Archive for the ‘Wende’ Category

The Tango Player
Following the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989, events in East Germany started happening fast. Faster than DEFA could keep with. Less than a year after that first batch of East Germans streamed into West Berlin in their Trabants, the GDR ceased to exist. Yet DEFA soldiered on, buffeted mercilessly by the winds of change. During the GDR’s last year of existence, the authorities had loosened their restrictions on what was acceptable in a film and what was not. The Tango Player (Der Tangospieler) was based on Christoph Hein’s 1989 novella about a man imprisoned for playing a tango. The book was controversial, but it was always easier to get books published than films made in the GDR. Filmmaker Roland Gräf saw the potential in the story to make a movie that addressed many of the problems he saw in East German society. He submitted his proposal to DEFA, but he wasn’t really expecting them to okay the project. The film studio had stayed away from controversial topics ever since the 11th Plenum. To his surprise, they said yes, and Gräf began working on the film, unaware—as was everyone else—that the fall of the Wall was a few scant months away.

The story starts when Hans-Peter Dallow is let out of prison after serving 21 months for subversive activity. It is 1968 and Alexander Dubček has just been elected First Secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. Prior to prison, Dallow was a history professor, who sometimes played the piano at a local Kabarett.1 One night, while Dallow subbed for their regular piano player, a comedy troupe performed a particularly pointed political skit. This would have been early in 1966—shortly after the 11th Plenum, when the East German government was cracking down on any movie, performance, or other art that even remotely smacked of criticism against them. The next thing Dallow knew, he was trundled off the prison along with the rest of the performers.

Der Tangospieler

This scene isn’t quite what it seems. The woman has already spent the night with Dallow. Her anguish comes from the something she just heard on the radio, announcing the invasion of Prague by the Warsaw troops.

Now back out in the world, Dallow doesn’t know what to do next. As a history professor, he specialized in Czechoslovakia, but the time in prison has left him indifferent to the unfolding political events there. He’s in no hurry to get back into the classroom, and he certainly doesn’t want to play the piano again, but he’s not sure where to turn next. As if to pour salt in the wound, the skit for which he was imprisoned is now performed openly, and is even attended by the judge who sentenced him. On top of everything else, the Stasi are dropping by regularly, trying to recruit him as an informer (IM).

Dallow isn’t a particularly likeable guy. For one thing, after 21 months in prison he’s horny as hell and behaves atrociously toward women. For another, his self-pity verges on narcissism. He’s mad at the world for what it’s done to him, but he’s not willing to take steps to alleviate the situation. The film stars Michael Gwisdek as Hans-Peter Dallow. Gwisdek was too old for the part, and this works against the character. Some of his actions would be understandable for a young man, but come across as downright creepy in a man old enough to know better. If we are suppose to like or sympathize with Dallow, it doesn’t show. He is a thoroughly disagreeable human being. Nonetheless, Gwisdek is a compelling enough actor to hold our interest.

The film also stars Corinna Harfouch as Elke, the only meaningful relationship he has post-prison. Gwisdek and Harfouch were still an item in 1991, and made several movies together, both before and after the Wall fell. The Tango Player was one of their last. The duo went their separate ways toward the end of the nineties, but didn’t get officially divorced until 2007 (for more on Gwisdek and Harfouch, see The Actress).

Gwisdek and Harfouch

Michael Gwisdek and Corinna Harfouch

Like Joachim Hasler, director Roland Gräf started his career at DEFA as a cinematographer. He was the cinematographer for Born in ‘45 and The Dove on the Roof, which were both banned. It was with Gräf’s help, in fact, that The Dove on the Roof was eventually put back together and screened in 1990. During its final years, Gräf became the de facto keeper of the flame for DEFA. Making movies and acting as chairman of DEFA’s artistic council. When DEFA finally bit the dust, so too did Gräf’s career as a filmmaker. Aside from a couple episodes of the TV crime series Faust, Gräf stopped working as either a director or a cinematographer. Like many East German filmmakers, his ideas weren’t welcome in the new Germany, which skewed heavily in favor of the Western ideology and power. He began teaching at the “Konrad Wolf” film school in Babelsberg. Upon its founding in 1998, Roland Gräf became the Deputy Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the DEFA Foundation, a position he held until 2005. After that, he turned his attention to still pictures. In 2016, a book of his photographs was published in Germany under the title Meine LAST PICTURE SHOW.

As one would expect from a film titled The Tango Player, most of the music is either tango, or tango-inflected. The song that is used in the political skit is Julio César Sanders’ well-known classic Adiós Muchachos. The soundtrack also includes the music of Astor Piazzolla, as well as additional music provided by Günther Fischer. It’s a solid, driving score that suits the action well.

