Posts Tagged ‘Frank Beyer’

On the Sunny Side

On the Sunny Side (Auf der Sonnenseite) is an entertaining little film about a man named Martin Hoff, who goes from working in a steel foundry to taking drama classes, only to be kicked out because of his behavior. It stars Manfred Krug, who, like Hoff, was working as a steelworker when he started taking drama classes at the State Drama School in Berlin (now the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts), and like Hoff was kicked out for his behavior. Krug, however, eventually found his way into Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, and from there into movies. But that is not what this film is about. Most of the plot concerns Martin Hoff’s attempts to woo Ottilie Zinn, the pretty architect who is in charge of a project on which Hoff is working. Zinn’s aloof indifference toward him provokes Hoff to take a bet from his compatriots that he can woo her. It’s an old plot that has been used in films from Guys and Dolls to How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and with similar results.

On the Sunny Side was a popular film that—along with Midnight Revue, released a few months later—helped cement Manfred Krug’s reputation as a singer as well as an actor. Mr. Krug started in films in 1957, usually playing the heavy. He starred in several TV-movies at the start of his career, playing everything from the reprehensible Locky McCormick in the East German made-for-TV version of Johnny Belinda, to Mephisto in a TV adaptation of Faust.

In 1966, he turned in a performance as Hannes Balla in Trace of Stones that would have been a career-defining role for most actors, but the film was quickly pulled from theaters as a result of the idiotic 11th Plenum. While the Plenum was a career ender for several people at DEFA, the banning of Trace of Stones had little effect on Krug’s career. He continued to appear in films and released several albums on the GDR’s Amiga label. He often collaborated with jazz musician and film composer Gunther Fischer, with Fischer writing the music and Krug writing the lyrics under the pseudonym, “Clemens Kerber.”

Then in 1976, he was joined the protest against the expatriation of leftist singer, Wolf Biermann. For most of the DEFA actors, directors and writers who signed this protest, the move proved to be the end of their film careers in East Germany, but Krug didn’t stick around to find out. Born in Duisberg in 1937, Mr. Krug was a West German by birth and was able to use this fact to leave the GDR as soon as it became apparent that the SED was not going to respond to the protest with anything other than repression and surveillance. Mr. Krug quickly established a new career in West Germany, primarily in television, where he made a splash as truck driver Franz Meersdonk in the popular TV series, Auf Achse (On the Axle) and later as the lawyer Robert Liebling on Jurek Becker’s Liebling Kreuzberg. (For more on Manfred Krug, see The Trace of Stones.)

On the Sunny Side was written and directed by Ralf Kirsten. After studying theater at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Kristen went to Prague, where he studied directing at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and joined fellow DEFA directors Konrad Petzold and Frank Beyer to create the short film, Blázni mezi námi (Fools Among Us). On the Sunny Side was Kirsten’s first bona fide hit. He teamed up with Manfred Krug again the following year to make Beschreibung eines Sommers (Description of a Summer), which also was also a hit with the public. He went on to make several more popular films, including Mir nach, Canaillen! (Follow Me, Canaillen!), Frau Venus und ihr Teufel (Venus and her Devil), Die Elixiere des Teufels (The Devil’s Elixir), and Unterm Birnbaum (Under the Pear Tree). After the Wende, Kirsten found it more difficult to find work as director and began teaching at the film school in Babelsberg. He died in 1998 in Berlin.

Playing the independent and lovely Ottilie is Marita Böhme. After training to be a pre-school teacher, Ms. Böhme began studying theater at the State Drama school in Berlin. A gifted singer, she often appeared in musicals and operettas. She appeared in several movies, in roles of varying importance. She appeared the year after On the Sunny Side in Ralf Kirsten’s Beschreibung eines Sommers, although this time not as Manfred Krug’s love interest. She is best remembered for her role in Carbide and Sorrel. After the Wende she became a regular on Polizeiruf 110 as Opera director Edith Reger.

In spite of being released in the middle of winter, On the Sunny Side was a big hit. The public was looking for something cheerful to take their minds off the increasing tensions between east and west and the recent construction of the Berlin Wall, and Kirsten’s film fit the bill. Today it seems like very light fare, but its importance to the times should not be underestimated. It was the right film at the right time.

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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).

In December of 1965, The 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the SED left East Germany’s film industry in ruins. Some films (most notably, The Rabbit is Me) were shelved after playing briefly in theaters, while others (e.g., Born in ‘45, Carla, and When You Grow Up, Dear Adam) didn’t reach the theaters until after the wall came down. One film that managed to squeak through the initial purge was The Trace of Stones (Spur der Steine)—partly because it was still being worked on when the Plenum occurred, and partly because it was based on one of the most popular books in East Germany. But it was doomed. After all, it was a film about a party leader who cheats on his wife and a likable anti-hero who flouts authority at every turn. Never mind that the book concludes with the anti-hero embracing the party philosophy, any story that dared to come near the touchy subject of SED politics after the 11th Plenum was treading on dangerous ground.

