Posts Tagged ‘politics’

In December of 1965, The 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the SED left East Germany’s film industry in ruins. Some films (most notably, The Rabbit is Me) were shelved after playing briefly in theaters, while others (e.g., Born in ‘45, Carla, and When You Grow Up, Dear Adam) didn’t reach the theaters until after the wall came down. One film that managed to squeak through the initial purge was The Trace of Stones (Spur der Steine)—partly because it was still being worked on when the Plenum occurred, and partly because it was based on one of the most popular books in East Germany. But it was doomed. After all, it was a film about a party leader who cheats on his wife and a likable anti-hero who flouts authority at every turn. Never mind that the book concludes with the anti-hero embracing the party philosophy, any story that dared to come near the touchy subject of SED politics after the 11th Plenum was treading on dangerous ground.

The Trace of Stones is the story of two competing work projects in the fictional towns of Schkona und Leupau (thinly disguised versions of Schkopau and Leuna: two industrial areas near Halle). At one of the sites, a man named Hannes Balla runs things his own way. He is not averse to cheating and bribery if it keeps his crew in work. As building materials become more scarce, Balla and his gang finds ways to get what they need to keep their project on track. The party officials are not completely happy with this, but Balla gets the work done, so they look the other way. Into this scenario come two idealists: Werner Horrath, a by-the-book party leader, and Kati Klee, a young female Engineer. Soon a romantic triangle develops between Horrath, Klee, and Balla, which sends the delicate equilibrium of the community tilting out of control.

Some critics have compared The Trace of Stones to an American western. Manfred Krug as Hannes Balla certainly has a swagger and an imposing presence similar to John Wayne’s in the John Ford and Howard Hawks films, and some of the scenes with the Balla Brigade have a kind of Magnificent Seven quality about them; but, as an American friend of German literature professor, Dr. Frank Höernick pointed out, “John Wayne would shoot; not stand around chatting.”

If anything, it resembles that other American classic, The Scarlet Letter. Like Hester Prynne, Kati Klee bears up under the community’s disapproval with quiet dignity. And like the errant Reverend Dimmesdale, Werner Horrath is basically a good man who keeps his adultery a secret until he can no longer stand the hypocrisy. That’s as far as the comparison goes, however, because the third party in this triangle, Hannes Balla is nothing like Hester’s sneaky reptile of a husband, Roger Chillingworth. Balla—in spite of his love for anti-authoritarian antics—is a man of strong principles. He believes in the goals of the party, and even when he does things that break the rules his reasons are sound. At the beginning of the movie, he seems like the most amoral one in the lot, but by the end, he seems like the most righteous.

After squeaking by the authorities with a few minor cuts, the film opened in theaters, but party officials decided they had made a mistake. In a feeble attempt to rectify the situation, they sent people to the theater to sit in the audience and boo and shout. The film ran only three days. It was then was classified as “hostile to the SED,” and was not shown again until 1990. This decision by the party officials shows just how confused and wrong-headed they had become in the wake of the eleventh plenum. At its core, the film is about a renegade scofflaw who realizes the importance of governing laws. Throughout the film, Balla examines the East German way of life, and comes to the conclusion that, whatever its faults, it is better than the west. If anything, The Trace of Stones is a defense of the system, but there was no explaining this to the party officials in 1966.

After it was banned, Frank Beyer’s career as a director came to an abrupt halt. He was sent to work in theater until 1971, when, thanks to the loosening of a restriction on DEFA after Honecker took over, he was allowed to make a couple in TV movies. In 1975, he returned to feature films with a bang: Jakob the Liar—his first feature film since The Trace of Stones—was the first and only East German film to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Kati Klee is played by Krystyna Stypulkowska, a Polish actress who had impressed the international film community with her performance as Pelagia in Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje). At the time, Ms. Stypulkowska spoke no German, so her voice was provided by the popular East German film star, Jutta Hoffmann. In an interview, Ms. Stypulkowska said she thought that Hoffmann’s voice worked well for her character because it made her sound more like a party member.

To play Hannes Balla, Manfred Krug was chosen. At that point, Krug was best known to East German audiences as a singer. He had done dramatic films already (e.g., Five Cartridges and Professor Mamlock), but it was his performance in Midnight Revue that captured the public’s fancy. He appeared regularly on East German television, and his albums sold well in the GDR. As one of the many people in the East German film community to protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann in 1976, Krug found himself blacklisted. He asked to be allowed to move to the FRG, and his request was granted in 1977. After moving to West Berlin, he starred in several TV shows, including Auf Achse (On the Axle), a popular show about German truckers, and the ever-popular crime drama, Tatort (Crime Scene), in which he played Head Commissioner Paul Stoever, who was not averse to bursting into song. In 1996, he wrote Abgehauen (Scram), an autobiographical account of his time in the GDR. The book was a big hit in Germany, and was made into a TV movie by his old friend, The Trace of Stones director Frank Beyer. Krug has gone on to publish four more books in Germany. He lives in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin, where he has resided since he left East Germany.

Werner Horrath, the adulterous Communist party secretary is played by Eberhard Esche. In some ways, Esche has the most difficult role. In western literature, the adulterer usually comes off as a complete cad, never intending to tell the wife about his lover or to marry his mistress. Horrath is not exactly a cad, but we are never sure if he is going to do the right thing. This creates an interesting tension in the character. At times we like him, and at other times we want to slap some sense into him. In terms of strength of character, he is no match for Balla. Esche was a popular theater actor in East Germany and was, for a time, married to the Dutch actress, Cox Habbema (Eolomea), with whom he co-starred in the Märchenfilm, Wie heiratet man einen König (How to Marry a King). He died of cancer in 2006 and is buried in the Französische Friedhof (French Cemetery) in Berlin.