The Tango Player

Dallow’s television shows the Warsaw Pact troops rolling into Prague.

The Tango Player suffered a fate similar to The Architects, where the events of history happened faster than the film could be made. According to Gräf, “The events of the day simply ran over me.” By the time it came out, The Tango Player‘s relevance was seriously diminished. What would have been a remarkably frank portrayal of events a couple years earlier seemed tame now. The film was largely ignored. That’s too bad, because the film is one of the last to give us a glimpse into a world that no longer existed by someone who had actually been there.

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1. As in my article about The Actress, I’ve intentionally used the German word “Kabarett” here rather than “cabaret,” because, for Germans, the word Kabarett has a very different meaning from what we think of as cabaret. Although they both feature lots of singing, dancing and skits, German Kabarett is often punctuated by satirical political skits and comedy monologues of the darkest humor.

Winter Adé
The first films made in what would become East Germany after the war (at that point, still the Soviet sector), were short documentary films. Most of these early films were for propaganda purposes, showing how the Soviet Union was helping rebuild Germany after the war. After DEFA was established, documentary films were handled by a specific branch of the production company—the DEFA-Studio für Dokumentarfilme. It was here that Kurt Maetzig started as a director, and where Richard Groschopp returned to the craft. Eventually, the studio for documentary films would start making feature-length documentaries. The most famous, or infamous, as the case may be, is Look at This City!, but there are many more.

Winter Adé gets its title from a popular German children’s song. It means “goodbye winter,” and is a celebration of the coming of spring. Director Helke Misselwitz choice of title was both remarkably prescient and terribly ironic. Less than a year after the release of the film, the Berlin Wall would come down and a year after that Germany would be reunited.

The film uses as its structure, a train trip that covers the length of East Germany from top to bottom. It starts in Planitz, a town just west of Meissen where the filmmaker was born, then begins a train trip from Zwickau, near the Czech border, to Sassnitz, a resort town on the Baltic coast. Along the way, the film crew interviews women and girls about their lives and aspirations. The women come from all walks of life and all ages. Some are eternal optimists, and some have just given up. We meet, among others, a perky ballroom dance instructor in Altenburg, two no-future punky runaways in Berlin, and, in Groß-Fredenwalde, Margarete Busse, an 83-year-old woman celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary who delivers the real stomach punch in the film. Not all the interviews are with women, but all of them are about women or the perception of women in the GDR. Occasionally the camera crew stops to take in the local sights, most notably, a doll hospital in Delitzsch.

Winter Adé

Helke Misselwitz was part of the so-called Nachwuchsgeneration—the baby boomers who were just starting to make films for DEFA before the wall came down. She was working in the documentary film section at DEFA and noticed a lack of women working at DEFA (see All My Girls). This situation that didn’t make sense to her given the GDR’s claims of sexual equality. An equality, they were quick to point out, that did not exist in the West. She decided to make a documentary examining the role of women in East German society. What she found was complex and, at times, contradictory. Not really surprising considering the inherently complex and contradictory nature of the East German state. While some women were working in fields that were previously the exclusive domain of men, many others found themselves stuck in mundane jobs with no realistic hopes or dreams for the future. It must be said, however, that the few men interviewed in the films, also seem to have given up on their dreams. It is a fairly bleak picture of life in the GDR and is filmed, appropriately enough, in black-and-white.

After the Wende, Ms. Misselwitz founded the first privately-owned East German film company. She continued to make many documentaries as well as two feature films—Herzsprung, and the award-winning Englechen (Little Angel). Since 1997 she has taught directing at the “Konrad Wolf” Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

Margarete Busse

Like the film’s director, cinematographer Thomas Plenert works primarily on documentaries. He got his start with Jürgen Böttcher—the director of Born in ‘45—filming several documentary shorts for him. He also worked on three of the DEFA feature films that Lothar Warneke directed (although not on Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens). He first worked with Helke Misselwitz on the documentary, Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann (Who’s Afraid of the Bogeyman), and continued to work with her on several more documentaries as well as her two feature films. He is also the cameraman that documentary filmmaker Volker Koepp most often chooses to shoot his films. Mr. Plenert didn’t experience the transition difficulties that faced many of the other technicians from DEFA. He continued working on documentaries and shot several episodes of popular German television shows, including many episodes of the post-Wende version Polizeiruf 110. In 1996, he won the German Film Award for best cinematography for his work on Volker Koepp’s documentary, Kalte Heimat (Cold Homeland).

