Posts Tagged ‘Dresden’

Fahrschule
Q: Why were there no bank robberies in East Germany?

A: Because you had to wait twelve years for the getaway car.

So goes the joke, poking fun at the rather astounding wait times for purchasing automobiles in the GDR. In East Germany, you basically had two choices when it came to purchasing a car: The Wartburg and the Trabant. The Trabant was the cheaper of the two, and were made in greater quantities. Both cars were pretty awful. The Wartburg had three cylinders to the Trabbi’s two, making it—potentially—the more powerful of the two, but it was also heavier, having a metal body instead of the cotton and resin Duroplast of the Trabants. Both were two-strokes, meaning you had to mix the oil and gas, and the pollution was awful. You could get a car from one of the other Eastern Bloc nations, such as a Lada from Russia or Skoda from Czechoslovakia, but this could take even longer, and was viewed with some derision.1 Making a film that mines the long wait times involved in getting Wartburgs for comedy would have been vetoed by the film review board in earlier times, but things were beginning to loosen up again at DEFA.

Driving School (Fahrschule) is the story of Horst Steinköhler, a die-hard pedestrian who would rather walk where he needs to go than drive a car. Horst’s friend Lothar is getting a divorce. Lothar wants Horst to buy his car from him to help him through the divorce, telling Horst he will buy it back later when he gets back on solid footing. Horst is reluctant, but eventually agrees. Meanwhile, Horst’s wife Gisela has received the news that she is next in line to purchase a new Wartburg. Gisela had put in her name on the waiting list to buy the car when their daughter—now a teenager—was born. Horst and Gisela plan to surprise each other with their purchases. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, they both end up with the same driving instructor. Soon, Horst starts to suspect that something’s going on between Gisela and the driving instructor. Throughout the film we hear the music of Così fan tutte—Mozart’s comic opera on infidelity.

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The film is based on a radio play by Bernd Schirmer. Schirmer did several radio plays along with some legitimate theater in East Germany. From 1969 to 1972, he taught German studies at the University of Algiers. After that, he returned to Germany where he worked as a dramaturge for DFF, the state-owned East German television station. Schirmer continues to write novels, plays, teleplays, and theater pieces.

Coming as it did from a radio play, much of the humor is in the dialog, but director Bernhard Stephan has done a good job of “opening up” the radio play with purely visual humor. Stephan is a part of a group of East German filmmakers commonly referred to as the “Nachwuchsgeneration”—Baby Boomers essentially. This was the first generation that grew up with little or no personal experience of World War II. The country they grew up in was the GDR. Hitler was, as far they were concerned, an aberration of the past. For the most part, they learned their craft at the film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg, and started working for DEFA in intern capacities with the promise of someday getting to make their own films for the production company. There was just one catch: DEFA’s director ranks were already filled with talented directors and new positions rarely opened up.

Born in 1943, Stephan was a little older than most of the other new generation of East German filmmakers, which probably put him in a better position to get started at DEFA than those born a few years later. He had began directing TV shows in 1972, and moved on to films from there. While some of the younger filmmakers found it hard to get traction in reunited Germany, owing to the anti-Ossi prejudice of the West Germans, Stephan did better than most. He hit the ground running with the 1991 ZDF TV-movie Tandem, and went on to direct many television shows, most notably, Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness), which starred Ulrich Mühe (The Lives of Others).

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Horst Steinköhler is played by Jörg Gudzuhn, a slightly nerdy-looking character actor who usually played supporting roles. He primarily worked in television, so the unification of Germany had less impact on his career than those who had been used to starring roles in feature films. He continues to work in television, and was a regular on Bernhard Stephan’s The Last Witness. Gisela is played by the beautiful Hungarian actress Kata Kánya. Kánya starred in several films throughout the seventies. After the fall of communism, Kánya became a became a well-known television personality, and romance counselor. Today in Hungary, she is better known in this capacity than as an actor.

It was difficult to find anything out about Peggy Röder, who played the daughter Carola. She appears to have been a singer, first and foremost. As near as I can tell, this was her only film appearance, but because her last name is often spelled “Roeder” to accommodate systems that can’t handle umlauts, her statistics are included on IMDB under those for the American actress Peggy Roeder. They are not the same person.

Like that other film about vehicles and romance, Beloved White Mouse, Driving School was filmed in and around Dresden. We do get a few shots of Dresden street life, including the Semperoper and downtown areas of the Innere Altstadt. Although it is never stated, Horst appears to work at the German Hygiene Museum (Deutsches Hygiene-Museum) off of Blüherstraße. The film received positive reviews and garnered Jörg Gudzuhn a best leading actor award at the Eberswalde Film Festival.

