Posts Tagged ‘communism’

The Story of a Young Couple

If I were going to show somebody their first East German film, it would not be this one. One common misconception among Americans—and all westerners, for that matter—is that East German films are nothing but propaganda, intended to promote the state and nothing more. The misconception doesn’t come from any knowledge of the subject, or even selected examples. It’s more a case of formless and gormless prejudices thoroughly drummed into our brains during the Cold War. The Story of a Young Couple, however, would do nothing to disabuse people of this notion. It really is propaganda. It wears its politics on its sleeve, and its politics are those of Stalin. He is championed as a hero throughout this film, and his portrait hangs in public places. It is one of the sad legacies of East Germany that the leaders hitched their wagons to Stalin’s star instead of returning to the ideals of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. It was certainly inevitable, considering the Soviet Union’s part in the foundation of the GDR—a link going all the way back to Ernst Thälmann—but it meant that future failure was already in the cards before the ink was dry on the country’s constitution.

The film follows the story of Agnes Sailer and Jochen Karsten, two young actors who become involved the theater scene that springs up in Berlin after WWII. They are surrounded by idealistic people who see theater as a way to promote anti-fascist sentiments and ensure that nothing like the Third Reich ever happens again in Germany. Funding their efforts is Dr. Ulrich Plisch, an old-school capitalist who has less interest in politics than doing whatever’s profitable. Surrounding them are other actors and directors who run the political gamut from devoted socialists to amoral golddiggers. As the gulf between east and west becomes wider, Agnes and Jochen find themselves on opposite sides of the chasm. Agnes, a committed socialist, would rather starve than take a part in a play or film she found morally reprehensible, while Jochen starts letting his policies take a backseat to a steady paycheck.

The Story of a Young Couple was made in 1951, and came out in January of the following year. Up until this time there was a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your outlook) infusion of West German filmmakers into the film studios at Babelsberg. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, most of that influx came from the fact that the U.S. military authorities did everything they could to discourage German film production. After West Germany became a sovereign state in May of 1949, the shackles on West German film production were removed and West Germans no longer needed to migrate eastward to make their movies. This made any West German directors who did go to DEFA immediately suspect. The Cold War had heated up and it wasn’t uncommon for the intelligence agencies from both sides of the border to use agents and sympathizers to commit acts of sabotage to erode the other country’s infrastructure. This was a prominent plot point in Castles and Cottages, and was also part of the justification for the building of the Berlin Wall (see Look at This City!).

By 1951, companies such as Real-Film, CCC-Film, and, Constantin-Film were in full swing and West German filmmakers were no longer welcomed with open arms into the DEFA ranks, but rather, were viewed with suspicion. Once the cross-pollination between east and west was effectively stemmed, both sides started to polarize. In the United States, movie such as The Red Menace, I Was Communist for the F.B.I., and Pickup on South Street were effectively pushing the notion that communist agents were everywhere. In East Germany, it meant more films directly attacking the United States, or, more accurately, the large corporations that controlled the U.S. governments agendas (and still do, truth be told).

To its credit, one rarely saw the level of viciousness exhibited in DEFA films that one saw in the Red Scare films from Hollywood, but the role of film as a tool for teaching socialistic values became as important as its entertainment value. Thus began one of the duller periods of filmmaking in the GDR. In charge of DEFA during these doldrums was Hans Rodenberg a talented theater director and occasional actor, but also a hardcore Stalinist. How much input Rodenberg had into this stricter approach is hard to say, but he was a loyal party man, and certainly did nothing to rock the boat. The Story of Young Couple was made before Mr. Rodenberg became the general director at DEFA—and, in fact, features a brief performance by him as the American film director shooting an anti-communist film in West Berlin—but this film is a sign of things to come.

The Story of a Young Couple wasn’t the first DEFA film to promote a socialist agenda, but it was the most strident about it. At least until the Ernst Thälmann films, made a few years later (also directed by Kurt Maetzig). The low point comes when Agnes recites an ode to the newly named Stalinallee and the gloriousness of Stalin by the East German poet, KuBa (Kurt Barthel)—a cinematic moment that would assign the film to the closet after Khrushchev’s 1956 speech, “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” in which Khrushchev denounced Stalin.

