Posts Tagged ‘Jutta Hoffmann’

Karla

1966 was a rough year for film in East Germany. The 11th Plenum of the previous December pulled the rug out from under some of the most intelligent and creative film talent to come out of any country at any time. East German cinema was on the verge of matching the French New Wave in creativity while their colleagues in West Germany were still making schmaltzy Heimatfilme and Edgar Wallace Krimis.

Karla (unnecessarily retitled Carla for the U.S. release) was based on a news report about a teacher that screenwriter Ulrich Plenzdorf read. He contacted the teacher, and from there the story evolved. Karla is a young, idealistic teacher, fresh out of school in Berlin. Her first teaching assignment takes her to a small town near the Baltic Sea. She believes that one must be honest above all else, and she hopes to put this into practice in her classroom. As one might imagine, the real world has a lesson in store for her.

An idealistic teacher running up against the harsh realities of the world isn’t a new idea. We’ve seen it before and since, in everything from Blackboard Jungle to The Forest for the Trees (Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen). Karla of the title is closer to Eva Lobau’s starry-eyed fish-out-of-water in the latter film than Glenn Ford’s man on the cusp of a societal quantum shift in the first, but Karla has her finger on the pulse of the nation, which makes her dangerous to her superiors, Unfortunately it also made the film dangerous to Walter Ulbricht and his cronies. Before the movie ever saw the light of day, it was shelved and wouldn’t arrive in theaters until 1990.

The film starts with Karla’s graduation ceremony in Berlin and follows her exploits through her first year of teaching. As with other films of this sub-genre, there is the problem kid in class, although in Karla he is portrayed more sympathetically than usual for this type of story. He, like Karla, values truth and honesty above all else. True to its characters, the film confronts controversial subjects head on. When a student questions the honesty of East German television reports about the space race, Principal Alfred Hirte uses peer pressure to negate the students concerns. A tactic Karla finds reprehensible. But even Principal Hirte is portrayed sympathetically. He, too, is an idealist, but one who understands better than Karla and her charges how the world works.

Karla stars Jutta Hoffmann, one of East Germany’s most talented actors and a woman who had a remarkable knack for choosing controversial material. She appeared in or worked on five of the twelve films banned by the 11th Plenum (Karla, The Rabbit is MeJust Don’t Think I’ll Cry, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam, and The Trace of Stones), another film that was almost banned (Her Third), and an East German TV movie that managed to get itself banned in Switzerland (Ursula). In 1978, Ms. Hoffmann was one of the many DEFA stars and technicians that signed the petition protesting the expatriation of singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann. Everyone who signed the petition found it much harder to get work, and many of them eventually emigrated to the west, including Ms. Hoffmann, who moved to West Berlin in 1982. She continued to act in movies and television, and taught acting at the Hamburg School of Music and Theater from 1993 to 2006.

Acting as sort of Greek chorus, the film cuts from time to time to the conversations between the school district’s administrator and the principal, played by Inge Keller and Hans Hardt-Hardtloff respectively. Inge Keller was a popular actress who was described by Deutsches Theater director Thomas Langhoff as the “only vamp in the GDR.” During the early fifties, she was married to the infamous host of Der schwarze Kanal, Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler. Their daughter, Barbara Schnitzler, went on to become a successful actor in her own right (see All My Girls). After the Wende, she continued to work on stage and in film, and notably played the older Lilly Wust in Max Färberböck’s excellent film, Aimee & Jaguar. Hans Hardt-Hardtloff got his start in acting much earlier than Ms. Keller. He left home at the age of sixteen to join the theater. He studied acting at the Volkstheater Millowitsch in Cologne, and spent the Nazi years performing in plays outside of Germany. He appeared in several DEFA films and even more TV productions. A character actor, he appears in small roles in several classic East German films, including, Divided Heaven, The Rabbit is Me, Sons of the Great Bear, and The Legend of Paul and Paula. He died in 1974.

Karla’s author, Ulrich Plenzdorf, was one of the most well-respected and successful screenwriters in East Germany, but he was also its most controversial. The son of communists, Plenzdorf was a believer in the cause of the GDR, and thought that the building of the wall would help stem the economic problems intentionally provoked by the Bundesrepublik (see Look at This City!). Like folksinger Wolf Biermann, his strongly pro-communist views counted for little with the devolving SED leadership. After the 11th Plenum, Plenzdorf’s work was not welcome at DEFA again until 1969, when he rejoined Karla’s director, Herrmann Zschoche, to make Weite Straßen – stille Liebe (Wide Streets – Silent Love). In 1973, he co-wrote the screenplay with director Heiner Carow for The Legend of Paul and Paula as well as the lyrics to the hit songs from the film, “Geh zu ihr,” and “Wenn ein Mensch lebt.” When his screenplay titled The New Sorrows of Young W. (Die neuen Leiden des jungen W), was rejected by DEFA, he turned it into a novel and then into a play. The play was a huge hit on both sides of the Iron Curtain and was made into a movie in West Germany. A fact that did not endear him to the East German powers that be. Today, the book is recognized as a classic of modern German literature. After the Wende, Plenzdorf continued to write screenplays, and joined Jurek Becker (Jacob the Liar) to help write screenplays for the fourth season of the popular law series, Liebling Kreuzberg, which starred his friend Manfred Krug. He also wrote the screenplay for Abgehauen (Ran Off), which is based on Krug’s account of his final days in East Germany. Plenzdorf died in 2007 after a protracted illness.

