Posts Tagged ‘Stefan Lisewski’

Ganymed Restaurant


Just off the Schiffbauerdamm, a street that runs along the River Spree on the north side of the river, sits the Berliner Ensemble Theater. It was founded in 1954, after Bertolt Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel left the Deutsches Theater to start their own theater. It was an ambitious project featuring a revolving stage built on the wheels of a Soviet T-34 tank supplied by the Soviet troops in East Berlin. By this time, Brecht was in ill health and died a couple years later but the theater continues to this day.

Next door to the theater sat the Ganymed Restaurant, where the members of the theater troupe and intellectuals of every stripe would go to discuss everything from dialectical materialism to food shortages. After the Wall came down, the restaurant closed. It was in this shuttered restaurant, in early nineties, that director Peter Voigt set his film Dusk: 1950s East Berlin Bohemia (Dämmerung – Ostberliner Boheme der 50er Jahre). Now that the Wall was gone, Voigt assembled old friends and acquaintances to talk about what Berlin was like in the days before the Wall went up.

The film starts with the funeral of Wolf Kaiser, a character actor who appeared in dozens of East German films and television shows. A West German by birth who grew up in Switzerland, Kaiser moved to East Germany after Bertolt Brecht hired him to work at the Deutsches Theater where he became renowned for his portrayal of Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera. Kaiser believed in the values of the GDR. When the Wall fell and the West took over East Germany, broadcasting daily reports on the corruption of the leaders of the SED, and leaving many East Germans unemployed, Kaiser began wondering if it all had been worth it. He answered that question by jumping out a window to his death.

Dusk
Heinz-Dieter Knaup and Stefan Lisewski

Most of the action centers around three venues—the Ganymed, Hajo’s Bar, and the Möwe. Each had its own scene with its own regulars. By far the most interesting was Hajo’s Bar, which catered to artists, oddballs, and political types. You could tell by the responses of the people being interviewed that Hajo’s Bar was the favorite. At least until Hajo got fed up with the Stasi trying to get him to spy on people in the bar and decided to move to the West.

Former East German fashion model Barbara Lübbert, film critic Jutta Voigt, and translator Ingrid Lechner (who was still a student at the time) sit together and discuss what it was like to be a young women on the town in East Berlin during that period. While it’s well documented that East Germany did a better job of offering women equal opportunities than West Germany did, the women interviewed here were largely treated as arm candy. The only other woman interviewed is Brecht and Weigel’s daughter Barbara Brecht-Schall, who didn’t spend her time in the bars and discusses other aspects of pre-Wall life in East Germany.

The memories are both good and bad, creating a complex picture of what life in the fifties in East Berlin. The people interviewed include actors Ekkehard Schall, Rolf Ludwig, and Stefan Lisewski; and artists Rudi Ebeling and Kurt Mühle.

Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler
Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler tickles the ivories.

The most surprising appearance here is Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, the host of the notorious Der schwarze Kanal (The Black Channel), a weekly TV show that looked at the broadcasts coming out of the West from a socialist perspective. Schnitzler comes across as relaxed and congenial here and expresses dismay at the Statsi’s decision to try and bully the owner of Hajo’s Bar into spying on his clientele. In later post-Wende interviews, Schnitzler would get more and more defensive, He was, after all, the man who narrated Look at This City—a 1962 documentary that argues for the importance of the Wall. We get a very different view of Schnitzler in Stasiland, Anna Funder’s book of interviews with former Stasi officials, IMs and supporters of the SED.1

As film historian Claus Löser points out in one of the essays that comes with the Dusk DVD, the German word for dusk—Dämmerung—is the same word for dawn. Presumably, Voigt intended this double meaning. Discussing the days right before the Wall went up at a time immediately after the Wall came down. What Voigt doesn’t answer is which of these is the dawn and which is the dusk.

