Posts Tagged ‘Eva-Maria Hagen’

Wolf Biermann
One of the most important events in the story of East German cinema was the expatriation of folksinger Wolf Biermann. It had more impact on filmmaking in the GDR than any other event short of the 11th Plenum. So how did this relatively insignificant political misstep play such havoc with the East German film industry? This time on the East German Cinema blog, we’ll take a look at Biermann’s expatriation and its effect on the East German film community.

Wolf Biermann was a West German. He was born in Hamburg, the son of two devoted and highly active members of the German Communist Party (KPD). His father, Dagobert Biermann, was a dockworker who also happened to be Jewish. During the Third Reich, Dagobert Biermann joined the resistance and started working to overthrow Hitler by feeding information to the exiled KPD. He was arrested and charged with sabotaging ships. Being Jewish, he was soon sent to Auschwitz where he was killed.

Wolf Biermann was very much his father’s son, not afraid to speak his mind even when it didn’t conform to the party line. Prior to Hitler’s takeover of the German government, Dagobert Biermann raised some hackles by suggesting that the KPD and the Social Democrats (SPD) should join forces to prevent the Nazis from gaining a foothold in the government. Ernst Thälmann—exhibiting a brickheaded, “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude toward compromise that Tea Party members would envy—refused to countenance such an idea. We all know what happened next.

After the War, Wolf Biermann joined the Free German Youth (FDJ) and represented West Germany in the FDJ’s first national meeting. It wasn’t long, though, before West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer—who had lobbied prior to WWII for the Nazis to have a bigger voice in the German government—had the organization banned. Seeing all around him how the Adenauer government was suppressing socialist organizations while promoting ex-Nazis, Biermann decided to immigrate to East Germany, where he hoped things would be better.

In 1959, Biermann started working at the Berliner Ensemble—the theater company founded by Bertolt Brecht, who had died a year earlier. Through the Berliner Ensemble, Biermann met Hanns Eisler, who fled to East Germany to escape persecution by the House on Un-American Activities in the United States (for more on Eisler see, The Crucible). Eisler became a mentor to Biermann, and helped promote his budding career as a songwriter. In 1961, Biermann formed the Berliner Arbeiter-Theater (Berlin Workers’ Theater). He wrote a play, Berliner Brautgang (Berlin Bridal Walk), about the building of the Berlin Wall, but the play was banned before Biermann ever got a chance to see it performed. Biermann was banned from performing for six months. It was a punitive slap on the wrist. Perhaps the SED figured this would be enough to get Biermann back in line, but they didn’t know Biermann.

In 1965, his book of poetry, Die Drahtharfe (The Wire Harp), was published in West Germany, which immediately led the SED to brand him as a “class-traitor”—a term they liked to throw around when anyone had the temerity to suggest that maybe the SED wasn’t absolutely correct in their interpretation of Marx. Biermann was put on a blacklist, and not allowed to perform in East Germany or use the available recording facilities. To get around this, Biermann recorded his album Chausseestraße 131 (his actual address) using a recorder and microphone that a friend had smuggled into the country.

wolf biermann

The SED’s attempt to silence him failed miserably, as did their attempts to discredit him. Things came to a head during the World Festival of Youth and Students, when he was visited and defended by Joan Baez,and Karsten Voigt—the chairman of Jusos, an SPD youth group for budding social democrats. Even more than the Berlin Wall, the blacklisting of Biermann served to alienate the SED from the political left in the West, the one group of people in the West that still showed some support for the GDR.

Embarrassed by the negative press in both right- and left-wing media, the SED dropped the ban on Biermann He began to perform again and was allowed to travel to West Germany for concert dates. Perhaps they thought Biermann would soften his criticism after that, but he was outspoken as ever. The folks in the government were getting tired of this Wessi pointing out their flaws, and decided to do something about it.

So it was that, while performing at a concert in Cologne in 1976, Biermann was expatriated for “gross violation of civic duties,” which is to say, he wasn’t willing to toe the SED party line. In a reaction to this, 41 actors, poets, and writers signed a letter of protest against the action. In the following days, more people joined the protest until there were over 150 signatures. This wasn’t an assortment of malcontents and intellectuals either: popular movie stars, directors, writers and musicians also joined the protest.

This could have been an important moment for East Germany, signifying a turn toward a truer socialist democracy, where the voice of the people still mattered, but it would have required less of a Stalinist in power than Erich Honecker. As they had with every previous historical turning point, the SED went in the wrong direction. Rather than listen to the protest, the government came down hard on the signatories, marginalizing them in any way they could, and, in some cases, eliminating their sources of income.

