Posts Tagged ‘Karin Gregorek’

Miraculi
Throughout its existence, the DEFA studio in East Germany released films that pushed the boundaries. Some of these, such as Divided Heaven, Farewell, In the Dust of the Stars, and The Airship would make it onto movie screens. A few were shelved, but it was was usually for political reasons rather than the film’s style. It would take the fall of the Wall for stylistic exploration to really open up at DEFA. Freed from the topical restraints imposed by the SED, East German directors briefly found themselves able to make the films they had always wanted to make. From 1990 until the film production company shuttered its doors, directors at DEFA had a freedom to stretch the boundaries of filmmaking in ways that they’d never had before and wouldn’t have again once the profit-before-art philosophy took over. These films didn’t follow the rules and weren’t afraid to challenge the viewer. We saw something similar in the West during the late sixties when Hollywood was no longer sure what would work at the box office and started letting directors push the boundaries; sometimes successfully (The Swimmer, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Bonnie and Clyde), and sometimes, er, interestingly (Skidoo, Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?).

One of the last films to come out of DEFA was Miraculi, but by that time the studio was foundering, and would only release a few more films before closing its doors. Like Latest from the Da-Da-R, and The Land Beyond the Rainbow, Miraculi is an amusing experimental film that shifts through time and space as it follows the misadventures of Sebastian Müller, who starts the film as part of a gang of kids, hanging around in the local pub and goes through some wacky changes, including a stint as a Jesus lookalike, in disguise to catch streetcar fare evaders. The story climaxes on the banks of a lake that has disappeared overnight, leaving a group of jaded party-goers wondering what happened.

The part about the lake is true. As the intertitle at the beginning of the film explains, on June 15, 1978, the Schwarzer See (Black Lake) near Sagsdorf, Germany vanished during the night. Locals reported hearing a rumbling sound, and the next morning the lake was gone. Years later, they figured out that a backhoe piling up gravel on one side of the lake caused the lake’s disappearance. The gravel pile created a displacement of the shaky clay layers under the lake, which then pushed the water in the lake into a nearby swamp, swallowing up the backhoe and beaching a boat. Eventually the lake returned, larger and shallower than before. Now trees eerily rise from under the water, and a road dips into the water, reappearing on the opposite bank.

MIraculi

There’s a natural tendency to compare East German films to well-known films from the West. Such comparisons are, by their nature, facile and inapt, but they do provide a way to quickly categorize films to either entice or repulse potential viewers. Thus we get In the Dust of the Stars compared to Barbarella, and Hot Summer compared to Beach Party. If one were to compare Miraculi to anything, it would have to be Last Year in Marienbad, with its band of decadent party-goers wandering around, talking without listening, all acting as if they are in a dream. As to this last aspect, Miraculi is less circumspect than Last Year in Marienbad.

Miraculi is directed by Ulrich Weiß, who started his career as an industrial photographer. After getting hired as an assistant cameraman for German television in 1964, Weiß went to the Film and Television Academy in Potsdam (Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen Potsdam, now the Filmuniversität Babelsberg). He began making short documentaries, but by the seventies he was making feature films. He scored his first big hit with Blue Bird (Blauvogel), the story of a white boy who is raised by the Indians and then returned to his family seven years later, but it was his film Your Unknown Brother that made the biggest splash. SED authorities weren’t crazy about this film. Ostensibly, it was a film about the Nazis, but with its tale of informants and personal betrayals, the story hit a little too close to home. As the Pogo cartoon strip once said: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The authorities weren’t keen on his next film—Ole Henry (Olle Henry)—either. Although there was nothing in it that specifically attacked either socialism or the East German government, the authorities couldn’t help but feel threatened by this tale of a barmaid and a boxer struggling to get by in post-WWII Germany. Without any formal acknowledgement of it, Weiß was blacklisted by DEFA. Weiß had wanted to make Miraculi before the Wall came down, but like all of his ideas after Ole Henry, the proposal was rejected. With the fall of the Wall, Weiß saw an opportunity to finally make the film and he ran with it. Unfortunately for Weiß, the same thing that gave him the opportunity to make this film also put an end to his career as a feature film director. He made a few short documentaries after the Wende, and taught at the Film and Television Academy in Potsdam, but his directing career was effectively over.

