Archive for the ‘Wolfgang Staudte’ Category

The Bridge 1949

The Bridge (Die Brücke) was a 1949 film made by DEFA about displaced persons at the end of WWII. It has little in common with Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 well-known film of the same name except its relative time frame. In this film, a group of evacuees in a resettlement encampment encounter hostility from the people in a nearby town; not because they are Jewish, or black, or even from another country, but because they are from a different town. The prejudice here is not racial or anti-Semitic, but parochial—roughly analogous to a group of Californians trying to resettle in Mississippi. Thrown into the mix is a relatively formulaic love triangle between the Mayor’s nephew, a girl from the resettlement camp, and a scheming pub owner who smokes way too much for her own good. The bridge of the title is a wooden footbridge between the resettlement camp and the village. After the bridge is sabotaged, resulting in the death of one of the camp’s leading figures, the two groups are cut off from each other. It will take an even greater calamity to bring them together again.

As with Street Acquaintances, this film exists in that transitional space between old-school melodrama and the socialist realism promoted by the Russians. Visually, it hearkens back to the Ufa films from the Third Reich years, but the film’s message of tolerance is strictly post-war thinking. The screenplay is by Arthur Pohl, who also wrote the screenplay for Street Acquaintances, but this time he also directed the film. It was his first time directing a feature film, although he had already directed several stage productions.

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Arthur Pohl began his career as a set painter at the Staatstheater in Darmstadt. Later on, he moved into directing plays as well. In the 1930s, he began working in films as a screenwriter, co-writing the screenplays for Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur) and Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb), which were based on a book by Thea von Harbou (of Metropolis fame). In 1941, Mr. Pohl’s career in films came to an abrupt end when he was drafted and later captured by the Allied forces. After he was released from a P.O.W. camp at the end of the war, he moved to West Berlin. In spite of living in an allied sector, he got a job with DEFA; at first as a scriptwriter, then later as a director. After The Bridge, He went on to write and direct several more films for DEFA, including Corinna Schmidt, Die Unbesiegbaren (The Invincible), and Pole Poppenspäler.

In 1957, he wrote and directed Spielbank-Affäre (Casino Affair), based on Hans von Oettingen’s book of the same name. It would be Mr. Pohl’s last feature film. It was made as joint project between DEFA and Sweden’s short-lived Pandora-Films. The film told the story of counterfeiting and intrigue around a casino. While Pohl may have intended the film as a statement about capitalism and its deleterious effects on the human psyche, the authorities at DEFA felt that the film—which was DEFA’s first wide-screen production and was shot in gorgeous Agfacolor—made West German decadence look too appealing. In one of the weirder decisions to come out of DEFA, the film was screened in black-and-white in East Germany, while the color version was shown in West Germany under the title Parkplatz zur großen Sehnsucht (Parking Lot for Desire). As one might imagine, the western press had a great time making fun of this decision.

The foofaraw over the film led to a parting of ways between DEFA and Mr. Pohl. He started looking for work in the west, but, unfortunately for him, his long association with DEFA didn’t make this any easier. He made a few TV-movies in the early sixties, but by 1963 his career as a director was essentially over. Maybe he would have gone back to DEFA, but by that time the border was well sealed and working in the east while residing in the west was no longer an option. He died in 1970 in Berlin.

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If the film at times has the look of the Weimar Republic era Ufa films, there’s a good reason. The cinematographer was Fritz Arno Wagner—one of the most well-respected cinematographers in the business. He started working as a newsreel cameraman in 1913 and a feature film cameraman in 1919. A list of the films he worked on during the silent years is impressive. It includes Nosferatu, M, Diary of a Lost Girl, and both of Fritz Lang’s silent Dr. Mabuse films. Unlike his compatriot Karl Freund, Mr. Wagner chose not to go to Hollywood. He  stayed in Germany, filming unmemorable programmers and Nazi propaganda during the Third Reich years. Although Das kleine Hofkonzert (Palace Scandal), which Mr. Wagner filmed, was released by DEFA, The Bridge is the only film Wagner worked on that was actually made by DEFA. He started working in the west as soon as possible. In 1958, Mr. Wagner died when he fell from a camera car while filming Ohne Mutter geht es nicht (It Doesn’t Work Without a Mother).

The evil, chain-smoking pub owner Therese is played by Ilse Steppat, who, two years earlier, was much more sympathetic as the persecuted Jewish wife in Kurt Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows. After the restrictions on filmmaking in West Germany were removed in 1950, Ms. Steppat, a West German by birth, spent the rest of her career working in the west. She is best known to English-speaking audiences as the evil Irma Bunt in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Two days after that film premiered in Germany, Ms. Steppat died of a heart attack in West Berlin.

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Arno Paulsen, who plays the town’s mayor will be immediately recognizable to any fan of early DEFA films. The rotund actor got his start as an opera singer. While working at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, he met Wolfgang Staudte, who cast him as the profiteering villain in The Murderers Are Among Us. From there he went on to appear in eleven DEFA films between 1946 and 1950, including Razzia, Chemistry and Love, Street Acquaintances, and Girls in Gingham. Due to his short and portly appearance, he was often cast as either the villain or the buffoon in films on both sides of the Iron Curtain. His last film for DEFA was Bürgermeister Anna (Mayor Anna), a comedy based on a play by Friedrich Wolf. After that he appeared exclusively in West German films and is well remembered for his role in Das Mädchen Rosemarie (Rosemary)—one of the better films to come out of West Germany during the fifties.

