Posts Tagged ‘Michael Gwisdek’

The Tango Player
Following the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989, events in East Germany started happening fast. Faster than DEFA could keep with. Less than a year after that first batch of East Germans streamed into West Berlin in their Trabants, the GDR ceased to exist. Yet DEFA soldiered on, buffeted mercilessly by the winds of change. During the GDR’s last year of existence, the authorities had loosened their restrictions on what was acceptable in a film and what was not. The Tango Player (Der Tangospieler) was based on Christoph Hein’s 1989 novella about a man imprisoned for playing a tango. The book was controversial, but it was always easier to get books published than films made in the GDR. Filmmaker Roland Gräf saw the potential in the story to make a movie that addressed many of the problems he saw in East German society. He submitted his proposal to DEFA, but he wasn’t really expecting them to okay the project. The film studio had stayed away from controversial topics ever since the 11th Plenum. To his surprise, they said yes, and Gräf began working on the film, unaware—as was everyone else—that the fall of the Wall was a few scant months away.

The story starts when Hans-Peter Dallow is let out of prison after serving 21 months for subversive activity. It is 1968 and Alexander Dubček has just been elected First Secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. Prior to prison, Dallow was a history professor, who sometimes played the piano at a local Kabarett.1 One night, while Dallow subbed for their regular piano player, a comedy troupe performed a particularly pointed political skit. This would have been early in 1966—shortly after the 11th Plenum, when the East German government was cracking down on any movie, performance, or other art that even remotely smacked of criticism against them. The next thing Dallow knew, he was trundled off the prison along with the rest of the performers.

Der Tangospieler

This scene isn’t quite what it seems. The woman has already spent the night with Dallow. Her anguish comes from the something she just heard on the radio, announcing the invasion of Prague by the Warsaw troops.

Now back out in the world, Dallow doesn’t know what to do next. As a history professor, he specialized in Czechoslovakia, but the time in prison has left him indifferent to the unfolding political events there. He’s in no hurry to get back into the classroom, and he certainly doesn’t want to play the piano again, but he’s not sure where to turn next. As if to pour salt in the wound, the skit for which he was imprisoned is now performed openly, and is even attended by the judge who sentenced him. On top of everything else, the Stasi are dropping by regularly, trying to recruit him as an informer (IM).

Dallow isn’t a particularly likeable guy. For one thing, after 21 months in prison he’s horny as hell and behaves atrociously toward women. For another, his self-pity verges on narcissism. He’s mad at the world for what it’s done to him, but he’s not willing to take steps to alleviate the situation. The film stars Michael Gwisdek as Hans-Peter Dallow. Gwisdek was too old for the part, and this works against the character. Some of his actions would be understandable for a young man, but come across as downright creepy in a man old enough to know better. If we are suppose to like or sympathize with Dallow, it doesn’t show. He is a thoroughly disagreeable human being. Nonetheless, Gwisdek is a compelling enough actor to hold our interest.

The film also stars Corinna Harfouch as Elke, the only meaningful relationship he has post-prison. Gwisdek and Harfouch were still an item in 1991, and made several movies together, both before and after the Wall fell. The Tango Player was one of their last. The duo went their separate ways toward the end of the nineties, but didn’t get officially divorced until 2007 (for more on Gwisdek and Harfouch, see The Actress).

Gwisdek and Harfouch

Michael Gwisdek and Corinna Harfouch

Like Joachim Hasler, director Roland Gräf started his career at DEFA as a cinematographer. He was the cinematographer for Born in ‘45 and The Dove on the Roof, which were both banned. It was with Gräf’s help, in fact, that The Dove on the Roof was eventually put back together and screened in 1990. During its final years, Gräf became the de facto keeper of the flame for DEFA. Making movies and acting as chairman of DEFA’s artistic council. When DEFA finally bit the dust, so too did Gräf’s career as a filmmaker. Aside from a couple episodes of the TV crime series Faust, Gräf stopped working as either a director or a cinematographer. Like many East German filmmakers, his ideas weren’t welcome in the new Germany, which skewed heavily in favor of the Western ideology and power. He began teaching at the “Konrad Wolf” film school in Babelsberg. Upon its founding in 1998, Roland Gräf became the Deputy Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the DEFA Foundation, a position he held until 2005. After that, he turned his attention to still pictures. In 2016, a book of his photographs was published in Germany under the title Meine LAST PICTURE SHOW.

