Posts Tagged ‘nudity’

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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Suzanne Stoll

“Transgressive” is not a word one often uses to describe films from the GDR. With an industry so closely monitored, it was rare for a genuinely shocking film to get past the authorities, but Ursula is just such a film. To make it even more shocking, it was made for television.

Ursula is directed by Egon Günther, and is based on a novella by Gottfried Keller from his Züricher Novellen (Zurich Stories). The story begins in 1523, when Hansli Gyr (often translated as Jackie Geer), a Swiss mercenary, returns from the battlefield to find that Ursula Schnurrenberger, his one true love, is not the woman she used to be. While he was away, the people of his village fell under the sway of Anabaptists (Wiedertäufer), whose doomsday predictions and rejection of traditional values were taking root in the villages near Zurich at that time. Hansli had been away fighting for the papacy in Northern Italy, and is horrified by this change in religious attitudes. He leaves Ursula to try and figure out what to do next when he runs into Huldrych Zwingli, the famous Swiss religious reformer. Hansli joins forces with Zwingli, which puts him at odds with the people of his village, who are being driven mad by their oddball beliefs; especially Ursula, who now thinks Hansli is the Angel Gabriel. The rest of the movie follows the paths the two lovers take, culminating in one of the strangest battle sequences this side of Ken Russell.

To fully appreciate this film, a little history is in order. In 1517, Martin Luther tacked his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Luther wasn’t saying anything people weren’t already thinking. The corruption in the Roman Catholic church had reached such proportions that by the time Luther arrived on the scene, things were ready to explode. Nor was he the only person to rally the crowds against the church and its edicts. In Switzerland, Huldrych Zwingli was preaching his own ideas for change, challenging the concept of transubstantiation and declaring that there was no good reason not to eat meat during lent. In 1522, he demonstrated his commitment to the latter by joining his publisher in a meal of sausages during Lent. This event  became known as the “Affair of the Sausages,” and heralded the beginning of the Swiss Reformation movement. Within a year, Switzerland was embroiled in a faith-based battle over the heart, minds, and souls of the Swiss people with Zwingli at the center of the storm.

A challenge to both Zwingli and the Catholic church were the Anabaptists. They preached an apocalyptic version of Christianity that bore many of the earmarks of modern fundamentalism. 1523 was a pivotal year, that saw the Swiss Reformation movement taking hold and the start of the wars between the Catholic church, the Anabaptists, and the Protestants.

Gottfried Keller, the novella’s author, clearly has no sympathy with the Anabaptists. In his opinion, they are a licentious group of people feeding their lusts and engaging in behavior that borders on insane. At one point, the group decides that being holy means to act like children, resulting in an orgy of infantilism. Keller is more gentle with Zwingli, but the film is not. Zwingli as played by Matthias Habich seems almost as mad as the Anabaptists, who, in turn, come across more like medieval hippies. At its core, the film is a treatise on the folly of war and religion. The final battle sequence, chronicling  the second war of Kappel, intentionally evokes America’s involvement  in Vietnam. That war had been over for a couple years, but it was still a popular target for criticism in the Eastern Bloc countries. Ursula came out a year before the Soviets got involved in their own military debacle in Afghanistan. Had the Soviet War in Afghanistan been raging at the time the film was made, Ursula surely wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

The screenplay was written by Helga Schütz who had also written the screenplays for Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam),  Lots Weib (Lot’s Wife), and Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), all of which were also directed by Egon Günther. Schütz was a diligent researcher who specialized in writing and directing documentaries. When Zwingli is speaking from the pulpit, for example, Schütz effectively uses the actual text of his sermons to shock and surprise the audience. After the Wende she became a teacher of screenwriting at the University of Film and Television in Potsdam.

