Archive for the ‘Heiner Carow’ Category

Until Death Do Us Part

Until Death Do Us Part (Bis daß der Tod euch scheidet)1 is the story of a couple whose mad love for each other smashes headlong into the husband’s patriarchal value system. It’s an old story. Throughout history men have been telling women it’s “my way or the highway,” usually with bad results. According to some sources, this film is based on a true story. Unlike the true stories chosen by Hollywood though, this is a story that plays out every day in one form or another: A husband and wife fight and do something they shouldn’t as a result. In truth, it hardly matters whether it is based on a true story or not; it will play out in some form again and again all over the world.

Until Death Do Us Part starts with the marriage of Jens and Sonja, whose passion for each verges on addiction at times (of course the Germans have a word for this: Liebessucht). After the birth of their first child, Sonja starts to pine for a regular job, but Jens takes the old “no wife of mine is going to work” position. When Sonja decides to ignore this, things start to get ugly and the perfect marriage turns into the perfect nightmare.

As discussed elsewhere on this blog, East Germany did a far better job of addressing the inequalities between men and women than West Germany, but director Heiner Carow lets us know in the opening minutes that things still had a long way to go when the marriage officiant requests that the bride acknowledge she will give up her name for that of her husband. Carow also does a good job of providing motivations for all the characters, although there’s no escaping the fact that Jens is a jerk.

Director Carow’s films are some of the most forward-thinking works to come out of East Germany during the seventies and eighties. He is best known for The Legend of Paul and Paula, which was one of the few films to look at social inequalities in the GDR. In 1989, he made Coming Out, which examines the problems faced by a gay man coming to terms with his sexuality in East Germany. In all of his films the message the is clear: Love requires honesty, not just to your partner, but to your own needs as well. He also had an uncanny eye for showing how people behave when they think no one is looking. Watch Katrin Saß’s performance as she is trying to get ready for her husband’s return from work. It is a guileless performance that seems completely unaware of the camera.

Mr. Carow studied filmmaking under Slatan Dudow and Gerhard Klein. As with many DEFA directors, he started with shorts, then moved to feature films. His first feature was Sheriff Teddy, based on Benno Pludra’s children’s book of the same name. He followed this with Sie nannten ihn Amigo (They called him Amigo), another young adult story of a boy who comes into conflict with the Nazis when he harbors a fugitive from a concentration camp. In 1966, his film Die Reise nach Sundevit (The Trip to Sundevit) was one of the few that made it past the 11th Plenum’s clamp down. He was not so lucky with his next film, Die Russen kommen (The Russians are Coming), which was banned outright. Carow used some of the footage from the film to make another movie titled Karriere (Career) with poor results. The film was thought to have been destroyed but it wasn’t. Mr. Carow’s wife and editor extraordinaire, Evelyn Carow, kept a working copy in her files. The film was finally released in 1987.

Mr. Carow chose two unknown actors to star in Until Death Do Us Part: Martin Seifert and Katrin Saß. Using unknown actors in the primary roles is an effective technique for giving a story verisimilitude. A marital drama starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio automatically distances us from the topic at hand, no matter how compelling the story. We are familiar Winslet and Leonardo and we know they are not married, and no matter how well they do their jobs, some part of our brains keep the story in check with this knowledge. With unknown actors the opposite is true. We don‘t know the actors and part of our brains wonder if the story is, in fact, a real one. This is the one aspect of indie films that makes them so compelling. But the effectiveness of this technique rests heavily on the acting chops of the two leads. Fortunately for us, Mr. Seifert and Ms. Saß are up to the task. Both would go to have long and successful acting careers.

Mr. Seifiert has the unenviable task of portraying Jens, whose values are seriously out of whack. That he manages to gives this reprehensible character a shred of sympathy is a testament to his talent. Mr. Seifert followed the usual East German acting career path, working in theater before he moved to film. Mr. Seifert had done some work in television, but this was his first feature film. He went on to appear in several more DEFA films, usually in supporting roles. Like most of the DEFA film community, he found work after the Wende hard to come by, and when it did, it came in the form of television roles, including Andreas Dresen’s gritty and grainy TV-movie Policewoman, in which he and Katrin Saß are paired up as an arguing couple—Dresen’s little in-joke.

Katrin Sass

Katrin Saß was only twenty-three when she made this movie. The daughter of theater actress Marga Heiden, Ms. Saß had done some stage work before making this film, but this was her first time in front of the camera. She is cute as a pixie and conveys the character with just the right mix of inner strength and vulnerability needed to pull off the role. Ms. Saß went on to appear in several more films for DEFA, and then, after the Wende, kept right on working on stage and in television, most notably appearing as police commissioner Tanja Voigt on the popular East German cop show Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110). By 1998, years of drinking and burning the candle at both ends finally caught up with her. She collapsed and landed in the hospital. At this point she finally came to terms with her alcoholism, joined AA and became a spokesperson for the German branch of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA). In the west, she is best known for playing the mother in Wolfgang Becker’s popular film, Good Bye Lenin! In 2007, Ms. Saß changed the spelling of her name back to its original “Sass.” The use of the ß in her name, she said, was by edict of the East German government, which felt that a name ending in “ss” looked too much like the Schutzstaffel sigil used by the Nazi secret police.

Until Death Do Us Part also features two of East Germany’s best actresses, Angelica Domröse and Renate Krößner. At the time this movie was made, Ms. Domröse was already in trouble with the government for signing the protest against Wolf Biermann’s expatriation, this was making it hard for her to find work at DEFA, but that didn’t stop Mr. Carow from hiring her. She was, after all, the star of The Legend of Paul and Paula, his most successful movie. Ms. Krößner was not as well known yet, but that would change the following year when she starred in Konrad Wolf’s Solo Sunny. Here she plays an interesting character who seems to be as much in love with Sonja and Jens is.

