Posts Tagged ‘banned’

Suzanne Stoll

“Transgressive” is not a word one often uses to describe films from the GDR. With an industry so closely monitored, it was rare for a genuinely shocking film to get past the authorities, but Ursula is just such a film. To make it even more shocking, it was made for television.

Ursula is directed by Egon Günther, and is based on a novella by Gottfried Keller from his Züricher Novellen (Zurich Stories). The story begins in 1523, when Hansli Gyr (often translated as Jackie Geer), a Swiss mercenary, returns from the battlefield to find that Ursula Schnurrenberger, his one true love, is not the woman she used to be. While he was away, the people of his village fell under the sway of Anabaptists (Wiedertäufer), whose doomsday predictions and rejection of traditional values were taking root in the villages near Zurich at that time. Hansli had been away fighting for the papacy in Northern Italy, and is horrified by this change in religious attitudes. He leaves Ursula to try and figure out what to do next when he runs into Huldrych Zwingli, the famous Swiss religious reformer. Hansli joins forces with Zwingli, which puts him at odds with the people of his village, who are being driven mad by their oddball beliefs; especially Ursula, who now thinks Hansli is the Angel Gabriel. The rest of the movie follows the paths the two lovers take, culminating in one of the strangest battle sequences this side of Ken Russell.

To fully appreciate this film, a little history is in order. In 1517, Martin Luther tacked his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Luther wasn’t saying anything people weren’t already thinking. The corruption in the Roman Catholic church had reached such proportions that by the time Luther arrived on the scene, things were ready to explode. Nor was he the only person to rally the crowds against the church and its edicts. In Switzerland, Huldrych Zwingli was preaching his own ideas for change, challenging the concept of transubstantiation and declaring that there was no good reason not to eat meat during lent. In 1522, he demonstrated his commitment to the latter by joining his publisher in a meal of sausages during Lent. This event  became known as the “Affair of the Sausages,” and heralded the beginning of the Swiss Reformation movement. Within a year, Switzerland was embroiled in a faith-based battle over the heart, minds, and souls of the Swiss people with Zwingli at the center of the storm.

A challenge to both Zwingli and the Catholic church were the Anabaptists. They preached an apocalyptic version of Christianity that bore many of the earmarks of modern fundamentalism. 1523 was a pivotal year, that saw the Swiss Reformation movement taking hold and the start of the wars between the Catholic church, the Anabaptists, and the Protestants.

Gottfried Keller, the novella’s author, clearly has no sympathy with the Anabaptists. In his opinion, they are a licentious group of people feeding their lusts and engaging in behavior that borders on insane. At one point, the group decides that being holy means to act like children, resulting in an orgy of infantilism. Keller is more gentle with Zwingli, but the film is not. Zwingli as played by Matthias Habich seems almost as mad as the Anabaptists, who, in turn, come across more like medieval hippies. At its core, the film is a treatise on the folly of war and religion. The final battle sequence, chronicling  the second war of Kappel, intentionally evokes America’s involvement  in Vietnam. That war had been over for a couple years, but it was still a popular target for criticism in the Eastern Bloc countries. Ursula came out a year before the Soviets got involved in their own military debacle in Afghanistan. Had the Soviet War in Afghanistan been raging at the time the film was made, Ursula surely wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

The screenplay was written by Helga Schütz who had also written the screenplays for Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam),  Lots Weib (Lot’s Wife), and Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), all of which were also directed by Egon Günther. Schütz was a diligent researcher who specialized in writing and directing documentaries. When Zwingli is speaking from the pulpit, for example, Schütz effectively uses the actual text of his sermons to shock and surprise the audience. After the Wende she became a teacher of screenwriting at the University of Film and Television in Potsdam.

Scene from Ursula
Egon Günther’s film manages the neat trick of being simultaneously faithful to Keller’s novella and wildly interpretive. The scenes of Jesus being chased (or chasing) Death through the forest are taken from the book, but they appear on a tapestry that Hansli buys Ursula, and which she wears over her shoulders like a shawl. The addition of machine guns to the scene, though, is pure Günther. Is it Ursula’s insanity, or the insanity of war? Günther isn’t afraid of anachronisms, and by the end of the film they are flying fast and furiously. He first shows his hand during Zwingli’s sermon. A shot of the audience reveals that the congregation is wearing modern clothing. At first it seems like a blooper, but when one of the Anabaptists straps himself into a hang glider and takes off, you realize that this film is not playing by the rules.

