Archive for the ‘Nachwuchsgeneration’ Category

Herzsprung
When the Berlin Wall finally came down, East Germans danced for joy in the streets. No more Stasi, no more food shortages, no more travel restrictions, and no more fiddling with their Trabis to get the damned things started. At the time, most people in East Germany were glad to see the backside of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). This was reflected in the polls when the SED (now rebranded as the Party of Democratic Socialism) was trounced in the East German general election in March of 1990. A few months later, the new Volkskammer voted to approve the reunification of Germany, much to the dismay of Margaret Thatcher, who actively petitioned against it. François Mitterrand wasn’t crazy about reunification either, but quickly saw the inevitability of it. Things were looking up—or so the East Germans thought. Within a year, many East Germans would be regretting their votes. Factories and businesses were taken over by Western conglomerates that immediately started laying off as many people as they could. Young people found it difficult to get work because the West Germans, who were now in control, had low opinions of East Germans, viewing them as problematic because they weren’t willing to work for starvation wages. They preferred to hire foreign workers to do the jobs instead, further exacerbating the mounting tensions in the East.

Without the safety nets provided by the state, the young people in East Germany were in dire straits, and were wondering what happened to their country when the Nazis started arriving from Bavaria and America, ready to provide easy answers for the local youths. Kids on both sides of the border were often woefully ignorant of what happened in Germany during World War II, but none more so than the East Germans, where the attitude was, “We got rid of them, so we don’t really need to talk about it anymore—that’s a West German problem!” While it’s true that several high-ranking Nazis were able to get back into government in West Germany, at least the Nazis were stigmatized in the Bundesrepublik, which certainly helped stem their spread. East German kids were more susceptible to the simplistic, populist claptrap spouted by groups such as the German People’s Union (Deutsche Volksunion, DVU) and the National Democratic Party (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, NPD) of Germany.1

Herzsprung was the first and last East German film to tackle this subject. The first because prior to the fall of the Wall it simply wasn’t an issue—anyone spouting far-right rhetoric in the GDR would have found the Stasi crawling all over them like a bad case of bedbugs. The last because DEFA’s days were numbered. DEFA would only make six more films before closing up shop.

Herzsprung

Herzsprung takes place in a small town of the same name that sits on the A24 highway just south of Wittstock. The proverbial wide spot in the road. The film follows the adventures and misadventures of a woman named Johanna (Claudia Geisler) as she tries to navigate the changes occurring in her village. The film starts with the termination of her job working in a factory kitchen. It looks like a pretty crummy job, but since her husband Jan had lost his job months earlier, thanks to the closing of the agriculture cooperatives, it meant there would be no money coming in. Unable to find work, Jan has sunken into a state of self-pity and alcoholism, and is becoming physically abusive. After Jan commits suicide, Johanna starts to take up with a stranger (Nino Sandow) who recently arrived in town. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy who also happens to be black. As you can imagine, the local Nazi punks aren’t too pleased to see Johanna hanging around with this guy, especially a local called “Soljanka” (Ben Becker), who has a crush on Johanna. In German, Herzsprung also means “heartbreak,” so, as you can probably guess, things don’t end well for anybody.2

Herzsprung is directed by Helke Misselwitz from her own script. Misselwitz is better known for her documentaries, and in particular Winter Adé, a powerful film that looks at the lives and failed dreams of women across East Germany. Misselwitz brings her documentary background to this film, with hand-held cameras and shots of peripheral characters to create a sense of place. Nonetheless, she also recognizes the freedom a feature film gives you to compose scenes, and uses this to create powerful images, such as the scene of Johanna fleeing the burning roadside stand.