As one would expect from a film titled The Tango Player, most of the music is either tango, or tango-inflected. The song that is used in the political skit is Julio César Sanders’ well-known classic Adiós Muchachos. The soundtrack also includes the music of Astor Piazzolla, as well as additional music provided by Günther Fischer. It’s a solid, driving score that suits the action well.

The Tango Player

Dallow’s television shows the Warsaw Pact troops rolling into Prague.

The Tango Player suffered a fate similar to The Architects, where the events of history happened faster than the film could be made. According to Gräf, “The events of the day simply ran over me.” By the time it came out, The Tango Player‘s relevance was seriously diminished. What would have been a remarkably frank portrayal of events a couple years earlier seemed tame now. The film was largely ignored. That’s too bad, because the film is one of the last to give us a glimpse into a world that no longer existed by someone who had actually been there.

IMDB page for the film.

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1. As in my article about The Actress, I’ve intentionally used the German word “Kabarett” here rather than “cabaret,” because, for Germans, the word Kabarett has a very different meaning from what we think of as cabaret. Although they both feature lots of singing, dancing and skits, German Kabarett is often punctuated by satirical political skits and comedy monologues of the darkest humor.

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Corinna Harfouch
One might think that, by now, there would be no stone left unturned when it comes to Nazi-era Germany in the movies. We’ve had films about the Holocaust, the resistance, the start of the war, the end of the war, and the daily lives of soldiers and ordinary people on both sides; we’ve had science fiction films, romances, mysteries and even a few comedies on the subject; so it comes as a surprise that The Actress (Die Schauspielerin) manages to uncover a subject that has been so ignored by filmmakers that most people don’t even of its existence—the Jüdischer Kulturbund.

Founded in 1933, the Jüdischer Kulturbund was a cultural organization designed to provide creative outlets for Germany’s Jewish artists who were no longer allowed to work in non-Jewish venues in Germany. This included musicians, singers, actors, and any other entertainers and writers looking for work. The group was originally called the Kulturbund Deutscher Juden (Cultural Federation of German Jews), but the Nazis made them change the name because they didn’t like to be reminded that these Jews were, in fact, real Germans. The Jüdischer Kulturbund was under very strict rules about what they could perform, and only Jews were allowed to see the performances. The Jüdischer Kulturbund was mostly a PR stunt, designed to demonstrate that the Nazis weren’t persecuting Jews. This pretense could not last, but the Jüdischer Kulturbund did manage to stay in existence for eleven years of Nazi rule.

The Actress (Die Schauspielerin) follows the adventures of Maria Rheine, a young German actress who is becoming a star of the stage in Germany during the waning days of the Weimar Republic. Rheine is in love with Mark Löwenthal, an equally talented actor who just happens to have a Jewish mother. While she becomes more and more famous, her lover is forced to out of the mainstream theaters and into the Jüdischer Kulturbund. Eventually, Rheine decides to give up her successful career and follow the man she loves, faking suicide and reinventing herself as a Manya Löwenthal, Mark’s Polish wife.

Maria becomes Manya

In some respects, the film mirrors the earlier DEFA film, Marriage in the Shadows, which is based on the true story of Joachim Gottschalk and Meta Wolff. Unlike that film, there is no suicide pact in The Actress. The book upon which the film is based, Arrangement with Death, follows the woman’s story through a concentration camp to her life afterward in East Germany. The movie wisely ends before that, allowing the viewer to see all the possible outcomes awaiting Manya/Maria and Mark..

The book upon which the film is based is by Hedda Zinner, a woman of many talents. Before the war, she wrote poems, social criticism, and satire for the various communist newspapers in Europe, including Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (Workers Illustrated Newspaper), and Der Weg der Frau (The Way of the Woman—an early feminist communist woman’s magazine). She also performed in theater revues and Kabarett.1

After the Nazis came to power, Zinner found things in Germany too hot for her, and left the country, eventually settling in Russia, where she wrote radio plays for Radio Moscow. Upon returning to the Soviet sector of Germany after the war, she became the general manager at Haus des Rundfunks (House of Broadcasting). Zinner was a prodigious writer, penning several plays, novels and books of poems. After the Wende, she received the usual treatment of creative people from East Germany, which is to say, she was largely ignored. Sadly, none of her work is in print today, not even in ebook form, not even in Germany. Zinner died in 1994 in Berlin.

