Archive for the ‘Märchenfilm’ Category

Most East German films received little if any distribution in the west. If you lived in Poland or Russia, you might see some of them pop up in theaters (particularly the Indianerfilme), but only a handful made it to the movie houses in New York and London. There were a few exceptions and the most of these belonged to that oddest of East German film genres: the Märchenfilm (fairy tale film). Märchenfilme started in East Germany with The Cold Heart (Das kalte Herz), made in 1950 by the West German director Paul Verhoeven. During those early days of DEFA and the two German republics, many West German filmmakers found themselves turning to the east to get their projects realized. The western authorities—and in particular, the United States—were in no hurry to get the German movie industry back on its feet. The Cold Heart was successful on both sides of the border and the East German authorities recognized the potential income that this particular film genre had for the state. With their common themes about the importance of helping others less fortunate than yourself and the humbling of the rich, fairy tales fit nicely within the confines of socialist ideology. Better yet, the west didn’t have a problem with these concepts when they were couched in the world of fantasy.

One of the DEFA films that made it west was The Golden Goose (Die goldene Gans), based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. The film tells the story of a young man who, because of his kindness to an old woman, is given a golden goose. When others lust after the goose’s golden feathers, they become stuck to each other in a long procession behind the young man who is heading to the castle to try and make a sad princess laugh. Lots of singing and general hilarity ensues.

Just as The Singing Ringing Tree had a strong impact on the children of Great Britain, The Golden Goose remains a vivid memory for American children from the same era. This is because the film was purchased for distribution in the U.S. by K. Gordon Murray. Called the “King of the Kiddie Matinee,” Murray was the oddest of exploitation producers. Exploitation film distribution is all about finding a niche that Hollywood is either ignoring or won’t touch, and then making or purchasing films to fill that void. For most producers—people such as David Friedman, Dwain Esper, Kroger Babb, and Louis Sonney—this meant sex, drugs, or both. Murray, on the other hand, sought revenues in European children’s films and Mexican horror movies. His formula was simple: buy a film cheaply, dub it badly, edit it substantially, and distribute it quickly. Most of the fairy tale films that Murray purchased hailed from West Germany, but one exception was DEFA’s The Golden Goose. Later, Murray recycled some of the footage from this film in his 1969 release, Santa’s Fantasy Fair. Eventually, Murray ran afoul of the IRS, and all his films were seized. He was in the process of getting them back when he died of a heart attack. Following Murray’s lead, New York distributor, Barry B. Yellen started Childhood Productions, a company exclusively devoted to kiddie films. Yellin brought more East German films to U.S. movie houses, including The Tinder Box (Das Feuerzeug) and The Brave Little Tailor (Das tapfere Schneiderlein).

The Golden Goose was directed by Siegfried Hartmann, who directed several Märchenfilme for DEFA. He got his start as an assistant director in the early fifties, working on, among other films, The Story of Little Muck. In 1959, he directed The Tinder Box, which was a hit and set him on his career as a Märchenfilm director. All of his fairy tale films are available on DVD through Icestorm Entertainment, although not all have been released in the United States.

The cinematographer was Karl Plintzner, who might be called the Leon Shamroy of East Germany. Had Plintzner lived in the United States, he would have been Frank Tashlin’s favorite cinematographer. His use of color in this film and his others, such as Silvesterpunsch (New Years Eve Punch) and The Singing Ringing Tree, is dazzling; almost to the point of excess. He is helped in this regard by costume designer Ingeborg Wilfert’s brightly colored outfits, and Georg Kranz’s and Hans-Jörg Mirr’s theatrical art direction.

