clothing worn by the characters is stylish and modern, and the outfits worn by the dancers are as outrageously colorful as they should be. Between the costumes and the cinematography, the film matches the visual overload of The Red Shoes and The Girl Can’t Help It (probably the only time in history these two movies end up in the same sentence).

Finally, no discussion of this film would be complete without talking about its production designer, Alfred Tolle. Tolle’s career at DEFA began with Heart of Stone, the first East German Märchenfilm. From there he went on to do the production design/art direction for several more Märchenfilme, as well as a few classics from the DEFA catalog, including Einmal ist Keinmal, On the Sunny Side, and The Story of a Murder. His last film was Joachim Hasler’s Hot Summer. Always imaginative, Tolle gets to explore his inner Busby Berkeley in Midnight Revue with a giant piano keyboard, a three-story cupboard filled with women playing musical instruments, and a stylized blueprint come to life. Working with him as a set builder on the film was Werner Pieske, who went on to become a successful production designer in his own right. Pieske got his start as a feature film production designer with Gottfried Kolditz on Frau Holle (Mrs. Holly) and Beloved White Mouse. He was one of the people responsible for the look of Herrmann Zschoche’s oddball space opera, Eolomea. Toward the latter half of the seventies until the Wende, he worked primarily in television. He was also the production designer for Gottfried Kolditz’s last film, the heavily criticized Das Ding im Schloß (The Thing in the Castle). His career ended with the Wende. He died in 1992.

Beginning a movie with the kidnapping of three people is startling even today, but back then—after several reported incidences of East German spies snatching people off the streets of West Berlin before the wall went up—it must have hit close to home. Follow these scenes with one in which three experts tell us exactly why the very film we are watching can never be made. The public must have been as amused as the authorities were nonplussed. Like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges—who discovered that through comedy you could skirt the Hayes Code—Kolditz uses humor to go places that no other East German filmmaker dared. As a document of its time, Midnight Revue is unique. It shows an East Germany that is moving toward the future with with hope and enthusiasm. Within a couple years, there would be no way this film could have been made. It broke every rule in the socialist book. Even after Erich Honecker relaxed the restrictions on film imposed by the SED at the 11th Plenum, it would be years before DEFA got back to this level of imagination and style, and even then, the buoyant vivacity of this film and Kolditiz’s other pre-Plenum musical, Beloved White Mouse, would never be matched.

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In 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey sent shock waves through the film world. While some complained about its nearly incomprehensible plot, everyone was impressed with the film’s technical achievements. It is not an overstatement to say that Kubrick’s film represented a quantum leap in special effects. The genre would never be the same again. The eastern bloc was particularly impressed with Kubrick’s film. This is partly because the Eastern Bloc saw science fiction as an extension of communist achievement, having made it into space first, but also because the genre offered filmmakers a chance to imagine a world on their own terms, without those wet blankets—the cold war, politics, and economic realities—getting in the way.

DEFA got off to a bang-up start in the science fiction department with Kurt Maetzig’s classic, The Silent Star, but this was an expensive film to make, and the GDR’s economy couldn’t take too many more films on that scale. After a subsequent lower-budgeted attempt to bring science fiction to the screen flopped (Der Mann mit dem Objektiv), the folks at DEFA shelved further sci-fi film projects in favor of cheaper, more topical subject matter. They still made fairy-tale films (Märchenfilme), crime films (Krimis) and a few musicals, but most other genre films were avoided or ignored. After the 11th Plenum, the winds of change shifted again at DEFA and genre pictures became fashionable again, most notably, with the Indianerfilme of Gojko Mitic. In 1970, Gottfried Kolditz, better known at that point as a director of musicals and fairy-tales, decided to create a space adventure using Kubrick’s film as a template, and Signals – An Outer Space Adventure (Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer) was born.

Signals starts when The Icarus— a research ship searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe—is destroyed by meteorites near Jupiter. When no signals are received from the Icarus, it is presumed lost, and attempts to retrieve it are abandoned. This doesn’t sit well with everyone, particularly Commander Veikko of the Laika and Pawel (Yevgeni Zharikov), a young pilot whose sweetheart is among the missing. While repairing unmanned space stations, the crew of the Laika continues to search for the missing Icarus, in spite of the official edict that the ship is lost.