Carla

Herrmann Zschoche is best known in the Eastern Bloc countries for directing the 1978 coming-of-age movie, Seven Freckles, and in the west for his languorous and kitschy science-fiction film, Eolomea. Zschoche got his start as a cameraman on the East German news program, Aktuelle Kamera. He studied filmmaking at the Babelsberg film school and worked as an assistant director on Frank Beyer’s classic, Königskinder (Star-Crossed Lovers). He made his directorial debut in 1961 with the kid’s film, Das Märchenschloß (The Fairytale Castle). Over the next few years, he would make more movies, but with the 11th Plenum’s ruling on Karla, he suddenly found himself effectively blacklisted and had to rebuild his career. It would be three years before he would get to make another movie, starting with Leben zu zweit in 1968. From there he proceeded more cautiously, but controversy still managed to find him. His 1977 film, Feuer unter Deck (Fire Below Deck), was prevented from being shown in theaters for no better reason than it starred Manfred Krug, who had decided to defect to the west right before the film was to be released. In 1983, he ran up against the authorities again with Insel der Schwäne (Island of the Swans), which was also scripted by Ulrich Plenzdorf. Zschoche was forced to cut several scenes, insert a scene where the protagonist talks about the advantages of the new apartment buildings, and—like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner from the previous year—replace the ambiguous open ending with a more positive one. After the Wende, Zschoche made one more DEFA film (Das Mädchen aus dem Fahrstuhl), but otherwise worked exclusively in television. He directed episodes of the popular West Germany TV shows, Drei Damen vom Grill, Tatort, and others. He retired from directing in 1997.

The film is scored by the ubiquitous Karl-Ernst Sasse. Here he gets to demonstrate his classical chops, taking his cues from Mozart with one of the loveliest themes from any East German film ever made. Some films are driven by their scores, while others use music as a form of punctuation. Karla falls firmly into the latter category. Music is used to segue between scenes and does not follow the characters around. Nonetheless, the theme has managed to show up on a few compilations of film themes although, shockingly, it is sometimes listed as “Serenade Für Klara” (sic).

The man who suffered the most at the hands of the 11th Plenum had to be cinematographer, Günter Ost. Ost was responsible for the innovative and striking cinematography on And Your Love Too, but even here he was stirring up controversy for his imaginative work. He first worked with Herrmann Zschoche on Engel im Fegefeuer (Angel in Purgatory). The two made a good team. Zschoche’s use of the wide-screen aspect ratio and Ost’s combinations and deep and shallow focus created some interesting scenes. When Karla is called into the principal’s office for a supposed indiscretion with a student, Karla is seated to the left in focus, with the school administrator slightly out of focus in the background and the back of the blurry nape of the principal’s neck in the foreground. In other scenes we see Karla lingering right at the edge of the frame. At the time this film was made, only Sergio Leone was making better use of the widescreen format (Leone, it must be said, would have managed to keep all three of these elements in focus, but he had the advantage of newer equipment).

Having been the cinematographer for some of the most visually imaginative films to come out of DEFA during the early sixties, Ost was an easy target for the people crying about the so-called “Rabbit films” (named after The Rabbit is Me, the shining example of the kind of films the folks at the 11th Plenum detested). Ost’s career at DEFA was over. Ost continued to work with film, but his name does not show up on anymore films from the East German film studio.

It was Ost who, after the film reels were recovered from DEFA’s archives, reconstructed the film. After its screening in 1990, Karla was given its proper place as one of the best films to come out of the DDR and demonstrated to everyone the real damage to the East German film industry caused by the 11th Plenum.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.

Advertisements

For all of the problems inherent in East Germany’s political system, one area where the east decidedly surpassed the west was in its attitude toward women in the workplace. While women in West Germany and America were still relegated—almost forcibly—to the home and kitchen, East Germany and the USSR were allowing women to work alongside men with very few questions. Yes, there were still many cultural issues that hadn’t been resolved (and still haven’t), communist philosophy made a strong case for sexual equality. [That said, it should be noted that the leaders in both countries were still white men right until the end.]

Her Third (Der Dritte), made in 1972, is a movie about one such working woman. With two daughters, Margit Fließer—perfectly played by Jutta Hoffmann—works as a computer technician in a large chemical company. In a series of flashbacks, we are taken through her life; from her impoverished, religion-oriented upbringing, through two marriages, to the wedding day of the third. Her first husband (although it is never made clear that she actually married him) is Bachmann, a school lecturer played by Peter Köhncke. Bachmann is the classic college cad, having an affair with his student and then breaking up with her when things got too serious. The second is a blind man, played by the always impressive Armin Mueller-Stahl. The blind man seems like a better choice than Bachmann, but he is an angry drunk that can go from violin-playing gentleness to name-calling paranoia within a few swigs. When his rage gets to be too much for her, Margit packs her bags and leaves him. The third and, presumably, final man in her life is Hrdlitschka, portrayed by Rolf Ludwig. Hrdlitschka seems like he may be the guy Margit’s been hoping for, and she undertakes a program of discovery to learn as much about him as possible before committing to a relationship. As a woman who worked hard to overcome her past, Margit does not want to be just another feminine cliché. Why, she wonders, does she have to follow the silly romantic protocols of her grandparents? Why can’t she pursue the man she wants and make the first moves?

