Posts Tagged ‘Giftschrank’

jadup und boel

By 1980, the East German authorities had nearly perfected the approval process for feature films. After the debacle of the 11th Plenum in 1965, when a dozen films were rejected either for being too frivolous or not socialist enough, DEFA settled into a safe routine, usually avoiding contemporary subjects, and instead concentrating on historical biographies, Indianerfilme, and the occasional musical. After Honecker took over, the reins again were loosened (but only slightly) and DEFA movies started push the envelope once more. Sometimes a few films went too far for the authorities, such as Iris Gusner’s 1973 film,  The Dove on the Roof, but, by that time, most directors knew the score, and were unlikely to do anything that might get their films banned. Jadup and Boel’s director, Rainer Simon, knew this better than anyone and was more careful than most to avoid controversy. After all, his first attempt at direction ended up on the chopping block during the 11th Plenum. So what happened? How did this film get made and still manage to end up in the Giftschrank?[1]

The film begins on the day of a ceremony to herald the construction on a new store in the town of Wickenhausen in the Altmark region. Here we meet Jadup, perfectly played by Kurt Böwe. Jadup is the mayor of the town. He’s a loyal party member and one of the first people in Wickenhausen to champion the communist cause. Just as Jadup is about to begin his ceremonial speech, a nearby building collapses, presumably from neglect. Snooping around in the wreckage of the house is Herr Gwissen, a stranger in town who has come to purchase antiques. Herr Gwissen finds an old copy of Friedrich Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific that Jadup once gave to a young woman named Boel Martin. Boel arrived in town right after the war with her mother. Her mother is still in town, but Boel is gone, having left Wickenhausen after her rape by someone in the town. Boel refused to say who it was and the people at the time blamed the Russian soldiers[2], but Jadup’s current refusal to discuss what happened is seen by members of the community as a tacit admission of guilt. As the story progresses, we eventually learn the truth.

The story jumps back and forth in time and space between Jadup’s story and Jadup’s son, Max. Max has a crush on Eva, an intensely vapid and vain young lady who is all too ready to spout party doctrine, but without any idea of what that really means. In the opposite corner is the more quirky and interesting Edith Unger, whose alcoholic father has made it his life’s work to write the history of Wickenhausen. It is apparent immediately that Edith is a better match for Max, but will he realize it in time?

The young people in town are given the task (by Jadup) of learning something of their town’s past and the part their parents played in its revival after the war. In flashbacks, we see Jadup as a young man (played by Christian Böwe, Kurt Böwe’s real-life son). The young Jadup lives in the bell tower and develops a camaraderie with the odd and nearly silent Boel. Boel’s hands are covered with warts and the local children run from her because of it. After her rape the warts clear up. Jadup tried to find out who was responsible but all he succeeds in doing is driving Boel from town.

Meanwhile, Edith gets in trouble for posting an essay that is a direct attack on Eva’s typically over-inflated, aggrandizing essay on her parents. Max is given the task of confronting Edith on the subject to get her to bow to peer pressure and apologize, but Edith is made of sterner stuff than that. As the story shifts back and forth in time, Max’s confrontation with Edith is juxtaposed against Jadup’s grilling of Boel. Jadup drives Boel away with his relentless interrogation. Will Max do the same? Jadup brings things to a head in an impassioned speech for the state to return to the principles espoused by Lenin. Otherwise the country will stagnate and die.

As you can probably tell from this brief description, the level of symbolism is very high in this movie, from the collapsing building to the warts on Boel‘s hand. It is no accident that the stranger from out of town is named “Gwissen” (an abbreviation of Gewissen: the German word for conscience). Jadup and Boel seems, at first glance, like a relatively harmless movie, but its unvarnished observations on stagnant bureaucracy in East Germany were bound to rub the officials the wrong way.

