Posts Tagged ‘plattenbau’

Our Short Life
As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, East Germany was way ahead of the West when it came to feminist issues. Back when American women were still expected to stay in the kitchen and be good housewives, East Germany had women in nearly every profession. By the seventies over half the judges in the GDR were women. They were also better at bringing feminist issues to the big screen with films such as The Destinies of Women and Her Third. Even so, East German was as guilty as everyone else when it came to offering women the opportunities to make movies. This started to change in the seventies (but only slightly), with the introduction of directors such as Evelyn Schmidt and Iris Gusner, and writers such as Anne Pfeuffer, Gabriele Herzog, and Regine Kühn. Still, when it came time to make the very feminist film, Our Short Life (Unser kurzes Leben), the duties were handed over to a man. Whether the film loses anything for this choice is hard to say. It is filmed with a keen eye and great sensitivity, and certainly gets its message across.

Our Short Life (Unser kurzes Leben) tells the story of Franziska, a young architect who is looking for meaningful connections in a world where few exist. She wants to make sure that her new buildings are an integral part of the community, and not mere Plattenbauen—those featureless high-rises common to East Germany that were erected to house workers as economically as possible. After hours, she hangs out at the local pub with its proprietress Frau Helwig, and tries to makes friends with the women in her rooming house, but finds it difficult due to the status and cultural differences that the state supposedly eliminated.

Our Short Life is based on Franziska Linkerhand, a heavily autobiographical book by Brigitte Reimann. During the late fifties, Riemann was the darling of the East German literary scene, lauded by no less than Walter Ulbricht as one of the leading lights of the Bitterfelder Weg (Bitterfelder Way), a movement sponsored by the East German government to encourage socialist thinking in the arts. As time went on, however, Riemann followed same arc as many other East German creative people, growing increasingly disillusioned with the government’s betrayal of basic socialist principles in favor of an intractable band of authoritarians who brooked no dissent. Riemann died of cancer in 1973, and the book was published posthumously. After the Wende, it was found that some parts of the book, in particular its references to the Stasi, had been removed before publication. A restored version was published in 1998.

Unser kurzes Leben

Playing Franziska is Simone Frost, whose height at just over 5’ (1.53m) suggests that the film’s title has an additional meaning. The size difference between her and the rest of the cast is emphasized throughout the film, giving her battles against the powers that be a certain Jack the Giant Killer quality. Before the Wende, much of Frost’s non-theatrical work was on television, and the same held true after the Wende. Most notably, she was a regular on the long-running kids’ show, Schloss Einstein (Castle Einstein) on the KiKa channel (similar to Nickelodeon). Shortly before the Wall fell, she and her husband Hans-Joachim Frank, created Theater 89 as a place to put on plays that the state wouldn’t touch. The theater is still going strong today. Tragicallly, Frost died of cancer at the age of 51 in 2009.

The rest of the cast is equally exceptional. Playing the level-headed Frau Helwig is Barbara Dittus, who is always a joy to watch. Franziska’s boss, Schafheutlin, is played by Hermann Beyer, brother to the East German film director, Frank Beyer. Franziska’s caddish love interest, Trojanowicz, is played by Gottfried Richter, who has done very little on screen since the Wende, preferring to work on stage (and who has the distinction of being one of the few East German actors who has not appeared on In aller Freundschaft). Playing Franziska’s office partner is Christian Steyer, who is best remembered as Paula’s caddish lover in The Legend of Paul and Paula. In a small role, playing Schafheutlin’s secretary is Christine Schorn, who has gone on to have a very successful career in unified Germany, and is best known to Western audiences for her turn as Frau Schäfer in Goodbye Lenin!

