Archive for the ‘Pop Culture’ Category

Heute ist Freitag

By 1989, Nina Hagen was well-known in West Germany, but few people there knew anything about her past. She was the operatic, punk demon lady from the far side of the moon spouting mystic mumbo-jumbo and singing like nobody else. Then the wall came down and we westerners saw a whole other side of her—the pop pixie, singer of novelty songs, adorable and immensely talented. But few of us were ready for Today is Friday (Heute ist Freitag), a TV-movie from 1975 in which we get to see Nina Hagen as we’ve never seen her before.

Long before Hagen reinvented herself as a punk goddess, she was on her way to becoming the most popular singer in East Germany. Her GDR persona was that of a spunky woman-child, a little petulant and coy. Her big breakthrough came in 1974 with “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” (You forgot the color film), a song in which Nina scolds her boyfriend Mischa for forgetting to bring the color film on their vacation. In it, she complains that no one will believe her when she tells them how beautiful everything was, because the pictures are all in black-and-white. The unspoken joke here is that no one believes her because so much of the East German landscape was cast in shades of gray. Hagen recorded the song as the lead singer in a band called Automobil. Later she joined Fritzens Dampferband, where she continued her rise to stardom with the hit “Wir tanzen Tango” (We dance the Tango), and the remarkably silly, “Hatschi Waldera.”

Things were looking up for Hagen, then her step-father, folksinger Wolf Biermann, was expatriated for his outspoken criticisms of the East German bureaucracy. His wife—Nina’s mother—was the popular film star, Eva-Maria Hagen. She applied for permission to join her husband in the west and it was granted. Nina decided to follow suit. At first the SED balked at letting her join her parents, but when she let them know that if she wasn’t allowed to emigrate, she would become the next Wolf Biermann they quickly changed their minds.

Arriving in West Germany, her agent did something very smart. He told her go to London to see what was happening in rock’n’roll. The year was 1976, and punk was in full bloom. Nina met and became friends with many British musicians, most notably Lena Lovich, who was a big influence on Hagen’s style. Hagen returned to West Germany in 1977 with a whole new look and sound, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today is Friday is the story of one important weekend in the life of Jutta, a young woman who thinks she might be pregnant. After going to the doctor, she is informed that because “Today is Friday,” she won’t know the results of her test until next Monday. This gives her a weekend to ruminate on the course she wants to take. What follows is lots of walking and talking in the interminable wait for Monday to come. Should she have an abortion of keep the baby? The film leans toward the latter, but remains as noncommittal as possible.1

Prior to Today is Friday, Hagen had appeared in an episode of the short-lived TV series, ABC der Liebe (ABCs of Love), and in the TV-movie, Heiraten/Weiblich (Married/Female). In both of these she played opposite her mother. Today is Friday was her first solo foray into film. She only appeared in a few DEFA films before heading west, but none of the other films focus on her to the same extent as Today is Friday does. She is the lead character in this film and she carries it all the way.

One of the more remarkable aspects of this film—one might even say shocking—is its lack of glamour. Hagen is presented as an utterly ordinary woman. She wears gingham shirts with butterfly collars, sweater vests, and the ugliest mommie jeans in the history of denim. Half the time she walks around with a knit cap pulled down over her head. This is not Nina the glamorpuss, it’s Nina the schlub. Nonetheless, the camera likes Hagen. The film rarely takes its focus off her and follows her movements as if fixated on her, sometimes, peeking in from other rooms to watch her.

Nina Hagen

It is this camerawork that is the most interesting aspect of the movie. Mostly handheld, the camera follows Hagen around in the cinema verité style popular with Cassavetes and the early French New Wave (whose films also often shared the obsession with their leading ladies). At times it feels like a documentary. Whether this is because of cinematographer Roland Dressel or the director, Klaus Gendries, is hard to say. Dressel was also responsible for the excellent cinematography in Jadup and Boel, and The Bicycle. Before he became a cinematographer, he worked as an assistant cameraman on a variety of East German films, including the classic Hot Summer, and Konrad Wolf’s first film, Einmal ist Keinmal (Once Doesn’t Count). This wide variety of films helped make Dressel an extremely versatile cinematographer, adapting his style to match the story. Unlike some cinematographers whose work is obvious no matter who’s directing (Gordon Willis immediately comes to mind) Dressel has no signature style, although his work in Jadup and Boel stands out for its unique style in the flashback scenes.

Likewise, Gendries seemed less concerned with branding himself as an auteur than getting good performances out of his actors. This isn’t surprising since Gendries got his start at DEFA as an actor, appearing in films such as The Baldheaded Gang and The Second Track. In the GDR, directors were mostly assigned to work at either DEFA or its television equivalent, DFF (Deutscher Fernsehfunk). Klaus Gendries was one of those assigned to DFF, so most of his work appears in the form of made-for-TV movies. He started directing in theater in the fifties, and moved to television in 1963 with the TV-movie version of Guy de Maupassant’s, Der Morin – Das Schwein (That Pig of a Morin). He scored a big hit with Florentiner 73, a comedy about a young pregnant woman dealing with her a living situation and quirky neighbors. Florentiner 73 starred his wife, Edda Dentges. The TV-movie was so popular that it spawned a sequel, Neues aus der Florentiner 73 (News from Florentiner 73). He also helmed the popular TV mini-series, Aber Vati! (But Dad!).

Gendries work in television served him well after the Wende. Unlike many of his DEFA counterparts he made the transition from East German television to unified German television. He hasn’t had as many opportunities to make TV movies, but he has worked on many popular television series, including Der Bergdoktor, Für alle Fälle Stefanie, and In aller Freundschaft. He retired from filmmaking in 2000, but continues to direct stage productions.

