Posts Tagged ‘Roland Dressel’

frau3

The Woman and the Stranger (Die Frau und der Fremde) was released in 1985, less than five years before the Berlin Wall came down. Like many of the late-period DEFA films, it concentrated less on the concerns of the collective than individual needs. It is probably for this reason that the film found an audience in West Germany and went on to win the Golden Bear at the Berlinale—a first for an East German film.

The film is based on Karl und Anna, a 1926 novella by Leonhard Frank, who also wrote Die Jünger Jesu (The disciples of Jesus)—the basis for Joachim Hasler’s excellent noir film, The Story of a Murder. The Woman and the Stranger starts in a Russian P.O.W. camp during the First World War. While incarcerated there, Karl becomes obsessed with fellow prisoner Richard’s wife Anna. Richard talks about her constantly, explaining every detail of their lives together. It is a life Karl wants. After a mix-up, Richard is shipped off to parts unknown and Karl takes advantage of the situation to escape. He goes to Anna, claiming to be her husband. Anna doesn’t buy it for a second, but Karl does seem to know an awful lot about her. He moves in, but what about Richard? A reckoning clearly is at hand.

Die Frau und der Fremde

The story borrows heavily from the 1560 case of Martin Guerre. Perhaps it was Guerre’s last name that inspired Frank to tie the story to World War I. In the original case, a man showed up in Artigat, France, claiming to be the missing husband of of a local woman. The man moved in with the woman and they had two children before he was found out and eventually hanged.

An eternal sticking point in the original Martin Guerre story is the matter of the wife’s complicity. How could she not know that this man wasn’t her husband? Scholars still argue over this. In Leonhard Frank’s story, there is never any doubt that Anna knows Karl isn’t her husband, but his knowledge of every aspect of her life attracts and bewilders her. The desolation, loss, and confusion that World War I brought made it a perfect platform for the story. So perfect, in fact, that a year after Karl und Anna was published, the case of the Collegno amnesiac came to trial in Italy, in which yet another man was charged with pretending to be a woman’s missing husband.

Karl und Anna caught the attention of filmmakers almost immediately. It was made into the movie Heimkehr (Homecoming) in 1928 by Joe May, and then again in 1947 as Desire Me—a fiasco of a movie that nearly killed Greer Garson, had four directors, all refusing to take credit for it, and marked the beginning of the end of Louis B. Mayer’s reign at MGM. In America, the novella was released as a Signet paperback under the title Desire Me, with a typically lurid cover.

Desire Me paperback

The Woman and the Stranger is the third—and best—attempt to turn Frank’s book into a film. It was directed by Rainer Simon, one of DEFA’s best directors. Mr. Simon’s films range from fairytales (Sechse kommen durch die Welt) to comedies (Zünd an, es kommt die Feuerwehr). His style is impressively unconventional. In The Woman and the Stranger, for instance, he employs the use of color and sepia-tone to convey the various portions of the narrative. Normally this technique is used to convey part of a story that take place in the past, but here it is used to convey the internal thoughts and the external action in a most effective and unusual way. [For more on Rainer Simon, see Jadup and Boel.]

Playing Karl is Joachim Lätsch. Mr. Lätsch graduated from the Ernst Busch School for the Dramatic Arts in Berlin and started working film immediately. His first feature film was Roland Gräf’s Fariaho, The Woman and the Stranger was his second feature film. He appeared in several more East German films before the wall fell, including the seldom screened East Germ/Vietnamese coproduction, Dschungelzeit (Jungle Time). Since the Wende, Mr. Lätsch is one of the few East German actors who has appeared in more feature films than television shows.

Anna is played by Kathrin Waligura. The films marks Ms. Waligura’s first feature film appearance. In fact, she was still in drama school when she starred in this film. Mr. Simon was so impressed with her, that he cast her in two more of his films. As with many other East German actors, most of her post-Wende work has been on TV. Today, she is best known for her role as Stefanie Engel in the popular hospital series, Für alle Fälle Stefanie (For All Cases Stephanie). Most recently, she starred in Nico Sommer’s Familienfieber (Family Fever).

