Archive for the ‘Kurt Maetzig’ Category

Das Lied der Matrosen
The Sailors’ Song (Das Lied der Matrosen) is a dramatic retelling of the Kiel Mutiny, a revolt by sailors in 1918. The event helped end World War I, virutually ended the reign of Wilhelm II, and—at least in this DEFA account of the story—sowed the seeds for the establishment of the Germany Communist Party (KPD). The film starts in the Fall of 1917 with the execution of Max Reichpietsch and Albin Köbis, two sailors who led a revolt aboard the SMS Prinzregent Luitpold, protesting bad conditions and lousy food. Max and Albin were labeled “Marxist agitators” and sentenced to be shot by a firing squad. When sailors refused to shoot two of their own, the convicted men are transported to Cologne, where they are executed by soldiers instead. By this point, the Germans had lost the war, but they weren’t ready to admit it. The treatment of the sailors aboard the battleships remained bad, and by September of 1918, things had reached a boiling point. When the admiralty tried to implement a suicide attack against the Royal Navy, the sailors of the SMS Frederick the Great and others finally declare they’ve had enough and marched on the naval headquarters in Kiel.

The film is set up in dramatic fashion, with heroes who support the Russian revolution trying to end the imperial oppression in Germany; and bad guys fighting for their beloved German Empire. In the middle is Jupp, a sailor who is recruited by the Navy to spy on his shipmates. At first, he is on the side of the military, but eventually comes to understand the viewpoints of his fellow sailors. Things come to a head after Jupp sees his mother shot during a protest march. It’s stirring stuff that even critics of the film’s politics had to admit was powerfully handled.

Determined to finish the film in time for the Kiel mutiny’s 40th anniversary, DEFA hired two directors to make the movie: Kurt Maetzig and Günter Reisch. Both Maetzig and Reisch believed in the ideals of the GDR, and both were superb craftsmen. Beyond that, their styles are as different as chalk and cheese. Reportedly Maetzig handled the scenes with the military officers and admirals in this film, while Reisch shot the scenes involving the sailors. It doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does.

Das Lied der Matrosen

The main heroes of the film are Henne Lobke and August Lenz, played by Ulrich Thein and Raimund Schelcher respectively. Ulrich Thein, a man of immense talent, was a West German by birth, but moved to the GDR to work at the famous Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Later on, he’d start directing as well (for more on Thein, see Anton the Magician). Craggy-faced Raimund Schelcher was one of the best actors in East Germany, but his drinking caused enough problems with productions that it became the stuff of legends. Born in German East Africa, Schelcher came to Germany after German East Africa was divvied up by the Treaty of Versailles He started working at various theaters in Germany during the Weimar years, and was arrested by the Gestapo and put into one of the probation battalions—Hitler’s weird policy of putting convicted criminals into their own battalions (for more on Schelcher, see Castles and Cottages).

The main villain of the movie is the naval officer Eberhard Schuckert, who is played with gusto by Ekkehard Schall. Schall is best known for his work with Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel at the Berliner Ensemble. He was mentored by Brecht and became keeper of the flame along with Weigel after the playwright’s death. Like Weigel, Schall saw Brecht’s work as set in stone and resisted any attempts to modify the performances with modern interpretations. He even married Brecht’s daughter Barbara. On film, he is best remembered for his role as a juvenile delinquent in Berlin–Schönhauser Corner, and the bizarre “Chief” in Gottfried Kolditz’s In the Dust of the Stars. Not surprisingly, Schall was considered a master interpreter of Brecht, and continued to perform the playwright’s works throughout his life. He was also one of the speakers at the Alexanderplatz demonstration a few days before the Wall was opened, supporting socialism, but calling for changes. After the Wende, Schall restricted his performances almost exclusively to theater, appearing in only one film (Der Auftrag). He died in 2005.

The Sailors' Song

The morally conflicted Jupp is portrayed by Stefan Lisewski in his first feature film. Handsome and gaunt, Lisewski appeared as a leading man in such films as Love’s Confusion, May Wine (Maibowle), The Story of a Murder, and Approach Alpha 1 (Anflug Alpha 1). Like Eberhard Schuckert, Lisewski is strongly associated with the plays of Bertolt Brecht. He is reported to have played Mack the Knife no less than 500 times. During the seventies, and after the Wende, he concentrated more on theater than film. He died in Berlin in 2016.

You wouldn’t be out of order to call Kurt Maetzig the father of East German cinema. He was there on November 22, 1945 at the Hotel Adlon, helping to form the Filmaktiv, a group designed to revitalize filmmaking in Germany, and from which DEFA eventually sprang. When DEFA was officially launched the following May, he was put in charge of the group that made Der Augenzeuge (The Eyewitness) films—short newsreels that screened before the main movies. Although he retired from filmmaking in 1976, he outlasted DEFA by many years. In fact, he outlasted almost everybody, finally dying in 2012 at the age of 101. Maetzig’s films are often the ones that are held up as examples by those wishing to portray the films from East Germany as exercises in Soviet propaganda. Some of his films, especially his earlier films, wear their politics on their sleeves. His style borrowed heavily from documentary filmmaking, but he never forgot the importance of the human story in his films.

Reisch came to DEFA a few years later and soon started working with Maetzig as an assistant director. You can see his work in Council of the Gods and the Ernst Thälmann films. He got his first chance to direct with Young Vegetables (Junges Gemüse) and then in Track in the Night. He is also responsible for the most high concept pair of films to come out of DEFA: A Lively Christmas Eve and Like Father, Like Son. Both featuring essentially the same actors in the same parts, filmed twenty-five years apart.

protest scene from Das Lied der Matrosen

The protest march at the end is spectacular, involving 15,000 extras. Today it would be done with CGI. How the director managed to keep track of Ulrich Thein in that crowd is beyond me. It’s a masterful piece of controlled crowd filming. Whether this was Maetzig of Reisch, I can’t say (all signs point to Reisch), but it’s a stunning example of directing.

If you are new to the films of East Germany, The Sailor’s Song is probably not the place to start. It very much fits the mold of what most Westerners think East German films are like. It is didactic and filled with the socialist heroics. That’s not to say it’s a bad film; it’s an amazing film. Just don’t assume that it represents the average East German film. That would be like using Strategic Air Command as a representative example of Hollywood movies.

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Don’t Forget, My Little Traudel
Don’t Forget My Little Traudel (Vergesst mir meine Traudel nicht1) is the story of Gertraud (“Traudel”) Gerber, A 17-year-old whose mother died in the Ravensbrück concentration camp eleven years earlier. Since then Traudel has been living as an orphan but still carries around a last letter from her mother, which ends with the sentiment that serves as the title for this movie. The story starts when Traudel escapes from the orphanage and heads for the big city—Berlin, in other words.

