Posts Tagged ‘Erwin Geschonneck’

Anton der Zauberer
Of all the surprises that East German films bring to American viewers, the biggest one—excluding the psychedelia of In the Dust of the Stars, which is guaranteed to make anyone’s head explode—is how dark the humor in their comedies can be. Of course, the target for this kind of comedy is nearly always western-style capitalism and the avariciousness of its followers, but in black humor there is an inherent, if unspoken, acknowledgement that people are the same everywhere: corrupt, easily manipulated and foolish. These films may not point directly at the SED, but, as the saying goes, whenever you point at someone, three fingers point back at you.

Anton the Magician (Anton der Zauberer) has plenty to say about the corrupting effects the pursuit of money can have on a person, but it also says something about the ability of any huckster to game a system, whether it’s communist or capitalist. The film is the picaresque tale of Anton Grubske, a clever mechanic whose love of cars, women, and booze continually get him into to trouble. The story is told as a flashback, starting with Anton’s funeral then jumping back to his birth. We follow Anton’s story through his teenage years, the war, its aftermath, the early years of the GDR, and right through the building of the Wall, which plays an important part in this story.

Anton is portrayed as a sly man with a likable personality and a way with all things automotive. After narrowly escaping emprisonment by the Russians, he joins in a pecuniary—and sometimes sexual—partnership with Sabine, the owner of Zum verwunschenen Ritter (The Enchanted Knight), a bar that is named after its primary attraction: a mummified knight on display in a small chapel next to the bar. The knight figures prominently in the story. Anton returns to it often, and it is even used as part of a local parade. The metaphor isn’t subtle. Anton is the knight, and the adjective—verwunschenen, which can be translated as either “enchanted,” “accursed,” or “haunted”—certainly applies to him as well.

Anton and mummified knight

Anton the Magician is a morality play with the full spectrum of moral viewpoints on display, from the religious piety of Anton’s wife Liesel, to the avaricious amorality of Sabine. It is between these extremes that Anton is buffeted. At first, he sides with Sabine, who helps him create a black market business for tractors built from the remains of old Wehrmacht vehicles. This enterprise makes him so much money that he has to hide it from the state. He and Sabine sneak across the border with the money to deposit it in a West German bank. When the wall is built, Anton finds himself cut off from his funds. To make matters worse, Sabine takes the money out of the bank and runs off to Switzerland. Anton is thrown in prison for his black market business after one of his customers rats him out, not out of civic duty, but because Anton gave the tractor that was suppose to be his to another customer with more money.

While in prison, Anton starts reading Marx and Engel and is reborn as a loyal citizen. His knowledge of automotives makes him invaluable to the state as he helps the local Volkseigener Betrieb (VEB: publically owned business) reach their tractor quota. Anton goes from shady black entrepreneur to local hero. When Sabine dies in an accident, Anton gets what’s left of the money back, along with her 1964 Chevy Impala, which Anton uses to take out his anger and frustration in a scene that is funny, but slightly horrifying if you’re an old car enthusiast.

Anton the Magician was directed by Günter Reisch, who also gave us Oh How Joyfully…, and Wie die Alten sungen…. He specialized in comedies that were utterly East German, right down to their warp and woof. Much of the humor in his films is invariably lost on those of us in the west and Reisch wouldn’t have it any other way. If reports are correct, he was even a little testy about us Yankees daring to enoy his films. This doesn’t make them any less entertaining, and Reisch’s talent as a filmmaker cannot be denied. Although he is best remembered for his comedies, he could make a drama with the best of them, as proved in his 1980 film Die Verlobte (The Fiancée), which he co-directed with Günther Rücker. Reisch died in February 2014 and is buried at the French Cemetery (Französischer Friedhof) in Berlin (for more on Reisch, see Oh How Joyfully…).

Barbara Dittus

Like Günter Reisch’s other films, Anton the Magician has a dream cast. It stars actor/director Ulrich Thein, who is perfectly cast as the impish Anton. It’s no surprise that he won the best actor awards at the Moscow International Film Festival and Eberswalde Film Festival for his performance in this film, and he probably would have won some West German awards as well if not for the politics of the time (for more on Thein, see Star-Crossed Lovers). On a par with Ulrich Thein is Barbara Dittus, who plays the sexy and avaricious Sabine. Dittus looked like a movie star, and her delivery was the best—especially when playing lusty characters like Sabine in this film and Lucie in Her Third. The always dependable Erwin Geschonneck appears as Anton’s patient father in an unusually small role. Also making a brief appearance as Anton’s lawyer is Reisch’s favorite character actor, Marianne Wünscher, who played the annoying neighbor in Reisch’s Christmas comedies, Oh How Joyfully… and Wie die Alten sungen…, and is well-remembered as the nasty lady with the poodle in Beloved White Mouse.

I’ve discussed all of these actors in previous posts on this blog, so I’ll direct my attention here to the two relative newcomers, Anna Dymna and Marina Krogull. Anna Dymna played Liesel, Anton’s pious wife. Dymna, a Polish actress, had planned on studying psychology, but ended up at the Ludwik Solski Academy for the Dramatic Arts instead. She started appearing films while she was still attending classes at the school. Thanks to a recurring part in the popular Polish TV show, Janosik, and appearances in the comedies, Nie ma mocnych and Kochaj, albo rzuć (Love or Leave), Dymna was already a well-known actress in Poland by the time she did Anton the Magician.

