Archive for the ‘Günter Reisch’ Category

Wolz – Life and Illusion of a German Anarchist
From the first frame of the opening credits, Wolz lets you know that it will be taking a lighthearted look at an otherwise serious subject. The theme song is typically German-sounding oompah march music, punctuated by gunshots. On paper, Wolz does not sound like material for humor at all. It follows the exploits of a man named Ignaz Wolz (Regimantas Adomaitis), who, while fighting in World War I, becomes disgusted to discover a rich merchant who has decided to use his gauze production facility to make corsets for rich women rather than bandages for the wounded soldiers on the Front. Inspired by the communist rhetoric of Ludwig (Stanislaw Ljubschin), the medic that saved his life, Wolz gathers some friends and they confront the gauze merchant, extracting money from him to help their cause. Thus begins Wolz’s campaign to make the merchants and politicians payback the public for embroiling them in a war that made the rich richer, but hurt everyone else. While fighting, Wolz reunites with Ludwig, who tries to convince Wolz that joining the party would be a better use of his effort, but Wolz is not a joiner. He wants to forge his own path, no matter how foolhardy it seems, and no amount arguing will convince him otherwise.

The film is based on Vom weißen Kreuz zur roten Fahne (From White Cross to Red Flag) the autobiography of Max Hoelz. Hoelz gained a name for himself in the Vogtland region as the “Communist Bandit.” In the 1920s, he was a sort of German Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to help the poor. In Hoelz’s case, this meant helping the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD), a far-left group that eventually fell out of favor with the Soviets for its tactics. Like Wolz, Hoelz managed to irritate people across the political spectrum, and like Wolz he was sentenced to life in prison, and later released. When things got too hot for him in Germany, Hoelz went to the Soviet Union, where he managed to piss off the people in charge there as well. After Hitler came to power, Hoelz was one of the people on Hitler’s first list of Germans the Nazis expatriated because they didn’t like their politics. At the end of the film, we see Wolz blithely walk into the water, sure of his path, and indifferent to the pleading of a woman trying to tell him that he’ll surely drown. This reflects Hoelz’s own death, having drowned under suspicious circumstances in the Oka river near Gorki.

The film started with a screenplay by Günther Rücker, whose work is usually grim. The light tone of this film comes directly from director Günter Reisch, who also gave us Anton the Magician and two entertaining Christmas films (A Lively Christmas Eve, and Like Father, Like Son). Rücker had been trying to get this film off the ground for a few years. This is a long ways from the relentlessly downbeat stories of Rücker’s The Gleiwitz Case and Until Death Do Us Part. Reisch had a style like no other East German director. He wasn’t the chameleon the Konrad Wolf could be, nor the risk taker that Egon Günther was. Like Ernst Lubitsch, he had a style all his own. The end result is a film that in the hands of nearly every East German director would have been the kind of dreary, didactic fare that DEFA was often accused (erroneously) of making.

Wolz

Things are sometimes lost in translation, and we can see that here in this film’s subtitle: “Life and Illusion of a German Anarchist” (Leben und Verklärung eines deutschen Anarchisten). Verklärung doesn’t mean illusion. In fact, Illusion means illusion in German, so I have to assume that if that is what Reisch (or Rücker) had meant, he would have used that word. Verklärung means “transfiguration,” with all the religious connotations that the word implies, but it can also refer to the romanticized glorification of a character, which what I think Reisch and Rücker are going for here.

Regimantas Adomaitis, who plays Ignaz Wolz, is a Lithuanian actor who was just becoming a star when Reisch cast him as Wolz. He had made a big splash a year earlier in fellow Lithuanian Vytautas Zalakevicius’s film That Sweet Word: Liberty! Reisch was so impressed with him in Wolz that he cast him again in The Fiancée (Die Verlobte), a much grimmer film that was co-directed by Reisch and Rücker. Adomaitis has won awards for his acting in both East Germany and the Soviet Union. These days, he works primarily on stage at the National Theater of Lithuania in Vilnius.

Ludwig is played by the Russian actor Stanislaw Ljubschin, looking for all the world here like a young Peter Gabriel. Ljubschin started in theater, but soon moved to films. While still a student, he appeared in Andrey Tarkovskyss and Aleksandr Gordon’s short film There Will Be No Leave Today (Сегодня увольнения не будет). He first gained fame playing a Russian spy who infiltrates the Nazis in the four-part series The Sword and the Shield (Щит и Меч). He is better known in the West for his role in Georgiy Daneliya’s nutty science fiction parody Kin-dza-dza! (Кин-Дза-Дза). Ljubschin continues to star in films in Russia. As was usually the case with foreign actors, Adomaitis and Ljubschin were dubbed by German actors. In this case, Gerry Wolff and Justus Fritzsche respectively.

Heidemarie Wenzel

Also here is Heidemarie Wenzel as Agnes, a woman who fights for the rights of the people in spite of her posh upbringing. Wenzel is no stranger to this blog, having starred in several of the films discussed here. Made in 1974, Wenzel was still a popular artist at DEFA. That would all change with the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. As one of the signatories of the letter protesting his expatriation, Wenzel found career opportunities drying up in East Germany. She applied for an exit visa and was denied, but was eventually expatriated herself in 1988 (for more on Wenzel, see The Dove on the Roof).