Like Misselwitz, Cinematographer Thomas Plenert was part of DEFA’s Nachwuchsgeneration (the baby boomers, essentially), the last generation of filmmakers and technicians in East Germany. Also like Misselwitz, he comes from a documentary background. Here he gets to push the limits of what you can do with a camera, sometimes pushing it over the edge. He’s not afraid to let night scenes stay in inky darkness. The use of color is interesting, especially in the final scene, and in the nightclub scenes, where the use of color approaches the work of Luciano Tovoli in Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

Herzsprung

Claudia Geisler is well-cast as Johanna, endowing the character with a unique combination of fragility and resilience. It seems like life wants to beat Johanna down, but she’s not having it. Geisler, an East German, was only beginning to appear in films when the wall came down. She first appeared on screen in a small part in Interrogating the Witness (Vernehmung der Zeugen), an interesting little crime thriller starring Christine Schorn. While working on Little Thirteen, she met her future husband Thomas Bading. Since 2015, she has been working under the name Claudia Geisler-Bading. She appears in several well known films, including Christian Petzold’s Barbara, Cate Shortland‘s Lore, and George Clooney’s The Monuments Men.

We never do learn the name of Nino Sandow’s black stranger. Sandow was born and raised in East Germany, and studied opera singing at the “Hanns Eisler” School of Music and the “Ernst Busch” Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. Herzsprung was his first feature film, but he has gone on to appear in several movies and television shows, most recently as the New York stage manager in Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous. He also teaches at the “Ernst Busch” Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin.

The music for the film is primarily either well-known classical pieces or songs by the Berlin folk-rock group Poems for Laila. It’s an unusual and effective combination. Poems for Laila still performs, although their line-up has changed considerably over the years. Like other multi-instrumental groups that toy with different ethnic music styles, their music is difficult to categorize—a little like DeVotchKa or 17 Hippies, but definitely its own thing.

Herzsprung bears more than a passing resemblance to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Both films tackle the issue of racism in Germany3, and both films are beautifully shot. Where Fassbinder’s film is shaped by the work of Douglas Sirk, Misselwitz’s film appears to be informed by the DEFA fairytale films. In the opening shot a woman sings a beautiful song while what appears to be snow drifts across the screen. Eventually it becomes clear that it’s not snow at all, but the pinfeathers from a goose that’s being plucked by women in a factory kitchen, and the song comes from one of the women (Eva Maria Hagen, in her first DEFA role since she left East Germany in 1977).

An important difference between Fassbinder’s and Misselwitz’s films is that while Fassbinder’s film is primarily about the racism that no one acknowledges until they are faced with it head on, Misselwitz’s film chronicles an ugly change that was occurring in the East. A change that would eventually lead to the formation of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), and the deaths of several people all over Germany.

IMDB page for this film.

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1. In 2011, the DVU and the NPD merged.

2. Although, the name of the town, according to some sources, somes not from the word for heartbreak, but from low middle German meaning deer (or hart) spring (Hertsprink).

3. Although, in a 2009 interview with Hiltrud Schulz of the DEFA Library, Misselwitz said that she was primarily trying to show the growing hostility in East German towns towards outsiders rather than specifically addressing racism.

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Ete und Ali
Ete and Ali (Ete und Ali) is essentially a road movie, with one important difference: no one actually goes anywhere. The film follows the misadventures of the two men named in the title. Having just finished their military service, neither is sure what to do next. Bernhard—”Ete” to his friends—is a little guy. He is the more sensitive of the two, but lacks self confidence. Ali is a big lummox—the classic bull in a china shop, whose ideas are usually badly planned and ill-advised. Ali doesn’t want to go home, so he decides to tag along with Ete. Ete, who is married, isn’t sure he wants to go home either. His wife is seeing someone else and wants a divorce. Ali decides to help his old Army buddy win back Marita’s affections, but Ali’s ideas for doing so are pretty bad. Pretty soon an interesting and complicated triangle develops between Ete, Ali, and Marita.

The film that immediately comes to mind is Dino Risi’s wonderful Il Sorpasso, in which milquetoast Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) learns to enjoy life thanks to carefree Bruno (Vittorio Gassman), but at a heavy price. Normally this type of story would unfold as the two characters travel across the country, but aside from some train travel at the beginning, and a truck at the end, all the action in Ete and Ali takes place in one town. Thanks to the Cold War, East Germany offered fewer opportunities for travel than those of us in the West. East Germans could visits other Eastern Bloc countries, but even here your travel papers had to be in order before proceeding. A privileged few got to visit Cuba, although the politicos in the GDR would never use the word “privileged.” At the beginning of the film, it looks like two men might actually go to Prague, but one of them remembers that they don’t have the proper papers, so they remain in Ete’s home town for the rest of the film. So much for the road trip.