Barbara Dittus and Simone Front

Director Lothar Warneke’s road to becoming a director was more circuitous than most. He initially studied theology at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig, changing pursuits after the local vicar resigned. He got his first chance to direct as part of a team on Not to Me, Madam!, sharing directorial duties (but apparently not film stock) with Roland Oehme. Warneke achieved his greatest success for his 1987 film Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens. Two years later, the Wall came down and Warneke found it hard to get work after French and West German entrepreneurs dismantled DEFA and its film community. He then became a teacher at the film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

The original screen treatment for this film was by Regine Kühn. Her career got off to a strong start with Time of the Storks (Zeit der Störche). Directed by her husband, Siegfried Kühn. Time of Storks was a big hit and brought Heidemarie Wenzel and Winfried Glatzeder together for the first time. That film was a hit, but Kühn’s next screenplay, The Dove on the Roof, directed by Iris Gusner, was met with resistance by the film authorities and was quickly shelved. After that, she only wrote one more script during the seventies—Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities) for her husband. Most of her subsequent dramatic scripts were for films by her husband, including The Actress and Die Lügnerin (The Liar). Our Short Life, was one of the few screenplays she wrote for someone else. Reportedly, she found the whole affair disagreeable and could never watch the movie.1

Later, Kühn started writing and directing her own films, primarily documentaries. In 1994, she won the Deutscher Drehbuchpreis—a prize given for unproduced screenplays of merit—for Zarah L., her screenplay about the infamous Third Reich era singer, Zarah Leander. To date this film has yet to be produced.

Our Short Life did well at the box office and garnered a few awards and nominations. It was also a hit with the East German critics, who were always happy to see a film that could discuss sensitive topics without getting shelved. If they thought this signaled a relaxation of the restrictions on sensitive film topics, they would have been wrong. It was only a few months later, the film review board would come down hard on Jadup and Boel.

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1. Spur der Filme by Ingrid Poss, Peter Warnecke; Christoph Verlag (May 1, 2006)

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Insel der Schwäne
As is often the case, even in so-called free countries, restrictions on what one can describe in print is less restrictive than what one can show on film. Films such as Naked Lunch and Last Exit to Brooklyn seem bowdlerized when compared to their original texts. In East Germany, there are some perfect examples of this. Manfred Bieler’s Maria Morzeck oder Das Kaninchen bin ich was a popular book that didn’t meet any resistance until Kurt Maetzig turned it into a movie (The Rabbit is Me), and Horst Bastian’s Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality) was a successful novel, but was rejected as a movie premise when Rainer Simon presented the idea to DEFA back in the sixties. It would take another ten years before it was put on film. Likewise, Paul Kanut Schäfer’s Jadup did not merit much scrutiny as a book, but was immediately banned when the story was put on film as Jadup und Boel.

Benno Pludra’s Insel der Schwäne (Island of the Swans) was a popular teen novel in East Germany, and was often assigned as reading in schools. But when director Herrmann Zschoche went to film it, he immediately ran into problems. The story was seen as an attack on the way the people in charge were handling the needs and requests of the children in the housing complex, and by proxy, the needs and requests of the general public. Zschoche had to rewrite several scenes and inserts a few others to keep the film board happy. The resultant film is still strong, but varies in many key areas from both the book and the original screenplay.

Swan Island is the story of a young man who moves from an idyllic location beside a rural lake to one of the new Plattenbauen that were being built in the Berlin suburb of Marzahn in the early eighties. These Plattenbauen were intended to represent pinnacles of socialist community planning and forward thinking, but, as was so often the case in the later years in East Germany, the system’s ever-growing bureaucracy became its own worst enemy. Compromises to the ideas of the Marzahn communities were made every day until the final result was a pale shadow of the ideas and ideals of the original planners (for a great examination of this process see Peter Kahane’s The Architects).

The story centers around the teens living in the housing complex and their attempts to have some influence over the features of the complex’s playground. In this respect, the film is slightly reminiscent of Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge, in which teens in a U.S. planned community go on a rampage because of the lack of recreational facilities available to them. That film is based on actual events in Foster City, California. Clearly, adults not listening to the needs of children is, by no means, exclusive to any one country.