IMDB page for the film.

The film does not appear to be available on DVD at this time, but you can watch it here.


1. There is even a comedy on this subject—Einfach Blumen aufs Dach (Just Put Flowers on the Roof), which examines of the misadventures a man encounters after he purchases an old Russian limousine.

Five Days, Five Nights
At the end of World War II, Russian soldiers went on a plunderfest across eastern Germany. Think Sherman’s March to the Sea, but with dividends. Houses were stripped of their valuables, stores were looted, and machinery was taken. Much of this looting was done on a personal level—soldiers helping themselves to the contents of the houses they invaded—and some of this was done as part of the Soviet Union’s campaign to get the maximum financial benefit out of the war. They certainly needed it. Hitler’s ill-advised attack on Russia hurt Germany, but it devastated Russia.

On a more organized level, specialized American, British, and Soviet troops were tasked with finding specific things, the best-known example of this is the race between Soviet Union and the United States to procure German scientists and their materials related to rockets and atomic research. On the Soviet side there were also trophy brigades, whose job was to find as many works of art and antiquities as they could. While most of the art looting by American troops was done by individuals looking to bring home souvenirs, Soviet troops had a mission: Find the art and bring it back to Russia.1

A logical place to start was Dresden. Dresden had been the art capital of Germany. The museums there were outstanding. As the war escalated, museum officials decided to move many of the most valuable paintings to safer locations in case the city was attacked. This turned out to be a very good idea indeed. Dresden wasn’t just bombed, it was nearly erased from the face of the Earth. U.S.and British bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of bombs and incendiaries on the city. The resulting firestorm was so intense that many people hiding in their air raid shelters died not of burns, but of asphyxiation when the firestorm sucked all the oxygen out of the area. The results of the firebombing are still visible today in the blackened facades of the buildings along the Elbe, and the calico churches built from the rubble left after the war.2

Fünf Tage - Fünf Nächte

When the Russians started arriving in Dresden, claiming they were there to save the artwork, the locals were, understandably, suspicious. Especially after these soldiers announced that they would have to take the artwork back to Moscow to protect it from the further deterioration due to mold and the elements. The Russians assured the locals that they were doing this for the benefit of the art, and they would return the artwork as soon as things had stabilized. No one in Dresden believed this for a minute, and they were probably right not to—Josef Stalin was not exactly the poster boy for trustworthiness. In truth, the collecting of the art of Germany was just what it looked like: an attempt at payback for the devastation and destruction that Germany rained down on the U.S.S.R.

But as the cold war heated up, the Soviets were looking for any ways they could to demonstrate they weren’t the ogre that the United States made them out to be. The subject of the Dresden paintings came up again. What better way to demonstrate their integrity than to show that the vow they made to the Dresdeners at the end of WWII was not just hot air? So it was that 750 of paintings were returned to Dresden in 1955. This wasn’t all of the artwork that was purloined, but it was a lot of it, and certainly enough to make for good press.

Five Days, Five Nights (Fünf Tage – Fünf Nächte) is the story of the Russian art recovery effort at the end of the war. The films was the first of several joint productions between East Germany and the Soviet Union. DEFA often joined forces with production companies from other countries to make movies. During the fifties, they made movies in conjunction with Swedish and French production companies, but after the border tightened up and relationships with western countries became strained, most of the co-productions were made with Eastern Bloc nations, primarily Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Whether or not these co-productions looked and felt like DEFA movies was largely dependent on the director and which film company wielded the most control over the production. Stars was made in cooperation with Bulgaria’s Boyana Film, but the film is pure DEFA, thanks to Konrad Wolf’s sure hand at the helm. On the other hand, the French/East German co-production Die Hexen von Salem (The Crucible) is, for all intents and purposes, a French film, having been directed by a Belgian from a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre, and starring Simone Signoret and Yves Montand.

Russian soldiers

Five Days, Five Nights, is very much a Russian film. It forgoes the usual, cool DEFA objectivity in favor of socialist realism (which, let’s face it, isn’t very realistic at all). People are either filmed at chest level, making everyone, even the children, look heroic, or from above looking up to the sky in triumphant bliss. The effect is further enhanced by a powerful score, written for the film by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Along with Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky, Shostakovich is one of the great Russian composers of the twentieth century. Unlike western classical composers, such as Erich Korngold and Max Steiner, the fact that he wrote scores for movies did not assign him to the film ghetto, or reduce his standing as a classical composer. He could write a score for a film one year, and compose an opera the next. This was largely due to the Soviet Union’s attitude toward film. Unlike the west, where film was was viewed as a form of mindless entertainment for the masses, the Soviets already saw the power of film to galvanize public opinion back in 1925 with Battleship Potemkin. So it was that Shostakovich was hired to write the score for October: Ten Days That Shook the World, a film about the October Revolution of 1917.

