Archive for the ‘Iris Gusner’ Category

Das Blaue Licht
As I’ve discussed on this blog before, East Germany had an above-average track record on female equality and films about women’s issues, yet there were only a few female directors at DEFA. First and foremost among these was Iris Gusner. She wasn’t the first women to direct feature films at DEFA. That honor goes to Bärbl Bergmann, who made several short films for DEFA and the feature film Rüpel in 1963.1 But Gusner was the most prolific with seven DEFA films to her name (Hannelore Unterberg comes in a close second with six DEFA films). From 1961 to 1967, Gusner studied cinematography at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Russia. After that, she worked as an assistant director for Konrad Wolf on Goya before making her first feature film, The Dove on the Roof, which was promptly shelved and remained unscreened until after the Wall came down. The first of her feature films to make it into cinemas was this one, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht).

The Blue Light is loosely based on a Grimms fairytale, although it’s really a complete reboot of the original fairytale. It takes the story and stands it on its head, changing the message and the priorities of the characters to better suit a socialist perspective. Both the original and the film tell the tale of Hans, a young soldier who is discharged from the service without pay because he’s been wounded. In both versions, the young soldier meets a witch who tries to trick him into fetching a blue light from her well and when he won’t cooperate, she leaves him stranded in the well. Feeling despondent, the soldier lights his pipe with the blue light and a “Mannlein” (little man) appears who can grant the soldier anything he wishes.

From here on out, though, the film and the fairytale diverge radically. Hans doesn’t seek the harsh retribution against the witch that she gets in the story, and the soldier’s multiple kidnappings of the princess are reduced to one. In the original story, the soldier eventually marries the princess, but no one would want to marry the princess in this movie, she’s a spoiled child-woman who pouts and sucks her thumb, and is dumb as a bag of hammers. Romantic interest is provided, instead, by Anne, who works at the local inn. This is, after all, an East German film, and being born in a royal family doesn’t make a person better; only more likely to be corrupt.

The Blue Light

Playing Hans is Viktor Semyonov, a Russian actor who primarily works on stage, but has appeared in several films. Semyonov is well-suited to the part. He is dashingly handsome (more handsome than most of the lead actors in East Germany, truth be told) and plays the part well. As was always the case with non-German actors in the lead roles, his voice was dubbed by a German actor—in this case, Jaecki Schwarz, who also appears here as the simple-minded guard Knut.

The lazy, idiot princess is played by Katharina Thalbach in the broadest performance possible—way too broad, honestly. Thalbach is the daughter of Swiss theater director Benno Besson and the Berlin-born actress Sabine Thalbach. Benno and Sabine were working at Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble when they met. From an early age, daughter Katharina starting performing, first on television and later in films. At age fifteen, she made her stage debut , playing a background whore in The Threepenny Opera, eventually working her way up to the lead role of Polly Peachum. In 1976, Thalbach and her husband Thomas Brasch joined the list of people that signed the protest letter against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, and like many of the others, left East Germany shortly thereafter.2 Perhaps because of her age, Thalbach didn’t have the same problems getting work that plagued many of the other East German actors who emigrated to the West. In 1979, she impressed people with her performance in Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum. Since then, she has appeared in dozens of feature films and television movies, including Welcome to Germany, Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg, Silent Night, Strike, and the TV-movie Der Minister, in which she plays a parody of Angela Merkel named “Angela Murkel.”

Playing counterpoint to Thalbach’s princess is Blanche Kommerell as Anne. Like Thalmann, Kommerell is the daughter of a professional actress. Also like Thalbach, she got her start in acting at a young age. Unlike Thalbach, she stayed in East Germany until the fall of the Wall. After that, she did very little acting on either the big screen or on television, but she continued to act in theater productions and to give lectures on acting and diction (I’ll be discussing Kommerell in more detail when I get to Little Red Riding Hood).

Fred Delmare

Most of Iris Gusner’s casting in The Blue Light is surprising. Using a Russian actor as the lead was rarely done; there were so many good East German actors out there. Thalbach and Kommerell weren’t the usual choices either (although, by this time, the usual choices—Christel Bodenstein, Cox Habbema, and Karin Ugowski—were getting too old to play these parts). There was one person, however, who was custom made for his part, and casting anyone else would have made little sense. That was Fred Delmare, East Germany’s most diminutive leading actor, who plays the Little Man (for more on Delmare, see Black Velvet). Delmare has fun in the part and makes an engaging Mannlein.

