Archive for the ‘Kurt Maetzig’ Category

A few years stand out in East German history. 1961, when the wall was built, and 1989, when the wall fell, are the most obvious examples, but coming in a close third is 1965. This was year of the 11th Plenum of the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or SED), East Germany’s ruling party. What had started as an economic summit, suddenly turned into a cultural purge, relegating some of the best films that DEFA had to offer to the vaults, and pushing some filmmakers and writers away from their chosen professions.

After the wall went up, East Germany was faced with a dilemma. The economy was stagnating, the Five Year Plan model wasn’t working, and the West was making political hay of it. General Secretary Walter Ulbricht decided to follow Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev’s lead and move the GDR away from the centralized communism of Stalin to a more localized model. Starting in 1963, 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 he was on vacation in 1964, Brezhnev made his move and Khrushchev returned to Russia to find himself out of a job. This left Ulbricht in a sticky position. He had hitched his star to Khrushchev’s, but suddenly that star had fallen from the heavens. The NÖS was successful, but it rubbed a lot of people at the top the wrong way, and the new powers in Russia didn’t like it at all.

By the time the 11th Plenum was scheduled to take place, it was clear to almost everyone that the NÖS was a non-starter. Less than two weeks before he was scheduled to present his work on the NÖS at the 11th Plenum, Erich Apel, one of the plan’s chief architects, committed suicide. Suddenly the NÖS wasn’t just disliked, it was too hot to handle. No one wanted to bring it up at the meeting, so—like U.S. politicians, when they are afraid of addressing real issues—they turned instead to the entertainment industry. Films were getting too liberal, they complained. Why, some were downright anti-socialist.

Twelve films were banned at the 11th Plenum, none was more notorious than The Rabbit is Me (Das Kaninchen bin ich), directed by Kurt Maetzig. The Rabbit is Me is based on Maria Morzeck oder Das Kaninchen bin ich, a book by Manfred Bieler that was already banned when Maetzig decided to make the movie. It is a first person account of Maria, a young woman whose brother is sent to prison for breaking the GDR civil agitation laws (staatsgefährdender Hetze). Maria is never entirely clear as to what her brother did. Quite coincidentally, a man she meets at the opera turns out to be Paul Deiter, the judge who sentenced her brother. While pursuing the release of her brother, she falls in love with the judge (who is married) and soon becomes his mistress. Through her eyes we see that the judge is as bourgeois and status-oriented as his western counterparts. Worse, he is so dogmatic in his approach to the law that he can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong. Bieler had intended his book to be a warning to the GDR, but the warning came too late. The book was promptly banned. It is one of life’s mysteries how the film ever got made at all.

In the film, Maria is played by the beautiful Angelika Waller in her first starring role. She brings just the right mixture of innocence and sexuality to the part. Paul Deiter is played by Alfred Müller, who had already made a splash in For Eyes Only—a popular East German spy thriller. Although other people come in and out of the story, everything revolves around these two. Since the story is told from the narrated perspective of Maria, Ms. Waller does most of the heavy lifting here, but she is helped admirably by cinematographer Erich Gusko’s moody gray camerawork  and director Kurt Maetzig nearly flawless mise en scène.

The Rabbit is Me opened in October, two months before the SED’s general assembly, but it was quickly pulled from theaters. Reportedly the government sent people to these screenings to boo and hiss and give the appearance that the audience was displeased with the film. It was held up as a prime example of what the conservatives felt was wrong with modern cinema. For this reason, films banned for their socio-political content were referred to derisively as “Rabbit Films” (Kanninchenfilme).* The film was shelved until 1990, when it, along with several other banned films, was screened in Berlin.

Although The Rabbit is Me was the flash-point for the cultural purge, its director, Kurt Maetzig, managed to avoid the penalties that some of his comrades experienced. This was partly due to his public “apology,” in which he accepted the blame for the sins of The Rabbit is Me without ever actually saying that he shouldn’t have made the movie; but it was also, no doubt, due to his status as a filmmaker. He was, after all, the man who made the Ernst Thälmann films, which were by then being shown regularly in classrooms all over the country (Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the German Communist party during the pre-WWII years, was a folk hero in East Germany akin to George Washington here. He was surreptitiously executed by Hitler who claimed that allied bombers were responsible for his death). Their participation in The Rabbit is Me apparently had no ill effects on the rest of the cast either. They all went on to make many more movies in the east, with the exception of Manfred Bieler, the author of the screenplay and the original book. Bieler moved to Czechoslovakia shortly after the SED’s decision, and then, after the Warsaw Pact invasion, fled to West Germany.

