Archive for the ‘Karl-Ernst Sasse’ 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.

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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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Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz
Konrad Wolf’s three feature films—Goya, The Naked Man on the Athletic Field (Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz), and Solo Sunny—form a loose trilogy. On the face of things, the three films are as different as can be, musically, stylistically and cinematically, but all three films deal with deal with artistic creativity, in each case seen from a different perspective. On one end of the spectrum, we have Goya, the story of a true creative genius who changed art forever, on the other end of the spectrum we have Solo Sunny, the story of a young lounge singer who is just talented enough scrape by, but not much more. In between, is The Naked Man on the Athletic Field, the story of a talented artist whose work is very good, but who cannot find acceptance with the general public. He will never be as famous as Goya, but neither will he be forgotten like Sunny. The thing all three main characters have in common is a strong creative urge. Goya paints in spite the threat of the Spanish Inquisition; Sunny tries to perfect a hit single in spite of never playing anywhere with more than fifty people in the audience, and Herbert Kemmel, the sculptor in The Naked Man on the Athletic Field, continues to follow his own visions in the face of civic criticism.

Being an East German film, this last issue is the most important. Since artistic abilities and the creative impulse are unique to an individual, what is its place in socialist society? Should this one man be allowed to follow his own muse, or should the will of the collective prevail? It also addresses what happens when the public is no longer able to discern good art from bad, relying instead on fixed categories of what they think art is supposed to be instead of nuanced intellectual examination. With Goya, Wolf placed the action in Spain in the late 1700s. The film’s hidden subtext was about East Germany, but Ulbricht was still in charge when Wolf started working on the film. Honecker, as of yet taken over the leadership, when he declared that “as long as one proceeds from the firm position of socialism,” there should be “no taboos in the fields of art and literature.”

The naked man in the title refers to a piece Kemmel is commissioned to sculpt for the local athletic field. Expecting a clothed soccer player, the local authorities are horrified to to see a life-size bronze of a naked man instead. Should the authorities accept this single artist’s vision, or should the will of the collective prevail? In this case, Wolf, a lifelong communist seems to suggest that in an ideal socialist society there is room for both. Throughout the film Kemmel discusses art with various people and finds their perspectives on the subject severely limited. Most of the film concerns the relationship between Kemmel and his model Hannes. Hannes is just an ordinary guy, a member of a local construction brigade who has agreed to pose for Kemmel. The two men are as different as chalk and cheese, but they eventually learn to understand each other’s perspectives.

The Naked Man on the Athletic Field

Konrad Wolf was one of East Germany’s most creative directors, but he is also a stylistic gadfly. Take any three Wolf films, and you’d be hard pressed to see that they were all made by the same person. The screenplay is by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, East Germany’s best scriptwriter. As always, Kohlhaase is concerned with the way people communicate. Usually this takes the form of people from different regions trying to communicate (Germans and Russians, Berliners and everybody else), but here it is about the limitations of communication between people of different walks of life.

Herbert Kemmel is played by Kurt Böwe, who brings a certain charm to every role. He is often called on to play police and government officials because of this. Here, he is slightly outside of the mainstream, but not dangerously so. Hannes is played by Martin Trettau, who worked primarily on television. Trettau first appeared on film in Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. He appeared in several feature films after that, but most of work, especially in the eighties, was for Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DFF), the GDR’s television company. Like many East German actors, Trettau found work after the Wende became more scarce, but did a few television shows before retiring. He died in 2007 in Berlin.

Various artists and sculptors were hired to create the artwork shown in the film. The naked man sculpture of the title was created by renowned East German sculptor Werner Stötzer, who also makes a cameo appearance as the town’s mayor. Works by fellow artists Will Lammert and Albert Ebert also appear in the film.

The Naked Man on the Sports Field

The film features a remarkably minimal score consisting of guitar and a pan flute. The score was by Karl-Ernst Sasse—East Germany’s number one composer. Sasse’s scores were often quirky, using percussion in interesting ways in combination with unusual instruments. Sasse could create an orchestral piece with the best of them, but he was no one-trick pony. If he or the director thought a film score required only one or two instruments, he could do that as well. Considering his versatility, one might assume that Wolf and he worked together quite often, but this was the only film on which they collaborated (Wolf was famous for using the same crew on most of his films prior to Solo Sunny, but this never applied to the composers; he rarely used the same composer twice). After the Wende, Sasse continued to compose for films right up until the turn of the century, when he retired. His last film score was for Rosa von Praunheim’s 1999 film The Einstein of Sex. The story of the renowned and infamous sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. Sasse died in 2006, not far from the Potsdam-Babelsberg studios where he did most of his work.

