Archive for the ‘Republikflucht’ Category

Jana und Jan
With the notable exception of horror movies, the East German film industry (that is to say, DEFA) made films of nearly every genre from westerns to science fiction; from thrillers to romantic comedies. If it were a Hollywood film, Jana and Jan (Jana und Jan) would be categorized as a women-in-prison film, but without the usual salaciousness and exploitation attached to that genre. It has the usual tropes for these films: the prison social hierarchy, girl fights, and shower scenes, but nothing is Jana and Jan is played for leers or laughs. It is a grim and gray film, with cinematography to match.

The film starts in 1989, when 15-year-old Jan (René Guß) is brought to a juvenile detention center after getting caught trying to flee to West Germany. There he meets Jana (Kristin Scheffer), a tough 17-year-old who sleeps with Jan on a dare. Jana gets pregnant, and then decides at the last minute to have the child. During their incarceration, the Wall opens, and the teens at the detention center are optimistic that this will improve things for them. Jana’s emotionally fragile prisonmate Julia (Julia Brendler) dreams of being reunited with the mother in the West. Jan and Jana decide to strike out on their own in search of a better place to live, but the future for them doesn’t look any better now than it did before the Wall came down.

jana and jan

Director Helmut Dziuba had started working on the script for this film before the Wall came down, but the events at the time led him to rewrite the story to include the Wende, making the narrative even bleaker. He seems to be saying here that when the Wall was up, at least there was a promise of a better life on the other side of the border, but now there is nothing to look forward to except bleakness and death. Not exactly feel-good material.

It is questionable that the script would have seen the light of day before the Wall fell. Even in the final days of the foundering republic, discussion of the topic of trying to cross the border was a touchy one. The Flight managed to get away with it because it showed the fatal futility of trying to do so, and the evil avariciousness of the gangs that arrange these escape efforts.1

Director Helmut Dziuba hails from Dresden and got started as a high-voltage electrician before moving to Moscow to study film at the Moscow Film Academy (VGIK). He worked in radio and television in Moscow before returning to East Germany and joining DEFA. He served as an assistant director to Frank Beyer and Günter Reisch before taking on his own film productions. Like Herrmann Zschoche, Dziuba is known for his clear-eyed films about young people, but while Zschoche continued his career in television, Jana and Jan was Dziuba’s last film as a director. He did continue to write, and his script for Bernd Sahling’s Die Blindgänger (The Blind Flyers) won several awards around the world. Dziuba died in 2012.

selbsmord

It was also the last film for cinematographer Helmut Bergmann. Bergmann’s older brother was Werner Bergmann, who helped Helmut get his first job as a cameraman at DEFA back in the fifties. Helmut didn’t disappoint. Unlike some cinematographers who have a specific style, Bergmann could make the look fit the subject matter, whether it was the vivid colors of Love’s Confusion, or the drabness of Jana and Jan. In Bergmann’s case, the end of career had less to do with the fall of the Wall than it did with his age. He was already 66 when Jana and Jan came out. He died in 1998 in Potsdam. Bergmann was married to Bärbl Bergmann, DEFA’s first female director.

Also like Herrmann Zschoche (see Seven Freckles), Helmut Dziuba liked to use untested young people in lead roles. Kristin Scheffer and René Guß were both new to acting, and they never made another film. Jana and Jan wasn’t the first film for Julia Brendler, though, or even her first Helmut Dziuba film. She had starred in his previous film Forbidden Love, in which Brendler plays a 13-year-old girl who is in love with an 18-year-old boy. Brendler is a strong screen presence, and the only thing wrong with that is that it threatens to pull attention away from the main characters. Unlike the two leads in the film, Brendler has gone on to have a highly successful career in films and television in unified Germany. Nor was Jana and Jan the first film for Karin Gregorek, who plays one of the prison administrators. Gregorek started in films in 1963, and continued acting after the Wende, primarily in television. With her unique looks and acting talent, I have no doubt she would have been part of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s troupe of regulars had she been born in the West.

