Posts Tagged ‘June 17th’

Das Land hinter dem Regenbogen
After the Wall came down and West Germany, for all intents and purposes, took over East Germany, there came the inevitable retrospection. What the hell happened? How did we get from there to here? There were plenty of people who still believed in socialism, and thought it could lead to a better world than unbridled capitalism, but nobody was listening in 1991. East German industries were dismantled for salvage and sold to the highest bidders. The Treuhandanstalt was set up to facilitate the privatization with disastrous results. Over half the workforce in East Germany was laid off, plunging the entire eastern half of Germany into poverty without the safety net previously provided by the State. Anger and resentment took hold. Right-wing extremist groups started arriving from Bavaria and the USA to recruit new members from the youths in cities such as Jena and Cottbus. Unfortunately, for these kids, East German schools didn’t spend that much time on the holocaust; preferring to cast the Nazis as primarily anti-communist. This left them particularly susceptible to the simplistic solutions offered by these extrememist groups. By the time the Treuhandanstalt ceased its operations in 1994, the trust agency was $160 billion in debt, and the fascist right had established deep and tenacious roots in former GDR territories.

Maybe the only way to process what happened was with absurdist comedy. If that’s the case, then director Herwig Kipping’s The Land Beyond the Rainbow (Das Land hinter dem Regenbogen) may be the best examination of what went wrong in East Germany. The story takes place in an imaginary town called Stalina. The year is 1953, and Stalin had died a few months earlier, but that doesn’t keep the hardcore Stalinists in the town from revering him. Much of the film, in fact, deals with the issue of what happens when you treat an ideology as a religion, which is what Stalin did, and was what the leaders of the SED did, treating their decisions as proclamations from on high.

As a result, the people in the town have gone slightly mad, trying to be good socialists while butting heads with the various officials who come to town and cause trouble for them. The town’s SED headquarters is an outhouse with a picture of Walter Ulbricht tacked to the wall. The film is narrated by Marie (Stefanie Janke), a local girl, who observes the madness around her and manages to rise above it. The story unfolds across the events of June 17th, 1953, when Soviet troops came into East Germany to help quell the protests that occurred after the government announced pay cuts for workers who couldn’t meet the increasingly impossible quotas (for more on this, see Castles and Cottages)

The Land Beyond the Rainbow

Besides Marie, the town’s residents include Rainbowmaker (Sebastian Reznicek), a young man who searches for the good in things; Hans (Thomas Ewert), a particularly rotten kid who likes death and destruction; Franz-Werner, (Winfried Glatzeder), Rainbowmaker’s father, who, after breaking his arm at the beginning of the film, spends the entire film with his arm in a cast that is propped up in the position of a Nazi salute; Heinrich (Axel Werner), the local dirty old man who can’t keep his pants zipped; and Opa (Franciszek Pieczka), who worships Stalin, and is willing to be crucified in his name. Add to this, local nymphomaniac Liesbeth (Franziska Arnold), an undersized SED official (Fred Delmare, not surprisingly), a pale white wraith, a boa constrictor, and various locals who come in and out of the story.

The Land Beyond the Rainbow belongs to an unusual and essentially undocumented micro-genre of films that take place in stark, burned-out landscapes with people talking at each other more than with each other. These are often surreal allegories about the absurdity of modern life, even when the action take place in a distant past or the far future. They are episodic, and their humor is dark and sardonic. We could call this Cinema of the Absurd, since these films most resemble this form’s theatrical counterpart. Examples of this type of movie would include Richard Lester’s The Bed Sitting Room, Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor, and Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! East German films with similar styles would include Egon Günther’s Ursula, and Jörg Foth’s Latest from the Da-Da-R.

The similarity between Jörg Foth’s film and The Land Beyond the Rainbow is not coincidental. Both films were made by the Da-Da-eR artistic production group (Künstlerischer Arbeitsgruppe), a group that only just managed to get itself established during the final days of the East German republic before the whole thing came crashing down.

The Land Beyond the Rainbow

Born in 1948, Herwig Kipping was part of the Nachwuchsgeneration—a whole raft of talented young people who were only just getting started as directors when the Wall came down. Partly due to the abundance of good directors already working at DEFA, and partly due to the inherently sclerotic nature of everything in the East Germany at that point, these filmmakers weren’t afforded many opportunities to show their talent until the mid-eighties. A few of them, such as Peter Kahane, Karola Hattop, and Peter Welz, continue directing (although, primarily in TV), while others, such as Evelyn Schmidt, Ulrich Weiß, and Kipping, found it much harder to get their projects off the ground, and stopped making films altogether. Kipping has the distinction of having directed the last film released by DEFA: Novalis: The Blue Flower (Novalis – Die blaue Blume), a biographical film about the poet/philosopher Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg.