Die Schauspielerin

The film is directed by Siegfried Kühn, who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Regine Kühn. Siegfried Kühn had been slated to become a mining engineer, but decided to study film directing instead. His first feature film, Oni ne proydut (They Shall Not Pass), wasn’t made for DEFA, but for the Soviet film company, Mosfilm. Coming to DEFA, as he did, after the 11th Plenum, Kühn faced the occasional bureaucratic run-ins. His film, Das zweite Leben des Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow (The Second Life of F.W.G. Platow) was withheld from release for three years, and only saw limited runs in spite of critical praise.

Kühn divorced Regine in 1980, but the two continued to write screenplays together right up until the end of DEFA. In 1991 Siegfried married to Katrin Saß of Goodbye Lenin! fame (for more on Katrin Saß, see Until Death Do Us Part). That marriage lasted until 2007. After the Wende, Kühn’s career as a film director came to a halt. He made no more movies. Ex-wife Regine, on the other hand had a thriving career in German television as a screenwriter.

The actress of the title is played by Corinna Harfouch. Harfouch was already an up-and-coming star in East Germany when she made this film, but The Actress sealed her reputation. Harfouch started appearing on the small screen in 1980 with an episode of Polizeiruf 110 and the TV-movie Die lange Ankunft des Alois Fingerlein (The Long Arrival of Alois Fingerlein). Her first feature film was the anthology film, Verzeihung, sehen Sie Fußball? (Sorry, You’re Watching the Game?). For her part in The Actress, she won the Best Actress award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and the Eberswalde Film Festival. A year later she was nominated again at Eberswalde for her performance in Treffen in Travers (Meeting in Travers).

Corinna Harfouch

Born Corinna Meffert, the actress worked as a nurse while studying acting in Berlin. She married young to a Syrian computer scientist named Nabil Harfouch and took his name. When The Actress was filmed, Harfouch was married to Michael Gwisdek, who plays Mario, Maria Rheine’s devoted agent and confidant. Although she and Gwisdek parted ways in the 1990s, they did not officially divorce until 2007, most likely so that Gwisdek could remarry, which he did shortly thereafter.

Perhaps thanks to her talent and relative youth, Harfouch had an easier time than most East German actors transitioning to a unified Germany after the Wende. She continued to appear in movies and on TV, and played Eva Blond in the popular comedy-drama police series, Blond: Eva Blond! She is best known in the west for her chilling portrayal of Magda Goebbels in Downfall (Der Untergang). In 2007, she teamed up with fellow East German actors, Kristen Block, Dagmar Manzel, and Christine Schorn in Franziska Meletzky’s oddball comedy-drama Frei Nach Plan (According to the Plan); and in 2011—in one of the more unusual turn of events in human relationships—she co-starred with her ex, Michael Gwisdek, in the TV-movie Schmidt & Schwarz, which was written by Gwisdek’s current wife Gabriela.

Playing the part of Mark Löwenthal is André Hennicke. Hennicke studied acting at the Academy of Film and Television in Babelsberg. He got his start in in films in 1984 with Iris Gusner’s Kaskade rückwärts (Cascade Backwards), and has never stopped working since. Like Corinna Harfouch, the Wende had little impact on his career. He has appeared in several popular German films, including Jerichow, Antibodies, Downfall, and a nasty portrayal as the rabidly Nazi judge Roland Freisler in Sophie Scholl: The Final Days—a portrayal that may seem over-the-top until you see old footage of the actual man. Hennicke also pops up regularly on German television, appearing in everything from Tatort to Edel & Starck, and also made an appearance on Harfouch’s show Blond: Eva Blond! His appearances in English-language films include Pandorum, and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method.

The Actress brings the curtain down before the real horror begins. In this respect, it has more in common with Jakob the Liar than it does with Marriage in the Shadows or Stars, both of which also address the issue of Jewish-Gentile relationships. The film did well at the box office and is listed as one the top fifty most successful films of East Germany,

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


1. I’ve intentionally used the German word “Kabarett” here rather than “cabaret,” because, for Germans, the word Kabarett has a very different meaning from what we think of as cabaret. Although they both feature lots of singing, dancing and skits, German Kabarett is often punctuated by satirical political skits and comedy monologues of the darkest humor.