Archive for the ‘Wolf Biermann’ Category

Wolf Biermann
One of the most important events in the story of East German cinema was the expatriation of folksinger Wolf Biermann. It had more impact on filmmaking in the GDR than any other event short of the 11th Plenum. So how did this relatively insignificant political misstep play such havoc with the East German film industry? This time on the East German Cinema blog, we’ll take a look at Biermann’s expatriation and its effect on the East German film community.

Wolf Biermann was a West German. He was born in Hamburg, the son of two devoted and highly active members of the German Communist Party (KPD). His father, Dagobert Biermann, was a dockworker who also happened to be Jewish. During the Third Reich, Dagobert Biermann joined the resistance and started working to overthrow Hitler by feeding information to the exiled KPD. He was arrested and charged with sabotaging ships. Being Jewish, he was soon sent to Auschwitz where he was killed.

Wolf Biermann was very much his father’s son, not afraid to speak his mind even when it didn’t conform to the party line. Prior to Hitler’s takeover of the German government, Dagobert Biermann raised some hackles by suggesting that the KPD and the Social Democrats (SPD) should join forces to prevent the Nazis from gaining a foothold in the government. Ernst Thälmann—exhibiting a brickheaded, “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude toward compromise that Tea Party members would envy—refused to countenance such an idea. We all know what happened next.

After the War, Wolf Biermann joined the Free German Youth (FDJ) and represented West Germany in the FDJ’s first national meeting. It wasn’t long, though, before West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer—who had lobbied prior to WWII for the Nazis to have a bigger voice in the German government—had the organization banned. Seeing all around him how the Adenauer government was suppressing socialist organizations while promoting ex-Nazis, Biermann decided to immigrate to East Germany, where he hoped things would be better.

In 1959, Biermann started working at the Berliner Ensemble—the theater company founded by Bertolt Brecht, who had died a year earlier. Through the Berliner Ensemble, Biermann met Hanns Eisler, who fled to East Germany to escape persecution by the House on Un-American Activities in the United States (for more on Eisler see, The Crucible). Eisler became a mentor to Biermann, and helped promote his budding career as a songwriter. In 1961, Biermann formed the Berliner Arbeiter-Theater (Berlin Workers’ Theater). He wrote a play, Berliner Brautgang (Berlin Bridal Walk), about the building of the Berlin Wall, but the play was banned before Biermann ever got a chance to see it performed. Biermann was banned from performing for six months. It was a punitive slap on the wrist. Perhaps the SED figured this would be enough to get Biermann back in line, but they didn’t know Biermann.

In 1965, his book of poetry, Die Drahtharfe (The Wire Harp), was published in West Germany, which immediately led the SED to brand him as a “class-traitor”—a term they liked to throw around when anyone had the temerity to suggest that maybe the SED wasn’t absolutely correct in their interpretation of Marx. Biermann was put on a blacklist, and not allowed to perform in East Germany or use the available recording facilities. To get around this, Biermann recorded his album Chausseestraße 131 (his actual address) using a recorder and microphone that a friend had smuggled into the country.

wolf biermann

The SED’s attempt to silence him failed miserably, as did their attempts to discredit him. Things came to a head during the World Festival of Youth and Students, when he was visited and defended by Joan Baez,and Karsten Voigt—the chairman of Jusos, an SPD youth group for budding social democrats. Even more than the Berlin Wall, the blacklisting of Biermann served to alienate the SED from the political left in the West, the one group of people in the West that still showed some support for the GDR.

Embarrassed by the negative press in both right- and left-wing media, the SED dropped the ban on Biermann He began to perform again and was allowed to travel to West Germany for concert dates. Perhaps they thought Biermann would soften his criticism after that, but he was outspoken as ever. The folks in the government were getting tired of this Wessi pointing out their flaws, and decided to do something about it.

So it was that, while performing at a concert in Cologne in 1976, Biermann was expatriated for “gross violation of civic duties,” which is to say, he wasn’t willing to toe the SED party line. In a reaction to this, 41 actors, poets, and writers signed a letter of protest against the action. In the following days, more people joined the protest until there were over 150 signatures. This wasn’t an assortment of malcontents and intellectuals either: popular movie stars, directors, writers and musicians also joined the protest.

This could have been an important moment for East Germany, signifying a turn toward a truer socialist democracy, where the voice of the people still mattered, but it would have required less of a Stalinist in power than Erich Honecker. As they had with every previous historical turning point, the SED went in the wrong direction. Rather than listen to the protest, the government came down hard on the signatories, marginalizing them in any way they could, and, in some cases, eliminating their sources of income.

