Archive for the ‘Love’ Category

Barge Films
Living on a boat is not easy. You’re in a constant fight against the elements and there’s no end to the maintenance. Boat owners will tell you that, if you want to know what it’s like to own a boat, “stand in the shower and tear up twenty dollar bills.” Yet, the idea of living on a boat is appealing. That combination of the freedom to travel around in a place you call your own is hard to beat. Small wonder that those same boat owners who’ll tell you a boat is a “hole in the ocean you throw money into” continue to own boats and continue to love it, warts and all. There are several movies about life on a boat. The films about sailing are usually adventures (White Squall, All is Lost, Kon Tiki), and the ones with houseboats are usually comedies (Houseboat, The Horse’s Mouth, Sleepless in Seattle). Then there are the barge films (Binnenschifferfilme).

While sailing films are about striking out into the unknown and houseboat films are about living somewhere that just happens to be on the water, barge films fall somewhere in between. They are often aquatic road movies, with the characters slowly traveling from place to place, entering the lives of people then departing. Barge films are exclusively European.1 Films such as L’Atalante, Beauty and the Barge, Unter den Brücken (Under the Bridges), The Hornet’s Nest (which is more of a houseboat film), and Young Adam explore the details of life on a barge. They are often comedies but even the funny ones have moments of drama—barge life is no bed of roses. DEFA made two such films—The Barge of the Happy People (Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute), and Old Barge, Young Love (Alter Kahn und junge Liebe).

The Barge of Happy People

The Barge of Happy People follows the misadventures of Marianne (Petra Peters), who inherited a barge from her father and is trying to make a go of it in spite of advice to sell it from other barge owners. When Marianne goes to apply for a Befähigungszeugnis (a license needed for different trades in Germany), she is denied because of her age, so she hires her uncle August (Alfred Maack) to captain the ship until she turns twenty-one. The problem is, August has only ever piloted sailing ships and knows nothing about engines. August hires Michel (Fritz Wagner) as the machinist, unaware that Michel has long had a crush on Marianne, but Marianne doesn’t feel the same way. Things get more complicated when a trio of musicians joins the crew and romantic rivalry develops between Michel and musician Hans (Joachim Brennecke).

Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute

The Barge of Happy People is based on a book by Jochen Klepper, a writer best known today for his Christian hymns. Klepper was the son of a Lutheran minister and was studying theology the University of Breslau when he dropped out to become a radio announcer. He lost that job when Hitler came to power because Klepper had made committed the unforgivable sin of marrying a Jewish woman, and a Jewish who already had two daughters to boot. As Hitler’s war effort heated up, Klepper realized the danger his wife and her three daughters were in. He managed to get one of the girls out of the country before Adolf Eichmann refused to grant a visa to the daughter still in Germany. Like the popular actor Joachim Gottschalk (see Marriage in the Shadows), Klepper, his wife and his step-daughter decided that suicide was preferable to what was likely to happen to them next. They turned on the gas and commuted suicide on December 11, 1942. After his death, a selection of entries from his diaries was published under the title In the Shadow of Your Wings (Unter dem Schatten deiner Flügel).

Petra Peters got her start playing the lead in Arthur Maria Rabenalt‘s 1949 DEFA film Christina (Das Mädchen Christine). Rabenalt must have been impressed because he cast her in his next film as well, Anonymous Letters (Anonyme Briefe), this time a West German production (for more on Rabenalt, see Chemistry and Love). She followed this with two more West German films—Girls Behind Bars (Mädchen hinter Gittern) and You Don’t Play Around with Love (Man spielt nicht mit der Liebe)—before returning to DEFA to star in The Barge of Happy People. This would be her last role in an East German film. From here on out, she would appear in West German films until her move to Britain with her husband Albert Lieven. During this time, she stopped acting in movies, working instead as a playwright. After Lieven’s death in 1971, Peters returned to film in smaller roles and appeared in the 1976 Hammer film To The Devil a Daughter. She died in Munich in 2004.

The Barge of Happy People was a hit in both East and West Germany, and remains one of the fifty top box office films from the GDR. Reviews were positive, with the East German newspaper Neue Zeit claiming the film was in the tradition of the “Soviet comedies” (trust me, it wasn’t), presumably because saying it was in the tradition of the Ufa films would have caused no end of trouble for both Heinrich and the folks at DEFA.

As the tensions between East and West grew, DEFA decided that it was time to move away from lighter fare like this and concentrate on films that more obviously endorsed socialism.2 DEFA still made a few light comedies, as well as musicals and fairytale films, but most of the films, once they stopped allowing West Germans to direct, had strong socialist messages—films such as The Council of the Gods, The Axe of Weilbeck, and The Invincibles. If a film was funny, it was funny with a socialist message (The Kaiser’s Lackey), and if a film was romantic, it was romantic with a socialist message (The Story of a Young Couple). This would be the pattern from here on out. It was okay to be a little silly—just make sure the audience knew where you stood politically.

By 1957, DEFA was getting flak for making excessively didactic films. It seemed like every film had some expository dialogue that related the events in the film to Marxist philosophy. This wouldn’t have bothered the powers that be at all, but even in a non-capitalist country such as East Germany, it was important to get butts in seats, and audiences on both sides of the border were avoiding DEFA films in favor of their more frivolous and more entertaining West German counterparts. DEFA decided to tone down the preaching. As it was made clear that capitalism leads to bad decisions and corruption, the filmmakers could do what they liked. This was demonstrated in 1957 with Old Barge, Young Love.

Old Barge, Young Love

Like The Barge of Happy People, Old Barge, Young Love deals with a romantic triangle. This time, the story concerns two barges and a tug that are operating on the Havel river in north-eastern Germany. One barge is owned by Hein (Alfred Maack), who is trying to get the mortgage on his barge paid off so he can turn it over to his son Kalle (Götz George) debt-free. To do this, Hein has taken on a huge shipment of cement that overloads the barge and threatens it with stranding if the channel gets too shallow. It’s easy enough to figure out what’s going to happen then.

Kalle has the hots for Anne (Maria Häussler), the daughter of another barge owner named Hermann Vollbeck (Gustav Püttjer). Anne’s been studying shipbuilding in Berlin and is home for the holidays to help her dad on the barge. Also attracted to Anne is Horst (Horst Naumann), the captain of a tugboat, but Horst is a bit of a cad and full of himself. Anne seems to fluctuate between Kalle and Horst, which pisses off Hein to no end.

Storywise, Old Barge, Young Love is pretty much by the book. There are know real surprises here. We know that Hein’s barge will run aground at some point, we know that Anne will choose the Ernest Kalle over the playboy Horst.

Alter Kahn und junge Liebe

As with The Barge of the Happy People, the cast Old Barge, Young Love had a cast featuring many West German actors. It was Götz George’s third film, but his first starring role. It would be one of his only East German efforts. Horst Naumann, on the other hand got his start at DEFA, but Old Barge, Young Love would be his last feature film for the East German film company. He moved to the West in 1958. Maria Häussler (who spelled her name then with an ß, but whose name is usually spelled now with two esses) This is one of the only films to star her. She mostly worked in theater and voiced several West German radio plays.

Old Barge, Young Love wasn’t the hit that The Barge of Happy People was, but West Germany had become more restrictive about what East German films could play there. It didn’t help that critical response to the film was lackluster, with critics calling the film clumsy and dull. Then in 1973, the West German production company Terra Film made a musical by the same same name that was a hit. Coincidentally, perhaps, Horst Naumann appears in both movies.

