Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

He du!

While the rest of the world was undergoing huge cultural upheavals, East Germany’s leaders were busy battening down the hatches, shutting the windows, and stuffing cotton in their collective ears; anything to avoid acknowledging that somewhere between 1965 and 1971 the world had changed completely. The politicians in the GDR got a glimpse of these changes during the first half of the sixties, when the filmmakers at DEFA were pushing the boundaries with imaginative and daring films. Things were changing fast; too fast for the Soviet Union, and as the USSR went, the GDR followed. At the 11th Plenum in December of 1965, the authorities yanked the rug out from under the filmmakers at DEFA. After that, virtually any film that showed the slightest bit of criticism toward the “socialist way of life” was boxed up and shelved. For the most part, films became safer and less controversial. This wasn’t always a bad thing. It did help establish the development of genre pictures such as Chingachgook, The Great Snake and Hot Summer, but it also made it almost impossible for thoughtful, topical films to get produced. If filmmakers wanted to say something about the state of the things in the GDR, they had to do it in subtlest possible way. Some filmmakers took up the challenge. It was during this period that Egon Günther made Abschied (Farewell), a visually-stunning film based on Johannes R. Becher’s 1940 anti-war novel, but that was Egon Günther, a man who spent his entire career at DEFA pushing the boundaries. Few others were as willing to poke the bear.

Into this environment walked Rolf Römer, an actor who had already made a name for himself as Gojko Mitic’s sidekick in the popular Indianerfilme, Sons of the Great Bear, and Chingachgook, The Great Snake. Römer was given the greenlight to write and direct Hey You!, a film about the budding romance between Ellen Volkmann, a sophisticated, idealistic young teacher, and Frank Rothe, the rough-and-tumble foreman of a construction gang; a sort-of Lady and the Tramp story about the love between two people from opposite sides of the tracks.

The problem was that East Germany prided itself on not having these sorts of class divisions. It was written into its constitution. Nonetheless, the distinctions were there. Most people fell into one of three groups: the political elite, the intelligentsia, and the proletariat. Over time, these distinctions became more and more stratified. Everyone knew it, but nobody talked about it; at least not in public. Had Hey You! confronted this issue head on it would have ended up half-finished on a shelf next to Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly) and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam). Instead, by pretending these distinctions aren’t an issue, it emphasizes their existence.

Even this might have provoked the authorities, but Römer keeps the pressure off the GDR by focusing on the injustices elsewhere. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Bahamian-Danish singer Etta Cameron sings “Jungle City USA,” a song about the difficulties of being black in America. Having spent much of her childhood in the U.S., Ms. Cameron certainly was in position to talk about this, but she could probably have said a few things about East Germany as well. She came to that country in 1967 for what was supposed to be a few days of work, but she carelessly threw away her exit visa. As you can imagine, not having your papers in a country that controlled its borders as assiduously as East Germany could be a recipe for disaster. She spent the next five years behind the Iron Curtain. While there, she appeared in two movies (Mit mir nicht Madam! and Hey You!), and sang in another (Osceola). When she finally got out, she headed to Denmark, where she spent the rest of her life. In her later years, she was a judge on Scenen er din, the Danish version of Star Search. She died in 2010.

If Römer was consciously emphasizing the stratification of East German society by pretending it didn’t exist, the message went over the heads of the film critics. The popular East German film reviewer, Renate Holland-Moritz, in her Kino-Eule column in Eulenspiegel magazine, thought that, although the film did touch on important subjects, it shied away from the bigger issues. The Catholic film magazine, Film-dienst, found the film mainly interesting as a time capsule, and there is some truth to this. As a chronicle of the aesthetics of 1970 East Germany it is hard to beat. Anyone interested in design will find in this film a treasure trove of kitchenware, furniture, architecture, clothing, and automobiles. The only other film that comes close is Römer’s 1976 film Hostess. In both films, Römer pegs the story to its point in time with his attention to the details. it is interesting to compare the two films. Only six years apart, and yet their aesthetics are completely different (it doesn’t hurt that one film is in color and the other is in black-and-white).

Römer got his start in movies as a character actor in the late fifties. He was slated for his big break with a starring role the 1965 film Born in ‘45, but the film was shelved after the 11th Plenum. Römer was a revolutionary at heart, and a socialist one at that. In a September 1965 interview for Junge Welt, the newspaper of the FDJ (East Germany’s government sponsored youth group), he said he was proud of his group at DEFA for their fight against “lazy mediocrity, cowardice, stupidity, the politically inflexible” (“gegen jedes faule Mittelmaß, gegen Feigheit, Dummheit, gegen das ewig Gestrige und ,dürfen wir das”). Two months later, the doors closed on this kind of thinking, but Römer kept the faith, subtly examining East German society in a series of comedies and seemingly lighthearted films.