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Ete and Ali are played by Jörg Schüttauf and Thomas Putensen respectively. Both actors continued to stay busy after the Wende. Schüttauf went on to appear in several popular television shows, including Der Fahnder (The Detective) and Tatort (Crime Scene). Putensen has done fewer films. An accomplished pianist and singer, he has spent more time since the Wende singing than acting. He showed up playing Holger in Andreas Dresen’s delightful Whisky mit Wodka (Whiskey with Vodka). More recently he performed a humorous musical revue titled “Schlimme Lieder aus der DDR” (“Bad songs from the GDR”), a combination of well-known East German songs and jazzy send-ups.

Playing the sensual and difficult Marita is Daniela Hoffmann. Born in 1963, Hoffmann appeared in several movies and televisions shows in the GDR before the Wall came down. She is a talented comedic actress, with a distinctive voice that has led to several jobs dubbing the voices for Hollywood films, most notably the voice of Julia Roberts in nearly every German dub of her films since 1990.

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Ete and Ali is directed by Peter Kahane, and it is his first feature film. Kahane was a member of the Nachwuchsgeneration (baby boomers, basically)—the last generation of East German filmmakers. By 1985, DEFA was facing the same problem that faced the East German and Soviet governments: The people in charge were getting old…really old. At 73, Erich Honecker was one of the younger leaders in the Eastern Bloc, and Poland’s Wojciech Jaruzelski, at 62, was practically a child. DEFA and the College of Film and Television in Babelsberg (Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen der DDR) had done a good job of training young, wannabe filmmakers in their craft, but now that they were old enough to take on the job of directing, they found very few opportunities to ply their trade. Many had studied film at the school in Potsdam-Babelsberg, but only a handful of this group got the opportunity to demonstrate their skills. The few that did had barely started their careers when the Wende came along and wiped out all their hard work. The lucky ones managed to make the transition to television, but the West Germans, who now controlled the media, had little interest in the talents of these Ossis, seeing any education they received as little more than communist propaganda. Most West Germans came to the table with such egregious preconceptions about what constituted East German films that any discussion on the value of these films was rendered impossible.1

Like Ete and Ali, Kahane served time in the Nationale Volksarmee (National People’s Army), then studied directing at the Academy for Film and Television (Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen der DDR). For several years after the Wende, Kahane worked in television, turning in several popular children’s films for the small screen. In 2008, he directed the feature film Die rote Zora (Red Zora), based on Kurt Held’s popular children’s book Die rote Zora und ihre Bande (Red Zora and her Gang). He followed this with Meine schöne Nachbarin (My Beautiful Neighbor), which stars Ete’s portrayer, Jörg Schüttauf.

Although Ete and Ali is primarily played for laughs, the laughs are sometimes bittersweet. Unlike most comedies from Hollywood, the story doesn’t resolve itself into a nice pat answer at the end. Things are complicated and life goes on.

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1. In an interview in the Märkischen Allgemeinen Zeitung newspaper, filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff went so far as to recommend throwing away all the films that came out of DEFA, calling them mediocre. His statement was followed by an open letter from the actors, directors, writers and other film technicians, several of whom had also signed the protest letter to East German government denouncing the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. In a a stubborn denial of facts worthy of Erich Honecker, Schlöndorff continues to defend his blockheaded position.

Fahrschule
Q: Why were there no bank robberies in East Germany?

A: Because you had to wait twelve years for the getaway car.

So goes the joke, poking fun at the rather astounding wait times for purchasing automobiles in the GDR. In East Germany, you basically had two choices when it came to purchasing a car: The Wartburg and the Trabant. The Trabant was the cheaper of the two, and were made in greater quantities. Both cars were pretty awful. The Wartburg had three cylinders to the Trabbi’s two, making it—potentially—the more powerful of the two, but it was also heavier, having a metal body instead of the cotton and resin Duroplast of the Trabants. Both were two-strokes, meaning you had to mix the oil and gas, and the pollution was awful. You could get a car from one of the other Eastern Bloc nations, such as a Lada from Russia or Skoda from Czechoslovakia, but this could take even longer, and was viewed with some derision.1 Making a film that mines the long wait times involved in getting Wartburgs for comedy would have been vetoed by the film review board in earlier times, but things were beginning to loosen up again at DEFA.