Up until this point, the films of Kurt Maetzig had been serious affairs, often focusing on the socialist values that spawned the DDR, but sometimes too didactic for their own good. In this film, he turns away from all that. This is not to say the principles of good socialism aren’t discussed here, but they don’t dictate the story in the same way that they have in most of Maetzig’s previous films. This time he goes for comedy, sometimes rather broadly, and even manages to throw in a parody of Marilyn Monroe’s famous skirt-lifting scene in The Seven Year Itch, when Traudel gets her fancy new shoes stuck in a ventilation grate.

Tradel skirt-lifting scene

After escaping from an orphanage in a remarkably risky-looking escape scene (filmed in one continuous shot, lest there be any doubt that the lead actress actually performed the stunt), Traudel is nearly run over by Wolfgang, a high-strung teacher on a motorcycle. She follows him to Berlin and settles in with him and his roommate, Hannes, a who also happens to be a policeman. After Hannes unwittingly helps Traudel get new identity papers, he finds out who she really is, but by then is in too deep.

Traudel is a bit of train wreck. After years in the orphanage, the world offers too many temptations for the young woman who is apparently lacking a common sense gene. With nothing to hold her back, Traudel goes from one messy situation to another. Hannes does his best to try and keep her below the radar, but that’s not Traudel’s style. This is a comedy, so, of course, everything gets happily resolved in the end.

Playing the impetuous Traudel is Eva-Maria Hagen. Prior to working on this film Hagen had been acting on stage with the Berliner Ensemble. In 1954, she married the screenwriter Hans Oliva-Hagen, best known for his work on Carbide and Sorrel. Together they had one child—Catharina, better known as Nina Hagen. Eva-Maria Hagen jumped right into starring roles in her first year working for DEFA. Although Don’t Forget My Little Traudel was the first film she worked on, it was released a couple weeks after Spur in die Nacht (Trace in the Night). Hagen was an immediate hit with the public and her sexy good-looks led her to become known as the “East German Brigitte Bardot.” Although dark-haired in reality, she often appeared as a blonde in films.

Vergeßt mir meine Traudel nicht

In 1965, she met the singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann, and the two became an item. By this time, the SED (East Germany’s ruling party) was getting fed up with Biermann’s attacks on their failure to live up to Marxist ideals. After the 11th Plenum, he was denounced for criticizing the SED, and was banned from performing. Later, after the ban was lifted, he was allowed to travel and perform in the West (he was a West German by birth), but it was really a tactic to get him out of the country. After his expatriation, Hagen and her daughter applied for, and received permission to join him in the West.

As was usually the case, Hagen found it difficult at first to get a foothold in the West German film community, but was soon appearing in movies and TV shows, usually in the roles of mothers now. More recently she can be seen playing the role of the grandmother in Cate Shortland’s Lore.

Hannes is played by Horst Kube, who usually played supporting roles. His roommate Wolfgang is played by Günther Haack, who probably would have had a bigger career in East Germany had he not been sentenced to prison for drunk driving and fleeing the scene of an accident the year after this movie was released. He did manage to rebuild his career, but then died as the result of a another traffic accident in 1965 (this time, as a passenger). There are some other fun performances in this film, particularly from Fred Delmare who plays a slimy hipster that engages Traudel in what can only be described as a Judo Apache dance, and Erna Sellmer playing the nosy Frau Palotta in her last East German role. If you look fast, you’ll also spot Manfred Krug playing a hipster at the nightclub.

nightclub scene with Fred Delmare

The screenplay was by Kurt Barthel, using his usual pen name, KuBa. Best known as a poet, this wasn’t his first foray into films. He had co-written the screenplays for Familie Benthin (The Benthin Family), Hexen (Witches), and Cottages and Castles. KuBa got his start writing poetry for Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the German Communist Party’s official newspaper. KuBa’s poetry usually lauded the glories of communism, sometimes tot he point of parody. He is most well-known for his Kantate auf Stalin, a virtual love letter to Stalin (see The Story of a Young Couple). He also wrote a poem castigating the workers who protested duing the workers strikes on June 17th, 1953. Yet even he came under criticism for Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly), which he co-wrote with Christa and Gerhard Wolf—a testament to the sheer lunacy of the 11th Plenum. KuBa died during a performance of Revolution Revue in Frankfurt. Revolution Revue included his 50 Red Carnations piece. KuBa was there by invitation of the August-Bebel-Gesellschaft, a society devoted to the historical preservation of the events surrounding the Eisenacher Congress of 1869 and the development of the Social Democratic Labor Party (see The Invincibles). Things were going fine until members of the Socialist German Student Union decided to stand up and protest KuBa’s work as not being communist enough. As it was phrased in a scathing attack on KuBa in Der Spiegel the following week: “…That of all people the West Germans didn’t find the revolutionary red’s lyrics red enough was too much for KuBa restless struggling heart.” He died on the way to the hospital.

Don’t Forget My Little Traudel was a huge hit with the public. As to be expected, there was some criticism for the authorities, in particular Anton Ackermann, who was the head of the film administration for the Ministry of Culture at the time. Ackermann objected to the Catholic boarding school and the fact that Traudel wore a cross. Maetzig easily countered these objections by pointing out that, in fact, neither of these was in the film. It’s probable that Ackermann didn’t even bother to watch the movie, and got his information from the original working script. In defense of Ackermann, the only reason he was put in charge of the film board was because Walter Ulbricht saw him as a potential political threat in nearly any other position.

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1. This first word in this film’s title is usually rendered as “Vergeßt.” with the eszett (that funny ‘B’-looking thing). However, the title card for the movie spells it “Vergesst,” so I am using that.

Die Buntkarierten

In the years after World War II, there was a lot of soul-searching in East German films. At first, this took the form of the Rubble Films, which used the destruction of Germany as a metaphor for the German soul—blown to pieces and ready for reconstruction. Rubble Films usually focused on a few people and took place over relatively short spans of time. At a certain point, the films moved away from this introspection, and started to look at the bigger picture in an attempt to answer the question: How did we get to this point? Films such as Rotation, The Kaiser’s Lackey, and The Council of the Gods take a broader perspective on German history, involve several people and groups, and cover many years. Girls in Gingham (Die Buntkarierten) is one of these films.1 It starts during the Wilhelmina period at the end of the nineteenth century, and ends right after World War II. It is based on a radio play by Berta Waterstradt, and its intro keeps the radio practice of introducing the characters by name along with the names of the actors playing them.

The story follows Guste, the illegitimate daughter of a maid who dies in childbirth. Guste is a headstrong young girl who has no intention of following in her mother’s footsteps, but history is stronger than will. Guste grows up, becomes a maid herself, marries, has two children, and suffers through two world wars. Along the way, observations are made on the inherently evil nature of a society where 1% of the population controls nearly all the wealth, and the way corporations use wars as an excuse to make money.

girls in gingham

Girls in Gingham was the second feature film directed by Kurt Maetzig, one of the most well-respected directors in East Germany, and no stranger to this blog. He directed such classic DEFA films as The Council of the Gods, The Silent Star, and the banned masterpiece, The Rabbit is Me. Mr. Maetzig, along with Gerhard Lamprecht , Peter Pewas, Wolfgang Staudte and others, was one of the filmmakers who helped found DEFA.