Although he only composed the music for three feature films (all of them by Siegfried Hartmann), composer Siegfried Bethmann was a successful musician in East Germany who was better known for his march music than his film scores. His “Pauken unf Fanfaren” was a popular military march in East Germany, and, more recently, the Belgian trombone player Marc Meyers recorded Bethmann’s “Schottischer Whisky” (imagine “Scotland the Brave” reinterpreted as the theme for Hogan’s Heroes). Peter Snellinckx, conductor of the Royal Band of the Belgian Navy, also recorded two of Bethmann’s compositions: “Scandanavian Rhapsody” and “Hias.” From the available music, it seems as if Bethmann’s major influences were George Gershwin and Bavarian brass bands, an odd combination to be sure. Perhaps his strangest contribution to the music scene though is “Marsch der Fallschirmsportler,” a rousing paean to the joys of skydiving.

While there are other East German Märchenfilme that older viewers will find more entertaining (most notably The Singing, Ringing Tree), The Golden Goose is an congenial little film well suited to young audiences.

 

IMDB page for the film.

 

Buy this film.

The Singing Ringing Tree
Many Britons of a certain age share a collective memory so firmly etched in their psyches that the very mention of it brings back childhood nightmares. In 1964, BBC television serialized a film about a haughty princess, a prince that turns into a bear, a giant goldfish, and a really, really evil dwarf. So powerful are the memories of this film, that thirty-eight years later BBC Radio 4 did a program on the film’s effect on an entire generation. The film was called The Singing Ringing Tree, and none of those children could have known that they were watching a film that was the product of East Germany.

Originally released in 1957, The Singing Ringing Tree (Das singende, klingende Bäumchen) was the fourth in what would become a long series of fairy tale films (Märchenfilme) made in East Germany. The film is very loosely based on the Brothers Grimm story, “The Singing, Springing Lark” (Das singende springende Löweneckerchen). The film tells the story of a handsome price who wishes to marry a beautiful, but extremely stuck-up, young princess. His gift of a box of pearls doesn’t impress her in the slightest. The only present that will persuade her to marry him is the fabled “singing, ringing tree.” The prince agrees to find it for her and begins to search the four corners of the earth for it. Eventually he comes to a hidden grotto, accessible only by a stone bridge. There, a particularly creepy dwarf claims that he can give the prince the tree, but there are stipulations (the one common characteristic of fairy tales that accurately reflects real life): The tree will only sing and ring if the princess accepts the prince’s love, and if he fails, he will have to return to the grotto at sunset and live there. So sure is the prince that he will win the hand of the princess, he adds the stipulation that if she doesn’t fall in love with him, he’ll turn into a bear. Obviously the prince wasn’t paying very close attention to his first encounter with the young woman.

Das singende, klingende Bäumchen

The prince returns to the kingdom and presents the princess with the tree, but discovers the fatal flaw in his thinking. Since the tree will only sing and ring when she falls in love with him, it appears to the princess as nothing more than a scrawny bush. The prince is sent away, returns to the grotto and, at sunset, he turns into a bear. The princess, still wishing for the tree, has her father go get it for her. When the bear/prince discovers this, he tells the king that he can have the tree if the bear can have the first thing the king meets upon his return to the castle. The king agrees, and, as you can probably guess, the first person to greet the king turns out to be the princess. The bear returns to the castle and abducts the princess, taking her to live with him in the grotto. The princess, used to eating off gold plates and being waited on hand and foot, is none too happy with this arrangement. During an argument with the bear, she defends her behavior, saying that if she was such a horrible person she’d look horrible too, the dwarf, overhearing the conversation, takes her up on it and turns her into a hag. As you can imagine, this does not go over well with the princess, but the dwarf has over-played his hand. Her newly acquired ugliness humbles her, and she becomes a better person. She learns to love the bear, which leads to the climactic showdown with the dwarf.

When the film was shown on the BBC, it was converted to black-and-white. This gave it a dark, film noir appearance that seemed to heighten the drama and downplay the fairy tale aspects. One can only wonder how the children of Great Britain would have reacted had they seen the color version. In its original form, this film isn’t simply colorful—it’s psychedelic. The blues are intensely blue, and the reds are intensely red. Television screens can barely contain the color. Probably the only way to truly appreciate this film is to see a high-quality print of it projected on a movie screen. The film is a vivid endorsement of the richness of the original Agfacolor (later rebranded ORWOColor to deal with copyright issues in the west).