Driving School (Fahrschule) is the story of Horst Steinköhler, a die-hard pedestrian who would rather walk where he needs to go than drive a car. Horst’s friend Lothar is getting a divorce. Lothar wants Horst to buy his car from him to help him through the divorce, telling Horst he will buy it back later when he gets back on solid footing. Horst is reluctant, but eventually agrees. Meanwhile, Horst’s wife Gisela has received the news that she is next in line to purchase a new Wartburg. Gisela had put in her name on the waiting list to buy the car when their daughter—now a teenager—was born. Horst and Gisela plan to surprise each other with their purchases. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, they both end up with the same driving instructor. Soon, Horst starts to suspect that something’s going on between Gisela and the driving instructor. Throughout the film we hear the music of Così fan tutte—Mozart’s comic opera on infidelity.

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The film is based on a radio play by Bernd Schirmer. Schirmer did several radio plays along with some legitimate theater in East Germany. From 1969 to 1972, he taught German studies at the University of Algiers. After that, he returned to Germany where he worked as a dramaturge for DFF, the state-owned East German television station. Schirmer continues to write novels, plays, teleplays, and theater pieces.

Coming as it did from a radio play, much of the humor is in the dialog, but director Bernhard Stephan has done a good job of “opening up” the radio play with purely visual humor. Stephan is a part of a group of East German filmmakers commonly referred to as the “Nachwuchsgeneration”—Baby Boomers essentially. This was the first generation that grew up with little or no personal experience of World War II. The country they grew up in was the GDR. Hitler was, as far they were concerned, an aberration of the past. For the most part, they learned their craft at the film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg, and started working for DEFA in intern capacities with the promise of someday getting to make their own films for the production company. There was just one catch: DEFA’s director ranks were already filled with talented directors and new positions rarely opened up.

Born in 1943, Stephan was a little older than most of the other new generation of East German filmmakers, which probably put him in a better position to get started at DEFA than those born a few years later. He had began directing TV shows in 1972, and moved on to films from there. While some of the younger filmmakers found it hard to get traction in reunited Germany, owing to the anti-Ossi prejudice of the West Germans, Stephan did better than most. He hit the ground running with the 1991 ZDF TV-movie Tandem, and went on to direct many television shows, most notably, Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness), which starred Ulrich Mühe (The Lives of Others).

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Horst Steinköhler is played by Jörg Gudzuhn, a slightly nerdy-looking character actor who usually played supporting roles. He primarily worked in television, so the unification of Germany had less impact on his career than those who had been used to starring roles in feature films. He continues to work in television, and was a regular on Bernhard Stephan’s The Last Witness. Gisela is played by the beautiful Hungarian actress Kata Kánya. Kánya starred in several films throughout the seventies. After the fall of communism, Kánya became a became a well-known television personality, and romance counselor. Today in Hungary, she is better known in this capacity than as an actor.

It was difficult to find anything out about Peggy Röder, who played the daughter Carola. She appears to have been a singer, first and foremost. As near as I can tell, this was her only film appearance, but because her last name is often spelled “Roeder” to accommodate systems that can’t handle umlauts, her statistics are included on IMDB under those for the American actress Peggy Roeder. They are not the same person.

Like that other film about vehicles and romance, Beloved White Mouse, Driving School was filmed in and around Dresden. We do get a few shots of Dresden street life, including the Semperoper and downtown areas of the Innere Altstadt. Although it is never stated, Horst appears to work at the German Hygiene Museum (Deutsches Hygiene-Museum) off of Blüherstraße. The film received positive reviews and garnered Jörg Gudzuhn a best leading actor award at the Eberswalde Film Festival.

IMDB page for the film.

The film does not appear to be available on DVD at this time, but you can watch it here.


1. There is even a comedy on this subject—Einfach Blumen aufs Dach (Just Put Flowers on the Roof), which examines of the misadventures a man encounters after he purchases an old Russian limousine.