Posts Tagged ‘Pinochet’

Isabel on the Stairs
In 1970, Chile—the most democratic of South American nations—held a presidential election that would change the course of things in that country for the next twenty years and still affects it to this day. The election was a close one. No candidate achieved a majority, but one candidate came out slightly ahead of the others in the popular vote: Salvadore Allende. Allende was a passionate man who believed strongly in socialism and wanted to prove that a country could be both socialist and free. Unfortunately for him, there was one global power that wanted to prove above all else that this was not possible and it would do everything in its power to make sure that this was true. That country was the United States. Even before he was finally elected, the CIA spent millions backing Allende’s opponents in earlier campaigns. When Allende did become president, the U.S. began to systematically disrupt the Argentinian economy. Although that campaign was successful, the rejection of Allende wasn’t forthcoming, so the boys at the CIA helped back a coup to take over Chile and turn that former democracy into a military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. Nice work Uncle Sam.

Once Pinochet started eradicating everyone who disagreed with him, political activists began fleeing the country. Many countries accepted these refugees, including countries that would usually have sided with the U.S. but not this time. Given the fascist nature of Pinochet’s regime and the fact that it was backed by the U.S., it’s not hard to figure out which side the GDR supported. The East German government accepted hundreds of refugees from Chile.1 Isabel on the Stairs (Isabel auf der Treppe) is the story of one of those families and the inevitable culture shock that one faces when exiled in a foreign land.

The film follows the story of Isabel (Irina Gallardo), the daughter of a singer named Rosita Pérez (Teresa Polle). Perez was a famous political singer back in her homeland, but here she’s just another immigrant. She’s as Chilean as can be, and finds it very hard to adapt to life in Germany. When she is asked to perform at a local school, the affair ends badly because the audience of pubescent teens has trouble sitting quietly while listening to a woman sing songs in a language they don’t understand. The songs are deeply emotional and meaningful for Perez, but to the kids they’re just music, and not even the kind of pop they prefer. It’s an honest portrayal of a realistic situation.

Isabel isn’t faring much better. She sits on the stairs every day waiting for a letter from her father back in Chile. We usually see her staring through the metal balustrade, which looks like a jail from that perspective, watching the postal worker slowly climb the stairs to deliver letters to each floor. But is the jail of her own making? The movie leaves that up to the viewer to decide.

Isabel auf der Treppe

Isabel does have one friend though: Philipp (Mario Krüger), the son of the Kunze’s, the family that sponsored Isabel and her mother. When the two families first met, everyone was excited and happy, but over time the Kunze’s and Mrs. Pérez have become virtual strangers. The Kunzes are good people, but their initial joy at meeting Rosa and Isabel has faded. The two cultures are so different that long term friendships require more effort than anyone is willing to put into the relationship. Mrs. Pérez shuts herself off from the outside world and waits to hear from her husband. Knowing what we know about the Pinochet regime, we already know that the odds of him surviving are slim.

Isabel on the Stairs is directed by Hannelore Unterberg, who, along with Ingrid Reschke, Iris Gusner, Evelyn Schmidt, and—towards the end of the GDR’s existence—Helke Misselwitz was one of the few women actively working as a director at DEFA. As discussed previously, although East Germany was better than the West about addressing women’s issues on film, they were still primarily a boys’ club when it came to hiring directors. During its final years, Unterberg was the most active of the female directors. She studied cinematography at the Film University in Babelsberg (Filmuniversität Babelsberg) and worked throughout the seventies as an assistant director. Most of her films at DEFA were aimed at children, with titles such as Concert for Frying Pan and Orchestra (Konzert für Bratpfanne und Orchester), The Boy with the Big Black Dog (Der Junge mit dem großen schwarzen Hund), and Darn Misfortune! (Verflixtes Mißgeschick!). With the Fall of the Wall, Unterberg’s career hit the usual West German roadblocks. Most of her work since then has been for television.

The script for the film was written by Waldtraut Lewin, who worked as a dramaturge at operas and in theater before becoming a successful writer. She specialized in books for young people that both promoted tolerance and were historically accurate. Isabel on the Stairs was originally a radio play and won a Golden Sparrow (Goldener Spatz) award at the annual German Children’s Media Festival in Gera. After the Wende, she continued to write. Many of her books, especially after the Wende, are historical tales about the struggles of Jews throughout history. Lewin died in Berlin in 2017 at the age of eighty.