Ursula was a co-production of Swiss and East German television. Throughout the seventies, East Germany had been working to rebuild their ties with the rest of Europe, and a joint film based on the work of one of Switzerland’s most respected authors seemed like a prime opportunity to further this cause. But when the film was finished, the Swiss refused to show it. It played once on East German TV and then was relegated to DEFA’s Giftschrank.* Nor could this film have made it onto U.S. television either. It contains male and female full-frontal nudity, defecation and urination, extreme blasphemy, and some of the bluest language in any German film. No one could push the limits of acceptability this far and not pay a price. The film marked the end of Egon Günther’s career as a filmmaker in the GDR. Thereafter, Günther went west, where he continued to work as a screenwriter and director until 2002.

Egon Günther settled into a career as a writer after a parade of jobs as a draftsman, soldier, teacher, and publisher. While working as a publisher, he began writing plays, stories, and novels. He started working at DEFA during the fifties, at first as a script doctor, and then later as a director. His career as a director got off to a rocky start with Das Kleid (The Dress), which he co-directed with Konrad Petzold. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes, the film was seen as a direct attack on the authorities in East Germany with its story of an easily duped tyrant and his walled-in kingdom. His next film, Lots Weib (Lot’s Wife), had no such problems, and was a big hit. He intended to follow this with the fantasy film, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam), but the 11th Plenum put a halt to the production and the film had to wait until after reunification to be shown. It looked as if Günther’s career at DEFA might be over, but his next film, Abschied (Farewell), based on Johannes R. Becher’s anti-war novel, was a hit and Günther was back on track, writing and directing several more films over the next few years. In 1972, his film, Her Third (Der Dritte), almost ended up on the shelf with his other banned films, but it managed to squeak by the censors, in large part due to Erich Honecker’s desire to show that his regime would be different from that of Walter Ulbricht’s. Günther became known as the master of the film adaptation, which no doubt had something to do with why he was chosen to direct Ursula.

Playing the star-crossed lovers are the Swiss actors, Suzanne Stoll and Jörg Reichlin. Ursula was Ms. Stoll’s first film and her only starring role. Of the six films and TV movies she appeared in, five were directed by Egon Günther. Reichlin, on the other hand, has continued to appear in films and on television, most recently in Alex E. Kleinberger’s Nachtexpress (Night Express). also appearing in a minor role is the great East German actress, Jutta Hoffmann (see Her Third for more on Ms. Hoffmann).

Huldrych Zwingli is played with ferocious intensity by Matthias Habich. Habich is best known in America for his roles in Enemy at the Gates, The Reader, and Downfall (Der Untergang). He’s had a long career, making films all over Europe starting with some television work in the late sixties. His first big role came in 1973, when he played the lead character in the six-part TV mini-series, Die merkwürdige Lebensgeschichte des Friedrich Freiherrn von der Trenck (The remarkable life story of Friedrich Freiherr von der Trenck). As with many excellent German actors, he doesn’t shun television and has turned up in several excellent (and not-so-excellent) made-for-TV movies, as well as the occasional episode of the popular German cop show, Tatort. In 2002, he won the Deutsche Filmpreis as best supporting actor for his role in Caroline Link’s Oscar-winning film, Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika). He currently divides his time between Paris and Zurich.

Costume design is by Christiane Dorst, who became Egon Günther’s go-to designer for all of his DEFA films starting with Her Third. When Günther left for the west, Dorst stayed behind and continued to contribute costumes to DEFA films such as Motoring Tales and The Architects. After the Wende, Dorst continued to find work, primarily with former East German directors such as Frank Beyer and Roland Gräf. The costumes in Ursula are some of her best work. Certain scenes look like recreations of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Her attention to the details in period costumes is unmatched. Check out the footwraps worn by Hansli under his boots, for instance. After the Wende, Ms. Dorst reunited with Egon Günther on Stein and, her last film, Die Braut (The Bride).

While the costumes certainly helped recreate the times, the rich and dark medieval look of the film is due to Peter Brand’s cinematography. Brand primarily worked in television, but was also responsible for the look of films such as Frank Vogel’s Julia lebt (Julia Lives), and Erwin Stranka’s evocative Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality). By the 1989, he had moved away from television and was working exclusively on feature films, but the Wende saw him return to the small screen. As with Christiane Dorst, Egon Günther’s Die Braut (The Bride) was his last film.