To a modern audience, the film’s socialist heroics will probably seem over the top. Like the man who uses his body to channel the irrigation water in King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, modern audiences laugh that anyone would do anything that selfless. It is impossible today to reflect on this film’s message about the importance of eliminating borders between German factions without thinking about the events of August 13, 1961. In The Bridge, people bravely cross a river to help people on the other side, creating unity between the two factions. Replace the river with a wall and the film takes on a whole different meaning.

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Meine Frau macht Musik

Excessive seriousness has never been a problem for Hollywood. Designed for the sole purpose of making money, Hollywood films only give us something to think about when it looks like that approach will improve the bottom line. In stark contrast, DEFA was all about making thoughtful serious films. An approach that led to some criticism, such as the scene in The Trace of Stones when construction foreman Balla attempts to woo the new technician by telling her that he would “even go to a DEFA film” with her if she liked. When filmmakers tried to aim for entertainment at DEFA, unless it was a Märchenfilm, they usually ran into a host of obstacles. Never mind that every time they did release a comedy or a musical, it sold well; getting these films made was like pulling teeth.

The perfect example of this is DEFA’s first musical, My Wife Wants to Sing (Meine Frau macht Musik). The film met with with criticism at every step of the way, and was shelved immediately after it was finished. For a while, it looked as if the film would never see the light of day, but the music was released on a LP, which proved to be very popular and eventually led DEFA to release the film, but not without some major changes, as we shall see.

My Wife Wants to Sing belongs to a genre particularly popular in both East and West Germany called a Revuefilm; what we would call a backstage musical. The story follows Gerda and Gustl Wagner. Gustl works in the music section of a large department store. His wife Gerda is a talented singer who gave up a career to become a  housewife. When the aspiring, but talentless, daughter of a friend of Gustl’s is unable to meet her commitment to sing for Fabiani—an Italian popstar who is in town for a concert—Gerda agrees to take her place. Gerda is a hit, and Gustl finds himself upset by his wife’s decision to appear as part of an upcoming Variety show, and jealous of the suave Fabiani, who seems to be making moves on his wife. As with any Revuefilm, the story occasionally takes a backseat to the on-stage performances by various song and dance groups.

My Wife Wants to Sing was directed by Hans Heinrich. During the war years, Heinrich worked as a film editor until, like nearly every other able-bodied man in the Third Reich, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. After the war, he joined DEFA, working as assistant director and editor for Wolfgang Staudte on the classic DEFA film, Murderers Are Among Us. He made a few short films for the German Labor Front during the late thirties, but his first feature film was made for DEFA in 1950. That film, Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Barge of the Happy People), belongs to the barge film genre , a uniquely European film genre without an equivalent in the States. The film was such a hit that he followed it up with Alter Kahn und junge Liebe (Old Barge and Young Love) in 1957.

Like his mentor, Wolfgang Staudte, Heinrich’s politics were more in line with East Germany than West Germany, but East German authorities, in their rush to re-enact George Orwell’s Animal Farm, were making it harder and harder on any idealistic socialists who didn’t cleave to the SED party line. By the end of the fifties, both Staudte and Heinrich had left the country. Heinrich, at first, tried to regain a foothold as a director in Mexico, but when that didn’t pan out, he returned to West Germany, where he worked primarily in television, and is probably better known today as the primary director for the popular West German comedy series, Drei Damen vom Grill (Three Ladies from the Grill). He died in 2003 in his home town, Berlin.

To play Gustl, Heinrich cast Günther Simon, a decision that caused some hand-wringing at DEFA. Simon was the well-known star of Kurt Maetzig’s epic Ernst Thälmann films. He had made a few movies since then, but nothing quite so frivolous. It was worried that his turn in this film would dilute the power of his performances in the Thälmann films. Eventually, he was given the okay, which undoubtedly helped him move onto roles in other classic DEFA films, including, Sun Seekers, The Silent Star, and When You’re Older, Dear Adam. Simon died in 1972 and is buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin.

Playing Gerda, the wife of the film’s title, is Lore Frisch, a talented actress who got her start in West Germany. Born in Bavaria, Frisch was a ballet student until the war intervened. She worked as a nurse until after the war, at which time she joined a theater company in East Frisia, first as a backstage assistant, and eventually as an actress. She appeared in a few West German comedies and Heimatfilme before moving to East Germany, where she almost immediately attracted attention for her performance in Der Ochse von Kulm (The Ox of Kulm), a kind of East German send-up of the Heimatfilm genre. Unfortunately, for all her talent, Frisch suffered from some demons and a problem with painkillers. She committed suicide in 1962.

My Wife Wants to Sing

One of the odder aspects of the film is Evelyn Künneke’s appearance as Daisy, an attractive barfly/singer who flirts with Gustl between performances. Künneke was already a popular singer in Germany, and her work is still available on several CDs and as MP3 downloads. She agreed to appear in the film if she could sing two songs by Siegfried Wegener. After the film was in the can, but still not released, an article appeared in Junge Welt—the newspaper for the East German youth group, Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ)—that took the film to task for using songs by Wegener, who, at that time, was in charge of programming dance music for RIAS, the U.S.-controlled radio station and arch-nemesis of the East German government (for more on this subject, see Look at This City! and  Castles and Cottages). As a result, most of the footage of Evelyn Künneke’s singing ended up on the cutting room floor. What was left was redubbed with a different song composed by Gerd Natschinski, who later wrote the music for Midnight Revue. Natschinski carefully wrote his song to match Künneke’s mouth movements as closely as possible, but it mattered little. We only catch glimpses of Künneke singing.