Scene from Ursula
Egon Günther’s film manages the neat trick of being simultaneously faithful to Keller’s novella and wildly interpretive. The scenes of Jesus being chased (or chasing) Death through the forest are taken from the book, but they appear on a tapestry that Hansli buys Ursula, and which she wears over her shoulders like a shawl. The addition of machine guns to the scene, though, is pure Günther. Is it Ursula’s insanity, or the insanity of war? Günther isn’t afraid of anachronisms, and by the end of the film they are flying fast and furiously. He first shows his hand during Zwingli’s sermon. A shot of the audience reveals that the congregation is wearing modern clothing. At first it seems like a blooper, but when one of the Anabaptists straps himself into a hang glider and takes off, you realize that this film is not playing by the rules.

Ursula was a co-production of Swiss and East German television. Throughout the seventies, East Germany had been working to rebuild their ties with the rest of Europe, and a joint film based on the work of one of Switzerland’s most respected authors seemed like a prime opportunity to further this cause. But when the film was finished, the Swiss refused to show it. It played once on East German TV and then was relegated to DEFA’s Giftschrank.* Nor could this film have made it onto U.S. television either. It contains male and female full-frontal nudity, defecation and urination, extreme blasphemy, and some of the bluest language in any German film. No one could push the limits of acceptability this far and not pay a price. The film marked the end of Egon Günther’s career as a filmmaker in the GDR. Thereafter, Günther went west, where he continued to work as a screenwriter and director until 2002.

Egon Günther settled into a career as a writer after a parade of jobs as a draftsman, soldier, teacher, and publisher. While working as a publisher, he began writing plays, stories, and novels. He started working at DEFA during the fifties, at first as a script doctor, and then later as a director. His career as a director got off to a rocky start with Das Kleid (The Dress), which he co-directed with Konrad Petzold. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes, the film was seen as a direct attack on the authorities in East Germany with its story of an easily duped tyrant and his walled-in kingdom. His next film, Lots Weib (Lot’s Wife), had no such problems, and was a big hit. He intended to follow this with the fantasy film, Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam), but the 11th Plenum put a halt to the production and the film had to wait until after reunification to be shown. It looked as if Günther’s career at DEFA might be over, but his next film, Abschied (Farewell), based on Johannes R. Becher’s anti-war novel, was a hit and Günther was back on track, writing and directing several more films over the next few years. In 1972, his film, Her Third (Der Dritte), almost ended up on the shelf with his other banned films, but it managed to squeak by the censors, in large part due to Erich Honecker’s desire to show that his regime would be different from that of Walter Ulbricht’s. Günther became known as the master of the film adaptation, which no doubt had something to do with why he was chosen to direct Ursula.

Playing the star-crossed lovers are the Swiss actors, Suzanne Stoll and Jörg Reichlin. Ursula was Ms. Stoll’s first film and her only starring role. Of the six films and TV movies she appeared in, five were directed by Egon Günther. Reichlin, on the other hand, has continued to appear in films and on television, most recently in Alex E. Kleinberger’s Nachtexpress (Night Express). also appearing in a minor role is the great East German actress, Jutta Hoffmann (see Her Third for more on Ms. Hoffmann).

Huldrych Zwingli is played with ferocious intensity by Matthias Habich. Habich is best known in America for his roles in Enemy at the Gates, The Reader, and Downfall (Der Untergang). He’s had a long career, making films all over Europe starting with some television work in the late sixties. His first big role came in 1973, when he played the lead character in the six-part TV mini-series, Die merkwürdige Lebensgeschichte des Friedrich Freiherrn von der Trenck (The remarkable life story of Friedrich Freiherr von der Trenck). As with many excellent German actors, he doesn’t shun television and has turned up in several excellent (and not-so-excellent) made-for-TV movies, as well as the occasional episode of the popular German cop show, Tatort. In 2002, he won the Deutsche Filmpreis as best supporting actor for his role in Caroline Link’s Oscar-winning film, Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika). He currently divides his time between Paris and Zurich.