The Naked Man on the Athletic Field is a languid film. Too talky and low-key for the average American film watcher. But when viewed in conjunction with Goya and Solo Sunny, it completes a concept that addresses Wolf’s feelings about the relationship between creativity and society. After Solo Sunny, Wolf would explore artistic creativity one more time in the television documentary Busch singt (Busch Sings), but here he was working with several other directors and he died before the film was finished.

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Godfather Death
[Note: I received a request to do a review of this film from a reader. If there is any East German film out there that you think I should take a look at, feel free to let me know and if I can find a copy I’ll check it out.]

Godfather Death (Gevatter Tod) is based on one of the most interesting fairytales the Brothers Grimm ever transcribed. Unlike most of their stories, the magical elements are kept to a minimum here. People don’t turn into other creatures, no one flies, and aside from appearances by God, the Devil and the Grim Reaper, most of the story deals with human foibles. At the beginning of the film, we see a man scurrying down the road, clutching a baby in his arms, his thirteenth child. The man is looking for someone who is willing to take on the role of the child’s godfather. He first encounters God, who offers himself, but the man doesn’t want to have anything to do with a supreme being that allows wars and pestilence to exist. Next he meets the Devil, who also offers, having a special fondness for the number thirteen. The man rejects the Devil’s offer owing to the Devil’s inherent deceitfulness, not to mention the character’s squirrelly behavior. Finally, he meets Death, who, unlike the other two, treats everyone as equals. It doesn’t matter to the Grim Reaper if you’re rich or poor, Death is the same for everyone. The man likes this attitude and decides that the Grim Reaper should be godfather to his son. When the boy, christened as Jörg, grows up, Death comes back into his life and shows him when to cure people who are sick and when to let them die. It isn’t long before Jörg decides to trick Death and save the life of someone who is slated to die. After he saves the life of Barbara, the young and beautiful daughter of the mayor, he is shown that her candle is almost extinguished and he would have to make a choice: the life of another for the life of Barbara.

In the original fairytale, it is Jörg’s candle that is extinguished to save the woman, but the DEFA version is even grimmer. An innocent child is sacrificed to save the princess and Jörg must live with the guilt of his decision. Unlike a Disney version of a fairytale, no one in this story lives happily ever after. Death is the only one that doesn’t have a problem accepting the way things are, seeing everything as having a season. It’s a remarkable way to end a fairytale.

Godfather Death is a made-for-TV film that was first shown shortly after Christmas in 1980. Although made for television, the film was produced at the DEFA studios and it shows. Production designer Werner Pieske’s sets look good and Lydia Fiege’s costumes are excellent. It also features a remarkable score by Karl-Ernst Sasse, East Germany’s greatest film composer (for more on Karl-Ernst Sasse, see Her Third). Parts of the score consist of a trio of drums, violin and Jew’s harp. Sasse seems to have a special fondness for the Jew’s harp. He also used it in the score for Blood Brothers. As with most of his scores, much of the music takes its cues from the period in which the story occurs—in this case, the middle ages.

Gevatter Tod

The film was directed by Wolfgang Hübner, who got his start as an actor at DEFA in the early fifties, but switched to directing in 1972 with the TV-adaptation of Radij Pogodin’s play Nur ein Spaß (Just a Joke). Most of his work, both before and after the Wende, has been in legitimate theater and television. He has contributed work to several popular television shows, including Alle meine Töchter (All My Daughters), Jenny & Co., and Um Himmels Willen (For Heaven’s Sake).

Death is played by Dieter Franke, an actor best known for comedy. The son of a stage designer, working as a props man and an extra in the theater in Greiz. He started working in films and television after he came to Berlin in 1963. Over the years, he played everything from an SS man in The Adventures of Werner Holt to the Devil in The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs. He was scheduled to play the car accident spirit in Motoring Tales, but died in 1982 at the age of 48.
Jörg is played by Jan Spitzer. Spitzer’s first film, Farewell, should have been a bigger hit, but it barely made it past the censors, and received only limited distribution. In spite of this, Spitzer went on to have a successful career at DEFA. Since the Wende, he has gone on to become one of the leading voice actors in Germany, often dubbing the voices of Chris Cooper and Danny Trejo.