Reportedly, Mr. Maetzig’s decision to make Girls in Gingham was based on Bertholt Brecht’s criticism of Maetzig’s first film, Marriage in the Shadows. Never mind that it remains one of the most successful movies DEFA ever released, Brecht found the film kitschy. Girls in Gingham was Mr. Maetzig’s attempt to make a film more in line with Brecht’s aesthetics. One can see hints of Mother Courage in Guste’s character, but Mr. Maetzig has more faith in personal heroism than the cynical Brecht, which is probably why he was tapped to make the Ernst Thälmann films.

In 1976, Mr. Maetzig retired from filmmaking, but maintained a lively presence in the film community and was always there to offer advice younger filmmakers and impart his extensive knowledge of the history of DEFA. He died in 2012 at the age of 101 and is buried in the Dorotheenstädtischen Cemetery in Berlin.

Camilla Spira

Guste is played by Camilla Spira in a tour de force role that sees her go from a bright-eyed young woman to a war-weary old lady. Acting was in the blood for Ms. Spira. Both her parents, Fritz and Lotte, were successful actors on stage and screen, so it seemed natural for her to follow in their footsteps. She got her start in silent films during the Weimar Republic, only to see her career cut short by the Nazis. Unfortunately, the fact that her father was Jewish got in the way. Fritz and Camilla were send off to concentration camps, where Fritz Spira died in 1943. Camilla’s mother, who was not Jewish, divorced Fritz in 1934 under pressure from the Nazis. This allowed her to continued to acting in films, but after 29 years of marriage, the cost was too high. She died shortly after hearing about her ex-husband’s death.

Girls in Gingham was Camilla Spira’s first feature film appearance after the war, and she won the East German National Prize for her performance. She appeared in a few more DEFA films, but started working in West Germany in the early fifties. Among the West German films she appeared in were: Des Teufels General (The Devil’s General), Emil und die Detektive, and Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (Roses for the Prosecutor)—one of the few West German films to address the issue of lingering Nazism in West Germany, albeit in a comedic fashion. Her sister, Steffie Spira, stayed in East Germany and continued to appear in films until after the Wende. Camilla Spira died in 1997.

Considering how important it is to this film, it is remarkable that no credit is given for the make-up artist. Most DEFA movies at the time listed this information. Given the film’s production year, it is possible that the make-up artist was one of the technicians that went to West Germany to work. West Germany had just declared itself an independent state and was starting to wriggle out from under the anti-film-production policies of the United States Millitary authority (OMGUS). Directors, actors, and cinematographers who had previously been able to find work only in East Germany were now getting jobs in the BRD. In a year or two, the GDR would officially take a stand against this and stop using West German technicians, but this was a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has run off. A technician that made it public ally known that they were switching to western productions might well have found their name stricken from the credits on a DEFA film. If that is the case, my money would be on Jette Arlt, who did the make-up for Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows, but started working in the west in 1950. This is pure speculation, however. Whoever it was, they did a remarkable job of aging Camilla Spira and Werner Hinz and deserve more credit (and if anyone had more information on this mystery, please let me know in the comments).

Girls in Gingham was a hit both in East and West Germany and is one of the all-time, top-selling DEFA films. It’s anti-capitalist sentiments might have rankled the authorities in West Germany, but it still resonated with those who lived though the war. More importantly, it didn’t blame the people for Hitler’s actions, placing most of the blame, instead, on the Krupp family, which built a 400-year dynasty by providing armaments for all the major wars in Europe. This is a theme we’ve seen often in East German films from this period, where the primary blame for WWII is placed at the feet of corporations such as Standard Oil, Krupp, and IG Farben (see also, Council of the Gods).

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1. Due to an error made somewhere along the line in translation, you will often see this film listed under the title The Beaverskin. This weird error probably got it’s start with the English subtitles on the German DVD. There is a DEFA film titled The Beaverskin (in German: Der Biberpelz) that came out the same year as Girls in Gingham, and perhaps that has something to to do with the error. This mistake is so prevalent that even Wikipedia repeated it (although hopefully by the time you read this, I, or someone else, will have fixed that). Such is the power of the Internet.

The Story of a Young Couple

If I were going to show somebody their first East German film, it would not be this one. One common misconception among Americans—and all westerners, for that matter—is that East German films are nothing but propaganda, intended to promote the state and nothing more. The misconception doesn’t come from any knowledge of the subject, or even selected examples. It’s more a case of formless and gormless prejudices thoroughly drummed into our brains during the Cold War. The Story of a Young Couple, however, would do nothing to disabuse people of this notion. It really is propaganda. It wears its politics on its sleeve, and its politics are those of Stalin. He is championed as a hero throughout this film, and his portrait hangs in public places. It is one of the sad legacies of East Germany that the leaders hitched their wagons to Stalin’s star instead of returning to the ideals of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. It was certainly inevitable, considering the Soviet Union’s part in the foundation of the GDR—a link going all the way back to Ernst Thälmann—but it meant that future failure was already in the cards before the ink was dry on the country’s constitution.

The film follows the story of Agnes Sailer and Jochen Karsten, two young actors who become involved the theater scene that springs up in Berlin after WWII. They are surrounded by idealistic people who see theater as a way to promote anti-fascist sentiments and ensure that nothing like the Third Reich ever happens again in Germany. Funding their efforts is Dr. Ulrich Plisch, an old-school capitalist who has less interest in politics than doing whatever’s profitable. Surrounding them are other actors and directors who run the political gamut from devoted socialists to amoral golddiggers. As the gulf between east and west becomes wider, Agnes and Jochen find themselves on opposite sides of the chasm. Agnes, a committed socialist, would rather starve than take a part in a play or film she found morally reprehensible, while Jochen starts letting his policies take a backseat to a steady paycheck.

The Story of a Young Couple was made in 1951, and came out in January of the following year. Up until this time there was a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your outlook) infusion of West German filmmakers into the film studios at Babelsberg. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, most of that influx came from the fact that the U.S. military authorities did everything they could to discourage German film production. After West Germany became a sovereign state in May of 1949, the shackles on West German film production were removed and West Germans no longer needed to migrate eastward to make their movies. This made any West German directors who did go to DEFA immediately suspect. The Cold War had heated up and it wasn’t uncommon for the intelligence agencies from both sides of the border to use agents and sympathizers to commit acts of sabotage to erode the other country’s infrastructure. This was a prominent plot point in Castles and Cottages, and was also part of the justification for the building of the Berlin Wall (see Look at This City!).

