Archive for the ‘The Seventies’ Category

Der Mann, der nach der Oma kam
The Man Who Replaced Grandma (Der Mann, der nach der Oma kam) belongs to the comedy of errors genre—specifically the sub-genre that finds comedy in the mistaken belief that someone is being unfaithful.1 Some classic Hollywood films have mined this vein for comedy, most notably Preston Sturges in his hilarious 1948 film, Unfaithfully Yours, and many of Doris Day’s comedies. This film has a more feminist perspective than those films, and doesn’t make quite as much of a romp out of the subject as a Hollywood film would. Made shortly after Erich Honecker took over control of the DDR from Walter Ulbricht, The Man Who Replaced Grandma is slightly racy and a more daring film than would have been allowed a few years earlier, but manages to avoid too much controversy.

The film is based on the story Graffunda räumt auf (Graffunda Cleans Up) by Renate Holland-Moritz. Holland-Moritz was sort of the Pauline Kael of East Germany. As well as writing multiple books, she was also the film critic for Eulenspiegel, East Germany’s satire magazine. As a critic, she was remarkably candid in her criticism. If a DEFA film sucked, she wasn’t afraid to say so. The Man Who Replaced Grandma tells the story of the Piesold family. Mom is an opera singer and dad is a TV emcee, and between them, there is little time left to spend with the family. It’s never been a problem because Oma (grandma) always took care of everything, but when Oma suddenly announces that she’s getting remarried, the family starts looking for a replacement and finds that it’s not that easy. They finally settle on a man named Erwin Graffunda, who doesn’t seem to mind the amount of work involved, is very energetic, and doesn’t want much money for the job. The problem is that, being a handsome young man, the neighbors immediately suspect some hanky-panky is going on between him and Mrs. Piesold.

This film is one of those cases where much of the humor is contingent on the German language, and subtitles won’t help. Graffunda’s last name, for instance, becomes a joke when people refer to him as “Graf Funda.” “Graf” is usually translated to “Count” in English, which effectively destroys the joke. In another scene, after Graffunda discover that the Piesold’s young son has put his teddy bear in the washing machine, Graffunda makes a joke about the bear not being a “Waschbär” (“Das ist doch kein Waschbär!“). Waschbär—pronounced “wash bear”—is the German word for Racoon.2 An English subtitle of “He is a not a racoon” would make no sense in this context, and “wash bear” has no meaning in English. Short of adding a parenthetical notes, I see no way to translate this film’s dialog. Even the title of the original story—Graffunda räumt auf—has the added meaning not only of cleaning up, but of dispelling something, such as a myth.

The Man Who Replaced Grandma

Playing Erwin Graffunda is Winifried Glatzeder, best known as Paul in The Legend of Paul and Paula. Glatzeder had been working in films for a few years, when he got his first starring role in Siegfried Kühn’s 1971 film Time of the Storks (Zeit der Störche), the film was popular and people began to take notice of Glatzeder. The Man Who Replaced Grandma was his second starring role and helped further his reputation as a charming and unique-looking leading man, but it was his role in The Legend of Paul and Paula that put him on the map. So much so that he does a cameo as Paul in the 1999 comedy Sonnenallee (usually translated as Sun Alley, although, strictly speaking, an Allee is definitely not an alley).

Playing Mr. and Mrs. Piesold are Rolf Herricht and Marita Böhme respectively. Herricht was already a well-known comic actor by the time he made this film, appearing often on television and in the DEFA classic Beloved White Mouse. Böhme had starred opposite Herricht once before in Hero of the Reserve (Der Reserveheld), and had proven to have a talent for comedy in films such as On the Sunny Side and Carbide and Sorrel. Also appearing in the film are the fine comic actors Marianne Wünscher and Fred Delmare.

Special mention must be given to Katrin Martin, who plays the Piesold daughter Gaby. In her first film role, Martin maintains a perfect balance of a teenager who is sexually aware, but not really ready to know what to do with it. Martin was a graduate of the Rostock drama school, and has appeared in many stage productions. She is best known for her portrayal of Rose Red in the DEFA Märchenfilm Snow White and Rose Red (Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot). After the Wende, film roles became scarcer, so she turned to audio, producing radio plays for children. She currently lives in Berlin.

Katrin Martin

The film is directed by Roland Oehme. Oehme got his start in films by working as an intern under Ralk Kirsten on the Manfred Krug comedy, Follow Me, Rascals! (Mir nach, Canaillen!), Shortly after graduating, Oehme refused to take on a project because he didn’t like the script. As a consequence, he spent a few years working in the DEFA documentary film department before being allowed to start directing his own films. He finally got a chance to direct alongside fellow newcomer, Lothar Warneke with the Rolf Römer comedy, Not to Me, Madam! The Man Who Replaced Grandma was the first film that he both wrote and directed. He continued to have a successful career in film and television in the DDR. After the Wende, he turned to stage directing, working for several years with the Störtebeker Festival in Ralswiek on Rügen. From 2006 to 2013 he worked in the spa town of Waren (Müritz), writing a cycle of plays called The Muritz Saga, a new one of which is performed every year.

The Man Who Replaced Grandma was a popular film and did well at the box office. It is not a classic, but it is an entertaining little film with a likable cast. As with any comedy that mines its gold from puns and double entendres, it is best appreciated by those at least moderately familiar with the German language.

IMDB page for the film.

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1. Of course, German, being the Lego language that it is when it comes to building words, it is possible to construct a word that specifically addresses this sub-genre: Eifersuchtsverwechslungskomödie.

2. One of the more entertaining aspects of the German language is how it seems, at times, like the duties of naming animals was given to a five-year-old. A bat is a “flying mouse” (Fledermaus), a skunk is a “stink animal” (Stinktier), a groundhog is a “mumbling animal” (Murmeltier), and—my personal favorite—a slug is a naked snail (Nacktschnecke).

