Archive for the ‘Rabbit Film’ Category

Spring Takes Time
Spring Takes Time (Der Frühling braucht Zeit) was one of the twelve films banned in the wake of the notorious 11th Plenum. Along with The Rabbit is Me, it is one of the only films that actually made it into the theaters before the ax came down. While some of the 11th Plenum bans seemed downright silly (see Hands Up or I’ll Shoot!), the banning of Spring Takes Time is understandable. After all, it’s a movie about how the state’s demanding quota system could lead unscrupulous management to put the lives of the workers in danger and then blame the same workers when things go south. At its heart, the film is an indictment of the very economic system the folks at the 11th Plenum were so loathe to discuss.

At the start of the film, a gas company manager named Heinz Solter is arrested for negligence that resulted in the failure of a pipeline, and the serious injury to a worker. Most of the rest of the film is told in flashbacks, where we learn that Solter is just the fall guy for decisions made by his higher-ups, in particular Chief Operations Officer Erhard Faber, who is determined to meet the state’s quotas come hell or high water.

Spring Takes Time

It doesn’t help Solter’s case that he’s a reticent fellow who refuses to point the finger at anyone else, feeling that everyone in a position of power—including himself—shares some of the responsibility for what happened. It also doesn’t help that he has very short fuse, and isn’t averse to knocking someone through a glass door if he doesn’t like what they’re saying. Besides Solter’s story, much of the film revolves around his doe-eyed daughter Inge, who is dating one of Faber’s lackeys.

The film is directed by Günter Stahnke, an extremely talented director whose frequent run-ins with the authorities led to him being ostracized from DEFA. He was first criticized for his television short, Fetzers Flucht (Fetzer’s Escape), but that one was eventually allowed to be broadcast in 1962. Not so with his next short film, Monolog for a Taxi Driver (included on the Spring Takes Time DVD from the DEFA Library), which was banned outright for its pessimistic, every-man-for-himself look at life in the GDR. That film remained unscreened until the Wall came down. His first feature film, From King Midas (Vom König Midas), was met with some criticism, but made it into the theaters. Spring Takes Time was his next film. After that, Stahnke was essentially banned from DEFA and relegated to television, where he spent the rest of his career directing comedies and kids’ films. One might think the Wende would give Stahnke another chance to spread his wings, but such was not the case. His career as a director effectively ended with the dissolution of East Germany.

The movie is cast against type—perhaps as a way to show how topsy-turvy things had become in East Germany. Rolf Hoppe, who was almost always cast as a villain, appears here as a sympathetic worker in danger of being scapegoated for the failures of the gas line project. Günther Simon, who was usually cast in heroic roles—having first made a splash as East Germany’s number one hero Ernst Thälmann in the Kurt Maetzig films—here plays the devious Faber.

Der Frühling braucht Zeit

Solter is well played by Eberhard Mellies. While Solter is a good guy, he is also short-tempered and reticent. Mellies’ strong features and stern countenance lend themselves to this type of role. Mellies’ career in films started with a small role in Der neue Fimmel (The New Craze), after which he started appearing in various television productions. Spring Takes Time was his next feature film and almost his last. Aside from voiceovers in My Zero Hour (Meine Stunde Null) and Apaches, Mellies didn’t appear in a DEFA feature again until 1978. Like his brother Otto, who is one of the most well-known voiceover actors in Germany, Eberhard does most of his work in front of a microphone these days.

Doris Abeßer plays Solter’s waif-like daughter Inge, who obviously didn’t inherit any of her father’s stoicism. She is played here as a raw nerve, sensitive to every things that happens around her. With her enormous, dark eyes, she appears at times like a Keane kid (one reviewer compared her appearance to mask-wearing Louise (Alida Valli) in Eyes Without a Face, but I think this is pushing it). By the time she made this film, Abeßer had already appeared in nearly a dozen movies and a few TV films. Her performance in Konrad Wolf’s film Professor Mamlock as Mamlock’s daughter Ruth was especially powerful. Abeßer was married to director Stahnke. I could find no date for their marriage, but their son born in 1963, so they were already a couple by the time they made this film together. As with nearly everyone else involved with Spring Takes Time, Abeßer’s career after this film was restricted almost exclusively to television. After the Wende, she did what many East German actors did, moving from film and television to legitimate theater. She started appearing in film and television regularly again 2001, finally retiring in 2012. Abeßer died on January 26, 2016.