The apparent moral of the film is that individual anarchy leads to nothing. A successful attack on capitalism requires organization. The authorities in the SED wouldn’t have trouble with this concept, so it’s no surprise that the film was approved, but the film works on a whole other level that surely eluded the powers that be. Wolz’s failure comes as much from his refusal to listen to others and take their advice into consideration. Made in 1974, the film presages the stubborn refusal of the East German government to acknowledge the protests against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, and Honecker’s resolute refusal to follow Gorbachev’s lead with Glasnost and Perestroika. The GDR’s—or, more accurately, the SED’s—inability to change with the times would eventually lead to the fall of East Germany. To what extent Reisch had this in mind is hard to say, but now the message comes across loud and clear. It’s a moral that some current U.S. congresspeople could stand to learn.

IMDB page for the film.

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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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Das Lied der Matrosen
The Sailors’ Song (Das Lied der Matrosen) is a dramatic retelling of the Kiel Mutiny, a revolt by sailors in 1918. The event helped end World War I, virutually ended the reign of Wilhelm II, and—at least in this DEFA account of the story—sowed the seeds for the establishment of the Germany Communist Party (KPD). The film starts in the Fall of 1917 with the execution of Max Reichpietsch and Albin Köbis, two sailors who led a revolt aboard the SMS Prinzregent Luitpold, protesting bad conditions and lousy food. Max and Albin were labeled “Marxist agitators” and sentenced to be shot by a firing squad. When sailors refused to shoot two of their own, the convicted men are transported to Cologne, where they are executed by soldiers instead. By this point, the Germans had lost the war, but they weren’t ready to admit it. The treatment of the sailors aboard the battleships remained bad, and by September of 1918, things had reached a boiling point. When the admiralty tried to implement a suicide attack against the Royal Navy, the sailors of the SMS Frederick the Great and others finally declare they’ve had enough and marched on the naval headquarters in Kiel.

The film is set up in dramatic fashion, with heroes who support the Russian revolution trying to end the imperial oppression in Germany; and bad guys fighting for their beloved German Empire. In the middle is Jupp, a sailor who is recruited by the Navy to spy on his shipmates. At first, he is on the side of the military, but eventually comes to understand the viewpoints of his fellow sailors. Things come to a head after Jupp sees his mother shot during a protest march. It’s stirring stuff that even critics of the film’s politics had to admit was powerfully handled.

Determined to finish the film in time for the Kiel mutiny’s 40th anniversary, DEFA hired two directors to make the movie: Kurt Maetzig and Günter Reisch. Both Maetzig and Reisch believed in the ideals of the GDR, and both were superb craftsmen. Beyond that, their styles are as different as chalk and cheese. Reportedly Maetzig handled the scenes with the military officers and admirals in this film, while Reisch shot the scenes involving the sailors. It doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does.

Das Lied der Matrosen

The main heroes of the film are Henne Lobke and August Lenz, played by Ulrich Thein and Raimund Schelcher respectively. Ulrich Thein, a man of immense talent, was a West German by birth, but moved to the GDR to work at the famous Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Later on, he’d start directing as well (for more on Thein, see Anton the Magician). Craggy-faced Raimund Schelcher was one of the best actors in East Germany, but his drinking caused enough problems with productions that it became the stuff of legends. Born in German East Africa, Schelcher came to Germany after German East Africa was divvied up by the Treaty of Versailles He started working at various theaters in Germany during the Weimar years, and was arrested by the Gestapo and put into one of the probation battalions—Hitler’s weird policy of putting convicted criminals into their own battalions (for more on Schelcher, see Castles and Cottages).

The main villain of the movie is the naval officer Eberhard Schuckert, who is played with gusto by Ekkehard Schall. Schall is best known for his work with Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel at the Berliner Ensemble. He was mentored by Brecht and became keeper of the flame along with Weigel after the playwright’s death. Like Weigel, Schall saw Brecht’s work as set in stone and resisted any attempts to modify the performances with modern interpretations. He even married Brecht’s daughter Barbara. On film, he is best remembered for his role as a juvenile delinquent in Berlin–Schönhauser Corner, and the bizarre “Chief” in Gottfried Kolditz’s In the Dust of the Stars. Not surprisingly, Schall was considered a master interpreter of Brecht, and continued to perform the playwright’s works throughout his life. He was also one of the speakers at the Alexanderplatz demonstration a few days before the Wall was opened, supporting socialism, but calling for changes. After the Wende, Schall restricted his performances almost exclusively to theater, appearing in only one film (Der Auftrag). He died in 2005.

The Sailors' Song

The morally conflicted Jupp is portrayed by Stefan Lisewski in his first feature film. Handsome and gaunt, Lisewski appeared as a leading man in such films as Love’s Confusion, May Wine (Maibowle), The Story of a Murder, and Approach Alpha 1 (Anflug Alpha 1). Like Eberhard Schuckert, Lisewski is strongly associated with the plays of Bertolt Brecht. He is reported to have played Mack the Knife no less than 500 times. During the seventies, and after the Wende, he concentrated more on theater than film. He died in Berlin in 2016.

You wouldn’t be out of order to call Kurt Maetzig the father of East German cinema. He was there on November 22, 1945 at the Hotel Adlon, helping to form the Filmaktiv, a group designed to revitalize filmmaking in Germany, and from which DEFA eventually sprang. When DEFA was officially launched the following May, he was put in charge of the group that made Der Augenzeuge (The Eyewitness) films—short newsreels that screened before the main movies. Although he retired from filmmaking in 1976, he outlasted DEFA by many years. In fact, he outlasted almost everybody, finally dying in 2012 at the age of 101. Maetzig’s films are often the ones that are held up as examples by those wishing to portray the films from East Germany as exercises in Soviet propaganda. Some of his films, especially his earlier films, wear their politics on their sleeves. His style borrowed heavily from documentary filmmaking, but he never forgot the importance of the human story in his films.