Many directors maintain that “editing is everything.” If this is the case, then special credit must be given to Gudrun Steinbrück, who, like her husband, Thomas Plenert, has worked on most of Helke Misselwitz’s films. She also edited Jürgen Böttcher’s Die Mauer (The Wall), a film about the deconstruction of the Berlin Wall that relies almost entirely on its editing to give it its power. With the exceptions of the Helke Misselwitz’s feature films and a few others, she works exclusively in the documentary film realm.

Winter Adé

Winter Adé was well-enough received on both sides of the Wall to give Ms. Misselwitz a more secure position in DEFA’s documentary division. Unfortunately, more secure, in this case, only meant a couple years as DEFA was dismantled shortly after the Wende. On November 9, 1989, Ms. Misselwitz had the rather unique experience—for an East German at that time—of being in America when the wall came down, a situation she recounts in an essay that is included on the DEFA Film Library’s release of Winter Adé, which is also available here.

The film premiered at the 1988 Leipzig International Documentary Film Festival and caused a sensation. During the following year, Leipzig would be home to the Monday Peace Demonstrations, which helped bring down the wall. It is powerful documentary that should be seen by anyone interested in the role of women in society, whether that means the GDR or the USA.

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Latest from the Da-Da-R

Identifying the beginning of the East German movie industry is easy. It began in 1946 with The Murderers Are  Among Us. That film—started before DEFA even existed—was the first of a long line of excellent films to come out of the GDR before the whole system came crashing down under the weight of its own ossification and blinkered leadership. Pinpointing the end of East German Cinema is a little more complicated. Several films were already “in the can,” so to speak, when the wall came down. Production at DEFA continued after East Germany no longer existed, right up until 1992, when the company was dismantled in the name of capitalism. Novalis – Die blaue Blume is credited with being the last film put out under the old DEFA badge, but philosophically and thematically, if not literally, the last film to come out of East Germany was Latest from the Da-Da-R (Letztes aus der DaDaeR), a satirical look at life in East Germany at the end of its forty-year existence.

The film follows the exploits of two clowns (literally) during the dying days of the GDR, from their release from prison, through a garbage dump, down a river to hell, through the surrealistic landscape of post-Mauerfall East Germany, and into a slaughterhouse, with scenes as shocking as those in Georges Franju’s Le sang des bêtes. The story is not told as a continuous journey, but as a series of skits and musical numbers, each a little darker than the last. Some of the scenes look improvised. The scene at the bonfire protest seems as spontaneous as Haskell Wexler’s footage of the police riots in Medium Cool. There is an improvisational quality to the routines, and certain aspects—such as the use of objects to represent other things—betray the theatrical roots of the routines. The criticism is sharp, but even-handed, attacking the stodgy leadership of East Germany and the callow behavior of West Germans alike. It is not hyperbole to say that one year earlier this film could not have been made. I doubt that it could have been made one year later either, after western interests took over the film studio and profit became the main motivating factor. This film exists as a record of an extremely specific time in German cinema history.

Latest From the Da-Da-R

Filming began after the wall came down, and was made by the newly formed artists’ work group (künstlerische Arbeitsgruppe), “DaDaeR.” The name is a play on “DDR” (the abbreviation for Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and “Dada”. In German, the “Letztes” in the film’s title can be translated as “the last” or “the latest”, giving the title a double punch. The film is filled with such witticisms, several of which are specifically intended for East German audiences only. The mailman with the broken bicycle is Gustav-Adolf Schur, an East German bicyclist as well known in the GDR as Lance Armstrong is in the United States; and the garbageman was played by the popular East German writer Christoph Hein. Much of the humor in the film cannot be fully appreciated by anyone who didn’t live in the GDR, but the film has enough other things going on to keep the rest of us entertained.

Latest from the Da-Da-R stars Steffen Mensching and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel. They also wrote the screenplay. It was the final product of comedy reviews they performed in the eighties, starting with Neues aus der DaDaer (News—or newest—from the Da-Da-R) and followed by Altes aus der DaDaer (Oldest—or Old Newsfrom the Da-Da-R). Mensching and Wenzel joined forces in 1980, when Steffen Mensching joined Wenzel’s theater group, Karls Enkel. Wenzel and Mensching developed the clown characters, Meh and Weh—abbreviations of their last names, but also puns on indifference and woe.

In 1989, Mensching and Wenzel helped draft the “Resolution of Rock Musicians and Songwriters” (Resolution von Rockmusikern und Liedermachern), a protest letter sent to the SED warning that the government’s indifference to the needs of the people was in danger of causing the country’s collapse. The SED’s reaction to the resolution was swift and stupid. Tour dates were cancelled and prohibitions were placed on the signatories. That was September 18, 1989. A little over a year later, the GDR would cease to exist.

