Archive for the ‘Love’ Category

Ete und Ali
Ete and Ali (Ete und Ali) is essentially a road movie, with one important difference: no one actually goes anywhere. The film follows the misadventures of the two men named in the title. Having just finished their military service, neither is sure what to do next. Bernhard—”Ete” to his friends—is a little guy. He is the more sensitive of the two, but lacks self confidence. Ali is a big lummox—the classic bull in a china shop, whose ideas are usually badly planned and ill-advised. Ali doesn’t want to go home, so he decides to tag along with Ete. Ete, who is married, isn’t sure he wants to go home either. His wife is seeing someone else and wants a divorce. Ali decides to help his old Army buddy win back Marita’s affections, but Ali’s ideas for doing so are pretty bad. Pretty soon an interesting and complicated triangle develops between Ete, Ali, and Marita.

The film that immediately comes to mind is Dino Risi’s wonderful Il Sorpasso, in which milquetoast Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) learns to enjoy life thanks to carefree Bruno (Vittorio Gassman), but at a heavy price. Normally this type of story would unfold as the two characters travel across the country, but aside from some train travel at the beginning, and a truck at the end, all the action in Ete and Ali takes place in one town. Thanks to the Cold War, East Germany offered fewer opportunities for travel than those of us in the West. East Germans could visits other Eastern Bloc countries, but even here your travel papers had to be in order before proceeding. A privileged few got to visit Cuba, although the politicos in the GDR would never use the word “privileged.” At the beginning of the film, it looks like two men might actually go to Prague, but one of them remembers that they don’t have the proper papers, so they remain in Ete’s home town for the rest of the film. So much for the road trip.

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Ete and Ali are played by Jörg Schüttauf and Thomas Putensen respectively. Both actors continued to stay busy after the Wende. Schüttauf went on to appear in several popular television shows, including Der Fahnder (The Detective) and Tatort (Crime Scene). Putensen has done fewer films. An accomplished pianist and singer, he has spent more time since the Wende singing than acting. He showed up playing Holger in Andreas Dresen’s delightful Whisky mit Wodka (Whiskey with Vodka). More recently he performed a humorous musical revue titled “Schlimme Lieder aus der DDR” (“Bad songs from the GDR”), a combination of well-known East German songs and jazzy send-ups.

Playing the sensual and difficult Marita is Daniela Hoffmann. Born in 1963, Hoffmann appeared in several movies and televisions shows in the GDR before the Wall came down. She is a talented comedic actress, with a distinctive voice that has led to several jobs dubbing the voices for Hollywood films, most notably the voice of Julia Roberts in nearly every German dub of her films since 1990.

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Ete and Ali is directed by Peter Kahane, and it is his first feature film. Kahane was a member of the Nachwuchsgeneration (baby boomers, basically)—the last generation of East German filmmakers. By 1985, DEFA was facing the same problem that faced the East German and Soviet governments: The people in charge were getting old…really old. At 73, Erich Honecker was one of the younger leaders in the Eastern Bloc, and Poland’s Wojciech Jaruzelski, at 62, was practically a child. DEFA and the College of Film and Television in Babelsberg (Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen der DDR) had done a good job of training young, wannabe filmmakers in their craft, but now that they were old enough to take on the job of directing, they found very few opportunities to ply their trade. Many had studied film at the school in Potsdam-Babelsberg, but only a handful of this group got the opportunity to demonstrate their skills. The few that did had barely started their careers when the Wende came along and wiped out all their hard work. The lucky ones managed to make the transition to television, but the West Germans, who now controlled the media, had little interest in the talents of these Ossis, seeing any education they received as little more than communist propaganda. Most West Germans came to the table with such egregious preconceptions about what constituted East German films that any discussion on the value of these films was rendered impossible.1

Like Ete and Ali, Kahane served time in the Nationale Volksarmee (National People’s Army), then studied directing at the Academy for Film and Television (Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen der DDR). For several years after the Wende, Kahane worked in television, turning in several popular children’s films for the small screen. In 2008, he directed the feature film Die rote Zora (Red Zora), based on Kurt Held’s popular children’s book Die rote Zora und ihre Bande (Red Zora and her Gang). He followed this with Meine schöne Nachbarin (My Beautiful Neighbor), which stars Ete’s portrayer, Jörg Schüttauf.

Although Ete and Ali is primarily played for laughs, the laughs are sometimes bittersweet. Unlike most comedies from Hollywood, the story doesn’t resolve itself into a nice pat answer at the end. Things are complicated and life goes on.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.


