Archive for the ‘Love’ Category

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella
Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella (Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel) was a co-production between East Germany and Czechoslovakia. DEFA made twelve films in co-production with the ČSSR’s Barrandov Film Studios. Some of these movies look like East German films, while others seem very Czechoslovakian. Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella falls squarely in the latter category thanks to the strong aesthetic influence of director Václav Vorlícek. As soon as it starts, you know you’re not watching a DEFA fairytale film. Gone are the bright reds and blues, replaced with shades of brown and white; the leads have brown eyes instead of blue; and the music is more orchestral than most other DEFA fairytale films.

The film is based on a Czech version of the Cinderella story written by Božena Němcová. Němcová was an interesting character who hung out with the Bohemians (the original Bohemians), smoked cigars, and had several lovers. She was an important figure in the Czech National Revival movement of the early nineteenth century, a movement that sought the re-invigoration of the Czech language, which, at the time, was in danger of being abandoned in favor of German. The Czech writer Milan Kundera called her “the mother of Czech prose.” Like the Brothers Grimm in Germany, Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark, and Charles Perrault in France, Nemcová is a national treasure whose books of fairytales have inspired generations of Czech children.

Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella was released in the States under the title Three Wishes for Cinderella, and later shown on television as Three Nuts for Cinderella.1 The story follows the familiar pattern of the other versions of Cinderella (called “Popelka” in Czech), with Cinderella suffering under the yoke of an evil step-mother, and finally meeting and marrying the prince. There’s only one step-daughter here, and no fairy godmother. The glass slipper is replaced with an ordinary pump, and nothing special happens at midnight. Cinderella leaves the ball because, well, because. This Cinderella has a lot more spunk than Disney’s blonde-haired maiden. Although she it still oppressed by the step-mother, she never bends. She is her own woman, equal to and in most ways superior to the prince she marries. The most magical element in the film comes by way of a twig holding the three hazelnuts in the title. Each hazelnut provides a different costume, which keeps the prince confused as to whom he’s dealing with. One major difference from the original story is that in Nemcová’s story, the father is still alive, he just a craven coward who won’t stand up up to his new wife. He seems to care as little about Cinderella as the stepmother does.

Cinderella

The movie was originally slated to be filmed in the Summer, but the DEFA crew was already busy working on other projects, so production was pushed back to the Winter. This meant filming had to be done in deep snow and freezing temperatures. It did make for some beautiful settings, though. Later on, when the production moved to Moritzburg Castle, the snow was gone, so the crew had to find a realistic looking artificial snow. They settled on pounds and pounds of fish meal, which, according to those who were there, stank to high heaven.

Director Václav Vorlíček was already a well-known director in Czechoslovakia. His first big hit was in 1966 with Who Wants to Kill Jessie?—an odd film that parodies comic book superheroes in a manner similar to the Batman television series of the same year. His 1972 fantasy film The Girl on the Broomstick (Dívka na koštěti) was also popular and led to him directing the DEFA/Barrandov co-production. After that, Vorlíček became known for his comedies and fantasy films. He often worked with fellow Czech director Miloš Macourek, who wrote the scripts for several of Vorlíček’s movies. In 1979, he and Macourek created Arabela, a half-hour kid’s show about a fairytale princess who escapes into the real world, predating shows such as Once Upon a Time and Grimm.

In casting Cinderella, director Vorlíček went above and beyond the call of duty, looking at over 2,000 potential applicants. Eventually the Czech actress Libuše Šafránková was chosen for the part, and it’s easy to see why—a better Cinderella is hard to imagine. Šafránková had appeared in a few television shows and films prior to this film, but in minor roles. Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella put her on the map and she went on to have a successful career on stage and screen, up through and after the Velvet Revolution. She retired in 2015 after being diagnosed with lung cancer and having part of her lungs removed.

As was often the case with the DEFA films that featured cast members from different countries, the actors spoke their parts in their own languages, and were then dubbed into each language as needed (see Goya). The one exception was Pavel Trávníček, who played the prince. It was only his second film role and he still spoke with a thick, Moravian accent, so he was dubbed in both Czech and German. Since then, however, he has apparently mastered the subtleties of the Czech language because he is often called upon to dub Hollywood films, giving voice to actors such as Terence Stamp, Alain Delon, and Alan Alda. Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella was the first time Trávníček played a prince, but it wouldn’t be the last. He went on to play a prince in several more movies, including the DEFA film, Snow White and Rose Red (Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot).