Costume design is by Christiane Dorst, who became Egon Günther’s go-to designer for all of his DEFA films starting with Her Third. When Günther left for the west, Dorst stayed behind and continued to contribute costumes to DEFA films such as Motoring Tales and The Architects. After the Wende, Dorst continued to find work, primarily with former East German directors such as Frank Beyer and Roland Gräf. The costumes in Ursula are some of her best work. Certain scenes look like recreations of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Her attention to the details in period costumes is unmatched. Check out the footwraps worn by Hansli under his boots, for instance. After the Wende, Ms. Dorst reunited with Egon Günther on Stein and, her last film, Die Braut (The Bride).

While the costumes certainly helped recreate the times, the rich and dark medieval look of the film is due to Peter Brand’s cinematography. Brand primarily worked in television, but was also responsible for the look of films such as Frank Vogel’s Julia lebt (Julia Lives), and Erwin Stranka’s evocative Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality). By the 1989, he had moved away from television and was working exclusively on feature films, but the Wende saw him return to the small screen. As with Christiane Dorst, Egon Günther’s Die Braut (The Bride) was his last film.

The music is this film is as quirky as the visual information, so it should come as no surprise to longtime readers of this blog that it was done by Karl-Ernst Sasse (for more on Sasse see Her Third). Sasse contributes a score that takes Renaissance folk music and twists it into something bizarre. His use of a solo Jew’s Harp early in the film is reminiscent of the work of Ennio Morricone. The music seems to be saying: “This is going to be a very odd movie.” Like the movie itself, the score contains surprises that pull it back-and-forth between the present and the past.

Because of its subsequent ban, the film achieved legendary status in East Germany. Not every film that has received this accolade deserves it, but Ursula most certainly does. After all these years, it still manages to shock. Recently it was released by ARD Video as part of their Grosse Geschichten series, but, unfortunately, without English subtitles. Hopefully that will change soon; Ursula deserves a wider audience.

As a footnote to the story, the teachings of the Anabaptists found their greatest success across the Atlantic. Attacked by both the Protestants and the Catholics in Europe, they fled in droves to the United States, where their beliefs were the foundations of the Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, and Brethren in Christ—a far cry from the wanton lunatics portrayed in this film.

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* Another of those wonderful German expressions that doesn’t translate well into English. This one literally means “poison cupboard,” and refers to a cabinet in which poisons and dangerous pharmaceuticals are stored. It is often used in reference to the banned films of East Germany, but is by no means exclusive to communist culture.

Seven Freckles (Sieben Sommersprossen) is the story of the love affair between Karoline and Robbi—two fifteen-year-olds who had been close two years earlier and meet-up again at summer camp. Standing in their way is Marlene, an attractive but self-absorbed girl who also has the hots for Robbi. When one of the camp counselors decides that it would fun to put on a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Marlene jumps at the chance to play Juliet, and suggests Robbi to play Romeo, but it is apparent to everyone that the real love story is between Robbi and Karoline. As the kids prepare for the production, the romance between Robbi and Karoline unfolds in counterpoint to Shakespeare’s play.

Summer camps inhabit a realm all their own in the movies. Maybe that’s because they also inhabit a realm all their own in the lives of the kids that were shipped off to them. For some they were opportunities to reinvent themselves, while for others they were places where all their worst fears came true. As a genre, the Summer Camp Film started with Her First Romance, which took Herman Wouk’s Book, The City Boy, about a fat Jewish kid from the Bronx, and turned it into the story of a slender and very WASP-y teenage girl, played by Margaret O’Brien. There were previous Summer Camp films, most notably 1937’s Thrill of a Lifetime, which shares with Seven Freckles a sub-plot about putting on a show, but the genre really took off in the fifties when the early baby-boomers were getting old enough to ship off to camp, and the parents started reminiscing about their younger days in the woods.

