Posts Tagged ‘Helmut Nier’

Spur in die Nacht
In America, we tend to parse out films about crime into specific categories, such as heist films, detective films, film noir, mysteries, and so on. In both East and West Germany, these films are lumped into one big group: Kriminalfilme, or “crime films,” usually referred to as “Krimis.” Many West German Krimis center around a murder, but this is more unusual in East German Krimis. Murder, as an individual crime, is seen as a symptom of capitalism and less likely to occur in the GDR. In West Germany, the criminals are often members of crime organizations run by an evil masterminds, best exemplified by the Dr. Mabuse films. In East Germany, these films often revolve around West Germans and foreigners who are using the disparity between East and West Germany for their own ends. Track in the Night (Spur in die Nacht) falls squarely into this category.1 Its original title was Schmugglerkönig (Smuggler King), which gives some idea of the subject matter, but also clues the audience in to the criminals’ motives early on.

In Track in the Night, we follow the misadventures of a Berlin bricklayer named Ulli, who arrives in a small village on the Czech/German border to visit his girlfriend, Sabine. It’s skiing season, and Sabine is doing seasonal work at the local HO store. When she’s not there to meet him, he goes to the the Fuchsbau Inn where she’s staying, but Sabine isn’t there either. After a brief investigation, the local authorities decide Sabine is a Republikflüchtling—a person who left East Germany illegally—but Ulli doesn’t believe it and neither does Sabine’s friend and co-worker Traudel. Ulli starts his own investigation, and soon finds himself embroiled with a gang of smugglers.

Spur in die Nacht

In some respects, Track in the Night resembles an Alistair MacLean story (The Guns of Navarone, Breakheart Pass), where we find out later that someone we thought was possibly a bad guy turns out to be a good guy, but a good guy in this case means someone who works for the Stasi. In other respects, it resembles the format pioneered by Hitchcock, where an ordinary man is thrown into a situation outside of his usual experiences, and is forced to play the hero.

Track in the Night is the second film from director Günter Reisch. Reisch was one of East Germany’s most interesting and imaginative directors. He is best known for Anton the Magician, as well he should be, for it is a real classic, but his others films are also worth a viewing. Politically, he rarely rocked the boat, but this wasn’t out of timidity. He was resolutely socialist, and often attacked what he saw as a growing tendency toward bourgeois values in East Germany.2 His most unique contributions to cinema are the bookend films, A Lively Christmas Eve and Like Father, Like Son, filmed twenty-five years apart with nearly the same cast, right down to the bit parts.

Playing Ulli is Ulrich Thein, and this is his movie he appears in nearly every scene. He even takes to singing and playing guitar at one point. The song he sings, “Fuchsbau-Boogie,” was composed by Thein; rather quickly from the sounds of it, but it’s supposed to be an impromptu song anyway. Thein was a man of many talents. Although best known as an actor, he also directed films and plays, composed songs, and wrote screenplays. He died in 1995 in Berlin (for more on Thein, see Anton the Magician).

Ulrich Thein

Track in the Night also stars two of East Germany’s most beautiful actresses: Eva-Maria Hagen and Annekathrin Bürger.3 For Hagen, this wasn’t the first film she worked on—that would be Don’t Forget My Little Traudel—but it was the first film featuring her to reach the theaters. Her acting duties here are limited. She doesn’t appear until the last half-hour of the film, and even then only in a few scenes. These two movies arrived in theaters within weeks of each other, kicking Hagen’s career with a roaring start.

Annekathrin Bürger had already made a splash in her previous film, Gerhard Klein’s A Berlin Romance. When Track in the Night was made, Bürger was romantically coupled with her co-star Ulrich Thein. After splitting with Thein, Bürger dated and married fellow actor Rolf Römer. Although Römer is now dead, Bürger is still going strong and regularly performs programs of songs and poetry (for more on Bürger, see Hostess). Bürger’s contribution to the plot is not as limited as Hagen’s but the story doesn’t revolve around her either.