Barbara is played by Janina Hartwig, who is best known these days as Sister Hanna on Um Himmels Willen. Her first film was Disko mit Einlage (Disco Interlude), followed by several more made-for-TV movies (including this one). She first appeared on the big screen in Der Bärenhäuter (The Bear Skin), another Grimms’ fairytale. Still young at the time of the Wende, and already mostly working in television, reunification had less impact on her career than it did for some of the others at DEFA. She continued working television and has appeared in dozens of TV shows.

Gevatter Tod

Inevitably, with the perspective of history, we can see parallels to the tale here and the fate of the GDR. With its efforts to keep the republic in the hands of the SED, the government had essentially snuffed the life out of its socialist ideals, creating a country that continued to exist after the joy of existence was gone. As it was originally shown on television, there are no box office figures for the film, but it was well received by the critics. As an example of an East German fairytale film, though, it is a bit of an anomaly. It lacks to eye-bleeding colors and over-the-top set designs of the earlier fairytale films. For that reason, it might be overlooked, but it is still worth checking out.

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No Proof for Murder
No Proof for Murder (Für Mord kein Beweis) belongs to the film genre that Germans (East and West) call Krimis. We’d call them “crime films,” although we never do, preferring instead to parse things out as film noir, mysteries, and thrillers. No Proof for Murder is a good example of the East German style of Krimi. These are notably different from their West German counterparts, which, not surprisingly, owe a greater debt to Hollywood. East German Krimis rely less on action sequences, car chases, and gun battles, and more on police procedures. A case is usually resolved thanks to the lead detective’s dogged pursuit of the facts.

No Proof for Murder is about the investigation of a woman who turns up dead after leaving the hairdresser. It appears to have been murder, but, as the title suggests, there is no evidence to prove it. The only clues are a broken fingernail and a few cotton threads. Suspicion naturally falls on the husband, a research scientist who prefers the company of lab rats over that of people, but his alibi seems airtight. And there’s the stranger who watches the woman’s funeral from a distance, but runs away when the police approach. How does he fit into things?

corpse in the water

The lead detective, Captain Lohm, is not willing to let the case go, and has an almost Hercule Poirot-like knack for tying disparate facts together to form a complete picture. Lohm manages to uncover motives extending all the way back to WWII. This is a remarkably sedate Krimi. No murders are shown (although their aftermaths are), and even the flashbacks, which held some potential for shocking scenes, are restricted to recent events. The actual murder is only ever glimpsed at as part of a strange dream montage, and even the most important argument in the film is only heard in muffled tones through the wall. There are reasons for all of this, but it makes for weirdly action-free thriller.

The film is based on the book Der Mann, der über Hügel steigt (The Man Who Climbs Over the Hill) by Rudolf Bartsch. Bartsch was a freelance writer in East Germany, who wrote several novels and television scripts. His scripts for the TV movie Die Sprengung (The Demolition) is one of the forgotten casualties of the 11th Plenum, banned for being politically “renitent,” a term that doesn’t translate easily here, but essentially means the authorities didn’t like it but couldn’t say exactly why. The film was shelved and remained in obscurity until 2012, when Die Sprengung was finally rediscovered at the German Broadcasting Archive, and screened at the Kino Babylon in Berlin.

beweis6

 

If director Konrad Petzold were from the West, he would have been classified with people such as Terence Young, Budd Boetticher, Don Siegel, Mark Robson, and Jacques Tourneur—less interested in creating great art than turning in efficient genre films on time and on budget, but who, nonetheless, showed a special talent for filmmaking. He is best known for his westerns and fairytale films, such as White Wolves (Weiße Wölfe), Kit & Co, and The Story of the Goose Princess and Her Faithful Horse Falada (Die Geschichte von der Gänseprinzessin und ihrem treuen Pferd Falada).

Although he generally chose genres that were safely family friendly, he still managed to get into trouble with the authorities on a couple occasions. The first was The Dress (Das Kleid), which was banned outright due to the uneasy comparisons between the behavior of the SED and the walled city in the story, which accidentally coincided with the building of the Berlin Wall. The second was Alfons Wobblecheek (Alfons Zitterbacke), which wasn’t banned outright, but received enough edits to provoke Petzold into asking that his name be removed from the film. In spite of these incidences, Petzold had a long career in East Germany, and had no trouble finding work—at least until the Wall came down, which effectively ended his career. He died in 1999.