Throughout the fifties, summer camps popped again and again in movies and on television. Comedian-turned-songwriter Allan Sherman even parodied the subject with his hit tune, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh.” And in 1961, Hayley Mills did a comic turn, playing both the good girl and the evil camp-mate in Disney’s The Parent Trap. In 1980, the genre took a dark turn with Friday the 13th, in which the teenagers at a newly reopened camp are killed one by one, usually right after having sex. This opened the doors to dozens of imitators (including way too many sequels of its own). Every year for the next five years the movie-going public could expect to see dozens of films about teenagers killed while attending summer camp. The same year that the first Friday the 13th was released, also saw the release of Little Darlings, in which two girls at camp have a contest to see which one loses her virginity first. And in 1993, the subject took a more sardonic turn when Wednesday and Pugsley Addams are shipped off to camp in Addams Family Values.

Many of the themes (some might say tropes) that were common to Summer Camp Films were there right from the start: the evil camp-mate, who either gets her comeuppance or teams up with the protagonist to save the day, the budding first romance, the overly strict but clueless camp supervisor, and  the prankish behavior of youngsters. All of these are in evidence in Seven Freckles. But Seven Freckles probably owes most of its pedigree to Russian films on the subject. The first was Welcome, or No Trespassing (Dobro pozhalovat, ili postoronnim vkhod vospreshchyon) from 1965, a fairly bold film in which the kids in the camp conspire against the director. The film was popular and seem to be parodying government bureaucracy. Like East Germany, the USSR had a brief period in the early sixties in which many of the restrictions on what could be discussed in films were relaxed. And just like East Germany, this came to a grinding halt in 1965 when Khruschev was deposed in favor of the hardliner Brezhnev. Even more of an influence was Sergei Solovyov’s One Hundred Days After Childhood (Sto dney posle detstva), which also dealt with the subject of pubescent love at a summer camp. This Russian film was a huge hit in the Eastern Bloc countries, and was also recognized in the west, winning the Silver Bear at the Berlinale in 1975.

To cast Seven Freckles, director Herrmann Zschoche chose to use non-actors in all the teenager roles. For most of these kids, this was their first venture into acting and their last. A few went on to have successful careers in film, most notably, Steffi Kühnert, who has appeared in dozens of popular German movies, including Sun Alley (Sonnenallee), The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band), and We Are the Night (Wir sind die Nacht). Others, such as René Rudolph and Kareen Schröter, made a few more movies, but did not pursue careers as actors after the Wende. Most surprising of all is Janine Beilfuß who played Marlene. She has a real screen presence but never made another film. Ironically, the boy who played Robbi, Harald Rathmann, had no interest in his leading lady, Kareen Schröter (although both she and her co-star, Janine Beilfuß found him pretty hunky).

Today, this film is best known for its famously uninhibited sequence in which the two young lovers frolic naked in a field. It is here that Herrmann Zschoche’s demonstrates his talent as a director. One misstep and this scene could have degenerated into prurient pedophilia; a leering look at the naked bodies of two teenagers. Zschoche avoids this by approaching it for what it is: the last innocent encounter in the lives of two young people; that pivotal age when the body is ready for sex, but the mind isn’t. Nonetheless—and in spite of its innocence—the film does feature the full-frontal nudity of two teenagers and is unlikely to get U.S. distribution anytime soon for this reason.

The film was shot by Günter Jaeuthe, who started as Zschoche’s cinematographer with Eolomea and worked with him on nearly every film after that. As with Eolomea, Jaeuthe seems most at home when he is filming the great outdoors. He cinematography is sharp and clear and at its best in the brightly-lit scenes. The night scenes and day-for-night scenes are murky and sometimes hard to make out.

Seven Freckles features one of the most varied soundtracks of any movie. It goes from wistful pan-pipe music, to synthesized mood music, to swirling dramatic strings, to somber organ. The music is credited to Gunther Erdmann, with some rock’n’roll bits added by Peter Gotthardt who scored The Legend of Paul and Paula. Erdmann was a logical choice to score a film about kids. As a composer he was best known in East Germany for the choral music he wrote or arranged for children’s and young people’s choirs. Although there is not a lot of music in the film, every time there is, it is different from the last.