Reisch came to DEFA a few years later and soon started working with Maetzig as an assistant director. You can see his work in Council of the Gods and the Ernst Thälmann films. He got his first chance to direct with Young Vegetables (Junges Gemüse) and then in Track in the Night. He is also responsible for the most high concept pair of films to come out of DEFA: A Lively Christmas Eve and Like Father, Like Son. Both featuring essentially the same actors in the same parts, filmed twenty-five years apart.

protest scene from Das Lied der Matrosen

The protest march at the end is spectacular, involving 15,000 extras. Today it would be done with CGI. How the director managed to keep track of Ulrich Thein in that crowd is beyond me. It’s a masterful piece of controlled crowd filming. Whether this was Maetzig of Reisch, I can’t say (all signs point to Reisch), but it’s a stunning example of directing.

If you are new to the films of East Germany, The Sailor’s Song is probably not the place to start. It very much fits the mold of what most Westerners think East German films are like. It is didactic and filled with the socialist heroics. That’s not to say it’s a bad film; it’s an amazing film. Just don’t assume that it represents the average East German film. That would be like using Strategic Air Command as a representative example of Hollywood movies.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (in German, no subtitles).

© 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.

Spur in die Nacht
In America, we tend to parse out films about crime into specific categories, such as heist films, detective films, film noir, mysteries, and so on. In both East and West Germany, these films are lumped into one big group: Kriminalfilme, or “crime films,” usually referred to as “Krimis.” Many West German Krimis center around a murder, but this is more unusual in East German Krimis. Murder, as an individual crime, is seen as a symptom of capitalism and less likely to occur in the GDR. In West Germany, the criminals are often members of crime organizations run by an evil masterminds, best exemplified by the Dr. Mabuse films. In East Germany, these films often revolve around West Germans and foreigners who are using the disparity between East and West Germany for their own ends. Track in the Night (Spur in die Nacht) falls squarely into this category.1 Its original title was Schmugglerkönig (Smuggler King), which gives some idea of the subject matter, but also clues the audience in to the criminals’ motives early on.

In Track in the Night, we follow the misadventures of a Berlin bricklayer named Ulli, who arrives in a small village on the Czech/German border to visit his girlfriend, Sabine. It’s skiing season, and Sabine is doing seasonal work at the local HO store. When she’s not there to meet him, he goes to the the Fuchsbau Inn where she’s staying, but Sabine isn’t there either. After a brief investigation, the local authorities decide Sabine is a Republikflüchtling—a person who left East Germany illegally—but Ulli doesn’t believe it and neither does Sabine’s friend and co-worker Traudel. Ulli starts his own investigation, and soon finds himself embroiled with a gang of smugglers.

Spur in die Nacht

In some respects, Track in the Night resembles an Alistair MacLean story (The Guns of Navarone, Breakheart Pass), where we find out later that someone we thought was possibly a bad guy turns out to be a good guy, but a good guy in this case means someone who works for the Stasi. In other respects, it resembles the format pioneered by Hitchcock, where an ordinary man is thrown into a situation outside of his usual experiences, and is forced to play the hero.

Track in the Night is the second film from director Günter Reisch. Reisch was one of East Germany’s most interesting and imaginative directors. He is best known for Anton the Magician, as well he should be, for it is a real classic, but his others films are also worth a viewing. Politically, he rarely rocked the boat, but this wasn’t out of timidity. He was resolutely socialist, and often attacked what he saw as a growing tendency toward bourgeois values in East Germany.2 His most unique contributions to cinema are the bookend films, A Lively Christmas Eve and Like Father, Like Son, filmed twenty-five years apart with nearly the same cast, right down to the bit parts.

Playing Ulli is Ulrich Thein, and this is his movie he appears in nearly every scene. He even takes to singing and playing guitar at one point. The song he sings, “Fuchsbau-Boogie,” was composed by Thein; rather quickly from the sounds of it, but it’s supposed to be an impromptu song anyway. Thein was a man of many talents. Although best known as an actor, he also directed films and plays, composed songs, and wrote screenplays. He died in 1995 in Berlin (for more on Thein, see Anton the Magician).

Ulrich Thein

Track in the Night also stars two of East Germany’s most beautiful actresses: Eva-Maria Hagen and Annekathrin Bürger.3 For Hagen, this wasn’t the first film she worked on—that would be Don’t Forget My Little Traudel—but it was the first film featuring her to reach the theaters. Her acting duties here are limited. She doesn’t appear until the last half-hour of the film, and even then only in a few scenes. These two movies arrived in theaters within weeks of each other, kicking Hagen’s career with a roaring start.

Annekathrin Bürger had already made a splash in her previous film, Gerhard Klein’s A Berlin Romance. When Track in the Night was made, Bürger was romantically coupled with her co-star Ulrich Thein. After splitting with Thein, Bürger dated and married fellow actor Rolf Römer. Although Römer is now dead, Bürger is still going strong and regularly performs programs of songs and poetry (for more on Bürger, see Hostess). Bürger’s contribution to the plot is not as limited as Hagen’s but the story doesn’t revolve around her either.