Kathrin Waligura

Playing Richard is Peter Zimmermann, another graduate of the Ernst Busch School for the Dramatic Arts in Berlin. Mr. Zimmermann started his film career in 1979 with two memorable films: Until Death Do Us Part, and Coded Message for the Boss (Chiffriert an Chef – Ausfall Nr. 5). Mr. Zimmermann continues to act, primarily in television roles, since 1994 he has taught at the film school in Babelsberg. He is married to Heike Jonca, and their daughter, Nele, has gone on to become a successful actress in her own right.

Also seen briefly in smaller roles here are Ulrich Mühe, Hans-Uwe Bauer, and Christine Schorn, all of whom have gone on to have successful feature film careers in unified Germany. Sadly missing from this roll call is Katrin Knappe, who was so memorable as the simple Boel in Mr. Simon’s previous film, Jadup and Boel. With her dark brown eyes and unique looks, we should have seen more from this actress, but after the Wende, she appeared in no more films. She continued to act, but switched to giving lectures on elocution.

As mentioned earlier, The Woman and the Stranger was the only East German film to ever win the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. This isn’t to say it was the first East German film to deserve this award—one can cite several instances where the films coming out of East Germany were better than anything coming from West Germans at the same time—but it does signal the beginning of a shift in the relationship between east and west. A shift that would come to a head on November 9th, 1989, when the border opened up for good.

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Heute ist Freitag

By 1989, Nina Hagen was well-known in West Germany, but few people there knew anything about her past. She was the operatic, punk demon lady from the far side of the moon spouting mystic mumbo-jumbo and singing like nobody else. Then the wall came down and we westerners saw a whole other side of her—the pop pixie, singer of novelty songs, adorable and immensely talented. But few of us were ready for Today is Friday (Heute ist Freitag), a TV-movie from 1975 in which we get to see Nina Hagen as we’ve never seen her before.

Long before Hagen reinvented herself as a punk goddess, she was on her way to becoming the most popular singer in East Germany. Her GDR persona was that of a spunky woman-child, a little petulant and coy. Her big breakthrough came in 1974 with “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” (You forgot the color film), a song in which Nina scolds her boyfriend Mischa for forgetting to bring the color film on their vacation. In it, she complains that no one will believe her when she tells them how beautiful everything was, because the pictures are all in black-and-white. The unspoken joke here is that no one believes her because so much of the East German landscape was cast in shades of gray. Hagen recorded the song as the lead singer in a band called Automobil. Later she joined Fritzens Dampferband, where she continued her rise to stardom with the hit “Wir tanzen Tango” (We dance the Tango), and the remarkably silly, “Hatschi Waldera.”

Things were looking up for Hagen, then her step-father, folksinger Wolf Biermann, was expatriated for his outspoken criticisms of the East German bureaucracy. His wife—Nina’s mother—was the popular film star, Eva-Maria Hagen. She applied for permission to join her husband in the west and it was granted. Nina decided to follow suit. At first the SED balked at letting her join her parents, but when she let them know that if she wasn’t allowed to emigrate, she would become the next Wolf Biermann they quickly changed their minds.

Arriving in West Germany, her agent did something very smart. He told her go to London to see what was happening in rock’n’roll. The year was 1976, and punk was in full bloom. Nina met and became friends with many British musicians, most notably Lena Lovich, who was a big influence on Hagen’s style. Hagen returned to West Germany in 1977 with a whole new look and sound, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today is Friday is the story of one important weekend in the life of Jutta, a young woman who thinks she might be pregnant. After going to the doctor, she is informed that because “Today is Friday,” she won’t know the results of her test until next Monday. This gives her a weekend to ruminate on the course she wants to take. What follows is lots of walking and talking in the interminable wait for Monday to come. Should she have an abortion of keep the baby? The film leans toward the latter, but remains as noncommittal as possible.1

Prior to Today is Friday, Hagen had appeared in an episode of the short-lived TV series, ABC der Liebe (ABCs of Love), and in the TV-movie, Heiraten/Weiblich (Married/Female). In both of these she played opposite her mother. Today is Friday was her first solo foray into film. She only appeared in a few DEFA films before heading west, but none of the other films focus on her to the same extent as Today is Friday does. She is the lead character in this film and she carries it all the way.