As one of the people who protested the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, Römer didn’t make any friends in the government, but it was his script for the popular East German cop show, Polizeiruf 110 that brought his career to a standstill. After that, he did some voiceover work and eventually started appearing in TV movies, but his career was effectively over.

After the Wende, Römer found it impossible to get his scripts produced. His benevolent socialism was no longer the flavor of the month. As with other East German actors, he eventually started getting work in German television. He had a recurring role in the fourth season of Unser Lehrer Doktor Specht (coincidentally, Specht is Römer’s original last name). His last performance was in the popular cop show, Balko, but before the episode had aired, Römer died from injuries he sustained in an accident while tending to his garden plot in Berlin.

Hey You! stars the beautiful Annekathrin Bürger, Rolf Römer’s wife. Römer clearly loved this woman. The camera dwells often and lovingly on her face, as if it can’t get enough of her. He wasn’t the first, though. Ms. Bürger’s expressive face was well suited to movie close-ups. Frank Beyer also used it to good effect in Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers). Before becoming an actress, Ms. Bürger was working as a propmaster and an extra at the Stadttheater in Bernburg. There, director Gerhard Klein discovered her and cast her in A Berlin Romance (Eine Berliner Romanze), the second film in his Berlin trilogy. From then on, Ms. Bürger never stopped working, appearing in over twenty DEFA feature films, and even more TV movies. After the Wende, she continued to work, primarily in television. She was a regular on the Leipzig version of the popular German crime drama, Tatort, and on Die Stein, where she portrayed the lead character’s mother.

The song that Etta Cameron sings was written by Klaus Lenz, one of East Germany’s most respected jazz musicians. Lenz was closer to the cutting edge in jazz than any other performer in the GDR. He drew inspiration from several western sources, with a sound that mixed Hugh Masekela and the Modern Jazz Quartet during the sixties, and later the jazz-funk of Miles Davis and Weather Report. In 1977, after several successful performances on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Lenz moved to West Germany, but found it difficult to make a living as a musician in the west. He retired from music for several years, eventually returning to the stage in 2010.

A credit that you will see on every DEFA film is “Dramaturg.” On IMDB, this is often translated as “script editor,” but the job hews closer to the the theatrical meaning of dramaturge: the person who makes sure that the plays that are presented are in sync with the philosophy and perspective of the theater company. In East Germany, it was the Dramaturg’s job to make sure that the scripts didn’t contravene party politics; that it represented a truly East German perspective. Even this job could be dangerous. After the 11th Plenum, Chefdramaturg Klaus Wischenski was relieved of his duties thanks to the sudden shift in political climate. The Dramaturg on Hey You! was Wolfgang Ebeling. Ebeling also wrote or co-wrote many scripts for DEFA. He worked often with Römer, editing or co-writing the scripts for several movies that Römer either directed or starred in, including Chingachgook, The Great Snake, Mit mir nicht Madam!, Tecumseh, and Hostess. Although Ebeling got his start working on films during the fifties, but there is a gap in his work at DEFA. After working as the Dramaturg on Richard Groschopp’s 1962 political thriller, Freispruch mangels Beweises (Aquittal for Lack of Evidence), he didn’t work at DEFA again until 1967, when he came on-board as a screenwriter for Chingachgook. From then on he worked regularly on the films and television of East Germany, most often as a screenwriter. After the Wende, as with many other DEFA people, he worked infrequently, retiring from films after the 1991 crime comedy, Lord Hansi.

Hey You! is not the most daring of films, and it has that lack of focus that is common to the first efforts of many filmmakers. Nonetheless, it deserves watching. It is nicely photographed and well-acted. Above all, it is a perfect time capsule for the GDR in 1970. While watching it, you feel like you are there. You can almost smell the Rondo.

