Posts Tagged ‘devil’

The Devil's Three Golden Hairs

Märchenfilme, or fairy tale films, were an important staple of the DEFA library. They were usually less susceptible to political interpretation, which made them palatable to western audiences as well as the people of East Germany, which, in turn, meant money from the west. The Märchenfilme allowed the GDR to take advantage of the free market without actually supporting it; the best of all possible worlds. DEFA made over thirty Märchenfilme during its existence.

The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs (Wer reißt denn gleich vorm Teufel aus) is based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. The fairy tale shares the same name as the English title for the film, but it is worth noting that the original East German title is different, translating to something along the lines of  “He who pulls them out is equal to the Devil.” As the change in the title suggests, this is a very loose adaptation of the original fairy tale. In the original story, a boy is prophesied to marry the princess and, in spite of the king’s best efforts to stop it, the prophecy comes true. In the movie, the marriage to the princess is mostly the result of a prank played by a group of robbers who dislike the king more than the boy. In his ensuing encounter with the Devil, the young man in the film plays a more active role in obtaining the three golden hairs than he does in the fairy tale.

As a rule, the Märchenfilme avoid political statements. The rich are often portrayed as avaricious and inherently evil because of it, but you won’t hear anyone rallying the peasants to overthrow the system. Many stories, in fact, end with the hero marrying the princess, which presumably changes his attitude toward wealth. This film follows that rule, although there is a subtly profound statement on the nature of security spending slipped into the story. At the beginning of the film, we see the peasants in a local community grumbling about being taxed for protection against robbers. No one has ever seen any robbers, but the king’s tax collector continues to warn them that if they don’t pay the tax, there could be robbers. The solution for some members of the community is to become robbers to take advantage of the situation. This raises an interesting question about military build ups, and the extent to which the money spent on “protection” is responsible for the situation is it is there to prevent. But this is a fairy tale, after all, and the film doesn’t spend too much time pondering the bigger questions; its got a story to tell

The protagonist in this film belongs to the bumbling hero category. These heroes succeed at their goals, but not before wrecking nearly everything in sight. The bumbling hero has a rich history in film, stretching from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to the Blues Brothers and Inspector Clouseau, he’s even made his way into role-playing games. Unlike the classic hero, most of the time, the bumbling hero prefers to avoid conflict. He is not brave, but he does brave things, usually out of ignorance. He always triumphs, but, more often than not, it is the result of an accident or his own buffoonery.

The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs was the second film from director Egon Schlegel. Schlegel’s career at DEFA got off to a rocky start. He had the dubious distinction of graduating in 1966, right after the 11th Plenum. As with many of the DEFA feature productions, student films also received harsh treatment. Schlegel’s graduation film was consigned to the cellar alongside The Trace of Stones and The Rabbit is Me. For the next few years, Schlegel worked without pay and without credit as an assistant director and occasionally as an actor. He finally got his chance to direct a feature film with the East German/Czechoslovakian co-production Abenteuer mit Blasius (Adventures with Blasius). He went on to direct five more films before leaving DEFA in 1983.

Jakob, the young hero of the film, is played by Hans-Joachim Frank, a talented actor and director who started acting at the age of eight and was one of the youngest people to graduate from the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts. He appeared in a few feature films and several TV movies, but his first love was always theater. In May of 1989, just months before the wall came down, he founded the Theater 89, without any official support from the East German government. Theater 89 went on to become a successful theater with Hans-Joachim Frank as its creative director. It continues to this day and has become one of the most successful theaters in Berlin’s Mitte district.

The Devil is played by Dieter Franke, a popular character actor in East Germany and a logical choice to play this role. An accomplished stage actor, Franke had already impressed people with his performance as Mephisto in the Deutsches Theater’s production of Faust. But the Devil here lacks the wit of Mephisto. He is an even bigger buffoon than Jakob. In 1980, Franke returned in a shadowy role as the title character in the TV movie, Gevatter Tod (The Grim Reaper). He was scheduled to play the lead in Erwin Stranka’s odd take on on Märchenfilme, Motoring Tales, but a prolonged illness forced him to bow out of that production. He died shortly thereafter in 1982.

Playing the princess is Katrin Martin. As with most other DEFA stars, she trained as a stage actress and appeared in several productions on the stage at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. We first saw Ms. Martin in the Rolf Herricht comedy, The Man Who Replaced Grandma. She went on to star in several DEFA films and is best remembered for her turn as Rose Red in Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot (Snow White and Rose Red). After the Wende, she moved into radio, producing children’s programs.

Production design was by Georg Kranz, one of DEFA’s best. Especially notable is his wild set for Hell, which seems to have taken some of its inspiration from Alfred Hirschmeier’s planet Venus in The Silent Star. The floor bubbles with multi-colored goop, and the Devil arrives via a Rube Goldberg contraption that delivers him automatically to his bed. In one corner sits an enormous pipe organ with a weird puppet head atop each pipe, which open its mouth when that note is played.

The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs was a popular film and like many other DEFA Märchenfilme, it made its way west. It did not have the success of The Singing, Ringing Tree, but it did help continue the western impression that East German Märchenfilme were entertaining, imaginative, and weird as hell.