The music is by Gerhard Rosenfeld, and, if the online reviews are any indication, this is the most controversial aspect of the film. A lot of people didn’t like it. Rather than follow a standard formula for a movie soundtrack, Rosenfeld has composed a soundtrack using Renaissance instruments, primarily, the hurdy-gurdy. It is an odd, slightly subdued soundtrack, perfectly in keeping with the times, but not something you’d usually find in a movie like this. Like Karl-Ernst Sasse, Helmut Nier, Reiner Bredemeyer, and Wilhelm Neef, Rosenfeld was a classically-trained musician. His movie scores include The Rabbit is Me (with Reiner Bredemeyer), The Dove on the Roof, The Banner of Kriwoj Rog (Die Fahne von Kriwoj Rog), Unser stiller Mann (Our Silent Man), Addio, piccola mia, Our Short Life, and Bailing Out.

Hurdy Gurdy

When he wasn’t working on films, he composed orchestral works, chamber music, and music for operas and ballets. After the Wende, he was no longer hired to write feature film soundtracks, but continued to write scores for TV-movies and documentaries. In 1997, his opera Kniefall in Warschau was staged in Dortmund. The Independent went on to call it “one of the most important operas composed in Germany since 1945.” Rosenfeld died in 2003.

Like most of the fairytale films, The Blue Light did well at the box office, and it was well received by critics on both sides of the border. The fact that it states right up front that it is a loose adaptation of the fairytale probably helped avoid the usual cavils about not following the story verbatim. It’s an entertaining film that avoids pandering to children, which makes it an enjoyable film for both kids and adults.

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1. Arguably, Wanda Jakubowska was the first woman to direct a feature film at DEFA with her 1960 film Begegnung im Zwielicht (Encounters in the Dark); but Jakubowska was Polish and the film was a co-production with Film Polski and was in Polish. I hope at some point I can write more about her. She was an interesting woman with an interesting life. If you can, check out The Last Stage (Ostatni etap), the first feature film to portray the holocaust. Based on her own experiences in Auschwitz.

2. If it seems like East Germany was suddenly allowing a lot more people to leave the country, there’s a reason. The Biermann protest was a black-eye for the government in the GDR, and it came less than a year before a Conference on European Security and Cooperation that was slated for October 1977 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the GDR wanted to remove as many talking points as possible from the table by quietly releasing political prisoners and letting them emigrate to West Germany. Likewise, many of the signatories of the Biermann protest letter. They were probably hoping no one would notice, but the New York Times did.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. 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.

Kaskade Ruckwarts
The title of Bailing Out (Kaskade rückwärts) refers to a particularly tricky equestrian move where the rider, rather than performing an emergency dismount by a normal method, does a backwards somersault off the rear of the horse. The move is ably demonstrated in the film and is impressive, but it’s really a stunt move that no horse rider is likely to use unless they like to show off and don’t mind a few broken bones in the learning process. In the context of the film, the move also refers to the sudden decision of a dispatcher named Maja (Marion Wiegmann) to “bail out” of her placid small town existence and start things anew in the city. Her husband had died and Maja is having trouble moving on, much to the consternation of her teenage daughter, who sees her mother settling into a rut. Maja eventually decides to go for it. She moves to the city and starts learning to become a train conductor. Teaching her the ropes is Gerd (Siegfried Höchst), a crusty, lifelong bachelor who manages, somehow, to be both stodgy and eccentric. Playing matchmaker for Maja is Carola (Johanna Schall), a frustrated wife who is living the single life vicariously through Maja.

While DEFA prided itself (with some justification) on films told from a female perspective, the fact is, most of these films were made by men. It is interesting to compare this film, which was directed by Iris Gusner—the only female film director working at DEFA at the time—with Egon Günther’s Her Third, which covers similar territory, but was written and directed by men. Curiously, Her Third is harsher in its criticism of male behavior than Gusner’s film. Bailing Out offers a more nuanced picture of things. The men here are still problematic, but not simply because they are pigs. Some are just oddballs who probably will never meet a woman—or any other person, for that matter—that they can relate to; and the women have their own problems. For a while, it looks like Maja might start a relationship with the music teacher Toni (Jaecki Schwarz), who praises her singing, but who is more interested in her voice than being a boyfriend. We know where this film is heading, and it eventually gets there in its sweet, oddball way.

Iris Gusner’s film credentials are impressive. She studied under Mikhail Romm at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK, now known as the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography), and worked as assistant director to Konrad Wolf on Goya. Her first feature film, The Dove on the Roof, was banned, so she did what most directors faced with this situation chose to do: she played it safe next time by making a fairytale film (The Blue Light). She scored her biggest hit with All My Girls. A few months before the Wall came down, Gusner moved to Cologne, where she worked in television. In 2009, Fantasie und Arbeit: Biografische Zwiesprache (Fantasy and Work: A Biographical Dialog) was published; a book she co-wrote with West German filmmaker Helke Sander.

marion Wiegmann

Maja is played by Marion Wiegmann, a theater actress who worked primarily at the Brandenburger Theater. Bailing Out was her only feature film, but it was enough to garner her the award for Best Actress at the 1984 National Feature Film Festival of the GDR (Nationales Spielfilmfestival der DDR). In 2014, she received an award from the Brandenburger Theater for her work there.