Ironically, the theme song for Today is Friday is not sung by Nina Hagen, but by Veronika Fischer. Veronika Fischer was the most popular female rock singer in East Germany. She had several hits in East Germany and appeared in the film, DEFA-Disko 77. Like Hagen before her, Veronika Fischer immigrated to West Berlin before the wall came down. Unlike Hagen, however, she did not take advantage of the situation to reinvent herself and found little success in the west. It was only after the Wende, when she could return to the former East German states that her career was revived. She is still popular in the eastern states and continues to release albums.

The theme song was written by Michael Heubach, who wrote the music for “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” and other songs that Nina Hagen made popular. Heubach was a founding member of Hagen’s first band, Automobil. When she decided to move on, Heubach disbanded Automobil and joined Lift, one of East Germany’s few art rock bands. Heubach had several hits in the GDR, but none since reunification. He continues to write music and work as a music producer.

Today is Friday is charming enough, but the fact it is black-and-white and consists mostly of people discussing the pregnancy issue make it an unlikely candidate for subtitling anytime soon. Nonetheless, any fan of Nina Hagen is going to want to add this film to their collection.

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1. Abortion was legal in East Germany, but, as in the west, it was still controversial. East Germany’s version of Roe v. Wade (Gesetz über die Unterbrechung der Schwangerschaft) was passed in 1972, giving women the right to choose abortion without requiring a medical reason. The passing of this law was the only time that that the People’s Chamber (Volkskammer) did not vote unanimously on a law’s passage (the only other time they split their vote was the election Egon Krenz as the GDR’s leader right before the Wall came down). West Germany wouldn’t follow suit for another four years, and even then only after two years of court challenges and legal wrangling.

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.

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Mit mir nicht, Madam!

Not to Me, Madam! (Mit mir nicht, Madam!) is what is referred to in German as a Verwechslungskomödie, and in English as a comedy of errors. The English term dates back to Shakespeare, and is taken from his play of the same name. Although originally a theatrical term, there are plenty of movies that fall into this category. The premise starts with two people who are mistaken for each other and the comedic adventures that result. The concept has turned up again and again in films, from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to the Joel and Ethan Cohn’s The Big Lebowski. Besides Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers also used the concept frequently, and Alfred Hitchcock used it a few times for more dramatic purposes, most notably in North by Northwest.

Not to Me, Madam! starts on a plane to Yugoslavia. An East German journalist named Thomas and his photographer sidekick, Hasselhuhn are flying there to report on an international fashion show. They meet a priest on the plane who bears an uncanny resemblance to Thomas, and just to escalate the absurdity, Thomas and the priest are carrying identical briefcases. Unbeknownst to Thomas, the priest is really a notorious French fashion designer who is being tailed by a sexy English industrial spy named Mabel Patrick, as well as a bunch of bumbling Italians in a Jeep. It seems the French fashion designer is rumored to have plans for a new line of clothing that will make everything the British and the Italians are doing instantly obsolete. The Brits and the Italians will stop at nothing to find out what the designer’s up to—if only they can find the right guy.

The film was a co-production between DEFA and Yugoslavia’s Bosna Film Company, and was filmed along Yugoslavia’s Mediterranean coast. It is a beautiful location and the cinematography serves it well. The story even lapses into a travelogue at a couple points to take full advantage of the location. Besides the scenery, the film is also notable for its inclusion of American cars. It’s probably no accident that none of these cars perform particularly well. The Pontiac the good guys use to get to the airport requires a push, and the Chevy and Jeep driven by the villains aren’t much better.

One of the strangest and most striking things about this film is the way it jumps back and forth between color and black-and-white. It wasn’t the first film to do this. Lindsay Anderson had used the same technique a year before in his classic film, if…. In that movie, the choice to use black-and-white for certain scenes was either because of the lighting problems in the shots, or because they were running out of money, depending on which interview with Anderson you read. Lighting may have been a factor here as well, but the decision to use both black-and-white and color was a strange one and gives the film a slightly psychedelic quality. The extent to which the filmmakers were aware of the Anderson film is unknown. It does seem unlikely that the same technique would crop up independently in another film six months later.

Perhaps the jumps between film type has something to do with the fact that Not To Me, Madam! is directed by two budding directors—Roland Oehme and Lothar Warneke, both of whom went on to successful careers at DEFA. Oehme came to the studios after a stint in the army. He started his career as an assistant director for Ralf Kristen on the 1964 comedy, Mir nach, Canaillen! (Follow Me, Canaillen!). He got his first offer to direct a feature film shortly after this, but turned it down because he didn’t like the subject matter, a decision that probably helped keep him from joining the ranks of the blacklisted directors after the 11th Plenum. Not To Me, Madam! was his first feature film. His next feature film, Der Mann, der nach der Oma kam (The Man that came for Grandmother), was a hit and helped establish his career in East Germany. He was awarded the Film Critics’ of the GDR prize in 1979 and 1981 for Einfach Blumen aufs Dach (Ordinary Flowers on the Roof) and Asta, mein Engelchen (Asta, My Little Angel) respectively. After the Wende, he left films to work as the director of the Störtebeker Festival in Ralswiek on Rügen island. Since 2006, he has been writing an on-going series of plays known as the Müritz Saga that explore the history and folk tales of the region. A new episode is presented every year at the town’s open-air theater.

Oehme’s co-director, Lothar Warneke, was a former theology student turned director. Warneke had several films that were popular with East German filmgoers, including Die unverbesserliche Barbara (Incorrigible Barbara), Addio, piccola mia, and Blonder Tango; but it was his last DEFA film, Bear Ye One Another’s Burden, for which he is best remembered. As with many DEFA talents, his career as a filmmaker essentially ended with the Wende.