The music is by Helmut Nier, a classical composer, who brings to the score a nice Gershwinesque jazziness. Those who have seen New Year’s Punch, which was also scored by Nier, will recognize certain leitmotifs Nier used again in that film. The cinematography is by Walter Fehdmer, who worked in East Germany until the Wall went up, and thereafter worked in West Germany, suggesting he either chose this time to leave the country or, more likely, found himself cut off from his former employer. He retired from film work in 1970. No death date is listed for him, although, since he was born in 1913, he is either dead, or one of the oldest men in Germany. Fehdmer’s work is adequate, but not on a par with the likes of Rolf Sohre, Günter Ost, Joachim Hasler, or Werner Bergmann.

Track in the Night is not one of the most daring or inventive Krimis to come out of DEFA. Those would come later. But it is entertaining, and has a perspective that is completely at odds with our western way of thinking.The proposition that it’s good to cooperate with the Stasi is not a position that one is likely to see repeated anytime soon. Even at DEFA, this position became less and less common as the Stasi became more and more invasive.

IMDB page for this film.


1. Note: I’ve translated the German word Spur as “Track.” This film could also be called “Trail in the Night” or “Trace in the Night” (the more common translation of Spur), and both would fit. The English word “spoor” comes from the same root, although it has lost much of its meaning in English and now is usually reserved to talk about animal droppings. I’ve chosen “track” in reference to one specific scene in the film, which I believe the title is in reference to.

2. Sadly, I never met the fellow, but reports from friends and associates make him sound like a wonderfully cantankerous old coot. I think I would have liked him.

3. Although most of the time I use the now gender-neutral “actor” in all cases, somehow the phrase “beautiful actors” just doesn’t work for me, so I’ve made this exception.

Silvesterpunsch
As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the East German government had a rocky relationship with musicals. The inherent frivolity of the genre clashed mightily with the government’s philosophy that every film should promote good socialist values. At the same time, musicals were popular with the public in the fifties on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In 1958, DEFA made its first musical, My Wife Wants to Sing, and the film was temporarily shelved due to its apparent lack of a distinct socialist message. When it was released it was a big hit and helped open the doors to the musical form.

In 1959, The Punch Bowl (Maibowle), a light comedy directed by Günter Reisch, was released. The Punch Bowl follows the adventures and misadventures of the Lehmann family after the family patriarch Wilhelm Lehmann is scheduled to receive a Banner der Arbeit (Banner of Labor) medal for his leadership of the Grünefeld Chemical Plant. Director Reisch was careful to make sure that there was a solid socialist message here. The film was approved and was a hit. So director Reisch decided to up the ante slightly with New Year’s Punch (Silvesterpunsch), a sequel that starts in the same comic vein as the first film, and then turns into a full-on musical.

In structure, it is similar to the films of the musicals of the thirties and forties, where people spend most of the movie planning for a big stage show, which is revealed as the finale. The biggest difference here is that the musical numbers here are aimed at promoting the importance of chemistry to the development of the state. Included in the numbers are an ode to Calcium Carbide and the joys of polymerization. Like modern musicals—but very unlike the Hollywood musicals at the time—the singing never spontaneously erupts with an invisible orchestra. If someone sings, there is a reason, and there are musicians present, no matter how illogical that may be. Most of the singing and dancing is saved for the grand finale, which culminates in the celebration of the New Year Eve (which is called Silvester in German, hence the title).

Silvesterpunsch

Heinz Draehn and Christel Bodenstein reprise their roles from The Punch Bowl as Franz and Suse Lehmann, as do Erich Franz and Erika Dunkelmann as the parents. The other Lehmann children form the first film, and there were several, are replaced this time around by Michel, played by Achim Schmidtchen, an aspiring trumpet player. The story takes place at the Grünefeld Chemical Plant of the first film. The work force is evenly divided between fans of the arts and fans of sports. Since both of things were very important to East German culture, it is important (and inevitable, really) that both of these groups eventually learn to get along.

Christel Bodenstein—a dancer before she became an actor—gets to demonstrate her skills here (although I suspect a double was used for the ice skating scenes). At one point, she dances on a narrow, slightly bouncy tabletop en pointe—something I wouldn’t recommend anyone to attempt. Bodenstein is best known for her part as the selfish princess in The Singing, Ringing Tree, but she appeared in many other popular East German films and television shows. After the Wende, her career on television and films essentially ended. Her role in the Mario Adorf mini-series Die Kaltenbach-Papiere (The Kaltenbach Papers) was her last role in front of a camera. Since then, she has devoted her career to the stage.

Karin und Kristel

New Year’s Punch marks the debut of Karin Schröder. Best known for her role in Beloved White Mouse, which starred East German comedian Rolf Herricht. Schröder appears in New Year’s Punch with dark hair and a short, tomboy haircut, but still looks every bit as adorable as she did in the Rolf Herricht comedy. Schröder was originally trained as a certified stenographer, but director Günter Reisch immediately saw her potential and used her often (for more on Reisch, see A Lively Christmas Eve). She appeared in a number of television shows and movies in East Germany, and continued her career after the Wall came down, Most recently, she appeared as a recurring character in the German TV show, Alles Klara.

The cinematographer for New Year’s Punch was Karl Plintzner, whose color work here and elsewhere rivals the work of the great Leon Shamroy. Plintzner got his start as an assistant cameraman shortly before the beginning of WWII. After the war he joined DEFA as a cinematographer, working first on Wolfgang Staudte’s The Adventures of Fridolin (Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B.), and then on Erich Engel’s The Blum Affair. Plintzner showed a special knack for color right off the bat with his work on the Ernst Thälmann films, but it was The Singing, Ringing Tree where he really got to let loose with colors so vivid they’ll make your eyes bleed. For health reasons, he retired in 1965. He died on December 7, 1975 in East Berlin.

