Posts Tagged ‘Gojko Mitic’

Radio Killer
It’s no secret that the East Germans and the West Germans spied on each other. Like the characters in Antonio Prohías’ Spy vs. Spy cartoon strip, each side continually sought new ways to find out what the other side was up to. The listening post on the Teufelsberg in Berlin is an example of this. This U.S. facility was primarily intended as a first defense, in case radio chatter suggest some sort of mobilization with East German and Soviet troops. Talking to soldiers who worked there, the truth was far more prosaic. Most days were spent listening to discussions about what various SED officials were having for lunch. Teufelsberg was connected to other listening posts, most of which were hidden in forests in East Germany. These were small devices, easily concealed. Occasionally, they were discovered due to either equipment malfunctions or blind luck.

On both sides there was always a suspicion that some of these devices served a double duty that would become apparent in times of war. Radio Killer (Radiokiller) takes this concept and runs with it, creating an interesting and unique films that tells its story in a typically East German, low-key style. The film is a co-production of DEFA and DFF, and first appeared on television in May of 1980. As with most made-for-TV films, the budget was low, and it shows in the production.

radiokiller

The title suggests a film about a homicide—a serial killer that preys on his victims via a radio signals, à la Bela Lugosi’s Murder by Television, but, it’s nothing of the kind. The story starts when a fighter jet and a passenger plane suddenly find their communications channels jammed, and just barely avoid hitting each other. The source of the problem is traced to a signal that blocked all radio communication—the “Radio Killer” of the title. In this case, it wasn’t intentional sabotage, but a faulty circuit that caused the problem. Agents from the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (better known as the Stasi), are unable to locate the signal’s exact location, but they figure that someone from the West will come along and fix the problem. That someone is a man named Vogel, who works for the Bundesnachrichtendienst—West Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (usually abbreviated to BND). Vogel is shown developing a method to fix the delicate electronic underwater without getting them wet. The faulty circuit is located at the bottom of a lake, and the only way to fix it is for Vogel to work on it underwater, lest he be spotted. The rest of the film is a cat-and-mouse game between the Stasi and the BND.

The screenplay was written by East German author Harry Thürk, who, like Harold Robbins, specialized in writing books that were more popular with the general public than the critics. He also wrote the screenplays for the spy film, For Eyes Only and Rendezvous mit unbekannt (Rendezvous with the Unknown), an eleven-part TV series that presented actual stories from the early days of the Stasi. Clearly the man had a soft spot for MfS agents.

Fans of spy movies may find this one a little puzzling. All the intrigue occurs on a mental level, and no guns are drawn, or even appear in the film. The end goal, as far as the East German agents are concerned is to neutralize the threat of the Radio Killer without letting the West Germans know they’ve done so. For anyone raised on James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. this might seem awfully tame, but the film does a good job of keeping the tension high. It probably helps that Radio Killer is a very short film, coming in under 70 minutes.

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Agent Achim Vogel is portrayed by Gojko Mitić, best known as East Germany’s number one Indian in their westerns. It is one of the few times we get to see Mitić as the bad guy (for more on Mitić, see Apaches and The Sons of the Great Bear). Schalker, the lead East German agent, is played by Erik S. Klein, an actor familiar to any fan of East German films. Klein appeared in several classic East German films, including Stars, The Second Track, and Naked Among Wolves. In the East German states, he is best remembered as the harried father in the TV mini-series Aber Vati! (But Dad!). After the Wende, offers to appear in films and TV dried up. Aside from one failed TV series, Klein didn’t show up on television again, even though you could have found him on the small screen in the GDR nearly any night of the week. Like many other actors, he turned to radio productions and to the stage (what a golden time for German theater the nineties must have been). He died in 2002.

Aside from a few films in late sixties, director Wolfgang Luderer worked almost exclusively in television, but was no stranger to the Krimi by the time he made this movie. He began his career directing episodes of Fernsehpitaval—a popular television series that featured reenactments of famous crimes. Although he hadn’t signed the protest letter against Wolf Biermann’s expatriation, and hadn’t suffered the punitive restrictions faced by the likes of Manfred Krug, Jutta Hoffmann, and Angelika Domröse, Luderer decided to leave the GDR in the early eighties. Within a couple years he was working in West German television and probably would have a long career in unified Germany as well if he hadn’t died in a car accident in 1995.