Shostakovich had a rocky career under the Soviets, thanks mostly to Stalin’s tin ear and lack of musical sophistication. Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда) was initially a hit, but later came under attack as “coarse, primitive and vulgar.” When Stalin attended a performance of the opera in 1936, he behaved boorishly, laughing and grimacing throughout, leaving poor Shostakovich sweating bullets in the back. This was around the time Stalin started his Great Purge. Having him as your enemy was a good way to wind up freezing to death in a Siberian prison.

To keep on Stalin’s good side, Shostakovich cancelled performances of his musically challenging fourth symphony and restricted much of his composing to film music, knowing Stalin was rather fond of films. With the release of his crowd-pleasing fifth symphony, Shostakovich got back in the good graces of Stalin and the public, at least until 1948, when he was once again attacked by Central Committee secretary Andrei Zhdanov, who accused his music of being “formalist”—a term that was thrown around a lot, and appears to have no more meaning to Soviet critics than “I don’t like it.”

After Stalin died, Shostakovich started receiving the attention he deserved. His work came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein in New York, who became a strong advocate for Shostakovich, and played his compositions in concerts on a regular basis. Eventually, Shostakovich joined the Communist Party in 1960, mostly as a formality so that the government could appoint him as the General Secretary of the Composers’ Union. This seems to have given him both clout and courage. He protested against the incarceration of the poet Joseph Brodsky, and was one of the signatories on a an appeal to Brezhnev not to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation. In both cases his causes were triumphant.

During the late sixties and early seventies, Shostakovich’s already bad health got worse. He had lost the use of his right hand to polio in the fifties, then broke both legs, causing him to remark in a letter to a friend: “All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order.” He died August 9, 1975, but his music continues to be a popular addition to movie soundtracks.

Five Days, Five Nights

With most films, the job of directing is assigned to one person and the resulting movie is attributed them as the auteur. The whole auteur concept falls apart when talking about the films from the East Bloc nations, where the contributions of everyone involved are given greater weight than in the west and the choice of cast and crew are not always left to the director.3 Five Days, Five Nights features three directors. The German language scenes were directed by Heinz Thiel, who directed Black Velvet, recently discussed on this blog; some of the Russian scenes were directed by Anatoli Golowanow, who probably would have receive a second unit or first assistant director credit in a Hollywood film; and the whole affair was overseen by the Russian director Lev Arnshtam, who is listed as the film’s head director.

Unlike DEFA directors such as Kurt Maetzig and Joachim Hasler, who came to filmmaking via the film labs, or Jürgen Böttcher, Arthur Pohl, and Peter Pewas, entered the field through graphic arts, Lev Arnshtam came to films via music. He studied piano at the Leningrad Music Conservatory and, for a while, was the music department head at Vsevolod Meyerhold’s theater. There, he met people in the film industry, and soon started working as a sound director and later a screenwriter. He directed his first film, Подруги (Girlfriends, originally released in U.S. as Three Women) in 1936. Mr. Arnshtam’s style is heavily influenced by the work of Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, whom he met while working at the Meyerhold Theater. Their influence is on full display here. After Five Days, Five Nights, he directed only one more film—Софья Перовская (Sofiya Perovskaya), a film based on the life of the Russian revolutionary, Sophia Perovskaya, who was hanged for her part in the assassination of Alexander II. Mr. Arnshtam died in 1979.

Dresden

Perhaps the most striking thing about this film, aside from Shostakovich’s majestic score, is the representation of Dresden after the firebombing. By 1960, when this film was made, much of Dresden had been rebuilt. To recreate the destroyed city, miniatures were used to remarkably good effect. Much of the credit for this must go to production designer Herbert Nitzschke. Mr. Nitzschke got his start as a set painter for German film productions. He first worked as a production designer on L’Entraîneuse (Nightclub Hostess), a French/German co-production from 1939. Several more films followed. At the end of WWII, his career as a production designer went on hiatus until 1955, when he was hired as the production designer for Hotelboy Ed Martin, a film adaptation of Albert Maltz’s play, Merry Go Round.