Not to Me Madam!

Not To Me, Madam! stars the husband and wife team of Rolf Römer and Annekathrin Bürger, both of whom we’ve discussed here previously (see Hey You! and Hostess). The duo had been appearing in films together since the late fifties, but this time the screenplay was co-written by Römer. A couple years later, he would take the next logical step and direct his wife in the pop period piece, Hey You! As with Römer’s film, Hostess, Annekathrin Bürger gets a chance here to demonstrate her skill with various languages and accents, playing the duplicitous Mabel Patrick.

Eva is played by the Polish actor, Krystyna Mikołajewska. Mikołajewska first came to the public’s attention in the Oscar-nominated, Polish film, Pharaoh. Like Jutta Hoffmann, Ms. Mikołajewska wasn’t a standard-issue beauty, but her dark hair and heavy-lidded eyes made her stand out from the models in the movie. As was often the case with actors who didn’t speak perfect German, Ms. Mikołajewska’s voice was dubbed. This time by fellow Pole, Zofia Słaboszowska,

The photographer, Hasselhuhn, is played by East Germany’s best-known comedian, Rolf Herricht. Herricht was the star of several of films, not to mention dozens of TV-movies and guest appearances. He died on stage while performing in Kiss Me Kate in 1981. [For more on Rolf Herricht, see Beloved White Mouse.]

The person who has the most fun in this film is Manfred Krug. Here, he gets to be East Germany’s answer to Peter Sellers, playing at least nine parts in the film, including Eve’s uncle, the hotel receptionist, an English-speaking woman tourist, a gypsy violinist, and a black man. Part of the fun of the film is seeing if you can spot Mr. Krug in each scene. Mostly his appearances are sight gags, and he plays several of them very broadly. [For more on Manfred Krug, see The Trace of Stones.]

Not To Me, Madam! features the first East German film appearance by Etta Cameron, a Danish/West Indian singer who came to East Germany to perform and got stuck there for five years when she lost her exit papers. Her part is small here and we don’t really get to see her perform. She would be used to better effect in Römer’s Hey You!

The jazzy score is by Klaus Lenz. Like fellow soundtrack composer Günther Fischer, Lenz comes from a jazz combo background rather than the classical backgrounds of Karl-Ernst Sasse and Wilhelm Neef. Lenz had already been the leader of various jazz groups when he got his first DEFA film score assignment, writing songs for Hochzeitsnacht im Regen (Wedding Night in the Rain), a musical starring heartthrob singer Frank Schöbel (of Hot Summer fame). Lenz wrote the scores for a few more DEFA films, but he was, first and foremost a jazz musician, so most of his work can be found on old Amiga records, and, more recently, on YouTube. After the Wende, Lenz had to essentially rebuild his career from scratch, playing cruise ships and local festivals. He finally got tired of this semi-anonymous grind and switched careers, moving into architectural restoration. He returned to playing music in 2010 and has regained some of his pre-Wende success.

Not to Me, Madam! was a popular film. It’s sunny Mediterranean locations no doubt helped. Even though, at its core, it is an espionage movie, the film stays well away from any heavy political messages. The Italians and the Brits are acting on capitalistic impulses, but that’s as far as it goes. Critics were less kind to the film than the public. They found it all a bit silly, but sometimes that’s exactly what people want from a movie.

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Hostess

Posted: February 15, 2013 in Annekathrin Bürger, Love, Pop Culture, Rolf Römer

Hostess

Rolf Römer is better known as an actor than a director. He played the psychopathic Johle in The Bald-Headed Gang, the restless Al in Born in ‘45, and the noble Deerslayer in Chingachgook, The Great Snake. What is less well known is that he was also a director. He only directed two feature films, but they are both worth watching. He also directed a controversial episode of the popular East German TV show, Polizeiruf 110.

Like most directors-turned-actors, Römer’s focus is on the performances and less on the mise-en-scène. That’s not to say this film is artlessly shot, quite the contrary, but you won’t find the kind of visual poetry you’ll find in the films of Konrad Wolf and Kurt Maetzig. He takes a craftsman-like approach to filmmaking, using medium shots for much of the exposition and editing only to insert flashbacks. Stylistically, the film has more in common with the Indianerfilme (East German westerns) than it does with other contemporary films from DEFA. Nonetheless, his films have some unusual touches, like the breaking of the fourth wall by the lead actress that occurs in both films. She rarely speaks directly to us, but she often stops and looks into the camera. This is not the accidental glance of the untrained actress. It is intentional and effective. Is she acknowledging our existence or our surveillance? It works either way.

Like Römer’s previous film, Hey, You!, Hostess is a vehicle for his wife, Annekathrin Bürger. Römer wouldn’t be the first nor the last director to make a movie specifically for his wife. Jules Dassin did this often for Melina Mercouri and, more recently, Guy Ritchie nearly ended his career with a misguided remake of Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away; made for the sole purpose of showcasing the talent of his wife of the time—Madonna.

Besides a front-and-center performance by Ms. Bürger, the other thing this film shares with Hey You! is a very specific sense of time and place. In the earlier film, everyday appliances take on a special charm and we start noticing things like the classic designs of the coffee sets and furniture. Filmed only six years later, the styles and fashions in Hostess are light years from the googie charm of the earlier film. We’re deep into the seventies at this point and it shows. Music plays a more central role in Hostess with several scenes that function more as music videos than as storytelling devices. This was probably inspired by Heiner Carow’s immensely popular film, The Legend of Paul and Paula. In that film, however, the musical interludes serve to move the story forward. Here they are more for the sheer enjoyment of the songs. Römer enlists some of East Germany’s most talented musicians, including Veronika Fischer, Christiane Ufholz, The Günther Fischer Quintet, and an on-stage performance by a young, pre-punk Nina Hagen.