Silvesterpunsch

The music for New Year’s Punch was composed by Helmut Nier. Nier was the founder of the Association of Composers and Musicologist in the GDR (Verbandes der Komponisten und Musikwissenschaftler), whose stated purpose was to maintain and develop the musical culture of the GDR, as well as ensure that composers received proper credit and compensation. As a composer, Nier never matched the talent of Karl-Ernst Sasse or Gerd Natchinski. The songs in New Year’s Punch are entertaining enough, but not particularly memorable. Nier was better at serious scores. His soundtracks for Spur in die Nacht (Trace in the Night), The Baldheaded Gang, and Black Velvet are far more compelling than any of his work on comedies and romances. As with many of the East German’s who worked for DEFA, his career in films ended after the Wende. Nier died in 2002.

In terms of musicals, New Year’s Punch comes closer to the Western concept of what a communist musical would look like than the other musicals from DEFA. The politics of socialism and the GDR’s love affairs with sports and culture are never far from the storyline in this film. This doesn’t really distract from the story however, and, as light as this romantic comedy is, it’s a pretty entertaining piece of fluff.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

Anton der Zauberer
Of all the surprises that East German films bring to American viewers, the biggest one—excluding the psychedelia of In the Dust of the Stars, which is guaranteed to make anyone’s head explode—is how dark the humor in their comedies can be. Of course, the target for this kind of comedy is nearly always western-style capitalism and the avariciousness of its followers, but in black humor there is an inherent, if unspoken, acknowledgement that people are the same everywhere: corrupt, easily manipulated and foolish. These films may not point directly at the SED, but, as the saying goes, whenever you point at someone, three fingers point back at you.

Anton the Magician (Anton der Zauberer) has plenty to say about the corrupting effects the pursuit of money can have on a person, but it also says something about the ability of any huckster to game a system, whether it’s communist or capitalist. The film is the picaresque tale of Anton Grubske, a clever mechanic whose love of cars, women, and booze continually get him into to trouble. The story is told as a flashback, starting with Anton’s funeral then jumping back to his birth. We follow Anton’s story through his teenage years, the war, its aftermath, the early years of the GDR, and right through the building of the Wall, which plays an important part in this story.

Anton is portrayed as a sly man with a likable personality and a way with all things automotive. After narrowly escaping emprisonment by the Russians, he joins in a pecuniary—and sometimes sexual—partnership with Sabine, the owner of Zum verwunschenen Ritter (The Enchanted Knight), a bar that is named after its primary attraction: a mummified knight on display in a small chapel next to the bar. The knight figures prominently in the story. Anton returns to it often, and it is even used as part of a local parade. The metaphor isn’t subtle. Anton is the knight, and the adjective—verwunschenen, which can be translated as either “enchanted,” “accursed,” or “haunted”—certainly applies to him as well.

Anton and mummified knight

Anton the Magician is a morality play with the full spectrum of moral viewpoints on display, from the religious piety of Anton’s wife Liesel, to the avaricious amorality of Sabine. It is between these extremes that Anton is buffeted. At first, he sides with Sabine, who helps him create a black market business for tractors built from the remains of old Wehrmacht vehicles. This enterprise makes him so much money that he has to hide it from the state. He and Sabine sneak across the border with the money to deposit it in a West German bank. When the wall is built, Anton finds himself cut off from his funds. To make matters worse, Sabine takes the money out of the bank and runs off to Switzerland. Anton is thrown in prison for his black market business after one of his customers rats him out, not out of civic duty, but because Anton gave the tractor that was suppose to be his to another customer with more money.

While in prison, Anton starts reading Marx and Engel and is reborn as a loyal citizen. His knowledge of automotives makes him invaluable to the state as he helps the local Volkseigener Betrieb (VEB: publically owned business) reach their tractor quota. Anton goes from shady black entrepreneur to local hero. When Sabine dies in an accident, Anton gets what’s left of the money back, along with her 1964 Chevy Impala, which Anton uses to take out his anger and frustration in a scene that is funny, but slightly horrifying if you’re an old car enthusiast.

Anton the Magician was directed by Günter Reisch, who also gave us Oh How Joyfully…, and Wie die Alten sungen…. He specialized in comedies that were utterly East German, right down to their warp and woof. Much of the humor in his films is invariably lost on those of us in the west and Reisch wouldn’t have it any other way. If reports are correct, he was even a little testy about us Yankees daring to enoy his films. This doesn’t make them any less entertaining, and Reisch’s talent as a filmmaker cannot be denied. Although he is best remembered for his comedies, he could make a drama with the best of them, as proved in his 1980 film Die Verlobte (The Fiancée), which he co-directed with Günther Rücker. Reisch died in February 2014 and is buried at the French Cemetery (Französischer Friedhof) in Berlin (for more on Reisch, see Oh How Joyfully…).