Anna Dymna

Dymna made many movies in Poland, and the transition away from communism had little effect on her career. She has won awards, both for her acting and her humanitarian efforts. In 2003, she founded Mimo Wszystko (Against the Odds) a charity organization geared toward improving the lives of the sick and disabled. Of late, she has been devoting more of her time to her charity work than acting. Her last film was the 2011 drama, Fear of Falling (Lek wysokosci), which was directed by Bartosz Konopka, who gave us the delightful documentary, Rabbit à la Berlin.

Marina Krogull plays Sabine’s daughter Ilie. Although her part in the film is considerably smaller than the other leads, hers is the most psychologically complex character in the film short of Anton himself. Many of the scenes with her show a young woman observing her mother and trying to follow in her footsteps. In this sense, the character of Ilie seems as doomed as Anton.

Krogull started her career as a ballet student, but switched to acting in the mid-seveties, starting her film career in 1975 with Kurt Tetzlaff’s Looping. She continued acting after the Wende, and was, like many other East German actors, a regular on the TV hospital drama, In aller Freundschaft. She has appeared on nearly every popular German TV show at some point or another, for Edel & Starck to Wolffs Revier to Tatort and SOKO Wismar. She is also a very popular voice actress in Germany, and has done the German dubbing for everyone from Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock, to Cynthia Nixon in Sex and the City.

The mummified knight is based on a real corpse. that of Christian Friedrich von Kahlbutz, whose body is on display in the Kampehl district of Neustadt (Dosse), Brandenburg. The knight is notable for the remarkable state of preservation of his body without any mummification process involved. Local legend has it that his unusual state of preservation is due to his false testimony in court while he was being tired for the murder of a local shepherd. Von Kahlbutz supposedly said in court, “If I’m the murderer, then, by God’s will, my body will never decay” (“Wenn ich doch der Mörder bin gewesen, dann wolle Gott, soll mein Leichnam nie verwesen”).

Anton the Magician was a popular film upon release. Its dark humor suited the East German public, and its attitude toward the west suited the film board. Its jibes at capitalism probably didn’t help it get international distribution, which is unfortunate. Of all Reich’s comedies, this one is the most deserving of more attention.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film.

Ach du froeliche

There is something in human nature that requires a Winter Solstice celebration. It doesn’t matter if you are a Christian, an atheist, a pagan, or a Jew, when the days reach their shortest, we need a festival of light. This is especially true in the northern climes, where the days get dark and frigid. The first Christians tried to get people to stop celebrating Saturnalia at this time of year, but finally gave up and co-opted the holiday, claiming it as their own and calling it Christmas. Whether you call it Christmas, Saturnalia, Winter Solstice, or Weihnacht, something in us needs a festival at this time of year, so even the dyed-in-the-wool communists in East Germany found themselves celebrating the holidays. That, to some extent, is what this movie is about.

A Lively Christmas Eve (Ach, du fröhliche…)1 takes place—as the English title suggests—on Christmas eve, the day when German families traditionally get together to open their presents. As is often the case with families, both in films and real life, Christmas can be the time when family members who have spent most of the year avoiding each other are forced into the same room together and finally blow up. The film follows the adventures of a Christmas eve at the Lörke apartment. Walter Lörke, the family patrician and card-carrying communist, is introduced to Thomas Ostermann, his daughter Anne’s new beau. Thomas has nothing good to say about the state and soon he and Walter are at it with each other. To make matters worse, Anne is pregnant and is planning to keep the baby. What’s a father to do?

The film is based on Vratislav Blažek’s play, Und das am Heiligabend (And on Christmas Eve), which was made into a TV-movie a year earlier. The play was then reworked as Ach, du fröhliche, which was then made into a novelization of the film—also written by Mr. Blažek. Mr. Blažek was a Czechoslovakian playwright who specialized in social satire. As one might imagine, his plays, from time to time, came under fire for their jibes at life in a socialist country. In 1968, Blažek left Czechoslovakia, taking up residence in Munich.

A Lively Christmas Eve was directed by Günter Reisch. Like the former Pope, Mr. Reisch was drafted into the Nazi party as a teenager during the waning years of the Third Reich. Mr. Reisch was captured by the Americans soon thereafter and spent a short time as a prisoner of war before joining one of the anti-fascist schools set up by the Soviets. Mr. Reisch appears to have taken these lessons to heart. He stayed true to the GDR’s core principles until the end.

Günter Reisch enrolled at DEFA’s film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg, and upon graduation was hired as the assistant director to Gerhard Lamprecht on Quartett zu fünft (Fifth Quartet). His next job as assistant director was on Kurt Maetzig’s Council of the Gods. Over the next few years he worked with Mr. Maetzig on several more films, including The Story of a Young Couple and the Ernst Thälmann films. In 1956, he began his career as a director with Junges Gemüse (Small Fries), but it was with his next film, Spur in die Nacht (Track in the Night) that he started to gain attention. This was also the first of his films that he both wrote and directed, a practice he would continue throughout his career. His films often tackle the issue of bourgeois values in a socialist state, although usually in a lighthearted manner (as was the case in the U.S. during the Hayes Code years, it was often easier to get things past the censors if you wrapped them in comedy).

After the Wende, Mr. Reisch’s career as a filmmaker ended. He began teaching film at several universities in Germany and Italy, including the Konrad Wolf Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg. He was an important mentor to Andreas Dresen, who went on to become one of Germany’s most respected filmmakers.

Playing Walter Lörke is Erwin Geschonneck, who needs no introduction to EGC blog readers at this point. He appeared or starred in some of the best films to come out of East Germany, many of which we have already discussed here in depth, including Carbide and Sorrel, The Ax of Wandsbek, Castles and Cottages, and Heart of Stone. Mr. Geschonneck brings his usual gruff charm and impeccable comic timing to the part of the put-upon patriarch of the Lörke family.

