Archive for the ‘Wolfgang Kohlhaase’ Category

Mama, ich lebe
Occasionally, East Germany’s film studio DEFA worked with production companies from other countries. This gave those countries access to the Babelsberg film studios, which were some of the best in Europe, and it allowed DEFA to provide a better variety of films to the East German public. With many of these films, the influence of what we’d call the DEFA style is minimized. The Crucible, for instance, is essentially a French film, and Five Days, Five Nights follows the socialist realist style of Soviet Union cinema more closely than the more objective style popular with East German filmmakers. DEFA partnered with, the USSR on fourteen films, and most of these look and feel like Soviet films. Two notable exceptions are the two directed by Konrad Wolf—Goya, and Mama, I’m Alive (Mama, ich lebe). Perhaps this is because, unlike most of his comrades at DEFA, Wolf spoke Russian at least as well as he spoke German, so he could express exactly what he was after without resorting to intermediaries, or perhaps he was more sure of his artistic vision than most.

Mama, I’m Alive is very much a Konrad Wolf film. It starts with a photograph of four German soldiers dressed in Red Army outfits, which provokes questions about the people in it. Who are they? What are their stories? The film answers these questions as it follows the exploits of the four German soldiers who decide to join the Red Army and are sent back into battle. As they prepare for their new roles, we are shown glimpses of the backstories of each man in flashbacks. Karl Koralewski (Eberhard Kirchberg) is an artist and seems to be the most self-assured. Helmuth Kuschke (Detlef Gieß) is a theology student, which leads to some interesting discussions on religion and socialism. Walter Pankonin (Uwe Zerbe) is a carpenter who is the quietest of the bunch, and a pacifist. When captured by the Soviets, he admits to having never shot at anyone. More than the others, he seems to know what he is and is not willing to do in the name of war. Perhaps this is the reason Red Army soldier Svetlana (Margarita Terekhova) falls in love with him. The fourth soldier is Günther Becker (Peter Prager) is a young pilot, straight out of school who is still trying to figure things out. Becker serves as the focal point for the story.

Mama, I'm Alive

All four men believe in the socialist cause to varying degrees and hate what Hitler is doing in the name of Germany, but when they get to the front, they discover that saying you want to fight for the communist cause, and actually shooting your fellow countrymen are two very different things. Wolf touched on some of these themes in his previous film, I Was Nineteen, but this time it is from the perspective of people who, unlike Gregor Hecker in that film (or Wolf himself), did not leave Germany at a young age. They are not returning to a land that is alien to them, but to their homes. When they look at German soldiers, they see themselves. In one scene, the four men encounter a boxcar filled with German soldiers being shipped off to a prison camp. Koralewski’s attempts to engage them fall on deaf ears. They neither know nor trust him. He runs after the train, trying to toss potatoes to the hungry men in the boxcar, but it is a futile gesture, accomplishing little.

Director Konrad Wolf shows his usual skill here, keeping the rhythm of the film moving forward with a mix of close-ups and long shots. Partly this is thanks to his cinematographer, Walter Bergmann. Wolf had used Bergmann on every film he made up to that point, but this would be their last film together. Bergmann continued to work and even directed from time to time. Bergmann had lost his right arm to shrapnel during World War II, which makes his success as a cameraman all the more impressive. He also taught at the film school in Babelsberg and was one of the creators of Greif zur Kamera, Kumpel! (Grab Your Camera, Buddy!), an East German TV show intended to encourage amateur photography and moviemaking.

train from Mama, ich lebe

The screenplay is by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who is certainly no stranger to this blog, having written screenplays for such classics as Berlin Schönhauser Corner, The Gleiwitz Case, I Was Nineteen, and Solo Sunny. The film is based on Fragen an ein Foto (Questions About a Photo), a radio play by Kohlhaase that aired in 1969. As with most of Kohlhaase’s work, there is a focus on the subtleties of language, and their effects on our ability to communicate with each other. This time he moves outside of his usual Berlin sphere to tackle the problems of communicating across two different languages and the effects the ways cultural differences can impede the exchange of ideas. This was Kohlhaase’s third film working with Konrad Wolf, but it wouldn’t be his last. The duo would work together again on Solo Sunny, possibly their best effort as a team.

