Posts Tagged ‘Helmut Bergmann’

Jana und Jan
With the notable exception of horror movies, the East German film industry (that is to say, DEFA) made films of nearly every genre from westerns to science fiction; from thrillers to romantic comedies. If it were a Hollywood film, Jana and Jan (Jana und Jan) would be categorized as a women-in-prison film, but without the usual salaciousness and exploitation attached to that genre. It has the usual tropes for these films: the prison social hierarchy, girl fights, and shower scenes, but nothing is Jana and Jan is played for leers or laughs. It is a grim and gray film, with cinematography to match.

The film starts in 1989, when 15-year-old Jan (René Guß) is brought to a juvenile detention center after getting caught trying to flee to West Germany. There he meets Jana (Kristin Scheffer), a tough 17-year-old who sleeps with Jan on a dare. Jana gets pregnant, and then decides at the last minute to have the child. During their incarceration, the Wall opens, and the teens at the detention center are optimistic that this will improve things for them. Jana’s emotionally fragile prisonmate Julia (Julia Brendler) dreams of being reunited with the mother in the West. Jan and Jana decide to strike out on their own in search of a better place to live, but the future for them doesn’t look any better now than it did before the Wall came down.

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Director Helmut Dziuba had started working on the script for this film before the Wall came down, but the events at the time led him to rewrite the story to include the Wende, making the narrative even bleaker. He seems to be saying here that when the Wall was up, at least there was a promise of a better life on the other side of the border, but now there is nothing to look forward to except bleakness and death. Not exactly feel-good material.

It is questionable that the script would have seen the light of day before the Wall fell. Even in the final days of the foundering republic, discussion of the topic of trying to cross the border was a touchy one. The Flight managed to get away with it because it showed the fatal futility of trying to do so, and the evil avariciousness of the gangs that arrange these escape efforts.1

Director Helmut Dziuba hails from Dresden and got started as a high-voltage electrician before moving to Moscow to study film at the Moscow Film Academy (VGIK). He worked in radio and television in Moscow before returning to East Germany and joining DEFA. He served as an assistant director to Frank Beyer and Günter Reisch before taking on his own film productions. Like Herrmann Zschoche, Dziuba is known for his clear-eyed films about young people, but while Zschoche continued his career in television, Jana and Jan was Dziuba’s last film as a director. He did continue to write, and his script for Bernd Sahling’s Die Blindgänger (The Blind Flyers) won several awards around the world. Dziuba died in 2012.

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It was also the last film for cinematographer Helmut Bergmann. Bergmann’s older brother was Werner Bergmann, who helped Helmut get his first job as a cameraman at DEFA back in the fifties. Helmut didn’t disappoint. Unlike some cinematographers who have a specific style, Bergmann could make the look fit the subject matter, whether it was the vivid colors of Love’s Confusion, or the drabness of Jana and Jan. In Bergmann’s case, the end of career had less to do with the fall of the Wall than it did with his age. He was already 66 when Jana and Jan came out. He died in 1998 in Potsdam. Bergmann was married to Bärbl Bergmann, DEFA’s first female director.

Also like Herrmann Zschoche (see Seven Freckles), Helmut Dziuba liked to use untested young people in lead roles. Kristin Scheffer and René Guß were both new to acting, and they never made another film. Jana and Jan wasn’t the first film for Julia Brendler, though, or even her first Helmut Dziuba film. She had starred in his previous film Forbidden Love, in which Brendler plays a 13-year-old girl who is in love with an 18-year-old boy. Brendler is a strong screen presence, and the only thing wrong with that is that it threatens to pull attention away from the main characters. Unlike the two leads in the film, Brendler has gone on to have a highly successful career in films and television in unified Germany. Nor was Jana and Jan the first film for Karin Gregorek, who plays one of the prison administrators. Gregorek started in films in 1963, and continued acting after the Wende, primarily in television. With her unique looks and acting talent, I have no doubt she would have been part of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s troupe of regulars had she been born in the West.

Jana and Jan went on to win the Special Youth Award at the San Remo Film Festival, with Dziuba winning the Bavarian Film Award for Best Director in 1993. It’s an excellent film, but it’s gray-green color palette and unrelenting pessimism make it a difficult film to watch, and not one that will be everybody’s—or even most people’s—taste.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


1. I should point out here that no East German official would ever categorize the attempts to leave East Germany as “escaping.” Escape attempts were characterized as desertions and border violations, and the people who helped others escape were “human traffickers” (Menschenhändleren).

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. 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.

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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.

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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).