The music is by Helmut Nier, a classical composer, who brings to the score a nice Gershwinesque jazziness. Those who have seen New Year’s Punch, which was also scored by Nier, will recognize certain leitmotifs Nier used again in that film. The cinematography is by Walter Fehdmer, who worked in East Germany until the Wall went up, and thereafter worked in West Germany, suggesting he either chose this time to leave the country or, more likely, found himself cut off from his former employer. He retired from film work in 1970. No death date is listed for him, although, since he was born in 1913, he is either dead, or one of the oldest men in Germany. Fehdmer’s work is adequate, but not on a par with the likes of Rolf Sohre, Günter Ost, Joachim Hasler, or Werner Bergmann.

Track in the Night is not one of the most daring or inventive Krimis to come out of DEFA. Those would come later. But it is entertaining, and has a perspective that is completely at odds with our western way of thinking.The proposition that it’s good to cooperate with the Stasi is not a position that one is likely to see repeated anytime soon. Even at DEFA, this position became less and less common as the Stasi became more and more invasive.

IMDB page for this film.


1. Note: I’ve translated the German word Spur as “Track.” This film could also be called “Trail in the Night” or “Trace in the Night” (the more common translation of Spur), and both would fit. The English word “spoor” comes from the same root, although it has lost much of its meaning in English and now is usually reserved to talk about animal droppings. I’ve chosen “track” in reference to one specific scene in the film, which I believe the title is in reference to.

2. Sadly, I never met the fellow, but reports from friends and associates make him sound like a wonderfully cantankerous old coot. I think I would have liked him.

3. Although most of the time I use the now gender-neutral “actor” in all cases, somehow the phrase “beautiful actors” just doesn’t work for me, so I’ve made this exception.

Advertisements

Silvesterpunsch
As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the East German government had a rocky relationship with musicals. The inherent frivolity of the genre clashed mightily with the government’s philosophy that every film should promote good socialist values. At the same time, musicals were popular with the public in the fifties on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In 1958, DEFA made its first musical, My Wife Wants to Sing, and the film was temporarily shelved due to its apparent lack of a distinct socialist message. When it was released it was a big hit and helped open the doors to the musical form.

In 1959, The Punch Bowl (Maibowle), a light comedy directed by Günter Reisch, was released. The Punch Bowl follows the adventures and misadventures of the Lehmann family after the family patriarch Wilhelm Lehmann is scheduled to receive a Banner der Arbeit (Banner of Labor) medal for his leadership of the Grünefeld Chemical Plant. Director Reisch was careful to make sure that there was a solid socialist message here. The film was approved and was a hit. So director Reisch decided to up the ante slightly with New Year’s Punch (Silvesterpunsch), a sequel that starts in the same comic vein as the first film, and then turns into a full-on musical.

In structure, it is similar to the films of the musicals of the thirties and forties, where people spend most of the movie planning for a big stage show, which is revealed as the finale. The biggest difference here is that the musical numbers here are aimed at promoting the importance of chemistry to the development of the state. Included in the numbers are an ode to Calcium Carbide and the joys of polymerization. Like modern musicals—but very unlike the Hollywood musicals at the time—the singing never spontaneously erupts with an invisible orchestra. If someone sings, there is a reason, and there are musicians present, no matter how illogical that may be. Most of the singing and dancing is saved for the grand finale, which culminates in the celebration of the New Year Eve (which is called Silvester in German, hence the title).

Silvesterpunsch

Heinz Draehn and Christel Bodenstein reprise their roles from The Punch Bowl as Franz and Suse Lehmann, as do Erich Franz and Erika Dunkelmann as the parents. The other Lehmann children form the first film, and there were several, are replaced this time around by Michel, played by Achim Schmidtchen, an aspiring trumpet player. The story takes place at the Grünefeld Chemical Plant of the first film. The work force is evenly divided between fans of the arts and fans of sports. Since both of things were very important to East German culture, it is important (and inevitable, really) that both of these groups eventually learn to get along.

Christel Bodenstein—a dancer before she became an actor—gets to demonstrate her skills here (although I suspect a double was used for the ice skating scenes). At one point, she dances on a narrow, slightly bouncy tabletop en pointe—something I wouldn’t recommend anyone to attempt. Bodenstein is best known for her part as the selfish princess in The Singing, Ringing Tree, but she appeared in many other popular East German films and television shows. After the Wende, her career on television and films essentially ended. Her role in the Mario Adorf mini-series Die Kaltenbach-Papiere (The Kaltenbach Papers) was her last role in front of a camera. Since then, she has devoted her career to the stage.