By 1951, companies such as Real-Film, CCC-Film, and, Constantin-Film were in full swing and West German filmmakers were no longer welcomed with open arms into the DEFA ranks, but rather, were viewed with suspicion. Once the cross-pollination between east and west was effectively stemmed, both sides started to polarize. In the United States, movie such as The Red Menace, I Was Communist for the F.B.I., and Pickup on South Street were effectively pushing the notion that communist agents were everywhere. In East Germany, it meant more films directly attacking the United States, or, more accurately, the large corporations that controlled the U.S. governments agendas (and still do, truth be told).

To its credit, one rarely saw the level of viciousness exhibited in DEFA films that one saw in the Red Scare films from Hollywood, but the role of film as a tool for teaching socialistic values became as important as its entertainment value. Thus began one of the duller periods of filmmaking in the GDR. In charge of DEFA during these doldrums was Hans Rodenberg a talented theater director and occasional actor, but also a hardcore Stalinist. How much input Rodenberg had into this stricter approach is hard to say, but he was a loyal party man, and certainly did nothing to rock the boat. The Story of Young Couple was made before Mr. Rodenberg became the general director at DEFA—and, in fact, features a brief performance by him as the American film director shooting an anti-communist film in West Berlin—but this film is a sign of things to come.

The Story of a Young Couple wasn’t the first DEFA film to promote a socialist agenda, but it was the most strident about it. At least until the Ernst Thälmann films, made a few years later (also directed by Kurt Maetzig). The low point comes when Agnes recites an ode to the newly named Stalinallee and the gloriousness of Stalin by the East German poet, KuBa (Kurt Barthel)—a cinematic moment that would assign the film to the closet after Khrushchev’s 1956 speech, “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” in which Khrushchev denounced Stalin.

At times, the attacks on the west in this film resemble the he said/she said nature of a divorce dispute. In one scene a sad-looking girls choir is forced to perform because they’ve been tricked by West Berlin agents into coming to the west, only to find it wasn’t what they expected. At this time, western media were accusing “East German spies” of kidnapping people off the streets of Berlin and taking them back to the GDR. There are plenty of verified cases of people in West Berlin unwittingly going to the east, only to find themselves arrested and imprisoned—primarily by the Russians (for more on this, see Ursula Rumin’s story in Destinies of Women)—but the idea of people hopping out of cars and dragging people off to the other side of the border was more urban myth than reality, and is used here to take a poke fun at Hollywood’s propaganda machine.

Reportedly, The Story of a Young Couple was made as a response to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, Les Mains sales (Dirty Hands).1 Sartre was a Marxist, and had even defended Stalin from time to time, but he had little use for the political repression being carried out in the name of communism. As far as he could tell, it was the situation of “meet the new boss; same as the old boss,” Les Mains sales was his response. Fellow Marxists were not happy with Sartre. In East Germany, it hit a little too close to home. In the film, the play is mentioned by name and attacked by Agnes after she is given a copy to see about performing in it.

One of the more entertaining aspects of this film is that it is a roman à clef (or film à clef if you prefer). Many of the characters in the film are based on real people and are only thinly disguised. According to the German Wikipedia page for this movie, Möbius is based on Wolfgang Langhoff, and Burmeister is based on Boleslaw Barlog. From what I know of these men, I suspect that this is exactly backwards. Like Barlog, Möbius is a wild-haired theater director, while Burmeister, like Langhoff, is clean-cut and shows more support for the GDR. The thinnest disguise of all is that of the Nazi-sympathizing director Hartmann, who is unmistakably Veit Harlan—the man who directed Kolberg and Jud Süß. Although they changed the name of the director, they discuss his films under their actual titles. Alwin Lippisch’s performance as Hartmann is a wicked parody of Harlan, who never did acknowledge any culpability for what happened in Germany during the Third Reich, and was later allowed to start making films again in West Germany (for more on Veit Harlan, see Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss).

What elevates The Story of a Young Couple above mere propaganda is the skill of its director, Kurt Maetzig. Maetzig was born with film in his blood. Maetzig’s father ran a company that made copies of films, and young Kurt would hang around and learn everything he could about the technical side of film production and development. Later, he studied chemistry and engineering at the Technical University of Munich, where he graduated with a doctorate degree with a dissertation titled “Das Rechnungswesen einer Film-Kopieranstalt” (“Accountancy of a film printing lab”). After college, returned to his father’s company for more hands-on work in the film industry. While there, he began making his own short films, cartoons, and movie title sequences.

As mentioned in the article on Marriage in the Shadows, Kurt Maetzig’s mother was Jewish, which made Maetzig an undesirable person. During the war, he joined the KPD (the German Communist Party), which, at that point, was essentially an underground organization. After the war, Mr. Maetzig saw an opportunity to rebuild the German film industry and return it to its pre-Hitler glory. He met with a group of like-minded filmmakers—including Boleslaw Barlog—at the Adlon Hotel and founded Filmaktiv, which spawned DEFA.

Maetzig was still a young director at this point. In The Story of a Young Couple, we see him experimenting with different techniques of editing, frame composition, camera angles, and the use of music. It doesn’t hurt that his cinematographer here is Karl Plintzner. Plintzner would go on to become the absolute master of vivid Agfacolor/Orwocolor films (see The Golden Goose), but here he shows that the he is no slouch when it comes to black-and-white filming either.

Yvonne Merin

Playing the noble and unwavering Agnes Sailer, is Yvonne Merin, a striking actress who might have been one of the leading lights at DEFA, had she the stomach for it. At the time of this movie, she was married to Kurt Maetzig. She was discovered by Gerald Lamprecht and cast to star in Quartett zu fünft (From Quartet to Five). She caught the eye of Kurt Maetzig, who immediately cast her in his next two films, Girls in Gingham and The Council of the Gods. They were soon married, but by the time they made The Story of a Young Couple, the marriage was ending. Like the couple in the film, they were going in different directions. Ms. Merin was finding that acting wasn’t really her passion, and Mr. Maetzig already knew that filmmaking was his. They divorced and Ms. Merin dropped out of the film community, appearing only occasionally in films (she appeared briefly as the “lady with the dog” in A Lively Christmas Eve). She continued to work in theater, but found that her interesting in acting wasn’t as intense as the fire one needed to do a good job. She became an apprentice gardener at the Karl Foerster Garden in the Bornum borough of Potsdam. Although she continued to garden, the job paid poorly and she returned to DEFA as a dramaturge and occasional scriptwriter—primarily for educational films. It was during this time that she met Armin Georgi, a script editor at DEFA and also directed short films and documentaries for them. They were married and stayed married until her death in 2012. Kurt Maetzig died a month later.

You may recognize Willy A. Kleinau, who plays the opportunistic Dr. Plisch. He is one of the more memorable characters in The Council of the Gods. In that he played Mr. Lawson, the representative from Standard Oil who helps the Nazis fund their war effort. Mr. Kleinau seems custom-made to play capitalist pigs and he does it well. He manages to make Mr. Pitsch simultaneously reprehensible and likable, which is no small feat. He appeared in both West German and East German films, right up until his death in a car accident in 1957.

