Archive for the ‘Konrad Petzold’ Category

Fatal Error
With the protests at Standing Rock, and recent plans to privatize Indian lands for their oil deposits, this is an excellent time to take a look at Fatal Error (Tödlicher Irrtum), a 1970 western from DEFA. It’s a shame this film isn’t available with English subtitles, because this is a movie for the times if ever there was one.

Like many of the DEFA westerns, Fatal Error is based on historical events. The story takes place in 1898. At the time the American West was still the Wild West of myth, but things were changing rapidly. The promises of riches that had started the westward expansion a few decades earlier was being replaced with a new kind of gold—black gold. As it turned out, many of the best oil deposits were on Indian land. So what did the oil companies do? They did what they’ve always done: lie, cheat, steal, and kill to get at that oil.

The story starts with an Indian named Shave Head riding into the newly formed town of Wind River City, Wyoming and announcing excitedly that they’ve found oil on the local reservation. This would be the last time Shave Head would be happy about the discovery. After this intro, the story advances a few years when we see Wind River City overrun with white men bent on taking advantage of the local Indians in every way possible. For some, this means grossly overcharging them for goods. For others, it means murdering them and stealing the money and land deeds which the Indians insisted on carrying around on their persons because they didn’t trust the banks.

Fatal Error

The chief villain of the piece is Mike Allison, a local robber baron who’s behind many of the murders. Allison is busy trying to consolidate all the oil land under his name. If this means an occasional murder, then so be it. Things come to a head after Shave Head’s half-brother Clint Howard takes the job of assistant sheriff and starts investigating the deaths.

Fatal Error is the fifth Indianerfilm to come out of the DEFA studios.1 It is also the fifth one to star Yugoslavian stuntman-turned-actor Gojko Mitić. As discussed here previously, Mitić was DEFA’s go-to guy when they needed someone to play a Native American. As Shave Head, Mitić bring his usual dignity and strength to the role.

Playing Shave Head’s half-brother Chris Howard is Armin Mueller-Stahl, who needs no introduction here. Mueller-Stahl is one of the few East German film stars who also managed to become an international film star. To a lesser extent, the same can be said for Rolf Hoppe, who plays the villainous Mike Allison. Just as Gojko Mitić was DEFA’s Indian, Hoppe often showed up as the villain in these films. Hoppe made himself known internationally for his powerful portrayal of Tábornagy in István Szabó’s Mephisto. Since then, he has gone on the appear in films of every type, demonstrating that he’s not simply a good villain, but also capable of comedy. Also appearing is Annekathrin Bürger in a minor role.

Annekathrin Bürger

The film is directed by Konrad Petzold, a talented director who was mainly consigned to making children’s films and westerns. Born in 1930, Petzold was still a kid when the Nazis took over. After the war, he first studied to be a mechanic. Like his older brothers and sisters, he became involved in a local political theater group in his hometown of Radebeul. In 1949, he went to Berlin to study at the DEFA film school for young directors. He, along with co-director Egon Günther, got into trouble with the powers-that-be for their 1961 film The Dress (Das Kleid), a film version of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Since the story takes place in a city with a wall around it, the authorities thought they were talking about Berlin, even though Perzold and Günther had started shooting the film before the Wall was built.

In 1969, Petzold directed White Wolves, a sequel to the previous year’s The Falcon’s Trail. It was his first foray into the field of Indian films, and it was a hit. After that film, Petzold became DEFA’s number one choice for filming their westerns, including Osceola, Kit & Co, and The Scout. Petzold is one of the many directors who found himself cast adrift after the Wall came down. His last film, The Story of the Goose Princess and Her Faithful Horse Falada (Die Geschichte von der Gänseprinzessin und ihrem treuen Pferd Falada), was released in January of 1989. In later years, Petzold suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and died in 1999.

