Archive for the ‘Musical’ Category

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

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

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

Silvesterpunsch

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

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

Karin und Kristel

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

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

Silvesterpunsch

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

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

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

No Cheating, Darling!

In 1975, director/screenwriter Jim Sharman, along with co-author Richard O’Brien, had a huge hit with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In 1981, they decided to try again with Shock Treatment. It had the same writers, same director, and some of the same cast, but it failed miserably. It was like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. The aggregation of actors, songs, and story that worked so well in the first film just wasn’t there the second time around.

This example is just to show how difficult it can be to come up with exactly the right formula for a genre as complex as the musical. Even if you copy what seems like a working formula, it doesn’t always work. That’s what happened with No Cheating, Darling! (Nicht schummeln, Liebling!), DEFA’s follow-up to the hit, Hot Summer. It had the same stars and the same director, the cast is charming, the dance numbers are fun, and the costumes are sensational; but the final result lacks the punch of Hot Summer. While the film did well enough at the box office, it was not the hit that Hot Summer was.

The film’s title appears to be a takeoff on the 1970 West German film, Nicht fummeln, Liebling (No Pawing, Darling—which was also a follow-up to a previous popular film). No Cheating, Darling! is the story of Sonnenthal, a small town with a mayor who is so obsessed with soccer (or football, to readers from places other than North America and Australia) that all the resources of the town are being directed toward helping Sonnenthal come up with a winning team. When Dr. Barbara Schwalbe, the new technical school director, shows up, she finds it impossible to get anything she needs unless it has to do with soccer. Naturally, the mayor and Dr. Barbara are immediately at odds with each other, and she sings an ode to the mayor titled “Ich bring ihn um” (“I’ll kill him”). As is often the case in movies, these two end up romantically involved. Likewise the leaders of the men’s and women’s soccer teams (Frank Schöbel and Chris Doerk) engage in similar love/hate antics.

Schoebel and Doerk

Joachim Hasler directed three films starring Frank Schöbel (for more on Joachim Hasler, see The Story of a Murder). Mr. Schöbel and Mr. Hasler first worked together on Reise ins Ehebett (Journey into the Nuptial Bed) with Anna Prucnal as the romantic interest. Mr. Schöbel also made a film under a different director—Hochzeitsnacht im Regen (Wedding Night in the Rain)—which, like this film, did well enough at the box office, but couldn’t match Hot Summer’s numbers. It wasn’t until the singer was paired with his then wife, Chris Doerk, that Hasler and Schöbel had their first box office smash. Hot Summer remains one of the top-selling East Germany films of all time and was reinvented as musical theater in 2005.

For Reise ins Ehebett and Hot Summer, Mr. Hasler used Gerd Natschinski and his son Thomas to compose the music. For No Cheating Darling!, the music is more of a collective effort with songs by Gerd Natschinski, Frank Schöbel, and Gerhard Siebholz. Mr. Siebholz had composed the music for Hochzeitsnacht im Regen—Frank Schöbel’s feature film that Joachim Hasler did not direct. Mr. Siebholz was a very successful composer who worked often with Mr. Schöbel and Ms. Doerk. He didn’t often write music for movie soundtracks, but he did compose many hit songs for popular East German singers, including Ruth Brandin, Hauff & Henkler, and Britt Kersten. His musical style is more in keeping with the schlager-style of music that is popular with older people in Germany. As a consequence, the songs here don’t have the punch of the Gerd and Thomas Natschinski’s rock-inflected tunes in Hot Summer.

No Cheating, Darling! features Chris Doerk with her best haircut ever, and Mr. Schöbel with his worst. During the late sixties and early seventies, Doerk and Schöbel were two of the most popular singers in East Germany. They won the Schlagerwettbewerb der DDR (an East German song contest) twice, and for most of the late sixties and early seventies they were the darlings of East German television. After they split up, they each continued with successful music careers. Mr. Schöbel was the bigger star in East Germany, but Ms. Doerk was very popular, and was also a big star in Cuba. She later wrote a book about her travels there (La Casita, Geschichten aus Cuba).

Chris Doerk

After the Wende, Frank Schöbel continued to perform, primarily in the eastern half of the country. His Christmas album, Weihnachten in Familie which he sang with his second ex-wife, Spanish singer Aurora Lacasa, was also a hit and continues to sell well at Christmas time every year. Chris Doerk suffered problems with her voice quite performing for a while. She is now singing again, but only intermittently, and she occassionally appears with Mr. Schöbel. Her most recent album, Nur eine Sommerliebe, was released in 2012 on the Buschfunk label.

Playing the headstrong school director is the beautiful Dorit Gäbler. Ms. Gäbler came to films with a background in musical theater. She is a strong singer and a fine actress. She started appearing in TV movies in the late sixties, and made her first feature film appearance in Nebelnacht (Foggy Night) in 1968. She appeared in several TV movies and feature films throughout the seventies and eighties, including a fun bit in Motoring Tales—a daffy movie that combines fairytales and cars. Since the Wende, her on-screen career has been restricted to television. Like many other East German actors, she showed up in a few episodes of the Leipzig hospital drama, In aller Freunschaft. She continues to perform in cabaret programs, and just finished a tour in October of Rote Rosen für Mackie Messer (Red Roses for Mack the Knife), an evening of songs and stories about the criminal underworld in the days of The Three Penny Opera. She also does tribute programs dedicated to the songs of Marlene Dietrich and Hildegard Knef.

Gäbler and Fiala

Playing opposite Ms. Gäbler is Karel Fiala, a Czech singer/actor, who, like Ms. Gäbler, came from a musical theater background. He started his film career playing the title role in the film adaptation of Smetana’s Opera, Dalibor, but he made his biggest splash in the mind-bendingly nutty comedy-western, Lemonade Joe (Limonádový Joe aneb Konská opera). He also put in a  brief appearance in Amadeus as the actor in the title role of Don Giovanni. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Mr. Fiala found it nearly impossible to secure film roles, but continued to perform on stage. In 2013, he received  a lifetime achievement award at the Czech Thalia Awards (Ceny Thálie) for his work in musical theater.

But the real stars of this film are the costumes and the dancing. The costumes were created by Helga Scherff. Ms. Scherff had already proved her talent for pop clothing design in Gottfried Kolditz’s entertaining musical Midnight Revue, and she would prove it again in Hostess. Like Star Trek and I Dream of Jeannie during the sixties, there seems to be a conscious effort here to cover up the navels of the women. You catch glimpses of them early in the film, but they are very fleeting. This is tricky business since several of Ms. Scherff’s outfits feature bare midriffs, In one case, decorative belts are worn that seem to have the sole purpose of hiding the navel. It is such an odd detail, that I can’t help but suspect that these belts were added during production to placate the censors.

Nicht fummeln, Liebling!

The dance numbers are choreographed by Gisela Walther, who did the choreography for Hot Summer and Hochzeitsnacht im Regen. Ms. Walther was the ballet director at the Friedrichstadt-Palastes in Berlin, and won the National Prize of the GDR (Nationalpreis der DDR) in 1977 for her work there. Dancers from the Friedrichstadt-Palastes appear in the film doing the type of synchronized, Rockettes-style dancing for which they are justifiably well-known. Also appearing are the children of Dresden’s Kinderballett Morena in a short but entertaining synchronized rope jumping routine.

No Cheating, Darling! came out a month after The Legend of Paul and Paula, one of the most beloved films to ever play in East Germany. This surely impacted its success. The inevitable comparisons to Hot Summer didn’t help either. Taken on its own, No Cheating, Darling! is an entertaining little comedy, with some great costumes and dance routines. Ironically, its theme about the problem of channeling funds away from education to sports is much more relevant in modern America than it ever was in East Germany.

 

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

 

The Flying Dutchman

There is no other film quite like The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegende Holländer). Part opera, part experimental sound collage, and part avant-garde cinema, it is a surrealistic take on Wagner’s opera that pushed the boundaries of filmmaking at the time. Although there were silent films that used Wagner’s operas and music, and a 1947 Italian film that presented a heavily abbreviated version of Lohengrin, DEFA’s The Flying Dutchman is considered the first attempt to film a Wagner opera in its entirety, although, in point of fact, it too reworks the story to suit both the cinematic medium and the political viewpoint of the GDR. It was directed by opera director, Joachim Herz, who, perhaps because it was his first (and only) film, opted to experiment with state-of-the-art sound and film techniques.