Barbara Dittus

Like Günter Reisch’s other films, Anton the Magician has a dream cast. It stars actor/director Ulrich Thein, who is perfectly cast as the impish Anton. It’s no surprise that he won the best actor awards at the Moscow International Film Festival and Eberswalde Film Festival for his performance in this film, and he probably would have won some West German awards as well if not for the politics of the time (for more on Thein, see Star-Crossed Lovers). On a par with Ulrich Thein is Barbara Dittus, who plays the sexy and avaricious Sabine. Dittus looked like a movie star, and her delivery was the best—especially when playing lusty characters like Sabine in this film and Lucie in Her Third. The always dependable Erwin Geschonneck appears as Anton’s patient father in an unusually small role. Also making a brief appearance as Anton’s lawyer is Reisch’s favorite character actor, Marianne Wünscher, who played the annoying neighbor in Reisch’s Christmas comedies, Oh How Joyfully… and Wie die Alten sungen…, and is well-remembered as the nasty lady with the poodle in Beloved White Mouse.

I’ve discussed all of these actors in previous posts on this blog, so I’ll direct my attention here to the two relative newcomers, Anna Dymna and Marina Krogull. Anna Dymna played Liesel, Anton’s pious wife. Dymna, a Polish actress, had planned on studying psychology, but ended up at the Ludwik Solski Academy for the Dramatic Arts instead. She started appearing films while she was still attending classes at the school. Thanks to a recurring part in the popular Polish TV show, Janosik, and appearances in the comedies, Nie ma mocnych and Kochaj, albo rzuć (Love or Leave), Dymna was already a well-known actress in Poland by the time she did Anton the Magician.

Anna Dymna

Dymna made many movies in Poland, and the transition away from communism had little effect on her career. She has won awards, both for her acting and her humanitarian efforts. In 2003, she founded Mimo Wszystko (Against the Odds) a charity organization geared toward improving the lives of the sick and disabled. Of late, she has been devoting more of her time to her charity work than acting. Her last film was the 2011 drama, Fear of Falling (Lek wysokosci), which was directed by Bartosz Konopka, who gave us the delightful documentary, Rabbit à la Berlin.

Marina Krogull plays Sabine’s daughter Ilie. Although her part in the film is considerably smaller than the other leads, hers is the most psychologically complex character in the film short of Anton himself. Many of the scenes with her show a young woman observing her mother and trying to follow in her footsteps. In this sense, the character of Ilie seems as doomed as Anton.

Krogull started her career as a ballet student, but switched to acting in the mid-seveties, starting her film career in 1975 with Kurt Tetzlaff’s Looping. She continued acting after the Wende, and was, like many other East German actors, a regular on the TV hospital drama, In aller Freundschaft. She has appeared on nearly every popular German TV show at some point or another, for Edel & Starck to Wolffs Revier to Tatort and SOKO Wismar. She is also a very popular voice actress in Germany, and has done the German dubbing for everyone from Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock, to Cynthia Nixon in Sex and the City.

The mummified knight is based on a real corpse. that of Christian Friedrich von Kahlbutz, whose body is on display in the Kampehl district of Neustadt (Dosse), Brandenburg. The knight is notable for the remarkable state of preservation of his body without any mummification process involved. Local legend has it that his unusual state of preservation is due to his false testimony in court while he was being tired for the murder of a local shepherd. Von Kahlbutz supposedly said in court, “If I’m the murderer, then, by God’s will, my body will never decay” (“Wenn ich doch der Mörder bin gewesen, dann wolle Gott, soll mein Leichnam nie verwesen”).

Anton the Magician was a popular film upon release. Its dark humor suited the East German public, and its attitude toward the west suited the film board. Its jibes at capitalism probably didn’t help it get international distribution, which is unfortunate. Of all Reich’s comedies, this one is the most deserving of more attention.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film.

Wie die Alten sungen

Since the early days of cinema, there have been sequels. Thomas Dixon Jr.—the man who wrote the book upon which The Birth of a Nation was based—attempted one when he directed his own script of The Fall of a Nation (it bombed). Universal Pictures made an industry out of sequels during the thirties and forties with films such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Dracula, and The Mummy’s Ghost. Movie sequels tapered off with the introduction of television. Why wait for a sequel to the latest Francis the Talking Mule movie, when you could have Mr. Ed once a week? During the seventies, sequels came back with a vengeance as Hollywood, bereft of ideas, found it more profitable to keep remaking its successful movies rather than take chances on new ideas.

While sequels often indicate creative timidity, this certainly doesn’t apply to Like Father, Like Son. This is as unique a movie as you are likely to see. It was made in 1986, which doesn’t mean much until you take into account that the film it follows was made in 1962. Even that wouldn’t count for much if not for the fact that the film featured the same director and virtually the same cast as the original film. The only major omissions are Walter Jupé (who played Herr Klinkhöfer) and Herwart Grosse (who played Thomas’ father), and they are only missing because both men were dead by the time the second film was made, and in the sequel, Mrs. Klinkhöfer is now a widow. Even minor characters come back with the same actors: The drunken ex-butcher is still in the pub lamenting the state of things, Walter’s date Peggy is now his wife, and the ubiquitous Fred Delmare, who played the taxi driver in the first film, shows up here as as an attendant at the hospital.

In the first film, Walter Lörke’s daughter Anne shows up to let him know that she is pregnant and planning to marry a man whose loyalty to the ideals of the state are somewhat questionable. In the second film, Anne’s daughter, Maria, nicknamed Twini, is now a 17-year-old and shows up at Walter Lörke’s apartment on Christmas to let him know that—like her mother before her—Twini too is pregnant (strictly speaking, Twini should be 24 at this point, but movie time is more elastic than real time). In the sequel, the point of conflict is not one of politics but of socio-sexual mores. Twini is indifferent to marriage and she is currently living with two men she’s had sex with. As the story progresses, the film moves seamlessly between the events in the 1962 black-and-white film and the 1986 color film. That this was possible is due, in no small part, to the fact that director Günter Reisch is also the screenwriter, but props also must be given to his film editor, Monika Schindler, whose work on this film would have garnered her an Academy Award nomination had this been a Hollywood production.