Until Death Do Us Part

Until Death Do Us Part (Bis daß der Tod euch scheidet)1 is the story of a couple whose mad love for each other smashes headlong into the husband’s patriarchal value system. It’s an old story. Throughout history men have been telling women it’s “my way or the highway,” usually with bad results. According to some sources, this film is based on a true story. Unlike the true stories chosen by Hollywood though, this is a story that plays out every day in one form or another: A husband and wife fight and do something they shouldn’t as a result. In truth, it hardly matters whether it is based on a true story or not; it will play out in some form again and again all over the world.

Until Death Do Us Part starts with the marriage of Jens and Sonja, whose passion for each verges on addiction at times (of course the Germans have a word for this: Liebessucht). After the birth of their first child, Sonja starts to pine for a regular job, but Jens takes the old “no wife of mine is going to work” position. When Sonja decides to ignore this, things start to get ugly and the perfect marriage turns into the perfect nightmare.

As discussed elsewhere on this blog, East Germany did a far better job of addressing the inequalities between men and women than West Germany, but director Heiner Carow lets us know in the opening minutes that things still had a long way to go when the marriage officiant requests that the bride acknowledge she will give up her name for that of her husband. Carow also does a good job of providing motivations for all the characters, although there’s no escaping the fact that Jens is a jerk.

Director Carow’s films are some of the most forward-thinking works to come out of East Germany during the seventies and eighties. He is best known for The Legend of Paul and Paula, which was one of the few films to look at social inequalities in the GDR. In 1989, he made Coming Out, which examines the problems faced by a gay man coming to terms with his sexuality in East Germany. In all of his films the message the is clear: Love requires honesty, not just to your partner, but to your own needs as well. He also had an uncanny eye for showing how people behave when they think no one is looking. Watch Katrin Saß’s performance as she is trying to get ready for her husband’s return from work. It is a guileless performance that seems completely unaware of the camera.

Mr. Carow studied filmmaking under Slatan Dudow and Gerhard Klein. As with many DEFA directors, he started with shorts, then moved to feature films. His first feature was Sheriff Teddy, based on Benno Pludra’s children’s book of the same name. He followed this with Sie nannten ihn Amigo (They called him Amigo), another young adult story of a boy who comes into conflict with the Nazis when he harbors a fugitive from a concentration camp. In 1966, his film Die Reise nach Sundevit (The Trip to Sundevit) was one of the few that made it past the 11th Plenum’s clamp down. He was not so lucky with his next film, Die Russen kommen (The Russians are Coming), which was banned outright. Carow used some of the footage from the film to make another movie titled Karriere (Career) with poor results. The film was thought to have been destroyed but it wasn’t. Mr. Carow’s wife and editor extraordinaire, Evelyn Carow, kept a working copy in her files. The film was finally released in 1987.

Mr. Carow chose two unknown actors to star in Until Death Do Us Part: Martin Seifert and Katrin Saß. Using unknown actors in the primary roles is an effective technique for giving a story verisimilitude. A marital drama starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio automatically distances us from the topic at hand, no matter how compelling the story. We are familiar Winslet and Leonardo and we know they are not married, and no matter how well they do their jobs, some part of our brains keep the story in check with this knowledge. With unknown actors the opposite is true. We don‘t know the actors and part of our brains wonder if the story is, in fact, a real one. This is the one aspect of indie films that makes them so compelling. But the effectiveness of this technique rests heavily on the acting chops of the two leads. Fortunately for us, Mr. Seifert and Ms. Saß are up to the task. Both would go to have long and successful acting careers.

Mr. Seifiert has the unenviable task of portraying Jens, whose values are seriously out of whack. That he manages to gives this reprehensible character a shred of sympathy is a testament to his talent. Mr. Seifert followed the usual East German acting career path, working in theater before he moved to film. Mr. Seifert had done some work in television, but this was his first feature film. He went on to appear in several more DEFA films, usually in supporting roles. Like most of the DEFA film community, he found work after the Wende hard to come by, and when it did, it came in the form of television roles, including Andreas Dresen’s gritty and grainy TV-movie Policewoman, in which he and Katrin Saß are paired up as an arguing couple—Dresen’s little in-joke.

Katrin Sass

Katrin Saß was only twenty-three when she made this movie. The daughter of theater actress Marga Heiden, Ms. Saß had done some stage work before making this film, but this was her first time in front of the camera. She is cute as a pixie and conveys the character with just the right mix of inner strength and vulnerability needed to pull off the role. Ms. Saß went on to appear in several more films for DEFA, and then, after the Wende, kept right on working on stage and in television, most notably appearing as police commissioner Tanja Voigt on the popular East German cop show Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110). By 1998, years of drinking and burning the candle at both ends finally caught up with her. She collapsed and landed in the hospital. At this point she finally came to terms with her alcoholism, joined AA and became a spokesperson for the German branch of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA). In the west, she is best known for playing the mother in Wolfgang Becker’s popular film, Good Bye Lenin! In 2007, Ms. Saß changed the spelling of her name back to its original “Sass.” The use of the ß in her name, she said, was by edict of the East German government, which felt that a name ending in “ss” looked too much like the Schutzstaffel sigil used by the Nazi secret police.

Until Death Do Us Part also features two of East Germany’s best actresses, Angelica Domröse and Renate Krößner. At the time this movie was made, Ms. Domröse was already in trouble with the government for signing the protest against Wolf Biermann’s expatriation, this was making it hard for her to find work at DEFA, but that didn’t stop Mr. Carow from hiring her. She was, after all, the star of The Legend of Paul and Paula, his most successful movie. Ms. Krößner was not as well known yet, but that would change the following year when she starred in Konrad Wolf’s Solo Sunny. Here she plays an interesting character who seems to be as much in love with Sonja and Jens is.

