Archive for the ‘WWII’ Category

The Fiancée
The Fiancée (Die Verlobte) is a grim film that offers very few moments of levity during its hour and forty-five minute running time. It’s a women-in-prison film, but has nothing in common with the likes of Caged Heat, 99 Women, or the dozens of other women-in-prison films of the sixties and seventies. There is nothing salacious here—just the grim reality of life behind bars in Nazi Germany.

The film follows the ten-year imprisonment of Hella Lindau (Jutta Wachowiak), an anti-Nazi resistance fighter who is arrested after a botched attempt to hand money over to the resistance. Hella suffers through solitary confinement and abuse by other inmates as well as the guards, enduring it all for the day she’ll get out and be with her fiancé Hermann Reimers (Regimantas Adomaitis) again. Hermann is playing a dangerous game, getting cozy with Gestapo official Hensch (Hans-Joachim Hegewald) to improve Hella’s living conditions.

The film doesn’t rely on simple caricatures for the people at this prison. The warden has a secret socialist past, and the guard who is the nicest to Hella happily moves up in the Nazi ranks when she has a chance. Through it all, Hella stays resolute and never betrays anyone, but meanwhile, Hensch is keeping an eye on Hermann.

Die Verlobte

The film is based on Haus der schweren Tore (House with Heavy Gates) and Leben, wo gestorben wird (Living Where Death Is), two autobiographical novels by author Eva Lippold. The books were part of intended trilogy that she never completed. Considering that the first two books were published in 1971 and 1974, and that Lippold didn’t die until 1994, its clear that the last volume was proving to be a bit of a problem for her. Lippold was born in Magdeburg in 1909. She started working as a shorthand typist when she was still a teenager, and joined the German Communist Party (KPD) when she turned eighteen. She worked for a while as a typist for the KPD newspaper Tribüne, where she met Hermann Danz, the inspiration for Hermann Reimers. Lippold was arrested in 1934 and sentenced to nine years in prison. She was released in 1943 and assigned to forced labor at an armaments factory. She was arrested again in 1944 for being a member of the Saefkow-Jacob-Bästlein Organization, an underground communist organization in Nazi Germany. After the War, she became highly active in the Soviet sector as a member of the SED. Lippold lived long enough to see the collapse of the DDR and the reunification of Germany. She had been an ardent supporter of the SED, so this must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

The film was co-directed by Günter Reisch and Günther Rücker, which is an odd combination. Reisch was one of the deftest filmmakers to come out of DEFA. He had a light touch and a way of making even the most serious subject bearable. His films about German Communist Party co-founder Karl Liebknecht (As Long as There Is Life in Me and In Spite of Everything!) would have been dull affairs in the hands of almost any other filmmaker, but he keeps things interesting and entertaining. His 1978 film Anton the Magician would have been nominated for a foreign film Academy Award had it come from West Germany. Reisch died on February 24, 2014 and is buried in the French Cemetery (Französischer Friedhof) in Berlin.

Günther Rücker, on the other hand, was better known as a writer with a penchant for the grim. He wrote the scenarios for Until Death Do Us Part and The Gleiwitz Case, two of the grimmest movies to come out of the GDR. Along with screenplays, he also wrote several successful radio plays and novels. Rücker was born in 1927 in Reichenberg (Liberec), Czechoslovakia, a town that was heavily populated by Germans prior to World War II.1 He studied theater at the Theaterhochschule Leipzig and got his start writing plays for the radio. After the Wende, it came out that he had been working as an Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter (informer) for the the Stasi. After that Rücker retired from public view although he continued to write. Rücker died in Meiningen in 2008.

Jutta Wachowiak

In spite of the seeming differences between these two men, Reisch and Rücker worked together throughout their careers, starting with Reisch’s first film, Junges Gemüse (Young Vegetables), right up through The Fiancée.

As Hella Lindau, Jutta Wachowiak turns in the performance of a lifetime. Wachowiak was trained as a stage actress, but has worked in film and on television since 1961, She had a small role in On the Sunny Side and did an uncredited turn as Marianne in The Baldheaded Gang. From there, she went on to appear in several DEFA films but it was The Fiancée that finally gave her the credit she deserved. In 1986, she impressed critics on both sides of the border with her performance as Käthe Kollwitz in the film of the same name. This would be the last time we’d see Wachowiak in the lead role in a feature film. Since the Wende, most of her work has been in television, or in smaller roles in features.

Regimantas Adomaitis

Playing Lindau’s fiancé is Lithuanian actor Regimantas Adomaitis. Adomaitis had worked with Günter Reisch previously on Wolz – Life and Illusion of a German Anarchist. His film career started in the sixties, but made his first big splash in That Sweet Word: Liberty! (Это сладкое слово). In 1988, he helped found Sąjūdis, a political reform group bent on putting Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika in action in Lithuania (East Germany wasn’t alone in trying to ignore the changes going on around them). More recently, Adomaitis appeared in the 2008 Norwegian film Iskyss, a fictionalized account of Gunvor Galtung Haavik, who delivered state secrets to the Soviet Union out of love for a Russian former prisoner of war.

Despite the film’s grimness, The Fiancée did well at the box office and was lauded by critics on both sides of the border.

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1. After the War, nearly all Germans were were either kicked out or killed—at first, by vigilante groups and then as part of a official decrees by President of Czechoslovakia Edvard Beneš. The exact number of Germans killed during Czechoslovakia’s forced expulsions is still debated. Estimates run from 15,000 to 270,000, depending on whose counting.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Arctic Sea Calls
In case you ever wondered what the Little Rascals (Our Gang) would look like as an East German concept, The Arctic Sea Calls (Das Eismeer ruft) answers the question. It’s the story of a band of spunky kids who take upon themselves to hike from Prague to the Bering Strait in an attempt to rescue the crew of a stranded Soviet steamship. The intrepid rescue team consists of Anton (Oliver Karsitz), the leader, Alex (Alexander Rohde), his right-hand man, Rosi (Vivian Schmidt), enlisted as the cook, and little Ferd (Thomas Gutzeit), who’s much too young for this trek, but didn’t want to be left behind. As one might imagine, the quartet doesn’t fully understand the logistics of what they are attempting, but they don’t let that get in their way. The trip involves crossing through Germany—a journey of some peril at that time. It’s 1934, and Hitler has been in power in Germany for over a year at this point, but hasn’t yet invaded Poland or Czechoslovakia.