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In the mid-seventies, Wolfgang Kohlhaase—arguably the GDR’s best screenwriter—became friends with a talented young film reviewer named Jutta Voigt. Ms. Voigt met Kohlhaase at “Die Möwe” (The Seagull)—a popular Künstlerklub (art club), where film people and other artists met—and introduced him to an exotic social misfit named Sanije Torka. Torka was the daughter of Crimean Tatars working in Germany in 1944 (Ostarbeiters). At that time, the Third Reich did not allow Ostarbeiters to have children and Sanije was put up for adoption. Her jet-black hair and dark eyes automatically made her an outsider in Germany. She was a wild and headstrong little girl, and she bounced from foster home to orphanage to juvenile detention, raising Cain at every turn. She occasionally worked as an actress, appearing in bit parts in films. She also worked as a singer, although, by all accounts, she was a better actress than singer. Her headstrong ways often put her at odds with the rest of the world. Kohlhaase became fascinated with Torka, who seemed to defy the very nature of a socialist government, barely scraping by, doing things that were tolerated but not officially sanctioned. He listened carefully to her stories of growing up as an orphan in East Germany and turned her tale into the screenplay for Solo Sunny.

Solo Sunny is the story of Ingrid Sommer, nicknamed “Sunny.” Sunny is a modestly talented singer who tours Germany as part of a low-rent variety show. She is a free spirit, who is not afraid to call it like she sees it, and who sleeps with whomever she wants. When we first meet her, she is the lead singer for “The Tornados,” a jazz-pop band. The band’s saxophone player has the hots for Sunny, no doubt spurred on by her carefree attitude toward sex with strangers; but Sunny has no interest in him which leads, indirectly, to an altercation between the sax player and a bar patron. While his lip heals, the sax player is temporarily replaced by Ralph, a cynical philosopher with a penchant for western culture (which is sometimes code in DEFA films for an amoral person). Sunny falls for Ralph, which proves to be a bad idea, sending her into a self-destructive, downward spiral. After a feeble attempt to tow the line, Sunny comes to the realization that she is who she is, and that’s not going to change.

Around the same time as Kohlhaase was finishing his screenplay, Konrad Wolf was fishing around for a new film project. Deputy Minister of Culture Klaus Höpcke had expressed a desire for more stories that reflected everyday life in the GDR. Höpcke was one of the people responsible for the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, a move that resulted in a substantial talent drain from the ranks of DEFA. Now, in typical GDR fashion, he wanted to show that this move had nothing to do with repression. As long as a story didn’t directly challenge the state, nothing, they claimed, was off limits. When Kohlaase came along with his story of the untameable Sunny, Wolf was not sure at first if he was the man to film it. The film would be a major departure from anything he had done before and he knew it. At first he balked, but during a car ride from Potsdam to Berlin, he figured out what to do. He could not rely on techniques he used in the past. The film had to be new and it had to be different.

While some members of his film crew remained the same as in previous films—most notably, Evelyn Carow, and Alfred Hirschmeier—other old favorites were jettisoned for new blood. The most startling of all was Wolf’s decision not to use Werner Bergmann, the man who had filmed every Konrad Wolf film up to that point. Instead he chose Eberhard Geick, a newcomer at DEFA, whose only work up to that point had been a TV show and some shorts. Wolf felt that Geick—who lived in the Prenzlauer district where much of Solo Sunny was filmed—would have a better feel for the neighborhood. In another first, Wolf shared the directing credit with Kohlhaase.

While Solo Sunny is enjoyable to those who don’t speak German, it’s real treasures belong to those who do. Sunny’s speech is littered with slang and Berlinerisch. Her famous statement upon getting out of bed the morning after a romp with a stranger, “Is’ ohne Frühstück.” can be translated with some accuracy to: “I don’t do breakfast,” but her closing statement defies easy translation: “Ich würde es gern machen. Ich schlafe mit jemandem, wenn es mir Spaß macht. Ich nenne einen Eckenpinkler einen Eckenpinkler. Ich bin die, die bei den Tornados rausgeflogen ist. Ich heiße Sunny.”1 In fact, even on the U.S. DVD, the term Eckenpinkler (literally, “corner pisser”) ends up with two different translations (I went with “pig” in the footnote below, although I find it less than satisfactory).

The irrepressible Sunny was played by Renate Krößner. Krößner had been appearing in films since the mid-sixties, but it was her performance in Hener Carow’s Until Death Do Us Part (Bis daß der Tod euch scheidet) in 1979 that caught Konrad Wolf’s attention. Krößner’s unusual and expressive face was the draw for Wolf, even though Krößner had no training as a singer. Having lived in Berlin for many years, the dialect was no problem for her. In 1985, Krößner was allowed to leave East Germany with her longtime partner, Bernd Stegemann, whom she finally married in 2005. Since leaving the GDR, she has appeared in dozens of movies and television shows. She is best known in the states for playing the club owner in Daniel Levy’s Go for Zucker (Alles auf Zucker!)