Ms. Schindler was not the editor on the first film. Her career was just getting started back in 1962. At that time, she was still working on the short “Stacheltier” films that were shown before the main features. One of her first feature films, When you Grow Up Dear Adam, had the misfortune of being banned during the 11th Plenum. This certainly didn’t help her career any, but she continued to find work and soon was one of the most sought after editors at DEFA. She is also one of the few who successfully made the jump from DEFA to the film studios of unified Germany. This alone is proof of her skill since, at the time, the western studios demonstrated a strong prejudice against the technicians from the east. She has won several awards and in 2013 was recognized by the DEFA Foundations for outstanding achievements in the film arts. She continues to work, most recently on Stephan Lacant’s Freier Fall (Free Fall).

Like Father, Like Son was the last feature film directed by Günter Reisch. Unlike Monika Schindler, Mr. Reisch would find no directing jobs in the new Germany. We discussed Günter Reisch and the main actors in the previous post, so let’s take a look at the rest of the cast this time, both new and old.

Andrea Lüdke

Playing Twini is the beautiful Andrea Lüdke. Ms. Lüdke got her start as a stage technician at the Theater der Altmark in Stendal. She first appeared on stage as a stand-in when an actress either flaked out or couldn’t cut it. This experience led her into acting, at first on stage and eventually in films. Like Father, Like Son was her first feature film and she holds her own against the veterans here. In July of 1989, months before the wall finally fell, Ms. Lüdke left East Germany and moved to Hamburg, where she still resides. After the Wende, Ms. Lüdke had more success than many other DEFA actors in finding acting work. She became familiar as Tanja König on four seasons Großstadtrevier, a long-running cop show about crime in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district.

The clueless but well-intentioned “King” is played by another newcomer, Karsten Speck. Mr. Speck was a member of the comedy ensemble at Die Distel, an East Berlin Cabaret. Before the wall fell, he was one of the hosts for the Saturday night variety extravaganza, Ein Kessel Buntes (The Colorful Kettle). After the Wende, the show was taken over by ARD and Speck became the permanent host. The show ended in 1992. After that, Speck continued his career as an actor on TV in several popular TV shows, most notably, Hallo Robbie! and Barfuß ins Bett (Barefoot in Bed). In 2010 he was convicted of real estate fraud and sentenced to five years in Hakenfelde Prison in Berlin. The same prison that housed the East German officials Egon Krenz, Günter Schabowski, and Heinz Keßler after reunification.

The most amazing performance in Like Father, Like Son belongs to Mathilde Danegger, the grandmother in the first film and a great-grandmother in the second. She was already retirement age when the first movie was made, and pushing ninety during the second. Ms. Danegger was born in 1903 in Austria. She is the daughter of the well-known actor, Josef Danegger, and got her start in films in Michael Curtiz’s Labyrinth des Grauens (Labyrinth of Horror) in 1921. A dedicated communist, Ms. Danegger left Austria and emigrated to East Germany after the war. Wie die Alten sungen… was her last motion picture.

By itself, Like Father, Like Son is not a particularly original story. Most of the situations in this films had already occurred in dozens of films before it. But as a cinematic construct, there is no other film quite like it. It treads close to conceptual art in its execution, and it’s doubtful that we will see another feature film using this technique. DEFA’s uniquely insular community made it possible for all these actors to stay in the same film circles nearly thirty years later. Hollywood with its fifteen minute approach to stardom does not create the same opportunities. Kurosawa did something similar with his frequent use of Toshiro Mifune and Isao Kimura, but the screenplays rarely overlapped. Bollywood has been known to make sequels twenty years later (Aashiqui and Aashiqui 2, for example), but not with exactly the same cast and director. As a piece of cinema, Like Father , Like Son stands alone.

IMDB page for this film.

View this film (YouTube).

Ach du froeliche

There is something in human nature that requires a Winter Solstice celebration. It doesn’t matter if you are a Christian, an atheist, a pagan, or a Jew, when the days reach their shortest, we need a festival of light. This is especially true in the northern climes, where the days get dark and frigid. The first Christians tried to get people to stop celebrating Saturnalia at this time of year, but finally gave up and co-opted the holiday, claiming it as their own and calling it Christmas. Whether you call it Christmas, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice, or Weihnacht, something in us needs a festival at this time of year, so even the dyed-in-the-wool communists in East Germany found themselves celebrating the holidays. That, to some extent, is what this movie is about.

A Lively Christmas Eve (Ach, du fröhliche…)1 takes place—as the English title suggests—on Christmas eve, the day when German families traditionally get together to open their presents. As is often the case with families, both in films and real life, Christmas can be the time when family members who have spent most of the year avoiding each other are forced into the same room together and finally blow up. The film follows the adventures of a Christmas eve at the Lörke apartment. Walter Lörke, the family patrician and card-carrying communist, is introduced to Thomas Ostermann, his daughter Anne’s new beau. Thomas has nothing good to say about the state and soon he and Walter are at it with each other. To make matters worse, Anne is pregnant and is planning to keep the baby. What’s a father to do?