As a result, several well-known and popular films stars applied for exit visas immediately and moved to West Germany. One of the first was, naturally enough, Biermann’s wife Eva-Maria Hagen, followed soon after by his step-daughter Nina Hagen. Nina Hagen had already become a pop star in East Germany with silly songs about having a cold, or forgetting to buy color film, but upon arriving in the West, her image would undergo a complete transformation, becoming the punk goddess she is known as today (for more on Nina Hagen, see Today is Friday).

open letter of protest

Those asking for exit visas weren’t second-tier stars either. Top names such as Manfred Krug, Katharina Thalbach, Angelica Domröse, Hilmar Thate, Cox Habbema, and Armin Mueller-Stahl decided to take their chances in the West, rather than put up with the hassles and constant surveillance that occurred after they signed the protest letter. Those who stayed found fewer opportunities to work, but things weren’t exactly a bed of roses for those who left either. Krug, Thalbach, and Mueller-Stahl landed on their feet with successful careers in West Germany. Cox Habbema was Dutch anyway, so leaving the country was a less of a big deal for her. Domröse and Thate found it harder to find work in films in West Germany, and turn, instead, to the theater.

DEFA continued to make movies, and some very good movies at that, but much of its luster was gone. Worse, the Biermann incident convinced the SED that they needed to step up their surveillance. The use of informants (IMs) increased dramatically at that time, peaking out at 203,000 in 1977. Far from bolstering their authority, the SED was setting themselves up for a fall, but by the time they realized this, it was too late.

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Spur in die Nacht
In America, we tend to parse out films about crime into specific categories, such as heist films, detective films, film noir, mysteries, and so on. In both East and West Germany, these films are lumped into one big group: Kriminalfilme, or “crime films,” usually referred to as “Krimis.” Many West German Krimis center around a murder, but this is more unusual in East German Krimis. Murder, as an individual crime, is seen as a symptom of capitalism and less likely to occur in the GDR. In West Germany, the criminals are often members of crime organizations run by an evil masterminds, best exemplified by the Dr. Mabuse films. In East Germany, these films often revolve around West Germans and foreigners who are using the disparity between East and West Germany for their own ends. Track in the Night (Spur in die Nacht) falls squarely into this category.1 Its original title was Schmugglerkönig (Smuggler King), which gives some idea of the subject matter, but also clues the audience in to the criminals’ motives early on.

In Track in the Night, we follow the misadventures of a Berlin bricklayer named Ulli, who arrives in a small village on the Czech/German border to visit his girlfriend, Sabine. It’s skiing season, and Sabine is doing seasonal work at the local HO store. When she’s not there to meet him, he goes to the the Fuchsbau Inn where she’s staying, but Sabine isn’t there either. After a brief investigation, the local authorities decide Sabine is a Republikflüchtling—a person who left East Germany illegally—but Ulli doesn’t believe it and neither does Sabine’s friend and co-worker Traudel. Ulli starts his own investigation, and soon finds himself embroiled with a gang of smugglers.

Spur in die Nacht

In some respects, Track in the Night resembles an Alistair MacLean story (The Guns of Navarone, Breakheart Pass), where we find out later that someone we thought was possibly a bad guy turns out to be a good guy, but a good guy in this case means someone who works for the Stasi. In other respects, it resembles the format pioneered by Hitchcock, where an ordinary man is thrown into a situation outside of his usual experiences, and is forced to play the hero.

Track in the Night is the second film from director Günter Reisch. Reisch was one of East Germany’s most interesting and imaginative directors. He is best known for Anton the Magician, as well he should be, for it is a real classic, but his others films are also worth a viewing. Politically, he rarely rocked the boat, but this wasn’t out of timidity. He was resolutely socialist, and often attacked what he saw as a growing tendency toward bourgeois values in East Germany.2 His most unique contributions to cinema are the bookend films, A Lively Christmas Eve and Like Father, Like Son, filmed twenty-five years apart with nearly the same cast, right down to the bit parts.

Playing Ulli is Ulrich Thein, and this is his movie he appears in nearly every scene. He even takes to singing and playing guitar at one point. The song he sings, “Fuchsbau-Boogie,” was composed by Thein; rather quickly from the sounds of it, but it’s supposed to be an impromptu song anyway. Thein was a man of many talents. Although best known as an actor, he also directed films and plays, composed songs, and wrote screenplays. He died in 1995 in Berlin (for more on Thein, see Anton the Magician).

