Posts Tagged ‘Kurt Böwe’

Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz
Konrad Wolf’s three feature films—Goya, The Naked Man on the Athletic Field (Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz), and Solo Sunny—form a loose trilogy. On the face of things, the three films are as different as can be, musically, stylistically and cinematically, but all three films deal with deal with artistic creativity, in each case seen from a different perspective. On one end of the spectrum, we have Goya, the story of a true creative genius who changed art forever, on the other end of the spectrum we have Solo Sunny, the story of a young lounge singer who is just talented enough scrape by, but not much more. In between, is The Naked Man on the Athletic Field, the story of a talented artist whose work is very good, but who cannot find acceptance with the general public. He will never be as famous as Goya, but neither will he be forgotten like Sunny. The thing all three main characters have in common is a strong creative urge. Goya paints in spite the threat of the Spanish Inquisition; Sunny tries to perfect a hit single in spite of never playing anywhere with more than fifty people in the audience, and Herbert Kemmel, the sculptor in The Naked Man on the Athletic Field, continues to follow his own visions in the face of civic criticism.

Being an East German film, this last issue is the most important. Since artistic abilities and the creative impulse are unique to an individual, what is its place in socialist society? Should this one man be allowed to follow his own muse, or should the will of the collective prevail? It also addresses what happens when the public is no longer able to discern good art from bad, relying instead on fixed categories of what they think art is supposed to be instead of nuanced intellectual examination. With Goya, Wolf placed the action in Spain in the late 1700s. The film’s hidden subtext was about East Germany, but Ulbricht was still in charge when Wolf started working on the film. Honecker, as of yet taken over the leadership, when he declared that “as long as one proceeds from the firm position of socialism,” there should be “no taboos in the fields of art and literature.”

The naked man in the title refers to a piece Kemmel is commissioned to sculpt for the local athletic field. Expecting a clothed soccer player, the local authorities are horrified to to see a life-size bronze of a naked man instead. Should the authorities accept this single artist’s vision, or should the will of the collective prevail? In this case, Wolf, a lifelong communist seems to suggest that in an ideal socialist society there is room for both. Throughout the film Kemmel discusses art with various people and finds their perspectives on the subject severely limited. Most of the film concerns the relationship between Kemmel and his model Hannes. Hannes is just an ordinary guy, a member of a local construction brigade who has agreed to pose for Kemmel. The two men are as different as chalk and cheese, but they eventually learn to understand each other’s perspectives.

The Naked Man on the Athletic Field

Konrad Wolf was one of East Germany’s most creative directors, but he is also a stylistic gadfly. Take any three Wolf films, and you’d be hard pressed to see that they were all made by the same person. The screenplay is by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, East Germany’s best scriptwriter. As always, Kohlhaase is concerned with the way people communicate. Usually this takes the form of people from different regions trying to communicate (Germans and Russians, Berliners and everybody else), but here it is about the limitations of communication between people of different walks of life.

Herbert Kemmel is played by Kurt Böwe, who brings a certain charm to every role. He is often called on to play police and government officials because of this. Here, he is slightly outside of the mainstream, but not dangerously so. Hannes is played by Martin Trettau, who worked primarily on television. Trettau first appeared on film in Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. He appeared in several feature films after that, but most of work, especially in the eighties, was for Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DFF), the GDR’s television company. Like many East German actors, Trettau found work after the Wende became more scarce, but did a few television shows before retiring. He died in 2007 in Berlin.

Various artists and sculptors were hired to create the artwork shown in the film. The naked man sculpture of the title was created by renowned East German sculptor Werner Stötzer, who also makes a cameo appearance as the town’s mayor. Works by fellow artists Will Lammert and Albert Ebert also appear in the film.

The Naked Man on the Sports Field

The film features a remarkably minimal score consisting of guitar and a pan flute. The score was by Karl-Ernst Sasse—East Germany’s number one composer. Sasse’s scores were often quirky, using percussion in interesting ways in combination with unusual instruments. Sasse could create an orchestral piece with the best of them, but he was no one-trick pony. If he or the director thought a film score required only one or two instruments, he could do that as well. Considering his versatility, one might assume that Wolf and he worked together quite often, but this was the only film on which they collaborated (Wolf was famous for using the same crew on most of his films prior to Solo Sunny, but this never applied to the composers; he rarely used the same composer twice). After the Wende, Sasse continued to compose for films right up until the turn of the century, when he retired. His last film score was for Rosa von Praunheim’s 1999 film The Einstein of Sex. The story of the renowned and infamous sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. Sasse died in 2006, not far from the Potsdam-Babelsberg studios where he did most of his work.