Reviews for the film were divided along state lines. The East German commentator, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, found the film entertaining, but made  it known that he thought the genre was a form of silly fluff. West German reviewers were less kind, essentially saying that the very structure of East German government and society made it impossible for a film like this to work. In fact, the real problem with this film isn’t its East German origin, but its West German sensibilities. There is very little here that makes this film stand out  as a product of DEFA. Nonetheless, it is a moderately enjoyable little musical that captures aspects of fifties style in East Germany better than many films.

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Der Untertan

The Kaiser’s Lackey is based on a book by Heinrich Mann. The actual title, Der Untertan, doesn’t translate well into English. As a consequence, it has been rendered variously as The Patrioteer, The Loyal Subject, The Man of Straw, and The Underdog. IMDB calls it The Man of Straw, which does have a poetic quality to it, but the film is currently available from the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst as The Kaiser’s Lackey, which is closer to the mark. [Note: For anyone curious about my website’s title formatting style, see “About the Titles” on the About page.]

As the titles Der Untertan and The Kaiser’s Lackey suggest, the film is the story of a man who subjugates himself to the whims of his superiors. The story takes place during the German Empire (Deutsches Kaiserreich), which lasted from 1871 to 1918. Most of the story revolves around, 1888, the so-called “Year of the Three Kaisers” (Dreikaiserjahr), when the country went through three rulers in quick succession, ending up with Wilhelm II, the man responsible for leading Germany into World War I. The film is the story of a man named Diederich Heßling—the Untertan of the title. With his blond twist of hair and chubby countenance, Heßling looks a bit like Tintin gone to pot. He is pompous and chauvinistic, and as full of himself as a man can be. The story starts with his birth and follows him to his crowning achievement: the installation of a gigantic bronze statue of the Kaiser in his town square.

What none of the various titles adequately reveal is the fact that, while Heßling willingly subjects his very soul to the Kaiser, he expects those beneath him to similarly devote themselves to him and his business. Heßling’s business is making toilet paper, and his crowning achievement is the production of toilet paper with nationalistic slogans printed on each sheet. As you’ve probably guessed by now, The Kaiser’s Lackey is a political comedy, and a mordant one at that.

The film was directed by Wolfgang Staudte, the premiere director during the early days of DEFA. Staudte got his start as an actor in the late twenties. He was, among other things, one of the students in The Blue Angel. At the beginning of his career, he worked primarily on stage, but because of his penchant for appearing in avant-garde plays, he found himself on the wrong side of the Nazis and was banned from the theater. He continued to work in radio and film, and often played in smaller roles, including one in the notoriously anti-Semitic, Jud Süß. During the thirties, he began directing short films and made his feature film debut in 1943 with Akrobat Schööön! (Acrobat Oooooh!). His second film, Der Mann, dem man den Namen stahl (The Man Whose Name was Stolen), was immediately banned by the Goebbels and Staudte’s career as a director was brought to a premature halt. He later remade the film for DEFA under the title Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B. (The Strange Adventures of Fridolin B.).

Staudte was responsible for some of the best films to come out of East Germany during its early years. He directed the first DEFA film, The Murderers are Among Us, and other early classics including, Rotation and The Story of Little Mook. In 1955, a combination of a quarrel with Bertolt Brecht during the filming of Mother Courage (Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder)* and the restrictions imposed on him by DEFA were too much for him to take and he headed west; first to Holland, directing the popular kid’s film Ciske the Rat and its sequel, then later to West Germany, where he made several films, including the 1962 version of his former collaborator Bertolt Brecht ’s The Three Penny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper). From 1970 on, he worked primarily in television, directing episodes for the popular TV shows, Tatort and Der Kommisar, among others. He died in 1984 while working on Der eiserne Weg (The Iron Way), a five-part miniseries for ZDF television in West Germany.

The author of Der Untertan, Heinrich Mann, was Thomas Mann’s older brother. Mann was a successful writer prior to World War I, and had made a name for himself with his book Professor Unrat, which was later turned into the movie, The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel), starring Marlene Dietrich in her career-making role. Der Untertan was scheduled for release in 1914, but the war put its publication on hold until 1918. Still stinging from World War I, the German public took to Mann’s caustic examination of how nationalism can lead men down dangerous and idiotic paths. The book was huge hit, but, as you can imagine, the Nazis didn’t think much of it. In 1933, after Hitler came to power, Heinrich Mann was one of the first 33 people that the Nazis declared personae non gratae (alongside author Lion Feuchtwanger and future President of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck). Mann fled the country, eventually ending up in Santa Monica, California, where he and Lion Feuchtwanger worked as script editors. By 1950, Mann was broke and alone, his wife having committed suicide a few years earlier. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting was gaining traction, and Mann was feeling very unwelcome in his new home. He was getting ready to leave the States and move to East Germany, where he had been elected as president of the German Academy of Arts, when he died.