Playing the daughter Anne is Karin Schröder. Ms. Schröder was planning to be a stenographer when Günter Reisch discovered her and put her in his film, Silvesterpunsch (New Year’s Punch). An exceptionally attractive young woman, Ms. Schröder was to star in several more film, making her biggest splash as the adorable scooter rider in Beloved White Mouse. In 1987, she emigrated from East Germany to the west, where she continued to appear in films and on television. She was a regular on the popular crime drama Die Wache (The Guard) and has appeared in many other popular German TV shows including Unter Uns, In aller Freundschaft, Tatort, and Alles Klara.

The contrarian Thomas is played by Arno Wyzniewski. Mr. Wyzniewski is well-known to East German audiences. Gaunt-faced and dark-eyed, he was a striking-looking man who appeared in everything from Five Cartridges to The Baldheaded Gang, but it was his appearance as the frail but determined Sepp Gomulka in The Adventures of Werner Holt that caused the public to first sit up and take notice of him. Although he did occasionally play the lead, he was better known as a character actor, appearing as secondary characters in many classic DEFA films. In 1985, he made a big splash playing King Friedrich II in the popular TV miniseries, Sachsens Glanz und Preußens Gloria (Saxony and Prussia’s Blaze of Glory). He reprised the role twice more for the sequels and is, to this day, still remembered as King Friedrich by East Germans of a certain age.

After the Wende, he continued to act, primarily in television. He was last seen in America as Kuk, the unlucky contestant on the wheel of fortune in the “Eating Pattern” episode of Lexx—a strange Canadian/German science fiction co-production about a giant dragonfly-shaped spaceship with a sexy love slave, a robot head, a dead assassin, and feckless security guard on board. This would be one of his last performances. He died a few months after it aired and is buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin.

Worthy of special mention here is Marianne Wünscher, who played the pesky neighbor, Mrs. Klinkhöfer. Ms. Wünscher was a popular character actor in East Germany. She is best known as an uptight poodle owner and the nemesis of Karin Schröder’s character in Beloved White Mouse. Ms. Wünscher was an extremely active performer, appearing in many movies, television shows, and stage productions throughout her career. She also served as a Berlin city council member for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPD) from 1977 to 1981. She died August 9, 1990, after the wall came down, but before the reunification of Germany.

Although it is unquestionably a light comedy, A Lively Christmas Eve has a certain bite to it. Had it been made in 1965 it would have, undoubtedly fallen victim to the 11th Plenum’s attack on the arts. The film’s gentle ribbing of the state would not have been tolerated three years later.

The film was very popular, even though it was released in October, well before the Christmas season. It also has the unusual distinction of spawning a sequel…twenty years later. But that is another story for next time.

IMDB page for this film.

This film is not currently available, but can be found on Veoh—a very problematic source of films.


1.The German title for this film, “Ach, du fröhliche,” usually appears as “O, du fröhliche,” and is a very popular Christmas song in Germany. When the song is sung in English, it usually appears as “Oh, How Joyfully,” but is sometimes titled “Oh Ye Joyful People.” More often, the song is played as a Christmas instrumental number under its original title, “O sanctissima.” The DEFA Film Library at UMass lists the name of this movie as A Lively Christmas Eve, so that is what I am using here.

Heart of Stone
On December 8, 1950, DEFA, East Germany’s state-run movie studio, released its first color film. The film was shot in Agfacolor, which was developed for the Nazis to compete with Technicolor. After the war, there was enough color film stock at the AGFA plant in Wolfen to make a few movies, but the Soviets claimed it as compensation for the war. They took it Russia where it was used to make the first Russian color film, The Stone Flower (Каменный цветок). Meanwhile, back in Germany, the folks at DEFA were stuck with in a black-and-white world. Black-and-white worked great for the bleak, almost noir Rubble Films, but not so well for musicals and kids’ films, where they had to compete with the likes of Hollywood. Eventually, the Soviets were able to produce their own version of Agfacolor film (Sovcolor) and DEFA again had access to color stock.

In the west, the Allies—and especially the United States—continued to throw up roadblocks to keep the West Germans from making movies. Films were such an important part of Hitler’s war machine, they argued, that it was better if the Germans were just not allowed to make any more movies at all. Instead, Hollywood films were imported for screening in German cinemas, sometimes without subtitles. This lined the pockets of the Hollywood producers, but only served to infuriate the German public, many of whom spoke no English at all back then.

The Soviets had a very different take on the subject. They had already seen the power of film as a tool for proselytizing with movies such Battleship Potemkin and Mother. Rather than block film production in the Soviet sector, they encouraged it, and helped found DEFA. As a result, before the dust had settled from the war, DEFA was up and running, producing its first film in 1946 (The Murderers Are Among Us).

Because of the U.S. resistance to film production, ambitious German filmmakers in the Allied sectors headed east to get their movies made. This was, of course, a great publicity coup for the Soviets, but it also meant that some of the films made during this period were DEFA in name only. They looked and felt like West German films. In fact, some of them looked and felt like Third Reich-era UFA films—minus the anti-Semitism, of course.

A perfect example of this is Heart of Stone (Das kalte Herz). Anyone watching this film for the first time would logically assume that it was made in West Germany. It has all the characteristics we have come to expect of West German films—the handsome, über-blond hero, the affinity for traditional folk festivals and clothing, the scenes of nature accompanied by gushingly romantic music. It’s all there. A quick rundown of the cast shows that nearly everyone who worked on this film came from West Germany. A few worked on other DEFA films during the early years, but most did not. Nonetheless, it’s an important film in the history of East German cinema. It is not only the first color film made in the GDR, it is also the first in what would become a long line of East German Märchenfilme (fairytale films).