1. In an interview in the Märkischen Allgemeinen Zeitung newspaper, filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff went so far as to recommend throwing away all the films that came out of DEFA, calling them mediocre. His statement was followed by an open letter from the actors, directors, writers and other film technicians, several of whom had also signed the protest letter to East German government denouncing the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. In a a stubborn denial of facts worthy of Erich Honecker, Schlöndorff continues to defend his blockheaded position.

Fahrschule
Q: Why were there no bank robberies in East Germany?

A: Because you had to wait twelve years for the getaway car.

So goes the joke, poking fun at the rather astounding wait times for purchasing automobiles in the GDR. In East Germany, you basically had two choices when it came to purchasing a car: The Wartburg and the Trabant. The Trabant was the cheaper of the two, and were made in greater quantities. Both cars were pretty awful. The Wartburg had three cylinders to the Trabbi’s two, making it—potentially—the more powerful of the two, but it was also heavier, having a metal body instead of the cotton and resin Duroplast of the Trabants. Both were two-strokes, meaning you had to mix the oil and gas, and the pollution was awful. You could get a car from one of the other Eastern Bloc nations, such as a Lada from Russia or Skoda from Czechoslovakia, but this could take even longer, and was viewed with some derision.1 Making a film that mines the long wait times involved in getting Wartburgs for comedy would have been vetoed by the film review board in earlier times, but things were beginning to loosen up again at DEFA.

Driving School (Fahrschule) is the story of Horst Steinköhler, a die-hard pedestrian who would rather walk where he needs to go than drive a car. Horst’s friend Lothar is getting a divorce. Lothar wants Horst to buy his car from him to help him through the divorce, telling Horst he will buy it back later when he gets back on solid footing. Horst is reluctant, but eventually agrees. Meanwhile, Horst’s wife Gisela has received the news that she is next in line to purchase a new Wartburg. Gisela had put in her name on the waiting list to buy the car when their daughter—now a teenager—was born. Horst and Gisela plan to surprise each other with their purchases. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, they both end up with the same driving instructor. Soon, Horst starts to suspect that something’s going on between Gisela and the driving instructor. Throughout the film we hear the music of Così fan tutte—Mozart’s comic opera on infidelity.

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The film is based on a radio play by Bernd Schirmer. Schirmer did several radio plays along with some legitimate theater in East Germany. From 1969 to 1972, he taught German studies at the University of Algiers. After that, he returned to Germany where he worked as a dramaturge for DFF, the state-owned East German television station. Schirmer continues to write novels, plays, teleplays, and theater pieces.

Coming as it did from a radio play, much of the humor is in the dialog, but director Bernhard Stephan has done a good job of “opening up” the radio play with purely visual humor. Stephan is a part of a group of East German filmmakers commonly referred to as the “Nachwuchsgeneration”—Baby Boomers essentially. This was the first generation that grew up with little or no personal experience of World War II. The country they grew up in was the GDR. Hitler was, as far they were concerned, an aberration of the past. For the most part, they learned their craft at the film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg, and started working for DEFA in intern capacities with the promise of someday getting to make their own films for the production company. There was just one catch: DEFA’s director ranks were already filled with talented directors and new positions rarely opened up.

Born in 1943, Stephan was a little older than most of the other new generation of East German filmmakers, which probably put him in a better position to get started at DEFA than those born a few years later. He had began directing TV shows in 1972, and moved on to films from there. While some of the younger filmmakers found it hard to get traction in reunited Germany, owing to the anti-Ossi prejudice of the West Germans, Stephan did better than most. He hit the ground running with the 1991 ZDF TV-movie Tandem, and went on to direct many television shows, most notably, Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness), which starred Ulrich Mühe (The Lives of Others).

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Horst Steinköhler is played by Jörg Gudzuhn, a slightly nerdy-looking character actor who usually played supporting roles. He primarily worked in television, so the unification of Germany had less impact on his career than those who had been used to starring roles in feature films. He continues to work in television, and was a regular on Bernhard Stephan’s The Last Witness. Gisela is played by the beautiful Hungarian actress Kata Kánya. Kánya starred in several films throughout the seventies. After the fall of communism, Kánya became a became a well-known television personality, and romance counselor. Today in Hungary, she is better known in this capacity than as an actor.

