Archive for the ‘Walter Ulbricht’ Category

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

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

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

farewell

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

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

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

farewell5

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

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

Farewell

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

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

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film.


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

The Central Committee of the SED

The Central Committee of the SED of the GDR

NOTE: Readers of this blog may have noticed how often the term “11th Plenum” crops up in these film reviews. Although I define the term in the glossary, a quick definition can only scratch the surface. For those who want to learn more, I offer this article. It’s more of a history lesson than a film essay, so readers, whose interest in such things is limited, can safely skip this article and simply take it on face value that the 11th Plenum was a bad, bad thing.

There are moments in the history of any country that stand out as turning points, for better or worse, during which times a country, its politics, and its people are all changed irrevocably, and every action taken after that point is measured by the event. Revolutions and attacks are the obvious examples, but some important events take place behind closed doors in meeting rooms and auditoriums. Some attacks occur without a single shot being fired. Well chosen words can do as much damage as a billyclubs and bullets.

In the history of the German Democratic Republic, a few events stand out: the founding of the GDR, the July 17th revolts, the building and destruction of the Berlin Wall, and the 11th Plenum are milestones in the story of East Germany. For the people in the film industry, it was the last event that was the most important. Only the creation of DEFA was more important to the story of filmmaking in the GDR. The 11th Plenum changed everything, and it is often cited as the death knell for creativity in East German films. This isn’t true by a long shot, but it did constitute a major blow to the country’s artistic community, and changed the way the creative community interacted with and responded to the government for the rest of the country’s brief existence.

Ironically, the 11th Plenum—or, the 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, as its official title translates into English—was never meant to be a referendum on the arts in the German Democratic Republic. It was supposed to be about the country’s economic recovery plan, but unexpected events, coupled with an unwillingness to address the real problems the country was facing, threw a spanner in the works. To understand exactly what happened, we have to go back a few years.

Immediately after WWII, it was apparent that the socialist model was working better than the capitalist one in Germany. The Allied sectors of Germany were struggling to get back on their feet while the Soviet Sector was going strong—and this in spite of the fact that the USSR was still busy pilfering the East German resources for its own needs. During the forties, it wasn’t uncommon for people to cross the border to get work in the GDR because the West still had nothing to offer. Some of this was by design. The Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) was in no hurry for Germany to get back on its feet. Prior to the Marshall Plan, OMGUS was working off JCS 1067, a renamed version of the infamous Morgenthau Plan that was designed to drag Germany back to the eighteenth century. Fortunately for West Germany, America’s fear of communism was greater than its fear of Nazis. At the start of the fifties, when it looked like East Germany was in danger of winning the hearts and minds of the German people, OMGUS backed away from Morgenthau’s anti-industrial foolishness and started promoting economic growth in the Bundesrepublik.

Americans blamed for potato bug invasion

Propaganda booklet claiming the potato beetle invasion was an American plot. (See http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/amikafer.htm)

What happened next was the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle), during which time West Germany’s economy grew so fast that they had to import workers from other countries to keep up with production.1 Suddenly the East German economy started looking anemic. This was compounded by agricultural problems in the form of an invasion of potato bugs that the authorities were quick to blame on the United States. The West German government, under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer, along with West German mayor, Willy Brandt, decided to push things to the limit by introducing the West D-Mark in West Berlin, A move that severely unbalanced the economies between the two halves of the city and started the events that led to the building of the Berlin Wall (for more on this, see Look At This City!).

One of the claims made by the East German authorities after the building of the wall was that by restricting the ability of the west to disrupt East German society, the artistic community would have greater freedom to be creative. To demonstrate this, the movie technicians at DEFA were given greater freedom to push the boundaries of style and content.2 What followed was a burst of imaginative filmmaking. New camera techniques were used and stories became visually and structurally more experimental and interesting. From 1962 to 1966, East German filmmakers made some of the best films to come out of Germany since the Weimar days.