The part about the ship stranded in the ice is true. On August 2, 1933, the steamship SS Chelyuskin (Челю́скин) set sail from Murmansk on an expedition to find out if there was a way for ships to sail the Northern Maritime Route from Murmansk to Vladivostok without the assistance of icebreakers. The Chelyuskin almost made it, but got stuck in the ice at the entrance to the Bering Strait, where it was crushed by the growing ice. The crew made it to the relative safety of the ice pack, and, using nothing more than a a few shovels and crowbars, managed to fashion an airstrip for rescue planes. After several failed attempts, they all were rescued safely in April of 1934.

The movie is based on the book of the same name by the German children’s book author Alex Wedding. Wedding’s real name was Grete Weiskopf. Like other female authors, she used a male pseudonym to avoid prejudice. Her first children’s book was Ede und Unku, which came out in 1931. It told the story of the friendship between an German and a gypsy, so, of course, the Nazis burned the book as soon as they came to power. As if to pour salt in the wound, the girl who was the model for Unku, later died in Auschwitz.

Das Eismeer ruft

Das Eismeer ruft was Wedding’s second book and was published in London by the same publishing company as her first book (Malik-Verlag). After the War, her husband, Czech author Franz Carl Weiskopf, became a Czechoslovakian diplomat and served in several countries before retiring and moving to the GDR. Wedding died in 1966 and shortly thereafter the Alex Wedding Prize for children’s literature was established, which is awarded every few years on her birthday (May 11).

This was director Jörg Foth’s directorial debut. Foth is a talented and quirky director, whose work is best showcased in The Latest from the Da-Da-eR—as unique a film as ever has been made. Born in 1949, Foth was one of the last new directors to come out of the Film University in Babelsberg (Filmuniversität Babelsberg). After The Arctic Sea Calls, he went to Vietnam to co-direct Time in the Jungle (Dschungelzeit) with Vietnamese director Tran Vu. Like the other members of the Nachwuchsgeneration (East German Baby Boomers), Foth was finding it difficult to get a toehold at DEFA. Young directors, who had spent years learning their craft, were passed over on film projects in favor of the older directors who had already made a name for themselves. To help rectify this situation, he helped create the DEFA Nachwuchsgruppe (Young Filmmakers Group). By the time the group was created (1990) its reason for being was gone, and so were the careers of any young filmmakers in East Germany. After making a few more films for the now foundering DEFA, the young filmmakers of East Germany found themselves back at square one.

The Arctic Sea Calls

Only one member of the young cast—Oliver Karsitz—went to have a career in movies, but not in front of the camera. After the Wende, Karsitz became an editor, primarily working documentaries. As is often the case with child actors, they bring their own raw charm to the parts, and Foth handles this well.

In 2017, thanks to global warming, a Russian tanker finally managed to sail the Northern Maritime Route unaided by icebreakers. Since that time, several more ships have made the journey, with more doing it every year. Without intending it, The Arctic Sea Calls has become a chronicle of the Earth’s past as well as our own.

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© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Our Daily Bread
There is a stereotype in the West about the films from communist countries: That they’re all about the struggles of the working class against oppression; that they’re shot in the style of socialist realism popularized by Russian directors; that they’re full of hokum about the importance of agriculture and tractors. Any regular reader of this blog knows that nothing could be further from the truth, but if you wanted to show one film that reinforced this stereotype, Our Daily Bread (Unser täglich Brot) would be the one to show. It is the perfect example of the communist film, right down to the parade of tractors at the end. That’s not to say it’s a bad film—director Slatan Dudow knows his craft—but it isn’t a valid representation of the films of East Germany, or the later films of Dudow for that matter. It’s an odd man out, made at a time when the GDR’s autonomy as a state was tenuous at best. The country was only a month old at that point.

Before East Germany ever became a country, the director Slatan Dudow was a hero of socialist cinema. His 1932 film Kuhle Wampe, oder Wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?) looked at the effects of the great depression on the average German, and championed the rights of workers. With its strong pro-socialist message (written by Bertolt Brecht) the film earned the enmity of the Nazis, who promptly banned it and arrested Dudow when they came to power. The film ends with a rousing rendition of “Solidaritätslied” (“Solidarity Song”)—written by Brecht with music by Hanns Eisler—which went on to become a popular song during the Spanish Civil War.

tractors!

Our Daily Bread is very much in the same vein as Kuhle Wampe, and might even be viewed as a sequel. It tells the story of the struggles of the Webers family to make ends meet after World War II. Father Karl (Paul Bildt) worked as a treasurer for the Renner & Co. Machine Works, and continues to put his faith in the capitalist system. His Ernst (Harry Hindemith), on the other hand, is a commited socialist is trying to help the workers rebuild Renner’s closed machine factory. Karl’s other son Harry (Paul Edwin Roth) wants to have nothing to do socialism, and prefers to make money by participating in the Black Market that thrived in Berlin after the War. Meanwhile, daughter Inge (Inge Landgut) tries to hold down a job, but keeps finding her honesty and compassion getting in the way. Like an English morality play, the people who make sacrifices and work hard are rewarded, while the ones looking for a life of ease are doomed to tragedy.