As a result, several well-known and popular films stars applied for exit visas immediately and moved to West Germany. One of the first was, naturally enough, Biermann’s wife Eva-Maria Hagen, followed soon after by his step-daughter Nina Hagen. Nina Hagen had already become a pop star in East Germany with silly songs about having a cold, or forgetting to buy color film, but upon arriving in the West, her image would undergo a complete transformation, becoming the punk goddess she is known as today (for more on Nina Hagen, see Today is Friday).

open letter of protest

Those asking for exit visas weren’t second-tier stars either. Top names such as Manfred Krug, Katharina Thalbach, Angelica Domröse, Hilmar Thate, Cox Habbema, and Armin Mueller-Stahl decided to take their chances in the West, rather than put up with the hassles and constant surveillance that occurred after they signed the protest letter. Those who stayed found fewer opportunities to work, but things weren’t exactly a bed of roses for those who left either. Krug, Thalbach, and Mueller-Stahl landed on their feet with successful careers in West Germany. Cox Habbema was Dutch anyway, so leaving the country was a less of a big deal for her. Domröse and Thate found it harder to find work in films in West Germany, and turn, instead, to the theater.

DEFA continued to make movies, and some very good movies at that, but much of its luster was gone. Worse, the Biermann incident convinced the SED that they needed to step up their surveillance. The use of informants (IMs) increased dramatically at that time, peaking out at 203,000 in 1977. Far from bolstering their authority, the SED was setting themselves up for a fall, but by the time they realized this, it was too late.

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Star-Crossed Lovers

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the period between the building of the Berlin Wall and the 11th Plenum was a golden age for film in East Germany. The authorities were determined to prove that building the wall was not intended to repress the population, but was intended as an “anti-fascist protective barrier” (antifaschistischer Schutzwall) that would allow East German filmmakers greater artistic freedom without subversion from the west. Films that would have been deemed too experimental or arty before the Wall were approved now, and DEFA’s directors took full advantage of this change in policy. Small wonder, then, that any list of the best East German films shows a noticeable concentration of films made during this period.1

One of the first to take full advantage of DEFA’s new policy was Frank Beyer, a director on any short list of great East German directors, and the only one from the GDR to have an Oscar nomination (Jakob the Liar). With Star-Crossed Lovers (Königskinder), Mr. Beyer kicks things into high gear with vivid cinematography and an artist’s eye for frame composition. It is a dazzling film from a brief but exceptional time for East German cinema.

Königskinder

Star-Crossed Lovers is the story of three childhood friends—Magdalena, Michael, and Jürgen. Michael and Magdalena are in love, but the fates conspire to keep them apart. Jürgen, a timid conformist, has lusted after Magdalena since childhood, but there is never really any romantic tension here—Magdalena loves Michael, Michael loves her, and poor Jürgen remains the odd man out. When they get older, Michael becomes active in the KPD (the German Communist Party) and Magdalena assists him. Meanwhile, Jürgen takes the path of least resistance and joins the SA. He still loves Magdalena, but, as one might imagine, his employment choice does nothing to improve his standing in her eyes.

The story is told in flashbacks, with the present-day action taking place during the final days of World War II. Magdalena is working with the Russians to provide aid to their troops on the front lines, while Michael is conscripted into the infamous Strafdivision 999 (Penal Battalion 999), Hitler’s remarkably ill-conceived attempt to use prisoners as soldiers. There he meets up with Jürgen, who has been assigned as an officer in the battalion.

The German title for the film comes from the folk song, “Es waren zwei Königskinder” (There Were Two Royal Children), which tells the story of a prince and princess who are kept apart by waters that separate them. Of course, the “waters” in this case Nazism and WWII, but Beyer is a sophisticated filmmaker and he reflects the idea of separation by water several times in several ways. Part of the fun of this film is spotting these references. Things end badly in the song, and the film hints at a similar tragedy, but Beyer leaves things open to interpretation.

Annekathrin Bürger

Playing Magdalena is Annekathrin Bürger. I’ve talked about Ms. Bürger in previous post (see Hostess and Not to Me, Madame!). Ms. Bürger started working films at eighteen after being discovered by Gerhard Klein, but 1962 was a banner year for her. She starred in two of the best films from that year—this one and The Second Track. After marrying Rolf Römer, Ms. Bürger often starred in films he directed. She continues to work in films.