Jana and Jan went on to win the Special Youth Award at the San Remo Film Festival, with Dziuba winning the Bavarian Film Award for Best Director in 1993. It’s an excellent film, but it’s gray-green color palette and unrelenting pessimism make it a difficult film to watch, and not one that will be everybody’s—or even most people’s—taste.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


1. I should point out here that no East German official would ever categorize the attempts to leave East Germany as “escaping.” Escape attempts were characterized as desertions and border violations, and the people who helped others escape were “human traffickers” (Menschenhändleren).

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Spur in die Nacht
In America, we tend to parse out films about crime into specific categories, such as heist films, detective films, film noir, mysteries, and so on. In both East and West Germany, these films are lumped into one big group: Kriminalfilme, or “crime films,” usually referred to as “Krimis.” Many West German Krimis center around a murder, but this is more unusual in East German Krimis. Murder, as an individual crime, is seen as a symptom of capitalism and less likely to occur in the GDR. In West Germany, the criminals are often members of crime organizations run by an evil masterminds, best exemplified by the Dr. Mabuse films. In East Germany, these films often revolve around West Germans and foreigners who are using the disparity between East and West Germany for their own ends. Track in the Night (Spur in die Nacht) falls squarely into this category.1 Its original title was Schmugglerkönig (Smuggler King), which gives some idea of the subject matter, but also clues the audience in to the criminals’ motives early on.

In Track in the Night, we follow the misadventures of a Berlin bricklayer named Ulli, who arrives in a small village on the Czech/German border to visit his girlfriend, Sabine. It’s skiing season, and Sabine is doing seasonal work at the local HO store. When she’s not there to meet him, he goes to the the Fuchsbau Inn where she’s staying, but Sabine isn’t there either. After a brief investigation, the local authorities decide Sabine is a Republikflüchtling—a person who left East Germany illegally—but Ulli doesn’t believe it and neither does Sabine’s friend and co-worker Traudel. Ulli starts his own investigation, and soon finds himself embroiled with a gang of smugglers.

Spur in die Nacht

In some respects, Track in the Night resembles an Alistair MacLean story (The Guns of Navarone, Breakheart Pass), where we find out later that someone we thought was possibly a bad guy turns out to be a good guy, but a good guy in this case means someone who works for the Stasi. In other respects, it resembles the format pioneered by Hitchcock, where an ordinary man is thrown into a situation outside of his usual experiences, and is forced to play the hero.

Track in the Night is the second film from director Günter Reisch. Reisch was one of East Germany’s most interesting and imaginative directors. He is best known for Anton the Magician, as well he should be, for it is a real classic, but his others films are also worth a viewing. Politically, he rarely rocked the boat, but this wasn’t out of timidity. He was resolutely socialist, and often attacked what he saw as a growing tendency toward bourgeois values in East Germany.2 His most unique contributions to cinema are the bookend films, A Lively Christmas Eve and Like Father, Like Son, filmed twenty-five years apart with nearly the same cast, right down to the bit parts.

Playing Ulli is Ulrich Thein, and this is his movie he appears in nearly every scene. He even takes to singing and playing guitar at one point. The song he sings, “Fuchsbau-Boogie,” was composed by Thein; rather quickly from the sounds of it, but it’s supposed to be an impromptu song anyway. Thein was a man of many talents. Although best known as an actor, he also directed films and plays, composed songs, and wrote screenplays. He died in 1995 in Berlin (for more on Thein, see Anton the Magician).

Ulrich Thein

Track in the Night also stars two of East Germany’s most beautiful actresses: Eva-Maria Hagen and Annekathrin Bürger.3 For Hagen, this wasn’t the first film she worked on—that would be Don’t Forget My Little Traudel—but it was the first film featuring her to reach the theaters. Her acting duties here are limited. She doesn’t appear until the last half-hour of the film, and even then only in a few scenes. These two movies arrived in theaters within weeks of each other, kicking Hagen’s career with a roaring start.

Annekathrin Bürger had already made a splash in her previous film, Gerhard Klein’s A Berlin Romance. When Track in the Night was made, Bürger was romantically coupled with her co-star Ulrich Thein. After splitting with Thein, Bürger dated and married fellow actor Rolf Römer. Although Römer is now dead, Bürger is still going strong and regularly performs programs of songs and poetry (for more on Bürger, see Hostess). Bürger’s contribution to the plot is not as limited as Hagen’s but the story doesn’t revolve around her either.