The cinematography was handled by Eberhard Geick, whose career received a big boost when Konrad Wolf chose him as the cinematographer for Solo Sunny, marking the first time Wolf used a cinematographer other than Werner Bergmann to shoot a film. Wolf chose Geick because of his eye for the tenements of Berlin, an eye he gets to demonstrate again here. He also worked on Held for Questioning and Miraculi. During the GDR’s final years, Geick was one of the few who was able to work on both sides of the Wall. Perhaps for this reason, after the Wende, Geick was able to continue working on films, although, like most other East German talent, he mostly worked in television after this.

Isabel on the Stairs

For most of the Chilean actors in the film, Isabel on the Stairs is the only feature film in which they appeared. Irina Gallardo made no more films for DEFA and moved back to Chile as soon as it was safe to do so. She continues to perform, but has made no more movies. Teresa Polle, who played Rosita Pérez appeared in smaller roles in a few more German TV films and shows. In the 2016 film Películas Escondidas (Hidden Films), some of the Chilean actors who worked on films for DEFA and the DFF are interviewed. Most remember their time in East Germany favorably, finding the GDR more secure and attentive to their needs than Chile.

The German actors in the film included Jenny Gröllmann, Jaecki Schwarz, and Barbara Dittus. Only Schwarz is still alive, and is better known these days for playing the former East German Volkspolizei turned hustler “Sputnik” on the crime show Ein starkes Team (which translates to “A Strong Team”—here’s a show that will definitely need a new name if it ever comes to the States). In an inverse of what happened to most East German actors after the Wall came down, Mario Krüger’s career as actor didn’t really take off until after 2001, when he started to appear on several popular television shows.

Given the current climate surrounding immigration, and the recent events in Venezuela, Isabel on the Stairs is as timely today as it was in 1984. It does a good job of showing the difficulties involved in being an immigrant without candy-coating it or making excuses. It also serves as a reminder of what can happen when the United States backs coup d’états.

Special thanks are in order here to Dr. Claudia Sandberg for her invaluable help with this article. Dr. Sandberg teaches at the University of Melbourne and is one of the world’s foremost authorities on German, Chilean and Argentine cinema and in transnational cinematic relations between Europe and Latin America. She was the co-director with Alejandro Areal Vélez of the 2016 documentary Películas Escondidas (Hidden Films), an investigation into German-Chilean visual material produced in East Germany in the seventies and eighties in collaboration with Chilean emigre artists.

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1. Exact figures were hard to find, but the number was probably in the thousands. One of these refugees was Michelle Bachelet, who later returned to Chile and went on to become the first female President of Chile. When asked about her time in East Germany, she speaks of it fondly of it and says “the time I spent in Potsdam and Leipzig was a very happy part of my life.”

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Singer

Communists loved Dean Reed. Coming, as he did from America, but rejecting his home country’s imperialistic meddling in the affairs of others, he was the perfect poster boy for the superiority of socialism over capitalism. Reed, after all, had been performing in concerts all over South America, and saw first hand how the CIA helped Onganía and Pinochet take over the governments in Argentina and Chile. Reed had been living in Buenos Aires, where he moved when he discovered that his records were more popular in South America than in the States. After the military coup in 1966, he found himself persona non grata in his adopted land. He went to Italy, where he starred in several spaghetti westerns, but Reed’s affable, good-looking anti-heroes never caught the public’s fancy the way that Clint Eastwood’s gruff and silent “Man With No Name” did.

In 1973, he went to East Germany to work on the film Kit & Co., based on Jack London’s Kit Bellew stories. The film was a hit and Dean Reed became the new darling of the Eastern Bloc. He sang like Elvis, looked so darned American, and was making movies in East Germany! He was a dream come true. Although on paper, the GDR wasn’t keen on the idea of matinee idols, they made a few exceptions when people proved to be good box office. Reed was one of those people. He took full advantage of his popularity and the perks that came with it, co-writing the screenplay for his next film (Blood Brothers), which was also a hit, and then directing El Cantor, a TV-movie based on the life of his good friend, Victor Jara.

Jara was a popular singer, theater director, and political activist in Chile. While Reed  was singing at a concert there, he met Jara, and the Chilean communist had a big impact on the young man from Colorado. Reed saw first hand the extent to which the rich were walking on the backs of the poor people in South America, and he became outraged. He started appearing at protest movements and giving free concerts in poor neighborhoods all over South America.

