Posts Tagged ‘Karl May’

Set a Fire, the Fire Brigade Is Coming
What happens to a fire department when the town there in never has any fires? That’s the idea behind the TruTV’s new comedy Tacoma FD. But it isn’t the first time someone thought of this. It’s also the concept behind Set a Fire, the Fire Brigade Is Coming (Zünd an, es kommt die Feuerwehr), the 1979 East German comedy by Rainer Simon.

Set a Fire (which is what I’m going to call it for the rest of this article to save typing) takes place around 1900 in the town of Siebenthal in the foothills of the Ore Mountains along the Czech border. One of the firemen, a man named Zetsche (Kurt Böwe) also owns the local inn, which is danger of collapsing. The fountain that his wife (Gudrun Ritter) had installed in the courtyard is siphoning off water from under the structure, leaving it on shaky ground. A plan is hatched to burn down Zetsche’s inn, which would serve the dual purpose of eliminating the rickety building before it collapses and giving the fire department something to do. Of course, things never go to plan in stories like this. Most of the action centers around fireman Franz (Winfried Glatzeder). Franz is betrothed to the pretty but dull Marie (Katrin Martin), but he is in love with a local prostitute name Lene (Renate Krößner) and she loves him as well. Everything comes to a head after a local celebration to mark a visit to the town by the writer Karl May (Hannes Fischer).

Using firemen for comedy isn’t new Charlie Chaplin did it (The Fireman), so did the Little Rascals (Hook and Ladder), and the Three Stooges returned to the idea more than once (Flat Foot Stooges, False Alarms, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World); but Set a Fire is a long ways from the humor of these slapstick comedies. Its humor is closer to the British comedies of the fifties and sixties. It’s broad and a little bawdy.

Zund an

This could have been just another light comedy, but it was directed by Rainer Simon. Simon also wrote the script with some help from Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who helped polish the dialogue. Although it takes place at the turn of the last century, it does a good job of lampooning the idiocy of unscrupulous leaders and government cover-ups. Although no official complaints against the film were made, it is clear that the authorities saw subversion in it. A film about the shenanigans of public officials during Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign still had bite in 1979, and it probably didn’t help that the young lovers in the film resolve their difficulties by moving to America. Why else would they have bothered to set the honey trap they did with Simon’s next film, Jadup and Boel?

The original scenario was by Manfred Wolter, a successful writer in East Germany who also worked as a dramaturge and script doctor. Wolter co-wrote or polished the scripts for several DEFA films, including Fire Below Deck and Next Year at Lake Balaton, and served as the dramaturge for Simon’s Till Eulenspiegel. His last work for DEFA was in 1990, when he wrote the scenario for I Can Also Run Backwards (Rückwärtslaufen kann ich auch), a film about children with disabilities. Wolter’s own daughter was disabled and Wolter and his daughter appear briefly in the film. After the Wende, Wolter wrote and directed a couple documentaries (Von der Normandie in den Bundestag and Aktion Ungeziefer). He died in 1999 in Woltersdorf. Also worth noting is that Wolter is listed as appearing in the film as the Kunstpfeifer, which is just a fancy way of saying the guy can really whistle.

Renate Krößner had already appeared in several TV-movies and a few movies in smaller roles by the time she made this film, but this was the first film to really show what she could do. Although her signature role in Solo Sunny was still a two years away, it’s apparent here that she would be a star. She enlivens this movie up every time she appears on screen. Winfried Glatzeder was a known quantity by this point, having starred in Time of the Storks, The Legend of Paul and Paula, and Till Eulenspiegel. The film also features the reliable talents of Kurt Böwe and Gudrun Ritter, as well as the lovely Katrin Martin, who, only a few years earlier in The Man Who Replaced Grandma, played not Glatzeder’s love interest but a teenager under his care. Of the actors in this film, Renate Krößner has had the most active post-Wende career and is probably as well known today for her post-reunification movies (e.g., Go for Zucker, Vergiss dein Ende, and the TV-movie Küss mich, Genosse!) as she is for those made in the GDR (Solo Sunny, notwithstanding).


The cinematography is by Roland Dressel, which is to say, it’s very good. DEFA had some exceptionally talented cinematographers, including Günter Haubold, Werner Bergmann, Günter Marczinkowsky, and Erich Gusko. Dressel wasn’t afraid of experimenting with the image, which occasionally got him into trouble. His work on The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow was criticized for this reason. On Jadup and Boel, he took things even further, with its blurred-edged flashback sequences. It was this willingness to experiment that endeared him to Rainer Simon and why Simon continue to use him for the rest of his DEFA films. Since the Wende, Dressel has continued to work on various films and TV shows on a freelance basis.

Set a Fire receive mixed reviews. Renate Holland-Moritz of the satire magazine Eulenspiegel liked it, but Fred Gehler in the weekly magazine Sonntag found the film too episodic for its own good. It’s a fun little film, but is not currently available with English subtitles.1

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this movie.