One area where Konrad Wolf never showed much loyalty was in the music department. Unlike many western directors who tie themselves to specific composers (e.g., Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone), Wolf changed his composer with every film (I suspect that this is the main reason fans of the auteur theory have so much trouble pigeonholing his films). This time, the music was provided by Günther Fischer. Fischer got his start in feature films with the Gojko Mitic western Tecumseh, but it was his work on his next film, Eolomea, that really caught people’s attention. While other DEFA composers—most notably Karl-Ernst Sasse—came from the world of classical music, Fischer hailed from the jazz world. In the mid-sixties, he played saxophone and flute with the Klaus Lenz Band, forming his own band in 1968. Fischer was a prolific composer, who wrote the scores for no fewer than ten movies in 1978. Since the fall of the wall, most of his work has been in television. He currently lives in Ireland, and still performs with his band.

Nowhere in the film is Kohlhaase’s inspiration, Sanije Torka, mentioned. In the west, this would have been cause for a lawsuit, but in the east it was for Torka’s own safety. East German society was not noted for its hearty acceptance of non-conformists (unless, like the American singer, Dean Reed, they moved from right to left), and drawing attention to a born troublemaker like Torka in the GDR would have done her no favors. She might have been forgotten altogether if not for filmmaker Alexandra Czok, whose film, Solo für Sanije – Die wahre Geschichte der Solo Sunny (Solo for Sanije – The True Story of Solo Sunny), brings her story to light. The film portrays her as headstrong and individualistic as ever. At the time of filming, Torka was about start a two-year sentence for shoplifting. It is through her reminiscences in this film that we learn the full extent of Torka’s influence on the making of Solo Sunny.

The message of Solo Sunny seems to be that it is more important to stay true to yourself than the system—a message that seems to be in direct conflict with the perceived East German stance. This fact didn’t elude all the officials, but it did get past the important ones. By the time that the authorities decided that the film might actually be subversive, it was too late. It had made it to the west and was entered in the Berlinale, West Germany’s prestigious film festival. There it won the International Film Critics’ Award for best picture, and garnered a best actress honor for Renate Krößner. That same year, it won the Gold Plaque at the Chicago Film Festival. After that, there was nothing to do but let the film play. It went on to become one of the top-grossing films in East Germany; the country’s biggest box office hit since The Legend of Paul and Paula.

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1. Roughly: “I do what I want. I sleep with someone if I feel like it. I call a pig a pig. I’m the one The Tornados fired. I’m called Sunny.”

I don’t normally like to write about films that are not available here in the United States. It seems a little unfair. What good is talking about a film that no one can see? On the other hand, it is rather egocentric of me to assume that something that we can’t get here in the U.S. can’t be seen elsewhere in the world. Similarly, Incredibly Strange Films taught me that writing about a film can help bring it to the public’s attention and eventually into wider distribution (a case in point: Curse of Her Flesh, which, at the time ISF was written, was thought by many to be lost but is now available from Something Weird Video).

It is with this latter point in mind that I bring you The Baldheaded Gang (Die Glatzkopfbande). East Germany’s only biker film, and a possible precursor to the skinhead movement (note to distributors: translating the title as The Skinhead Gang might make better marketing sense). Made in 1963—a full three years before Roger Corman kickstarted the biker genre with The Wild Angels—the film follows the story of a gang of bikers who cause trouble at a vacation spot on the Baltic Sea. In this respect, it resembles Laslo Benedek’s classic The Wild One. Like The Wild One, it is based on an actual event; and also like The Wild One, the true story is far different than the one portrayed on screen.

The film was made shortly after the wall went up and was intended to demonstrate how the wall would protect the citizens of East Germany from West German carpetbaggers. This was a common theme in DEFA films at that time. The villain in the movie is a man called “King,” an ex-foreign legionnaire who hails from West Berlin (of course). King leads a motorcycle gang whose shoddy work at a construction site was responsible for the deaths of two people. A police lieutenant named Lothar Czernik is called onto the case. Czernik is an odd bird. He seems to have a strange three-way relationship with his pretty next door neighbor, Marianne, and his dog: an enormous German Shepherd that often steals the show. The dog hangs around with the woman during the day, and then returns home to Czernik for dinner. Rather than simply cross the yard to visit her, Czernik likes to call Marianne on the phone and stare at her through the window. He also likes to let the dog bark at her over the phone. This is one of those movie relationships that aims for cute but achieves disturbing instead.

The Baldheaded Gang gets off to a rollicking start with Helmut Nier’s percussive jazz score over artfully jagged titles, followed by a gang of motorcyclists tearing down a country road. Contrary to many descriptions of this film, the gang members are not riding mopeds, but their little bikes aren’t exactly Harleys either. At the beginning of the film, the gang members are hirsute, but later shave their heads in imitation of King’s personal hero, Yul Brynner.