The wall was intended to eliminate the inequities between east and west. But the East German economy continued to deteriorate, Stalin’s Five Year Plan model wasn’t working any better in East Germany that it had in Russia, and the West was making political hay of it. In the USSR, Khrushchev decided to move away from Stalin’s centralized model to a more localized one. A decision that was met with a great deal of grumbling from the hard-liners in the politburo. East Germany’s General Secretary Walter Ulbricht decided to follow Khrushchev’s lead.

Starting in 1963, General Secretary Walter Ulbricht, economic advisor Wolfgang Berger, and Planning Commissioner Erich Apel, came up with the New Economic System (initially dubbed Neuen Ökonomischen System der Planung und Leitung (NÖSPL) , but later shortened to Neues Ökonomisches System (NÖS)). It was a good plan, and history shows that it might have worked, but Ulbricht didn’t count on the conservative groundswell that was rising in the upper echelons of the USSR. Some Russian politicians—particularly the head of the Supreme Soviet, Leonid Brezhnev—felt that Khrushchev was moving their country away from the government’s core principles. While Khrushchev was on vacation in 1964, Brezhnev made his move and Khrushchev returned to Russia to find himself out of a job.

East German Power Play

This left Ulbricht in a sticky position. He had hitched his wagon to Khrushchev’s star, but suddenly that star had fallen from the heavens. To make matters worse, Brezhnev did not like Ulbricht. He felt that the East German leader had been given far too much slack in his dealings with the USSR and had put that country in some awkward situations. The NÖS may have been working, but Brezhnev made it clear that the Soviets did not support it. Ulbricht was hanging on to his job by a thread at this point.

By the time the 11th Plenum was scheduled to take place, no one in the SED’s Central Committee wanted to touch the subject of economic reforms. Never mind that this was the reason for the meeting in the first place. Less than two weeks before he was scheduled to present his report on the NÖS at the 11th Plenum, Erich Apel committed suicide. Suddenly the NÖS wasn’t just a touchy subject, it was toxic. Like all politicians, when they are afraid of addressing real issues, they turned their criticism to the entertainment industry instead. Films were getting too liberal, they complained. Why, some were downright anti-socialist! Presented with this safe target, the pols went to town. They started seeing threats to their way of life behind every movie, and the blossoming film movement in East Germany—which up to that point was making the cinema of West Germany look downright anemic—was nipped in the bud.

Amazingly, the film that was held up as the prime example of this trend was The Rabbit is Me, a film with as strong a socialist pedigree as anyone could ask for. Its director, after all, was Kurt Maetzig—one of the people responsible for the founding of DEFA and the man who gave us The Council of the Gods, the Ernst Thalmann films, and Das Lied der Matrosen (The Song of the Sailors). Accusing Maetzig of being anti-socialist was a bit like accusing Che Guevara of being a capitalist. It was stunning in its absurdity and a horrible warning sign that the SED had lost its bearings. Nonetheless, The Rabbit is Me became the poster child for the films banned by the SED. Thereafter, the films banned during the 11th Plenum became known as “Rabbit Films” (Kannichenfilme). Other names for these films include Kellarfilme (Cellar Films) and Giftschrankfilme (Poison Cabinet Films).

Eleven features films were banned in the wake of the 11th Plenum. Some of these, such as The Rabbit is Me and Trace of Stones, were finished films that had screenings in cinemas, while others, such as Fräulein Schmetterling (Mademoiselle Butterfly) and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam) were scuttled while still in production. Also added to the Giftschrank was Egon Schlegel’s student film, Ritter des Regens (Knights of the Rain). Two more projects were shut down before any filming began—Die Beteiligten (The Parties Involved) and Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality), both of which were later made into movies by DEFA.

The Rabbit is Me

A scene from Kurt Maetzig’s The Rabbit is Me.