It was difficult to find anything out about Peggy Röder, who played the daughter Carola. She appears to have been a singer, first and foremost. As near as I can tell, this was her only film appearance, but because her last name is often spelled “Roeder” to accommodate systems that can’t handle umlauts, her statistics are included on IMDB under those for the American actress Peggy Roeder. They are not the same person.

Like that other film about vehicles and romance, Beloved White Mouse, Driving School was filmed in and around Dresden. We do get a few shots of Dresden street life, including the Semperoper and downtown areas of the Innere Altstadt. Although it is never stated, Horst appears to work at the German Hygiene Museum (Deutsches Hygiene-Museum) off of Blüherstraße. The film received positive reviews and garnered Jörg Gudzuhn a best leading actor award at the Eberswalde Film Festival.

IMDB page for the film.

The film does not appear to be available on DVD at this time, but you can watch it here.


1. There is even a comedy on this subject—Einfach Blumen aufs Dach (Just Put Flowers on the Roof), which examines of the misadventures a man encounters after he purchases an old Russian limousine.

Love's Confusion
Love’s Confusion (Verwirrung der Liebe) is a 1959 romantic comedy that is similar to the ones being made in Hollywood around the same time. The story centers around Dieter, a medical student at Humboldt University, and his girlfriend, Sonja, an art student at the Berlin-Weißensee Art Academy. The two plan to meet up at a masquerade party, but Dieter repeatedly rejects the advances of Sonja, thinking she’s a stranger, and ends up with Siegi, thinking she’s Sonja. But when everyone removes their masks to reveal their faces, does Dieter apologize for the mistake and look for Sonja? Nope. He invites Siegi over to the bar and chats her up. One can hardly blame him: Siegi is gorgeous. Sonja spots Dieter kissing Siegi, and things go downhill from there.

It is a strange way to begin a romantic comedy. Are we suppose to feel any sympathy for Dieter? Let’s face it: the guy’s a jerk. Herein lies one of the fundamental problems with this story. We’re not really rooting for him to end up with anybody. When we first see Dieter, he is attending a lecture, pretending to pay attention, while secretly slipping his notepad and textbooks into his book bag so that he can get out of the classroom as quickly as possible when the bell rings. Even in this act, he is inept, accidentally dropping his pen case on the floor because he’s not looking where he’s putting things. Right out of the gate he’s set up as a man who doesn’t pay very close attention to details and capable of feigning interest when there’s none there. Just the sort of fellow you want operating on you.

Sonja, on the other hand, comes across as likable, as do Siegi and her friend, Edy. When the various couples eventually align with the people they are “supposed” to marry, we’re left with sadness for the woman who ends up with Dieter. If this is the intent of director Slatan Dudow, it’s the most subtle piece of direction this side of Paper Moon.1 Of course, it was 1959, and cads who find love was the order of the day. In Hollywood, Frank Sinatra and Rock Hudson were making careers out of these types of characters with films such as The Tender Trap, Pal Joey, Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back. The popular message of the time was that even men who are cads can me tamed with the “right” woman. It is a popular fantasy in films, right up there with destiny playing a hand in couples meeting. When you come right down to it, romantic comedies present a world as improbable as Zardoz or The Lobster.

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If this sounds like the kind of story that the SED authorities might have problems with, you’d be right. Some objected to the film’s carefree morality, and its brief moments of nudity—a first for an East German film—while the notorious journalist and TV personality Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler felt that it didn’t do enough to address the issue of class struggle (for more on von Schnitzler, see Look at This City!). The film probably only got made because it’s director, Slatan Dudow, was something of an idol in East Germany, having directed the 1932 film Kuhle Wampe, a film banned by the Nazis for its socialist message (see Destinies of Women). Love’s Confusion would be the last film that Dudow would live to complete. While working on his next film, Christine, Dudow was killed in a car accident.

Much of the action in Love’s Confusion revolves around Sonja, played by Annekathrin Bürger. Bürger is no stranger to this blog, having starred in several East German classics, starting when she was nineteen with A Berlin Romance, and including Star-Crossed Lovers, The Second Track, and Farewell. For most of her career at DEFA, she was married to Rolf Römer, an actor who also directed Hey You! And Hostess, two under-appreciated films that starred Bürger.