Much of this film’s cinematic value comes from its production design which is as angular and pristine as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The production designer was Georg Kranz, a versatile designer whose work can be seen in Ursula, The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs, and Murder Case Zernik. Spring Takes Time was his first feature film, and is probably the reason the next six productions he worked on were for television. He returned to feature films with the popular Time of the Storks, and worked mainly in feature films after that. After the Wende, when most East German film technicians were effectively shut out of the film industry, Kranz found work as the series production designer for the popular TV series Für alle Fälle Stefanie.

Der Frühling braucht Zeit

Juxtaposed with the film’s stark look is the jangly rock’n’roll score, played by a band called “The Sputniks.” The composer is listed as Gerhard Siebholz, who also did the scores for the musicals No Cheating, Darling!, and Wedding Night in the Rain. Siebholz was a very successful composer in East Germany, penning several hits songs. Unlike much of work, which has a penchant for the schmaltzy Schlagermusik so popular with older Germans, The music for Spring Takes Time sounds very much of its era, but it is also a strangely dissonant and heightens the effect that things are not quite right.

Although the term “Rabbit Films”—named after Kurt Maetzig’s The Rabbit is Me—was given to the films that were banned during the 11th Plenum, I suspect that Spring Takes Time is film that really set off the purge that followed. Especially considering that it premiered a few weeks after the Plenum, and was effectively, albeit accidentally, an indictment of the very behavior that the folks at the Plenum had just demonstrated. How could they not ban it? A look at the film histories of many of the people who worked on this film show that they were more severely punished than the people on most of the other banned films. Stahnke, Mellies, Abeßer, and cinematographer Hans-Jürgen Sasse were all relegated to television after this, with DEFA feature film opportunities for them few and far between, if at all. Günther Simon probably avoided similar treatment because he was, after all, the embodiment of Ernst Thälmann and the West German press would have had a field day if it could be proved that the man who played Thälmann was no longer being cast in films. While the SED could rail against specific aspects of the other banned films, claiming they contained anti-socialist elements, Spring Takes Time was a virtual exposé of their hypocrisy. I can’t help but wonder if some of the films that were banned in the Kahlschlag (a term meaning “clear-cutting,” often used in reference to the films banned during this period) were banned as a smokescreen to hide the fact that Spring Takes Time was the movie they really wanted to be rid of, but to ban it by itself would have called too much attention to the film.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.1


1. The DVD also includes Stahnke’s short film Monolog for a Taxi Driver (1962).

Just Don't Think I'll Cry

Ever wonder what it would be like to be James Dean growing up in East Germany? Look no further than Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry (Denk bloß nicht, ich heule), which captures that same inchoate teenage angst, but from an East German perspective. This film could not have been made before 1963. That was the year SED published its Youth Communiqué, which stated that young people should not passively attend school, but should be encouraged to be participate in the educational process. Filmmakers began to explore this topic as a basis for films. Perhaps if Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry had been made in 1964, it might have made it into the movie theaters. Unfortunately it was made in 1965, which put it squarely in the crosshairs of the 11th Plenum. The film didn’t stand a chance. It was shelved and didn’t see the light of a projector until after the Wende.

Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry is the story of a rebellious young man named Peter who has been kicked out of high school for writing an essay critical of the state. He hangs around with a bunch of other Halbstarken (usually translated as “juvenile delinquents,” but translated here as ”punks”), who spend their time carousing and generally behaving badly. Peter meets Anne, the daughter of a man who spent the war in a concentration camp for his communist views. The man runs the local agricultural collective, and, as one might imagine, Peter’s irritation with the state of things doesn’t go over well with him. As with Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause, much of Peter’s rebelliousness stems directly from his relationship with his father, but in Nicholas Ray’s film, it is Jim’s disgust for his father’s weak-will that spurs his behavior. In Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry, Peter’s attitudes toward the GDR are the result of his adulation of his step-father, a bitter drunk who passes on his hatred of the state to Peter.

Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry is directed by Frank Vogel, who got his start as an assistant director on Konrad Wolf’s Genesung (Recovery). He began directing films in 1958 with Klotz am Bein (Ball and Chain), and shook things up in ‘62 with And Your Love Too, which took on the subject of the wall while it was still being built. That film ruffled a few feathers, as did his next movie, Julia lebt (Julia Lives), which looks at the issue of social class in East Germany (a supposedly non-existent thing in the GDR). Both of those films made it into the theaters, but as far as the leadership was concerned, he went too far with Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry. It would be a couple years before he was allowed to direct a film again. Apparently he placated the powers that be. By the seventies, he was back in the directors chair on a regular basis although his later films skated around controversial topics. As with many of the people who worked at DEFA, Vogel’s career ended with the fall of the wall. He never made another film after the Wende and died in Berlin in 1999.

Playing Peter is Peter Reusse, an actor who kept busy both on the stage and in films in East Germany. Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry would have been his first starring role had it not been shelved. When it finally was screened in 1990, the Tageszeitung, a daily newspaper out of West Berlin, rightly dubbed Mr. Reusse the “James Dean of the East.” In spite of the setback caused by the rejection of the film, Mr. Reusse continued to work in movies, and television. He appeared in several episodes of the popular East German crime drama Polizeiruf 110. After the Wende, Mr. Reusse ended his acting career, devoting his time instead to writing and art. He has written at length about his experiences in East Germany, mostly from a negative perspective.

Anne—the Natalie Wood of the film, if we are to continue the Rebel Without a Cause comparison—is played by Anne-Kathrein Kretzschmar. Ms. Kretzschmar studied acting at the Theater Academy in Leipzig and this was her debut role. Her next film was Karla, making it two films in a row that were banned by the authorities; not an auspicious beginning to a budding film career. After that we only saw her in a few television productions and on stage, primarily the Dresden State Theater.

Denk bloß nicht, ich heule

The cinematographer was Günter Ost—the most imaginative cameraman to come out of East Germany. Ost frame compositions are the most interesting you’ll see in any East German film. People are occasionally restricted to the farthest corner of a shot while the landscape behind them takes over the scene. Sometimes Ost uses the frame to show the philosophical gulfs that exist between characters, while other shots seem to suggest that the needs of the country are greater than those of the individual. Unfortunately for Ost, his style became synonymous with the things that the doctrinaires in the SED felt were wrong with DEFA films. After this film and Karla were shelved, Ost never made another film for DEFA again. Fortunately, he did resurface after the Wende to help reconstruct this film to its original version.

The music in the film was by Hans-Dieter Hosalla. He is best-known today for his music from the Märchenfilm, Das hölzerne Kälbchen (The Wooden Calf), and the Indianerfilm, Apaches, but he composed soundtracks for many other excellent East German films, including Professor Mamlock, Divided Heaven, and Murder Case Zernik. The score for Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry is an unusual one that jumps from Nino Rota bop, to Munsters rock, to jittery jazz, to romantic flute music. It is the perfect score for this movie, reflecting the confusion and lack of direction that roils inside the main character. Hosalla was born in Efurt. He worked with Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble during the early fifties, composing music for Brecht’s plays. He started composing film scores in 1958, beginning with Gerhard Klein’s Märchenfilm, Geschichte vom armen Hassan (The Story of Poor Hassan). Hosalla continued to write film scores until the late seventies, at which time he retired from the movies, devoting his time, instead, to the Berliner Ensemble stage productions. He died in 1995 in Berlin.

When the film was screened for party officials, they weren’t happy with the results and requested several cuts and reshoots. Vogel complied, but nothing he could do—or could have done, really—would placate them. The film ended up on the shelf alongside the other “Rabbit Films,” and wouldn’t appear on movie screens until 1990, when it was screened at the Berlinale Film Festival.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

In December of 1965, The 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the SED left East Germany’s film industry in ruins. Some films (most notably, The Rabbit is Me) were shelved after playing briefly in theaters, while others (e.g., Born in ‘45, Carla, and When You Grow Up, Dear Adam) didn’t reach the theaters until after the wall came down. One film that managed to squeak through the initial purge was The Trace of Stones (Spur der Steine)—partly because it was still being worked on when the Plenum occurred, and partly because it was based on one of the most popular books in East Germany. But it was doomed. After all, it was a film about a party leader who cheats on his wife and a likable anti-hero who flouts authority at every turn. Never mind that the book concludes with the anti-hero embracing the party philosophy, any story that dared to come near the touchy subject of SED politics after the 11th Plenum was treading on dangerous ground.