Michael is portrayed by Armin Mueller-Stahl, who was just coming into his own when this film was made. He had appeared in some TV movies during the fifties, but it was his role in Five Cartridges that brought him to the big screen. Star-Crossed Lovers was his second feature film, followed a few months later by And Your Love Too. He starred in several classic DEFA films, including Naked Among Wolves, Her Third, Jakob the Liar and The Flight. In 1976, he joined other popular film stars in a protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. As with the others who signed the protest, he found that job opportunities had dried up, so he did what many of the others on the list did also, and moved to West Germany. For Mr. Mueller-Stahl this proved to be an especially auspicious move. There, he met up with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who cast him in Lola and Veronika Voss; and with Niklaus Schilling, who cast him in Der Westen leuchtet (The Lite Trap). He began to get more work in West Germany, but the big break came when Costa-Gavras cast him as the Grandpa with a secret in The Music Box. Other films followed quickly, including Barry Levinson’s Avalon, Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, and Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka. Mr. Mueller-Stahl is a true renaissance man. Besides being an actor, he paints, writes, and plays a mean fiddle. Of late, he has been concentrating on these other pursuits over acting.

Royal Children

To play the sad-sack Jürgen, Mr. Beyer cast Ulrich Thein. Mr. Thein, more than any other star in East Germany, was born to be an actor, his father was a theater bandleader. Although his father died when he was only four years old, the young Ulrich continued in his father’s footsteps, studying music and working in theater. In 1951, he joined the world-famous Deutsches Theater Berlin, where he continued to perform until 1963. Ironically, although he played the unloved man in this film, it was he who was in a relationship with Ms. Bürger at the time. During the sixties, Mr. Thein added film director to his list of talents—at first in TV movies, then later in feature films. After the fall of the Wall, he found that most of the films he was offered were lousy. In his words, “I won’t make the shit producers are offering me.” (“Ich will den Scheiß nicht machen, der mir von einigen Produzenten angeboten wird.”). He retired from filmmaking in 1992, and took up teaching.

To shoot the film, Mr. Beyer used his long-time collaborator, Günter Marczinkowsky. Like many of the better cinematographers at DEFA, Mr. Marczinkowsky came from the technical side of film, having work as a photo lab technician and a projectionist before starting at DEFA. He was assistant to the famous Robert Baberske, whose Berlin: Symphonie of a Great City remains a classic example of pure cinema. After Beyer’s Traces of Stones was banned, Mr. Marczinkowsky was relegated to work on TV movies—a common fate for anyone who found their work in the crosshairs of the 11th Plenum. He returned to features films from time to time, most notably with Abschied (Farewell) and Jakob the Liar, but most of his later work was for the small screen. Sadly, his career ended with the collapse of East Germany.

Of the films from East Germany, I would have to categorize this one as the best film that is not available with English subtitles. I suspect this is only temporary. It’s too good a film to go unrecognized for much longer.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (German only, no subtitles).


1. It probably didn’t hurt that during the same period, West Germany’s film industry was gaining a reputation for making lousy movies. So much so that, in February of 1962, a group of young West German filmmakers at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen released the Oberhausen Manifesto, stating that “conventional films are dead,” and calling people to challenge the film industry’s conventions, and free it from the control of commercial interests.

Heute ist Freitag

By 1989, Nina Hagen was well-known in West Germany, but few people there knew anything about her past. She was the operatic, punk demon lady from the far side of the moon spouting mystic mumbo-jumbo and singing like nobody else. Then the wall came down and we westerners saw a whole other side of her—the pop pixie, singer of novelty songs, adorable and immensely talented. But few of us were ready for Today is Friday (Heute ist Freitag), a TV-movie from 1975 in which we get to see Nina Hagen as we’ve never seen her before.

Long before Hagen reinvented herself as a punk goddess, she was on her way to becoming the most popular singer in East Germany. Her GDR persona was that of a spunky woman-child, a little petulant and coy. Her big breakthrough came in 1974 with “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” (You forgot the color film), a song in which Nina scolds her boyfriend Mischa for forgetting to bring the color film on their vacation. In it, she complains that no one will believe her when she tells them how beautiful everything was, because the pictures are all in black-and-white. The unspoken joke here is that no one believes her because so much of the East German landscape was cast in shades of gray. Hagen recorded the song as the lead singer in a band called Automobil. Later she joined Fritzens Dampferband, where she continued her rise to stardom with the hit “Wir tanzen Tango” (We dance the Tango), and the remarkably silly, “Hatschi Waldera.”