Playing the father is Winfried Glatzeder in his last role in a DEFA film. Glatzeder had left the GDR in 1982, He had been fed up with the way things were in East Germany for quite some time, and wasn’t afraid to let people know. When he was finally allowed to leave, he was also expatriated, a dishonor the SED reserved for people that really irritated them. In 1991, he returned to DEFA for Jürgen Brauer’s Dancing at the Dump (Tanz auf der Kippe), effectively thumbing his nose at the former East German government. Glatzeder regularly appears in films, on television, and on stage to this day.

The Land Beyond the Rainbow

As it should be, there are several jokes and references intended for stricly East German audiences. When people in the town vote or not a person should be exiled or censured, everyone raises their hand, including the person being censured. It would be more farcical if it wasn’t based on reality. Old school communists put a lot of value in unanimity of opinion. Because of this, votes in the politburo rarely resulted in split decisions. The most famous example of this occurred on October 17, 1989, when the politburo voted to remove Erich Honecker as General Secretary. When the vote came, Honecker also raised his hand along with everybody else. The collective had spoken, so who was he to disagree? In another scene, we finally find out the name of Rainbowmaker’s mother, and it’s an amusing little in-joke on Glatzeder’s most famous movie.

The Land Beyond the Rainbow wasn’t a box office smash, but it wasn’t intended to be one either. This is a film for people with an understanding of history, and who like their humor sardonic. Fans of unusual and transgressive cinema will definitely want to check this film out. It was an official selection at the 1992 Berlinale, although it did not win.1 It did win the Deutscher Filmpreis that year, however. I consider it a “must-see.” Since I know a few of my readers are squeamish about scenes depicting animal death, I’ll warn you that there are couple scenes involving the skinning of a rabbit (dead) and the beheading of a chicken (which also looks like its already dead).

IMDB page for the film.

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1. There’s no shame in this. Several excellent films were up for nomination , including Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous, and Alison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging. The film that won Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, a film that has not stood the test of time.

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Castles and Cottage

Castles and Cottages (Schlösser und Katen) is three-and-a-half hour, two-part film that covers the events in a small Mecklenburg village from the end of WWII to the protests on June 17th in 1953. It could be considered an epic if the details of the story weren’t kept so localized and the scale so small. The first part begins at the moment the war ends and the villagers hear that the Russians are coming. After the rich landowners flee to the west, the locals wrestle with their ideological differences in an attempt to perfect a socialist model that will give everyone in town an equal voice. To its credit, the film does not sugarcoat the process and shows good and bad people on both sides of the argument, and the difficulties encountered during the transition.

The second part covers the months prior to the June 17th uprising. June 17th, 1953 stands as one of the most important dates in the history of East Germany; second only to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The country was a little over three-and-a-half years old in June of 1953, and the early promise of a utopian socialism was rapidly eroding in the face of human nature, crop failures, subversive activities, and Ulbricht’s slavish and ill-advised adherence to Stalin’s ruthless version of communism. When construction workers in East Berlin went on strike on June 16th to protest Ulbricht’s announcement that they must work twice as hard for half as much, the U.S.-founded West German radio station RIAS made the story their major news point, which helped inflame the situation across the GDR. Strikes and protests sprang up all over the country. In some places, the protests turned particularly nasty. In Rathenow, a Stasi official was hanged. Elsewhere, police stations, newspaper offices and radio stations were taken over by protesters. In his book, Wir waren die bessere Republik, Jürgen Fischer reports that in Magdeburg a policewoman was stripped almost naked and forced to lead the protesters’ train.

The situation was resolved with brute force when the Soviets arrived to remind everyone that they still held all the cards. Soviet and East German documents from that time now show us that the use of force was mostly Ulbricht’s idea, and the country would pay for this decision for the rest of its existence. It never fully recovered from the event, and it marked the end of the idea that workers had in power in East Germany. It also cemented the SED’s dependence on the Soviet Union for muscle; a dependence that would spell their downfall when Gorbachev cut those apron strings for good.

In spite of the failure of the strikes and protests, West German authorities treated the events of June 17th as an ideological victory. They would point to the use of force as proof that the only way the GDR could continue to exist was under bootheel of the Soviet Union. They would name a section of Unter den LindenStraße des 17. Juni” in honor of the day’s events and make the day a national holiday, calling it the “Day of German Unity” (now celebrated, more honestly, on October 3rd).

As one might imagine, the East German authorities saw the events of the day in a very different light, and it is in this light that Castles and Cottages is cast. From their perspective, the uprising was an attempt by outside forces to destroy the government; the crop failures were the result of intentionally poisoned grain shipments and sabotage, and the protests were led by agents provocateurs. The film also suggests that the events of the day helped weed out the intentionally subversive elements in East German society, leading to a more unified country.

The pivotal character in the film is Annagret, an idealistic young woman who is unaware that she is the daughter of the local aristocrat Graf von Holzendorf. A hunchbacked handyman called “Crooked Anton” (Krummer Anton) has pretended to be Annagret’s father for the sake of von Holzendorf’s reputation. Much of the film’s plot centers around a paper that proves Annagret’s birthright, and the value of the paper to different factions. The main villain of the piece is Bröker, von Holzendorf’s duplicitous overseer. Bröker pretends to side with the villagers, but is always looking out for his own interests. While the Von Holzendorf family may represent the plutocracy, Bröker represents the forces of destruction bent on tearing down the socialist system.