The obnoxious lackey of the title is played by Werner Peters. Peters had worked in theater during the Third Reich, but his career as a movie actor didn’t begin until 1947, when he appeared in Zwischen gestern und morgen (Between Yesterday and Tomorrow), the first post-war, western sector film made by a German film company (Neue Deutsche Filmgesellschaft). His next few films were made at DEFA though, including The Blum Affair (Affaire Blum), Die Buntkarierten (The Girls in Gingham), Rotation, and Der Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat). After The Kaiser’s Lackey, he appeared in a few more East German films, including The Story of Little Mook, and the Ernst Thälmann movies, but, like directors Wolfgang Staudte and Falk Harnack, Peters decided to head west. He went on to appear in dozens of West German movies, as well as a few American ones, usually playing either a villain or a buffoon. He appeared in several of the Dr. Mabuse and Edgar Wallace films that were so popular in West Germany during the 1960s. Other films he was in include: The Devil Strikes at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam), Rosemary (Das Mädchen Rosemarie), 36 Hours, A Fine Madness, The Secret War of Harry Frigg, and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. He was also a well-respected voice actor. It was his voice that people heard for Orson Welles in the German version of The Third Man.

The cinematography is by Robert Baberske, and it is impressive. Distorted images are used to heighten the absurdity of situations: After Heßling’s duel, we see the faces of his comrades twisted comically through their beer steins as they celebrate with him. When he is confronted by a superior on the academy grounds, the perspective is exaggerated, with Heßling appearing greatly foreshortened, as if being addressed by God. At the start of the film the images of Heßling’s parents are blurred around the edges, suggesting the distant and unclear memories that helped make him the man he became. [Note: for more information on Robert Baberske, see The Ax of Wandsbek.]

The music is by Horst Hans Sieber, who composed music for several shorts, propaganda films, and documentaries during the Third Reich. After WWII, he began composing music for feature films, starting with Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Happy Barge Crew), the first of the DEFA barge films by Hans Heinrich. He  wrote at least one play  (Ich heirate nur aus Liebe, 1950, published by Drei Masken Verlag), which suggests a theatrical background. That would make perfect sense given the highly theatrical nature of the music in this film. It is through the music that we first realize that we are dealing with a comedy. The film begins with nostalgic dance hall piano music, which suddenly switches to a lively fife and drum march, then a lullaby for harp and musical saw, ending with a full orchestra parade march. During the storm scene, when the statue of the Kaiser is being unveiled, the music swirls like the wind on the screen, as if several tunes are stirred up together. We hear the primary themes from the movie interspersed with the music of the Third Reich.

When the film was released in East Germany, it immediately generated negative comments in the western press. The film’s use of Nazi music, and its attacks on the upper-class and businessmen were not well received in West Germany. The film was banned outright and wouldn’t reach West German cinemas for another five-and-a-half years. Even then, the final scene was cut, along with the scene where a worker is shot for resisting a policeman. West Germany was much more sensitive to the subject of Nazis. Unlike East Germany, the Bundesrepublik quietly swept the Nazi trials under the rug and allowed some pretty heinous people to go back to work. People like Hans Globke, who served as the chief legal advisor in the Office for Jewish Affairs in the Ministry of Interior under Adolf Eichmann, but nonetheless was named by West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer as Director of the Federal Chancellory of West Germany; or Theodor Oberländer, a Nazi officer in charge of ethnic cleansing during WWII, and then—in a gesture of supreme irony—was named as Federal Minister for Displaced Persons, Refugees and Victims of War by Adenauer. The conservatives were in charge, and, like the United States, anyone whose philosophy leaned to the left was being marginalized. The Kaiser’s Lackey was too much for them to take. It would be years before people in the west would come to realize that they were looking at one of the greatest film to come out of either side of Germany during the 1950s.

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* Reportedly, this film version of Mother Courage was eventually released in a highly abbreviated version. The film starred Helene Weigel, Bertolt Brecht ’s second wife, and the woman most famously associated with the role of Mother Courage. It also features Simone Signoret in the role of Yvette Pottier, the camp prostitute. The film was assembled from what footage Staudte had shot and was released as one of four DEFA-made films distributed by the short-lived Pandora-Film Company in Stockholm. As of this writing the film appears to be lost.

As its title suggests,  a recurring image throughout Rotation is the wheel. The wheel in this case appears in various forms, from the cylinders of the printing press that acts as the film’s Greek chorus, to the carousel at a fair where Hans Behneke, the film’s protagonist,  is forced to work during the Weimar Republic’s economic collapse. When we first see it, the printing press is running news of the battle for Berlin. The war is almost over, and we are treated to some remarkably effective battle sequences. Hans Behneke is standing in a prison cell, listening to the guns and bombs outside. Why he is there, we do not yet know. From here, the story flashes back to the end of World War I, when Hans, young and still unmarried, is returning from the Western Front. The film follows his story through his marriage, and the birth of his son, to the economic travails of the Weimar Republic and the ensuing paranoia of the Third Reich, to the end of World War II. While the film is mostly about Hans, it is also about his son, Hellmuth, who reaches school age just as the Nazis comes to power. Hellmuth is properly indoctrinated into the Nazi way of thinking and soon finds himself at odds with his more liberal parents. It doesn’t help that his uncle is fighting with the resistance.