The music is this film is as quirky as the visual information, so it should come as no surprise to longtime readers of this blog that it was done by Karl-Ernst Sasse (for more on Sasse see Her Third). Sasse contributes a score that takes Renaissance folk music and twists it into something bizarre. His use of a solo Jew’s Harp early in the film is reminiscent of the work of Ennio Morricone. The music seems to be saying: “This is going to be a very odd movie.” Like the movie itself, the score contains surprises that pull it back-and-forth between the present and the past.

Because of its subsequent ban, the film achieved legendary status in East Germany. Not every film that has received this accolade deserves it, but Ursula most certainly does. After all these years, it still manages to shock. Recently it was released by ARD Video as part of their Grosse Geschichten series, but, unfortunately, without English subtitles. Hopefully that will change soon; Ursula deserves a wider audience.

As a footnote to the story, the teachings of the Anabaptists found their greatest success across the Atlantic. Attacked by both the Protestants and the Catholics in Europe, they fled in droves to the United States, where their beliefs were the foundations of the Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, and Brethren in Christ—a far cry from the wanton lunatics portrayed in this film.

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* Another of those wonderful German expressions that doesn’t translate well into English. This one literally means “poison cupboard,” and refers to a cabinet in which poisons and dangerous pharmaceuticals are stored. It is often used in reference to the banned films of East Germany, but is by no means exclusive to communist culture.

In December of 1965, The 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the SED left East Germany’s film industry in ruins. Some films (most notably, The Rabbit is Me) were shelved after playing briefly in theaters, while others (e.g., Born in ‘45, Carla, and When You Grow Up, Dear Adam) didn’t reach the theaters until after the wall came down. One film that managed to squeak through the initial purge was The Trace of Stones (Spur der Steine)—partly because it was still being worked on when the Plenum occurred, and partly because it was based on one of the most popular books in East Germany. But it was doomed. After all, it was a film about a party leader who cheats on his wife and a likable anti-hero who flouts authority at every turn. Never mind that the book concludes with the anti-hero embracing the party philosophy, any story that dared to come near the touchy subject of SED politics after the 11th Plenum was treading on dangerous ground.

The Trace of Stones is the story of two competing work projects in the fictional towns of Schkona und Leupau (thinly disguised versions of Schkopau and Leuna: two industrial areas near Halle). At one of the sites, a man named Hannes Balla runs things his own way. He is not averse to cheating and bribery if it keeps his crew in work. As building materials become more scarce, Balla and his gang finds ways to get what they need to keep their project on track. The party officials are not completely happy with this, but Balla gets the work done, so they look the other way. Into this scenario come two idealists: Werner Horrath, a by-the-book party leader, and Kati Klee, a young female Engineer. Soon a romantic triangle develops between Horrath, Klee, and Balla, which sends the delicate equilibrium of the community tilting out of control.

Some critics have compared The Trace of Stones to an American western. Manfred Krug as Hannes Balla certainly has a swagger and an imposing presence similar to John Wayne’s in the John Ford and Howard Hawks films, and some of the scenes with the Balla Brigade have a kind of Magnificent Seven quality about them; but, as an American friend of German literature professor, Dr. Frank Höernick pointed out, “John Wayne would shoot; not stand around chatting.”

If anything, it resembles that other American classic, The Scarlet Letter. Like Hester Prynne, Kati Klee bears up under the community’s disapproval with quiet dignity. And like the errant Reverend Dimmesdale, Werner Horrath is basically a good man who keeps his adultery a secret until he can no longer stand the hypocrisy. That’s as far as the comparison goes, however, because the third party in this triangle, Hannes Balla is nothing like Hester’s sneaky reptile of a husband, Roger Chillingworth. Balla—in spite of his love for anti-authoritarian antics—is a man of strong principles. He believes in the goals of the party, and even when he does things that break the rules his reasons are sound. At the beginning of the movie, he seems like the most amoral one in the lot, but by the end, he seems like the most righteous.