No Proof for Murder stars Winfried Glatzeder, who is best known as Paul in The Legend of Paul and Paula. He was sometimes referred as the Jean-Paul Belmondo of the East,” although that comparison requires more imagination than I have. Glatzeder was born in the tumultuous year of 1945 just a few weeks before it all ended. His mother, who was of Jewish descent, had managed to make it through the war alive; his father did not. At the end of the war, his mother was sent to a hospital. By that time she had developed a bad case of tuberculosis, and would not reunited with her son until he was ten years old.

Winfried Glatzeder

In 1981, fed up with the constant surveillance and the deteriorating state of things in East Germany, Glatzeder decided to join his fellow actors in the West. He filed for exit visas several times, until he was finally awarded one in 1982. Like Manfred Krug, he hit the ground running in West Germany, starring almost immediately in a the TV-movie Der Kunstfehler (The Malpractice), and following with many more parts on TV and in the movies. From 1996 until 1998, he was a regular on the long-running TV series, Tatort. In 1999, he made an amusing cameo appearance in Sun Alley (Sonnenallee) as Miriam’s neighbor Paul, wearing the puffy shirt he wore in The Legend of Paula and Paula. He continues to perform on stage and appear in movies, most recently in Der letzte Sommer der Reichen (The Last Summer of the Rich).

Like Rolf Römer’s films, one of the things this movie excels at is showing the styles and fashions of life in East Germany. In fact, the film starts with what looks like home movies of people on the streets of East Berlin, shopping, talking, and going about their daily business. The film ends with the same shots, as if to say, “life goes on.” The music for these scenes is so generic and carefree that it almost makes you wonder if you are watching the right movie, then it suddenly turns ominous. The film’s composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse, was, by this time, no stranger to film music, having composed hundreds of scores for the movies of DEFA. Sasse was responsible for some of the best soundtracks for East German films, including Signals, Her Third, In the Dust of the Stars, and Ursula. After the Wall fell, he continued to work, primarily scoring silent classics from the UFA period, including The Golem, The Last Laugh, and Asphalt. He died in 2006 in Babelsberg.

interrogation scene

It is also one of the few films I’ve seen that shows us the inside of a modern police interrogation facility. With its beige walls and rows of doors, the facility reminded me strongly of George and Daniel Fuchs’ Stasi Secret Rooms photo exhibit (currently at the Panoptikon in Stockholm). In one interrogation scene, a typist immediately taps out every word that is said. The effect is jarring and little creepy.

No Proof for Murder did well at the box office, and was well received by most critics Some felt it should have followed the book more closely, but Petzold’s avoidance of the usual crime film clichés was praised. It is currently available as part of a 3 DVD six-pack of East German crime films.

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Dean Reed and Renate Blume

From time to time, East German filmmakers looked to America for source material. Bellboy Ed Martin was based on Albert Maltz’s play, Merry-Go-Round, and Chingachgook, the Great Snake took most of its story from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking book, The Deerslayer. Jack London was a natural choice for DEFA. He was an ardent socialist, writing often about the struggles of the working class and the problems they faced in a capitalist society. London’s writing style is well suited to cinematic interpretation. It started in 1908 with some short films by D.W. Griffith and went on from there. Nearly everything he wrote has been made into a movie somewhere in the world. The Iron Heel—with its indictment of the way corporations help a select few scoop up all the money while the rest of the world struggles to get by—seems like a natural for film interpretation in the Communist Bloc, but it was only made twice, first as a silent film in Russia, and then again in Russia in 1999 (I’m not including the Ben Turpin and Paddy McGuire comedy reel, The Iron Mitt, which IMDB claims is also based on the book).

Kit & Co is based on several of Jack London’s “Kit Bellew” stories, first published in Cosmopolitan magazine, and later compiled into book form under the title Smoke Bellew. Many of the stories hark back to the folklore tradition of the trickster that we’ve seen before in the form of Till Eulenspiegel. Other stories are flat-out adventure tales. The film concentrates primarily on the trickster tales, and it follows these stories remarkably well. Kit’s first encounters with Joy Gastell are taken nearly verbatim from the book. Likewise, the roulette wheel caper, the egg grift and the dogsled race are presented here virtually intact.