After the wall fell, Mr. Mensching and Mr. Wenzel continued to perform together from time to time, but each went on to do other things. Mr. Mensching occasionally performs and directs theater productions, most recently working with the Theater Rudolstadt. Mr. Wenzel continues to perform, primarily as a singer-songwriter (and the songs in Latest from the Da-Da-R are very good). He was invited by Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora to create German versions of her father’s songs, resulting in his 2003 album Ticky Tock, on which Mr. Wenzel sings Guthrie’s songs in German and English.

Letztes aus der DaDaeR

Latest from the Da-Da-R was directed by Jörg Foth. Mr. Foth was part of the “Nachwuchsgeneration” (next generation)—a group of young filmmakers who trained as filmmakers, only to find that opportunities to practice their craft were blocked by the clogged infrastructure that was endemic to East Germany in the eighties. Mr. Foth took a roundabout route to his eventually career as a director. He graduated from high school with a certificate as a cook, but then joined the Volksmarine as a radio operator. Upon leaving the Volksmarine, Mr. Foth started working as a volunteer at the East German television company, which eventually led to a diploma in film studies from the film school in Babelsberg.

He worked as as an assistant director on several films, including Blauvogel (Blue Bird), Die Verlobte (The Fiancee), and Die Kolonie (The Colony), eventually getting a chance to direct in 1984, with the children’s film Das Eismeer ruft (The Arctic Sea Calls).  In spite of good reviews, further jobs directing feature films were not forthcoming. He made a few more short films and documentaries, and co-directed the Vietnamese/East German joint production Dschungelzeit (Jungle Time), but it wasn’t until the wall fell that he was finally given a permanent position as a director at DEFA. Of course, “permanent” is a qualified term, even in the best of times, but during those tumultuous times, it meant less than a year.

Since the Wende, Mr. Foth has had very few opportunities to demonstrate his talent. He has worked on a few TV shows and made a few short films, but Latest from the Da Da R was his last feature film.

Irm Hermann

Playing Meh and Weh’s jailer—identified only as “She”—is Irm Hermann. Anyone familiar with the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder will recognize her immediately. She appeared in most of his films, sometimes in small roles, and other times as one of the leads. She was a founding members of Fassbinder’s antiteater (anti-theater) and appeared in Fassbinder’s early short films as well as his early features. She was as much a muse to Fassbinder as Hannah Schygulla.  Like Schygulla, she parted ways with Fassbinder after Lili Marleen, but continued acting, appearing in dozens of films since then.

Director Foth could have had his pick from any number of excellent East German actresses to play this part. The fact that he chose a West German certainly is no accident. It addresses the feeling that—no matter what Honecker and friends would have one believe—it was the West Germans that were calling the shots. She is the one who lets them out of prison, and feeds them, and watches over them throughout, but she also the one keeping  them in prison. In one scene she is shown removing bullets from their shells. A reference to disarmament, certainly, but whose ammo is she dismantling?1

As you can no doubt tell, there is a lot going on in this film. It is impossible to catch it all in one viewing. To help with this, the DEFA Library has included essays and an interview with the director as PDF files on the American DVD. If, like me, you have an aversion to clowns and mimes, you may approach this film with some trepidation, but don’t let the white facepaint put you off. This is an exceptional film.

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1. Perhaps a reader with better knowledge of such things than I can provide better information on this.

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.

Seven Freckles (Sieben Sommersprossen) is the story of the love affair between Karoline and Robbi—two fifteen-year-olds who had been close two years earlier and meet-up again at summer camp. Standing in their way is Marlene, an attractive but self-absorbed girl who also has the hots for Robbi. When one of the camp counselors decides that it would fun to put on a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Marlene jumps at the chance to play Juliet, and suggests Robbi to play Romeo, but it is apparent to everyone that the real love story is between Robbi and Karoline. As the kids prepare for the production, the romance between Robbi and Karoline unfolds in counterpoint to Shakespeare’s play.

Summer camps inhabit a realm all their own in the movies. Maybe that’s because they also inhabit a realm all their own in the lives of the kids that were shipped off to them. For some they were opportunities to reinvent themselves, while for others they were places where all their worst fears came true. As a genre, the Summer Camp Film started with Her First Romance, which took Herman Wouk’s Book, The City Boy, about a fat Jewish kid from the Bronx, and turned it into the story of a slender and very WASP-y teenage girl, played by Margaret O’Brien. There were previous Summer Camp films, most notably 1937’s Thrill of a Lifetime, which shares with Seven Freckles a sub-plot about putting on a show, but the genre really took off in the fifties when the early baby-boomers were getting old enough to ship off to camp, and the parents started reminiscing about their younger days in the woods.