The four soldiers, Becker, Pankonin, Koralewski, and Kuschke are played by Peter Prager, Uwe Zerbe, Eberhard Kirchberg, and Detlef Gieß respectively. It was the first film for all four men and all four went on to successful careers in film and television. Prager and Kirchberg have appeared in dozens of films and television shows since the Wende, while Zerbe and Gieß have concentrated on stage acting.

Margarita Terechowa

Playing Pankonin’s love interest Svetlana is the popular Russian actor Margarita Terechowa. Two years before this film was made, Terechowa made an international splash in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. A year later, she starred with Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, and many other A-list Hollywood movie stars in George Cukor’s The Blue Bird, the only joint U.S. and Soviet film production, and a film so misbegotten that it ranks in the annals of cinema as one of the worst movies ever made.

The film was submitted to the Berlinale, and was nominated for Golden Bear. It didn’t win (the great Russian film, The Ascent won), but it did win a special mention with the Interfilm Award.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (no subtitles).

Alarm im Zirkur
In 1954, a young director named Gerhard Klein teamed up with an even younger screenwriter named Wolfgang Kohlhaase, and the world of East German cinema would never be the same. The duo would go on do several films together over the years, but Alarm at the Circus (Alarm im Zirkus) was their first. At a time when most DEFA films were concentrating on putting forth a strong pro-socialist message, sometimes to the detriment of the story, Klein and Kohlhaase’s film puts the story first. That’s not to say the film is apolitical. It makes a point of showing how a capitalist system’s lack of career opportunities for the underprivileged can lead to crime, but that message never interferes with the action, and helps provide motivation for some of the film’s shadier characters.

The film follows the adventures of Max and Klaus, two poor kids in West Berlin who dream of becoming boxers. To get money to buy boxing gloves, the boys sell things they find, and do odd jobs for Klott, a bar owner in West Berlin who uses the bar as his base of operations for illegal activities. After a trip to the Barlay Circus in East Berlin, the boys stumble on a plot concocted by Klott and a U.S. soldier to steal horses from the Circus. When one of the boys tries to warn the West German police about the plot, they essentially tell him to get lost, so he goes to the Volkspolizei (literally “people’s police”—East Germany’s police force) who spring into action.

This wasn’t the first film from DEFA to examine the criminal underworld in Berlin. That honor belongs to Razzia. But Razzia was made by a West German director (Werner Klingler) who was only working for DEFA because the the U.S. military authority (OMGUS) was still restricting West German film production. In nearly every respect, Razzia is indistinguishable from the dozens of other “Krimi” films that Klingler would go on to make in the West. Alarm at the Circus, on the other hand, is East German right down to its roots. Kohlhaase and Klein were East Germans and proud of it. The heavies in this film are West Germans the and American soldiers who are orchestrating the crime.

Alarm at the Circus

Alarm at the Circus offered the realism that DEFA films demanded, but without the heroics normally associated with socialist realism. It is closer in style to Italian neo-realism, a fact that bothered the authorities at that time and would continue to bother them right up until the 1965, when the 11th Plenum put an end to that particular style of filmmaking at DEFA (truth be told, however, that style had already run its course in Italy years before). The fact that it is based on an actual event probably helped it get made.

Alarm at the Circus was the first of a trio of films—along with A Berlin Romance and Berlin Schönhauser Corner—that is usually referred to as the Berlin trilogy. In truth, it is part of a continuum. Klein and Kohlhaase’s later film, Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin Around the Corner), certainly fits in with the first three films the pair made, and would have made it a tetralogy had it not been banned after the 11th Plenum. Since Klein died in 1970 (see A Berlin Romance for more on Klein), we never got a chance to see more Berlin films by the duo, but Kohlhaase continued his explorations of the lives of the less privileged in Berlin with other directors, including Konrad Wolf (Solo Sunny) and Andreas Dresen (Summer in BerlinSommer vorm Balkon).

Wolfgang Kohlhaase was only twenty-two when he started writing scripts for DEFA. He wrote a few for the “Das Stacheltier” group that made short films to accompany the features, and a script for the children’s film Die Störenfriede (The Troublemakers). The following year, he joined forces with Gerhard Klein. Klein was a born and bred Berliner and was looking to make a film that reflected the reality of life in the city. He wanted to capture the rhythms and cadences of Berlin speech and actions. He found the perfect partner in Kohlhasse. Kohlhasse’s ear for Berlinerisch—that peculiar style of German used in Berlin—is especially acute, and he used it often (to best effect in Solo Sunny). Kohlhasse continues to write screenplays, most recently for Andreas Dresen’s As We Were Dreaming (Als wir träumten), based on Clemens Meyer’s controversial novel.

