Archive for the ‘Heinz Thiel’ Category

Hart am Wind
Close to the Wind (Hart am Wind) is one of those films that came out between the clamp down of the 11th Plenum and the loosening of the restrictions when Honecker took over. Most of the films of this period are careful to not rock the boat. They often have a message along the lines of “be a good socialist, work for the collective, and don’t let you ego interfere with the greater good.” An admirable message, but the era suffers from a surplus of films with exactly this message. Sometimes the message doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the film, such as with Hot Summer, in which the flirtatious Brit threatens the cohesion of the group. Sometimes the message seems more important than the story itself.

Such is the case with Close to the Wind. The film was made in close cooperation with East Germany’s navy (Volksmarine), so you know it’s not going to explore anything too controversial. In this respect, it resembles those Hollywood films that rely on the military to provide access to their planes, ships and even soldiers as long as they carefully avoid anything that makes the military look bad. Some classic examples of this are Sands of Iwo Jima, Strategic Air Command, The D.I., The Green Berets, and, of course, Top Gun.

Close to the Wind

A comparison between Top Gun and Close to the Wind is particularly apt. In Close to the Wind, a young, hot-shot electrician named Peter joins the Navy, where he gets knocked down a few pegs and almost loses his girlfriend before regaining his footing. In Top Gun, a young, hot-shot fighter pilot named Peter (nicknamed “Maverick”) is sent to the Navy’s elite Fighter Weapons School, where gets knocked down a few pegs and almost loses his girlfriend before regaining his footing. This is an old movie trope based on the hero’s journey, but it’s the differences between the two films that are the most telling. In Close to the Wind, Peter’s cocksure, anything-to-win approach creates a situation where he fails, which leads to his ostracism from the group. In Top Gun, Maverick’s cocksure, anything-to-win approach contributes to a situation where he fails, which leads to self-doubt. In the end, the protagonist of the East German film works to regain his respect among the collective. In Top Gun, he works to regain his self-respect as an individual. Both men learn important lessons about working as part of a team, but in the East German film he gets their by putting his trust in the team, while in the American movie, he gets there by putting his trust in himself.

Close to the Wind was directed by Heinz Thiel, who was a clever enough director to keep the film interesting (see Black Velvet article for more on Thiel). It was to be his last feature film for several years. Thiel joined the “defa futurum” group to produce short films about a character named Tobias Bremser. He only made one more feature—DEFA Disko ‘77—before moving on to other things. He died in Potsdam in 2003.

Peter is played by Frank Obermann, a tall, ruggedly handsome man who started as a railroad mechanic before turning to acting. Besides this film, Obermann also appeared in two more productions in 1970—Rolf Römer’s Hey You! and a TV-movie titled Der Sonne Glut (The Sun Glow). At the time Close to the Wind was made, Obermann was married to his leading lady in the film, Regina Beyer. Beyer was primarily known for her TV work. In 1972, their daughter was born. Obermann died in Dortmund in 1995. He was only fifty years old. Beyer continues to work—primarily in television—and is in a long-term relationship with fellow, former East German—television actor Volkmar Kleinert.

Regina Beyer

The music is by Gerd Natchinski, who gave us the catchy score for Hot Summer. Here, the score seems to be comprised entirely of one song—”Es gibt so viel Schönes im Leben”—which sounds like a leftover from Hot Summer. It is played over the titles, then lip-synched by the lead character—it was actually sung by Hot Summer star Frank Schoebel—then played again and again throughout the movie in various forms. It’s not a bad song, if you like the music of Hot Summer; Frank Schoebel had a hit with it, but the score certainly could have used more of Natchinski’s music.

As one might imagine, western critics were not kind to this film. They saw it as little more than a propaganda piece for the Volksmarine. Even so, as propaganda goes, it is a pretty innocuous little film. It apparently did help promote Volksmarine enlistment because DEFA followed a year later with another military co-production, Anflug Alpha I (Approaching Alpha I).