One of the more remarkable aspects of this film—one might even say shocking—is its lack of glamour. Hagen is presented as an utterly ordinary woman. She wears gingham shirts with butterfly collars, sweater vests, and the ugliest mommie jeans in the history of denim. Half the time she walks around with a knit cap pulled down over her head. This is not Nina the glamorpuss, it’s Nina the schlub. Nonetheless, the camera likes Hagen. The film rarely takes its focus off her and follows her movements as if fixated on her, sometimes, peeking in from other rooms to watch her.

Nina Hagen

It is this camerawork that is the most interesting aspect of the movie. Mostly handheld, the camera follows Hagen around in the cinema verité style popular with Cassavetes and the early French New Wave (whose films also often shared the obsession with their leading ladies). At times it feels like a documentary. Whether this is because of cinematographer Roland Dressel or the director, Klaus Gendries, is hard to say. Dressel was also responsible for the excellent cinematography in Jadup and Boel, and The Bicycle. Before he became a cinematographer, he worked as an assistant cameraman on a variety of East German films, including the classic Hot Summer, and Konrad Wolf’s first film, Einmal ist Keinmal (Once Doesn’t Count). This wide variety of films helped make Dressel an extremely versatile cinematographer, adapting his style to match the story. Unlike some cinematographers whose work is obvious no matter who’s directing (Gordon Willis immediately comes to mind) Dressel has no signature style, although his work in Jadup and Boel stands out for its unique style in the flashback scenes.

Likewise, Gendries seemed less concerned with branding himself as an auteur than getting good performances out of his actors. This isn’t surprising since Gendries got his start at DEFA as an actor, appearing in films such as The Baldheaded Gang and The Second Track. In the GDR, directors were mostly assigned to work at either DEFA or its television equivalent, DFF (Deutscher Fernsehfunk). Klaus Gendries was one of those assigned to DFF, so most of his work appears in the form of made-for-TV movies. He started directing in theater in the fifties, and moved to television in 1963 with the TV-movie version of Guy de Maupassant’s, Der Morin – Das Schwein (That Pig of a Morin). He scored a big hit with Florentiner 73, a comedy about a young pregnant woman dealing with her a living situation and quirky neighbors. Florentiner 73 starred his wife, Edda Dentges. The TV-movie was so popular that it spawned a sequel, Neues aus der Florentiner 73 (News from Florentiner 73). He also helmed the popular TV mini-series, Aber Vati! (But Dad!).

Gendries work in television served him well after the Wende. Unlike many of his DEFA counterparts he made the transition from East German television to unified German television. He hasn’t had as many opportunities to make TV movies, but he has worked on many popular television series, including Der Bergdoktor, Für alle Fälle Stefanie, and In aller Freundschaft. He retired from filmmaking in 2000, but continues to direct stage productions.

Ironically, the theme song for Today is Friday is not sung by Nina Hagen, but by Veronika Fischer. Veronika Fischer was the most popular female rock singer in East Germany. She had several hits in East Germany and appeared in the film, DEFA-Disko 77. Like Hagen before her, Veronika Fischer immigrated to West Berlin before the wall came down. Unlike Hagen, however, she did not take advantage of the situation to reinvent herself and found little success in the west. It was only after the Wende, when she could return to the former East German states that her career was revived. She is still popular in the eastern states and continues to release albums.

The theme song was written by Michael Heubach, who wrote the music for “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” and other songs that Nina Hagen made popular. Heubach was a founding member of Hagen’s first band, Automobil. When she decided to move on, Heubach disbanded Automobil and joined Lift, one of East Germany’s few art rock bands. Heubach had several hits in the GDR, but none since reunification. He continues to write music and work as a music producer.