There is an unsettling subtext to this film. Jetta Wagner—Annekathrin Bürger’s character—is a woman who suddenly finds herself out on her own again at a point in life when most people settle down and stop hanging out in clubs. At 39, she is a bit too old for all this, which gives the whole thing a creepy sadness. I honestly don’t know if this was Römer’s intention or not. Is she supposed to be a sad character, or should this part have been played by a woman ten years younger? Perhaps Römer was just so in love with Ms. Bürger that he couldn’t see she was too old for the part (and she is a beautiful woman), or maybe he was addressing a deeper issue here about the problems a forty-year-old faces when she is forced to return to a situation that she thought she had finished with in her twenties. I like to think that it is the latter, and that Römer knew exactly what he was doing. Whatever the case it makes one of the central questions of the film more complicated: What are you willing to give up for love, and what, in the end, does the word even mean?

Annekathrin Bürger had a long career in East German films. She got her start in films thanks to Gerhard Klein, who cast her in his film, A Berlin Romance. She went on to star in over twenty DEFA films and countless other TV movies and televisions shows. In 2010, she published her autobiography, Der Rest, der bleibt: Erinnerungen an ein unvollkommenes Leben (The residue that remains: Memories of an imperfect life), which was co-written with the journalist Kerstin Decker. Decker also co-wrote Angelica Domröse’s autobiography. That same year saw the publication of Ms. Bürger’s book of short stories, poems, and illustrations, Geliebte Ostsee (Beloved Baltic Sea), which was co-written with Christine Rammelt-Hedelich. More recently Ms. Bürger has been performing live with a small combo, singing and reciting love poems in a program titled Liebe ist das schönste Gift (Love is the prettiest poison).

As mentioned earlier, one wouldn’t look to the films of Rolf Römer for editing that pushes the envelope, but that’s not to say the editing is pedestrian—far from it. This is thanks, mainly, to the fine work of Monika Schindler. Ms. Schindler was recognized as one of the best film editors to come out of DEFA, and that’s saying something. DEFA produced some of the best editors that Germany has ever seen, and most of them are women; women such as Hildegard Conrad, Christa Helwig, Helga Krause, Lena Neumann, Hildegard Tegener, Helga Gentz, Brigitte Krex, Anneliese Hinze-Sokolowa, Rita Hiller, and, of course, Evelyn Carow. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a DEFA film that wasn’t edited by a woman. For many of these women, their careers ended with the Wende. Monika Schindler, however, continued to work, sometimes on the films by fellow Ossis such as Andreas Dresen, Roland Gräf, and Egon Günther, but also on films by many other filmmakers whose careers began after the Wende.

Customized Trabant

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the cars in this film. Jetta’s boyfriend, a child-man auto mechanic named Johannes, drives an absurdly customized Trabi. Johannes’ car figures prominently in the film. It seems at times that Jetta sees it as a rival for her affections. In another scene, we meet a man driving a compact with pretensions of muscle car status. Like their western counterparts, the young men of the GDR in the seventies clearly enjoyed customizing their cars too.

Also deserving special mention is the Berliner Fernsehturm. The TV tower is where Jetta works as a hostess, escorting tourists from other lands around the city (giving Ms. Bürger the opportunity to demonstrate her skills at speaking French, Italian, and English). The west always hated the Fernsehturm. In his famous “Mr. Gorbachev” speech, Reagan claimed that the officials in the GDR had spent thousands trying to remove the reflection from the sphere because it looked like a cross. This was patent nonsense, but was a popular myth in West Germany. After the Wende, some people campaigned to have the tower demolished, seeing it as a symbol of a government they wanted people to forget, but saner heads prevailed. It stand today as an important part of the Berlin skyline, as recognizable as Paris’s Eiffel Tower or San Francisco’s Transamerica Building.

Hostess was badly received by the critics when it came out. It was inevitably compared with The Legend of Paul and Paula and found wanting. But the public liked Hostess, probably for a similar reason—they liked Carow’s film and wanted another music-laden movie about a single woman trying to find love and still remain independent. Box office for the film was good and Römer would have probably made more films for DEFA if he hadn’t decided to sign the petition protesting Wolf Biermann’s expatriation. Like the others who signed the petition—popular stars such as Manfred Krug and Angelica Domröse—work at DEFA became harder to come by. Unlike Krug and Domröse, Römer stayed in the GDR, but would appear in no more movies. He died in 2000 after sustaining severe burns while working on his allotment garden.

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He du!

While the rest of the world was undergoing huge cultural upheavals, East Germany’s leaders were busy battening down the hatches, shutting the windows, and stuffing cotton in their collective ears; anything to avoid acknowledging that somewhere between 1965 and 1971 the world had changed completely. The politicians in the GDR got a glimpse of these changes during the first half of the sixties, when the filmmakers at DEFA were pushing the boundaries with imaginative and daring films. Things were changing fast; too fast for the Soviet Union, and as the USSR went, the GDR followed. At the 11th Plenum in December of 1965, the authorities yanked the rug out from under the filmmakers at DEFA. After that, virtually any film that showed the slightest bit of criticism toward the “socialist way of life” was boxed up and shelved. For the most part, films became safer and less controversial. This wasn’t always a bad thing. It did help establish the development of genre pictures such as Chingachgook, The Great Snake and Hot Summer, but it also made it almost impossible for thoughtful, topical films to get produced. If filmmakers wanted to say something about the state of the things in the GDR, they had to do it in subtlest possible way. Some filmmakers took up the challenge. It was during this period that Egon Günther made Abschied (Farewell), a visually-stunning film based on Johannes R. Becher’s 1940 anti-war novel, but that was Egon Günther, a man who spent his entire career at DEFA pushing the boundaries. Few others were as willing to poke the bear.