The film is based on Vratislav Blažek’s play, Und das am Heiligabend (And on Christmas Eve), which was made into a TV-movie a year earlier. The play was then reworked as Ach, du fröhliche, which was then made into a novelization of the film—also written by Mr. Blažek. Mr. Blažek was a Czechoslovakian playwright who specialized in social satire. As one might imagine, his plays, from time to time, came under fire for their jibes at life in a socialist country. In 1968, Blažek left Czechoslovakia, taking up residence in Munich.

A Lively Christmas Eve was directed by Günter Reisch. Like the former Pope, Mr. Reisch was drafted into the Nazi party as a teenager during the waning years of the Third Reich. Mr. Reisch was captured by the Americans soon thereafter and spent a short time as a prisoner of war before joining one of the anti-fascist schools set up by the Soviets. Mr. Reisch appears to have taken these lessons to heart. He stayed true to the GDR’s core principles until the end.

Günter Reisch enrolled at DEFA’s film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg, and upon graduation was hired as the assistant director to Gerhard Lamprecht on Quartett zu fünft (Fifth Quartet). His next job as assistant director was on Kurt Maetzig’s Council of the Gods. Over the next few years he worked with Mr. Maetzig on several more films, including The Story of a Young Couple and the Ernst Thälmann films. In 1956, he began his career as a director with Junges Gemüse (Small Fries), but it was with his next film, Spur in die Nacht (Track in the Night) that he started to gain attention. This was also the first of his films that he both wrote and directed, a practice he would continue throughout his career. His films often tackle the issue of bourgeois values in a socialist state, although usually in a lighthearted manner (as was the case in the U.S. during the Hayes Code years, it was often easier to get things past the censors if you wrapped them in comedy).

After the Wende, Mr. Reisch’s career as a filmmaker ended. He began teaching film at several universities in Germany and Italy, including the Konrad Wolf Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg. He was an important mentor to Andreas Dresen, who went on to become one of Germany’s most respected filmmakers.

Playing Walter Lörke is Erwin Geschonneck, who needs no introduction to EGC blog readers at this point. He appeared or starred in some of the best films to come out of East Germany, many of which we have already discussed here in depth, including Carbide and Sorrel, The Ax of Wandsbek, Castles and Cottages, and Heart of Stone. Mr. Geschonneck brings his usual gruff charm and impeccable comic timing to the part of the put-upon patriarch of the Lörke family.

Playing the daughter Anne is Karin Schröder. Ms. Schröder was planning to be a stenographer when Günter Reisch discovered her and put her in his film, Silvesterpunsch (New Year’s Punch). An exceptionally attractive young woman, Ms. Schröder was to star in several more film, making her biggest splash as the adorable scooter rider in Beloved White Mouse. In 1987, she emigrated from East Germany to the west, where she continued to appear in films and on television. She was a regular on the popular crime drama Die Wache (The Guard) and has appeared in many other popular German TV shows including Unter Uns, In aller Freundschaft, Tatort, and Alles Klara.

The contrarian Thomas is played by Arno Wyzniewski. Mr. Wyzniewski is well-known to East German audiences. Gaunt-faced and dark-eyed, he was a striking-looking man who appeared in everything from Five Cartridges to The Baldheaded Gang, but it was his appearance as the frail but determined Sepp Gomulka in The Adventures of Werner Holt that caused the public to first sit up and take notice of him. Although he did occasionally play the lead, he was better known as a character actor, appearing as secondary characters in many classic DEFA films. In 1985, he made a big splash playing King Friedrich II in the popular TV miniseries, Sachsens Glanz und Preußens Gloria (Saxony and Prussia’s Blaze of Glory). He reprised the role twice more for the sequels and is, to this day, still remembered as King Friedrich by East Germans of a certain age.

After the Wende, he continued to act, primarily in television. He was last seen in America as Kuk, the unlucky contestant on the wheel of fortune in the “Eating Pattern” episode of Lexx—a strange Canadian/German science fiction co-production about a giant dragonfly-shaped spaceship with a sexy love slave, a robot head, a dead assassin, and feckless security guard on board. This would be one of his last performances. He died a few months after it aired and is buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin.

Worthy of special mention here is Marianne Wünscher, who played the pesky neighbor, Mrs. Klinkhöfer. Ms. Wünscher was a popular character actor in East Germany. She is best known as an uptight poodle owner and the nemesis of Karin Schröder’s character in Beloved White Mouse. Ms. Wünscher was an extremely active performer, appearing in many movies, television shows, and stage productions throughout her career. She also served as a Berlin city council member for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPD) from 1977 to 1981. She died August 9, 1990, after the wall came down, but before the reunification of Germany.

Although it is unquestionably a light comedy, A Lively Christmas Eve has a certain bite to it. Had it been made in 1965 it would have, undoubtedly fallen victim to the 11th Plenum’s attack on the arts. The film’s gentle ribbing of the state would not have been tolerated three years later.

The film was very popular, even though it was released in October, well before the Christmas season. It also has the unusual distinction of spawning a sequel…twenty years later. But that is another story for next time.

IMDB page for this film.

This film is not currently available, but can be found on Veoh—a very problematic source of films.


1.The German title for this film, “Ach, du fröhliche,” usually appears as “O, du fröhliche,” and is a very popular Christmas song in Germany. When the song is sung in English, it usually appears as “Oh, How Joyfully,” but is sometimes titled “Oh Ye Joyful People.” More often, the song is played as a Christmas instrumental number under its original title, “O sanctissima.” The DEFA Film Library at UMass lists the name of this movie as A Lively Christmas Eve, so that is what I am using here.