The Trace of Stones is the story of two competing work projects in the fictional towns of Schkona und Leupau (thinly disguised versions of Schkopau and Leuna: two industrial areas near Halle). At one of the sites, a man named Hannes Balla runs things his own way. He is not averse to cheating and bribery if it keeps his crew in work. As building materials become more scarce, Balla and his gang finds ways to get what they need to keep their project on track. The party officials are not completely happy with this, but Balla gets the work done, so they look the other way. Into this scenario come two idealists: Werner Horrath, a by-the-book party leader, and Kati Klee, a young female Engineer. Soon a romantic triangle develops between Horrath, Klee, and Balla, which sends the delicate equilibrium of the community tilting out of control.

Some critics have compared The Trace of Stones to an American western. Manfred Krug as Hannes Balla certainly has a swagger and an imposing presence similar to John Wayne’s in the John Ford and Howard Hawks films, and some of the scenes with the Balla Brigade have a kind of Magnificent Seven quality about them; but, as an American friend of German literature professor, Dr. Frank Höernick pointed out, “John Wayne would shoot; not stand around chatting.”

If anything, it resembles that other American classic, The Scarlet Letter. Like Hester Prynne, Kati Klee bears up under the community’s disapproval with quiet dignity. And like the errant Reverend Dimmesdale, Werner Horrath is basically a good man who keeps his adultery a secret until he can no longer stand the hypocrisy. That’s as far as the comparison goes, however, because the third party in this triangle, Hannes Balla is nothing like Hester’s sneaky reptile of a husband, Roger Chillingworth. Balla—in spite of his love for anti-authoritarian antics—is a man of strong principles. He believes in the goals of the party, and even when he does things that break the rules his reasons are sound. At the beginning of the movie, he seems like the most amoral one in the lot, but by the end, he seems like the most righteous.

After squeaking by the authorities with a few minor cuts, the film opened in theaters, but party officials decided they had made a mistake. In a feeble attempt to rectify the situation, they sent people to the theater to sit in the audience and boo and shout. The film ran only three days. It was then was classified as “hostile to the SED,” and was not shown again until 1990. This decision by the party officials shows just how confused and wrong-headed they had become in the wake of the eleventh plenum. At its core, the film is about a renegade scofflaw who realizes the importance of governing laws. Throughout the film, Balla examines the East German way of life, and comes to the conclusion that, whatever its faults, it is better than the west. If anything, The Trace of Stones is a defense of the system, but there was no explaining this to the party officials in 1966.

After it was banned, Frank Beyer’s career as a director came to an abrupt halt. He was sent to work in theater until 1971, when, thanks to the loosening of a restriction on DEFA after Honecker took over, he was allowed to make a couple in TV movies. In 1975, he returned to feature films with a bang: Jakob the Liar—his first feature film since The Trace of Stones—was the first and only East German film to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Kati Klee is played by Krystyna Stypulkowska, a Polish actress who had impressed the international film community with her performance as Pelagia in Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje). At the time, Ms. Stypulkowska spoke no German, so her voice was provided by the popular East German film star, Jutta Hoffmann. In an interview, Ms. Stypulkowska said she thought that Hoffmann’s voice worked well for her character because it made her sound more like a party member.

To play Hannes Balla, Manfred Krug was chosen. At that point, Krug was best known to East German audiences as a singer. He had done dramatic films already (e.g., Five Cartridges and Professor Mamlock), but it was his performance in Midnight Revue that captured the public’s fancy. He appeared regularly on East German television, and his albums sold well in the GDR. As one of the many people in the East German film community to protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann in 1976, Krug found himself blacklisted. He asked to be allowed to move to the FRG, and his request was granted in 1977. After moving to West Berlin, he starred in several TV shows, including Auf Achse (On the Axle), a popular show about German truckers, and the ever-popular crime drama, Tatort (Crime Scene), in which he played Head Commissioner Paul Stoever, who was not averse to bursting into song. In 1996, he wrote Abgehauen (Scram), an autobiographical account of his time in the GDR. The book was a big hit in Germany, and was made into a TV movie by his old friend, The Trace of Stones director Frank Beyer. Krug has gone on to publish four more books in Germany. He lives in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin, where he has resided since he left East Germany.