Peter Voigt was the son of a theater director and went to school to study art. In 1953 he met Bertolt Brecht and became his personal assistant a year later. Still in his early twenties, Voigt, like most personal assistants, was an asshat, full of himself and sure he knew best. When Lotte Lenya came to visit Brecht in 1955, it was Voigt who refused to let her in. Mercifully, time tempered Voigt’s egomania, but not his obsession with Brecht, which continued throughout his life.

Dusk
(l. to r.) Jutta Voigt, Barbara Lübbert, and Ingrid Lechner

Since much of the film consists of people sitting and talking, with occasional inserts of photographs and street scenes, Voigt tries to keep things visually interesting by shifting the locations, backgrounds, and the camera’s distances from the speakers. There’s little use handheld cameras here. Most of the time, the camera is locked down for the duration of a shot. Sometimes the interviewees sit at a piano, sometimes they stand, and sometimes they sit at the bar. Occasionally, Voigt lets the screen go black for a couple seconds, as if to suggest the natural gaps in memories of forty-year-old events, but it could also be interpreted as a nod to the ever-present danger of censorship.

Like many of the films about East Germany that came out right after the Wende, the film went largely ignored. West Germans weren’t interested and East Germans weren’t ready to talk about it. It was only later that the film was recognized as a important testament to the time in East Berlin right before the Wall went up. The DEFA Library at UMass at Amherst has released the film on DVD. Included on the disk is The Favorite, a short film about Peter Voigt by Alexandra Czok. Since the movie was filmed, the Ganymed restaurant has reopened and rechristened itself a “Brasserie,” catering to high-end diners.


1. Of course, with a title like Stasiland, it’s clear that Anna Funder came to the table with a specific perspective already in place. Nonetheless, the book is required reading for anyone interested in East Germany and its history.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Das Lied der Matrosen
The Sailors’ Song (Das Lied der Matrosen) is a dramatic retelling of the Kiel Mutiny, a revolt by sailors in 1918. The event helped end World War I, virutually ended the reign of Wilhelm II, and—at least in this DEFA account of the story—sowed the seeds for the establishment of the Germany Communist Party (KPD). The film starts in the Fall of 1917 with the execution of Max Reichpietsch and Albin Köbis, two sailors who led a revolt aboard the SMS Prinzregent Luitpold, protesting bad conditions and lousy food. Max and Albin were labeled “Marxist agitators” and sentenced to be shot by a firing squad. When sailors refused to shoot two of their own, the convicted men are transported to Cologne, where they are executed by soldiers instead. By this point, the Germans had lost the war, but they weren’t ready to admit it. The treatment of the sailors aboard the battleships remained bad, and by September of 1918, things had reached a boiling point. When the admiralty tried to implement a suicide attack against the Royal Navy, the sailors of the SMS Frederick the Great and others finally declare they’ve had enough and marched on the naval headquarters in Kiel.

The film is set up in dramatic fashion, with heroes who support the Russian revolution trying to end the imperial oppression in Germany; and bad guys fighting for their beloved German Empire. In the middle is Jupp, a sailor who is recruited by the Navy to spy on his shipmates. At first, he is on the side of the military, but eventually comes to understand the viewpoints of his fellow sailors. Things come to a head after Jupp sees his mother shot during a protest march. It’s stirring stuff that even critics of the film’s politics had to admit was powerfully handled.

Determined to finish the film in time for the Kiel mutiny’s 40th anniversary, DEFA hired two directors to make the movie: Kurt Maetzig and Günter Reisch. Both Maetzig and Reisch believed in the ideals of the GDR, and both were superb craftsmen. Beyond that, their styles are as different as chalk and cheese. Reportedly Maetzig handled the scenes with the military officers and admirals in this film, while Reisch shot the scenes involving the sailors. It doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does.