Cinderella

In the credits at the beginning of the film, the screenplay is credited to Bohumila Zelenková. The real author was František Pavlíček. Pavlíček was a superb screenwriter, best known for the classic Marketa Lazarová, but he had been highly active in the Velvet Revolution, which made him something of a persona non gratis, especially in the Soviet-loving GDR. Bohumila Zelenková was a competent screenwriter, whose work includes a Dark Shadows-like TV movie based on Sheridan LeFanu’s short story The Room in the Dragon Volant (Hostinec U létavého draka), but she didn’t write Cinderella.

The music for the film was composed by Czech composer Karel Svoboda. Svoboda was on track to become a dentist when he was young, but, according to him, “My parents made a huge mistake—they bought me a piano.” He joined a rock band, and soon was composing songs for others. In the sixties he worked with the Laterna magika in Prague. This brought him to attention of Pavel Juráček, who hired Svoboda to write music for his first film, Kazdy mlady muz (Every Young Man). But it would be five more years before Svoboda’s career as a film composer really got started. In 1973, Svoboda starting working with Václav Vorlíček, and the two went on to make several films together.

The soundtrack for Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella was performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra and was released on LPs in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. The German version of the soundtrack is instrumental, while the Czech version features songs sung by Karel Gott, who was known as the “The Golden Voice from Prague.” Svoboda also wrote several songs for Gott, including the popular theme song from the German version of the Japanese children’s show Maya the Bee.

Although successful as a composer, Svoboda’s personal life was fraught with sorrows. His first wife of 24 years died of cancer. Svoboda remarried, and had a daughter. Four-and-a-half years later, the daughter died of leukemia. In debt and getting sick, Svoboda finally decided to end things. In January of 2007, he went into his garden and shot himself.

The Barrandov Studios continues to function. Like the DEFA Studios in Babelsberg, they have become popular with American directors looking for grittier locations than Hollywood can provide. Moritzburg Castle has also gained fame from the film and is a popular destination for couples looking to get married. Artifacts from the film are on display in the castle, including Cinderella’s wedding dress, which was stolen in 2014, and then returned anonymously a few months later.

The film has gone on to become a classic in Germany and the Czech Republic, and is shown every year at Christmastime on television in those countries. This year, it is also being shown with a live orchestra at various venues around Germany.

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Czech with English subtitles.

Stream film on Veoh (German version).

English subtitles (these subtitles are taken from Czech version, so there are some discrepancies between the German dialog and the subtitles).


1. The film is not, as of this writing, available in America with English subtitles, although the DVD and Blu-Ray disk sold by Icestorm does have German subtitles. It’s easy to find the film online. Veoh has a German-language version of the film, and Subsmax.com has English language subtitles that sync well with the Veoh copy. You can download the video and subtitles, and then either watch the film with a program such as VLC Player, which lets you use subtitles from a separate file, or burn the film and subtitles together onto a DVD. If you are interested, you’ll find more information on my How to Make Your Own Subtitled DVDs page. If you don’t mind voiceover narration, the Three Gifts for Cinderella version is available on YouTube, although the first ten minutes is missing.

© 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.

Verfehlung
The final years of East Germany’s existence saw a relaxing of the restrictions on what could be filmed and what couldn’t. After the Wende, DEFA continued to exist for a few years, and continued to make films using the same stable of technicians and actors, but now they could make films about the one thing that was always taboo in the GDR: The government itself. We saw tentative steps in this direction with The Tango Player, which was also made after reunification, but that was more of a look at a certain time in East Germany’s history rather than an indictment of the system. The Latest from the Da-Da-eR was more acerbic, but Mensching & Wenzel were equal opportunity mockers, so their film was as hard on the West as it was on the East. Leave it to Heiner Carow to come out with both barrels blazing with The Mistake (Verfehlung). There’s no misinterpreting who the bad guy is here—he’s an East German government official who uses the power of his position for his own petty vendetta.

The Mistake follows the adventures and misadventures of Elisabeth Bosch, a tough widow who works as a cleaning lady for the mayor of a dying East German town. The mayor, whose name is Reimelt, is secretly in love with Elisabeth, but never does anything to show it until a West German stranger named Jacob Alain shows up in town. Alain is from Hamburg, and is in the town on business. He first notices Elisabeth while she is playing with her two grandsons in her backyard. The woman and the two kids are naked, and she’s not happy with the sudden attention of a stranger. Later, she runs into him at the mayor’s office, and the couple’s relationship gets off to a rocky start. Eventually, they start to like each other, causing Riemelt to takes steps to prevent the couple from seeing each other, sparking a series of events that turn fatal.