Until Death Do Us Part was not the smash hit that The Legend of Paul and Paula had been, but it did reasonably well at the box office considering its downbeat mood and cynical outlook. This is not a feel-good movie by any stretch (neither is The Legend of Paul and Paula really, but at least that one manages to fool us into thinking it is). It is, at times, bleak and depressing, but it also confronts the subject of leftover male chauvinism in the GDR without blinking or soft-pedaling it. There were times in the history of the German Democratic Republic when this film would have wound up in storage, but let’s face it, it would never get made in the United States at all.

IMDB page for this film.

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1. I’m using the title of the film as it appears on the English-subtitled version. Being an old-school kind of guy, who likes to look up his pronunciations in Webster’s Second, I would have stuck with the the original wording of the phrase as it appears in the The Book of Common Prayer: “Till Death Us Do Part.”

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.

IMDB page for this film.

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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.

The Devil's Three Golden Hairs

Märchenfilme, or fairy tale films, were an important staple of the DEFA library. They were usually less susceptible to political interpretation, which made them palatable to western audiences as well as the people of East Germany, which, in turn, meant money from the west. The Märchenfilme allowed the GDR to take advantage of the free market without actually supporting it; the best of all possible worlds. DEFA made over thirty Märchenfilme during its existence.

The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs (Wer reißt denn gleich vorm Teufel aus) is based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. The fairy tale shares the same name as the English title for the film, but it is worth noting that the original East German title is different, translating to something along the lines of  “He who pulls them out is equal to the Devil.” As the change in the title suggests, this is a very loose adaptation of the original fairy tale. In the original story, a boy is prophesied to marry the princess and, in spite of the king’s best efforts to stop it, the prophecy comes true. In the movie, the marriage to the princess is mostly the result of a prank played by a group of robbers who dislike the king more than the boy. In his ensuing encounter with the Devil, the young man in the film plays a more active role in obtaining the three golden hairs than he does in the fairy tale.

As a rule, the Märchenfilme avoid political statements. The rich are often portrayed as avaricious and inherently evil because of it, but you won’t hear anyone rallying the peasants to overthrow the system. Many stories, in fact, end with the hero marrying the princess, which presumably changes his attitude toward wealth. This film follows that rule, although there is a subtly profound statement on the nature of security spending slipped into the story. At the beginning of the film, we see the peasants in a local community grumbling about being taxed for protection against robbers. No one has ever seen any robbers, but the king’s tax collector continues to warn them that if they don’t pay the tax, there could be robbers. The solution for some members of the community is to become robbers to take advantage of the situation. This raises an interesting question about military build ups, and the extent to which the money spent on “protection” is responsible for the situation is it is there to prevent. But this is a fairy tale, after all, and the film doesn’t spend too much time pondering the bigger questions; its got a story to tell

The protagonist in this film belongs to the bumbling hero category. These heroes succeed at their goals, but not before wrecking nearly everything in sight. The bumbling hero has a rich history in film, stretching from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to the Blues Brothers and Inspector Clouseau, he’s even made his way into role-playing games. Unlike the classic hero, most of the time, the bumbling hero prefers to avoid conflict. He is not brave, but he does brave things, usually out of ignorance. He always triumphs, but, more often than not, it is the result of an accident or his own buffoonery.

The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs was the second film from director Egon Schlegel. Schlegel’s career at DEFA got off to a rocky start. He had the dubious distinction of graduating in 1966, right after the 11th Plenum. As with many of the DEFA feature productions, student films also received harsh treatment. Schlegel’s graduation film was consigned to the cellar alongside The Trace of Stones and The Rabbit is Me. For the next few years, Schlegel worked without pay and without credit as an assistant director and occasionally as an actor. He finally got his chance to direct a feature film with the East German/Czechoslovakian co-production Abenteuer mit Blasius (Adventures with Blasius). He went on to direct five more films before leaving DEFA in 1983.

Jakob, the young hero of the film, is played by Hans-Joachim Frank, a talented actor and director who started acting at the age of eight and was one of the youngest people to graduate from the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts. He appeared in a few feature films and several TV movies, but his first love was always theater. In May of 1989, just months before the wall came down, he founded the Theater 89, without any official support from the East German government. Theater 89 went on to become a successful theater with Hans-Joachim Frank as its creative director. It continues to this day and has become one of the most successful theaters in Berlin’s Mitte district.

The Devil is played by Dieter Franke, a popular character actor in East Germany and a logical choice to play this role. An accomplished stage actor, Franke had already impressed people with his performance as Mephisto in the Deutsches Theater’s production of Faust. But the Devil here lacks the wit of Mephisto. He is an even bigger buffoon than Jakob. In 1980, Franke returned in a shadowy role as the title character in the TV movie, Gevatter Tod (The Grim Reaper). He was scheduled to play the lead in Erwin Stranka’s odd take on on Märchenfilme, Motoring Tales, but a prolonged illness forced him to bow out of that production. He died shortly thereafter in 1982.

Playing the princess is Katrin Martin. As with most other DEFA stars, she trained as a stage actress and appeared in several productions on the stage at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. We first saw Ms. Martin in the Rolf Herricht comedy, The Man Who Replaced Grandma. She went on to star in several DEFA films and is best remembered for her turn as Rose Red in Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot (Snow White and Rose Red). After the Wende, she moved into radio, producing children’s programs.

Production design was by Georg Kranz, one of DEFA’s best. Especially notable is his wild set for Hell, which seems to have taken some of its inspiration from Alfred Hirschmeier’s planet Venus in The Silent Star. The floor bubbles with multi-colored goop, and the Devil arrives via a Rube Goldberg contraption that delivers him automatically to his bed. In one corner sits an enormous pipe organ with a weird puppet head atop each pipe, which open its mouth when that note is played.

