Archive for the ‘The Seventies’ Category

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 In both films, the initial rejection is eventually rescinded, suggesting that, in the end, the authorities will do the right thing.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.

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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