Heart of Stone tells the story of Peter, a young man who works as a collier—a meager existence if ever there was one. Fed up with his lot in life, and wishing to impress the beautiful Lisbeth, he goes into the forest to make a deal with the Glassman (Glasmännlein) a leprechaun-like character that can grant wishes for any children born on Sunday. There, Peter meets Dutch Michael (Holländer-Michel), an ominous giant who tells Peter that he can make him a rich man if Peter is willing to give up his heart. Dutch Michael keeps the hearts of local rich men pinned to a wall like a butterfly collection. He tells Peter he will replace his heart with one made of stone. At first, Peter balks at this suggestion, preferring instead to continue looking for the Glassman. He eventually meets the Glassman and gets his three wishes, but the frivolity of his wishes come back to bite him, so Peter rethinks his strategy and goes looking for the evil Dutchman to broker a new deal.

This film is based on a fairytale by Wilhelm Hauff. Hauff wrote three books of fairytales, and this story appeared in two parts in the last of these books. It was translated into English and published under its literal title translation—The Cold Heart—as the second of two stories, along with The Marvellous History of the Shadowless Man by Louis Adelbert von Chamisso. This edition is now available at the Project Gutenberg website as a free download. The movie follows the story the fairytale closely, although in the fairytale, Lisbeth does not show up until late in the story, and the scene where Peter uses a glass cross to stop Dutch Michael is removed entirely from the film—no real surprise there, considering Marxist philosophy’s antipathy toward religion.

Hauff’s stories are still popular in Germany and many have been turned into feature films and cartoons. Heart of Stone has been filmed at least three times; two of his other fairy tales, The Story of Little Mook and Zwerg Nase (Little Longnose), have been filmed five times each. Hauff also wrote the notorious Jud Süß, which was the basis of the virulently anti-Semitic film made by Veit Harlan for the Nazis, although, it must be said, the Nazis took many liberties with Hauff’s story, with the most notable one being the fact that Hauff’s character discovers he is not a Jew at all.

Director Paul Verhoeven was already an established actor and director when he came to DEFA to film this project. He got his start in films during the Third Reich, when he both acted and starred in several motion pictures. After the war he managed the Bavarian State Theater until 1948, when he returned to cinema to film his play, Das kleine Hofkonzert (Palace Scandal). Thereafter he continued his career as an actor/director until the early seventies.

Oddly, Paul Verhoeven died of heart failure while giving a eulogy on the stage at the Munich Kammerspiele during a tribute for the famous Munich actress Therese Giehse (best known to U.S. audiences as the headmistress in Mädchen in Uniform). Verhoeven stood up, began the obituary, and keeled over dead.

Verhoeven’s son, Michael Verhoeven became a filmmaker in his own right, directing the excellent films, The Nasty Girl and The White Rose. Michael is married to the beautiful Senta Berger. Paul Verhoeven’s daughter, Lis Verhoeven, became an actress and has appeared in many German films. She was briefly married to the great German actor, Mario Adorf, and their daughter, Stella Adorf is now also an actress. Paul Verhoeven is not related to the Dutch director of the same name.

Lutz Moik

Lutz Moik plays Peter the collier. He does an admirable—if somewhat melodramatic—job of portraying the young man and the changes he goes through. His transformation from the naive, warm-hearted proletarian to the greedy, cold-hearted capitalist is a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance. He doesn’t even look like the same person. Mr. Moik was born in Berlin, and began his acting career during the waning days of the Third Reich, working at first on radio, and later appearing in movies. He was in a few early DEFA films including Und wenn’s nur einer wär’… (And If Only…) and 1-2-3- Corona. Eventually, he settled on the western side of the wall where he continued work as an actor and a dubber for many years. He died in 2002 in his hometown of Berlin.

Playing Lisbeth,was the lovely Munich-based actress, Hanna Rucker. Ms. Rucker began her career as a theater actress, appearing in several productions in the Munich Kammerspiele. A year before appearing in Heart of Stone, she made her film debut in the West German Rubble Film, Wohin die Züge fahren (Wherever the Trains Travel). Throughout the fifties, she starred in several West German films, including Unter den tausend Laternen (Under a Thousand Lanterns), San Salvatore, and Heiße Ernte (literally, Hot Harvest). She retired from films in 1956 at the age of 33, when she married producer Mo Rothman and moved to England with him. Although they later divorced, Ms. Rucker stayed in England until the end of her life and never made another motion picture.

The two spirits of the woodlands—the Glassman and Dutch Michael—are played by Paul Bildt and Erwin Geschonneck respectively. Paul Bildt was already a well-respected actor by the time this film came out. He had been acting in films since 1910, and also appeared in a few DEFA films during the forties. But Heart of Stone was his last film for DEFA. After this, he moved to West Germany, where he continued to appear in movies until shortly before his death in 1957 (for more on Paul Bildt, see Razzia). Erwin Geschonneck, on the other hand, was a relative newcomer in 1950, but he steals every scene he’s in. By the end of the GDR’s existence, Geschonneck had become the most beloved actor in East Germany (for more on Erwin Geschonneck, see Carbide and Sorrel).