The Trace of Stones is the story of two competing work projects in the fictional towns of Schkona und Leupau (thinly disguised versions of Schkopau and Leuna: two industrial areas near Halle). At one of the sites, a man named Hannes Balla runs things his own way. He is not averse to cheating and bribery if it keeps his crew in work. As building materials become more scarce, Balla and his gang finds ways to get what they need to keep their project on track. The party officials are not completely happy with this, but Balla gets the work done, so they look the other way. Into this scenario come two idealists: Werner Horrath, a by-the-book party leader, and Kati Klee, a young female Engineer. Soon a romantic triangle develops between Horrath, Klee, and Balla, which sends the delicate equilibrium of the community tilting out of control.

Some critics have compared The Trace of Stones to an American western. Manfred Krug as Hannes Balla certainly has a swagger and an imposing presence similar to John Wayne’s in the John Ford and Howard Hawks films, and some of the scenes with the Balla Brigade have a kind of Magnificent Seven quality about them; but, as an American friend of German literature professor, Dr. Frank Höernick pointed out, “John Wayne would shoot; not stand around chatting.”

If anything, it resembles that other American classic, The Scarlet Letter. Like Hester Prynne, Kati Klee bears up under the community’s disapproval with quiet dignity. And like the errant Reverend Dimmesdale, Werner Horrath is basically a good man who keeps his adultery a secret until he can no longer stand the hypocrisy. That’s as far as the comparison goes, however, because the third party in this triangle, Hannes Balla is nothing like Hester’s sneaky reptile of a husband, Roger Chillingworth. Balla—in spite of his love for anti-authoritarian antics—is a man of strong principles. He believes in the goals of the party, and even when he does things that break the rules his reasons are sound. At the beginning of the movie, he seems like the most amoral one in the lot, but by the end, he seems like the most righteous.

After squeaking by the authorities with a few minor cuts, the film opened in theaters, but party officials decided they had made a mistake. In a feeble attempt to rectify the situation, they sent people to the theater to sit in the audience and boo and shout. The film ran only three days. It was then was classified as “hostile to the SED,” and was not shown again until 1990. This decision by the party officials shows just how confused and wrong-headed they had become in the wake of the eleventh plenum. At its core, the film is about a renegade scofflaw who realizes the importance of governing laws. Throughout the film, Balla examines the East German way of life, and comes to the conclusion that, whatever its faults, it is better than the west. If anything, The Trace of Stones is a defense of the system, but there was no explaining this to the party officials in 1966.

After it was banned, Frank Beyer’s career as a director came to an abrupt halt. He was sent to work in theater until 1971, when, thanks to the loosening of a restriction on DEFA after Honecker took over, he was allowed to make a couple in TV movies. In 1975, he returned to feature films with a bang: Jakob the Liar—his first feature film since The Trace of Stones—was the first and only East German film to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Kati Klee is played by Krystyna Stypulkowska, a Polish actress who had impressed the international film community with her performance as Pelagia in Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje). At the time, Ms. Stypulkowska spoke no German, so her voice was provided by the popular East German film star, Jutta Hoffmann. In an interview, Ms. Stypulkowska said she thought that Hoffmann’s voice worked well for her character because it made her sound more like a party member.

To play Hannes Balla, Manfred Krug was chosen. At that point, Krug was best known to East German audiences as a singer. He had done dramatic films already (e.g., Five Cartridges and Professor Mamlock), but it was his performance in Midnight Revue that captured the public’s fancy. He appeared regularly on East German television, and his albums sold well in the GDR. As one of the many people in the East German film community to protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann in 1976, Krug found himself blacklisted. He asked to be allowed to move to the FRG, and his request was granted in 1977. After moving to West Berlin, he starred in several TV shows, including Auf Achse (On the Axle), a popular show about German truckers, and the ever-popular crime drama, Tatort (Crime Scene), in which he played Head Commissioner Paul Stoever, who was not averse to bursting into song. In 1996, he wrote Abgehauen (Scram), an autobiographical account of his time in the GDR. The book was a big hit in Germany, and was made into a TV movie by his old friend, The Trace of Stones director Frank Beyer. Krug has gone on to publish four more books in Germany. He lives in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin, where he has resided since he left East Germany.

Werner Horrath, the adulterous Communist party secretary is played by Eberhard Esche. In some ways, Esche has the most difficult role. In western literature, the adulterer usually comes off as a complete cad, never intending to tell the wife about his lover or to marry his mistress. Horrath is not exactly a cad, but we are never sure if he is going to do the right thing. This creates an interesting tension in the character. At times we like him, and at other times we want to slap some sense into him. In terms of strength of character, he is no match for Balla. Esche was a popular theater actor in East Germany and was, for a time, married to the Dutch actress, Cox Habbema (Eolomea), with whom he co-starred in the Märchenfilm, Wie heiratet man einen König (How to Marry a King). He died of cancer in 2006 and is buried in the Französische Friedhof (French Cemetery) in Berlin.

The Trace of Stones is also notable for one of the most amusingly self-deprecating lines in East German cinema. Shortly after Kati Klee arrives at the worksite, Balla stops by her room and asks if she wants to go out on a date. “I wanted to ask you to the movies,” he says. “I’d even watch a DEFA film with you.” Maybe this is really why the banned it.

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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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