Our Daily Bread was Slatan Dudow’s first feature film since Kuhle Wampe, but it wouldn’t be his last. He made six more films for DEFA, and probably would have made more if he hadn’t died in a car accident while filming his last movie, Christine. Dudow’s DEFA films include Destinies of Women, The Captain of Cologne (Der Hauptmann von Köln), and Love’s Confusion. Watching his films in sequence,you can see Dudow’s shift away from the old stylized aesthetics of Ufa and Mosfilm to DEFA’s more objective style of filmmaking.

Landgut

Amusingly, most of the stars of this, the most socialist of East German films, are West Germans. There was still no West German film industry to speak of at that point so West German actors and directors sought work across the border. Paul Bildt and Siegmar Schneider made a few films for DEFA, but for Paul Edwin Roth and Inge Landgut, this was their only East German movie. Inge Landgut started appearing in films when she was three years old. She’s the girl we see threatened by Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M. She also played Pony in the 1931 version of Emil und die Detektive.1 Viktoria von Ballasko hailed from Vienna. A leading lady during the thirties, by the fifties, she was playing mothers, with one of her last film roles playing Horst Buchholz’s mother in Die Halbstraken (released in the U.S. under the much better title Teenage Wolfpack). Schneider, Roth, Landgut, and von Ballasko all found work in the West dubbing American movies into German.

Harry Hindemith, like his character, was devoted to the socialist cause and had no intention of leaving East Germany. He had been a member of the German Communist party (KPD) before Hitler took over. Although he joined the Nazi Party during World War II, this was mostly a move to ensure he could continue to perform on stage. After the War he rejoined the KPD, and then East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party (SED). He often appeared in supporting roles in DEFA films and East German television shows as well as performing on stage and in radio plays. He died in East Berlin in 1973.

Our Daily Bread

The score for the film is by Hanns Eisler, who’d been kicked out of the United States a year earlier by the nitwits on the House Un-American Activities Committee. Upon arriving in East Germany, he composed the country’s national anthem “Auferstanden aus Ruinen” (“Risen from the Ruins”), a better anthem than the one used by West Germany: Hitler’s beloved “Deutschlandlied” (better known to Americans as “Deutschland über alles”—the music that is played whenever a Nazi arrives in a movie). While in Hollywood, Eisler had written the scores for a few movies, most notably Hangmen Also Die, None But the Lonely Heart, and Deadline at Dawn. In East Germany, Eisler went on to write the scores for several movies, including The Council of the Gods, Destinies of Women, and The Crucible. Eisler had written the music for several of Bertolt Brecht’s plays and two men were close. They both left Germany and worked in Hollywood, and they were both drummed out of America by the HUAC (although Eisler, was forcibly ejected, while Brecht chose to leave). Then they moved to East Germany with high hopes for that republic. Brecht died in 1956, when many good socialists were still rooting for the GDR. Eisler died in 1962. By then it was clear that the socialist republic Brecht and Eisler had striven for was inexorably headed toward failure. Without his pal Brecht, Eisler found very few people with whom he could commiserate. He grew more sullen, and withdrew from the public, dying of a heart attack in 1962.

Our Daily Bread is a good movie in the same way that Herbert J. Biberman’s Salt of the Earth is a good movie. Both films promote ideas that were being intentionally suppressed in the United States and both films wear their politics on their sleeves. Both films are intended to rouse the people against the exploitation of the labor force by the rich, but are a bit too earnest for their own good. The lesson in Our Daily Bread is a good one, but the GDR’s failure to live up to its own rhetoric helped capitalists such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher neutralize the message and bury the ideals.

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1. Based on the popular children’s book by Erich Kästner, Emil and the Detectives was directed by Gerhard Lamprecht, who

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Airship
In The Airship (Das Luftschiff), director Rainer Simon looks at the creative urge, how it drives a person forward, and how it can cloud their vision, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. It is a wildly experimental film with a narrative that jumps back and forth in time and features direct-on-film animation. The film follows the adventures of Chico, a young boy who is trying to find his grandfather Franz Xavier Stannebein, an inventor who had tried to build a new type of aircraft before World War II. Stannebein wasn’t interested in war machines. He wanted to make a kind of flying hotel similar to the old zeppelins, but without the flammability problem. When he tried to get money for his project from Germany, he was duped into building a landing strip in Spain for the Condor Legion—a unit of the German airforce sent to help Francisco Franco win the Spanish Civil War. When Stannebein protested, he was thrown into a lunatic asylum. Chico sets off across the countryside to reunite with his grandfather at the asylum. Throughout the film the story jumps back and forth between Chico’s travels and Stannebein’s monomaniacal efforts to get his airship built. The film reaches its climax when Chico reaches the asylum and finds out what really happened to his grandfather.

The Airship is based on a book by Fritz Rudolf Fries—one of the most talented writers to come out of East Germany. Born in Bilbao, Spain, Fries moved to Leipzig when he was seven. There, he went to school at the Karl Marx University. He was fluent in four languages (German, French, Spanish and English), so he quickly found work as a translator. His first book, Der Weg nach Oobliadooh (The road to Oobliadooh) was denied publication in East Germany, but he was able to get it published in West Germany. The book was an immediate hit, and was translated into several other languages, including English. This didn’t endear him to the powers that be in East Germany. It cost him his job, but they recognized that they had a writer of immense talent whose work didn’t make any obvious statements about GDR politics. The books that followed were all printed in East Germany, including The Airship. The fall of the Wall did nothing to slow down Fries’ output, until 1996, when it was revealed that he had worked as an informer for the Stasi. Interest in his work cooled down rapidly after that, until 2010 with the publication of Last Exit to El Paso, which was well received by critics. Fries died in 2014, at which time, Sebastian Hammelehle wrote for Der Spiegel: “German-language literature not only loses a unique author, but also one whose work has not yet been discovered in its entirety.” (“Die deutschsprachige Literatur verliert mit ihm nicht nur einen einzigartigen Autor, sondern auch einen, dessen Werk in seiner ganzen Größe noch gar nicht entdeckt ist.”).