Swan Island is directed by Herrmann Zschoche. Zschoche had already demonstrated his knack for working with teens in his classic Seven Freckles, but while that film dealt with the simple dynamics of young love, Swan Island has bigger fish to fry. For this film, Zschoche turned to his old screenwriting partner, Ulrich Plenzdorf. Zschoche and Plenzdorf first worked together on Karla, one of the DEFA films that was infamously banned after the 11th Plenum. It would be a few years before Plenzdorf was invited back to work at DEFA after that, eventually scoring a big hit with his work on The Legend of Paul and Paula. Likewise, Zschoche found his career momentarily stalled after the Plenum, returning to the director’s chair in 1968 with Leben zu zweit, a safely inoffensive comedy. Zschoche joined forces with Plenzdorf again in 1974 with Liebe mit 16.

The main character, Stefan, is, to put it bluntly, a bit of a pill. He spends most the film with a glum expression, longing for his previous existence at his grandmother’s house at Swan Island. Not even the perky enthusiasm and budding sexuality of Rita and Anja, two girls in his class, can do much to lighten his gloomy demeanor. Besides his desire to see a good playground built at the construction site, the only other subject he shows any enthusiasm for is the defense of Hubert, a nerdy sad sack who is constantly under attack by a bullying older boy referred to only as “Windjacke,” so named for the windbreaker he always wears, which features an embroidered dragon on the back.

Ritter, Tod und Teufel

Like Seven Freckles, the film also explores psychological conflicts of coming-of-age that rage inside pubescent brain. As a metaphor for this turmoil the film uses a costumed jazz-rock trio called “Knight, Death and Devil” (Ritter, Tod und Teufel) that appears whenever Stefan is confronted with conflict or, in some cases, budding sexuality. Their music is manic and jazzy, reminiscent of Goblin’s Roller LP.1

Most of the kids in this film did not go on to have careers as film actors. Axel Bunke, who plays Stefan, went on to become a successful sound engineer at Deutschlandradio, and now goes by the name Axel Sommerfeld, having taken the unusual step of adopting his wife’s last name when he married. Mathias Müller had appeared in two TV movies prior to Swan Island, but this film appears to have been his last. Similarly, Britt Baumann, who plays the sultry Rita did one TV movie after Zschoche’s film, but nothing further, and Kerstin Reiseck, who plays the perky Anja did not pursue a career in film.

The notable exception is Sven Martinek, who plays Windjacke. Martinek continues to appear in films and television shows to this day. He is best known for starring in the popular TV spy show, Der Clown (The Clown), in which he played a vigilante who wore a cheap plastic clown mask when he attacked the bad guys. He has appeared in nearly every popular series on German TV, from Tatort to Der letzte Bulle (The Last Cop). He is one of the hardest working men in German television. He currently appears as a recurring character on Tierärztin Dr. Mertens (Zoo Doctor: My Mom the Vet) and stars in the Heiter bis tödlich series, Morden im Norden (Murders in the North).2

Swan Island was met with criticism from the establishment and mainstream critics. One of the film’s biggest opponents was film critic, Horst Knietzsch, who railed against the film as an unfair portrayal of Marzahn as a concrete wasteland. Others felt that the compromises made to the novel, like the compromises made by the adults in the film, ruined the story.

After the Wende, Marzahn gained a reputation as a place to be avoided, filled with neo-Nazis and thugs. In fact, Marzahn’s demographics still skew more to the left than most of Berlin’s other districts, and the buildings, in spite of all the compromises have certain beauty to them that combines the aesthetics of Modernism and Russian Constructivism. The picture I use for this blog’s logo is of the old Soyuz cinema in Marzahn.

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1.  My attempts to find out more about this band yielded no results and nothing shows up in the Amiga catalog. If anyone has information about this group, please either contact me or add a comment to this post.

2. Heiter bis tödlich is similar to Tatort, CSI and Law and Order franchises, where the different shows takes place in different cities or different departments. The term Heiter bis tödlich isn’t easily translated, It is a play on the meteorological phrase “Heiter bis Wolkig” (fair to cloudy), with the word “cloudy” being replaced by “deadly.”