Max and Klaus

The actors who played Max and Klaus, were not picked from the usual acting roster, but chosen from a home for troubled youths. Klein gets remarkably good performances out of these novice actors. For Hans Winter, who played Klaus, this would be his only film, but Ernst-Georg Schwill, who played Max, decided that he liked working in the movies, and began training as a cameraman, later returning to acting and appearing in all three of Klein’s Berlin trilogy films, as well as roles in Five Cartridges, Close to the Wind, Motoring Tales, and many others. After the Wende, he experienced less neglect than some other East German actors. Film and television companies were always looking for people to play supporting roles, and Schwill was quick to admit that he was character actor, not a star. It wasn’t long before he was busy acting again, appearing on TV and in films regularly, most recently in Andreas Schap’s Das letzte Abteil (The Last Department).

The Barlay Circus (Zirkus Barlay) was a real circus, located at Friedrichstraße 107, the current site of the Friedrichstadt Palast. The circus was founded in 1935, when Reinhold Kwasnik, who used the stage name Harry Barlay, bought a bankrupt circus and made it his own. When Kwasnik fled to West Germany, the circus was taken over by the state. After a couple name changes, it was eventually consolidated with other East German circuses as the Staatszirkus der DDR (State Circus of the GDR). With reunification of Germany, the State Circus was broken up, and the circus that was once the Barlay Circus ended life the same way it began: with bankruptcy.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film (German, no subtitles).

Leichensache Zernik

Like Fritz Lang’s M and Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam), Murder Case Zernik continues the fine tradition of German films about serial killers. This one adds a uniquely East German twist to the concept: The killer’s motives aren’t based on the usual psycho-sexual impulses but on capitalist greed. He kills for profit not lust. We know right from the start who the killer is, We are there when he strangles Katharina Zernik, then pours acid on her face to hamper identification. The question is whether the police will be able to bring him to justice and how.

This is a police procedural with a difference. As the police investigate the murder, they find their progress on the case continually stymied by the authorities in the Allied sectors (the Americans in particular, not surprisingly). Access to information is blocked, and false information is published to make the East German police look bad. Neverless, criminal investigator Stügner and his upstanding if somewhat undernourished assistant, Horst Kramm, work hard to figure out who killed Katharina Zernik.

The story takes place in 1948, which serves as an important plot point. The summer of 1948 was a tumultuous time in Berlin. On June 21st of that year, a new Deutschmark was introduced to the western sectors, followed a couple days later by the “B-mark”—a version of the currency specifically intended for use in the western sectors of Berlin. Not happy with this (particularly since it went directly against the agreement that the Allies and the Soviets had signed), the Berlin blockade began. Then in August, while West Berlin’s provisional governor, Louise Schroeder, was being treated for health problems, her stand-in, Christian Democrat Ferdinand Friedenburg, canned the chief of police, Paul Markgraf, because he was a member of East Germany’s SED party. From here on out there would be no cooperation between East and West Berlin. All of this plays into the movie’s plot as the killer bounces back forth across the border with impunity. The film uses historical footage to add to the drama.

Leichensache Zernik

The film’s production got off to a rocky start when director Gerhard Klein fell ill and died. The film sat on a shelf while Mr. Klein’s assistant director Helmut Nitzschke wrangled for permission to finish the movie. Mr. Nitzschke eventually was granted permission and the film was completed two years later. Mr. Nitzschke is an able craftsman, and the finished film is a good, uniquely East German Krimi. It didn’t hurt that it was written by the always reliable Wolfgang Kohlhaase. It is reportedly based on the personal recollections of people who worked as police at the time—more, I suspect, as a jumping off point than any kind of dramatization of actual events.