Today is Friday is charming enough, but the fact it is black-and-white and consists mostly of people discussing the pregnancy issue make it an unlikely candidate for subtitling anytime soon. Nonetheless, any fan of Nina Hagen is going to want to add this film to their collection.

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1. Abortion was legal in East Germany, but, as in the west, it was still controversial. East Germany’s version of Roe v. Wade (Gesetz über die Unterbrechung der Schwangerschaft) was passed in 1972, giving women the right to choose abortion without requiring a medical reason. The passing of this law was the only time that that the People’s Chamber (Volkskammer) did not vote unanimously on a law’s passage (the only other time they split their vote was the election Egon Krenz as the GDR’s leader right before the Wall came down). West Germany wouldn’t follow suit for another four years, and even then only after two years of court challenges and legal wrangling.

jadup und boel

By 1980, the East German authorities had nearly perfected the approval process for feature films. After the debacle of the 11th Plenum in 1965, when a dozen films were rejected either for being too frivolous or not socialist enough, DEFA settled into a safe routine, usually avoiding contemporary subjects, and instead concentrating on historical biographies, Indianerfilme, and the occasional musical. After Honecker took over, the reins again were loosened (but only slightly) and DEFA movies started push the envelope once more. Sometimes a few films went too far for the authorities, such as Iris Gusner’s 1973 film,  The Dove on the Roof, but, by that time, most directors knew the score, and were unlikely to do anything that might get their films banned. Jadup and Boel’s director, Rainer Simon, knew this better than anyone and was more careful than most to avoid controversy. After all, his first attempt at direction ended up on the chopping block during the 11th Plenum. So what happened? How did this film get made and still manage to end up in the Giftschrank?[1]

The film begins on the day of a ceremony to herald the construction on a new store in the town of Wickenhausen in the Altmark region. Here we meet Jadup, perfectly played by Kurt Böwe. Jadup is the mayor of the town. He’s a loyal party member and one of the first people in Wickenhausen to champion the communist cause. Just as Jadup is about to begin his ceremonial speech, a nearby building collapses, presumably from neglect. Snooping around in the wreckage of the house is Herr Gwissen, a stranger in town who has come to purchase antiques. Herr Gwissen finds an old copy of Friedrich Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific that Jadup once gave to a young woman named Boel Martin. Boel arrived in town right after the war with her mother. Her mother is still in town, but Boel is gone, having left Wickenhausen after her rape by someone in the town. Boel refused to say who it was and the people at the time blamed the Russian soldiers[2], but Jadup’s current refusal to discuss what happened is seen by members of the community as a tacit admission of guilt. As the story progresses, we eventually learn the truth.

The story jumps back and forth in time and space between Jadup’s story and Jadup’s son, Max. Max has a crush on Eva, an intensely vapid and vain young lady who is all too ready to spout party doctrine, but without any idea of what that really means. In the opposite corner is the more quirky and interesting Edith Unger, whose alcoholic father has made it his life’s work to write the history of Wickenhausen. It is apparent immediately that Edith is a better match for Max, but will he realize it in time?

The young people in town are given the task (by Jadup) of learning something of their town’s past and the part their parents played in its revival after the war. In flashbacks, we see Jadup as a young man (played by Christian Böwe, Kurt Böwe’s real-life son). The young Jadup lives in the bell tower and develops a camaraderie with the odd and nearly silent Boel. Boel’s hands are covered with warts and the local children run from her because of it. After her rape the warts clear up. Jadup tried to find out who was responsible but all he succeeds in doing is driving Boel from town.

Meanwhile, Edith gets in trouble for posting an essay that is a direct attack on Eva’s typically over-inflated, aggrandizing essay on her parents. Max is given the task of confronting Edith on the subject to get her to bow to peer pressure and apologize, but Edith is made of sterner stuff than that. As the story shifts back and forth in time, Max’s confrontation with Edith is juxtaposed against Jadup’s grilling of Boel. Jadup drives Boel away with his relentless interrogation. Will Max do the same? Jadup brings things to a head in an impassioned speech for the state to return to the principles espoused by Lenin. Otherwise the country will stagnate and die.