Like Wiegmann, co-star Siegfried Höchst was also a theater actor. Unlike Wiegmann, however, Höchst never recovered from the fall of the Wall. Born into an impoverished situation, Höchst was an ardent believer in the ideals of communism and worked to support the SED. He was an excellent actor and appeared in several films and TV movies as well as appearing on stage. Unfortunately, he was also a heavy drinker, a problem that got progressively worse during the seventies. Coming out of rehab in the early eighties, he started to work again, and even managed to direct a couple TV movies before the Wall came down. But when the republic began to falter, Höchst returned to the bottle. After the Wende, Höchst withdrew from public appearances, preferring to stay home and drink. His exact date of death is unknown. His body was found on December 13, 1991, but he had apparently been dead a few days already at that point.

The real star of the film is Johanna Schall. Whenever she’s on the screen, it’s hard to watch anyone else. Schall comes as close to royalty as the GDR had to offer. Her father was Ekkehard Schall, one of the foremost interpreters of the works of Bertolt Brecht, and her mother was Barbara Brecht-Schall, the daughter of Helene Weigel and Bertolt Brecht. After reunification, Schall worked as a director for various theaters across Germany, while, at the same time, appearing in television shows and giving guest lectures. In 1992, she starred in Apfelbäume (Apple Trees), which was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. These days, she prefers to work behind the scenes as a theater director. She also writes on a number of topics on her blog (in German, of course).

Johanna Schall

At the start of Bailing Out, we hear Maja sing a song over the dispatch radio to one of the truckers. The song was written by Christian Kožik, a composer living in Potsdam. The lyrics are based on Ballade de la belle heaumière aux filles de joie (Ballad of the beautiful helmetmaker’s wife to the ladies of the night) by François Villon. Villon’s poem is a warning to pretty young women that someday their beauty would fade, so they’d better get all they can while men are still putty in the their hands. The poem was also the inspiration for Auguste Rodin’s La Belle qui fut heaulmière, a sculpture of a withered old woman, sitting on a rock.

Bailing Out is an odd film with middle-aged leads, quirky behavior, and unusual career choices. Perhaps this was too odd for the East German audience because the film didn’t stay in theaters long and actually got better reviews in West Germany than in the GDR. For anyone interested in the East German Frauenfilme (Women’s films), this is a good follow-up to Gusner’s All My Girls, which also looks at working women, but at a different point in their careers.

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© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. 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.

Alle meine Mädchen

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the communist countries were way ahead of the west when it came to women’s rights. At the time of the Wende, over half the judges in East Germany were women, as were at least a third of the doctors. However, there were certain areas where women were decidedly underrepresented. Aside from a few secretaries, the Stasi was almost exclusively made up of men, and the upper echelons of government were still mostly men (and old ones at that). Another area where women lagged shamefully behind their male counterparts was in the ranks of feature film directors at DEFA. Although women were writing scripts and directing documentaries for the film company, there were only three women working as feature film directors: Ingrid Reschke, Evelyn Schmidt, and Iris Gusner. Even here, Ingrid Reschke died in a car crash three years before Evelyn Schmidt started at DEFA, meaning that at any given time there were only two women working behind the lens on DEFA feature films, and only one between 1971 and 1974.

That one was Iris Gusner. Gusner studied filmmaking in Moscow, and made her first movie for DEFA in 1973. Unfortunately for her, that movie, Dove on the Roof came at exactly the wrong time and was shelved until after the Wende. Her next film, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht) was a Märchenfilm. It did not suffer the same fate, and her career was back on track. She made several films for DEFA, but All My Girls (Alle meine Mädchen) is the film for which she is best known.

All My Girls starts with a film school student named Ralf Päschke, who is assigned to make a documentary about a brigade of young women who work at NARVA—East Germany’s state-run lightbulb factory. Soon, he finds himself emotionally and romantically involved with the women and worried about the future of the brigade as the bosses at NARVA threaten to separate the women while they retrofit the factory. Overseeing the brigade is Marie Boltzin, a no-nonsense woman who has seen her share of problems in life. Leading the brigade of women is Susi, an ebullient and shallow young woman with a feathered hairdo identical to the one worn by her American Doppelgängerin Debra Jo Rupp in the American sitcom, That ‘70s Show. Her sidekick, and the person placed officially in charge of the brigade, is Anita, an attractive woman with a pixie cut and a mean streak she uses to hide her emotions. The two others are Gertrud, a shy young woman with a bad case of the hiccups, and Ella, the most grounded woman in the group, and the only one with an actual relationship, albeit with a married man.