You could hardly ask for a better cast. Manfred Krug, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Rolf Hoppe were all popular stars by the time this film was made, but, of course the real draw was Dean Reed. Here was an American—ein echter Amerikaner—starring in an East German movie. Reed was the perfect choice to play Bellew. His combination of boyish charm and rugged good looks suited the part to a tee.

Kit & Co was Dean Reed’s first East German film, but it wouldn’t be his last. The film was a major hit and ensured a highly successful career in the GDR for the American pop star. Reed went on to star in four East German films, directing the last two himself. His popularity extended past the borders of East German to the USSR as well. He was equally popular in Russia and was nicknamed “The Red Elvis.” The moniker was used for the title of a 2007 documentary about Reed. [See also, El Cantor and Blood Brothers.]

In 1986, Reed was interviewed by Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes. Reed saw this as an opportunity to bridge the gap between the east and the west, and get back to making films in America, but years of living in East Germany had deprived Reed of the perspective he needed to conduct a successful interview with the likes of Wallace. When the episode aired, Americans were appalled by Reed’s defense of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and his comparison of Ronald Reagan to Stalin. Hate mail flooded in and angry right-wing DJs derided him on the radio. Shocked and desolate, Reed committed suicide at Zeuthener Lake near his home in East Berlin. He left a note apologizing for his suicide, but the Stasi hid the note from the public, preferring to let the public to think that his death was part of conspiracy rather than the cold hard truth that Reed killed himself.

Monika Woytowicz, Manfred Krug and Renate Blume

Joy Gastell is played by Renate Blume. Blume’s career got off to a roaring start with Konrad Wolf’s spectacular film, Divided Heaven, but after that her star dimmed a bit. She was married to director Frank Beyer for five years, and lived with Indianerfilm star Gojko Mitic for two years after that. For most of her time in East Germany, she primarily appeared in TV shows and stage plays. In 1984, she married Dean Reed, and they remained married until his death. After the Wende, she continued this career path, acting on stage and appearing occasionally on television. She has appeared in several popular TV shows, including Edel & Starck, In aller Freundschaft, and, Tatort, and Polizeiruf 110—both before and after the Wende.

Kit’s pal Shorty is played by the popular East German actor, Rolf Hoppe. Hoppe was one of the most popular character actors in East German. He appeared in dozens of films and TV-movies. He had a special knack for villains, and was often seen as the bad guy in the Indianerfilme. He received international acclaim in 1981 for his portrayal of the  Göring-like Tábornagy in the classic Hungarian film, Mephisto. In Kit & Co, Hoppe gets to engage in a different western stereotype: the sourdough—that grizzled prospector of the California and Klondike Gold Rushes. He has fun in the role and makes the character as engaging as he is on the page. Hoppe still appears in films from time to time, and he resides in Dresden’s Weißig section.

As with many of the better films from DEFA, the music for this film was by Karl-Ernst Sasse. Sasse, a classically-trained composer, normally followed a classicists approach to his scores, using lots of strings and full orchestration. Sasse felt, however, that this wouldn’t work well in a film like Kit & Co. Instead, he created a score that imitated the music of the period, with minimal orchestration. Some songs consist of nothing more than a bass viol, trap set, and a banjo. Other tunes add horns to mix with a sound reminiscent of a Salvation Army band. [For more examples of Sasse’s work, and further information on the composer, click on his name at the top of this post.]

Critics were divided on Kit & Co, but the audiences weren’t—they loved it. The Soviet Union made their own version the Smoke Bellew stories the following year (Smok i malysh) and DFF, the East German television company, made two more movies based on Jack London’s works (Alaska-Kids großer Coup and Der Mexikaner Felipe Rivera). Most recently, Bellew and Shorty returned to the small screen in the French mini-series, Chercheurs d’or. Considering the enduring popularity of Jack London’s work, we’re certain to see more films based on the exploits of Kit and Shorty. Kit & Co remains one of the best.

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Karla

1966 was a rough year for film in East Germany. The 11th Plenum of the previous December pulled the rug out from under some of the most intelligent and creative film talent to come out of any country at any time. East German cinema was on the verge of matching the French New Wave in creativity while their colleagues in West Germany were still making schmaltzy Heimatfilme and Edgar Wallace Krimis.