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Playing Siegi, Sonja’s rival for Dieter’s affections is eighteen-year-old Angelica Domröse in her first film role. Domröse was working as a typist when she responded to a newspaper advertisement looking for “young, cheerful, pretty girls, aged 16 to 20 years, around 1.60m tall (5’ 2”) for a leading role.” 800 young women applied for the job and it is a testament to Domröse’s beauty and charisma that she won the part. It was exceptionally good casting. Not too many women could compete with Annekathrin Bürger in the looks department, but Domröse does (although Bürger gets a lot more screen time). Domröse would go on to appear in several more films throughout the sixties—most notably, The Story of a Murder—but it was the 1973 film The Legend of Paul and Paula that really brought her to public’s attention. As one of the signatories of the letter protesting the the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, Domröse was denied future film roles, and eventually moved to West Germany.

Included in the cast are several well-known actors in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles who would later go on to become stars in East Germany. Among them, Erik S. Klein, Barbara Dittus, Rolf Römer, Marianne Wünscher, and Arno Wyzniewski. Also in the cast is Dietlind Stahl, sister of Armin Mueller-Stahl.

Art director Oskar Pietsch and costume designer Gerhard Kaddatz had a lot of fun with this movie, particularly in the carnival scenes. He was the logical choice for this job, having created the sets for My Wife Wants to Sing. He probably would have gone onto to create many more great sets for DEFA, but he resided in West Berlin, and the Wall effectively cut him off from that source of income. He art directed a few West German features, but primarily worked in television for Sender Freies Berlin (SFB).

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Like Pietsch, costume designer Gerhard Kaddatz had worked on My Wife Wants to Sing. Unlike Pietsch, Kaddatz lived in East Berlin, and was able to continue his career throughout the sixties and encompasses everything from spy films (For Eyes Only and Frozen Flashes) to fantasy films (Mother Holly and The Flying Dutchman). But it is his work in the fifties that really stands out. Kaddatz had a good eye for fifties fashion, and his costume designs for these movies are worthy of Helen Rose and Edith Head, even if the fabrics are not.

In spite of the misgivings of some SED party members, the film was a hit with the public, and because of it did not wear its socialism on its sleeve, it was easier to sell to West Germany than most other East German films at the time.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film. (Part of a four film set of films starring Angelica Domröse)

The film is also available on Veoh.


1. Peter Bogdanovich, the director of Paper Moon, has said in interviews that he considers the ending of that film a tragedy. Audiences, on the other hand, saw it as a happy reunion.

Winter Adé
The first films made in what would become East Germany after the war (at that point, still the Soviet sector), were short documentary films. Most of these early films were for propaganda purposes, showing how the Soviet Union was helping rebuild Germany after the war. After DEFA was established, documentary films were handled by a specific branch of the production company—the DEFA-Studio für Dokumentarfilme. It was here that Kurt Maetzig started as a director, and where Richard Groschopp returned to the craft. Eventually, the studio for documentary films would start making feature-length documentaries. The most famous, or infamous, as the case may be, is Look at This City!, but there are many more.

Winter Adé gets its title from a popular German children’s song. It means “goodbye winter,” and is a celebration of the coming of spring. Director Helke Misselwitz choice of title was both remarkably prescient and terribly ironic. Less than a year after the release of the film, the Berlin Wall would come down and a year after that Germany would be reunited.

The film uses as its structure, a train trip that covers the length of East Germany from top to bottom. It starts in Planitz, a town just west of Meissen where the filmmaker was born, then begins a train trip from Zwickau, near the Czech border, to Sassnitz, a resort town on the Baltic coast. Along the way, the film crew interviews women and girls about their lives and aspirations. The women come from all walks of life and all ages. Some are eternal optimists, and some have just given up. We meet, among others, a perky ballroom dance instructor in Altenburg, two no-future punky runaways in Berlin, and, in Groß-Fredenwalde, Margarete Busse, an 83-year-old woman celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary who delivers the real stomach punch in the film. Not all the interviews are with women, but all of them are about women or the perception of women in the GDR. Occasionally the camera crew stops to take in the local sights, most notably, a doll hospital in Delitzsch.

Winter Adé

Helke Misselwitz was part of the so-called Nachwuchsgeneration—the baby boomers who were just starting to make films for DEFA before the wall came down. She was working in the documentary film section at DEFA and noticed a lack of women working at DEFA (see All My Girls). This situation that didn’t make sense to her given the GDR’s claims of sexual equality. An equality, they were quick to point out, that did not exist in the West. She decided to make a documentary examining the role of women in East German society. What she found was complex and, at times, contradictory. Not really surprising considering the inherently complex and contradictory nature of the East German state. While some women were working in fields that were previously the exclusive domain of men, many others found themselves stuck in mundane jobs with no realistic hopes or dreams for the future. It must be said, however, that the few men interviewed in the films, also seem to have given up on their dreams. It is a fairly bleak picture of life in the GDR and is filmed, appropriately enough, in black-and-white.