Rotation examines a subject that is rarely discussed: the Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend). Inculcated with Nazi doctrine at an early age, Hitler Youth members were the most virulently pro-Nazi people in Germany. On many occasions they were known to have turned in their own parents when mom or dad would say something derogatory about der Führer. Betraying one’s own family for the Reich was seen as an act of the highest honor. It demonstrated that the child understood that nothing—not even blood—was more important than the fight for the Fatherland. At the end of the war, it was the Hitler Youths who fought the hardest, even after Hitler had killed himself rather than face the music. Rotation follows Hellmuth—unfortunately born just in time to get both barrels of Nazi doctrine—from his early indoctrination, through his eventual realization that everything he learned was wrong (ah, we’ve all been there, haven’t we?). To the film’s credit, it does not place all the blame on Hellmuth  for the travails he visited on his parent. It recognizes that he too was a victim of the Nazis.

Director Wolfgang Staudte is better than the average filmmaker at using the camera to create a symbolic narrative. He had already proved this with his use of the ruins of Berlin to show the internal desolation of the tormented protagonist in The Murderers are Among Us. In Rotation, his use of the aforementioned wheel motif is only one example of this. Again and again in the film, people are blocked by bars and lattices, suggesting that everyone in the Third Reich is trapped in one way or another. The wooden slats on Hellmuth’s crib morph to the ornate iron gates that keep the rich separated from the working class, to the poles holding the protest banners of striking workers, and finally to the bars of a holding cell. In a pivotal scene, victims of a flooded subway shelter are shown trapped behind a a steel grate as the water rises to drown them. The scene cuts to a bird trapped in a cage that is slowly sinking into the same murky water. The message is clear: the restrictions we place on our freedom will first constrain us and eventually kill us.

Early scenes between Hans and his wife are repeated later with Hellmuth and his fiancée, suggesting that the rotation in the title is that of life itself. Staudte got his start as an actor at UFA during the Weimar Republic. He appeared as an extra in the classic, The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel), and did the German voice-over for one of the lead characters in All Quiet of the Western Front. He was already starring in films when the Nazis came to power. Coming, as he did, from an acting background, Staudte understands the relationship between the performance and the camera better than most directors of the time (although he did tend to err on the side of melodrama).

Staudte started his directing career during the Third Reich. His first feature film, Akrobat Schööön!, was a big hit in Germany when it came out. Thanks to its lack of political perspective, it continued to be shown on TV in Germany after the war. His next film, Der Mann, dem man den Namen stahl (The Man, Who Had His Name Stolen), did not fare as well. As with Akrobat Schööön!, Der Mann, dem man den Namen stahl was a comedy. In it, two men who are given the same identity, which causes all sorts of problems and funny situations. Goebbels had it banned, probably due to its central conceit that the state was capable of making such a mistake. Staudte must have had strong feelings about this movie because he ended up remaking after the war as Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B. (The Adventures of Fridolin), using footage from the original film.

In the early years of the German Democratic Republic, it looked like Staudte was slated to be the most prominent filmmaker on the East German filmmaking scene. He got the ball rolling with The Murderers are Among Us, the first post-war German film; and a few years later would direct The Story of Little Mook, still the best selling film to come out of the GDR. But disagreements between him, the East German officials and Bertolt Brecht led to his defection to the west (for more on this, see The Story of Little Mook).

Cinematographer Bruno Mondi was already a well-respected cameraman when  the GDR came into existence. He had gotten his start back in 1921 with Fritz Lang as a camera assistant on Destiny. After the Nazi’s came to power, Mondi never stopped working, and was responsible for filming Kolberg, the most lavish color production of the Third Reich. After the war, he made films for DEFA, and then fled to the west, where his knowledge of color was put to good use in the stunningly photographed (and stunningly banal) Sissi films.

Wolfgang Staudte and his cinematographer, Bruno Mondi, had worked together before under the most unfortunate of circumstances. Mondi was the cinematographer for Jud Süß, considered the most virulently anti-Semitic film ever made. Wolfgang Staudte, still an actor in 1940, appeared in the film in a minor role. After the war, this film led to charges of “crimes against humanity” for the film’s director, Veit Harlan. Harlan successfully claimed he was just a pawn, hired to direct the film with no control over its content or perspective; perhaps the only occasion in history of a director denying the autuer theory. Mondi was not charged and seems to have managed to come through the Third Reich without the stigma that haunted directors such as Harlan and Riefenstahl. (For more on Veit Harlan, see the documentary, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss.)

During his long career, Staudte directed nearly every type of film, from light comedies to heavy dramas. During the seventies, he worked largely in television, directing episodes of the popular crime dramas, Der Kommisar, and Tatort. He worked right up until his death. His last film, a TV-movie called Der Snob (The Snob), was released two months after his death.

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It would be wrong to assume that every film that came out of the east had a didactic purpose or a communist message, just as it would be wrong to assume that every Hollywood film is intended to promote the joys of capitalism. The primary goal of some movies is to entertain, and that was as true in the east as it was in the west. DEFA was rightly proud of what they had accomplished after the war, taking the old film studios of Babelsberg and turning them back into one of the foremost film production centers in Europe. As long as it didn’t contradict Marxist doctrine, a little something for the children was in order.