The cinematography is by Helmut Bergmann, and appears to have been shot in 16mm. Perhaps this was to save money, but it also helped match the stock footage of jet planes, and facilitate underwater filming. It also gives the film a documentary feel, which is effective here. While this film is, by no means, a classic, it is an excellent example of the topsy-turvy perspective a viewer from the west encounters when watching East German spy movies.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (Although the cover of the DVD suggests that this film is black-and-while, it is, in fact, in color).

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In 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey sent shock waves through the film world. While some complained about its nearly incomprehensible plot, everyone was impressed with the film’s technical achievements. It is not an overstatement to say that Kubrick’s film represented a quantum leap in special effects. The genre would never be the same again. The eastern bloc was particularly impressed with Kubrick’s film. This is partly because the Eastern Bloc saw science fiction as an extension of communist achievement, having made it into space first, but also because the genre offered filmmakers a chance to imagine a world on their own terms, without those wet blankets—the cold war, politics, and economic realities—getting in the way.

DEFA got off to a bang-up start in the science fiction department with Kurt Maetzig’s classic, The Silent Star, but this was an expensive film to make, and the GDR’s economy couldn’t take too many more films on that scale. After a subsequent lower-budgeted attempt to bring science fiction to the screen flopped (Der Mann mit dem Objektiv), the folks at DEFA shelved further sci-fi film projects in favor of cheaper, more topical subject matter. They still made fairy-tale films (Märchenfilme), crime films (Krimis) and a few musicals, but most other genre films were avoided or ignored. After the 11th Plenum, the winds of change shifted again at DEFA and genre pictures became fashionable again, most notably, with the Indianerfilme of Gojko Mitic. In 1970, Gottfried Kolditz, better known at that point as a director of musicals and fairy-tales, decided to create a space adventure using Kubrick’s film as a template, and Signals – An Outer Space Adventure (Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer) was born.

Signals starts when The Icarus— a research ship searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe—is destroyed by meteorites near Jupiter. When no signals are received from the Icarus, it is presumed lost, and attempts to retrieve it are abandoned. This doesn’t sit well with everyone, particularly Commander Veikko of the Laika and Pawel (Yevgeni Zharikov), a young pilot whose sweetheart is among the missing. While repairing unmanned space stations, the crew of the Laika continues to search for the missing Icarus, in spite of the official edict that the ship is lost.

DEFA created dozens of science fiction films, both for theaters and television (for a list of these, see Robert Gemmell’s comment post on the About page). Four feature films took place in outer space. Three of these (The Silent Star, Eolomea, and In the Dust of the Stars) are available as a set from First Run Features. The fourth is Signals, and while there is a version out in cyberspace that includes fan-authored subtitles, the film has not been officially released in United States. This is primarily due to the fact that the film was a co-production between DEFA and the Polish state film production company, Zespoły Filmowe, which means twice as much money and paperwork is needed to secure the film rights (there is an irony in private companies wrangling over the rights to communist films). Like Eolomea, Signals is slowly paced, and more cerebral than exciting, but it has its moments.1 The zero-gravity musical interlude is worth the price of admission, and the scene where Gojko Mitic and Alfred Müller play upside-down footsie on the beach is an amusing bit of homoerotic camp (I would say this is unintentional, but I’m not sure that it is: Terry and Konrad seem to have a very close relationship).

As with The Silent Star, the crews of the spaceships in Signals are aggressively multi-cultural, with nearly every major ethnic group represented. There is also—à la Omega in the previous film—a non-anthropoidal robot on-board the Laika to do the bidding of its owner, Gaston (Helmut Schreiber).

Signals is very loosely based on Asteroid Hunters (Asteroidenjäger), an East German science fiction  novel by Carlos Rasch. Rasch’s Utopian space operas were popular in East Germany, but when the wall came down they, as with many other aspects of East German culture, were assigned to the “dustbin of history” (to use a phrase coined by Leon Trotsky). After the Wende, Rasch became a journalist, but returned to science fiction writing in 2009 with his Raumlotsen (Space Pilot) series.