Seven Freckles was a huge hit in East Germany, playing to sold-out theaters for the first few weeks. It helped turned Herrmann Zschoche into one of the busiest directors at DEFA during the GDR’s final decade. Before he made Seven Freckles, Zschoche had already explored the theme of coming-of-age in Liebe mit 16 (Love at 16), and he would return to it again in films such as Island of the Swans and Und nächstes Jahr am Balaton (Next Year at Lake Balaton). After the Wende, Zschoche continued to work, primarily in television. Shortly after the wall came down, he directed several episodes of Drei Damen vom Grill (Three Ladies from the Grill), a popular TV series about an Imbissstand (a takeaway food trailer, like you see at carnivals). Drei Damen vom Grill started in 1977 when the wall was firmly in place, and had a strong West Berlin vibe to it. Not surprisingly then, the show didn’t last long after the Wende. After that, Zschoche directed a few made-for-TV movies, and several episodes of popular TV shows. He retired in 1998, but Seven Freckles remains a high point in his career. So much so that when decided to recount what filmmaking was like in the GDR, he titled his book: Seven Freckles and Other Memories (Sieben Sommersprossen und andere Erinnerungen).

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In 1977, disco fever swept the world. The Bee Gees—formerly a Beatles-influenced band—had reinvented themselves as the kings of the nightlife, John Travolta was teaching people how to dance, and skin-tight polyester shirts were flying off the shelves. In West Berlin, an Italian music producer named Giorgio Moroder met an American singer named Donna Summer and reinvented the disco sound with the hypnotic classic “I Feel Love.” Meanwhile, in East Germany, that same year saw the release of DEFA Disko 77, but don’t let the title fool you, this film has more in common with Godspell than Saturday Night Fever.

The premise was simple: popular East German musicians meet up at the DEFA studios and sing their songs. Each number starts with a black-and-white sequence that shows the various musicians wandering through the backlots of DEFA, or preparing for the numbers they are about to sing. In the first sequence, for example, the popular East German singer, Veronika Fischer, is seen being made up before the video while one of her bandmates tries unsuccessfully to start their tour bus. This is followed by her song, “Und wer bist du (Ich bin die Fischer …)” (“And who are you? (I am the Fisher)”), The singer and her band are shown taking a horse-drawn carriage to their destination, but during the video, the camera pulls back, revealing that the band is not really doing any of the things they are shown doing, but rather performing in a music video. This recursive breaking of the fourth wall occurs throughout the film as if to say, “We are lying to you, and you know we are lying to you; but we know that you know that we are lying to you, so let it be.”

In between the musical numbers comedy skits, à la Laugh-In are performed on minimal sets with black backgrounds. About halfway through the film, the songs are interrupted by a longer comedy routine starring Rolf Herricht and Hans Joachim Preil. Herricht and Preil, both successful actors in the GDR, also were one of East Germany’s best-loved comedy duos and here they get to show their stuff in a slightly risque little number about a newly-married man and his randy friend. It is silly, and similar in tone and style to something you might see on an American TV show in the seventies such as The Love Boat or Love, American Style.

One of the more interesting musical numbers occurs shortly before the Herricht and Preil sketch. It is the comedy folk-singer and lyricist, Kurt Demmler singing his song, “Verse auf sex Beinen” (loosely translated: “A few lines about sex”). Scenes of Demmler sitting on a stool and strumming a guitar are interspersed with scenes of a marionette performing a striptease and very quickly edited (and artfully photographed) shots of a naked woman.

Demmler had made a name for himself writing lyrics for nearly every major group or singer in East Germany, including those in this movie. He is reported to have written the lyrics for over 10,000 songs. To his credit, he was one of the people who signed the protest note against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, but unlike most of the people who signed it, he wasn’t blacklisted for doing so; perhaps because by that time, banning any song that Kurt Demmler had a hand in writing would have left the country virtually silent. Later, in September of 1989, he was also one of the many musicians in the GDR to sign the Rock Musician and Songwriter Resolution (Resolution von Rockmusikern und Liedermachern), a petition calling for changes in the East German government.