Both DEFA films were directed by Hans Heinrich. Heinrich’s films had more in common with the films of West Germany than those made by his fellow directors in East Germany. Like Gerhard Lamprecht, Werner Klingler, Georg C. Klaren, Arthur Maria Rabenalt, Erich Engel, and Paul Verhoeven, who went to East Germany in the early fifties to get their films made, Heinrich’s style was heavily influenced by the old Ufa studios. His films are more romantic and traditional, and aside from the occasional lip service to socialist values and the casting of successful entrepreneurs in a bad light, there’s not much about Heinrich’s films that peg them as products of East Germany.

Heinrich was born in Berlin-Charlottenburg. He started working with film early on when he dropped out of technical school and got a job in a film lab. He started making short films for Hitler’s Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labor Front) and working as a film editor on several feature films until he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. After the war, he was hired by Wolfgang Staudte to work on The Murderers Are Among Us. He must have impressed Staudte, because he was hired to work as an assistant director on Staudte’s next two films, The Adventures of Fridolin (Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B.) and Rotation. Heinrich finally stepped into the director’s shoes with The Barge of the Happy People.

Alter Kahn und junge Liebe

Heinrich made a few more films in East Germany, most notably My Wife Wants to Sing, but Heinrich and DEFA were never a very good fit. He lived in West Berlin and was constantly fighting with the authorities about the lighthearted nature of his films. I imagine the term “formalism” got thrown a bit—a term often used in the Eastern Bloc anytime someone didn’t like something but couldn’t give you a concrete example why. After the problems he encountered getting My Wife Wants to Sing made, Heinrich threw up his hands and left DEFA, resuming his career in the West. He worked on several movies and TV shows in West Germany. Heinrich died in 2003 in Berlin.

Heinrich’s barge films are not masterpieces. They are light and silly, and Heinrich’s style is so rooted in the old Ufa style that they could have been West German films. The fact that they aren’t has more to do with the times than the films themselves.

IMDB page for the The Barge of Happy People.

IMDB page for Old Barge, Young Love.

Buy Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Barge of Happy People).

Buy Alter Kahn und junge Liebe (Old Barge, Young Love).


1. There has been the occasional U.S. film that features a barge (Moontide comes to mind), but America’s riverways aren’t that conducive to barges. You’re more likely to see a film about life on a raft (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) or a riverboat (Steamboat Bill, Jr., Show Boat) than a barge.

2. This wasn’t a unilateral choice. By 1950, Hollywood was already busy making virulent anti-communist films, and all of the left-leaning talent had been sidelined or neutered thanks to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sleeping Beauty
The story of Sleeping Beauty (Dornröschen) is old enough that it’s origins are a point of debate. The Grimm Brothers felt the story had enough Germanic elements to identify it as German in origin. The French, quite rightfully, would point out that the story was already well-known in France as it appeared in Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passé published in 1697. Meanwhile the Italians will tell you that Perrault got the story from Giambattista Basile’s Sun, Moon, and Talia. The story has been traced back to the 1300s, but is thought to be even older than that. These days, it’s best known in the form of the Walt Disney animated feature. Given the manhandling the original story received over the years from the likes of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Giambattista Basile, one can forgive Walt Disney for tweaking the story to suit his needs.

The basic setup of the story is always the same. After a queen has a daughter, the king holds a banquet and invites all the local fairies to bestow gifts on the infant. Unfortunately, he forgets one fairy who’s not as sociable as the others and, in the classic version, is also evil. After the other fairies bestow their gifts on the child (beauty, charm, virtue, and so forth), the evil fairy curses the child: On her fifteenth birthday, the girl will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. It turns out that one fairy hadn’t given her gift yet, so she deflects the curse slightly, saying the girl will not die but will sleep for one hundred years, when she will be awakened by a prince. In an attempt to prevent the curse from happening, the king orders all the spinning wheels in the kingdom destroyed. Of course, this has no effect. The young princess meets up with the evil fairy pretending to be an old woman working a spinning wheel. She lets the girl try her hand at the spinning wheel with the expected result.

While Disney’s film takes its cues from Perrault’s tale, the DEFA version follows the Brothers Grimm’s version the closest, with thirteen fairies and missing dinnerware as the reason the thirteenth fairy isn’t invited to the baby’s christening. It also does a better job of addressing the inevitable economic problems that would befall a community that was forced to give up its major income source (wool spinning and cloth production). This is Sleeping Beauty as seen through the eyes of Karl Marx.

Sleeping Beauty

In a manner similar to DEFA’s version of Rumpelstiltskin, where the evil dwarf becomes a dispenser of socialist instruction, the evil old fairy of the previous versions is now a beautiful young woman. Her angry spell is in reaction to the king’s self-importance and lack of empathy for the common folk. When the last fairy comes forward to temper the death spell, the reason she doesn’t simply lift the curse altogether is because she too feels the king needs to be taught a lesson. In DEFA’s version, the king is the real villain, and he is the one who is ultimately overthrown in favor of a system more equitable to the people. The fairy that curses the baby is known as the fairy of hard work (Fee des Fleißes), and it’s the castle’s industry that suffers.

Like most of the DEFA fairytale films, Sleeping Beauty is a bright and colorful movie, with simplified environments used to represent the various places. Backgrounds are devoid of details, occasionally consisting of featureless, light blue cycloramas. It was directed by Walter Beck, who made a career of fairytale films at DEFA, including King Thrushbeard (König Drosselbart), Pinocchio, The Prince Beyond the Seven Seas (Der Prinz hinter den sieben Meeren), The Bear-Skinned Man (Der Bärenhäuter), and The Frog Prince (Froschkönig). Beck’s career ended with the Fall of the Wall. He was sixty at that point, and the job opportunities for sixty-year-old, East German directors was nearly nil in the new, capitalist Germany.

Sleeping Beauty was a hit. The most popular DEFA fairytale film since Little Red Riding Hood (Rotkäppchen). The modern touches in the music and costume design helped make the film stand out from the previous fairytale films. It did not receive distribution in America, perhaps because of its strong socialist message, or perhaps because the time of the popularity of fairytale films in the U.S. was on the wane in 1971.

The slumbering princess is played by Juliane Korén. With parents who were also actors, Korén was born to perform. Her father, Hans Klering, was one of the founding members of DEFA. Her mother, Elsa Korén, appeared in several DEFA films, but worked more on stage, primarily with the Theater der Freundschaft (Friendship Theater)—now called the Theater an der Parkaue (Parkaue Theater) next to Lichtenberg Park. Aside from a few feature films roles, including In Spite of Everything! and The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow, Juliane Korén primarily appeared on television in the GDR. After the Wende, she moved to stage, working an as a member of the ensembles in Bochum and Stuttgart. She died in Berlin in 2018.

Dornröschen

Playing the thirteenth fairy is Vera Oelschlegel. Oelschlegel hails from Leipzig, where her mother was head of the district commission for entertainment art, Oelschlegel studied at the the Film Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg and worked at the theater in Putbus before getting a job at DFF—the GDR’s state-owned television station. She appeared in several films and television in East Germany. In 1961, she married playwright Günther Rücker, they were divorced six years later. Her next husband was Hermann Kant, one of the most important writers to come out of East Germany. The divorced in 1976.

But it was Oelschlegel’s next husband that got tongues wagging. Shortly after divorcing Kant she married Konrad Naumann, an SED politburo member. Some accused her of being a golddigger (or whatever you’d call a golddigger in a socialist country), but Oelschlegel didn’t care, she liked the guy and his cheery simplicity was a welcome change from the dour intellectualism of Kant. Naumann and Oelschlegel divorced in 1987, a couple years earlier, Naumann had been kicked out of the politburo, ostensibly for a speech he gave at the Academy of Social Sciences. In fact, it probably had more to do with Naumann’s efforts to relax trade restrictions with the West, a move that the rapidly dying old Soviet leaders opposed. A Soviet Untertan1 like Honecker wasn’t about to do anything to upset these fossils, so his old buddy Naumann had to be let go.