The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs was a popular film and like many other DEFA Märchenfilme, it made its way west. It did not have the success of The Singing, Ringing Tree, but it did help continue the western impression that East German Märchenfilme were entertaining, imaginative, and weird as hell.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (dubbed, no subtitles)

Winfried GlatzederEvery country has its folk heroes. Many of these, such as Robin Hood, William Tell, and Fong Sai-yuk, were most likely real people, but any facts about them are so buried by history that all we have left is the folklore. Others, such as Paul Bunyan and Beowulf, started life as folktales and have never left us. The origins of Till Eulenspiegel, the hero of the 1972 DEFA film of the same name, is a little more foggy. There may have been a real Till Eulenspiegel, born around 1300, but he could also be just a folktale. The world first learned of him thanks to the writings of a customs clerk named Hermann Bote, a Franciscan monk named Thomas Murner, and a popular chapbook about him that was printed in 1511 by Johannes Grüninger. The story of Till Eulenspiegel started in northern Germany and spread west through the Netherlands, Belgium, northern France, and even England, where he ended up in plays by Ben Jonson and Henry Porter.

Till comes from the grand old tradition of the Trickster—a wiseacre antihero who revels in pulling the wool over the eyes of others, revealing the foibles of mankind by playing the fool. The trickster myth stretches from the Coyote of Native American mythology, through Brer Rabbit, to Bugs Bunny. These characters often specialize in taking advantage of people’s prejudices, assumptions, and greed, and they rarely seemed fazed by even the direst of circumstances. Using their wits, they always prevail, leaving their persecutors with egg on their faces. Till is often portrayed wearing the motley outfit of the court jester, and the humor in the Till Eulenspiegel stores is often bawdy and scatological.

Although it was not the first book about him, one of the most popular versions of the Till Eulenspiegel story comes from the book by Belgian writer Charles De Coster, The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak. Most film versions of the story—including the 1956 East German/French co-production Till Eulenspiegel, der lachende Rebell (Till Eulenspiegel, The Laughing Rebel)—are based on De Coster’s book. Rainer Simon’s film, however, uses a modern retelling of the story by Christa and Gerhard Wolf as its source. The Wolf version of the story shares its Rabelaisian details and contempt for the rich with De Coster’s book, but it is much more playful. The closest counterpart to this Till Eulenspiegel is Guy Grand in Terry Southern’s hilarious book (and Joseph McGrath’s equally funny movie) The Magic Christian. But while Southern’s protagonist is a man on a mission, out to prove that people will do literally anything for money, Till Eulenspiegel is out to take advantage of the foolishness of the rich and the hypocrisies of clergymen. He is a thorn in the side of the status quo. We get a glimpse of this in the opening scene where Till, as a boy is riding with his father on a donkey (a scene taken directly from the oldest accounts of Till). The boy faces the camera and pulls down his pants to reveal the title of the movie written across his bare behind, he then looks directly into the camera and sticks his tongue out at the audience. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie: impertinent, rebellious, and just a little naughty.

As one would expect from a film written by the Wolfs and directed by Rainer Simon, Till Eulenspiegel works on many levels. The Wolfs were clearly taking potshots at western capitalism here, but they also manage to slip in some clever jabs at their own government as well. In one sequence, Till splashes a room with paint and convinces a bunch of aristocrats that only the pious can see the religious imagery in the mess he’s made. This particular episode dates back to earlier telling of the Till Eulenspiegel myth, but it also brings to mind Das Kleid—a Märchenfilm based on The Emperor’s New Clothes that was banned because officials thought it was a criticism of their decision to build the Berlin Wall.

Skull

The story in the film takes place during the early part of the sixteenth century and borrows heavily from the imagery of the time, including the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, and even the Tarot. Although it is primarily a comedy, some of the imagery and events are dark and grim. Innocent people are hanged, a horse is stabbed to death, and, in the most disturbing sequence in the film, chickens are beheaded and thrown in front of a religious procession. The only other East German film with this level of shock value is Egon Günther’s Ursula.

In interviews (see Evan Torner’s quote in the footnotes for Jadup and Boel), director Rainer Simon has said that the Stasi used the production of Jadup and Boel as a honeytrap—allowing its production for the express purpose of banning it when it was done. I think it likely that Simon first became a target for the Stasi thanks to Till Eulenspiegel. After all, Till is nothing if not anti-authoritarian. Simon’s next movie, Zünd an, es kommt die Feuerwehr (Set A Fire, The Fire-Brigade Is Coming), about a corrupt fire department in pre-WWI Germany, must have provoked them even further (more on this at a later date). The bad guys in Till Eulenspiegel are the rich, the church officials, and the landowners, but, more importantly, they are also the people in control. Till’s battle is not so much with their ideals, as with their power over others, making the Stasi as much a target of this film as are the western capitalists.

The star of Till Eulenspiegel will be readily identifiable to any fans of East German cinema as Paul in The Legend of Paul and Paula. Winfried Glatzeder was an unlikely film idol. He had the face of a boxer, a mouth a mile wide, and he stood a good foot taller than anyone else on the set. He has been referred to as the East German Jean-Paul Belmondo, but that may be pushing it. He’s an unlikely film star, but he’s a good actor, and he makes Till Eulenspiegel a complex and interesting character.

Glatzeder was born on April 26, 1945, in a month that saw the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. His father was a doctor, and died in a Soviet POW camp. His mother worked as a weaver. Glatzeder began a career in mechanical engineering, but started getting bit parts in DEFA films in his early twenties after graduating from the School of Television and Film in Potsdam. After the success of The Legend of Paul and Paula, Glatzeder had no trouble finding work. In 1982 he received an exit visa (Ausreiseantrag) and left the GDR, emigrating to West Berlin. Coming to the west, as he did, before the Wende, he was able to continue his acting career without interruption, primarily in West German television. He played Kommissar Ernst Roiter on one of the most controversial iterations of the popular German crime show Tatort (two episodes, Tod im Jaguar and Krokodilwächter, have been officially banned, and another episode, Ein Hauch in Hollywood was deemed “not suitable for primetime” and had to be screened late on Monday night). He is also one of the only actors to have appeared on both the East German and the post-Wende versions of Polizeiruf 110. More recently, he has been seen as a regular on the popular TV show, Unser Charly. In the 1999 film Sun Alley (Sonnenallee), he reprised his role as Paul in an amusing cameo that had East Germans chuckling and West Germans wondering what they were chuckling about. In 2008, his autobiography, Paul und ich (Paul and I), which was co-written with Manuela Runge, was published.