Then there is Kerstin. Kerstin is there as part of her probation requirement for petty theft, and is not considered part of the group by the others. Unlike the other women, Kerstin has completed her Abitur (a secondary-school degree required for entry into a university in Germany). For this, she’s treated as an object of scorn and ridicule, primarily by Susi, who seems to be more than a little jealous of Kerstin.

The women in All My Girls are a happy-go-lucky bunch (be forewarned: they giggle a lot), but when they hear news of the brigade being disbanded they attack Ms. Boltzin for keeping this fact from them (she did not), and when Ms. Boltzin shows her notebook cataloging each woman’s tardiness, she is accused of spying on them—an allegation that brings with it the spectre of the Stasi and their Inoffizieller Mitarbeiteren (civilian informers). This is too much for Ms. Boltzin to bear and she withdraws from the factory, eventually suffering a nervous breakdown.

Playing the put-upon Ms. Boltzin is Lissy Tempelhof, a well-known East German actress who starred in several feature films and made-for-TV movies. The Berlin-born actress had just turned sixteen when WWII ended. There, she and her mother worked as Trümmerfrauen—the women who essentially rebuilt the bombed-out German cities after the war and suffered greatly at the hands of the Russian troops. She studied acting at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts (Hochschule für Schauspielkunst “Ernst Busch,” HFS), and worked as a prompter at the theater in Senftenberg. She appeared in many theatrical productions and started appearing in films starting in 1954. Her first major role came in 1961 with her performance as Dr. Inge Ruoff in Konrad Wolf’s film of his father’s play, Professor Mamlock. Wolf used her again in 1964, as the narrator of his next film, Divided Heaven. She was also a regular on East German television and appeared in five episodes of Polizeiruf 110 as five different people. She continues to work in film, television, and stage. Besides acting, she is a talented singer and teaches singing in Berlin.

Susi is played by Madeleine Lierck. Born in West Germany, She is the daughter of Werner Lierck, a comic actor who moved to the GDR in the early fifties and starred in dozens of the short Stacheltier films, which were shown before the main features in East Germany cinemas (more on the Stacheltier films at a later date). Ms. Lierck started working in films in the late sixties. A hyperactive performer, she was soon appearing in several films and TV shows every year. Her first feature role was as Thalia in the popular East German beach-party movie, Hot Summer. For Ms. Lierck, the Wende represented only a momentary hiccup in her career. She was soon working again and has appeared in several films and TV shows since then, including the popular TV mini-series, Wir Sind Volk (U.S. title: The Final Days), about the end of the GDR.

Barbara Schnitzler dancing

Barbara Schnitzler plays Anita. Although she had appeared in several TV movies prior to All My Girls, Iris Gusner’s movie was her first feature film role. Ms. Schnitzler has the dubious distinction of being the daughter of Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, the much-hated host of Der schwarze Kanal (see Look at This City!). Charges of nepotism might seem inevitable, but Ms. Schnitzler is a fine actress and manages to make her character both sweet and a little mean. In spite of what would seem like a handicap in unified Germany, Ms. Schnitzler has gone on to have a successful career. She has appeared in dozens of post-Wende films, and is part of the acting ensemble for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.

Playing Kerstin is the stunningly beautiful Viola Schweizer. Ms. Schweizer was a familiar face to East German television viewers, having appeared in dozens of TV movies with her breakthrough role coming in 1978 in Über sieben Brücken mußt du geh’n (You Have to Go Over Seven Bridges). After the Wende, Ms. Schweizer appeared in a few films and appeared in the short-lived TV series, Spreewaldfamilie, beside with her All My Girls co-star, Jaecki Schwarz, but, as with many other East German actors, she found film work got harder to come by after the wall came down. In 2001, she officially retired from from film and TV work in Germany, but continued to work in theater productions abroad. More recently, she has retired from the theater as well and lives in a small town near Berlin. Now 58, she is still very beautiful.

Inspiration for All My Girls came from a  documentary short by Jürgen Böttcher titled Sterne (Stars—not to be confused with the feature film of the same name). All My Girls struck a chord with the East German public. Like The Legend of Paul and Paula, the film resonated with the average worker for its portrayal of life outside of the rarefied world of the intelligentsia. Screenings were well attended and the reviews were mostly favorable. The film was chosen to open the first East German National Film Festival (Nationale Spielfilmfestival der DDR), where Lissy Tempelhof won awards for best actress and for “the most successful representation of a working personality.”

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