Things were looking up for Hagen, then her step-father, folksinger Wolf Biermann, was expatriated for his outspoken criticisms of the East German bureaucracy. His wife—Nina’s mother—was the popular film star, Eva-Maria Hagen. She applied for permission to join her husband in the west and it was granted. Nina decided to follow suit. At first the SED balked at letting her join her parents, but when she let them know that if she wasn’t allowed to emigrate, she would become the next Wolf Biermann they quickly changed their minds.

Arriving in West Germany, her agent did something very smart. He told her go to London to see what was happening in rock’n’roll. The year was 1976, and punk was in full bloom. Nina met and became friends with many British musicians, most notably Lena Lovich, who was a big influence on Hagen’s style. Hagen returned to West Germany in 1977 with a whole new look and sound, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today is Friday is the story of one important weekend in the life of Jutta, a young woman who thinks she might be pregnant. After going to the doctor, she is informed that because “Today is Friday,” she won’t know the results of her test until next Monday. This gives her a weekend to ruminate on the course she wants to take. What follows is lots of walking and talking in the interminable wait for Monday to come. Should she have an abortion of keep the baby? The film leans toward the latter, but remains as noncommittal as possible.1

Prior to Today is Friday, Hagen had appeared in an episode of the short-lived TV series, ABC der Liebe (ABCs of Love), and in the TV-movie, Heiraten/Weiblich (Married/Female). In both of these she played opposite her mother. Today is Friday was her first solo foray into film. She only appeared in a few DEFA films before heading west, but none of the other films focus on her to the same extent as Today is Friday does. She is the lead character in this film and she carries it all the way.

One of the more remarkable aspects of this film—one might even say shocking—is its lack of glamour. Hagen is presented as an utterly ordinary woman. She wears gingham shirts with butterfly collars, sweater vests, and the ugliest mommie jeans in the history of denim. Half the time she walks around with a knit cap pulled down over her head. This is not Nina the glamorpuss, it’s Nina the schlub. Nonetheless, the camera likes Hagen. The film rarely takes its focus off her and follows her movements as if fixated on her, sometimes, peeking in from other rooms to watch her.

Nina Hagen

It is this camerawork that is the most interesting aspect of the movie. Mostly handheld, the camera follows Hagen around in the cinema verité style popular with Cassavetes and the early French New Wave (whose films also often shared the obsession with their leading ladies). At times it feels like a documentary. Whether this is because of cinematographer Roland Dressel or the director, Klaus Gendries, is hard to say. Dressel was also responsible for the excellent cinematography in Jadup and Boel, and The Bicycle. Before he became a cinematographer, he worked as an assistant cameraman on a variety of East German films, including the classic Hot Summer, and Konrad Wolf’s first film, Einmal ist Keinmal (Once Doesn’t Count). This wide variety of films helped make Dressel an extremely versatile cinematographer, adapting his style to match the story. Unlike some cinematographers whose work is obvious no matter who’s directing (Gordon Willis immediately comes to mind) Dressel has no signature style, although his work in Jadup and Boel stands out for its unique style in the flashback scenes.

Likewise, Gendries seemed less concerned with branding himself as an auteur than getting good performances out of his actors. This isn’t surprising since Gendries got his start at DEFA as an actor, appearing in films such as The Baldheaded Gang and The Second Track. In the GDR, directors were mostly assigned to work at either DEFA or its television equivalent, DFF (Deutscher Fernsehfunk). Klaus Gendries was one of those assigned to DFF, so most of his work appears in the form of made-for-TV movies. He started directing in theater in the fifties, and moved to television in 1963 with the TV-movie version of Guy de Maupassant’s, Der Morin – Das Schwein (That Pig of a Morin). He scored a big hit with Florentiner 73, a comedy about a young pregnant woman dealing with her a living situation and quirky neighbors. Florentiner 73 starred his wife, Edda Dentges. The TV-movie was so popular that it spawned a sequel, Neues aus der Florentiner 73 (News from Florentiner 73). He also helmed the popular TV mini-series, Aber Vati! (But Dad!).

Gendries work in television served him well after the Wende. Unlike many of his DEFA counterparts he made the transition from East German television to unified German television. He hasn’t had as many opportunities to make TV movies, but he has worked on many popular television series, including Der Bergdoktor, Für alle Fälle Stefanie, and In aller Freundschaft. He retired from filmmaking in 2000, but continues to direct stage productions.