The Story of Little Mook (Die Geschichte vom kleinen Muck) was not the first Märchenfilm (fairytale film) to come out of East Germany—that honor belongs to Heart of Stone—but it was the most popular. Perhaps this is due to the fact that 1953 had been a hard year for the GDR. In June, construction workers had taken to the streets to protest the government’s more work for less pay policies. On June 17th, 1953—a day still commemorated in unified Germany—the protests were violently put down by the Soviet forces and the Volkspolizei. It represented a turning point in East German history. Gone was the happy idealism of Karl Marx, replaced with something far darker. From here on out, it would be the state against the people, and everybody in East Germany knew it. By the time Little Mook came out (two days before Christmas), people were in need of some cheery escapism.

Several more Märchenfilme were made at DEFA over the years but Little Mook remained East Germany’s top-earning film until the fall of the wall. Little Mook is based on a short story by Wilhelm Hauff, a popular writer and poet from the Romantic period who died died much too young (age 25), but still manage to leave a remarkably prodigious body of work behind, including a book of fairy tales, from which The Story of Little Mook is taken

Little Mook is told from the perspective of Mook as an old man. Mook is a hunchback, and the children of the town taunt him mercilessly, until one day he traps them the pottery shed and tells them the story of his life. The rest of the film is told in flashbacks. Mook never received a fair shake as a boy, but always kept his spirits up and his wits about him. After his father dies, Little Mook is cast out and begins his search for the Merchant of Luck, hoping this man can change his fortunes. In a series of adventures, Mook meets a witch, tricks a king into hiring him, endears himself to the princess Amarza, and foils the evil Bajazid. The film is told in the form of a road movie, where the protagonist moves across the landscape encountering different people and having different adventures. While there is no overtly communist message to the film, the evil people are all after money and power, and the magician—the closest thing to a spiritual leader in the film—is obviously a fraud, but this is consistent with the same characters in a Hollywood production.

Wolfgang Staudte was already becoming one of the leading lights in the line up of DEFA directors, He was responsible for The Murderers Are Among Us and Rotation, two of the best films to come out of either side of Germany in the first years after the war. He was busy trying to commit Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children to film when the project fell apart and he was assigned The Story of Little Mook instead. Staudte was not happy with the assignment of this light fairytale. He had really wanted to commit Mother Courage to film, but Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel, had their own ideas of how the film should be made, and weren’t ready to give up any control to Staudte. After Little Mook, Staudte made one more film for DEFA (Leuchtfeuer), and then left for the west. Leuchtfeuer was banned due to Staudte’s defection, and wasn’t shown again until 1988. An abbreviated version of Staudte’s Mother Courage was eventually released. Staudte continued to direct movies, primarily for television, right up until his death in 1984.

The screenwriter for Little Mook, Peter Podehl—along with his step-son, Thomas Schmidt, who played Little Mook—also decided to leave the GDR for West Germany. Podehl continued working in the west as a screenwriter, converting popular children’s stories for television and film; and as a director on the popular children’s puppet show, Hallo Spencer. Thomas Schmidt starred in one more film as a child, and worked behind the scenes on television when he was young before deciding to leave the film business in favor of medicine.

Special mention should be given to Erich Zander, whose production design was stunning. Like Willy Schiller, the other great production designer from East Germany (see The Murderers Among Us), Zander got his start during the Weimar years, and continue to work during Hitler’s regime. Also like Schiller, by the time the GDR was formed, he had plenty of experience in both production design and art direction. Working with art director Artur Günther, the duo created an Arabian fantasy land on a par with anything Hollywood might have come up with. It is a bit kitschy, to be sure, but as a fairytale it seems just right.

 

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It would be wrong to assume that every film that came out of the east had a didactic purpose or a communist message, just as it would be wrong to assume that every Hollywood film is intended to promote the joys of capitalism. The primary goal of some movies is to entertain, and that was as true in the east as it was in the west. DEFA was rightly proud of what they had accomplished after the war, taking the old film studios of Babelsberg and turning them back into one of the foremost film production centers in Europe. As long as it didn’t contradict Marxist doctrine, a little something for the children was in order.The Story of Little Mook (Die Geschichte vom kleinen Muck) was not the first Märchenfilm (fairytale film) to come out of East Germany—that honor belongs to The Cold Heart (Das Kalte Herz)—but it was the most popular. Several more Märchenfilme were made at DEFA over the years but Little Mook remained East Germany’s top-earning film until the fall of the wall. Little Mook is based on a short story by Wilhelm Hauff, a popular writer and poet from the Romantic period who died died much too young (age 25), but still manage to leave a remarkably prodigious body of work behind, including a book of fairy tales, from which The Story of Little Mook is taken

Little Mook is told from the perspective of Mook as an old man. Mook is a hunchback, and the children of the town taunt him mercilessly, until one day he traps them the pottery shed and tells them the story of his life. The rest of the fiim is told in flashbacks. Mook never received a fair shake as a boy, but always kept his spirits up and his wits about him. After his father dies, Little Mook is cast out and begins his search for the Merchant of Luck, hoping this man can change his fortunes. In a series of adventures, Mook meets a witch, tricks a king into hiring him, endears himself to the princess Amarza, and foils the evil Bajazid. The film is told in the form of a road movie, where the protagonist moves across the landscape encountering different people and having different adventures. While there is no overtly communist message to the film, the evil people are all after money and power, and the magician—the closest thing to a spiritual leader in the film—is obviously a fraud, but this is consistent with the same characters in a Hollywood production.