After the Wende, Ms. Misselwitz founded the first privately-owned East German film company. She continued to make many documentaries as well as two feature films—Herzsprung, and the award-winning Englechen (Little Angel). Since 1997 she has taught directing at the “Konrad Wolf” Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

Margarete Busse

Like the film’s director, cinematographer Thomas Plenert works primarily on documentaries. He got his start with Jürgen Böttcher—the director of Born in ‘45—filming several documentary shorts for him. He also worked on three of the DEFA feature films that Lothar Warneke directed (although not on Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens). He first worked with Helke Misselwitz on the documentary, Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann (Who’s Afraid of the Bogeyman), and continued to work with her on several more documentaries as well as her two feature films. He is also the cameraman that documentary filmmaker Volker Koepp most often chooses to shoot his films. Mr. Plenert didn’t experience the transition difficulties that faced many of the other technicians from DEFA. He continued working on documentaries and shot several episodes of popular German television shows, including many episodes of the post-Wende version Polizeiruf 110. In 1996, he won the German Film Award for best cinematography for his work on Volker Koepp’s documentary, Kalte Heimat (Cold Homeland).

Many directors maintain that “editing is everything.” If this is the case, then special credit must be given to Gudrun Steinbrück, who, like her husband, Thomas Plenert, has worked on most of Helke Misselwitz’s films. She also edited Jürgen Böttcher’s Die Mauer (The Wall), a film about the deconstruction of the Berlin Wall that relies almost entirely on its editing to give it its power. With the exceptions of the Helke Misselwitz’s feature films and a few others, she works exclusively in the documentary film realm.

Winter Adé

Winter Adé was well-enough received on both sides of the Wall to give Ms. Misselwitz a more secure position in DEFA’s documentary division. Unfortunately, more secure, in this case, only meant a couple years as DEFA was dismantled shortly after the Wende. On November 9, 1989, Ms. Misselwitz had the rather unique experience—for an East German at that time—of being in America when the wall came down, a situation she recounts in an essay that is included on the DEFA Film Library’s release of Winter Adé, which is also available here.

The film premiered at the 1988 Leipzig International Documentary Film Festival and caused a sensation. During the following year, Leipzig would be home to the Monday Peace Demonstrations, which helped bring down the wall. It is powerful documentary that should be seen by anyone interested in the role of women in society, whether that means the GDR or the USA.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

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

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

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

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

Gevatter Tod

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

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

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

Gevatter Tod

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

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

YouTube link.

Silvesterpunsch
As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the East German government had a rocky relationship with musicals. The inherent frivolity of the genre clashed mightily with the government’s philosophy that every film should promote good socialist values. At the same time, musicals were popular with the public in the fifties on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In 1958, DEFA made its first musical, My Wife Wants to Sing, and the film was temporarily shelved due to its apparent lack of a distinct socialist message. When it was released it was a big hit and helped open the doors to the musical form.

In 1959, The Punch Bowl (Maibowle), a light comedy directed by Günter Reisch, was released. The Punch Bowl follows the adventures and misadventures of the Lehmann family after the family patriarch Wilhelm Lehmann is scheduled to receive a Banner der Arbeit (Banner of Labor) medal for his leadership of the Grünefeld Chemical Plant. Director Reisch was careful to make sure that there was a solid socialist message here. The film was approved and was a hit. So director Reisch decided to up the ante slightly with New Year’s Punch (Silvesterpunsch), a sequel that starts in the same comic vein as the first film, and then turns into a full-on musical.

In structure, it is similar to the films of the musicals of the thirties and forties, where people spend most of the movie planning for a big stage show, which is revealed as the finale. The biggest difference here is that the musical numbers here are aimed at promoting the importance of chemistry to the development of the state. Included in the numbers are an ode to Calcium Carbide and the joys of polymerization. Like modern musicals—but very unlike the Hollywood musicals at the time—the singing never spontaneously erupts with an invisible orchestra. If someone sings, there is a reason, and there are musicians present, no matter how illogical that may be. Most of the singing and dancing is saved for the grand finale, which culminates in the celebration of the New Year Eve (which is called Silvester in German, hence the title).