After the Wende, Oelschlegel—along with her long-time partner, dramaturge Gregor Edelmann, and journalist André Plath—founded the Theater des Ostens, a touring theater troupe that performed throughout the Eastern states of Germany. The troupe ceased operation in 2012.

Sleeping Beauty is good film. In many respects, it’s better than the Disney film and the other movie versions of the fairytale. In some respects, it is better than the original fairytale as well. It scratches below the surface of the original story, then asks and answers the difficult questions that the story poses—something that no other version of the tale ever bothered to do. But the most interesting aspect of the film is the idea of a castle completely surrounded by a wall of thorns. Surely, the comparison to the Berlin Wall was not lost on the authorities at DEFA. In 1961, Konrad Petzold and Egon Günther got into hot water for making The Robe (Das Kleid), a fairytale film about a walled castle simply because the officials thought it mimicked the recent building of the Berlin Wall, even though the film was in the can before the Wall went up. Ten years later, there were no such complaints when the wall of thorns (looking very much like barbed wire) grows around the castle in Sleeping Beauty. What a difference a decade makes.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy or stream this movie.


1. I’ve used the German word Untertan here because there really is no exact English equivalent. For a deeper dive on this subject, check out The Kaiser’s Lackey.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reise ins Ehebett
East Germany had a difficult relationship with musicals. As with western audiences, the East German public enjoyed musicals and paid to go see them. The box office was good for nearly all the musicals DEFA made but the art form is so inherently frivolous that it drove the more stodgy politicians crazy. Making fairytale films for children was one thing, but making happy fantasies for adults, that was bourgeois formalism!1

Nonetheless—and in spite of the East German government’s claims to the contrary—money could still dictate which films got made and musicals were a good investment. So it was that in 1965, director Joachim Hasler was hired to make Journey into the Nuptial Bed (Reise ins Ehebett), as formulaic a musical as East Germany would ever produce. The film is the story of a handsome young boatswain on a merchant marine ship (Claus Jurichs) who has a habit of bedding a different woman in every port, causing no end of troubles for the captain and affecting the morale of the rest of the crew. In classic movie musical fashion, the ship’s captain (Günther Simon) devises a plan to get the boatswain to fall in love, thus ending his romantic dalliances. To help him with this plan, he enlists Eva (Anna Prucnal) an attractive polish journalist who agrees to seduce the boatswain and then drop him. Secretly, the captain is hoping the two actually fall in love with each other, thus ending his problems. But fate has something else in store. When Mary Lou (Eva-Maria Hagen), a sexy redhead who sings at the Shark Bar, sneaks onto the ship in pursuit of the boatswain, things get complicated.

Reise in ehebett

The film is directed by Joachim Hasler, who got his start as a cinematographer, working on such classic DEFA films as The Invincibles, The Sailors’ Song, and The Silent Star. Hasler got his first taste of directing when Arthur Pohl was severely injured while working on Spielbank-Affäre (Casino Affair) and couldn’t finish the movie. Hasler took over and found he had a knack for directing. He went on to direct several more films for DEFA, sometimes acting as both cinematographer and director. He scored his biggest hit in 1968 with Hot Summer. This led to a long career as a director of light comedy, but his 1964 film Story of a Murder proved that he was just as adept at drama. His career ended with the Fall of the Wall. He died in 1995.

Claus Jurichs as the handsome boatswain bears a strong resemblance to Jean-Claude Van Damme. Jurichs is unique among German actors at the time. He lived in West Berlin and continued to work on East German films after the Wall was built. He was better known in the GDR, where he appeared in lead roles in several TV-movies. In the FRG he mostly worked in TV and dubbing. He worked in various capacities on several German sexploitation films, including Females for Hire (voice only), Swingin’ Swappers, The Sinful Bed, Reflections from a Brass Bed, and Caged Women (voice only). He also worked extensively dubbing American TV shows into German. He was the voice of McGarrett on the original Hawaii Five-O series and the voice of Cliff Barnes on Dallas. Jurichs died in 2005.

Journey into the Nuptial Bed

Günther Simon, Anna Prucnal, and Eva-Maria Hagen—the other three members of the romantic quartet—have been discussed at length here in previous posts (Günther Simon in The Ernst Thälmann Films, Anna Prucnal in The Flying Dutchman, and Eva-Maria Hagen in Don’t Forget My Little Traudel). Playing the fifth wheel in this story of romantic coupling, is singer Frank Schöbel. Although Schöbel was already a well-known figure on East German television, his ability to act was untested. He pulled it off and Journey into the Nuptial Bed helped launch his career in movies. He appeared two years later in Wedding Night in the Rain (Hochzeitsnacht im Regen) and the year after that in the classic Hot Summer. Like many other East German stars, the Wende wasn’t kind to him but he eventually reconnected with his audience and now appears regularly on television, especially at Christmas time.

Journey into the Nuptial Bed did well at the box office, but it was 1966, the year that the 11th Plenum was responsible for shelving or cancelling most of the good films DEFA produced, Aside from a some children’s films and formulaic crime films, the only other film from the East Germany production company that made into theaters that year was their first Indianerfilm The Sons of the Great Bear.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this movie.


1. Formalism was a common complaint against films in East Germany. Politburo types threw the term around so often that it eventually lost any meaning. The term was often used to attack any movie whose entertainment value was greater than its social relevance.

Minna von Barnhelm
Not surprisingly, most of the films that came out of the DEFA studios in East Germany were concerned with the twentieth century, that being the century when old orders were overthrown in favor of various versions of Marxist philosophy. A few films went back as far as the late-nineteenth century, but concluded with the Second World War. Films that went further back than that were almost always fairytale films and operas but there were a few exceptions. One was Minna von Barnhelm, or the Soldier’s Fortune (Minna von Barnhelm, oder das Soldatenglück), which takes place in 1763, a few months after the Treaty of Hubertusburg put an end to the conflict between Prussia and Austria and drew to the Seven Years’ War to a close.

The film follows the misadventures of Major von Tellheim (Otto Mellies), who used his estate to help finance the war and now finds that the king won’t honor that debt, leaving him in serious debt. He was planning to marry Minna von Barnhelm of the play’s title (Marita Böhme), but now feels he cannot. Tellheim has been staying at a local inn, but loses his room to a lady and her chambermaid because he can’t pay the rent. The lady turns out to be Minna, who soon discovers that her beloved had sold his ring to help pay his debts. Tellheim does not want to marry Minna in poverty, and his pride won’t allow him to accept help from anyone. In an attempt to level the playing field, Minna pretends to be penniless too. The deceptions on both sides are helped along by Tellheim’s faithful friend and war buddy Sergeant-Major Werner (Manfred Krug), and Minna’s Chambermaid Franziska (Christel Bodenstein). Pretty soon, romance starts budding between the two accomplices.

The film is based on Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s play of the same name. The play was immensely popular in Germany and has been filmed several times (usually for television). In Germany, it continues to be performed to this day. Goethe even performed in a production of it when he was young. Playwright Lessing was born in Kamenz, near Dresden. He was the son of Lutheran minister and he went at the University of Leipzig where he studied theology, medicine, philosophy, and philology, which is a helluva course-load. There he met Friederike Caroline Neuber, an actress of renown in Germany. Neuber enlisted Lessing to translate French plays into German for her. Lessing became fascinated with the form and soon was writing his own plays. Along with Minna von Barnhelm, many of these plays are still performed today, including Emilia Galotti, Nathan the Wise, and Miss Sara Sampson.