Das singende, klingende Bäumchen

Director Francesco Stefani was a West German director who had already had some success with two West German Märchenfilme—Wilhelm Hauff’s Zwerg Nase (Little Longnose), and Wilhelm Busch’s Max und Moritz—when DEFA invited him to make a film at their studios. It was the fourth Märchenfilm made by DEFA and the success of this film along with the success of The Story of Little Mook, helped convince DEFA to ramp up the production of fairy tale films during the next few years.

The art direction for the film was by Erich Zander, who had done the production design on The Story of Little Mook. Zander had gotten his start at the Ufa studios in the 1920s as an assistant to the Paul Leni (The Cat and the Canary, The Man Who Laughs). When Leni was wooed to Hollywood by Carl Laemmle, Zander took over his art direction duties. During the Third Reich, Zander continued his career as art director, usually in partnership with Karl Machus. After the war, although he lived in the western district, Zander often found work on DEFA films. He was the art director on The Axe of Wandsbek, and the production designer on The Kaiser’s Lackey. His career with DEFA came to an abrupt end on October 13, 1961, when the newly-built Berlin wall sealed him off from his employer. After working a few months in West German television, he retired and moved to Regenstauf, where he died in 1965. Zander’s art direction for The Singing, Ringing Tree is colorful and simple. The walls of the castle are free from excess ornamentation, and the sky is usually a flat blue, giving the film the appearance of a stage play crossed with an animated cartoon. The cave and waterfall in the dwarf’s grotto look like exactly what they are: papier-mâché props, but this is not a bad thing here. It enhances the inherent wrongness of the environment.

The Singing Ringing Tree

The music is by Heinz-Friedel Heddenhausen, and is as memorable to the kids of Great Britain as the dwarf. It starts with a gentle rambling pattern that reflects the slow steady gait of the prince’s horse, but gets dissonant and strange when the prince reaches the grotto. Suddenly the score shifts away from the bright flutes and horns of the earlier themes, to eerie and dissonant sounds made on an organ. It is an abrupt and slightly disturbing shift that enhances the creepiness of the dwarf’s grotto.

The evil dwarf is played by Richard Krüger. Sadly, there is little information available on Krüger. Only three films featuring him are listed in IMDB, all of them Marchenfilme from the fifties. It is possible that he also made some television appearances during this time, but nothing is recorded. He is obviously an adult in The Singing, Ringing Tree, which means that he was old enough to have experienced the Third Reich. How the Nazis responded to little people was often unpredictable. The regime had the policy to exterminate anyone that deviated from the acceptable physical or genetic norms, but dwarves and little people were popular objects of study for Dr. Mengele, most notable the seven members of the Ovitz family. There was also reported to be a combat battalion called the Kampfgruppen Pilzmenschen made up of little people whose job it was to get behind enemy lines by pretending to be children. The Singing, Ringing Tree is Krüger’s last listed performance (unless you count the Grand Theft Auto voice-over, which is obviously a mistake). While his performance is not exactly politically correct, it is certainly unforgettable. Like the director and leading actor (Eckart Dux), Krüger was West German.

The Singing Ringing Tree

The princess is played by Christel Bodenstein. Ms. Bodenstein was born in Munich, but moved to Leipzig at the age of eleven. There she studied ballet, later taking classes at the National Ballet School of Berlin (Staatliche Ballettschule Berlin). After a chance meeting with Kurt Maetzig at a Baltic beach, she got a screen test and studied acting at the College of Film and Television at Potsdam. Ms. Bodenstein  got to demonstrate her dancing skills a few times on film, most notably in New Year’s Eve Punch, and Midnight Revue where she starred opposite Manfred Krug. In 1960, she married Konrad Wolf, divorcing him in 1978. She is currently married to actor/playwright Hasso von Lenski, who, rather ironically, played a character named Richard Krüger in an episode of Polizeiruf 110. After the Wende, she has worked as assistant director and director at the Friedrichstadt Palast in Berlin, and starred in the TV mini-series, Die Kaltenbach-Papiere (The Kaltenbach Papers). She currently creates small sculptures, which are shown in various galleries. In 2016, she returned to the small screen to appear in the ARD 1  (Das Erste) re-telling of the fairytale, playing a peasant woman (and maybe the queen) who appears throughout the film.