How a film fares at the box office is highly dependent on when it is released. A movie that will one day be recognized as a cinematic treasure might bomb miserably upon release simply because it wasn’t what people wanted to see at that time. A classic example of this is Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival). The cynical humor that had served Wilder so well just a year earlier in Sunset Boulevard was suddenly passé. It was the 1950s and people wanted to be happy and optimistic and anti-communist. There was no room in the Space Age for naysayers and curmudgeons. So it was too for Peter Kahane’s film, The Architects (Die Architekten), which had the dubious distinction of screening in May of 1990, seven months after the fall of the wall made the problems that this film addressed relics of the past.

The Architects follows the fate of Daniel Brenner, a young architect who finds that the rigidity of the East German system is not allowing him to realize his goals. Rather than designing the buildings of the future, he is stuck designing bus stops and grocery stores  in a sweatshop-like government office. Upon meeting his former college professor at a party, he is introduced to an official who can approve his building ideas. Brenner assembles a team from his former schoolmates. Some of them have become cynical and don’t think the state will allow Brenner to complete his project, while others have maintained their enthusiasm and are looking forward to working on something meaningful. It looks like he will finally have the opportunity to make the buildings he wants, but, of course, bureaucracy gets in the way. All of the more innovative aspects of the architects’ design are nixed as impractical. Brenner’s obsession with the project eventually does in his marriage when his wife files for divorce and immigrates to Switzerland with their daughter. At the center of the project, a sculpture titled “Family in Stress” (reflecting Brenner’s own problems) is rejected for not sending the right message. “Family in Socialism,” the authorities decide, is a much better idea. In the end, Brenner gets his opportunity to create new buildings, but the cost proves to be too high.

The film is based on a story by screenwriter Thomas Knauf about the experiences of his friend, Michael Kny. In the late seventies, Kny and 17 other architects were asked to design the cultural centers and restaurants for the vast new complex of plattenbauen in Marzahn. By the end of the project, most of the architects had become so disgusted with the process that they quit the field altogether. Michael Kny soldiered on, and continues to work as an architect as one half of Kny & Weber Architects in Berlin.

The story had more than a little relevance to Peter Kahane. Born in 1949—the same year that East Germany was founded—Kahane and his contemporaries spent most of the seventies working as assistants. On the rare occasions when they were afforded an opportunity to make a film, it was usually for television only. Attempts to address the authorities at DEFA and the Ministry of Culture about this situation were either ignored or repressed. This was largely due to the two men in charge of these institutions: Horst Pehnert and Hans Dieter Mäde.

Horst Pehnert was the Head of Film Division of the Ministry of Culture and Hans Dieter Mäde was the general director of DEFA. From 1978 until 1988,  they had the last word on what films got made and who made them. It became clear that neither man—but Mäde especially—had any interest in promoting young filmmakers. Year after year, film-school graduates tried to show what they could do, but opportunities rarely came. Filmmakers had to submit “debut films” for review before they could be awarded a directing contract. A bad debut film, and a filmmaker might be denied another chance for several years. At the time of the Mauerfall, some of these young filmmakers had already submitted five debut films. During Mäde’s reign, he only awarded two directing contracts to young filmmakers. One of these was to Peter Kahane.

Peter Kahane first approached DEFA with the idea for this movie in December 1988. At that time, the wall was a formidable as ever. and the East German press was scrupulously avoiding any mention of the protests that were occurring in various parts of the country. Approval was given to make The Architects in December of 1988. Nonetheless, DEFA continually postponed the start of production throughout most of the following year. Filming finally began on October 2, 1989.