Leichensache Zernik

Director Helmut Nitzschke had some big shoes to fill when he took over from Gerhard Klein. Mr. Klein, after all, is the man who gave us such classics as A Berlin Romance, The Gleiwitz Case, and Berlin Schönhauser Corner. Gerhard Klein had a style like no other; both gritty and cinematic. Mr. Nitzschke had worked with Gerhard Klein before. This proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Mr. Nitzschke was assistant director on Klein’s Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin, Around the Corner), which was one of the films banned after the 11th Plenum.

It would be a few years before Mr. Nitzschke had a chance to demonstrate his talent at DEFA again, starting in 1969 with Nebelnacht (Foggy Night), a Krimi based on Heiner Rank’s crime fiction of the same name. After Murder Case Zernik, Mr. Nitzschke made Das Licht auf dem Galgen (The Light on the Gallows), an historical drama based on the novel by Anna Seghers. In spite of good reviews and and an endorsement from Ms. Seghers, the film bombed at the the box office. After that, he wrote and directed a couple episodes of the popular cop show, Polizeiruf 110, but little else. Some of this may be due his highly active participation in the Christian church. More recently, he has been a strong advocate for Quan-Yin, a method of meditation created by Suma Ching Hai, the Vietnamese/Chinese spiritual leader who popped up in the news after her followers donated $600,000 to President Clinton’s legal defense fund during the Lewinski case. Mr. Nitzschke is married to Heidemarie Wenzel, star of The Dove on the Roof and The Legend of Paul and Paula.

Playing the rookie detective Kramm is Alexander Lang. As with many other East German actors, Mr. Lang got his start in theater, working at first as a stagehand and eventually moving onto the boards. He is best known to western audiences as Ralph, Sunny’s cavalier love interest in Solo Sunny and as Latte in Frank Vogel’s Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry. During the eighties, he directed a couple of TV movies for DFF, but he primarily concentrated on directing plays as the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. After the Wende, Mr. Lang continued his career as a theater director, as well as an occasional appearance in front of the footlights, but he has appeared in no more films since the fall of the wall.

Leichensache Zernik

 

The killer, Erwin Retzmann, is played by Gert Gütschow, whose work was usually restricted to secondary roles. To and fan of East German cinema, his face is immediately recognizable, having appeared in such films as Till Eulenspiegel, Jadup and Boel, and Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens. After the Wende, he appeared in a few films and TV movies, and a recurring role as Dr. Keller on the popular TV hospital drama In aller Freundschaft. He continues to appear on stage, and often works in radio and as a voice talent for dubbing.

Kurt Böwe plays Inspector Stügner—a role he could do in his sleep. Whenever a DEFA film called for a kind but firm police official, you can bet Kurt Böwe’s name was near the top of the list of possible choices. Mr. Böwe came from the stage and began his on-screen acting with television in the sixties. He appeared in smaller roles in various feature films during this period, but it was his role as the idealistic sculptor Herbert Kemmel in Konrad Wolf’s Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (The Naked Man in the Stadium) that brought him to the public’s attention. From then on he appeared in several more feature films, most notably, Jadup and Boel. Having already been active in television during the GDR years, the Wende had little effect on him. He continued working in television playing Kommissar Kurt Groth on the popular police series Polizeiruf 110. He died in Berlin in 2000. His daughters, Susanne and Winnie have gone on to become successful actors in their own right.

Leichensache Zernik

It didn’t hurt that the technical crew for this film included cinematographer Claus Neumann, Composer Hans-Dieter Hosalla, and editor, Evelyn Carow—three of DEFA’s most talented technicians in their respective fields. Nor did it hurt that the supporting cast included the talents of Rolf Hoppe, Lissy Tempelhof, Käthe Reichel, and Agnes Kraus.

Krimis are always popular with the public and this film is no exception. It is too bad that Helmut Nitzschke’s output is so meager. Had he made more films, perhaps the followers of the auteur approach to film studies might have had something to hang their hat on. Instead he is ignored and is one of the few directors on the German Wikipedia list of DEFA films who has no page of his own. I hope this doesn’t translate into Murder Case Zernik being overlooked. It is an interesting and unusual thriller that deserves more attention.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the films (part of a German-only set that includes Razzia and four other films).

A Berlin Romance

A Berlin Romance (Eine Berliner Romanze) is the second of three films sometimes referred to as the “Berlin Trilogy.” These three features represent the first movies by the team of Gerhard Klein and Wolfgang Kohlhasse. They have very little in common except that they all take place in Berlin. The first of the three, Alarm at the Circus, is a thriller. and the third, Berlin – Schönhauser Corner, is a juvenile delinquent film.