Most of the films on the list were banned for promoting viewpoints that the SED considered contrary to the socialist perspective, but some films were banned for no better reason that that were frivolous. Producers, dramaturges, directors and technicians who were seen as the major “disruptive” forces at DEFA were either sent to work in television, or banned from films entirely. Günter Ost, one of the most talented and imaginative cameramen DEFA ever produced, never made another movie after the Plenum. Egon Schlegel, who was about to start a promising career as a feature film director was forced to spend the next few years working behind the scenes, eventually making a name for himself as a director children’s films (see The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs). Günter Stahnke never made another feature film, but spent the rest of his career making movies for television; a slightly ironic development considering that he first got in trouble with the authorities for a short television film titled Monolog für einen Taxifahrer (Monologue for a Taxi Driver). Some people, such as screenwriter Ulrich Plenzdorf and director Frank Beyer, eventually got back in DEFA’s good graces, but were walking on eggshells for the rest of their careers. Others, such as Jürgen Böttcher (Born in ’45), were never given the opportunity to make another feature film, relegated, instead, to the world of documentary shorts.

Eventually, the writers and filmmakers recovered, and started pushing the boundaries again, but there was always a sense of foreboding afterwards. In 1968, things appeared to be loosening up slightly. Egon Günther’s imaginative Abschied (Farewell) made it into theaters, although, just barely, and the unabashedly frivolous Hot Summer was big hit in the fall of 1968 (although it did include a message of the importance of comradeship under its beach antics).

Hot Summer

A scene from Joachim Hasler’s Hot Summer.

Then, in 1971, that sword of Damocles that had been hanging over Ulbricht’s head finally fell. Ulbricht was ousted from power and replaced with Erich Honecker, a conservative East German politician who had been in charge of the building of the Berlin Wall. Ironically, the hardline Honecker was the one who loosened thing up again for the DEFA filmmakers, declaring that “as long as a film proceeds from the strong position of socialism,” anything goes (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.”). Films became more imaginative and adventurous, but the spectre of the 11th Plenum never completely went away. Occasionally films were still banned, but the state never repeated the wholesale shelving of films that occurred after the 11th Plenum. Filmmakers became more wary of what the state censors might do and were often guilty of pre-emptively censoring their own ideas (Egon Günther notwithstanding, who managed to keep pricking the sensibilities of East German blue-stockings right up until the end).

Looking back on the event from an historical perspective, the 11th Plenum seems like the point at which the soul of the GDR died. Up until that point, even the most controversial decisions, such as the building of the wall or the use of the Soviet army to put down the June 17th revolts, could be argued as harsh but necessary moves to give socialist state’s a chance to reach its full potential. With the 11th Plenum, those dreams were dashed. The state went from its infancy to sclerosis in one fell swoop. Even after Honecker softened up the restrictions, and started to recognize the need to incorporate consumer requirements into the socialist model, this didn’t change. He was still part of the problem. The GDR was a young and growing country run by a rapidly aging panel of fossils. No new blood was being incorporated into the upper ranks, and the old men running the country had no concept of what was going on in the world around them.

For many of the films banned as a consequence of the 11th Plenum, their first screenings didn’t occur until the 1990 series at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Some, such as Fräulein Schmetterling and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam, had to be constructed from the unedited reels that were still on the shelves at DEFA headquarters in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

IMDB pages for the films banned by the 11th Plenum:
The Rabbit is Me
Spring Takes Time
Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry
Berlin Around the Corner
When You Grow Up, Dear Adam
Mademoiselle Butterfly
Trace of Stones
The Lost Angel
Karla
Born in ‘45
Hands Up or I’ll Shoot!

