Posts Tagged ‘DEFA’

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.

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Right from the start, the east was always more willing to talk about World War II than the west. After the war, East Germany had no vested interest in placating the fat cats that had been profiteering under the Nazi regime. They nationalized large corporate holdings, and the leaders of any such companies were seen as enemies of the state, or at least in need of reeducation. Meanwhile in the west, the Allies and the Federal Republic were giving lip service to anti-Nazi sentiments and were punishing the worst offenders, but they were also quietly allowing many Nazi collaborators to return to business as if nothing had happened. Unlike the GDR, the Bundesrepublik wasn’t interested in overthrowing the capitalist system. It chose instead to make a deal with the devil and let some of the lesser offenders get back to work while the worst cases were paraded before the news media. Small wonder then that the East was first to make movies that mentioned concentration camps (see Murderers Among Us), and the first to set dramas in concentration camps.

Naked Among Wolves (Nackt unter Wölfen) is one of the first dramatic films to be set entirely within the confines of a concentration camp. It is based on the true story of Stefan Jerzy Zweig, a three-year-old Jewish boy, who was sent to Buchenwald. From there he was scheduled to be shipped off to Auschwitz for extermination, but through the clever deceptions and misdirections of some prisoners and his father, he escaped execution. Communist playwright, Bruno Apitz, was also a prisoner at Buchenwald at this time, and although he had no direct contact with Zweig, he heard about the boy through the prison grapevine and recognized the story’s dramatic potential. After the war, he approached DEFA with the idea of making a film out of the story, but they weren’t interested. Instead, he had the story published as a book, which quickly became a best-seller in East Germany, moving DEFA to rethink their position on the movie. A TV-movie, directed by Georg Leopold, was made from the film in 1960, with the theatrical film, made by Frank Beyer, released in 1963.

Frank Beyer had come to the attention of most East Germans a few years earlier with Fünf Patronenhülsen, a film about five anti-fascists chosen to transport secret information across enemy lines during the Spanish Civil War. Beyer was still considered something of a young gun at DEFA (he was 28 when he made Fünf Patronenhülsen), but certainly knew how to make a film.

To play Walter Kraemer, the oberkapo for the prisoners, Beyer had wanted to cast the popular singer/actor Ernst Busch. Busch, a life-long communist, was a popular interpreter of the work of Brecht and Weil prior to World War II. He spent much of the war evading the Gestapo and recording songs for the Spanish Resistance. He was eventually captured and thrown into Camp Gurs in France. After the war, he moved back to Germany, preferring, naturally enough, to settle in the east instead of the west. Although he had appeared in several films prior to the war, it wasn’t until Fünf Patronenhülsen was made that he returned to film acting. Busch was initially resistant to request to play the lead in Naked Among Wolves, but eventually agreed. Then two weeks before filming was due to start, he suffered a severe heart attack, forcing him to drop out of the project. Erwin Geschonneck was enlisted in his place.

Like Busch, Geschonneck had spent time in a concentration camp during World War II. At the end of the war, he was nearly killed by the Royal Air Force when they sank the Cap Arcona, a ship being used to transport prisoners.1 His story was turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1982 (Der Mann von der Cap Arcona). After the wall came down in 1989, The eighty-three year-old Geschonneck retired from filming, appearing only once more in the 1995 TV-movie, Matulla und Busch, which was directed by his son, Matti. Geschonneck died March 12, 2008 at the ripe old age of 101.

One common complaint about the film is the unavoidable fact that the actors playing the camp inmates look much too healthy. Some critics also attacked the film for not showing the atrocities that were occurring there and in nearby Ohrdruf. Reportedly, it was for this reason that the film did not win the best picture award at the Moscow International Film Festival, losing to Fellini’s after Polish film director, Jan Rybkowski, complained that the movie didn’t confront the atrocities with enough candor.

The lead performances are outstanding. Erwin Geschonneck was already considered the best actor in East Germany, but Armin Mueller-Stahl was a relative newcomer. He had already proved his merit in two previous Beyer films (Fünf Patronenhülsen, and Königskinder), and was well on his way to becoming one of the most respected actors in the GDR. But, unlike Geschonneck, he left East Germany before its collapse when he was forced out of the acting profession after protesting the denaturalisation of folk singer Wolf Biermann. After immigrating to the west he continued his career and soon became a popular actor on both sides of the Atlantic.

Naked Among Wolves is as much about the Buchenwald Resistance as it is about Stefan Jerzy Zweig. Since many of the prisoners were political, they did everything in their power to stymie the efforts of the Nazis in anyway they could, and even attempted a coup in the final days of the war. While the Buchenwald Resistance was, in reality, a motley group, made up of communists, social democrats, and other political and religious prisoners, the DEFA film concentrates primarily on the efforts of the communists. This is to be expected though; the west did the exact opposite, preferring to play down the resistance efforts of anyone too far left of center.

