Posts Tagged ‘Ilse Steppat’

The Bridge 1949

The Bridge (Die Brücke) was a 1949 film made by DEFA about displaced persons at the end of WWII. It has little in common with Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 well-known film of the same name except its relative time frame. In this film, a group of evacuees in a resettlement encampment encounter hostility from the people in a nearby town; not because they are Jewish, or black, or even from another country, but because they are from a different town. The prejudice here is not racial or anti-Semitic, but parochial—roughly analogous to a group of Californians trying to resettle in Mississippi. Thrown into the mix is a relatively formulaic love triangle between the Mayor’s nephew, a girl from the resettlement camp, and a scheming pub owner who smokes way too much for her own good. The bridge of the title is a wooden footbridge between the resettlement camp and the village. After the bridge is sabotaged, resulting in the death of one of the camp’s leading figures, the two groups are cut off from each other. It will take an even greater calamity to bring them together again.

As with Street Acquaintances, this film exists in that transitional space between old-school melodrama and the socialist realism promoted by the Russians. Visually, it hearkens back to the Ufa films from the Third Reich years, but the film’s message of tolerance is strictly post-war thinking. The screenplay is by Arthur Pohl, who also wrote the screenplay for Street Acquaintances, but this time he also directed the film. It was his first time directing a feature film, although he had already directed several stage productions.

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Arthur Pohl began his career as a set painter at the Staatstheater in Darmstadt. Later on, he moved into directing plays as well. In the 1930s, he began working in films as a screenwriter, co-writing the screenplays for Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur) and Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb), which were based on a book by Thea von Harbou (of Metropolis fame). In 1941, Mr. Pohl’s career in films came to an abrupt end when he was drafted and later captured by the Allied forces. After he was released from a P.O.W. camp at the end of the war, he moved to West Berlin. In spite of living in an allied sector, he got a job with DEFA; at first as a scriptwriter, then later as a director. After The Bridge, He went on to write and direct several more films for DEFA, including Corinna Schmidt, Die Unbesiegbaren (The Invincible), and Pole Poppenspäler.

In 1957, he wrote and directed Spielbank-Affäre (Casino Affair), based on Hans von Oettingen’s book of the same name. It would be Mr. Pohl’s last feature film. It was made as joint project between DEFA and Sweden’s short-lived Pandora-Films. The film told the story of counterfeiting and intrigue around a casino. While Pohl may have intended the film as a statement about capitalism and its deleterious effects on the human psyche, the authorities at DEFA felt that the film—which was DEFA’s first wide-screen production and was shot in gorgeous Agfacolor—made West German decadence look too appealing. In one of the weirder decisions to come out of DEFA, the film was screened in black-and-white in East Germany, while the color version was shown in West Germany under the title Parkplatz zur großen Sehnsucht (Parking Lot for Desire). As one might imagine, the western press had a great time making fun of this decision.

The foofaraw over the film led to a parting of ways between DEFA and Mr. Pohl. He started looking for work in the west, but, unfortunately for him, his long association with DEFA didn’t make this any easier. He made a few TV-movies in the early sixties, but by 1963 his career as a director was essentially over. Maybe he would have gone back to DEFA, but by that time the border was well sealed and working in the east while residing in the west was no longer an option. He died in 1970 in Berlin.

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If the film at times has the look of the Weimar Republic era Ufa films, there’s a good reason. The cinematographer was Fritz Arno Wagner—one of the most well-respected cinematographers in the business. He started working as a newsreel cameraman in 1913 and a feature film cameraman in 1919. A list of the films he worked on during the silent years is impressive. It includes Nosferatu, M, Diary of a Lost Girl, and both of Fritz Lang’s silent Dr. Mabuse films. Unlike his compatriot Karl Freund, Mr. Wagner chose not to go to Hollywood. He  stayed in Germany, filming unmemorable programmers and Nazi propaganda during the Third Reich years. Although Das kleine Hofkonzert (Palace Scandal), which Mr. Wagner filmed, was released by DEFA, The Bridge is the only film Wagner worked on that was actually made by DEFA. He started working in the west as soon as possible. In 1958, Mr. Wagner died when he fell from a camera car while filming Ohne Mutter geht es nicht (It Doesn’t Work Without a Mother).

The evil, chain-smoking pub owner Therese is played by Ilse Steppat, who, two years earlier, was much more sympathetic as the persecuted Jewish wife in Kurt Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows. After the restrictions on filmmaking in West Germany were removed in 1950, Ms. Steppat, a West German by birth, spent the rest of her career working in the west. She is best known to English-speaking audiences as the evil Irma Bunt in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Two days after that film premiered in Germany, Ms. Steppat died of a heart attack in West Berlin.