Werner Horrath, the adulterous Communist party secretary is played by Eberhard Esche. In some ways, Esche has the most difficult role. In western literature, the adulterer usually comes off as a complete cad, never intending to tell the wife about his lover or to marry his mistress. Horrath is not exactly a cad, but we are never sure if he is going to do the right thing. This creates an interesting tension in the character. At times we like him, and at other times we want to slap some sense into him. In terms of strength of character, he is no match for Balla. Esche was a popular theater actor in East Germany and was, for a time, married to the Dutch actress, Cox Habbema (Eolomea), with whom he co-starred in the Märchenfilm, Wie heiratet man einen König (How to Marry a King). He died of cancer in 2006 and is buried in the Französische Friedhof (French Cemetery) in Berlin.

The Trace of Stones is also notable for one of the most amusingly self-deprecating lines in East German cinema. Shortly after Kati Klee arrives at the worksite, Balla stops by her room and asks if she wants to go out on a date. “I wanted to ask you to the movies,” he says. “I’d even watch a DEFA film with you.” Maybe this is really why the banned it.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

For all of the problems inherent in East Germany’s political system, one area where the east decidedly surpassed the west was in its attitude toward women in the workplace. While women in West Germany and America were still relegated—almost forcibly—to the home and kitchen, East Germany and the USSR were allowing women to work alongside men with very few questions. Yes, there were still many cultural issues that hadn’t been resolved (and still haven’t), communist philosophy made a strong case for sexual equality. [That said, it should be noted that the leaders in both countries were still white men right until the end.]

Her Third (Der Dritte), made in 1972, is a movie about one such working woman. With two daughters, Margit Fließer—perfectly played by Jutta Hoffmann—works as a computer technician in a large chemical company. In a series of flashbacks, we are taken through her life; from her impoverished, religion-oriented upbringing, through two marriages, to the wedding day of the third. Her first husband (although it is never made clear that she actually married him) is Bachmann, a school lecturer played by Peter Köhncke. Bachmann is the classic college cad, having an affair with his student and then breaking up with her when things got too serious. The second is a blind man, played by the always impressive Armin Mueller-Stahl. The blind man seems like a better choice than Bachmann, but he is an angry drunk that can go from violin-playing gentleness to name-calling paranoia within a few swigs. When his rage gets to be too much for her, Margit packs her bags and leaves him. The third and, presumably, final man in her life is Hrdlitschka, portrayed by Rolf Ludwig. Hrdlitschka seems like he may be the guy Margit’s been hoping for, and she undertakes a program of discovery to learn as much about him as possible before committing to a relationship. As a woman who worked hard to overcome her past, Margit does not want to be just another feminine cliché. Why, she wonders, does she have to follow the silly romantic protocols of her grandparents? Why can’t she pursue the man she wants and make the first moves?

Margit’s co-conspirator in the quest for Hrdlitschka’s heart is her best friend, Lucie. Lucie stands by her side as she pursues Hrdlitschka, and helps her realize the relationship. Lucie and Margit get along great, so it comes as no surprise when it is revealed that the real love story of the movie is between them. Although it is never explicitly stated, there are some indications that Margit fancies women. In a scene that takes place at a convent during her youth, we see that her relationship with another girl might go beyond the usual bounds. The movie never says this outright; everything is implied. Unlike most Hollywood directors, Günther assumes that his audience has a brain and can read between the lines. This subtlety is a common feature of East German films, due no doubt in part, to the often severe restrictions that filmmakers encountered whenever they tried to push the limits. Is the real third of the film then Lucie, and not Hrdlitschka? Will Margit find happiness married to Hrdlitschka? The audience is left to answer these questions for themselves.

When Her Third was released, East German officials almost banned it due to a short, mildly erotic scene in which Margit and Lucie kiss. Curiously, the kiss seemed to provoke less interest in the west than the fact that Margit was a single, working mother with two children, who held an important technical position in a chemical company. Western audiences found this far more outrageous than the idea that two women might kiss. The fact that Her Third did get released was, in no small part, due to the changes a year before in the GDR’s party leadership.