Into this environment walked Rolf Römer, an actor who had already made a name for himself as Gojko Mitic’s sidekick in the popular Indianerfilme, Sons of the Great Bear, and Chingachgook, The Great Snake. Römer was given the greenlight to write and direct Hey You!, a film about the budding romance between Ellen Volkmann, a sophisticated, idealistic young teacher, and Frank Rothe, the rough-and-tumble foreman of a construction gang; a sort-of Lady and the Tramp story about the love between two people from opposite sides of the tracks.

The problem was that East Germany prided itself on not having these sorts of class divisions. It was written into its constitution. Nonetheless, the distinctions were there. Most people fell into one of three groups: the political elite, the intelligentsia, and the proletariat. Over time, these distinctions became more and more stratified. Everyone knew it, but nobody talked about it; at least not in public. Had Hey You! confronted this issue head on it would have ended up half-finished on a shelf next to Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly) and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam). Instead, by pretending these distinctions aren’t an issue, it emphasizes their existence.

Even this might have provoked the authorities, but Römer keeps the pressure off the GDR by focusing on the injustices elsewhere. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Bahamian-Danish singer Etta Cameron sings “Jungle City USA,” a song about the difficulties of being black in America. Having spent much of her childhood in the U.S., Ms. Cameron certainly was in position to talk about this, but she could probably have said a few things about East Germany as well. She came to that country in 1967 for what was supposed to be a few days of work, but she carelessly threw away her exit visa. As you can imagine, not having your papers in a country that controlled its borders as assiduously as East Germany could be a recipe for disaster. She spent the next five years behind the Iron Curtain. While there, she appeared in two movies (Mit mir nicht Madam! and Hey You!), and sang in another (Osceola). When she finally got out, she headed to Denmark, where she spent the rest of her life. In her later years, she was a judge on Scenen er din, the Danish version of Star Search. She died in 2010.

If Römer was consciously emphasizing the stratification of East German society by pretending it didn’t exist, the message went over the heads of the film critics. The popular East German film reviewer, Renate Holland-Moritz, in her Kino-Eule column in Eulenspiegel magazine, thought that, although the film did touch on important subjects, it shied away from the bigger issues. The Catholic film magazine, Film-dienst, found the film mainly interesting as a time capsule, and there is some truth to this. As a chronicle of the aesthetics of 1970 East Germany it is hard to beat. Anyone interested in design will find in this film a treasure trove of kitchenware, furniture, architecture, clothing, and automobiles. The only other film that comes close is Römer’s 1976 film Hostess. In both films, Römer pegs the story to its point in time with his attention to the details. it is interesting to compare the two films. Only six years apart, and yet their aesthetics are completely different (it doesn’t hurt that one film is in color and the other is in black-and-white).

Römer got his start in movies as a character actor in the late fifties. He was slated for his big break with a starring role the 1965 film Born in ‘45, but the film was shelved after the 11th Plenum. Römer was a revolutionary at heart, and a socialist one at that. In a September 1965 interview for Junge Welt, the newspaper of the FDJ (East Germany’s government sponsored youth group), he said he was proud of his group at DEFA for their fight against “lazy mediocrity, cowardice, stupidity, the politically inflexible” (“gegen jedes faule Mittelmaß, gegen Feigheit, Dummheit, gegen das ewig Gestrige und ,dürfen wir das”). Two months later, the doors closed on this kind of thinking, but Römer kept the faith, subtly examining East German society in a series of comedies and seemingly lighthearted films.

As one of the people who protested the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, Römer didn’t make any friends in the government, but it was his script for the popular East German cop show, Polizeiruf 110 that brought his career to a standstill. After that, he did some voiceover work and eventually started appearing in TV movies, but his career was effectively over.

After the Wende, Römer found it impossible to get his scripts produced. His benevolent socialism was no longer the flavor of the month. As with other East German actors, he eventually started getting work in German television. He had a recurring role in the fourth season of Unser Lehrer Doktor Specht (coincidentally, Specht is Römer’s original last name). His last performance was in the popular cop show, Balko, but before the episode had aired, Römer died from injuries he sustained in an accident while tending to his garden plot in Berlin.

Hey You! stars the beautiful Annekathrin Bürger, Rolf Römer’s wife. Römer clearly loved this woman. The camera dwells often and lovingly on her face, as if it can’t get enough of her. He wasn’t the first, though. Ms. Bürger’s expressive face was well suited to movie close-ups. Frank Beyer also used it to good effect in Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers). Before becoming an actress, Ms. Bürger was working as a propmaster and an extra at the Stadttheater in Bernburg. There, director Gerhard Klein discovered her and cast her in A Berlin Romance (Eine Berliner Romanze), the second film in his Berlin trilogy. From then on, Ms. Bürger never stopped working, appearing in over twenty DEFA feature films, and even more TV movies. After the Wende, she continued to work, primarily in television. She was a regular on the Leipzig version of the popular German crime drama, Tatort, and on Die Stein, where she portrayed the lead character’s mother.

The song that Etta Cameron sings was written by Klaus Lenz, one of East Germany’s most respected jazz musicians. Lenz was closer to the cutting edge in jazz than any other performer in the GDR. He drew inspiration from several western sources, with a sound that mixed Hugh Masekela and the Modern Jazz Quartet during the sixties, and later the jazz-funk of Miles Davis and Weather Report. In 1977, after several successful performances on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Lenz moved to West Germany, but found it difficult to make a living as a musician in the west. He retired from music for several years, eventually returning to the stage in 2010.

