Posts Tagged ‘Günther Simon’

Reise ins Ehebett
East Germany had a difficult relationship with musicals. As with western audiences, the East German public enjoyed musicals and paid to go see them. The box office was good for nearly all the musicals DEFA made but the art form is so inherently frivolous that it drove the more stodgy politicians crazy. Making fairytale films for children was one thing, but making happy fantasies for adults, that was bourgeois formalism!1

Nonetheless—and in spite of the East German government’s claims to the contrary—money could still dictate which films got made and musicals were a good investment. So it was that in 1965, director Joachim Hasler was hired to make Journey into the Nuptial Bed (Reise ins Ehebett), as formulaic a musical as East Germany would ever produce. The film is the story of a handsome young boatswain on a merchant marine ship (Claus Jurichs) who has a habit of bedding a different woman in every port, causing no end of troubles for the captain and affecting the morale of the rest of the crew. In classic movie musical fashion, the ship’s captain (Günther Simon) devises a plan to get the boatswain to fall in love, thus ending his romantic dalliances. To help him with this plan, he enlists Eva (Anna Prucnal) an attractive polish journalist who agrees to seduce the boatswain and then drop him. Secretly, the captain is hoping the two actually fall in love with each other, thus ending his problems. But fate has something else in store. When Mary Lou (Eva-Maria Hagen), a sexy redhead who sings at the Shark Bar, sneaks onto the ship in pursuit of the boatswain, things get complicated.

Reise in ehebett

The film is directed by Joachim Hasler, who got his start as a cinematographer, working on such classic DEFA films as The Invincibles, The Sailors’ Song, and The Silent Star. Hasler got his first taste of directing when Arthur Pohl was severely injured while working on Spielbank-Affäre (Casino Affair) and couldn’t finish the movie. Hasler took over and found he had a knack for directing. He went on to direct several more films for DEFA, sometimes acting as both cinematographer and director. He scored his biggest hit in 1968 with Hot Summer. This led to a long career as a director of light comedy, but his 1964 film Story of a Murder proved that he was just as adept at drama. His career ended with the Fall of the Wall. He died in 1995.

Claus Jurichs as the handsome boatswain bears a strong resemblance to Jean-Claude Van Damme. Jurichs is unique among German actors at the time. He lived in West Berlin and continued to work on East German films after the Wall was built. He was better known in the GDR, where he appeared in lead roles in several TV-movies. In the FRG he mostly worked in TV and dubbing. He worked in various capacities on several German sexploitation films, including Females for Hire (voice only), Swingin’ Swappers, The Sinful Bed, Reflections from a Brass Bed, and Caged Women (voice only). He also worked extensively dubbing American TV shows into German. He was the voice of McGarrett on the original Hawaii Five-O series and the voice of Cliff Barnes on Dallas. Jurichs died in 2005.

Journey into the Nuptial Bed

Günther Simon, Anna Prucnal, and Eva-Maria Hagen—the other three members of the romantic quartet—have been discussed at length here in previous posts (Günther Simon in The Ernst Thälmann Films, Anna Prucnal in The Flying Dutchman, and Eva-Maria Hagen in Don’t Forget My Little Traudel). Playing the fifth wheel in this story of romantic coupling, is singer Frank Schöbel. Although Schöbel was already a well-known figure on East German television, his ability to act was untested. He pulled it off and Journey into the Nuptial Bed helped launch his career in movies. He appeared two years later in Wedding Night in the Rain (Hochzeitsnacht im Regen) and the year after that in the classic Hot Summer. Like many other East German stars, the Wende wasn’t kind to him but he eventually reconnected with his audience and now appears regularly on television, especially at Christmas time.

Journey into the Nuptial Bed did well at the box office, but it was 1966, the year that the 11th Plenum was responsible for shelving or cancelling most of the good films DEFA produced, Aside from a some children’s films and formulaic crime films, the only other film from the East Germany production company that made into theaters that year was their first Indianerfilm The Sons of the Great Bear.

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1. Formalism was a common complaint against films in East Germany. Politburo types threw the term around so often that it eventually lost any meaning. The term was often used to attack any movie whose entertainment value was greater than its social relevance.