As one might expect, The Story of a Young Couple was thoroughly drubbed by the western press when it came out, but East German critics found it a bit too much to take. Like the overwrought dramatic style of the silent era, or the garish fashions off the seventies, this film’s main value today is as an historical document and a kitschy eyewitness to a different time. It is a testament to Maetzig’s talent as a director that it is still enjoyable and engaging almost sixty-five years later.

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1. Die anderen deutsch-französischen Beziehungen. Die DDR und Frankreich 1949 – 1990, Ulrich Pfeil, Böhlau, January 2004.

The Blum Affair

The Blum Affair is based on a famous court case that took place in Germany during the Weimar Republic years. After the Second World War, people realized that this case presaged the rise of the Nazis in ominous ways. The actual events took place in the Magdeburg area in 1925, and involved a prominent Jewish businessman named Rudolf Haas. Haas was arrested for the murder of an accountant named Helling who had worked for Haas. After Haas fired Helling, the accountant reportedly claimed that he had proof Haas was cooking his books. For the investigating judge, Johannes Kölling, that was proof enough that Haas was the man responsible for Helling’s death—that, and the fact that Haas was Jewish.

Even after an independent investigator found Helling’s body buried in the basement of the residence of a young, right-winged ne’er-do-well named Richard Schröder, Justice Kölling continue to pursue Haas as the murderer. Eventually the district president, Otto Hörsing, stepped in the put an end to Kölling’s kangaroo court antics. But Hörsing was a left-wing politician and Kölling was from the far right—the perfect storm as far as the newspapers were concerned—and the whole affair turned into a national debate on the culpability of the Jews and the socialists for the economic problems the Weimar Republic was facing. Eventually, over Kölling’s protests, the charges against Haas were dropped and Schröder was found guilty of the murder.

The names have been changed for the movie, but not much else. Most of the important particulars of the story are presented as they occurred in the actual case. Blum is portrayed as innocent of any financial shenanigans, which was an unusual stance for a DEFA film. Normally, rich industrialists are portrayed as the bad guys. Doing so in this case, however, would have only obfuscated the already complicated story. The Blum Affair was met with critical praise on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It was nominated as best foreign film by the New York Film Critics (it came in second behind Vittorio De Sica’s classic The Bicycle Thief).

As with many early DEFA films, such as Heart of Stone, Razzia, and Kein Platz für Liebe (No Place for Love), this film was directed by a West German. Often this pairing produced a film that—while made by DEFA—did not have the look and feel of a DEFA product. If anything, they usually ended up looking like the UFA films during the Third Reich. Unlike most West German directors, however, Erich Engel was not working at DEFA out of necessity. He considered himself “Marxist to the core” and was a long-time friend of Bertolt Brecht’s. Furthermore, unlike most of the other films made by West Germans for DEFA, this film feels like a DEFA film (a subjective call, I admit).

Before becoming a film director, Engel worked in theater as everything from a stagehand to the dramaturg. In 1924, he started working with Brecht. His direction of Threepenny Opera in 1928 was met with rave reviews and Engel became known as the foremost interpreter of Brecht’s work in Germany. Although he did work on films during the twenties—mostly notably on comedian Karl Valentin’s Mysterien eines Frisiersalons (The Mysteries of a Hairdresser’s Shop), which he co-directed with Brecht—his career as a filmmaker began in earnest in 1931 with Wer nimmt die Liebe ernst… (Who Takes Love Seriously?). During the Nazi regime, Engel managed to keep out of trouble in spite of his politics by concentrating on light comedies, occasionally slipping in anti-fascist messages below the radar when he could.

After the war, Engel continued his work in the theater with Brecht and started making films for DEFA—still the only game in town at that point. During the early fifties, after the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) was dismantled and West Germany got back into the moviemaking business, Engel started working primarily in the west, churning out light comedies like the ones he made for the Nazis. He returned to East Germany in 1958 to make Geschwader Fledermaus (Bat Squadron), one of the few films at the time to cast a critical eye at France’s colonial war in Vietnam.1 It was his last film. He retired from filmmaking at that point, but continued to work in theater. He died in 1966 and is buried in the Dorotheenstädtischer Cemetery, not far from his friend, Bertolt Brecht.

Most of the cast of The Blum Affair hails from the west. Some of them, Such as Paul Bildt and Arno Paulsen, starred in several DEFA films, but by the mid-fifties were working exclusively in West Germany. The Blum Affair was the first film for Hans Christian Blech, who played the reprehensible Karlheinz Gabler (the Richard Schröder character). Mr. Blech went on to a highly successful career in West Germany. He was one of the “go-to” guys when Hollywood needed and evil Nazi, but he also played a concentration camp victim in Armand Gatti’s L’enclos (Enclosure) and a resistance fighter in Morituri. He died in 1993 in Munich.

Blech and Trowe

Playing Gabler’s long-suffering girlfriend, Christina, is Gisela Trowe. Ms. Trowe had a banner year in 1948, appearing in four films, three for DEFA and one for the short-lived Camera-Filmproduktion. She was the daughter-in-law of Erich Engel, but if her casting here was nepotistic, it’s a moot point—her performance is very good, and is, in some respects, the most important one in the film. Ms. Trowe appeared in several movies on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the fifties. Once she decided to settle in the west, her roles were restricted primarily to television. With her sultry voice, she became one of the leading voice actors in Germany, often dubbing the voices for sexy women such as Melina Mercouri, Gina Lollobrigida, Rita Hayworth, and Simone Signoret.

The Blum Affair is based on a book by Robert A. Stemmle, who also wrote the screenplay. Having grown up in Magdeburg, the Haas case probably had special meaning to Stemmle. By 1948, when The Blum Affair was released, Stemmle was a successful film director in his own right. He made several movies for UFA during the Third Reich years, including Jungens (Boys)—one of the so-called Vorbehaltsfilme, (films banned in Germany from regular public screenings due to pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic content). In spite of this, he did not receive the level of criticism that befell Leni Riefenstahl and Veit Harlan. He wrote two screenplays for Engel—The Blum Affair and Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat)—but he did not stay in the east. In 1952, he wrote and directed Toxi, the first film to address the problem of mixed-race orphans in post-war Germany. During the fifties and sixties, he became well-known for his adaptations of Edgar Wallace and Karl May stories. He died of a heart attack in 1974,

The film ends on an ominous and unsettled note. Blum’s wife remarks that justice prevailed because, after all, they lived in Germany, which was a law-abiding country. Blum looks less sure of this. In fact, after the Nazi takeover of Germany, Haas and his wife committed suicide, while the offending judge, Johannes Kölling, was praised as a pioneer of National Socialism and rose rapidly through the ranks. Otto Hörsing, the district president who saw that justice was served, was stripped of his pension and died penniless.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.


1. Some others from this period include Jump into Hell, China Gate, Five Gates to Hell, and Shock Patrol (Patrouille de Choc), but these are all told from the perspective of the colonialist invaders.

