Posts Tagged ‘brigade’

In the early 1970s, the East German authorities made yet another U-turn in their attitude toward the arts. Honecker had replaced Ulbricht as the General Secretary, and he wanted to demonstrate that as long as a film “proceeds from the firm position of socialism, there can be no taboos.” (actual quote: “Wenn man von den festen Positionen des Sozialismus ausgeht, kann es meines Erachtens auf dem Gebiet von Kunst und Literatur keine Tabus geben.”)  Artists, writers, and filmmakers took him at his word and for a brief time there blossomed a new creative energy that almost reached the levels of creativity that the GDR had seen before the 11th Plenum pulled the plug.

The west boasted a system that allowed a man to get as rich as he wanted, but that was just it: he had to be a man, and, let’s face it, he had to be white. Women and minorities were still being treated as second-class citizens in the Untied States—a country that prided itself on its individual freedoms. In spite of its civil rights laws, poverty was still rampant in the African-American community, and there were no signs that this was about to change any time soon. At the same time, women were still treated as either sex objects or comic fodder for bad comedians. This was seen as perfectly legitimate. In an episode of Star Trek, for example, a former lover of Captain Kirk complains because women are not allowed to become starship captains, and she’s the villain!

Meanwhile at DEFA, filmmakers were doing all they could to change the perception of women in the workplace by producing films that featured them in positions of authority. In films like Her Third and In the Dust of the Stars, women are the ones in charge. The Legend of Paul and Paula pushed things a little further with its story of a woman who is a powerless blue-collar worker (Mitarbeiterin), but she is still the focal point of the film.

But most of these initial feminist films were still made by men. The one exception is The Dove on the Roof, which was directed by Iris Gusner, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Regine Kuhn. The title comes from the expression, “besser ein Spatz in der Hand als eine Taube auf dem Dach,” which is a German equivalent to the English expression, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The film follows the exploits of Linda Hinrichs, the project foreman on a new apartment complex in Thuringia. Working with her on the project are Hans Böwe, a coarse man in his fifties who is the leader of the work brigade, and Daniel, a impatient young know-it-all who is working at the construction site during his summer break. These two are as different as can be, Böwe is a loyal socialist who has devoted his life to the good of the state. Daniel, on the other hand, sees people like Böwe as dinosaurs, and he dreams of traveling in outer space. Soon Ms. Hinrichs finds herself romantically involved with both of them, and not sure which way to turn.

In some respects, the story in the film pales in comparison to the story of the film. It was made at the tail end of the cycle of a renewed creative freedom in East Germany, but once again, the authorities were getting nervous that these movies were in danger of making people question the state of things. They decided it was time to make an example of a film, and The Dove on the Roof was right there at the wrong time. Claiming that the film didn’t portray the reality of life in East Germany in a favorable enough light, the authorities banned it.

Normally, when a film was banned, DEFA had the foresight to shelve it—literally—keeping the original negatives in case of a future change in policy. But somehow The Dove on the Roof fell through the cracks. The original color negatives were destroyed and the film was thought to be lost forever. After the Wende, cinematographer Roland Gräf found a working copy of the film in a shed, but years of sitting in an environment without climate control had taken their toll on the print. The color layers had de-laminated, making it impossible to strike a decent color print from the copy. A decision was made to create a black-and-white print instead and the film was finally screened in 1990. But almost immediately after the screening, it was lost again, and remained lost for another twenty years, finally turning up a second time in 2010. New black-and-white prints were made and the film was finally released on DVD last summer.

The film’s director, Iris Gusner, was one of the first female directors at DEFA. She was born in 1941 in Trautenau, Germany (now Trutnov, Czech Republic). During the sixties, she went to Moscow to study at the famous All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, the oldest film school in the world  (renamed the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in 1986). After graduation, she worked as an assistant director on Konrad Wolf’s Goya.

The Dove on the Roof was her first feature film. Although it was completed, the film never made it to the theaters. Her next film project Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens, was cancelled before it even began shooting.1 Fearing she would be stereotyped as the woman who made films that the state didn’t like, her next film, Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light), was based on the fairytale by the Brothers Grimm. It was well received by both the authorities and the public and helped get her career as a director back on track. She followed this with Einer muß die Leiche sein (Someone has to be the corpse), based on the book by Gert Prokop, and scored her biggest hit with All My Girls, a film about the tensions between a group of women working at a light bulb factory. In 1983, she directed Kaskade rückwärts (Cascade Backwards), the story of a widowed woman with a child trying to find happiness in the city. It is, along with Her Third and The Bicycle, one of the most important feminist films to come out of DEFA during the final years of the GDR. During the summer of 1989, a few months before the wall came down, Ms. Gusner left East Germany, moving first to Cologne and later to Berlin. She has only directed one film since the reunification: the 1993 TV-movie Sommerliebe (Summer Love).