The cinematography was by two of the best technicians working in East Germany at the time—Ernst Kunstmann and Bruno Mondi. Mr. Kunstmann was primarily known for his special effects, and was most likely the man behind the camera in the scenes the featured Dutch Michael. Like Paul Bildt, Mr. Kunstmann’s career stretches back to the silent days, where he worked with special effects pioneer Eugen Schüfftan on Metropolis to help create the ground-breaking special effects for that film. During the thirties Mr. Kunstmann worked with Leni Riefenstahl on Triumph of the Will and Josef von Báky on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. After the war, he decided to settle in East Germany, where he contributed special effects for many classic DEFA films, including Chemistry and Love, The Story of Little Mook, The Singing, Ringing Tree, and The Silent Star.

Bruno Mondi also got his start during the silent era, beginning with Fritz Lang’s Destiny. He worked on many films during the Third Reich years, including Veit Harlan’s notorious Jud Süß. He was the man in charge of the color photography on Kolberg—Veit Harlan’s hugely over-budget spectacle, which cost the Nazis dearly. After the war, Mondi worked on a few East German films, but he was a West German at heart. Heart of Stone would be his last East German film. He found his calling in the mid-fifties with the über-schmaltzy Sissi films, which virtually defined the Heilmatfilm.

Heart of Stone was one of the last of the West German-led DEFA productions. A little over a year earlier, both the east and the west declared themselves as to be sovereign states. This is what finally ended the U.S. resistance to West German filmmaking. Prior to that, American film moguls had already been protesting the distribution of DEFA films overseas and were trying to get them to stop. But once the Allied sectors and the Soviet sector became separate and opposing states, any potential negotiations over whether DEFA had the right to distribute its film in South America were off the table. By this time, America was so rabidly anti-communist that the very mention of the word could make some senators start foaming at the mouth. The U.S., they argued, had to do everything it could to make sure that the Bundesrepublik outperformed the GDR.

The U.S. dropped its restrictions and did everything it could to promote economic growth in every sector of the West German economy. The result was the Wirtschaftswunder—a period of economic growth that pulled West Germany out of the rubble and back into the twentieth century. West Germany began to thrive while the enforced stagnation of the SED began to takes its toll on East Germany.

While Heart of Stone certainly falls into the category of DEFA in name only, its importance to film production in the GDR cannot be underestimated. It was released right before Christmas and was huge hit on both sides of the borders. DEFA had, quite by accident, stumbled on the perfect genre for making films that the west wouldn’t find objectionable, but still had a socialist moral to them, and were suitable for the whole family—the Märchenfilme. After all, the rich were usually the bad guys in fairy tales, while the poor were often the heroes. Before the Wall fell, East Germany made dozens of these Märchenfilme, which were distributed throughout the world and translated into many other languages, including some in English for the British and American markets (see The Singing, Ringing Tree and The Golden Goose).

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

YouTube version of the film.

Separate English subtitles.1


1. Whenever possible, I try to provide those readers who don’t speak German with links to subtitled versions of the films. The main source for these in America is, of course, the DEFA Library at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Sadly, Heart of Stone is not one of the films that is currently available. In the meantime,I have created subtitles for this film that are currently only available here. For more information on how to use these subtitles to enjoy the film, visit Pop Void.

Castles and Cottage

Castles and Cottages (Schlösser und Katen) is three-and-a-half hour, two-part film that covers the events in a small Mecklenburg village from the end of WWII to the protests on June 17th in 1953. It could be considered an epic if the details of the story weren’t kept so localized and the scale so small. The first part begins at the moment the war ends and the villagers hear that the Russians are coming. After the rich landowners flee to the west, the locals wrestle with their ideological differences in an attempt to perfect a socialist model that will give everyone in town an equal voice. To its credit, the film does not sugarcoat the process and shows good and bad people on both sides of the argument, and the difficulties encountered during the transition.

The second part covers the months prior to the June 17th uprising. June 17th, 1953 stands as one of the most important dates in the history of East Germany; second only to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The country was a little over three-and-a-half years old in June of 1953, and the early promise of a utopian socialism was rapidly eroding in the face of human nature, crop failures, subversive activities, and Ulbricht’s slavish and ill-advised adherence to Stalin’s ruthless version of communism. When construction workers in East Berlin went on strike on June 16th to protest Ulbricht’s announcement that they must work twice as hard for half as much, the U.S.-founded West German radio station RIAS made the story their major news point, which helped inflame the situation across the GDR. Strikes and protests sprang up all over the country. In some places, the protests turned particularly nasty. In Rathenow, a Stasi official was hanged. Elsewhere, police stations, newspaper offices and radio stations were taken over by protesters. In his book, Wir waren die bessere Republik, Jürgen Fischer reports that in Magdeburg a policewoman was stripped almost naked and forced to lead the protesters’ train.

The situation was resolved with brute force when the Soviets arrived to remind everyone that they still held all the cards. Soviet and East German documents from that time now show us that the use of force was mostly Ulbricht’s idea, and the country would pay for this decision for the rest of its existence. It never fully recovered from the event, and it marked the end of the idea that workers had in power in East Germany. It also cemented the SED’s dependence on the Soviet Union for muscle; a dependence that would spell their downfall when Gorbachev cut those apron strings for good.

In spite of the failure of the strikes and protests, West German authorities treated the events of June 17th as an ideological victory. They would point to the use of force as proof that the only way the GDR could continue to exist was under bootheel of the Soviet Union. They would name a section of Unter den LindenStraße des 17. Juni” in honor of the day’s events and make the day a national holiday, calling it the “Day of German Unity” (now celebrated, more honestly, on October 3rd).

As one might imagine, the East German authorities saw the events of the day in a very different light, and it is in this light that Castles and Cottages is cast. From their perspective, the uprising was an attempt by outside forces to destroy the government; the crop failures were the result of intentionally poisoned grain shipments and sabotage, and the protests were led by agents provocateurs. The film also suggests that the events of the day helped weed out the intentionally subversive elements in East German society, leading to a more unified country.