Ironically, the theme song for Today is Friday is not sung by Nina Hagen, but by Veronika Fischer. Veronika Fischer was the most popular female rock singer in East Germany. She had several hits in East Germany and appeared in the film, DEFA-Disko 77. Like Hagen before her, Veronika Fischer immigrated to West Berlin before the wall came down. Unlike Hagen, however, she did not take advantage of the situation to reinvent herself and found little success in the west. It was only after the Wende, when she could return to the former East German states that her career was revived. She is still popular in the eastern states and continues to release albums.

The theme song was written by Michael Heubach, who wrote the music for “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” and other songs that Nina Hagen made popular. Heubach was a founding member of Hagen’s first band, Automobil. When she decided to move on, Heubach disbanded Automobil and joined Lift, one of East Germany’s few art rock bands. Heubach had several hits in the GDR, but none since reunification. He continues to write music and work as a music producer.

Today is Friday is charming enough, but the fact it is black-and-white and consists mostly of people discussing the pregnancy issue make it an unlikely candidate for subtitling anytime soon. Nonetheless, any fan of Nina Hagen is going to want to add this film to their collection.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


1. Abortion was legal in East Germany, but, as in the west, it was still controversial. East Germany’s version of Roe v. Wade (Gesetz über die Unterbrechung der Schwangerschaft) was passed in 1972, giving women the right to choose abortion without requiring a medical reason. The passing of this law was the only time that that the People’s Chamber (Volkskammer) did not vote unanimously on a law’s passage (the only other time they split their vote was the election Egon Krenz as the GDR’s leader right before the Wall came down). West Germany wouldn’t follow suit for another four years, and even then only after two years of court challenges and legal wrangling.

One of the joys of East German cinema is watching the way film and reality smack into each other. The DEFA Library at UMass in Amherst just released as perfect an example of this as anyone could wish for. The Flight (Die Flucht) is the story of Dr. Schmith, a medical researcher who is torn between staying in East Germany and fleeing to the west. He initially decides to leave the GDR after the review board where he works rejects his proposal for work on premature-birth infant mortality. He enlists the aid of an agency that helps people get out the country, but later, when the review board reverses its decision, the doctor has a change of heart. He tries to back out of the deal, but finds the people with whom he arranged the escape are unwilling to let him out of his contract. To compound matters, he begins a relationship with a young woman who was recently transferred to his hospital. He wants her to join him, but can’t bring himself to tell her about his defection plans.

Considering the touchy nature of the subject matter, and the often touchy disposition of the DEFA approval board, the fact that Roland Gräf was able to get this film made at all, much less shown in theaters, is a a bit of a magic trick. One misstep and this film would have ended up on a shelf until the wall came down. Gräf’s deft (some would say politick) handling of the subject matter is the secret.

Of course, the story is told from a strictly East German perspective. Some aspects of this film may seem absurd to western audiences. The people helping Schmith to escape are an evil, money-driven bunch, while the Stasi agent that questions Schmith about the attempted defection of a colleague of his is portrayed as an easy-going, jovial sort of chap. Like Manfred Herrfurth in Konrad Wolf’s Divided Heaven, Schmith’s decision to go to the west is based on his frustration at being rejected (in other words, his own ego). In both films, the initial rejection is eventually rescinded, suggesting that, in the end, the authorities will do the right thing.

The film stars Armin Mueller-Stahl, who, by the time this film was made, had already starred in some of DEFA’s best films, including Five Cartridges (Fünf Patronenhülsen), Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers), Naked Among Wolves, Her Third, and Jakob the Liar. After Wolf Biermann’s forced expatriation in 1976, Mueller-Stahl, along with many other leading actors, writers, and directors in East Germany, signed a petition protesting this action. Most of the people on the list—a list that included Frank Beyer, Angelica Domröse, Jutta Hoffmann, and Manfred Krug—found themselves blacklisted by DEFA. Mueller-Stahl made one more made-for-TV film (Geschlossene Gesellschaft) before his request for an exit visa was granted and he moved to the west. In West Germany, Mueller-Stahl quickly reestablished himself as a popular actor, drawing critical praise for his performances in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Lola and Veronika Voss. This led to a starring  role opposite Jessica Lange in Costa-Gavras’s Music Box, which in turn led to other roles in American films. In 1997, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Shine, and in 2011 he was given a Golden Bear lifetime achievement award at the Berlinale Film Festival, for which he received a three-minute standing ovation.

Of course, there is no way that Roland Gräf or anyone at DEFA could have known that Armin Mueller-Stahl would leave the country so soon after The Flight was made. The fact that he had already applied for his exit visa when it was being shot adds an ironic depth to some scenes, particularly the ones where the patriotism of people who leave the GDR is being discussed.