Spring Takes Time
Spring Takes Time (Der Frühling braucht Zeit) was one of the twelve films banned in the wake of the notorious 11th Plenum. Along with The Rabbit is Me, it is one of the only films that actually made it into the theaters before the ax came down. While some of the 11th Plenum bans seemed downright silly (see Hands Up or I’ll Shoot!), the banning of Spring Takes Time is understandable. After all, it’s a movie about how the state’s demanding quota system could lead unscrupulous management to put the lives of the workers in danger and then blame the same workers when things go south. At its heart, the film is an indictment of the very economic system the folks at the 11th Plenum were so loathe to discuss.

At the start of the film, a gas company manager named Heinz Solter is arrested for negligence that resulted in the failure of a pipeline, and the serious injury to a worker. Most of the rest of the film is told in flashbacks, where we learn that Solter is just the fall guy for decisions made by his higher-ups, in particular Chief Operations Officer Erhard Faber, who is determined to meet the state’s quotas come hell or high water.

Spring Takes Time

It doesn’t help Solter’s case that he’s a reticent fellow who refuses to point the finger at anyone else, feeling that everyone in a position of power—including himself—shares some of the responsibility for what happened. It also doesn’t help that he has very short fuse, and isn’t averse to knocking someone through a glass door if he doesn’t like what they’re saying. Besides Solter’s story, much of the film revolves around his doe-eyed daughter Inge, who is dating one of Faber’s lackeys.

The film is directed by Günter Stahnke, an extremely talented director whose frequent run-ins with the authorities led to him being ostracized from DEFA. He was first criticized for his television short, Fetzers Flucht (Fetzer’s Escape), but that one was eventually allowed to be broadcast in 1962. Not so with his next short film, Monolog for a Taxi Driver (included on the Spring Takes Time DVD from the DEFA Library), which was banned outright for its pessimistic, every-man-for-himself look at life in the GDR. That film remained unscreened until the Wall came down. His first feature film, From King Midas (Vom König Midas), was met with some criticism, but made it into the theaters. Spring Takes Time was his next film. After that, Stahnke was essentially banned from DEFA and relegated to television, where he spent the rest of his career directing comedies and kids’ films. One might think the Wende would give Stahnke another chance to spread his wings, but such was not the case. His career as a director effectively ended with the dissolution of East Germany.

The movie is cast against type—perhaps as a way to show how topsy-turvy things had become in East Germany. Rolf Hoppe, who was almost always cast as a villain, appears here as a sympathetic worker in danger of being scapegoated for the failures of the gas line project. Günther Simon, who was usually cast in heroic roles—having first made a splash as East Germany’s number one hero Ernst Thälmann in the Kurt Maetzig films—here plays the devious Faber.

Der Frühling braucht Zeit

Solter is well played by Eberhard Mellies. While Solter is a good guy, he is also short-tempered and reticent. Mellies’ strong features and stern countenance lend themselves to this type of role. Mellies’ career in films started with a small role in Der neue Fimmel (The New Craze), after which he started appearing in various television productions. Spring Takes Time was his next feature film and almost his last. Aside from voiceovers in My Zero Hour (Meine Stunde Null) and Apaches, Mellies didn’t appear in a DEFA feature again until 1978. Like his brother Otto, who is one of the most well-known voiceover actors in Germany, Eberhard does most of his work in front of a microphone these days.

Doris Abeßer plays Solter’s waif-like daughter Inge, who obviously didn’t inherit any of her father’s stoicism. She is played here as a raw nerve, sensitive to every things that happens around her. With her enormous, dark eyes, she appears at times like a Keane kid (one reviewer compared her appearance to mask-wearing Louise (Alida Valli) in Eyes Without a Face, but I think this is pushing it). By the time she made this film, Abeßer had already appeared in nearly a dozen movies and a few TV films. Her performance in Konrad Wolf’s film Professor Mamlock as Mamlock’s daughter Ruth was especially powerful. Abeßer was married to director Stahnke. I could find no date for their marriage, but their son born in 1963, so they were already a couple by the time they made this film together. As with nearly everyone else involved with Spring Takes Time, Abeßer’s career after this film was restricted almost exclusively to television. After the Wende, she did what many East German actors did, moving from film and television to legitimate theater. She started appearing in film and television regularly again 2001, finally retiring in 2012. Abeßer died on January 26, 2016.

Much of this film’s cinematic value comes from its production design which is as angular and pristine as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The production designer was Georg Kranz, a versatile designer whose work can be seen in Ursula, The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs, and Murder Case Zernik. Spring Takes Time was his first feature film, and is probably the reason the next six productions he worked on were for television. He returned to feature films with the popular Time of the Storks, and worked mainly in feature films after that. After the Wende, when most East German film technicians were effectively shut out of the film industry, Kranz found work as the series production designer for the popular TV series Für alle Fälle Stefanie.