At the seaside resort of Bansin on Usedom, an island in the Baltic Sea, the gang proceeds to piss off everyone in sight, kicking over children’s sand castles, interfering with various games, and generally acting like your standard biker bad boys. During an evening affair at the local rec hall, the gang’s behavior leads to a fracas that quickly gets out of hand. Later that evening, after assaulting two vacationers who have been dogging them since the beginning of the movie, the gang learns what happened at the construction site and tries to get out of the country, only to find the way blocked thanks to the valiant efforts of the GDR to protect their borders.

The film was a hit when it was released, and went on to become one of the most popular films in DEFA’s history. To the dismay of the authorities, some teens seemed to miss the cautionary point of the tale and identified with the troublemakers. As a result, the film was eventually pulled from theaters in spite of its popularity. Whether or not any young rebels were inspired by the film to shave their heads and act up is not documented, but could it be that this minor spate of GDR rebelliousness trickled through the underground, surfacing in England in the late sixties as the skinhead movement? It certainly seems plausible.

Although you can make a strong case for this film being the precursor to the entire biker genre, in style it is closer to the juvenile delinquent films of the fifties. For one thing, it is black-and-white with a bebop jazz score. It would take Roger Corman with Dave Allen and the Arrows to add electric guitars to the sounds of motorcycles. For another, the perspective is that of the authorities. Very little is done to build sympathy for the gang members. Only the spineless Piepel arouses any sympathy for he has paid the highest price of all.

As the evil “King,” Thomas Weisgerber is effectively menacing. Particularly interesting is Rolf Römer, playing Johle—one of the odder, more aggressive members of the gang. With hair, Rolf Römer resembles Cash Flagg (Ray Dennis Steckler) of Incredibly Strange Creatures fame, but without hair he looks like Michael Berryman in The Hills Have Eyes. Also worthy of note is Irene Fischer, who plays the peroxide blonde, Jackie to slatternly perfection. She would be right at home in any juvenile delinquent film from the United States.

Although the movie is based on an actual event, the true story is far different from the one portrayed on the screen. In reality, the event took place a few days before the wall was built. Seven young men were arrested for playing rock’n’roll, which was seen by the authorities as a threat to civilization (the word Unkultur gets bandied about here, but it doesn’t translate well). Five of the young men had shaved heads, but they did not know each other. After their arrest, the people at the Bansin campground marched to the police headquarters. Some were there to protest the arrest of the men, but most were there to complain about the lack of amenities. The authorities over-reacted (as authorities often do) and the men were charged with an attempted putsch—a word laden with sinister overtones thanks to Adolph Hitler. The fact that five of the men had shaved heads attracted the media’s attention and they become known as die Glatzkopfbande. The court was hard on them, sentencing them to 27 years altogether, with eight years for the main defendant. After being released from prison, some of the men did exactly what their characters in the film were trying to do: they went west.

In 1965, Richard Groschopp followed up the film with Entlassen auf Bewährung (Released on Probation), which continues with the story of Conny Schenk, a peripheral character in The Baldheaded Gang, who initially abets the gang but then later helps the police run them in. In 2001, the 45-minute documentary film about the actual incident—»Revolte« am Ostseestrand (“Revolt” at a Baltic Sea Beach) by Jürgen Ast and Inge Bennewitz—was shown on German television. In 2004, Vorpommern Theater produced Glatzkopfbande. Erinnerung an Rock ’n’ Roll (The Baldheaded Gang, a Memento of Rock’n’Roll), a theater piece based on the story.

By the time DEFA was founded, Richard Groschopp had already made a name for himself filming documentaries and training films for the Third Reich. As a cameraman, he worked with Leni Riefenstahl on her classic, Olympia. After the war, he started with DEFA by making short films. During the fifties he helped create the “Das Stacheltier” group, which specialized in producing short, humorous films that were shown along with newsreels before the main features at cinemas. Groschopp began directing feature films in the late fifties and had a big hit with the romantic comedy, Die Liebe und der Co-Pilot (Love and the Co-Pilot). But his biggest hit came in 1967 with the Indianer classic, Chingachgook, the Great Snake. This would be his last feature film. After a few TV movies, Groschopp retired in 1971 at the age of 65. He died in 1996.

Whether there are any plans to release this film in the United States, I do not know, but I certainly hope so. This film has been missing from the biker film narrative for too long.

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