Karin und Kristel

New Year’s Punch marks the debut of Karin Schröder. Best known for her role in Beloved White Mouse, which starred East German comedian Rolf Herricht. Schröder appears in New Year’s Punch with dark hair and a short, tomboy haircut, but still looks every bit as adorable as she did in the Rolf Herricht comedy. Schröder was originally trained as a certified stenographer, but director Günter Reisch immediately saw her potential and used her often (for more on Reisch, see A Lively Christmas Eve). She appeared in a number of television shows and movies in East Germany, and continued her career after the Wall came down, Most recently, she appeared as a recurring character in the German TV show, Alles Klara.

The cinematographer for New Year’s Punch was Karl Plintzner, whose color work here and elsewhere rivals the work of the great Leon Shamroy. Plintzner got his start as an assistant cameraman shortly before the beginning of WWII. After the war he joined DEFA as a cinematographer, working first on Wolfgang Staudte’s The Adventures of Fridolin (Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B.), and then on Erich Engel’s The Blum Affair. Plintzner showed a special knack for color right off the bat with his work on the Ernst Thälmann films, but it was The Singing, Ringing Tree where he really got to let loose with colors so vivid they’ll make your eyes bleed. For health reasons, he retired in 1965. He died on December 7, 1975 in East Berlin.

Silvesterpunsch

The music for New Year’s Punch was composed by Helmut Nier. Nier was the founder of the Association of Composers and Musicologist in the GDR (Verbandes der Komponisten und Musikwissenschaftler), whose stated purpose was to maintain and develop the musical culture of the GDR, as well as ensure that composers received proper credit and compensation. As a composer, Nier never matched the talent of Karl-Ernst Sasse or Gerd Natchinski. The songs in New Year’s Punch are entertaining enough, but not particularly memorable. Nier was better at serious scores. His soundtracks for Spur in die Nacht (Trace in the Night), The Baldheaded Gang, and Black Velvet are far more compelling than any of his work on comedies and romances. As with many of the East German’s who worked for DEFA, his career in films ended after the Wende. Nier died in 2002.

In terms of musicals, New Year’s Punch comes closer to the Western concept of what a communist musical would look like than the other musicals from DEFA. The politics of socialism and the GDR’s love affairs with sports and culture are never far from the storyline in this film. This doesn’t really distract from the story however, and, as light as this romantic comedy is, it’s a pretty entertaining piece of fluff.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

Black Velvet

Black Velvet (Schwarzer Samt) is a crime film involving the manufacturer of fake passports and the attempted sabotage of a state-of-the-art loading crane at the Leipzig Trade Fair. The “Black Velvet” in the title refers to a vial of acid intended for us in the sabotage. The reason for this strange code name becomes clear in the final scene of the film. This is one of the more unusual films to come out of East Germany. It is a spoof without ever being overtly comical, a send up of the Stasi by a director who is usually viewed (incorrectly, as we shall see) as a “safe” director who never rocked the boat and made films that the dramaturges and SED officials were pleased with.

Black Velvet stars Fred Delmare, an actor who will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has seen more than three DEFA films. With his short stature and a face that resembled George W. Bush, he was nearly always cast in secondary roles as weaklings, villains, or both. Sometimes his appearances were easy to miss—he’s the taxi driver in Oh How Joyfully, and a hospital attendant in Wie die Altern sungen—but with well over 150 appearances in East German films alone, it is hard to see many DEFA movies without encountering him at some point. This is not to say all of his appearances were bit parts. In Naked Among Wolves, he plays the camp inmate Pippig, and, most famously, in The Legend of Paul and Paula, he was “Reifen-Saft,” the tire dealer in love with Paula.

Born Werner Vorndran in Leipzig, Mr. Delmare began working in local theater as a teenager, but World War II got in the way. He joined the German Navy, where an injury sent him to the hospital for the remainder of the war. After the war, he studied acting in Leipzig, then moved to West Berlin to perform at the Hebbel Theater, one of the few theaters in Berlin that survived the bombings. When pressure from the American authorities led to shift away from works by the Brecht and other German playwrights to plays from America, Mr. Delmare joined the Leipzig Theater, where he continued to perform until 1970.