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Five Days, Five Nights
At the end of World War II, Russian soldiers went on a plunderfest across eastern Germany. Think Sherman’s March to the Sea, but with dividends. Houses were stripped of their valuables, stores were looted, and machinery was taken. Much of this looting was done on a personal level—soldiers helping themselves to the contents of the houses they invaded—and some of this was done as part of the Soviet Union’s campaign to get the maximum financial benefit out of the war. They certainly needed it. Hitler’s ill-advised attack on Russia hurt Germany, but it devastated Russia.

On a more organized level, specialized American, British, and Soviet troops were tasked with finding specific things, the best-known example of this is the race between Soviet Union and the United States to procure German scientists and their materials related to rockets and atomic research. On the Soviet side there were also trophy brigades, whose job was to find as many works of art and antiquities as they could. While most of the art looting by American troops was done by individuals looking to bring home souvenirs, Soviet troops had a mission: Find the art and bring it back to Russia.1

A logical place to start was Dresden. Dresden had been the art capital of Germany. The museums there were outstanding. As the war escalated, museum officials decided to move many of the most valuable paintings to safer locations in case the city was attacked. This turned out to be a very good idea indeed. Dresden wasn’t just bombed, it was nearly erased from the face of the Earth. U.S.and British bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of bombs and incendiaries on the city. The resulting firestorm was so intense that many people hiding in their air raid shelters died not of burns, but of asphyxiation when the firestorm sucked all the oxygen out of the area. The results of the firebombing are still visible today in the blackened facades of the buildings along the Elbe, and the calico churches built from the rubble left after the war.2

Fünf Tage - Fünf Nächte

When the Russians started arriving in Dresden, claiming they were there to save the artwork, the locals were, understandably, suspicious. Especially after these soldiers announced that they would have to take the artwork back to Moscow to protect it from the further deterioration due to mold and the elements. The Russians assured the locals that they were doing this for the benefit of the art, and they would return the artwork as soon as things had stabilized. No one in Dresden believed this for a minute, and they were probably right not to—Josef Stalin was not exactly the poster boy for trustworthiness. In truth, the collecting of the art of Germany was just what it looked like: an attempt at payback for the devastation and destruction that Germany rained down on the U.S.S.R.

But as the cold war heated up, the Soviets were looking for any ways they could to demonstrate they weren’t the ogre that the United States made them out to be. The subject of the Dresden paintings came up again. What better way to demonstrate their integrity than to show that the vow they made to the Dresdeners at the end of WWII was not just hot air? So it was that 750 of paintings were returned to Dresden in 1955. This wasn’t all of the artwork that was purloined, but it was a lot of it, and certainly enough to make for good press.

Five Days, Five Nights (Fünf Tage – Fünf Nächte) is the story of the Russian art recovery effort at the end of the war. The films was the first of several joint productions between East Germany and the Soviet Union. DEFA often joined forces with production companies from other countries to make movies. During the fifties, they made movies in conjunction with Swedish and French production companies, but after the border tightened up and relationships with western countries became strained, most of the co-productions were made with Eastern Bloc nations, primarily Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Whether or not these co-productions looked and felt like DEFA movies was largely dependent on the director and which film company wielded the most control over the production. Stars was made in cooperation with Bulgaria’s Boyana Film, but the film is pure DEFA, thanks to Konrad Wolf’s sure hand at the helm. On the other hand, the French/East German co-production Die Hexen von Salem (The Crucible) is, for all intents and purposes, a French film, having been directed by a Belgian from a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre, and starring Simone Signoret and Yves Montand.

Russian soldiers

Five Days, Five Nights, is very much a Russian film. It forgoes the usual, cool DEFA objectivity in favor of socialist realism (which, let’s face it, isn’t very realistic at all). People are either filmed at chest level, making everyone, even the children, look heroic, or from above looking up to the sky in triumphant bliss. The effect is further enhanced by a powerful score, written for the film by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Along with Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky, Shostakovich is one of the great Russian composers of the twentieth century. Unlike western classical composers, such as Erich Korngold and Max Steiner, the fact that he wrote scores for movies did not assign him to the film ghetto, or reduce his standing as a classical composer. He could write a score for a film one year, and compose an opera the next. This was largely due to the Soviet Union’s attitude toward film. Unlike the west, where film was was viewed as a form of mindless entertainment for the masses, the Soviets already saw the power of film to galvanize public opinion back in 1925 with Battleship Potemkin. So it was that Shostakovich was hired to write the score for October: Ten Days That Shook the World, a film about the October Revolution of 1917.