According to Sonja Fritzsche in an article for German Studies Review, Kolditz fell ill during production and the project was taken over by its cinematographer, Otto Hanisch. This would explain a lot. The film lacks Kolditz’s usual pizazz, and seems more interested in the technical aspects of the special effects than the story. No doubt Hanisch was anxious to explore Kubrick’s film techniques for portraying rockets and zero gravity, but, unlike the 2001, Signals at least attempts to create back stories for the main characters (a common beef about the Kubrick film).

Every scene involving special effects inevitably must be compared to 2001, and inevitably Signals comes up short, particularly in the scenes involving spaceship docking and manoeuvring. To make such scenes believable requires that they be done slowly and deliberately, which doesn’t make for good entertainment. Kubrick’s solution was brilliant: he staged the scenes to Richard Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz, which turns them into elegant ballets of machines in space. In Signals, similar scenes seem rushed and end looking like exactly what they are: models on wires. When the exploration pods in Signals rotate in space, the music is not an elegant waltz, but weird calliope music, overlaid with the tick of a clock fed through an Echoplex. By itself, this music is interesting, but in conjunction with the visuals, the effect is too literal and not particularly exciting.

Better (or at least, wackier) use of music occurs in the aforementioned the zero-gravity exercise scene where the music—a cross between Esquivel and saxophone dance-hall music—offers a welcome relief from the drama that preceded it. As with several other Kolditz films, the music is by Karl-Ernst Sasse (see Her Third for more information on Sasse). In spite of my earlier criticisms about the use of music in the film, Sasse’s score is fun and strange. Like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, and Hans J. Salter, Sasse was a classically-trained musician who composed for the movie industry to pay the rent. Unlike those musicians, however, Sasse was not averse to exploring schmaltzy pop music and pure noise as sources of inspiration. As a result, a cross-section of Sasse’s soundtrack music encompasses nearly every style imaginable, from dissonant percussion to fifties jazz. In Signals, his music is an unlikely combination of experimental and kitsch and definitely deserves a listen.

There is some evidence that suggests that Kolditz wasn’t happy with either Hanisch or the resulting film. After Signals, Kolditz and Hanisch didn’t work together again (Hanisch did film The Scout (Der Scout), which was started by Kolditz, but he died before it went into production). Kolditz shot two more science fiction films (In the Dust of the Stars and Das Ding im Schloß). For these, he turned to cinematographer Peter Süring. This is too bad, because Hanisch was a talented cameraman and he does some interesting work here. The camera swoops, zooms, and spins; and in one scene between Pawel and Veikko, it swings back and forth like a pendulum. Add to this some bizarre editing by Helga Gentz and you have a potent mix of abstract bedazzlement. As with many other DEFA technicians (Peter Süring and Helga Gantz included), Hanisch’s career effectively ended when the wall came down.

The costumes were designed by Günther and Marianne Schmidt. Again, the template here appears to be 2001. For the Kubrick film, Sir Edwin Hardy Amies, was chosen. Amies was an odd choice, He was better known as Queen Elizabeth’s favorite designer—hardly a bastion of futuristic style. For Kubrick’s film, Amies took his cues from sixties fashion (most notably the Austrian designer, Rudi Gernreich), tempered by the director’s desire for zero-gravity practicality. The Schmidts’ designs have a similarly mod look to them, but seem more forward-thinking. In fact, they bear a marked similarity to Bob Fletcher’s costume design in Star Trek: The Motion Picture; although it’s doubtful that Fletcher ever saw Signals.

I don’t doubt that Signals will eventually be released with English subtitles. While it is not as strong as In the Dust of the Stars, it is as good as Eolomea and deserve to be seen by a wider audience.

IMDB page for the film.


1. Slow pacing, cerebral content, and frequent scenes of people debating political and philosophical viewpoints are commonly associated with DEFA films. Of course, there is more to East German Cinema than this stereotype, but stereotypes have their roots in reality (at least, in commonly perceived reality).