It is a little ironic that Demmler is singing in this film about sex, since it was sex that proved to be his downfall. In 2009, Demmler was charged with the sexual molestation of six young girls who had auditioned with him for a group he was reportedly putting together. The indictment further charged him with 212 cases of sexual molestation of girls between the ages of 10 and 14. This wasn’t the first time that Demmler had been charged with sexual molestation. In 2002, he was fined 1,800 Euros in a similar case. While awaiting trial on the charges, Demmler hanged himself in his jail cell.

Many of the musical sequences in DEFA Disko 77 are remarkably—perhaps even aggressively—ill-designed. Putting a tomboy like Chris Doerk in a frilly outfit from the late 1800s just doesn’t work. Shots of her singing her song, “Käfertango” (“Beetle Tango”) are intercut with shots of (what else?) Beetles. Equally ill-conceived is the Reinhard Lakomy video of his song, “Liebe im Wald” (“Love in the Forest”). Lakomy, with his denim outfit, Prell-girl hair, oval shades, and droopy moustache was the perfect East German hipster circa 1977. His appearance was so readily identifiable that Nina Hagen once parodied him on East German television. In the video we see Lakomy, in his usual garb, trying to seduce a woman dressed like Marie Antoinette. Why she is dressed like this is never explained. The action in the video follows the song lyrics and is amusing, but it’s not one of Lakomy’s better tunes.

The most curious aspect of DEFA Disko 77 is how aggressively cluttered and ill-composed each musical sequence is. Scenes are filled with gantries, light poles, desks, and stagehands. In the video for the rock group Karat’s song, “Charlie,” a complex dance number is made nearly unwatchable by the camera’s constant movement around the perimeter of room. As the camera circles, dozens of people working at desks obscure the view. The end result looks like it was shot from the perspective of a small child trying to catch a glimpse of a parade between the legs of the adults. To make matters worse, the band performs on a balcony three floors up while the camera stays at ground level, constantly circling around the building, as if trying to figure out where the music is coming from. Still, this is the only video in which a couple is actually dressed as if they are going to a disco. Everyone else on the dance floor, however, is dressed in a crazy variety of outfits, including some that look suspiciously like the spacesuits from In the Dust of the Stars.

Responsibility for this film’s maddeningly anti-aesthetic appearance has to be laid at the feet of Werner W. Wallroth, the same director who gave us, the Gojko Mitic/Dean Reed Indianerfilm, Blood Brothers. Wallroth, by 1977, had made a dozen movies for cinema and television, so we can assume that he was intentionally avoiding traditional aesthetics, perhaps in an attempt to create a more spontaneous look and feel. Whether he succeeds or not is up to the viewer, but he is clearly throwing out a lot of the rules of traditional filmmaking. Nearly every musical number in this film is approached from a contrarian’s perspective. Angelika Mann’s song “Bei den sieben Zwergen” (“With the Seven Dwarves”), for instance, takes the Snow White story of the Brothers Grimm and inverts it with Snow White substantially shorter than any of the so-called dwarves.

Conspicuous by their absence from the film are Nina Hagen and the rock band, Renft. Nina Hagen had left the country a few months before the film was released. A year earlier, her step-father, Wolf Biermann, was singing at a concert in Cologne when the GDR officials let it be known that he was not welcome back into the GDR (Biermann had been born in Hamburg, so he was, by birth, a West German). Although very much a socialist, his songs attacking the stagnation occurring in the upper ranks of the SED were seen as a threat to the authorities. Biermann’s wife, the popular East German actress, Eva-Marie Hagen, and her daughter Nina petitioned to be allowed to join Biermann in the west. Nina let it be know that if not allowed to join him, she would replace him as the voice of protest in the GDR. After some hemming and hawing, the authorities finally agreed to let the two woman leave the country. By 1977, the young Nina was already one of the GDR’s most successful singers. Back then, she was cute as a button and tended to sing novelty songs about sneezing and tango dancing. Her most famous song from this period was “Du has dein Farbfilm vergessen” (“You forgot the color film”), sung from the perspective of a woman who is really, really pissed at her boyfriend (husband?) for using black-and-white film during their vacation.