Playing his love interest in the film is Jenny Gröllmann at her most adorable. Gröllmann was a successful film and theater actress in East Germany, appearing in several feature films and TV movies. During the sixties, she primarily concentrated on her theater career, appearing in several productions at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin. In film, she attracted critical praise right from the start with her performance in the anthology film, Geschichten jener Nacht (Stories of That Night). She received further praise for her role as the frightened German girl in Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. After the Wende, Gröllmann continued to work, primarily in television, appearing in nearly every major show on German TV. In 2001, the weekly magazine SUPERillu published excerpts from the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives 522-page report that claimed Ms. Gröllmann had been a Stasi informer (IM). Her ex-husband, Ulrich Mühe, repeated these claims in a book he published after his star turn in The Lives of Others. Ms. Gröllmann went to court to stop these  allegations, stating under oath that she never knowingly worked for the Stasi. The court found in favor of Ms. Gröllmann and the offending passages were blacked-out in copies of Mühe’s book. Jenny Gröllmann  died of breast cancer in 2006.

At the time he made this movie, director Roland Gräf was ending a career as one of East Germany’s most respected cinematographers. He first made waves in the film community with his work on Jürgen Böttcher’s Born in ‘45 (but only in the film community—the film was banned before the public got a chance to see it). He began his career as a director in 1971 with Mein lieber Robinson (My Friend Robinson), which he also co-wrote and photographed. Also, it was Roland Gräf who discovered the long-lost copy of The Dove on the Roof, thus saving that film from destruction. As a cinematographer he was known for his cinema verité style, making the films he worked on seem almost like documentaries. Although The Flight is very much a dramatic film, we can see some of his love of realistic environments here, especially in the scenes in the premmie ward, which seem to have been filmed in an actual hospital.

The music is by the jazz musician, Gunther Fischer. The credits list the music in this film as being “based on motifs by Mussorgsky,” but there is more than a little Morricone in mournful whistling of the theme song. By the time this film was made, Fischer was well on his way to become the second most prodigious film composer in East Germany (first place going to classical composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse). A few years after this film was made, Fischer would go on to score his biggest success as a composer with the hit movie, Solo Sunny.

As one can imagine, a DEFA film that openly addressed such a taboo subject proved to be very popular, both publicly and critically. It won the Grand Prix at the Karoly Vary International Film Festival in 1978, and the Association of Film and Television Workers in the GDR chose it as the best contemporary film (Gegenwartsfilm) of 1977. Critics on both sides of the Iron Curtain thought the film did a good job of addressing some of the reasons for people wanting to leave the GDR, although western critics, predictably found the film’s resolution of these issues unsatisfactory. In spite of these objections, the film stands as a rare glimpse into the feelings and perceptions of both the authorities and the people of East Germany when it came to the subject of Republikflucht, and is not to be missed by anyone interested in that country’s history.

 

IMDB page for this film.

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In 1977, disco fever swept the world. The Bee Gees—formerly a Beatles-influenced band—had reinvented themselves as the kings of the nightlife, John Travolta was teaching people how to dance, and skin-tight polyester shirts were flying off the shelves. In West Berlin, an Italian music producer named Giorgio Moroder met an American singer named Donna Summer and reinvented the disco sound with the hypnotic classic “I Feel Love.” Meanwhile, in East Germany, that same year saw the release of DEFA Disko 77, but don’t let the title fool you, this film has more in common with Godspell than Saturday Night Fever.

The premise was simple: popular East German musicians meet up at the DEFA studios and sing their songs. Each number starts with a black-and-white sequence that shows the various musicians wandering through the backlots of DEFA, or preparing for the numbers they are about to sing. In the first sequence, for example, the popular East German singer, Veronika Fischer, is seen being made up before the video while one of her bandmates tries unsuccessfully to start their tour bus. This is followed by her song, “Und wer bist du (Ich bin die Fischer …)” (“And who are you? (I am the Fisher)”), The singer and her band are shown taking a horse-drawn carriage to their destination, but during the video, the camera pulls back, revealing that the band is not really doing any of the things they are shown doing, but rather performing in a music video. This recursive breaking of the fourth wall occurs throughout the film as if to say, “We are lying to you, and you know we are lying to you; but we know that you know that we are lying to you, so let it be.”