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Arno Paulsen, who plays the town’s mayor will be immediately recognizable to any fan of early DEFA films. The rotund actor got his start as an opera singer. While working at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, he met Wolfgang Staudte, who cast him as the profiteering villain in The Murderers Are Among Us. From there he went on to appear in eleven DEFA films between 1946 and 1950, including Razzia, Chemistry and Love, Street Acquaintances, and Girls in Gingham. Due to his short and portly appearance, he was often cast as either the villain or the buffoon in films on both sides of the Iron Curtain. His last film for DEFA was Bürgermeister Anna (Mayor Anna), a comedy based on a play by Friedrich Wolf. After that he appeared exclusively in West German films and is well remembered for his role in Das Mädchen Rosemarie (Rosemary)—one of the better films to come out of West Germany during the fifties.

To a modern audience, the film’s socialist heroics will probably seem over the top. Like the man who uses his body to channel the irrigation water in King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, modern audiences laugh that anyone would do anything that selfless. It is impossible today to reflect on this film’s message about the importance of eliminating borders between German factions without thinking about the events of August 13, 1961. In The Bridge, people bravely cross a river to help people on the other side, creating unity between the two factions. Replace the river with a wall and the film takes on a whole different meaning.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (German only; no subtitles).

Like Stars and Jakob the Liar, Marriage in the Shadows (Ehe im Schatten) deals with the subject of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. Unlike those films, however, this one came out in 1947 when the Nuremberg Trials were still going on and new revelations about atrocities at the concentration camps were arriving every day. The people of Germany were still in shock and denial, and the Allies and the Soviets were actively engaged in policies of “denazification.” Part of this involved the banning and destruction of hundreds of books that were favorable to Nazis and militaristic thinking, reenacting Hitler’s book burnings from the opposing end of the political spectrum. Another part of the policy involved the distribution of films and literature designed to make Germans acknowledge their collective guilt; a kind of national finger-wagging. The most famous example of this was the documentary, Nürnberg und seine Lehre (Nuremberg – Its Lesson for Today), which was released in Germany in 1948, but didn’t reach American movie screens until 2010. Many of the policies put in place—especially those instituted by the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS)—seemed to be intentionally designed to humiliate the German people. In the U.S. sector, Hollywood films that were openly hostile to Germans were shown at theaters, often without subtitles. Not surprisingly, this approach wasn’t popular with either the local townspeople, or the theater owners who were conscripted to show the films.

While the western sectors intentionally dragged their feet on the process of re-establishing film production in Germany, the Soviets had DEFA up and running by May of 1946. The western allies, and in particular, the United States, which had a vested interest in promoting their Hollywood films in Europe, were not too happy about DEFA. Many of the early DEFA films were either banned or edited for release in the western sectors. Marriage in the Shadows was the first post-war German film to be screened uncensored in all four sectors. It was also the first one to address the subject of Jewish persecution, and is still one of the most unflinching films on the subject.

The film begins during the Weimar years. Hans Wieland and Elisabeth Maurer are lovers and popular stage actors. The audience especially adores Elisabeth, and the fact that she’s Jewish doesn’t affect their enthusiasm. When the Nazis comes to power, things begin to change. The first signs of this occur when they are on vacation and come across a man posting an sign on the beach banning Jews. Things keep getting worse until eventually Elisabeth is no longer allowed to perform on stage. As Hans’ career continues to rise, Elisabeth’s life gets harder and harder. After taking Elisabeth to a premiere of his new film, the couple runs into a Nazi official who is at first charmed by Elisabeth and later horrified to find out that she is a Jew. He orders her sent to a concentration camp, but the couple decides to commit suicide instead.

The story is dramatization of the events in the life of the German film and stage actor Joachim Gottschalk. Gottschalk was one of Germany’s most popular leading men; a screen idol who often played the debonair heartthrob. Gottschalk’s wife was Meta Wolff, a Jewish actress who had been highly successful on stage, but found her career abruptly halted with Hitler’s rise to power. Because of Gottschalk’s popularity with the public, the fact that his wife was Jewish was quietly overlooked—at least at first. In some versions of the story (including the one in the movie), Gottschalk made the mistake of taking his wife to a premiere where she charmed some Nazi officials. When Goebbels found out about this he was livid, partly because he hated—really hated—Jews, and partly because it was on his instigation that Gottschalk moved from the stage to the screen and became a movie star. After attempts to get Gottschalk to divorce his wife failed, Goebbels ordered Meta Wolff and their son shipped off to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt, and ordered Gottschalk to report to the Wehrmacht for service. Rather than comply, Gottschalk and his wife gave their son a sedative and then turned on the gas. All three were found dead, and were buried without ceremony at the Southwest Stahnsdorf cemetery near Potsdam. Only a few of their closest friends attended, including Brigitte Horney, who starred opposite Gottschalk in four of his films. News stories and obituaries about what happened to Gottschalk were strictly forbidden and no further mention was made of them while the Nazis were in power.