Der Frühling braucht Zeit

Juxtaposed with the film’s stark look is the jangly rock’n’roll score, played by a band called “The Sputniks.” The composer is listed as Gerhard Siebholz, who also did the scores for the musicals No Cheating, Darling!, and Wedding Night in the Rain. Siebholz was a very successful composer in East Germany, penning several hits songs. Unlike much of work, which has a penchant for the schmaltzy Schlagermusik so popular with older Germans, The music for Spring Takes Time sounds very much of its era, but it is also a strangely dissonant and heightens the effect that things are not quite right.

Although the term “Rabbit Films”—named after Kurt Maetzig’s The Rabbit is Me—was given to the films that were banned during the 11th Plenum, I suspect that Spring Takes Time is film that really set off the purge that followed. Especially considering that it premiered a few weeks after the Plenum, and was effectively, albeit accidentally, an indictment of the very behavior that the folks at the Plenum had just demonstrated. How could they not ban it? A look at the film histories of many of the people who worked on this film show that they were more severely punished than the people on most of the other banned films. Stahnke, Mellies, Abeßer, and cinematographer Hans-Jürgen Sasse were all relegated to television after this, with DEFA feature film opportunities for them few and far between, if at all. Günther Simon probably avoided similar treatment because he was, after all, the embodiment of Ernst Thälmann and the West German press would have had a field day if it could be proved that the man who played Thälmann was no longer being cast in films. While the SED could rail against specific aspects of the other banned films, claiming they contained anti-socialist elements, Spring Takes Time was a virtual exposé of their hypocrisy. I can’t help but wonder if some of the films that were banned in the Kahlschlag (a term meaning “clear-cutting,” often used in reference to the films banned during this period) were banned as a smokescreen to hide the fact that Spring Takes Time was the movie they really wanted to be rid of, but to ban it by itself would have called too much attention to the film.

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1. The DVD also includes Stahnke’s short film Monolog for a Taxi Driver (1962).

Treffpunkt Aimée
In the mid-fifties, things were getting awfully messy in Berlin. With a border that porous, and two politico-economic structures so out of sync with each other, it was inevitable that all sorts of shenanigans would occur, usually to the detriment of East Germany. Goods purchased in East Germany, where the state was subsidizing some of the cost of manufacturing, could be sold for a lot more money in West Germany, where demand for certain production materials was skyrocketing, thanks to the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle). Rendezvous Aimée (Treffpunkt Aimée) is based on an actual case involving one such scheme—the smuggling of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from East Germany for use in West German manufacturing. Yes, you heard me right: Rendezvous Aimée is a movie about smuggling plastic.

The film gets its title from the name of a secret backroom in a West Berlin nightclub that one can only enter with a special pass. It is here that a mysterious underworld figure known only as the “Wasp” meets with his cohorts to coordinate his smuggling operations. The PVC is being smuggled out in the form of powder labeled as gypsum plaster (plaster of Paris), a product with no import/export restrictions.1

While not a film noir in the strictest sense, it is a crime drama, and it does use the trope of two women that represent good and evil. In film noir, the evil woman is normally a femme fatale, luring the unsuspecting hero (or anti-hero) to his fate. In this film, that woman is Erika, a member of the smuggling team who is working for the company that is smuggling the PVC out of East Germany, and she is no femme fatale, nor does she try to be. The good woman is Ursula, who works at the Hauptverwaltung Chemie, the GDR’s oversight committee for all things related to the chemical industries. The film touches upon many of the hot button topics of the era, including the effects of West Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder and the lack of cooperation East Germany was receiving in halting illegal smuggling. It even dares to bring up the Republikflucht (the flight of East Germans to West Germany), which by the time this film was made was becoming a real problem for the GDR.

Treffpunkt Aimee

The film features a twist, which I won’t divulge here, but it seems to have been designed to be more of a surprise to West Germans than to East Germans. There are some fun digs at capitalism and Americanism here. Western brands figure prominently a signals for evil intent, and the secret pass required to get into the Rendezvous Aimée prominently features an ad for Coca-Cola.