The film is based on the novel, Jadup, by Paul Kanut Schäfer. Schäfer was a popular East German author, who wrote everything from crime novels to children’s books. Jadup was published in 1975, but was not a big hit. Rainer Simon hadn’t heard of it when the idea for a movie of it was suggested to him. After reading the book, he recognized that he had a potential hot potato on his hands. He was as surprised as anyone when the authorities approved the project. Recognizing the potential pitfalls he might encounter while trying to get it, made, Simon was careful to follow the script to the letter. In that way he knew he could avoid the common claim that the film was banned because of script changes. In the end, it didn’t matter the film was banned anyway.[3]

Maybe the film would have made it to the cinemas, had it not been for other events in Eastern Europe. The USSR had invaded Afghanistan and tensions between it and the United States were the worst they had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In protest, the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics, which took place in Moscow that year. Meanwhile, things were coming to a head in Poland as well, culminating in the Gdańsk Shipyard strikes led by Lech Wałęsa. As always, whenever the public temperament moved toward calls for change, the leaders of the SED doubled down, increasing surveillance and nipping any perceived criticism of their regime in the bud. Jadup and Boel was an easy target, although, in fairness, had this film been made in the United States during Hollywood’s Hayes Code years, it would have been banned there as well.

When it came to the subject matter of this film—that of party stagnation—director Rainer Simon knew it better than most. A party member of the SED from the age of seventeen, Simon saw first hand the SED’s internal politics at work. He also saw what was happening to it and he didn’t like it. Simon claims that the character of Jadup in the film is not a stand in for himself, but both men continued to believe in socialism and both men were growing weary of the state things in the GDR.

Rainer Simon studied directing at the School of Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg (now named after Konrad Wolf). He started working on short films and was the assistant director on Ralk Kirsten’s Der verlorene Engel (The Lost Angel) and Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. He was slated to direct his first feature in 1966—a film version of Horst Bastian’s novel, Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality)—when the 11th Plenum halted the project (it was eventually made into a film by Erwin Stranka in 1976). He finally got his chance to direct a feature film in 1968 with Wie heiratet man einen König (How do you Marry a King), a Märchenfilm based on the Grimms’ fairytale, “The Peasant’s Clever Daughter.”

In 1979, Simon was to begin work on an East German/Austrian co-production titled, Vorstadtmusikanten (Fringe Musicians), but the film was scuttled before it began. Rainer Simon suspected that the GDR authorities were responsible for stopping the project, worrying as they often did, about defections to the west. Jadup and Boel was Simon’s only film on a contemporary subject. He learned early on that it was a lot safer to film fairy tales and historical biographies. When he was offered this film, he balked at first, recognizing its potential to offend the party bureaucrats, but everyone seemed to be greenlighting the project, so he went forward. He didn’t find out until after the Wende, that the Stasi had people watching the production of this film very carefully (of course, one could argue that the Stasi had people watching nearly everything very carefully).

Simon’s last film to be released prior to the fall of the wall was Die Besteigung des Chimborazo (The Ascent of Chimborazo), about the 1802 ascent of the Ecuadorian volcano by Baron Alexander von Humboldt. At this time, Simon became enamored of Ecuador. After the Wende, he moved to Ecuador, where he continues to make films and teach classes on filmmaking.

Jadup is played by Kurt Böwe with his usual likeable charm. Böwe made his first big splash as the idealistic sculptor in Konrad Wolf’s Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (The Naked Man on the Sports Field), although by that time he had appeared in smaller parts in such films as Gerhard Klein’s Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin Around The Corner) and Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. The Wende had less impact on Kurt Böwe’s career than it did on some of his fellow DEFA actors. He continued working, primarily, but not exclusively, in television, and is best known today for his performance as Kommissar Groth on Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110). Böwe died in Berlin, June 14, 2000.

Katrin Knappe (Boel), on the other hand, stopped working in film and television after the Wende completely. Jadup and Boel was her first feature film. She continued to work in films in East Germany right up until the wall came down, but her primary focus was always theater. She studied acting at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin, where she now serves as a guest lecturer in the puppetry department. For fifteen years, she worked at the Volksbühne on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.

The cinematographer was Roland Dressel. During the seventies, his primary work as lead cinematographer was in television, although he worked on many classic DEFA films before that, including Konrad Wolf’s Einmal ist keinmal, Das Kleid, The Gleiwitz Case, and Hot Summer. He got his start as a still photographer, and he brings some of those skills to bear in this movie, particularly his understanding of how to combine deep shadows and bright images in the same frame, and his use of unusual filter techniques. He was responsible for some of DEFA’s best camerawork during the GDR’s final years. His work during this period, includes The Bicycle, Das Luftschiff (The Airship), The Woman and the Stranger (Die Frau und der Fremde), and Abschied von Agnes (Farewell from Agnes).