Throughout the fifties, summer camps popped again and again in movies and on television. Comedian-turned-songwriter Allan Sherman even parodied the subject with his hit tune, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh.” And in 1961, Hayley Mills did a comic turn, playing both the good girl and the evil camp-mate in Disney’s The Parent Trap. In 1980, the genre took a dark turn with Friday the 13th, in which the teenagers at a newly reopened camp are killed one by one, usually right after having sex. This opened the doors to dozens of imitators (including way too many sequels of its own). Every year for the next five years the movie-going public could expect to see dozens of films about teenagers killed while attending summer camp. The same year that the first Friday the 13th was released, also saw the release of Little Darlings, in which two girls at camp have a contest to see which one loses her virginity first. And in 1993, the subject took a more sardonic turn when Wednesday and Pugsley Addams are shipped off to camp in Addams Family Values.

Many of the themes (some might say tropes) that were common to Summer Camp Films were there right from the start: the evil camp-mate, who either gets her comeuppance or teams up with the protagonist to save the day, the budding first romance, the overly strict but clueless camp supervisor, and  the prankish behavior of youngsters. All of these are in evidence in Seven Freckles. But Seven Freckles probably owes most of its pedigree to Russian films on the subject. The first was Welcome, or No Trespassing (Dobro pozhalovat, ili postoronnim vkhod vospreshchyon) from 1965, a fairly bold film in which the kids in the camp conspire against the director. The film was popular and seem to be parodying government bureaucracy. Like East Germany, the USSR had a brief period in the early sixties in which many of the restrictions on what could be discussed in films were relaxed. And just like East Germany, this came to a grinding halt in 1965 when Khruschev was deposed in favor of the hardliner Brezhnev. Even more of an influence was Sergei Solovyov’s One Hundred Days After Childhood (Sto dney posle detstva), which also dealt with the subject of pubescent love at a summer camp. This Russian film was a huge hit in the Eastern Bloc countries, and was also recognized in the west, winning the Silver Bear at the Berlinale in 1975.

To cast Seven Freckles, director Herrmann Zschoche chose to use non-actors in all the teenager roles. For most of these kids, this was their first venture into acting and their last. A few went on to have successful careers in film, most notably, Steffi Kühnert, who has appeared in dozens of popular German movies, including Sun Alley (Sonnenallee), The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band), and We Are the Night (Wir sind die Nacht). Others, such as René Rudolph and Kareen Schröter, made a few more movies, but did not pursue careers as actors after the Wende. Most surprising of all is Janine Beilfuß who played Marlene. She has a real screen presence but never made another film. Ironically, the boy who played Robbi, Harald Rathmann, had no interest in his leading lady, Kareen Schröter (although both she and her co-star, Janine Beilfuß found him pretty hunky).

Today, this film is best known for its famously uninhibited sequence in which the two young lovers frolic naked in a field. It is here that Herrmann Zschoche’s demonstrates his talent as a director. One misstep and this scene could have degenerated into prurient pedophilia; a leering look at the naked bodies of two teenagers. Zschoche avoids this by approaching it for what it is: the last innocent encounter in the lives of two young people; that pivotal age when the body is ready for sex, but the mind isn’t. Nonetheless—and in spite of its innocence—the film does feature the full-frontal nudity of two teenagers and is unlikely to get U.S. distribution anytime soon for this reason.

The film was shot by Günter Jaeuthe, who started as Zschoche’s cinematographer with Eolomea and worked with him on nearly every film after that. As with Eolomea, Jaeuthe seems most at home when he is filming the great outdoors. He cinematography is sharp and clear and at its best in the brightly-lit scenes. The night scenes and day-for-night scenes are murky and sometimes hard to make out.

Seven Freckles features one of the most varied soundtracks of any movie. It goes from wistful pan-pipe music, to synthesized mood music, to swirling dramatic strings, to somber organ. The music is credited to Gunther Erdmann, with some rock’n’roll bits added by Peter Gotthardt who scored The Legend of Paul and Paula. Erdmann was a logical choice to score a film about kids. As a composer he was best known in East Germany for the choral music he wrote or arranged for children’s and young people’s choirs. Although there is not a lot of music in the film, every time there is, it is different from the last.