The film is directed by Horst Reinecke, who, up until this film, had worked as a dramaturge at DEFA, a job normally associated with legitimate theater, but common at DEFA. Reinecke only made one more film for DEFA (Reifender Sommer) in a shoot that proved especially difficult to complete. After that, Reinecke returned to working behind the scenes at DEFA. His eldest son, Hans-Peter Reinicke, went on to have a very successful film career, as did his two daughters, Renate (under the name Renate von Wangenheim) and Ruth.

Günther Simon plays Commissioner Wendt, the hero of the story. Fresh of his stint as Ernst Thälmann, Simon was guaranteed to be the hero here. It would be a while before Simon would be allowed to play anyone less than heroic. He almost lost the lead role in My Wife Wants to Sing for no better reason than the authorities thought casting Simon in a frivolous role would dilute his impact as the legendary “Teddy” Thälmann. While Simon would eventually go on to play less than heroic characters, he never did play a completely evil one.

good and evil

The good Ursula and the bad Erika are played by Renate Küster and Gisela May respectively. Both actresses went on to have successful film careers, although, in a touch of irony, it was the good Ursula, Renate Küster, who joined the Republikflucht and took up residence in the West. Küster had appeared in a couple films before this one, but Rendezvous Aimée was her first starring role. Within a couple years she was working exclusively in the West, appearing in such films as The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, and several TV movies. After 1993, she stopped appearing in movies and television shows and worked primarily as a voice talent. She has dubbed the German dialog for many actresses, including Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Raquel Welch, and Anne Bancroft. She retired in 2002.

Meanwhile, Gisela May continued working in the East, and became well known not just as an actress, but as a singer as well. After the Wende, May experienced the same drop in employment that other East German actors experienced, but soon became well know playing Rosa (“Muddi”) on Adelheid und ihre Mörder. Eventually re-establishing her career as a singer in unified Germany.

The film was well received, even in the West, where even Filmdienst—the Catholic church’s film review magazine in West Germany—had to admit it was a pretty exciting film. Fans of film noir and old crime films in general will want to check this one out.

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There is a certain irony here—no doubt intentional. Gypsum is such a prevalent mineral in the world that there have been no wars fought over it, which is why importing gypsum plaster back and forth across the Berlin border wouldn’t have been such a big deal. There is a saying in German: “Erzähl mir nichts vom Gipskrieg” (“Don’t talk to me about a gypsum war.”). It’s used when a person wants to tell another to stop fretting over something that’s not going to happen.

Meine Frau macht Musik

Excessive seriousness has never been a problem for Hollywood. Designed for the sole purpose of making money, Hollywood films only give us something to think about when it looks like that approach will improve the bottom line. In stark contrast, DEFA was all about making thoughtful serious films. An approach that led to some criticism, such as the scene in The Trace of Stones when construction foreman Balla attempts to woo the new technician by telling her that he would “even go to a DEFA film” with her if she liked. When filmmakers tried to aim for entertainment at DEFA, unless it was a Märchenfilm, they usually ran into a host of obstacles. Never mind that every time they did release a comedy or a musical, it sold well; getting these films made was like pulling teeth.

The perfect example of this is DEFA’s first musical, My Wife Wants to Sing (Meine Frau macht Musik). The film met with with criticism at every step of the way, and was shelved immediately after it was finished. For a while, it looked as if the film would never see the light of day, but the music was released on a LP, which proved to be very popular and eventually led DEFA to release the film, but not without some major changes, as we shall see.

My Wife Wants to Sing belongs to a genre particularly popular in both East and West Germany called a Revuefilm; what we would call a backstage musical. The story follows Gerda and Gustl Wagner. Gustl works in the music section of a large department store. His wife Gerda is a talented singer who gave up a career to become a  housewife. When the aspiring, but talentless, daughter of a friend of Gustl’s is unable to meet her commitment to sing for Fabiani—an Italian popstar who is in town for a concert—Gerda agrees to take her place. Gerda is a hit, and Gustl finds himself upset by his wife’s decision to appear as part of an upcoming Variety show, and jealous of the suave Fabiani, who seems to be making moves on his wife. As with any Revuefilm, the story occasionally takes a backseat to the on-stage performances by various song and dance groups.

