Posts Tagged ‘Rolf Hoppe’

Fatal Error
With the protests at Standing Rock, and recent plans to privatize Indian lands for their oil deposits, this is an excellent time to take a look at Fatal Error (Tödlicher Irrtum), a 1970 western from DEFA. It’s a shame this film isn’t available with English subtitles, because this is a movie for the times if ever there was one.

Like many of the DEFA westerns, Fatal Error is based on historical events. The story takes place in 1898. At the time the American West was still the Wild West of myth, but things were changing rapidly. The promises of riches that had started the westward expansion a few decades earlier was being replaced with a new kind of gold—black gold. As it turned out, many of the best oil deposits were on Indian land. So what did the oil companies do? They did what they’ve always done: lie, cheat, steal, and kill to get at that oil.

The story starts with an Indian named Shave Head riding into the newly formed town of Wind River City, Wyoming and announcing excitedly that they’ve found oil on the local reservation. This would be the last time Shave Head would be happy about the discovery. After this intro, the story advances a few years when we see Wind River City overrun with white men bent on taking advantage of the local Indians in every way possible. For some, this means grossly overcharging them for goods. For others, it means murdering them and stealing the money and land deeds which the Indians insisted on carrying around on their persons because they didn’t trust the banks.

Fatal Error

The chief villain of the piece is Mike Allison, a local robber baron who’s behind many of the murders. Allison is busy trying to consolidate all the oil land under his name. If this means an occasional murder, then so be it. Things come to a head after Shave Head’s half-brother Clint Howard takes the job of assistant sheriff and starts investigating the deaths.

Fatal Error is the fifth Indianerfilm to come out of the DEFA studios.1 It is also the fifth one to star Yugoslavian stuntman-turned-actor Gojko Mitić. As discussed here previously, Mitić was DEFA’s go-to guy when they needed someone to play a Native American. As Shave Head, Mitić bring his usual dignity and strength to the role.

Playing Shave Head’s half-brother Chris Howard is Armin Mueller-Stahl, who needs no introduction here. Mueller-Stahl is one of the few East German film stars who also managed to become an international film star. To a lesser extent, the same can be said for Rolf Hoppe, who plays the villainous Mike Allison. Just as Gojko Mitić was DEFA’s Indian, Hoppe often showed up as the villain in these films. Hoppe made himself known internationally for his powerful portrayal of Tábornagy in István Szabó’s Mephisto. Since then, he has gone on the appear in films of every type, demonstrating that he’s not simply a good villain, but also capable of comedy. Also appearing is Annekathrin Bürger in a minor role.

Annekathrin Bürger

The film is directed by Konrad Petzold, a talented director who was mainly consigned to making children’s films and westerns. Born in 1930, Petzold was still a kid when the Nazis took over. After the war, he first studied to be a mechanic. Like his older brothers and sisters, he became involved in a local political theater group in his hometown of Radebeul. In 1949, he went to Berlin to study at the DEFA film school for young directors. He, along with co-director Egon Günther, got into trouble with the powers-that-be for their 1961 film The Dress (Das Kleid), a film version of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Since the story takes place in a city with a wall around it, the authorities thought they were talking about Berlin, even though Perzold and Günther had started shooting the film before the Wall was built.

In 1969, Petzold directed White Wolves, a sequel to the previous year’s The Falcon’s Trail. It was his first foray into the field of Indian films, and it was a hit. After that film, Petzold became DEFA’s number one choice for filming their westerns, including Osceola, Kit & Co, and The Scout. Petzold is one of the many directors who found himself cast adrift after the Wall came down. His last film, The Story of the Goose Princess and Her Faithful Horse Falada (Die Geschichte von der Gänseprinzessin und ihrem treuen Pferd Falada), was released in January of 1989. In later years, Petzold suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and died in 1999.

Gojko Mitic

The Wind River Indian Reservation is real, but the Wyoming Oil Company is not. Nor are any of the characters. Although it isn’t specifically cited, the most-likely basis for the film’s story were the Osage Indian murders of the 1920s, which occurred in Oklahoma. Oil was discovered on Osage land in 1897, leading to a boom in the Osage economy that saw many Indians suddenly becoming wealthy. This led to an influx of fortune seeking interlopers.

One of these interlopers was a man named William Hale—as nasty a piece of work as this country has ever produced. Hale concocted a plan whereby his nephews would marry local Indian women and then have them killed, thus obtaining the rights to the oil profits. This plan came about thanks to an incredibly racist law that was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1921, whereby the Osage Indians were required to have white guardians take care of their affairs until they demonstrated “competency.” Since this evaluation of competency was left in the hands of the very people who stood to benefit from taking over guardianships, very few people passed the test.