Silvesterpunsch

Heinz Draehn and Christel Bodenstein reprise their roles from The Punch Bowl as Franz and Suse Lehmann, as do Erich Franz and Erika Dunkelmann as the parents. The other Lehmann children form the first film, and there were several, are replaced this time around by Michel, played by Achim Schmidtchen, an aspiring trumpet player. The story takes place at the Grünefeld Chemical Plant of the first film. The work force is evenly divided between fans of the arts and fans of sports. Since both of things were very important to East German culture, it is important (and inevitable, really) that both of these groups eventually learn to get along.

Christel Bodenstein—a dancer before she became an actor—gets to demonstrate her skills here (although I suspect a double was used for the ice skating scenes). At one point, she dances on a narrow, slightly bouncy tabletop en pointe—something I wouldn’t recommend anyone to attempt. Bodenstein is best known for her part as the selfish princess in The Singing, Ringing Tree, but she appeared in many other popular East German films and television shows. After the Wende, her career on television and films essentially ended. Her role in the Mario Adorf mini-series Die Kaltenbach-Papiere (The Kaltenbach Papers) was her last role in front of a camera. Since then, she has devoted her career to the stage.

Karin und Kristel

New Year’s Punch marks the debut of Karin Schröder. Best known for her role in Beloved White Mouse, which starred East German comedian Rolf Herricht. Schröder appears in New Year’s Punch with dark hair and a short, tomboy haircut, but still looks every bit as adorable as she did in the Rolf Herricht comedy. Schröder was originally trained as a certified stenographer, but director Günter Reisch immediately saw her potential and used her often (for more on Reisch, see A Lively Christmas Eve). She appeared in a number of television shows and movies in East Germany, and continued her career after the Wall came down, Most recently, she appeared as a recurring character in the German TV show, Alles Klara.

The cinematographer for New Year’s Punch was Karl Plintzner, whose color work here and elsewhere rivals the work of the great Leon Shamroy. Plintzner got his start as an assistant cameraman shortly before the beginning of WWII. After the war he joined DEFA as a cinematographer, working first on Wolfgang Staudte’s The Adventures of Fridolin (Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B.), and then on Erich Engel’s The Blum Affair. Plintzner showed a special knack for color right off the bat with his work on the Ernst Thälmann films, but it was The Singing, Ringing Tree where he really got to let loose with colors so vivid they’ll make your eyes bleed. For health reasons, he retired in 1965. He died on December 7, 1975 in East Berlin.

Silvesterpunsch

The music for New Year’s Punch was composed by Helmut Nier. Nier was the founder of the Association of Composers and Musicologist in the GDR (Verbandes der Komponisten und Musikwissenschaftler), whose stated purpose was to maintain and develop the musical culture of the GDR, as well as ensure that composers received proper credit and compensation. As a composer, Nier never matched the talent of Karl-Ernst Sasse or Gerd Natchinski. The songs in New Year’s Punch are entertaining enough, but not particularly memorable. Nier was better at serious scores. His soundtracks for Spur in die Nacht (Trace in the Night), The Baldheaded Gang, and Black Velvet are far more compelling than any of his work on comedies and romances. As with many of the East German’s who worked for DEFA, his career in films ended after the Wende. Nier died in 2002.

In terms of musicals, New Year’s Punch comes closer to the Western concept of what a communist musical would look like than the other musicals from DEFA. The politics of socialism and the GDR’s love affairs with sports and culture are never far from the storyline in this film. This doesn’t really distract from the story however, and, as light as this romantic comedy is, it’s a pretty entertaining piece of fluff.

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Feuer unter Deck
Fire Below Deck (Feuer unter Deck) was first screened in theaters in 1982, and then only very briefly, but it had been scheduled to be released in 1977. This happened from time to time in East Germany when a film touched on some hot-button topic that either upset the authorities, or discussed something that was sensitive at the time (see Sun Seekers). In the the case of Fire Below Deck it wasn’t the subject matter, it was the star: Manfred Krug.