Seven Freckles was a huge hit in East Germany, playing to sold-out theaters for the first few weeks. It helped turned Herrmann Zschoche into one of the busiest directors at DEFA during the GDR’s final decade. Before he made Seven Freckles, Zschoche had already explored the theme of coming-of-age in Liebe mit 16 (Love at 16), and he would return to it again in films such as Island of the Swans and Und nächstes Jahr am Balaton (Next Year at Lake Balaton). After the Wende, Zschoche continued to work, primarily in television. Shortly after the wall came down, he directed several episodes of Drei Damen vom Grill (Three Ladies from the Grill), a popular TV series about an Imbissstand (a takeaway food trailer, like you see at carnivals). Drei Damen vom Grill started in 1977 when the wall was firmly in place, and had a strong West Berlin vibe to it. Not surprisingly then, the show didn’t last long after the Wende. After that, Zschoche directed a few made-for-TV movies, and several episodes of popular TV shows. He retired in 1998, but Seven Freckles remains a high point in his career. So much so that when decided to recount what filmmaking was like in the GDR, he titled his book: Seven Freckles and Other Memories (Sieben Sommersprossen und andere Erinnerungen).

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The Gleiwitz Case (Der Fall Gleiwitz) is director Gerhard Klein’s 1961 film about an event in southern Poland that was used by Hitler to start World War II. Hitler knew he couldn’t start a war without provocation, and since none was forthcoming, he did what any good tyrant would do: he created one. After all, it’s much easier to get the public behind efforts to gear up the war machine after a country’s been attacked. It was called the “Gleiwitz Incident” and it took place on August 31, 1939. The conspiracy came to light during the Nuremberg Trials, when an SS-Sturmbannführer named Alfred Naujocks spilled the beans. Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller entrusted Naujocks with the task of faking an attack on a German radio station in Gleiwitz (Gliwice), Poland. The attack was supposed to look like the work of the Polish resistance. Müller, along with his boss, Reinhard Heydrich, planned the fake attack down to the last detail, including a resistance fighter shot at the scene. For the unlucky martyr, the Gestapo dragooned a political prisoner, who was taken to Gleiwitz and shot. Klein’s movie recounts the events meticulously, from the moment the plan is put into action until its horrifying conclusion.

Clocking in at just under seventy minutes, The Gleiwitz Case is one of the shorter DEFA features, but, like any good story, it’s exactly as long as it needs to be to tell the tale. Klein mostly follows the facts, but that doesn’t stop him from creating an astounding film. He takes the expressionism of Weimar-Ufa and combines it with French New Wave and underground filmmaking to create a dizzying display of cinematic imagination. The camera takes on a life of its own, occasionally moving along at floor level like a rat, then swinging and spinning, as if the events on screen are too much for it take in. Equally audacious is Evelyn Carow’s editing, which treats the sound and the visuals as separate but equal aspects of the movie. In one scene, while a car is waiting at a railroad crossing for a troop train to pass, the singing of the soldiers on board the train turns into a rhythmic chant that mimics the sound of the passing train. The meaning is clear; the war machine is in motion and nothing can stop it.

When the film was shown to the GDR authorities, not everyone approved. Some thought it glorified Nazism and one person remarked: “Veit Harlan (director of the notorious Jud Süß) could have made this movie.” This infuriated Klein, who had worked with the communist resistance during WWII. The reaction of the authorities is understandable though. Most people come to a movie with the automatic assumption that there will be a protagonist who will prevail against all odds, but The Gleiwitz Case offers no such comforts. Klein knew the Gleiwitz Incident was the single most important event in the history of WWII, and any attempts to get on one’s high horse would detract from the story. Thus he presents it without the socialist proselytizing sometimes found in DEFA films.

The Gleiwitz Case script was written by Wolfgang Kohlhaase and Günther Rücker. Wolfgang Kohlhaase and director Klein had already made names for themselves with their “Berlin Trilogy”—three films that examined modern life in the divided city (Alarm at the Circus, A Berlin Romance, Berlin – Schönhauser Corner). This was Kohlhaase’s first foray into the world of WWII storytelling, but not his last. He returned to the subject in 1968 with Konrad Wolf’s autobiographical film I Was Nineteen. Unlike many of the DEFA talents, the Wende had little effect on his career. he continues to write scripts; primarily for fellow Ossi, Andreas Dressen.

Günther Rücker was a talented and well-respected writer, whose work included plays, novels, short stories, and radio programs. He was a keen observer of women and the problems they faced in East Germany. His screenplays for Her Third, Until Death Do Us Part, Die Verlobte  (The Fiancée), and Hilde, das Dienstmädchen (Housemaid Hilde) all feature female protagonists from various walks of life. From 1974 to 1982, he was in charge of the Poetry and Linguistics department (Dichtkunst und Sprachpflege) at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. He won the National Prize of the GDR several times, and the Prix Italia for his radio play, Die Grünstein-Variante (The Greenstone Variation), which, coincidentally, was based on Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s theatrical adaptation of the stories of Ludwig Tureck.1 Rücker also directed a few films for DEFA. After the Wende, he made no further movies, and died in 2008.