The title of this film is impossible to translate adequately into English. It is translated for the DVD into The Mistake, but Verfehlung can also be translated as Misconduct, Transgression, or even Bad Judgement. Carow plays on all of these meanings, and he does so for all sides of the story. Is the mistake Elisabeth’s? The mayor’s? Or the GDR’s? There are plenty of mistakes to go around. One Verfehlung leads to another in a downward spiral.

The Mistake

The Mistake is based on a novella by Werner Heiduczek. Director Heiner Carow started working on this film as a project before the Wall came down, but Heiduczek also often wrote about the problems encountered by gay people in East German society. Carow thought that a film about the gay scene in Berlin stood a better chance of getting made than one about an evil government official, so he decided to make his next film on that subject instead. The film was Coming Out, which went on to win Silver Bear and Teddy awards at the Berlinale. After the Wende, Carow returned to The Mistake, recognizing a rare opportunity to make this film. The East German government was now a thing of the past, but DEFA was still making movies, usually in association with West German production companies. It was around this time that DEFA was sold to the French conglomerate Compagnie Générale des Eaux (now Vivendi). There were a few more DEFA films in the pipeline, but the valve was shut.

The film stars Angelica Domröse, who is always worth watching. Domröse had left East Germany in 1980, following the Wolf Biermann protest letter incident (see The Story of a Murder for more on Domröse). This was her first DEFA film in twelve years, and she gives it her all. Jacob Alain is portrayed by West German actor Gottfried John, who will be familiar to many filmgoers as one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s regulars, appearing in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, In a Year with 13 Moons, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and other Fassbinder films. The weaselly mayor Riemelt is played by Jörg Gudzuhn, an East German character actor who appeared in many movies and television shows. He is best known in Germany now for his portrayal of Kommissar Joe Hoffer in the popular TV series Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness).

The Mistake would be Heiner Carow’s last film for DEFA, and his last feature film, period. He used much of the same core group of technicians on this film that he used on Coming Out, including his wife Evelyn Carow, one of the best film editors in East Germany, his son Stefan, a talented musician in his own right, and cinematographer Martin Schlesinger. Also here is Dirk Kummer, who worked as both an actor and assistant director in both films.

The Mistake

After this, Heiner Carow would work only in television, mostly on series shows, but he did direct Fähre in den Tod (Ferry to Death)—a TV-movie about the Estonia ferry tragedy, the deadliest peacetime shipwreck in European waters (sadly, not available with English subtitles). That film would be Evelyn Carow’s last movie. Stefan Carow, meanwhile, has moved to Los Angeles where he continues to compose and perform. Martin Schlesinger works primarily in television these days, as does Dirk Kummer, who has mostly continued to work as an assistant director, but recently sat in the director’s chair for the TV movie Zuckersand, which just won the award for best TV movie at the Munich International Film festival (Filmfest München).

The Mistake is sometimes compared to Heiner Carow’s earlier film, The Legend of Paul and Paula. There are some similarities. Both Paula and Elisabeth are part of the East German working class1, and both characters are little too passionate for their own good (although in Paula’s case, that passion hurts only her); but it is more similar to another Angelica Domröse film—Joachim Hasler’s The Story of a Murder. In that film, Domröse also plays a woman who seeks revenge on the man who destroyed her life in much the same way. Since The Story of a Murder takes place in West Germany, the East German authorities had no problems presenting the political official as evil, but The Mistake takes place in East Germany. There’s no way it would have seen the light of day before the Wall came down.

Unfortunately for this film, it came out at a time when no one wanted to hear anything about how things were in the GDR. The film only saw 8,208 paying customers according to one source. Coming, as it did, after reunification, but before Ostalgie, the film died a quick death at the box office and is largely forgotten today. The film certainly deserves more attention and will, hopefully, some day receive it.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.


1. East Germany, of course, prided itself on having done away with class structure, but, in fact, one still existed. Those working in menial jobs did not have the same perks as the so-called intelligentsia, or the people in political offices.

© 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.

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.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2016. 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.

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.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2016. 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.

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 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.