Shostakovich had a rocky career under the Soviets, thanks mostly to Stalin’s tin ear and lack of musical sophistication. Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда) was initially a hit, but later came under attack as “coarse, primitive and vulgar.” When Stalin attended a performance of the opera in 1936, he behaved boorishly, laughing and grimacing throughout, leaving poor Shostakovich sweating bullets in the back. This was around the time Stalin started his Great Purge. Having him as your enemy was a good way to wind up freezing to death in a Siberian prison.

To keep on Stalin’s good side, Shostakovich cancelled performances of his musically challenging fourth symphony and restricted much of his composing to film music, knowing Stalin was rather fond of films. With the release of his crowd-pleasing fifth symphony, Shostakovich got back in the good graces of Stalin and the public, at least until 1948, when he was once again attacked by Central Committee secretary Andrei Zhdanov, who accused his music of being “formalist”—a term that was thrown around a lot, and appears to have no more meaning to Soviet critics than “I don’t like it.”

After Stalin died, Shostakovich started receiving the attention he deserved. His work came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein in New York, who became a strong advocate for Shostakovich, and played his compositions in concerts on a regular basis. Eventually, Shostakovich joined the Communist Party in 1960, mostly as a formality so that the government could appoint him as the General Secretary of the Composers’ Union. This seems to have given him both clout and courage. He protested against the incarceration of the poet Joseph Brodsky, and was one of the signatories on a an appeal to Brezhnev not to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation. In both cases his causes were triumphant.

During the late sixties and early seventies, Shostakovich’s already bad health got worse. He had lost the use of his right hand to polio in the fifties, then broke both legs, causing him to remark in a letter to a friend: “All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order.” He died August 9, 1975, but his music continues to be a popular addition to movie soundtracks.

Five Days, Five Nights

With most films, the job of directing is assigned to one person and the resulting movie is attributed them as the auteur. The whole auteur concept falls apart when talking about the films from the East Bloc nations, where the contributions of everyone involved are given greater weight than in the west and the choice of cast and crew are not always left to the director.3 Five Days, Five Nights features three directors. The German language scenes were directed by Heinz Thiel, who directed Black Velvet, recently discussed on this blog; some of the Russian scenes were directed by Anatoli Golowanow, who probably would have receive a second unit or first assistant director credit in a Hollywood film; and the whole affair was overseen by the Russian director Lev Arnshtam, who is listed as the film’s head director.

Unlike DEFA directors such as Kurt Maetzig and Joachim Hasler, who came to filmmaking via the film labs, or Jürgen Böttcher, Arthur Pohl, and Peter Pewas, entered the field through graphic arts, Lev Arnshtam came to films via music. He studied piano at the Leningrad Music Conservatory and, for a while, was the music department head at Vsevolod Meyerhold’s theater. There, he met people in the film industry, and soon started working as a sound director and later a screenwriter. He directed his first film, Подруги (Girlfriends, originally released in U.S. as Three Women) in 1936. Mr. Arnshtam’s style is heavily influenced by the work of Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, whom he met while working at the Meyerhold Theater. Their influence is on full display here. After Five Days, Five Nights, he directed only one more film—Софья Перовская (Sofiya Perovskaya), a film based on the life of the Russian revolutionary, Sophia Perovskaya, who was hanged for her part in the assassination of Alexander II. Mr. Arnshtam died in 1979.

Dresden

Perhaps the most striking thing about this film, aside from Shostakovich’s majestic score, is the representation of Dresden after the firebombing. By 1960, when this film was made, much of Dresden had been rebuilt. To recreate the destroyed city, miniatures were used to remarkably good effect. Much of the credit for this must go to production designer Herbert Nitzschke. Mr. Nitzschke got his start as a set painter for German film productions. He first worked as a production designer on L’Entraîneuse (Nightclub Hostess), a French/German co-production from 1939. Several more films followed. At the end of WWII, his career as a production designer went on hiatus until 1955, when he was hired as the production designer for Hotelboy Ed Martin, a film adaptation of Albert Maltz’s play, Merry Go Round.