Minna von Barnhelm

Almost all of the films Martin Hellberg directed were costume pieces, so it’s not surprising that Hellberg got his start in theater. Born in Dresden, Hellberg worked as a machinist until 1924, when he was hired by the Sächische Staatstheater in Dresden. He kept the job as general manager there until 1933, when Hitler came to power. Lessing was fired because he was a member of the German Communist Party. Thereafter, he held several jobs, often losing them because of his political beliefs. Like nearly every other able-bodied man in Germany, he was eventually drafted into the war effort. After the war, Hellberg went back to the theater. In 1952, he moved into films, directing The Condemned Village (Das verurteilte Dorf), a film about a town’s protest against a forced eviction in West Germany by the American military.1 Hellberg went on to direct several more films, including The Story of a Young Couple, The Ox of Kulm (Der Ochse von Kulm), The Judge of Zalamea (Der Richter von Zalamea), Emilia Galotti, and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (Viel Lärm um nichts). After the Shakespeare film, Hellberg decided to hang up his director’s hat and work exclusively as an actor. His roles included Arturo in Pinocchio, Goethe in Lotte in Weimar, and the old professor in Mephisto. Hellberg was still working when the Wall came down, but he was already well into his eighties by that point. He died in 1999.

Playing the excessively proud Major Tellheim is Otto Mellies. Born in 1931, Mellies attend the drama school in Schwerin from 1947 until 1949 and began appearing in on stage soon thereafter. He became a regular member on the company at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, and remained a member of the company for fifty years. Mellies got his first movie role in 1955 in Sommerliebe (Summer Love), a minor East German rom-com. His first major role was in Martin Hellberg’s film adaptation of Schilller’s Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love). The Wende had less effect on Mellies’ career than many of his fellow DEFA actors. Since 1989, he continued to appear films and TV-movies, as well as providing the voice for the German dubs of everyone from Paul Newman to Christopher Lee.2

Manfred Krug turns in an entertaining performance as Tellheim’s trusty sidekick Werner (for more on Krug, see his Obituary). The character of Werner is based on Paul von Werner, a Prussian officer who gained fame for his bravery in the Seven Years War and later went on to become the commander of Naugarten in Brandenburg. He died in 1785 and is buried in Toszek—now part of Poland.

Minna von Barnhelm

As Werner’s love interest Franziska, Christel Bodenstein is, if anything too pretty. She takes over the screen every time she appears. This isn’t a knock against Marita Böhme, but Böhme’s beauty is thoroughly modern and she looks out of place in eighteenth century garb, whereas Bodenstein seems right at home here, perhaps thanks to her previous forays into fairytale films (see Midnight Revue for more on Christel Bodenstein). Interestingly, Böhme and Bodenstein each played the love interest for Manfred Krug twice in 1962. Böhme as his love interest in On the Sunny Side (her first movie) and Knock-Out (Der Kinnhaken—literally: “The Sock in the Jaw”), and Bodenstein in Minna von Bernhelm and Midnight Revue.

One of the most remarkable things about Minna von Barnhelm is its cinematography and lighting. The images are sharp and colorful. So sharp, in fact, that I began to think that the motion smoothing feature on my TV had somehow turned itself back on (it hadn’t).3 The camera chases the actors around, following them from room to room, and occasionally engaging in dizzying POV shots. It’s not surprising, then, that the cinematographer in charge was Karl Plintzner, one of the very best cinematographers at DEFA. He was also responsible for the colorful cinematography of The Singing, Ringing Tree, New Year’s Eve Punch, and The Golden Goose. It’s also not surprising that around this time more portable Mitchell cameras (or Soviet knock-offs) were becoming available to the cinematographers at DEFA.

Reviews of Hellberg’s film were positive, with critics feeling he did justice to the play without tacking socialist dialectics onto it. In some respects, this play seems like just the type of romantic comedy that Hollywood would have been all over in the fifties. Likewise, it’s surprising that the BBC hasn’t turned this play into TV-movie.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy or stream this movie.


1. Ironically, while the film was still playing in cinemas, virtually the same scenario was playing out in the East German town of Streufdorf where troops were enlisted to quell a protest against the forced eviction of residents.

2. It should be noted that Christopher Lee actually speaks very good German, but he does have an accent, which is the reason for the dubbing.

3. Motion smoothing, or motion interpolation is a feature of HDTVs that is useful for getting a clear, blur-free picture when you’re watching football, but plays hob with the quality of a motion picture image. It is sometimes referred to as the “soap opera effect” because of its impact on an image. Movie people hate it. So much so that Tom Cruise recently appeared in a video with Mission Impossible – Fallout director Chris McQuarrie to tell people to turn it off when watching movies.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Die Wahlverwandtschaften
Ask the average American who Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is, and you’ll either get: “He was a writer, wasn’t he?” Or: “I don’t know.” A well-read American might be familiar with Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther, but that’s about it. In Germany, on the other hand, Goethe resides deep in the soul. He’s as important to German culture as Shakespeare is to English culture—perhaps even more so. Along with a healthy appreciation of good of beer and a fascination with all things American Indian, the love of Goethe is common to East and West Germans alike. His attitude that logic and reason, rather than tradition and religion, should govern one’s actions helped keep him popular on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

In 1974, East Germany’s film company DEFA had already made a historical fable (Wolz), an operetta (Orpheus in the Underworld), two fairytales (Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella, and Hans Roeckle and the Devil), a contemporary comedy, (The Naked Man on the Sports Field), and an Indian film (Ulzana). It was about time to tackle another costume drama, so why not Goethe? The book that director Siegfried Kühn chose to adapt was Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften), Goethe’s story of 19th Century aristocrats engaging in interpersonal relationships and extramarital affairs. East German television had made a couple TV movies based on his work (Urfaust starring Manfred Krug as Mephisto, and Iphigenie auf Tauris), but Elective Affinities was the first East German feature film based on one of the writer’s books. It was also—as it happens—the first time this book had been made into a film (although not the last).

Elective Affinities gets its title from an old chemistry term intended to explain why certain chemical combinations reacted with each other, while others did not. Goethe was a man of many interests in the arts and the sciences. He wrote poetry, plays, and novels, as well as literary critiques and scientific treatises. He filled books with drawings and thoughts, and corresponded voraciously. He saw relationships between everything from emotions and the color spectrum, to human behavior and chemistry. As far as Goethe was concerned, human relationships exhibited the same seemingly arbitrary attractions as chemical affinities, with people shedding one relationship in favor of another when the right catalyst is added to the mix.

Elective Affinities

The story takes place during the Napoleonic Wars and follows the exploits of Baron Eduard (Hilmar Thate) and his wife Charlotte (Beata Tyszkiewicz). Both are now in their second marriage. The marriage isn’t unhappy, but it isn’t particularly exciting either. To enliven things, Eduard invites his old friend Captain Otto (Gerry Wolff) to stay and Charlotte invites her niece Ottilie (Magda Vásáryová). Eduard and Ottilie are immediately attracted to each other, as are Charlotte and the Captain. As one might expect, things go to hell in a handcart after that.

Elective Affinities is a subtle book and not the most likely Goethe novel to be turned into a movie, (that honor would have to go to Faust, which has been adapted at least twenty-five times). The fact that director Kühn brought it in at less than two hours is impressive; Francis Ford Coppola once toyed with idea of making a ten-hour, 3D version of the story. Kühn strips the story down to its primary elements, and changes a few things for cinematic effect. He tempers the most shocking death in the book in the book by having it occur off-screen, and the maid is removed from the story entirely—presumably for socialist reasons—which also removes an important supernatural-seeming element from the story (whether Goethe meant it to be actually supernatural is a topic for debate).

