Posts Tagged ‘Ralf Kirsten’

Käthe Kollwitz – Images of a Life
In 1966, director Ralf Kirsten made The Lost Angel, a film about a day in the life of sculptor Ernst Barlach. That film centers around Barlach’s sculpture Der schwebende, which was destroyed by the Nazis for being “degenerate art.” The sculpture was inspired by Barlach’s fellow artist Käthe Kollwitz. So much so that the face on the sculpture is Kollwitz’s. Coming out, as it did, in 1966, the film fell directly into the path of the 11th Plenum’s Kahlschlag (literally: clear-cutting) and was promptly banned. The film was eventually screened in a highly edited form, but Kirsten clearly wasn’t through with the subject of German pacifist artists and their run ins with the Nazis, because in 1987, he released Käthe Kollwitz – Images of a Life (Käthe Kollwitz – Bilder eines Lebens).

Käthe Kollwitz is as different from The Lost Angel as apples from acorns. The earlier film is shot in black-and-white and follows the artist for a single day as he ruminates on how to respond to the Nazis. Käthe Kollwitz is in vivid color and charts the artist Kollwitz’s life from right before World War I until her death in 1945. The first film starts with the removal of Barlach’s sculpture from the Güstrow cathedral, while the second film starts with the actress Jutta Wachowiak, getting made up to play Käthe Kollwitz. Throughout the film, the story is interrupted with scenes of Wachowiak visiting various sites to learn more about the woman she was portraying. These interludes act as sort of a Greek chorus, filling in historical details where the narrative cannot. Since Kollwitz spent most of this time living with her husband in a large apartment in Berlin, the story is also interspersed with scenes of street life in her neighborhood and the changes it goes through during this time. Particularly poignant are the scenes involving an older couple that go from carefree to despondent as the movie progresses.

Kollwitz came from a middle-class background where socialism and religion were both important. Her talent was undeniable, and in spite of the inherent misogyny of the time, she managed to rise in the ranks of German artists, eventually being asked to join the prestigious Prussian Academy of Arts. After losing her son in World War I, Kollwitz became even more resolutely pacifist than she had been before the War, and eventually joined the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers Council for Art). Inspired by the woodcuts of fellow artist Ernst Barlach, Kollwitz applied her hand to this medium, creating the popular In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht (Gedenkblatt für Karl Liebknecht).


Jutta Wachowiak is considerably prettier than Kollwitz, but then, nobody looked quite like Käthe Kollwitz. In her early films, Wachowiak was often used as a character actress, cast in smaller roles. During this time, she was also appearing on stage and receiving acclaim for her performances there as well. In 1980, she scored her biggest success for her role in Günter Reisch’s The Fiancée (Die Verlobte). She continues to appear in movies and on television.

Fred Düren, who played Barlach in the earlier movie, returns here to play Käthe Kollwitz’s husband Karl. Düren got his start in theater, joining Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin Ensemble in the early 1950s, and performing with the Deutsches Theater Berlin from 1958 to 1988. Then Düren found religion; Judaism to be exact. He learned Hebrew, moved to Israel and became a rabbi (he certainly looked the part). Although he did a few TV movies after Käthe Kollwitz, his career as a film actor essentially ended with this film. Düren died in Israel in 2015.

Käthe Kollwitz was Ralf Kirsten’s last film. With his stubbornly idealistic streak, Kirsten may have found it hard to find work in communist East Germany, but it became completely impossible in unified Germany. With the fall of the Wall, he took up teaching at the Konrad Wolf Film and Television Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg. Kirsten died in 1998.

Modern interlude

This wasn’t the last film shot by cinematographer Otto Hanisch, but his career also ended with the Wende. In his case, this probably had more to do with his age (he was 64 when his last film came out) than East/West politics. While the cinematography in Käthe Kollwitz does not have the stunning impact of Claus Neumann’s rich, black-and-white photography in The Lost Angel, it is sharply-focused and richly in color, signature features of Hanisch’s work.

Reviews were mixed on the film. While everyone admired Jutta Wachowiak’s and Fred Düren’s performances, but some felt that the modern-day interludes took the viewer out of the experience and created a distancing effect, lessening the impact of the story’s tragic elements.

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Der verlorene Engel

Ernst Barlach was a German artist well-known for his plays, paintings, and particularly his sculptures. which powerfully expressed his feelings against war and the suffering it brings. Barlach wasn’t always against war. Prior to the First World War, he, like most Europeans, saw war as a noble endeavor, fighting to uphold and protect the values of one’s native land. He enlisted in the infantry and soon discovered that was not such a patriotic endavor after all. War is an ugly affair, fought by the powerless to protect the goals (or wealth) of a priveged few who never set foot on a battlefield. War brings misery, hardship, and death and he used his sculptures to make this point clear.

After WWI, Ernst Barlach championed pacifism in his plays and sculptures, and, for a while, the public went along with him. He received several awards for his work, and was a member of the Prussian and Munich art academies. Of course, all that changed when Hitler came to power. Barlach’s visions of pacifism did not jibe with the reborn war-mongering promoted by the Nazis. Although some Nazis, most notably Goebbels, thought highly of his work, a decision was made that, his work was yet another example of “degenerate art,” and was put of display at the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937 (Die Ausstellung „Entartete Kunst“), alongside the work of Marc Chagall, Georg Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and many others.