Where to buy (films listed with English names are available with English subtitles):
The Rabbit is Me
Spring Takes Time
Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry
Berlin Around the Corner
When You Grow Up, Dear Adam
Fräulein Schmetterling: Not currently available
Trace of Stones
The Lost Angel
Karla
Born in ‘45
Hände hoch oder ich schieße

Further reading:
DEFA: East German Cinema 1946-1992 [Paperback]
John Sandfordand Seán Allan (Editors)

East German Cinema: DEFA and Film History [Paperback]
Sebastian Heiduschke (Available October 2113)

Spur der Filme. Zeitzeugen über die DEFA [Paperback – in German]
Ingrid Possand and Peter Warnecke

Das zweite Leben der Filmstadt Babelsberg. DEFA- Spielfilme 1946 – 1992 [Hardcover – in German]
Christiane Mückenberger and Ralf Schenk

Special thanks to Seán Allan, Barton Byg, and Sebastian Heiduschke for their help with this blog post.
Archive photos are from Das Bundesarchive.


1. These were the famous Gastarbeiter that you’ll hear some Germans (mostly racist Germans) complain about even today. The idea was for these workers to come and work for a few years and then leave—only many didn’t leave, which is the reason you’ll find such strong foreign communities (especially Turkish, but not exclusively) living in Germany today. The GDR instituted a similar program for communist countries, such as Vietnam and Mozambique.

2. This is not to say that there were no longer restrictions. Konrad Petzold and Egon Günther managed to get in hot water with their film Das Kleid (The Dress), an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Schaut auf diese Stadt

On Sunday morning, August 13, 1961, the citizens of Berlin woke up to a remarkable event. While they were sleeping, East German soldiers had constructed a barbed wire fence around the entire city of West Berlin. Workers were already beginning to tear up the roads between the east and the west, and armed soldiers stood at various points along the fence, making sure no one got through unless authorized. Some people found themselves faced with a dilemma. If you were a West German, but lived in the east, you were given a choice: become a citizen of the GDR or get the hell out. For East Germans working in the west the choice was little more severe: stay, live, and work here. East Germans who, for whatever reason, found themselves in the western sector that night, the choice was the hardest of all. They could stay in West Berlin, but it would mean giving up everything they owned. In some cases, it meant leaving behind entire families.

So how did this happen? Only a few months earlier, Walter Ulbricht had assured everyone that East Germany had no intention of building a wall (“Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten!”). Now, suddenly, here it was. Within a few weeks, the barbed wire barricade turned into a fence, and, eventually into the wall with its swath of raked earth, tank traps, nail beds, and 24-hour hyperlighting. Buildings along the border were torn down and East German border guards were given orders to shoot to kill anyone trying to cross the border illegally.

The GDR always insisted that the wall was never meant to keep people in, but to stop the pernicious influences capitalism, and the intentionally disruptive tactics of the United States and West Germany, both of which were hell-bent on destroying the GDR (true enough). For them the wall was an anti-fascist protection barricade (Antifaschistischer Schutzwall). To explain and defend the building of the wall, the documentary film branch of DEFA made Look at This City! (Schaut auf Diese Stadt), a film exploring the forces at work against the GDR, and what led to the barrier’s eventual construction.

And what a film it is! Director Karl Gass has created a lively piece of cinema that, whether you agree with any of it or not, will keep you entertained. The film gets off to a rip-roaring start with U.S. military troops marching in formation set to the sounds of The Coasters singing “Yakety-Yak.” This is followed by more scenes of U.S. military personnel overlaid with various American big band tunes. This isn’t a radio station from America, the narrator tells us, but one from West Berlin. The film follows this basic structure throughout, with the American forces shown to pop tunes and big band numbers, and the scenes of factories and people in East Germany shown to the strains of Beethoven and other German composers. It is hard to say if the filmmaker thought that the western music would appear coarse and vulgar to the German audiences. The narration seems to suggest that this was the intent, but it is this very juxtaposition between western pop culture and German classicism that makes this film so much fun to watch. In one scene, clueless American soldiers take snapshots in front of the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park. This is followed by scenes of WWII war footage showing the attacks on Berlin. The message of the film is stated at the beginning and at the end: the GDR wanted peaceful coexistence; it’s the west that provoked the building of the wall.