This was Rainer Simon’s first film since Jadup and Boel. Perhaps the folks at DEFA figured he would toe the line a little better after being slapped down for making that film. They were mistaken. If anything, this film is a stronger indictment of the GDR than Jadup and Boel was, especially given the fact that, like the Nazis in The Airship, the East German government sometimes used the charge of insanity to locked up people who were political nuisances. But because it was set in Germany during the War years, the folks at DEFA either didn’t see the connection, or didn’t want to acknowledge it.

Das Luftshiff

The film features a strong cast that includes Katrin Knappe, Kurt Böwe, Timo Jakob, and Gudrun Ritter, all of whom had appeared in Jadup and Boel as well. Additionally, the cast includes Johanna Schall, Arno Wyzniewski, and Hermann Beyer—some of the best actors who hadn’t left East Germany yet. The boy who plays Chico (Daniel Roth) made one for film with Rainer Simon (The Woman and the Stranger), but appears to have dropped out of acting after that.

In Der Freitag, film critic Heinz Kersten called The Airship, “The first full-length experimental film made by DEFA.” Technically, this isn’t completely true. Farewell is also experimental—especially given that it was made shortly after the 11th Plenum—and other films such as The Robe, The Gleiwitz Case, and Divided Heaven have strong experimental aspects in them as well. But it is the first to be made with the assistance of an actual experimental film artist: Lutz Dammbeck. At that time, Dammbeck was making a name for himself with his animations in which he scratched images directly onto the film à la Norman McLaren or Stan Brakhage. Born in Leipzig in 1948, Dammbeck trained as typesetter and studied graphic design at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig. He has created art in several disciplines including, film, painting, collage, and multimedia. He began creating direct-to-film animations in the early seventies, painstakingly scratching animations onto individual frames of film.

The Airship - Das Luftschiff

For the flashback scenes, cinematographer Roland Dressel uses the same technique he used in Jadup and Boel, blurring the edges of the image, as if the memory of events is starting to fade; but because that film wasn’t released in the GDR until 1988, The Airship was the first time audiences saw this effect. Dressel was trained as a photographer, and spent fifteen years as an assistant cameraman with the likes of Jan Čuřík, Werner Bergmann, Joachim Hasler, and Erich Gusko before stepping into the role of DP. He started in television, but he quickly gained a name for himself and became Rainer Simon’s cinematographer of choice. His work on The Airship garnered him the award for best cinematography at the 1984 Eberswalde Film Festival. Dressel continued to work on films, and won the Gold Prize for cinematography in 1994 for Michael Gwisdek’s Abschied von Agnes (Farewell to Agnes). After the Wende—like virtually ever other East German cinematographer—Dressel found it hard to find feature film jobs and returned to television, but he was too good to stay there for long as was soon making feature films again. He retired in 2000.

The Airship is a unique film, and although it may not be the first experimental DEFA film, it did signal a trend in that direction. A trend that would crest shortly after the Wall came down with films such as Latest from the Da-Da-R, Miraculi, and The Land Beyond the Rainbow.

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© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


In November of 1957, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory was released in West Germany. It would appear in American cinemas a month later. When it did, film critics were rightly impressed and singled out one scene as a proof of Kubrick’s genius. It was the scene of the court martial, where the soldiers are shot from an elevated angle so you can see the chessboard pattern that the floor tiles create. The thing is, though, Konrad Wolf had already shot a similar scene for a film called Lissy that had been released in East Germany the previous May. So had Kubrick seen that film? He was in West Germany at the time, just getting started on Paths of Glory. At that point, he would have had to visit East Germany to see Lissy, It wasn’t released in the West until the following January. There is no record of him having done so, but back in 1957, visiting East Berlin from West Berlin was a simple matter. There was no Wall to get in the way.

Lissy follows the misadventures of a young woman as she goes from optimistic and cheerful shopgirl to a disillusioned wife of a Nazi soldier. At the beginning of the film, we see her working at a popular store, selling cigarettes and making small talk with the customers. Meanwhile, outside, a solitary Nazi brownshirt goes unheeded, asking for donations. Lissy has a steady beau named Alfred with a good job and everything seems copacetic. But this is Berlin during the Weimar years, just before the banks failed and the economy tanked. Soon, people would start blaming the Weimar government for the problem, and looking to a new guy named Adolf Hitler who claimed he could get them out of this mess.

Lissy

At the start of the film Lissy is passively left-wing. Her father is a socialist and union activist, and her best friends Max and Toni are highly active in communist politics, but Lissy would rather not bother with such things. She and Alfred both have good jobs. Then Lissy’s boss finds out she’s pregnant and she loses her job. Meanwhile, Alfred (Horst Drinda) isn’t too thrilled about having to raise a kid. He even visits an abortion doctor but the man has been arrested., Alfred and Lissy get married, then things get worse. He loses his job due to the growing economic woes, and tries to earn money as a salesman, but nobody’s buying anything. For Alfred, the populist rhetoric of Adolf Hitler starts sounding good. After all, weren’t his previous bosses Jewish? He starts hanging around with Nazis and things begin to improve financially for him and Lissy. Enjoying her newfound affluence, Lissy doesn’t make much fuss over Alfred’s politics. Or course, things eventually come to a head, and Lissy realizes that looking the other way isn’t the answer.

The story of Lissy is a variation on a story that has been told many times in movies and books. The 1940 Hollywood film, The Man I Married, treads similar territory when a wife (Joan Bennet) eventually realizes that her German husband Eric (Francis Lederer) is a Nazi and that this is not a good thing. Lissy is also similar to Wolf’s later film Professor Mamlock, in that Lissy’s silence and attempts to ignore the growing threat of Nazism helped Hitler come to power. Several times in the movie, we see Lissy and her husband staring at their reflections in mirrors and shop windows. Sometimes this is as a metaphor for the philosophical split between what they know is right and the Nazis they are supporting, and sometimes it seems as if they are looking in the mirrors to check for visible signs of their own guilt.