A credit that you will see on every DEFA film is “Dramaturg.” On IMDB, this is often translated as “script editor,” but the job hews closer to the the theatrical meaning of dramaturge: the person who makes sure that the plays that are presented are in sync with the philosophy and perspective of the theater company. In East Germany, it was the Dramaturg’s job to make sure that the scripts didn’t contravene party politics; that it represented a truly East German perspective. Even this job could be dangerous. After the 11th Plenum, Chefdramaturg Klaus Wischenski was relieved of his duties thanks to the sudden shift in political climate. The Dramaturg on Hey You! was Wolfgang Ebeling. Ebeling also wrote or co-wrote many scripts for DEFA. He worked often with Römer, editing or co-writing the scripts for several movies that Römer either directed or starred in, including Chingachgook, The Great Snake, Mit mir nicht Madam!, Tecumseh, and Hostess. Although Ebeling got his start working on films during the fifties, but there is a gap in his work at DEFA. After working as the Dramaturg on Richard Groschopp’s 1962 political thriller, Freispruch mangels Beweises (Aquittal for Lack of Evidence), he didn’t work at DEFA again until 1967, when he came on-board as a screenwriter for Chingachgook. From then on he worked regularly on the films and television of East Germany, most often as a screenwriter. After the Wende, as with many other DEFA people, he worked infrequently, retiring from films after the 1991 crime comedy, Lord Hansi.

Hey You! is not the most daring of films, and it has that lack of focus that is common to the first efforts of many filmmakers. Nonetheless, it deserves watching. It is nicely photographed and well-acted. Above all, it is a perfect time capsule for the GDR in 1970. While watching it, you feel like you are there. You can almost smell the Rondo.

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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.

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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.

On the night of November 9, 1989, all hell broke loose in East Germany. Politburo member Günter Schabowski, while preparing for a press conference, was handed a memo on the new travel regulations for East German citizens. The memo stated that East Germans would now be allowed to travel abroad. What the memo did not say was that this new regulation was not suppose to take effect for twenty-four hours; giving the police enough time to implement new procedures for this. When asked when the regulation would take effect, Schabowski uttered the sentence that changed the world: “As far as I know, it’s effectively immediately.” (“Das tritt nach meiner Kenntnis… ist das sofort, unverzüglich.”), and by the end of the evening the borders of East Berlin were swarming with people trying to visit the west. The border guards frantically called every official they could find but the people who could actually make a decision seemed to be in short supply that night. According to folklore, the reason none of these officials could be found that night is because they were all at a screening of Heiner Carow’s controversial new movie, Coming Out, which just happened to be premiering the same night that the wall fell.

Coming Out is the story of a young teacher named Philipp Klarmann (Matthias Freihof) and his journey to sexual awareness. It is apparent from the moment we see him standing in front of his class that he is gay. No “gay-dar” needed. Shortly after this, he literally runs into Tanja (Dagmar Manzel), who has had a crush on him since school. The two of them hook up, and they seem happy, but all is not well. Things come to a head when Philipp stumbles into a gay bar and meets Mathias (Dirk Kummer), a handsome young man that we first saw in a grueling hospital scene at the beginning of the movie. Mathias and Philipp are soon in bed together, which makes Mathias very happy, but Philipp is still conflicted about his sexuality. After an encounter at the opera, Tanja finally catches on and leaves Philipp. Philipp tries to deny his sexuality, but all he ends up doing is losing Mathias, his one true love. He realizes his mistake too late, but finally comes to terms with who he is.

Coming Out

The sex in Coming Out is handled with candor and honesty. The film makes a point of showing the many sides of gay life in East Germany, from the old to the young, both happy and sad. The two leading men are attractive and make a believable couple. The gay bar scene is reminiscent of what the scene must have been like in the west before it became respectable. John Waters would be right at home here (although Matthias in mime facepaint with a tutu around his neck might cause him to run screaming from the place).

This was Matthias Freihof’s first starring role. Perhaps thanks to the timing, Coming Out helped propel Freihof into a very successful career in unified Germany not only as an actor, but also as a singer. He has appeared on various televisions shows and movies, and has released several albums of songs. Similarly Dagmar Manzel and Dirk Kummer both have gone on to have a successful careers since the wall fell. Like Freihof, Manzel has made a name for herself as both a singer and an actress and often appears in musical theater when she is not working on films. For Dirk Kummer, Coming Out was not only his start as an actor, but also the beginning of his career behind the camera. Although he acted in a few more movies, most of his work has been as an assistant director. Since 2003, he has worked primarily as a director of TV movies, including Charlotte und ihre Männer, and Geschlecht weiblich—for which Ulrike Krumbiegel won a best actress award at the 2003 German Television awards.

Coming Out

Early in his career, Director Heiner Carow made a name for himself as the director of the popular children’s films Sheriff Teddy and Sie nannten ihn Amigo (They Call Him Amigo). In 1971, he got in some hot water with the officials who objected to his film The Russians are Coming (Die Russen kommen—not to be confused with the similarly titled Norman Jewison film) but he made his biggest splash with the DEFA classic, The Legend of Paul and Paula. He followed that up with Until Death Do Us Part, which took a much darker look at human relationships (although, when you come right down to it, The Legend of Paul and Paula is pretty tragic in spite of its uptempo theme song).

After the Wende, Carow continued working, mainly in television, until his death in 1997 (he was 67). Sadly, the same cannot be said for his wife, Evelyn Carow, possibly the greatest film editor in East Germany. When DEFA ended, so did Ms. Carow’s career. In 1993, she edited Inge, April und Mai, one of the last DEFA films, and then stepped away from the editing bench. Not only was Germany changing, but movie editing was changing. That same year saw Avid entering the market as a publicly traded company. The days of physical film editing had come to an end.

