Archive for the ‘Rolf Römer’ Category

Abschied
In the history of East German films, the period between the 11th Plenum and Erich Honecker’s takeover from Walter Ulbricht is considered to be a dark time for DEFA films. That’s not to say there weren’t good, entertaining films made during this time. After all, this period saw the introduction of the Indianerfilm, Hot Summer, and I Was Nineteen. But when when you compare it to the period right before the Plenum, you can see the impact the foolishness at that meeting had on the East German creative output.

Most noticeable, was a decrease in inventive cinematography. Cinematographers often were singled out for attack when their work got too creative. Roland Gräf was accused of imitating the Italians, and Günter Ost’s career as a cinematographer came to an abrupt end thanks to the 11th Plenum. If a film was visually imaginative, it was immediately suspect as far as the film review board was concerned. So it was probably no surprise to director Egon Günther when his 1968 film Farewell (Abschied) came under criticism, for it is a beautiful film indeed. Filmed in Totalvision (East Germany’s wide screen format) in that rich black-and-white film that the Wolfen film factory (the original Agfa factory) was rightly famous for.

Farewell is based on a novel of the same name by Johannes R. Becher, a German poet is best known for writing the lyrics to the East German national anthem. The movie begins in 1914, right after the Battle of Liège, Germany’s opening salvo in WWI. Hans Gastl, a young man of artistic temperament and pacifist beliefs is leaving home. The rest of the story is told in flashbacks that show us how he came to this crossroad in his life. The novel is heavily autobiographical. The character of Fanny is based on his childhood sweetheart, Franziska Fuß, whom he killed in a botched suicide pact. Becher survived, but developed an addiction to morphine due to his injuries.

farewell

Director Egon Günther was, quite possibly, the bravest director in the GDR. He had a special knack for irritating the authorities with films that pushed any parameters they tried to set. He did this right out of the gate with his first film, Das Kleid (The Dress), which he co-directed with Konrad Petzold. Günther and Petzold managed to find the limits at a time when the GDR was boasting that the wall would mean fewer restrictions. And whener the film board moved the boundaries, Günther pushed again. He is also to the only East German director who managed to get a film—and a made-for-TV film at that—banned by the Swiss (see Ursula). It’s not surprising, then, that he was one of the directors chastised by the 11th Plenum for his clever film, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam). It would be three years before he got the opportunity to make another film, and that film was Farewell, a fact that didn’t help him mend fences with the authorities.

As a writer himself, and a prolific one at that, Günther had a better understanding of how to bring the written word to film than most. He realized that the literal translation was sometimes less effective than a more filmic approach. Over the years he adapted the work of classic writers such as Thomas Mann, Goethe, and Gottfried Keller, as well as the work of newer writers, such as Eberhard Panitz and Uwe Timm. His 1999 film, Die Braut (The Bride), which looks at the life of Christiane Vulpius, Goethe’s long-time—and long-suffering—mistress.

Günter Marczinkowsky was the cinematographer, and one of the best East Germany ever produced. Like other East German cinematographers, he got his start in a film laboratory and worked as a projectionist as well. By the time he picked up a movie camera, he knew and understood film stock about as well as anyone could. He started as an assistant to the great Robert Baberske. He started working as the director of photography in 1957. He became Frank Beyer’s favorite cinematographer, until both of them were relegated to television for making The Trace of Stones. Farewell represents Marczinkowsky’s return to the big screen. Later on, he and Beyer would get together again, first on a couple TV mini-series, and later on Jakob the Liar, considered by some to be the best movie to ever come out of East Germany (a viewpoint I don’t share, but it is a good film). Jakob the Liar did not lead to more feature film work, however. Marczinkowsky continued to work in television until he finally left the GDR in 1980. Thereafter, he joined up with Frank Beyer again, who had left the country following the Wolf Biermann affair (see Jakob the Liar). From here on out, all his work would be in television, with the exception of Didi und die Rache der Enterbten, a reworking of Kind Hearts and Coronets with the West German comic actor Dieter Hallervorden playing multiple roles à la Sir Alec Guinness. Marczinkowsky retired from cinematography the same year that The Wall came down. He died right after Christmas 2004 in Hamburg.

farewell5

Playing the older Hans Gastl in his first film appearance is Jan Spitzer, looking very much like a classmate of Malcolm MacDowell’s in If….; a good choice for someone as anti-authoritarian as Hans. Spitzer got his training at then Ernst Busch Academy, which is still a leading school for students of the dramatic arts in Germany today. He appeared in many more films in East Germany in roles of variying size, but his performance as Hans in Farewell remains one of his best-known performances. Like other East German actors, the Wende threw a roadblock into his path. He still perfroms, but most of his work is done in the dubbing studio. If a film stars Chris Cooper, that is probably Jan Spitzer’s voice your hearing in the German-dubbed version. He also dubs the voices for Danny Trejo, Ted Levine, and Ratchet in the Transformer series.

Playing the ill-fated Fanny is Heidemarie Wenzel. Wenzel had appeared in small roles in films prior to this (she was the bride in The Lost Angel), but this was her first starring role and she turns in a sensational performance. Due to the limited distribution of this film, very few people saw her performance. It would be her turn in Zeit der Störche (The Time of Storks) that would finally put her on the map, but it is her performance as Paul’s wife in The Legend of Paul and Paula for which she is most famous. That same year, her next film, The Dove on the Roof, had the dubious distinction of being the first film banned after Honecker took over. Wenzel was a popular actress throughout the first half of the seventies. Then the state decided to stop putting up with any criticism, starting withn the expatriation of Wolf Biermann and the sidelining of everyone who signed the letter against this action. Wenzel didn’t sign this letter, but she was still considered “politically unreliable,” so her career ended along with Manfred Krug’s, Angelica Domröse’s, and the others who actually did sign the letter. She applied for an exit visa in 1986 and was finally allowed to do so in 1988. In 1991, she joined the cast of the popular German family drama, Unsere Hagenbecks (Our Hagenbecks), but her character was killed off in a car accident after the first season, to the outrage of many viewers (apparently the character she played was pregnant at the time). Like many other East German actors, she shows up from time to time on the Leipzig hospital drama, In aller Freundschaft, playing Eva Globisch, the mother of one of the main characters in the show.

Farewell

All the way down the line, Farewell features an outstanding cast. Even in relatively minor roles we have the likes of Rolf Römer, Annekathrin Bürger, Fred Delmare, and Mathilde Danegger. Manfred Krug turns in an especially fun performance as an aging revolutionary who hangs out at the Café Größenwahn where Hans recites his poetry.1 Annekathrin Bürger has a fun, if brief, turn as the café’s resident chanteuse.

A film this visually inventive was bound to provoke the authorities, and it did. At the 8th plenary meeting of the SED’s Central Committee, the film was roundly criticized, essentially for no better reason that it was too interesting to look at. At a ceremony to honor the author, Johannes R. Becher, Walter Ulbricht got up and made sure everyone saw that he left the event just before the film was about to screen. Still in charge in 1968, this demonstration carried some weight. The film was pulled from the normal distribution channels and was only screened on special occasions.

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1. Café Größenwahn was the nickname for the Café Stefanie in Vienna where Johannes R. Becher hung out as a young man. “Größenwahn” can be translated as either “egomania” or “delusions of grandeur.”

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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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