Gojko Mitic

The Wind River Indian Reservation is real, but the Wyoming Oil Company is not. Nor are any of the characters. Although it isn’t specifically cited, the most-likely basis for the film’s story were the Osage Indian murders of the 1920s, which occurred in Oklahoma. Oil was discovered on Osage land in 1897, leading to a boom in the Osage economy that saw many Indians suddenly becoming wealthy. This led to an influx of fortune seeking interlopers.

One of these interlopers was a man named William Hale—as nasty a piece of work as this country has ever produced. Hale concocted a plan whereby his nephews would marry local Indian women and then have them killed, thus obtaining the rights to the oil profits. This plan came about thanks to an incredibly racist law that was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1921, whereby the Osage Indians were required to have white guardians take care of their affairs until they demonstrated “competency.” Since this evaluation of competency was left in the hands of the very people who stood to benefit from taking over guardianships, very few people passed the test.

Hale murdered his way into wealth, and when the authorities started to investigate, he resorted to killing potential witnesses against him and even threatening the local law enforcement. It finally took the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation to step in and put an end to his reign of terror. Hale was eventually convicted in 1929, but for only one of the murders. He spent eighteen years in jail before being paroled—less time than some people have spent in jail in Oklahoma for marijuana possession. After the events in Osage County, the law regarding guardianship for the Osage Indians was revised, allowing only full-blood Osage Indians to inherit the mineral rights.

As for the real Wind River Reservation, in 2014, a writer for the New York Times called it the most crime-ridden Indian reservation in America. The article provoked angry responses from the locals, including a well-written response from a local student that the NY Times published.

IMDB page for the film.

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1. Indianerfilm (plural: Indianerfilme): Literally “Indian film.” DEFA preferred this term over “western” for obvious reasons. Most academics avoid the use of the term “western” when writing about these films. I have used both terms interchangeably here. As a genre definition, they are unquestionably westerns, whether DEFA liked to admit or not.

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Whtie Wolves
As discussed in previous articles here, the Western genre, so popular in America, afforded an excellent opportunity for the folks at DEFA to explore the dangers of capitalism without having to shoehorn its politics into an ill-fitting boot. If you ever wanted to see the evils of capitalism at work, you need look no further than the American West, where thousands of people were slaughtered and treated as second-class citizens in the name of “manifest destiny.” Maybe East Germany didn’t have access to many actual Indians, but Hollywood did and that didn’t stop them from hiring the likes of Sal Mineo and Jeff Chandler to play Native Americans. East Germany’s favorite Indian, Gojko Mitić, might have been Serbian, but Hollywood’s favorite, Iron Eyes Cody, was born in Louisiana to Sicilian parents.

White Wolves (Weiße Wölfe) was the fourth DEFA Indianerfilm. It was a sequel to The Falcon’s Trail, and featured many of the same cast members including Holger Mahlich playing the upstanding Pat Patterson, Barbara Brylska as Catherine Emerson, Pat’s love interest, Helmut Schreiber as the Indian-friendly merchant Sam Blake, Fred Delmare as Sam’s pal, Rolf Hoppe as the evil James Bashan, and, of course, Gojko Mitić as the Indian leader Farsighted Falcon.

The story picks up a three years after The Falcon’s Trail, and chronicles an actual event: The massacre of Indians at Fort Robinson on January 22, 1879. The Indians have been driven from their land, and shipped off to a reservation in Oklahoma in 1877. Then in 1878, Little Wolf and 200 other Indians escaped the reservation in a bid to return to Montana. Some of them were captured, and the results were catastrophic. When they attempted to escape, the soldiers opened fire, killing men, women, and children indiscriminately.

Weisse Wölfe

The event was also featured in John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn. It is interesting to look at these films and compare how differently they approach the event. In White Wolves the Indians are simply victims, trying to escape the fort rather than get shipped back to Oklahoma. In Cheyenne Autumn, Ford, who had a long history of slandering the Indians, chooses to focus more on the things the Indians did to spark the event. He doesn’t exactly condone what happened, but he tries to understand it, in much the same way conservatives tried to understand why American police officers so often shoot unarmed black men.