Initial filming of the movie was completed in 1976. While the film was in post-production, the popular communist folk singer, Wolf Biermann, a West Berliner by birth, was expatriated for “gross violation of civic duties,” which is to say, he wasn’t willing to toe the SED line. In protest, a group of actors, poets, and writers signed a letter of protest against the action. In the following days, more artists joined the protest until there were over 150 signatures in all. Rather than listen to the complaint, the SED came down hard on the protesters, marginalizing them in any way the could, and, where possible, eliminating their sources of income. Several applied for exit visas immediately and moved to the west. One of these was Manfred Krug. By the time Fire Below Deck was ready to screen, Krug had obtained his exit visa and would soon be moving to West Berlin. The authorities ordered the film shelved, but that didn’t help them with all the other films starring fellow protesters that were already appearing on television. Eventually the film was shown on television in 1979, and then, finally, released to theaters in 1982.

In Fire Below Deck, Krug plays Otto Scheidel, the captain of the last coal-powered paddle-wheel riverboat on the Elbe. His girlfriend, Carola, nicknamed “Caramba,” is fed up with playing second fiddle to his boat and finally calls it quits. When the old riverboat is taken out of commission and turned into a floating restaurant—run by Caramba, just to add to the complications—Otto finds himself cast adrift in a world that doesn’t suit him. After witnessing two barges get stuck in the sand at a low tide crossing, and seeing that no other boats can come to their rescue, Otto has an idea: With its shallow draft, his old riverboat could get closer to the stranded boats than any others, and pull them to deeper waters, but first he has to get rid of all those pesky diners filling the boat.

Fire Below Deck

The basic plot structure of this story and the romantic interaction between Otto and Caramba hearken back to the films of Howard Hawks. There’s more than a little Grant/Hepburn and Wayne/Dickenson in these characters.1 Caramba does everything she can to keep Otto from destroying her new restaurant, Otto is just as determined to get the boat back in action. What follows is a war of wills between the single-minded Otto, and Caramba, who just wants to save her restaurant from destruction.

Fire Below Deck is directed by Herrmann Zschoche, who seems to be channeling Gottfried Kolditz (the director of Midnight Review and Beloved White Mouse). This film is much more antic than Zschoche’s introspective Seven Freckles, Swan Island, and Solo Sailor. Fortunately, the controversy over Fire Below Deck didn’t harm Zschoche’s career. He went on to direct Seven Freckles—the film for which he is best remembered—the following year.

Star Manfred Krug needs no introduction here. He was one of the most popular actors and singers in East Germany. While most others East German actors who immigrated to the West suffered a fallow period without work. Krug hit the ground running. Producer Georg Feil was casting for a new TV series about long-distance truckers called Auf Achse (On the Road). Feil wanted actors who could actually handle a big rig, and Manfred Krug, with his blue-collar, East German background, was custom made for the part. The series was a huge hit and made Krug as familiar to the West German audience as he was to East Germans. He later made splash as the lawyer Robert Liebling in the TV show Liebling Kreuzberg, and as chief detective Paul Stoever in the ever-popular crime drama Tatort.

Renate Krößner

Had it been released when it was scheduled to, Fire Below Deck would have been Renate Krößner’s first starring role in a feature film. Krößner had appeared in a few movies and TV shows prior to this, but usually in smaller roles. After a memorable turn in a secondary part in Until Death Do You Part, it was Konrad Wolf’s Solo Sunny that finally put her in the spotlight. For that performance, she won the Silver Bear at the 1980 Berlinale Film Festival. Not particularly happy with the way things were going in East Germany, Krößner and her long-time partner Bernd Stegemann applied for exit visas repeatedly, which they were finally granted in 1985. She has appeared in many movies and television shows since the Wende, most notably in Go for Zucker (Alles auf Zucker!) in which she plays the role of Zucker’s partner-in-deception, Linda. In 1998, she was reunited with Fire Below Deck co-stars Manfred Krug and Fred Delmare for an episode of Liebling Kreuzberg, and with Krug again on Tatort.

Originally, the film was intended to open the 1977 Sommerfilmtage (Summer Film Days)—a sort of mini-festival of DEFA films that screened in towns all over East Germany—but by the time summer rolled around Krug was no longer a citizen of the GDR, so the film was pulled. It first screened on East German television in 1979. The television schedule was already packed with films featuring Krug and the many others who were now no longer welcome at DEFA, so one more Krug film mattered less here. It eventually got its theater premiere on August 16, 1982, but then only very briefly. It showed up on West German TV in 1988. The film received good reviews, especially for Krug’s and Krößner’s performances.

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1. For a in-depth look at male/female relationships in the films of Howard Hawks, check out Molly Haskell’s Masculine/Feminine essay in Film Comment.