At times, the attacks on the west in this film resemble the he said/she said nature of a divorce dispute. In one scene a sad-looking girls choir is forced to perform because they’ve been tricked by West Berlin agents into coming to the west, only to find it wasn’t what they expected. At this time, western media were accusing “East German spies” of kidnapping people off the streets of Berlin and taking them back to the GDR. There are plenty of verified cases of people in West Berlin unwittingly going to the east, only to find themselves arrested and imprisoned—primarily by the Russians (for more on this, see Ursula Rumin’s story in Destinies of Women)—but the idea of people hopping out of cars and dragging people off to the other side of the border was more urban myth than reality, and is used here to take a poke fun at Hollywood’s propaganda machine.

Reportedly, The Story of a Young Couple was made as a response to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, Les Mains sales (Dirty Hands).1 Sartre was a Marxist, and had even defended Stalin from time to time, but he had little use for the political repression being carried out in the name of communism. As far as he could tell, it was the situation of “meet the new boss; same as the old boss,” Les Mains sales was his response. Fellow Marxists were not happy with Sartre. In East Germany, it hit a little too close to home. In the film, the play is mentioned by name and attacked by Agnes after she is given a copy to see about performing in it.

One of the more entertaining aspects of this film is that it is a roman à clef (or film à clef if you prefer). Many of the characters in the film are based on real people and are only thinly disguised. According to the German Wikipedia page for this movie, Möbius is based on Wolfgang Langhoff, and Burmeister is based on Boleslaw Barlog. From what I know of these men, I suspect that this is exactly backwards. Like Barlog, Möbius is a wild-haired theater director, while Burmeister, like Langhoff, is clean-cut and shows more support for the GDR. The thinnest disguise of all is that of the Nazi-sympathizing director Hartmann, who is unmistakably Veit Harlan—the man who directed Kolberg and Jud Süß. Although they changed the name of the director, they discuss his films under their actual titles. Alwin Lippisch’s performance as Hartmann is a wicked parody of Harlan, who never did acknowledge any culpability for what happened in Germany during the Third Reich, and was later allowed to start making films again in West Germany (for more on Veit Harlan, see Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss).

What elevates The Story of a Young Couple above mere propaganda is the skill of its director, Kurt Maetzig. Maetzig was born with film in his blood. Maetzig’s father ran a company that made copies of films, and young Kurt would hang around and learn everything he could about the technical side of film production and development. Later, he studied chemistry and engineering at the Technical University of Munich, where he graduated with a doctorate degree with a dissertation titled “Das Rechnungswesen einer Film-Kopieranstalt” (“Accountancy of a film printing lab”). After college, returned to his father’s company for more hands-on work in the film industry. While there, he began making his own short films, cartoons, and movie title sequences.

As mentioned in the article on Marriage in the Shadows, Kurt Maetzig’s mother was Jewish, which made Maetzig an undesirable person. During the war, he joined the KPD (the German Communist Party), which, at that point, was essentially an underground organization. After the war, Mr. Maetzig saw an opportunity to rebuild the German film industry and return it to its pre-Hitler glory. He met with a group of like-minded filmmakers—including Boleslaw Barlog—at the Adlon Hotel and founded Filmaktiv, which spawned DEFA.

Maetzig was still a young director at this point. In The Story of a Young Couple, we see him experimenting with different techniques of editing, frame composition, camera angles, and the use of music. It doesn’t hurt that his cinematographer here is Karl Plintzner. Plintzner would go on to become the absolute master of vivid Agfacolor/Orwocolor films (see The Golden Goose), but here he shows that the he is no slouch when it comes to black-and-white filming either.

Yvonne Merin

Playing the noble and unwavering Agnes Sailer, is Yvonne Merin, a striking actress who might have been one of the leading lights at DEFA, had she the stomach for it. At the time of this movie, she was married to Kurt Maetzig. She was discovered by Gerald Lamprecht and cast to star in Quartett zu fünft (From Quartet to Five). She caught the eye of Kurt Maetzig, who immediately cast her in his next two films, Girls in Gingham and The Council of the Gods. They were soon married, but by the time they made The Story of a Young Couple, the marriage was ending. Like the couple in the film, they were going in different directions. Ms. Merin was finding that acting wasn’t really her passion, and Mr. Maetzig already knew that filmmaking was his. They divorced and Ms. Merin dropped out of the film community, appearing only occasionally in films (she appeared briefly as the “lady with the dog” in A Lively Christmas Eve). She continued to work in theater, but found that her interesting in acting wasn’t as intense as the fire one needed to do a good job. She became an apprentice gardener at the Karl Foerster Garden in the Bornum borough of Potsdam. Although she continued to garden, the job paid poorly and she returned to DEFA as a dramaturge and occasional scriptwriter—primarily for educational films. It was during this time that she met Armin Georgi, a script editor at DEFA and also directed short films and documentaries for them. They were married and stayed married until her death in 2012. Kurt Maetzig died a month later.