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*Horst Sindermann, the man responsible for coining the term Kanninchenfilme is the same man who christened the Berlin Wall: “antifaschistischer Schutzwall” (anti-fascist protective wall).

The only East German film to receive wide circulation in the US during the early sixties is a science fiction film titled The Silent Star (Der schweigende Stern). It is based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, The Astronauts, and was the first science fiction film to be made at the DEFA studios as a co-production with Zespoły Filmowe. The Silent Star tells the story of a multi-national team of astronauts that goes to Venus to investigate the possible existence of intelligent life there. [Note: this was before later space probes proved that Venus is actually an extremely inhospitable environment for nearly any form of life, except for some sulphuric acid-loving microbes.]

The film was picked up by Crown International Pictures (CIP), a company that specialized in cheaply-made exploitation films for the American drive-in market. Like that other drive-in movie distributor, American International Pictures, Crown International often supplemented their catalog of low-budget, American-made movies with heavily-edited foreign films. CIP bought the distribution rights to The Silent Star, dubbed it (badly), and chopped fifteen minutes out of it, rendering the already complicated story nearly incomprehensible. They then released it under the title, First Spaceship on Venus. Small wonder, then, that it ended up as a target for ridicule by the snarky film mockers at Mystery Science Theater 3000. In spite of the poor dubbing, choppy editing, and relegation to the grindhouse circuit, the movie still made a strong impression on those of us who saw it in 1962 (in my case, at the Lyric Theatre in Tucson, Arizona).

On of the most memorable things about the movie—at least to kids—is Omega (pronounced “OH-mee-ga”), a tiny tank-like robot that may well have served as the inspiration for R2D2. Radio-controlled devices were still fairly new at the time. The Nazis had used radio-controlled rockets and bombs during WWII, but these were heavy devices with large batteries and vacuum tubes. The advent of transistors made it possible to include these controls in smaller, lighter devices, leading to the model airplane craze of the late fifties. When the film first played in East Germany, Omega must have seemed like a pretty impressive piece of technology. By the time the film made it to the United States most people were familiar with radio-controlled toys, but that didn’t make Omega any less endearing.

The Silent Star starts with the discovery of a mysterious spool found in the Gobi Desert. It is made from an unknown substance and a group of scientists from around the world is brought together to examine it. The scientists discover that the source of the spool is Venus. They build a rocketship to go to Venus and investigate. On board the ship are an American nuclear physicist, a German pilot, a Polish chief engineer, a female Japanese doctor, a Soviet astronaut (the term cosmonaut had not been coined when Lem wrote his book), an Indian mathematician, a Chinese linguist, and an African technician. What they find is a civilization that accidentally destroyed itself while building a weapon intended to destroy our planet. The crew—as least the ones that survive—come back to Earth and convince everyone on this planet should live in harmony. The film ends with all the different crews holding hands. All that’s missing is Kumbaya.

It is worth noting that while people give Star Trek credit for using a multi-ethnic cast at a time when TV in American was almost exclusively the domain of white males, The Silent Star had done this six years earlier. More importantly, the film played in the United States in late 1962, shortly before Gene Roddenberry started working on the Star Trek pilot. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but the film did receive wide distribution, and was seen by many fans of science fiction.

Stanislaw Lem was never very happy with either his book or the movie. It was his first book, and he felt he was forced to bend some of the ideas to fit a specifically communist perspective. This is truer still of the movie, but the proselytizing is mild compared to many other films of the time (both east and west). It is no small irony that this tale of brotherly love and international friendship was made a year before the wall was built, sealing off East Berlin from the west for the next twenty-eight years.

The technical crew for this film consisted of the best that DEFA had to offer. The special effects supervisor was Ernst Kunstmann, who had done special effects for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The cinematographer was Joachim Hasler, who would later go on to become a successful director in his own right, mostly famously for the East German “Beach Party” movie, Hot Summer. And the editing was by Lena Neumann, who had gotten her start as an editor during the Third Reich and was, at that point, the most experienced editor in East Germany,

The director, Kurt Maetzig, had already made a name for himself with films such as Council of the Gods, Marriage in the Shadows, Die Buntkarierten, and the Ernst Thälmann films. At that point, he was the most respected filmmaker in East Germany. Maetzig got his start as a film technician during the Third Reich, but lost his work privileges after the Nuremberg Laws were enacted (his mother was Jewish). During WWII, he joined the banned Communist Party, and didn’t return to Berlin until after the war. In October of 1945, he co-founded Filmaktiv—a group dedicated to reinventing and reviving the German film industry. This eventually led to the founding of DEFA. Maetzig retired from filmmaking in 1976. He turned 100 in January of 2011.

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