The Central Committee of the SED

The Central Committee of the SED of the GDR

NOTE: Readers of this blog may have noticed how often the term “11th Plenum” crops up in these film reviews. Although I define the term in the glossary, a quick definition can only scratch the surface. For those who want to learn more, I offer this article. It’s more of a history lesson than a film essay, so readers, whose interest in such things is limited, can safely skip this article and simply take it on face value that the 11th Plenum was a bad, bad thing.

There are moments in the history of any country that stand out as turning points, for better or worse, during which times a country, its politics, and its people are all changed irrevocably, and every action taken after that point is measured by the event. Revolutions and attacks are the obvious examples, but some important events take place behind closed doors in meeting rooms and auditoriums. Some attacks occur without a single shot being fired. Well chosen words can do as much damage as a billyclubs and bullets.

In the history of the German Democratic Republic, a few events stand out: the founding of the GDR, the July 17th revolts, the building and destruction of the Berlin Wall, and the 11th Plenum are milestones in the story of East Germany. For the people in the film industry, it was the last event that was the most important. Only the creation of DEFA was more important to the story of filmmaking in the GDR. The 11th Plenum changed everything, and it is often cited as the death knell for creativity in East German films. This isn’t true by a long shot, but it did constitute a major blow to the country’s artistic community, and changed the way the creative community interacted with and responded to the government for the rest of the country’s brief existence.

Ironically, the 11th Plenum—or, the 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, as its official title translates into English—was never meant to be a referendum on the arts in the German Democratic Republic. It was supposed to be about the country’s economic recovery plan, but unexpected events, coupled with an unwillingness to address the real problems the country was facing, threw a spanner in the works. To understand exactly what happened, we have to go back a few years.

Immediately after WWII, it was apparent that the socialist model was working better than the capitalist one in Germany. The Allied sectors of Germany were struggling to get back on their feet while the Soviet Sector was going strong—and this in spite of the fact that the USSR was still busy pilfering the East German resources for its own needs. During the forties, it wasn’t uncommon for people to cross the border to get work in the GDR because the West still had nothing to offer. Some of this was by design. The Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) was in no hurry for Germany to get back on its feet. Prior to the Marshall Plan, OMGUS was working off JCS 1067, a renamed version of the infamous Morgenthau Plan that was designed to drag Germany back to the eighteenth century. Fortunately for West Germany, America’s fear of communism was greater than its fear of Nazis. At the start of the fifties, when it looked like East Germany was in danger of winning the hearts and minds of the German people, OMGUS backed away from Morgenthau’s anti-industrial foolishness and started promoting economic growth in the Bundesrepublik.

Americans blamed for potato bug invasion

Propaganda booklet claiming the potato beetle invasion was an American plot. (See http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/amikafer.htm)

What happened next was the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle), during which time West Germany’s economy grew so fast that they had to import workers from other countries to keep up with production.1 Suddenly the East German economy started looking anemic. This was compounded by agricultural problems in the form of an invasion of potato bugs that the authorities were quick to blame on the United States. The West German government, under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer, along with West German mayor, Willy Brandt, decided to push things to the limit by introducing the West D-Mark in West Berlin, A move that severely unbalanced the economies between the two halves of the city and started the events that led to the building of the Berlin Wall (for more on this, see Look At This City!).

One of the claims made by the East German authorities after the building of the wall was that by restricting the ability of the west to disrupt East German society, the artistic community would have greater freedom to be creative. To demonstrate this, the movie technicians at DEFA were given greater freedom to push the boundaries of style and content.2 What followed was a burst of imaginative filmmaking. New camera techniques were used and stories became visually and structurally more experimental and interesting. From 1962 to 1966, East German filmmakers made some of the best films to come out of Germany since the Weimar days.

The wall was intended to eliminate the inequities between east and west. But the East German economy continued to deteriorate, Stalin’s Five Year Plan model wasn’t working any better in East Germany that it had in Russia, and the West was making political hay of it. In the USSR, Khrushchev decided to move away from Stalin’s centralized model to a more localized one. A decision that was met with a great deal of grumbling from the hard-liners in the politburo. East Germany’s General Secretary Walter Ulbricht decided to follow Khrushchev’s lead.

Starting in 1963, General Secretary Walter Ulbricht, economic advisor Wolfgang Berger, and Planning Commissioner Erich Apel, came up with the New Economic System (initially dubbed Neuen Ökonomischen System der Planung und Leitung (NÖSPL) , but later shortened to Neues Ökonomisches System (NÖS)). It was a good plan, and history shows that it might have worked, but Ulbricht didn’t count on the conservative groundswell that was rising in the upper echelons of the USSR. Some Russian politicians—particularly the head of the Supreme Soviet, Leonid Brezhnev—felt that Khrushchev was moving their country away from the government’s core principles. While Khrushchev was on vacation in 1964, Brezhnev made his move and Khrushchev returned to Russia to find himself out of a job.

East German Power Play

This left Ulbricht in a sticky position. He had hitched his wagon to Khrushchev’s star, but suddenly that star had fallen from the heavens. To make matters worse, Brezhnev did not like Ulbricht. He felt that the East German leader had been given far too much slack in his dealings with the USSR and had put that country in some awkward situations. The NÖS may have been working, but Brezhnev made it clear that the Soviets did not support it. Ulbricht was hanging on to his job by a thread at this point.

By the time the 11th Plenum was scheduled to take place, no one in the SED’s Central Committee wanted to touch the subject of economic reforms. Never mind that this was the reason for the meeting in the first place. Less than two weeks before he was scheduled to present his report on the NÖS at the 11th Plenum, Erich Apel committed suicide. Suddenly the NÖS wasn’t just a touchy subject, it was toxic. Like all politicians, when they are afraid of addressing real issues, they turned their criticism to the entertainment industry instead. Films were getting too liberal, they complained. Why, some were downright anti-socialist! Presented with this safe target, the pols went to town. They started seeing threats to their way of life behind every movie, and the blossoming film movement in East Germany—which up to that point was making the cinema of West Germany look downright anemic—was nipped in the bud.

Amazingly, the film that was held up as the prime example of this trend was The Rabbit is Me, a film with as strong a socialist pedigree as anyone could ask for. Its director, after all, was Kurt Maetzig—one of the people responsible for the founding of DEFA and the man who gave us The Council of the Gods, the Ernst Thalmann films, and Das Lied der Matrosen (The Song of the Sailors). Accusing Maetzig of being anti-socialist was a bit like accusing Che Guevara of being a capitalist. It was stunning in its absurdity and a horrible warning sign that the SED had lost its bearings. Nonetheless, The Rabbit is Me became the poster child for the films banned by the SED. Thereafter, the films banned during the 11th Plenum became known as “Rabbit Films” (Kannichenfilme). Other names for these films include Kellarfilme (Cellar Films) and Giftschrankfilme (Poison Cabinet Films).