Director Herz dramatically changes Wagner’s opera from one about a ghostly event to the reveries of a young woman named Senta who is infatuated with the story of the Flying Dutchman. To separate reality from Senta’s imagination, Mr. Herz uses two different film aspect ratios—a technique most recently seen in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (although Anderson used three). Whenever we are watching Anna in the real world, the aspect ratio is the 1.667:1 an aspect ratio common to European films since the late fifties.1 When the film shifts to Senta’s dream world, the screen slowly opens up to the 2.35:1 dimensions of DEFA’s Totalvision (the same as Cinemascope). In other films that use multiple aspect ratios, the change in screen aspect is handled as edits, but Herz wanted these switches in perspective to flow like the film’s lush score. To do this required sophisticated in-camera techniques involving animation frames and an American Mitchell camera that accepted double reels (described in detail in one of the PDF files included with the film). This process meant that everything had to be shot with the larger format while the animation frame was simultaneously running through the camera. That this worked at all is a testament to cinematographer Erich Gusko’s skill with a camera.

Mr. Gusko got his start working on documentaries, where he quickly made a name for himself. He became an integral part of the Statcheltier film team (the short, satirical films made to screen before the main features). Working with Richard Groschopp and Joachim Hasler, he honed his craft, shooting 27 of the Statcheltier films and, in the process, becoming one the best and most sought-after cinematographers in the GDR. This fact worked against him in 1965, when he was chosen by Kurt Maetzig to film his classic, The Rabbit is Me. When the film was banned after the 11th Plenum, and singled out as the poster child for everything that was wrong with DEFA filmmaking in 1966, Gusko’s career stalled. The next film he worked on, Kurt Maetzig’s Das Mädchen auf dem Brett (The Girl on the Board), was intended for theaters, but ended up screening on television instead, as did his next two films. He was finally allowed back into feature film production with Siegfried Kühn’s Zeit der Störche (Time of the Storks). The next film he worked on, Her Third, raised some eyebrows, but managed to make it past the censors anyway. Mr Gusko continued to work throughout the seventies and eighties, but with the fall of the wall in 1989, his career ended. He made one for film for DEFA after Germany’s reunification, but reunification marked the end of his career as a cameraman.

The Flying Dutchman

As if its trailblazing cinematography weren’t enough, the decision was made to use four-channel magnetic sound instead of the optical, mono soundtrack common to films at the time. 4-track mag had been introduced at the same time as CinemaScope, but only a few DEFA had used it so far, mostly notably, The Silent Star. There were few films more deserving of the full four-channel magnetic sound treatment that The Flying Dutchman. After all, the music was by Richard Wagner, who spent most of career pushing the limits of opera and the human voice. He would have loved the idea that his work was still pushing boundaries in 1963.

Of course, Wagner’s notorious and undeniable antisemitism was a topic of much discussion after WWII, especially in East Germany where they were less inclined than the west to forgive anything that smacked of National Socialism. His music was undeniably beautiful, and brides all over the world still walk down the aisle to the Bridal Chorus from Lohegrin, but, let’s face it, as a person, he was a nasty piece of work (entertainingly captured by Richard Burton in the 1983 mini-series). But Wagner’s music was greater than the man who made it. The power and beauty of the music trumped Wagner’s misguided philosophy. As a political thinker, he was a bit of a nitwit, but he sure could bang out a good tune. Nonetheless, there are still musicians who refuse to play his music.

By framing the story as a dream, Joachim deftly leaps over DEFA’s aversion to supernatural elements in films. Horror is the one genre that the East Germans never tackled. There are horror films from Communist Poland (Lokis: Rekopis profesora Wittembacha, Diabel, and Wilczyca), and from Czechoslovakia (Vlci bouda, Prazske noci, and Ferat Vampire—about a car that drinks blood, starring Václav Havel’s wife), there is even one from Soviet Russia (Viy), but there are none from the GDR. One could argue that some of the Märchenfilme qualify as horror movies (The Singing, Ringing Tree certainly comes close), but The Flying Dutchman is the first, and only East German film to present zombies that look like extras from Night of the Living Dead. The scene occurs after the townspeople, full of ale and good cheer, go down to the Flying Dutchman and try to rouse the crew to come join them. This proves to be a mistake since the crew is dead. Soon the townspeople find themselves trapped in the inn, surrounded by rotting corpses. This scene, in particular makes good use of the four-channel sound, enveloping the audience in the sounds of the crowd.

The Flying Dutchman zombies

Playing Senta is Anna Prucnal, a Polish actress who was starting to make a name for herself in her home country. She didn’t speak any German, but that hardly mattered since her only mouth movements involved lip-synching to a pre-recorded opera score (sung by Gerda Hannemann). Since much of the singing occurs only in her head, Ms. Prucnal’s character spends a lot of screen time simply staring longingly into the distance. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why Mr. Herz chose Ms. Prucnal. With her striking features and enormous dark eyes, she is a good choice to play the wistful Senta. In spite of her lack of German language skills, she went on to star in a few more East German films including Reise ins Ehebett (Trip to the Nuptial Bed), Unterwegs zu Lenin (On the Way to Lenin), and Jede Stunde meines Lebens (Every Hour of My Life).

In 1970, finding that roles in Polish and East German films were diminishing, Ms. Prucnal moved to France, where she started working in theater, performing in the plays of Bertolt Brecht and other avant garde playwrights. In 1972, she made her biggest splash as Anna Planeta in Dusan Makavejev’s outrageous Sweet Movie. Even after forty years, this film still manages to shock audiences with its sexually over-the-top, two-pronged attack on both capitalism and communism. The Polish authorities were not amused and had Ms. Prucnal’s passport revoked, effectively exiling her from her homeland.

While in France, Ms. Prucnal developed her career as a singer. She has released several albums, primarily in French, and she is now better known as a singer than as an actress. She rarely appears in films these days, but continues to release records and occasionally work on stage, most recently at the Vingtième Théâtre in Paris, where she recited works by Jean Cocteau.

The Flying Dutchman

Also worth mentioning here is the film’s choreographer, Ruth Berghaus. By the time this film was made, Ms. Berghaus was already well-known for her choreography and made a big splash the same year the film came out with her choreography of the battle scenes in Brecht’s adaptation of Corialanus. She would eventually go on to become better known for her opera and theater direction than Mr. Herz. Like Mr. Herz, Ms. Berghaus grew up in Dresden, where she studied modern dance under Wolfgang Langhoff. In 1951, she started working as a director at Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, where some of her productions are still being used. She was married to composer Paul Dessau whom she met while working on the stage adaptation of Brecht’s radio play, The Trial of Lucullus, for which Dessau had written the music. As choreographer, Ms. Berghaus’ work involved not just the people in the scenes, but the choreography of the crew as well—all part of Joachim Herz’s vision for the movie. In short, everything about the film had to flow and move seamlessly.

At the premiere screening of the film, everything that could go wrong did. The sound system at the theater broke down, leading to either no sound, or screeching. As good as 4-track mag sounded, it was also more prone to playback problems and issues inherent in magnetic sound, such as hiss. Whether because of the sound problems that occurred with the initial screenings, or the entire process of filmmaking, Joachim Herz never made another movie, preferring instead to do his directing on the opera stage. Too bad, because if this film is any indication, Joachim Herz would have been a major force in experimental cinema.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


1. Interviews with the cinematographer and the director, and other essays about this film cite the smaller aspect as Academy standard, which is 1.37:1. My tests found this not to be the case.

On the Sunny Side

On the Sunny Side (Auf der Sonnenseite) is an entertaining little film about a man named Martin Hoff, who goes from working in a steel foundry to taking drama classes, only to be kicked out because of his behavior. It stars Manfred Krug, who, like Hoff, was working as a steelworker when he started taking drama classes at the State Drama School in Berlin (now the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts), and like Hoff was kicked out for his behavior. Krug, however, eventually found his way into Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, and from there into movies. But that is not what this film is about. Most of the plot concerns Martin Hoff’s attempts to woo Ottilie Zinn, the pretty architect who is in charge of a project on which Hoff is working. Zinn’s aloof indifference toward him provokes Hoff to take a bet from his compatriots that he can woo her. It’s an old plot that has been used in films from Guys and Dolls to How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and with similar results.

On the Sunny Side was a popular film that—along with Midnight Revue, released a few months later—helped cement Manfred Krug’s reputation as a singer as well as an actor. Mr. Krug started in films in 1957, usually playing the heavy. He starred in several TV-movies at the start of his career, playing everything from the reprehensible Locky McCormick in the East German made-for-TV version of Johnny Belinda, to Mephisto in a TV adaptation of Faust.