After squeaking by the authorities with a few minor cuts, the film opened in theaters, but party officials decided they had made a mistake. In a feeble attempt to rectify the situation, they sent people to the theater to sit in the audience and boo and shout. The film ran only three days. It was then was classified as “hostile to the SED,” and was not shown again until 1990. This decision by the party officials shows just how confused and wrong-headed they had become in the wake of the eleventh plenum. At its core, the film is about a renegade scofflaw who realizes the importance of governing laws. Throughout the film, Balla examines the East German way of life, and comes to the conclusion that, whatever its faults, it is better than the west. If anything, The Trace of Stones is a defense of the system, but there was no explaining this to the party officials in 1966.

After it was banned, Frank Beyer’s career as a director came to an abrupt halt. He was sent to work in theater until 1971, when, thanks to the loosening of a restriction on DEFA after Honecker took over, he was allowed to make a couple in TV movies. In 1975, he returned to feature films with a bang: Jakob the Liar—his first feature film since The Trace of Stones—was the first and only East German film to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Kati Klee is played by Krystyna Stypulkowska, a Polish actress who had impressed the international film community with her performance as Pelagia in Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje). At the time, Ms. Stypulkowska spoke no German, so her voice was provided by the popular East German film star, Jutta Hoffmann. In an interview, Ms. Stypulkowska said she thought that Hoffmann’s voice worked well for her character because it made her sound more like a party member.

To play Hannes Balla, Manfred Krug was chosen. At that point, Krug was best known to East German audiences as a singer. He had done dramatic films already (e.g., Five Cartridges and Professor Mamlock), but it was his performance in Midnight Revue that captured the public’s fancy. He appeared regularly on East German television, and his albums sold well in the GDR. As one of the many people in the East German film community to protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann in 1976, Krug found himself blacklisted. He asked to be allowed to move to the FRG, and his request was granted in 1977. After moving to West Berlin, he starred in several TV shows, including Auf Achse (On the Axle), a popular show about German truckers, and the ever-popular crime drama, Tatort (Crime Scene), in which he played Head Commissioner Paul Stoever, who was not averse to bursting into song. In 1996, he wrote Abgehauen (Scram), an autobiographical account of his time in the GDR. The book was a big hit in Germany, and was made into a TV movie by his old friend, The Trace of Stones director Frank Beyer. Krug has gone on to publish four more books in Germany. He lives in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin, where he has resided since he left East Germany.

Werner Horrath, the adulterous Communist party secretary is played by Eberhard Esche. In some ways, Esche has the most difficult role. In western literature, the adulterer usually comes off as a complete cad, never intending to tell the wife about his lover or to marry his mistress. Horrath is not exactly a cad, but we are never sure if he is going to do the right thing. This creates an interesting tension in the character. At times we like him, and at other times we want to slap some sense into him. In terms of strength of character, he is no match for Balla. Esche was a popular theater actor in East Germany and was, for a time, married to the Dutch actress, Cox Habbema (Eolomea), with whom he co-starred in the Märchenfilm, Wie heiratet man einen König (How to Marry a King). He died of cancer in 2006 and is buried in the Französische Friedhof (French Cemetery) in Berlin.

The Trace of Stones is also notable for one of the most amusingly self-deprecating lines in East German cinema. Shortly after Kati Klee arrives at the worksite, Balla stops by her room and asks if she wants to go out on a date. “I wanted to ask you to the movies,” he says. “I’d even watch a DEFA film with you.” Maybe this is really why the banned it.

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A few years stand out in East German history. 1961, when the wall was built, and 1989, when the wall fell, are the most obvious examples, but coming in a close third is 1965. This was year of the 11th Plenum of the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or SED), East Germany’s ruling party. What had started as an economic summit, suddenly turned into a cultural purge, relegating some of the best films that DEFA had to offer to the vaults, and pushing some filmmakers and writers away from their chosen professions.