The film’s director, Kurt Maetzig, is no stranger to this blog. He had already made Marriage in the Shadows, Council of the Gods, and the Ernst Thälmann films when he took on this project. He was easily the most respected filmmaker in East Germany in 1957, which probably explains why he was able to give this film a more evenhanded approach than the Ernst Thälmann films. Maetzig’s allegiance is firmly in the socialist camp, but he does a good job here of fleshing out the viewpoints of the anti-socialist camp. Even those who are in favor of socialism are able to recognize the problems that they face. “Under capitalism I had no land. Under socialism, I have no time,” one character says.

The initial screenplay was by Kurt Barthel, an East German writer and playwright who often worked under the pseudonym, “KuBa.” Barthel was fighting for socialist causes from an early age. Before the war, he wrote for Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the communist newspaper founded by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. After the Nazis came to power, he fled to England where he joined the nascent Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth), a group that would take on an important role in the German Democratic Republic. He worked with Krista Wolf on the screenplays for Divided Heaven and Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly), which was banned while still in production as a result of the 11th Plenum.

From 1956 until his death, Barthel was the chief dramaturge at the Rostock People’s Theatre. As a lifelong supporter of communist causes, it is ironic that he died of a heart attack in Frankfurt, West Germany’s center of capitalism, during a touring performance of a revolutionary revue when the local SDS members rioted because they didn’t find revolutionary enough. He is buried in Rostock.

Playing the complicated character of Crooked Anton is the intense-looking Raimund Schelcher. Schelcher was born in 1910 in Dar es Salaam to German parents. He started his acting career on stage during the Weimar years and gained a name for himself as a talented stage performer. In 1938, he made his film debut in Veit Harlan’s The Immortal Heart (Das unsterbliche Herz), he made one more film before he was arrested for his outspoken views on National Socialism. From jail, he was conscripted into one of the Nazi’s infamous Bewährungsbataillonen (Parole Battalions) that were created when the German started losing too many men to the Eastern Front. Schelcher was captured by the Russians and spent the rest of the war in prison. Afterward, he moved to Bremen, where he returned to stage acting. In 1950, he moved to East Berlin to work at the renowned Deutsches Theater Berlin. From there, he started working for DEFA, appearing in several classic East German films, including, The Axe of Wandsbek, The Kaiser’s Lackey, and Berlin – Schönhauser Corner.

Schelcher was an excellent actor, but he had one small problem: he liked the bottle a little too much. Worried that this might affect his ability to perform in the film, Maetzig took the unusual step of filming his scenes twice. First with Schelcher, and then with his understudy, Hans Hardt-Hardtloff. Schelcher managed to make it through the film, and it is his version that was released. The incident was used to comic effect by Andreas Dressen in his movie, Whisky with Vodka (Whisky mit Wodka). As he got older, the drinking became more of a problem and Schelcher’s appearances in films got fewer and further between. He died in Berlin in 1972.

Playing the young and idealistic Annagret is the lovely Karla Runkehl. She first caught people’s attention playing the committed freedom fighter Änne Harms in the Ernst Thälmann films. Over the years, she appeared in over thirty films as well as several television shows, but it is her early appearances in films such as this one and the Thälmann films for which she is best remembered. Ms. Runkehl died in 1986 at the age of 56 and is buried in Kleinmachnow cemetery.

The villainous Bröker is played by Erwin Geschonneck, who, like Maetzig is regular in the pages of this blog. Over his long career in East Germany, Geschonneck proved he could play virtually any type of role, from the lovable nebbish in Carbide and Sorrel to the brave battalion leader in Five Cartridges. In Castles and Cottages, Geschonneck plays one of his least sympathetic characters. Even in The Axe of Wandsbeck, his portrayal of the avaricious butcher Albert Teetjen is not with pathos. But here his character is without almost any redeeming qualities. He represents the subversive element that was left in the Soviet sector after the war, constantly undermining the efforts to create a sustainable socialist democracy. [Note: for more on Erwin Geschonneck, see Carbide and Sorrel.]

The film score was composed by Wilhelm Neef. Like that other popular film composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse, Neef was a classically trained musician and it shows. The score is classical and beautiful. As an orchestral piece, it could stand on its own in any concert hall in the world and deserves more attention from the music community. Neef wrote dozens of films scores and is best known for his work on the Indianerfilme. During the seventies, he stopped writing film scores so that he could concentrate on his classical music career. He died in 1990 at the age of 74 in Potsdam.

Castles and Cottages is a unique film. It is usually shown in two parts with separate viewings. Each part tells a complete enough story to stand on its own. Its East German perspective on the June 17th uprising is reason enough for anyone interested in German history to give this film a look.

IMDB page for this film

Buy this film.