Wolfgang Staudte was already becoming one of the leading lights in the line up of DEFA directors, He was responsible for Murders Are Among Us and Rotation, two of the best films to come out of either side of Germany in the first years after the war. He was busy trying to commit Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children to film when the project fell apart and he was assigned The Story of Little Mook instead. Staudte was not happy with the assignment of this light fairy tale. He had really wanted to commit Mother Courage to film, but Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel, had their own ideas of how the film should be made, and weren’t ready to give up any control to Staudte. After Little Mook, Staudte made one more film for DEFA (Leuchtfeuer), and then left for the west. Leuchtfeuer was banned due to Staudte’s defection, and wasn’t shown again until 1988. An abbreviated version of Staudte’s Mother Courage was eventually released. Staudte continued to direct movies, primarily for television, right up until his death in 1984.

The screenwriter for Little Mook, Peter Podehl—along with his step-son, Thomas Schmidt, who played Little Mook—also decided to leave the GDR for West Germany. Podehl continued working in the west as a screenwriter, converting popular children’s stories for television and film; and as a director on the popular children’s puppet show, Hallo Spencer. Thomas Schmidt starred in one more film as a child, and worked behind the scenes on television when he was young before deciding to leave the film business in favor of medicine.

Special mention should be given to Erich Zander, whose production design was stunning. Like Willy Schiller, the other great production designer from East Germany (see Murderers Among Us), Zander got his start during the Weimar years, and continue to work during Hitler’s regime. Also like Schiller, by the time the GDR was formed, he had plenty of experience in both production design and art direction. Working with art director Artur Günther, the duo created an Arabian fantasyland on a par with anything Hollywood might have come up with. It is a bit kitschy, to be sure, but as a fairytale it seems just right.It would be wrong to assume that every film that came out of the east had a didactic purpose or a communist message, just as it would be wrong to assume that every Hollywood film is intended to promote the joys of capitalism. The primary goal of some movies is to entertain, and that was as true in the east as it was in the west. DEFA was rightly proud of what they had accomplished after the war, taking the old film studios of Babelsberg and turning them back into one of the foremost film production centers in Europe. As long as it didn’t contradict Marxist doctrine, a little something for the children was in order.

The Story of Little Mook (Die Geschichte vom kleinen Muck) was not the first Märchenfilm (fairytale film) to come out of East Germany—that honor belongs to The Cold Heart (Das Kalte Herz)—but it was the most popular. Several more Märchenfilme were made at DEFA over the years but Little Mook remained East Germany’s top-earning film until the fall of the wall. Little Mook is based on a short story by Wilhelm Hauff, a popular writer and poet from the Romantic period who died died much too young (age 25), but still manage to leave a remarkably prodigious body of work behind, including a book of fairy tales, from which The Story of Little Mook is taken

Little Mook is told from the perspective of Mook as an old man. Mook is a hunchback, and the children of the town taunt him mercilessly, until one day he traps them the pottery shed and tells them the story of his life. The rest of the fiim is told in flashbacks. Mook never received a fair shake as a boy, but always kept his spirits up and his wits about him. After his father dies, Little Mook is cast out and begins his search for the Merchant of Luck, hoping this man can change his fortunes. In a series of adventures, Mook meets a witch, tricks a king into hiring him, endears himself to the princess Amarza, and foils the evil Bajazid. The film is told in the form of a road movie, where the protagonist moves across the landscape encountering different people and having different adventures. While there is no overtly communist message to the film, the evil people are all after money and power, and the magician—the closest thing to a spiritual leader in the film—is obviously a fraud, but this is consistent with the same characters in a Hollywood production.

Wolfgang Staudte was already becoming one of the leading lights in the line up of DEFA directors, He was responsible for Murders Are Among Us  and Rotation, two of the best films to come out of either side of Germany in the first years after the war. He was busy trying to commit Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children to film when the project fell apart and he was assigned The Story of Little Mook instead. Staudte was not happy with the assignment of this light fairy tale. He had really wanted to commit Mother Courage to film, but Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel, had their own ideas of how the film should be made, and weren’t ready to give up any control to Staudte. After Little Mook, Staudte made one more film for DEFA (Leuchtfeuer), and then left for the west. Leuchtfeuer was banned due to Staudte’s defection, and wasn’t shown again until 1988. An abbreviated version of Staudte’s Mother Courage was eventually released. Staudte continued to direct movies, primarily for television, right up until his death in 1984.

The screenwriter for Little Mook, Peter Podehl—along with his step-son, Thomas Schmidt, who played Little Mook—also decided to leave the GDR for West Germany. Podehl continued working in the west as a screenwriter, converting popular children’s stories for television and film; and as a director on the popular children’s puppet show, Hallo Spencer. Thomas Schmidt starred in one more film as a child, and worked behind the scenes on television when he was young before deciding to leave the film business in favor of medicine.

Special mention should be given to Erich Zander, whose production design was stunning. Like Willy Schiller, the other great production designer from East Germany (see Murderers Among Us), Zander got his start during the Weimar years, and continue to work during Hitler’s regime. Also like Schiller, by the time the GDR was formed, he had plenty of experience in both production design and art direction. Working with art director Artur Günther, the duo created an Arabian fantasyland on a par with anything Hollywood might have come up with. It is a bit kitschy, to be sure, but as a fairytale it seems just right.