With the fall of the wall, gays in East Germany suddenly were faced with an interesting dilemma. Being gay was still met with some antagonism and resistance on both sides of the wall, but now they found themselves part of a new minority: the Ossis; and that came with as many problems as being gay once had. In Jefferey Peck’s 1991 interview with Jürgen Lemke, the author of Gay Voices from East Germany,  Lemke said that there was greater solidarity among gays in East Germany before the Wende, and that he felt more secure as a member of a minority in the GDR than he does in the same situation in unified Germany. “I see myself, of course, more vulnerable than before,  especially when it concerns physical aggression,” said Lemke. (New German Critique, No. 52)

After all these years, Coming Out still holds up as one of the most moving and honest films on gay love. This is because Heiner Carow understood the most fundamental point: all relationships, whether gay or straight, are, first and foremost, human relationships.

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The Baldheaded Gang (Die Glatzkopfbande) is East Germany’s only biker film, and a possible precursor to the skinhead movement. Made in 1963—a full three years before Roger Corman kick-started the biker genre with The Wild Angels—the film follows the story of a gang of bikers who cause trouble at a vacation spot on the Baltic Sea. In this respect, it resembles Laslo Benedek’s classic The Wild One. Like The Wild One, it is based on an actual event; and also like The Wild One, the true story is far different than the one portrayed on screen.

The film was made shortly after the wall went up and was intended to demonstrate how the wall would protect the citizens of East Germany from West German carpetbaggers. This was a common theme in DEFA films at that time. The villain in the movie is a man called “King,” an ex-foreign legionnaire who hails from West Berlin (of course). King leads a motorcycle gang whose shoddy work at a construction site was responsible for the deaths of two people. A police lieutenant named Lothar Czernik is called onto the case. Czernik is an odd bird. He seems to have a strange three-way relationship with his pretty next door neighbor, Marianne, and his dog: an enormous German Shepherd that often steals the show. The dog hangs around with the woman during the day, and then returns home to Czernik for dinner. Rather than simply cross the yard to visit her, Czernik likes to call Marianne on the phone and stare at her through the window. He also likes to let the dog bark at her over the phone. This is one of those movie relationships that aims for cute but achieves disturbing instead.

The Baldheaded Gang gets off to a rollicking start with Helmut Nier’s percussive jazz score over artfully jagged titles, followed by a gang of motorcyclists tearing down a country road. Contrary to many descriptions of this film, the gang members are not riding mopeds, but their little bikes aren’t exactly Harleys either. At the beginning of the film, the gang members are hirsute, but later shave their heads in imitation of King’s personal hero, Yul Brynner.

At the seaside resort of Bansin on Usedom, an island in the Baltic Sea, the gang proceeds to piss off everyone in sight, kicking over children’s sand castles, interfering with various games, and generally acting like your standard biker bad boys. During an evening affair at the local rec hall, the gang’s behavior leads to a fracas that quickly gets out of hand. Later that evening, after assaulting two vacationers who have been dogging them since the beginning of the movie, the gang learns what happened at the construction site and tries to get out of the country, only to find the way blocked thanks to the valiant efforts of the GDR to protect their borders.

The film was a hit when it was released, and went on to become one of the most popular films in DEFA’s history. To the dismay of the authorities, some teens seemed to miss the cautionary point of the tale and identified with the troublemakers. As a result, the film was eventually pulled from theaters in spite of its popularity. Whether or not any young rebels were inspired by the film to shave their heads and act up is not documented, but could it be that this minor spate of GDR rebelliousness trickled through the underground, surfacing in England in the late sixties as the skinhead movement? It certainly seems plausible.

Although you can make a strong case for this film being the precursor to the entire biker genre, in style it is closer to the juvenile delinquent films of the fifties. For one thing, it is black-and-white with a bebop jazz score. It would take Roger Corman with Dave Allen and the Arrows to add electric guitars to the sounds of motorcycles. For another, the perspective is that of the authorities. Very little is done to build sympathy for the gang members. Only the spineless Piepel arouses any sympathy for he has paid the highest price of all.

As the evil “King,” Thomas Weisgerber is effectively menacing. Particularly interesting is Rolf Römer, playing Johle—one of the odder, more aggressive members of the gang. With hair, Rolf Römer resembles Cash Flagg (Ray Dennis Steckler) of Incredibly Strange Creatures fame, but without hair he looks like Michael Berryman in The Hills Have Eyes. Also worthy of note is Irene Fischer, who plays the peroxide blonde, Jackie to slatternly perfection. She would be right at home in any juvenile delinquent film from the United States.

Although the movie is based on an actual event, the true story is far different from the one portrayed on the screen. In reality, the event took place a few days before the wall was built. Seven young men were arrested for playing rock’n’roll, which was seen by the authorities as a threat to civilization (the word Unkultur gets bandied about here, but it doesn’t translate well). Five of the young men had shaved heads, but they did not know each other. After their arrest, the people at the Bansin campground marched to the police headquarters. Some were there to protest the arrest of the men, but most were there to complain about the lack of amenities. The authorities over-reacted (as authorities often do) and the men were charged with an attempted putsch—a word laden with sinister overtones thanks to Adolph Hitler. The fact that five of the men had shaved heads attracted the media’s attention and they become known as die Glatzkopfbande. The court was hard on them, sentencing them to 27 years altogether, with eight years for the main defendant. After being released from prison, some of the men did exactly what their characters in the film were trying to do: they went west.

