Posts Tagged ‘play’

Minna von Barnhelm
Not surprisingly, most of the films that came out of the DEFA studios in East Germany were concerned with the twentieth century, that being the century when old orders were overthrown in favor of various versions of Marxist philosophy. A few films went back as far as the late-nineteenth century, but concluded with the Second World War. Films that went further back than that were almost always fairytale films and operas but there were a few exceptions. One was Minna von Barnhelm, or the Soldier’s Fortune (Minna von Barnhelm, oder das Soldatenglück), which takes place in 1763, a few months after the Treaty of Hubertusburg put an end to the conflict between Prussia and Austria and drew to the Seven Years’ War to a close.

The film follows the misadventures of Major von Tellheim (Otto Mellies), who used his estate to help finance the war and now finds that the king won’t honor that debt, leaving him in serious debt. He was planning to marry Minna von Barnhelm of the play’s title (Marita Böhme), but now feels he cannot. Tellheim has been staying at a local inn, but loses his room to a lady and her chambermaid because he can’t pay the rent. The lady turns out to be Minna, who soon discovers that her beloved had sold his ring to help pay his debts. Tellheim does not want to marry Minna in poverty, and his pride won’t allow him to accept help from anyone. In an attempt to level the playing field, Minna pretends to be penniless too. The deceptions on both sides are helped along by Tellheim’s faithful friend and war buddy Sergeant-Major Werner (Manfred Krug), and Minna’s Chambermaid Franziska (Christel Bodenstein). Pretty soon, romance starts budding between the two accomplices.

The film is based on Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s play of the same name. The play was immensely popular in Germany and has been filmed several times (usually for television). In Germany, it continues to be performed to this day. Goethe even performed in a production of it when he was young. Playwright Lessing was born in Kamenz, near Dresden. He was the son of Lutheran minister and he went at the University of Leipzig where he studied theology, medicine, philosophy, and philology, which is a helluva course-load. There he met Friederike Caroline Neuber, an actress of renown in Germany. Neuber enlisted Lessing to translate French plays into German for her. Lessing became fascinated with the form and soon was writing his own plays. Along with Minna von Barnhelm, many of these plays are still performed today, including Emilia Galotti, Nathan the Wise, and Miss Sara Sampson.

Minna von Barnhelm

Almost all of the films Martin Hellberg directed were costume pieces, so it’s not surprising that Hellberg got his start in theater. Born in Dresden, Hellberg worked as a machinist until 1924, when he was hired by the Sächische Staatstheater in Dresden. He kept the job as general manager there until 1933, when Hitler came to power. Lessing was fired because he was a member of the German Communist Party. Thereafter, he held several jobs, often losing them because of his political beliefs. Like nearly every other able-bodied man in Germany, he was eventually drafted into the war effort. After the war, Hellberg went back to the theater. In 1952, he moved into films, directing The Condemned Village (Das verurteilte Dorf), a film about a town’s protest against a forced eviction in West Germany by the American military.1 Hellberg went on to direct several more films, including The Story of a Young Couple, The Ox of Kulm (Der Ochse von Kulm), The Judge of Zalamea (Der Richter von Zalamea), Emilia Galotti, and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (Viel Lärm um nichts). After the Shakespeare film, Hellberg decided to hang up his director’s hat and work exclusively as an actor. His roles included Arturo in Pinocchio, Goethe in Lotte in Weimar, and the old professor in Mephisto. Hellberg was still working when the Wall came down, but he was already well into his eighties by that point. He died in 1999.

Playing the excessively proud Major Tellheim is Otto Mellies. Born in 1931, Mellies attend the drama school in Schwerin from 1947 until 1949 and began appearing in on stage soon thereafter. He became a regular member on the company at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, and remained a member of the company for fifty years. Mellies got his first movie role in 1955 in Sommerliebe (Summer Love), a minor East German rom-com. His first major role was in Martin Hellberg’s film adaptation of Schilller’s Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love). The Wende had less effect on Mellies’ career than many of his fellow DEFA actors. Since 1989, he continued to appear films and TV-movies, as well as providing the voice for the German dubs of everyone from Paul Newman to Christopher Lee.2

Manfred Krug turns in an entertaining performance as Tellheim’s trusty sidekick Werner (for more on Krug, see his Obituary). The character of Werner is based on Paul von Werner, a Prussian officer who gained fame for his bravery in the Seven Years War and later went on to become the commander of Naugarten in Brandenburg. He died in 1785 and is buried in Toszek—now part of Poland.