Goethe considered Elective Affinities to be his best book. If there is a flaw in the book, it’s that Goethe wrote it in the third person; it should have been written from Eduard’s point of view. What we have here is the classic unreliable narrator, on a par with Humbert Humbert in Lolita, but here the unreliable narrator is Goethe. Ottilie comes off as almost too saintly to exist in the real world. No one is that good and pure. So who is the inspiration for the saintly Ottilie? The most likely candidate is Minna Herzlieb, the eighteen-year-old foster daughter of a book publisher in Jena. Goethe was gaga over the teenager and wrote sonnets to her. Several men vied for her attention, but she ended up marrying a law professor and settling into a miserable existence, eventually losing her mind and spending the last years of her life in a mental institution in Görlitz.

Goethe

Siegfried Kühn was one of the most talented directors to come out of Germany, but he didn’t get many opportunities to prove it. His films include Time of the Storks, The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow , and The Actress. In 1981, he began working on Schwarzweiß und Farbe (Black-and-White and Color), a film about a photographer who runs into conflicts between reporting the truth and doing what he’s told. Not surprisingly, the film was scuttled by the authorities before it began shooting. From 1963 until 1980, he was married to screenwriter Regine Kühn, who wrote or co-wrote many of his films. The Wende effectively put an end to his career as a director. His last film was The Liar (Die Lügnerin), which was also one of the last films made at the DEFA studios. Kühn’s wife Regine continued to work in television until 2003, primarily on documentaries.

Beata Tyszkiewicz and Magda Vásáryová play Charlotte and Ottilie respectively. It’s easy to see the attraction the two women hold for the men. Charlotte is a powerful woman, who can match any man in conversation, while Ottilie is less of an intellect, but makes up for it in cheerful beauty. Tyszkiewicz hails from Poland and started her career in films while still a teenager. She appeared in several classic Polish films, including The Sargossa Manuscript, The Ashes, The Doll, and the oddball science fiction comedy Sexmission. From 1967 until 1969 she was married to Polish director Andrzej Wajda, and their daughter Karolina went on to appear in several films but hasn’t been seen on the silver screen in several years. Tyszkiewicz is still active in films, but spends part of her time supporting the charitable organization, Fundacja Dzieciom “Zdążyć z Pomocą”—a children’s aid foundation dedicated to helping children in Poland who are at the most at trick of serious health issues.

Like Beata Tyszkiewicz, Magda Vásáryová started her career as a teenager, but things really took off for her when she starred in title role of František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová—considered by many critics to be the best Czech film ever made. She appeared in several more films, but after the Velvet Revolution, she switched from actress to political activist. She was the ambassador for Czechoslovakia in Austria from 1990 to 1993, and the ambassador for Slovakia in Poland from 2000 to 2005. She ran for the office of President of Slovakia in 1999, but lost. She was the Slovak State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from February 2005 to July 2006.

The voices of the two women are dubbed by Germans. Lissy Tempelhof was the voice for Charlotte, while Katharina Thalbach dubbed Ottilie. This isn’t unusual. Jutta Hoffmann did the voice for Krystyna Stypułkowska in Trace of Stones, and several different people handled the dubbing duties for Gojko Mitić over the years. What is unusual is that the two voice actresses are listed in the main credits right under the names of the stars they dubbed.

Elective Affinities

Hilmar Thate is excellent as Baron Eduard. It’s not an easy part to pull off. After all, Eduard is oblivious to the effects of his shallow, sometimes callous behavior, interested only his own desires. The other three, at least, show a measure of conflict about their feelings. Thate is up to the challenge. He plays Eduard with self-centered perfection, oblivious to how his embarrassing behavior is and that everyone else can see right through him (for more on Hilmar Thate, see Professor Mamlock).

The music is by Karl-Ernst Sasse, who scored dozens of DEFA films (for more information on Sasse, see Her Third). Sasse could adapt to any style, from psychedelic pop (In the Dust of the Stars) to space-age lounge music (Signals), to oddball renaissance folk music (Godfather Death). As a classically trained composer, Elective Affinities probably offered Sasse more enjoyment than many of the scores he wrote. He had a good ear for pop, but his classical scores seem to be made with more care. Elective Affinities takes place in the era of Ludwig van Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber, and Sasse uses this to the score’s advantage, creating an effective and resonant score that feels right for the time.

While some critics complained that Kühn had compressed the story too much to capture the subtleties of Goethe’s novel, most of the reviews were favorable and Elective Affinities did decent box office. It’s an unusual film and there aren’t many East German movies like it. For fans of costume dramas or stories where relationships are tested after new people are added to the mix (which could be called elective affinity films), this movie is worth a viewing.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy or stream this film.


© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Für die Liebe noch zu mager?
Too Young for Love? (Für die Liebe noch zu mager?) is a portrait of a girl on the cusp of womanhood. At the start of the film, our heroine Susanne (Simone von Zglinicki) is wide-eyed and still wet behind the ears. She works at a textile plant and is a model worker. Susanne has a crush on Lutz, the town hipster, but he stills sees her a little girl. The German title of this film translates literally to “Still Too Skinny for Love.” It appears in IMDB under the title Too Skinny for Love1, but the DEFA Library at Amherst chose to translate the title based on its meaning rather than a literal translation.

From Delmer Daves’ A Summer Place to Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, filmmakers have explored the subject of coming of age for both comedy and drama. In the United States, filmmaker John Hughes practically made it a brand with films such as Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, and Some Kind of Wonderful. In Too Young for Love, Susanne is no longer a teenager, but she’s not quite a woman either. The film follows that journey carefully, step by step. It is never salacious or prurient, and there is, as one might expect from a DEFA film, plenty of interludes where the merits of socialism are discussed.

In a style similar to The Legend of Paul and Paula, the film has some nice musical interludes including the Klaus Renft Combo performing “Als ich wie ein Vogel war” (“When I Was a Bird”). The Klaus Renft Combo, like Wolf Biermann, was a thorn in the side of the East German government. The were banned from the radio in 1962 for their obviously Western-influenced rock music. The ban was eventually lifted in 1967, and the group become extremely popular, but with their songs of social criticism it didn’t take long for them to get on the wrong side of the authorities again, and the band was banned from even existing in 1975. Lyricists Gerulf Pannach and songwriter Christian Kunert were thrown in prison for nine months and then officially “expatriated,” even though both men had been born in East Germany.

Too Young for Love?

Too Young for Love was Bernhard Stephan’s first feature film. Before that he had worked in television, directing an episode of Polizeiruf 110 (Police Emergency Call)2 and the miniseries Täter unbekannt (Offender Unknown). His second feature film, Aus meiner Kindheit (From My Childhood), was the story of the Ernst Thalmann’s youth, recreating pre-WWI Hamburg in Schwerin. Stephan went on to make several more films for DEFA. They usually focused on the lives of ordinary people in the GDR. One notable exception is Jörg Ratgeb, Painter (Jörg Ratgeb, Maler), which explores the life of the Swabian contemporary of Albrecht Dürer at the time of the German Peasants’ War (1524–1525). With the fall of the Wall, feature film opportunities dried up and Stephan returned to television. He has made a name for himself there, primarily for his work on comedies and crime shows.

Originally, Katharina Thalbach was slated to appear in the role of Susanne, but when she became pregnant, the role was turned over to Simone von Zglinicki, who was still a student at the theater school in Leipzig at the time. Von Zglinicki was a good replacement. Both women are excellent actresses, and both have faces that are particularly good at expressing wide-eyed wonder. Von Zglinicki went on to appear in several more East German films, including Hans Roeckle and the Devil (Hans Röckle und der Teufel), Love at 16, (Liebe mit 16), The Flight, and Sabine Kleist, Age 7. Thanks to her relative youth, the Wende had less impact on her career than it did on most of the older East German actors. She has gone on to appear in numerous films and television shows since that time.