Karla (unnecessarily retitled Carla for the U.S. release) was based on a news report about a teacher that screenwriter Ulrich Plenzdorf read. He contacted the teacher, and from there the story evolved. Karla is a young, idealistic teacher, fresh out of school in Berlin. Her first teaching assignment takes her to a small town near the Baltic Sea. She believes that one must be honest above all else, and she hopes to put this into practice in her classroom. As one might imagine, the real world has a lesson in store for her.

An idealistic teacher running up against the harsh realities of the world isn’t a new idea. We’ve seen it before and since, in everything from Blackboard Jungle to The Forest for the Trees (Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen). Karla of the title is closer to Eva Lobau’s starry-eyed fish-out-of-water in the latter film than Glenn Ford’s man on the cusp of a societal quantum shift in the first, but Karla has her finger on the pulse of the nation, which makes her dangerous to her superiors, Unfortunately it also made the film dangerous to Walter Ulbricht and his cronies. Before the movie ever saw the light of day, it was shelved and wouldn’t arrive in theaters until 1990.

The film starts with Karla’s graduation ceremony in Berlin and follows her exploits through her first year of teaching. As with other films of this sub-genre, there is the problem kid in class, although in Karla he is portrayed more sympathetically than usual for this type of story. He, like Karla, values truth and honesty above all else. True to its characters, the film confronts controversial subjects head on. When a student questions the honesty of East German television reports about the space race, Principal Alfred Hirte uses peer pressure to negate the students concerns. A tactic Karla finds reprehensible. But even Principal Hirte is portrayed sympathetically. He, too, is an idealist, but one who understands better than Karla and her charges how the world works.

Karla stars Jutta Hoffmann, one of East Germany’s most talented actors and a woman who had a remarkable knack for choosing controversial material. She appeared in or worked on five of the twelve films banned by the 11th Plenum (Karla, The Rabbit is MeJust Don’t Think I’ll Cry, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam, and The Trace of Stones), another film that was almost banned (Her Third), and an East German TV movie that managed to get itself banned in Switzerland (Ursula). In 1978, Ms. Hoffmann was one of the many DEFA stars and technicians that signed the petition protesting the expatriation of singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann. Everyone who signed the petition found it much harder to get work, and many of them eventually emigrated to the west, including Ms. Hoffmann, who moved to West Berlin in 1982. She continued to act in movies and television, and taught acting at the Hamburg School of Music and Theater from 1993 to 2006.

Acting as sort of Greek chorus, the film cuts from time to time to the conversations between the school district’s administrator and the principal, played by Inge Keller and Hans Hardt-Hardtloff respectively. Inge Keller was a popular actress who was described by Deutsches Theater director Thomas Langhoff as the “only vamp in the GDR.” During the early fifties, she was married to the infamous host of Der schwarze Kanal, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler. Their daughter, Barbara Schnitzler, went on to become a successful actor in her own right (see All My Girls). After the Wende, she continued to work on stage and in film, and notably played the older Lilly Wust in Max Färberböck’s excellent film, Aimee & Jaguar. Hans Hardt-Hardtloff got his start in acting much earlier than Ms. Keller. He left home at the age of sixteen to join the theater. He studied acting at the Volkstheater Millowitsch in Cologne, and spent the Nazi years performing in plays outside of Germany. He appeared in several DEFA films and even more TV productions. A character actor, he appears in small roles in several classic East German films, including, Divided Heaven, The Rabbit is Me, Sons of the Great Bear, and The Legend of Paul and Paula. He died in 1974.