A Berlin Romance is, as the name suggests, a romance. It follows the adventures of Uschi, a young woman from the eastern side of the city who falls in love with a poor young man on the western side. Uschi works as a model at a large department store in East Berlin, where she models clothing for customers. In the evening, she likes to visit West Berlin and window shop. There she meets, Lord, a shady young hipster who wears a noisy transistor radio around his neck like a rapper’s gold chain. Lord proceeds to woo Uschi, but his efforts are thwarted by Hans, a young schlemiel who is lovestruck by Uschi the moment he sees her. At first, Hans’ efforts to impress Uschi have the opposite effect, and it looks like their romance won’t get off the ground, but Hans is nothing if not persistent, and he ready to help Uschi with her dream of attending modeling school in West Berlin.

A Berlin Romance is a sharply drawn portrait of life in Berlin during the mid-fifties. This was the time of the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle), when American money poured into the country to help rebuild its economy and infrastructure. Told from the East German perspective, this influx of cash only benefited the rich, who were as indifferent to the problems of the working class as ever. People in need of work were exploited in dangerous situations to help keep the wealthy living in the luxury to which they had grown accustomed. Job security was not an option, and people lost their jobs at the drop of a hat.

Part of the fun of this film is in its use of details—the way the transistor radio acts as both a lure and an irritant, the obnoxious American soldier at the bar, and the names of films at the cinema. In one scene, as Uschi, Hans, and Lord enter the cinema to see a film called Lockende Sünde (literally “alluring sin,” but translated in the subtitles as Temptation), and in another the camera pauses briefly on a poster for a movie titled Die kleine Stadt will schlafen geh’n—the city wants to sleep. Unlike Lockende Sünde, this is a real movie that gets its name from a song that was popular during the Third Reich, but Klein uses it nicely to take a dig at West Germany and the way it seemed to be ignoring the Nazi pasts of some government officials.  All of the Klein/Kohlhasse films are filled with these small details and benefit from repeated viewing to catch them. Some things seem to be intended exclusively for the amusement of Berliners, both East and West.

Annekathrin Bürger

Uschi is played by Annekathrin Bürger. It was her first feature film and the start of a long career. Putting the weight of an entire film on a nineteen-year-old novice actor was a risky proposition. Fortunately, Ms. Bürger is as talented as she is beautiful. She went on to star in dozens more DEFA films, including Star-Crossed Lovers, The Second Track, Hey You! and Hostess. Ms. Bürger continues to work in films, most recently appearing alongside fellow East German actor, Katrin Saß, in Kilian Riedhof’s Sein letztes Rennen (His Last Race).

Playing opposite her was Ulrich Thein. Mr. Thein had appeared in several films already, including Gerhard Klein’s Alarm im Zirkus and Hotelboy Ed Martin—an East German retelling of Albert Maltz’s popular play, Merry Go Round. He went on to appear in many DEFA classics, including Castles and Cottages, Five Cartridges, Star-Crossed Lovers, The Baldheaded Gang, and Anton the Magician. Like many DEFA actors, Mr. Thein’s background was in the theater. The son of an orchestra leader, he was an accomplished musician who also composed songs for several movies. In 1983, he starred in a miniseries about Martin Luther, then took on J.S. Bach in another miniseries a couple years later. As was too often the case after the Wende, Mr. Thein found it difficult to find work, He died in 1995.

Director Gerhard Klein came to DEFA with strong communist credentials. As a young man in Nazi Germany, he was a member of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany), and got himself arrested for this. After the war, he started working at DEFA as a screenwriter and helped start the children’s films unit of the studio. After making a few shorts and taking some assigned films, Klein finally got the opportunity to make the films he wanted to make. He was a fan of the Italian neo-realists and wanted to make films that reflected real lifer in East Germany without any pretenses. To do this, he needed a screenwriter with a keen ear for the way people actually talked. He found such a man in Wolfgang Kohlhasse, who was—and still is—the best writer of Berliner  dialog.