The Naked Man on the Athletic Field is a languid film. Too talky and low-key for the average American film watcher. But when viewed in conjunction with Goya and Solo Sunny, it completes a concept that addresses Wolf’s feelings about the relationship between creativity and society. After Solo Sunny, Wolf would explore artistic creativity one more time in the television documentary Busch singt (Busch Sings), but here he was working with several other directors and he died before the film was finished.

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Leichensache Zernik

Like Fritz Lang’s M and Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam), Murder Case Zernik continues the fine tradition of German films about serial killers. This one adds a uniquely East German twist to the concept: The killer’s motives aren’t based on the usual psycho-sexual impulses but on capitalist greed. He kills for profit not lust. We know right from the start who the killer is, We are there when he strangles Katharina Zernik, then pours acid on her face to hamper identification. The question is whether the police will be able to bring him to justice and how.

This is a police procedural with a difference. As the police investigate the murder, they find their progress on the case continually stymied by the authorities in the Allied sectors (the Americans in particular, not surprisingly). Access to information is blocked, and false information is published to make the East German police look bad. Neverless, criminal investigator Stügner and his upstanding if somewhat undernourished assistant, Horst Kramm, work hard to figure out who killed Katharina Zernik.

The story takes place in 1948, which serves as an important plot point. The summer of 1948 was a tumultuous time in Berlin. On June 21st of that year, a new Deutschmark was introduced to the western sectors, followed a couple days later by the “B-mark”—a version of the currency specifically intended for use in the western sectors of Berlin. Not happy with this (particularly since it went directly against the agreement that the Allies and the Soviets had signed), the Berlin blockade began. Then in August, while West Berlin’s provisional governor, Louise Schroeder, was being treated for health problems, her stand-in, Christian Democrat Ferdinand Friedenburg, canned the chief of police, Paul Markgraf, because he was a member of East Germany’s SED party. From here on out there would be no cooperation between East and West Berlin. All of this plays into the movie’s plot as the killer bounces back forth across the border with impunity. The film uses historical footage to add to the drama.

Leichensache Zernik

The film’s production got off to a rocky start when director Gerhard Klein fell ill and died. The film sat on a shelf while Mr. Klein’s assistant director Helmut Nitzschke wrangled for permission to finish the movie. Mr. Nitzschke eventually was granted permission and the film was completed two years later. Mr. Nitzschke is an able craftsman, and the finished film is a good, uniquely East German Krimi. It didn’t hurt that it was written by the always reliable Wolfgang Kohlhaase. It is reportedly based on the personal recollections of people who worked as police at the time—more, I suspect, as a jumping off point than any kind of dramatization of actual events.

Leichensache Zernik

Director Helmut Nitzschke had some big shoes to fill when he took over from Gerhard Klein. Mr. Klein, after all, is the man who gave us such classics as A Berlin Romance, The Gleiwitz Case, and Berlin Schönhauser Corner. Gerhard Klein had a style like no other; both gritty and cinematic. Mr. Nitzschke had worked with Gerhard Klein before. This proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Mr. Nitzschke was assistant director on Klein’s Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin, Around the Corner), which was one of the films banned after the 11th Plenum.

It would be a few years before Mr. Nitzschke had a chance to demonstrate his talent at DEFA again, starting in 1969 with Nebelnacht (Foggy Night), a Krimi based on Heiner Rank’s crime fiction of the same name. After Murder Case Zernik, Mr. Nitzschke made Das Licht auf dem Galgen (The Light on the Gallows), an historical drama based on the novel by Anna Seghers. In spite of good reviews and and an endorsement from Ms. Seghers, the film bombed at the the box office. After that, he wrote and directed a couple episodes of the popular cop show, Polizeiruf 110, but little else. Some of this may be due his highly active participation in the Christian church. More recently, he has been a strong advocate for Quan-Yin, a method of meditation created by Suma Ching Hai, the Vietnamese/Chinese spiritual leader who popped up in the news after her followers donated $600,000 to President Clinton’s legal defense fund during the Lewinski case. Mr. Nitzschke is married to Heidemarie Wenzel, star of The Dove on the Roof and The Legend of Paul and Paula.