Hale murdered his way into wealth, and when the authorities started to investigate, he resorted to killing potential witnesses against him and even threatening the local law enforcement. It finally took the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation to step in and put an end to his reign of terror. Hale was eventually convicted in 1929, but for only one of the murders. He spent eighteen years in jail before being paroled—less time than some people have spent in jail in Oklahoma for marijuana possession. After the events in Osage County, the law regarding guardianship for the Osage Indians was revised, allowing only full-blood Osage Indians to inherit the mineral rights.

As for the real Wind River Reservation, in 2014, a writer for the New York Times called it the most crime-ridden Indian reservation in America. The article provoked angry responses from the locals, including a well-written response from a local student that the NY Times published.

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1. Indianerfilm (plural: Indianerfilme): Literally “Indian film.” DEFA preferred this term over “western” for obvious reasons. Most academics avoid the use of the term “western” when writing about these films. I have used both terms interchangeably here. As a genre definition, they are unquestionably westerns, whether DEFA liked to admit or not.

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Spring Takes Time
Spring Takes Time (Der Frühling braucht Zeit) was one of the twelve films banned in the wake of the notorious 11th Plenum. Along with The Rabbit is Me, it is one of the only films that actually made it into the theaters before the ax came down. While some of the 11th Plenum bans seemed downright silly (see Hands Up or I’ll Shoot!), the banning of Spring Takes Time is understandable. After all, it’s a movie about how the state’s demanding quota system could lead unscrupulous management to put the lives of the workers in danger and then blame the same workers when things go south. At its heart, the film is an indictment of the very economic system the folks at the 11th Plenum were so loathe to discuss.

At the start of the film, a gas company manager named Heinz Solter is arrested for negligence that resulted in the failure of a pipeline, and the serious injury to a worker. Most of the rest of the film is told in flashbacks, where we learn that Solter is just the fall guy for decisions made by his higher-ups, in particular Chief Operations Officer Erhard Faber, who is determined to meet the state’s quotas come hell or high water.

Spring Takes Time

It doesn’t help Solter’s case that he’s a reticent fellow who refuses to point the finger at anyone else, feeling that everyone in a position of power—including himself—shares some of the responsibility for what happened. It also doesn’t help that he has very short fuse, and isn’t averse to knocking someone through a glass door if he doesn’t like what they’re saying. Besides Solter’s story, much of the film revolves around his doe-eyed daughter Inge, who is dating one of Faber’s lackeys.

The film is directed by Günter Stahnke, an extremely talented director whose frequent run-ins with the authorities led to him being ostracized from DEFA. He was first criticized for his television short, Fetzers Flucht (Fetzer’s Escape), but that one was eventually allowed to be broadcast in 1962. Not so with his next short film, Monolog for a Taxi Driver (included on the Spring Takes Time DVD from the DEFA Library), which was banned outright for its pessimistic, every-man-for-himself look at life in the GDR. That film remained unscreened until the Wall came down. His first feature film, From King Midas (Vom König Midas), was met with some criticism, but made it into the theaters. Spring Takes Time was his next film. After that, Stahnke was essentially banned from DEFA and relegated to television, where he spent the rest of his career directing comedies and kids’ films. One might think the Wende would give Stahnke another chance to spread his wings, but such was not the case. His career as a director effectively ended with the dissolution of East Germany.

The movie is cast against type—perhaps as a way to show how topsy-turvy things had become in East Germany. Rolf Hoppe, who was almost always cast as a villain, appears here as a sympathetic worker in danger of being scapegoated for the failures of the gas line project. Günther Simon, who was usually cast in heroic roles—having first made a splash as East Germany’s number one hero Ernst Thälmann in the Kurt Maetzig films—here plays the devious Faber.

Der Frühling braucht Zeit

Solter is well played by Eberhard Mellies. While Solter is a good guy, he is also short-tempered and reticent. Mellies’ strong features and stern countenance lend themselves to this type of role. Mellies’ career in films started with a small role in Der neue Fimmel (The New Craze), after which he started appearing in various television productions. Spring Takes Time was his next feature film and almost his last. Aside from voiceovers in My Zero Hour (Meine Stunde Null) and Apaches, Mellies didn’t appear in a DEFA feature again until 1978. Like his brother Otto, who is one of the most well-known voiceover actors in Germany, Eberhard does most of his work in front of a microphone these days.