The music for the film is composed by Reiner Bredemeyer in his unmistakable style. As with many other film composers—on both sides of the Iron Curtain—Bredemeyer was classically trained. He wrote scores for several films, but is best known today for his avant garde classical compositions. From 1949 to 1953 he studied music composition at the Munich Academy of Music. In 1954, disgusted with the anti-socialist policies of Konrad Adenauer, he moved to the GDR, where he studied under Paul Dessau, another defector from the west. Although he often worked in the twelve-tone scale, his work still shows strong influences from classical composers, most notably, Anton Webern. Bredemeyer uses sparse instrumentation in the film to convey a sense of isolation, from the solo classical guitar at the beginning, to the lonely flute music at the end.

In 1988, the film was finally released in the GDR, but by then the world had changed too much to fully accept this it. Jadup’s impassioned speech for the return to the ideals of Lenin was now seen as a step backwards rather than the radical leap forward it seemed to be in 1980. The film was well received by the critics, but didn’t find its audience until years after the Wende.

IMDB page for this film.

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1. Literally, “poison cabinet,” also referred to as Remota. These are films (or any other documents, for that matter) that are deemed too subversive to allow to be seen by the general public.

2. This is the first time that an East German film addressed the sensitive topic of the rapes that Russian soldier committed in Germany right after the war (see Max Färberböck’s 2008 film, A Woman in Berlin, for an exploration of this topic.

3. It appears that the story of the Production of Jadup and Boel is even more bizarre than I could have possibly imagined. DEFA film expert Evan Torner writes:

“In Ralf Schenk’s interview with Simon (and in my own conversations with Simon in subsequent years), I basically gathered that Jadup and Boel was greenlighted because it was going to be banned. The Stasi watched the production very closely because it was serving as bait, and as a pressure release valve: it let them know how far ordinary GDR filmmakers would go to step out of line (i.e., not that far, all things considered), and as a way to give them all an outlet for their “subversion” without really jeopardizing anything. A state-run studio had to keep its employees working, but it could not stand for content that would ultimately threaten its own revenue streams. Creativity thus became something cultivated by gifting folks a “subversive” project that then may or may not get banned because of the political climate (I’m also thinking of the never-made early 1980s feature Schwarzweiß und Farbe, about a family whose house is in the way of a GDR power plant). The studio got to keep their talent; the state got to keep its legitimacy and even its sense of raw suppressive power.

So Simon was right in thinking that Jadup and Boel sounded like a trap because it was. The great aspect was that he nevertheless made a very thought-provoking piece of cinema as a result. Its resonance beyond the peculiar walled garden circumstances of its origin is open for debate.


© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suzanne Stoll

“Transgressive” is not a word one often uses to describe films from the GDR. With an industry so closely monitored, it was rare for a genuinely shocking film to get past the authorities, but Ursula is just such a film. To make it even more shocking, it was made for television.

Ursula is directed by Egon Günther, and is based on a novella by Gottfried Keller from his Züricher Novellen (Zurich Stories). The story begins in 1523, when Hansli Gyr (often translated as Jackie Geer), a Swiss mercenary, returns from the battlefield to find that Ursula Schnurrenberger, his one true love, is not the woman she used to be. While he was away, the people of his village fell under the sway of Anabaptists (Wiedertäufer), whose doomsday predictions and rejection of traditional values were taking root in the villages near Zurich at that time. Hansli had been away fighting for the papacy in Northern Italy, and is horrified by this change in religious attitudes. He leaves Ursula to try and figure out what to do next when he runs into Huldrych Zwingli, the famous Swiss religious reformer. Hansli joins forces with Zwingli, which puts him at odds with the people of his village, who are being driven mad by their oddball beliefs; especially Ursula, who now thinks Hansli is the Angel Gabriel. The rest of the movie follows the paths the two lovers take, culminating in one of the strangest battle sequences this side of Ken Russell.

