Posts Tagged ‘school’

Just Don't Think I'll Cry

Ever wonder what it would be like to be James Dean growing up in East Germany? Look no further than Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry (Denk bloß nicht, ich heule), which captures that same inchoate teenage angst, but from an East German perspective. This film could not have been made before 1963. That was the year SED published its Youth Communiqué, which stated that young people should not passively attend school, but should be encouraged to be participate in the educational process. Filmmakers began to explore this topic as a basis for films. Perhaps if Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry had been made in 1964, it might have made it into the movie theaters. Unfortunately it was made in 1965, which put it squarely in the crosshairs of the 11th Plenum. The film didn’t stand a chance. It was shelved and didn’t see the light of a projector until after the Wende.

Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry is the story of a rebellious young man named Peter who has been kicked out of high school for writing an essay critical of the state. He hangs around with a bunch of other Halbstarken (usually translated as “juvenile delinquents,” but translated here as ”punks”), who spend their time carousing and generally behaving badly. Peter meets Anne, the daughter of a man who spent the war in a concentration camp for his communist views. The man runs the local agricultural collective, and, as one might imagine, Peter’s irritation with the state of things doesn’t go over well with him. As with Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause, much of Peter’s rebelliousness stems directly from his relationship with his father, but in Nicholas Ray’s film, it is Jim’s disgust for his father’s weak-will that spurs his behavior. In Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry, Peter’s attitudes toward the GDR are the result of his adulation of his step-father, a bitter drunk who passes on his hatred of the state to Peter.

Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry is directed by Frank Vogel, who got his start as an assistant director on Konrad Wolf’s Genesung (Recovery). He began directing films in 1958 with Klotz am Bein (Ball and Chain), and shook things up in ‘62 with And Your Love Too, which took on the subject of the wall while it was still being built. That film ruffled a few feathers, as did his next movie, Julia lebt (Julia Lives), which looks at the issue of social class in East Germany (a supposedly non-existent thing in the GDR). Both of those films made it into the theaters, but as far as the leadership was concerned, he went too far with Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry. It would be a couple years before he was allowed to direct a film again. Apparently he placated the powers that be. By the seventies, he was back in the directors chair on a regular basis although his later films skated around controversial topics. As with many of the people who worked at DEFA, Vogel’s career ended with the fall of the wall. He never made another film after the Wende and died in Berlin in 1999.

Playing Peter is Peter Reusse, an actor who kept busy both on the stage and in films in East Germany. Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry would have been his first starring role had it not been shelved. When it finally was screened in 1990, the Tageszeitung, a daily newspaper out of West Berlin, rightly dubbed Mr. Reusse the “James Dean of the East.” In spite of the setback caused by the rejection of the film, Mr. Reusse continued to work in movies, and television. He appeared in several episodes of the popular East German crime drama Polizeiruf 110. After the Wende, Mr. Reusse ended his acting career, devoting his time instead to writing and art. He has written at length about his experiences in East Germany, mostly from a negative perspective.

Anne—the Natalie Wood of the film, if we are to continue the Rebel Without a Cause comparison—is played by Anne-Kathrein Kretzschmar. Ms. Kretzschmar studied acting at the Theater Academy in Leipzig and this was her debut role. Her next film was Karla, making it two films in a row that were banned by the authorities; not an auspicious beginning to a budding film career. After that we only saw her in a few television productions and on stage, primarily the Dresden State Theater.

Denk bloß nicht, ich heule

The cinematographer was Günter Ost—the most imaginative cameraman to come out of East Germany. Ost frame compositions are the most interesting you’ll see in any East German film. People are occasionally restricted to the farthest corner of a shot while the landscape behind them takes over the scene. Sometimes Ost uses the frame to show the philosophical gulfs that exist between characters, while other shots seem to suggest that the needs of the country are greater than those of the individual. Unfortunately for Ost, his style became synonymous with the things that the doctrinaires in the SED felt were wrong with DEFA films. After this film and Karla were shelved, Ost never made another film for DEFA again. Fortunately, he did resurface after the Wende to help reconstruct this film to its original version.