Immediately after the war, West Germany shied away from getting back into the business of filmmaking. The country was still in ruins; Germans were embarrassed by the enormity of  the horrors for which they were culpable; and the Allies didn’t really want to remind the rest of the world of the destruction wrought on the most beautiful country in Europe. It would take a few more years for the west to get back to making movies, and even then, the films tended to be lighthearted comedies, romantic costume dramas, and an endless parade of Heimatfilme—those pictures about the joys of alpine living that only people in the Bavarian regions of the Germany, Austria, and Switzerland can truly appreciate.

East Germany, on the other hand, was anxious to start making films again. This was partly thanks to the influence of the Russians, who considered cinema was one of the most powerful media for enlightening people to the benefits of communism, but it was also due to the fact that the heralded UFA Studios in Babelsberg were now in the Russian-controlled sector. In 1946, the first film of the GDR started filming before DEFA was fully established. That film, The Murderers Are Among Us (Die Mörder sind unter uns), still stands as one of the greatest films to come out of East Germany.

The Murderers Are Among Us is the first of what became known as Trümmerfilme (literally “rubble films”). These are films that were shot in and among the ruins and debris of post-war Germany. They do not shy away from the severe destruction that was left after WWII, and often show the characters wandering amid piles of bricks and twisted metal. But the Trümmerfilme (and the ensuing Trümmerliteratur movement) were also about the effects of this destruction on the German psyche. The people in these films are often dissolute and apathetic; the destruction on the streets mirrored in their eyes.

The Murderers Are Among Us takes place in Berlin right after the war. Susan Wallner (Hildegard Knef), an attractive young woman is returning from a concentration camp where she was imprisoned for reasons that we never fully discover. She returns home to find that a strange, surly man named Hans Mertens (W. Borchert)  has taken up residence in her apartment. All her attempts to placate or succor him are met with hostility. Clearly we are dealing with someone with a past. As the story progresses, we learn that Mertens was once a surgeon, but something he witnessed during the war has rendered him unable to stand the sight of blood or the sounds of human suffering. Just when it looks like he is starting to get over it, Ferdinand Brückner (Arno Paulsen), the man responsible for his nightmares, comes back into his life.

In some respects, The Murderers Are Among Us is a fairly run-of-the-mill film. It uses many of the tropes that were standard Hollywood issue at the time (an absurdly beautiful concentration camp refugee, and cliched use of music) It also features many of the signatures of expressionism that made the earlier German films so interesting, but were, by 1946—thanks to heavy influx of the best of Germany’s craftspeople—fairly common in Hollywood film noir, (the use of reflected and diffracted images to represent the psyche, chiaroscuro, and unusual focus shifts). Nonetheless, the film remains powerful; in part due to the inescapable truth of the situation. Germany was in tatters, and any melodrama inherent in the story was tempered by the fact that, indeed, things really were this bad, or worse. Director Wolfgang Staudte uses extreme close-ups to keep us off-guard and uncomfortable. He also has a flair for the cynical. In one scene the camera pans up from a newspaper headline reading, “2 Million Were Gassed,” to Brückner eating his breakfast. In another scene, while Brückner is protesting his innocence to the world, the scene around him transmogrifies from a building hallway to the inside of a jail cell.

In its original version, Mertens kills the evil Brückner. While this was and emotionally satisfying way to end the story, there was a problem with it. The trials were in progress in Nuremberg and it was already apparent that not everyone was going to pay for their crimes. Examples were being made, but some of the people responsible for the deaths of thousands were walking away with little more than a slap on the wrist (see The Council of the Gods). Putting out a movie that promoted the vigilante killing of these people was seen as a bad way to get the new Germany off the ground. The Allies appealed to the filmmakers to change the ending. In the final version of the film, the fate of Brückner is left up to the courts. This resolution feels forced and rings hollow, like some of the films from Hollywood under the Hays Code.

Hildegard Knef’s performance in The Murderers Are Among Us made such an impact on David O. Selznick that he offered her a contract, but only if she changed her name to Gilda Christian and told people that she was Austrian instead of German (one of life’s little ironies was that Americans didn’t like Germans because  they thought that Adolph Hitler—an Austrian by birth—was a German). Knef refused but still found some success in Hollywood under the name Hildegard Neff, which was how Americans insisted on pronouncing her last name anyway. Both of her co-stars, Ernst Wilhelm Borchert and Arno Paulsen, also eventually ended up in the west before the wall went up.

Perhaps because it was made so soon after the war, or perhaps because the story didn’t require it, there is very little of the proselytizing found in later DEFA films. We suspect that Susan Wallner’s imprisonment and her willingness to share her space with a stranger have something to do with communism, but it is never explicitly stated. The bad guy is clearly a capitalist of the worst sort, selling pots made from the helmets of dead soldiers, but even here, he is evil because of his war-time activities; the connection between capitalism and his inhumanity is tacitly acknowledged, but never pounded home. The Murderers Are Among Us sets important precedents that will help shape the course of DEFA up until the state was abolished in 1990. There is an honesty and a commitment to artistic expression that the west wouldn’t rediscover for a decade. Later on, these same characteristics would put many East German filmmakers in direct confrontation with the GDR officials. It was a bold start to the beginning of a new order.

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