Das Lied der Matrosen

The main heroes of the film are Henne Lobke and August Lenz, played by Ulrich Thein and Raimund Schelcher respectively. Ulrich Thein, a man of immense talent, was a West German by birth, but moved to the GDR to work at the famous Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Later on, he’d start directing as well (for more on Thein, see Anton the Magician). Craggy-faced Raimund Schelcher was one of the best actors in East Germany, but his drinking caused enough problems with productions that it became the stuff of legends. Born in German East Africa, Schelcher came to Germany after German East Africa was divvied up by the Treaty of Versailles He started working at various theaters in Germany during the Weimar years, and was arrested by the Gestapo and put into one of the probation battalions—Hitler’s weird policy of putting convicted criminals into their own battalions (for more on Schelcher, see Castles and Cottages).

The main villain of the movie is the naval officer Eberhard Schuckert, who is played with gusto by Ekkehard Schall. Schall is best known for his work with Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel at the Berliner Ensemble. He was mentored by Brecht and became keeper of the flame along with Weigel after the playwright’s death. Like Weigel, Schall saw Brecht’s work as set in stone and resisted any attempts to modify the performances with modern interpretations. He even married Brecht’s daughter Barbara. On film, he is best remembered for his role as a juvenile delinquent in Berlin–Schönhauser Corner, and the bizarre “Chief” in Gottfried Kolditz’s In the Dust of the Stars. Not surprisingly, Schall was considered a master interpreter of Brecht, and continued to perform the playwright’s works throughout his life. He was also one of the speakers at the Alexanderplatz demonstration a few days before the Wall was opened, supporting socialism, but calling for changes. After the Wende, Schall restricted his performances almost exclusively to theater, appearing in only one film (Der Auftrag). He died in 2005.

The Sailors' Song

The morally conflicted Jupp is portrayed by Stefan Lisewski in his first feature film. Handsome and gaunt, Lisewski appeared as a leading man in such films as Love’s Confusion, May Wine (Maibowle), The Story of a Murder, and Approach Alpha 1 (Anflug Alpha 1). Like Eberhard Schuckert, Lisewski is strongly associated with the plays of Bertolt Brecht. He is reported to have played Mack the Knife no less than 500 times. During the seventies, and after the Wende, he concentrated more on theater than film. He died in Berlin in 2016.

You wouldn’t be out of order to call Kurt Maetzig the father of East German cinema. He was there on November 22, 1945 at the Hotel Adlon, helping to form the Filmaktiv, a group designed to revitalize filmmaking in Germany, and from which DEFA eventually sprang. When DEFA was officially launched the following May, he was put in charge of the group that made Der Augenzeuge (The Eyewitness) films—short newsreels that screened before the main movies. Although he retired from filmmaking in 1976, he outlasted DEFA by many years. In fact, he outlasted almost everybody, finally dying in 2012 at the age of 101. Maetzig’s films are often the ones that are held up as examples by those wishing to portray the films from East Germany as exercises in Soviet propaganda. Some of his films, especially his earlier films, wear their politics on their sleeves. His style borrowed heavily from documentary filmmaking, but he never forgot the importance of the human story in his films.

Reisch came to DEFA a few years later and soon started working with Maetzig as an assistant director. You can see his work in Council of the Gods and the Ernst Thälmann films. He got his first chance to direct with Young Vegetables (Junges Gemüse) and then in Track in the Night. He is also responsible for the most high concept pair of films to come out of DEFA: A Lively Christmas Eve and Like Father, Like Son. Both featuring essentially the same actors in the same parts, filmed twenty-five years apart.

protest scene from Das Lied der Matrosen

The protest march at the end is spectacular, involving 15,000 extras. Today it would be done with CGI. How the director managed to keep track of Ulrich Thein in that crowd is beyond me. It’s a masterful piece of controlled crowd filming. Whether this was Maetzig of Reisch, I can’t say (all signs point to Reisch), but it’s a stunning example of directing.

If you are new to the films of East Germany, The Sailor’s Song is probably not the place to start. It very much fits the mold of what most Westerners think East German films are like. It is didactic and filled with the socialist heroics. That’s not to say it’s a bad film; it’s an amazing film. Just don’t assume that it represents the average East German film. That would be like using Strategic Air Command as a representative example of Hollywood movies.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film (in German, no subtitles).

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.