The movie is also the inspiration for Mike Tonkin’s and Anna Liu’s three-meter high sound sculpture overlooking Burnley, Lancashire. If you only ever see one East German Märchenfilm, make it this one.

IMDB page for film.

Mike Pickavance’s Hilarious essay on his fear of the film at Den of Geek

thechestnut.com section detailing the plot of the film (lots of pictures)


Buy this film.

It would be wrong to assume that every film that came out of the east had a didactic purpose or a communist message, just as it would be wrong to assume that every Hollywood film is intended to promote the joys of capitalism. The primary goal of some movies is to entertain, and that was as true in the east as it was in the west. DEFA was rightly proud of what they had accomplished after the war, taking the old film studios of Babelsberg and turning them back into one of the foremost film production centers in Europe. As long as it didn’t contradict Marxist doctrine, a little something for the children was in order.

The Story of Little Mook (Die Geschichte vom kleinen Muck) was not the first Märchenfilm (fairytale film) to come out of East Germany—that honor belongs to Heart of Stone—but it was the most popular. Perhaps this is due to the fact that 1953 had been a hard year for the GDR. In June, construction workers had taken to the streets to protest the government’s more work for less pay policies. On June 17th, 1953—a day still commemorated in unified Germany—the protests were violently put down by the Soviet forces and the Volkspolizei. It represented a turning point in East German history. Gone was the happy idealism of Karl Marx, replaced with something far darker. From here on out, it would be the state against the people, and everybody in East Germany knew it. By the time Little Mook came out (two days before Christmas), people were in need of some cheery escapism.

Several more Märchenfilme were made at DEFA over the years but Little Mook remained East Germany’s top-earning film until the fall of the wall. Little Mook is based on a short story by Wilhelm Hauff, a popular writer and poet from the Romantic period who died died much too young (age 25), but still manage to leave a remarkably prodigious body of work behind, including a book of fairy tales, from which The Story of Little Mook is taken

Little Mook is told from the perspective of Mook as an old man. Mook is a hunchback, and the children of the town taunt him mercilessly, until one day he traps them the pottery shed and tells them the story of his life. The rest of the film is told in flashbacks. Mook never received a fair shake as a boy, but always kept his spirits up and his wits about him. After his father dies, Little Mook is cast out and begins his search for the Merchant of Luck, hoping this man can change his fortunes. In a series of adventures, Mook meets a witch, tricks a king into hiring him, endears himself to the princess Amarza, and foils the evil Bajazid. The film is told in the form of a road movie, where the protagonist moves across the landscape encountering different people and having different adventures. While there is no overtly communist message to the film, the evil people are all after money and power, and the magician—the closest thing to a spiritual leader in the film—is obviously a fraud, but this is consistent with the same characters in a Hollywood production.

Wolfgang Staudte was already becoming one of the leading lights in the line up of DEFA directors, He was responsible for The Murderers Are Among Us and Rotation, two of the best films to come out of either side of Germany in the first years after the war. He was busy trying to commit Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children to film when the project fell apart and he was assigned The Story of Little Mook instead. Staudte was not happy with the assignment of this light fairytale. He had really wanted to commit Mother Courage to film, but Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel, had their own ideas of how the film should be made, and weren’t ready to give up any control to Staudte. After Little Mook, Staudte made one more film for DEFA (Leuchtfeuer), and then left for the west. Leuchtfeuer was banned due to Staudte’s defection, and wasn’t shown again until 1988. An abbreviated version of Staudte’s Mother Courage was eventually released. Staudte continued to direct movies, primarily for television, right up until his death in 1984.