Any regular reader of this blog is already familiar with the screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase. He is the writer behind several DEFA classics, including The Second Track, I Was Nineteen, and Solo Sunny. Kohlhasse is an acute observer of human nature, and not afraid to explore the moral and logical conflicts and ambiguities that come with being alive on this planet. While many other East German screenwriters found it hard to find work in that field after the Wende, Kohlhasse never stopped working. Now in his eighties, he continues to spin tales for filmmakers. His work since the wall fell includes Volker Schlöndorff’s The Legend of Rita (Die Stille nach dem Schuß), and Andreas Dresen’s popular romantic comedy, Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon).

Gerhard Klein made three more films with Wolfgang Kohlhaase—The Gleiwitz Case, Sonntagsfahrer (Sunday Driver), and Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin Around the Corner). As its name suggests, Berlin um die Ecke was a return to the city they loved, but the film ended up on a shelf, banned after the 11th Plenum. In 1970, they started working on Murder Case Zernik, but Klein died ten days into filming. He was fifty years old. After sitting on a shelf for two years, Murder Case Zernik was eventually completed by Klein’s assistant, Helmut Nitzschke.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

In the mid-seventies, Wolfgang Kohlhaase—arguably the GDR’s best screenwriter—became friends with a talented young film reviewer named Jutta Voigt. Ms. Voigt met Kohlhaase at “Die Möwe” (The Seagull)—a popular Künstlerklub (art club), where film people and other artists met—and introduced him to an exotic social misfit named Sanije Torka. Torka was the daughter of Crimean Tatars working in Germany in 1944 (Ostarbeiters). At that time, the Third Reich did not allow Ostarbeiters to have children and Sanije was put up for adoption. Her jet-black hair and dark eyes automatically made her an outsider in Germany. She was a wild and headstrong little girl, and she bounced from foster home to orphanage to juvenile detention, raising Cain at every turn. She occasionally worked as an actress, appearing in bit parts in films. She also worked as a singer, although, by all accounts, she was a better actress than singer. Her headstrong ways often put her at odds with the rest of the world. Kohlhaase became fascinated with Torka, who seemed to defy the very nature of a socialist government, barely scraping by, doing things that were tolerated but not officially sanctioned. He listened carefully to her stories of growing up as an orphan in East Germany and turned her tale into the screenplay for Solo Sunny.

Solo Sunny is the story of Ingrid Sommer, nicknamed “Sunny.” Sunny is a modestly talented singer who tours Germany as part of a low-rent variety show. She is a free spirit, who is not afraid to call it like she sees it, and who sleeps with whomever she wants. When we first meet her, she is the lead singer for “The Tornados,” a jazz-pop band. The band’s saxophone player has the hots for Sunny, no doubt spurred on by her carefree attitude toward sex with strangers; but Sunny has no interest in him which leads, indirectly, to an altercation between the sax player and a bar patron. While his lip heals, the sax player is temporarily replaced by Ralph, a cynical philosopher with a penchant for western culture (which is sometimes code in DEFA films for an amoral person). Sunny falls for Ralph, which proves to be a bad idea, sending her into a self-destructive, downward spiral. After a feeble attempt to tow the line, Sunny comes to the realization that she is who she is, and that’s not going to change.

Around the same time as Kohlhaase was finishing his screenplay, Konrad Wolf was fishing around for a new film project. Deputy Minister of Culture Klaus Höpcke had expressed a desire for more stories that reflected everyday life in the GDR. Höpcke was one of the people responsible for the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, a move that resulted in a substantial talent drain from the ranks of DEFA. Now, in typical GDR fashion, he wanted to show that this move had nothing to do with repression. As long as a story didn’t directly challenge the state, nothing, they claimed, was off limits. When Kohlaase came along with his story of the untameable Sunny, Wolf was not sure at first if he was the man to film it. The film would be a major departure from anything he had done before and he knew it. At first he balked, but during a car ride from Potsdam to Berlin, he figured out what to do. He could not rely on techniques he used in the past. The film had to be new and it had to be different.

While some members of his film crew remained the same as in previous films—most notably, Evelyn Carow, and Alfred Hirschmeier—other old favorites were jettisoned for new blood. The most startling of all was Wolf’s decision not to use Werner Bergmann, the man who had filmed every Konrad Wolf film up to that point. Instead he chose Eberhard Geick, a newcomer at DEFA, whose only work up to that point had been a TV show and some shorts. Wolf felt that Geick—who lived in the Prenzlauer district where much of Solo Sunny was filmed—would have a better feel for the neighborhood. In another first, Wolf shared the directing credit with Kohlhaase.