The cinematographer  for The Gleiwitz Case was Jan Curik from Czechoslovakia (Czech Republic). Curik is best known in the west for his dazzling color work on Jaromil Jires’s psychedelic masterpiece, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (the inspiration for Neil Jordan’s coming-of-age fantasy, The Company of Wolves), and his equally striking black-and-white photography in Jires’s The Joke (Zerk). He was also the cinematographer on Frantisek Vlácil’s The White Dove  (Holubice). Some frames in The Gleiwitz Case are so perfect they could stand alone as still photographs: a man sitting at a radio console, a car on the autobahn, hands chained to a wall. In the scene where Naujocks addresses his stormtroopers, the combination of lighting and photography creates the effect of accentuating the skull beneath Naujocks skin, giving him the sinister appearance of a grim reaper. It is amazing to note that in spite of his important contributions to the history of world cinema, Jan Curik remains largely ignored. As of this writing, there is no biography of him on any version of Wikipedia, including the Czech version; and yet every critique of a film that Curik shot contains references to the outstanding photography. Curik died in 1996 at the age of 72.

Alongside the visual beauty of this film, its use of music stands out. The film opens in darkness with a frenetic piece of carnival music reminiscent of The Three Penny Opera. Not coincidentally, the composer, Kurt Schwaen, worked extensively with Brecht during the fifties and Brecht’s influence stayed with him throughout his career. Schwaen composed music for only a few soundtracks, preferring to concentrate on his serious compositions. In 1965, he became the head of the music department at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. He would go on to compose over 620 compositions; everything from orchestral works and operas to solo piano pieces. In scenes at the radio station, Schwaen’s soundtrack is replaced with the popular music being broadcast. When we first see the giant wooden radio tower in Gleiwitz, for instance, we hear the strains of Heinrich Berger’s orchestral version of “Aloha Oe” playing (we’ll hear this song again in I Was Nineteen). Later in the film, as the station is being attacked, choral music plays behind the chaos. This juxtaposition of light music with serious scenes is an ironic technique that was still relatively unknown in 1961 outside of the work of underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger. It would take Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in 1964 to bring this technique to American mainstream cinema, and filmmakers like John Waters and Quentin Tarantino to turn it into a trope.

Making a film without a likable lead character or a happy ending is always a risky proposition. Audiences seldom respond well to that sort of thing. So it’s no surprise that the film did poorly at the box office and quickly disappeared from theaters. Nonetheless, critics on both sides of the Iron Curtain were impressed with the film. The film critic for the West Berlin newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel cited it as the most visually striking film from the GDR since Konrad Wolf’s Stars. A few years after it played in the east, the film started showing up at film clubs in West Berlin. Some have complained that The Gleiwitz Case distorts certain facts (there is no evidence, for instance, that Naujocks fired the fatal shot). Nonetheless, the film stands as an exceptional example of what the DEFA directors were capable of when the authorities allowed it .

IMDB page for the film.

Günther Rücker’s obituary in Der Freitag (in German).

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1. In 1985, a West German version of the story was filmed by actor/director Berhard Wicki, with a screenplay by Wicki and Kohlhaase.

The protagonists in East German films are frequently women. In movies such as Her Third, He du!, and The Dove on the Roof, the plots center around women who are on an equal (or superior) footing to their male counterparts. Even in genre films such as Signals and In the Dust of the Stars, we see women in positions of power. The terms Mitarbeiter (co-worker) and Kollegen (colleague) were used to avoid designations of class, but class differences were there nonetheless. DEFA was sensitive to this issue and rightfully proud of its track record on the matter of female equality—at least, on the screen. When The Legend of Paul and Paula was released, it faced stiff criticism from the authorities because it presented a working woman who had very little control over her situation. It was only after Erich Honecker gave that film his blessing that it was allowed to be shown. So it’s no surprise that The Bicycle (Das Fahrrad) wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms.

The Bicycle goes much further than Paul and Paula did. Here, the protagonist is Susanne, a single mother who operates a punch press at a factory, doing the same thing all-day long in an oppressive environment. She is thoughtless and louche, lacking the work ethic that made Paula so admirable. Susanne likes to go out drinking and puts paying her bills in second place to having a good time. She is constantly running late and in debt. The father of her child is never mentioned, Judging from her lifestyle, it is likely that the child was a result of a casual relationship. It is apparent that most of her problems are the result of her own irresponsibility.