The pivotal character in the film is Annagret, an idealistic young woman who is unaware that she is the daughter of the local aristocrat Graf von Holzendorf. A hunchbacked handyman called “Crooked Anton” (Krummer Anton) has pretended to be Annagret’s father for the sake of von Holzendorf’s reputation. Much of the film’s plot centers around a paper that proves Annagret’s birthright, and the value of the paper to different factions. The main villain of the piece is Bröker, von Holzendorf’s duplicitous overseer. Bröker pretends to side with the villagers, but is always looking out for his own interests. While the Von Holzendorf family may represent the plutocracy, Bröker represents the forces of destruction bent on tearing down the socialist system.

The film’s director, Kurt Maetzig, is no stranger to this blog. He had already made Marriage in the Shadows, Council of the Gods, and the Ernst Thälmann films when he took on this project. He was easily the most respected filmmaker in East Germany in 1957, which probably explains why he was able to give this film a more evenhanded approach than the Ernst Thälmann films. Maetzig’s allegiance is firmly in the socialist camp, but he does a good job here of fleshing out the viewpoints of the anti-socialist camp. Even those who are in favor of socialism are able to recognize the problems that they face. “Under capitalism I had no land. Under socialism, I have no time,” one character says.

The initial screenplay was by Kurt Barthel, an East German writer and playwright who often worked under the pseudonym, “KuBa.” Barthel was fighting for socialist causes from an early age. Before the war, he wrote for Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the communist newspaper founded by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. After the Nazis came to power, he fled to England where he joined the nascent Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth), a group that would take on an important role in the German Democratic Republic. He worked with Krista Wolf on the screenplays for Divided Heaven and Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly), which was banned while still in production as a result of the 11th Plenum.

From 1956 until his death, Barthel was the chief dramaturge at the Rostock People’s Theatre. As a lifelong supporter of communist causes, it is ironic that he died of a heart attack in Frankfurt, West Germany’s center of capitalism, during a touring performance of a revolutionary revue when the local SDS members rioted because they didn’t find revolutionary enough. He is buried in Rostock.

Playing the complicated character of Crooked Anton is the intense-looking Raimund Schelcher. Schelcher was born in 1910 in Dar es Salaam to German parents. He started his acting career on stage during the Weimar years and gained a name for himself as a talented stage performer. In 1938, he made his film debut in Veit Harlan’s The Immortal Heart (Das unsterbliche Herz), he made one more film before he was arrested for his outspoken views on National Socialism. From jail, he was conscripted into one of the Nazi’s infamous Bewährungsbataillonen (Parole Battalions) that were created when the German started losing too many men to the Eastern Front. Schelcher was captured by the Russians and spent the rest of the war in prison. Afterward, he moved to Bremen, where he returned to stage acting. In 1950, he moved to East Berlin to work at the renowned Deutsches Theater Berlin. From there, he started working for DEFA, appearing in several classic East German films, including, The Axe of Wandsbek, The Kaiser’s Lackey, and Berlin – Schönhauser Corner.

Schelcher was an excellent actor, but he had one small problem: he liked the bottle a little too much. Worried that this might affect his ability to perform in the film, Maetzig took the unusual step of filming his scenes twice. First with Schelcher, and then with his understudy, Hans Hardt-Hardtloff. Schelcher managed to make it through the film, and it is his version that was released. The incident was used to comic effect by Andreas Dressen in his movie, Whisky with Vodka (Whisky mit Wodka). As he got older, the drinking became more of a problem and Schelcher’s appearances in films got fewer and further between. He died in Berlin in 1972.

Playing the young and idealistic Annagret is the lovely Karla Runkehl. She first caught people’s attention playing the committed freedom fighter Änne Harms in the Ernst Thälmann films. Over the years, she appeared in over thirty films as well as several television shows, but it is her early appearances in films such as this one and the Thälmann films for which she is best remembered. Ms. Runkehl died in 1986 at the age of 56 and is buried in Kleinmachnow cemetery.

The villainous Bröker is played by Erwin Geschonneck, who, like Maetzig is regular in the pages of this blog. Over his long career in East Germany, Geschonneck proved he could play virtually any type of role, from the lovable nebbish in Carbide and Sorrel to the brave battalion leader in Five Cartridges. In Castles and Cottages, Geschonneck plays one of his least sympathetic characters. Even in The Axe of Wandsbeck, his portrayal of the avaricious butcher Albert Teetjen is not with pathos. But here his character is without almost any redeeming qualities. He represents the subversive element that was left in the Soviet sector after the war, constantly undermining the efforts to create a sustainable socialist democracy. [Note: for more on Erwin Geschonneck, see Carbide and Sorrel.]

The film score was composed by Wilhelm Neef. Like that other popular film composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse, Neef was a classically trained musician and it shows. The score is classical and beautiful. As an orchestral piece, it could stand on its own in any concert hall in the world and deserves more attention from the music community. Neef wrote dozens of films scores and is best known for his work on the Indianerfilme. During the seventies, he stopped writing film scores so that he could concentrate on his classical music career. He died in 1990 at the age of 74 in Potsdam.

Castles and Cottages is a unique film. It is usually shown in two parts with separate viewings. Each part tells a complete enough story to stand on its own. Its East German perspective on the June 17th uprising is reason enough for anyone interested in German history to give this film a look.