Eleven features films were banned in the wake of the 11th Plenum. Some of these, such as The Rabbit is Me and Trace of Stones, were finished films that had screenings in cinemas, while others, such as Fräulein Schmetterling (Mademoiselle Butterfly) and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam) were scuttled while still in production. Also added to the Giftschrank was Egon Schlegel’s student film, Ritter des Regens (Knights of the Rain). Two more projects were shut down before any filming began—Die Beteiligten (The Parties Involved) and Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality), both of which were later made into movies by DEFA.

The Rabbit is Me

A scene from Kurt Maetzig’s The Rabbit is Me.

Most of the films on the list were banned for promoting viewpoints that the SED considered contrary to the socialist perspective, but some films were banned for no better reason that that were frivolous. Producers, dramaturges, directors and technicians who were seen as the major “disruptive” forces at DEFA were either sent to work in television, or banned from films entirely. Günter Ost, one of the most talented and imaginative cameramen DEFA ever produced, never made another movie after the Plenum. Egon Schlegel, who was about to start a promising career as a feature film director was forced to spend the next few years working behind the scenes, eventually making a name for himself as a director children’s films (see The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs). Günter Stahnke never made another feature film, but spent the rest of his career making movies for television; a slightly ironic development considering that he first got in trouble with the authorities for a short television film titled Monolog für einen Taxifahrer (Monologue for a Taxi Driver). Some people, such as screenwriter Ulrich Plenzdorf and director Frank Beyer, eventually got back in DEFA’s good graces, but were walking on eggshells for the rest of their careers. Others, such as Jürgen Böttcher (Born in ’45), were never given the opportunity to make another feature film, relegated, instead, to the world of documentary shorts.

Eventually, the writers and filmmakers recovered, and started pushing the boundaries again, but there was always a sense of foreboding afterwards. In 1968, things appeared to be loosening up slightly. Egon Günther’s imaginative Abschied (Farewell) made it into theaters, although, just barely, and the unabashedly frivolous Hot Summer was big hit in the fall of 1968 (although it did include a message of the importance of comradeship under its beach antics).

Hot Summer

A scene from Joachim Hasler’s Hot Summer.

Then, in 1971, that sword of Damocles that had been hanging over Ulbricht’s head finally fell. Ulbricht was ousted from power and replaced with Erich Honecker, a conservative East German politician who had been in charge of the building of the Berlin Wall. Ironically, the hardline Honecker was the one who loosened thing up again for the DEFA filmmakers, declaring that “as long as a film proceeds from the strong position of socialism,” anything goes (actual quote: “Wenn man von den festen Positionen des Sozialismus ausgeht, kann es meines Erachtens auf dem Gebiet von Kunst und Literatur keine Tabus geben.”). Films became more imaginative and adventurous, but the spectre of the 11th Plenum never completely went away. Occasionally films were still banned, but the state never repeated the wholesale shelving of films that occurred after the 11th Plenum. Filmmakers became more wary of what the state censors might do and were often guilty of pre-emptively censoring their own ideas (Egon Günther notwithstanding, who managed to keep pricking the sensibilities of East German blue-stockings right up until the end).

Looking back on the event from an historical perspective, the 11th Plenum seems like the point at which the soul of the GDR died. Up until that point, even the most controversial decisions, such as the building of the wall or the use of the Soviet army to put down the June 17th revolts, could be argued as harsh but necessary moves to give socialist state’s a chance to reach its full potential. With the 11th Plenum, those dreams were dashed. The state went from its infancy to sclerosis in one fell swoop. Even after Honecker softened up the restrictions, and started to recognize the need to incorporate consumer requirements into the socialist model, this didn’t change. He was still part of the problem. The GDR was a young and growing country run by a rapidly aging panel of fossils. No new blood was being incorporated into the upper ranks, and the old men running the country had no concept of what was going on in the world around them.

For many of the films banned as a consequence of the 11th Plenum, their first screenings didn’t occur until the 1990 series at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Some, such as Fräulein Schmetterling and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam, had to be constructed from the unedited reels that were still on the shelves at DEFA headquarters in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

IMDB pages for the films banned by the 11th Plenum:
The Rabbit is Me
Spring Takes Time
Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry
Berlin Around the Corner
When You Grow Up, Dear Adam
Mademoiselle Butterfly
Trace of Stones
The Lost Angel
Karla
Born in ‘45
Hands Up or I’ll Shoot!

Where to buy (films listed with English names are available with English subtitles):
The Rabbit is Me
Spring Takes Time
Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry
Berlin Around the Corner
When You Grow Up, Dear Adam
Fräulein Schmetterling: Not currently available
Trace of Stones
The Lost Angel
Karla
Born in ‘45
Hände hoch oder ich schieße

Further reading:
DEFA: East German Cinema 1946-1992 [Paperback]
John Sandfordand Seán Allan (Editors)

East German Cinema: DEFA and Film History [Paperback]
Sebastian Heiduschke (Available October 2113)

Spur der Filme. Zeitzeugen über die DEFA [Paperback – in German]
Ingrid Possand and Peter Warnecke

Das zweite Leben der Filmstadt Babelsberg. DEFA- Spielfilme 1946 – 1992 [Hardcover – in German]
Christiane Mückenberger and Ralf Schenk

Special thanks to Seán Allan, Barton Byg, and Sebastian Heiduschke for their help with this blog post.
Archive photos are from Das Bundesarchive.


1. These were the famous Gastarbeiter that you’ll hear some Germans (mostly racist Germans) complain about even today. The idea was for these workers to come and work for a few years and then leave—only many didn’t leave, which is the reason you’ll find such strong foreign communities (especially Turkish, but not exclusively) living in Germany today. The GDR instituted a similar program for communist countries, such as Vietnam and Mozambique.

2. This is not to say that there were no longer restrictions. Konrad Petzold and Egon Günther managed to get in hot water with their film Das Kleid (The Dress), an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Castles and Cottage

Castles and Cottages (Schlösser und Katen) is three-and-a-half hour, two-part film that covers the events in a small Mecklenburg village from the end of WWII to the protests on June 17th in 1953. It could be considered an epic if the details of the story weren’t kept so localized and the scale so small. The first part begins at the moment the war ends and the villagers hear that the Russians are coming. After the rich landowners flee to the west, the locals wrestle with their ideological differences in an attempt to perfect a socialist model that will give everyone in town an equal voice. To its credit, the film does not sugarcoat the process and shows good and bad people on both sides of the argument, and the difficulties encountered during the transition.

The second part covers the months prior to the June 17th uprising. June 17th, 1953 stands as one of the most important dates in the history of East Germany; second only to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The country was a little over three-and-a-half years old in June of 1953, and the early promise of a utopian socialism was rapidly eroding in the face of human nature, crop failures, subversive activities, and Ulbricht’s slavish and ill-advised adherence to Stalin’s ruthless version of communism. When construction workers in East Berlin went on strike on June 16th to protest Ulbricht’s announcement that they must work twice as hard for half as much, the U.S.-founded West German radio station RIAS made the story their major news point, which helped inflame the situation across the GDR. Strikes and protests sprang up all over the country. In some places, the protests turned particularly nasty. In Rathenow, a Stasi official was hanged. Elsewhere, police stations, newspaper offices and radio stations were taken over by protesters. In his book, Wir waren die bessere Republik, Jürgen Fischer reports that in Magdeburg a policewoman was stripped almost naked and forced to lead the protesters’ train.