Westerns in East Germany? At first glance, it seems like an absurd proposition, but, in fact, DEFA made twelve of these films during their forty years of existence. While it is easy to laugh at the idea of Germans and Yugoslavians pretending to be American Indians, is it any worse than what Hollywood had to offer with the likes of Sal Mineo, Ricardo Montalban, Jeff Chandler, and Victor Jory? In fact, Gojko Mitic, who starred in 12 of DEFA’s westerns, was so well liked by Native Americans that he was made an honorary chief by the Sioux—an honor not likely to be bestowed on any of the American actors who specialized in Westerns.

By the last half of the sixties, the appreciation of westerns was waning in the United States. During the 1950s, they had  been all the rage. Between 1950 and 1965, a staggering number of movies and television shows were produced, feeding the American public a constant stream of stories about the derring-do of the men of the old west. But the winds of change were upon us. The young people who had been spoon-fed shows such as Gunsmoke, Wanted Dead or Alive, Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, The Rifleman, and Rawhide were starting to learn the truth about America’s past, and it wasn’t pretty. What had once been seen as a tale of brave men and women fighting the elements and cut-throat savages to secure their place on earth was now recognized as a land grab by greedy white people at the expense of the Native Americans. While there had been films that were sympathetic to the American Indians (most notably, Cheyenne Autumn), they usually took the noble savage attitude and never question the free-for-all that was the colonization of the American West.

Around the same time, the Italians had discovered that they could make westerns that could compete favorably with anything Hollywood had to offer. Very few of these films were playing in the States (although it was filmed in 1964, A Fistful of Dollars wouldn’t reach the American cinemas until 1967, when it was shown with its sequel, For a Few Dollars More), but they were extremely popular throughout the rest of the world.

East Germany’s fist attempt at a western was The Sons of the Great Bear (Die Söhne der großen Bärin), a co-production with Yugoslavia’s Bosna Films. To play the lead, the Yugoslavian actor, Gojko Mitic, was chosen. Mitic had already made a name for himself as an actor/stuntman in several West German/Yugoslavian/Italian co-productions of films based on the novels of Karl May. May had never actually been to the American West, but that didn’t stop him from becoming the most popular writer of western fiction in Germany.

The people at DEFA had no interest in filming the stories of Karl May. His work was seen as anti-socialistic and was closely associated with Adolf Hitler, who considered May one of Germany’s greatest writers. Instead, they chose the East German Author, Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich’s book The Sons of the Great Bear. Unlike the works of Karl May, which took most of their cues from James Fenimore Cooper, (an  east coast American writer whose knowledge of the American frontier was almost as limited as May’s) the protagonists of Welskopf-Henrich’s works were sharply defined by the actual injustices faced by the Native Americans at the hands of the white settlers. Like May and Cooper, Welskopf-Henrich’s knowledge of the west was mostly garnered from books. But unlike May and Cooper, she did some serious research into the tribal customs of the Dakota Sioux.

The Sons of the Great Bear is the story of Tokei-Ihto, a Dakota tribesman who is trying to keep the white men from stealing his tribe’s land. His arch-rival is Red Fox (Jirí Vrstála), a white scout who has taken part in Indian initiation rituals and pretends to be part-Indian when it suits his needs (although this is not explained in the movie). When it is discovered that there is gold on the tribe’s land, the government decides that it is time to relocate the Dakotas to someplace more favorable. Tokei-Ihto tries to convince his chief that the white men can’t be trusted, but the chief doesn’t listen, with predictable results.

As is often the case with movie translations into books, Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich was not happy with the finished film and asked to have her name removed from the credits (it wasn’t). Nonetheless, the film was a huge hit. While Hollywood did eventually follow suit with films such as Soldier Blue and Little Big Man, it was too little too late. The American public had been thoroughly indoctrinated to see the Indians as the bad guys and the cowboys as the good guys. Films that did not follow this formula didn’t stand a chance with the American public and westerns slowly started to disappear from U.S. cinemas just as the East Germany westerns (sometimes referred to as Osterns) were picking up speed. The Sons of the Great Bear is not the best of these, but it was the first and helped create a new career for Gojko Mitic. Mitic continued working after the wall came down, returning to the stories of Karl May as “Winnetou,” May’s most popular character, in a series of TV movies.

IMDB page for the movie.

The Teleport City website’s extremely thorough examination of the film.

Buy this film.