Archive for the ‘Ulrich Thein’ Category

Das Lied der Matrosen
The Sailors’ Song (Das Lied der Matrosen) is a dramatic retelling of the Kiel Mutiny, a revolt by sailors in 1918. The event helped end World War I, virutually ended the reign of Wilhelm II, and—at least in this DEFA account of the story—sowed the seeds for the establishment of the Germany Communist Party (KPD). The film starts in the Fall of 1917 with the execution of Max Reichpietsch and Albin Köbis, two sailors who led a revolt aboard the SMS Prinzregent Luitpold, protesting bad conditions and lousy food. Max and Albin were labeled “Marxist agitators” and sentenced to be shot by a firing squad. When sailors refused to shoot two of their own, the convicted men are transported to Cologne, where they are executed by soldiers instead. By this point, the Germans had lost the war, but they weren’t ready to admit it. The treatment of the sailors aboard the battleships remained bad, and by September of 1918, things had reached a boiling point. When the admiralty tried to implement a suicide attack against the Royal Navy, the sailors of the SMS Frederick the Great and others finally declare they’ve had enough and marched on the naval headquarters in Kiel.

The film is set up in dramatic fashion, with heroes who support the Russian revolution trying to end the imperial oppression in Germany; and bad guys fighting for their beloved German Empire. In the middle is Jupp, a sailor who is recruited by the Navy to spy on his shipmates. At first, he is on the side of the military, but eventually comes to understand the viewpoints of his fellow sailors. Things come to a head after Jupp sees his mother shot during a protest march. It’s stirring stuff that even critics of the film’s politics had to admit was powerfully handled.

Determined to finish the film in time for the Kiel mutiny’s 40th anniversary, DEFA hired two directors to make the movie: Kurt Maetzig and Günter Reisch. Both Maetzig and Reisch believed in the ideals of the GDR, and both were superb craftsmen. Beyond that, their styles are as different as chalk and cheese. Reportedly Maetzig handled the scenes with the military officers and admirals in this film, while Reisch shot the scenes involving the sailors. It doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does.

Das Lied der Matrosen

The main heroes of the film are Henne Lobke and August Lenz, played by Ulrich Thein and Raimund Schelcher respectively. Ulrich Thein, a man of immense talent, was a West German by birth, but moved to the GDR to work at the famous Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Later on, he’d start directing as well (for more on Thein, see Anton the Magician). Craggy-faced Raimund Schelcher was one of the best actors in East Germany, but his drinking caused enough problems with productions that it became the stuff of legends. Born in German East Africa, Schelcher came to Germany after German East Africa was divvied up by the Treaty of Versailles He started working at various theaters in Germany during the Weimar years, and was arrested by the Gestapo and put into one of the probation battalions—Hitler’s weird policy of putting convicted criminals into their own battalions (for more on Schelcher, see Castles and Cottages).

The main villain of the movie is the naval officer Eberhard Schuckert, who is played with gusto by Ekkehard Schall. Schall is best known for his work with Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel at the Berliner Ensemble. He was mentored by Brecht and became keeper of the flame along with Weigel after the playwright’s death. Like Weigel, Schall saw Brecht’s work as set in stone and resisted any attempts to modify the performances with modern interpretations. He even married Brecht’s daughter Barbara. On film, he is best remembered for his role as a juvenile delinquent in Berlin–Schönhauser Corner, and the bizarre “Chief” in Gottfried Kolditz’s In the Dust of the Stars. Not surprisingly, Schall was considered a master interpreter of Brecht, and continued to perform the playwright’s works throughout his life. He was also one of the speakers at the Alexanderplatz demonstration a few days before the Wall was opened, supporting socialism, but calling for changes. After the Wende, Schall restricted his performances almost exclusively to theater, appearing in only one film (Der Auftrag). He died in 2005.

The Sailors' Song

The morally conflicted Jupp is portrayed by Stefan Lisewski in his first feature film. Handsome and gaunt, Lisewski appeared as a leading man in such films as Love’s Confusion, May Wine (Maibowle), The Story of a Murder, and Approach Alpha 1 (Anflug Alpha 1). Like Eberhard Schuckert, Lisewski is strongly associated with the plays of Bertolt Brecht. He is reported to have played Mack the Knife no less than 500 times. During the seventies, and after the Wende, he concentrated more on theater than film. He died in Berlin in 2016.

You wouldn’t be out of order to call Kurt Maetzig the father of East German cinema. He was there on November 22, 1945 at the Hotel Adlon, helping to form the Filmaktiv, a group designed to revitalize filmmaking in Germany, and from which DEFA eventually sprang. When DEFA was officially launched the following May, he was put in charge of the group that made Der Augenzeuge (The Eyewitness) films—short newsreels that screened before the main movies. Although he retired from filmmaking in 1976, he outlasted DEFA by many years. In fact, he outlasted almost everybody, finally dying in 2012 at the age of 101. Maetzig’s films are often the ones that are held up as examples by those wishing to portray the films from East Germany as exercises in Soviet propaganda. Some of his films, especially his earlier films, wear their politics on their sleeves. His style borrowed heavily from documentary filmmaking, but he never forgot the importance of the human story in his films.

Reisch came to DEFA a few years later and soon started working with Maetzig as an assistant director. You can see his work in Council of the Gods and the Ernst Thälmann films. He got his first chance to direct with Young Vegetables (Junges Gemüse) and then in Track in the Night. He is also responsible for the most high concept pair of films to come out of DEFA: A Lively Christmas Eve and Like Father, Like Son. Both featuring essentially the same actors in the same parts, filmed twenty-five years apart.

protest scene from Das Lied der Matrosen

The protest march at the end is spectacular, involving 15,000 extras. Today it would be done with CGI. How the director managed to keep track of Ulrich Thein in that crowd is beyond me. It’s a masterful piece of controlled crowd filming. Whether this was Maetzig of Reisch, I can’t say (all signs point to Reisch), but it’s a stunning example of directing.

If you are new to the films of East Germany, The Sailor’s Song is probably not the place to start. It very much fits the mold of what most Westerners think East German films are like. It is didactic and filled with the socialist heroics. That’s not to say it’s a bad film; it’s an amazing film. Just don’t assume that it represents the average East German film. That would be like using Strategic Air Command as a representative example of Hollywood movies.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (in German, no subtitles).

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

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

Spur in die Nacht

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

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

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

Ulrich Thein

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

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

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

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

IMDB page for this film.


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

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

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