When reports reached the East Coast that the Indians had been denied food while imprisoned at Fort Robinson and placed in buildings without heat in fifteen below temperatures, the public attitude toward the treatment of the Indians began to change. Editorials questioned the actions of the troops, and a congressional committee was created to investigate the matter. Eventually the escaping Indians were allowed to stay on their home turf—as close to a happy ending as the Indians could hope for during this era.

White Wolves starts with Farsighted Falcon and a few friends trying to find a place to live, after evading the troops trying to ship them off to Oklahoma. After Falcon’s wife is killed by Bashaan, Falcon goes on the warpath. As in The Falcon’s Trail, the bad guys are the agents of a mining corporation that uses its power and finesse to stack the local authorities against true justice. The attack on American-style capitalism is not subtle, but it isn’t inaccurate either.

wolves8

White Wolves was filmed as a joint production between DEFA and the Yugoslavian production company, Bosna Film. The film’s star is Yugoslavian, but that would have been true in any case, by the time this film was made, the Yugoslavian actor Gojko Mitić had already become DEFA’s number one Indian. Mitić got his start as a stuntman and bit-part player in the West German productions of Karl May’s novels. These films all starred the American muscleman Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand, and french actor Pierre Brice and Winnetou. Beginning with The Sons of Great Bear, Mitić left behind the small roles in West German productions in favor of starring roles on the other side of the Wall. White Wolves was his fourth East German Indianerfilm. He would go on to appear in nine more Westerns in the GDR, along with other films of every sort. Mitić has continued working after the Wall came down, returning to the stories of Karl May as Winnetou—May’s most popular character—in a series of TV movies. Mitic continues to get plenty of television work in Germany. He even played himself in an episode on SOKO Leipzig titled “Der Fall Gojko Mitic” (The Gojko Mitic Case).

White Wolves was co-directed by Konrad Petzold and Boška Bošković. Petzold took a very workmanlike approach to filmmaking. After this film, he went on to become one of the main directors of Indianerfilme at DEFA. Less information is available on Boška Bošković. It doesn’t help that he shares his name with a Slovenian soccer player. White Wolves appears to be the last film he directed. Prior to this, he had directed several shorts and two features for Lovcen Film, a Yugoslavian film company that mostly specialized in short films. He co-directed the DEFA film, Mörder auf Urlaub (The Criminal on Vacation) with Egon Günther, and received an award nomination at the 1961 Moscow International Film Festival for his film adaptation of Đorđa Lebovića’s play, Nebeski odred (Suicide Squad). Bošković died in 2003 in Belgrade, Serbia.

Indianderfilm

Character Actor Rolf Hoppe really steals the show in this film as the utterly unscrupulous James Bashaan. Hoppe has played a wide variety of roles in lifetime, from a rabbi (Go for Zucker!) to a king (Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella), but it is his performances as bad guys for which he is best remembered. He is best-known to western audiences as the evil Nazi prime minister (based on Hermann Goering) in István Szabó’s Mephisto. Hoppe is one of the few actors who suffered no decline in work after the Wende, perhaps because, thanks to Mephisto, he was already well-known in the West. Since the fall of the Wall, he has appeared in dozens of films and television shows. These days he usually plays more avuncular characters than he did in his younger days.

Like The Falcon’s Trail before it, White Wolves more strongly resembles the American-style Westerns than most of the other DEFA Indianerfilme. It includes all the elements we have come to expect in a traditional Hollywood Western (cowboys and Indians, gunfights, old locomotives, expansive landscapes), but with the perspective turned on its head. It is also grimmer than the average western, bringing it closer to the Spaghetti Westerns of the late sixties, in particular, Segio Corbucci’s The Great Silence—the grimmest western ever made (and the main inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight). It isn’t as grim as that film, but it isn’t exactly uplifting. This is probably the main reason the film didn’t do as well at the box office as The Falcon’s Trail, but it is still a must-see for fans of the Western genre and anyone interested in East German cinema.

IMDB page for the film.

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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.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (included as part of the DDR-Krimis set).