Lissy

Lissy is based on a book by Franz Carl Weiskopf. Prior to WWII, he lived in Prague, but once the Nazis marched in, Weiskopf marched out, eventually ending up in New York. After the war, he worked for the Czechoslovakian government as a diplomat in Washington, Stockholm, and Beijing. In 1953, he moved to East Germany, where he remained until his death in 1955.

Lissy was Konrad Wolf’s third film, and his first true classic (for more on Wolf, see I Was Nineteen). Here we see Wolf’s skill as a director in full bloom. Some scenes in this film as so perfectly composed, they could stand alone as photographs. Partly this is thanks to Wolf’s longtime cameraman, Werner Bergmann, who shot all of Wolf’s films until Solo Sunny. Bergmann’s background as a photographer certainly helped here (for more on Bergmann, see Professor Mamlock).

Lissy is played to perfection by Sonja Sutter. Sutter lived in West Germany, but appeared in films on both sides of the border. She was trained in the theater, and would return to the stage many times throughout her career. Her movie career started when she played the lead in Slatan Dudow’s Destinies of Women, but it was with Lissy that East German audiences really started to notice her. Her East German film career ended with the construction of the Berlin Wall. She later moved to Vienna, working at the famous Burgtheater for over forty years. After the Wall was built, she only appeared in a few movies, and was seen more often on television. Her last film appearance was in Hans W. Geissendörfer’s 1976 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. Sutter died on June 2, 2017 in Baden, Austria. Her daughter Carolin Fink has on to become a successful actress, appearing in several television shows.

Lissy

Horst Drinda had starred in Wolf’s first film, Once Does Not Count, a comedy about a put-upon composer who arrives in a small town for some R&R, only to find himself harried by the town locals that want him to compose songs for them. In Lissy, he’s a much less sympathetic character. Drinda occasionally played good guys, but his looks were always better suited to bad guys. He appeared in many DEFA films, including Love’s Confusion, Love and the Co-Pilot, and The Robe. During the seventies, he started appearing more often on television than in films. By the time the Wall fell, Drinda was appearing exclusively on TV, so the Wende had less effect on him than some of the bigger stars. He continued working on television, with only one post-Wende movie appearance (Jailbirds). In 2003, he suffered two strokes, and died in 2005.

As one might expect from the West German critics, Some attacked Lissy for being too pro-communist, but even the harshest of critics had to admit that Wolf was a talented director. The Hamburg Post gave the film a glowing review saying “Here we have a film that has been made in the masterful grip of a young director” (“Hier haben wir einen Film, der im meisterhaften Griff eines jungen Regisseurs”). A couple years later, Wolf would impress even his most virulent critics with one of the first German films to address the holocaust: Stars.1

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1. Technically, the first German film to address the holocaust is the 1949 film Lang ist der Weg (Long is the Road), but that film was produced by the United States Army Information Control Division, as part of the “de-Nazification” program the U.S. was undertaking in Germany. In terms of release date, Morituri was the first, since it was released in 1948; although Lang ist der Weg was made in 1947. Morituri was produced by Artur Brauner, an actual concentration camp survivor.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Käthe Kollwitz – Images of a Life
In 1966, director Ralf Kirsten made The Lost Angel, a film about a day in the life of sculptor Ernst Barlach. That film centers around Barlach’s sculpture Der schwebende, which was destroyed by the Nazis for being “degenerate art.” The sculpture was inspired by Barlach’s fellow artist Käthe Kollwitz. So much so that the face on the sculpture is Kollwitz’s. Coming out, as it did, in 1966, the film fell directly into the path of the 11th Plenum’s Kahlschlag (literally: clear-cutting) and was promptly banned. The film was eventually screened in a highly edited form, but Kirsten clearly wasn’t through with the subject of German pacifist artists and their run ins with the Nazis, because in 1987, he released Käthe Kollwitz – Images of a Life (Käthe Kollwitz – Bilder eines Lebens).

Käthe Kollwitz is as different from The Lost Angel as apples from acorns. The earlier film is shot in black-and-white and follows the artist for a single day as he ruminates on how to respond to the Nazis. Käthe Kollwitz is in vivid color and charts the artist Kollwitz’s life from right before World War I until her death in 1945. The first film starts with the removal of Barlach’s sculpture from the Güstrow cathedral, while the second film starts with the actress Jutta Wachowiak, getting made up to play Käthe Kollwitz. Throughout the film, the story is interrupted with scenes of Wachowiak visiting various sites to learn more about the woman she was portraying. These interludes act as sort of a Greek chorus, filling in historical details where the narrative cannot. Since Kollwitz spent most of this time living with her husband in a large apartment in Berlin, the story is also interspersed with scenes of street life in her neighborhood and the changes it goes through during this time. Particularly poignant are the scenes involving an older couple that go from carefree to despondent as the movie progresses.

Kollwitz came from a middle-class background where socialism and religion were both important. Her talent was undeniable, and in spite of the inherent misogyny of the time, she managed to rise in the ranks of German artists, eventually being asked to join the prestigious Prussian Academy of Arts. After losing her son in World War I, Kollwitz became even more resolutely pacifist than she had been before the War, and eventually joined the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers Council for Art). Inspired by the woodcuts of fellow artist Ernst Barlach, Kollwitz applied her hand to this medium, creating the popular In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht (Gedenkblatt für Karl Liebknecht).

Kollwitz

Jutta Wachowiak is considerably prettier than Kollwitz, but then, nobody looked quite like Käthe Kollwitz. In her early films, Wachowiak was often used as a character actress, cast in smaller roles. During this time, she was also appearing on stage and receiving acclaim for her performances there as well. In 1980, she scored her biggest success for her role in Günter Reisch’s The Fiancée (Die Verlobte). She continues to appear in movies and on television.

