Archive for the ‘The Seventies’ Category

If I was to choose the one film that got me interested in East German Cinema, it would have to be this one. Sometimes referred to as the “East German Barbarella,” In the Dust of the Stars (Im Staub der Sterne) is one of the strangest film to grace the movie screens of the GDR; or anywhere else for that matter. Featuring a cast that heralded from a number of different eastern European countries, In the Dust of the Stars is the story of a space team sent from the Planet Cyrno in response to a distress call on TEM 4, a desolate planet on the outskirts of inhabited space. When they arrive, they are whisked off to an extravagant compound belonging to a man known only as the “Chief”—a decadent despot who has enslaved the indigenous people of TEM 4 for his own profit and enjoyment. The team is invited to a party that features dancing maidens in an art park, boa constrictors on the hors d’oeuvre table, and a screaming woman on a trampoline. At the party, the team is brainwashed into assuming that nothing is wrong on the planet, but the one crew member that skipped the party remains sceptical. He thinks something is amiss and he is, of course, correct.

DEFA made four outer-space films. In the Dust of the Stars was the fourth and final one. Unlike the three previous films (The Silent Star, Signals, and Eolomea), In the Dust of the Stars is not based on a book. The original screenplay was written by the director, Gottfried Kolditz. Kolditz got his start in the fifties working as a musical advisor on The Love Mazurka (Mazurka der Liebe) and The Czar and the Carpenter (Zar und Zimmermann). He started directing shortly thereafter, at first working on the short comedy films for the Statcheltier group, and then on musicals. He directed Midnight Revue (Revue um Mitternacht) and Beloved White Mouse (Geliebte Weiße Maus)—two of the most popular musicals in East Germany. In the late sixties, he moved into other genres, directing two science fiction films (Signals and In the Dust of the Stars) and three Indianerfilme (Trail of the Falcon, Apachen, and Ulzana). Kolditz died in 1982, shortly before he was to begin filming yet another Indianerfilm (Der Scout).

In the Dust of the Stars

The music score is by Karl-Ernst Sasse, one of the most accomplished, and prolific composers in East Germany (see Her Third, for more information on Sasse). Kolditz and Sasse worked together often, beginning with Midnight Revue in 1962 and continuing until Koldtitz’s death in 1982. Considering Kolditz’s start as a musical advisor for DEFA films, it is no surprise that he would make movies in which the music is an important component. What is surprising is that he would choose a science fiction film to continue his exploration of the subject (although there are good reasons for this, and I’ll be covering them in my review of Signals). In an interview with the cinematographer, Peter Süring, Süring opines that the nude musical number performed by Regine Heintze is superfluous to the narrative; but this opinion assumes that the obvious story (that of the oppressed people of TEM 4) is the primary point of the movie. Perhaps Kolditz was after something more complex here. Music figures prominently throughout the film. The eccentric Chief seems to need music at all times, and is unable to think without it, and it is music that is used to hypnotize the spaceship’s crew into ignoring the warning signals they received earlier.

Sasse’s score varies from jazzy pop à la Can’s Tago Mago, to abstract numbers resembling the electronica of Beaver & Krause. Most of the time, the music is combined with modern dance numbers performed by a bevy of heavily made-up women in colorful harem costumes. In one memorable scene, The Chief (whose hair color changes in every scene) serenades Akala, the spaceship’s captain, in a hall of mirrors filled with the usual dancing women. The Chief performs this number on a musical instrument that looks like exactly what it is: a board covered with Christmas lights. Like the nude dancing scene, it does nothing to move to plot forward and further bolsters the effect that In the Dust of the Stars is really a musical revue that has been interrupted by a slave revolt.

In the Dust of the Stars

At other times, it resembles a western. When we first see Chta, the Temian slave of the evil overseer, Ronk, she is dressed in a Native American outfit that looks like it was borrowed —and probably was—from one of the Gojko Mitic Indianerfilme. The effect is further enhanced by the appearance of Milan Beli as Ronk. Beli had already impressed East German audiences with his performance as a villains in Tecumseh, and Apachen, and he is no less villainous here. The climax of In the Dust of the Stars features a shoot-out on mud flats that would have been at home in any western on either side of the iron curtain.

The film was a co-production between DEFA and the Buftea Film Studios near Bucharest. The location shots were done in Romania first, primarily at the Berca Mud Volcanoes and an abandoned salt mine nearby. At that time, DEFA was using ORWOcolor, the East German version of AGFAcolor. Romania, on the other hand, was using Kodak’s Eastmancolor. When it came time to develop the first batch of film, the Buftea studios had to modify their equipment to handle the ORWOcolor film. The finished film had a softer contrast than usual, and Wolfgang Staudte liked the look of it. After the production moved back to Babelsberg for the in-studio filming, Staudte had all the film sent to Buftea for processing. This forced the movie to work at a slower pace than usual since dailies weren’t possible. To speed things up, DEFA set up a hotline between Buftea and Babelsberg in case of emergencies.