Doris Abeßer plays Solter’s waif-like daughter Inge, who obviously didn’t inherit any of her father’s stoicism. She is played here as a raw nerve, sensitive to every things that happens around her. With her enormous, dark eyes, she appears at times like a Keane kid (one reviewer compared her appearance to mask-wearing Louise (Alida Valli) in Eyes Without a Face, but I think this is pushing it). By the time she made this film, Abeßer had already appeared in nearly a dozen movies and a few TV films. Her performance in Konrad Wolf’s film Professor Mamlock as Mamlock’s daughter Ruth was especially powerful. Abeßer was married to director Stahnke. I could find no date for their marriage, but their son born in 1963, so they were already a couple by the time they made this film together. As with nearly everyone else involved with Spring Takes Time, Abeßer’s career after this film was restricted almost exclusively to television. After the Wende, she did what many East German actors did, moving from film and television to legitimate theater. She started appearing in film and television regularly again 2001, finally retiring in 2012. Abeßer died on January 26, 2016.

Much of this film’s cinematic value comes from its production design which is as angular and pristine as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The production designer was Georg Kranz, a versatile designer whose work can be seen in Ursula, The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs, and Murder Case Zernik. Spring Takes Time was his first feature film, and is probably the reason the next six productions he worked on were for television. He returned to feature films with the popular Time of the Storks, and worked mainly in feature films after that. After the Wende, when most East German film technicians were effectively shut out of the film industry, Kranz found work as the series production designer for the popular TV series Für alle Fälle Stefanie.

Der Frühling braucht Zeit

Juxtaposed with the film’s stark look is the jangly rock’n’roll score, played by a band called “The Sputniks.” The composer is listed as Gerhard Siebholz, who also did the scores for the musicals No Cheating, Darling!, and Wedding Night in the Rain. Siebholz was a very successful composer in East Germany, penning several hits songs. Unlike much of work, which has a penchant for the schmaltzy Schlagermusik so popular with older Germans, The music for Spring Takes Time sounds very much of its era, but it is also a strangely dissonant and heightens the effect that things are not quite right.

Although the term “Rabbit Films”—named after Kurt Maetzig’s The Rabbit is Me—was given to the films that were banned during the 11th Plenum, I suspect that Spring Takes Time is film that really set off the purge that followed. Especially considering that it premiered a few weeks after the Plenum, and was effectively, albeit accidentally, an indictment of the very behavior that the folks at the Plenum had just demonstrated. How could they not ban it? A look at the film histories of many of the people who worked on this film show that they were more severely punished than the people on most of the other banned films. Stahnke, Mellies, Abeßer, and cinematographer Hans-Jürgen Sasse were all relegated to television after this, with DEFA feature film opportunities for them few and far between, if at all. Günther Simon probably avoided similar treatment because he was, after all, the embodiment of Ernst Thälmann and the West German press would have had a field day if it could be proved that the man who played Thälmann was no longer being cast in films. While the SED could rail against specific aspects of the other banned films, claiming they contained anti-socialist elements, Spring Takes Time was a virtual exposé of their hypocrisy. I can’t help but wonder if some of the films that were banned in the Kahlschlag (a term meaning “clear-cutting,” often used in reference to the films banned during this period) were banned as a smokescreen to hide the fact that Spring Takes Time was the movie they really wanted to be rid of, but to ban it by itself would have called too much attention to the film.

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1. The DVD also includes Stahnke’s short film Monolog for a Taxi Driver (1962).

Spur des Falken
When it came to telling the truth about the American West, the East Germans had it all over Hollywood. While Hollywood was still portraying Indians as brutal savages, DEFA’s Indianerfilme gave a much more accurate picture of the events, showing that most of the wrongs were committed by the whites who felt that they had a right to the land just because of their skin color and religion. When Hollywood did finally get around to addressing the plight of the Indians in Cheyenne Autumn, they hired John Ford to direct, a man who did more to defame the reputation of the Indians than any other filmmaker. As one might imagine, the resulting film was a limp effort, redeemed mainly by William H. Clothier’s spectacular cinematography. It wouldn’t be until the seventies, with films such as Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, that American movies would finally take a good hard look at the actions of the United States during the 1800s.

After the box office success of The Sons of the Great Bear and Chingachgook, the Great Snake, DEFA decided to continue to tackle the subject of the American Indians. While those first two films were based on books, The Falcon’s Trail (Spur des Falken) is an original story for the movies. It is also more of a traditional Hollywood western in many respects. It has Cowboys and Indians, the U.S. cavalry, the pretty young miss visiting the West for the first time, a honky-tonk, a journey on a steam train, and music score right out of The Big Valley, but the perspective is turned on its head. When the Indians attack the railroad train, we see it from the Indians perspective and root for them. When the cavalry comes charging to the rescue, it is not a good thing. The film is a dizzying experience for those of us who were raised in fifties, when the only good Indian was Tonto.