Ulrich Thein

Track in the Night also stars two of East Germany’s most beautiful actresses: Eva-Maria Hagen and Annekathrin Bürger.3 For Hagen, this wasn’t the first film she worked on—that would be Don’t Forget My Little Traudel—but it was the first film featuring her to reach the theaters. Her acting duties here are limited. She doesn’t appear until the last half-hour of the film, and even then only in a few scenes. These two movies arrived in theaters within weeks of each other, kicking Hagen’s career with a roaring start.

Annekathrin Bürger had already made a splash in her previous film, Gerhard Klein’s A Berlin Romance. When Track in the Night was made, Bürger was romantically coupled with her co-star Ulrich Thein. After splitting with Thein, Bürger dated and married fellow actor Rolf Römer. Although Römer is now dead, Bürger is still going strong and regularly performs programs of songs and poetry (for more on Bürger, see Hostess). Bürger’s contribution to the plot is not as limited as Hagen’s but the story doesn’t revolve around her either.

The music is by Helmut Nier, a classical composer, who brings to the score a nice Gershwinesque jazziness. Those who have seen New Year’s Punch, which was also scored by Nier, will recognize certain leitmotifs Nier used again in that film. The cinematography is by Walter Fehdmer, who worked in East Germany until the Wall went up, and thereafter worked in West Germany, suggesting he either chose this time to leave the country or, more likely, found himself cut off from his former employer. He retired from film work in 1970. No death date is listed for him, although, since he was born in 1913, he is either dead, or one of the oldest men in Germany. Fehdmer’s work is adequate, but not on a par with the likes of Rolf Sohre, Günter Ost, Joachim Hasler, or Werner Bergmann.

Track in the Night is not one of the most daring or inventive Krimis to come out of DEFA. Those would come later. But it is entertaining, and has a perspective that is completely at odds with our western way of thinking.The proposition that it’s good to cooperate with the Stasi is not a position that one is likely to see repeated anytime soon. Even at DEFA, this position became less and less common as the Stasi became more and more invasive.

IMDB page for this film.


1. Note: I’ve translated the German word Spur as “Track.” This film could also be called “Trail in the Night” or “Trace in the Night” (the more common translation of Spur), and both would fit. The English word “spoor” comes from the same root, although it has lost much of its meaning in English and now is usually reserved to talk about animal droppings. I’ve chosen “track” in reference to one specific scene in the film, which I believe the title is in reference to.

2. Sadly, I never met the fellow, but reports from friends and associates make him sound like a wonderfully cantankerous old coot. I think I would have liked him.

3. Although most of the time I use the now gender-neutral “actor” in all cases, somehow the phrase “beautiful actors” just doesn’t work for me, so I’ve made this exception.

For Eyes Only

Right off the bat, For Eyes Only – Top Secret lets you know that this is not going to be a James Bond, sex and martinis fantasy. A title card appears after the credits, stating that, while the film’s plot is fictional, “similarities to actual events and real people are intended.” The events and people they are referring to are DECO II—a plan by the United States and West Germany to reunite Germany by fomenting uprisings in East Germany and then bringing in western troops—and the exploits of Horst Hesse, a Stasi agent who infiltrated the U.S. Military Intelligence Division (MID) and came back across the border with two safes filled with information on every MID agent working in East Germany as well as an emergency plan called Schweigefunker, that was to be activated in case of war. As a result of Hesse’s spy work, 521 MID agents were exposed, and 137 secret agents in working in East Germany were arrested. The U.S. Military, embarrassed and caught with their pants down, sentenced Hesse to death in absentia. After the wall fell, apparently the threat was forgotten. The emergency invasion plan turned out to be a smokescreen by GDR officials to help justify the building of the wall. This fact was kept from both the public and Horst Hesse himself, who only found out the truth after the wall fell. Hesse lived unmolested to the ripe old age of 84, and died in the town of Schwedt, across the border from Poland.

For Eyes Only is set in June of 1961, a little over a month before the Berlin Wall went up. The border is still relatively porous, and secret agents cross into each others countries with relative ease. Although it is never said outright, it is obvious that one of the subtexts of the film is that the U.S. was constantly engaged in intentional sabotage in East Germany and that the wall put an end to this (for more on this, see Look at This City!). For Eyes Only is an effective thriller with good performances and an exciting conclusion. It ranks as one of the best spy films of the sixties.