In 1966, he turned in a performance as Hannes Balla in Trace of Stones that would have been a career-defining role for most actors, but the film was quickly pulled from theaters as a result of the idiotic 11th Plenum. While the Plenum was a career ender for several people at DEFA, the banning of Trace of Stones had little effect on Krug’s career. He continued to appear in films and released several albums on the GDR’s Amiga label. He often collaborated with jazz musician and film composer Gunther Fischer, with Fischer writing the music and Krug writing the lyrics under the pseudonym, “Clemens Kerber.”

Then in 1976, he was joined the protest against the expatriation of leftist singer, Wolf Biermann. For most of the DEFA actors, directors and writers who signed this protest, the move proved to be the end of their film careers in East Germany, but Krug didn’t stick around to find out. Born in Duisberg in 1937, Mr. Krug was a West German by birth and was able to use this fact to leave the GDR as soon as it became apparent that the SED was not going to respond to the protest with anything other than repression and surveillance. Mr. Krug quickly established a new career in West Germany, primarily in television, where he made a splash as truck driver Franz Meersdonk in the popular TV series, Auf Achse (On the Axle) and later as the lawyer Robert Liebling on Jurek Becker’s Liebling Kreuzberg. (For more on Manfred Krug, see The Trace of Stones.)

On the Sunny Side was written and directed by Ralf Kirsten. After studying theater at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Kristen went to Prague, where he studied directing at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and joined fellow DEFA directors Konrad Petzold and Frank Beyer to create the short film, Blázni mezi námi (Fools Among Us). On the Sunny Side was Kirsten’s first bona fide hit. He teamed up with Manfred Krug again the following year to make Beschreibung eines Sommers (Description of a Summer), which also was also a hit with the public. He went on to make several more popular films, including Mir nach, Canaillen! (Follow Me, Canaillen!), Frau Venus und ihr Teufel (Venus and her Devil), Die Elixiere des Teufels (The Devil’s Elixir), and Unterm Birnbaum (Under the Pear Tree). After the Wende, Kirsten found it more difficult to find work as director and began teaching at the film school in Babelsberg. He died in 1998 in Berlin.

Playing the independent and lovely Ottilie is Marita Böhme. After training to be a pre-school teacher, Ms. Böhme began studying theater at the State Drama school in Berlin. A gifted singer, she often appeared in musicals and operettas. She appeared in several movies, in roles of varying importance. She appeared the year after On the Sunny Side in Ralf Kirsten’s Beschreibung eines Sommers, although this time not as Manfred Krug’s love interest. She is best remembered for her role in Carbide and Sorrel. After the Wende she became a regular on Polizeiruf 110 as Opera director Edith Reger.

In spite of being released in the middle of winter, On the Sunny Side was a big hit. The public was looking for something cheerful to take their minds off the increasing tensions between east and west and the recent construction of the Berlin Wall, and Kirsten’s film fit the bill. Today it seems like very light fare, but its importance to the times should not be underestimated. It was the right film at the right time.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

Meine Frau macht Musik

Excessive seriousness has never been a problem for Hollywood. Designed for the sole purpose of making money, Hollywood films only give us something to think about when it looks like that approach will improve the bottom line. In stark contrast, DEFA was all about making thoughtful serious films. An approach that led to some criticism, such as the scene in The Trace of Stones when construction foreman Balla attempts to woo the new technician by telling her that he would “even go to a DEFA film” with her if she liked. When filmmakers tried to aim for entertainment at DEFA, unless it was a Märchenfilm, they usually ran into a host of obstacles. Never mind that every time they did release a comedy or a musical, it sold well; getting these films made was like pulling teeth.

The perfect example of this is DEFA’s first musical, My Wife Wants to Sing (Meine Frau macht Musik). The film met with with criticism at every step of the way, and was shelved immediately after it was finished. For a while, it looked as if the film would never see the light of day, but the music was released on a LP, which proved to be very popular and eventually led DEFA to release the film, but not without some major changes, as we shall see.

My Wife Wants to Sing belongs to a genre particularly popular in both East and West Germany called a Revuefilm; what we would call a backstage musical. The story follows Gerda and Gustl Wagner. Gustl works in the music section of a large department store. His wife Gerda is a talented singer who gave up a career to become a  housewife. When the aspiring, but talentless, daughter of a friend of Gustl’s is unable to meet her commitment to sing for Fabiani—an Italian popstar who is in town for a concert—Gerda agrees to take her place. Gerda is a hit, and Gustl finds himself upset by his wife’s decision to appear as part of an upcoming Variety show, and jealous of the suave Fabiani, who seems to be making moves on his wife. As with any Revuefilm, the story occasionally takes a backseat to the on-stage performances by various song and dance groups.

My Wife Wants to Sing was directed by Hans Heinrich. During the war years, Heinrich worked as a film editor until, like nearly every other able-bodied man in the Third Reich, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. After the war, he joined DEFA, working as assistant director and editor for Wolfgang Staudte on the classic DEFA film, Murderers Are Among Us. He made a few short films for the German Labor Front during the late thirties, but his first feature film was made for DEFA in 1950. That film, Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Barge of the Happy People), belongs to the barge film genre , a uniquely European film genre without an equivalent in the States. The film was such a hit that he followed it up with Alter Kahn und junge Liebe (Old Barge and Young Love) in 1957.

Like his mentor, Wolfgang Staudte, Heinrich’s politics were more in line with East Germany than West Germany, but East German authorities, in their rush to re-enact George Orwell’s Animal Farm, were making it harder and harder on any idealistic socialists who didn’t cleave to the SED party line. By the end of the fifties, both Staudte and Heinrich had left the country. Heinrich, at first, tried to regain a foothold as a director in Mexico, but when that didn’t pan out, he returned to West Germany, where he worked primarily in television, and is probably better known today as the primary director for the popular West German comedy series, Drei Damen vom Grill (Three Ladies from the Grill). He died in 2003 in his home town, Berlin.

To play Gustl, Heinrich cast Günther Simon, a decision that caused some hand-wringing at DEFA. Simon was the well-known star of Kurt Maetzig’s epic Ernst Thälmann films. He had made a few movies since then, but nothing quite so frivolous. It was worried that his turn in this film would dilute the power of his performances in the Thälmann films. Eventually, he was given the okay, which undoubtedly helped him move onto roles in other classic DEFA films, including, Sun Seekers, The Silent Star, and When You’re Older, Dear Adam. Simon died in 1972 and is buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin.

Playing Gerda, the wife of the film’s title, is Lore Frisch, a talented actress who got her start in West Germany. Born in Bavaria, Frisch was a ballet student until the war intervened. She worked as a nurse until after the war, at which time she joined a theater company in East Frisia, first as a backstage assistant, and eventually as an actress. She appeared in a few West German comedies and Heimatfilme before moving to East Germany, where she almost immediately attracted attention for her performance in Der Ochse von Kulm (The Ox of Kulm), a kind of East German send-up of the Heimatfilm genre. Unfortunately, for all her talent, Frisch suffered from some demons and a problem with painkillers. She committed suicide in 1962.

My Wife Wants to Sing

One of the odder aspects of the film is Evelyn Künneke’s appearance as Daisy, an attractive barfly/singer who flirts with Gustl between performances. Künneke was already a popular singer in Germany, and her work is still available on several CDs and as MP3 downloads. She agreed to appear in the film if she could sing two songs by Siegfried Wegener. After the film was in the can, but still not released, an article appeared in Junge Welt—the newspaper for the East German youth group, Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ)—that took the film to task for using songs by Wegener, who, at that time, was in charge of programming dance music for RIAS, the U.S.-controlled radio station and arch-nemesis of the East German government (for more on this subject, see Look at This City! and  Castles and Cottages). As a result, most of the footage of Evelyn Künneke’s singing ended up on the cutting room floor. What was left was redubbed with a different song composed by Gerd Natschinski, who later wrote the music for Midnight Revue. Natschinski carefully wrote his song to match Künneke’s mouth movements as closely as possible, but it mattered little. We only catch glimpses of Künneke singing.

Reviews for the film were divided along state lines. The East German commentator, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, found the film entertaining, but made  it known that he thought the genre was a form of silly fluff. West German reviewers were less kind, essentially saying that the very structure of East German government and society made it impossible for a film like this to work. In fact, the real problem with this film isn’t its East German origin, but its West German sensibilities. There is very little here that makes this film stand out  as a product of DEFA. Nonetheless, it is a moderately enjoyable little musical that captures aspects of fifties style in East Germany better than many films.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

Beloved White Mouse

The musical comedy is not a genre anyone would associate with East Germany. It was born in Hollywood and reached its acme under Arthur Freed at MGM. Musical comedies are happy affairs, light as meringues  colorful, and carefree—not qualities that immediately spring to mind when one thinks of the GDR. But DEFA made several musicals and most of them are fun. Beloved White Mouse (Geliebte Weiße Maus) is one of the most fun musicals, which is curious considering it began with a PR effort from the Ministry of the Interior to improve the public image of the Volkspolizei.