Starring opposite Glatzeder is the beautiful Dutch actress, Cox Habbema. Habbema made several films in East Germany starting with Rainer Simon’s Wie heiratet man einen König (How to Marry a King), in which she starred opposite her husband, Eberhard Esche (Divided Heaven, The Trace of Stones). She went on to make many more films in East Germany, including the cerebral science fiction film, Eolomea. As a Dutch citizen, she was able to travel more freely than most East Germans and sometimes appeared in Dutch productions during her stay in the GDR. As one of the people who criticized the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, Habbema founds things less friendly in East Germany after that and roles in films became harder to come by. In 1984, she finally left East Germany to return to the Netherlands, working in television and with the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam theater. In 2004, she published her autobiography, Mein Koffer in Berlin oder das Märchen von der Wende (My Suitcase in Berlin, or the Tale of the Wende).

DEFA films often featured inventive musical scores and this one is no exception. Friedrich Goldmann was not primarily a film composer. He only did scores for a few films. At the time that this film was made, he was an up-and-coming composer on the avant-garde music scene. Like Karl-Ernst Sasse’s score for Her Third, and Reiner Bredemeyer’s for Jadup and Boel, Goldmann’s score for Till Eulenspeigel’s challenges the usual expectation for a film score. It is experimental, atonal, and surprising. Before the Wende, Goldmann taught music composition at the Berliner Akademien der Künste in East Berlin. After the Wende, Goldmann was awarded a professorship at the Berlin University of the Arts—one of the few lucky East German professionals to navigate the changeover without a loss in stature.

Assisting Goldmann was Hans Grüß and his group, Capella Fidicinia, an East German musical ensemble that specializes in playing Medieval and Renaissance music on period instruments of exacting detail. This the music we hear during the festivals and street scenes. Grüß continued to lead Capella Fidicinia after the Wende, dying in 2001. Stationed in Leipzig, the group continues to perform under the direction of Grüß’s student, Martin Krumbiegel.

The costumes were by Walter Bergemann. Simon met Bergemann while working as an assistant director on Konrad Wolf’s classic, I Was Nineteen, and he had him make the costumes for his second feature film, Männer ohne Bart (Men Without Beards). Simon worked with Bergemann many times after that, including on Simon’s classics, Jadup and Boel and Das Luftschiff (The Airship). For the costumes in Till Eulenspiegel, Bergemann drew inspiration from the paintings and illustrations of the period. Like the music, the costumes are well researched and well designed. Unlike the costumes used in many of the Märchenfilme, the clothes in Till Eulenspiegel seem like the real thing. Bergemann’s skill as a costume designer ranks with the best on either side of the Iron Curtain.

Reactions to the film were strong and mixed. Renate Holland-Moritz, the film reviewer for the like eponymously-named magazine, Eulenspiegel, found the film tasteless and suggested it might be used for shock treatment at psychiatric hospitals. Some felt that the film strayed too far from its source material, and offered only a sketch of the character. Other found its re-enactment of medieval times to be superior to most films.

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The Singer

Communists loved Dean Reed. Coming, as he did from America, but rejecting his home country’s imperialistic meddling in the affairs of others, he was the perfect poster boy for the superiority of socialism over capitalism. Reed, after all, had been performing in concerts all over South America, and saw first hand how the CIA helped Onganía and Pinochet take over the governments in Argentina and Chile. Reed had been living in Buenos Aires, where he moved when he discovered that his records were more popular in South America than in the States. After the military coup in 1966, he found himself persona non grata in his adopted land. He went to Italy, where he starred in several spaghetti westerns, but Reed’s affable, good-looking anti-heroes never caught the public’s fancy the way that Clint Eastwood’s gruff and silent “Man With No Name” did.

In 1973, he went to East Germany to work on the film Kit & Co., based on Jack London’s Kit Bellew stories. The film was a hit and Dean Reed became the new darling of the Eastern Bloc. He sang like Elvis, looked so darned American, and was making movies in East Germany! He was a dream come true. Although on paper, the GDR wasn’t keen on the idea of matinee idols, they made a few exceptions when people proved to be good box office. Reed was one of those people. He took full advantage of his popularity and the perks that came with it, co-writing the screenplay for his next film (Blood Brothers), which was also a hit, and then directing El Cantor, a TV-movie based on the life of his good friend, Victor Jara.

Jara was a popular singer, theater director, and political activist in Chile. While Reed  was singing at a concert there, he met Jara, and the Chilean communist had a big impact on the young man from Colorado. Reed saw first hand the extent to which the rich were walking on the backs of the poor people in South America, and he became outraged. He started appearing at protest movements and giving free concerts in poor neighborhoods all over South America.

Victor Jara was a strong supporter of Chile’s socialist candidate for president, Salvador Allende. When Allende was elected , the CIA backed the military coup on September 11, 1973, led by General Augusto Pinochet. One of the first things Pinochet did was round up anyone who publicly supported Allende, and that included Victor Jara. The next day, Jara and the other prisoners were taken to the Estadio Chile, where they were held for several days. When a soldier,  jokingly referred to as “The Prince,” recognized Jara while the singer was moving to another part of the stadium, he shouted “What is this bastard doing here? Don’t let him move from here. This one is reserved for me!”* Jara was taken to the basement where he was repeatedly kicked and beaten. His hands were smashed with the butt of a rifle, and he was told, with venomous sarcasm, to try and play guitar. He responded by singing “Venceremos” (We Will Win). Enraged by his defiance, his tormentors set upon him once again, pummeling him and finally shooting him 44 times. His body was dragged into the street and left next to a graveyard on the outskirts of Santiago.