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Five Cartridges

After World War II, Germans had an understandably uneasy relationship with war films. While Hollywood rolled out film after film about the heroics of our fighting men, neither East Germany nor West Germany had much taste for this kind of film, not were the expected to. From the German perspective, war was not something to be glorified. It was an ugly business in which everyone who participated lost part of their humanity. The first few films out of DEFA after WWII discussed the war in these terms. A few even showed scenes of battles, but, for the most part, the preferred to steer clear of the subject of men at war. Konrad Wolf’s beautiful film, Stars, observed the daily lives of German soldiers during WWII, but these were men far from the front. The lives and camaraderie of the men in the trenches weren’t subjects that any German filmmaker were ready or willing to touch. When they did, it was usually in the most pessimistic terms possible, a perfect example being Bernhard Wicki’s anti-war classic, The Bridge (Die Brücke).

When Five Cartridges (Fünf Patronenhülsen) came out, it was like no other East German film. Visually, it looked more like a John Ford western or a Kurosawa film than anything DEFA had to offer; and in spite of the inevitable futility of their fight (after all, Franco won), it treats the soldiers heroically. Of course, it helped that they were fighting against fascism. We already caught glimpses of the contributions that the communists made to the fight against Franco in the Ernst Thälmann films. At DEFA it was okay for soldiers to be heroes as long as they were communists, but even so, this sort of front line battle saga was not that common.1

After WWII, the Spanish Civil War was largely overlooked by the western film community. André Malraux explored it in his 1945 film, L’espoir (Man’s Hope), and Hollywood neutered the story for the film version of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, but most films used it more as a passing reference than a plot point.

Five Cartridges featured some of DEFA’s best male actors: Manfred Krug, Erwin Geschonneck, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Ulrich Thein all get a chance to demonstrate why they would become popular with audiences in East Germany. Erwin Geschonneck had already proved himself—most notably in The Axe of Wandsbeck. The others were relative newcomers. Manfred Krug and Armin Mueller-Stahl were just starting their careers and we already see glimpses of why they would become two of the most popular actors in East Germany. Ulrich Thein, while not as popular as Krug and Mueller-Stahl, went above and beyond the call of duty for his portrayal of the radio operator separated from the others. To prepare for the scenes where he had to play a man who had gone without anything to eat or drink for several days, he did just that. Even the most rigorous method actor rarely goes that far.

Most of the film was shot in Bulgaria, whose sandstone hills were acceptable stand-ins for the Catalonian countryside, but the crew was only allowed a few weeks worth of shooting. After they ran out of time, the film had to make do with the Harz district in East Germany. The problem was that the dark, loamy soil and rock formations of the Harz area looked nothing like tan and sandy terrain of Bulgaria. To solve the problem, production designer Alfred Hirschmeier, the man behind such classics as The Silent Star, Carbide and Sorrel, and Jacob the Liar, was given the task of making the Harz landscape look like Bulgaria. His solution was to paint the rocks white. The end result is effective and is only noticed if you are looking for it.

Five Cartridges was written by Walter Gorrish, an author and screenwriter whose own life is worthy of a movie. Gorrish had first-hand knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, having fought in Spain himself as a member of the XI International Brigade. While in Spain, he served as adjutant to fellow writer, Ludwig Renn, the author of War, which stands alongside All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun as a classic anti-war novels of First World War. After fleeing Spain, Gorrish was captured in France, and was sentenced to prison. Later, he was conscripted into the Strafdivision 999—a military battalion comprised largely of political prisoners. While serving on the Eastern Front, Gorrick did what many others in his battalion did: He defected to Russia. After the war, Gorrish moved to the Soviet Sector of Germany, where he worked as a freelance writer. He only wrote a few screenplays, concentrating, primarily, on his writing. He died in 1981,

Cinematography was by Günter Marczinkowsky—quite possibly the best cinematographer in East Germany. Like Rolf Sohre, Marczinkowsky worked in film lab before he became a cinematographer. He began his career as a camera working under Robert Baberske, considered one of the greatest cinematographers of all time (see The Axe of Wandsbeck). After the 11th Plenum, Marczinkowsky was “disciplined” for working on Trace of Stones by being moved to television productions. In 1979, he moved to West Germany, where he continued to work primarily in television. He retired the year that the wall came down, and died in 2004.

Understandably, Five Cartridges was a hit in East Germany and helped propel Frank Beyer’s career forward. During the early sixties, he was one of the most well-respected directors at DEFA. He had almost back-to-back hits with Star-Crossed Lovers, Carbide and Sorrel and Naked Among Wolves. His career probably would have continued to flourish had the 11th Plenum not come down hard on the film industry, and, in particular , on his film Trace of Stones. From here on out, with only a few exceptions (notably, Jakob the Liar), his directing would be relegated to the small screen.

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1. We wouldn’t see Third Reich soldiers treated with the any respect in a German film until Das Boot. Even then, Sam Peckinpah got there first with Cross of Iron (a huge hit in Germany, by the way).

By the early sixties, the cold war was hotter than ever. The Cuban revolution in 1959, the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, led to a situation where people on both sides of the Iron Curtain were expecting World War III to start at any minute. So what does one do with things look their grimmest? One laughs, of course; especially at the other guys. Billy Wilder had already explored this territory in 1939 with Ninotchka, and again in 1961 with One, Two, Three—a film that has the dubious distinction of being made just as the wall was being built—but now it was East Germany’s turn to explore the rift between the east and west in as light-hearted a manner as possible.

The year was 1963, and the film was Carbide and Sorrel (Karbid und Sauerampfer). It is loosely based on the true story of a man named Richard Hartmann, who was given the job of schlepping several barrels of Carbide from Wittenberg to Dresden (about 135 km)—without a vehicle—at the end of World War II.