Fred Düren, who played Barlach in the earlier movie, returns here to play Käthe Kollwitz’s husband Karl. Düren got his start in theater, joining Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin Ensemble in the early 1950s, and performing with the Deutsches Theater Berlin from 1958 to 1988. Then Düren found religion; Judaism to be exact. He learned Hebrew, moved to Israel and became a rabbi (he certainly looked the part). Although he did a few TV movies after Käthe Kollwitz, his career as a film actor essentially ended with this film. Düren died in Israel in 2015.

Käthe Kollwitz was Ralf Kirsten’s last film. With his stubbornly idealistic streak, Kirsten may have found it hard to find work in communist East Germany, but it became completely impossible in unified Germany. With the fall of the Wall, he took up teaching at the Konrad Wolf Film and Television Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg. Kirsten died in 1998.

Modern interlude

This wasn’t the last film shot by cinematographer Otto Hanisch, but his career also ended with the Wende. In his case, this probably had more to do with his age (he was 64 when his last film came out) than East/West politics. While the cinematography in Käthe Kollwitz does not have the stunning impact of Claus Neumann’s rich, black-and-white photography in The Lost Angel, it is sharply-focused and richly in color, signature features of Hanisch’s work.

Reviews were mixed on the film. While everyone admired Jutta Wachowiak’s and Fred Düren’s performances, but some felt that the modern-day interludes took the viewer out of the experience and created a distancing effect, lessening the impact of the story’s tragic elements.

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© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Karriere
Director Heiner Carow hated Career. He only made it to salvage his footage from The Russians are Coming after that film was banned by the East German authorities. Along with footage from his own film, Carow adds newsreel footage from other sources1 to fashion a film about a businessman in West Germany named Günter Walcher who tries to stay politically neutral, but finds his morals challenged by the decisions of others. Walcher is being pressured by his higher-ups to fire a man because of his left-leaning politics. To make matters worse, Walcher’s son has joined the National Democratic Party of Germany (NDP), an ultra-right-wing political party that treads dangerously close to Nazism. Through the use of flashbacks (the footage from The Russians Are Coming) we learn that Walcher’s reticence to fire the employee comes from an incident in his youth, where his actions led to the death of a Russian boy.

The film features folk songs by West German satirist Dietrich Kittner. Whether by accident or intentionally, the use of Kittner’s songs make one think of another folksinger who could have provided songs for this film: Wolf Biermann. Both were politically to the left, and both men were good at composing sarcastic songs about the hypocrisy and elitism of the people in charge. But in 1970, when this film was made, Biermann was being blacklisted by the East German government. Unlike Kittner, who restricted his attacks to the West, Biermann was an equal opportunity mocker, allergic to pompousness regardless of his target’s position on the political spectrum. That’s not to say Kittner didn’t have run-ins with the authorities. He was kicked out of the SPD because of his politics, and he protested vociferously against the German Emergency Acts (Notstandsgesetze) that were passed in 1968, legislation that was seen by some as an attempt to reinstate some of the laws that helped Hitler comes to power.

Career

Career is laced with newsreel footage of people demonstrating against the German Emergency Acts, giving the strong impression that the laws were passed thanks to the ex-Nazis that were allowed to return to political offices in West Germany. West Germans cried foul, saying the film did not paint a true representation of things in the West, but a 2016 study found that 77% of senior ministry officials in 1957 were former members of the Nazi party. “We didn’t expect the figure to be this high,” said Christoph Safferling, a law professor at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg. Safferling’s statement betrays his West German roots—no East German would be surprised by this number at all.

Because Career was made for a German audience, it assumes a knowledge of the events in Germany at that time, and some familiarity with people such as Franz Josef Strauss and Georg Ziegler.2 Made in 1971, the film came at the tail-end of the German student movement protests that swept West Germany in the late sixties—the so-called 68er-Bewegung movement that led the way to the development of the Red Army Faction. Much of the newsreel footage is shown without explanation. This assumption that the viewers know about the student protests movements of 1968, or the rise of the NPD party keeps the plot moving forward, but might leave young viewers and audiences from other countries slightly confused about some of the comments and actions in the film.

The older Walcher is played by Horst Hiemer, a popular character actor in East Germany. Trained as a theater actor (as were most of the better DEFA actors), he worked for many years at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. On film, Hiemer tended to play honest officials and workers when he was younger, and dishonest officials and policeman as he got older. He was one of the many actors who signed the protest letter against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. For some, signing this letter spelled the end of their careers, but the only effect it seemed to have on Hiemer was he tended to play bad guys more often after that. Hiemer continued to perform at the Deutsches Theater until 2001, and continued to appear in films and on television until 2005.

Karriere

Career was the first film for Rüdiger Joswig, who played Walcher’s son. Unlike some East German actors, Joswig’s career as an actor continued after the Wende with barley a hiccup. He continued to appear in dozens of television shows. More recently, he’s been doing readings with his wife and fellow actor Claudia Wenzel.

Besides the songs of Dietrich Kittner, Career also features a score by Peter Gotthardt, who is best known for writing the music for The Legend of Paula and Paula. Unlike the pop tunes in that film, here he seems to be channeling Ennio Morricone, with soaring trumpet melodies backed by a full orchestra. Since reunification, Gotthardt has worked freelance, founding his own music publishing house, and providing music for everything from feature films to educational reels.

A director brings their own baggage to every project. For Carow, Career was a dilution of a story he wanted to tell. It doesn’t help that most of the new footage consists of Walcher simply staring into space while a voiceover narration lets us know his inner thoughts, or two shots of people arguing. Nonetheless—and regardless of Carow’s opinion—Career is a remarkable film; equal to, and in some respects superior to The Russians Are Coming. It deserves more attention, but it has been largely ignored. IMDB, for instance, treats the film as the second half of The Russians Are Coming, and does not even list the film on their site. As one might expect, West Germans didn’t care much for the film, calling it a gross exaggeration of life in West Germany—a criticism now leveled by East Germans at films such as The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin!

