Posts Tagged ‘Hans Heinrich’

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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The Singer

Communists loved Dean Reed. Coming, as he did from America, but rejecting his home country’s imperialistic meddling in the affairs of others, he was the perfect poster boy for the superiority of socialism over capitalism. Reed, after all, had been performing in concerts all over South America, and saw first hand how the CIA helped Onganía and Pinochet take over the governments in Argentina and Chile. Reed had been living in Buenos Aires, where he moved when he discovered that his records were more popular in South America than in the States. After the military coup in 1966, he found himself persona non grata in his adopted land. He went to Italy, where he starred in several spaghetti westerns, but Reed’s affable, good-looking anti-heroes never caught the public’s fancy the way that Clint Eastwood’s gruff and silent “Man With No Name” did.

In 1973, he went to East Germany to work on the film Kit & Co., based on Jack London’s Kit Bellew stories. The film was a hit and Dean Reed became the new darling of the Eastern Bloc. He sang like Elvis, looked so darned American, and was making movies in East Germany! He was a dream come true. Although on paper, the GDR wasn’t keen on the idea of matinee idols, they made a few exceptions when people proved to be good box office. Reed was one of those people. He took full advantage of his popularity and the perks that came with it, co-writing the screenplay for his next film (Blood Brothers), which was also a hit, and then directing El Cantor, a TV-movie based on the life of his good friend, Victor Jara.

Jara was a popular singer, theater director, and political activist in Chile. While Reed  was singing at a concert there, he met Jara, and the Chilean communist had a big impact on the young man from Colorado. Reed saw first hand the extent to which the rich were walking on the backs of the poor people in South America, and he became outraged. He started appearing at protest movements and giving free concerts in poor neighborhoods all over South America.

Victor Jara was a strong supporter of Chile’s socialist candidate for president, Salvador Allende. When Allende was elected , the CIA backed the military coup on September 11, 1973, led by General Augusto Pinochet. One of the first things Pinochet did was round up anyone who publicly supported Allende, and that included Victor Jara. The next day, Jara and the other prisoners were taken to the Estadio Chile, where they were held for several days. When a soldier,  jokingly referred to as “The Prince,” recognized Jara while the singer was moving to another part of the stadium, he shouted “What is this bastard doing here? Don’t let him move from here. This one is reserved for me!”* Jara was taken to the basement where he was repeatedly kicked and beaten. His hands were smashed with the butt of a rifle, and he was told, with venomous sarcasm, to try and play guitar. He responded by singing “Venceremos” (We Will Win). Enraged by his defiance, his tormentors set upon him once again, pummeling him and finally shooting him 44 times. His body was dragged into the street and left next to a graveyard on the outskirts of Santiago.

Dean was already in East Germany when he heard what happened to his friend. He convinced the DFF (East Germany’s state-owned television company) to let him make a movie about the Chilean singer-activist starring Reed himself. He would also direct the film from a screenplay he wrote. It was the perfect socialist story: peace-loving Marxist is brutally murdered in a coup financed by the United States. Who could ask for anything more? Working with Wolfgang Ebeling, who also co-wrote the Blood Brothers script, Reed created a mostly factual retelling of the life and death of Victor Jara and the troubles he encountered in his fatal battle for social equality in Chile.

Made, as it was, for East German television, El Cantor suffers from a few problems. The first, and the biggest one is Dean Reed himself. Reed was great at playing likable American knuckleheads, and he gives his portrayal of Jara his all, but Reed neither looks like nor sings like the dark-eyed and unmistakably Latino Jara. It is always a risky proposition for an actor/director to portray a famous person. Reed was one of the first people to engage in this one-two combination, Ed Harris did it in Pollock, but he didn’t have to sing. Closer to the mark, Kevin Spacey did it in Beyond the Sea, portraying Bobby Darin. Spacey, like Reed, is a good singer, and he also co-wrote his script.

The second problem with the El Cantor is the budget. Expensive location filming wasn’t an option, so East Germany has to stand-in for Chile, sometimes to the film’s detriment. This is, undoubtedly, one of the reasons there are very few wide-shots or scenes that convey the magnitude of the story. When the people are rounded up and herded into Santiago’s National Stadium (renamed for Victor Jara in 2003), we only see a small group. In truth, the stadium was filled with hundreds people held in inhumane conditions. In Joan Jara’s account of the morgue where she identified her husband’s body, the scene far a far more gruesome scene that the movie suggests:

“We go down a dark passageway and emerge into a large hall. My new friend puts his hand on my elbow to steady me as I look at rows and rows of naked bodies covering the floor, stacked up into heaps in the corners, most with gaping wounds, some with their hands still tied behind their backs … there are young and old … there are hundreds of bodies … most of them look like working people … hundreds of bodies, being sorted out, being dragged by the feet and put into one pile or another, by the people who work in the morgue, strange silent figures with masks across their faces to protect them from the smell of decay.”*

Another problem for the film comes, inevitably, from its timeliness. Pinochet was still in control in 1978 when the movie was made. Many of the facts about what happened to Jara only came out after the dictator was ousted from power. Reed has to rely on third-hand accounts and best guesses to fill in the story. Given that, he does a pretty good job with the information that was available at the time. The soldiers remain anonymous in the film. Since that time, some have been identified and charged, while another, Edwin Dimter, reportedly the infamous “Prince,” recently had his office invaded by protesters.

Starring opposite Reed as his wife (named Janet in the movie) is Friederike Aust, a dark-haired beauty who acted primarily in East German made-for-TV movies, and in popular television shows, such as Polizeiruf 110 and  Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort. Ms. Aust is an attractive woman and a good actress who deserves more attention that she’s received. After the Wende, She moved into the field of voice dubbing, replacing the voices on popular American TV shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Santa Barbara, and Six Feet Under.

The cinematographer for El Cantor is Hans Heinrich, not to be confused with the director of the same name. Heinrich first worked with Reed on Blood Brothers, and Heinrich’s work on that film is spectacular, with scenes that Hollywood only matched after the invention of the Steadicam. His work in El Cantor is more restrained but no less effective. The colors are less vivid, but that is probably a conscious choice, based on the fact that the film was intended for television. Those old CRT set were very bad at handling vivid colors, especially bright reds, so Heinrich works here from a softer palette of grays and greens.

El Cantor is a valiant effort to bring the story of South America’s most charismatic and idealistic martyr to a wider audience. It is a story that certainly deserves to be—no, needs to be—told. But the definitive movie on Victor Jara remains to be made. It is a gut-wrenching and shameful story that everyone, especially we Americans, should know.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

* An unfinished song: The life of Victor Jara, by Joan Jara