After the wall was built, East Germany endured a great deal of bad press. In spite of their argument that the wall was not an instrument of oppression, but one of protection (see Look at This City!), the wall helped promote the image of East Germany as one of a drab, 1984-style land, devoid of happiness and love. This was especially true of the Volkspolizei, who were often enlisted to help with situations that were really under the purview of the military. When faced with protests, the VoPo resorted to the same tactics used by cops all over the world in these situations: hit first, arrest for resistance, and ask questions later. As a consequence, by 1962, Stasi reports were showing a dangerously large-scale discontentment with the People’s Police.

The Ministry of the Interior turned to DEFA to help change this image and change it they did. DEFA’s solution was a light comedy about one of the most innocuous members of the Volkspolizei—the lowly traffic cop. Traffic police were fixtures of Germany during the fifties and sixties—both east and west—and were often seen in the middle of intersections directing traffic. They wore white uniforms to make them more visible, which led to the nickname “White Mice” (Weiße Mäuse). Beloved White Mouse is the story of one such traffic cop named Fritz Bachmann. Fritz directs traffic at a busy intersection in Dresden’s Loschwitz borough. Everyday, he sees the same people walk and drive by, in particular, a doe-eyed waif named Helene who rides a “Troll” motor scooter to work. Helene also notices Fritz and decides it’s time to meet him. Fritz has another admirer, a zaftig woman named Frau Messmer, who walks her poodle past Fritz’s station and has a nasty habit of losing control of her poodle at the intersection. When the interests of these three collide—not literally, but almost—the story begins.

Like any good musical, reality here is pliable. People start singing directly to the movie audience, and at one point Fritz and Helene sail over Dresden, carried aloft by a beach umbrella. It’s a fun sequence, and the camera is careful not to venture too close to the parts of the city that were still in ruins from the WWII firebombing by Allied troops. After all, this is a comedy, not a documentary.

Beloved White Mouse was directed by Gottfried Kolditz, and stars Rolf Herricht. Kolditz hardly needs an introduction here. Some of his films have already been featured on this blog, including Midnight Review, Apaches, and the psychedelic masterpiece, In the Dust of the Stars. Playing Fritz is Rolf Herricht. one of East Germany’s most popular comic actors. Herricht was best known as half of the comedy duo, Herricht and Preil, who were staples of East German television. An example of their work together can be seen in the film DEFA Disko 77. Herricht appeared in several films, including Not To Me, Madam!, Hauptmann Florian von der Mühle (Captain Florian of the Mill), and the banned film, Hands Up, or I’ll Shoot. Herricht died in 1981 of a heart attack on stage during a performance of Kiss Me Kate at the Berlin Metropol Theater.

Karin Schröder, who plays Helene, is possibly the most adorable actress to come out East Germany. Her large brown eyes and blonde hair here make her look like a living Keane painting. She got her start playing the sporty Ruth in the popular DEFA musical New Year’s Eve Punch, and demonstrated a knack for comedy that Kolditz put to good use in Beloved White Mouse. In 1976, she proved she was equally adept at drama, winning the best actress award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for her performance in Kurt Maetzig’s Mann gegen mann (Man Against Man). Most of her work in East Germany was in television, where she appeared in over thirty TV movies and several of the most popular shows. She appeared nine times on the East German TV series Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort (The D.A. Has the Floor), although never in the same role twice. In 1987, she moved to West Germany. As with other actors that moved prior to the Wende, she was able to continue her career without the sorts of problems that those who stayed in East Germany until the bitter end experienced. She has gone on the appear in several popular TV shows since then, including a turn as the Kriminaloberrätin Marianne Stockhausen on Die Wache and as Sophie Himmel-Eiler on the long running soap opera Unter Uns.

Playing the unlovable Frau Messmer is Marianne Wünscher, an important character actor in the DEFA line-up. She appeared in dozens of East German TV-movies and several of the Stacheltier shorts that played before the main features at East German cinemas. She also made a brief appearance in Hot Summer as the director of the Volkseigenes Gut (farm collective). Too chubby for lead roles, she made a career out of playing the parts of nosy neighbors, officious secretaries, or lovable older women. She also appeared on stage, and had a knack for comedy. Ms. Wünscher died in 1990 in the middle of the Wende—after the wall fell, but before the reunification. She is buried in the Friedhof Pankow III cemetery in Berlin’s Pankow-Schönhausen district.

The music for Beloved White Mouse was by Carlernst Ortwein, a Leipzig-born pianist who used the pseudonym Conny Odd for his film work. Most of his film scores were made for the short films of Lothar Barke and others. In 1967 he moved away from film work to concentrate on his serious music, He appears briefly in the film playing piano in the dance orchestra. Conny Odd didn’t have an avant garde bone in this body, so the songs here, while enjoyable, could have come from a musical made ten years earlier. You won’t be singing them upon leaving the theater like you might with Hot Summer. A particularly entertaining number, though, is “Der Mann von Titelblatt,” which features a beauty parlor full of people singing about Fritz’s appearance on the cover of a magazine. It’s the kind of surreal nuttiness that makes this and other musicals so much fun to watch.

No examination of Beloved White Mouse would be complete without mentioning the work of its cinematographer, Günter Haubold. A comedy musical requires a bright and happy palette of colors and Haubold’s work here fits the bill perfectly (helped considerably by Babett Koplowitz’s colorful costume design). Everything is bright and airy, and seems like it was filmed in the sunlight–even the indoor scenes. There are no shadows in this film. Haubold got his start assisting Wolf Göthe on Gerhard Klein’s A Berlin Romance. He worked on several DEFA classics, including Konrad Petzold’s Das Lied vom Trompeter (The Trumpeter’s Song), Horst E. Brandt’s Zwischen Nacht und Tag (Between Night and Day), Günter Reisch’s Anton the Magician, and Iris Gusner’s All My Girls. In most respects, Beloved White Mouse was an anomaly in his body of work. He is best known for a semi-documentary style and some of the best black-and-white cinematography committed to film. He reached retirement age just as the wall came down. He ended his career with the dissolution of DEFA and DFF, but continued to work privately and to teach cinematography. He died in 1999.

As one might expect, Beloved White Mouse was a hit in East Germany. After the 11th Plenum, lighthearted comedy musicals like this one were taken off the schedule. Several of the films relegated to the “Poison Cabinet” during the 11th Plenum were banned for no better reason than that they were frivolous fun. But people need their fun, and it wasn’t long before comedies and musicals started showing up again, most notably with the classic East German Beach Party movie, Hot Summer.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (DVD also includes Der Reserveheld).

Revue um MItternacht

Communist musicals are in a class by themselves. So much so that in 1997, filmmaker Dana Ranga made them the subject of her fascinating documentary East Side Story—required viewing for anyone interested in the films of the GDR or other Eastern Bloc countries. In a world as grim and gray as East Germany could be, the colorful happiness and tuneful joy of the musicals exploded like psychedelic bombs on the movie screens of the former republic. Small wonder that they tended to pack people in. Right from the get-go the authorities didn’t think much of these happy, lighthearted features, but they made money, and even in an aggressively anti-capitalistic place like the GDR, money talked.

For a long time, DEFA had no intention of producing anything as frivolous as a musical, but the immense popularity of the DEFA Märchenfilme (fairytale films), which were made for East German children, but went on to become popular all over the world, helped pave the way for opera films (e.g., Zar und Zimmermann), which, in turn, opened the door for the modern musical.

In 1958, DEFA finally decided to give musicals a chance after a report showed that people in East Berlin would often cross the border to see the musicals playing in the western sector. Hollywood extravaganzas and their West German counterparts (most notably, the films of Marika Rökk) were filling West Berlin’s cinemas. DEFA decided to fight fire with fire. It was decided that as long as it didn’t contravene socialist values, a musical might be okay.

West Berliner Hans Heinrich—who had already directed the popular DEFA barge films, Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Happy Barge Crew) and Alter Kahn und junge Liebe (Old Barge, Young Love)—submitted a proposal for a musical to DEFA and it was accepted. The film Meine Frau macht Musik (My Wife Wants to Sing), was promptly shelved, but the popularity of the music, which was released as an LP, led the authorities to rethink this plan, eventually releasing the film, although changing some of the music (more on this in a future post).

