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.
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.
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.
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.