The film’s main character Sebastian Müller is played by Volker Ranisch. Ranisch was born in 1966 in Karl-Mark-Stadt (now Chemnitz). He studied at the Theater Academy in Leipzig and joined a local theater shortly thereafter. His film career began right before the Wall came down, when he played the young policeman Julian in Frank Beyer’s The Break. He appeared on several of the final films put out by DEFA, and started working on formerly West German TV shows such as Tatort and The Old Fox. He continues to work in films and television.

Miraculi

The cast for Miraculi features some of East Germany’s best character actors, including Barbara Dittus, Arno Wyzniewski, and Karin Gregorek. Stefanie Stappenbeck also appears in a small role as a surveyor at the end of the film. Stappenbeck got her start on East German television, but would go on to a highly successful career in German films after the Wende. Also appearing in the film, albeit briefly, is Käthe Reichel. Reichel was best known for her work with Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel at their Berliner Ensemble. She continued to work in theater throughout her life, and became an outspoken critic against the misuses of power that plagued the SED during its later years in control of East Germany. She was one of the organizers of the demonstration for freedom and democracy on November 4, 1989 at Alexanderplatz.

Weiß had finished Miraculi in 1990, but it would be two years before the film found a distributor. Like most of the post-Wende films that came out of DEFA, the public reacted to the film with indifference. Miraculi played for five days before closing. It would be years before this film would receive the attention it deserved. Even today, the film is not nearly as well known as it should be. If your taste in movies runs toward the surreal, odd, and amusing, you’ll want to see this film.

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© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Jana und Jan
With the notable exception of horror movies, the East German film industry (that is to say, DEFA) made films of nearly every genre from westerns to science fiction; from thrillers to romantic comedies. If it were a Hollywood film, Jana and Jan (Jana und Jan) would be categorized as a women-in-prison film, but without the usual salaciousness and exploitation attached to that genre. It has the usual tropes for these films: the prison social hierarchy, girl fights, and shower scenes, but nothing is Jana and Jan is played for leers or laughs. It is a grim and gray film, with cinematography to match.

The film starts in 1989, when 15-year-old Jan (René Guß) is brought to a juvenile detention center after getting caught trying to flee to West Germany. There he meets Jana (Kristin Scheffer), a tough 17-year-old who sleeps with Jan on a dare. Jana gets pregnant, and then decides at the last minute to have the child. During their incarceration, the Wall opens, and the teens at the detention center are optimistic that this will improve things for them. Jana’s emotionally fragile prisonmate Julia (Julia Brendler) dreams of being reunited with the mother in the West. Jan and Jana decide to strike out on their own in search of a better place to live, but the future for them doesn’t look any better now than it did before the Wall came down.

jana and jan

Director Helmut Dziuba had started working on the script for this film before the Wall came down, but the events at the time led him to rewrite the story to include the Wende, making the narrative even bleaker. He seems to be saying here that when the Wall was up, at least there was a promise of a better life on the other side of the border, but now there is nothing to look forward to except bleakness and death. Not exactly feel-good material.