But throughout the fifties, the DEFA authorities remained wary of the musical genre. As a rule, song-and-dance numbers had to be incorporated in a semi-realistic fashion into the stories. For this reason, two of the more popular films from this period were Maibowle (The Punch Bowl) and its even more popular sequel, Silvesterpunsch (New Year’s Eve Punch), in which the musical numbers are parts of shows put on by the workers at a chemical plant. Never mind that, like their American counterparts, these musical numbers defied the realistic limitations of stage production.

After the Berlin Wall went up, the East German government was anxious to show that, if anything, the newly constructed “Anti-fascist Protection Barrier” (Antifaschistischer Schutzwall) would lead to greater creative freedom in the GDR. They started to greenlight movies that only a year earlier would not have gotten past the proposal stage. Films became more experimental and daring. This was the golden age of East German cinema—at least until the 11th Plenum in 1965 brought the renaissance to a screeching halt.

Into this new climate walked Gottfried Kolditz; one of the best directors to come out of East Germany. After studying at the University of Music and Theatre in Leipzig, Kolditz came to DEFA as a musical consultant for the films Mazurka der Liebe (Mazurka of Love), and Zar und Zimmermann (Tzar and Carpenter). He began his directing career as a member of the Stacheltier Group, which specialized in creating short films to play before the features. The Stacheltier Group created only one feature-length movie, Der junge Engländer (The Young Englishman) and it was directed by Kolditz. From there, Kolditz started directing features, mostly Märchenfilme. Over the years, Kolditz became DEFA’s go-to guy for genre films, directing musicals (Midnight Revue and Geliebte weiße Maus), Indianerfilme (Apaches and Ulzana), and science fiction (Signals and In the Dust of the Stars). With the exception of the Indianerfilme, Kolditz usually managed to get insert a musical number or two into his movies. The man clearly loved music.

Midnight Revue wastes no time letting us know that we are watching a musical. It starts with the smoky-voiced French chanteuse, Nicole Felix, singing about the “shadows of the past” (Das ist die Schatten der Vergangenheit) while suspiciously clandestine activities are going on in the next room. Activities that, as the song suggests, really were shadows of the past, when the cold war was raging across the porous border. Within the first half-hour of the film, we’ve been treated to a can-can, a hula dance (with East German women painted brown with what looks like shoe polish), and a Busby Berkeley-style number that includes women tap-dancing on pianos and playing accordions in tutus. Even if you don’t speak a word of German, the first half hour will keep you entertained.

The plot of the film involves the kidnapping of three prominent men in the film industry: an art director, a composer, and a dramaturge (a very important job at DEFA; see the Glossary for more information). It turns out that they are kidnapped by producer Otto Kruse, who wants to make a socialist musical; a kind of cavalcade of musical styles—in other words, the very film we are watching. The idea is to hold these men hostage and convince them to work on the film. Their response to this demand is that making such a film would be too difficult, too expensive, and too politically risky. “Too hot,” they sing (Zu Heiß). Associate producer Theo, and Kruse’s assistant, Claudia Glück, try to convince the men that a revue film is a great idea by conceptualizing various scenarios, which then come to life in the room, but to no avail. The men refuse to budge.

A fourth man—writer Paul Bielack—was also supposed to be kidnapped, but, unlike the other three, he knew of Kruse’s plan and sent his friend, an aspiring singer-songwriter named Alexander Ritter, in his place. Ritter is the only one of the four kidnapped men who thinks a revue film is a great idea, and immediately contributes his own ideas to the project. What no one knows is that Ritter had been lusting after Claudia Glück already. Immediately, sparks start to fly between Ritter and Glück. Ms. Glück thinks Ritter is arrogant and childish. He is, in her words, a halbfertiger Mensch (“half-finished man”). This comment really seems to upset Mr. Ritter (like most Germans, he doesn’t like anything half-finished). At this point, anyone who has seen more than one romantic comedy will realize that the these two will eventually get together, but not before a few more kidnappings, deceptions, and misunderstandings.

Playing Alexander Ritter is Manfred Krug, one of East Germany’s most multi-talented actors (see The Trace of Stones for more on Krug). Krug had already made a name for himself as an actor in the popular films Five Cartridges (Fünf Patronenhülsen), Professor Mamlock, and Königskinder  (Star-Crossed Lovers), but he first showed his talent as both a singer and an actor in Auf der Sonnenseite (On the Sunny Side), a film that parallels his own life in many ways. With Midnight Revue, he gets to unleash everything in his arsenal, except maybe his ability to play several different people in one movie. That would have to wait for Mit mir nicht, Madam! (Not To Me, Madam!), in which he portrays nine different people.

Playing opposite Krug as production assistant Claudia Glück is Christel Bodenstein. The public first saw Ms. Bodenstein as Traute in the Märchenfilm, Das tapfere Schneiderlein (The Valiant Tailor), but it was her turn as the arrogant princess in The Singing, Ringing Tree that she really caught people’s attention. A West German by birth, Ms. Bodenstein moved to Leipzig with her mother in 1949, where she enrolled in the Leipzig Opera ballet school. When she was 17, a chance meeting with director Kurt Maetzig at a Baltic resort led to a screen test for DEFA. She then moved from Leipzig and began studying acting at the Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam. Shortly afterward, she was cast in Slatan Dudow’s Der Hauptmann von Köln (The Captain from Cologne). From 1960 until 1978, she was married to director Konrad Wolf. As with many other East German actors, she did very little in film and television after the Wende, turning her attentions instead to theater. More recently, she has been working as a sculptor, with her work appearing in galleries in the Berlin area.

Although Krug and Bodenstein had appeared once before in the same film (Bevor der Blitz einschlägt), this was the first time they were paired as a romantic couple and it seemed to work. They were paired up twice more within a year (Minna von Barnhelm and Beschreibung eines Sommers). Christel Bodenstein is the classic example of the “triple-threat”—that rare individual who can act, sing, and dance. And while Krug isn’t the hoofer that Ms. Bodenstein is, he can hold his own against her in the other two categories.

The music for the film is by Gerd Natschinski, who had worked with Gottfried Kolditz before on Mazurka der Liebe. Along with Gunther Fischer and Karl-Ernst Sasse (who is credited in Midnight Revue as the conductor of the DEFA Symphony Orchestra), Natschinski is one of East Germany’s most prolific composers. He wrote much of the music for Meine Frau Macht Musik, but is best remembered for the relentlessly infectious songs in Hot Summer. After Midnight Revue, Natschinski turned to the stage, writing the music for Mein Freund Bunbury (My Friend Bunbury), East Germany’s first theatrical musical. He could also turn in a good dramatic score, as he did for Joachim Hasler’s Chronik eines Mordes (The Story of a Murder).

No discussion Midnight Revue would be complete without mentioning the colorful camerawork of its cinematographer, Erich Gusko. Along with Werner Bergmann, Joachim Hasler, and Günter Marczinkowsky, Gusko was one of DEFA’s most respected cinematographers. He got his start in 1955, working alongside Joachim Hasler on Richard Groschopp’s 52 Wochen sind ein Jahr (52 Weeks Make a Year). Over the  years, he worked on many excellent DEFA movies, including The Rabbit is Me, Lotte in Weimar, and Her Third. His work in various Märchenfilme and in Midnight Revue are especially vivid, taking full advantage of the eye-bleeding colors available to East Germany’s Agfacolor (later renamed ORWOcolor because of a copyright dispute with West Germany).

Also deserving of mention are Hans Kieselbach and Helga Scherff, who created the costumes for the film. Although Kieselbach did his first costume design in 1940, for the film Traummusik (Dream Music), that was his only effort under the Third Reich. His career began in earnest in 1948 with DEFA’s first science fiction film, Chemie und Liebe (Chemistry and Love). Midnight Revue was his last film. Helga Scherff, on the other hand, was in the middle of her career with this film. She was the costume designer for Konrad Wolf’s first film Einmal ist keinmal (Once Doesn’t Count), the first of Gerhad Klein’s Berlin trilogy, Alarm im Zirkus (Alarm at the Circus), Frank Beyer’s Carbide and Sorrel, and Kurt Barthel’s ill-fated Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly). The costumes in Midnight Revue cover the gamut. The clothing worn by the characters is stylish and modern, and the outfits worn by the dancers are as outrageously colorful as they should be. Between the costumes and the cinematography, the film matches the visual overload of The Red Shoes and The Girl Can’t Help It (probably the only time in history these two movies end up in the same sentence).