You may recognize Willy A. Kleinau, who plays the opportunistic Dr. Plisch. He is one of the more memorable characters in The Council of the Gods. In that he played Mr. Lawson, the representative from Standard Oil who helps the Nazis fund their war effort. Mr. Kleinau seems custom-made to play capitalist pigs and he does it well. He manages to make Mr. Pitsch simultaneously reprehensible and likable, which is no small feat. He appeared in both West German and East German films, right up until his death in a car accident in 1957.

As one might expect, The Story of a Young Couple was thoroughly drubbed by the western press when it came out, but East German critics found it a bit too much to take. Like the overwrought dramatic style of the silent era, or the garish fashions off the seventies, this film’s main value today is as an historical document and a kitschy eyewitness to a different time. It is a testament to Maetzig’s talent as a director that it is still enjoyable and engaging almost sixty-five years later.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


1. Die anderen deutsch-französischen Beziehungen. Die DDR und Frankreich 1949 – 1990, Ulrich Pfeil, Böhlau, January 2004.

Advertisements

Frauenschicksale

Feminism, as a common topic of conversation, didn’t take off in the United States until the late sixties, so it may come as a surprise to some that DEFA tackled the subject in 1952, with the film, Destinies of Women (Frauenschicksale). Communists were early adopters of the principle that everyone should have the same rights, be they male or female, black, white, or brown. International Women’s Day, after all, came from the socialist movement. Throughout its history, DEFA made a point of making films that showed women in positions of power (e.g., Her Third, In the Dust of the Stars, Trace of Stones, The Dove on the Roof). Of course, as with every other major country at the time, all the top officials were still white males, but at least the topic was neither suppressed or intentionally subverted the way it was in America in the early fifties. Hollywood films from this period are egregiously offensive in their sexism. Women were ditzy, too emotional, and couldn’t drive, the public was told. It is better for everyone if men take over the reins again and let the women stay home and make the babies.

As is always the case, the primary reasons for this were economic. During the war, women had taken over many of the factory jobs, but now the men were home again and they wanted those jobs back. A lot of women discovered that they liked working better than housekeeping and they weren’t crazy about this turn of events. Instead of supporting this new attitude and working with it (as the Soviets did), the media used appalling tactics to get women out of those positions and back into the kitchen. Women, Americans were told, were ditzy, emotional, and terrible drivers. They were so much better at raising children, isn’t that what they should be doing? This message was reinforced again and again in films and television. Jokes about the impracticality of women became the common currency for comedians on variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show, broadcast to millions every Sunday night. The tactic was effective. By the mid-fifties, the working woman was seen as a slightly pathetic figure, either incapable of finding a husband to take care of them, or, in hushed tones, one of the them. [As a child growing up in the fifties, I always wondered what this meant. Was there some secret club I didn’t know about? It sounded interesting; it sounded fun.]

Of course, economic factors were at work in the Soviet sector as well, but the USSR fared far worse during the war than the United States ever did, and they needed Germany to get back on its feet as soon as possible and the fact that half the workers were women had no bearing on things. If anything, this helped boost the workforce, which had been decimated by the war.

Destinies of Women takes place in Berlin, a city divided, but without the wall to keep people on one side or the other. The action centers around a man called “Conny,” a black marketeer and playboy who likes to seduce women and then abandon them. He’s done this with dozens of women, but the story centers around four in particular. Barbara Berg is an East German law student who is about to start a promising career as a judge. After Conny breaks up with her, she walks dazedly into traffic and is nearly killed. Anni Neumann lives in West Berlin and is aspiring to be a fashion designer. After a fling with Conny leaves her pregnant, she loses her job and finds the attitudes in West Germany intensely unfriendly to an unmarried woman in need of work. Eventually, she crosses over into East Berlin, where the state-run companies not only don’t judge her for being a single mother, but also offer daycare for the kids at the factories—a relatively recent innovation in the west. Renate Ludwig is a frivolous young woman who lives in East Berlin but is enamored by the glitz and glitter of the western materialism. When Conny dumps her, she is convinced that it’s because she didn’t have that beautiful blue dress in the window a West Berlin department store. Her desire for the dress leads to the most disastrous consequences of all. The fourth woman (girl really) is Ursel, a member of the FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend—East Germany’s communist youth group), and an ardent communist. Ursel’s parents died during the war, and she is at odds with her grandparents, who don’t understand her devotion to the cause. As one might imagine, Conny’s attempts to charm her with his materialism and flattery fare far worse with Ursel than it did with the others.