DEFA created dozens of science fiction films, both for theaters and television (for a list of these, see Robert Gemmell’s comment post on the About page). Four feature films took place in outer space. Three of these (The Silent Star, Eolomea, and In the Dust of the Stars) are available as a set from First Run Features. The fourth is Signals, and while there is a version out in cyberspace that includes fan-authored subtitles, the film has not been officially released in United States. This is primarily due to the fact that the film was a co-production between DEFA and the Polish state film production company, Zespoły Filmowe, which means twice as much money and paperwork is needed to secure the film rights (there is an irony in private companies wrangling over the rights to communist films). Like Eolomea, Signals is slowly paced, and more cerebral than exciting, but it has its moments.1 The zero-gravity musical interlude is worth the price of admission, and the scene where Gojko Mitic and Alfred Müller play upside-down footsie on the beach is an amusing bit of homoerotic camp (I would say this is unintentional, but I’m not sure that it is: Terry and Konrad seem to have a very close relationship).

As with The Silent Star, the crews of the spaceships in Signals are aggressively multi-cultural, with nearly every major ethnic group represented. There is also—à la Omega in the previous film—a non-anthropoidal robot on-board the Laika to do the bidding of its owner, Gaston (Helmut Schreiber).

Signals is very loosely based on Asteroid Hunters (Asteroidenjäger), an East German science fiction  novel by Carlos Rasch. Rasch’s Utopian space operas were popular in East Germany, but when the wall came down they, as with many other aspects of East German culture, were assigned to the “dustbin of history” (to use a phrase coined by Leon Trotsky). After the Wende, Rasch became a journalist, but returned to science fiction writing in 2009 with his Raumlotsen (Space Pilot) series.

According to Sonja Fritzsche in an article for German Studies Review, Kolditz fell ill during production and the project was taken over by its cinematographer, Otto Hanisch. This would explain a lot. The film lacks Kolditz’s usual pizazz, and seems more interested in the technical aspects of the special effects than the story. No doubt Hanisch was anxious to explore Kubrick’s film techniques for portraying rockets and zero gravity, but, unlike the 2001, Signals at least attempts to create back stories for the main characters (a common beef about the Kubrick film).

Every scene involving special effects inevitably must be compared to 2001, and inevitably Signals comes up short, particularly in the scenes involving spaceship docking and manoeuvring. To make such scenes believable requires that they be done slowly and deliberately, which doesn’t make for good entertainment. Kubrick’s solution was brilliant: he staged the scenes to Richard Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz, which turns them into elegant ballets of machines in space. In Signals, similar scenes seem rushed and end looking like exactly what they are: models on wires. When the exploration pods in Signals rotate in space, the music is not an elegant waltz, but weird calliope music, overlaid with the tick of a clock fed through an Echoplex. By itself, this music is interesting, but in conjunction with the visuals, the effect is too literal and not particularly exciting.

Better (or at least, wackier) use of music occurs in the aforementioned the zero-gravity exercise scene where the music—a cross between Esquivel and saxophone dance-hall music—offers a welcome relief from the drama that preceded it. As with several other Kolditz films, the music is by Karl-Ernst Sasse (see Her Third for more information on Sasse). In spite of my earlier criticisms about the use of music in the film, Sasse’s score is fun and strange. Like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, and Hans J. Salter, Sasse was a classically-trained musician who composed for the movie industry to pay the rent. Unlike those musicians, however, Sasse was not averse to exploring schmaltzy pop music and pure noise as sources of inspiration. As a result, a cross-section of Sasse’s soundtrack music encompasses nearly every style imaginable, from dissonant percussion to fifties jazz. In Signals, his music is an unlikely combination of experimental and kitsch and definitely deserves a listen.