Dean was already in East Germany when he heard what happened to his friend. He convinced the DFF (East Germany’s state-owned television company) to let him make a movie about the Chilean singer-activist starring Reed himself. He would also direct the film from a screenplay he wrote. It was the perfect socialist story: peace-loving Marxist is brutally murdered in a coup financed by the United States. Who could ask for anything more? Working with Wolfgang Ebeling, who also co-wrote the Blood Brothers script, Reed created a mostly factual retelling of the life and death of Victor Jara and the troubles he encountered in his fatal battle for social equality in Chile.

Made, as it was, for East German television, El Cantor suffers from a few problems. The first, and the biggest one is Dean Reed himself. Reed was great at playing likable American knuckleheads, and he gives his portrayal of Jara his all, but Reed neither looks like nor sings like the dark-eyed and unmistakably Latino Jara. It is always a risky proposition for an actor/director to portray a famous person. Reed was one of the first people to engage in this one-two combination, Ed Harris did it in Pollock, but he didn’t have to sing. Closer to the mark, Kevin Spacey did it in Beyond the Sea, portraying Bobby Darin. Spacey, like Reed, is a good singer, and he also co-wrote his script.

The second problem with the El Cantor is the budget. Expensive location filming wasn’t an option, so East Germany has to stand-in for Chile, sometimes to the film’s detriment. This is, undoubtedly, one of the reasons there are very few wide-shots or scenes that convey the magnitude of the story. When the people are rounded up and herded into Santiago’s National Stadium (renamed for Victor Jara in 2003), we only see a small group. In truth, the stadium was filled with hundreds people held in inhumane conditions. In Joan Jara’s account of the morgue where she identified her husband’s body, the scene far a far more gruesome scene that the movie suggests:

“We go down a dark passageway and emerge into a large hall. My new friend puts his hand on my elbow to steady me as I look at rows and rows of naked bodies covering the floor, stacked up into heaps in the corners, most with gaping wounds, some with their hands still tied behind their backs … there are young and old … there are hundreds of bodies … most of them look like working people … hundreds of bodies, being sorted out, being dragged by the feet and put into one pile or another, by the people who work in the morgue, strange silent figures with masks across their faces to protect them from the smell of decay.”*

Another problem for the film comes, inevitably, from its timeliness. Pinochet was still in control in 1978 when the movie was made. Many of the facts about what happened to Jara only came out after the dictator was ousted from power. Reed has to rely on third-hand accounts and best guesses to fill in the story. Given that, he does a pretty good job with the information that was available at the time. The soldiers remain anonymous in the film. Since that time, some have been identified and charged, while another, Edwin Dimter, reportedly the infamous “Prince,” recently had his office invaded by protesters.

Starring opposite Reed as his wife (named Janet in the movie) is Friederike Aust, a dark-haired beauty who acted primarily in East German made-for-TV movies, and in popular television shows, such as Polizeiruf 110 and  Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort. Ms. Aust is an attractive woman and a good actress who deserves more attention that she’s received. After the Wende, She moved into the field of voice dubbing, replacing the voices on popular American TV shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Santa Barbara, and Six Feet Under.

The cinematographer for El Cantor is Hans Heinrich, not to be confused with the director of the same name. Heinrich first worked with Reed on Blood Brothers, and Heinrich’s work on that film is spectacular, with scenes that Hollywood only matched after the invention of the Steadicam. His work in El Cantor is more restrained but no less effective. The colors are less vivid, but that is probably a conscious choice, based on the fact that the film was intended for television. Those old CRT set were very bad at handling vivid colors, especially bright reds, so Heinrich works here from a softer palette of grays and greens.

El Cantor is a valiant effort to bring the story of South America’s most charismatic and idealistic martyr to a wider audience. It is a story that certainly deserves to be—no, needs to be—told. But the definitive movie on Victor Jara remains to be made. It is a gut-wrenching and shameful story that everyone, especially we Americans, should know.

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* An unfinished song: The life of Victor Jara, by Joan Jara

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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One of the joys of East German cinema is watching the way film and reality smack into each other. The DEFA Library at UMass in Amherst just released as perfect an example of this as anyone could wish for. The Flight (Die Flucht) is the story of Dr. Schmith, a medical researcher who is torn between staying in East Germany and fleeing to the west. He initially decides to leave the GDR after the review board where he works rejects his proposal for work on premature-birth infant mortality. He enlists the aid of an agency that helps people get out the country, but later, when the review board reverses its decision, the doctor has a change of heart. He tries to back out of the deal, but finds the people with whom he arranged the escape are unwilling to let him out of his contract. To compound matters, he begins a relationship with a young woman who was recently transferred to his hospital. He wants her to join him, but can’t bring himself to tell her about his defection plans.

Considering the touchy nature of the subject matter, and the often touchy disposition of the DEFA approval board, the fact that Roland Gräf was able to get this film made at all, much less shown in theaters, is a a bit of a magic trick. One misstep and this film would have ended up on a shelf until the wall came down. Gräf’s deft (some would say politick) handling of the subject matter is the secret.

Of course, the story is told from a strictly East German perspective. Some aspects of this film may seem absurd to western audiences. The people helping Schmith to escape are an evil, money-driven bunch, while the Stasi agent that questions Schmith about the attempted defection of a colleague of his is portrayed as an easy-going, jovial sort of chap. Like Manfred Herrfurth in Konrad Wolf’s Divided Heaven, Schmith’s decision to go to the west is based on his frustration at being rejected (in other words, his own ego). In both films, the initial rejection is eventually rescinded, suggesting that, in the end, the authorities will do the right thing.