Walter Ulbricht, the General Secretary of the SED Central Committee, was the man in control of East Germany from 1950 to 1971. Originally a staunch supporter of Stalin, Ulbricht had sense enough to stay on good terms with Khrushchev when he took over in the USSR. Unfortunately for Ulbricht, the ousting of Khrushchev caught him flat-footed, Brezhnev did not get along with Ulbricht, preferring instead the more conservative Erich Honecker, who was at that time, the GDR’s Central Committee Secretary for Security Matters. Once Khrushchev was gone, it was only a matter of time before Ulbricht followed suit. On May 3rd, 1971 Ulbricht was forced to resign, and Honecker took over. Honecker was more of a hard-line, soviet-style communist than Ulbricht and herein lies one of the most interesting paradoxes of the GDR. although Honecker was considered more conservative than Ulbricht, the net result of his taking over the SED was a loosening of the restrictions on the film community. It may have been due to leaders thinking that a more publicly liberal stance on artistic expression would help counterbalance any claims of oppression from the west. Or it may have been Honecker’s way of demonstrating that he wasn’t Ulbricht, who was the man in charge when the 11th Plenum clamped down on the arts.

The chemistry between the two leading ladies in Her Third is strong. No surprise here. Jutta Hoffmann and Barbara Dittus were two of the best actresses to come out of East Germany. Hoffmann has had a rocky career. She was one of many people who had trouble finding work in movies following the film bans handed down by the SED after the 11th Plenum. It probably didn’t help that she worked on four of the twelve banned films. It was three years before she was able to work on movies again. Then, after supporting the exiled songster, Wolf Biermann, she found herself again having trouble getting work and eventually immigrated to the west in 1985, where her film credentials had little value. It wasn’t until the wall came down that she finally started finding work in the west. She has been active in films and television ever since. In contrast, her co-star Barbara Dittus, continued working in the east until the fall of the wall, and became extremely popular in the film and television industry of united Germany as well, starring in six productions in 1998 alone. Sadly, Ms. Dittus died in 2001 at the age of 61. As with many East German actors, both actresses also worked extensively in theater.

Director Egon Günther was one of the more daring directors in East Germany. His use of hand-held cameras in this film to create an immediate, cinéma vérité feel was fairly rare back in the early seventies (and all too common nowadays). Sometimes the camera takes on a life of its own, moving away from the center of the story to focus on something else, reflecting Margit’s own hyperactive mind. Small wonder, then, that he was one of the filmmakers that fell on the wrong side of the ruling SED party during the 11th Plenum with his film, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam. When he was allowed to make a film again, he came back with a bang, directing Farewell (Abschied), considered one of the best films to come out of East Germany.

Special mention should be given here to Karl-Ernst Sasse’s score, which ranges from a jazzy flute and xylophone melody  to dissonant percussion. Sasse created scores for over 500 movies and TV shows in the DDR. A former orchestra conductor as well as a composer, he was comfortable writing in a wide variety of styles, creating film scores for every genre from westerns to science fiction. After the wall came down, he also created some interesting scores for classic silent movies such as The Golem and Asphalt. Sasse retired in 1999 and died in 2006 not far from the Babelsberg studios that kept him so busy.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

A few years stand out in East German history. 1961, when the wall was built, and 1989, when the wall fell, are the most obvious examples, but coming in a close third is 1965. This was year of the 11th Plenum of the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or SED), East Germany’s ruling party. What had started as an economic summit, suddenly turned into a cultural purge, relegating some of the best films that DEFA had to offer to the vaults, and pushing some filmmakers and writers away from their chosen professions.

After the wall went up, East Germany was faced with a dilemma. The economy was stagnating, the Five Year Plan model wasn’t working, and the West was making political hay of it. General Secretary Walter Ulbricht decided to follow Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev’s lead and move the GDR away from the centralized communism of Stalin to a more localized model. Starting in 1963, Ulbricht, economic advisor Wolfgang Berger, and Planning Commissioner Erich Apel, came up with the New Economic System (initially dubbed Neuen Ökonomischen System der Planung und Leitung (NÖSPL) , but later shortened to Neues Ökonomisches System (NÖS)). It was a good plan, and history shows that it might have worked, but Ulbricht didn’t count on the conservative groundswell that was rising in the upper echelons of the USSR. Some Russian politicians—particularly the head of the Supreme Soviet, Leonid Brezhnev—felt that Khrushchev was moving their country away from the government’s core principles. While he was on vacation in 1964, Brezhnev made his move and Khrushchev returned to Russia to find himself out of a job. This left Ulbricht in a sticky position. He had hitched his star to Khrushchev’s, but suddenly that star had fallen from the heavens. The NÖS was successful, but it rubbed a lot of people at the top the wrong way, and the new powers in Russia didn’t like it at all.