Finally, no discussion of this film would be complete without talking about its production designer, Alfred Tolle. Tolle’s career at DEFA began with Das kalte Herz (The Cold Heart), the first East German Märchenfilm. From there he went on to do the production design/art direction for several more Märchenfilme, as well as a few classics from the DEFA catalog, including Einmal ist Keinmal, Auf der Sonnenseite, and Chronik eines Mordes. His last film was Joachim Hasler’s Hot Summer. Always imaginative, Tolle gets to explore his inner Busby Berkeley in Midnight Revue with a giant piano keyboard, a three-story cupboard filled with women playing musical instruments, and a stylized blueprint come to life. Working with him as a set builder on the film was Werner Pieske, who went on to become a successful production designer in his own right. Pieske got his start as a feature film production designer with Gottfried Kolditz on Frau Holle (Mrs. Holle) and Geliebte weiße Maus (Dear White Mouse). He was one of the people responsible for the look of Herrmann Zschoche’s oddball space opera, Eolomea. Toward the latter half of the seventies until the Wende, he worked primarily in television. He was also the production designer for Gottfried Kolditz’s last film, the heavily criticized Das Ding im Schloß (The Thing in the Castle). His career ended with the Wende. He died in 1992.

Beginning a movie with the kidnapping of three people is startling even today, but back then—after several reported incidences of East German spies snatching people off the streets of West Berlin before the wall went up—it must have hit close to home. Follow these scenes with one in which three experts tell us exactly why the very film we are watching can never be made. The public must have been as amused as the authorities were nonplussed. Like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges—who discovered that through comedy you could skirt the Hayes Code—Kolditz uses humor to go places that no other East German filmmaker dared. As a document of its time, Midnight Revue is unique. It shows an East Germany that is moving toward the future with with hope and enthusiasm. Within a couple years, there would be no way this film could have been made. It broke every rule in the socialist book. Even after Erich Honecker relaxed the restrictions on film imposed by the SED at the 11th Plenum, it would be years before DEFA got back to this level of imagination and style, and even then, the buoyant vivacity of this film and Kolditiz’s other pre-Plenum musical, Geliebte weiße Maus, would never be matched.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


By the end of the sixties, it was obvious to all but the most iron-headed autocrats that East Germany was facing a crisis of culture. In spite of every effort to seal the public off from the invidious influences of the west, information was getting through, and the young people of the GDR were becoming more and more dissatisfied with the state of things. At DEFA they decided to try a different tack. If the kids wanted youth-oriented films that could match the likes of the AIP Beach Party movies, then DEFA was going to give them what they wanted, but with a distinctly communist slant. Thus was born the first East German Beach Party film, Hot Summer (Heißer Sommer).

In Hot Summer, a group of boys from Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz) and group of girls from Leipzig that have just finished school and are ready for a summer vacation (like its Hollywood counterparts, everyone in this film is considerably older than the character they play). They meet on their way to the Baltic Sea, with each group trading turns singing about the joys of a hot summer. Unlike the American Beach Party movies, which usually start with the boys and girls getting along at first and then fighting later, the boys and girls of Hot Summer are at each other from the start. The boys are led by Kai, played by the popular East German singer, Frank Schöbel, and the girls are led by Stupsi, played by Chris Doerk, a tomboy with a 100-watt smile and a voice that could have knocked down the wall by itself.

By the time Hot Summer was made, Chris Doerk and Frank Schöbel—a married couple in real life—were already media darlings in East Germany. Both appeared regularly on TV variety shows. Although there is some sexual tension between Kai and Stupsi, it never amounts to much. Aside from a scene where the two of them are singing atop a railroad train and then jump into a haystack (done without stunt doubles, I might add), they never quite connect. Kai has the hots for Stupsi’s pal, Britt, a flirtatious young woman who wants to have it all—in this case, all meaning both Kai and his friend Wolf.

In a Hollywood film, Britt would be the bad girl, who learns the hard way that living for the moment has its consequences (see Yvette Mimieux’s character in Where the Boys Are for the classic example of this). She would be chastised because sex for its own enjoyment is seen as a bad thing. In the east, her behavior is frowned on because it leads to party disunity. The rivalry over Britt threatens to tear the fabric of the community apart and everyone learns that the needs of the collective are more important than the needs of the individual. Britt is played by Regine Albrecht, who exudes a an easy-going, inconsiderate charm. Ms. Albrecht was primarily a stage actress, but she appeared in several films in the GDR. Since the late nineties, she has worked with the Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam, where she lives. She is also well-known for her voice dubbing, and has done the German voices for several popular American television shows and movies, including The Gilmore Girls, and Brokeback Mountain.

The director, Joachim Hasler, who was already a well-respected cinematographer when he made this film. After serving an apprenticeship at the ORWO labs in Wolfen (then still called AGFA), he became an apprentice cameraman at DEFA, working under the famous Bruno Mondi (see Rotation for more information on Mondi). His first screen credit as cinematographer was on Martin Hellberg’s anti-American classic, Das verurteilte Dorf (The Condemned Village). From there he went on to film some of the best DEFA movies of the late fifties and early sixties, including The Silent Star, and Das Lied der Matrosen (The Sailor’s Song). He began directing films in 1957, starting with Gejagt bis zum Morgen (Hunted Until Morning), and he scored a big hit in 1965 with Chronik eines Mordes (The Story of a Murder), which starred Angelica Domröse of The Legend of Paul and Paula fame.

The term auteur is often bandied about in film criticism and suggests that the director is the driving creative force behind a movie. Auteur theory falls to pieces in the east, where that kind of project ownership was actively discouraged. But Hot Summer comes closer to fitting the concept than most DEFA films. Joachim Hasler not only directed the film, but—like Kubrick and Soderberg—he was also the cinematographer and the co-author of the screenplay.

In spite of this seemingly heavy message, Hot Summer is light fun. The cast is as attractive as any western equivalent, and the songs are ridiculously catchy. After a couple listenings, you’ll find yourself humming them for the rest of the day. [Note: in German, they call a song that gets stuck in your head an Ohrwurm—literally, an “ear worm.”] The music was composed by the father and son team of Gerd and Thomas Natschinski. Gerd got his start after WWII as the conductor of the radio orchestra in Leipzig (Große Unterhaltungsorchester des Leipziger Rundfunks). He studied with Hanns Eisler in Berlin and also conducted the Berlin Radio Orchestra (Berliner Rundfunk). He began by scoring short films, and moved to feature films in 1954 with Hexen and Carola Lamberti – Eine vom Zirkus. He composed several theater pieces, including the musical Mein Freund Bunbury (My Friend Bunbury), and a ballet version of The Tales of Hoffmann. He also composed the music for Meine Frau macht Musik (My Wife Wants to Sing), and Revue um Mitternacht (Midnight Revue)—two of DEFA’s most successful musicals.

Gerd knew how to compose classical and stage music but Hot Summer was more pop than anything he had done before. To help him with this, he enlisted the aid of his 21-year-old son Thomas. The younger Natschinski was already a successful rock musician in East Germany, whose band, Team 4, had scored a hit in 1964 with “Mokka-Milch-Eisbar,” an extremely popular (and catchy) song about the joys of an ice cream parlor on East Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee. From there he went on to lead or work with several other groups, including Karat and Veronika Fischer (see DEFA Disko 77). In the late seventies, he started composing music for East German television shows, and continued this after the wall came down with nary a pause. In 2008, he published his biography (co-written with journalist, Christine Dähn), Verdammt, wer hat das Klavier erfunden (Damn it, Who Invented the Piano).

Hot Summer was a hit at the box-office. In the west, this would have led to an immediate sequel or two (in the case of Beach Party, three sequels were made in the following year alone). But the GDR didn’t work that way. It took five years for anything resembling a sequel to this film to make it to the big screen. In 1975, Joachim Hasler got together a second time with Doerk and Schöbel to create Nicht schummeln, Liebling! (No Cheating, Darling!), a film about the battle of the sexes and soccer. The film was not the hit that Hot Summer was. Critics liked the music, but hated the movie. It was Hasler’s last film as a cinematographer, but he continued to direct films for the next few years, including the popular TV-movie, Ein Engel im Taxi (An Angel in a Taxi), and Der Mann mit dem Ring im Ohr (The Man with the Ring in His Ear).