Linda Hinrichs is played by Heidemarie Wenzel. Ms. Wenzel first came to the public’s attention in her role as Fanny in Egon Günther’s dazzling film, Farewell. In 1971, she starred opposite Winfried Glatzeder in Zeit der Störche (Time of the Storks), performing one of the first nude scenes in a DEFA film. Today, she is best known for her role as Ines, the odious wife of Paul (Winfried Glatzeder again) in the East German classic, The Legend of Paul and Paula. After her husband, director Helmut Nitzschke, failed to return from a business trip to West Germany, Ms. Wenzel applied for an exit visa to join him. This effectively brought her acting career in East Germany to an end. For the next few years, she worked as an office assistant at a church. Finally in 1988, she was allowed to immigrate to West Germany. In 1991, she was cast as Sylvia Hagenbeck in the popular TV series, Unsere Hagenbecks, where the death of her character on the show led to public protests. More recently, she has been seen as a regular on In aller Freundschaft, a popular TV hospital drama set in Leipzig. Set as it is in what was formerly GDR territory, many people from the DEFA casts and crews have found work on this series.

The two male leads are as different as can be, and so are their careers. Günter Naumann, who played Böwe was already a well-respected actor in East Germany. He first came to the public’s attention in Frank Beyer’s war film, Five Cartridges and went on to appear in several classic DEFA films, including The Gleiwitz Case, On the Sunny Side, Star-Crossed Lovers, and The Adventures of Werner Holt. He continues to appear often in German television productions.

Andreas Gripp, on the other hand, was a newcomer to film. He had appeared in bit parts in Captain Florian Of The Mill (Hauptmann Florian von der Mühle) and Lützower, but The Dove on the Roof was his first starring role. Primarily a theater actor, after this film was made he reportedly returned to the stage. He died a few years later in a car accident.

The Dove on the Roof is not the first color film to be converted to black-and-white. It is a common technique for saving old films when the original negative or working copy is too faded to produce an adequate color print. How well a film makes the transition to black-and-white depends greatly on the cinematographer’s skill and technique. In the case of The Dove on the Roof, the cameraman was Roland Gräf, one of the best in East Germany. Taking his cues from the Italian neorealists, Gräf specialized in a style that mimicked documentary filmmaking. Gräf’s background in black-and-white photography undoubtedly is one of the reasons that The Dove on the Roof looks so good drained of its color. Still, one can’t help but feel we are missing some visual delights, such as in the scenes inside the Christmas ornament factory in Lauscha.

That this film was rescued, not once, but twice, is one of the great success stories of film preservation. Sadly, many other films (both from the east and the west) are not so lucky. Prior to the 1970s, there were few efforts to save motion pictures. The medium was seen as a disposable form of entertainment,. Hundreds of films were either thrown away or destroyed through overuse and are now gone forever. Thankfully, groups like The International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA) and Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation have been working hard to save the films they can, and to make sure that this never happens again.

IMDB page for this film.

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1. The script for this movie sat on the shelf for over ten years, and was finally made in 1988 by Lothar Warneke.

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The protagonists in East German films are frequently women. In movies such as Her Third, He du!, and The Dove on the Roof, the plots center around women who are on an equal (or superior) footing to their male counterparts. Even in genre films such as Signals and In the Dust of the Stars, we see women in positions of power. The terms Mitarbeiter (co-worker) and Kollegen (colleague) were used to avoid designations of class, but class differences were there nonetheless. DEFA was sensitive to this issue and rightfully proud of its track record on the matter of female equality—at least, on the screen. When The Legend of Paul and Paula was released, it faced stiff criticism from the authorities because it presented a working woman who had very little control over her situation. It was only after Erich Honecker gave that film his blessing that it was allowed to be shown. So it’s no surprise that The Bicycle (Das Fahrrad) wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms.

The Bicycle goes much further than Paul and Paula did. Here, the protagonist is Susanne, a single mother who operates a punch press at a factory, doing the same thing all-day long in an oppressive environment. She is thoughtless and louche, lacking the work ethic that made Paula so admirable. Susanne likes to go out drinking and puts paying her bills in second place to having a good time. She is constantly running late and in debt. The father of her child is never mentioned, Judging from her lifestyle, it is likely that the child was a result of a casual relationship. It is apparent that most of her problems are the result of her own irresponsibility.