By the time the 11th Plenum was scheduled to take place, it was clear to almost everyone that the NÖS was a non-starter. Less than two weeks before he was scheduled to present his work on the NÖS at the 11th Plenum, Erich Apel, one of the plan’s chief architects, committed suicide. Suddenly the NÖS wasn’t just disliked, it was too hot to handle. No one wanted to bring it up at the meeting, so—like U.S. politicians, when they are afraid of addressing real issues—they turned instead to the entertainment industry. Films were getting too liberal, they complained. Why, some were downright anti-socialist.

Twelve films were banned at the 11th Plenum, none was more notorious than The Rabbit is Me (Das Kaninchen bin ich), directed by Kurt Maetzig. The Rabbit is Me is based on Maria Morzeck oder Das Kaninchen bin ich, a book by Manfred Bieler that was already banned when Maetzig decided to make the movie. It is a first person account of Maria, a young woman whose brother is sent to prison for breaking the GDR civil agitation laws (staatsgefährdender Hetze). Maria is never entirely clear as to what her brother did. Quite coincidentally, a man she meets at the opera turns out to be Paul Deiter, the judge who sentenced her brother. While pursuing the release of her brother, she falls in love with the judge (who is married) and soon becomes his mistress. Through her eyes we see that the judge is as bourgeois and status-oriented as his western counterparts. Worse, he is so dogmatic in his approach to the law that he can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong. Bieler had intended his book to be a warning to the GDR, but the warning came too late. The book was promptly banned. It is one of life’s mysteries how the film ever got made at all.

In the film, Maria is played by the beautiful Angelika Waller in her first starring role. She brings just the right mixture of innocence and sexuality to the part. Paul Deiter is played by Alfred Müller, who had already made a splash in For Eyes Only—a popular East German spy thriller. Although other people come in and out of the story, everything revolves around these two. Since the story is told from the narrated perspective of Maria, Ms. Waller does most of the heavy lifting here, but she is helped admirably by cinematographer Erich Gusko’s moody gray camerawork  and director Kurt Maetzig nearly flawless mise en scène.

The Rabbit is Me opened in October, two months before the SED’s general assembly, but it was quickly pulled from theaters. Reportedly the government sent people to these screenings to boo and hiss and give the appearance that the audience was displeased with the film. It was held up as a prime example of what the conservatives felt was wrong with modern cinema. For this reason, films banned for their socio-political content were referred to derisively as “Rabbit Films” (Kanninchenfilme).* The film was shelved until 1990, when it, along with several other banned films, was screened in Berlin.

Although The Rabbit is Me was the flash-point for the cultural purge, its director, Kurt Maetzig, managed to avoid the penalties that some of his comrades experienced. This was partly due to his public “apology,” in which he accepted the blame for the sins of The Rabbit is Me without ever actually saying that he shouldn’t have made the movie; but it was also, no doubt, due to his status as a filmmaker. He was, after all, the man who made the Ernst Thälmann films, which were by then being shown regularly in classrooms all over the country (Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the German Communist party during the pre-WWII years, was a folk hero in East Germany akin to George Washington here. He was surreptitiously executed by Hitler who claimed that allied bombers were responsible for his death). Their participation in The Rabbit is Me apparently had no ill effects on the rest of the cast either. They all went on to make many more movies in the east, with the exception of Manfred Bieler, the author of the screenplay and the original book. Bieler moved to Czechoslovakia shortly after the SED’s decision, and then, after the Warsaw Pact invasion, fled to West Germany.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

*Horst Sindermann, the man responsible for coining the term Kanninchenfilme is the same man who christened the Berlin Wall: “antifaschistischer Schutzwall” (anti-fascist protective wall).