Margit’s co-conspirator in the quest for Hrdlitschka’s heart is her best friend, Lucie. Lucie stands by her side as she pursues Hrdlitschka, and helps her realize the relationship. Lucie and Margit get along great, so it comes as no surprise when it is revealed that the real love story of the movie is between them. Although it is never explicitly stated, there are some indications that Margit fancies women. In a scene that takes place at a convent during her youth, we see that her relationship with another girl might go beyond the usual bounds. The movie never says this outright; everything is implied. Unlike most Hollywood directors, Günther assumes that his audience has a brain and can read between the lines. This subtlety is a common feature of East German films, due no doubt in part, to the often severe restrictions that filmmakers encountered whenever they tried to push the limits. Is the real third of the film then Lucie, and not Hrdlitschka? Will Margit find happiness married to Hrdlitschka? The audience is left to answer these questions for themselves.

When Her Third was released, East German officials almost banned it due to a short, mildly erotic scene in which Margit and Lucie kiss. Curiously, the kiss seemed to provoke less interest in the west than the fact that Margit was a single, working mother with two children, who held an important technical position in a chemical company. Western audiences found this far more outrageous than the idea that two women might kiss. The fact that Her Third did get released was, in no small part, due to the changes a year before in the GDR’s party leadership.

Walter Ulbricht, the General Secretary of the SED Central Committee, was the man in control of East Germany from 1950 to 1971. Originally a staunch supporter of Stalin, Ulbricht had sense enough to stay on good terms with Khrushchev when he took over in the USSR. Unfortunately for Ulbricht, the ousting of Khrushchev caught him flat-footed, Brezhnev did not get along with Ulbricht, preferring instead the more conservative Erich Honecker, who was at that time, the GDR’s Central Committee Secretary for Security Matters. Once Khrushchev was gone, it was only a matter of time before Ulbricht followed suit. On May 3rd, 1971 Ulbricht was forced to resign, and Honecker took over. Honecker was more of a hard-line, soviet-style communist than Ulbricht and herein lies one of the most interesting paradoxes of the GDR. although Honecker was considered more conservative than Ulbricht, the net result of his taking over the SED was a loosening of the restrictions on the film community. It may have been due to leaders thinking that a more publicly liberal stance on artistic expression would help counterbalance any claims of oppression from the west. Or it may have been Honecker’s way of demonstrating that he wasn’t Ulbricht, who was the man in charge when the 11th Plenum clamped down on the arts.

The chemistry between the two leading ladies in Her Third is strong. No surprise here. Jutta Hoffmann and Barbara Dittus were two of the best actresses to come out of East Germany. Hoffmann has had a rocky career. She was one of many people who had trouble finding work in movies following the film bans handed down by the SED after the 11th Plenum. It probably didn’t help that she worked on four of the twelve banned films. It was three years before she was able to work on movies again. Then, after supporting the exiled songster, Wolf Biermann, she found herself again having trouble getting work and eventually immigrated to the west in 1985, where her film credentials had little value. It wasn’t until the wall came down that she finally started finding work in the west. She has been active in films and television ever since. In contrast, her co-star Barbara Dittus, continued working in the east until the fall of the wall, and became extremely popular in the film and television industry of united Germany as well, starring in six productions in 1998 alone. Sadly, Ms. Dittus died in 2001 at the age of 61. As with many East German actors, both actresses also worked extensively in theater.

Director Egon Günther was one of the more daring directors in East Germany. His use of hand-held cameras in this film to create an immediate, cinéma vérité feel was fairly rare back in the early seventies (and all too common nowadays). Sometimes the camera takes on a life of its own, moving away from the center of the story to focus on something else, reflecting Margit’s own hyperactive mind. Small wonder, then, that he was one of the filmmakers that fell on the wrong side of the ruling SED party during the 11th Plenum with his film, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam. When he was allowed to make a film again, he came back with a bang, directing Farewell (Abschied), considered one of the best films to come out of East Germany.

Special mention should be given here to Karl-Ernst Sasse’s score, which ranges from a jazzy flute and xylophone melody  to dissonant percussion. Sasse created scores for over 500 movies and TV shows in the DDR. A former orchestra conductor as well as a composer, he was comfortable writing in a wide variety of styles, creating film scores for every genre from westerns to science fiction. After the wall came down, he also created some interesting scores for classic silent movies such as The Golem and Asphalt. Sasse retired in 1999 and died in 2006 not far from the Babelsberg studios that kept him so busy.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.