The Trace of Stones is also notable for one of the most amusingly self-deprecating lines in East German cinema. Shortly after Kati Klee arrives at the worksite, Balla stops by her room and asks if she wants to go out on a date. “I wanted to ask you to the movies,” he says. “I’d even watch a DEFA film with you.” Maybe this is really why the banned it.

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A few years stand out in East German history. 1961, when the wall was built, and 1989, when the wall fell, are the most obvious examples, but coming in a close third is 1965. This was year of the 11th Plenum of the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or SED), East Germany’s ruling party. What had started as an economic summit, suddenly turned into a cultural purge, relegating some of the best films that DEFA had to offer to the vaults, and pushing some filmmakers and writers away from their chosen professions.

After the wall went up, East Germany was faced with a dilemma. The economy was stagnating, the Five Year Plan model wasn’t working, and the West was making political hay of it. General Secretary Walter Ulbricht decided to follow Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev’s lead and move the GDR away from the centralized communism of Stalin to a more localized model. Starting in 1963, Ulbricht, economic advisor Wolfgang Berger, and Planning Commissioner Erich Apel, came up with the New Economic System (initially dubbed Neuen Ökonomischen System der Planung und Leitung (NÖSPL) , but later shortened to Neues Ökonomisches System (NÖS)). It was a good plan, and history shows that it might have worked, but Ulbricht didn’t count on the conservative groundswell that was rising in the upper echelons of the USSR. Some Russian politicians—particularly the head of the Supreme Soviet, Leonid Brezhnev—felt that Khrushchev was moving their country away from the government’s core principles. While he was on vacation in 1964, Brezhnev made his move and Khrushchev returned to Russia to find himself out of a job. This left Ulbricht in a sticky position. He had hitched his star to Khrushchev’s, but suddenly that star had fallen from the heavens. The NÖS was successful, but it rubbed a lot of people at the top the wrong way, and the new powers in Russia didn’t like it at all.

By the time the 11th Plenum was scheduled to take place, it was clear to almost everyone that the NÖS was a non-starter. Less than two weeks before he was scheduled to present his work on the NÖS at the 11th Plenum, Erich Apel, one of the plan’s chief architects, committed suicide. Suddenly the NÖS wasn’t just disliked, it was too hot to handle. No one wanted to bring it up at the meeting, so—like U.S. politicians, when they are afraid of addressing real issues—they turned instead to the entertainment industry. Films were getting too liberal, they complained. Why, some were downright anti-socialist.

Twelve films were banned at the 11th Plenum, none was more notorious than The Rabbit is Me (Das Kaninchen bin ich), directed by Kurt Maetzig. The Rabbit is Me is based on Maria Morzeck oder Das Kaninchen bin ich, a book by Manfred Bieler that was already banned when Maetzig decided to make the movie. It is a first person account of Maria, a young woman whose brother is sent to prison for breaking the GDR civil agitation laws (staatsgefährdender Hetze). Maria is never entirely clear as to what her brother did. Quite coincidentally, a man she meets at the opera turns out to be Paul Deiter, the judge who sentenced her brother. While pursuing the release of her brother, she falls in love with the judge (who is married) and soon becomes his mistress. Through her eyes we see that the judge is as bourgeois and status-oriented as his western counterparts. Worse, he is so dogmatic in his approach to the law that he can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong. Bieler had intended his book to be a warning to the GDR, but the warning came too late. The book was promptly banned. It is one of life’s mysteries how the film ever got made at all.

In the film, Maria is played by the beautiful Angelika Waller in her first starring role. She brings just the right mixture of innocence and sexuality to the part. Paul Deiter is played by Alfred Müller, who had already made a splash in For Eyes Only—a popular East German spy thriller. Although other people come in and out of the story, everything revolves around these two. Since the story is told from the narrated perspective of Maria, Ms. Waller does most of the heavy lifting here, but she is helped admirably by cinematographer Erich Gusko’s moody gray camerawork  and director Kurt Maetzig nearly flawless mise en scène.

The Rabbit is Me opened in October, two months before the SED’s general assembly, but it was quickly pulled from theaters. Reportedly the government sent people to these screenings to boo and hiss and give the appearance that the audience was displeased with the film. It was held up as a prime example of what the conservatives felt was wrong with modern cinema. For this reason, films banned for their socio-political content were referred to derisively as “Rabbit Films” (Kanninchenfilme).* The film was shelved until 1990, when it, along with several other banned films, was screened in Berlin.

Although The Rabbit is Me was the flash-point for the cultural purge, its director, Kurt Maetzig, managed to avoid the penalties that some of his comrades experienced. This was partly due to his public “apology,” in which he accepted the blame for the sins of The Rabbit is Me without ever actually saying that he shouldn’t have made the movie; but it was also, no doubt, due to his status as a filmmaker. He was, after all, the man who made the Ernst Thälmann films, which were by then being shown regularly in classrooms all over the country (Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the German Communist party during the pre-WWII years, was a folk hero in East Germany akin to George Washington here. He was surreptitiously executed by Hitler who claimed that allied bombers were responsible for his death). Their participation in The Rabbit is Me apparently had no ill effects on the rest of the cast either. They all went on to make many more movies in the east, with the exception of Manfred Bieler, the author of the screenplay and the original book. Bieler moved to Czechoslovakia shortly after the SED’s decision, and then, after the Warsaw Pact invasion, fled to West Germany.

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*Horst Sindermann, the man responsible for coining the term Kanninchenfilme is the same man who christened the Berlin Wall: “antifaschistischer Schutzwall” (anti-fascist protective wall).