In 1965, Richard Groschopp followed up the film with Entlassen auf Bewährung (Released on Probation), which continues with the story of Conny Schenk, a peripheral character in The Baldheaded Gang, who initially abets the gang but then later helps the police run them in. In 2001, the 45-minute documentary film about the actual incident—»Revolte« am Ostseestrand (“Revolt” at a Baltic Sea Beach) by Jürgen Ast and Inge Bennewitz—was shown on German television. In 2004, Vorpommern Theater produced Glatzkopfbande. Erinnerung an Rock ’n’ Roll (The Baldheaded Gang, a Memento of Rock’n’Roll), a theater piece based on the story.

By the time DEFA was founded, Richard Groschopp had already made a name for himself filming documentaries and training films for the Third Reich. As a cameraman, he worked with Leni Riefenstahl on her classic, Olympia. After the war, he started with DEFA by making short films. During the fifties he helped create the “Das Stacheltier” group, which specialized in producing short, humorous films that were shown along with newsreels before the main features at cinemas. Groschopp began directing feature films in the late fifties and had a big hit with the romantic comedy, Die Liebe und der Co-Pilot (Love and the Co-Pilot). But his biggest hit came in 1967 with the Indianer classic, Chingachgook, the Great Snake. This would be his last feature film. After a few TV movies, Groschopp retired in 1971 at the age of 65. He died in 1996.

Whether there are any plans to release this film in the United States, I do not know, but I certainly hope so. This film has been missing from the biker film narrative for too long.

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When the noted East German director/cinematographer, Werner Bergmann, left the preview screening of Born in ‘45 (Jahrgang 45), he turned to Roland Gräf, the film’s cinematographer, and spat: “Eastern Bloc Italians!” He may have meant it as an insult, but Gräf took it as a compliment. Born in ‘45 was a conscious attempt to duplicate the feel and appearance of the Italian neorealist films, which Roberto Rosselini once famously described as “the artistic form of the truth.” Director Jürgen Böttcher, and Gräf were happy to acknowledge this debt to the Italians in this film.

Born in ‘45 is a desultory look at the life of Al, a young man who married too young, and is feeling like he’s missing something in life. His wife, Li, can feel him slipping away, but doesn’t know how to stop it. Al hangs around with his buddies, flirts with other women (successfully and unsuccessfully), works on his motorcycle, and argues with his co-workers about duties and responsibilities. As with its Italian counterparts, Born in ‘45 doesn’t bother with the rigid three act structure so beloved by Hollywood filmmakers. It has a beginning, middle and an end, but the characters come to no great revelations, nor does it feel like things will be change much after the filming stops. So ist das Leben.

The action takes place in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin. During the GDR years, Prenzlauer Berg wasn’t the hip neighborhood it is today. It was a run-down area that housed many young and working class families. The buildings were old and the district was popular with filmmakers such as Gerhard Klein and Jürgen Böttcher, who wanted to show the lives of ordinary people. The film is shot in black-and-white. Unlike film noir, which uses the same medium to show the struggle between good and evil by enhancing the contrast between light and shadows, Born in ‘45 is about all the grays that lie in-between. It is, perhaps, for this reason that the film was banned in the wake of the 11th Plenum. Unlike The Traces of Stones (Spur der Steine), or The Rabbit is Me (Das Kaninchen bin ich), it doesn’t deal with the corruption of officials, but it does show life as ultimately meaningless and more than a little depressing. For this reason, the film was deemed “indifferent and insignificant,” and was not publicly shown until after the wall came down.

Director Jürgen Böttcher began his career as a painter in Dresden. He moved to Potsdam in 1955, where he studied filmmaking, and began working on documentary shorts a couple years later. His documentary background is obvious in Born in ‘45. The film looks and feels like real life. Because of the ban on this film, Böttcher returned to documentaries and never made another dramatic film. He continued making documentaries for DEFA right up until the Wende, and then, most famously, made Die Mauer, a chronicle of the deconstruction of the wall told without narration. Die Mauer won the International Film Critics Award at the 1991 Berlinale, at which time, Böttcher announced that he would retire from filmmaking to concentrate on painting. In 2001, he created one more film, A Place in Berlin (Konzert im Freien), primarily made from existing footage that he shot of the Marx-Engels-Forum in the Mitte District. Today he works as a painter under the pseudonym “Strawalde.”

In documentary filmmaking, the relationship between the director and the cinematographer is crucial. The same is true here. Using new, lighter cameras that could be carried on a shoulder, and eschewing dramatic lighting , Roland Gräf gives the film the look and feel of a documentary. At times the line blurs. When a bus load of sightseers disembarks at Gendarmenmarkt, where a trio of characters from the movie are hanging out, the tourists seem genuinely surprised; as if they were not expecting to be in a film. Although scorned by some and banned by the authorities at the 11th Plenum, the film’s influence can be seen in many later productions. In the 1970s, Gräf moved from cinematography to directing. He continued making films after the wall fell, although much more sporadically. One of the films, Der Tangospieler (The Tango Player) had started filming before the wall came down, but wasn’t finished until two years later.

The star of the film, Rolf Römer, had made a few films before Born in ‘45, but was relatively unknown. In 1966, he became a star when he co-starred with Gojko Mitic in The Sons of the Great Bear, the first East German western (Indianerfilm). He went on to co-star with Mitić in several of these so-called “Easterns,” usually playing the sole white man sympathetic to the plight of the Indians. In 1978, he wrote, directed, and starred in an episode of the popular East German police series Polizeiruf 110. The episode, Schuldig (Guilty), was seen by the authorities as an attack on them. Römer was blacklisted after that, and was not allowed to work in films in East Germany. Eventually he ended up in the west, where he worked on a few productions, but never had the fame and acceptance that he had acquired in the GDR.

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