Posts Tagged ‘satire’

Das Land hinter dem Regenbogen
After the Wall came down and West Germany, for all intents and purposes, took over East Germany, there came the inevitable retrospection. What the hell happened? How did we get from there to here? There were plenty of people who still believed in socialism, and thought it could lead to a better world than unbridled capitalism, but nobody was listening in 1991. East German industries were dismantled for salvage and sold to the highest bidders. The Treuhandanstalt was set up to facilitate the privatization with disastrous results. Over half the workforce in East Germany was laid off, plunging the entire eastern half of Germany into poverty without the safety net previously provided by the State. Anger and resentment took hold. Right-wing extremist groups started arriving from Bavaria and the USA to recruit new members from the youths in cities such as Jena and Cottbus. Unfortunately, for these kids, East German schools didn’t spend that much time on the holocaust; preferring to cast the Nazis as primarily anti-communist. This left them particularly susceptible to the simplistic solutions offered by these extrememist groups. By the time the Treuhandanstalt ceased its operations in 1994, the trust agency was $160 billion in debt, and the fascist right had established deep and tenacious roots in former GDR territories.

Maybe the only way to process what happened was with absurdist comedy. If that’s the case, then director Herwig Kipping’s The Land Beyond the Rainbow (Das Land hinter dem Regenbogen) may be the best examination of what went wrong in East Germany. The story takes place in an imaginary town called Stalina. The year is 1953, and Stalin had died a few months earlier, but that doesn’t keep the hardcore Stalinists in the town from revering him. Much of the film, in fact, deals with the issue of what happens when you treat an ideology as a religion, which is what Stalin did, and was what the leaders of the SED did, treating their decisions as proclamations from on high.

As a result, the people in the town have gone slightly mad, trying to be good socialists while butting heads with the various officials who come to town and cause trouble for them. The town’s SED headquarters is an outhouse with a picture of Walter Ulbricht tacked to the wall. The film is narrated by Marie (Stefanie Janke), a local girl, who observes the madness around her and manages to rise above it. The story unfolds across the events of June 17th, 1953, when Soviet troops came into East Germany to help quell the protests that occurred after the government announced pay cuts for workers who couldn’t meet the increasingly impossible quotas (for more on this, see Castles and Cottages)

The Land Beyond the Rainbow

Besides Marie, the town’s residents include Rainbowmaker (Sebastian Reznicek), a young man who searches for the good in things; Hans (Thomas Ewert), a particularly rotten kid who likes death and destruction; Franz-Werner, (Winfried Glatzeder), Rainbowmaker’s father, who, after breaking his arm at the beginning of the film, spends the entire film with his arm in a cast that is propped up in the position of a Nazi salute; Heinrich (Axel Werner), the local dirty old man who can’t keep his pants zipped; and Opa (Franciszek Pieczka), who worships Stalin, and is willing to be crucified in his name. Add to this, local nymphomaniac Liesbeth (Franziska Arnold), an undersized SED official (Fred Delmare, not surprisingly), a pale white wraith, a boa constrictor, and various locals who come in and out of the story.

The Land Beyond the Rainbow belongs to an unusual and essentially undocumented micro-genre of films that take place in stark, burned-out landscapes with people talking at each other more than with each other. These are often surreal allegories about the absurdity of modern life, even when the action take place in a distant past or the far future. They are episodic, and their humor is dark and sardonic. We could call this Cinema of the Absurd, since these films most resemble this form’s theatrical counterpart. Examples of this type of movie would include Richard Lester’s The Bed Sitting Room, Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor, and Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! East German films with similar styles would include Egon Günther’s Ursula, and Jörg Foth’s Latest from the Da-Da-R.

The similarity between Jörg Foth’s film and The Land Beyond the Rainbow is not coincidental. Both films were made by the Da-Da-eR artistic production group (Künstlerischer Arbeitsgruppe), a group that only just managed to get itself established during the final days of the East German republic before the whole thing came crashing down.

The Land Beyond the Rainbow

Born in 1948, Herwig Kipping was part of the Nachwuchsgeneration—a whole raft of talented young people who were only just getting started as directors when the Wall came down. Partly due to the abundance of good directors already working at DEFA, and partly due to the inherently sclerotic nature of everything in the East Germany at that point, these filmmakers weren’t afforded many opportunities to show their talent until the mid-eighties. A few of them, such as Peter Kahane, Karola Hattop, and Peter Welz, continue directing (although, primarily in TV), while others, such as Evelyn Schmidt, Ulrich Weiß, and Kipping, found it much harder to get their projects off the ground, and stopped making films altogether. Kipping has the distinction of having directed the last film released by DEFA: Novalis: The Blue Flower (Novalis – Die blaue Blume), a biographical film about the poet/philosopher Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg.

