Posts Tagged ‘Peter Zimmermann’

Coded Message for the Boss
Second only to the Indianerfilme, East German spy films offer a view of the world so antipodal to Hollywood’s version that sometimes it feels like you’ve entered (or escaped from) Bizarro World. Russians and East Germans are the good guys trying to protect the world—free and otherwise—from the nuclear threat posed by West Germans and the Americans. The biggest difference is that, unlike the films from the West, the bad guys are shown to be complex, thinking people, whose reasons for championing capitalism are based on their belief in staying loyal to their countries in spite of any misgivings about the morality of government policies. The dangers of this sort of thinking are not lost on the Germans, who know better than most what happens when patriotism is left unchecked.

Coded Message for the Boss (Chiffriert an Chef – Ausfall Nr. 5) is the story of Wolf Brandin, and East German electrical engineering student recruited by the CIA to spy on the East German government. The story starts in 1959, when tensions between the East and the West are at their highest and the border between East and West Berlin is still porous and dangerous—for both sides. Brandin is chosen because of his frequent unauthorized visits to West Berlin. They think this means he prefers West Germany’s capitalism, and they plan to leverage his frequent trespasses but what the folks at the CIA don’t realize is that he’s only doing it to help his father obtain a medicinal ointment that’s not available in the GDR. After he is approached by the CIA, he goes straight to the Stasi, who convince him to play along, putting his life in danger and threatening his marriage when he’s forced to lie to his wife. This allows them to feed disinformation to the Americans, leading to the West being caught with its pants down when East Germany builds the Wall around East Berlin on August 13th in 1961.

The film is based on Günter Karau’s spy novel Go oder Doppelspiel im Untergrund (Go, or Double-Cross in the Underground). In the book, as its title suggests, the game of Go figures prominently in the story. Brandin’s CIA contact is a fan of the game, and arranges meetings at the Go club in West Berlin. Since the story takes place right before the Berlin Wall goes up, Go’s strategies of encircling and capturing opponent territories is a perfect metaphor for what was going on in Germany at the time, but director Helmut Dziuba chose to abandon the Go theme entirely, choosing instead to make the American contact agent Dr. Baum a fan of art museums and aquariums. It’s a weaker premise, but it does help boost the idea of Dr. Baum as a sort of James Bond character; a suave ivy-leaguer who enjoys the finer things in life. As already mentioned, Dr. Baum is not the kind of one-dimensional bad guy you’d find in an American spy film. He is thoughtful and clever, and is as worried about the escalating tensions between East and West as his East German counterpart.

Chiffriert an Chef

On IMDB, the title is translated as Code for the Boss: Sorty No. 5, which is not quite the title as it appears on the current English-language DVD release of the film. The second half of the title—Ausfall Nr. 5—is left out the title, which is probably just as well. “Sorty No. 5” is a perfectly acceptable translation, but the German word, Ausfall, also means failure. Since this half of the title isn’t introduced until the end of the movie, I can’t help but think that failure was part of what was meant here.

Dziuba directed the film from a script that Karau and his wife Gisela helped write. Dziuba was part of DEFA’s second generation of directors. These directors were born in the mid-thirties, so they experienced the effects of WWII, but were still too young at the end of the war to serve in the Wehrmacht. This group includes Herrmann Zschoche, Siegfried Kühn, Egon Schlegel, Lothar Warneke, Erwin Stranka, and Roland Oehme. Dziuba studied filmmaking in Russia, where he also worked for Radio Moscow, the Soviet counterpart to the U.S.’s Voice of America. As with most of the second generation DEFA directors, age and anti-Ossi attitudes prevented Dziuba from finding work once the Wall came down. His last film as a director was made for DEFA and released in 1992 (Jan and Jana). Once DEFA was dissolved, his career as a director ended. His last film credit is Die Blindgänger (The Blind Flyers), made in 2004. Dziuba died in 2012.

Brandin is played by Peter Zimmermann. A graduate of the “Ernst Busch” Academy for the Dramatic Arts. Zimmermann first appeared on screen in a secondary role in Heiner Carow’s Until Death Do Us Part. Coded Message for the Boss was his second film and his first starring role. Like most East German actors, there was some lag time between the fall of the Wall and his acceptance into television and movie production in the new Germany. During that time, he taught acting at the Academy of Film and Television in Babelsberg. More recently, he’s been seen playing Dr. Lutz Groth on the German women’s prison TV series, Block B – Unter Arrest.

Coded Message for the Boss

Coded Message for the Boss has an excellent score by Karl-Ernst Sasse. Sasse needs no introduction here, having provided excellent scores for East German films or every type (see Her Third for more information on Sasse). Unlike many soundtrack composers, who develop specific, recognizable styles, Sasse was a bit of chameleon, creating everything from minimal renaissance music (Godfather Death), to trippy psychedelia (In the Dust of the Stars). Here he creates a twangy guitar-drive theme song that suggests a more action-oriented film than Coded Message for the Boss delivers.

As a spy film, Coded Message for the Boss is low key and realistic, much like Radio Killer. Guns are drawn and shots are fired, but only for target practice when Dr. Baum is training Brandin to be a spy. It has more in common with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold than Diamonds are Forever. It is not the best of the East German spy films—that honor goes to For Eyes Only—but it is an engaging film that never relies on fantastic, state-of-the-art gadgets to resolve plot points.