For most Germans, the end credit that the film was based on the story of Joachim Gottschalk was the first they learned of what had happened to the actor and his family. Although the film follows the facts of the story closely, it gets much of its power from Kurt Maetzig’s own experiences. Maetzig was born in Berlin, January 26, 1911. His mother was Jewish, and, like Meta Wolff, killed herself rather than face deportation to a concentration camp. Maetzig himself was born in 1911, and had just begun a successful career in film when the Nazis came to power. Following the Nuremberg laws, Maetzig was forbidden from working in the film industry. He joined the Communist Party and went underground. After the war, Maetzig was one of the founders of Filmaktiv, a group dedicated to restarting the film industry in Germany. It is from this group that DEFA was eventually established.

Marriage in the Shadows was Kurt Maetzig’s first feature film, and he clearly wanted to make a strong first impression. The film features more razzle-dazzle than any of his later films. Slow fades back and forth between scenes, cross-cutting, emotionally charged internal P.O.V. shots, and clever transitions are used throughout the movie. It is also, rather ironically, one of his more traditional films in other respects. The use of glamour-shot lighting and emotion-laden music hearken back to the melodramas of the 1930s.

That music was composed by Wolfgang Zeller. Zeller was a well-known film composer who made his first big splash in 1926 with his score for the animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed), the oldest existing feature-length animated film. Zeller wrote film scores for many silent films, including Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic Vampyr. After the Nazis came to power, Zeller continued to work for them, providing the music for every variety of film, including several propaganda films. Most notoriously, he wrote the film score for the virulently anti-Semitic Jud Süß. Perhaps in an attempt to atone for his work during the Third Reich, Zeller imbues the score for Marriage in the Shadows with an intense emotionalism that occasionally overwhelms the visuals. Zeller did a few more films for DEFA, but his traditional, romantic musical style was better suited to the nostalgic films of West Germany. During the early days of DEFA he provided a few scores, but within a few years he was working exclusively in the west.

The cinematographers for Marriage in the Shadows were Friedl Behn-Grund and Eugen Klagemann, both of whom had worked for Tobis Filmkunst—Germany’s second largest film company after UFA—during the Nazi years. Like Wolfgang Zeller, Friedl Behn-Grund’s career began during the silent era. During the Third Reich, he was the cinematographer for Titanic, one of the few German films from the Nazi period that is still regularly shown throughout the world. During the early days of DEFA, Behn-Grund shot some of the most well-respected films to come out of that film company, including The Murderers Are Among Us (which he co-filmed with Klagemann), Die seltsamen Abenteuer des Herrn Fridolin B. (The Strange Adventures of Fridolin B.), Die Buntkarierten (The Girls in Gingham), The Blum Affair (Affaire Blum), and The Council of the Gods.

Eugen Klagemann, on the other hand, got his start as a still photographer in early 1930s, and moved to cinematography in 1943 with Kurt Hoffmann’s Ich werde dich auf Händen tragen (I’ll Carry You on My Hands). Unlike Behn-Grund, Klagemann continued to work in East Germany, even though he lived in a western sector of Berlin. After the wall went up on August 10, 1961, Klagemann’s access to DEFA was cut off. By that time, attitudes in West Germany towards the GDR were running hot and Klagemann was unable to continue his career as a cinematographer because of his perceived “collaboration with the enemy.”

The migration to West Germany was a common occurrence in the early days of the GDR in all fields, but especially in the movies. Many of the film technicians working for DEFA during the first few years were actually Wessis, but couldn’t find any work in the western sectors due to the Allied forces’ restrictive policies toward filmmaking. Once the West German film industry was back up and running, they were perfectly content to continue their careers closer to home. In some cases, film people who were actually from the Soviet sector decided to join the Republiksflucht and head west to the promise of better money. For Paul Klinger, who played Hans Wieland and was a West German (born in Essen), Marriage in the Shadows would be his only East Germany film. He would continue with a successful film and television career in the west, right up until his death in 1971, and in 2007, Germany had a postage stamp made in his honor. His co-star Ilse Steppat, who played Elisabeth Maurer, made a few more films for DEFA but by the mid-fifties also was working exclusively in the west. Most of the rest of the film crew ended up in the west as well, including, the editors (Alice and Herman Ludwig), the art director (Kurt Herith), and the Costume Designer (Gertraud Recke).

When the film was first shown it hit German moviegoers like a punch in the gut. Audiences attending the screenings are reported to have responded with somber silence; still sitting in their seats when the lights came on. Marriage in the Shadows signaled not only a new attitude for the German people, but a new kind of filmmaking. One that would flourish in the east, while the west was content to expend most of their effort making sentimental Heimatfilme.

IMDB page for this film.

This film is not available commercially in the United States.