To fully appreciate this film, a little history is in order. In 1517, Martin Luther tacked his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Luther wasn’t saying anything people weren’t already thinking. The corruption in the Roman Catholic church had reached such proportions that by the time Luther arrived on the scene, things were ready to explode. Nor was he the only person to rally the crowds against the church and its edicts. In Switzerland, Huldrych Zwingli was preaching his own ideas for change, challenging the concept of transubstantiation and declaring that there was no good reason not to eat meat during lent. In 1522, he demonstrated his commitment to the latter by joining his publisher in a meal of sausages during Lent. This event  became known as the “Affair of the Sausages,” and heralded the beginning of the Swiss Reformation movement. Within a year, Switzerland was embroiled in a faith-based battle over the heart, minds, and souls of the Swiss people with Zwingli at the center of the storm.

A challenge to both Zwingli and the Catholic church were the Anabaptists. They preached an apocalyptic version of Christianity that bore many of the earmarks of modern fundamentalism. 1523 was a pivotal year, that saw the Swiss Reformation movement taking hold and the start of the wars between the Catholic church, the Anabaptists, and the Protestants.

Gottfried Keller, the novella’s author, clearly has no sympathy with the Anabaptists. In his opinion, they are a licentious group of people feeding their lusts and engaging in behavior that borders on insane. At one point, the group decides that being holy means to act like children, resulting in an orgy of infantilism. Keller is more gentle with Zwingli, but the film is not. Zwingli as played by Matthias Habich seems almost as mad as the Anabaptists, who, in turn, come across more like medieval hippies. At its core, the film is a treatise on the folly of war and religion. The final battle sequence, chronicling  the second war of Kappel, intentionally evokes America’s involvement  in Vietnam. That war had been over for a couple years, but it was still a popular target for criticism in the Eastern Bloc countries. Ursula came out a year before the Soviets got involved in their own military debacle in Afghanistan. Had the Soviet War in Afghanistan been raging at the time the film was made, Ursula surely wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

The screenplay was written by Helga Schütz who had also written the screenplays for Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam),  Lots Weib (Lot’s Wife), and Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), all of which were also directed by Egon Günther. Schütz was a diligent researcher who specialized in writing and directing documentaries. When Zwingli is speaking from the pulpit, for example, Schütz effectively uses the actual text of his sermons to shock and surprise the audience. After the Wende she became a teacher of screenwriting at the University of Film and Television in Potsdam.

Scene from Ursula
Egon Günther’s film manages the neat trick of being simultaneously faithful to Keller’s novella and wildly interpretive. The scenes of Jesus being chased (or chasing) Death through the forest are taken from the book, but they appear on a tapestry that Hansli buys Ursula, and which she wears over her shoulders like a shawl. The addition of machine guns to the scene, though, is pure Günther. Is it Ursula’s insanity, or the insanity of war? Günther isn’t afraid of anachronisms, and by the end of the film they are flying fast and furiously. He first shows his hand during Zwingli’s sermon. A shot of the audience reveals that the congregation is wearing modern clothing. At first it seems like a blooper, but when one of the Anabaptists straps himself into a hang glider and takes off, you realize that this film is not playing by the rules.

Ursula was a co-production of Swiss and East German television. Throughout the seventies, East Germany had been working to rebuild their ties with the rest of Europe, and a joint film based on the work of one of Switzerland’s most respected authors seemed like a prime opportunity to further this cause. But when the film was finished, the Swiss refused to show it. It played once on East German TV and then was relegated to DEFA’s Giftschrank.* Nor could this film have made it onto U.S. television either. It contains male and female full-frontal nudity, defecation and urination, extreme blasphemy, and some of the bluest language in any German film. No one could push the limits of acceptability this far and not pay a price. The film marked the end of Egon Günther’s career as a filmmaker in the GDR. Thereafter, Günther went west, where he continued to work as a screenwriter and director until 2002.

Egon Günther settled into a career as a writer after a parade of jobs as a draftsman, soldier, teacher, and publisher. While working as a publisher, he began writing plays, stories, and novels. He started working at DEFA during the fifties, at first as a script doctor, and then later as a director. His career as a director got off to a rocky start with Das Kleid (The Dress), which he co-directed with Konrad Petzold. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes, the film was seen as a direct attack on the authorities in East Germany with its story of an easily duped tyrant and his walled-in kingdom. His next film, Lots Weib (Lot’s Wife), had no such problems, and was a big hit. He intended to follow this with the fantasy film, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam), but the 11th Plenum put a halt to the production and the film had to wait until after reunification to be shown. It looked as if Günther’s career at DEFA might be over, but his next film, Abschied (Farewell), based on Johannes R. Becher’s anti-war novel, was a hit and Günther was back on track, writing and directing several more films over the next few years. In 1972, his film, Her Third (Der Dritte), almost ended up on the shelf with his other banned films, but it managed to squeak by the censors, in large part due to Erich Honecker’s desire to show that his regime would be different from that of Walter Ulbricht’s. Günther became known as the master of the film adaptation, which no doubt had something to do with why he was chosen to direct Ursula.