Tying all these story together is Hertha Scholz, who interacts with all four women in different ways. Frau Scholz is a longtime communist, who spent most of the war in a concentration camp for her beliefs. She is the moral center of the film, dispensing good advice and making the hard decisions when necessary.  In some respects, this movie resembles the Rubble Films of the previous decade. Several of the characters here are deeply affected by the events of WWII and are only starting to get their lives back together. It is Frau Scholz who is both the most affected by the ravages of war, and the best at rising above it.

As with the films coming out of Hollywood at this time, this movie wears its politics on its sleeve. The west is shown as an uncaring environment devoted to profit and material pleasure. The people in power in West Germany (who are, for purposes of this film also mostly women) are shown to be callous and uncaring. Nightlife in the west is shown as either desperate or decadent. A motif that runs through the film is dancing. When Conny takes Anni to a dance in the west, we notice that many of the couple dancing together are women, while other women sit alone at tables. Where are the men? Unemployed, perhaps, and unable to afford the dance? Later, when Conny goes with Renate to a dance in the east, the loneliness of the early scene is missing. Everyone is paired off and happy. The capper comes when Conny woos the Baroness Isa von Traudel. Conny presumably sees the Baroness as a meal ticket, unaware that she is as broke as he is. The two go out dancing at what looks like a modern a discotheque. In this scene, western decadence is on full display. Aging women dance with stoned young hipsters to hyperkinetic jazz. Everyone is overdressed and desperately trying to have fun. Punctuating the scene are zoom shots of the framed illustrations of gorillas dressed as capitalist fat cats that lines the walls of the disco. “Yeah!” a man screams every time one of these drawings is shown. The end result looks like Dante’s Second Circle of Hell filtered through Saturday Night Fever.

In 1952, when the film was made, West Germany had yet to recover from the war. The Allied forces—still in control at that point—were in no hurry to see Germany get back on its feet after what happened during the Weimar days. Some western politicos, most notably Henry Morgenthau Jr., recommended dismantling all manufacturing in Germany and force the country to return to a pre-industrial state. While one could argue that this basic sentiment was no less true for the Soviets, they, at least, got the factories back up and running much faster than West Germany. In 1952, the idea of people crossing to the east to find work was far more likely. One need only look at the number of West Germans working at DEFA during its early years to see this. It was only after East Germany, under the communists, pulled out ahead of the western sectors in development that the allies finally abandoned their plans to keep Germany in the Middle Ages, quietly ignoring the Nazi credentials of some businessmen to help in this effort. Being a Nazi was bad, but, as far as the United States was concerned, it was better than being a communist.

To any fan of East German films, the thing that is most striking about Destinies of Women is how little like a DEFA film it looks. If anything, it resembles the classic styles of UFA and Hollywood. This isn’t that uncommon in the early days of DEFA. Filmmakers such as Konrad Wolf, Frank Beyer, and Wolfgang Staudte had yet to reshape and redefine what filmmaking meant in East Germany. As previously mentioned, several of the early films were made by West Germans, whose style didn’t vary that greatly from the overblown heroics and romanticism of the Third Reich (see any Heimatfilm for an example). Director Slatan Dudow wasn’t one of these people, but his style was almost certainly shaped by his early years at UFA. He started making films in the 1930s, but Hitler’s rise to power put an end to this. Dudow’s last pre-war film—Kuhle Wampe oder wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?), which was co-written by Bertolt Brecht, was banned by the Nazis for its communist ideology. Dudow was arrested by the Nazis for being a communist. Born in Bulgaria, he was slated for deportation when he fled first to France and later to Switzerland, where he continued to work in theater. After the war, he returned to the Eastern Sector of Germany and was one of the co-founders of DEFA. Ironically, his first effort at filmmaking—a screen adaptation of his play, Der Weltuntergang (The Apocalypse), was rejected for being too formalist. His first film for DEFA was Unser täglich Brot (Our Daily Bread), which follows the fate of a family after WWII as they eventually come to realize the advantages of socialism. Dudow continued making films in East Germany until 1963, when he was killed in a car accident. At the time, he was making a film titled Christine that, like Destinies of Women, tackled the issue of feminism in the GDR, but with a far less idealistic stance. An attempt was made to finish the film from the existing footage, but by all accounts, the results were unsatisfactory and it was screened only once.