Karla’s author, Ulrich Plenzdorf, was one of the most well-respected and successful screenwriters in East Germany, but he was also its most controversial. The son of communists, Plenzdorf was a believer in the cause of the GDR, and thought that the building of the wall would help stem the economic problems intentionally provoked by the Bundesrepublik (see Look at This City!). Like folksinger Wolf Biermann, his strongly pro-communist views counted for little with the devolving SED leadership. After the 11th Plenum, Plenzdorf’s work was not welcome at DEFA again until 1969, when he rejoined Karla’s director, Herrmann Zschoche, to make Weite Straßen – stille Liebe (Wide Streets – Silent Love). In 1973, he co-wrote the screenplay with director Heiner Carow for The Legend of Paul and Paula as well as the lyrics to the hit songs from the film, “Geh zu ihr,” and “Wenn ein Mensch lebt.” When his screenplay titled The New Sorrows of Young W. (Die neuen Leiden des jungen W), was rejected by DEFA, he turned it into a novel and then into a play. The play was a huge hit on both sides of the Iron Curtain and was made into a movie in West Germany. A fact that did not endear him to the East German powers that be. Today, the book is recognized as a classic of modern German literature. After the Wende, Plenzdorf continued to write screenplays, and joined Jurek Becker (Jacob the Liar) to help write screenplays for the fourth season of the popular law series, Liebling Kreuzberg, which starred his friend Manfred Krug. He also wrote the screenplay for Abgehauen (Ran Off), which is based on Krug’s account of his final days in East Germany. Plenzdorf died in 2007 after a protracted illness.

Carla

Herrmann Zschoche is best known in the Eastern Bloc countries for directing the 1978 coming-of-age movie, Seven Freckles, and in the west for his languorous and kitschy science-fiction film, Eolomea. Zschoche got his start as a cameraman on the East German news program, Aktuelle Kamera. He studied filmmaking at the Babelsberg film school and worked as an assistant director on Frank Beyer’s classic, Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers). He made his directorial debut in 1961 with the kid’s film, Das Märchenschloß (The Fairytale Castle). Over the next few years, he would make more movies, but with the 11th Plenum’s ruling on Karla, he suddenly found himself effectively blacklisted and had to rebuild his career. It would be three years before he would get to make another movie, starting with Leben zu zweit in 1968. From there he proceeded more cautiously, but controversy still managed to find him. His 1977 film, Feuer unter Deck (Fire Below Deck), was prevented from being shown in theaters for no better reason than it starred Manfred Krug, who had decided to defect to the west right before the film was to be released. In 1983, he ran up against the authorities again with Insel der Schwäne (Island of the Swans), which was also scripted by Ulrich Plenzdorf. Zschoche was forced to cut several scenes, insert a scene where the protagonist talks about the advantages of the new apartment buildings, and—like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner from the previous year—replace the ambiguous open ending with a more positive one. After the Wende, Zschoche made one more DEFA film (Das Mädchen aus dem Fahrstuhl), but otherwise worked exclusively in television. He directed episodes of the popular West Germany TV shows, Drei Damen vom Grill, Tatort, and others. He retired from directing in 1997.

The film is scored by the ubiquitous Karl-Ernst Sasse. Here he gets to demonstrate his classical chops, taking his cues from Mozart with one of the loveliest themes from any East German film ever made. Some films are driven by their scores, while others use music as a form of punctuation. Karla falls firmly into the latter category. Music is used to segue between scenes and does not follow the characters around. Nonetheless, the theme has managed to show up on a few compilations of film themes although, shockingly, it is sometimes listed as “Serenade Für Klara” (sic).

The man who suffered the most at the hands of the 11th Plenum had to be cinematographer, Günter Ost. Ost was responsible for the innovative and striking cinematography on And Your Love Too, but even here he was stirring up controversy for his imaginative work. He first worked with Herrmann Zschoche on Engel im Fegefeuer (Angel in Purgatory). The two made a good team. Zschoche’s use of the wide-screen aspect ratio and Ost’s combinations and deep and shallow focus created some interesting scenes. When Karla is called into the principal’s office for a supposed indiscretion with a student, Karla is seated to the left in focus, with the school administrator slightly out of focus in the background and the back of the blurry nape of the principal’s neck in the foreground. In other scenes we see Karla lingering right at the edge of the frame. At the time this film was made, only Sergio Leone was making better use of the widescreen format (Leone, it must be said, would have managed to keep all three of these elements in focus, but he had the advantage of newer equipment).

Having been the cinematographer for some of the most visually imaginative films to come out of DEFA during the early sixties, Ost was an easy target for the people crying about the so-called “Rabbit films” (named after The Rabbit is Me, the shining example of the kind of films the folks at the 11th Plenum detested). Ost’s career at DEFA was over. Ost continued to work with film, but his name does not show up on anymore films from the East German film studio.

It was Ost who, after the film reels were recovered from DEFA’s archives, reconstructed the film. After its screening in 1990, Karla was given its proper place as one of the best films to come out of the DDR and demonstrated to everyone the real damage to the East German film industry caused by the 11th Plenum.

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