There is some evidence that suggests that Kolditz wasn’t happy with either Hanisch or the resulting film. After Signals, Kolditz and Hanisch didn’t work together again (Hanisch did film The Scout (Der Scout), which was started by Kolditz, but he died before it went into production). Kolditz shot two more science fiction films (In the Dust of the Stars and Das Ding im Schloß). For these, he turned to cinematographer Peter Süring. This is too bad, because Hanisch was a talented cameraman and he does some interesting work here. The camera swoops, zooms, and spins; and in one scene between Pawel and Veikko, it swings back and forth like a pendulum. Add to this some bizarre editing by Helga Gentz and you have a potent mix of abstract bedazzlement. As with many other DEFA technicians (Peter Süring and Helga Gantz included), Hanisch’s career effectively ended when the wall came down.

The costumes were designed by Günther and Marianne Schmidt. Again, the template here appears to be 2001. For the Kubrick film, Sir Edwin Hardy Amies, was chosen. Amies was an odd choice, He was better known as Queen Elizabeth’s favorite designer—hardly a bastion of futuristic style. For Kubrick’s film, Amies took his cues from sixties fashion (most notably the Austrian designer, Rudi Gernreich), tempered by the director’s desire for zero-gravity practicality. The Schmidts’ designs have a similarly mod look to them, but seem more forward-thinking. In fact, they bear a marked similarity to Bob Fletcher’s costume design in Star Trek: The Motion Picture; although it’s doubtful that Fletcher ever saw Signals.

I don’t doubt that Signals will eventually be released with English subtitles. While it is not as strong as In the Dust of the Stars, it is as good as Eolomea and deserve to be seen by a wider audience.

IMDB page for the film.

1. Slow pacing, cerebral content, and frequent scenes of people debating political and philosophical viewpoints are commonly associated with DEFA films. Of course, there is more to East German Cinema than this stereotype, but stereotypes have their roots in reality (at least, in commonly perceived reality).

Hollywood has always had an ugly relationship with Apaches. Even at their most sympathetic (most notably in Broken Arrow and The Battle at Apache Pass) they are portrayed as ruthlessly violent. Most of the time they are a cipher, as incomprehensible to white folks as the tripods in War of the Worlds. Even after the shift in the early seventies to more sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans (e.g., Soldier Blue and Little Big Man), the Apaches remained as ruthless as ever (e.g., Ulzana’s Raid, 1972).

East Germany had no such preconceptions. As far as they were concerned, the Apaches were as capable of nobility and heroism as anyone else. The real problem was, as always, the white men that drove them off their land in the name of property, precious metals, and, later, oil. They had already made movies about Mohicans, Shawnees, Seminoles, Dakota Sioux, Arapahos and Shoshones. It was time for DEFA to take a good hard look at the Apaches in the film of the same name.

The basis of Apaches (Apachen) is a little remembered event that took place in 1937 in the small mining community of Santa Rita in the Mexican province of Nuevo Mexico. In 1835, the Mexican government placed a bounty on the scalps of the Apaches who occupied their northern territories (now, Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas). This essentially gave people a license to kill. An American trader named John Johnson invited the local Mimbres Apaches to pick up free flour and then let loose on them with rifles and a cannon filled with scrap iron, glass, and a length of chain. Among those killed was the tribe’s chief, Juan José Compá. All of this is recorded with fair accuracy in the film, although, in the film, the man who takes over for Compá is called Ulzana.

In truth, the new leader’s name was Mangas Coloradas (Spanish for Red Sleeves). Considering how careful the filmmakers were in most other aspects, the choice of the name Ulzana is a mystery. Perhaps it was to cash in on the name recognition created by Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid—a fictionalized account of the Battle of Little Dry Creek, which did involve an Apache named Ulzana (also known as Josanie). Why Mangas Coloradas has received such short shrift in films (both east and west) is also a mystery. He was a great leader whose attempts to barter a truce between the Chiricahuas and the white people were repeatedly thwarted by the double-dealing of the U.S. Cavalry and vengeful settlers. It was he who was tied to a tree and whipped as portrayed in the film, although this event took place fourteen years after the Santa Rita Massacre. Mangas Coloradas met his end in 1863, when he went to the U.S. Cavalry under a flag of truce. Ignoring the truce, the Cavalry tortured and killed him. His head was cut off, boiled to remove the skin, and the skull was sent to renowned phrenologist, Orson Squire Fowler, whose theories on the importance of the shape of the skull laid the foundations for the development of eugenics. So much for the rules of engagement.