Renft, on the other hand, had been banned before the Biermann debacle. The band, led by singer/bass guitarist Klaus Renft, was one of the better rock bands in the GDR, but their lyrics, mostly penned by singer Gerulf Pannach, often ran afoul of the authorities with their challenges to the status quo. Finally, in 1975, the government decided to solve the problem by erasing all evidence that the band ever existed. Renft LPs were removed from stores and from playlists, both past and present. Two of the members were imprisoned for nine months at the infamous Stasi prison in Alt-Hohenschönhausen. This tactic did succeed in breaking up the band (temporarily), but did little to diminish interest in them. If anything, it turned them into icons of change and challenge, and gave them a cult underground following. The verboten Renft LPs became highly sought after items on the East German black market. After the Wende, the band got back together. Since that time, several of the original members (including Klaus Renft) have died, but the band continues to perform.

But the biggest star missing from the DEFA Disko 77 line-up is Frank Schöbel. Schöbel was on top of the pops in 1977, but for whatever reason (perhaps some reader can enlighten me) he does not appear in this film. His ex-wife, Chris Doerk, is here, along with Dorit Gäbler, who appeared with Doerk and Schöbel in Nicht schummeln, Liebling: the follow-up to Hot Summer, and their last feature film together. This was around the time that Schöbel and Doerk broke up, so perhaps that was a factor in his absence from this film.

In a way, DEFA Disko 77 works as a metaphor for the state of East Germany in 1977. The film starts with punchy rock numbers that, while not really disco, come closer to fulfilling the film’s title than the later numbers. By the final sequence, the film has drifted so far from the stated goal that it must have left audiences confused. The introductory black-and-white sequences are often shot with hand-held cameras from behind balcony railings, and around corners. These scenes, reminiscent of surveillance videos, make it look like the camera is spying on the performers and can’t help but make one think of the Stasi, who undoubtedly were busy making similar videos of everyone involved with this film at that time. It is hard to believe that this is unintentional, but it is handled so innocuously that it got by the censors.

The final number is the most telling of all. To close out things, the filmmakers chose a song by Dorit Gäbler and Wolfgang Wallroth titled “Es wird bald Frühling sein” (“It will be spring soon”). Musically, this is a fairly standard German schlager, so why was this song chosen to close the movie? The fact that Wolfgang Wallroth was the director’s brother might have had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, it leaves the movie in a strange place. Finishing things in a downward arc that takes us from an experimental beginning to traditional German music at the end, as if to say, this is the path we’re taking as we march forward into the past. The song talks about how things are about to get better, but the visual information belies this sentiment. The duo sings in a house where all the snow is falling on the inside, trapping them in a wintry world. Later, we see the same duo, now hobos, walking along the train tracks, still chipper, but poorer. Interspersed throughout the video is scene in a junkyard that is slowly being covered with vinyl stick-on flowers. No matter how many flowers are added to the landscape, we never escape the fact that it is still a junkyard. Was the director trying to tell us something? Unfortunately, we may ever know. Werner W. Wallroth died a few months ago (August 9, 2011) in Erfurt.

Two months after DEFA Disko 77 played in the East German movie houses, The TV show Disco ‘77 aired in the United States. Disco ‘77 was the first nationally syndicated show devoted to disco music and was hosted by Randy Jones, better known as the cowboy from The Village People. Any similarity between the East German film and the American TV show, though, is not merely coincidental—it is non-existent.

IMDB page for film.

DEFA Disko 77 is not currently available in the United States.