Today, the comparison to the films of Frankie and Annette has faded. More often, the film is compared to Grease, even though Grease came out after Hot Summer (the play in 1971, and the film in 1978). Nonetheless, it is an apt comparison. Both Grease and Hot Summer were dismissed by critics as pop culture kitsch appealing only to the lowest common denominator, yet both were box office hits that transcended the criticism with an infectious exuberance and plenty of catchy songs. Both have experienced revivals, of sorts. While Grease continues to enjoy repertory theater screenings and road shows of its theatrical version (as well as the occasional movie-house sing-along), Hot Summer went the opposite route, starting as a film and migrating to the stage in Rostock and Grünau. It is easy to sniff at a fluffy little film like Hot Summer, but it is far more enjoyable to simply let yourself go with it and accept it for what it was intended to be: a welcome relief from the drab duties of daily life.

IMDB page for Hot Summer.

Buy this film.

In 1977, disco fever swept the world. The Bee Gees—formerly a Beatles-influenced band—had reinvented themselves as the kings of the nightlife, John Travolta was teaching people how to dance, and skin-tight polyester shirts were flying off the shelves. In West Berlin, an Italian music producer named Giorgio Moroder met an American singer named Donna Summer and reinvented the disco sound with the hypnotic classic “I Feel Love.” Meanwhile, in East Germany, that same year saw the release of DEFA Disko 77, but don’t let the title fool you, this film has more in common with Godspell than Saturday Night Fever.

The premise was simple: popular East German musicians meet up at the DEFA studios and sing their songs. Each number starts with a black-and-white sequence that shows the various musicians wandering through the backlots of DEFA, or preparing for the numbers they are about to sing. In the first sequence, for example, the popular East German singer, Veronika Fischer, is seen being made up before the video while one of her bandmates tries unsuccessfully to start their tour bus. This is followed by her song, “Und wer bist du (Ich bin die Fischer …)” (“And who are you? (I am the Fisher)”), The singer and her band are shown taking a horse-drawn carriage to their destination, but during the video, the camera pulls back, revealing that the band is not really doing any of the things they are shown doing, but rather performing in a music video. This recursive breaking of the fourth wall occurs throughout the film as if to say, “We are lying to you, and you know we are lying to you; but we know that you know that we are lying to you, so let it be.”

In between the musical numbers comedy skits, à la Laugh-In are performed on minimal sets with black backgrounds. About halfway through the film, the songs are interrupted by a longer comedy routine starring Rolf Herricht and Hans Joachim Preil. Herricht and Preil, both successful actors in the GDR, also were one of East Germany’s best-loved comedy duos and here they get to show their stuff in a slightly risque little number about a newly-married man and his randy friend. It is silly, and similar in tone and style to something you might see on an American TV show in the seventies such as The Love Boat or Love, American Style.

One of the more interesting musical numbers occurs shortly before the Herricht and Preil sketch. It is the comedy folk-singer and lyricist, Kurt Demmler singing his song, “Verse auf sex Beinen” (loosely translated: “A few lines about sex”). Scenes of Demmler sitting on a stool and strumming a guitar are interspersed with scenes of a marionette performing a striptease and very quickly edited (and artfully photographed) shots of a naked woman.

Demmler had made a name for himself writing lyrics for nearly every major group or singer in East Germany, including those in this movie. He is reported to have written the lyrics for over 10,000 songs. To his credit, he was one of the people who signed the protest note against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, but unlike most of the people who signed it, he wasn’t blacklisted for doing so; perhaps because by that time, banning any song that Kurt Demmler had a hand in writing would have left the country virtually silent. Later, in September of 1989, he was also one of the many musicians in the GDR to sign the Rock Musician and Songwriter Resolution (Resolution von Rockmusikern und Liedermachern), a petition calling for changes in the East German government.

It is a little ironic that Demmler is singing in this film about sex, since it was sex that proved to be his downfall. In 2009, Demmler was charged with the sexual molestation of six young girls who had auditioned with him for a group he was reportedly putting together. The indictment further charged him with 212 cases of sexual molestation of girls between the ages of 10 and 14. This wasn’t the first time that Demmler had been charged with sexual molestation. In 2002, he was fined 1,800 Euros in a similar case. While awaiting trial on the charges, Demmler hanged himself in his jail cell.

Many of the musical sequences in DEFA Disko 77 are remarkably—perhaps even aggressively—ill-designed. Putting a tomboy like Chris Doerk in a frilly outfit from the late 1800s just doesn’t work. Shots of her singing her song, “Käfertango” (“Beetle Tango”) are intercut with shots of (what else?) Beetles. Equally ill-conceived is the Reinhard Lakomy video of his song, “Liebe im Wald” (“Love in the Forest”). Lakomy, with his denim outfit, Prell-girl hair, oval shades, and droopy moustache was the perfect East German hipster circa 1977. His appearance was so readily identifiable that Nina Hagen once parodied him on East German television. In the video we see Lakomy, in his usual garb, trying to seduce a woman dressed like Marie Antoinette. Why she is dressed like this is never explained. The action in the video follows the song lyrics and is amusing, but it’s not one of Lakomy’s better tunes.

The most curious aspect of DEFA Disko 77 is how aggressively cluttered and ill-composed each musical sequence is. Scenes are filled with gantries, light poles, desks, and stagehands. In the video for the rock group Karat’s song, “Charlie,” a complex dance number is made nearly unwatchable by the camera’s constant movement around the perimeter of room. As the camera circles, dozens of people working at desks obscure the view. The end result looks like it was shot from the perspective of a small child trying to catch a glimpse of a parade between the legs of the adults. To make matters worse, the band performs on a balcony three floors up while the camera stays at ground level, constantly circling around the building, as if trying to figure out where the music is coming from. Still, this is the only video in which a couple is actually dressed as if they are going to a disco. Everyone else on the dance floor, however, is dressed in a crazy variety of outfits, including some that look suspiciously like the spacesuits from In the Dust of the Stars.

Responsibility for this film’s maddeningly anti-aesthetic appearance has to be laid at the feet of Werner W. Wallroth, the same director who gave us, the Gojko Mitic/Dean Reed Indianerfilm, Blood Brothers. Wallroth, by 1977, had made a dozen movies for cinema and television, so we can assume that he was intentionally avoiding traditional aesthetics, perhaps in an attempt to create a more spontaneous look and feel. Whether he succeeds or not is up to the viewer, but he is clearly throwing out a lot of the rules of traditional filmmaking. Nearly every musical number in this film is approached from a contrarian’s perspective. Angelika Mann’s song “Bei den sieben Zwergen” (“With the Seven Dwarves”), for instance, takes the Snow White story of the Brothers Grimm and inverts it with Snow White substantially shorter than any of the so-called dwarves.

Conspicuous by their absence from the film are Nina Hagen and the rock band, Renft. Nina Hagen had left the country a few months before the film was released. A year earlier, her step-father, Wolf Biermann, was singing at a concert in Cologne when the GDR officials let it be known that he was not welcome back into the GDR (Biermann had been born in Hamburg, so he was, by birth, a West German). Although very much a socialist, his songs attacking the stagnation occurring in the upper ranks of the SED were seen as a threat to the authorities. Biermann’s wife, the popular East German actress, Eva-Marie Hagen, and her daughter Nina petitioned to be allowed to join Biermann in the west. Nina let it be know that if not allowed to join him, she would replace him as the voice of protest in the GDR. After some hemming and hawing, the authorities finally agreed to let the two woman leave the country. By 1977, the young Nina was already one of the GDR’s most successful singers. Back then, she was cute as a button and tended to sing novelty songs about sneezing and tango dancing. Her most famous song from this period was “Du has dein Farbfilm vergessen” (“You forgot the color film”), sung from the perspective of a woman who is really, really pissed at her boyfriend (husband?) for using black-and-white film during their vacation.

Renft, on the other hand, had been banned before the Biermann debacle. The band, led by singer/bass guitarist Klaus Renft, was one of the better rock bands in the GDR, but their lyrics, mostly penned by singer Gerulf Pannach, often ran afoul of the authorities with their challenges to the status quo. Finally, in 1975, the government decided to solve the problem by erasing all evidence that the band ever existed. Renft LPs were removed from stores and from playlists, both past and present. Two of the members were imprisoned for nine months at the infamous Stasi prison in Alt-Hohenschönhausen. This tactic did succeed in breaking up the band (temporarily), but did little to diminish interest in them. If anything, it turned them into icons of change and challenge, and gave them a cult underground following. The verboten Renft LPs became highly sought after items on the East German black market. After the Wende, the band got back together. Since that time, several of the original members (including Klaus Renft) have died, but the band continues to perform.