Until Death Do Us Part was not the smash hit that The Legend of Paul and Paula had been, but it did reasonably well at the box office considering its downbeat mood and cynical outlook. This is not a feel-good movie by any stretch (neither is The Legend of Paul and Paula really, but at least that one manages to fool us into thinking it is). It is, at times, bleak and depressing, but it also confronts the subject of leftover male chauvinism in the GDR without blinking or soft-pedaling it. There were times in the history of the German Democratic Republic when this film would have wound up in storage, but let’s face it, it would never get made in the United States at all.

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1. I’m using the title of the film as it appears on the English-subtitled version. Being an old-school kind of guy, who likes to look up his pronunciations in Webster’s Second, I would have stuck with the the original wording of the phrase as it appears in the The Book of Common Prayer: “Till Death Us Do Part.”

On the night of November 9, 1989, all hell broke loose in East Germany. Politburo member Günter Schabowski, while preparing for a press conference, was handed a memo on the new travel regulations for East German citizens. The memo stated that East Germans would now be allowed to travel abroad. What the memo did not say was that this new regulation was not suppose to take effect for twenty-four hours; giving the police enough time to implement new procedures for this. When asked when the regulation would take effect, Schabowski uttered the sentence that changed the world: “As far as I know, it’s effectively immediately.” (“Das tritt nach meiner Kenntnis… ist das sofort, unverzüglich.”), and by the end of the evening the borders of East Berlin were swarming with people trying to visit the west. The border guards frantically called every official they could find but the people who could actually make a decision seemed to be in short supply that night. According to folklore, the reason none of these officials could be found that night is because they were all at a screening of Heiner Carow’s controversial new movie, Coming Out, which just happened to be premiering the same night that the wall fell.

Coming Out is the story of a young teacher named Philipp Klarmann (Matthias Freihof) and his journey to sexual awareness. It is apparent from the moment we see him standing in front of his class that he is gay. No “gay-dar” needed. Shortly after this, he literally runs into Tanja (Dagmar Manzel), who has had a crush on him since school. The two of them hook up, and they seem happy, but all is not well. Things come to a head when Philipp stumbles into a gay bar and meets Mathias (Dirk Kummer), a handsome young man that we first saw in a grueling hospital scene at the beginning of the movie. Mathias and Philipp are soon in bed together, which makes Mathias very happy, but Philipp is still conflicted about his sexuality. After an encounter at the opera, Tanja finally catches on and leaves Philipp. Philipp tries to deny his sexuality, but all he ends up doing is losing Mathias, his one true love. He realizes his mistake too late, but finally comes to terms with who he is.

Coming Out

The sex in Coming Out is handled with candor and honesty. The film makes a point of showing the many sides of gay life in East Germany, from the old to the young, both happy and sad. The two leading men are attractive and make a believable couple. The gay bar scene is reminiscent of what the scene must have been like in the west before it became respectable. John Waters would be right at home here (although Matthias in mime facepaint with a tutu around his neck might cause him to run screaming from the place).

This was Matthias Freihof’s first starring role. Perhaps thanks to the timing, Coming Out helped propel Freihof into a very successful career in unified Germany not only as an actor, but also as a singer. He has appeared on various televisions shows and movies, and has released several albums of songs. Similarly Dagmar Manzel and Dirk Kummer both have gone on to have a successful careers since the wall fell. Like Freihof, Manzel has made a name for herself as both a singer and an actress and often appears in musical theater when she is not working on films. For Dirk Kummer, Coming Out was not only his start as an actor, but also the beginning of his career behind the camera. Although he acted in a few more movies, most of his work has been as an assistant director. Since 2003, he has worked primarily as a director of TV movies, including Charlotte und ihre Männer, and Geschlecht weiblich—for which Ulrike Krumbiegel won a best actress award at the 2003 German Television awards.

Coming Out

Early in his career, Director Heiner Carow made a name for himself as the director of the popular children’s films Sheriff Teddy and Sie nannten ihn Amigo (They Call Him Amigo). In 1971, he got in some hot water with the officials who objected to his film The Russians are Coming (Die Russen kommen—not to be confused with the similarly titled Norman Jewison film) but he made his biggest splash with the DEFA classic, The Legend of Paul and Paula. He followed that up with Until Death Do Us Part, which took a much darker look at human relationships (although, when you come right down to it, The Legend of Paul and Paula is pretty tragic in spite of its uptempo theme song).

After the Wende, Carow continued working, mainly in television, until his death in 1997 (he was 67). Sadly, the same cannot be said for his wife, Evelyn Carow, possibly the greatest film editor in East Germany. When DEFA ended, so did Ms. Carow’s career. In 1993, she edited Inge, April und Mai, one of the last DEFA films, and then stepped away from the editing bench. Not only was Germany changing, but movie editing was changing. That same year saw Avid entering the market as a publicly traded company. The days of physical film editing had come to an end.

With the fall of the wall, gays in East Germany suddenly were faced with an interesting dilemma. Being gay was still met with some antagonism and resistance on both sides of the wall, but now they found themselves part of a new minority: the Ossis; and that came with as many problems as being gay once had. In Jefferey Peck’s 1991 interview with Jürgen Lemke, the author of Gay Voices from East Germany,  Lemke said that there was greater solidarity among gays in East Germany before the Wende, and that he felt more secure as a member of a minority in the GDR than he does in the same situation in unified Germany. “I see myself, of course, more vulnerable than before,  especially when it concerns physical aggression,” said Lemke. (New German Critique, No. 52)

After all these years, Coming Out still holds up as one of the most moving and honest films on gay love. This is because Heiner Carow understood the most fundamental point: all relationships, whether gay or straight, are, first and foremost, human relationships.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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