The Trail of the Falcon

As it would be with several of the DEFA Indian films, the story is based on actual events that occurred in 1876. In 1868, the United States signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, exempting the Black Hills from all white settlement forever. Four years later gold was discovered there, and prospectors descended on the area. Instead of enforcing the treaty, the government reneged on it, taking the land back and turning it over to the settlers. It is one of history’s cruelest jokes that the popular expression for someone taking back something they gave a person was “Indian giver.”1

As one might imagine, the Indians were not amused. What followed was the Great Sioux War. An exact date of the events in the movies are not given, but the story appears to have taken place shortly after the Battle of Little Bighorn, but before the war was over. Much of what is shown here is factual. It is true that the Indians were kicked out of the lands that had been previously allotted to them because white settlers found gold there, and it is true that buffallo were killed by the millions for the specific intent of robbing the Indians of their primary source of food. In the end, the United States took back almost all the land they had promised to the Sioux Nation, and arguments over this continue to this day.

Playing Farsighted Falcon, the leader of the Indian renegades is Gojko Mitić. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, Mitic was DEFA’s number one Indian. Mitić, born in Serbian Yugoslavia, got his start as a stuntman in westerns made by various European production companies. With his black hair and good looks, it was only a matter of time before a director noticed him and gave him a speaking role. In The Falcon’s Trail, Mitić gets to take full advantage of his stuntman background, running along the top of a moving train, scrambling up rocky hillsides, and riding bareback. As usual, Mitić’s voice is dubbed. Mitić speaks very good German, but with a slight Serbian accent, so he is usually dubbed for the Indianerfilme. Here, he is dubbed by Karl Sturm. Likewise, Polish actress Barbara Brylska, who plays the young Miss Emerson, is dubbed by Annekathrin Bürger. Also worthy of mention is the supporting cast, with Hannjo Hasse and Rolf Hoppe playing a couple particularly nasty villains, and Helmut Schreiber and Fred Delmare as good guy counterparts.

Gojko Mitic

Standing in for the American West is the Caucasus of Georgia, and standing in for a Union Pacific train was a specially prepared train and locomotive made by the “Karl Marx” Locomotive company in Babelsberg (Lokomotivbau Karl Marx). Those knowledgeable about trains and the black hills area of South Dakota will spot the differences, but they act as passable stand-ins here.

Costumes are by Günter Schmidt, who, having already done the costumes for The Sons of the Great Bear and Chingachgook, was well on his way to becoming the go-to designer for nearly all of the Indianerfilme. The music is listed as being composed by Wolfgang Meyer and Karl-Ernst Sasse. I’ve discussed Sasse at length elsewhere on this blog (see Her Third), but Wolfgang Meyer is a new name. In fact, The Falcon’s Trail shows up as his only feature film score. There are some noticeable differences between the music in this film and the music from the other westerns in the DEFA catalog. Of all of them, this one sounds the most like an American western, which may be one of the reasons why Meyer didn’t contribute to more films. DEFA was occasionally (depending on the period) relentless in its avoidance of Hollywood clichés.

Like the previous two Indianerfilme, The Falcon’s Trail was a hit at the box office, and was the first of the East German westerns to spawn an actual sequel—White Wolves (Weiße Wölfe), which was released a year later. On an amusing side note, the title of this film is the same as the German title for one of the best-known films of all time: The Maltese Falcon.

IMDB page for the film.

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1. The expression has finally fallen out of fashion, but it still lingers. for an in-depth examination of the term, see NPR’s report on the subject.

Dean Reed and Renate Blume

From time to time, East German filmmakers looked to America for source material. Bellboy Ed Martin was based on Albert Maltz’s play, Merry-Go-Round, and Chingachgook, the Great Snake took most of its story from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking book, The Deerslayer. Jack London was a natural choice for DEFA. He was an ardent socialist, writing often about the struggles of the working class and the problems they faced in a capitalist society. London’s writing style is well suited to cinematic interpretation. It started in 1908 with some short films by D.W. Griffith and went on from there. Nearly everything he wrote has been made into a movie somewhere in the world. The Iron Heel—with its indictment of the way corporations help a select few scoop up all the money while the rest of the world struggles to get by—seems like a natural for film interpretation in the Communist Bloc, but it was only made twice, first as a silent film in Russia, and then again in Russia in 1999 (I’m not including the Ben Turpin and Paddy McGuire comedy reel, The Iron Mitt, which IMDB claims is also based on the book).