The screenwriter for Little Mook, Peter Podehl—along with his step-son, Thomas Schmidt, who played Little Mook—also decided to leave the GDR for West Germany. Podehl continued working in the west as a screenwriter, converting popular children’s stories for television and film; and as a director on the popular children’s puppet show, Hallo Spencer. Thomas Schmidt starred in one more film as a child, and worked behind the scenes on television when he was young before deciding to leave the film business in favor of medicine.

Special mention should be given to Erich Zander, whose production design was stunning. Like Willy Schiller, the other great production designer from East Germany (see The Murderers Among Us), Zander got his start during the Weimar years, and continue to work during Hitler’s regime. Also like Schiller, by the time the GDR was formed, he had plenty of experience in both production design and art direction. Working with art director Artur Günther, the duo created an Arabian fantasy land on a par with anything Hollywood might have come up with. It is a bit kitschy, to be sure, but as a fairytale it seems just right.

 

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

It would be wrong to assume that every film that came out of the east had a didactic purpose or a communist message, just as it would be wrong to assume that every Hollywood film is intended to promote the joys of capitalism. The primary goal of some movies is to entertain, and that was as true in the east as it was in the west. DEFA was rightly proud of what they had accomplished after the war, taking the old film studios of Babelsberg and turning them back into one of the foremost film production centers in Europe. As long as it didn’t contradict Marxist doctrine, a little something for the children was in order.The Story of Little Mook (Die Geschichte vom kleinen Muck) was not the first Märchenfilm (fairytale film) to come out of East Germany—that honor belongs to The Cold Heart (Das Kalte Herz)—but it was the most popular. Several more Märchenfilme were made at DEFA over the years but Little Mook remained East Germany’s top-earning film until the fall of the wall. Little Mook is based on a short story by Wilhelm Hauff, a popular writer and poet from the Romantic period who died died much too young (age 25), but still manage to leave a remarkably prodigious body of work behind, including a book of fairy tales, from which The Story of Little Mook is taken

Little Mook is told from the perspective of Mook as an old man. Mook is a hunchback, and the children of the town taunt him mercilessly, until one day he traps them the pottery shed and tells them the story of his life. The rest of the fiim is told in flashbacks. Mook never received a fair shake as a boy, but always kept his spirits up and his wits about him. After his father dies, Little Mook is cast out and begins his search for the Merchant of Luck, hoping this man can change his fortunes. In a series of adventures, Mook meets a witch, tricks a king into hiring him, endears himself to the princess Amarza, and foils the evil Bajazid. The film is told in the form of a road movie, where the protagonist moves across the landscape encountering different people and having different adventures. While there is no overtly communist message to the film, the evil people are all after money and power, and the magician—the closest thing to a spiritual leader in the film—is obviously a fraud, but this is consistent with the same characters in a Hollywood production.

Wolfgang Staudte was already becoming one of the leading lights in the line up of DEFA directors, He was responsible for Murders Are Among Us and Rotation, two of the best films to come out of either side of Germany in the first years after the war. He was busy trying to commit Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children to film when the project fell apart and he was assigned The Story of Little Mook instead. Staudte was not happy with the assignment of this light fairy tale. He had really wanted to commit Mother Courage to film, but Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel, had their own ideas of how the film should be made, and weren’t ready to give up any control to Staudte. After Little Mook, Staudte made one more film for DEFA (Leuchtfeuer), and then left for the west. Leuchtfeuer was banned due to Staudte’s defection, and wasn’t shown again until 1988. An abbreviated version of Staudte’s Mother Courage was eventually released. Staudte continued to direct movies, primarily for television, right up until his death in 1984.

The screenwriter for Little Mook, Peter Podehl—along with his step-son, Thomas Schmidt, who played Little Mook—also decided to leave the GDR for West Germany. Podehl continued working in the west as a screenwriter, converting popular children’s stories for television and film; and as a director on the popular children’s puppet show, Hallo Spencer. Thomas Schmidt starred in one more film as a child, and worked behind the scenes on television when he was young before deciding to leave the film business in favor of medicine.