Minna von Barnhelm

As Werner’s love interest Franziska, Christel Bodenstein is, if anything too pretty. She takes over the screen every time she appears. This isn’t a knock against Marita Böhme, but Böhme’s beauty is thoroughly modern and she looks out of place in eighteenth century garb, whereas Bodenstein seems right at home here, perhaps thanks to her previous forays into fairytale films (see Midnight Revue for more on Christel Bodenstein). Interestingly, Böhme and Bodenstein each played the love interest for Manfred Krug twice in 1962. Böhme as his love interest in On the Sunny Side (her first movie) and Knock-Out (Der Kinnhaken—literally: “The Sock in the Jaw”), and Bodenstein in Minna von Bernhelm and Midnight Revue.

One of the most remarkable things about Minna von Barnhelm is its cinematography and lighting. The images are sharp and colorful. So sharp, in fact, that I began to think that the motion smoothing feature on my TV had somehow turned itself back on (it hadn’t).3 The camera chases the actors around, following them from room to room, and occasionally engaging in dizzying POV shots. It’s not surprising, then, that the cinematographer in charge was Karl Plintzner, one of the very best cinematographers at DEFA. He was also responsible for the colorful cinematography of The Singing, Ringing Tree, New Year’s Eve Punch, and The Golden Goose. It’s also not surprising that around this time more portable Mitchell cameras (or Soviet knock-offs) were becoming available to the cinematographers at DEFA.

Reviews of Hellberg’s film were positive, with critics feeling he did justice to the play without tacking socialist dialectics onto it. In some respects, this play seems like just the type of romantic comedy that Hollywood would have been all over in the fifties. Likewise, it’s surprising that the BBC hasn’t turned this play into TV-movie.

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1. Ironically, while the film was still playing in cinemas, virtually the same scenario was playing out in the East German town of Streufdorf where troops were enlisted to quell a protest against the forced eviction of residents.

2. It should be noted that Christopher Lee actually speaks very good German, but he does have an accent, which is the reason for the dubbing.

3. Motion smoothing, or motion interpolation is a feature of HDTVs that is useful for getting a clear, blur-free picture when you’re watching football, but plays hob with the quality of a motion picture image. It is sometimes referred to as the “soap opera effect” because of its impact on an image. Movie people hate it. So much so that Tom Cruise recently appeared in a video with Mission Impossible – Fallout director Chris McQuarrie to tell people to turn it off when watching movies.

© 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.

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WozzeckWozzeck is an adaptation of Georg Büchner’s play, Woyzeck. The play has been performed on stage since 1913. It was the basis for Alban Berg’s popular 1922 opera and Manfred Gurlitt’s less popular one from a few years later. The Nazis banned both of these operas, but not the play. Gurlitt went on to make amends with the Nazis, which hasn’t helped his legacy (Berg died in 1935, so it never became an issue). The spelling of “Wozzeck” came from a misreading of the title due to the poor condition of Büchner’s manuscript, which was almost indecipherable due to fading.

The story of Wozzeck is well-known and based on an actual event. It is about a young soldier, so tormented and abused by his superiors that his mind finally snaps and he kills his wife. Georg Büchner never finished the play. It is believed that he had intended to end it with a courtroom scene that would tie everything together. As it stands, there’s a lot of room for interpretation, but the basic point never changes: You can’t treat people as inferior beings without consequences.

The DEFA film was the first film to be made based on the play. Since then, it has gone on to be the most often filmed of Georg Büchner’s works. There have been versions in Iranian, French, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, and Portuguese; Werner Herzog did a faithful adaptation of the play, while János Szász updated the story and filmed it in noirish black-and-white; and there are over a dozen made-for-TV versions, including a 2013 German one starring Tom Schilling that adds modern German/Turkish issues to the mix.