Kit & Co is based on several of Jack London’s “Kit Bellew” stories, first published in Cosmopolitan magazine, and later compiled into book form under the title Smoke Bellew. Many of the stories hark back to the folklore tradition of the trickster that we’ve seen before in the form of Till Eulenspiegel. Other stories are flat-out adventure tales. The film concentrates primarily on the trickster tales, and it follows these stories remarkably well. Kit’s first encounters with Joy Gastell are taken nearly verbatim from the book. Likewise, the roulette wheel caper, the egg grift and the dogsled race are presented here virtually intact.

You could hardly ask for a better cast. Manfred Krug, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Rolf Hoppe were all popular stars by the time this film was made, but, of course the real draw was Dean Reed. Here was an American—ein echter Amerikaner—starring in an East German movie. Reed was the perfect choice to play Bellew. His combination of boyish charm and rugged good looks suited the part to a tee.

Kit & Co was Dean Reed’s first East German film, but it wouldn’t be his last. The film was a major hit and ensured a highly successful career in the GDR for the American pop star. Reed went on to star in four East German films, directing the last two himself. His popularity extended past the borders of East German to the USSR as well. He was equally popular in Russia and was nicknamed “The Red Elvis.” The moniker was used for the title of a 2007 documentary about Reed. [See also, El Cantor and Blood Brothers.]

In 1986, Reed was interviewed by Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes. Reed saw this as an opportunity to bridge the gap between the east and the west, and get back to making films in America, but years of living in East Germany had deprived Reed of the perspective he needed to conduct a successful interview with the likes of Wallace. When the episode aired, Americans were appalled by Reed’s defense of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and his comparison of Ronald Reagan to Stalin. Hate mail flooded in and angry right-wing DJs derided him on the radio. Shocked and desolate, Reed committed suicide at Zeuthener Lake near his home in East Berlin. He left a note apologizing for his suicide, but the Stasi hid the note from the public, preferring to let the public to think that his death was part of conspiracy rather than the cold hard truth that Reed killed himself.

Monika Woytowicz, Manfred Krug and Renate Blume

Joy Gastell is played by Renate Blume. Blume’s career got off to a roaring start with Konrad Wolf’s spectacular film, Divided Heaven, but after that her star dimmed a bit. She was married to director Frank Beyer for five years, and lived with Indianerfilm star Gojko Mitic for two years after that. For most of her time in East Germany, she primarily appeared in TV shows and stage plays. In 1984, she married Dean Reed, and they remained married until his death. After the Wende, she continued this career path, acting on stage and appearing occasionally on television. She has appeared in several popular TV shows, including Edel & Starck, In aller Freundschaft, and, Tatort, and Polizeiruf 110—both before and after the Wende.

Kit’s pal Shorty is played by the popular East German actor, Rolf Hoppe. Hoppe was one of the most popular character actors in East German. He appeared in dozens of films and TV-movies. He had a special knack for villains, and was often seen as the bad guy in the Indianerfilme. He received international acclaim in 1981 for his portrayal of the  Göring-like Tábornagy in the classic Hungarian film, Mephisto. In Kit & Co, Hoppe gets to engage in a different western stereotype: the sourdough—that grizzled prospector of the California and Klondike Gold Rushes. He has fun in the role and makes the character as engaging as he is on the page. Hoppe still appears in films from time to time, and he resides in Dresden’s Weißig section.

As with many of the better films from DEFA, the music for this film was by Karl-Ernst Sasse. Sasse, a classically-trained composer, normally followed a classicists approach to his scores, using lots of strings and full orchestration. Sasse felt, however, that this wouldn’t work well in a film like Kit & Co. Instead, he created a score that imitated the music of the period, with minimal orchestration. Some songs consist of nothing more than a bass viol, trap set, and a banjo. Other tunes add horns to mix with a sound reminiscent of a Salvation Army band. [For more examples of Sasse’s work, and further information on the composer, click on his name at the top of this post.]

Critics were divided on Kit & Co, but the audiences weren’t—they loved it. The Soviet Union made their own version the Smoke Bellew stories the following year (Smok i malysh) and DFF, the East German television company, made two more movies based on Jack London’s works (Alaska-Kids großer Coup and Der Mexikaner Felipe Rivera). Most recently, Bellew and Shorty returned to the small screen in the French mini-series, Chercheurs d’or. Considering the enduring popularity of Jack London’s work, we’re certain to see more films based on the exploits of Kit and Shorty. Kit & Co remains one of the best.

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