The film makes some valid points. The western powers did renege on many of the agreements made during the Potsdam Conference, not least of which was the way it turned a blind eye to the reinstatement of several ex-Nazis to prominent positions, most notably, Chancellery Chief of Staff Hans Globke, who had helped Adolf Eichmann draft the Third Reich’s race laws, and NATO Commander Hans Speidel, who had served as a General in the Wehrmacht under Hitler. The West’s approach to Denazification seemed to be, “Well, we’re going to let you go back to work, but we’re going to wag a finger at you every once in a while.”

There is also evidence that many of the decisions made by West Germany were intentionally designed to play hob with the East German economy. This was done largely at the behest of the United States, which had become rabidly anti-communist during the fifties. Nowadays, people point to Joseph McCarthy as some sort of anomaly, but, in truth, the prevailing sentiment in the U.S. was “better dead than red.” McCarthy was just the most visible proponent of this philosophy. The U.S.-sponsored radio station RIAS (Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor) was actively, even aggressively at times, using its broadcasts to spread dissent in the east. As the film points out, Stalin made overtures to help create a united Germany, free of both Soviet and American troops (this was also one of the tenets of the Potsdam Accord), but Adenauer dismissed the offer as a ploy. Public sentiment was in favor of Stalin’s proposal, but that counted for little. The Americans were still calling the shots and their anti-communist fervor made it impossible for Germany to reunite.

But the film also overstates its claims, blaming all of East Germany’s economic problems on the west. In truth, many of its problems came from Ulbricht’s refusal to adopt any meaningful reforms lest he cede one iota of his authority to others. In the previous post (Destinies of Women), I talked about the fact that, from 1946 until the early fifties, people were going to East Germany to find work because the Soviets were doing a much better job of getting German industries up and running again. Now the tables had turned. People started to leave East Germany in favor of opportunities in the west. The borders between the two countries were closed, but the agreement to keep Berlin open as a jointly controlled city made it the perfect place to cross over. The Republikflucht could have been stopped, but Walter Ulbricht wasn’t the man to do it. After the protests of June 17th, 1953, the Soviets agreed to help quell the protests providing that Ulbricht enact meaningful reforms. Ulbricht took the Soviet’s help, but instead of implementing changes, the GDR leader dug in his heels, pointing to the events in Poland and Hungary as justification for his position. As thing deteriorated further, Ulbricht asked the Soviets for more and more financial aid, but they had problems of their own dealing with the new U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, who, by Krushschev’s account was “not very clever,” citing the Bay of Pigs debacle as evidence of this.

Scene from Look at This City!

Things came to a head when West Berlin—in spite of multilateral agreements to the contrary—started using the Western Deutsche Mark. This created a serious economic imbalance between the eastern and the western sectors of the city. Since many things were state-subsidized in the GDR, East Berliners could make more money by working in the west while paying the cheaper rents in the east. West Berliners took advantage of the lower food prices in the east, getting their East German helpers and co-workers to bring them supplies. A black market sprang up in West Berlin to take advantage of the disparity between the western and eastern currencies. In the end, the utter intransigence on both sides of the border led inexorably to the wall. Although they made political hay of it at the time, the west was perfectly happy with this solution. “Better a wall than a war,” JFK is reported to have said when he learned of the new barrier, but that didn’t stop him from traveling to Berlin and announcing that he was a donut.*

As with the United States, you were more likely to lose your job in West Germany during the fifties for being a member of the Communist Party than for being a former Nazi. No one knew this better than the film’s narrator, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, who lost his job at Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk in Hamburg, for his leftist leanings. Mention von Schnitzler, even today, to anyone who grew up in East Germany, and you’ll get an immediate reaction; usually a look of disgust. Not even Stasi chief Erich Mielke or Honecker’s hated wife Margot prompt such strong reactions from people. In his song, “Ballade von den verdorbenen Männern” (“Ballad of Corrupt Men”), Wolf Biermann referred to him as “Sudelede,” a nickname that stuck. In her grim, but highly readable book, Stasiland, Anna Funder reports that he was also known as “von Schni–,” because that’s how long it took people to get up and change the channel when he appeared on TV.