Several of the main characters in the film are Americans and speak English during their meetings. Rather than subtitle these scenes, the film uses the technique of overdubbing a translator’s voice in the fashion used by NPR and European news broadcasts. This serves two purposes: It eliminates the need for distracting subtitles, and effectively masks any obvious English dubbing, or giveaway accents. It also gives the film a slight documentary feel absent from other spy film of the period. Not all of the Americans in the film are German, however. Canadian folksinger Perry Friedman, American journalist Victor Grossman, and British journalist John Peet all appear in the movie without credit.

The hero of the film is Hansen, an East German spy who supposedly joined the Republikflucht to escape the GDR, but who, in fact, is a double agent named Lorenz. As one might expect, the Americans are portrayed as hedonistic louts, who drive too fast, and whose radio stations seem to play nothing but jazzy versions of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” To the film’s credit, though, they are not portrayed as bumbling idiots. It takes a great deal of guile for Hansen to outwit Major Collins, even if the man does have trouble keeping his pants zipped. It is these high stakes that keep the film exciting. Hansen may be one step ahead of the Americans, but only one step, and sometimes that is barely enough.

At times it seems like everyone in the film—not just Hansen—is leading a double life, from Major Collins and his evening peccadilloes, to pretty Peggy (Eva-Maria Hagen), the American secretary who keeps a set of falsies in her desk to wear on dates. The only person without secrets is Gisela (Renate Geißler, in her first film role), the attractive gas station attendant who dates the conflicted Czech chauffeur, František. She is also the one person with enough sense to walk away from the situation when she realizes she has been lied to.

Hansen is portrayed by Alfred Müller, an actor who, up to that point, had primarily worked in theater. His portrayal of Hansen here was so popular that he became known as the “James Bond of the East.” He probably would have made an even bigger splash as the morally conflicted judge in The Rabbit is Me if that  film hadn’t been shelved as a result of the 11th Plenum. Happily, neither the 11th Plenum, nor the Wende had much impact on his career. He continued to work in films throughout his life, retiring in 2007 and dying in 2010 from pancreatic cancer.

The randy Major Collins is played by Helmut Schreiber, one of the hardest working men in East German cinema. Schreiber appeared in dozens of films and television shows, He was often cast as a villain, especially in the Märchenfilmen and Indianerfilmen. Like most character actors, his face was better known than his name. He was reaching retirement age when the wall fell, and did not appear in any more films after the Wende.

For Eyes Only was directed by János Veiczi, a Hungarian director who had a hard-scrabble life, working at forced labor in a munitions factory during World War II, and doing whatever jobs he could to support his ailing wife after the war. Responding to an ad in 1949 for people to work at DEFA, Veiczi became an assistant director, working with several talented directors, including Gerhard Klein and Carl Ballhaus. In 1956, he began directing his own features, starting with Zwischenfall in Benderath (Incident in Benderath). With the success of For Eyes Only, Veiczi was given carte blanche to make another spy movie. That film, Die gefrorenen Blitze, (Frozen Flashes), was the most expensive DEFA made up to that point. While not a flop, it did not match For Eyes Only at the box office. Veiczi moved to television at that point with the 11-part mini-series, Rendezvous mit Unbekannt (Rendezvous with the Unknown), a collection of stories taken from actual Stasi files.

For Eyes Only grabs you right from the opening titles thanks to a nice pop-jazz score by Günter Hauk. Hauk was a classically trained musician, who got his start as musical director at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater. His stage compositions include, among others, the music for the stage version of Around the World in 80 Days, which is reportedly where János Veiczi saw Alfred Müller, and decided to cast him as Hansen. Hauk became Veiczi’s go-to composer for his spy films, writing the scores for Die gefrorenen Blitze and Rendezvous mit Unbekannt. Besides For Eyes Only, he is best known for the score for The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs. Hauk died in 1979.

For Eyes Only opened in July of 1963, nine-and-a-half months after Dr. No premiered in London. At the time, some thought the East German film was a response to the British film’s glamorous portrayal of the life of a secret agent, but DEFA had been preparing the film for at least two years before its release. Actually, the two films are as different as chalk and cheese. The British wouldn’t follow suit with anything this realistic until The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1965. The DEFA film was extremely popular in East Germany. In spite of its Anti-American stance—or perhaps, because of it—the film was also well received in West Germany, where NATO’s plan to pepper their country with nuclear weapons (MC 96) was not particularly popular.

For Eyes Only is the latest DVD to be released in the United States by the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst. The DVD includes an East German documentary short in which Horst Hesse is interviewed based on the film, plus two PDF files containing an interview with the film’s dramaturg, and an essay by the University of Potsdam professor Bernd Stöver about the film’s veracity.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film.