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Motoring Tales is the title translation used for this film by both the DEFA library at UMass Amherst and Progress Film-Verleih in Germany. The actual title, Automärchen, works better in German. They could have just as easily called it Car Fables, or Auto Stories. If I were a lazy film critic/studio marketing wonk, I would be tempted to describe this movie as “Rumpelstiltskin meets Mad Max,” or “J.G. Ballard meets the Brothers Grimm” It is one odd little film. It is based on a novella by the Czech writer, Jiří Marek, who was better known in East Germany for his Prague-based detective stories. Here, he takes classic fairytale concepts, moves them into the modern world, and puts them on the road.

Motoring Tales is an anthology movie consisting of three main stories. The stories center around a garage visited by the people in the stories. In the first story, a milquetoast in a Trabant gives a ride to a forest fairy with a need for speed. The fairy uses her magic to make the Trabant go like a bat out of hell; a concept that probably caused great mirth among Trabi owners everywhere. Next, a man sells his soul for the gaudiest, most outrageous car imaginable, but—as is always the case—selling one’s soul is never a good idea. And in the final story, the owner of the garage is visited by the personification of automobile accidents who offers to help the garage owner collect spare parts by letting him know when accidents are about to happen. Tying this all together are the daily events at the garage and the relationship between garage owner “Kalle” Sengebusch and his shaggy-haired mechanic, Ali Kuslowski, who has a thing for the garage owner’s daughter. Ali also acts as the narrator of the film, addressing the audience directly between stories.

Jiří Marek, was a member of the Communist Party in Prague, and these stories have strong socialist messages. The characters that pursue western materialism fare worse than those who turn away from things like profit and status. The most pronounced example of this is in the second story, where the man is made penniless by his automobile and is eventually consumed by it. Curiously, a year or two before this film was made, there was a Czechoslovakian film titled Ferat Vampire (Upír z Feratu) about a Škoda sports car that drinks human blood (starring Václav Havel’s wife!). Clearly the Czechs either hold a dim view of the western man’s love affair with the car, or are as obsessed with them as we are (evidence points to the latter).

Motoring Tales was directed by Erwin Stranka, who had a special knack for contemporary fairy tales and the problems of young people growing up in East Germany. With films such as Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality), Sabine Wulff, Insel der Schwäne (Swan Island) and Zwei schräge Vögel (Two Odd Birds), Stranka explored the lives of social misfits in a world that didn’t care much for that concept. Stranka might have continued making films after the wall came down, but a stroke the same year that Germany was reunited effectively ended his career as a director.

The garage owner was played by Kurt Böwe, one of East Germany’s most successful actors. Born in Gülitz-Reetz in 1929, Böwe moved to Berlin after the war and began studying theater at the Humboldt University of Berlin. After finishing his studies, he worked as a teaching assistant at the the university for six years, while acting in the student theater. Horst Schönemann, the director at the theater convinced Böwe to pursue a career, and for the next few years, Böwe appeared in theater productions at various theaters in Berlin. During the sixties, he moved from the stage to the screen, at first appearing in TV movies and later in bit parts in feature films. His first starring role in a feature film came with Konrad Wolf’s Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (The Naked Man on the Athletic Field). Unlike many of his East German compatriots, Böwe’s career did not suffer a work lag after the wall came down. He continued working, primarily in television and is better known today for his role as Kommissar Kurt Groth on the popular crime drama Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110).

The production design is by Paul Lehmann, whose work ranges from science fiction (The Silent Star) to Indianerfilme (The Sons of the Great Bear and Trail of the Falcon). Lehmann got his start as a set builder in the mid-fifties, moving on to art direction with Günter Reisch’s Maibowle (May Punch) and production design on that film’s colorful follow up, Silversterpunsch (New Year’s Punch). His work on Motoring Tales is mostly logical and mundane, with the notable exception of the devil car in the second story. This mauve monstrosity is like nothing you’ll ever see, and is as important a character in the film as any of the actors. Sadly, the credits offer no information as to who actually built the thing (possibly set builders, Regine Fritzsche and Jutta Blume). I can’t help but hope that the car still exists, rusting away on a plot of land in rural Brandenburg.

Motoring Tales was made during the final decade of East Germany’s existence Starting in 1978, filmmaking in the GDR took an interesting turn. From 1946 through 1977, the film community in the GDR was subjected to repeated clamp downs on creativity, followed by periods of relative freedom. These restriction relaxations usually ended with the state coming down hard on the filmmakers again. Like a battered wife who has been repeatedly hit and apologized to, filmmakers began to exhibit the odd combination of timidity and rebellion. Things at DEFA got stranger. This was kicked off in 1978 with the release of the psychedelic oddity,  In the Dust of the Stars, and the still shocking TV-movie, Ursula (more on this one at a later date). Films during this period seem less beholding to western aesthetics than those of the previous decades. Some films were still banned (e.g., Jadup und Boel), but other equally challenging films (e.g., Your Unknown Brother) made it to the movie houses. Even Konrad Wolf—who had managed to avoid much of the censorship that his compatriots experienced—pushed things further than ever with his classic Solo Sunny.

Motoring Tales was the perfect film for this era. It manages to be simultaneously bizarre and communistic, and no doubt left the authorities scratching their heads. The word Märchen (fairy tale) in the title probably helped get it onto movie screens—the Märchenfilm was the one genre that the authorities allowed a certain level of frivolity. But in Motoring Tales that fairy-tale frivolity is tempered by a darker view of mankind. Bad things happen, but they are handled so humorously that it they go by almost unnoticed: a woman is blown-up, people die in car accidents, and a man is eaten alive. Alternately dark, clever, didactic, and goofy, Motoring Tales has enough of surprises to keep any fan of oddball cinema entertained.

 

IMDB page for this film.

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