The music is by Helmut Nier, a classical composer, who brings to the score a nice Gershwinesque jazziness. Those who have seen New Year’s Punch, which was also scored by Nier, will recognize certain leitmotifs Nier used again in that film. The cinematography is by Walter Fehdmer, who worked in East Germany until the Wall went up, and thereafter worked in West Germany, suggesting he either chose this time to leave the country or, more likely, found himself cut off from his former employer. He retired from film work in 1970. No death date is listed for him, although, since he was born in 1913, he is either dead, or one of the oldest men in Germany. Fehdmer’s work is adequate, but not on a par with the likes of Rolf Sohre, Günter Ost, Joachim Hasler, or Werner Bergmann.

Track in the Night is not one of the most daring or inventive Krimis to come out of DEFA. Those would come later. But it is entertaining, and has a perspective that is completely at odds with our western way of thinking.The proposition that it’s good to cooperate with the Stasi is not a position that one is likely to see repeated anytime soon. Even at DEFA, this position became less and less common as the Stasi became more and more invasive.

IMDB page for this film.


1. Note: I’ve translated the German word Spur as “Track.” This film could also be called “Trail in the Night” or “Trace in the Night” (the more common translation of Spur), and both would fit. The English word “spoor” comes from the same root, although it has lost much of its meaning in English and now is usually reserved to talk about animal droppings. I’ve chosen “track” in reference to one specific scene in the film, which I believe the title is in reference to.

2. Sadly, I never met the fellow, but reports from friends and associates make him sound like a wonderfully cantankerous old coot. I think I would have liked him.

3. Although most of the time I use the now gender-neutral “actor” in all cases, somehow the phrase “beautiful actors” just doesn’t work for me, so I’ve made this exception.

Schaut auf diese Stadt

On Sunday morning, August 13, 1961, the citizens of Berlin woke up to a remarkable event. While they were sleeping, East German soldiers had constructed a barbed wire fence around the entire city of West Berlin. Workers were already beginning to tear up the roads between the east and the west, and armed soldiers stood at various points along the fence, making sure no one got through unless authorized. Some people found themselves faced with a dilemma. If you were a West German, but lived in the east, you were given a choice: become a citizen of the GDR or get the hell out. For East Germans working in the west the choice was little more severe: stay, live, and work here. East Germans who, for whatever reason, found themselves in the western sector that night, the choice was the hardest of all. They could stay in West Berlin, but it would mean giving up everything they owned. In some cases, it meant leaving behind entire families.

So how did this happen? Only a few months earlier, Walter Ulbricht had assured everyone that East Germany had no intention of building a wall (“Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten!”). Now, suddenly, here it was. Within a few weeks, the barbed wire barricade turned into a fence, and, eventually into the wall with its swath of raked earth, tank traps, nail beds, and 24-hour hyperlighting. Buildings along the border were torn down and East German border guards were given orders to shoot to kill anyone trying to cross the border illegally.

The GDR always insisted that the wall was never meant to keep people in, but to stop the pernicious influences capitalism, and the intentionally disruptive tactics of the United States and West Germany, both of which were hell-bent on destroying the GDR (true enough). For them the wall was an anti-fascist protection barricade (Antifaschistischer Schutzwall). To explain and defend the building of the wall, the documentary film branch of DEFA made Look at This City! (Schaut auf Diese Stadt), a film exploring the forces at work against the GDR, and what led to the barrier’s eventual construction.

And what a film it is! Director Karl Gass has created a lively piece of cinema that, whether you agree with any of it or not, will keep you entertained. The film gets off to a rip-roaring start with U.S. military troops marching in formation set to the sounds of The Coasters singing “Yakety-Yak.” This is followed by more scenes of U.S. military personnel overlaid with various American big band tunes. This isn’t a radio station from America, the narrator tells us, but one from West Berlin. The film follows this basic structure throughout, with the American forces shown to pop tunes and big band numbers, and the scenes of factories and people in East Germany shown to the strains of Beethoven and other German composers. It is hard to say if the filmmaker thought that the western music would appear coarse and vulgar to the German audiences. The narration seems to suggest that this was the intent, but it is this very juxtaposition between western pop culture and German classicism that makes this film so much fun to watch. In one scene, clueless American soldiers take snapshots in front of the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park. This is followed by scenes of WWII war footage showing the attacks on Berlin. The message of the film is stated at the beginning and at the end: the GDR wanted peaceful coexistence; it’s the west that provoked the building of the wall.