My Wife Wants to Sing was directed by Hans Heinrich. During the war years, Heinrich worked as a film editor until, like nearly every other able-bodied man in the Third Reich, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. After the war, he joined DEFA, working as assistant director and editor for Wolfgang Staudte on the classic DEFA film, Murderers Are Among Us. He made a few short films for the German Labor Front during the late thirties, but his first feature film was made for DEFA in 1950. That film, Der Kahn der fröhlichen Leute (The Barge of the Happy People), belongs to the barge film genre , a uniquely European film genre without an equivalent in the States. The film was such a hit that he followed it up with Alter Kahn und junge Liebe (Old Barge and Young Love) in 1957.

Like his mentor, Wolfgang Staudte, Heinrich’s politics were more in line with East Germany than West Germany, but East German authorities, in their rush to re-enact George Orwell’s Animal Farm, were making it harder and harder on any idealistic socialists who didn’t cleave to the SED party line. By the end of the fifties, both Staudte and Heinrich had left the country. Heinrich, at first, tried to regain a foothold as a director in Mexico, but when that didn’t pan out, he returned to West Germany, where he worked primarily in television, and is probably better known today as the primary director for the popular West German comedy series, Drei Damen vom Grill (Three Ladies from the Grill). He died in 2003 in his home town, Berlin.

To play Gustl, Heinrich cast Günther Simon, a decision that caused some hand-wringing at DEFA. Simon was the well-known star of Kurt Maetzig’s epic Ernst Thälmann films. He had made a few movies since then, but nothing quite so frivolous. It was worried that his turn in this film would dilute the power of his performances in the Thälmann films. Eventually, he was given the okay, which undoubtedly helped him move onto roles in other classic DEFA films, including, Sun Seekers, The Silent Star, and When You’re Older, Dear Adam. Simon died in 1972 and is buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin.

Playing Gerda, the wife of the film’s title, is Lore Frisch, a talented actress who got her start in West Germany. Born in Bavaria, Frisch was a ballet student until the war intervened. She worked as a nurse until after the war, at which time she joined a theater company in East Frisia, first as a backstage assistant, and eventually as an actress. She appeared in a few West German comedies and Heimatfilme before moving to East Germany, where she almost immediately attracted attention for her performance in Der Ochse von Kulm (The Ox of Kulm), a kind of East German send-up of the Heimatfilm genre. Unfortunately, for all her talent, Frisch suffered from some demons and a problem with painkillers. She committed suicide in 1962.

My Wife Wants to Sing

One of the odder aspects of the film is Evelyn Künneke’s appearance as Daisy, an attractive barfly/singer who flirts with Gustl between performances. Künneke was already a popular singer in Germany, and her work is still available on several CDs and as MP3 downloads. She agreed to appear in the film if she could sing two songs by Siegfried Wegener. After the film was in the can, but still not released, an article appeared in Junge Welt—the newspaper for the East German youth group, Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ)—that took the film to task for using songs by Wegener, who, at that time, was in charge of programming dance music for RIAS, the U.S.-controlled radio station and arch-nemesis of the East German government (for more on this subject, see Look at This City! and  Castles and Cottages). As a result, most of the footage of Evelyn Künneke’s singing ended up on the cutting room floor. What was left was redubbed with a different song composed by Gerd Natschinski, who later wrote the music for Midnight Revue. Natschinski carefully wrote his song to match Künneke’s mouth movements as closely as possible, but it mattered little. We only catch glimpses of Künneke singing.

Reviews for the film were divided along state lines. The East German commentator, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, found the film entertaining, but made  it known that he thought the genre was a form of silly fluff. West German reviewers were less kind, essentially saying that the very structure of East German government and society made it impossible for a film like this to work. In fact, the real problem with this film isn’t its East German origin, but its West German sensibilities. There is very little here that makes this film stand out  as a product of DEFA. Nonetheless, it is a moderately enjoyable little musical that captures aspects of fifties style in East Germany better than many films.

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Günther Simon as Ernst Thälmann

Although he died five years before the country was created, Ernst Thälmann was East Germany’s greatest hero. He was to the GDR what George Washington is to America: an icon and a founding father, preternaturally moral and incapable of mistakes. Both men fought for freedom from oppression. In Washington’s case, that oppression came in the form of English taxes that were cutting into the profits of the American businessmen. In Thälmann’s case, much of the oppression came from the businessmen, who seemed to be the only people not affected by the staggering inflation that was strangling Germany’s working class.
DEFA made two Ernst Thälmann films: Ernst Thälmann – Sohn seiner Klasse (Ernst Thälmann – Son of the Working Class), and its sequel, Ernst Thälmann – Führer seiner Klasse (Ernst Thälmann – Leader of the Working Class). Although they premiered a year apart, they are, essentially, two halves of the same film. Both are directed by Kurt Maetzig with the same cast, crew, and visual style. Nonetheless, most people, including the director, consider the first film to be the better of the two. As is often the case with historical dramas intended for a home country crowd, the film assumes a certain level of familiarity with Ernst Thälmann and events in Germany‘s past, so some background is in order.