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frau3

The Woman and the Stranger (Die Frau und der Fremde) was released in 1985, less than five years before the Berlin Wall came down. Like many of the late-period DEFA films, it concentrated less on the concerns of the collective than individual needs. It is probably for this reason that the film found an audience in West Germany and went on to win the Golden Bear at the Berlinale—a first for an East German film.

The film is based on Karl und Anna, a 1926 novella by Leonhard Frank, who also wrote Die Jünger Jesu (The disciples of Jesus)—the basis for Joachim Hasler’s excellent noir film, The Story of a Murder. The Woman and the Stranger starts in a Russian P.O.W. camp during the First World War. While incarcerated there, Karl becomes obsessed with fellow prisoner Richard’s wife Anna. Richard talks about her constantly, explaining every detail of their lives together. It is a life Karl wants. After a mix-up, Richard is shipped off to parts unknown and Karl takes advantage of the situation to escape. He goes to Anna, claiming to be her husband. Anna doesn’t buy it for a second, but Karl does seem to know an awful lot about her. He moves in, but what about Richard? A reckoning clearly is at hand.

Die Frau und der Fremde

The story borrows heavily from the 1560 case of Martin Guerre. Perhaps it was Guerre’s last name that inspired Frank to tie the story to World War I. In the original case, a man showed up in Artigat, France, claiming to be the missing husband of of a local woman. The man moved in with the woman and they had two children before he was found out and eventually hanged.

An eternal sticking point in the original Martin Guerre story is the matter of the wife’s complicity. How could she not know that this man wasn’t her husband? Scholars still argue over this. In Leonhard Frank’s story, there is never any doubt that Anna knows Karl isn’t her husband, but his knowledge of every aspect of her life attracts and bewilders her. The desolation, loss, and confusion that World War I brought made it a perfect platform for the story. So perfect, in fact, that a year after Karl und Anna was published, the case of the Collegno amnesiac came to trial in Italy, in which yet another man was charged with pretending to be a woman’s missing husband.

Karl und Anna caught the attention of filmmakers almost immediately. It was made into the movie Heimkehr (Homecoming) in 1928 by Joe May, and then again in 1947 as Desire Me—a fiasco of a movie that nearly killed Greer Garson, had four directors, all refusing to take credit for it, and marked the beginning of the end of Louis B. Mayer’s reign at MGM. In America, the novella was released as a Signet paperback under the title Desire Me, with a typically lurid cover.

Desire Me paperback

The Woman and the Stranger is the third—and best—attempt to turn Frank’s book into a film. It was directed by Rainer Simon, one of DEFA’s best directors. Mr. Simon’s films range from fairytales (Sechse kommen durch die Welt) to comedies (Zünd an, es kommt die Feuerwehr). His style is impressively unconventional. In The Woman and the Stranger, for instance, he employs the use of color and sepia-tone to convey the various portions of the narrative. Normally this technique is used to convey part of a story that take place in the past, but here it is used to convey the internal thoughts and the external action in a most effective and unusual way. [For more on Rainer Simon, see Jadup and Boel.]

Playing Karl is Joachim Lätsch. Mr. Lätsch graduated from the Ernst Busch School for the Dramatic Arts in Berlin and started working film immediately. His first feature film was Roland Gräf’s Fariaho, The Woman and the Stranger was his second feature film. He appeared in several more East German films before the wall fell, including the seldom screened East Germ/Vietnamese coproduction, Dschungelzeit (Jungle Time). Since the Wende, Mr. Lätsch is one of the few East German actors who has appeared in more feature films than television shows.

Anna is played by Kathrin Waligura. The films marks Ms. Waligura’s first feature film appearance. In fact, she was still in drama school when she starred in this film. Mr. Simon was so impressed with her, that he cast her in two more of his films. As with many other East German actors, most of her post-Wende work has been on TV. Today, she is best known for her role as Stefanie Engel in the popular hospital series, Für alle Fälle Stefanie (For All Cases Stephanie). Most recently, she starred in Nico Sommer’s Familienfieber (Family Fever).

Kathrin Waligura

Playing Richard is Peter Zimmermann, another graduate of the Ernst Busch School for the Dramatic Arts in Berlin. Mr. Zimmermann started his film career in 1979 with two memorable films: Until Death Do Us Part, and Coded Message for the Boss (Chiffriert an Chef – Ausfall Nr. 5). Mr. Zimmermann continues to act, primarily in television roles, since 1994 he has taught at the film school in Babelsberg. He is married to Heike Jonca, and their daughter, Nele, has gone on to become a successful actress in her own right.

Also seen briefly in smaller roles here are Ulrich Mühe, Hans-Uwe Bauer, and Christine Schorn, all of whom have gone on to have successful feature film careers in unified Germany. Sadly missing from this roll call is Katrin Knappe, who was so memorable as the simple Boel in Mr. Simon’s previous film, Jadup and Boel. With her dark brown eyes and unique looks, we should have seen more from this actress, but after the Wende, she appeared in no more films. She continued to act, but switched to giving lectures on elocution.

As mentioned earlier, The Woman and the Stranger was the only East German film to ever win the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. This isn’t to say it was the first East German film to deserve this award—one can cite several instances where the films coming out of East Germany were better than anything coming from West Germans at the same time—but it does signal the beginning of a shift in the relationship between east and west. A shift that would come to a head on November 9th, 1989, when the border opened up for good.

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