In between the musical numbers comedy skits, à la Laugh-In are performed on minimal sets with black backgrounds. About halfway through the film, the songs are interrupted by a longer comedy routine starring Rolf Herricht and Hans Joachim Preil. Herricht and Preil, both successful actors in the GDR, also were one of East Germany’s best-loved comedy duos and here they get to show their stuff in a slightly risque little number about a newly-married man and his randy friend. It is silly, and similar in tone and style to something you might see on an American TV show in the seventies such as The Love Boat or Love, American Style.

One of the more interesting musical numbers occurs shortly before the Herricht and Preil sketch. It is the comedy folk-singer and lyricist, Kurt Demmler singing his song, “Verse auf sex Beinen” (loosely translated: “A few lines about sex”). Scenes of Demmler sitting on a stool and strumming a guitar are interspersed with scenes of a marionette performing a striptease and very quickly edited (and artfully photographed) shots of a naked woman.

Demmler had made a name for himself writing lyrics for nearly every major group or singer in East Germany, including those in this movie. He is reported to have written the lyrics for over 10,000 songs. To his credit, he was one of the people who signed the protest note against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, but unlike most of the people who signed it, he wasn’t blacklisted for doing so; perhaps because by that time, banning any song that Kurt Demmler had a hand in writing would have left the country virtually silent. Later, in September of 1989, he was also one of the many musicians in the GDR to sign the Rock Musician and Songwriter Resolution (Resolution von Rockmusikern und Liedermachern), a petition calling for changes in the East German government.

It is a little ironic that Demmler is singing in this film about sex, since it was sex that proved to be his downfall. In 2009, Demmler was charged with the sexual molestation of six young girls who had auditioned with him for a group he was reportedly putting together. The indictment further charged him with 212 cases of sexual molestation of girls between the ages of 10 and 14. This wasn’t the first time that Demmler had been charged with sexual molestation. In 2002, he was fined 1,800 Euros in a similar case. While awaiting trial on the charges, Demmler hanged himself in his jail cell.

Many of the musical sequences in DEFA Disko 77 are remarkably—perhaps even aggressively—ill-designed. Putting a tomboy like Chris Doerk in a frilly outfit from the late 1800s just doesn’t work. Shots of her singing her song, “Käfertango” (“Beetle Tango”) are intercut with shots of (what else?) Beetles. Equally ill-conceived is the Reinhard Lakomy video of his song, “Liebe im Wald” (“Love in the Forest”). Lakomy, with his denim outfit, Prell-girl hair, oval shades, and droopy moustache was the perfect East German hipster circa 1977. His appearance was so readily identifiable that Nina Hagen once parodied him on East German television. In the video we see Lakomy, in his usual garb, trying to seduce a woman dressed like Marie Antoinette. Why she is dressed like this is never explained. The action in the video follows the song lyrics and is amusing, but it’s not one of Lakomy’s better tunes.

The most curious aspect of DEFA Disko 77 is how aggressively cluttered and ill-composed each musical sequence is. Scenes are filled with gantries, light poles, desks, and stagehands. In the video for the rock group Karat’s song, “Charlie,” a complex dance number is made nearly unwatchable by the camera’s constant movement around the perimeter of room. As the camera circles, dozens of people working at desks obscure the view. The end result looks like it was shot from the perspective of a small child trying to catch a glimpse of a parade between the legs of the adults. To make matters worse, the band performs on a balcony three floors up while the camera stays at ground level, constantly circling around the building, as if trying to figure out where the music is coming from. Still, this is the only video in which a couple is actually dressed as if they are going to a disco. Everyone else on the dance floor, however, is dressed in a crazy variety of outfits, including some that look suspiciously like the spacesuits from In the Dust of the Stars.

Responsibility for this film’s maddeningly anti-aesthetic appearance has to be laid at the feet of Werner W. Wallroth, the same director who gave us, the Gojko Mitic/Dean Reed Indianerfilm, Blood Brothers. Wallroth, by 1977, had made a dozen movies for cinema and television, so we can assume that he was intentionally avoiding traditional aesthetics, perhaps in an attempt to create a more spontaneous look and feel. Whether he succeeds or not is up to the viewer, but he is clearly throwing out a lot of the rules of traditional filmmaking. Nearly every musical number in this film is approached from a contrarian’s perspective. Angelika Mann’s song “Bei den sieben Zwergen” (“With the Seven Dwarves”), for instance, takes the Snow White story of the Brothers Grimm and inverts it with Snow White substantially shorter than any of the so-called dwarves.