Ernst Thälmann (“Teddy” to his friends) was the son of a Hamburg businessman. At an early age, he found himself repulsed by the capitalist business model, favoring the hard-working world of the proletariat instead. He got a job as a stoker on a freighter and joined the SPD—Germany’s leading socialist party. During WWI, he was drafted to fight on the Western Front. Thälmann wasn’t crazy about the life of an infantryman, and often found himself at odds with his superiors. After the war he returned home to a country deep in throes of change. The SPD had splintered, with its more left-wing members abandoning the party to found the USPD (Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), joining Rosa Luxemburg’s and Karl Liebknecht’s Spartacus League. But this agreement was not long lived. Fights broke out over whether the group should join the Comintern—the Soviet Union’s International Communist organization dedicated to spreading Russia’s version of communism. Eventually the USPD was absorbed back into the SPD and the Spartacus League members went on to found the KPD—a very pro-Soviet Communist party (I realize that I’ve abbreviated the facts here, but a fuller description would look like alphabet soup).

Unwilling to acknowledge their defeat, some of the military leaders, most notably Erich Ludendorff—the German general who famously considered Hitler “too moderate”—put forth the “stab-in-the-back” theory (Dolchstoßlegende), which maintained that Germany’s efforts to win the war were thwarted by traitors at home, specifically Jews and Communists. For some ex-soldiers returning from the front, this theory was compelling. It justified their sacrifices and denied their actual defeat. Many of these men joined the Friekorps—private militias made up of returning soldiers who took upon themselves to enforce whatever laws and positions they agreed with. It was members of one of these Freikorps that killed Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, dumping his body in the Tiergarten and hers in the Landwehr Canal.

After the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Thälmann took over the reins of the party, making it even more pro-Soviet and less compromising than before. Meanwhile the Freikorps got too big for their britches, eventually collapsing during the Kapp Putsch—a failed attempt to takeover the German government. After that, ex-Freikorps members looked for a new outlet for their rage and found it in Hitler’s newly-formed Nazi party.

Ernst Thälmann – Son of the Working Class

The first movie starts with a bang—literally—opening in the middle of a battle on the Western Front in 1918. Ernst Thälmann and a group of like-minded soldiers are in the thick of it when they hear the news of the German Revolution back home, the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the release of Karl Liebknecht from prison. Thälmann and crew decide they’re tired of fighting for all the wrong reasons. They declare their alignment with the Bolsheviks in Russia and raise the red flag over their trenches. Right off the bat, we are introduced to four of the main characters in the story. On the side of good and righteousness are Thälmann (of course), and his close friend, Fiete Jansen. In the opposite corner are the evil Zinker and his stooge, Quadde—played by Werner Peters in a kind of extension of his character in The Kaiser’s Lackey.

After the mutiny in the trenches, the film moves away from the action on the front and goes to the political intrigues that were tearing Germany apart at that time. Zinker comes back into the picture as the leader of the Freikorps responsible for the deaths of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Kurt Maetzig understood that for a film to be emotionally satisfying there has to be dramatic tension and some sort of resolution; tragic or otherwise. Unfortunately, history in this case rarely affords such opportunities. Historically, the men most responsible for the deaths of the two revolutionaries were Freikorps captain Waldemar Pabst and his lieutenant, Horst von Pflugk-Harttung, neither of whom faced any charges for the murders, and went on to long and successful careers in West Germany (Von Pflugk-Harttung worked as a Nazi spy during WWII, and faced charges for it, but the U.S. government decided that he was more anti-communist than fascist and that was okay by them). In Zinker we have a perfect villain and we are allowed a resolution to the story that history denies us.