The film stars Armin Mueller-Stahl, who, by the time this film was made, had already starred in some of DEFA’s best films, including Five Cartridges (Fünf Patronenhülsen), Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers), Naked Among Wolves, Her Third, and Jakob the Liar. After Wolf Biermann’s forced expatriation in 1976, Mueller-Stahl, along with many other leading actors, writers, and directors in East Germany, signed a petition protesting this action. Most of the people on the list—a list that included Frank Beyer, Angelica Domröse, Jutta Hoffmann, and Manfred Krug—found themselves blacklisted by DEFA. Mueller-Stahl made one more made-for-TV film (Geschlossene Gesellschaft) before his request for an exit visa was granted and he moved to the west. In West Germany, Mueller-Stahl quickly reestablished himself as a popular actor, drawing critical praise for his performances in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Lola and Veronika Voss. This led to a starring  role opposite Jessica Lange in Costa-Gavras’s Music Box, which in turn led to other roles in American films. In 1997, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Shine, and in 2011 he was given a Golden Bear lifetime achievement award at the Berlinale Film Festival, for which he received a three-minute standing ovation.

Of course, there is no way that Roland Gräf or anyone at DEFA could have known that Armin Mueller-Stahl would leave the country so soon after The Flight was made. The fact that he had already applied for his exit visa when it was being shot adds an ironic depth to some scenes, particularly the ones where the patriotism of people who leave the GDR is being discussed.

Playing his love interest in the film is Jenny Gröllmann at her most adorable. Gröllmann was a successful film and theater actress in East Germany, appearing in several feature films and TV movies. During the sixties, she primarily concentrated on her theater career, appearing in several productions at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin. In film, she attracted critical praise right from the start with her performance in the anthology film, Geschichten jener Nacht (Stories of That Night). She received further praise for her role as the frightened German girl in Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. After the Wende, Gröllmann continued to work, primarily in television, appearing in nearly every major show on German TV. In 2001, the weekly magazine SUPERillu published excerpts from the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives 522-page report that claimed Ms. Gröllmann had been a Stasi informer (IM). Her ex-husband, Ulrich Mühe, repeated these claims in a book he published after his star turn in The Lives of Others. Ms. Gröllmann went to court to stop these  allegations, stating under oath that she never knowingly worked for the Stasi. The court found in favor of Ms. Gröllmann and the offending passages were blacked-out in copies of Mühe’s book. Jenny Gröllmann  died of breast cancer in 2006.

At the time he made this movie, director Roland Gräf was ending a career as one of East Germany’s most respected cinematographers. He first made waves in the film community with his work on Jürgen Böttcher’s Born in ‘45 (but only in the film community—the film was banned before the public got a chance to see it). He began his career as a director in 1971 with Mein lieber Robinson (My Friend Robinson), which he also co-wrote and photographed. Also, it was Roland Gräf who discovered the long-lost copy of The Dove on the Roof, thus saving that film from destruction. As a cinematographer he was known for his cinema verité style, making the films he worked on seem almost like documentaries. Although The Flight is very much a dramatic film, we can see some of his love of realistic environments here, especially in the scenes in the premmie ward, which seem to have been filmed in an actual hospital.

The music is by the jazz musician, Gunther Fischer. The credits list the music in this film as being “based on motifs by Mussorgsky,” but there is more than a little Morricone in mournful whistling of the theme song. By the time this film was made, Fischer was well on his way to become the second most prodigious film composer in East Germany (first place going to classical composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse). A few years after this film was made, Fischer would go on to score his biggest success as a composer with the hit movie, Solo Sunny.

As one can imagine, a DEFA film that openly addressed such a taboo subject proved to be very popular, both publicly and critically. It won the Grand Prix at the Karoly Vary International Film Festival in 1978, and the Association of Film and Television Workers in the GDR chose it as the best contemporary film (Gegenwartsfilm) of 1977. Critics on both sides of the Iron Curtain thought the film did a good job of addressing some of the reasons for people wanting to leave the GDR, although western critics, predictably found the film’s resolution of these issues unsatisfactory. In spite of these objections, the film stands as a rare glimpse into the feelings and perceptions of both the authorities and the people of East Germany when it came to the subject of Republikflucht, and is not to be missed by anyone interested in that country’s history.

 

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In the early 1970s, the East German authorities made yet another U-turn in their attitude toward the arts. Honecker had replaced Ulbricht as the General Secretary, and he wanted to demonstrate that as long as a film “proceeds from the firm position of socialism, there can be no taboos.” (actual quote: “Wenn man von den festen Positionen des Sozialismus ausgeht, kann es meines Erachtens auf dem Gebiet von Kunst und Literatur keine Tabus geben.”)  Artists, writers, and filmmakers took him at his word and for a brief time there blossomed a new creative energy that almost reached the levels of creativity that the GDR had seen before the 11th Plenum pulled the plug.

The west boasted a system that allowed a man to get as rich as he wanted, but that was just it: he had to be a man, and, let’s face it, he had to be white. Women and minorities were still being treated as second-class citizens in the Untied States—a country that prided itself on its individual freedoms. In spite of its civil rights laws, poverty was still rampant in the African-American community, and there were no signs that this was about to change any time soon. At the same time, women were still treated as either sex objects or comic fodder for bad comedians. This was seen as perfectly legitimate. In an episode of Star Trek, for example, a former lover of Captain Kirk complains because women are not allowed to become starship captains, and she’s the villain!

Meanwhile at DEFA, filmmakers were doing all they could to change the perception of women in the workplace by producing films that featured them in positions of authority. In films like Her Third and In the Dust of the Stars, women are the ones in charge. The Legend of Paul and Paula pushed things a little further with its story of a woman who is a powerless blue-collar worker (Mitarbeiterin), but she is still the focal point of the film.