Mr. Nitzschke’s career in film was starting to take off again, and his miniature work in Five Days, Five Nights is spectacular—helped greatly by Ernst Kunstmann, a master of filming miniatures, whose work includes Metropolis, Triumph of the Will, The Singing, Ringing Tree, and First Spaceship on Venus. Unfortunately, Herbert Nitzschke lived in West Berlin, and his career at DEFA came to an abrupt halt on the 13th of August, 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up. His last credit as production designer was on Five Days, Five Nights co-director Heinz Thiel’s Tanz am Sonnabend (Dancing on Saturday).

Also worth mentioning is Walter Schulze-Mittendorff, who designed the costumes for this film. A sculptor by training, it was Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff who designed the Maria Robot for Metropolis. At that point, Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff was still billed as a sculptor. With Amphitryon, he got his first billing as a costume designer and showed a real knack for it. After the war, he started working for DEFA, and often found himself on the same projects as his old Metropolis co-worker, Ernst Kunstmann. Like Herbert Nitzschke, Mr. Kunstmann lived in West Berlin and found his career at DEFA stopped cold with the building of the wall. He worked on a few West German productions, most notably, The Castle (Das Schloß), then retired in 1968.

The story of wartime art theft is not a new one, nor a dead subject. Jewish families are still wrangling for the return of artwork stolen by Nazis, and in November 2014, the son of an East German art collector—from Dresden, coincidentally—filed to recover artwork that was stolen from his father by the Stasi.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


1. The allies did have a team of people searching out art, but it was a much smaller effort. These people mostly worked alone (although the film The Monuments Men would have you believe otherwise), and their primary goal was to identify historic sites. The search for stolen artwork arose as a by-product of that effort, and a reaction to the Soviet Army’s art recovery efforts.

2. It’s probably worth pointing out here, that, as bad as the firebombing of Dresden was, it couldn’t hold a candle to Berlin, which saw nine-and-a-half times as many bombs dropped on it.

3. There are a few Hollywood exceptions to this: Tora! Tora! Tora! featured Japanese sequences by Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda, while The Longest Day featured a host of directors from different countries, all under the watchful eye of producer Darryl Zanuck.

Beloved White Mouse

The musical comedy is not a genre anyone would associate with East Germany. It was born in Hollywood and reached its acme under Arthur Freed at MGM. Musical comedies are happy affairs, light as meringues  colorful, and carefree—not qualities that immediately spring to mind when one thinks of the GDR. But DEFA made several musicals and most of them are fun. Beloved White Mouse (Geliebte Weiße Maus) is one of the most fun musicals, which is curious considering it began with a PR effort from the Ministry of the Interior to improve the public image of the Volkspolizei.

After the wall was built, East Germany endured a great deal of bad press. In spite of their argument that the wall was not an instrument of oppression, but one of protection (see Look at This City!), the wall helped promote the image of East Germany as one of a drab, 1984-style land, devoid of happiness and love. This was especially true of the Volkspolizei, who were often enlisted to help with situations that were really under the purview of the military. When faced with protests, the VoPo resorted to the same tactics used by cops all over the world in these situations: hit first, arrest for resistance, and ask questions later. As a consequence, by 1962, Stasi reports were showing a dangerously large-scale discontentment with the People’s Police.

The Ministry of the Interior turned to DEFA to help change this image and change it they did. DEFA’s solution was a light comedy about one of the most innocuous members of the Volkspolizei—the lowly traffic cop. Traffic police were fixtures of Germany during the fifties and sixties—both east and west—and were often seen in the middle of intersections directing traffic. They wore white uniforms to make them more visible, which led to the nickname “White Mice” (Weiße Mäuse). Beloved White Mouse is the story of one such traffic cop named Fritz Bachmann. Fritz directs traffic at a busy intersection in Dresden’s Loschwitz borough. Everyday, he sees the same people walk and drive by, in particular, a doe-eyed waif named Helene who rides a “Troll” motor scooter to work. Helene also notices Fritz and decides it’s time to meet him. Fritz has another admirer, a zaftig woman named Frau Messmer, who walks her poodle past Fritz’s station and has a nasty habit of losing control of her poodle at the intersection. When the interests of these three collide—not literally, but almost—the story begins.

Like any good musical, reality here is pliable. People start singing directly to the movie audience, and at one point Fritz and Helene sail over Dresden, carried aloft by a beach umbrella. It’s a fun sequence, and the camera is careful not to venture too close to the parts of the city that were still in ruins from the WWII firebombing by Allied troops. After all, this is a comedy, not a documentary.