Playing the rookie detective Kramm is Alexander Lang. As with many other East German actors, Mr. Lang got his start in theater, working at first as a stagehand and eventually moving onto the boards. He is best known to western audiences as Ralph, Sunny’s cavalier love interest in Solo Sunny and as Latte in Frank Vogel’s Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry. During the eighties, he directed a couple of TV movies for DFF, but he primarily concentrated on directing plays as the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. After the Wende, Mr. Lang continued his career as a theater director, as well as an occasional appearance in front of the footlights, but he has appeared in no more films since the fall of the wall.

Leichensache Zernik


The killer, Erwin Retzmann, is played by Gert Gütschow, whose work was usually restricted to secondary roles. To and fan of East German cinema, his face is immediately recognizable, having appeared in such films as Till Eulenspiegel, Jadup and Boel, and Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens. After the Wende, he appeared in a few films and TV movies, and a recurring role as Dr. Keller on the popular TV hospital drama In aller Freundschaft. He continues to appear on stage, and often works in radio and as a voice talent for dubbing.

Kurt Böwe plays Inspector Stügner—a role he could do in his sleep. Whenever a DEFA film called for a kind but firm police official, you can bet Kurt Böwe’s name was near the top of the list of possible choices. Mr. Böwe came from the stage and began his on-screen acting with television in the sixties. He appeared in smaller roles in various feature films during this period, but it was his role as the idealistic sculptor Herbert Kemmel in Konrad Wolf’s Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (The Naked Man in the Stadium) that brought him to the public’s attention. From then on he appeared in several more feature films, most notably, Jadup and Boel. Having already been active in television during the GDR years, the Wende had little effect on him. He continued working in television playing Kommissar Kurt Groth on the popular police series Polizeiruf 110. He died in Berlin in 2000. His daughters, Susanne and Winnie have gone on to become successful actors in their own right.

Leichensache Zernik

It didn’t hurt that the technical crew for this film included cinematographer Claus Neumann, Composer Hans-Dieter Hosalla, and editor, Evelyn Carow—three of DEFA’s most talented technicians in their respective fields. Nor did it hurt that the supporting cast included the talents of Rolf Hoppe, Lissy Tempelhof, Käthe Reichel, and Agnes Kraus.

Krimis are always popular with the public and this film is no exception. It is too bad that Helmut Nitzschke’s output is so meager. Had he made more films, perhaps the followers of the auteur approach to film studies might have had something to hang their hat on. Instead he is ignored and is one of the few directors on the German Wikipedia list of DEFA films who has no page of his own. I hope this doesn’t translate into Murder Case Zernik being overlooked. It is an interesting and unusual thriller that deserves more attention.

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jadup und boel

By 1980, the East German authorities had nearly perfected the approval process for feature films. After the debacle of the 11th Plenum in 1965, when a dozen films were rejected either for being too frivolous or not socialist enough, DEFA settled into a safe routine, usually avoiding contemporary subjects, and instead concentrating on historical biographies, Indianerfilme, and the occasional musical. After Honecker took over, the reins again were loosened (but only slightly) and DEFA movies started push the envelope once more. Sometimes a few films went too far for the authorities, such as Iris Gusner’s 1973 film,  The Dove on the Roof, but, by that time, most directors knew the score, and were unlikely to do anything that might get their films banned. Jadup and Boel’s director, Rainer Simon, knew this better than anyone and was more careful than most to avoid controversy. After all, his first attempt at direction ended up on the chopping block during the 11th Plenum. So what happened? How did this film get made and still manage to end up in the Giftschrank?[1]

The film begins on the day of a ceremony to herald the construction on a new store in the town of Wickenhausen in the Altmark region. Here we meet Jadup, perfectly played by Kurt Böwe. Jadup is the mayor of the town. He’s a loyal party member and one of the first people in Wickenhausen to champion the communist cause. Just as Jadup is about to begin his ceremonial speech, a nearby building collapses, presumably from neglect. Snooping around in the wreckage of the house is Herr Gwissen, a stranger in town who has come to purchase antiques. Herr Gwissen finds an old copy of Friedrich Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific that Jadup once gave to a young woman named Boel Martin. Boel arrived in town right after the war with her mother. Her mother is still in town, but Boel is gone, having left Wickenhausen after her rape by someone in the town. Boel refused to say who it was and the people at the time blamed the Russian soldiers[2], but Jadup’s current refusal to discuss what happened is seen by members of the community as a tacit admission of guilt. As the story progresses, we eventually learn the truth.

The story jumps back and forth in time and space between Jadup’s story and Jadup’s son, Max. Max has a crush on Eva, an intensely vapid and vain young lady who is all too ready to spout party doctrine, but without any idea of what that really means. In the opposite corner is the more quirky and interesting Edith Unger, whose alcoholic father has made it his life’s work to write the history of Wickenhausen. It is apparent immediately that Edith is a better match for Max, but will he realize it in time?