Playing the star-crossed lovers are the Swiss actors, Suzanne Stoll and Jörg Reichlin. Ursula was Ms. Stoll’s first film and her only starring role. Of the six films and TV movies she appeared in, five were directed by Egon Günther. Reichlin, on the other hand, has continued to appear in films and on television, most recently in Alex E. Kleinberger’s Nachtexpress (Night Express). also appearing in a minor role is the great East German actress, Jutta Hoffmann (see Her Third for more on Ms. Hoffmann).

Huldrych Zwingli is played with ferocious intensity by Matthias Habich. Habich is best known in America for his roles in Enemy at the Gates, The Reader, and Downfall (Der Untergang). He’s had a long career, making films all over Europe starting with some television work in the late sixties. His first big role came in 1973, when he played the lead character in the six-part TV mini-series, Die merkwürdige Lebensgeschichte des Friedrich Freiherrn von der Trenck (The remarkable life story of Friedrich Freiherr von der Trenck). As with many excellent German actors, he doesn’t shun television and has turned up in several excellent (and not-so-excellent) made-for-TV movies, as well as the occasional episode of the popular German cop show, Tatort. In 2002, he won the Deutsche Filmpreis as best supporting actor for his role in Caroline Link’s Oscar-winning film, Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika). He currently divides his time between Paris and Zurich.

Costume design is by Christiane Dorst, who became Egon Günther’s go-to designer for all of his DEFA films starting with Her Third. When Günther left for the west, Dorst stayed behind and continued to contribute costumes to DEFA films such as Motoring Tales and The Architects. After the Wende, Dorst continued to find work, primarily with former East German directors such as Frank Beyer and Roland Gräf. The costumes in Ursula are some of her best work. Certain scenes look like recreations of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Her attention to the details in period costumes is unmatched. Check out the footwraps worn by Hansli under his boots, for instance. After the Wende, Ms. Dorst reunited with Egon Günther on Stein and, her last film, Die Braut (The Bride).

While the costumes certainly helped recreate the times, the rich and dark medieval look of the film is due to Peter Brand’s cinematography. Brand primarily worked in television, but was also responsible for the look of films such as Frank Vogel’s Julia lebt (Julia Lives), and Erwin Stranka’s evocative Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality). By the 1989, he had moved away from television and was working exclusively on feature films, but the Wende saw him return to the small screen. As with Christiane Dorst, Egon Günther’s Die Braut (The Bride) was his last film.

The music is this film is as quirky as the visual information, so it should come as no surprise to longtime readers of this blog that it was done by Karl-Ernst Sasse (for more on Sasse see Her Third). Sasse contributes a score that takes Renaissance folk music and twists it into something bizarre. His use of a solo Jew’s Harp early in the film is reminiscent of the work of Ennio Morricone. The music seems to be saying: “This is going to be a very odd movie.” Like the movie itself, the score contains surprises that pull it back-and-forth between the present and the past.

Because of its subsequent ban, the film achieved legendary status in East Germany. Not every film that has received this accolade deserves it, but Ursula most certainly does. After all these years, it still manages to shock. Recently it was released by ARD Video as part of their Grosse Geschichten series, but, unfortunately, without English subtitles. Hopefully that will change soon; Ursula deserves a wider audience.

As a footnote to the story, the teachings of the Anabaptists found their greatest success across the Atlantic. Attacked by both the Protestants and the Catholics in Europe, they fled in droves to the United States, where their beliefs were the foundations of the Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, and Brethren in Christ—a far cry from the wanton lunatics portrayed in this film.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

* Another of those wonderful German expressions that doesn’t translate well into English. This one literally means “poison cupboard,” and refers to a cabinet in which poisons and dangerous pharmaceuticals are stored. It is often used in reference to the banned films of East Germany, but is by no means exclusive to communist culture.