1. As those of you who know me know, my interest in movies extends well past the East German films. Something I see occurring in other film fan communities is the phenomenon of fan-made subtitles. If you like Hong Kong action films or Italian gialli, you can find sites that offer subtitles to dozens of films that never received English language releases. Sadly, the same can’t be said for East German movies. Apparently, they lack the DNA needed to encourage that sort of fanboy overdrive (sex and violence, I suspect).

© 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.

Westerns in East Germany? At first glance, it seems like an absurd proposition, but, in fact, DEFA made twelve of these films during their forty years of existence. While it is easy to laugh at the idea of Germans and Yugoslavians pretending to be American Indians, is it any worse than what Hollywood had to offer with the likes of Sal Mineo, Ricardo Montalban, Jeff Chandler, and Victor Jory? In fact, Gojko Mitic, who starred in 12 of DEFA’s westerns, was so well liked by Native Americans that he was made an honorary chief by the Sioux—an honor not likely to be bestowed on any of the American actors who specialized in Westerns.

By the last half of the sixties, the appreciation of westerns was waning in the United States. During the 1950s, they had  been all the rage. Between 1950 and 1965, a staggering number of movies and television shows were produced, feeding the American public a constant stream of stories about the derring-do of the men of the old west. But the winds of change were upon us. The young people who had been spoon-fed shows such as Gunsmoke, Wanted Dead or Alive, Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, The Rifleman, and Rawhide were starting to learn the truth about America’s past, and it wasn’t pretty. What had once been seen as a tale of brave men and women fighting the elements and cut-throat savages to secure their place on earth was now recognized as a land grab by greedy white people at the expense of the Native Americans. While there had been films that were sympathetic to the American Indians (most notably, Cheyenne Autumn), they usually took the noble savage attitude and never question the free-for-all that was the colonization of the American West.

Around the same time, the Italians had discovered that they could make westerns that could compete favorably with anything Hollywood had to offer. Very few of these films were playing in the States (although it was filmed in 1964, A Fistful of Dollars wouldn’t reach the American cinemas until 1967, when it was shown with its sequel, For a Few Dollars More), but they were extremely popular throughout the rest of the world.

East Germany’s fist attempt at a western was The Sons of the Great Bear (Die Söhne der großen Bärin), a co-production with Yugoslavia’s Bosna Films. To play the lead, the Yugoslavian actor, Gojko Mitic, was chosen. Mitic had already made a name for himself as an actor/stuntman in several West German/Yugoslavian/Italian co-productions of films based on the novels of Karl May. May had never actually been to the American West, but that didn’t stop him from becoming the most popular writer of western fiction in Germany.

The people at DEFA had no interest in filming the stories of Karl May. His work was seen as anti-socialistic and was closely associated with Adolf Hitler, who considered May one of Germany’s greatest writers. Instead, they chose the East German Author, Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich’s book The Sons of the Great Bear. Unlike the works of Karl May, which took most of their cues from James Fenimore Cooper, (an  east coast American writer whose knowledge of the American frontier was almost as limited as May’s) the protagonists of Welskopf-Henrich’s works were sharply defined by the actual injustices faced by the Native Americans at the hands of the white settlers. Like May and Cooper, Welskopf-Henrich’s knowledge of the west was mostly garnered from books. But unlike May and Cooper, she did some serious research into the tribal customs of the Dakota Sioux.

The Sons of the Great Bear is the story of Tokei-Ihto, a Dakota tribesman who is trying to keep the white men from stealing his tribe’s land. His arch-rival is Red Fox (Jirí Vrstála), a white scout who has taken part in Indian initiation rituals and pretends to be part-Indian when it suits his needs (although this is not explained in the movie). When it is discovered that there is gold on the tribe’s land, the government decides that it is time to relocate the Dakotas to someplace more favorable. Tokei-Ihto tries to convince his chief that the white men can’t be trusted, but the chief doesn’t listen, with predictable results.

As is often the case with movie translations into books, Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich was not happy with the finished film and asked to have her name removed from the credits (it wasn’t). Nonetheless, the film was a huge hit. While Hollywood did eventually follow suit with films such as Soldier Blue and Little Big Man, it was too little too late. The American public had been thoroughly indoctrinated to see the Indians as the bad guys and the cowboys as the good guys. Films that did not follow this formula didn’t stand a chance with the American public and westerns slowly started to disappear from U.S. cinemas just as the East Germany westerns (sometimes referred to as Osterns) were picking up speed. The Sons of the Great Bear is not the best of these, but it was the first and helped create a new career for Gojko Mitic. Mitic continued working after the wall came down, returning to the stories of Karl May as “Winnetou,” May’s most popular character, in a series of TV movies.

IMDB page for the movie.

The Teleport City website’s extremely thorough examination of the film.

Buy this film.