Conspicuous by their absence from the film are Nina Hagen and the rock band, Renft. Nina Hagen had left the country a few months before the film was released. A year earlier, her step-father, Wolf Biermann, was singing at a concert in Cologne when the GDR officials let it be known that he was not welcome back into the GDR (Biermann had been born in Hamburg, so he was, by birth, a West German). Although very much a socialist, his songs attacking the stagnation occurring in the upper ranks of the SED were seen as a threat to the authorities. Biermann’s wife, the popular East German actress, Eva-Marie Hagen, and her daughter Nina petitioned to be allowed to join Biermann in the west. Nina let it be know that if not allowed to join him, she would replace him as the voice of protest in the GDR. After some hemming and hawing, the authorities finally agreed to let the two woman leave the country. By 1977, the young Nina was already one of the GDR’s most successful singers. Back then, she was cute as a button and tended to sing novelty songs about sneezing and tango dancing. Her most famous song from this period was “Du has dein Farbfilm vergessen” (“You forgot the color film”), sung from the perspective of a woman who is really, really pissed at her boyfriend (husband?) for using black-and-white film during their vacation.

Renft, on the other hand, had been banned before the Biermann debacle. The band, led by singer/bass guitarist Klaus Renft, was one of the better rock bands in the GDR, but their lyrics, mostly penned by singer Gerulf Pannach, often ran afoul of the authorities with their challenges to the status quo. Finally, in 1975, the government decided to solve the problem by erasing all evidence that the band ever existed. Renft LPs were removed from stores and from playlists, both past and present. Two of the members were imprisoned for nine months at the infamous Stasi prison in Alt-Hohenschönhausen. This tactic did succeed in breaking up the band (temporarily), but did little to diminish interest in them. If anything, it turned them into icons of change and challenge, and gave them a cult underground following. The verboten Renft LPs became highly sought after items on the East German black market. After the Wende, the band got back together. Since that time, several of the original members (including Klaus Renft) have died, but the band continues to perform.

But the biggest star missing from the DEFA Disko 77 line-up is Frank Schöbel. Schöbel was on top of the pops in 1977, but for whatever reason (perhaps some reader can enlighten me) he does not appear in this film. His ex-wife, Chris Doerk, is here, along with Dorit Gäbler, who appeared with Doerk and Schöbel in Nicht schummeln, Liebling: the follow-up to Hot Summer, and their last feature film together. This was around the time that Schöbel and Doerk broke up, so perhaps that was a factor in his absence from this film.

In a way, DEFA Disko 77 works as a metaphor for the state of East Germany in 1977. The film starts with punchy rock numbers that, while not really disco, come closer to fulfilling the film’s title than the later numbers. By the final sequence, the film has drifted so far from the stated goal that it must have left audiences confused. The introductory black-and-white sequences are often shot with hand-held cameras from behind balcony railings, and around corners. These scenes, reminiscent of surveillance videos, make it look like the camera is spying on the performers and can’t help but make one think of the Stasi, who undoubtedly were busy making similar videos of everyone involved with this film at that time. It is hard to believe that this is unintentional, but it is handled so innocuously that it got by the censors.

The final number is the most telling of all. To close out things, the filmmakers chose a song by Dorit Gäbler and Wolfgang Wallroth titled “Es wird bald Frühling sein” (“It will be spring soon”). Musically, this is a fairly standard German schlager, so why was this song chosen to close the movie? The fact that Wolfgang Wallroth was the director’s brother might have had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, it leaves the movie in a strange place. Finishing things in a downward arc that takes us from an experimental beginning to traditional German music at the end, as if to say, this is the path we’re taking as we march forward into the past. The song talks about how things are about to get better, but the visual information belies this sentiment. The duo sings in a house where all the snow is falling on the inside, trapping them in a wintry world. Later, we see the same duo, now hobos, walking along the train tracks, still chipper, but poorer. Interspersed throughout the video is scene in a junkyard that is slowly being covered with vinyl stick-on flowers. No matter how many flowers are added to the landscape, we never escape the fact that it is still a junkyard. Was the director trying to tell us something? Unfortunately, we may ever know. Werner W. Wallroth died a few months ago (August 9, 2011) in Erfurt.

Two months after DEFA Disko 77 played in the East German movie houses, The TV show Disco ‘77 aired in the United States. Disco ‘77 was the first nationally syndicated show devoted to disco music and was hosted by Randy Jones, better known as the cowboy from The Village People. Any similarity between the East German film and the American TV show, though, is not merely coincidental—it is non-existent.

IMDB page for film.

DEFA Disko 77 is not currently available in the United States.