Archive for the ‘WWI’ Category

Das Lied der Matrosen
The Sailors’ Song (Das Lied der Matrosen) is a dramatic retelling of the Kiel Mutiny, a revolt by sailors in 1918. The event helped end World War I, virutually ended the reign of Wilhelm II, and—at least in this DEFA account of the story—sowed the seeds for the establishment of the Germany Communist Party (KPD). The film starts in the Fall of 1917 with the execution of Max Reichpietsch and Albin Köbis, two sailors who led a revolt aboard the SMS Prinzregent Luitpold, protesting bad conditions and lousy food. Max and Albin were labeled “Marxist agitators” and sentenced to be shot by a firing squad. When sailors refused to shoot two of their own, the convicted men are transported to Cologne, where they are executed by soldiers instead. By this point, the Germans had lost the war, but they weren’t ready to admit it. The treatment of the sailors aboard the battleships remained bad, and by September of 1918, things had reached a boiling point. When the admiralty tried to implement a suicide attack against the Royal Navy, the sailors of the SMS Frederick the Great and others finally declare they’ve had enough and marched on the naval headquarters in Kiel.

The film is set up in dramatic fashion, with heroes who support the Russian revolution trying to end the imperial oppression in Germany; and bad guys fighting for their beloved German Empire. In the middle is Jupp, a sailor who is recruited by the Navy to spy on his shipmates. At first, he is on the side of the military, but eventually comes to understand the viewpoints of his fellow sailors. Things come to a head after Jupp sees his mother shot during a protest march. It’s stirring stuff that even critics of the film’s politics had to admit was powerfully handled.

Determined to finish the film in time for the Kiel mutiny’s 40th anniversary, DEFA hired two directors to make the movie: Kurt Maetzig and Günter Reisch. Both Maetzig and Reisch believed in the ideals of the GDR, and both were superb craftsmen. Beyond that, their styles are as different as chalk and cheese. Reportedly Maetzig handled the scenes with the military officers and admirals in this film, while Reisch shot the scenes involving the sailors. It doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does.

Das Lied der Matrosen

The main heroes of the film are Henne Lobke and August Lenz, played by Ulrich Thein and Raimund Schelcher respectively. Ulrich Thein, a man of immense talent, was a West German by birth, but moved to the GDR to work at the famous Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Later on, he’d start directing as well (for more on Thein, see Anton the Magician). Craggy-faced Raimund Schelcher was one of the best actors in East Germany, but his drinking caused enough problems with productions that it became the stuff of legends. Born in German East Africa, Schelcher came to Germany after German East Africa was divvied up by the Treaty of Versailles He started working at various theaters in Germany during the Weimar years, and was arrested by the Gestapo and put into one of the probation battalions—Hitler’s weird policy of putting convicted criminals into their own battalions (for more on Schelcher, see Castles and Cottages).

The main villain of the movie is the naval officer Eberhard Schuckert, who is played with gusto by Ekkehard Schall. Schall is best known for his work with Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel at the Berliner Ensemble. He was mentored by Brecht and became keeper of the flame along with Weigel after the playwright’s death. Like Weigel, Schall saw Brecht’s work as set in stone and resisted any attempts to modify the performances with modern interpretations. He even married Brecht’s daughter Barbara. On film, he is best remembered for his role as a juvenile delinquent in Berlin–Schönhauser Corner, and the bizarre “Chief” in Gottfried Kolditz’s In the Dust of the Stars. Not surprisingly, Schall was considered a master interpreter of Brecht, and continued to perform the playwright’s works throughout his life. He was also one of the speakers at the Alexanderplatz demonstration a few days before the Wall was opened, supporting socialism, but calling for changes. After the Wende, Schall restricted his performances almost exclusively to theater, appearing in only one film (Der Auftrag). He died in 2005.

The Sailors' Song

The morally conflicted Jupp is portrayed by Stefan Lisewski in his first feature film. Handsome and gaunt, Lisewski appeared as a leading man in such films as Love’s Confusion, May Wine (Maibowle), The Story of a Murder, and Approach Alpha 1 (Anflug Alpha 1). Like Eberhard Schuckert, Lisewski is strongly associated with the plays of Bertolt Brecht. He is reported to have played Mack the Knife no less than 500 times. During the seventies, and after the Wende, he concentrated more on theater than film. He died in Berlin in 2016.