In spite of all this, Susanne is not without sympathy. She has made some bad choices and she is still making bad choices, but she obviously loves her daughter very much. We can understand it when she finally gets fed up and walks off her job at the factory; it is a terrible place. With no marketable skills, her attempts to find new work prove fruitless, and the fact that she has a daughter also affects her work opportunities. Susanne decides to take the advice of one of her drinking buddies and claim that her bicycle was stolen. Now able to pay off some of her bills, things seem to be looking up for Susanne. It is around this time that Thomas Marlow enters the picture.

Thomas is an idealistic young engineer who worked his way up through the ranks and has just been put in charge of an important project. His colleagues congratulate him and vow to stand behind him. Thomas is flush with success and excited by this new opportunity to show the bosses what he can do. In truth, his colleagues are playing the old game of letting the new guy stick his neck out first. The last time we saw a scenario like this played out on film in East Germany was in Frank Beyer’s The Trace of Stones (Spur der Steine), which was banned for suggesting that such internecine shenanigans went on in the GDR.

Thomas gets Susanne a job in his factory and everything is copacetic until the local policeman catches Susanne riding her supposedly-stolen bike. Thomas tries to help her, but his concern over how the incident will reflect on him causes a rift between them. In the end, Thomas’ undoing has nothing to do with Susanne. Meanwhile, the workers committee at the factory helps her deal with her legal problems. To her surprise, they show her compassion and solidarity, just as they’ve shown compassion for one of her co-workers, a woman in an abusive relationship.

The film takes some pains to show that the collective—at least among the factory workers—behaves the way a collective should: helping those who need help, and allowing everyone to have a voice on the subject. But the idea that the engineers in the GDR would be as duplicitous as westerners did not go over well with the authorities. The fact that the women are doing the mundane work, while the men sit in the front offices was an even stronger challenge to the GDR’s public stance that women were treated as equals. As a result, although the film was allowed to screen in East Germany, it was banned from entry into the international film festivals.

Director Evelyn Schmidt was part of the fourth generation of DEFA directors (Nachwuchsregisseure) that started making films during the final years of East Germany’s existence. This group included Peter Kahane, Jörg Foth, Iris Gusner, Dietmar Hochmuth, Karl-Heinz Lotz, and several others. As I discussed in my post about The Architects, this new group of directors found it difficult to get their films made during the final decade of the GDR. Schmidt’s first feature film, Escapade (Seitensprung), met with good reviews and was shown at the 1980 Berlinale as part of the program for new filmmakers. Her next film, Auf dem Sprung (The Jump), did not fare as well with either the public or the critics. It wasn’t until 1990 that she received a “permanent” position as a director at DEFA, but permanence in that fateful year was a fleeting thing.

After the Wende, Schmidt ran into the same prejudice against East Germans that many others from DEFA faced. The idea that these people were as talented—if not more so—than their free market counterparts was rarely considered. How could anything good come from a system that produced the Berlin Wall and the Stasi? After DEFA was dismantled, Schmidt found that work as a film director became difficult to find so she moved into the realm of legitimate theater. Currently, she teaches film acting classes at the Charlottenburg Drama School in Berlin.

Schmidt often uses hand-held cameras (thankfully without the current tendency toward herky-jerkiness), which helps impart a sense of reality to the movie. The use of music is sparse, usually only playing as part of the natural environment (in the bar, or on the radio). The pacing, in typical DEFA fashion, is slow and methodical. It assumes a certain level of familiarity with the state of affairs in the GDR at that time.

Central to The Bicycle are the characters of Susanne and Thomas, so the effectiveness of this films rises or sinks on the performances of the two leads. Fortunately, both are up to the task. Heidemarie Schneider convincingly plays Susanne, and Roman Kaminski is good, if not always likable, as the self-righteous Thomas. Ms. Schneider had already appeared in a dozen DEFA films and a couple TV appearances before starring in this, her first leading role. Ms. Schmidt must have liked working with her because she cast her again in Auf dem Sprung (The Jump), and Der Hut (The Hat). After the Wende, Ms.Schneider continued to find work as actor, primarily in television productions. Similarly, Roman Kaminski has also continued to work in TV since starring in this film.

For anyone interested in the subject of women’s issues and feminism of film, The Bicycle is an important addition to the topic. It is one of the most honest portrayals of life in East Germany from behind the Iron Curtain, and helps those of us who did not experience it get closer to what living in the GDR must have been like.

IMDB page for film.

Buy this film.