There is no IMDB page for this film. Its details are listed under The Russians Are Coming.

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1. Most of the footage is taken from the East German documentary Absolution, and the Soviet documentary Triumph Over Violence (Обыкновенный фашизм).

2. This tendency to assume knowledge of the news and historical events in a film’s country of origin is true everywhere, but the Germans take it to another level. This is not unique to the films of DEFA.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Die Russen kommen
During the final year of World War II, the war in Germany became a war of children. Hitler’s war effort had so depleted the ranks of adult males that teenagers were drafted to fight. Having grown up under the Third Reich, indoctrination for the Fatherland started at an early age, these young men were Hitler’s last stand. Too young to question the reasons for fighting and not old enough to fear death, they fought ferociously and with commitment. A few films have been made on this subject. It figures prominently in Wolfgang Staudte’s Rotation, and in Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge (Die Brücke). The Russians Are Coming (Die Russen kommen) is another example. Unlike the other two films, much of the action in The Russians Are Coming takes place inside the mind of the protagonist. Dead characters return to haunt the living, and thoughts suddenly impose images on the film. In this respect, it resembles a Fellini film—an unusual thing for an East German film to resemble.

The protagonist of the film is Günter, a sixteen-year-old German boy who is proud to fight for the Fatherland. He begins to question his worldview after he helps his squad of Hitler Youths corner a Russian boy and kill him without reason. Günter earns an Iron Cross for helping trap the boy, as does the policeman who shoots the unarmed youth. This incident weighs heavily on Günter’s mind, and the boy—whose name, we find out later, is Igor—keeps appearing in Günter’s fantasies.

The Russians Are Coming

The Russians Are Coming is cited as the reverse side of the coin from Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen, in which a young German man who grew up in Russia is sent to the help the Russian army invade Germany. This is no accident. Wolf acknowledge this himself, and Heiner Carow starts his film with a title card reading “For Konrad Wolf.” It is also compared to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo), and Joachim Kunert’s The Adventures of Werner Holt.

Director Heiner Carow was fifteen when the war ended, which put him in a perfect position to understand what was going on in the mind of his protagonist. Like I Was Nineteen, some of what happens in The Russians Are Coming comes from Carow’s own experiences during wartime. Carow got his start at DEFA working on documentary shorts. His first film was Sheriff Teddy, based on Benno Pludra’s children’s book about a West Berlin gang leader whose parents move to East Berlin. The film was popular, and Carow would later direct two more features based on books by Benno Pludra. Carow followed Sheriff Teddy with They Called Him Amigo (Sie nannten ihn Amigo), about a boy who tries to help an escaped P.O.W. hide from the Nazis, leading to personal tragedy. But it was the 1972 hit The Legend of Paul and Paula that was Carow’s biggest success. It remains one of the most beloved of all East German films.

The Legend of Paul and Paula started Carow on a path of examining human relationships as honestly as possible with films such as Until Death Do Us Part, and Coming Out—one of the first films to explore gay relationships sympathetically. After the Berlin Wall came down, Carow made The Mistake (Verfehlung), the story of a woman exacting revenge for actions the Stasi took against her lover. After the Wende, Carow started working in German television, but died of a stroke in 1997. In 2013 the DEFA Foundation introduced the Heiner-Carow-Prize at the Berlinale. It has been awarded every year since.

The Russians Are Coming

The Russians Are Coming stars Gert Krause-Melzer as Günter. It was Krause-Melzer’s first film role, which is really being thrown into the deep end. He mostly does a good job, although he obviously struggles with the more emotional scenes. This would turn out to be Krause-Melzer’s only film role, but the actor continued to appear on stage. As of this writing, he lives in Potsdam and performs in the one-man cabaret show, Solokabarett Gert Melzer.

By the time he made The Russians Are Coming, Viktor Perevalov—who plays Igor—was already a popular child star in Russia. Like many child stars, he had a fallow period, when he became too old to continue playing teenagers, but was too typecast to be seen as anything else. It took a few years, but he eventually started appearing in films again in adult roles. He died in St. Petersburg in 2010.

Viktor Perevalov

The Russians Are Coming was not well received by the East German review board. They said it was “contaminated with modernism” (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean), and lacked a hero with good, anti-fascist values. Never mind that it was a truthful portrayal of one young man’s existential dilemma at the end of the war. As a result, the film was shelved. Carow ended up using clips from the movie as flashbacks in his next film Career (Karriere). A film that Carow reportedly disliked, but, as we shall see next time, deserves a second look.

The Russians Are Coming was thought to be lost, until Carow’s wife and well-known film editor Evelyn Carow turned up a copy and helped put it back together. By 1987, the climate in East Germany had changed enough to allow screenings of the movie. The film was hailed as a classic, as older films often are when revived, and it went on to earn Heiner Carow the Best Director award at the GDR National Feature Film Festival. The fact that the film could be shown in East Germany was seen as sign that the GDR had moved away from the restrictive censorship of the past, heralding a new, more progressive future for the country. Restrictions on films were, indeed, loosening up, but in a couple years it wouldn’t matter, because in a couple years there would no longer be an East Germany.

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© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Second Life of Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow
1973 was an interesting year in DEFA’s history. It’s not as historically important as 1966, when a dozen films were either pulled or shot down while in production; and it lacks the prodigious output of 1961, which saw the release of twenty-five films.1 But if you are looking for a year that is representative of most aspects of DEFA, 1973 is a good place to look. It is the year that saw the first appearance of all-American Dean Reed in an East German film (Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts), and the release Heiner Carow’s ground-breaking The Legend of Paul and Paula. In terms of genre films, it saw the release of a musical (No Cheating, Darling!), a fairytale film (Susanne and the Magic Ring), a western, (Apaches), a biopic (Copernicus), and a literary adaptation (Unterm Birnbaum). Just for good measure, the year ended with one film getting banned for the usual stupid reasons (The Dove on the Roof). The only things really missing from that line-up are a spy movie and a science fiction film.