You wouldn’t be out of order to call Kurt Maetzig the father of East German cinema. He was there on November 22, 1945 at the Hotel Adlon, helping to form the Filmaktiv, a group designed to revitalize filmmaking in Germany, and from which DEFA eventually sprang. When DEFA was officially launched the following May, he was put in charge of the group that made Der Augenzeuge (The Eyewitness) films—short newsreels that screened before the main movies. Although he retired from filmmaking in 1976, he outlasted DEFA by many years. In fact, he outlasted almost everybody, finally dying in 2012 at the age of 101. Maetzig’s films are often the ones that are held up as examples by those wishing to portray the films from East Germany as exercises in Soviet propaganda. Some of his films, especially his earlier films, wear their politics on their sleeves. His style borrowed heavily from documentary filmmaking, but he never forgot the importance of the human story in his films.

Reisch came to DEFA a few years later and soon started working with Maetzig as an assistant director. You can see his work in Council of the Gods and the Ernst Thälmann films. He got his first chance to direct with Young Vegetables (Junges Gemüse) and then in Track in the Night. He is also responsible for the most high concept pair of films to come out of DEFA: A Lively Christmas Eve and Like Father, Like Son. Both featuring essentially the same actors in the same parts, filmed twenty-five years apart.

protest scene from Das Lied der Matrosen

The protest march at the end is spectacular, involving 15,000 extras. Today it would be done with CGI. How the director managed to keep track of Ulrich Thein in that crowd is beyond me. It’s a masterful piece of controlled crowd filming. Whether this was Maetzig of Reisch, I can’t say (all signs point to Reisch), but it’s a stunning example of directing.

If you are new to the films of East Germany, The Sailor’s Song is probably not the place to start. It very much fits the mold of what most Westerners think East German films are like. It is didactic and filled with the socialist heroics. That’s not to say it’s a bad film; it’s an amazing film. Just don’t assume that it represents the average East German film. That would be like using Strategic Air Command as a representative example of Hollywood movies.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (in German, no subtitles).

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

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

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

farewell

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

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

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

farewell5

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

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

Farewell

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

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

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film.


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

Die Buntkarierten

In the years after World War II, there was a lot of soul-searching in East German films. At first, this took the form of the Rubble Films, which used the destruction of Germany as a metaphor for the German soul—blown to pieces and ready for reconstruction. Rubble Films usually focused on a few people and took place over relatively short spans of time. At a certain point, the films moved away from this introspection, and started to look at the bigger picture in an attempt to answer the question: How did we get to this point? Films such as Rotation, The Kaiser’s Lackey, and The Council of the Gods take a broader perspective on German history, involve several people and groups, and cover many years. Girls in Gingham (Die Buntkarierten) is one of these films.1 It starts during the Wilhelmina period at the end of the nineteenth century, and ends right after World War II. It is based on a radio play by Berta Waterstradt, and its intro keeps the radio practice of introducing the characters by name along with the names of the actors playing them.

The story follows Guste, the illegitimate daughter of a maid who dies in childbirth. Guste is a headstrong young girl who has no intention of following in her mother’s footsteps, but history is stronger than will. Guste grows up, becomes a maid herself, marries, has two children, and suffers through two world wars. Along the way, observations are made on the inherently evil nature of a society where 1% of the population controls nearly all the wealth, and the way corporations use wars as an excuse to make money.

girls in gingham

Girls in Gingham was the second feature film directed by Kurt Maetzig, one of the most well-respected directors in East Germany, and no stranger to this blog. He directed such classic DEFA films as The Council of the Gods, The Silent Star, and the banned masterpiece, The Rabbit is Me. Mr. Maetzig, along with Gerhard Lamprecht , Peter Pewas, Wolfgang Staudte and others, was one of the filmmakers who helped found DEFA.

Reportedly, Mr. Maetzig’s decision to make Girls in Gingham was based on Bertholt Brecht’s criticism of Maetzig’s first film, Marriage in the Shadows. Never mind that it remains one of the most successful movies DEFA ever released, Brecht found the film kitschy. Girls in Gingham was Mr. Maetzig’s attempt to make a film more in line with Brecht’s aesthetics. One can see hints of Mother Courage in Guste’s character, but Mr. Maetzig has more faith in personal heroism than the cynical Brecht, which is probably why he was tapped to make the Ernst Thälmann films.

In 1976, Mr. Maetzig retired from filmmaking, but maintained a lively presence in the film community and was always there to offer advice younger filmmakers and impart his extensive knowledge of the history of DEFA. He died in 2012 at the age of 101 and is buried in the Dorotheenstädtischen Cemetery in Berlin.