After the wall went up, East Germany was faced with a dilemma. The economy was stagnating, the Five Year Plan model wasn’t working, and the West was making political hay of it. General Secretary Walter Ulbricht decided to follow Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev’s lead and move the GDR away from the centralized communism of Stalin to a more localized model. Starting in 1963, Ulbricht, economic advisor Wolfgang Berger, and Planning Commissioner Erich Apel, came up with the New Economic System (initially dubbed Neuen Ökonomischen System der Planung und Leitung (NÖSPL) , but later shortened to Neues Ökonomisches System (NÖS)). It was a good plan, and history shows that it might have worked, but Ulbricht didn’t count on the conservative groundswell that was rising in the upper echelons of the USSR. Some Russian politicians—particularly the head of the Supreme Soviet, Leonid Brezhnev—felt that Khrushchev was moving their country away from the government’s core principles. While he was on vacation in 1964, Brezhnev made his move and Khrushchev returned to Russia to find himself out of a job. This left Ulbricht in a sticky position. He had hitched his star to Khrushchev’s, but suddenly that star had fallen from the heavens. The NÖS was successful, but it rubbed a lot of people at the top the wrong way, and the new powers in Russia didn’t like it at all.

By the time the 11th Plenum was scheduled to take place, it was clear to almost everyone that the NÖS was a non-starter. Less than two weeks before he was scheduled to present his work on the NÖS at the 11th Plenum, Erich Apel, one of the plan’s chief architects, committed suicide. Suddenly the NÖS wasn’t just disliked, it was too hot to handle. No one wanted to bring it up at the meeting, so—like U.S. politicians, when they are afraid of addressing real issues—they turned instead to the entertainment industry. Films were getting too liberal, they complained. Why, some were downright anti-socialist.

Twelve films were banned at the 11th Plenum, none was more notorious than The Rabbit is Me (Das Kaninchen bin ich), directed by Kurt Maetzig. The Rabbit is Me is based on Maria Morzeck oder Das Kaninchen bin ich, a book by Manfred Bieler that was already banned when Maetzig decided to make the movie. It is a first person account of Maria, a young woman whose brother is sent to prison for breaking the GDR civil agitation laws (staatsgefährdender Hetze). Maria is never entirely clear as to what her brother did. Quite coincidentally, a man she meets at the opera turns out to be Paul Deiter, the judge who sentenced her brother. While pursuing the release of her brother, she falls in love with the judge (who is married) and soon becomes his mistress. Through her eyes we see that the judge is as bourgeois and status-oriented as his western counterparts. Worse, he is so dogmatic in his approach to the law that he can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong. Bieler had intended his book to be a warning to the GDR, but the warning came too late. The book was promptly banned. It is one of life’s mysteries how the film ever got made at all.

In the film, Maria is played by the beautiful Angelika Waller in her first starring role. She brings just the right mixture of innocence and sexuality to the part. Paul Deiter is played by Alfred Müller, who had already made a splash in For Eyes Only—a popular East German spy thriller. Although other people come in and out of the story, everything revolves around these two. Since the story is told from the narrated perspective of Maria, Ms. Waller does most of the heavy lifting here, but she is helped admirably by cinematographer Erich Gusko’s moody gray camerawork  and director Kurt Maetzig nearly flawless mise en scène.

The Rabbit is Me opened in October, two months before the SED’s general assembly, but it was quickly pulled from theaters. Reportedly the government sent people to these screenings to boo and hiss and give the appearance that the audience was displeased with the film. It was held up as a prime example of what the conservatives felt was wrong with modern cinema. For this reason, films banned for their socio-political content were referred to derisively as “Rabbit Films” (Kanninchenfilme).* The film was shelved until 1990, when it, along with several other banned films, was screened in Berlin.

Although The Rabbit is Me was the flash-point for the cultural purge, its director, Kurt Maetzig, managed to avoid the penalties that some of his comrades experienced. This was partly due to his public “apology,” in which he accepted the blame for the sins of The Rabbit is Me without ever actually saying that he shouldn’t have made the movie; but it was also, no doubt, due to his status as a filmmaker. He was, after all, the man who made the Ernst Thälmann films, which were by then being shown regularly in classrooms all over the country (Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the German Communist party during the pre-WWII years, was a folk hero in East Germany akin to George Washington here. He was surreptitiously executed by Hitler who claimed that allied bombers were responsible for his death). Their participation in The Rabbit is Me apparently had no ill effects on the rest of the cast either. They all went on to make many more movies in the east, with the exception of Manfred Bieler, the author of the screenplay and the original book. Bieler moved to Czechoslovakia shortly after the SED’s decision, and then, after the Warsaw Pact invasion, fled to West Germany.

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*Horst Sindermann, the man responsible for coining the term Kanninchenfilme is the same man who christened the Berlin Wall: “antifaschistischer Schutzwall” (anti-fascist protective wall).