While Solo Sunny is enjoyable to those who don’t speak German, it’s real treasures belong to those who do. Sunny’s speech is littered with slang and Berlinerisch. Her famous statement upon getting out of bed the morning after a romp with a stranger, “Is’ ohne Frühstück.” can be translated with some accuracy to: “I don’t do breakfast,” but her closing statement defies easy translation: “Ich würde es gern machen. Ich schlafe mit jemandem, wenn es mir Spaß macht. Ich nenne einen Eckenpinkler einen Eckenpinkler. Ich bin die, die bei den Tornados rausgeflogen ist. Ich heiße Sunny.”1 In fact, even on the U.S. DVD, the term Eckenpinkler (literally, “corner pisser”) ends up with two different translations (I went with “pig” in the footnote below, although I find it less than satisfactory).

The irrepressible Sunny was played by Renate Krößner. Krößner had been appearing in films since the mid-sixties, but it was her performance in Hener Carow’s Until Death Do Us Part (Bis daß der Tod euch scheidet) in 1979 that caught Konrad Wolf’s attention. Krößner’s unusual and expressive face was the draw for Wolf, even though Krößner had no training as a singer. Having lived in Berlin for many years, the dialect was no problem for her. In 1985, Krößner was allowed to leave East Germany with her longtime partner, Bernd Stegemann, whom she finally married in 2005. Since leaving the GDR, she has appeared in dozens of movies and television shows. She is best known in the states for playing the club owner in Daniel Levy’s Go for Zucker (Alles auf Zucker!)

One area where Konrad Wolf never showed much loyalty was in the music department. Unlike many western directors who tie themselves to specific composers (e.g., Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone), Wolf changed his composer with every film (I suspect that this is the main reason fans of the auteur theory have so much trouble pigeonholing his films). This time, the music was provided by Günther Fischer. Fischer got his start in feature films with the Gojko Mitic western Tecumseh, but it was his work on his next film, Eolomea, that really caught people’s attention. While other DEFA composers—most notably Karl-Ernst Sasse—came from the world of classical music, Fischer hailed from the jazz world. In the mid-sixties, he played saxophone and flute with the Klaus Lenz Band, forming his own band in 1968. Fischer was a prolific composer, who wrote the scores for no fewer than ten movies in 1978. Since the fall of the wall, most of his work has been in television. He currently lives in Ireland, and still performs with his band.

Nowhere in the film is Kohlhaase’s inspiration, Sanije Torka, mentioned. In the west, this would have been cause for a lawsuit, but in the east it was for Torka’s own safety. East German society was not noted for its hearty acceptance of non-conformists (unless, like the American singer, Dean Reed, they moved from right to left), and drawing attention to a born troublemaker like Torka in the GDR would have done her no favors. She might have been forgotten altogether if not for filmmaker Alexandra Czok, whose film, Solo für Sanije – Die wahre Geschichte der Solo Sunny (Solo for Sanije – The True Story of Solo Sunny), brings her story to light. The film portrays her as headstrong and individualistic as ever. At the time of filming, Torka was about start a two-year sentence for shoplifting. It is through her reminiscences in this film that we learn the full extent of Torka’s influence on the making of Solo Sunny.

The message of Solo Sunny seems to be that it is more important to stay true to yourself than the system—a message that seems to be in direct conflict with the perceived East German stance. This fact didn’t elude all the officials, but it did get past the important ones. By the time that the authorities decided that the film might actually be subversive, it was too late. It had made it to the west and was entered in the Berlinale, West Germany’s prestigious film festival. There it won the International Film Critics’ Award for best picture, and garnered a best actress honor for Renate Krößner. That same year, it won the Gold Plaque at the Chicago Film Festival. After that, there was nothing to do but let the film play. It went on to become one of the top-grossing films in East Germany; the country’s biggest box office hit since The Legend of Paul and Paula.

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1. Roughly: “I do what I want. I sleep with someone if I feel like it. I call a pig a pig. I’m the one The Tornados fired. I’m called Sunny.”

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.