Schwarzer Samt

After the Wende, Mr. Delmare saw his greatest success as the Grandpa Steinbach in the popular TV series, In aller Freundschaft—a show that consistently provided work for many East German actors. It was during this period that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and retired from acting. He died in 2009, and it is a testament to his popularity that virutally every major German newspaper ran an obituary for him.

Casting Mr. Delmare as the lead in Black Velvet was an interesting choice. At 5’ 3” (1.6 m), he makes Michael J. Fox and Daniel Radcliffe look tall. He spends much of the movie looking up at everyone, women included. To add to the topsy-turvy nature of the fim, one of the villains of the film is played by Gunther Simon, a man nearly always chosen to play the hero, and the man who played East Germany’s greatest hero, communist pioneer Ernst Thälmann. Partly, this odd casting is intended as a jab at the James Bond films, but the end effect is an effective jab at the Stasi as well. While sometimes East German directors were left to the mercy of DEFA when it came to casting, the choices here seem too cleverly made to be the luck of the draw. In this case, the director must have had the final say.

At first glance, Mr. Thiel seems like an unlikely candidate for intentional subversiveness. In the East German film studies community, his name doesn’t come up very often. Look at his films once and they seem to be promotional films for the GDR. One of them, in fact—Hart am Wind (Close to the Wind)—was made with the cooperation of the Volksmarine and was intended to spur enlistment in the army. But look at his films more closely and you’ll see a very clever director who may just be winking at the audience after all. In DEFA Disko 77, for example, each musical number is proceeded by a short clip of the musician being observed getting ready for his or her performance. These clips look, for all the world, like surveillance videos. Surely this is no accident, but they are so underplayed that I doubt anyone paid much attention to them at the time.

Fred Delmare

Curiously, Mr. Thiel got his start as a Nazi journalist. As an officer in Hitler’s Propagandakompanie, it was his job to write glowing reports on the Third Reich’s successful battles in Russia—a difficult task, to be sure, and one that undoubtedly honed his fine sense of the absurd. After the war, his politics moved to the left. He started working as a dramaturge in Dessau and founded the Theater der Jungen Garde (now the Thalia Theater) in Halle. In 1954, he started working at DEFA, at first as an assistant director, then as the director of “Stacheltier” shorts—the short, often satirical films shown before the main features in East Germany. In 1959, he directed his first feature film, Im Sonderauftrag (By Special Order), a cold war spy film that takes place on the Baltic. This film helped set his future at DEFA as their director of choice for spy thrillers.

If there was any doubt to Mr. Thiel’s deadpan subversion in this and his other films, he finally showed his hand in 1996, with the book, The nackte DEVA (The Naked DEVA). The title of this book is a send up of DEFA (in German, both words are pronounced the same), and the book is collection of thinly-veiled anecdotes and stories about Mr. Theil’s years at DEFA. It is illustrated by Harald Kretzschmar, an East German cartoonist who drew illustrations for the East German satire magazine Eulenspiegel. Mr. Thiel died in Potsdam in 2003.

Part of the fun of Black Velvet belongs to its jazzy score, written by Helmut Nier. Mr. Nier is the man who also gave us the equally enjoyable score for The Baldheaded Gang. Like Karl-Ernst Sasse, Reiner Bredemeyer, and some of the other composers at DEFA, Mr. Nier came from a classical background. For many years he worked as an orchestral musician in Radebeul near Dresden. His career as a film composer began in 1957 with Spur in die Nacht (Track in the Night), in which he first demonstrated his knack for writing crime film scores. During the sixties, quite by coincidence, Mr. Nier was DEFA’s composer of choice for any film that started with the adjective “black” (schwarz). Besides Black Velvet, he also scored Schwarze Panther (Black Panther), and the TV mini-series Der schwarze Reiter (The Black Rider). After the Wende, he worked free-lance as a composer and died in 2002 after a long illness.

Reviews for the film were tepid, due in part, no doubt, to the way this film never fully betrays its humorous intent. The fact that the film came out in 1964 is probably also a factor in its release. A couple years later and it would have come under the heavy scrutiny and criticism that films received after the 11th Plenum. Considering that the utterly innocuous Hands Up, Or I’ll Shoot! was banned, I have no doubt that this film would have ended up in the Giftschrank1 as well.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film.


1. Literally, “poison cabinet,” but also used to indicate the place where films deemed “toxic” were stored.