The music in the film was by Hans-Dieter Hosalla. He is best-known today for his music from the Märchenfilm, Das hölzerne Kälbchen (The Wooden Calf), and the Indianerfilm, Apaches, but he composed soundtracks for many other excellent East German films, including Professor Mamlock, Divided Heaven, and Murder Case Zernik. The score for Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry is an unusual one that jumps from Nino Rota bop, to Munsters rock, to jittery jazz, to romantic flute music. It is the perfect score for this movie, reflecting the confusion and lack of direction that roils inside the main character. Hosalla was born in Efurt. He worked with Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble during the early fifties, composing music for Brecht’s plays. He started composing film scores in 1958, beginning with Gerhard Klein’s Märchenfilm, Geschichte vom armen Hassan (The Story of Poor Hassan). Hosalla continued to write film scores until the late seventies, at which time he retired from the movies, devoting his time, instead, to the Berliner Ensemble stage productions. He died in 1995 in Berlin.

When the film was screened for party officials, they weren’t happy with the results and requested several cuts and reshoots. Vogel complied, but nothing he could do—or could have done, really—would placate them. The film ended up on the shelf alongside the other “Rabbit Films,” and wouldn’t appear on movie screens until 1990, when it was screened at the Berlinale Film Festival.

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Werner holt

Germans have such a complicated relationship with their history. They understand well the atrocities of WWII and the kind of thinking that led to it, but, at the same time, they were the bad guys in that fight and they know it. Beyond the inescapable evil of the top officials and “just doing my job” excuses of military brass, how does the Average Joe reconcile his part in the war? Over the years, both the GDR and the FRG made films that tackled this question. In West Germany, films like The Bridge (Die Brücke), Stalingrad (Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben), and Das Boot examined the issue from a strongly anti-war perspective. East Germany took it further, with films  such as Stars, The Gleiwitz Case, and I Was Nineteen, looking at the war from nearly every angle. The Adventures of Werner Holt (Die Abenteuer des Werner Holt), like Wolfgang Staudte’s Rotation, and Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge, examines the war from the perspective of young people who are ignorant of the facts, filled with patriotic enthusiasm, and ready to fight. The film is based on book one of a two part series by Dieter Noll. The book was required reading in East German schools and remains well-respected in unified Germany. Both the film and the book follow the exploits of the title character and his best friends as they go from enthusiastic army recruits, ready to fight for das Vaterland, to disillusioned soldiers, aware that they are fighting for the wrong side.

The story primarily centers around Werner Holt and his buddy, Gilbert Wolzow. Wolzow is a big lummox who comes from a military family and is anxious to prove himself in combat. He is intensely nationalistic and ready to die for Germany. Holt, on the other, hand is a thoughtful and rebellious young man, already prone to challenging authority in school. These two have little in common. It is only through an incident involving a smashed aquarium that they become friends at all, so it’s only a matter of time before the two part ways. The film follows the duo as they go from school to basic training to the Eastern Front. Joining them on this journey are other schoolmates including Holt’s thoughtful friend Sepp, who acts as the voice of reason in the film, and the frail and sensitive Peter, a talented pianist who is initially rejected from the army but later drafted as the Nazis started throwing everybody they could find into the fight towards the end of the war.

In the book, it’s the Americans that Holt is fighting against, and it is the Americans that eventually capture him. The movie shifts the story to the east, with the Russians as the opposing force. Holt’s capture is not shown, nor is it addressed, but it matters little; the story is complete and the film stands on its own as a masterpiece in DEFA’s catalog. The most startling difference between the book and the film is in its structure. The book maintains a fairly linear timeline. We follow Holt from his student days to his eventual desertion and capture. Kunert felt that this wasn’t really working in the film, and chose instead to give his movie a nonlinear structure, relying on flashbacks to tell the story (for more about Joachim Kunert, see The Second Track).

The book’s author, Dieter Noll, was one of the best and most respected writers in East Germany. He was a strong adherent to the ideals of East Germany’s brand of communism. He joined the Communist Party of Germany after the war and was a member of the SED and the East German Writers’ Guild (Schriftstellerverband), for which he served as acting chairman for several years. In 1979, a group of writers confronted the East German authorities after the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. In a moment of supreme irony, Noll denounced them publicly and helped get nine of them expelled from the Writers’ Guild. Noll ended up looking more like the rabidly authoritarian Wolzow, than the protagonist of his novels. In 1984, his son followed Werner Holt’s example and refused to fight for the GDR, immigrating, instead, to West Berlin, and eventually becoming a citizen of Israel, where he lives to this day.