At first glance, von Schnitzler looks like an unlikely candidate for the communist cause. His father was a well-respected German diplomat and heir to a German banking dynasty. Karl-Eduard was cousin to Georg von Schnitzler, a member of the IG Farben board of directors and one of the people convicted of war crimes during the Nuremberg Trials (see Council of the Gods). He was also reportedly the illegitimate great-grandson to Frederick III, whose reign lasted a mere 99 days.

As a member of the bourgeoisie, Karl-Eduard had a privileged upbringing, but that didn’t stop him from joining the communist party while still in school. During the war, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht, but was captured by the British. Shortly after that, he started working for the German-language branch of BBC radio. After losing his job in Hamburg, he moved to East Germany, where he became well known as the host of Der schwarze Kanal (The Black Channel), a weekly television show that examined, reinterpreted, and ridiculed West German news reports. Von Schnitzler’s stock in trade was sarcasm, which he delivered as if he was merely stating the facts. He had been doing this on Der schwarze Kanal for couple years before he made this movie, so he was well-prepared for the job of narrating this film

After the Wende, von Schnitzler became the target of a great deal of public criticism He never wavered from his position that the Wall was a good thing and that the state had every right to shoot people trying to climb over it. His appearances on television talk shows were often rowdy affairs with people constantly interrupting him whenever he tried to defend his position.

The new world order took its toll on von Schnitzler. It’s not easy being the most loathed person in your own country. Talk show appearances after the Wende show a man who continued to try and defend his position in the face of catcalls from the audience. He died of pneumonia September 20, 2001 in Zeuthen, a small municipality south of Berlin.

Look at This City! was directed by Karl Gass. A West German by birth, Gass was working in radio in Cologne after the war when—like von Schnitzler—he came under fire for his defense of the German Communist Party (KPD). In 1948, he moved to East Germany, where he continued writing radio scripts and began studying film production. During the fifties, he started making Der Augenzeuge (Eyewitness) newsreels, which were screened before the main features in East German cinemas. Look at This City! was his first attempt at a feature film, and it is apparent that the years for study paid off. The film, with its combination of new and old footage with new and old music, still stands as a classic example of documentary filmmaking. Gass’s biggest success as a director came in 1985 with Das Jahr 1945 (The Year 1945), a look at the last 128 days of the Third Reich. Gass continued making documentaries right up until the Wende. His last film, Nationalität: Deutsch (Nationality: German) is a look at the life of a small-town teacher from the Weimar Republic, through the Third Reich, to the GDR. With the fall of the wall, no one so closely associated with the socialist aspects of East Germany really stood a chance of getting films made in unified Germany. He spent his final years writing non-fiction, primarily on the history of Prussia. He died in 2009.

Predictably, reactions to the film divided along political lines, with critics in the west calling it propaganda and critics in the east defending its message. Reviewers both east and west acknowledged that it was a well-made film. The film drew large audiences, especially in Berlin, where people were still trying to wrap their minds around this new border that divided their city. Today, the film is recognized as both a classic documentary and a unique chronicle of the events that led to the Berlin Wall.

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The last episode of Der Schwarze Kanal.

* Much has been made of JFK’s infamous “Ich bin ein Berliner,” statement. The correct wording would have been, “Ich bin Berliner.” By adding the definite article ein, as many have pointed out, he was using the correct form to say that he was a “Berliner,” which is a kind of filled donut popular in Germany. Others have defended him, saying that the definite article could also be used to stress that he was with the people of Berlin (although, I think that untranslatable little bit of German grammar, doch would have been the logical choice for that). The statement has been used, from time to time as a running joke in German movies, and was even used as the name of a film about a con man who claimed to be the illegitimate son of JFK. Nonetheless, I think everyone listening to his speech that day understood what he was trying to say.

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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