Playing the self-absorbed and irresponsible Lutz is Christian Steyer. Steyer practically made a career in East Germany out of playing irresponsible jerks. A year earlier, he had made a splash in The Legend of Paul and Paula playing just such a character. He’s a little more sympathetic here, but still not exactly a role model. He is also a talented composer, creating the music for several movies including Jan on the Barge (Jan auf der Zille), Sabine Kleist, Age 7, Forbidden Love (Verbotene Liebe), and Jana and Jan (for more on Christian Steyer, see Sabine Kleist, Age 7).

Christian Steyer

The film takes some gentle jabs at East German socialism and its restrictions on goods and travel, but the one that resonated the most was the line, “Mensch Opa, das sind echte Levi′s!” (“Man, Grandpa, those are real Levi’s!”). Until the early seventies, blue jeans were frowned upon by the establishment on both sides of the Berlin Wall. In the West, they weren’t allowed in most workplaces, and in the GDR they were seen as a symbol of the invidious influence of western culture and part of the subculture of juvenile delinquency and rock’n’roll. As a result, East German teens coveted jeans, and in particular, Levi’s. Levi’s figure prominently in both the play and novel of Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. (The New Sorrows of Young Werther) by In Ulrich Plentzdorf with one character saying that jeans were the finest trousers in the world (“Jeans sind die edelsten Hosen der Welt”). The East German government railed for years against the garment, but, like so many of the SED’s decisions, it was a lost cause. By 1970, most young people in the West were wearing jeans on a regular basis, including those pro-communist revolutionaries that were causing trouble for the U.S. government. Eventually, East German garment factories started making jeans, they called “Doppelkappnahthose” under names such as “Goldfuchs,” “Wisent,” and “Boxer.” At first, they were brown corduroy knock-offs. The state-owned factories wouldn’t get around to making actual denim jeans until 1978. The East German jeans really didn’t measure up as far as teens were concerned. They wanted Levi’s, not Doppelkappnahthose.

In 1978, the Levi Strauss & Company made a deal with the East German government to ship 800,000 pairs of the popular jeans to the GDR. In spite of the steep price—costing more than twice the price of the East German jeans—and the limit of one pair per person, people lined up to buy them and they sold out quickly. Of course, owning a pair of real Levi’s brought its own perils. It pegged you as a potential troublemaker, which could lead to a Stasi file on you.

The film did well, thanks to its realistic portrayal of everyday life in East Germany. It is worth noting that on IMDB, the film rates much higher with women than it does with men, which, I suppose, would make it qualify as a “chick flick” or a “Frauenfilm.” It is a well-made film with some exceptional performances from its leads.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy or stream this film.


1. The German word mager means lean, and comes from the Latin macer; the same root as our words “meager” and “emaciated.”

2. Later episodes of this series are being shown on MHZ under the title Bukow and König, which is a bit like renaming Law & Order “Lupo and Bernard.” Bukow and König have only appeared in 18 of the Polizeiruf 110 episodes. Compared to other characters such as Leutnant Vera Arndt (48 episodes), Hauptkommissar Herbert Schneider (58 episodes), and Hauptmann Fuchs (85 episodes!) this is a drop in the bucket.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


In November of 1957, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory was released in West Germany. It would appear in American cinemas a month later. When it did, film critics were rightly impressed and singled out one scene as a proof of Kubrick’s genius. It was the scene of the court martial, where the soldiers are shot from an elevated angle so you can see the chessboard pattern that the floor tiles create. The thing is, though, Konrad Wolf had already shot a similar scene for a film called Lissy that had been released in East Germany the previous May. So had Kubrick seen that film? He was in West Germany at the time, just getting started on Paths of Glory. At that point, he would have had to visit East Germany to see Lissy, It wasn’t released in the West until the following January. There is no record of him having done so, but back in 1957, visiting East Berlin from West Berlin was a simple matter. There was no Wall to get in the way.

Lissy follows the misadventures of a young woman as she goes from optimistic and cheerful shopgirl to a disillusioned wife of a Nazi soldier. At the beginning of the film, we see her working at a popular store, selling cigarettes and making small talk with the customers. Meanwhile, outside, a solitary Nazi brownshirt goes unheeded, asking for donations. Lissy has a steady beau named Alfred with a good job and everything seems copacetic. But this is Berlin during the Weimar years, just before the banks failed and the economy tanked. Soon, people would start blaming the Weimar government for the problem, and looking to a new guy named Adolf Hitler who claimed he could get them out of this mess.

Lissy

At the start of the film Lissy is passively left-wing. Her father is a socialist and union activist, and her best friends Max and Toni are highly active in communist politics, but Lissy would rather not bother with such things. She and Alfred both have good jobs. Then Lissy’s boss finds out she’s pregnant and she loses her job. Meanwhile, Alfred (Horst Drinda) isn’t too thrilled about having to raise a kid. He even visits an abortion doctor but the man has been arrested., Alfred and Lissy get married, then things get worse. He loses his job due to the growing economic woes, and tries to earn money as a salesman, but nobody’s buying anything. For Alfred, the populist rhetoric of Adolf Hitler starts sounding good. After all, weren’t his previous bosses Jewish? He starts hanging around with Nazis and things begin to improve financially for him and Lissy. Enjoying her newfound affluence, Lissy doesn’t make much fuss over Alfred’s politics. Or course, things eventually come to a head, and Lissy realizes that looking the other way isn’t the answer.

The story of Lissy is a variation on a story that has been told many times in movies and books. The 1940 Hollywood film, The Man I Married, treads similar territory when a wife (Joan Bennet) eventually realizes that her German husband Eric (Francis Lederer) is a Nazi and that this is not a good thing. Lissy is also similar to Wolf’s later film Professor Mamlock, in that Lissy’s silence and attempts to ignore the growing threat of Nazism helped Hitler come to power. Several times in the movie, we see Lissy and her husband staring at their reflections in mirrors and shop windows. Sometimes this is as a metaphor for the philosophical split between what they know is right and the Nazis they are supporting, and sometimes it seems as if they are looking in the mirrors to check for visible signs of their own guilt.

Lissy

Lissy is based on a book by Franz Carl Weiskopf. Prior to WWII, he lived in Prague, but once the Nazis marched in, Weiskopf marched out, eventually ending up in New York. After the war, he worked for the Czechoslovakian government as a diplomat in Washington, Stockholm, and Beijing. In 1953, he moved to East Germany, where he remained until his death in 1955.

Lissy was Konrad Wolf’s third film, and his first true classic (for more on Wolf, see I Was Nineteen). Here we see Wolf’s skill as a director in full bloom. Some scenes in this film as so perfectly composed, they could stand alone as photographs. Partly this is thanks to Wolf’s longtime cameraman, Werner Bergmann, who shot all of Wolf’s films until Solo Sunny. Bergmann’s background as a photographer certainly helped here (for more on Bergmann, see Professor Mamlock).

Lissy is played to perfection by Sonja Sutter. Sutter lived in West Germany, but appeared in films on both sides of the border. She was trained in the theater, and would return to the stage many times throughout her career. Her movie career started when she played the lead in Slatan Dudow’s Destinies of Women, but it was with Lissy that East German audiences really started to notice her. Her East German film career ended with the construction of the Berlin Wall. She later moved to Vienna, working at the famous Burgtheater for over forty years. After the Wall was built, she only appeared in a few movies, and was seen more often on television. Her last film appearance was in Hans W. Geissendörfer’s 1976 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. Sutter died on June 2, 2017 in Baden, Austria. Her daughter Carolin Fink has on to become a successful actress, appearing in several television shows.