In the Dust of the Stars

1978, the year that In the Dust of the Stars came out, was one of those pivotal years in East German cinema. Two years earlier, the officials had exiled the popular folk singer Wolf Biermann while he was performing in Cologne. Although he was an ardent communist, his criticisms of the Stalinist policies in the GDR stirred the wrath (or, as he suggested, the terror) of party officials and they thought it would be better if he just didn’t come home. This provoked protests, particularly in the arts community, and eventually led to some of the the strongest lights at DEFA to cross over to the west, among them, Frank Beyer, Jutta Hoffmann, Angelica Domröse, and Armin Mueller-Stahl. For many of these people, 1978 was the last year that we would see them in East German films (and some, like Rolf Römer, stayed in the east, but were effectively blacklisted because of their pro-Biermann stance). Conversely, 1978 is also the year that afforded the most artistic freedom to filmmakers in terms of style and subject matter. Had In the Dust of the Stars been made in 1965, it would have almost certainly been banned; the same holds true for Egon Günther’s 1978 made-for-TV oddity, Ursula (although after only one screening, Ursula did manage to get itself banned not only in East Germany but also in Switzerland). In these films we see the ultimate examples of  cinematic experimentation at DEFA. From here until the Wende, mainstream movies in East Germany would never again reach this level of oddball imaginativeness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The late 1960s were a time of great changes in German Cinema.  Starting with Volker Schlöndorff’s Young Törless (Der junge Törleß), and followed soon after by the almost experimental films of Fassbinder and Herzog, filmmaking in the west was experiencing a creative renaissance. In the GDR, filmmakers were still trying to maintain their artistic freedom, but it was getting harder all the time. The revolutionary ideals that inspired and informed DEFA were now considered a threat to the system. With the banning of Kurt Maetzig’s The Rabbit is Me (Das Kanninchen bin ich), it was apparent that any attempt to push the limits would be met with repression (more on this later).

The East German government was turning DEFA into a relic, completely out of touch with the public. More and more, people turned to the west for entertainment. Some attempts were made to placate people with films like Hot Summer (Heißer Sommer), but even here the filmmakers were treading on thin ice, politically.

Then in 1971, Erich Honecker replaced Walter Ulbricht as the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party. Ulbricht was beginning to make waves with the Russians. He got along fine with the Soviet leader, Nikita Kruschev, but things weren’t so rosy between him and Kruschev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev. Honecker was a hard-liner, whose approach to communism was more in tune with Brezhnev’s. Honniger wanted his leadership to signal a new page in the history of the GDR. It is ironic that it is only after the conservative Honecker came to power that the restrictions on film content in the east began to soften.

One of the first films to challenge the status quo was The Legend of Paul and Paula (Die Legende von Paul und Paula). The film follows the exploits of a blue-collar supermarket worker named Paula and her white-collar neighbor from across the way, an aspiring bureaucrat named Paul. It begins with the demolition of a building—a motif that will recur throughout the film, followed by a catchy little tune by the East German rock band, The Puhdys.

When we first meet Paula (Angelica Domröse), she is flirting with Martin (Jürgen Frohriep), an Afro-headed hippie that runs the caterpillar ride at a carnival. She stares at him longingly until he whispers a suggestion in her ear. This is met with a slap, causing him to back off. We see in Paula’s eyes an immediately regret for her action, and she follows up by waiting after the carnival to meet with him. At the same time, Paula’s neighbor from across the street, Paul (Winfried Glatzeder), is at the shooting gallery, winning cheap prizes, which he promptly gives to Ines (Heidemarie Wenzel), the shooting gallery owner’s daughter.

It is apparent from the start that both Paula and Paul’s choices for mates are bad ones. We sense that Martin will be a louse from the moment we see him, and when Ines smiles, she looks like a snake. Never in the history of cinema has a smile seemed so horrifying. Martin is incapable of commitment, and Ines is only interested in Paul after she learns of his earning potential. Paula soon has a baby boy with the repulsive Martin, who has moved in with her. Meanwhile Paul marries Ines, and also has a baby boy. For Paul, things come to a head when he returns from boot camp to discover another man in bed with Ines. Things are worse for Paula who, upon returning from the hospital with her baby boy, finds Martin in the arms of a teenage girl.

The choice of Angelica Domröse to play Paula was inspired. She exudes sensuality and passion. Her earthy good looks are well-suited to the role of a working class woman who is attractive without ever seeming out of place. Winfried Glatzeder is a little more problematic. When the film came out, the lantern-jawed Winfried Glatzeder was referred to as the East German Jean-Paul Belmondo, but that is stretching things a bit. He a frankly goofy-looking guy. He also has the unenviable task of playing the stodgier half of this relationship.

Paula seems to have no impulse controls. Her choices are not predicated on any kind of logic, or even basic sense. She works entirely from her emotions, and like her emotions, she can change directions on a whim. Paul, on the other hand, is all about control. The parameters of his job are never fully spelled out, but we know he works in the government. Appearances and protocol are important to Paul. In one scene, He takes Paula to an open-air concert. Moved by the music, she starts applauding after the first movement. When Paul tries to stop her, telling her that clapping after the first movement is simply not done, he ignores him and continues to clap.

The overt message of the film is that it is better to feel and hurt, than rationalize yourself into numbness. But there is a subtler message about the limitations of the GDR’s attempts to control human passions that was not lost on the East German public. The film was a big hit and remained popular up until many of the lead actors left for the west in response to the GDR exiling of  the popular singer Wolf Biermann. At that point, the film was officially banned, but it was too late. As soon as the wall came down, the film found its way back into the movie houses and is one of the films that signalled the Ostalgie movement of the 1990s. Lake Rummelsburger See, where Paul and Paula go with Saft and Paula’s daughter, has been renamed “Paul and Paula beach”; and the band, The Puhdys, became one of the most popular rock bands in East Germany thanks to this film.

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