Mr. Nitzschke’s career in film was starting to take off again, and his miniature work in Five Days, Five Nights is spectacular—helped greatly by Ernst Kunstmann, a master of filming miniatures, whose work includes Metropolis, Triumph of the Will, The Singing, Ringing Tree, and First Spaceship on Venus. Unfortunately, Herbert Nitzschke lived in West Berlin, and his career at DEFA came to an abrupt halt on the 13th of August, 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up. His last credit as production designer was on Five Days, Five Nights co-director Heinz Thiel’s Tanz am Sonnabend (Dancing on Saturday).

Also worth mentioning is Walter Schulze-Mittendorff, who designed the costumes for this film. A sculptor by training, it was Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff who designed the Maria Robot for Metropolis. At that point, Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff was still billed as a sculptor. With Amphitryon, he got his first billing as a costume designer and showed a real knack for it. After the war, he started working for DEFA, and often found himself on the same projects as his old Metropolis co-worker, Ernst Kunstmann. Like Herbert Nitzschke, Mr. Kunstmann lived in West Berlin and found his career at DEFA stopped cold with the building of the wall. He worked on a few West German productions, most notably, The Castle (Das Schloß), then retired in 1968.

The story of wartime art theft is not a new one, nor a dead subject. Jewish families are still wrangling for the return of artwork stolen by Nazis, and in November 2014, the son of an East German art collector—from Dresden, coincidentally—filed to recover artwork that was stolen from his father by the Stasi.

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1. The allies did have a team of people searching out art, but it was a much smaller effort. These people mostly worked alone (although the film The Monuments Men would have you believe otherwise), and their primary goal was to identify historic sites. The search for stolen artwork arose as a by-product of that effort, and a reaction to the Soviet Army’s art recovery efforts.

2. It’s probably worth pointing out here, that, as bad as the firebombing of Dresden was, it couldn’t hold a candle to Berlin, which saw nine-and-a-half times as many bombs dropped on it.

3. There are a few Hollywood exceptions to this: Tora! Tora! Tora! featured Japanese sequences by Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda, while The Longest Day featured a host of directors from different countries, all under the watchful eye of producer Darryl Zanuck.

Black Velvet

Black Velvet (Schwarzer Samt) is a crime film involving the manufacturer of fake passports and the attempted sabotage of a state-of-the-art loading crane at the Leipzig Trade Fair. The “Black Velvet” in the title refers to a vial of acid intended for us in the sabotage. The reason for this strange code name becomes clear in the final scene of the film. This is one of the more unusual films to come out of East Germany. It is a spoof without ever being overtly comical, a send up of the Stasi by a director who is usually viewed (incorrectly, as we shall see) as a “safe” director who never rocked the boat and made films that the dramaturges and SED officials were pleased with.

Black Velvet stars Fred Delmare, an actor who will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has seen more than three DEFA films. With his short stature and a face that resembled George W. Bush, he was nearly always cast in secondary roles as weaklings, villains, or both. Sometimes his appearances were easy to miss—he’s the taxi driver in Oh How Joyfully, and a hospital attendant in Wie die Altern sungen—but with well over 150 appearances in East German films alone, it is hard to see many DEFA movies without encountering him at some point. This is not to say all of his appearances were bit parts. In Naked Among Wolves, he plays the camp inmate Pippig, and, most famously, in The Legend of Paul and Paula, he was “Reifen-Saft,” the tire dealer in love with Paula.

Born Werner Vorndran in Leipzig, Mr. Delmare began working in local theater as a teenager, but World War II got in the way. He joined the German Navy, where an injury sent him to the hospital for the remainder of the war. After the war, he studied acting in Leipzig, then moved to West Berlin to perform at the Hebbel Theater, one of the few theaters in Berlin that survived the bombings. When pressure from the American authorities led to shift away from works by the Brecht and other German playwrights to plays from America, Mr. Delmare joined the Leipzig Theater, where he continued to perform until 1970.

Schwarzer Samt

After the Wende, Mr. Delmare saw his greatest success as the Grandpa Steinbach in the popular TV series, In aller Freundschaft—a show that consistently provided work for many East German actors. It was during this period that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and retired from acting. He died in 2009, and it is a testament to his popularity that virutally every major German newspaper ran an obituary for him.