It is questionable that the script would have seen the light of day before the Wall fell. Even in the final days of the foundering republic, discussion of the topic of trying to cross the border was a touchy one. The Flight managed to get away with it because it showed the fatal futility of trying to do so, and the evil avariciousness of the gangs that arrange these escape efforts.1

Director Helmut Dziuba hails from Dresden and got started as a high-voltage electrician before moving to Moscow to study film at the Moscow Film Academy (VGIK). He worked in radio and television in Moscow before returning to East Germany and joining DEFA. He served as an assistant director to Frank Beyer and Günter Reisch before taking on his own film productions. Like Herrmann Zschoche, Dziuba is known for his clear-eyed films about young people, but while Zschoche continued his career in television, Jana and Jan was Dziuba’s last film as a director. He did continue to write, and his script for Bernd Sahling’s Die Blindgänger (The Blind Flyers) won several awards around the world. Dziuba died in 2012.

selbsmord

It was also the last film for cinematographer Helmut Bergmann. Bergmann’s older brother was Werner Bergmann, who helped Helmut get his first job as a cameraman at DEFA back in the fifties. Helmut didn’t disappoint. Unlike some cinematographers who have a specific style, Bergmann could make the look fit the subject matter, whether it was the vivid colors of Love’s Confusion, or the drabness of Jana and Jan. In Bergmann’s case, the end of career had less to do with the fall of the Wall than it did with his age. He was already 66 when Jana and Jan came out. He died in 1998 in Potsdam. Bergmann was married to Bärbl Bergmann, DEFA’s first female director.

Also like Herrmann Zschoche (see Seven Freckles), Helmut Dziuba liked to use untested young people in lead roles. Kristin Scheffer and René Guß were both new to acting, and they never made another film. Jana and Jan wasn’t the first film for Julia Brendler, though, or even her first Helmut Dziuba film. She had starred in his previous film Forbidden Love, in which Brendler plays a 13-year-old girl who is in love with an 18-year-old boy. Brendler is a strong screen presence, and the only thing wrong with that is that it threatens to pull attention away from the main characters. Unlike the two leads in the film, Brendler has gone on to have a highly successful career in films and television in unified Germany. Nor was Jana and Jan the first film for Karin Gregorek, who plays one of the prison administrators. Gregorek started in films in 1963, and continued acting after the Wende, primarily in television. With her unique looks and acting talent, I have no doubt she would have been part of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s troupe of regulars had she been born in the West.

Jana and Jan went on to win the Special Youth Award at the San Remo Film Festival, with Dziuba winning the Bavarian Film Award for Best Director in 1993. It’s an excellent film, but it’s gray-green color palette and unrelenting pessimism make it a difficult film to watch, and not one that will be everybody’s—or even most people’s—taste.

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1. I should point out here that no East German official would ever categorize the attempts to leave East Germany as “escaping.” Escape attempts were characterized as desertions and border violations, and the people who helped others escape were “human traffickers” (Menschenhändleren).

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Die Beteiligten
The Persons Involved (Die Beteiligten) came out in June, 1989, and was the last Kriminalfilm DEFA released prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is based on an actual crime that occurred back in the early sixties. The film follows the story of two police inspectors investigating the drowning death of a young woman who apparently strayed too close to the water while picking pussy willows. She was with her boss Willi Stegmeier and his personal secretary Anna Sell at the time, but the older inspector is a well-respected member of the community, and is loathe to even consider that a crime has been committed. He chalks the woman’s death up to suicide, the younger inspector is new to the town and has none of the history that appears to be affecting the older policeman’s conclusion. He begins to investigate, disrupting the status quo in the community and endangering his relationships with comrades and friends.

The film was directed by Horst E. Brandt. Before becoming a director, Brandt was a respected cinematographer, and you can see his work in Black Velvet, A Lively Christmas Eve, the second Ernst Thälmann film, and several Das Stacheltier short films. Brandt had intended for The Persons Involved to be his directorial debut, but coming as it did after the 11th Plenum, the idea of a movie about a corrupt local official was beyond consideration. They banned Hands Up or I’ll Shoot! for less. The treatment was shelved and forgotten about.