The young people in town are given the task (by Jadup) of learning something of their town’s past and the part their parents played in its revival after the war. In flashbacks, we see Jadup as a young man (played by Christian Böwe, Kurt Böwe’s real-life son). The young Jadup lives in the bell tower and develops a camaraderie with the odd and nearly silent Boel. Boel’s hands are covered with warts and the local children run from her because of it. After her rape the warts clear up. Jadup tried to find out who was responsible but all he succeeds in doing is driving Boel from town.

Meanwhile, Edith gets in trouble for posting an essay that is a direct attack on Eva’s typically over-inflated, aggrandizing essay on her parents. Max is given the task of confronting Edith on the subject to get her to bow to peer pressure and apologize, but Edith is made of sterner stuff than that. As the story shifts back and forth in time, Max’s confrontation with Edith is juxtaposed against Jadup’s grilling of Boel. Jadup drives Boel away with his relentless interrogation. Will Max do the same? Jadup brings things to a head in an impassioned speech for the state to return to the principles espoused by Lenin. Otherwise the country will stagnate and die.

As you can probably tell from this brief description, the level of symbolism is very high in this movie, from the collapsing building to the warts on Boel‘s hand. It is no accident that the stranger from out of town is named “Gwissen” (an abbreviation of Gewissen: the German word for conscience). Jadup and Boel seems, at first glance, like a relatively harmless movie, but its unvarnished observations on stagnant bureaucracy in East Germany were bound to rub the officials the wrong way.

The film is based on the novel, Jadup, by Paul Kanut Schäfer. Schäfer was a popular East German author, who wrote everything from crime novels to children’s books. Jadup was published in 1975, but was not a big hit. Rainer Simon hadn’t heard of it when the idea for a movie of it was suggested to him. After reading the book, he recognized that he had a potential hot potato on his hands. He was as surprised as anyone when the authorities approved the project. Recognizing the potential pitfalls he might encounter while trying to get it, made, Simon was careful to follow the script to the letter. In that way he knew he could avoid the common claim that the film was banned because of script changes. In the end, it didn’t matter the film was banned anyway.[3]

Maybe the film would have made it to the cinemas, had it not been for other events in Eastern Europe. The USSR had invaded Afghanistan and tensions between it and the United States were the worst they had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In protest, the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics, which took place in Moscow that year. Meanwhile, things were coming to a head in Poland as well, culminating in the Gdańsk Shipyard strikes led by Lech Wałęsa. As always, whenever the public temperament moved toward calls for change, the leaders of the SED doubled down, increasing surveillance and nipping any perceived criticism of their regime in the bud. Jadup and Boel was an easy target, although, in fairness, had this film been made in the United States during Hollywood’s Hayes Code years, it would have been banned there as well.

When it came to the subject matter of this film—that of party stagnation—director Rainer Simon knew it better than most. A party member of the SED from the age of seventeen, Simon saw first hand the SED’s internal politics at work. He also saw what was happening to it and he didn’t like it. Simon claims that the character of Jadup in the film is not a stand in for himself, but both men continued to believe in socialism and both men were growing weary of the state things in the GDR.

Rainer Simon studied directing at the School of Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg (now named after Konrad Wolf). He started working on short films and was the assistant director on Ralk Kirsten’s Der verlorene Engel (The Lost Angel) and Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. He was slated to direct his first feature in 1966—a film version of Horst Bastian’s novel, Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality)—when the 11th Plenum halted the project (it was eventually made into a film by Erwin Stranka in 1976). He finally got his chance to direct a feature film in 1968 with Wie heiratet man einen König (How do you Marry a King), a Märchenfilm based on the Grimms’ fairytale, “The Peasant’s Clever Daughter.”

In 1979, Simon was to begin work on an East German/Austrian co-production titled, Vorstadtmusikanten (Fringe Musicians), but the film was scuttled before it began. Rainer Simon suspected that the GDR authorities were responsible for stopping the project, worrying as they often did, about defections to the west. Jadup and Boel was Simon’s only film on a contemporary subject. He learned early on that it was a lot safer to film fairy tales and historical biographies. When he was offered this film, he balked at first, recognizing its potential to offend the party bureaucrats, but everyone seemed to be greenlighting the project, so he went forward. He didn’t find out until after the Wende, that the Stasi had people watching the production of this film very carefully (of course, one could argue that the Stasi had people watching nearly everything very carefully).