When Stefan Jerzy Zweig learned of the movie, he moved to East Germany and studied cinematography at the film school in Babelsberg, making a short film about Robert Siewert—one of his protectors at Buchenwald. Zweig was treated like a hero, but the anti-Zionist attitudes of the GDR found him often on the wrong side of arguments there. He eventually settled in Austria where he worked as a cameraman for many years.

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1. In an odd turn of fate, the Cap Arcona was also a movie star. It was used to portray the Titanic in the 1943 German movie of the same name. Titanic is one of the only German films made during the Third Reich that is shown regularly on TCM, and is available from Netflix.

The only East German film to receive wide circulation in the US during the early sixties is a science fiction film titled The Silent Star (Der schweigende Stern). It is based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, The Astronauts, and was the first science fiction film to be made at the DEFA studios as a co-production with Zespoły Filmowe. The Silent Star tells the story of a multi-national team of astronauts that goes to Venus to investigate the possible existence of intelligent life there. [Note: this was before later space probes proved that Venus is actually an extremely inhospitable environment for nearly any form of life, except for some sulphuric acid-loving microbes.]

The film was picked up by Crown International Pictures (CIP), a company that specialized in cheaply-made exploitation films for the American drive-in market. Like that other drive-in movie distributor, American International Pictures, Crown International often supplemented their catalog of low-budget, American-made movies with heavily-edited foreign films. CIP bought the distribution rights to The Silent Star, dubbed it (badly), and chopped fifteen minutes out of it, rendering the already complicated story nearly incomprehensible. They then released it under the title, First Spaceship on Venus. Small wonder, then, that it ended up as a target for ridicule by the snarky film mockers at Mystery Science Theater 3000. In spite of the poor dubbing, choppy editing, and relegation to the grindhouse circuit, the movie still made a strong impression on those of us who saw it in 1962 (in my case, at the Lyric Theatre in Tucson, Arizona).

On of the most memorable things about the movie—at least to kids—is Omega (pronounced “OH-mee-ga”), a tiny tank-like robot that may well have served as the inspiration for R2D2. Radio-controlled devices were still fairly new at the time. The Nazis had used radio-controlled rockets and bombs during WWII, but these were heavy devices with large batteries and vacuum tubes. The advent of transistors made it possible to include these controls in smaller, lighter devices, leading to the model airplane craze of the late fifties. When the film first played in East Germany, Omega must have seemed like a pretty impressive piece of technology. By the time the film made it to the United States most people were familiar with radio-controlled toys, but that didn’t make Omega any less endearing.

The Silent Star starts with the discovery of a mysterious spool found in the Gobi Desert. It is made from an unknown substance and a group of scientists from around the world is brought together to examine it. The scientists discover that the source of the spool is Venus. They build a rocketship to go to Venus and investigate. On board the ship are an American nuclear physicist, a German pilot, a Polish chief engineer, a female Japanese doctor, a Soviet astronaut (the term cosmonaut had not been coined when Lem wrote his book), an Indian mathematician, a Chinese linguist, and an African technician. What they find is a civilization that accidentally destroyed itself while building a weapon intended to destroy our planet. The crew—as least the ones that survive—come back to Earth and convince everyone on this planet should live in harmony. The film ends with all the different crews holding hands. All that’s missing is Kumbaya.

It is worth noting that while people give Star Trek credit for using a multi-ethnic cast at a time when TV in American was almost exclusively the domain of white males, The Silent Star had done this six years earlier. More importantly, the film played in the United States in late 1962, shortly before Gene Roddenberry started working on the Star Trek pilot. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but the film did receive wide distribution, and was seen by many fans of science fiction.

Stanislaw Lem was never very happy with either his book or the movie. It was his first book, and he felt he was forced to bend some of the ideas to fit a specifically communist perspective. This is truer still of the movie, but the proselytizing is mild compared to many other films of the time (both east and west). It is no small irony that this tale of brotherly love and international friendship was made a year before the wall was built, sealing off East Berlin from the west for the next twenty-eight years.

The technical crew for this film consisted of the best that DEFA had to offer. The special effects supervisor was Ernst Kunstmann, who had done special effects for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The cinematographer was Joachim Hasler, who would later go on to become a successful director in his own right, mostly famously for the East German “Beach Party” movie, Hot Summer. And the editing was by Lena Neumann, who had gotten her start as an editor during the Third Reich and was, at that point, the most experienced editor in East Germany,

The director, Kurt Maetzig, had already made a name for himself with films such as Council of the Gods, Marriage in the Shadows, Die Buntkarierten, and the Ernst Thälmann films. At that point, he was the most respected filmmaker in East Germany. Maetzig got his start as a film technician during the Third Reich, but lost his work privileges after the Nuremberg Laws were enacted (his mother was Jewish). During WWII, he joined the banned Communist Party, and didn’t return to Berlin until after the war. In October of 1945, he co-founded Filmaktiv—a group dedicated to reinventing and reviving the German film industry. This eventually led to the founding of DEFA. Maetzig retired from filmmaking in 1976. He turned 100 in January of 2011.

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