Kurt Maetzig also recognized that, by himself, Thälmann was not that emotionally engaging a character. He could be stiff, didactic, and so devoted to the cause of communism as to render any romantic possibilities inconceivable. To help the story along, the films follow the romance of two of his co-conspirators, Fiete Jansen and Änne Harms. Jansen acts as sort of an apostle Paul to Thälmann’s Jesus. We see him travel from Spain to Russia, spreading the gospel according to Thälmann, turning his old buddy into a martyr for the cause. Jansen is in love with Änne Harms, whose father we met briefly at the beginning of the film. It is Änne that is the most compelling and the most tragic character. She is the only one with conflicted attitudes, so when she finally decides to join the party it’s not an empty gesture. We may admire Thälmann, but it is Änne that we care about.

Thälmann returns to Hamburg in time to hear the news of the deaths of Luxemburg and Liebknecht and immediately steps into his role as the leader of the KPD. He helps organize the Hamburg Uprising and organizes people to put down the Kapp Putsch (in truth, Thälmann’s part in the defeat of the Kapp Putsch was minor if anything).

As with Maetzig’s previous film, The Council of the Gods, much of the blame for the situation that led to the Nazis taking over Germany is laid not at the feet of the Germans themselves, but on the doorstep of American corporations, who manipulate the situation in Germany to line their pockets; a kind of communist version of Dolchstoßlegende.

Ernst Thälmann – Leader of the Working Class

The second film doesn’t have the luxury of a nice, dramatically satisfying resolution. After all, history tells us that the Nazis imprisoned Thälmann after the Reichstag fire, keeping him in solitary confinement for eleven years, eventually assassinating him in 1944 at Buchenwald and blaming it on an Allied bombing attack.

The film starts in Berlin in 1930, thus scrupulously avoiding some of the most scandalous years in Thälmann’s political career. The Nazis have not yet come to power, and Thälmann is now  a member of the Reichstag and chief of the KPD. He is as resolutely communist as ever. Tensions have grown worse between the SPD and the KPD, and (according to the movie anyway) it is the failure of the members of the SPD to realize their folly that leads to Hitler’s ascendancy.

If Thälmann is treated with kid gloves in the first film, he is treated with downright reverence in the second. Understandably, then, the film does not show his eventual murder, preferring to end, instead, upon his transfer from Bautzen prison to Buchenwald in blaze of heroic sacrifice as the red flag of Soviet-style communism waves behinds him. It’s a bit much and Maetzig knew it, but anything else most likely would have been rejected by the SED authorities at that point.

Upon its initial release, the second film included scenes with Josef Stalin, showing his strong support for Thälmann. These scenes were added at the express request of party officials. When the film was released in October of 1955, Stalin was still being championed in East Germany and the Soviet Union as the greatest communist leader who ever lived. Five months later, at a speech in a closed session of the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU, Khrushchev delivered his On the Personality Cult and its Consequences speech, denouncing Stalin’s dictatorial rule, and heralding the beginning of the Soviet Union’s “De-Stalinization” program. Copies of the film were pulled and re-edited to remove the now-offending scenes, although the role of Josef Stalin still appears in the opening credits.

Scene from Ernst Thälmann film.

Director Maetzig was at the top of his form here. His work is crisp and satisfying, especially in the first film. In one memorably comic sequence, the action shifts from a parade of workers marching in the streets to a decadent cabaret where a man in a tux cheerfully sings “Yes We Have No Bananas.” Considering the difficulty East Germans had in acquiring this particular fruit, thanks the United Fruit Company’s near-stranglehold on production back then, this scene must have caused some chuckles. Maetzig would go on to make better films, but the fact that these films are still worth watching is a testament to his skill as a filmmaker.

Playing Thälmann is Günther Simon, the star of such East German classics such as Vergesst mir meine Traudel nicht! (Don’t Forget My Little Traudel), Meine Frau Macht Musik (My Wife Wants to Sing), The Sailor’s Song (Das Lied der Matrosen), and The Silent Star. Simon’s turn as Ernst Thälmann, was so believable that it actually threatened to hamper his career. When Hans Heinrich chose to cast him as the lead in his musical comedy, Meine Frau macht Musik, there was some push back from the authorities, who didn’t think the man who portrayed the great Ernst Thälmann should appear in something so light-hearted. Simon got the role anyway, however, and proved that he was as good at light comedy as he was he was at drama. Simon died in 1972, and is buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin’s Mitte district.