Simon’s last film to be released prior to the fall of the wall was Die Besteigung des Chimborazo (The Ascent of Chimborazo), about the 1802 ascent of the Ecuadorian volcano by Baron Alexander von Humboldt. At this time, Simon became enamored of Ecuador. After the Wende, he moved to Ecuador, where he continues to make films and teach classes on filmmaking.

Jadup is played by Kurt Böwe with his usual likeable charm. Böwe made his first big splash as the idealistic sculptor in Konrad Wolf’s Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (The Naked Man on the Athletic Field), although by that time he had appeared in smaller parts in such films as Gerhard Klein’s Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin Around The Corner) and Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. The Wende had less impact on Kurt Böwe’s career than it did on some of his fellow DEFA actors. He continued working, primarily, but not exclusively, in television, and is best known today for his performance as Kommissar Groth on Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110). Böwe died in Berlin, June 14, 2000.

Katrin Knappe (Boel), on the other hand, stopped working in film and television after the Wende completely. Jadup and Boel was her first feature film. She continued to work in films in East Germany right up until the wall came down, but her primary focus was always theater. She studied acting at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin, where she now serves as a guest lecturer in the puppetry department. For fifteen years, she worked at the Volksbühne on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.

The cinematographer was Roland Dressel. During the seventies, his primary work as lead cinematographer was in television, although he worked on many classic DEFA films before that, including Konrad Wolf’s Einmal ist keinmal, Das Kleid, The Gleiwitz Case, and Hot Summer. He got his start as a still photographer, and he brings some of those skills to bear in this movie, particularly his understanding of how to combine deep shadows and bright images in the same frame, and his use of unusual filter techniques. He was responsible for some of DEFA’s best camerawork during the GDR’s final years. His work during this period, includes The Bicycle, Das Luftschiff (The Airship), The Woman and the Stranger (Die Frau und der Fremde), and Abschied von Agnes (Farewell from Agnes).

The music for the film is composed by Reiner Bredemeyer in his unmistakable style. As with many other film composers—on both sides of the Iron Curtain—Bredemeyer was classically trained. He wrote scores for several films, but is best known today for his avant garde classical compositions. From 1949 to 1953 he studied music composition at the Munich Academy of Music. In 1954, disgusted with the anti-socialist policies of Konrad Adenauer, he moved to the GDR, where he studied under Paul Dessau, another defector from the west. Although he often worked in the twelve-tone scale, his work still shows strong influences from classical composers, most notably, Anton Webern. Bredemeyer uses sparse instrumentation in the film to convey a sense of isolation, from the solo classical guitar at the beginning, to the lonely flute music at the end.

In 1988, the film was finally released in the GDR, but by then the world had changed too much to fully accept this it. Jadup’s impassioned speech for the return to the ideals of Lenin was now seen as a step backwards rather than the radical leap forward it seemed to be in 1980. The film was well received by the critics, but didn’t find its audience until years after the Wende.

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1. Literally, “poison cabinet,” also referred to as Remota. These are films (or any other documents, for that matter) that are deemed too subversive to allow to be seen by the general public.

2. This is the first time that an East German film addressed the sensitive topic of the rapes that Russian soldier committed in Germany right after the war (see Max Färberböck’s 2008 film, A Woman in Berlin, for an exploration of this topic.

3. It appears that the story of the Production of Jadup and Boel is even more bizarre than I could have possibly imagined. DEFA film expert Evan Torner writes:

“In Ralf Schenk’s interview with Simon (and in my own conversations with Simon in subsequent years), I basically gathered that Jadup and Boel was greenlighted because it was going to be banned. The Stasi watched the production very closely because it was serving as bait, and as a pressure release valve: it let them know how far ordinary GDR filmmakers would go to step out of line (i.e., not that far, all things considered), and as a way to give them all an outlet for their “subversion” without really jeopardizing anything. A state-run studio had to keep its employees working, but it could not stand for content that would ultimately threaten its own revenue streams. Creativity thus became something cultivated by gifting folks a “subversive” project that then may or may not get banned because of the political climate (I’m also thinking of the never-made early 1980s feature Schwarzweiß und Farbe, about a family whose house is in the way of a GDR power plant). The studio got to keep their talent; the state got to keep its legitimacy and even its sense of raw suppressive power.

So Simon was right in thinking that Jadup and Boel sounded like a trap because it was. The great aspect was that he nevertheless made a very thought-provoking piece of cinema as a result. Its resonance beyond the peculiar walled garden circumstances of its origin is open for debate.