Rolf Sohre
As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the auteur theory falls to pieces when it comes to East German movies. The idea of one mighty leader, controlling every aspect of a film is useless here (I think it’s useless when it comes to Hollywood films too, but that’s another story for another time). Everyone who worked on a film for DEFA had some say in their areas of expertise. On this film that was certainly true, and no one more than Rolf Sohre, the film’s cinematographer. Sohre and Kunert first collaborated on The Second Track, one the most visually striking movies DEFA ever produced. Werner Holt was their second film together and the results are no less spectacular, although markedly different. While The Second Track was all chiaroscuro and rich black night photography, this film is brighter, with much of the drama taking place in broad daylight. Sohre, nonetheless, is given moments to shine. In one scene, the camera focuses on a framed photograph sitting on a table, the focus shifts and we see Werner Holt’s face juxtaposed over the frame. In another scene, the camera spins around two dancers while the other dancers appear only as shadows on the wall. For that sequence, a rotating platform was constructed, with cut-outs used as stand-ins for the other dancers.

Production Managers and Art Directors are seldom given their due in film criticism. Writers might point out their contributions to set design, but rarely more than that. Gerhard Helwig’s input on Werner Holt was invaluable. Helwig made of habit of sketching his out ideas for a production in storyboard form. It was these same sketches that Kunert and Sohre used to construct many of the best shots in the film. The sequence of the jump cuts with the anti-aircraft guns, for example, was sketched out in exactly this fashion in Helwig’s notebook. Perhaps, if his sketchbooks still exist, it would be worth going back over the films he worked on and seeing how often his sketches were used to compose scenes. He may emerge as the secret director of many DEFA films.

The editor was an attractive young woman named Christa Schnitt, who ended up marrying Gerhard Helwig. As Christa Helwig, she went on to a productive career at DEFA, editing many popular East German films, such as Lot’s Wife (Lots Weiß), Apaches, and In the Dust of the Stars.

For almost everyone working behind the camera on this film, the Wende spelled the end of their careers, Kunert, Sohre, the Helwigs, et al, found it difficult to find work in unified Germany. For the actors, it was another story, Klaus-Peter Thiele, who played Werner Holt, had a long and successful career after wall fell. He worked primarily in television, both before and after the Wende, appearing the popular East German TV mini-series about WWII, Archiv des Todes (Archives of Death), and its sequel, Front Ohne Gnade (Merciless Front), and in popular post-wall German shows such as Unser Lehrer Doktor Specht (Our Teacher, Doctor Specht) and Hallo Robbie. He died October 2011. Likewise, Arno Wyzniewski, who played the conscious-stricken Sepp, continued working—also mostly in television—right up until his death in 1997. He was last seen in the daffy Canadian/German science fiction series, Lexx.

Manfred Karge, who played the dim-witted and authoritarian Wolzow, was primarily a theater actor. He made a few films, but his first love was always the stage. He got his start at the Berliner Ensemble, where he was discovered by Bertolt Brecht’s wife and muse, Helene Weigel. In 1993 he became a director at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts. More recently, he returned to the Berliner Ensemble. Today he is best known in the west as a playwright. His plays include Mauer Stücke, Lieber Niembsch, and Jacke wie Hose, which was translated into English as Man to Man and performed by Tilda Swinton. Karge’s The Conquest of the South Pole (Die Eroberung des Südpols) was also translated into English and first staged in Scotland before the wall fell starring a young Alan Cummings. Earlier this year it was staged at the Arcola Theatre in London.

Upon its release The Adventures of Werner Holt was a huge hit. In spite of its long running time (almost three hours) the film packed theaters. It sold over three million tickets in East Germany alone and was also popular in West Germany in spite of its East German origin. It remains one of the most respected films from the GDR.

IMDB  page for this film.

Buy this film.

Manfred Karge article in The Independent (U.K.)