Fred Düren

The Lost Angel (Der verlorene Engel) is the story of one day in the life of Ernst Barlach. The angel of the title is his sculpture, Der Schwebende (usually translated as The Hovering Angel, but also as The Floating Angel), which was taken from the cathedral in Güstrow in the early hours of August 24th, 1937, and was destroyed by the Nazis. The action in the film takes place on the same day, after Barlach learns about the theft of his sculpture. He spends the rest of the morning observing the indifference of the public to the theft, remembering past events, and regretting his indifference to the increasing political power of the NSDAP.

The film was one of the film banned in the wake of the 11th Plenum. It was shelved for not delivering a clear Marxist message. It probably would have stayed there until after the Mauerfall, but the 100th anniversary of Ernst Barlach’s birth was coming up, and word of the banned film reached interested parties in Germany and Russia. With help from director Konrad Wolf, the film was eventually pulled out of storage in conjunction with the Barlach exhibition at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The censors only agreed to screenings of the film after heavy edits, removing twenty minutes from the final cut. This left the film in limbo between a full-length film and a long short (as oxymoronic as that sounds). The film received a few screenings, but only a few before it was shelved again. After the Wende, the film was resurrected, but the 20 minutes of footage edited out of the film in 1970 has yet to resurface and appears to be lost for good.

The film is based on Das schlimme Jahr, a novella by Franz Fühmann. Mr. Fühmann was a popular author in East Germany, best known for his children’s books and reinterpretations of folklore and myths. During WWII. he was a supporter of the Nazi regime, contributing news pieces on the war effort to German newspapers and writing poems for the Nazi weekly, Das Reich. After the war, he attended the Antifa-Schule in Noginsk—one of several camps set up to teach German soldiers the error of their ways. Apparently the lessons at the Antifa-Schule stuck, because Mr. Fühmann became a champion of of socialist ideals. At first he was supportive of the East German government, but as it became more restrictive and arbitrarily punitive, Mr. Fühmann became disillusioned. After the expatriation of Wolf Biermann, he was one of the first people to sign the protest letter against it. As with the others who signed the letter, he found himself blacklisted from many projects and under greater scrutiny by the Stasi, yet he remained defiant. In his will he wrote: “The bitterest thing is to have failed in literature and the hope of a society we all once dreamed about.” (“Der bitterste ist der, gescheitert zu sein: In der Literatur und in der Hoffnung auf eine Gesellschaft, wie wir sie alle einmal erträumten.”). As one final act of protest before dying of cancer, he asked that he be buried in Märkisch Buchholz, and not in “unloved” Berlin.

The Lost Angel

Ralf Kirsten directed the film. After studying at the film school in Prague, Kirsten began his career in television before moving to feature films. He had his first hit with On the Sunny Side, starring Manfred Krug. Mr. Kirsten and Mr. Krug had worked together on the TV movie, Hoffnung auf Kredit (Hope on Credit), and would work together on four more films. After the Wende, Mr. Kirsten started teaching at the Film and Television school in Potsdam (Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen Potsdam). His last film for DEFA before the Wall fell was a picture about Käthe Kollwitz (Käthe Kollwitz – Bilder eines Lebens), a colleague of Barlach’s and whose face adorns the Floating Angel.

Ernst Barlach is played by Fred Düren. Mr. Düren appeared in many DEFA films, including Five Cartridges, The Flying Dutchman, and Solo Sunny. He also made an appearance in Ralf Kirsten’s 1986 follow-up to this film, Käthe Kollwitz – Bilder eines Lebens, in which he played Käthe Kollwitz’s husband. Primarily working in theater, Mr. Düren was an actor’s actor. His portrayal of Faust in Goethe’s play is considered one of the best theatrical interpretations of a Goethe character, second only to Gustaf Gründgens’ performance as Mephistopheles. One need only compare his performance in The Lost Angel with the one in The Flying Dutchman—made only two years earlier—to see his versatility.

After the Wende, Mr. Düren’s life path took a very different turn from most of his colleagues. He converted to the Judaism, moved to Israel, and is now a rabbi. He only made one movie after reunification—a TV movie in which he played Albert Einstein.

Der Schwebende

Der Schwebende is a striking sculpture that is at once modern looking in its lines, and classical in its emotional effect. The film does a good job of expressing what a powerful piece of art Der Schwebende is. This is largely thanks to Claus Neumann’s fantastic cinematography. Nearly every frame in this film could stand alone as a photograph, from the opening shots of the angel, to the wedding scene, to the shots of the fields around Güstrow. Claus Neumann got his start at DEFA making documentary shorts. Unfortunately for him, the first two feature films he worked on for DEFA (Fräulein Schmetterling and this film) were both victims of the 11th Plenum. On the other hand, he was also fortunate because, unlike the work of his fellow cinematographer Roland Gräf, his work as the cinematographer did not also come under scrutiny. Mr. Neumann continued to work at DEFA until the end of its existence, contributing his camerawork to such films as Leichensache Zernik, Till Eulenspiegel, and The Flight. After the Wende he continued to work, primarily in television and for producer director, Rudolf Steiner. He retired from filmmaking in 1999.