Playing the father is Winfried Glatzeder in his last role in a DEFA film. Glatzeder had left the GDR in 1982, He had been fed up with the way things were in East Germany for quite some time, and wasn’t afraid to let people know. When he was finally allowed to leave, he was also expatriated, a dishonor the SED reserved for people that really irritated them. In 1991, he returned to DEFA for Jürgen Brauer’s Dancing at the Dump (Tanz auf der Kippe), effectively thumbing his nose at the former East German government. Glatzeder regularly appears in films, on television, and on stage to this day.

The Land Beyond the Rainbow

As it should be, there are several jokes and references intended for stricly East German audiences. When people in the town vote or not a person should be exiled or censured, everyone raises their hand, including the person being censured. It would be more farcical if it wasn’t based on reality. Old school communists put a lot of value in unanimity of opinion. Because of this, votes in the politburo rarely resulted in split decisions. The most famous example of this occurred on October 17, 1989, when the politburo voted to remove Erich Honecker as General Secretary. When the vote came, Honecker also raised his hand along with everybody else. The collective had spoken, so who was he to disagree? In another scene, we finally find out the name of Rainbowmaker’s mother, and it’s an amusing little in-joke on Glatzeder’s most famous movie.

The Land Beyond the Rainbow wasn’t a box office smash, but it wasn’t intended to be one either. This is a film for people with an understanding of history, and who like their humor sardonic. Fans of unusual and transgressive cinema will definitely want to check this film out. It was an official selection at the 1992 Berlinale, although it did not win.1 It did win the Deutscher Filmpreis that year, however. I consider it a “must-see.” Since I know a few of my readers are squeamish about scenes depicting animal death, I’ll warn you that there are couple scenes involving the skinning of a rabbit (dead) and the beheading of a chicken (which also looks like its already dead).

IMDB page for the film.

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1. There’s no shame in this. Several excellent films were up for nomination , including Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous, and Alison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging. The film that won Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, a film that has not stood the test of time.

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Latest from the Da-Da-R

Identifying the beginning of the East German movie industry is easy. It began in 1946 with The Murderers Are  Among Us. That film—started before DEFA even existed—was the first of a long line of excellent films to come out of the GDR before the whole system came crashing down under the weight of its own ossification and blinkered leadership. Pinpointing the end of East German Cinema is a little more complicated. Several films were already “in the can,” so to speak, when the wall came down. Production at DEFA continued after East Germany no longer existed, right up until 1992, when the company was dismantled in the name of capitalism. Novalis – Die blaue Blume is credited with being the last film put out under the old DEFA badge, but philosophically and thematically, if not literally, the last film to come out of East Germany was Latest from the Da-Da-R (Letztes aus der DaDaeR), a satirical look at life in East Germany at the end of its forty-year existence.

The film follows the exploits of two clowns (literally) during the dying days of the GDR, from their release from prison, through a garbage dump, down a river to hell, through the surrealistic landscape of post-Mauerfall East Germany, and into a slaughterhouse, with scenes as shocking as those in Georges Franju’s Le sang des bêtes. The story is not told as a continuous journey, but as a series of skits and musical numbers, each a little darker than the last. Some of the scenes look improvised. The scene at the bonfire protest seems as spontaneous as Haskell Wexler’s footage of the police riots in Medium Cool. There is an improvisational quality to the routines, and certain aspects—such as the use of objects to represent other things—betray the theatrical roots of the routines. The criticism is sharp, but even-handed, attacking the stodgy leadership of East Germany and the callow behavior of West Germans alike. It is not hyperbole to say that one year earlier this film could not have been made. I doubt that it could have been made one year later either, after western interests took over the film studio and profit became the main motivating factor. This film exists as a record of an extremely specific time in German cinema history.

Latest From the Da-Da-R

Filming began after the wall came down, and was made by the newly formed artists’ work group (künstlerische Arbeitsgruppe), “DaDaeR.” The name is a play on “DDR” (the abbreviation for Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and “Dada”. In German, the “Letztes” in the film’s title can be translated as “the last” or “the latest”, giving the title a double punch. The film is filled with such witticisms, several of which are specifically intended for East German audiences only. The mailman with the broken bicycle is Gustav-Adolf Schur, an East German bicyclist as well known in the GDR as Lance Armstrong is in the United States; and the garbageman was played by the popular East German writer Christoph Hein. Much of the humor in the film cannot be fully appreciated by anyone who didn’t live in the GDR, but the film has enough other things going on to keep the rest of us entertained.