The situation was resolved with brute force when the Soviets arrived to remind everyone that they still held all the cards. Soviet and East German documents from that time now show us that the use of force was mostly Ulbricht’s idea, and the country would pay for this decision for the rest of its existence. It never fully recovered from the event, and it marked the end of the idea that workers had in power in East Germany. It also cemented the SED’s dependence on the Soviet Union for muscle; a dependence that would spell their downfall when Gorbachev cut those apron strings for good.

In spite of the failure of the strikes and protests, West German authorities treated the events of June 17th as an ideological victory. They would point to the use of force as proof that the only way the GDR could continue to exist was under bootheel of the Soviet Union. They would name a section of Unter den LindenStraße des 17. Juni” in honor of the day’s events and make the day a national holiday, calling it the “Day of German Unity” (now celebrated, more honestly, on October 3rd).

As one might imagine, the East German authorities saw the events of the day in a very different light, and it is in this light that Castles and Cottages is cast. From their perspective, the uprising was an attempt by outside forces to destroy the government; the crop failures were the result of intentionally poisoned grain shipments and sabotage, and the protests were led by agents provocateurs. The film also suggests that the events of the day helped weed out the intentionally subversive elements in East German society, leading to a more unified country.

The pivotal character in the film is Annagret, an idealistic young woman who is unaware that she is the daughter of the local aristocrat Graf von Holzendorf. A hunchbacked handyman called “Crooked Anton” (Krummer Anton) has pretended to be Annagret’s father for the sake of von Holzendorf’s reputation. Much of the film’s plot centers around a paper that proves Annagret’s birthright, and the value of the paper to different factions. The main villain of the piece is Bröker, von Holzendorf’s duplicitous overseer. Bröker pretends to side with the villagers, but is always looking out for his own interests. While the Von Holzendorf family may represent the plutocracy, Bröker represents the forces of destruction bent on tearing down the socialist system.

The film’s director, Kurt Maetzig, is no stranger to this blog. He had already made Marriage in the Shadows, Council of the Gods, and the Ernst Thälmann films when he took on this project. He was easily the most respected filmmaker in East Germany in 1957, which probably explains why he was able to give this film a more evenhanded approach than the Ernst Thälmann films. Maetzig’s allegiance is firmly in the socialist camp, but he does a good job here of fleshing out the viewpoints of the anti-socialist camp. Even those who are in favor of socialism are able to recognize the problems that they face. “Under capitalism I had no land. Under socialism, I have no time,” one character says.

The initial screenplay was by Kurt Barthel, an East German writer and playwright who often worked under the pseudonym, “KuBa.” Barthel was fighting for socialist causes from an early age. Before the war, he wrote for Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the communist newspaper founded by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. After the Nazis came to power, he fled to England where he joined the nascent Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth), a group that would take on an important role in the German Democratic Republic. He worked with Krista Wolf on the screenplays for Divided Heaven and Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly), which was banned while still in production as a result of the 11th Plenum.

From 1956 until his death, Barthel was the chief dramaturge at the Rostock People’s Theatre. As a lifelong supporter of communist causes, it is ironic that he died of a heart attack in Frankfurt, West Germany’s center of capitalism, during a touring performance of a revolutionary revue when the local SDS members rioted because they didn’t find revolutionary enough. He is buried in Rostock.

Playing the complicated character of Crooked Anton is the intense-looking Raimund Schelcher. Schelcher was born in 1910 in Dar es Salaam to German parents. He started his acting career on stage during the Weimar years and gained a name for himself as a talented stage performer. In 1938, he made his film debut in Veit Harlan’s The Immortal Heart (Das unsterbliche Herz), he made one more film before he was arrested for his outspoken views on National Socialism. From jail, he was conscripted into one of the Nazi’s infamous Bewährungsbataillonen (Parole Battalions) that were created when the German started losing too many men to the Eastern Front. Schelcher was captured by the Russians and spent the rest of the war in prison. Afterward, he moved to Bremen, where he returned to stage acting. In 1950, he moved to East Berlin to work at the renowned Deutsches Theater Berlin. From there, he started working for DEFA, appearing in several classic East German films, including, The Axe of Wandsbek, The Kaiser’s Lackey, and Berlin – Schönhauser Corner.

Schelcher was an excellent actor, but he had one small problem: he liked the bottle a little too much. Worried that this might affect his ability to perform in the film, Maetzig took the unusual step of filming his scenes twice. First with Schelcher, and then with his understudy, Hans Hardt-Hardtloff. Schelcher managed to make it through the film, and it is his version that was released. The incident was used to comic effect by Andreas Dressen in his movie, Whisky with Vodka (Whisky mit Wodka). As he got older, the drinking became more of a problem and Schelcher’s appearances in films got fewer and further between. He died in Berlin in 1972.

Playing the young and idealistic Annagret is the lovely Karla Runkehl. She first caught people’s attention playing the committed freedom fighter Änne Harms in the Ernst Thälmann films. Over the years, she appeared in over thirty films as well as several television shows, but it is her early appearances in films such as this one and the Thälmann films for which she is best remembered. Ms. Runkehl died in 1986 at the age of 56 and is buried in Kleinmachnow cemetery.

The villainous Bröker is played by Erwin Geschonneck, who, like Maetzig is regular in the pages of this blog. Over his long career in East Germany, Geschonneck proved he could play virtually any type of role, from the lovable nebbish in Carbide and Sorrel to the brave battalion leader in Five Cartridges. In Castles and Cottages, Geschonneck plays one of his least sympathetic characters. Even in The Axe of Wandsbeck, his portrayal of the avaricious butcher Albert Teetjen is not with pathos. But here his character is without almost any redeeming qualities. He represents the subversive element that was left in the Soviet sector after the war, constantly undermining the efforts to create a sustainable socialist democracy. [Note: for more on Erwin Geschonneck, see Carbide and Sorrel.]

The film score was composed by Wilhelm Neef. Like that other popular film composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse, Neef was a classically trained musician and it shows. The score is classical and beautiful. As an orchestral piece, it could stand on its own in any concert hall in the world and deserves more attention from the music community. Neef wrote dozens of films scores and is best known for his work on the Indianerfilme. During the seventies, he stopped writing film scores so that he could concentrate on his classical music career. He died in 1990 at the age of 74 in Potsdam.

Castles and Cottages is a unique film. It is usually shown in two parts with separate viewings. Each part tells a complete enough story to stand on its own. Its East German perspective on the June 17th uprising is reason enough for anyone interested in German history to give this film a look.

IMDB page for this film

Buy this film.