The star of the film is Gojko Mitic, the astoundingly well-built Yugoslavian actor/stuntman who became East Germany’s favorite Indian, starring in thirteen East German Indianerfilme (some sources cite twelve, but I count thirteen). Mitic also co-wrote the script with director Gottfried Kolditz. At this point, Mitic had already made a name for himself as an actor, but this was his first turn as a scriptwriter. The actor is as athletic as ever here, doing his own stunts, including a particularly dangerous looking one for both him and the horse. The film was popular and led to a sequel, aptly named, Ulzana, also written by Mitic and Kolditz (not currently available with English subtitles).

The villain in this piece is played by Milan Beli in a role that plagued him for the rest of his career. As with Gojko Mitic, Beli hailed from Yugoslavia. He first appeared in the French/Yugoslavian co-production Burlak, and also worked uncredited on choreography for Konrad Wolf’s Goya. In the west, he is best remembered for his role as Ronk in Gottfried Kolditz’s psychedelic sci-fi classic, In the Dust of the Stars. He was almost always cast as a villain and is reported to have said that he relished those occasions when he could play someone who was not so evil. This may explain why he took the relatively small, but benign role of the victim of a fender bender in Konrad Petzold’s cat-and-mouse thriller, Für Mord kein Beweis (No Evidence for Murder).

One area that was an inescapable problem for East German filmmakers was the lack of access to the American west while making these films. Nonetheless, the stand-in countrysides of Romania and Uzbekistan do a reasonably good job of mimicking the landscapes of southwestern New Mexico and the Chiricahua Mountains. As someone who grew up in Tucson and has spent a fair amount of time in Silver City, New Mexico, the landscapes looked good to me. The only major fault I can find are the pathetic excuses for saguaro cacti.

Director Gottfried Kolditz was an interesting choice of director. He had already made one very successful Indianerfilm (Spur des FalkenThe Falcon’s Trail), and had worked with Gojko Mitic on the science fiction film Signals (Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer). Kolditz was one of East Germany’s best directors. His oeuvre encompasses nearly every type of film from light-hearted musicals (Revue um Mitternacht and Geliebte Weiße Maus), to cerebral sci-fi (Signale and Im Staub der Sterne), to fairy tales (Schneewittchen and Frau Holle). As with other DEFA directors (most notably, Konrad Wolf), this makes it hard to tie his films up into a neat, auteur package. Frau Holle, for instance, has very little in common with Apachen, except maybe the strong sense of color and mise-en-scène common to all of Kolditz’s films. Other than that, they are as different as chalk and cheese.

Music is always an important aspect of Kolditz’s films, and Apaches is no exception. For this film, Kolditz worked with Hans-Dieter Hosalla. It was Hosalla’s first western score. As with fellow movie composers, Wilhelm Neef and Kolditz favorite, Karl-Ernst Sasse, Hosalla was a classically trained musician. Besides his work for DEFA, he is best known for his musical interpretations Berthold Brecht’s lyrics in Saint Joan of the Stockyards (Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe) and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui). In Apaches, Hosalla takes his cues from Morricone, combining traditional classical instruments with Spanish guitar and odd percussion. This is not to say that score sounds anything like a Morricone score; it doesn’t.  Hosalla’s score swings between frenetic piano music and incongruously lighthearted flute and guitar music. While there is no record of how well Kolditz got along with Hosalla, or what he thought of his music, it is probably significant that for the sequel to Apaches, he went back to his favorite composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse.

As a footnote to this story, the town of Santa Rita was repaid for the events of 1837 with poetic retribution. Starting in 1901, the town was forced to move repeatedly as the mine grew. Finally in 1957, the entire town was forced off its property in the quest for copper—a move instigated by the Kennecott Corporation. A new townsite was erected, but the site was quickly and badly chosen. Shortly after it was established, most of the town was washed away during an erosive flood (not uncommon in this area—in late 1800s the main street of nearby Silver City was replaced with a creek due to wagon track erosion on the trail from the mines). By 1967, the town, which once had boasted over 6,000 citizens, no longer existed. Today, all that remains is a verdigris pit so enormous it is almost impossible to judge its scale until those tiny trucks you see in the bottom of the pit drive past you and you notice that their wheels are taller than you are.

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