As Fiete Jansen, Hans-Peter Minetti is an interesting combination of Mr. Nice Guy and iron-willed revolutionary. With Thälmann in prison for most of the second film, it is up to the Jansen character to provide most of the action. This is not an easy part to make interesting. In the first film, at least we get some opportunities to see Jansen interact with his future wife, Änne, but those are taken from us in the second film. He is a man alone, and most of his interactions are with people he sees only once. Minetti does a good job in the part, as well he should, coming from an acting family as he does. His father, Bernhard Minetti, was a successful actor in the Weimar days, and later during the Third Reich, when he appeared in Leni Riefenstahl’s Lowlands (Tiefland), and The Rothschilds, one of the most notoriously anti-Semitic films of the Third Reich. Hans-Peter, like many sons throughout history, rebelled against his father’s fascist philosophy and took up the communist cause. After WWII, Hans-Peter went on to a career in East Germany, while his father and his sister Jennifer worked in the west; primarily in theater. Because of his strong communist beliefs, Hans-Peter went on to become an important figure in the East Germany theatrical community, a fact that hindered his film career after the Wende. His son, Daniel Minetti, has gone on to a successful career in German television.

Karla Runkehl as Änne Harms in Ernst Thälmann.

But it is Minetti’s counterpart, Karla Runkehl that really steals the show. As the strong yet vulnerable Änne Harms, Runkehl turns in a performance that she would never equal in her career. It became the model for the good socialist woman. For her work in the Thälmann films, she was awarded the Art Prize of the GDR in 1959. Runkehl got her start in acting at DEFA’s young people’s studio, and appeared in many films, mostly in supporting roles. She also had a successful career on the East German stage, making guest appearances in production throughout East Germany. Runkehl died on Christmas Eve, 1986 in Kleinmachnow.

It’s unfortunate that these films probably won’t see a theater screen in America any time soon, because their use of color is spectacular (my screenshots from a weak DVD copy don’t really do them justice). As others have noted, the cinematography rivals Jack Cardiff’s work in the Powell/Pressburger films. While most of the visual information in these films is painted in broad strokes of army green and sienna brown, the red flags, bandannas, and armbands of the communists pop out of the screen like fireworks. The battle sequences are as good as anything Hollywood ever came up with. DEFA had not yet discovered the joys of widescreen filmmaking, which is too bad because these sequences were practically made for that format.

Willy Schiller’s and Otto Erdman’s production design is almost perfect, from the battlegrounds on the Western Front to the labyrinthine catacombs of the Hamburg sewer system. The only weak spot in the production occurs in the second film during the bombing of the women’s prison, where the problems of scale are apparent. Having the Brandenburg Gate on their side of the border certainly helped give power to the KPD march scenes in the first film, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the American military folks a couple blocks away thought of all that marching and flag-waving.

Matching the film’s visual hyperbole, Wilhelm Neef’s score is epic and anthemic. This was the fifties, after all, and huge triumphant scores were the order of the day. Matching the pompous grandeur of the scores of Miklós Rózsa and Dimitri Tiomkin, Neef turns in a score that is simultaneously rousing and overblown. Primarily a classical composer, Neef’s score functions well enough on its own. In fact, if taken out of context and played by an orchestra, I suspect the score would work even better.

The Ernst Thälmann films were some of the most viewed films in the DEFA library, but those statistics are a little misleading. The Thälmann films were virtually required viewing in the GDR. Students and factory workers were bussed on field trips to movie houses to watch them. Almost everyone growing up in the GDR remembers watching these films at some point during their school days.

History has not been kind to Ernst Thälmann. It was he, after all, who was most responsible for splintering the German left wing into virulently opposing factions. His refusal to back Wilhelm Marx in the 1925 run-off election is largely blamed for siphoning just enough votes away from Marx to ensure Paul von Hindenburg’s election, paving the way for Hitler’s rise to power. The fact that Thälmann courted the Nazi vote during that party’s early years and worked with them in an attempt to overthrow the socialist government in Prussia is unmentioned in the films. Also glossed over the movies is the Wittorf Affair, an embezzlement scandal in the KPD that got Thälmann kicked out of party duties until Stalin stepped in and used the situation to seal Soviet control over the KPD. A control that haunted East Germany to its very end. Since the Wende, many of the schools, streets, and parks named in his honor in the eastern states of Germany have been renamed. More recently, researcher Klaus Schroeder wrote a piece for Der Tagesspiegel suggesting that any remembrance of Thälmann is unwarranted.

IMDB pages for these films:
Ernst Thälmann – Sohn seiner Klasse
Ernst Thälmann – Führer seiner Klasse

Buy these films.