Some movies are so beautifully filmed that, upon watching them on DVD, you find yourself wishing you could see them in a theater on a big screen. The Lost Angel is just such a movie. While it is unlikely that this film—or many other East German films, for that matter—will get repertory cinema screenings, the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst has done a superb job of translating this movie to disc. The scenes is which the statue is stolen from the church are so powerfully filmed, directed, and edited, that the incident stops being about the theft of an inanimate object and becomes a metaphor for the forced evacuation of millions of the innocent people during WWII.

NOTE: The Chicago Goethe Institut showed this film recently as part of their series. They will also be showing the next film I’ll be reviewing (Five Days, Five Nights). More information here:

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On the Sunny Side

On the Sunny Side (Auf der Sonnenseite) is an entertaining little film about a man named Martin Hoff, who goes from working in a steel foundry to taking drama classes, only to be kicked out because of his behavior. It stars Manfred Krug, who, like Hoff, was working as a steelworker when he started taking drama classes at the State Drama School in Berlin (now the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts), and like Hoff was kicked out for his behavior. Krug, however, eventually found his way into Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, and from there into movies. But that is not what this film is about. Most of the plot concerns Martin Hoff’s attempts to woo Ottilie Zinn, the pretty architect who is in charge of a project on which Hoff is working. Zinn’s aloof indifference toward him provokes Hoff to take a bet from his compatriots that he can woo her. It’s an old plot that has been used in films from Guys and Dolls to How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and with similar results.

On the Sunny Side was a popular film that—along with Midnight Revue, released a few months later—helped cement Manfred Krug’s reputation as a singer as well as an actor. Mr. Krug started in films in 1957, usually playing the heavy. He starred in several TV-movies at the start of his career, playing everything from the reprehensible Locky McCormick in the East German made-for-TV version of Johnny Belinda, to Mephisto in a TV adaptation of Faust.

In 1966, he turned in a performance as Hannes Balla in Trace of Stones that would have been a career-defining role for most actors, but the film was quickly pulled from theaters as a result of the idiotic 11th Plenum. While the Plenum was a career ender for several people at DEFA, the banning of Trace of Stones had little effect on Krug’s career. He continued to appear in films and released several albums on the GDR’s Amiga label. He often collaborated with jazz musician and film composer Gunther Fischer, with Fischer writing the music and Krug writing the lyrics under the pseudonym, “Clemens Kerber.”

Then in 1976, he was joined the protest against the expatriation of leftist singer, Wolf Biermann. For most of the DEFA actors, directors and writers who signed this protest, the move proved to be the end of their film careers in East Germany, but Krug didn’t stick around to find out. Born in Duisberg in 1937, Mr. Krug was a West German by birth and was able to use this fact to leave the GDR as soon as it became apparent that the SED was not going to respond to the protest with anything other than repression and surveillance. Mr. Krug quickly established a new career in West Germany, primarily in television, where he made a splash as truck driver Franz Meersdonk in the popular TV series, Auf Achse (On the Axle) and later as the lawyer Robert Liebling on Jurek Becker’s Liebling Kreuzberg. (For more on Manfred Krug, see The Trace of Stones.)

On the Sunny Side was written and directed by Ralf Kirsten. After studying theater at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Kristen went to Prague, where he studied directing at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and joined fellow DEFA directors Konrad Petzold and Frank Beyer to create the short film, Blázni mezi námi (Fools Among Us). On the Sunny Side was Kirsten’s first bona fide hit. He teamed up with Manfred Krug again the following year to make Beschreibung eines Sommers (Description of a Summer), which also was also a hit with the public. He went on to make several more popular films, including Mir nach, Canaillen! (Follow Me, Canaillen!), Frau Venus und ihr Teufel (Venus and her Devil), Die Elixiere des Teufels (The Devil’s Elixir), and Unterm Birnbaum (Under the Pear Tree). After the Wende, Kirsten found it more difficult to find work as director and began teaching at the film school in Babelsberg. He died in 1998 in Berlin.

Playing the independent and lovely Ottilie is Marita Böhme. After training to be a pre-school teacher, Ms. Böhme began studying theater at the State Drama school in Berlin. A gifted singer, she often appeared in musicals and operettas. She appeared in several movies, in roles of varying importance. She appeared the year after On the Sunny Side in Ralf Kirsten’s Beschreibung eines Sommers, although this time not as Manfred Krug’s love interest. She is best remembered for her role in Carbide and Sorrel. After the Wende she became a regular on Polizeiruf 110 as Opera director Edith Reger.

In spite of being released in the middle of winter, On the Sunny Side was a big hit. The public was looking for something cheerful to take their minds off the increasing tensions between east and west and the recent construction of the Berlin Wall, and Kirsten’s film fit the bill. Today it seems like very light fare, but its importance to the times should not be underestimated. It was the right film at the right time.

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