Victor Jara was a strong supporter of Chile’s socialist candidate for president, Salvador Allende. When Allende was elected , the CIA backed the military coup on September 11, 1973, led by General Augusto Pinochet. One of the first things Pinochet did was round up anyone who publicly supported Allende, and that included Victor Jara. The next day, Jara and the other prisoners were taken to the Estadio Chile, where they were held for several days. When a soldier,  jokingly referred to as “The Prince,” recognized Jara while the singer was moving to another part of the stadium, he shouted “What is this bastard doing here? Don’t let him move from here. This one is reserved for me!”* Jara was taken to the basement where he was repeatedly kicked and beaten. His hands were smashed with the butt of a rifle, and he was told, with venomous sarcasm, to try and play guitar. He responded by singing “Venceremos” (We Will Win). Enraged by his defiance, his tormentors set upon him once again, pummeling him and finally shooting him 44 times. His body was dragged into the street and left next to a graveyard on the outskirts of Santiago.

Dean was already in East Germany when he heard what happened to his friend. He convinced the DFF (East Germany’s state-owned television company) to let him make a movie about the Chilean singer-activist starring Reed himself. He would also direct the film from a screenplay he wrote. It was the perfect socialist story: peace-loving Marxist is brutally murdered in a coup financed by the United States. Who could ask for anything more? Working with Wolfgang Ebeling, who also co-wrote the Blood Brothers script, Reed created a mostly factual retelling of the life and death of Victor Jara and the troubles he encountered in his fatal battle for social equality in Chile.

Made, as it was, for East German television, El Cantor suffers from a few problems. The first, and the biggest one is Dean Reed himself. Reed was great at playing likable American knuckleheads, and he gives his portrayal of Jara his all, but Reed neither looks like nor sings like the dark-eyed and unmistakably Latino Jara. It is always a risky proposition for an actor/director to portray a famous person. Reed was one of the first people to engage in this one-two combination, Ed Harris did it in Pollock, but he didn’t have to sing. Closer to the mark, Kevin Spacey did it in Beyond the Sea, portraying Bobby Darin. Spacey, like Reed, is a good singer, and he also co-wrote his script.

The second problem with the El Cantor is the budget. Expensive location filming wasn’t an option, so East Germany has to stand-in for Chile, sometimes to the film’s detriment. This is, undoubtedly, one of the reasons there are very few wide-shots or scenes that convey the magnitude of the story. When the people are rounded up and herded into Santiago’s National Stadium (renamed for Victor Jara in 2003), we only see a small group. In truth, the stadium was filled with hundreds people held in inhumane conditions. In Joan Jara’s account of the morgue where she identified her husband’s body, the scene far a far more gruesome scene that the movie suggests:

“We go down a dark passageway and emerge into a large hall. My new friend puts his hand on my elbow to steady me as I look at rows and rows of naked bodies covering the floor, stacked up into heaps in the corners, most with gaping wounds, some with their hands still tied behind their backs … there are young and old … there are hundreds of bodies … most of them look like working people … hundreds of bodies, being sorted out, being dragged by the feet and put into one pile or another, by the people who work in the morgue, strange silent figures with masks across their faces to protect them from the smell of decay.”*

Another problem for the film comes, inevitably, from its timeliness. Pinochet was still in control in 1978 when the movie was made. Many of the facts about what happened to Jara only came out after the dictator was ousted from power. Reed has to rely on third-hand accounts and best guesses to fill in the story. Given that, he does a pretty good job with the information that was available at the time. The soldiers remain anonymous in the film. Since that time, some have been identified and charged, while another, Edwin Dimter, reportedly the infamous “Prince,” recently had his office invaded by protesters.

Starring opposite Reed as his wife (named Janet in the movie) is Friederike Aust, a dark-haired beauty who acted primarily in East German made-for-TV movies, and in popular television shows, such as Polizeiruf 110 and  Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort. Ms. Aust is an attractive woman and a good actress who deserves more attention that she’s received. After the Wende, She moved into the field of voice dubbing, replacing the voices on popular American TV shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Santa Barbara, and Six Feet Under.

The cinematographer for El Cantor is Hans Heinrich, not to be confused with the director of the same name. Heinrich first worked with Reed on Blood Brothers, and Heinrich’s work on that film is spectacular, with scenes that Hollywood only matched after the invention of the Steadicam. His work in El Cantor is more restrained but no less effective. The colors are less vivid, but that is probably a conscious choice, based on the fact that the film was intended for television. Those old CRT set were very bad at handling vivid colors, especially bright reds, so Heinrich works here from a softer palette of grays and greens.

El Cantor is a valiant effort to bring the story of South America’s most charismatic and idealistic martyr to a wider audience. It is a story that certainly deserves to be—no, needs to be—told. But the definitive movie on Victor Jara remains to be made. It is a gut-wrenching and shameful story that everyone, especially we Americans, should know.

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* An unfinished song: The life of Victor Jara, by Joan Jara