Lissy

Horst Drinda had starred in Wolf’s first film, Once Does Not Count, a comedy about a put-upon composer who arrives in a small town for some R&R, only to find himself harried by the town locals that want him to compose songs for them. In Lissy, he’s a much less sympathetic character. Drinda occasionally played good guys, but his looks were always better suited to bad guys. He appeared in many DEFA films, including Love’s Confusion, Love and the Co-Pilot, and The Robe. During the seventies, he started appearing more often on television than in films. By the time the Wall fell, Drinda was appearing exclusively on TV, so the Wende had less effect on him than some of the bigger stars. He continued working on television, with only one post-Wende movie appearance (Jailbirds). In 2003, he suffered two strokes, and died in 2005.

As one might expect from the West German critics, Some attacked Lissy for being too pro-communist, but even the harshest of critics had to admit that Wolf was a talented director. The Hamburg Post gave the film a glowing review saying “Here we have a film that has been made in the masterful grip of a young director” (“Hier haben wir einen Film, der im meisterhaften Griff eines jungen Regisseurs”). A couple years later, Wolf would impress even his most virulent critics with one of the first German films to address the holocaust: Stars.1

IMDB page for the film.

Buy or stream this film.


1. Technically, the first German film to address the holocaust is the 1949 film Lang ist der Weg (Long is the Road), but that film was produced by the United States Army Information Control Division, as part of the “de-Nazification” program the U.S. was undertaking in Germany. In terms of release date, Morituri was the first, since it was released in 1948; although Lang ist der Weg was made in 1947. Morituri was produced by Artur Brauner, an actual concentration camp survivor.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Jana und Jan
With the notable exception of horror movies, the East German film industry (that is to say, DEFA) made films of nearly every genre from westerns to science fiction; from thrillers to romantic comedies. If it were a Hollywood film, Jana and Jan (Jana und Jan) would be categorized as a women-in-prison film, but without the usual salaciousness and exploitation attached to that genre. It has the usual tropes for these films: the prison social hierarchy, girl fights, and shower scenes, but nothing is Jana and Jan is played for leers or laughs. It is a grim and gray film, with cinematography to match.

The film starts in 1989, when 15-year-old Jan (René Guß) is brought to a juvenile detention center after getting caught trying to flee to West Germany. There he meets Jana (Kristin Scheffer), a tough 17-year-old who sleeps with Jan on a dare. Jana gets pregnant, and then decides at the last minute to have the child. During their incarceration, the Wall opens, and the teens at the detention center are optimistic that this will improve things for them. Jana’s emotionally fragile prisonmate Julia (Julia Brendler) dreams of being reunited with the mother in the West. Jan and Jana decide to strike out on their own in search of a better place to live, but the future for them doesn’t look any better now than it did before the Wall came down.

jana and jan

Director Helmut Dziuba had started working on the script for this film before the Wall came down, but the events at the time led him to rewrite the story to include the Wende, making the narrative even bleaker. He seems to be saying here that when the Wall was up, at least there was a promise of a better life on the other side of the border, but now there is nothing to look forward to except bleakness and death. Not exactly feel-good material.

It is questionable that the script would have seen the light of day before the Wall fell. Even in the final days of the foundering republic, discussion of the topic of trying to cross the border was a touchy one. The Flight managed to get away with it because it showed the fatal futility of trying to do so, and the evil avariciousness of the gangs that arrange these escape efforts.1

Director Helmut Dziuba hails from Dresden and got started as a high-voltage electrician before moving to Moscow to study film at the Moscow Film Academy (VGIK). He worked in radio and television in Moscow before returning to East Germany and joining DEFA. He served as an assistant director to Frank Beyer and Günter Reisch before taking on his own film productions. Like Herrmann Zschoche, Dziuba is known for his clear-eyed films about young people, but while Zschoche continued his career in television, Jana and Jan was Dziuba’s last film as a director. He did continue to write, and his script for Bernd Sahling’s Die Blindgänger (The Blind Flyers) won several awards around the world. Dziuba died in 2012.

selbsmord

It was also the last film for cinematographer Helmut Bergmann. Bergmann’s older brother was Werner Bergmann, who helped Helmut get his first job as a cameraman at DEFA back in the fifties. Helmut didn’t disappoint. Unlike some cinematographers who have a specific style, Bergmann could make the look fit the subject matter, whether it was the vivid colors of Love’s Confusion, or the drabness of Jana and Jan. In Bergmann’s case, the end of career had less to do with the fall of the Wall than it did with his age. He was already 66 when Jana and Jan came out. He died in 1998 in Potsdam. Bergmann was married to Bärbl Bergmann, DEFA’s first female director.

Also like Herrmann Zschoche (see Seven Freckles), Helmut Dziuba liked to use untested young people in lead roles. Kristin Scheffer and René Guß were both new to acting, and they never made another film. Jana and Jan wasn’t the first film for Julia Brendler, though, or even her first Helmut Dziuba film. She had starred in his previous film Forbidden Love, in which Brendler plays a 13-year-old girl who is in love with an 18-year-old boy. Brendler is a strong screen presence, and the only thing wrong with that is that it threatens to pull attention away from the main characters. Unlike the two leads in the film, Brendler has gone on to have a highly successful career in films and television in unified Germany. Nor was Jana and Jan the first film for Karin Gregorek, who plays one of the prison administrators. Gregorek started in films in 1963, and continued acting after the Wende, primarily in television. With her unique looks and acting talent, I have no doubt she would have been part of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s troupe of regulars had she been born in the West.

Jana and Jan went on to win the Special Youth Award at the San Remo Film Festival, with Dziuba winning the Bavarian Film Award for Best Director in 1993. It’s an excellent film, but it’s gray-green color palette and unrelenting pessimism make it a difficult film to watch, and not one that will be everybody’s—or even most people’s—taste.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


1. I should point out here that no East German official would ever categorize the attempts to leave East Germany as “escaping.” Escape attempts were characterized as desertions and border violations, and the people who helped others escape were “human traffickers” (Menschenhändleren).

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Next Year at Lake Balaton
Road movies are common enough to warrant their own category. Whether the characters in a film are trying to get from point A to point B (The Straight Story, Vanishing Point), or simply enjoying the passing parade of life on the road (Easy Rider, Il Sorpasso), road movies have a special appeal. Although sometimes they end in tragedy, road movies are often about the experiential learning a journey can bring. They tend to be episodic, with the main characters encountering different people with different beliefs and values during their journeys.

Road movies are especially popular in United States, where miles and miles of highways allow a story to spool out over several weeks and in different environments. For East Germans, the idea of the road movie was a little more complicated. You could travel, but it was usually restricted to communist bloc countries, and your papers better be in order or you might not make it over the border, or even back home for that matter.

Next Year at Lake Balaton (Und nächstes Jahr am Balaton) takes a humorous look at the problems an East German tourist might encounter when traveling. The film centers around Jonas and Ines, young lovers who plan to spend their summer vacation camping on the Baltic Coast. Ines’s parents, however, have other plans, and decide that the two kids should join them on a trip to the Black Sea. Once aboard the train, it becomes clear that the parents are already thinking about marriage, which freaks out Jonas. He decides hop off the train and finish the journey alone by hitchhiking to Bulgaria. After Ines’s mom misses the train while buying a magazine, Ines’s father gets pulled off the train at the border crossing for suspicious luggage leaving Ines to complete the train journey alone. From here on out, the movie jumps between the separated travelers to show their progress toward the vacation destination.

Und nächstes Jahr am Balaton

Most of the story centers around Jonas, who hooks up with Shireen, a hippie-dippie Dutch woman on her way to India. Being an appropriately cynical East German, Jonas doesn’t have much use for Shireen’s mystical mumbo-jumbo, but he finds her attractive. Meanwhile, Ines’ mother, Irene Moldenschütt, has gotten a ride from a very peculiar old man, played by the always dependable Fred Delmare (see Black Velvet).