As you can probably tell from this brief description, the level of symbolism is very high in this movie, from the collapsing building to the warts on Boel‘s hand. It is no accident that the stranger from out of town is named “Gwissen” (an abbreviation of Gewissen: the German word for conscience). Jadup and Boel seems, at first glance, like a relatively harmless movie, but its unvarnished observations on stagnant bureaucracy in East Germany were bound to rub the officials the wrong way.

The film is based on the novel, Jadup, by Paul Kanut Schäfer. Schäfer was a popular East German author, who wrote everything from crime novels to children’s books. Jadup was published in 1975, but was not a big hit. Rainer Simon hadn’t heard of it when the idea for a movie of it was suggested to him. After reading the book, he recognized that he had a potential hot potato on his hands. He was as surprised as anyone when the authorities approved the project. Recognizing the potential pitfalls he might encounter while trying to get it, made, Simon was careful to follow the script to the letter. In that way he knew he could avoid the common claim that the film was banned because of script changes. In the end, it didn’t matter the film was banned anyway.[3]

Maybe the film would have made it to the cinemas, had it not been for other events in Eastern Europe. The USSR had invaded Afghanistan and tensions between it and the United States were the worst they had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In protest, the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics, which took place in Moscow that year. Meanwhile, things were coming to a head in Poland as well, culminating in the Gdańsk Shipyard strikes led by Lech Wałęsa. As always, whenever the public temperament moved toward calls for change, the leaders of the SED doubled down, increasing surveillance and nipping any perceived criticism of their regime in the bud. Jadup and Boel was an easy target, although, in fairness, had this film been made in the United States during Hollywood’s Hayes Code years, it would have been banned there as well.

When it came to the subject matter of this film—that of party stagnation—director Rainer Simon knew it better than most. A party member of the SED from the age of seventeen, Simon saw first hand the SED’s internal politics at work. He also saw what was happening to it and he didn’t like it. Simon claims that the character of Jadup in the film is not a stand in for himself, but both men continued to believe in socialism and both men were growing weary of the state things in the GDR.

Rainer Simon studied directing at the School of Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg (now named after Konrad Wolf). He started working on short films and was the assistant director on Ralk Kirsten’s Der verlorene Engel (The Lost Angel) and Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. He was slated to direct his first feature in 1966—a film version of Horst Bastian’s novel, Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality)—when the 11th Plenum halted the project (it was eventually made into a film by Erwin Stranka in 1976). He finally got his chance to direct a feature film in 1968 with Wie heiratet man einen König (How do you Marry a King), a Märchenfilm based on the Grimms’ fairytale, “The Peasant’s Clever Daughter.”

In 1979, Simon was to begin work on an East German/Austrian co-production titled, Vorstadtmusikanten (Fringe Musicians), but the film was scuttled before it began. Rainer Simon suspected that the GDR authorities were responsible for stopping the project, worrying as they often did, about defections to the west. Jadup and Boel was Simon’s only film on a contemporary subject. He learned early on that it was a lot safer to film fairy tales and historical biographies. When he was offered this film, he balked at first, recognizing its potential to offend the party bureaucrats, but everyone seemed to be greenlighting the project, so he went forward. He didn’t find out until after the Wende, that the Stasi had people watching the production of this film very carefully (of course, one could argue that the Stasi had people watching nearly everything very carefully).

Simon’s last film to be released prior to the fall of the wall was Die Besteigung des Chimborazo (The Ascent of Chimborazo), about the 1802 ascent of the Ecuadorian volcano by Baron Alexander von Humboldt. At this time, Simon became enamored of Ecuador. After the Wende, he moved to Ecuador, where he continues to make films and teach classes on filmmaking.