The film makes some valid points. The western powers did renege on many of the agreements made during the Potsdam Conference, not least of which was the way it turned a blind eye to the reinstatement of several ex-Nazis to prominent positions, most notably, Chancellery Chief of Staff Hans Globke, who had helped Adolf Eichmann draft the Third Reich’s race laws, and NATO Commander Hans Speidel, who had served as a General in the Wehrmacht under Hitler. The West’s approach to Denazification seemed to be, “Well, we’re going to let you go back to work, but we’re going to wag a finger at you every once in a while.”

There is also evidence that many of the decisions made by West Germany were intentionally designed to play hob with the East German economy. This was done largely at the behest of the United States, which had become rabidly anti-communist during the fifties. Nowadays, people point to Joseph McCarthy as some sort of anomaly, but, in truth, the prevailing sentiment in the U.S. was “better dead than red.” McCarthy was just the most visible proponent of this philosophy. The U.S.-sponsored radio station RIAS (Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor) was actively, even aggressively at times, using its broadcasts to spread dissent in the east. As the film points out, Stalin made overtures to help create a united Germany, free of both Soviet and American troops (this was also one of the tenets of the Potsdam Accord), but Adenauer dismissed the offer as a ploy. Public sentiment was in favor of Stalin’s proposal, but that counted for little. The Americans were still calling the shots and their anti-communist fervor made it impossible for Germany to reunite.

But the film also overstates its claims, blaming all of East Germany’s economic problems on the west. In truth, many of its problems came from Ulbricht’s refusal to adopt any meaningful reforms lest he cede one iota of his authority to others. In the previous post (Destinies of Women), I talked about the fact that, from 1946 until the early fifties, people were going to East Germany to find work because the Soviets were doing a much better job of getting German industries up and running again. Now the tables had turned. People started to leave East Germany in favor of opportunities in the west. The borders between the two countries were closed, but the agreement to keep Berlin open as a jointly controlled city made it the perfect place to cross over. The Republikflucht could have been stopped, but Walter Ulbricht wasn’t the man to do it. After the protests of June 17th, 1953, the Soviets agreed to help quell the protests providing that Ulbricht enact meaningful reforms. Ulbricht took the Soviet’s help, but instead of implementing changes, the GDR leader dug in his heels, pointing to the events in Poland and Hungary as justification for his position. As thing deteriorated further, Ulbricht asked the Soviets for more and more financial aid, but they had problems of their own dealing with the new U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, who, by Krushschev’s account was “not very clever,” citing the Bay of Pigs debacle as evidence of this.

Scene from Look at This City!

Things came to a head when West Berlin—in spite of multilateral agreements to the contrary—started using the Western Deutsche Mark. This created a serious economic imbalance between the eastern and the western sectors of the city. Since many things were state-subsidized in the GDR, East Berliners could make more money by working in the west while paying the cheaper rents in the east. West Berliners took advantage of the lower food prices in the east, getting their East German helpers and co-workers to bring them supplies. A black market sprang up in West Berlin to take advantage of the disparity between the western and eastern currencies. In the end, the utter intransigence on both sides of the border led inexorably to the wall. Although they made political hay of it at the time, the west was perfectly happy with this solution. “Better a wall than a war,” JFK is reported to have said when he learned of the new barrier, but that didn’t stop him from traveling to Berlin and announcing that he was a donut.*

As with the United States, you were more likely to lose your job in West Germany during the fifties for being a member of the Communist Party than for being a former Nazi. No one knew this better than the film’s narrator, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, who lost his job at Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk in Hamburg, for his leftist leanings. Mention von Schnitzler, even today, to anyone who grew up in East Germany, and you’ll get an immediate reaction; usually a look of disgust. Not even Stasi chief Erich Mielke or Honecker’s hated wife Margot prompt such strong reactions from people. In his song, “Ballade von den verdorbenen Männern” (“Ballad of Corrupt Men”), Wolf Biermann referred to him as “Sudelede,” a nickname that stuck. In her grim, but highly readable book, Stasiland, Anna Funder reports that he was also known as “von Schni–,” because that’s how long it took people to get up and change the channel when he appeared on TV.