In spite of all this, Susanne is not without sympathy. She has made some bad choices and she is still making bad choices, but she obviously loves her daughter very much. We can understand it when she finally gets fed up and walks off her job at the factory; it is a terrible place. With no marketable skills, her attempts to find new work prove fruitless, and the fact that she has a daughter also affects her work opportunities. Susanne decides to take the advice of one of her drinking buddies and claim that her bicycle was stolen. Now able to pay off some of her bills, things seem to be looking up for Susanne. It is around this time that Thomas Marlow enters the picture.

Thomas is an idealistic young engineer who worked his way up through the ranks and has just been put in charge of an important project. His colleagues congratulate him and vow to stand behind him. Thomas is flush with success and excited by this new opportunity to show the bosses what he can do. In truth, his colleagues are playing the old game of letting the new guy stick his neck out first. The last time we saw a scenario like this played out on film in East Germany was in Frank Beyer’s The Trace of Stones (Spur der Steine), which was banned for suggesting that such internecine shenanigans went on in the GDR.

Thomas gets Susanne a job in his factory and everything is copacetic until the local policeman catches Susanne riding her supposedly-stolen bike. Thomas tries to help her, but his concern over how the incident will reflect on him causes a rift between them. In the end, Thomas’ undoing has nothing to do with Susanne. Meanwhile, the workers committee at the factory helps her deal with her legal problems. To her surprise, they show her compassion and solidarity, just as they’ve shown compassion for one of her co-workers, a woman in an abusive relationship.

The film takes some pains to show that the collective—at least among the factory workers—behaves the way a collective should: helping those who need help, and allowing everyone to have a voice on the subject. But the idea that the engineers in the GDR would be as duplicitous as westerners did not go over well with the authorities. The fact that the women are doing the mundane work, while the men sit in the front offices was an even stronger challenge to the GDR’s public stance that women were treated as equals. As a result, although the film was allowed to screen in East Germany, it was banned from entry into the international film festivals.

Director Evelyn Schmidt was part of the fourth generation of DEFA directors (Nachwuchsregisseure) that started making films during the final years of East Germany’s existence. This group included Peter Kahane, Jörg Foth, Iris Gusner, Dietmar Hochmuth, Karl-Heinz Lotz, and several others. As I discussed in my post about The Architects, this new group of directors found it difficult to get their films made during the final decade of the GDR. Schmidt’s first feature film, Escapade (Seitensprung), met with good reviews and was shown at the 1980 Berlinale as part of the program for new filmmakers. Her next film, Auf dem Sprung (The Jump), did not fare as well with either the public or the critics. It wasn’t until 1990 that she received a “permanent” position as a director at DEFA, but permanence in that fateful year was a fleeting thing.

After the Wende, Schmidt ran into the same prejudice against East Germans that many others from DEFA faced. The idea that these people were as talented—if not more so—than their free market counterparts was rarely considered. How could anything good come from a system that produced the Berlin Wall and the Stasi? After DEFA was dismantled, Schmidt found that work as a film director became difficult to find so she moved into the realm of legitimate theater. Currently, she teaches film acting classes at the Charlottenburg Drama School in Berlin.

Schmidt often uses hand-held cameras (thankfully without the current tendency toward herky-jerkiness), which helps impart a sense of reality to the movie. The use of music is sparse, usually only playing as part of the natural environment (in the bar, or on the radio). The pacing, in typical DEFA fashion, is slow and methodical. It assumes a certain level of familiarity with the state of affairs in the GDR at that time.

Central to The Bicycle are the characters of Susanne and Thomas, so the effectiveness of this films rises or sinks on the performances of the two leads. Fortunately, both are up to the task. Heidemarie Schneider convincingly plays Susanne, and Roman Kaminski is good, if not always likable, as the self-righteous Thomas. Ms. Schneider had already appeared in a dozen DEFA films and a couple TV appearances before starring in this, her first leading role. Ms. Schmidt must have liked working with her because she cast her again in Auf dem Sprung (The Jump), and Der Hut (The Hat). After the Wende, Ms.Schneider continued to find work as actor, primarily in television productions. Similarly, Roman Kaminski has also continued to work in TV since starring in this film.

For anyone interested in the subject of women’s issues and feminism of film, The Bicycle is an important addition to the topic. It is one of the most honest portrayals of life in East Germany from behind the Iron Curtain, and helps those of us who did not experience it get closer to what living in the GDR must have been like.

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