Jonas is played by René Rudolph, who looks like the perfect stereotype of an East German hipster: long, blond hair, parted in the middle, unkempt mustache, round glasses, a cheap denim jacket, and flared jeans. It’s a look that went out of fashion in America in 1972, but was apparently still going strong in East Germany eight years later. Shireen is played by Kareen Schröter, who is also decked out in appropriately hippie fashion when she’s wearing anything at all. Both of these actors got their starts in director Herrmann Zschoche’s coming-of-age love story Seven Freckles, and both actors quit films before the Berlin Wall came down. Schröter appeared in a couple more films before giving it all up to study psychology. Rudolph appeared uncredited in one more of Zschoche’s films (Swan Island), but that was it.

Odette Bereska

Playing Ines is Odette Bereska, who looks a bit like Anna Brüggemann here. Bereska was primarily a stage actress. She had appeared in an episode of the popular East German courtroom series Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort (The Prosecutor Has the Floor) before this, but Next Year at Lake Balaton was her first feature film. She made a few more films with DEFA prior to the Wende, but since reunification, she’s worked almost exclusively in theater, both on stage and behind the curtains. From 1991-2005 she was the chief dramaturge at the Carousel Theater at the Parkaue (now known as Theater an der Parkaue. In 2006, she starred in the short film …es wird jemand kommen, der ja zu mir sagt (English title: Ruth).

Next Year at Lake Balaton is based on the book Ich bin nun mal kein Yogi (But Then, I’m No Yogi) by Joachim Walther. Born in 1943 in Chemnitz, Walther is a prolific writer of books, short stories, essays and radio plays. He grew up in Chemnitz, which was renamed Karl Marx City (Karl-Marx-Stadt) in 1953 (it returned to its original name after the Wende). In 2001, he and fellow East German Ines Geipel created the Archiv unterdrückter Literatur in der DDR (Archive of Suppressed Literature in the GDR). Geipel began her writing career after the Wende. Born in Dresden, Geipel had been an athlete and was a victim of East Germany’s Staatsplanthema 14.25 (State Plan 14.25.)—a covert plan to feed around 12,000 athletes stimulants, hormones, and anabolic steroids to improve sports results. Both Geipel and Walther were honored in 2011 with the Antiquaria-Preis (Antiquaria Prize) awarded every year in Ludwigsburg.

The film wasn’t the hit that Seven Freckles was, but it was popular, and won the youth magazine Neues Leben’s prize for the best DEFA film that year.1

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.


1. It wasn’t the best DEFA film of 1980. That honor would have to go to Solo Sunny, but 1980 was a good year, with films such as All My Girls, The Fiancée (Die Verlobte), and Godfather Death being released.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Interrogating the Witnesses
At first, Interrogating the Witnesses (Vernehmung der Zeugen) looks like it’s going to be a murder mystery, or a police procedural. A boy named Rainer (Mario Gericke) has been stabbed to death, and the doctor investigating the scene believes her son Max (René Steinke) is the killer. It turns out she’s right, and the the rest of the movie is devoted to the testimonies of various witnesses as they go back through the events of the previous months to try and answer the question: How did this bright young man come to stab to death his former friend and classmate? The film prefaces each flashback with the testimony of a different person, as the people in the town try to come to terms with the murder. For some, that means looking at the killing with complete honesty, and recognizing how their own actions helped set the stage for the tragedy that followed. For others it means staying in a state of denial, unable to comprehend how it could have ever happened and not willing to acknowledge their own role in what happened.

Most of the story revolves around Max, Rainer, and the girl they both loved, Viola (Anne Kasprik). Max is new in town, pulled out of school in Berlin by his mother Beate (Christine Schorn). In Berlin, Max spent his free time sailing on the Müggelsee, but that isn’t an option in the tiny town of Wulkersdorf. Max’s mother hasn’t been around for most of his life. She was too busy pursuing her career goals, so she left Max in the care of her mother. Now that she’s in charge of the out-patient clinic in the town and is seeing a successful businessman named Gunnar (Franz Viehmann), she’s ready to play the mother role. The only thing is, Max isn’t sure he wants to be part of her new life. He had grown up with his grandmother, and would prefer to stay with her in Berlin.

Rainer is the alpha male at the school and feels threatened by Max’s presence. The two get off to a rocky start, but Max tries to smooth things over by inviting Rainer to come sailing in Berlin. They bring along Viola, who is attracted to both men and whose coy romantic games have life-changing consequences, both for her and the boys.

Interrogation of the Witness

Interrogating the Witnesses is René Steinke’s first film. Playing Max would have been a hard role for even the most experienced of actors, but to throw a newcomer into the deep water at the beginning of his career is always a dangerous proposition. Using newcomers was a favorite technique of Herrmann Zschoche (see Seven Freckles), who felt that these actors often gave fresher, more compelling performances, but Zschoche specialized in films that were slices of life, where the actors were doing what they would have been doing anyway. Steinke has no such luxury. He does a passable job here, but he’s not playing to his strengths and it shows. Nonetheless, Steinke would get better, and go on to have a highly successful television career in unified Germany. He is best known for his performance as Tom Kranich in the popular series, Alarm für Cobra 11 – Die Autobahnpolizei (Alarm for Cobra 11 – The Highway Patrol).

It was also the first film for Anne Kasprik and Mario Gericke. Both actors turn in believable performances, especially Gericke as Rainer, playing a part here that would, almost certainly, star Frederick Lau if it were cast today. Since the Wende, Anne Kasprik has gone on to a long and successful career in German television, while Mario Gericke moved into theater and and songwriting. He is currently the head of Lunanox Produktion, and the author of Laroranja, a medieval fantasy stage play that’s kind of a cross between Lord of the Rings and Cirque de Soleil.

Interrogation of the Witness

As Beate, Christine Schorn is good as always (for more on Schorn, see Apprehension), but it is Franz Viehmann as her mentally fragile signifcant other Gunnar Strach who shines. While Beate blames her mother and anyone but herself for what Max did, Gunnar feels personally responsible, having given the boy the murder weapon as a gift. During the interrogation scenes the two are often filmed together, and it is in these scenes that things finally come to a head. Franz Viehmann was already a well-established actor in East Germany by the time he took this role, appearing in films since 1963. Like Schorn, Viehmann was a graduate of the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts, and like Schorn he worked extensively in television both before and after the Wall came down. At the time of the Wende, Viehmann had been working with Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble theater, but was fired, along with 15 other East Germans, after the company was turned into a private enterprise. He appeared in a few television shows after that. Like many East German actors, he found plenty of work as a voice talent, doing radio programs and dubbing foreign films. Viehmann died in Berlin in 2016.

Director Gunther Scholz is primarily a documentary filmmaker, which probably had something to do with his choice to cast relatively untested actors in the lead roles, and the use of interviews where the people talk directly into the camera. I suspect he was going to for a cinéma vérité style that would give the film the immediacy and realism of a documentary. While this works in some places, it mostly doesn’t. Scholz’s choice to use static medium shots, sucks much of life out of the story. Perhaps Scholz was going for some sort of experimental objectivity here. If so, he can safely file this one away under “failed experiments.” The film is still worth seeing, and is one East German film that could stand an updated remake.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (part of six film set).

YouTube of film.

English subtitles that match YouTube file.1


1. These subtitles were created by me from German subtitles. I took a few liberties to try and make the dialog sound more like actual speech, and I changed a few things that didn’t match what was actually said. A few things are so GDR specific that they don’t really translate well. If you find any errors, please let me know, and I will fix them as soon as a I can.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.