Carnival ride

Destinies of Women was only the second feature films that DEFA made in color and the first by master cinematographer Robert Baberske. Baberske pulled out all the stops for this film. The color is spectacularly vibrant and uses a palette that the world hasn’t seen since the early fifties. The only film that comes close to this in its use of color is the 1945 Hollywood classic Leave Her to Heaven, for which cinematographer Leon Shamroy won an oscar. Baberske is clearly enjoying this new technology, and several scenes have the rhythmic fascination with movement that characterized his work on the 1927 visual tone poem, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (for more information on Robert Baberske, see The Ax of Wandsbek). In one scene in particular, the camera follows three women as they explore the rides at a carnival. Wherever they go, the camera follows, spinning on a Tilt-a-Whirl or soaring aloft on a swing ride. It is exhilarating footage.

The help write the screenplay, Dudow enlisted two young writers of considerable talent, Gerhard Bengsch and Ursula Rumin. Gerhard Bengsch went on to have a long and fruitful career at DEFA. Using pseudonyms, he also managed to get teleplays produced by ARD in West Germany shortly before reunification. This, no doubt, helped him continue his career after the Wende. Bengsch continued working in television until 1993, retiring from writing for the small screen at that point to concentrate on his novels and short stories. He died in 2004 and is buried in Kleinmachow.

Ursula Rumin’s life took a very different path from those of her co-writers. Rumin lived in the western sector of Berlin and had very little interest in politics. Shortly after Destinies of Women was made, Ms. Rumin was asked to come to DEFA to sign a contract for further work, but instead of taking her to the film studio, the limousine that picked her up took her to the Soviet secret service headquarters where she was accused of espionage and collaboration with the enemy (a charge she has always denied). She was sentenced to 15 years hard labor at Vorkuta, the northernmost outpost of the infamous Siberian Gulags. She was released in 1954 as part of an amnesty, and moved to Cologne, where she worked for many years for Deutsche Welle. She wrote about her experiences at Vorkuta in her book, Im Frauen-GULag am Eismeer (In the women’s Gulag on the Arctic Ocean).

No discussion of Destinies of Women would be complete without mentioning the spectacular costumes designed by Vera Mügge. The fashion trends of the early fifties are on full display here in every form, from the practical business suits of Barbara Berg, to the outrageous, costume-like outfits worn by the West German decadents, to Renate Ludwig’s simple day dress. Ms. Mügge takes full advantage of the film’s Agfacolor with a pallet of colors that firmly pins this film to its time. Unlike many costume designers in Germany at that point, Ms. Mügge was no stranger to color film costume design. She also worked in wardrobe on the very first Agfacolor film ever made, Frauen sind doch bessere Diplomaten (Women are Better Diplomats). Undoubtedly she learned a thing or two about the process during that problem plagued production, which often suffered from color mismatching due to the natural shifts in light that occur throughout the day. She got her start as a costume designer during the Third Reich, working on, among other things, the infamously anti-Semitic film, The Rothschilds. After the war, she immediately started working at DEFA, producing costumes for the classics Council of the Gods, and Das verurteilte Dorf (The Condemned Village); but it is her work on Opernfilme (opera films) and Märchenfilme during this period for which she is best remembered. In 1958 she moved to the west, where she continued working for many years, primarily for CCC-Films. She retired in 1974.

Although the film was an attempt to show a more feminist perspective, it was roundly criticized by party officials and women’s worker organizations for its depictions of women. Nonetheless, the film was popular with audiences and is now recognized for its attempts to address the issue of women’s rights at a time when few people (Simone de Beauvoir notwithstanding) were willing to discuss the subject at all.

IMDB page on this film.

Buy this film.