Camilla Spira

Guste is played by Camilla Spira in a tour de force role that sees her go from a bright-eyed young woman to a war-weary old lady. Acting was in the blood for Ms. Spira. Both her parents, Fritz and Lotte, were successful actors on stage and screen, so it seemed natural for her to follow in their footsteps. She got her start in silent films during the Weimar Republic, only to see her career cut short by the Nazis. Unfortunately, the fact that her father was Jewish got in the way. Fritz and Camilla were send off to concentration camps, where Fritz Spira died in 1943. Camilla’s mother, who was not Jewish, divorced Fritz in 1934 under pressure from the Nazis. This allowed her to continued to acting in films, but after 29 years of marriage, the cost was too high. She died shortly after hearing about her ex-husband’s death.

Girls in Gingham was Camilla Spira’s first feature film appearance after the war, and she won the East German National Prize for her performance. She appeared in a few more DEFA films, but started working in West Germany in the early fifties. Among the West German films she appeared in were: Des Teufels General (The Devil’s General), Emil und die Detektive, and Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (Roses for the Prosecutor)—one of the few West German films to address the issue of lingering Nazism in West Germany, albeit in a comedic fashion. Her sister, Steffie Spira, stayed in East Germany and continued to appear in films until after the Wende. Camilla Spira died in 1997.

Considering how important it is to this film, it is remarkable that no credit is given for the make-up artist. Most DEFA movies at the time listed this information. Given the film’s production year, it is possible that the make-up artist was one of the technicians that went to West Germany to work. West Germany had just declared itself an independent state and was starting to wriggle out from under the anti-film-production policies of the United States Millitary authority (OMGUS). Directors, actors, and cinematographers who had previously been able to find work only in East Germany were now getting jobs in the BRD. In a year or two, the GDR would officially take a stand against this and stop using West German technicians, but this was a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has run off. A technician that made it public ally known that they were switching to western productions might well have found their name stricken from the credits on a DEFA film. If that is the case, my money would be on Jette Arlt, who did the make-up for Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows, but started working in the west in 1950. This is pure speculation, however. Whoever it was, they did a remarkable job of aging Camilla Spira and Werner Hinz and deserve more credit (and if anyone had more information on this mystery, please let me know in the comments).

Girls in Gingham was a hit both in East and West Germany and is one of the all-time, top-selling DEFA films. It’s anti-capitalist sentiments might have rankled the authorities in West Germany, but it still resonated with those who lived though the war. More importantly, it didn’t blame the people for Hitler’s actions, placing most of the blame, instead, on the Krupp family, which built a 400-year dynasty by providing armaments for all the major wars in Europe. This is a theme we’ve seen often in East German films from this period, where the primary blame for WWII is placed at the feet of corporations such as Standard Oil, Krupp, and IG Farben (see also, Council of the Gods).

IMDB page for this film.

Buy This film.


1. Due to an error made somewhere along the line in translation, you will often see this film listed under the title The Beaverskin. This weird error probably got it’s start with the English subtitles on the German DVD. There is a DEFA film titled The Beaverskin (in German: Der Biberpelz) that came out the same year as Girls in Gingham, and perhaps that has something to to do with the error. This mistake is so prevalent that even Wikipedia repeated it (although hopefully by the time you read this, I, or someone else, will have fixed that). Such is the power of the Internet.

frau3

The Woman and the Stranger (Die Frau und der Fremde) was released in 1985, less than five years before the Berlin Wall came down. Like many of the late-period DEFA films, it concentrated less on the concerns of the collective than individual needs. It is probably for this reason that the film found an audience in West Germany and went on to win the Golden Bear at the Berlinale—a first for an East German film.

The film is based on Karl und Anna, a 1926 novella by Leonhard Frank, who also wrote Die Jünger Jesu (The disciples of Jesus)—the basis for Joachim Hasler’s excellent noir film, The Story of a Murder. The Woman and the Stranger starts in a Russian P.O.W. camp during the First World War. While incarcerated there, Karl becomes obsessed with fellow prisoner Richard’s wife Anna. Richard talks about her constantly, explaining every detail of their lives together. It is a life Karl wants. After a mix-up, Richard is shipped off to parts unknown and Karl takes advantage of the situation to escape. He goes to Anna, claiming to be her husband. Anna doesn’t buy it for a second, but Karl does seem to know an awful lot about her. He moves in, but what about Richard? A reckoning clearly is at hand.