But most of these initial feminist films were still made by men. The one exception is The Dove on the Roof, which was directed by Iris Gusner, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Regine Kuhn. The title comes from the expression, “besser ein Spatz in der Hand als eine Taube auf dem Dach,” which is a German equivalent to the English expression, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The film follows the exploits of Linda Hinrichs, the project foreman on a new apartment complex in Thuringia. Working with her on the project are Hans Böwe, a coarse man in his fifties who is the leader of the work brigade, and Daniel, a impatient young know-it-all who is working at the construction site during his summer break. These two are as different as can be, Böwe is a loyal socialist who has devoted his life to the good of the state. Daniel, on the other hand, sees people like Böwe as dinosaurs, and he dreams of traveling in outer space. Soon Ms. Hinrichs finds herself romantically involved with both of them, and not sure which way to turn.

In some respects, the story in the film pales in comparison to the story of the film. It was made at the tail end of the cycle of a renewed creative freedom in East Germany, but once again, the authorities were getting nervous that these movies were in danger of making people question the state of things. They decided it was time to make an example of a film, and The Dove on the Roof was right there at the wrong time. Claiming that the film didn’t portray the reality of life in East Germany in a favorable enough light, the authorities banned it.

Normally, when a film was banned, DEFA had the foresight to shelve it—literally—keeping the original negatives in case of a future change in policy. But somehow The Dove on the Roof fell through the cracks. The original color negatives were destroyed and the film was thought to be lost forever. After the Wende, cinematographer Roland Gräf found a working copy of the film in a shed, but years of sitting in an environment without climate control had taken their toll on the print. The color layers had de-laminated, making it impossible to strike a decent color print from the copy. A decision was made to create a black-and-white print instead and the film was finally screened in 1990. But almost immediately after the screening, it was lost again, and remained lost for another twenty years, finally turning up a second time in 2010. New black-and-white prints were made and the film was finally released on DVD last summer.

The film’s director, Iris Gusner, was one of the first female directors at DEFA. She was born in 1941 in Trautenau, Germany (now Trutnov, Czech Republic). During the sixties, she went to Moscow to study at the famous All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, the oldest film school in the world  (renamed the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in 1986). After graduation, she worked as an assistant director on Konrad Wolf’s Goya.

The Dove on the Roof was her first feature film. Although it was completed, the film never made it to the theaters. Her next film project Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens, was cancelled before it even began shooting.1 Fearing she would be stereotyped as the woman who made films that the state didn’t like, her next film, Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light), was based on the fairytale by the Brothers Grimm. It was well received by both the authorities and the public and helped get her career as a director back on track. She followed this with Einer muß die Leiche sein (Someone has to be the corpse), based on the book by Gert Prokop, and scored her biggest hit with All My Girls, a film about the tensions between a group of women working at a light bulb factory. In 1983, she directed Kaskade rückwärts (Cascade Backwards), the story of a widowed woman with a child trying to find happiness in the city. It is, along with Her Third and The Bicycle, one of the most important feminist films to come out of DEFA during the final years of the GDR. During the summer of 1989, a few months before the wall came down, Ms. Gusner left East Germany, moving first to Cologne and later to Berlin. She has only directed one film since the reunification: the 1993 TV-movie Sommerliebe (Summer Love).

Linda Hinrichs is played by Heidemarie Wenzel. Ms. Wenzel first came to the public’s attention in her role as Fanny in Egon Günther’s dazzling film, Farewell. In 1971, she starred opposite Winfried Glatzeder in Zeit der Störche (Time of the Storks), performing one of the first nude scenes in a DEFA film. Today, she is best known for her role as Ines, the odious wife of Paul (Winfried Glatzeder again) in the East German classic, The Legend of Paul and Paula. After her husband, director Helmut Nitzschke, failed to return from a business trip to West Germany, Ms. Wenzel applied for an exit visa to join him. This effectively brought her acting career in East Germany to an end. For the next few years, she worked as an office assistant at a church. Finally in 1988, she was allowed to immigrate to West Germany. In 1991, she was cast as Sylvia Hagenbeck in the popular TV series, Unsere Hagenbecks, where the death of her character on the show led to public protests. More recently, she has been seen as a regular on In aller Freundschaft, a popular TV hospital drama set in Leipzig. Set as it is in what was formerly GDR territory, many people from the DEFA casts and crews have found work on this series.

The two male leads are as different as can be, and so are their careers. Günter Naumann, who played Böwe was already a well-respected actor in East Germany. He first came to the public’s attention in Frank Beyer’s war film, Five Cartridges and went on to appear in several classic DEFA films, including The Gleiwitz Case, On the Sunny Side, Star-Crossed Lovers, and The Adventures of Werner Holt. He continues to appear often in German television productions.

Andreas Gripp, on the other hand, was a newcomer to film. He had appeared in bit parts in Captain Florian Of The Mill (Hauptmann Florian von der Mühle) and Lützower, but The Dove on the Roof was his first starring role. Primarily a theater actor, after this film was made he reportedly returned to the stage. He died a few years later in a car accident.

The Dove on the Roof is not the first color film to be converted to black-and-white. It is a common technique for saving old films when the original negative or working copy is too faded to produce an adequate color print. How well a film makes the transition to black-and-white depends greatly on the cinematographer’s skill and technique. In the case of The Dove on the Roof, the cameraman was Roland Gräf, one of the best in East Germany. Taking his cues from the Italian neorealists, Gräf specialized in a style that mimicked documentary filmmaking. Gräf’s background in black-and-white photography undoubtedly is one of the reasons that The Dove on the Roof looks so good drained of its color. Still, one can’t help but feel we are missing some visual delights, such as in the scenes inside the Christmas ornament factory in Lauscha.

That this film was rescued, not once, but twice, is one of the great success stories of film preservation. Sadly, many other films (both from the east and the west) are not so lucky. Prior to the 1970s, there were few efforts to save motion pictures. The medium was seen as a disposable form of entertainment,. Hundreds of films were either thrown away or destroyed through overuse and are now gone forever. Thankfully, groups like The International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA) and Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation have been working hard to save the films they can, and to make sure that this never happens again.

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1. The script for this movie sat on the shelf for over ten years, and was finally made in 1988 by Lothar Warneke.

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.

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DEFA Disko 77 is not currently available in the United States.