Wozzeck shaving scene

For the DEFA version, director Georg C. Klaren, who also wrote the screenplay, uses the conceit of setting the surrounding story in an operating theater where the body of Wozzeck is being discussed by a doctor and his students. The doctor had been using Wozzeck for absurd experiments, such as restricting his diet to peas, ar forcing him to avoid urinating. Now that Wozzeck was dead, the doctor blamed Wozzeck’s homicidal behavior on his genes. In attendance at the operating theater is a young Georg Büchner, still a student at this point. Büchner rejects the doctor’s supposition that Wozzeck was doomed from birth to be a killer and uses the moment to defend the soldier and show the part of the doctor’s part in the man’s eventual descent into homicide.

There is more than a hint of the Nazi in Wozzeck’s persecutors, from the doctor’s absurd experiments and his belief that you can tell the quality of a man by his appearance, to the outfits worn by the officers, which resemble those of the Gestapo.

Like many of the best filmmakers (Preston Sturges, Sam Peckinpah, Ingmar Berman and Federico Fellini, just to name a few), Klaren got his start as a scriptwriter. Besides creating his own scripts, he was also hired to write the German versions for films imported from England and Hollywood. He wrote and directed his first film in 1931 from his own novel, Kinder vor Gericht (Children in Court). Klaren had wanted to make a film of Wozzeck for many years, but couldn’t get any traction on it while Goebbels was in charge. Klaren’s left-leaning political views essentially kept him out of the directing business, but didn’t stop them from hiring him to write scripts for some of their propaganda films. He made a few films for DEFA, before returning to his home country of Austria where he made his last film, Die Regimentstochter (Daughter of the Regiment). He died in 1962 while visiting England.

Wozzeck whipping scene

Wozzeck is played by Kurt Meisel. Meisel’s Wozzeck isn’t as inherently psychotic as Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s version, nor as grubby as Lajos Kovács in János Szász’s version. Meisel’s portrayal evokes much more sympathy than most. He is an upstanding, likeable fellow, who tries to do the best he can, but has the deck stacked against him. There is some suggestion that he is already schizophrenic, but his murderous insanity grows under his mistreatment at the hands of those with more power.

Like Klaren, Meisel was an Austrian. He started working in films in 1934, playing Tip in the 1934 German adaptation of Little Dorrit and appeared in films throughout the Third Reich years. He appeared in the lavish and way over-budget Kolberg, a film sometimes credited with helping bring down the Nazi regime. Wozzeck is his only East German film. After that, he started directing his own films in West Germany and Austria. He is best known to American audiences as Alfred Oster, the man who teaches Jon Voight’s character to infiltrate the secret SS group, in the disappointing adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s excellent book, The Odessa File. Meisel continued to act both on stage and screen throughout his life and died in his hometown of Vienna in 1994.

Wozzeck

The cinematographer on Wozzeck is Bruno Mondi. Mondi was one of the leading cinematographers in Third Reich Germany, and was employed often during the early years at DEFA. Today he is best known for his colorful work on the Sissi films (see The Heart of Stone for more about Mondi). The editing was by Lena Neumann, one of the foremost editors during the early years of DEFA. The soundtrack was by Herbert Trantow, who, like Mondi, worked at DEFA until the West German film industry was back up and running, and then restricted his work to West German films. Trantow got his start in films with Wolfgang Staudte’s 1944 film, Der Mann, dem man den Namen stahl (The Man Who Stole My Name), which was banned by the Nazis and wasn’t put back together and re-released until 1996. Wozzeck was Trantow’s first DEFA film. He died in Berlin in 1993.

Klaren’s Wozzeck was well reviewed and popular, but its message was seen by the West German authorities as more pro-communist than anti-fascist, so the film did not screen in West Germany until 1958, and even then in limited runs. The DEFA film remained the only film version of the play until the sixties, when a strong renewal of interest in the story occurred. Starting in 1962, Woyzeck became a popular subject for TV movies, with seven different versions appearing on TV around the world from 1962 to 1968. Amazingly, the play wasn’t filmed for the movie houses again until 1979, when Werner Herzog did his version of the Büchner’s play (a 1973 Italian version received some theatrical distribution, but it had originally been made for television by RAI). There has never been an American film version of this play, although it seems like ripe territory for someone to bring an American slant to the story. Wozzeck reminds us that there are many ways to oppress a person, and that the effects of this rarely impact the oppressors, but can be fatal to others.

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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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