Special mention should be given to Erich Zander, whose production design was stunning. Like Willy Schiller, the other great production designer from East Germany (see Murderers Among Us), Zander got his start during the Weimar years, and continue to work during Hitler’s regime. Also like Schiller, by the time the GDR was formed, he had plenty of experience in both production design and art direction. Working with art director Artur Günther, the duo created an Arabian fantasyland on a par with anything Hollywood might have come up with. It is a bit kitschy, to be sure, but as a fairytale it seems just right.It would be wrong to assume that every film that came out of the east had a didactic purpose or a communist message, just as it would be wrong to assume that every Hollywood film is intended to promote the joys of capitalism. The primary goal of some movies is to entertain, and that was as true in the east as it was in the west. DEFA was rightly proud of what they had accomplished after the war, taking the old film studios of Babelsberg and turning them back into one of the foremost film production centers in Europe. As long as it didn’t contradict Marxist doctrine, a little something for the children was in order.

The Story of Little Mook (Die Geschichte vom kleinen Muck) was not the first Märchenfilm (fairytale film) to come out of East Germany—that honor belongs to The Cold Heart (Das Kalte Herz)—but it was the most popular. Several more Märchenfilme were made at DEFA over the years but Little Mook remained East Germany’s top-earning film until the fall of the wall. Little Mook is based on a short story by Wilhelm Hauff, a popular writer and poet from the Romantic period who died died much too young (age 25), but still manage to leave a remarkably prodigious body of work behind, including a book of fairy tales, from which The Story of Little Mook is taken

Little Mook is told from the perspective of Mook as an old man. Mook is a hunchback, and the children of the town taunt him mercilessly, until one day he traps them the pottery shed and tells them the story of his life. The rest of the fiim is told in flashbacks. Mook never received a fair shake as a boy, but always kept his spirits up and his wits about him. After his father dies, Little Mook is cast out and begins his search for the Merchant of Luck, hoping this man can change his fortunes. In a series of adventures, Mook meets a witch, tricks a king into hiring him, endears himself to the princess Amarza, and foils the evil Bajazid. The film is told in the form of a road movie, where the protagonist moves across the landscape encountering different people and having different adventures. While there is no overtly communist message to the film, the evil people are all after money and power, and the magician—the closest thing to a spiritual leader in the film—is obviously a fraud, but this is consistent with the same characters in a Hollywood production.

Wolfgang Staudte was already becoming one of the leading lights in the line up of DEFA directors, He was responsible for Murders Are Among Us  and Rotation, two of the best films to come out of either side of Germany in the first years after the war. He was busy trying to commit Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children to film when the project fell apart and he was assigned The Story of Little Mook instead. Staudte was not happy with the assignment of this light fairy tale. He had really wanted to commit Mother Courage to film, but Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel, had their own ideas of how the film should be made, and weren’t ready to give up any control to Staudte. After Little Mook, Staudte made one more film for DEFA (Leuchtfeuer), and then left for the west. Leuchtfeuer was banned due to Staudte’s defection, and wasn’t shown again until 1988. An abbreviated version of Staudte’s Mother Courage was eventually released. Staudte continued to direct movies, primarily for television, right up until his death in 1984.

The screenwriter for Little Mook, Peter Podehl—along with his step-son, Thomas Schmidt, who played Little Mook—also decided to leave the GDR for West Germany. Podehl continued working in the west as a screenwriter, converting popular children’s stories for television and film; and as a director on the popular children’s puppet show, Hallo Spencer. Thomas Schmidt starred in one more film as a child, and worked behind the scenes on television when he was young before deciding to leave the film business in favor of medicine.

Special mention should be given to Erich Zander, whose production design was stunning. Like Willy Schiller, the other great production designer from East Germany (see Murderers Among Us), Zander got his start during the Weimar years, and continue to work during Hitler’s regime. Also like Schiller, by the time the GDR was formed, he had plenty of experience in both production design and art direction. Working with art director Artur Günther, the duo created an Arabian fantasyland on a par with anything Hollywood might have come up with. It is a bit kitschy, to be sure, but as a fairytale it seems just right.