Casting Mr. Delmare as the lead in Black Velvet was an interesting choice. At 5’ 3” (1.6 m), he makes Michael J. Fox and Daniel Radcliffe look tall. He spends much of the movie looking up at everyone, women included. To add to the topsy-turvy nature of the fim, one of the villains of the film is played by Gunther Simon, a man nearly always chosen to play the hero, and the man who played East Germany’s greatest hero, communist pioneer Ernst Thälmann. Partly, this odd casting is intended as a jab at the James Bond films, but the end effect is an effective jab at the Stasi as well. While sometimes East German directors were left to the mercy of DEFA when it came to casting, the choices here seem too cleverly made to be the luck of the draw. In this case, the director must have had the final say.

At first glance, Mr. Thiel seems like an unlikely candidate for intentional subversiveness. In the East German film studies community, his name doesn’t come up very often. Look at his films once and they seem to be promotional films for the GDR. One of them, in fact—Hart am Wind (Close to the Wind)—was made with the cooperation of the Volksmarine and was intended to spur enlistment in the army. But look at his films more closely and you’ll see a very clever director who may just be winking at the audience after all. In DEFA Disko 77, for example, each musical number is proceeded by a short clip of the musician being observed getting ready for his or her performance. These clips look, for all the world, like surveillance videos. Surely this is no accident, but they are so underplayed that I doubt anyone paid much attention to them at the time.

Fred Delmare

Curiously, Mr. Thiel got his start as a Nazi journalist. As an officer in Hitler’s Propagandakompanie, it was his job to write glowing reports on the Third Reich’s successful battles in Russia—a difficult task, to be sure, and one that undoubtedly honed his fine sense of the absurd. After the war, his politics moved to the left. He started working as a dramaturge in Dessau and founded the Theater der Jungen Garde (now the Thalia Theater) in Halle. In 1954, he started working at DEFA, at first as an assistant director, then as the director of “Stacheltier” shorts—the short, often satirical films shown before the main features in East Germany. In 1959, he directed his first feature film, Im Sonderauftrag (By Special Order), a cold war spy film that takes place on the Baltic. This film helped set his future at DEFA as their director of choice for spy thrillers.

If there was any doubt to Mr. Thiel’s deadpan subversion in this and his other films, he finally showed his hand in 1996, with the book, The nackte DEVA (The Naked DEVA). The title of this book is a send up of DEFA (in German, both words are pronounced the same), and the book is collection of thinly-veiled anecdotes and stories about Mr. Theil’s years at DEFA. It is illustrated by Harald Kretzschmar, an East German cartoonist who drew illustrations for the East German satire magazine Eulenspiegel. Mr. Thiel died in Potsdam in 2003.

Part of the fun of Black Velvet belongs to its jazzy score, written by Helmut Nier. Mr. Nier is the man who also gave us the equally enjoyable score for The Baldheaded Gang. Like Karl-Ernst Sasse, Reiner Bredemeyer, and some of the other composers at DEFA, Mr. Nier came from a classical background. For many years he worked as an orchestral musician in Radebeul near Dresden. His career as a film composer began in 1957 with Spur in die Nacht (Track in the Night), in which he first demonstrated his knack for writing crime film scores. During the sixties, quite by coincidence, Mr. Nier was DEFA’s composer of choice for any film that started with the adjective “black” (schwarz). Besides Black Velvet, he also scored Schwarze Panther (Black Panther), and the TV mini-series Der schwarze Reiter (The Black Rider). After the Wende, he worked free-lance as a composer and died in 2002 after a long illness.

Reviews for the film were tepid, due in part, no doubt, to the way this film never fully betrays its humorous intent. The fact that the film came out in 1964 is probably also a factor in its release. A couple years later and it would have come under the heavy scrutiny and criticism that films received after the 11th Plenum. Considering that the utterly innocuous Hands Up, Or I’ll Shoot! was banned, I have no doubt that this film would have ended up in the Giftschrank1 as well.

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1. Literally, “poison cabinet,” but also used to indicate the place where films deemed “toxic” were stored.