To completely appreciate this film, a little history is in order. Dresden after the war was in ashes. A coordinated bomb attack by the allied forces left 35,000 people dead and 39 square kilometers (15 square miles) of the city in flames. At one point during the bombing, the fire was so large that the bombers stopped dropping flares to mark the target—the flames made it obvious. The fire was so intense that it created swirling tornadoes of flames that sucked the oxygen from everything around it. Thousands died of asphyxiation, trapped in air raid shelters. They were the lucky ones. Others were burned to death, some so severely that all that was left of their bodies were the fragile ashen remains. Most Americans knew little about this event until Kurt Vonnegut, who had the dubious distinction of being there at the time as an American P.O.W., described it in his magnum opus, Slaughterhouse Five. Prior to the fire-bombing, Dresden was considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, called the “Florence of the Elbe” (Elbflorenz) for its beautiful architecture and art. In terms of industry. Dresden was known for two things: cameras and cigarettes. In the 1930s, Dresden produced 60% of all German tobacco products. Even today, one of the historical landmarks of the city is the Yenidze, a former tobacco factory that resembles a middle eastern mosque. No longer a factory, it is used now primarily for offices, and is an historical landmark.

In Carbide and Sorrel, the former cigarette factory workers decide to get the factory up and running again. To do this, they need to do some welding, and welding needs carbide. A man named Kalle is given the task of bringing the carbide back to Dresden from the factory in Wittenberg. Kalle, beautifully played by Erwin Geschonneck, is chosen because he is single, so he has no family to worry about, and, more importantly, his brother-in-law owns a carbide factory. He is also a vegetarian, which, the others feel, will help him live off the land during his trip. The good-natured Kalle reluctantly agrees and off he trudges to Wittenberg.

After leaving the carbide factory with seven 100-pound barrels, he gets his first ride from a woman named Karla, who lives a stone’s throw from the factory. It’s not much distance, but Kalle likes Karla. He agrees to go with her and spends the rest of the day and that night at her farm. Karla dreams of becoming an actress. She collects movie magazines, and has had small mirrors made with her picture on the back. She gives Kalle one of these mirrors to remember her by, and Kalle promises to return to her after he gets the carbide to Dresden. What follows is a series of misadventures in which Kalle encounters all manner of scoundrels and thieves. He also has several run-ins with the Soviet army and a comic encounter with a American soldier.

It is interesting to compare this film to its American counterparts. In Hollywood films of the period, U.S. soldiers are portrayed as upstanding and ruggedly handsome, while Russians are almost always portrayed as fat and corrupt. In Carbide and Sorrel, we are presented with the mirror view. Here, it is the Russian soldiers who are handsome and honest. The sole American he encounters is a fat buffoon with rotten teeth. Kalle steals the American’s boat, but this act is not seen as crime any more than Cagney’s swindling of the Russian diplomats in One, Two, Three is viewed as immoral. They are the bad guys, and anything you do to them is okay. The one young woman Kalle encounters who wants to go to America is portrayed as vapid and self-serving, suggesting that only a stupid person would think things are better in the west.

Erwin Geschonneck was already becoming one of East Germany’s most popular actors. His turn in Naked Among Wolves (Nackt unter Wölfen) was well-received on both sides of the wall, but it was the part of Kalle in Carbide and Sorrel that made him the most popular actor in East Germany. Years after the wall came down, he was voted the “best East German actor ever” in a survey taken by Film und Fernsehen magazine. As an interesting side note, the idea for making Kalle a vegetarian came from Erwin Geschonneck, who was also a vegetarian. Although it is more common today, being a vegetarian in Germany in the early sixties (on either side of the wall) was considered extremely odd.

Geschonneck’s own life was every bit as adventuresome as that of Kalle’s. During World War II, he was one of the 4,500 concentration camp prisoners on the Cap Arcona, a former luxury liner that was being used as a prison boat by the Nazis. Thinking the ship was being used to transport troops, the RAF sank the boat in April of 1945. The SS guards, equipped with life jackets, proceeded to shoot any prisoners that attempted to escape the sinking ship. Only 350 of the prisoners survived, and the bones of the dead continued to wash ashore on the Bay of Lübeck until 1971. Geschonneck’s story was made into a TV movie in 1982: Der Mann von der Cap Arcona. Geschonneck retired after the wall came down, returning only once to television to star in Matulla und Busch—a TV movie directed by his son Matti Geschonneck.

Director Frank Beyer was at the height of his career in 1963. His previous films, Fünf Patronenhülsen and Naked Among Wolves (Nackt unter Wölfen) were both successful, but they were also grim. With Carbide and Sorrel, Beyer proved that he could do light comedy as well. Beyer uses classic film tricks for humorous effect, such as, speeding up or reversing the action, and the use of novelty wipes for scene transitions; but most of the humor comes from Geschonneck’s put-upon Kalle, and his wonderful range of facial expressions, coupled with Joachim Werzlau’s cheerful soundtrack.

Composer Joachim Werzlau worked exclusively with Beyer for his last few film scores. From 1963 on, he preferred to work in the field of classical music, producing several orchestra pieces and operas, including the communist opera Meister Röckle, which was performed often in East Germany and in Moscow, but is rarely performed today. The only full film score he created after Carbide and Sorrel was Jacob the Liar (Jakob, der Lügner), which was also directed by Frank Beyer

Thanks to films such as Carbide and Sorrel and Jacob the Liar, Beyer was respected as one of the greatest East German directors by the time the wall fell. But this stature did not come without set-backs and travails, which we’ll get into at a later date.

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