Latest from the Da-Da-R stars Steffen Mensching and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel. They also wrote the screenplay. It was the final product of comedy reviews they performed in the eighties, starting with Neues aus der DaDaer (News—or newest—from the Da-Da-R) and followed by Altes aus der DaDaer (Oldest—or Old Newsfrom the Da-Da-R). Mensching and Wenzel joined forces in 1980, when Steffen Mensching joined Wenzel’s theater group, Karls Enkel. Wenzel and Mensching developed the clown characters, Meh and Weh—abbreviations of their last names, but also puns on indifference and woe.

In 1989, Mensching and Wenzel helped draft the “Resolution of Rock Musicians and Songwriters” (Resolution von Rockmusikern und Liedermachern), a protest letter sent to the SED warning that the government’s indifference to the needs of the people was in danger of causing the country’s collapse. The SED’s reaction to the resolution was swift and stupid. Tour dates were cancelled and prohibitions were placed on the signatories. That was September 18, 1989. A little over a year later, the GDR would cease to exist.

After the wall fell, Mr. Mensching and Mr. Wenzel continued to perform together from time to time, but each went on to do other things. Mr. Mensching occasionally performs and directs theater productions, most recently working with the Theater Rudolstadt. Mr. Wenzel continues to perform, primarily as a singer-songwriter (and the songs in Latest from the Da-Da-R are very good). He was invited by Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora to create German versions of her father’s songs, resulting in his 2003 album Ticky Tock, on which Mr. Wenzel sings Guthrie’s songs in German and English.

Letztes aus der DaDaeR

Latest from the Da-Da-R was directed by Jörg Foth. Mr. Foth was part of the “Nachwuchsgeneration” (next generation)—a group of young filmmakers who trained as filmmakers, only to find that opportunities to practice their craft were blocked by the clogged infrastructure that was endemic to East Germany in the eighties. Mr. Foth took a roundabout route to his eventually career as a director. He graduated from high school with a certificate as a cook, but then joined the Volksmarine as a radio operator. Upon leaving the Volksmarine, Mr. Foth started working as a volunteer at the East German television company, which eventually led to a diploma in film studies from the film school in Babelsberg.

He worked as as an assistant director on several films, including Blauvogel (Blue Bird), Die Verlobte (The Fiancee), and Die Kolonie (The Colony), eventually getting a chance to direct in 1984, with the children’s film Das Eismeer ruft (The Arctic Sea Calls).  In spite of good reviews, further jobs directing feature films were not forthcoming. He made a few more short films and documentaries, and co-directed the Vietnamese/East German joint production Dschungelzeit (Jungle Time), but it wasn’t until the wall fell that he was finally given a permanent position as a director at DEFA. Of course, “permanent” is a qualified term, even in the best of times, but during those tumultuous times, it meant less than a year.

Since the Wende, Mr. Foth has had very few opportunities to demonstrate his talent. He has worked on a few TV shows and made a few short films, but Latest from the Da Da R was his last feature film.

Irm Hermann

Playing Meh and Weh’s jailer—identified only as “She”—is Irm Hermann. Anyone familiar with the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder will recognize her immediately. She appeared in most of his films, sometimes in small roles, and other times as one of the leads. She was a founding members of Fassbinder’s antiteater (anti-theater) and appeared in Fassbinder’s early short films as well as his early features. She was as much a muse to Fassbinder as Hannah Schygulla.  Like Schygulla, she parted ways with Fassbinder after Lili Marleen, but continued acting, appearing in dozens of films since then.

Director Foth could have had his pick from any number of excellent East German actresses to play this part. The fact that he chose a West German certainly is no accident. It addresses the feeling that—no matter what Honecker and friends would have one believe—it was the West Germans that were calling the shots. She is the one who lets them out of prison, and feeds them, and watches over them throughout, but she also the one keeping  them in prison. In one scene she is shown removing bullets from their shells. A reference to disarmament, certainly, but whose ammo is she dismantling?1

As you can no doubt tell, there is a lot going on in this film. It is impossible to catch it all in one viewing. To help with this, the DEFA Library has included essays and an interview with the director as PDF files on the American DVD. If, like me, you have an aversion to clowns and mimes, you may approach this film with some trepidation, but don’t let the white facepaint put you off. This is an exceptional film.

IMDB page for this film.

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1. Perhaps a reader with better knowledge of such things than I can provide better information on this.