Brandt turned to politically safer fare, but he still seemed to favor crime stories. His first film, Irrlicht und Feuer (Wisp and Fire) was a TV movie starring Günther Simon, based on the book by West German writer Max von der Grün. It was co-directed by Heinz Thiel, with whom Brandt shared directing duties on his first few films. He spent the early seventies working on television shows before returning to the big screen with Between Day and Night (Zwischen Nacht und Tag), a film about the communist writer and president of the National Committee for a Free Germany, Erich Weinert.

The Persons Involved

At first glance, The Persons Involved is a contradiction in terms. It is a thriller without any thrills. It is a realistic police procedural where the crime is solved after the detective interviews several people and researches old files. No one is chased along a dark pier at night, no guns are fired, or even drawn for that matter. There is a murder and a suicide, but we see neither as it happens. Only the aftermaths are recorded. It excels at portraying the mundanity of ordinary police life, which is not likely to endear to fans of the crime genre. It fights relentlessly against every convention of a good policier. It is an anti-Krimi.

The two detectives are player by Manfred Gorr and Gunter Schoß. Both men had very successful careers in East Germany and both men continued to work primarily on stage and television, after the Wende. Schoß has become a recognized voice in Germany thanks to his work as a narrator of documentaries, radio plays and audio books. Besides his television work, Gorr often works as an actor and director at various theater venues throughout Germany

It is interesting to compare Gunter Schoß’s role in this film with his role in the earlier film, A Foggy Night (Nebelnacht). In both films Schoß plays a detective partnered with another detective who does a better job of solving things than he does. In A Foggy Night, his failing is that he’s young and inexperienced. In The Persons Involved, his failing is that he’s older and set in his ways. The man can’t win for losing!

Karin KNappe

The Persons Involved marks the last feature film for Katrin Knappe, which is a shame, because Knappe is a talented performer, with one of the most interesting faces in cinema. She belongs in the same group with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tilda Swinton, and Giulietta Masina: They may not be classical beauties, but you can’t take your eyes off them when they’re on screen. She probably would have made a bigger splash with her first starring role, that of Boel in Rainer Simon’s Jadup and Boel, but the film was shelved for eight years, and then only released in limited distribution. Since the Wende, Knappe had appeared primarily in plays and current teaches speech and voice training in Berlin.

Special mention must be givin to Karin Gregorek, for her performance as Anna Sell, Stegmeier’s put-upon personal secretary. Gregorek is one of those actresses who rarely gets the attention she deserves, usually relegated to lesser roles in films. As with most DEFA actors, her background is in theater. Her first feature film was a small part in Slatan Dudow’s Christine, but when the film Dudow was killed in a car accident during filming, and the lead actress put into a coma, the film unfinished ended up on a shelf for eleven years. She is one of the more memorable faces in Murder Case Zernik, even though she appears uncredited. The Wende didn’t seem to have any effect on her career, and she continues working in films and television to this day. More recently, she’s become well-known as Sister Felicitas Meier, the frazzled head of a convent in the popular TV series, Um Himmels Willen (For Heaven’s Sake).

Karin Gregorek

Cinematographer Peter Badel does a great job of capturing the extraordinary drabness of police interiors in the GDR. Everything is as beige as a Band-Aid. Badel, who would later go on to specialize in documentaries, gives the film a realistic feel. If the weather is foggy, you feel the dampness, If a person is living a drab existence, you feel that as well. Here some credit must also be given to production designer Georg Wratsch and Art Director Siegfried Hausknecht. Everything in this film looks and feels grimly real.

The script for The Persons Involved stayed on a shelf until the final days of the GDR, when Brandt decided to try once again to get the film made. This time it was accepted. As it turned out, the film that he’d intended to be his first film as a director was his last. A few months later the Wall came down and Brandt, like many other East German film people, found getting work in reunified Germany nearly impossible. As far as the DEFA technicians were concerned it was less a reunification than a takeover. He turned to writing his autobiography Halbnah – Nah – Total (Close, Closer, All the Way), and compiling a reference book on East German cinematographers, Wir, die Bildermacher… (We, the image makers).

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