But the biggest star missing from the DEFA Disko 77 line-up is Frank Schöbel. Schöbel was on top of the pops in 1977, but for whatever reason (perhaps some reader can enlighten me) he does not appear in this film. His ex-wife, Chris Doerk, is here, along with Dorit Gäbler, who appeared with Doerk and Schöbel in Nicht schummeln, Liebling: the follow-up to Hot Summer, and their last feature film together. This was around the time that Schöbel and Doerk broke up, so perhaps that was a factor in his absence from this film.

In a way, DEFA Disko 77 works as a metaphor for the state of East Germany in 1977. The film starts with punchy rock numbers that, while not really disco, come closer to fulfilling the film’s title than the later numbers. By the final sequence, the film has drifted so far from the stated goal that it must have left audiences confused. The introductory black-and-white sequences are often shot with hand-held cameras from behind balcony railings, and around corners. These scenes, reminiscent of surveillance videos, make it look like the camera is spying on the performers and can’t help but make one think of the Stasi, who undoubtedly were busy making similar videos of everyone involved with this film at that time. It is hard to believe that this is unintentional, but it is handled so innocuously that it got by the censors.

The final number is the most telling of all. To close out things, the filmmakers chose a song by Dorit Gäbler and Wolfgang Wallroth titled “Es wird bald Frühling sein” (“It will be spring soon”). Musically, this is a fairly standard German schlager, so why was this song chosen to close the movie? The fact that Wolfgang Wallroth was the director’s brother might have had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, it leaves the movie in a strange place. Finishing things in a downward arc that takes us from an experimental beginning to traditional German music at the end, as if to say, this is the path we’re taking as we march forward into the past. The song talks about how things are about to get better, but the visual information belies this sentiment. The duo sings in a house where all the snow is falling on the inside, trapping them in a wintry world. Later, we see the same duo, now hobos, walking along the train tracks, still chipper, but poorer. Interspersed throughout the video is scene in a junkyard that is slowly being covered with vinyl stick-on flowers. No matter how many flowers are added to the landscape, we never escape the fact that it is still a junkyard. Was the director trying to tell us something? Unfortunately, we may ever know. Werner W. Wallroth died a few months ago (August 9, 2011) in Erfurt.

Two months after DEFA Disko 77 played in the East German movie houses, The TV show Disco ‘77 aired in the United States. Disco ‘77 was the first nationally syndicated show devoted to disco music and was hosted by Randy Jones, better known as the cowboy from The Village People. Any similarity between the East German film and the American TV show, though, is not merely coincidental—it is non-existent.

IMDB page for film.

DEFA Disko 77 is not currently available in the United States.

If I was to choose the one film that got me interested in East German Cinema, it would have to be this one. Sometimes referred to as the “East German Barbarella,” In the Dust of the Stars (Im Staub der Sterne) is one of the strangest film to grace the movie screens of the GDR; or anywhere else for that matter. Featuring a cast that heralded from a number of different eastern European countries, In the Dust of the Stars is the story of a space team sent from the Planet Cyrno in response to a distress call on TEM 4, a desolate planet on the outskirts of inhabited space. When they arrive, they are whisked off to an extravagant compound belonging to a man known only as the “Chief”—a decadent despot who has enslaved the indigenous people of TEM 4 for his own profit and enjoyment. The team is invited to a party that features dancing maidens in an art park, boa constrictors on the hors d’oeuvre table, and a screaming woman on a trampoline. At the party, the team is brainwashed into assuming that nothing is wrong on the planet, but the one crew member that skipped the party remains sceptical. He thinks something is amiss and he is, of course, correct.

DEFA made four outer-space films. In the Dust of the Stars was the fourth and final one. Unlike the three previous films (The Silent Star, Signals, and Eolomea), In the Dust of the Stars is not based on a book. The original screenplay was written by the director, Gottfried Kolditz. Kolditz got his start in the fifties working as a musical advisor on The Love Mazurka (Mazurka der Liebe) and The Czar and the Carpenter (Zar und Zimmermann). He started directing shortly thereafter, at first working on the short comedy films for the Statcheltier group, and then on musicals. He directed Midnight Revue (Revue um Mitternacht) and Beloved White Mouse (Geliebte Weiße Maus)—two of the most popular musicals in East Germany. In the late sixties, he moved into other genres, directing two science fiction films (Signals and In the Dust of the Stars) and three Indianerfilme (Trail of the Falcon, Apachen, and Ulzana). Kolditz died in 1982, shortly before he was to begin filming yet another Indianerfilm (Der Scout).

In the Dust of the Stars

The music score is by Karl-Ernst Sasse, one of the most accomplished, and prolific composers in East Germany (see Her Third, for more information on Sasse). Kolditz and Sasse worked together often, beginning with Midnight Revue in 1962 and continuing until Koldtitz’s death in 1982. Considering Kolditz’s start as a musical advisor for DEFA films, it is no surprise that he would make movies in which the music is an important component. What is surprising is that he would choose a science fiction film to continue his exploration of the subject (although there are good reasons for this, and I’ll be covering them in my review of Signals). In an interview with the cinematographer, Peter Süring, Süring opines that the nude musical number performed by Regine Heintze is superfluous to the narrative; but this opinion assumes that the obvious story (that of the oppressed people of TEM 4) is the primary point of the movie. Perhaps Kolditz was after something more complex here. Music figures prominently throughout the film. The eccentric Chief seems to need music at all times, and is unable to think without it, and it is music that is used to hypnotize the spaceship’s crew into ignoring the warning signals they received earlier.

Sasse’s score varies from jazzy pop à la Can’s Tago Mago, to abstract numbers resembling the electronica of Beaver & Krause. Most of the time, the music is combined with modern dance numbers performed by a bevy of heavily made-up women in colorful harem costumes. In one memorable scene, The Chief (whose hair color changes in every scene) serenades Akala, the spaceship’s captain, in a hall of mirrors filled with the usual dancing women. The Chief performs this number on a musical instrument that looks like exactly what it is: a board covered with Christmas lights. Like the nude dancing scene, it does nothing to move to plot forward and further bolsters the effect that In the Dust of the Stars is really a musical revue that has been interrupted by a slave revolt.

In the Dust of the Stars

At other times, it resembles a western. When we first see Chta, the Temian slave of the evil overseer, Ronk, she is dressed in a Native American outfit that looks like it was borrowed —and probably was—from one of the Gojko Mitic Indianerfilme. The effect is further enhanced by the appearance of Milan Beli as Ronk. Beli had already impressed East German audiences with his performance as a villains in Tecumseh, and Apachen, and he is no less villainous here. The climax of In the Dust of the Stars features a shoot-out on mud flats that would have been at home in any western on either side of the iron curtain.

The film was a co-production between DEFA and the Buftea Film Studios near Bucharest. The location shots were done in Romania first, primarily at the Berca Mud Volcanoes and an abandoned salt mine nearby. At that time, DEFA was using ORWOcolor, the East German version of AGFAcolor. Romania, on the other hand, was using Kodak’s Eastmancolor. When it came time to develop the first batch of film, the Buftea studios had to modify their equipment to handle the ORWOcolor film. The finished film had a softer contrast than usual, and Wolfgang Staudte liked the look of it. After the production moved back to Babelsberg for the in-studio filming, Staudte had all the film sent to Buftea for processing. This forced the movie to work at a slower pace than usual since dailies weren’t possible. To speed things up, DEFA set up a hotline between Buftea and Babelsberg in case of emergencies.

In the Dust of the Stars

1978, the year that In the Dust of the Stars came out, was one of those pivotal years in East German cinema. Two years earlier, the officials had exiled the popular folk singer Wolf Biermann while he was performing in Cologne. Although he was an ardent communist, his criticisms of the Stalinist policies in the GDR stirred the wrath (or, as he suggested, the terror) of party officials and they thought it would be better if he just didn’t come home. This provoked protests, particularly in the arts community, and eventually led to some of the the strongest lights at DEFA to cross over to the west, among them, Frank Beyer, Jutta Hoffmann, Angelica Domröse, and Armin Mueller-Stahl. For many of these people, 1978 was the last year that we would see them in East German films (and some, like Rolf Römer, stayed in the east, but were effectively blacklisted because of their pro-Biermann stance). Conversely, 1978 is also the year that afforded the most artistic freedom to filmmakers in terms of style and subject matter. Had In the Dust of the Stars been made in 1965, it would have almost certainly been banned; the same holds true for Egon Günther’s 1978 made-for-TV oddity, Ursula (although after only one screening, Ursula did manage to get itself banned not only in East Germany but also in Switzerland). In these films we see the ultimate examples of  cinematic experimentation at DEFA. From here until the Wende, mainstream movies in East Germany would never again reach this level of oddball imaginativeness.

IMDB page for this movie.

Buy this film.