Die Frau und der Fremde

The story borrows heavily from the 1560 case of Martin Guerre. Perhaps it was Guerre’s last name that inspired Frank to tie the story to World War I. In the original case, a man showed up in Artigat, France, claiming to be the missing husband of of a local woman. The man moved in with the woman and they had two children before he was found out and eventually hanged.

An eternal sticking point in the original Martin Guerre story is the matter of the wife’s complicity. How could she not know that this man wasn’t her husband? Scholars still argue over this. In Leonhard Frank’s story, there is never any doubt that Anna knows Karl isn’t her husband, but his knowledge of every aspect of her life attracts and bewilders her. The desolation, loss, and confusion that World War I brought made it a perfect platform for the story. So perfect, in fact, that a year after Karl und Anna was published, the case of the Collegno amnesiac came to trial in Italy, in which yet another man was charged with pretending to be a woman’s missing husband.

Karl und Anna caught the attention of filmmakers almost immediately. It was made into the movie Heimkehr (Homecoming) in 1928 by Joe May, and then again in 1947 as Desire Me—a fiasco of a movie that nearly killed Greer Garson, had four directors, all refusing to take credit for it, and marked the beginning of the end of Louis B. Mayer’s reign at MGM. In America, the novella was released as a Signet paperback under the title Desire Me, with a typically lurid cover.

Desire Me paperback

The Woman and the Stranger is the third—and best—attempt to turn Frank’s book into a film. It was directed by Rainer Simon, one of DEFA’s best directors. Mr. Simon’s films range from fairytales (Sechse kommen durch die Welt) to comedies (Zünd an, es kommt die Feuerwehr). His style is impressively unconventional. In The Woman and the Stranger, for instance, he employs the use of color and sepia-tone to convey the various portions of the narrative. Normally this technique is used to convey part of a story that take place in the past, but here it is used to convey the internal thoughts and the external action in a most effective and unusual way. [For more on Rainer Simon, see Jadup and Boel.]

Playing Karl is Joachim Lätsch. Mr. Lätsch graduated from the Ernst Busch School for the Dramatic Arts in Berlin and started working film immediately. His first feature film was Roland Gräf’s Fariaho, The Woman and the Stranger was his second feature film. He appeared in several more East German films before the wall fell, including the seldom screened East Germ/Vietnamese coproduction, Dschungelzeit (Jungle Time). Since the Wende, Mr. Lätsch is one of the few East German actors who has appeared in more feature films than television shows.

Anna is played by Kathrin Waligura. The films marks Ms. Waligura’s first feature film appearance. In fact, she was still in drama school when she starred in this film. Mr. Simon was so impressed with her, that he cast her in two more of his films. As with many other East German actors, most of her post-Wende work has been on TV. Today, she is best known for her role as Stefanie Engel in the popular hospital series, Für alle Fälle Stefanie (For All Cases Stephanie). Most recently, she starred in Nico Sommer’s Familienfieber (Family Fever).

Kathrin Waligura

Playing Richard is Peter Zimmermann, another graduate of the Ernst Busch School for the Dramatic Arts in Berlin. Mr. Zimmermann started his film career in 1979 with two memorable films: Until Death Do Us Part, and Coded Message for the Boss (Chiffriert an Chef – Ausfall Nr. 5). Mr. Zimmermann continues to act, primarily in television roles, since 1994 he has taught at the film school in Babelsberg. He is married to Heike Jonca, and their daughter, Nele, has gone on to become a successful actress in her own right.

Also seen briefly in smaller roles here are Ulrich Mühe, Hans-Uwe Bauer, and Christine Schorn, all of whom have gone on to have successful feature film careers in unified Germany. Sadly missing from this roll call is Katrin Knappe, who was so memorable as the simple Boel in Mr. Simon’s previous film, Jadup and Boel. With her dark brown eyes and unique looks, we should have seen more from this actress, but after the Wende, she appeared in no more films. She continued to act, but switched to giving lectures on elocution.

As mentioned earlier, The Woman and the Stranger was the only East German film to ever win the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. This isn’t to say it was the first East German film to deserve this award—one can cite several instances where the films coming out of East Germany were better than anything coming from West Germans at the same time—but it does signal the beginning of a shift in the relationship between east and west. A shift that would come to a head on November 9th, 1989, when the border opened up for good.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.