At first glance, von Schnitzler looks like an unlikely candidate for the communist cause. His father was a well-respected German diplomat and heir to a German banking dynasty. Karl-Eduard was cousin to Georg von Schnitzler, a member of the IG Farben board of directors and one of the people convicted of war crimes during the Nuremberg Trials (see Council of the Gods). He was also reportedly the illegitimate great-grandson to Frederick III, whose reign lasted a mere 99 days.

As a member of the bourgeoisie, Karl-Eduard had a privileged upbringing, but that didn’t stop him from joining the communist party while still in school. During the war, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht, but was captured by the British. Shortly after that, he started working for the German-language branch of BBC radio. After losing his job in Hamburg, he moved to East Germany, where he became well known as the host of Der schwarze Kanal (The Black Channel), a weekly television show that examined, reinterpreted, and ridiculed West German news reports. Von Schnitzler’s stock in trade was sarcasm, which he delivered as if he was merely stating the facts. He had been doing this on Der schwarze Kanal for couple years before he made this movie, so he was well-prepared for the job of narrating this film

After the Wende, von Schnitzler became the target of a great deal of public criticism He never wavered from his position that the Wall was a good thing and that the state had every right to shoot people trying to climb over it. His appearances on television talk shows were often rowdy affairs with people constantly interrupting him whenever he tried to defend his position.

The new world order took its toll on von Schnitzler. It’s not easy being the most loathed person in your own country. Talk show appearances after the Wende show a man who continued to try and defend his position in the face of catcalls from the audience. He died of pneumonia September 20, 2001 in Zeuthen, a small municipality south of Berlin.

Look at This City! was directed by Karl Gass. A West German by birth, Gass was working in radio in Cologne after the war when—like von Schnitzler—he came under fire for his defense of the German Communist Party (KPD). In 1948, he moved to East Germany, where he continued writing radio scripts and began studying film production. During the fifties, he started making Der Augenzeuge (Eyewitness) newsreels, which were screened before the main features in East German cinemas. Look at This City! was his first attempt at a feature film, and it is apparent that the years for study paid off. The film, with its combination of new and old footage with new and old music, still stands as a classic example of documentary filmmaking. Gass’s biggest success as a director came in 1985 with Das Jahr 1945 (The Year 1945), a look at the last 128 days of the Third Reich. Gass continued making documentaries right up until the Wende. His last film, Nationalität: Deutsch (Nationality: German) is a look at the life of a small-town teacher from the Weimar Republic, through the Third Reich, to the GDR. With the fall of the wall, no one so closely associated with the socialist aspects of East Germany really stood a chance of getting films made in unified Germany. He spent his final years writing non-fiction, primarily on the history of Prussia. He died in 2009.

Predictably, reactions to the film divided along political lines, with critics in the west calling it propaganda and critics in the east defending its message. Reviewers both east and west acknowledged that it was a well-made film. The film drew large audiences, especially in Berlin, where people were still trying to wrap their minds around this new border that divided their city. Today, the film is recognized as both a classic documentary and a unique chronicle of the events that led to the Berlin Wall.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

The last episode of Der Schwarze Kanal.

* Much has been made of JFK’s infamous “Ich bin ein Berliner,” statement. The correct wording would have been, “Ich bin Berliner.” By adding the definite article ein, as many have pointed out, he was using the correct form to say that he was a “Berliner,” which is a kind of filled donut popular in Germany. Others have defended him, saying that the definite article could also be used to stress that he was with the people of Berlin (although, I think that untranslatable little bit of German grammar, doch would have been the logical choice for that). The statement has been used, from time to time as a running joke in German movies, and was even used as the name of a film about a con man who claimed to be the illegitimate son of JFK. Nonetheless, I think everyone listening to his speech that day understood what he was trying to say.