Jadup is played by Kurt Böwe with his usual likeable charm. Böwe made his first big splash as the idealistic sculptor in Konrad Wolf’s Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (The Naked Man on the Athletic Field), although by that time he had appeared in smaller parts in such films as Gerhard Klein’s Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin Around The Corner) and Konrad Wolf’s I Was Nineteen. The Wende had less impact on Kurt Böwe’s career than it did on some of his fellow DEFA actors. He continued working, primarily, but not exclusively, in television, and is best known today for his performance as Kommissar Groth on Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110). Böwe died in Berlin, June 14, 2000.

Katrin Knappe (Boel), on the other hand, stopped working in film and television after the Wende completely. Jadup and Boel was her first feature film. She continued to work in films in East Germany right up until the wall came down, but her primary focus was always theater. She studied acting at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin, where she now serves as a guest lecturer in the puppetry department. For fifteen years, she worked at the Volksbühne on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.

The cinematographer was Roland Dressel. During the seventies, his primary work as lead cinematographer was in television, although he worked on many classic DEFA films before that, including Konrad Wolf’s Einmal ist keinmal, Das Kleid, The Gleiwitz Case, and Hot Summer. He got his start as a still photographer, and he brings some of those skills to bear in this movie, particularly his understanding of how to combine deep shadows and bright images in the same frame, and his use of unusual filter techniques. He was responsible for some of DEFA’s best camerawork during the GDR’s final years. His work during this period, includes The Bicycle, Das Luftschiff (The Airship), The Woman and the Stranger (Die Frau und der Fremde), and Abschied von Agnes (Farewell from Agnes).

The music for the film is composed by Reiner Bredemeyer in his unmistakable style. As with many other film composers—on both sides of the Iron Curtain—Bredemeyer was classically trained. He wrote scores for several films, but is best known today for his avant garde classical compositions. From 1949 to 1953 he studied music composition at the Munich Academy of Music. In 1954, disgusted with the anti-socialist policies of Konrad Adenauer, he moved to the GDR, where he studied under Paul Dessau, another defector from the west. Although he often worked in the twelve-tone scale, his work still shows strong influences from classical composers, most notably, Anton Webern. Bredemeyer uses sparse instrumentation in the film to convey a sense of isolation, from the solo classical guitar at the beginning, to the lonely flute music at the end.

In 1988, the film was finally released in the GDR, but by then the world had changed too much to fully accept this it. Jadup’s impassioned speech for the return to the ideals of Lenin was now seen as a step backwards rather than the radical leap forward it seemed to be in 1980. The film was well received by the critics, but didn’t find its audience until years after the Wende.

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1. Literally, “poison cabinet,” also referred to as Remota. These are films (or any other documents, for that matter) that are deemed too subversive to allow to be seen by the general public.

2. This is the first time that an East German film addressed the sensitive topic of the rapes that Russian soldier committed in Germany right after the war (see Max Färberböck’s 2008 film, A Woman in Berlin, for an exploration of this topic.

3. It appears that the story of the Production of Jadup and Boel is even more bizarre than I could have possibly imagined. DEFA film expert Evan Torner writes:

“In Ralf Schenk’s interview with Simon (and in my own conversations with Simon in subsequent years), I basically gathered that Jadup and Boel was greenlighted because it was going to be banned. The Stasi watched the production very closely because it was serving as bait, and as a pressure release valve: it let them know how far ordinary GDR filmmakers would go to step out of line (i.e., not that far, all things considered), and as a way to give them all an outlet for their “subversion” without really jeopardizing anything. A state-run studio had to keep its employees working, but it could not stand for content that would ultimately threaten its own revenue streams. Creativity thus became something cultivated by gifting folks a “subversive” project that then may or may not get banned because of the political climate (I’m also thinking of the never-made early 1980s feature Schwarzweiß und Farbe, about a family whose house is in the way of a GDR power plant). The studio got to keep their talent; the state got to keep its legitimacy and even its sense of raw suppressive power.

So Simon was right in thinking that Jadup and Boel sounded like a trap because it was. The great aspect was that he nevertheless made a very thought-provoking piece of cinema as a result. Its resonance beyond the peculiar walled garden circumstances of its origin is open for debate.