The Second Life of Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow (Das zweite Leben des Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow) is a tragicomedy of the type Germans have been so good at making since the early days at UFA—which is to say, bitterly comedic. It goes through the entire life of the title character, from his birth to his later years, but it is mostly concerned with what happens to a man when his job has been made redundant, and he’s faced with finding a new occupation at a time when everyone thinks he’s past his expiry date. Having found myself in a similar situation, I can relate to this movie on a personal level, as will anyone who has ever had the dubious distinction of trying to find a new job once they’ve past the 55-year mark.

Das zweite Leben des Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow

Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow has had a good life working at a railroad crossing in a small German town. It’s a mundane job, but Platow is a man of limited ambition, so maintaining a railroad crossing is fine with him. When technology makes his job redundant, Platow and his son—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Platow—are given an offer: The son will go back to school for further training, and the father will take over the son’s job. But the son, has the same “I’d prefer not to” attitude that has marked his father’s actions throughout his life, so Friedrich decides to take Georg’s place at the school. The only problem is that Friedrich is much to old to apply for the job, so he buys a leather jacket and pretends to be younger. On the train to the academy he meets Malvine, a heartbroken young women who immediately guesses his age and then gives him pointers on how to appear younger. Throughout the film, an old lady and her grandson show up to make comments, eventually acting as sort of a two-person Greek chorus.

The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow uses film stock in an usual way. Everything is in color except for the scenes where Platow (and, in one case, his son) are either working or involved with co-workers. Those scenes are in black-and-white. Thus, Platow’s childhood (which is where most directors would use black-and-white), his internment on the Eastern Front, and his time at the academy are all in color. Perhaps this is to indicate the drab nature of the jobs, or to show the simpler, black-and-white nature of a daily routine. It works either way. The one exception to this is the scene where Malvine’s backstory is revealed. This scene is also black-and-white. Is the filmmaker suggesting that her previous life was a job? Or was it simply to separate the scene from those that come before and after it?

Das zweite Leben des Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow

The film is directed by Siegfried Kühn, a talented director who also gave us The Actress. He started his adult life as a mining engineer, but changed careers during a stay in Berlin. Kühn made up for lost time, plunging into his film studies with a fervor, studying at the film school in Babelsberg and under Sergei Gerasimov at the Moscow Institute of Cinematography (renamed the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in 1986). Kühn was not a particularly prolific filmmaker, and it would be five years after graduating from the film school in Moscow before he’d start working regularly for DEFA, working in theater at first, where he further honed his skills working with actors. Kühn hit his stride as a director around the time that wall came down, which brought his career to a screeching halt, from which he never recovered.

To cast the film, Kühn turned to East Germany’s theater community, hiring noted theater director Fritz Marquardt to play Platow. Marquardt was no stranger to film, having already appeared in smaller roles in The Falcon’s Trail, The Time of the Storks (Zeit der Störche), and The Man Who Replaced Grandma, but it was his role as a director at the Volksbühne, Berliner Ensemble, and various other theaters for which he is best known. More recently, he turned in a brief appearance as the bed-ridden father of the main character in Andreas Dresen’s Whisky with Vodka (Whisky mit Wodka).

Playing the cynical but sympathetic Malvine is Gisela Hess in her only theatrical film appearance. Aside from a couple television show appearances in East Germany, Hess has spent her career on stage at Theater Magdeburg. In 1982, her sister was sentence to two years and eight months for trying to immigrate to West Germany without exit papers.2

The Puhdys

The film has a solid cast all the way down the line. The popular actor Fred Delmare plays Platow’s father, Platow’s son is played by Lothar Warneke, a fine director in his own right, and Winfried Glatzeder of Paul and Paula fame makes a brief appearance as a clown.

The soundtrack is by Hans Jürgen Wenzel, who worked as a conductor for various theatres and orchestras. He only composed music for seven films. The Time of the Storks was his first. The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow was his second. In 1976, Wenzel founded the Komponistenklasse Halle (Composers Class Hall), a training program for young musicians that is one of the few cultural programs from East Germany that is still in operation. He was a fan of expressionistic music, which the score for this movie hints at. It starts with an electric guitar, which is quickly replaced by an orchestral theme. It isn’t long, though, before the electric guitar is back, now more distorted than before, taking over the theme from the violins. It’s one of the cleverest movie themes around, sonically demonstrating the conflict between the old and the new.

The East German rock band The Puhdys also appear in the film, playing at a restaurant. Earlier the same year, they had made a big splash with the soundtrack for The Legend of Paul and Paula. Here, they get to demonstrate their hard rock chops, playing much more aggressive music than the lilting themes from Paul and Paula.

The film caused some grumbling among the SED officials who reviewed it. They felt that it wasn’t a fair representation of the working class. The film was released without a premiere, and was excluded from export. It wasn’t shown in unified Germany until 1996, and has had only limited screenings in North America since then. For this reason, the film remains relatively unknown, even in Germany. But don’t let its relative obscurity fool you—it is worth searching out. It is a genuine East German classic.

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1. There was actually one more film intended for release that year: The Dress—but it was banned for its references to a walled city run by an idiot king.

2. Here in the West, this would normally be characterized as “fleeing” or “escaping,” but I’m intentionally avoiding such loaded terms. The fact is, many people were leaving East Germany around this time. That’s not to say the East German government was making it easy to emigrate, but it could be done, as Manfred Krug, Nina Hagen, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and other demonstrated.

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.

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