By this time, things had heated up considerably in East Germany. Two months earlier, Hungary had opened its border and thousands of East Germans fled the country through this passage. In Prague and Warsaw, still more sought extradition through the West German embassies, and were eventually granted it, they boarded a train for the west which went through East German. People lined up to see the train and a few brave souls attempted to jump on. Meanwhile starting on Monday, September 4 at the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, attendees began staging peaceful protests after their prayer meetings. By October 9—two days after the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic—over 70,000 people attended the march. The following week, over 120,000 people showed up The week after that, the number increased to 320,000; and this in a city with a population of 500,000 people! Some of the officials in East Germany were still hoping against hope that the Russians would come and fix this mess, like they did in 1953, but this time the Russians weren’t having any of it. In a feeble attempt to stave off further protests, the politburo ousted Honecker (claiming it was for health reasons) and replaced him with Egon Krenz, an ineffectual apparatchik who had spent his entire career avoiding rocking the boat. But by now, the boat wasn’t just rocking: it was foundering, The East German state was leaking worse than a Louisiana levee, and on November 9, 1989, the levee broke.

Shortly before what was supposed to be a run-of-the-mill press conference, politburo member, Günter Schabowski, was handed a memo stating that East Germans would be allowed to travel abroad. The ruling was supposed to take place the following day, giving the officials time to set new procedures in place; but nobody had bothered to inform Schabowski of this. When asked when the ruling would take effect, he replied, “As far as I know, it’s effectively immediately.” (“Das tritt nach meiner Kenntnis… ist das sofort, unverzüglich.”) At first, people blinked and wondered what Schabowski was talking about, and then the realization of what he said sank in. People thronged to the border crossings requesting to visit the west, but the guards had heard nothing of Schabowski’s statement. They frantically called for instructions on what to do, but party officials were in short supply that night (I’ll talk more about this in my next post). At first, they were told to let people through, but to mark their passports so that they couldn’t come back into the country. This was rescinded a few hours later and everyone was allowed to cross freely back and forth across the border. That night was an all-night party in the west, with East Germans thronging the city buying all those things they couldn’t get in the GDR. Within hours every store in West Berlin was sold out of fruit, candy, and porn.

Meanwhile, Kahane kept filming. Like the film’s protagonist, he was single-minded in his goal, and what was happening in East Germany at the time was just background noise. On the night of Schabowski’s press conference, Kahane and his crew were filming on at the Electrical Industry building on Alexanderplatz. An American press team came up to them and asked what they would do now that they were free. “We thought the Americans had lost their marbles,” Kahane said. “The wall was an immutable certainty. Nothing was as certain as death and the Wall.”

The film received an obligatory screening in May of 1990, but the East Germans weren’t interested in reliving the recent past and the West Germans were never much interested in anything that the GDR had to offer. The film tanked at the box office and wasn’t shown again in Germany for several years (it played in the states in 1993).

But only part of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of the Zeitgeist. The Architects is a hard film to love. For one thing, its protagonist—like the main character in Your Unknown Brother—spends most of his time in a deep funk. But unlike Your Unknown Brother, there are no scenes of Kafkaesque peculiarity to break things up. Instead, Kahane uses shots of the stark plattenbauen of Marzahn for the interstitial scenes. Kahane infuses the film with very little humor, and when he does it is usually mordant. Most of the time people are either expressing their pessimism or having their hopes shot down. In this respect, the film accurately reflects the feelings of many East Germans prior to the Wende, but that doesn’t necessarily make for fun viewing.

In one of the final scenes, we see Brenner standing on the far side of the Brandenburg Gate, trying to spot his daughter on the distant platform that Wessis used to gawk and jeer at the Ossis (we’ll see this platform used for humorous effect in the 1999 comedy, Sonnenallee). Like everything else in his life, Brenner’s attempt to see his daughter is a study in futility; the platform is too far away and there are too many people on it. When this scene was shot, the border was already open and the wall was in immediate danger of being torn down. Kahane had to position the cameras carefully to avoid showing the lighting platforms that the western news media were using to broadcast events. Perhaps, had Kahane incorporated the Wende into his script, the film would have fared better at the box office. It would have, at least, added a note of optimism to an otherwise bleak story. But as a document to the frustrations that creative people faced in the GDR, it is unparalleled.

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