Beloved White Mouse was directed by Gottfried Kolditz, and stars Rolf Herricht. Kolditz hardly needs an introduction here. Some of his films have already been featured on this blog, including Midnight Review, Apaches, and the psychedelic masterpiece, In the Dust of the Stars. Playing Fritz is Rolf Herricht. one of East Germany’s most popular comic actors. Herricht was best known as half of the comedy duo, Herricht and Preil, who were staples of East German television. An example of their work together can be seen in the film DEFA Disko 77. Herricht appeared in several films, including Not To Me, Madam!, Hauptmann Florian von der Mühle (Captain Florian of the Mill), and the banned film, Hands Up, or I’ll Shoot. Herricht died in 1981 of a heart attack on stage during a performance of Kiss Me Kate at the Berlin Metropol Theater.

Karin Schröder, who plays Helene, is possibly the most adorable actress to come out East Germany. Her large brown eyes and blonde hair here make her look like a living Keane painting. She got her start playing the sporty Ruth in the popular DEFA musical New Year’s Eve Punch, and demonstrated a knack for comedy that Kolditz put to good use in Beloved White Mouse. In 1976, she proved she was equally adept at drama, winning the best actress award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for her performance in Kurt Maetzig’s Mann gegen mann (Man Against Man). Most of her work in East Germany was in television, where she appeared in over thirty TV movies and several of the most popular shows. She appeared nine times on the East German TV series Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort (The D.A. Has the Floor), although never in the same role twice. In 1987, she moved to West Germany. As with other actors that moved prior to the Wende, she was able to continue her career without the sorts of problems that those who stayed in East Germany until the bitter end experienced. She has gone on the appear in several popular TV shows since then, including a turn as the Kriminaloberrätin Marianne Stockhausen on Die Wache and as Sophie Himmel-Eiler on the long running soap opera Unter Uns.

Playing the unlovable Frau Messmer is Marianne Wünscher, an important character actor in the DEFA line-up. She appeared in dozens of East German TV-movies and several of the Stacheltier shorts that played before the main features at East German cinemas. She also made a brief appearance in Hot Summer as the director of the Volkseigenes Gut (farm collective). Too chubby for lead roles, she made a career out of playing the parts of nosy neighbors, officious secretaries, or lovable older women. She also appeared on stage, and had a knack for comedy. Ms. Wünscher died in 1990 in the middle of the Wende—after the wall fell, but before the reunification. She is buried in the Friedhof Pankow III cemetery in Berlin’s Pankow-Schönhausen district.

The music for Beloved White Mouse was by Carlernst Ortwein, a Leipzig-born pianist who used the pseudonym Conny Odd for his film work. Most of his film scores were made for the short films of Lothar Barke and others. In 1967 he moved away from film work to concentrate on his serious music, He appears briefly in the film playing piano in the dance orchestra. Conny Odd didn’t have an avant garde bone in this body, so the songs here, while enjoyable, could have come from a musical made ten years earlier. You won’t be singing them upon leaving the theater like you might with Hot Summer. A particularly entertaining number, though, is “Der Mann von Titelblatt,” which features a beauty parlor full of people singing about Fritz’s appearance on the cover of a magazine. It’s the kind of surreal nuttiness that makes this and other musicals so much fun to watch.

No examination of Beloved White Mouse would be complete without mentioning the work of its cinematographer, Günter Haubold. A comedy musical requires a bright and happy palette of colors and Haubold’s work here fits the bill perfectly (helped considerably by Babett Koplowitz’s colorful costume design). Everything is bright and airy, and seems like it was filmed in the sunlight–even the indoor scenes. There are no shadows in this film. Haubold got his start assisting Wolf Göthe on Gerhard Klein’s A Berlin Romance. He worked on several DEFA classics, including Konrad Petzold’s Das Lied vom Trompeter (The Trumpeter’s Song), Horst E. Brandt’s Zwischen Nacht und Tag (Between Night and Day), Günter Reisch’s Anton the Magician, and Iris Gusner’s All My Girls. In most respects, Beloved White Mouse was an anomaly in his body of work. He is best known for a semi-documentary style and some of the best black-and-white cinematography committed to film. He reached retirement age just as the wall came down. He ended his career with the dissolution of DEFA and DFF, but continued to work privately and to teach cinematography. He died in 1999.

As one might expect, Beloved White Mouse was a hit in East Germany. After the 11th Plenum, lighthearted comedy musicals like this one were taken off the schedule. Several of the films relegated to the “Poison Cabinet” during the 11th Plenum were banned for no better reason than that they were frivolous fun. But people need their fun, and it wasn’t long before comedies and musicals started showing up again, most notably with the classic East German Beach Party movie, Hot Summer.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (DVD also includes Der Reserveheld).